Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Traditional vs. Self-publishing is a False Dichotomy

Us vs. them is fun. It gets people's blood boiling. It instills fear. It's thrilling to be on a team, especially when you feel like your team is winning.

These days it seems like traditional and self-publishing are increasingly pitted against each other on blogs and forums, as if one side or the other is the bastion of all that is good and pure in the world and the other side is the bastion of all that is horrible and evil.

This is insane.

There is no "us" vs. "them." Traditional vs. self-publishing is a false dichotomy. It's an illusion created by people who either have let their frustrations get the best of them or are trying to sell you something. We're all writers trying to figure out the best way to get our books to readers. We're all on the same team.

No, the traditional publishing industry is not a hive of retrograde monsters out to steal and eat your newborn children. No, self-publishing is not a gang of unwashed crap artists trying to poison the literary well forever.

Publishing is a spectrum of choice, from traditional publishers who pay you, will handle most things for you and assume all risk in exchange for certain rights to your book, to self-publishing where you handle everything yourself, pay your own way, and adopt your own risk. And there's a whole lot more choice in between those two poles.

What's the right way? There is no right way.

Some authors want to let the publishers handle things for them. Some authors want to go for print glory because that's where the bulk of readers are right now (yes, still). Some authors want the freedom of control of self-publishing. Some authors want to experiment with pricing.

And guess what: Some authors do both, and they always have. Even before e-publishing, many prominent authors got their start self-publishing. And many authors who used to be traditionally published moved to self-publishing. Some authors use hybrid models that combine elements of traditional and self-publishing.

There is no hundred foot wall between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Choosing one does not preclude the other, even if you feel like you're currently on the outs with traditional publishing. Or did you miss the recent seven figure book deal for the self-published nutritionist?

Sure. It's fun to join up sides and start flinging mud. It's exciting to think that your team alone has the holy grail.

But I see a lot of authors out there getting taken for a ride by both sides. People are preying on writers' fears and frustrations.

The only way you'll be able to decide what's best for you is if you ignore the pied pipers, set aside your emotions, and think only about what's the right for your book.

Art: La Riña - Francisco de Goya


Bob said...

I watch writers go both ways on this. Pretty much every traditionally published author who doesn't get their contract renewed will suddenly become very fond of "self" publishing. And when a traditional publishing comes knocking many "self" published authors will go the other way.

The bottom line: writers create content, readers consume content. Everyone in between has to make sure they add to the experience.

M. G. King said...

Thank you! I've always appreciated your reasonable and civil approach to publishing.

Remus Shepherd said...

I'm sorry, Nathan, but I'm in the mood for a fight and you're the first target I saw. But you're wrong about this.

Traditional authors can always choose to self-publish, because they have fans that will follow them. They have contacts that can help them get reviews and publicity.

New authors, on the other hand, suffer with obscurity. They have to make a choice. They can try for traditional publishing or self-publish, but not both. Self-publishing is best done with a large backlog, so you harm yourself if you reserve a book in an attempt to find a traditional publisher, and if your self-published book does not do well then that's another reason for traditional publishers to reject you. Only if you hit the self-publishing lottery can you then transition to a real publisher.

The choice for new authors is to either roll the dice or stay on the traditional treadmill. The dichotomy is real for them.

Andrew Leon said...

That's the real problem, though; most people don't really know what's right for their book.

And I have more to say, but it's time to get the kids off to school...

Nathan Bransford said...


That's true of authors at one particular stage in their career, that's not necessarily true across the spectrum of a career. This isn't like the sorting hat at Hogwarts - you don't choose one path and stay there forever.

You may choose for each particular project, but this idea that there are hundred foot walls between these methods of publication isn't real.

Jeff Emmerson said...

Thank you - I really appreciate your resources. In this crazy world of trying to figure out how to REALLY get worldwide exposure for my up-coming memoir book The Road to Myself: Dying to Live, all help is appreciated as I do my homework.

Have a great day!

- Jeff

Rachel Devenish Ford said...

Big sigh of relief. A voice of reason. Thanks, Nathan. I totally agree... And I think traditional publishers are able to perceive each book as a separate project. Authors needs to think of their books as part of a BODY of work, it can cross many genres and criss cross types of publication. No one really know what the effect of self publishing is on traditional publishers in the future anyways, because we aren't there yet, and it seems to be changing so quickly. (We weren't even having these conversations six years ago.)

M.P. McDonald said...

@Remus, I don't believe a self-published author has to 'hit the lottery', to be a success. At least, not any more than a traditionally published author has to hit the NYT Bestseller list to be a success. There are plenty of 'mid-listers' out there self-publishing. They are selling from 1,000-3,000 books/month. You don't hear about them because they don't make the news, but they outnumber the Hockings, Howeys and Konraths.

I'm one of them, and I know a dozen more just from my small circle of author friends.

As far as the self-publishing vs. traditional publishing rivalry goes, I can only say that I hadn't seen anyone picking on traditional authors-at least, not until one famous author wrote a letter to the DOJ in support of the publishers. The focus of one outspoken author with a huge blog following, has been on challenging the publishers to improve contracts. Wouldn't that HELP traditionally published authors? I think it would, but a lot of the traditional authors take issue with his rather abrasive posts instead of seeing past the harshness and getting the message.

Otoh, I can't tell you how often I've read traditionally published authors, or those seeking that route to publishing, trashing self-published books as 'dreck', and 'slush pile'.

Anonymous said...

Another excellent post on this topic!

I'm one of those who do both. And for all the reasons you if you'd read my mind.

I still prefer publishers handling everything. But I also wanted to know what it would be like to control everything, including pricing. This is why I experimented with the KDP program. No complaints at all. Sales are very good. And it's nice to know I can do it alone.

Sorry I can't scream and shout in either direction, but both kinds of publishing have their advantages and disadvantages.

Melissa Douthit said...

"Traditional authors can always choose to self-publish, because they have fans that will follow them. They have contacts that can help them get reviews and publicity.

New authors, on the other hand, suffer with obscurity. They have to make a choice. They can try for traditional publishing or self-publish, but not both. Self-publishing is best done with a large backlog, so you harm yourself if you reserve a book in an attempt to find a traditional publisher, and if your self-published book does not do well then that's another reason for traditional publishers to reject you. Only if you hit the self-publishing lottery can you then transition to a real publisher."

You should talk to Joe Konrath about this. He was doing very poorly as a trad pubbed author and then had a ton of success as an indie. And his success had nothing to do with being trad pubbed.

Most trad pubbed authors have had to work hard their whole lives building a fan base. New authors, whether indie or trad, will have to do the same. It's called work. So, sorry, I don't agree with you.

Matthew MacNish said...

Well clearly what's right for my book is an 8 figure deal, world rights, and a Hollywood blockbuster. So whatever gets me that ...

Megg Jensen said...




(I'm self-pubbed and I agree with you 100%)




author Christa Polkinhorn said...

Excellent. Finally an intelligent assessment of the Literati War. LOL.
Thanks, Nathan!

Remus Shepherd said...

I have had words with Konrath about this. He refuses to admit that his traditional publication and the $20k advance he got for it had anything to do with his ability to go indie. I think he's delusional. But I'm sure he thinks the same of me.

Trad pubbed authors work hard to build a fan base, but they have help doing so from their agents and publishers. New authors have to build their own fan base, and one of the best ways to do that is with multiple titles that link to each other, which leaves nothing in reserve to wait through the traditional publishing process.

The vast majority of self-published ebooks have total sales in the hundreds, if that. If you manage 1,000 books a month then you're a lottery winner. If you're stuck in the hundreds, then you've just lost a novel to indie publishing that traditional publishers will not touch, and you've labeled yourself as someone who cannot move their own product. You must succeed wildly at indie publishing before a traditional publisher will consent to talk to you.

Those who are already successful can choose either path. New authors must make a choice. If they choose wisely and find success, then they can switch between trad and indie later. But at the start of an author's career the choice is real, it is exclusionary, and it must be made.

D.G. Hudson said...

Well said, Nathan. I also agree with Bob, the first comment.

I'll definitely go with what works for me, I don't ususally follow the trends.

Nathan Bransford said...


Definitely a true and reasonable take, though I personally feel like it's a book to book choice rather than a career choice at the beginning. If you're writing a series or genre fiction self-publishing may continue to be the best avenue once you start down that path barring huge success, but other books might lend themselves to giving the traditional publishing process a shot.

And that's just the landscape right now - who knows how things will change in the future.

D.G. Hudson said...

Geez, please change that strange word to 'usually'.

JES said...

I'm probably nuts for saying this, but... umm... I'm so far from having a "fan base" of ANY kind that all I can think about is: Am I telling an honestly good story, and telling it well? Until I can answer those questions "Yes" with confidence, I feel like obsessing over publication medium would reflect the same sort of broken thinking as when I obsess about Times New Roman vs. Georgia vs. Courier. (Difference of degree, not of kind.)

Lisa Yarde said...

Thank you, Nathan, for saying this as I'm also tired of the division. Many minds, many paths and the right choice at the moment may differ twenty years from now. None of us are wedded to the choices we've made forever and with ever-changing technology and delivery systems, hopefully this division becomes outdated thinking too.

TheWriteEdit said...

Thanks for this, Nathan. I struggled for a long time with this issue but have since learned that, as an independent editor, the best way to serve my clients is to accept the changing canvas of publishing. I now see it as an exciting time in the industry, with more options than ever.

Valerie Brooks

Remus Shepherd said...

Fair enough, Nathan. Let's agree that it's a decision that needs to be made for the first published book -- with the caveat that an author might write a dozen books before any one of them gets published.

Rick Daley said...

It all boils down to one thing: Opportunity.

I think it's a grand time to be a writer. We have more freedom in our decision-making than ever before, and more information at our disposal to make educated decisions.

Anonymous said...

"And that's just the landscape right now - who knows how things will change in the future."

Exactly. And this is why authors have to pay attention to everything that is going on, and also be willing the move forward with the changes.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...


Self-pub and trad-pub are two different highways to the same goal: readers. We writers need to stop throwing rocks at each other from our respective weedy paths and work on supporting each other (and learning from each other!) as we swirl through the cauldron of innovation that is going on in the industry right now.

If we work together, we can help each other find our own pathways to success.

(Note: I think most writers do this already, as evidenced by the awesome support yesterday across the spectrum of writers (indie and trad-bound) for the release of my latest indie novel. This community knows how to be awesome like no other!)

Kevin Lynn Helmick said...

I really don't see it all that much. I don't get around the web as much as Nathaian I guess, but except for this blog, like what, twice in about a week, an us vs them thing? I felt like it had kinda died off a bit since say, about a year ago.
Most of the wirters I converse with have had a little success with both, have had national bestseller, films adapts and gone the way of small press' and self, and if they have an opinion of eithier they don't share it. They don't seem to really care as much as bloggers do. They care about writing, good stories and getting on.
There are a couple in my circles that have been around and been bitterd by the big six for what ever reason, and I suspect from some of the things they've said that it had as much to do with themselves as anybody.
I go the way of the writer. I write. I don't really care to waste my energy on any, us vs them nonsense. I sit down and write the very best book I can write. And then go through the process of getting it out there, how ever I can.
I would love to replace Snooky or whatever her name is on the bestseller list, lol. i would love to see any literary writer be there instead. But we're not even on the same field. Her personality is her product. I get it. So I don't worry about it.
I think success however you get there is abbout finding your audiance, your peeps and connecting and comunicating and touching lives. Big or small, that's all it is. That's all that matters.

Mirka Breen said...

I agree, Nathan.
The only clear distinction I would draw is for those lay folks who know little about publishing, who say, “It’s easy to get published. My two ten-year-old twin cousins both have books out.” Cousins are likely self published, and Mom supplied the credit card. Being paid rather than paying for your writing is still hard.

*No comment on quality in general. We've all read good self-published books and bad books publishers paid good money for.*

The world is full of wars. This is one that need not be.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree, Nathan. Which is why I was surprised at your post earlier this week because it seemed rather one-sided. In fact, the blog post you linked to from Sarah LaPollas's side was really antagonizing to self-publishers. For example, why is she harping about the term "indie authors"? I'm sorry, but the term has been co-opted by self-publishers and the tide is not going to change in the other direction. It's a fact, and it is actually a very accurate description -- who is working more independently than a self-published author?

She also made a comment about how she had no plans to work with authors who had already self-published. That seems pretty short-sighted to me. Her statements and yours did not seem to mesh with today's post. Self-publishers will obviously tout the benefits of self-publishing. What's wrong with that? They chose it for a reason and they will spread that reason to others. And yes, there are flaws in traditional publishing that new authors should know about.

Nathan Bransford said...


I actually agree with Sarah about the term "indie" - to me it has always meant independent publishers like Soho, Greywolf, etc. and I still use "traditional" and "self-publishing" instead of "indie" and "legacy. I understand what you're saying that the spirit of self-publishing is independent, but to me there's a certain oppositional attitude inherent in "indie" and "legacy" that kind of rubs me the wrong way. The word for self-publishing had already existed; I don't know why a new one was needed and why another one had to be co-opted. But I'm not going to tell people what they can and can't call themselves.

Also, I wouldn't necessarily read an endorsement into everything I link to. I don't agree with all of what other people say, even in times when I agree with an author's overall point. That said, I don't see where in Sarah's post she says she wouldn't work with authors who have self-published.

Mira said...


I completely agree with the idea that writers need to support each other. But that is alittle different from taking the stance that all paths to publication are equally beneficial. I don't agree with that, although I definitely agree with the writer's right to choose.

The thing is that although I have a HUGE beef with the publishing industry, because I think it is extremely exploitive of writers, and hurtful to them, I speak about that Because I Care about writers and want them to be treated well. If I have an issue with traditional publishing it has everything to do with supporting other authors.

It's really unfortunate that people often interpret it differently, as though I were attacking the writers rather than the industry. It's a frustrating and inaccurate twist.

I won't and can't be silent about what I see are serious inequities. But I am not trying to take anyone for a ride. I am trying to improve conditions for everyone, from my tiny little corner of the publishing world, which is pretty much posting comments on your blog.

Nathan Bransford said...


Perspective is important, I just think some authors bristle at being called exploited when they feel like they are intimately aware of and are living the pros and cons. I think where people may feel attacked is when there's a presumption that they aren't able to decide what's best for their careers.

R. L. Copple said...

Nathan, first, I agree with your general point. Personally, I've had books published by an indie-publisher, Splashdown Books, out of New Zealand. Third one coming out next month. I've also self-published some books as well. I've not been traditionally published, and for the time being, don't intend to try. Mainly because contract terms like giving them the rights for the life of the copyright are way too much for me, which I've been told has become standard template and nonnegotiable in most cases.

But at some point that might change. And at some point, I might end up with an offer from a traditional publisher, and I would certainly consider it and decide whether it was a good move or not.

IOW, though I'm not in the market for being traditionally published now, that could change. As another said, who knows where publishing and publishers will be ten or twenty years down the road? At some point, I might be really stupid to not take a traditional publisher's offer.

So I do think it a good thing not to burn bridges or create and us vs. them mentality(though pointing out where there are problems shouldn't be burning bridges, it should be constructive criticism that encourages positive change for everyone involved). And I've even done a blog post on when self-publishing authors can go wrong.

But for the record, I do tend to use indie-publishing and self-publishing interchangeably. My definitions:

Indie-publisher: An entity who uses POD to publish multiple authors' books. (Technically, a self-publisher is an independent publisher, but see the reasons for referring to actual publishers of more than one author with that title.)

Indie-publishing: Any entity who uses POD and/or epublishing to publish a book.

Indie-author: A self-published author.

But I also acknowledge that using the term indie-publisher is more ambiguous than self-publisher. The former could refer to a small publisher using POD, but publishes multiple authors, and the author had to get past their "gates" to get accepted, while the latter can only refer to an individual who has published their novel. So using self-publisher, self-publishing, is more specific. As writers, that is what we strive to do, write clearly.

Mira said...

Oh, but aside from our small disagreement about certain paths to publication, fwiw, I really like what I think you're trying to do in this post - which I interpret as: encouraging writers to detach from the emotions of the landscape in order to make rational decisions about their own books; to think about what people are saying and not let themselves be maniuplated by jumping on a bandwagon prematurely; and to not let themselves be set against other writers.

Bravo for that, Nathan! :)

Mira said...


You have a really good point. I'll have to think about how to phrase it. I could see how people could feel critisized and I hadn't thought of it that way. Thank you!

Because I am in no way critiquing writers who are fully informed and still choose to take the traditional path because it serves their interest. I am more concerned that new authors are informed, and that the publishers themselves feel some pressure (as much as I can generate from my tiny little corner). Thank you - I'm grateful for the feedback, I'll work on that.

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks, mira.

James Scott Bell said...

The last couple of years have indeed produced a plethora of blog exhaust aimed at the face of the traditional publishing industry. My friend, agent Wendy Lawton, has coined a term for this type of vituperative castigation: Occupy Publishing.

Some of this is indeed sour grapes. Some is payback for rejection.

Yet, to be fair, there is merit to some of the complaints. I have a few writer friends who are being treated rather shabbily by their current publishers.

One has been told, in no uncertain terms, that self-publishing anything can lead to dire consequences--from the publisher.

Another has been a good soldier and just turned in her third book in a series. The contract is up and she hasn’t signed another. Suddenly, her editor is not returning her emails. This is unprofessional conduct by an insider who should know better.

There are, however, other writers being treated with eminent fairness by their publishers. And both those writers are happy.

Seriously, having feet in both the traditional and indie world, I’ve not been one to dance a jig at the troubles in traditional publishing. It’s made up of people, mostly people who really do want writers to succeed. They also want to make money for their company. In other words, they’re just like the rest of us. And many of them are hamstrung because there is a system in place grinding with rust caused by the sea change in digital publishing.

I have been most fortunate to have a great agent and good relations with trad publishers. But I have to say this to some inside the walls of the Forbidden City: your bread and butter are writers. At least treat them with professional courtesy.

And to writers: there’s no reason to go around burning bridges. I gagged at one blog I saw where the writer named his editor, laid an unseemly nickname on him and proceeded to flay him publicly for his many perceived sins.

I mean, come on.

It's much more effective and professional to simply go about your business, which is writing, and self-publishing when ready.

We are living in an old black and white Warner Bros. film now. We can get thrown out of the agent’s office and yell back, “I’ll show you! I’m gonna be the biggest star on Broadway someday! You just wait and see!”

And then we can go out and prove ourselves.

Peter Dudley said...

There is definitely a bright us-versus-them line between traditional publishing and anything Amazon. Authors aren't drawing that line. But everyone else appears to be, from publishers to agents to booksellers. I think it hurts authors. But this, too, shall pass. One way or another.

JeffO said...

First, great post. People are drawing lines where there really don't need to be any lines drawn. I am trying for the 'traditional' way for reasons that are my own. Those reasons are right for me, they may not be right for you, or someone else, but I expect you (the generic you) to respect my decision just as I'll respect yours to self-pub. Good luck and may we meet on the bestseller list! No need for antagonism.

Regarding Sarah's post, there were two things in it that looked like they could have been slaps at all self-pubbers, and one that appeared to imply that she wouldn't even consider you if self-pubbed. However, in reading over the line again, and seeing her responses in the comments, I think it's something that's just been misinterpreted.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, Sarah wrote in regards to self-published authors:
"Further, they ask me "what I can do for them," while handing me their books, not realizing they've already chosen a path that doesn't include me."

That pretty clearly indicates she would not work with self-published authors.

I realize every link you make is not an endorsement, but it was a jumping off point for your own post.

Richard Gibson said...

Self-pubbed and about to be traditionally pubbed, so of course I agree with Nathan. I can do anything I want! (Well, I want to be rich and that's not happening, but it's MY fault!)

Mr. D said...

This is one of the best "comment" dialogues ever!

Nathan Bransford said...


I can't speak for Sarah, but when I was an agent I felt that way about individual projects - it was the rare self-published book that I felt like I could then take to publishers (though there was one where I did just that). For the most part a self-published book will stay a self-published book. But that wouldn't preclude working with a self-published author on their next project.

My hunch is that that's what Sarah meant by that line, but like I said, I can't speak for her.

Taylor Napolsky said...

Yeah, I think she meant she couldn't help with that particular self-published book, not the author in general.

JDuncan said...

I have to agree here to, on the idea that this whole "line in the sand" idea between traditional and self publishing is pretty much nonsense. There's no real reason for it. There is certainly a "viva revolution" mentality in some parts of the self publishing world, this idea of over-throwing/toppling corporate structure, David vs. Goliath, and so on. It has a certain appeal to it.

I can't say I agree with the idea of the oppressed rising up against the oppressor. Does change need to happen? Surely, it does. Authors do deserve better compensation from traditional publishers. The deserve to be treated more fairly when it comes to contractual terms. They have not choice in the matter, I don't think, unless they want to continue to lose writers to the ranks of the self-published.

I'm not overly fond of the in-your-face approach that we see from bloggers like Konrath and Eisler. On the other hand, they're trumpeting a voice that really does need to be heard. Someone has to take up that torch, and I for one, am not that combative. It does serve a useful purpose though of raising the issues to a level that people will listen, which is important.

That said, digital vs traditional is not really an either/or discussion, unless we move into the realm of the industry going entirely to mode where writer's books are printed in a POD environment, but that's another discussion entirely. Too many books don't lend themselves well to digital, so paper will never go away. Certain kinds of books lend themselves very well to digital, like genre fiction, and we may very well see digital dominating those books in the future. It will be a very blended industry more than likely.

For me, traditional will always hold a certain element of appeal, because they provide all of the needed services to get your story into print. Publishing's mentality has been "we're taking all the risk, so we're taking most of the profit." We can argue the level of sharing in this, but it's hard to argue the basic concept. Are you willing to forego most of the profit in order let professionals handle everything else? Given the potential of self-publishing now, that's a difficult question to tackle. Going the other route is just as difficult in my opinion, but again, the potential rewards are higher or can be.

JDuncan said...

What this argument/debate seems to be doing of late, which I find problematic, is that you are getting a group of self-published folk who are saying you're basically ignorant and/or stupid to try for traditional publishing. They take too much of your well-deserved money. Compared to what you can potentially earn self-publishing, this is an easy statement to make. Publishers can no longer snicker at writers who self-published. We've reached a level where the successes have shown that it's legitimate. It's up to them now to act to balance this tipping of the scales.

What's a fairer compensation from traditional publishing? That's a hard question to answer. How much are the services they provide worth to you as an author, assuming a positive working relationship/experience. Is 10% royalty fair, 15%? I've yet to see any real discussion about what exactly would be deemed reasonable and fair. It's always "traditional sucks, so don't do it." I'd love to see a real, transparent breakdown so we could see just what might legitimately be deemed fair.

If I were to venture a guess, I'd say that publishers try to get away with the lowest rate they can. The question then becomes, where is the ceiling? At some point, it would break through the bottom line, but there is obviously a gap between what is offered and what can legitimately be given. There's a happy medium in there somewhere that I'd like to see. And writers now have the leverage of self-publishing behind them to begin to ask this kind of question. So, publishers, what is that ceiling number? What royalty rate could you actually be offering me? I'm curious, as are a great many others I'm sure.

Tracy Edward Wymer said...

The only people I see discussing this so-called "war" is Konrath and the traditional publishing industry pros who keep posting on this topic. Other than that, everything seems kosher. Have I missed something here? Are there other warmongering blogs I'm not reading? If so, I'll keep it that way. Thanks for the post, Nathan.

Mart Ramirez said...

Well said, Nathan!

Margo Lerwill said...

Thanks for being a moderate voice, Nathan. I'm in the unusual position of having had good experiences with traditional publishing even though the contract eventually fell through and of now making my living as a self-published writer (without the traditional base we supposedly need, btw, Remus). Both experiences have been invaluable. Having had a look at both sides of the fence and maintaining ties with people in both worlds, I firmly believe it's a matter of what's right for the writer and for that particular project, not a battle of good versus evil.

Marilyn Peake said...

I’ve been saying the same thing for a very long time. The other day, I summed up my feelings about recent publishing battles with this tweet: “Media has taught us well how to avoid questioning and moral dilemmas by treating every problem without nuance. Just US vs. THEM...Go!” And I think this goes far beyond publishing. We seem to be geniuses (or idiots) about breaking up very serious issues into only two starkly divided camps: US vs. THEM. I’m beginning to think there may be some deeply biological reason for this. As climate continues to change and more places are wiped out by extreme weather, as worldwide economies that are all connected globally continue to struggle in ways that could bring us all to financial ruin, as we’re being introduced daily to strange new customs in a brand new globally interconnected world, as 50% to 80% of new college graduates around the world are returning home to live with their parents with no future job prospects because college graduates are now hired for a global pool of industry, as we’re threatened by newly emerging viruses and food and water shortages, I think biology is screaming out: “Out of my way! MY group is going to breed and win and SURVIVE!” This is totally irrational, of course, since cooperation, sane management (rather than destruction) of resources, and rapid development of technology would help us out the most. But, there ya have it, when has the human race ever been rational? And, in this chaos, some groups are able to grab power and control. Modern media lets us eat cake in a verbal gladiatorial arena while raking in lots of money in advertising. “Go, go, team!” I think this may also be part of what has led to a sudden rise in anti-birth-control politics. Biology is screaming out: “Breed! Fight! Win!” Not too smart, but the threatened animal brain doesn’t operate on logic.

On the positive side, the creative inventors just keep steaming ahead, inventing new things and helping us move on to a quieter, less endangered place of survival. If SpaceX and other private space companies open up moon bases that alleviate some of the stress from an overpopulated Earth, for instance, maybe we’ll simmer down once again back on our home planet.

As for writers, many just keep quietly steaming ahead, taking us new places. For example, look at what happened to Hugh Howey, the author of the WOOL series. I recognize him from the Kindle Boards! He was just a quiet writer, self-publishing his books through Amazon’s KDP Select Program. Then – wham! – all of a sudden, he’s in a movie bidding war in Hollywood and has a fantastic movie deal, the big publishers around the world offer him book deals and he picks and chooses where to sign and where to remain independent. So awesome! Here’s the story: How My Self-Published Book ‘Wool’ Became A Hot Movie Property. Hugh is about to become a hybrid author, truly independent or “indie.” He’ll soon be self-published, traditionally published, AND have a huge movie deal. So much for “us vs. them.”

ChulaSlim said...

After reading this post, I'm compelled to veer in another direction. There are several reasons that have convinced me to self-publish and they're so persuasive that I'm unlikely to consider the alternate route.
Setting aside the issue of whether a book is good or not, well written or not, the fact is that any book written is the fruit of the creativity of the writer, regardless of its nature.
To seek a traditional publisher, you must sell the product of your imagination, offer it to the highest, or in most cases, the only bidder. You loose all rights to its future and if you're not careful and you don't understand the in and out of contracts, you may be losing it forever. If other authors feel as I do, it's like peddling your soul in perpetuity.
From experience, reading some of the new fiction published by other self-published authors, I've found that truly creative people are capable of producing marvelous works if they're allowed the freedom to do so. For a new writer (and who knows what talent still lurks, waiting to amaze us in the future) the task of seeking traditional publishing can be a futile heart-breaker. In the past traditional publishing was the only option, but now new writers have other avenues to make their presence known. They can be self-published.
Rather than be discouraged and depressed by the seeming indifference of endless impersonal rejections, taking years off their lives, they can try to seek the approval of the reader, not a college intern screening the slush pile for the 'next best thing'.
For someone who's traditionally published and obviously satisfied with the experience, you can extol the value of traditional publishing, but for the new writers, unsure of their talent, it's not the best option.
As for me, I'd rather take my fate in my own hands, own my own soul, and not sell it to the highest bidder.
Of course this is an opinion, and there is a saying about opinions that I don't need to repeat here.

Sheila Cull said...

When I first read the title I noted to say, "a dichotomy can't be true or false," but after reading your piece I totally understand.

I'm surprised that there's even division on this matter. This division happened really recently. Did you think, say, three years ago, that this would be an issue in need of addressing?

If you make gold, people will develop an attraction. This applies to everything, books included. Yes?


Anonymous said...

I know many writers who are self-pubbed. One or two of them are good writers.

I know many writers who are e-pubbed or indie-pubbed. A few of them are good writers.

I know many writers who are traditionally pubbed. Almost all of them are good writers.

'Nuff said.

Dianne L Gardner said...

I really don't see where anyone has the choice to get published by the traditional publishers. I mean they can choose to submit, but that doesn't mean they have a choice to get published. Its the big publishing houses that choose. And if your work doesn't fit their bill, you don't get published by them, so then you have to choose another means. That's just what I've been seeing and experiencing.

Tom C. Cole said...

Traditional and self-publishing are processes, and you're right - authors are free to pursue one, the other, or a combination of the two at any time during their writing careers. And the two processes can co-exist peacefully.

However, there are PEOPLE involved in these processes, and when people are involved that are proponents of one OR the other (like in politics), you will invariably get an "us and them" mentality. Ironically, the comments of your post are further evidence of this.

And it doesn't help things, in my view, when you have agents ordering self-published authors (in capital letters no less) to stop calling themselves 'indies' (which you linked to in your last post). Live and let live I say.

Tom C. Cole

Maggie Dana said...

Well said, Dianne. My thoughts exactly.

Isabella Amaris said...

Ha may I say that I guessed a post on this false dichotomy would be coming soon?:) Glad it's finally here. The trad vs indie debate is getting tired... and a bit ugly, I thought.

For those who believe there was or is great potential for exploitation of writers under the current system (and I'm one of those who has such a concern), I've always felt that it muddies the waters when a discussion on such exploitation promptly descends into mud-slinging on an issue which is actually tangential, ie traditional vs indie/self publishing...

Exploitation is exploitation is exploitation... Wherever it begins or ends, it affects all writers at the end, not just those in one particular spectrum of the publishing paths available to us... There should be no 'vs' when it comes to writers choices in the current climate — 'cf' (compare and contrast) seems more appropriate — if only to remind us that we are all still part of the same community, and so that we are in the right frame of mind to support each other unreservedly when exploitation of any kind actually is flagged up by a fellow writer/publishing industry professional...

Sorry, off my soapbox now:) Nice post.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Amen, Nathan.
And I also agree with Tom C. Cole. Nice to see your "by-line" again, Tom.

Holly_D said...

Thanks for this wonderful and insightful post, Nathan. I've been looking at both options for my novel. Still giving it some thought. But you are so right. Everywhere I turn it feels like a war on the web between self-publishing and going with an agency/publishing house. I too have felt it is what you think is best for your career path. No one way is wrong. Again, well said.

A.J.Race said...

I have to agree with you here, we are really both on the same side and more importantly it's hard to say that one is better than the other because frankly BOTH have put out good and bad books.

Bob said...

Frankly this whole argument is a year out of date. I see so many terms and phrases that were being discussed then. Hybrid author is something I blogged about over a year ago. Setting aside emotions and dealing with business is the same.

Time to move on folks. Everyone's platform is different, everyone's product is different, and everyone's goal is different. To argue about a right or wrong or a side is a waste.

Actually, the new hybrid author is a new breed and that should scare NY. It's a "self" published author who also signs with an Amazon imprint.

The only upside to a NY contract would be well over 6 figures so you're guaranteed some push in house and even then, at BEA in two weeks, you'll see each of the Big 6 really pushing less than 5% of their titles. The elite 5% who are now strongly defending legacy publishing like Scott Turow and Richard Russo. Of course they defend the hand that feeds them well. But my new bone of contention is when those guys slam Amazon, at the same time they need to absolutely insist that their publishers pull their titles from Amazon. Can't have it both ways, guys.

K. L. Romo said...

Hi Nathan - I've enjoyed your posts. Unfortunately, I think I have to agree with Remus on this one.

MJRose said...

Great post Nathan!!!

I do see the lines in the sand for the first time and and am unhappy to see them.

It's not us vs them for me since I both self and trad publish and have since my first self pubbed book sold well enough to make some noise and get picked up by S&S in 1999. (The dinosaur era before we even called them ebooks!)

I like doing both for different reasons not pertinent here.

I'm also one of the few authors who ever disagree with Joe using my own name and often post there exactly for the reason you've blogged here, Nathan. Because it really isn't black and white one size fits all.

What's exciting now is all the options. As Eisler says and I agree - its a lottery no matter which you do. It's about your goals, your book, your interest to go into business for your self or have partners and on and on. There are reasons to self that have nothing to do with $ just as there are reasons to trad publish that have nothing to do with $.

Not every author who signs a trad contract is stupid. No matter what level they're at- not just the top 10% who are making huge money.

And not every self pubbed author does it b/c they can't get a trad deal.

There's a meme that more than 1000 self pubbed authors sell 1000 books a month - even if the average price they sell them at is $2.99 - and they get $2000 a month - there are wayn more than 1000 trad pubbed authors who make ore than $24,000 a year.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

There shouldn't be a line, that's true! What I don't understand is why it's ok for DIY authors to bash the traditional publishing establishment and the authors who prefer that way of publishing, yet I don't see it going the other way. Opinions are fine, but criticizing an author's choice, is not. I have many friends who have chosen to do it themselves. A few have been financially successful. It was never an option for me, and I was ridiculed for it. Saying "the only reason to go with a publisher is..." or being negative about agents and editors, diminishes all writers, all book lovers, all readers. Even within these comments, when your post is asking us to come together, commenters say you're right and then pummel the idea of regular publishing. What I witness is a double standard. It is OK for DIYers to be bitter and negative toward what they don't want to do with their books, but if it goes the other way authors are considered elitist or without vision. Frankly, I worry about myself, not what anyone else does. I prefer not to judged for my choice to publish with a traditional publisher, but on the merit of my book. Just like I do for DIYers whom I choose to read.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

Also, the folks who say that traditional publishing is no longer an option, aren't reading Publisher's Marketplace or following the industry closely. I'm involved with dozens of debut authors publishing via traditional publishers and there are more every day.

Michael M Dickson said...

Nice work Nathan as always.

Anonymous said...

Nathan said..."I actually agree with Sarah about the term "indie" - to me it has always meant independent publishers like Soho, Greywolf, etc. and I still use "traditional" and "self-publishing" instead of "indie" and "legacy. I understand what you're saying that the spirit of self-publishing is independent, but to me there's a certain oppositional attitude inherent in "indie" and "legacy" that kind of rubs me the wrong way. The word for self-publishing had already existed; I don't know why a new one was needed and why another one had to be co-opted."

I used to feel the same way, too. Until I actually did But seriously, what really bothers me is that I somehow get the feeling that self-published authors prefer "indie" to self-published because it elevates them and takes away the stigma of self-publishing. And I think that's wrong. I've had MORE success self-published than traditionally published, and I prefer to embrace the term self-published and help bring credibility to self-publishing.

Different Anon...

Brigetta Schwaiger said...

Excellent post. I recently self-published my novel and did it for the freedom and ease. But, I in no way have any ill will toward the traditional publishing industry. We are all written word lovers, right?

Margo said...

Amy Sue Nathan said...
"There shouldn't be a line, that's true! What I don't understand is why it's ok for DIY authors to bash the traditional publishing establishment and the authors who prefer that way of publishing, yet I don't see it going the other way."

To be gentle but honest, you aren't looking for it, then.

I know *prominent* writing forums where sucessful self-publishers have been *banned* for posting about self-publishing in positive terms. I've seen writers here on Nathan's comment section call self-published writers frauds. There is a post a few above yours on *this* thread that basicaly says self-published writers can't write. There's a romance author who is famous for trying to destroy the reputations of every self-pubber she encounters because she believes they have NO RIGHT to pubish. I've seen trad writer advocate for the outright censorship of self-pubbed authors. (And, yes, I've seen behavior from the other side that is just as bad.)

If we're going to get over the knee-jerk reaction of dealing with our fears by pointing fingers and shrieking, then we're going to have to acknowledge that the problem exists on both sides because the fear exists on both sides. The fear of INvalidation. The fear of someone else getting what we feel we've worked for. The fear of failure. And so on.

Karen Cantwell said...

Gee, I just learned from Remus that I'm a lottery winner. Who knew?

What I do know is that I am very happy that I have published on my own, have reached a reading audience on my own, and have reaped a higher-than-expected financial reward for the effort. But I was self-employed prior to choosing this path, so I'm very accustomed to running the show.

When I talk to new writers wondering "which way to go," I always tell them that if they have any inclination, hope, or desire to travel the traditional path, then they need to give it a good go.

But truthfully, I have found that very few readers really know or care where your book was published. I was recently asked to attend a local book club that had chosen my book to read. One of the questions they asked me was "who's your publisher?" They had no idea I had published myself. When I told them, not only were they delighted, but were very excited to hear more about the industry and why I made the choice I did.

Do I see myself pitted in a battle of publish vs. self-publish? Not at all. Everyone has to make the choices that are right for them. But what excites me to no end is the very fact that CHOICES can be made by authors now. Authors CAN have control, find readers, and succeed on their own. Truly, it is a Golden Age for writers.

R.E. McDermott said...

I agree with Karen and share her joy to discover that I too, am a lottery winner! Like her, I was also self-employed and way too used to doing things my own way to consider traditional publishing.

Having said that, I've got no beef with others that choose that path. None of the reasons usually given for that choice resonate with me, but that really doesn't matter.

As a wise person once said"

You don't have to attend every argument you're invited to!

Dan said...

Any commercially published author can self-publish if he wants to. Almost no self-published authors can get their work commercially published.

Self-published authors don't compete with most commercially published authors; self-publishers are flourishing in a market segment in which commercial publishers are unwilling to participate.

If big publishers were to slash prices on slow-selling backlist e-books to $2.99, it would likely push most self-published authors off the radar. However, have a good reason for not wanting to do this; they believe that very cheap backlist e-books would cannibalize their frontlist sales, while most readers of new fiction don't view self-published titles as a substitute product.

Jamie Sedgwick said...

Not all authors have a choice. I'm one of those who couldn't get a publisher, primarily because I couldn't even get an agent. I went out on my own -out of necessity- and have since learned that I can sell 1,500 books a month without a publisher OR an agent. I have no ill will for "legacy" authors. Most of the time, when I hear their stories, I just feel sorry for them.

But what does get to me is when people like Scott Turow of the so-called "Author's Guild" write letters to the DOJ making statements like this:

"Let’s hope... the Justice Department reconsiders. The irony bites hard: our government may be on the verge of killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition. This would be tragic for all of us who value books, and the culture they support."

Make no mistake, the lines have been drawn, and not by those of us who went out on our own. The lines are being drawn by supporters of the legacy system who are terrified by what they see coming, and instead of facing it with vision, they are attempting to destroy it by any means possible. Writers, as usual, are caught in the middle. We want to make a living doing what we love, but we are being TOLD to choose a side. So let's not point fingers at writers, let's point fingers where the real problem lies.

This is disruptive technology in action. This is an old-guard system in the death throes, blaming the new system for accomplishing that which it could not achieve. We'd all love to see our books on the shelf in a bookstore, but the very essence of what a book is, is changing. We have no fault in this, but we do in how we respond to it.

cgblake said...

Once again, you are the voice of reason. As an author who ended up self-publishing, I revere the traditional publishing world. I would much rather have been traditionally published. The problem I have with this whole discussion is the use of the word "choice." Many of us (especially older writers like me who write in the wrong genre) really don't have a choice. I don't have ten years to spend honing and pitching my novel. I want to write more novels. The choice was made for me, not by me.

I hope people on all sides can see that in the current environment, writers and readers have wide choices and opportunities and that's ultimately a good thing.

I love your blog. Keep up the great work.

Other Lisa said...

@Jamie, there are some things about your comment that I don't follow.

How do the "lines drawn" in the DoJ suit affect you as a self-published authors? Basically the agency model was all about publishers controlling the prices of their ebooks, and the anti-DoJ argument that Turow was making is that Amazon engaged in predatory pricing practice that was in itself monopolistic behavior.

Whether you agree with that or disagree with that, I don't see how it is very relevant to self-published authors. The issues under debate don't affect your ability to set your own prices. Frankly the only argument I can see is that lower ebook prices from Big Six publishers might negatively impact self-publishers, because you've lost some of your competitive pricing advantage.

How do the Big Six's pricing strategies constitute a line drawn against you as a self-published author? I just don't see it. How are you being forced to choose sides?

And as a "legacy published" author, I would really like to know why you feel sorry for me.

This doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. You do what's best for you as an author and as a businessperson and your particular set of circumstances.

Chicki said...

All of this kumbaya sounds very nice in theory, but what I've seen repeatedly online is traditional authors bashing indie AUTHORS. Indie authors might bash publishers and the industry in general, but never other authors who've chosen to go the legacy route.

Anonymous said...

This is actually a pretty idiotic debate. 99% of all authors, good or bad, will never get published by a traditional publisher. That's a fact. Many more will have meager sales and not earn their advances. So, except for a select few, there really is no option. It's self-publishing or no publishing.

Jamie Sedgwick said...

Other Lisa said: “How do the "lines drawn" in the DoJ suit affect you as a self-published authors?”
Thank you for admitting my point that the lines have been drawn. Whether it affects me directly, indirectly, or not at all, this is an illegal collusion that is damaging to all legacy-published authors, and therefore potentially to all authors, period. If it affects my friends, my colleagues, or my potential future, I have a right to care. Why are you so defensive? Do you think I shouldn’t care about what happens to other writers? Is that how you feel?

“And as a "legacy published" author, I would really like to know why you feel sorry for me.”
If you’re happy with your situation, then you have nothing to complain about and I have nothing to empathize. That must mean you’re not one of the authors I was talking about. But if you’d like to hear their stories, please see Or, check the websites of Dean Wesley Smith, Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. You won’t just hear their stories, but the stories of hundreds (!) of authors who are or were legacy published. And -maybe- you’ll feel sorry for them like I do.

“This doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. You do what's best for you as an author and as a businessperson and your particular set of circumstances.”
I agree with you 100%. If the right agent or publisher came along, I would certainly take advantage of that situation. But when organizations that claim to represent and protect the interests of authors turn around and support an industry standard that is extremely damaging, I’ll call it what it is.

Kate Milford said...

I apologize in advance. I have to do this in two comments. I tried to cut it down, but...well. I failed.

I’m sort of one of those hybrids. I’m trad-pubbed (one book out, another out in Sept, and releases with two publishers slated for 2014), but I’m about to release my first self-pub effort in print and digital in September. My plan is to publish novellas between traditional releases and as companions to them.

I’ve heard from other authors curious about how both types of publishing can be combined. Most are authors with experiences like mine: they're trad-pubbed but want to provide extra content to their readers and to take advantage of the extra reach the evolving publishing landscape offers. So far no one’s asked if, having dipped my toes in the water, I would consider shifting totally to self-pubbing. If they had, I’d have said absolutely not. This isn’t a judgment; it has everything to do with how I want to spend my time and what’s important to me. I can only speak to my own experience, but a few of my reasons for not wanting to give up my publishers are:

1) I don’t want to do everything myself. The last two months of semi-consistent blogging and outreach have just about killed me. I hate it. I want to be writing, not talking to people about my writing. I do have to do some of that for my trad-pubbed books, but I’m adding my voice to a small chorus of other voices, not shouting alone into a void.
2) Every book I’ve written has gotten better thanks to being put through the wringer that is the publishing process. I have a crit group and beta-readers that I trust, but even after they’ve whipped a ms into better shape, running the gauntlet of my agent and my editor and the five other assorted people who make me revise a book before publication makes the ms better on a whole other level. Maybe not every author needs this process, but I do. I am—no lie—TERRIFIED that the ms I’m publishing is going to betray the absence of all those extra sets of eyes. I’ve hired an editor and a copyeditor, but I’m still terrified.
3) Having a print copy of the book in stores around the country is important to me. Books as objects are precious to me. This isn’t fear of technology; I’m married to a hacker-turned-systems administrator and I know my way around the tech world, but digitally it isn’t how I like to read. My trad-pubbed books are beautiful objects. So far, they’ve all been gorgeously illustrated, too, which I could never have afforded. I can only afford to get the same illustrator for the novella's cover (which I wanted to do because it's related to the bks she illustrated) because she has become a friend and believes heartily in the project. She’s basically donating her time, and if she hadn’t already fallen in love with the characters and the world, I don’t think she would’ve had any motivation to do that.

I don’t want to give any of that up. And I didn’t mention advances in the list above. Would I like to have six-figure deals from my publishers? Well…I don’t know. With the advances I get, I know I’ll earn out and the book will stay in print. So to those who say a huge advance would be the only reason to go to a publisher—that's valid, if either you know your book will earn out that advance or you don’t care if it stays in print or not.

Kate Milford said...

Now, the flip side, for 2/2. I should just have written a blog post in reply.

I’m not blind to the opportunities of self-pub. Here’s why, having started, I will continue to self-pub companion pieces:

1) I can continually offer readers more content. When I get an email from a kid asking if I’ll write more about a particular character, if the idea catches me I can run with it and not worry about whether or not a publisher thinks there’s enough of a market for it to justify the costs. I can tailor my content more directly to my audience’s wishes.
2) I can make risky choices. In one of my 2014 titles, the story hinges around a book of local folklore, so the companion novella will be the folklore book itself. My publisher isn’t likely to want to publish it, and I perfectly understand why. But I can do it myself, and I think readers will love it.
3) I can move quickly. I’d been kicking this idea around for a while, but I only got the idea for the 1st story, The Kairos Mechanism, in February. By April it was written and I had a budget; as of a wk ago it was funded on Kickstarter (and it’s still raising money), and it’ll be ready to go right on schedule in September.
4) I can do innovative things that involve readers directly (for instance, Kairos has a digital reader-illustrated edition). And I can choose increased reach and finding new readers over income and offer the novella free, if I want.

I didn’t mention higher royalties there because I’d write even if I made no money at it. That was my lifestyle for 15 yrs; I worked a string of full-time retail jobs to pay the rent and wrote at night. Making the most possible from every book has never been my motivation. Seeing my book on the shelves and getting emails from 9 and 10 yr-old strangers who found my book and loved it—that motivates me.

And now you see why I need 6 rounds of editing.

Other Lisa said...

@Jamie, I put "lines drawn" in quotes because I was quoting you. I am not in any way "admitting" that the DoJ case constitutes some kind of line that's being drawn between traditionally published authors and self-published authors. It's a conflict between Apple/Big Six publishers (and by extension the traditional publishing industry, though not all publishers are on board with the agency model) and Amazon -- NOT authors who are publishing through one entity or the other.

In fact there are arguments that many authors are making on the side of the Big Six. Not necessarily because the agency model is best for them in the short term (or even in the long term), but because they appreciate that diversity in publishing IS important to the longterm health of the industry and to their careers in the longterm as well, and they feel that the DoJ suit will encourage greater monopoly rather than less. But there's absolutely no reason why this means that traditionally published authors and self published authors are on opposite sides of some battle line.

You're reading Konrath et al, and while I know he provides good information he also has a considerable axe to grind. How many traditionally published authors do you personally know who have been literally ripped off? I'm not talking about having complaints with how the publishing industry is structured, because you will hear plenty of those (I have my own list). But how many traditionally published authors have you asked if they would prefer to abandon their publisher and only self-publish?

(I talked about the cases I personally know of that I feel constitute "rip-off" on the earlier thread. None were with Big Six publishers, FWIW)

Are there traditionally published authors who are no longer interested in that and want to go it completely on their own? Yes. But the great majority of authors I know would not choose to quit their traditional publishing career, in spite of their complaints about the industry.

You're fighting for a group of authors who don't necessarily agree with your reasons for battle or your battle plan. And this is the thing that Nathan was writing about in his post and elaborating upon in his comments.

Mira said...

So this will probably sound like I'm up on a high horse, sorry, but Lisa, you may not agree with Jaime, but she also clearly doesn't agree with you. You both feel strongly, but I wonder if instead of arguing, maybe you could each try to understand the other person's viewpoint. Otherwise, it tends to go around in circles.

Again, I don't mean to sound 'holier than thou', but in terms of the spirit of the post. Sorry.

In terms of the DOJ suit, my thoughts: many self-publishers have as much of a stake in Amazon as traditionally published authors have in traditional publishing. So, I think the DOJ suit affects them directly.

I'd like to add one more thing about why self-publishers are reaching out to traditionally published authors. It may not always be in the best tone, because some people are angry, but there is a reason besides just venting feelings.

It's called collective bargaining power.

The more authors protest the conditions and the contracts of traditional publishing, the more publishers may feel they need to change. That would benefit every author.

Mira said...

"Otherwise, it tends to go around in circles".

I should mention that, of course, I know this from personal experience. I pitch it with the best of them. Obviously, I've did this two days ago with you, Lisa.

But I'm working on my communication skills, and trying to figure out how to PERSUADE, rather than just take a stand. That's my new goal.

Jamie Sedgwick said...

@ Lisa, I'm not sure where you got the idea that our philosophies are at odds or that I'm "fighting" with one group or another. I'm glad you're traditionally published and that it has made you happy. I don't suggest that any one path will work for everyone. I'm thrilled that I've been able to make a career on my own when other options failed me. This is a thing to celebrate IMHO. Things are getting better for authors, not worse.

I said that the author's guild does not appear to be representing the interests of its clients when it vocally supports a system that damages those clients. In throwing its weight behind this corrupt and illegal price-fixing, the guild has proven everything I've just stated. Pretending the problem isn't there is like pretending we haven't been eating, drinking, and breathing radiation from Japan for the last year. The problem is still there. People who defend a corrupt and illegal status quo are usually somehow profiting from it. I empathize with those writers who've had their careers damaged in one way or another and you should as well, although I've yet to hear you say that you do.

I'm not a member of the guild and after what I've seen this year I wouldn't join if I could. You can sensationalize that into some sort of battle-royal between Indie and legacy authors if you want, but the truth is that its just another example of a corrupted good ol' boy system. That's where the line has been drawn, and at this point it's pretty hard not to see it.

And the premise that this is about diversity in publishing is just plain silly. There's more diversity in publishing today than at any other point in history. And that "diversity" wasn't nearly so important when two or three big corporations were running thousands of bookstores and small publishers out of business. Diversity didn't become important to the good ol' boys until they ended up on their own chopping block.

Nathan Bransford said...

See, this I where arguments derail - when people aren't acknowledging that the other side may have a valid perspective they just happen to disagree with. I don't even agree with the Authors' Guild stance, but the reason they believe what they believe is not because they are corrupt demons, but because they believe the agency model has fostered competition in the book marketplace, which they believe is good for authors. I don't think anyone supports collusion, but there are a lot of sane, smart, reasonable people who believe the DOJ's cure may be worse for the book world.

I'm not much interested in hosting a discussion that does not treat the other side's arguments in good faith, and that goes for both sides. So let's elevate this discussion if it is going to continue.

Marilyn Peake said...

Actually, the Department of Justice found Amazon to have gone above and beyond in following the law and actually held Amazon up as an example of legal business practice. Like it or not, the law is designed to protect the consumer, NOT to protect the special interest group inside an organization, no matter how much people inside the organization love their organization and want it to succeed. The law states that stores are allowed to discount prices, but not to the point where the business will be deprived of a certain amount of profit. When Amazon first decided to lower prices of the Big Six’s eBooks to $9.99 each (much higher than the less expensive eBooks on Amazon, by the way) it also volunteered to make up any lost money on each and every eBook that the Big Six had originally priced higher and give that money to the Big Six. That is awesome for consumers and that’s who the law is designed to protect. We’re actually debating in this country whether or not the laws should be changed, so that the oligarchy rather than the average citizen should be protected, but right now most of our laws protect the consumer. The way that free market capitalism has been practiced in recent years is that competition forces businesses to modernize and change in order to keep up with changing times. The Big Six have enough money to enter the digital world and compete; no one’s stopping them.

I find it interesting that many of the same arguments used against the DOJ decision and Amazon are very similar to those used by canal owners against the railroads when the first railroads were built in the United States. The canal owners were threatened by modernization and they saw the railroads as behaving immorally by expanding the railroad system. Thank goodness for the laws that gave us railroads or we’d still be traveling by canal.

Anonymous said...

Nathan said, "I don't think anyone supports collusion, but there are a lot of sane, smart, reasonable people who believe the DOJ's cure may be worse for the book world."

Wait. The DOJ is simply enforcing the law. You're saying that, if the DOJ's cure is bad for the book world, then it shouldn't enforce the law? Since enforcing the law is what the DOJ does, I don't know any other way to interpret what you're saying. And when five of the six major publishers and Apple met together to fix prices, we shouldn't call that collusion? What should the DOJ call it then? I'm seriously asking these questions. There are a lot of sane, smart, reasonable people in the banking world, too, but laws have been broken there as well.

Nathan Bransford said...


The DOJ should absolutely enforce the law. But there are a wide range of outcomes for a possible settlement.

Also you mention banking - the DOJ hasn't exactly run hog wild looking for illegality there. None of this is totally cut and dry.

Other Lisa said...

Well, this is frustrating.

A couple of points, mostly to reiterate.

1. People are making generalizations and characterizations of the publishing industry that do not match my own experience or the experience of most authors I know who are in it.

2. In terms of the DoJ case, many authors question its merits and whether it is good for the industry as a whole.

I actually am an agnostic about the DoJ case. I'm not a legal expert, and I'm not a publishing industry expert, but I try to stay informed. I think at this point, regardless of how it's ultimately settled, the agency model is dead and the business moves on. Whether it bought enough time to foster the competition that those in favor of it claimed it would, we'll just have to see.

It's my understanding that some legal experts question the merits of the government's case and whether it would hold up court. We'll see what happens if/when Penguin continues to hold out, I guess.

What I am not saying that everything is fine and dandy, because it's not. Many authors have a lot of complaints, and big ones at that. Unfortunately we're not talking about those.

What I am hearing here is, "the industry is totally corrupt, it rips off authors, and we'd all be a lot better off if it completely collapsed."

I feel like I'm being labeled an apologist for corruption simply for trying to lay out the situation as I see it.

There are several other points here I'd like to address.

First, the interests of consumers and the interests of authors are not necessarily the same. If your overriding concern is lower prices, at least admit that this doesn't necessarily help authors.

Second, speaking of low prices, let's take as an example a company like Walmart. I forget the factoid now, but Walmart has more economic power than a majority of the world's countries. How has Walmart used that power? Yes, it's brought us low prices. It's also driven under many small businesses that cannot compete with its scale, it's depressed wages, it has placed burdens on the surrounding community because many of its workers don't have health insurance and have to reply on public resources. Here is a Pulitzer prize winning series from the LA Times about "the Walmart Effect" if you are interested.

It is not at all clear that low prices override everything else when it comes to the best interest of consumers; in fact I think it's safe to say that they do not.

Mira, FWIW, I'm strongly pro-union. I'm not sure how an author's union would work, though people definitely talk about it. It would probably have to be something like SAG or the WGA, where you cross a certain income threshold to be eligible.

Marilyn Peake said...


No way will I ever admit that lower prices do not help authors. I know MANY, MANY, MANY authors who have benefited tremendously by Amazon allowing us, the writers, to choose when to lower and when to raise our prices.

And Walmart is a whole different kettle of fish, an entirely different business model than Amazon. Walmart saves money by selling products made by slaves in Third World countries and crushing unions in the United States. Last time I checked, Amazon wasn't selling books made by slaves in Third World countries. Rather, Amazon entered the digital age at exactly the same time that customers wanted eBooks. Going even beyond that, Amazon recently purchased robots that can work side by side with humans to modernize the packaging of paper books and other items for shipment. Jeff Bezos has also started Blue Origin, his own company for going into outer space. He's embracing technology and helping to move the world forward. Interestingly, NASA is helping rather than fighting the private rocketship companies, as the writing is on the wall that outer space exploration will be changing from government-funded to privately funded. The extreme cooperation between NASA and private space enterprise was displayed a few days ago when NASA assisted SpaceX's Dragon capsule dock at the International Space Station. That was incredibly awesome, and offered a glimpse into our quickly advancing world!

Marilyn Peake said...


Thinking about this further, I should add that I believe what’s happening to the book industry is very similar to what happened to the music industry. The companies that digitized music and brought prices way down were the companies that gave modern consumers what they wanted. I’m certainly thrilled that I don’t have to deal with cumbersome and expensive vinyl record albums in order to listen to music, but I do understand that the modernization of the music industry was difficult for those inside that industry as changes were made.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, yeah, unfortunately hardly anyone understood the complex ways in which derivatives work, so some of the top bank guys were actually hired by the government to try to straighten out the mess rather than tried in court. Since very few people are privy to what went on behind closed doors, we don't know exactly why these decisions were made, although it was probably at least partially an attempt to save the world markets from completely collapsing. Collusion is a much more simple legal case, although most of the publishers settled out of court and a bunch of emails were illegally deleted, so we'll probably never know what happened there either.

February Grace said...

Once again you are the clarion call to reason amidst chaos.

Thank you. LOVE this.


Nicole said...

Thanks for posting this, Nathan. It's good to see a former agent saying that self-publishing isn't the first step on a road to nowhere. I'm particularly happy that you mentioned experimenting because that is honestly one of the main reasons I'm considering self-publishing one of my books (lots of agent nibbles, but no bites). I'm curious as to how it might do, but was worried that by doing so other agents/editors would look down on me for that. Like, "Oh, you couldn't get published in the traditional way so that must mean you're no good" or just something like that, you know? Basically what you said about the conceptions surrounding it.

So yeah, maybe I will give it a go as an experiment...

John Stanton said...

I don't want to feel any bitterness towards traditional publishing houses. They are one avenue (an increasingly smaller avenue) for getting my work to the reader and I'll take any avenue I can get.
As far as some bitter divide between self-publishing and traditional publishing...

They Started It Man!

For years they made fun of us and called us names,
They said we would stink up literature,
they said they decided what real books were,

*sniffs back tears from unrelated childhood memories*

Once, *sniff* ...three or four of the big guys took my friend's manuscript on the playground and were tossing it around playing keep away...

*pausing to swallow the pain*

They didn't want to publish it, they just didn't want him to have it...

They would...

*dabbing away a tear of loneliness*

...have these big parties where they would talk about us and not invite us...
They would give us wedgies and noogies and wouldn't let us into their fancy bookstores...

But, it's okay. We all have to work together and I'm not bitter.

*deep breath*

Anyway, this is my new friend, Amazon, he's bigger than than any of those guys!
And during recess, for 60% less milk money, he will take their readers and their writers so nobody will go to their big fancy bookstores!
So there! Who's getting the wedgies now! Huh! How's it feel?! Doesn't feel very good! Does it!?!

I guess I pretty much just blew it with any traditional publishers out there....

Mira said...

Marilyn, I always love when you contribute, you are very informed!

Lisa, I'd love, love, love to see a writer's union. Seems like it's way overdue.

I wonder how one would form that?

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MarkBeyer said...

While getting books to readers is the name of the game, the method by which authors are paid is the high-stakes stand-off b/w traditional and self-publishing. Literary "value" doesn't seem to have much say, given that genre fiction -- by definition "weak" literature -- tops best seller charts. But for all the variety of interests readers express through their purchases, the "how" and "how much" has, in many ways, been finally put into the hands of the writers via the self-publishing paradigm.

Vanessa said...

I'm adding to the conversation late, but one thing that always strikes me with self-publishing vs trad discussions is that people seem to mainly be talking about fiction.

I rarely hear about non-fiction or from non-fiction authors which way they've chosen to go... Which seems to me to be leaving out a huge part of the story. (Cough, pun sorry, cough.) Given that non-fiction is vastly, vastly more profitable for publishers, while also requiring much more stringent QA.

Are there any non-fic authors out there who can shed some light?

Unknown said...

It looks like everyone else has already said everything! But let me just say thank you for this post. It's a very confusing process, trying to decide which way to publish. It shouldn't be a "this or that" scenario with an obvious winner/loser. Should it?

Nancy Beck said...

I don’t want to do everything myself. The last two months of semi-consistent blogging and outreach have just about killed me. I hate it. I want to be writing, not talking to people about my writing. I do have to do some of that for my trad-pubbed books, but I’m adding my voice to a small chorus of other voices, not shouting alone into a void.

@Kate Milford - Don't bother with any marketing or promo stuff; just make sure you keep getting books out there. The more books you have out there (novels/novelettes/novellas/whatever), the more of a chance people will take a chance on picking them up...and becoming a lifelong fan.

But you don't have to listen to a nobody like me. Go over to Dean Wesley Smith's blog or his wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch's, blog. Both continually say NOT to do this if you only have 3-4 books out.

I realize you're also trad published, but to do such endless promo work isn't fun. I limit myself to doing tweets and blog posts when the spirit moves me - and only if it's fun to do.

Please, read Dean's series on Thinking Like a Publisher, and see if a lot (if not most) of it makes a ton of sense.

Good luck! :-)

Wendy Tyler Ryan said...

I have waited a long time for just one thing to matter - good writing/story telling. Yes, it's kind of two things, but not really.

I agree that flinging mud is pointless but I don't think it will stop any time soon.

I also have to agree with Remus a little. If you're a name, you can easily decide to self publish. Not selling well as a self-published author does not mean your book is poorly written or your story is crap, it means that out of 24 hours in a day, self-published authors only have so much time and so many places to promote themselves before they have to get back to the business of writing. I hate marketing. HATE it. I want to write and I am struggling to do the marketing well.

Publishers should not put all their stock in self-published stats as a means of deciding to take on a self-published author. They need to read what the author has written, not just look at dollar signs (Amanda Hocking), sorry, just clearing my throat.

Bonnee Crawford said...

I read in a recent post on Alexis Grant's blog that Ebooks can compliment your traditional publishing, and I've heard plenty of success stories from both trad and self-published authors. I see no reason why they should be put against each other when in all reality they could easily work together and help each other out.

Thanks for your words.

Necia said...


I've been saying this myself for quite some time and it frustrates the heck out of me to see people drawing battle lines where there need not be any.

There is no vs. it all boils down to personal choice and preference.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, you left out an important player in the equation: the ebook/POD start-up publisher. It seems they're cropping up everywhere. They offer no advance, but “promise” a custom promotion plan and the “possibility” of national distribution. True, many of these publishers have real contacts in the industry, which could make it a better choice than self-publishing. But it seems many of these publishers are insisting--and getting--world rights for the duration of the copyright. Is this the new publishing model? Sell your soul for a bag of magic beans?

Anne R. Allen said...

I've been on vacation, so I'm way late to this party. But I wanted to say:

2) Other Lisa and Mira: There is a writers union. In fact there are several. The National Writers Union is for journalists and book authors alike. You have to have a certain number of paid articles to join. Author's Guild is for book authors and I think you need at least one trad. published book to join. NWU is very good for helping writers get paid or solve other beefs with publishers. Very much worth the dues to get the legal help.

Nathan--I totally agree. I posted on this subject a couple of weeks ago "Don't Take Sides; Take Your Time." New writers are oftn made to feel they have to decide if they're on one track or the other: a false choice. Most successful authors I know are BOTH self-pubbing and trad. pubbing. As you say, there is simply no "either/or" going on except in the minds of a strident few.

D.J. Cappella said...

I totally agree with you Nathan. As writers we should support each other not draw lines based on who the publisher is, genre, or even medium like film and comics. We are all of the same blood, a story teller.

D.J. Cappella

Angela Ackerman said...

There are loud mouths, and there always will be loud mouths. I have to say however, the people I know (both in SP & Traditional), are no longer doing the us vs them Nazi stare down. I am increasingly seeing respect flow between authors who are making decisions for themselves, be it to pursue traditional, self publishing, or both.

It's not how we start, it's how we finish. Let's follow this lead of those who are open-minded and progressive enough to realize we're all doing the same thing--reaching our reading audience.

Angela Ackerman

Angela Ackerman said...

"I rarely hear about non-fiction or from non-fiction authors which way they've chosen to go... Which seems to me to be leaving out a huge part of the story. Are there any non-fic authors out there who can shed some light?"

@Vanessa, I released a Writing Resource Book just a few weeks ago. Despite having an agent (and her being willing to shop it) I decided to self publish (without her help). Bear with me as I set the stage as to why--I'll do my best to be brief. :)

There were a few reasons for this. First, I am pursuing Traditional Publishing for my fiction, and so I am painfully aware of the time it takes to find a publisher, sign the contract, and see a book on the shelves. And that's if I could find a publisher who was able to see past the fact that my book is not a normal writing resource, but more of a tool for helping writers with body language and emotion. This was also complicated by the fact that we had offered a lot of 'free content' on the blog, and publishers aren't too fond of this.

This tool is something my blog partner and I had stared on our blog, The Bookshelf Muse. It became so wildly popular I would get weekly emails asking if we would turn it into a book, and not just from writers, but epublishers as well.

Built in audience, a unique idea wasn't long before someone started pirating our content. I found out when a Writing Conference Organizer in Florida emailed me to ask if I was the creator of The Emotion Thesaurus because they wanted my blog partner and I to come and speak. They had tripped on the pirated work, and thankfully, tracked us down. We shut down the person offering downloads of our content.

So, the timing issue suddenly became critically important. Could we really afford to wait years to find a publisher and get a book on a shelf, or with the storm of SPing, was it more likely that someone would take the root of our idea, switch the content up a bit, and publish a book on it themselves?

We self published the book, hiring others to do what we could not. How did we fare? I suppose only three weeks in it's tough to say, but so far we're in the 'lottery category' as Remus coined it. We'll see if this sustains itself month after month.

Angela Ackerman

Vanessa said...

@Angela Ackerman, thanks for posting. Very interesting - so if someone's built a presence online around a particular kind of expertise, and they have good writing skills, self-publishing may be the better way to go!

Hope the book does really well for you. :)

Sherry Gammon YA Author said...

I self-pub because I couldn't get an agent to even read my novel. Now, 8000 books in one year and a movie deal later, I can say I'm glad I did. It's not about having someone "handle everything" for me. It's about getting my work out there. And who will work harder than me to market my novel? No one!

Tracy said...

Here is my take:

Agents and traditional publishers are looking to make money. It’s a simple statement of fact. As with any business, they have developed marketing strategies that may be broad or even target a single genre or niche. Every business has a business plan or strategy in this regard.

Submissions are reviewed and vetted based upon the need to fulfill the strategy set forth by a particular publishing house. The publisher will sift through to find what they think will sell best or can be marketed to meet this need, right now.

Writers who submit manuscripts, even brilliant ones, will be rejected. It’s not always because of the quality of the work, but because it does not fit the exact marketing strategy of the publisher at that time. Even for targeted or niche genre work, there is typically a master plan and publishers must cherry pick those manuscripts that are as close as possible to the strategic need. Some publishers will even select a work that is not as well written, but is more closely matched to the target market.

Writers are left with work that is often “good” or “great”, get feel like failures because they did not get their work published. They are mocked or beaten down by published authors out of a sense of superiority, when it was just poor market timing or a niche product.

So, is it best to shelf a work out of a perceived shame? Or is it best to self publish it and move on to another project?

Anonymous said...

Well, that does it. If I read another word about publishing I'll be too discouraged to finish a book. I may just write out all the books I'm considering and will them to my children so as to avoid facing the fickle whim of public interest, or worse, having to try and market myself. I was on the fence about it anyway. I know most authors probably worry about not being a success... I worry about being one. I'd like to get published, sure, to have a book in print after all this work. And if the unexpected happens, if I luck out and fall into the handy parking space of destiny, could I cope with fan letters? The notion makes me oogy. So I guess I just write and leave it at that.

Rodney Wild said...

I started this company because a friend of mine asked me to build him a website to market his paperback novel. In the process of helping create his website I got involved in the digital publication of his book due to his current publisher wanting to charge him an astronomical fee to digitally print his book. Along the way I learned a great deal about digital publishing, traditional book marketing and thought to myself that if my friend was having this issue – most likely others were as well!

I decided that one of the principal goals of this new company was that every transaction must not just be a transaction (if we wanted to be that kind of a company we might as well not bother) but a win / win situation for both parties.

Rodney Wild

Anonymous said...

We all have to keep pretending now. Ignoring the elephant in the room that self publishing has no quality filter.

Megan Elmendorf said...

I appreciate any civil discussion on this matter. I value differing opinions and personally sitting back and watching the online bear fights with a bowl of popcorn can prove most entertaining but I myself cannot consider myself a bear in either court. I agree, why must there be two courts? Even in the "good ol' days" of early American publishing, many presses started out as kitchen table efforts that spread into more lucrative businesses,a Nd often started as away of promoting one specific individual--or at least the local primary school/church. There are pros and cons in both arenas and there is a stronger "hybrid" community developing these days as well. I'm excited about whatever comes in the next 5-10 years, if not months. If we can accept a new iPad or iPhone every year from Apple, why can't we accept a new publishing form with each passing year as well?

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