My Unsettling View on Self-Publishing

By John Gilstrap

On Monday, my Killzone mate Clare Langley-Hawthorne asked how prolific a writer should be, to which a commenter responded, unprovoked, “. . . you can always just go indie/self pub yourself . . . Of course, then you wouldn’t be able to post about how self-pub writers are ruining it for the ‘real’ writers.”

Oh, please.

On this, my penultimate post as a Killzone blogger, I want to dedicate my precious slice of cyberspace to a toxic trend that has really begun to bug me: the tyranny of self-righteous do-it-yourselfers. More specifically, I want to say my piece on why I continue to believe that self-publishing is an expensive road to frustration and failure, particularly for writers who do not have an established base of readers.

First, let’s define success. For me, that means thousands of books sold. If a few dozen to a few hundred is your ultimate goal, then self-publishing is your only option. No traditional publisher is going to invest their cash in such a tiny career.

Second, let’s establish the parameters of my argument: For my purposes here, my argument does not apply to anyone who has previously published books through traditional publishing. The sagas of Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler and others with established readerships have no relevance.

Charlatans Prey On Dreams

With the birth of the cheap-n-easy eBook, charlatans with dreams to sell are rising like weeds to capitalize on the desires of under-cooked writers to see their words in print(ish).

They’re all over the Internet, and they remind me of carnival barkers: “It’ll only cost you a few hundred dollars here, and a thousand there, but ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll follow my blog and buy my book and hire the editors I recommend, I guarantee that your book will be on a cyber shelf where millions of people can see it if they know to look for it. Don’t be fooled by those predatory publishers who take the lion’s share of your money! Come with me, and I’ll only take 30% for doing nothing and taking no risk.”

Deals don’t come sweeter than that. For the self-pub conduit.

Here it is for the record: 1. Not all self published books are crap. In fact, some of them are very good. Of those that are very good, the vast, vast majority are written by journeyman writers who have had experience in the traditionally-published world. 2. Not all proponents of self-publishing are hucksters, and neither are all freelance editors. Though some kind of warning label would be helpful.

I get all of that. I really do. But none of these factors make self-published freelancers any more courageous, noble or dedicated to their craft than those who do things the old fashioned way.

Desire Does Not Equal Talent and Persistence

I respect anyone who can squeeze some coin out of any corner of the entertainment business. There’s a guy outside the parking garage at the Vienna Metro Station in Northern Virginia who seems to enjoy the daylights out of playing hymns on his saxophone to greet customers on their way home after a long day. More times than not, there are a few bucks in his open case, so I concede that he is a professional musician. He may well be the best musician his family has seen in generations.

But he will never get a recording contract, no matter how much he really wanted one. It’s a talent thing. Or maybe it’s a training thing. Either way, I wager that traditionally-compensated musicians lose no sleep worrying that this guy and his subway-playing buddies might “ruin” the business for them.

As has been demonstrated in this very blog many times over the years we’ve done our First Page Critiques, a solid proportion of works whose authors felt confident enough to submit them are nowhere near ready for prime time. Like it or not, folks, writers like these represent most of what sits on self-published shelves. I say this with confidence because they represent the bulk of work proudly submitted to every amateur writing contest I have ever judged.

Yes, there are exceptions, and it you’re one of them, you deserve better company. But every time a reader takes a chance on a free download or views a free sample and learns how awful most of the choices are, the odds are stacked even more heavily against every other independently published author.

Self-published authors don’t threaten to ruin anything for the traditionally-published authors. They threaten to ruin each other by association. It has been that way since the very early days of vanity presses, only now the barriers to entry are lower. That means there’s more awfulness in play than ever before.

Freelance Editors Can Only Help A Little

Big Publishing editors reject authors who just don’t have the chops. Freelance editors adopt them as cash cows. Big Publishing editors stake their reputations and their mortgages on quality. Freelance editors live on process and improvement. I’m not suggesting malfeasance—ethics are tied to individuals, not to professions—but the difference in motivations is significant. There’s a world of difference between making a work better and making it publishable.

And how many freelance editors will reject a project outright?

Commonly Accepted Falsehoods

All too often, the debate about the merits of self-publishing are driven specious assumptions. Among them:

Standard eBook royalties dwell in the neighborhood of 17%. Not so, if you have an agent who is worth her salt. The true number is (or at least can be) much, much higher.

Agents are a thing of the past. Also false. (See above.)

Traditional publishers are irrelevant at best, dying at worst. This is simply not true. Their business model may be shaken, but every single one of them is adapting. When the dust settles, the public will be hungry for anti-dreck gatekeepers, and the keys will be in the hands of publishers. There might be different names on the doors, but the route to success will still be guided by professionals who know what they’re doing.

A 70% self-pubbed royalty is the route to riches. This is the most specious argument of all. Sure, at that rate, a book priced at $2.99 earns the author $2.09 for every sale. That’s a significant sum until you throw in the recent data that the average self-published eBook earns its author less than $500. That translates to fewer than 240 books sold, despite all the blogging and the book trailers and the social media stuff the author put into selling them. Seventy percent of very little is even less.

Think Value, Not Cash

Time has value, too. One of the reasons why publishers give smaller royalties is because they’ve already paid the author cash up front in the form of an advance that is going to be far north of $500. And that’s money the author never has to give back. Meanwhile, the publisher also pays for the cover art, layout, marketing, advance readers copies, catalogue copy, and the million other moving parts that give a book a chance at life.

Yes, publicity departments are shrinking and the pressure is increasing for authors to do more of their own publicity, but by working through a publisher, that work by the author is launched from a platform that is orders of magnitude more expansive than anything a first-timer could launch on his own.

I’m Not Trying to Run Any Author’s Life

Let me be clear: My point is not to rain on people’s parades. Everybody has a right to spend their money however they want, and everyone gets to define “writer” and “published” by their personal favorite lexicon. My opinions are no more valid than anyone else’s.

But if you’re a writer who has faith in your talent, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to exhaust all the traditional routes before you even consider the self-publishing dream that for so many has become a self-publishing nightmare.

59 thoughts on “My Unsettling View on Self-Publishing

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary. I appreciate the candor and clarity.
    Penultimate post??

  2. Well, we needed a readership bump here on TKZ. Now we’re going to get one. Thanks, Brother Gilstrap!

    So I’ll just make a few notes on my friend John’s arguments, all of which have been made before and some of which deserve continuing attention. Like this:

    the tyranny of self-righteous do-it-yourselfers.

    A little hyperbole here, but it is certainly true that these discussions can get overblown and heated. On both sides. That just doesn’t make sense to me. I am constantly beating this drum: it’s BUSINESS. Don’t make emotional decisions, make business ones.

    So yeah, there is heated rhetoric aplenty out there. Let’s take a deep breath and look at some issues.


    As I’ve argued before, success for the writer is not limited to a one-size-fits all paradigm. As I said in my Sunday column and as I detail in my new book on self-publishing, success can also be gauged by freedom and an upward trend in sales.

    This type of success is being realized in greater and greater numbers. There are formerly unpublished (traditionally) writers who are making a living, some even a great living, from writing alone, and doing it via self-publishing. To me, that looks a lot like success.


    Any emerging market will have these. The traditional market has these as well. That’s why there’s a website called “predators and editors.” Writers have always had to look out for scams and vanity-style “pay for your dreams” schemes. So this does not seem like an argument against self-publishing per se, but another form of the wise dictum “let the buyer beware.”


    John and I have had this discussion before. Talent is a good thing, but it’s not the only thing, and not even the most important thing. It’s too difficult to define anyway, and there are legions of “talented” writers who never make it because they don’t have the discipline (or are too arrogant) to work hard to improve. One of the great joys of my life is being able to teach writers to get better, and there are too many accounts of how many have done just that for me to relate. I’ve lost count of the people who’ve gone from my workshops to traditional contracts. Now I’m starting to see self-publishing success happening. Mostly, it’s because of hard work married to whatever talent the author has.


    John emphasizes he’s not wanting to rain on parades, but warns about self-publishing “nightmares.” I’m not sure what qualifies as a “nightmare.” Certainly, if someone thinks self-publishing is a road to quick riches, this is a pipe dream. I emphasize that in my book. And yes, paying a lot of money to self-publish is foolish. But it’s not fatal to realize this, so long as the writer then settles into a long term strategy. It can be done. It IS being done.

    Bottom line, I don’t see this an either/or argument anymore. I see this as a new era of choices. There is more freedom now for the writer. And for writers to make money from their work. If someone chooses this path, and makes a go of it, that’s success.

    I think John and I will find a point of strong agreement here: Don’t take what looks like an “easy path” simply because it’s there. Don’t get drunk on promises made by those who make it seem like anyone can just jump in and get rich quick.

    But I also emphasize: this is YOUR life. Be smart and be courageous with it.

  3. This topic reminds me of the carnival booth where you throw a ping pong ball at a bunch of small goldfish bowls hoping to get it in and win a prize. What you don’t know is that with the bounce characteristics of the ping pong ball, it’s next to impossible to win.

    Your post is tough love, John. I’m sure some will not agree with you, but I do with every point you made. I see one of the biggest if not THE biggest issue being the absence of the gatekeeper. Without the filtering of the agent and/or editor, what happens is that a whole bunch of books are thrown out there before they’re anywhere close to being ready. Some will never be. There’s plenty of frustration to go around in the writing and publishing game. Adding a sure sourced of disappointment with the self-pub route can pile it on tenfold. Like you, I recommend that self-publishing be the absolute last resort for new writers. Or maybe some folks just love being disappointed.

  4. Truthfully, there are so many successful independent authors out there, that this really is an old argument. And by successful, I mean they are selling more than 40K books, often able to quit their day jobs to write full time, and have more fans and readers than they thought possible.

    I agree 100% with James – it’s an era of choices and that’s the beauty. Choices for writers and for readers. A person who is truly interested in finding readers (rather than finding an agent or a publisher, because really, that’s what writing is all about, isn’t it?) just needs to do the research necessary to get the job done rather than listening to naysayers who haven’t followed the independent path themselves. But when you get into the publishing game, it becomes a business in addition to an art. Don’t be fooled. And if you aren’t the type of person willing or equipped to run your own business, the traditional path is certainly the right choice.

  5. Whether you go self or trad, you’re still an entrepreneur.

    What’s different is:

    -Your supply chain and how much control you have over it

    -Your marketing budget and associated strategy (as well as how scientific the methodology is behind both)

    -Your production budget

    -Your product mix

    -And, most importantly, your operation schedule.

    Publishers are distributors, and by bypassing them it logically stands to reason that you are missing out on potential markets. And without an agent you’ll get no foreign distribution or real protection against copyright infringement (Ask Joe Quirk, who wrote Ultimate Rush, about that). In truth, there are about as many reasons NOT to self-pub as there are to do it.

    In the long run, self-pubbing may not go away, but it will go the way of Myspace. It’ll be there, but professionals won’t use it very often.

    The gold rush is pretty much over.

  6. There’s an assumption in this argument that all traditionally published books are high quality and that ONLY traditional publishing houses can sort the good from the bad. As a reader, I don’t find that to be the case.

    Wasn’t it here on TKZ that someone stated less than half of the traditionally published books made a profit? So just how good are the traditional publishing gatekeepers at finding good books the public wants to read?

    And if traditional publishers are so good at gatekeeping, why do we continue to hear stories of books turned down by fifty or a hundred agents/editors before they find a publishing home and zoom to the top of the best-selling charts?

    I remember reading that a couple hundred thousand new books are published each year. That’s an overwhelming number of books for the public to sort through, and we know from the failure rate that half of them aren’t books the public wants. But they find the ones they do want despite the gatekeepers’ mistakes. I think readers are more resilient and less in need of gatekeeper handholding than we give them credit for. Let’s let the free market decide what books have merit.


  7. Not surprisingly, I’m in Jim and Karen’s camp on this. There are pros and cons to both paths, and no reason one must choose one over the other. Self publishing is here to stay. Too many “established” writers have jumped on board and that along with those writers who act professionally with good covers and properly editted work will raise the bar of expectation in readers minds, not the other way around. Bad writing and presentation will not sell over time and those writers will give up and go away, just like they did while trying to break into trad. publishing.

  8. Many new writers (wannabies) view self-publishing as their only shot. Obviously, readers are voraciously pouring over the slag heap searching for stories. And they love reviewing and commenting on those stories and characters. I see people reading all over the place – devouring all sorts of stories. These readers are the gatekeepers.

    “Being” a writer is a dream for many folks. They shelp the same worn manuscript from conference to conference, droning on forever when given a chance to read. The text never changes. That’s their fictive dream. Sad as it is, they’re welcome to it. Their foolishness doesn’t diminish me or my desire to write one bit.

    And is that guy in Brentwood still out there selling the “poem of the day” at San Vicente and Bundy?

  9. Jim in Missoula, you’re right, readers are the new gatekeepers and with sampling they can discover whether the writing or the editting is any good or not. One problem with the traditional publishers as gatekeeper is the drive to discover the next “best seller” and not take a chance on more original, maybe quirky work that’ s not the next John Grisham or Michael Connelly, or grow an author and their fan ban.
    Now readers have a chance to see these works and decide if it is sellable, not the marketing and sales force at the “Big 6” or the buyers at Barnes & Noble.

  10. I hate to say this, but at times I wonder if writers who want to see their words in print aren’t just full of themselves. Is it the generation of the “entitled” I’m witnessing, those who believe technology will boost them along rather than honest to goodness hard work?

    I enjoy writing, but I’m one of those people who has a job that pays her bills already and I have this bad habit; I like to eat and I don’t know, I kind of like having a roof over my head, too.

    I wish I had the talent and dedication it takes to get something in print, but I’m not going to embarrass myself and self-publish something I know in my heart isn’t ready. The problem today is we’re in a recession with a generation who expects praise and admiration for the slightest bit of work they produce. It doesn’t have to be great because mommy and daddy have taught that. But the world expects more for their dollar!

    I refuse to download free books or even $.99 books unless the authors are known or if a self-published acquaintance asks for a critique. Free is not a great deal to me. My time is important, and I’m afraid if I read one more poorly written, lazily compiled and greedily marketed piece of crap, I will shoot myself.

    If there are any grammatical errors or typos in this comment, forgive me. It’s time for lunch and I haven’t eaten all day. 😀

  11. You make good points, but I’d argue that most TRADITIONALLY published authors don’t make much more than $500 a year.

    Advances are generally small for newcomers, who rarely earn out that advance, and spread over the time it took them to write the book and the time it takes to get it out to the world, you’re talking a salary that doesn’t even approach a living wage.

    Now, I know I don’t count in your mind, because I was traditionally published, but in the last three weeks alone, I’ve sold over 15,000 books on Amazon. So I can’t say I regret going indie.

    And I honestly think my “reader base” had little to do with it. I never sold that fast or that well when I was traditionally published.

    And in all honesty, I don’t think reader as gatekeeper is such a bad idea and I can’t imagine why you think New York can do much better. They certainly put out their share of horrid books—but does that ruin them for readers?

    The only one who gets ruined by putting out a bad book is the author. Readers will stay away. But the better writers will rise to the top and people will continue to read them no matter WHO publishes them.

    I’m not one of those who bashes traditional publishing. I think there’s room in the world for both traditional and indie, and that’s what I see in the future. Just as we have the big movie studios and indie filmmakers. Just as we have the big record companies and smaller independent artists.

    There’s something wonderful about consumers having a choice. And, to my mind, that benefits all of us.

  12. Penultimate post = sad Terri

    The internet has made everybody an instant expert in everything. In my lawyer job, all I have to do is hear the words, “I was up all last night researching . . . ” to know my case just got harder.

    When my ex was in intensive care and I uttered those words, the doctors cringed until I followed up with, “and now I know enough to follow what you tell me.”

    Just like eBay made instant antique dealers out of everybody with an attic and nearly killed the secondary market (which is slowly rebounding not that most are realizing it’s not as easy as the books said it was), self-pubbing will swamp for a few years. Then, pocket markets exhausted, the wannabes will fold and go home.

    But, in the meantime, “hey, y’all, take it from a lawyer, you don’t need no stinking lawyer! All you need is my book . . . ” ; )


  13. Joe said, Without the filtering of the agent and/or editor, what happens is that a whole bunch of books are thrown out there before they’re anywhere close to being ready. Some will never be.

    I’m a big fan, Joe, but I have to add something here. When I hear things like this, I always have to ask, well, who are these gatekeepers and what qualifies them to BE gatekeepers?

    Agents and editors are merely readers with opinions and the power to make decisions about someone’s future. Not all agents are good agents and not all editors are good editors, and their choices are often based on what they think they can SELL, not necessarily what’s good. Fifty Shades of Gray is the perfect example of that.

    Yes, there is a certain level of skill/talent/whatever that has to be reached for a book to be viable in the marketplace, but I think readers are perfectly capable of deciding who they want to read without getting permission from someone else first.

  14. Big Publishing editors reject authors who just don’t have the chops.

    And yet we’ve all heard the stories of how nearly every superstar writer was passed on by multiple editors before final getting published. So apparently those editors felt writers like Grisham didn’t have the chops either.

    Big Publishing editors stake their reputations and their mortgages on quality.

    John, I know you didn’t type that with a straight face.

    There’s a world of difference between making a work better and making it publishable.

    My trad books were edited by one of the most successful editors in the business, and she apparently made my books publishable, yet I can’t say I believe she made them any better. In fact I think some of the changes were completely unnecessary and wasted valuable time. But then again, publishers are very good at wasting valuable time in a writer’s life.

  15. Fletch said, In the long run, self-pubbing may not go away, but it will go the way of Myspace. It’ll be there, but professionals won’t use it very often. The gold rush is pretty much over.

    I love pronouncements like this, spoken with such authority, when, truthfully, none of us really knows what the future will bring.

    But comparing indie publishing to MySpace is a bit silly. MySpace doesn’t sell a product. There are no goods exchanged for cash.

    With self-publishing, we’re selling a viable, marketable product that, to the reader, is largely indistinguishable from what traditional publishers are offering.

    The ONLY difference, really, is the method of delivery. And with ebooks now outselling both hardbacks and paperbacks, I can’t really see self-publishing being shunted aside when it’s proving to be a more viable and lucrative alternative for midlist authors.

    The mom and pop restaurant on the corner with the really great food isn’t going anywhere simply because there’s a new Dennys in town. There’s room for everyone.

  16. What a great discussion, especially for someone like me. I am not a published author, but am working toward that goal. As Jim (and others) have pointed out here, authors today have choices, which I also believe is a positive thing.

    First and foremost, though, I’m a reader, with a very low tolerance for poorly written books (and bad movies). While I love that authors have choices, I remained in John’s camp for a long time, mostly on the gatekeeper issue.

    But, the more I’ve educated myself on self-publishing done well, the more convinced I am that it IS a good choice for many people; readers included, in some cases. (Yes, I’ve paid $20+ bucks for a hardcover books at B&N to later be seriously disappointed.)

    I’m grateful for the voices like Jim Bell, and others, who help wannabe authors weigh their choices but continue to stress the importance of providing readers with a good, quality product.

    That said, I believe authors also have to admit one harsh reality: some readers don’t really care about quality. We all know there are books out there with strong sales that would make many of us cringe. Clearly, those authors have tapped into some other secret thing that appeals to his or her readers. That disappoints me, but it’s a reality.

    As a reader, I’m grateful for wise and talented gatekeepers, and I’m grateful for all of you who write incredible stories and do it well. As an author, I’m grateful for all of you as well — especially people like Jim who are willing to step outside the conventional comfort box and help those of us coming behind you guys to be not only better writers, but successful business people as well.

  17. I think it’s best not to become overly attached to any one publishing method or channel, but to seek the best possible deal or course of action for each new book a writer creates.

  18. “Gatekeepers”? You say big publishers and editors stake their reputations on quality? Surely you jest. Their reputations are built on buying manuscripts that will translate into big-selling books. Quality has nothing to do with it. Otherwise, celebrity tell-alls and actor-written novels would languish on the sidelines while publishers and editors feverishly searched out the next Raymond Carver.
    (part II from above post)

    The business IS changing, John, and not in a way the legacy publishers and writers would like. The New York center of power in the book business is being slowly dismantled, New York’s heated assertions to the contrary notwithstanding. That’s not to say they’re irrelevant or going out of business.

    Only that it’s a new day, and the last to greet it are always the guardians of the old days.

  19. Here it is for the record:
    1. Not all legacy published books are crap. In fact, some of them are very good. Of those that are very good, the vast, vast majority are written by journeyman writers who have had experience in the traditionally-published world.

    2. Not all proponents of legacy publishing are hucksters, and neither are all legacy editors. Though some kind of warning label would be helpful. I get all of that. I really do. But none of these factors make legacy writers any more courageous, noble, or dedicated to their craft than those who do things the new way.

    I could go on, John, but you get my point. Condescension will get you nowhere.

    Moving on, the analogy of the parking garage musician is a false one. Being a former professional musician myself (30 years without ever holding another job), I can tell you guys like that are NOT analagous to indie writers. By and large, they do not desire record deals, or for that matter, even to sell records (CDs) beyond those which are for sale in their sax case at the entrance to the garage. I’m an indie writer, and while I don’t desire a book deal, I do want to sell books far and wide, and have been doing exactly that.

    Your putdown of the First Page Critique writers? Let’s you and I stroll into any Barnes & Noble of your choosing, where of course they sell ONLY legacy-pubbed books. Close your eyes and point to any book at random. I’ll buy it and we’ll submit the first page anonymously to TKZ’s taloned critics. Want to bet $1000 the TKZers will spot it as the opening to a book worthy of admission through the golden gates, or will they be equally as merciless as they were with those entries of the “amateurs”? Come on, let’s bet.

    You say, “A 70% self-pubbed royalty is the route to riches. This is the most specious argument of all. Sure, at that rate, a book priced at $2.99 earns the author $2.09 for every sale. That’s a significant sum until you throw in the recent data that the average self-published eBook earns its author less than $500.”

    To which I would reply, how many newly-signed legacy authors earn out their advance? Some do, for sure, but most of them are only thrown against the wall by the New York publisher to see if they stick. If not, they get their six weeks on the B&N shelf before all their unsold books disappear and are ground up into pulp. Self-pubbed books are out there for eternity (if the writer wants to work at keeping them out there), and that’s a long time to build an audience.

    And speaking of money, I’m not making what Stephen King is making, probably not even what you’re making, but I’m doing all right. My best month (and I’ve been self-pubbed a little over a year) was last month with a $3000 check from Amazon. I fully expect that figure to improve as time goes on, and it will because I am in control of my own destiny. I control the content, the cover, the price, and the description. And my books are selling, despite being told by can’t-be-bothered agents and editors that they weren’t any good.

    Finally, I will put my novels up against anyone’s for editing, formatting, and cover design. Especially editing. That’s always the big complaint from the legacy crowd against indie writers. You know, typos, misspellings, etcetra. In many cases, the complaints are truly justified, but far too often, they’re used as a hammer to pound the entire self-publishing world into subservience. I spotted six typos in the latest James Ellroy novel, and you know his books get the best editors money can buy.

  20. I’m still in favor of tradtionally publishing, or publishing with a digital first company, for the very reasons you mentioned: They act as gatekeepers. They pay for cover art, editorial, formatting, etc. And I get the advantage of working with sharp editors. It’s worth it to me to give up some income and not worry about these things.

  21. I’ve been self-pubbing since 2006, first in audio only format, then in ebooks and createspace. It’s a good gig that’s made more than the advances I’d been offered when I had an agent, but I am still looking for the money ticket.

    My next book coming out on Kindle and Audible this fall (Midnight Sun…watch for it) will be self pubbed as well, but only because the series before it was and it ties those stories up to an ending.

    The new WIP I’m working though will be back into the agent/trad pub mill for at least a while before I leap into self-pub if no deals are forthcoming. I really want to know that I can make it in the hard light, therefore I will keep trying. There is value in doing it the slow and hard way.

  22. Forgive me for posting as Anonymous, but it’s the only ID this blinkin’ blog will take. My name is Deni Dietz and my husband’s e-backlist, 20 Harlequin romances written as Victoria Gordon, are selling like the proverbial hot cakes. Is he making more money than he made with HQ? Not yet. But what posters haven’t mentioned (nor has John) is the longevity of digital publishing. My husband’s romances will never “go off the shelf”; his and my e-books will never be remaindered. This is a Good Thing, right? I totally agree with Rob’s “There’s something wonderful about consumers having a choice. And, to my mind, that benefits all of us.” And, I say that as a *gatekeeper* for a trad publisher.

  23. They say that exceptions prove the rule. In this case, the rule proves the rule.

    Deni and Rob (Hi, Dei! Hi, Rob!) both point to successes in indie publishing, but those successes come to writers who learned the ropes through the traditional publishing model. I specifically shaped my argument to exclude folks like them because I believe that they represent the true strength of the indie publishing future. Those who have previously cleared a different gatekeeper have proven themselves. As an imperfect analogy, I think of the plumber who learns his craft at the hands of a master tradesman, and then sets out on his own. That’s entire different than the self-taught wrench-turner who decides to hang out a shingle.

    As for the quality arguments above, I’m tired of those, too. Quality in the arts is best defined as that which resonates with an audience. That includes Fifty Shades and the Da Vinci Code (which I actually thought was a great book). I leave loftier definitions to the literati and the arteests among the population. You know, the ones who hold themselves to be smarter than those who make books bestsellers.

    Publishers look at publishig as a business, because that’s what it is. Businesses survive by selling stuff. There’s no shame in that.

    And agents and editors (the good ones) know what sells. I make no apology for being in this writing gig for the money, because I know that the money only comes when the products of my imagination resonate with readers. There’s no shame in that. Hell, I can’t imagine it being any other way.

  24. Deni and Rob (Hi, Dei! Hi, Rob!) both point to successes in indie publishing, but those successes come to writers who learned the ropes through the traditional publishing model. I specifically shaped my argument to exclude folks like them

    Yeah John, I was going to ask you about that. That did seem to be a big part of your premise. Yet I recall Joe Konrath posting something on this, so I went and looked it up. He made a list of those writers he knew selling a lot of books without ever having been a citizen of the Forbidden City. And this was well over a year ago.

    So I’m not sure it’s factually correct to say that “the vast, vast majority [of good self-published books] are written by journeyman writers who have had experience in the traditionally-published world.”

    BTW, I want to commend all the commenters today. Comments have managed to be substantive even when strong. This is a model of how these things ought to be debated.

  25. This is not an indie film vs studio movie argument. The comparison is apples and oranges. Indie films still have gatekeepers besides the audience, a distributor, producers who determine if they want to invest. With self-pubbed books that is not the case.

    Now, I don’t care if you’re a previously traditionally published author or not. YOU WILL NOT BE SELF-PUBBING WITHIN FIVE YEARS. MARK MY WORDS.

    Those who think they will sound like all the artists, in all the other forms of entertainment, who came before them who thought they could marry new technology with their work to jump ahead. For a short while, it always works. Then the industry catches up.

    Look at indie Musicians who thought Napster could put them on the map and consumers who thought they could get quality without having to succumb to the will of the record labels. What happened? The records labels created DRM and killed Napster. Then they teamed up with Apple to create iTunes, and then Apple permeated the iPhone through the marketplace, thus all but killing free filesharing.

    You writers who buy into self-pubbing so wholeheartedly sound like the content providers who started throwing their stuff up on Youtube and Netflix at no extra cost. WHAT HAPPENED? The studios successively battled the WGA, the DGA, and then SAG over digital royalties. Then the studios squeezed Netflix, and it had to raise its fees, as well as change how it gatekept. And what about Youtube? It was purchased by Google, adds were thrown up on it, and the site is now heavily trafficked for Hollywood IP departments.


    The Big 6 have already tried twice (to no avail) to hurt the model you’re buying into. Do you honestly believe they aren’t going to figure out how to do it? And once they do, do you honestly believe they won’t go after every e-pubbing outlet they think is killing their profits?

    You live in fantasy land if you think self-pubbing is a viable long term strategy.

  26. And don’t say, “This time it’s different.”

    It’s not different. Your predecessors in other entertainment mediums believed the same thing. They were wrong and so are you.

    It’s never different. In the end, the house always wins. You can embarrass yourself pissing into the wind, or adapt accordingly.

  27. There is an old saying (or maybe I made it up–I don’t remember) but, “Whenever you speak in absolutes, you are always wrong.”

    John, to say for all writers, the only way to learn your craft, to be able to write quality fiction, to be recognized as a “Real Writer” is to be granted the “Seal of Approval” of some traditional publisher is just plain silly.

    No different than saying because my Uncle Richie, who was a building superintendent for thirty years knows less about plumbing or being an electrician because he was self-taught than some jerk who got a certificate and worked his way up in his local union, is just plain hogwash.

    Readers do not care (especially in today’s e-pub world) who published their favorite writer, and if you pressed them, they could not tell you. Readers will find new writers the way the always have; through word of mouth first, and by genre, by covers, by cover blogs, and by sampling.

    If any of that sucks, they will never read that writer again, same as its always been.

    If a writer puts up a quality, professional product; all of the above, and tells a good story,(because they have learned their craft through education, practice and getting feedback) properly edited, readers will find them and they will succeed.

    To have anyone tell a writer they are not legitimate because they put it up themselves, and some publisher hasn’t said so yet, is narrow minded, at best.

    Sorry if this comes off as harsh, but to dismiss my ten years of hard work and tell me my hundreds of thousands of words written, and my two novels and dozen short stories means nothing because an editor somewhere hasn’t blessed them, that they are bad simply because they were self-published is insulting.

    This is about new opportunities, and yes, some of us are taking it, and as Jim pointed out from Konrath’s blog, some are doing very well at it.

    By the way, I have been published “legitimately” in half a dozen “big 6” anthologies, but not at novel length, so this is not a rant against traditional publishing. I have been, want to, and will be traditionally published again. This is about anyone telling me my writing has less value than someone else because I chose to go the self-pub route.

    Tell me my stories suck after you read them, I can accept that. Tell me they suck just because they’re self-pubbed, not cool.

    And by the way, I’d have Uncle Richie work on my house a thousand times faster than I ever would any hundred so-called master tradesman.

  28. Now, I don’t care if you’re a previously traditionally published author or not. YOU WILL NOT BE SELF-PUBBING WITHIN FIVE YEARS. MARK MY WORDS.

    Again, I can’t say you’re wrong. But I can’t say you’re right, either. Making such pronouncements is ridiculous. Just as five years ago nobody could have predicted the explosion we’re seeing today.

    But if it does change, authors will adapt and change with it.

    And you’re right about gatekeepers in the indie world. They have even MORE restrictions than self-pubbers do, yet they’re still going strong.

    Not apples and oranges at all.

  29. Fletch said, The Big 6 have already tried twice (to no avail) to hurt the model you’re buying into. Do you honestly believe they aren’t going to figure out how to do it? And once they do, do you honestly believe they won’t go after every e-pubbing outlet they think is killing their profits?

    Well, I’m not quite sure how they would do it, except perhaps by lowering their prices to equal indie prices, but they seem unwilling (and probably unable) to do that.

    But maybe they’ll come up with some devious plan to topple Amazon, but I don’t see that happening even in the next five years.

    Maybe it’s me, but I like to take a more optimistic view of the future. And I see (or am hoping for) a future in which traditional and indie publishing can co-exist without this ridiculous arguing over “who’s better?” going on.

    As both Jim and I said earlier, it’s about choices. And choices are always a good thing.

  30. I love how artists cling to the idea that their experiences cannot be quantified or modeled, and an outcome cannot be predicted. That, somehow, they can defy the scientific method.

    Media analysts have been predicting the state of affairs I said was going to occur for about half a year now. You can lie to yourselves and make lofty bullshit statements about how you’re going to beat the odds if you want.

    Facts are facts.

    I’ve said this on here before (two months ago if I recall) and I’m saying it again. Buying into self-pubbing is folly. The channel will not exist in its current form in five years and writers who’ve gone for broke will find their revenue gone.

    It’s not speculation. It’s basic managerial science. You can stick your nose up at it, but it’s accurate, and it works. Harvard, Wharton, McKinsey. Take your pick. They’ve all done case studies of the business model, analyzing best practices and predicting outcomes. They’ve all come to the same conclusion.

    I don’t know if it’s because you all have no real quantitative business skills that you don’t see it, or that you just choose to stick your heads in the sand. But keep shouting at the rain. Keep it up.

  31. Robert, the two instances I’m referring to are PiPPA (which Google et. al killed) and the collusion with Apple (which they are now trying to settle out of court with the Justice Department).

    The Big 6 are not going to stop trying to find a way to undercut Amazon’s business model, and they have a growing number of allies in that fight.

    If you cut Amazon down to size, self-pubbing becomes a very difficult proposition, as B&N is far more likely to kowtow to the publishers for the sake of its physical bookstores. It’s only a matter of time.

  32. Fletch said It’s not speculation. It’s basic managerial science. You can stick your nose up at it, but it’s accurate, and it works. Harvard, Wharton, McKinsey. Take your pick. They’ve all done case studies of the business model, analyzing best practices and predicting outcomes. They’ve all come to the same conclusion.

    Yeah, I guess I’m just too dumb to know better. But I’ve seen folks make the kind of predictions you’ve made many times in my 57 years and many of them were wrong.

    Again, you may ultimately be right in the end, but I don’t think any of us are going “all in” on self-publishing. We learn to adapt and change with the times.

    Nothing is absolute.

  33. Like I said, artists always think they can defy the odds. They always say, “It’s different this time.” And it never is. The game is the same, only the players are different. And to make matters worse, the publishers have a roadmap on how to attack the problem thanks to other mediums going through similar evolutions.

  34. If you cut Amazon down to size, self-pubbing becomes a very difficult proposition, as B&N is far more likely to kowtow to the publishers for the sake of its physical bookstores.

    Now this is where it gets interesting. “Physical bookstores” are dying faster than Tom Cruise’s last movie. Print is on the way to minority status. I don’t see that hurting Amazon in the slightest. And B & N broke off its Nook unit precisely because it sees its physical stores dying on the vine.

    But for traditional publishing, a large industry that was built on paper and monopolistic distribution channels, it is rather more of a challenge. They are abandoning print like mad. Witness the latest announcement of staffing changes from Harper-Collins.

    I think the more apt business analogy is the direct marketing boom. This gave rise to a huge, huge increase in the entrepreneurial class, which is still going strong today. It’s Montgomery Ward (one of the “Big 6” of its day) that is no more. Meanwhile, there are countless numbers of businesses that started on kitchen tables and have made people wealthy via direct marketing.

    It’s going to be the same (rather, it IS the same) with self-publishing.

  35. Jim, the business model you’re subscribing to is based on wholesale distribution, whereby the supply chain is horizontal, operating costs, and thus variable costs, are extremely low, and the channels of delivery are readily accessible to a large consumer base.

    Direct marketing is a business model predicated upon a vertical supply chain, whereby operating and variable costs are high because the entrepreneur is also the distributor, and the client pays said entrepreneur for those expenses.

    The only similarity is that the potential consumer base is large.

    If you cut one leg off of a wholesale distributor (Amazon, in this case)–increasing operating or variable cost, the channels of delivery are no longer favored by the consumer, some legal restriction gets put on the product mix–then the entire model falls apart.

    Now tell me how Amazon is going to continue to keep its costs down when pressure is mounting from shareholders for it to increase its margins. Or how it is going to maintain the Kindle as the preferred e-reader into perpetuity when other tablets are coming on the market in droves.

    It can’t.

    Myspace, my friends. Myspace.

  36. I used to love bacon, pork chops, sausage and such. Fifteen years ago it I would never have imagined a bloke could become allergic to a specific kind of meat. But now it makes me painfully ill to eat it. What happened? Something changed and my body can’t hack it anymore.

    Change…its coming and if it can take away my bacon who knows what it can do to the writing industry.

  37. It’s helpful to remember that as writers we think of Amazon only as a bookseller. And when it’s mentioned that outside forces might “hurt” Amazon, I tend to cringe because selling new books is just a portion of the company’s revenue. Another significant portion comes from their cut of selling used books. But even those two segments of their catalog must be considered just that: segments. What they have done over the past few years is become one of the biggest retailers in the world selling not only books but music, videos, consumer electronics, clothing and household products. I’ve personally found that I can buy just about anything through Amazon. Keep in mind that their retail “outlets” are in the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the U.K. They also are acquiring other companies at a rapid pace. According to investment info, they have approximately 137 million active customers worldwide. In addition, over 2 million merchants are selling their products through Amazon equaling a third of their total listings. North America accounts for 55% of sales with 44% international sales. So “hurting” Amazon in book sales would be like taking out one of the antiaircraft guns on the deck of a battleship.

  38. Myspace, my friends. Myspace.

    As I said before, you cannot compare MySpace to Amazon or to the ebook revolution. Amazon sells good. Ebooks are goods.

    MySpace was a cyber hangout that held no real world value.

    The comparison is pointless.

    Last night I said to a friend who happens to be a pretty savvy businessman (and not a writer) about this conversation and he kind of laughed and said, “The more likely scenario is that the big publishers are the ones that will see a drastic change. Amazon and self-publishing aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.”

    I keep hearing this “gold rush” meme about ebooks. Mostly from people who don’t like Amazon’s dominance in the market. But this isn’t a get rich quick situation as Jim and others have pointed out. And there seems to be a concerted effort out there to discourage authors from self-publishing.

    This, to my mind, is fear at work. The more authors who jump on the self-publishing train, the tougher it will be for publishers to compete—unless and until they start to offer deals that allow midlisters the ability to make a LIVING WAGE through their writing. Which, of course, means a fairer distribution of profits.

    THAT’S how they can put a damper on the self-publishing revolution.

    Hopefully we’ll one day be living in a world where both can co-exist peacefully and this sniping about who’s right and who’s wrong will cease.

  39. Myspace is not a good analogy. The analogy is eBay.

    I was an antique and pop culture dealer for years before eBay and made a comfortable supplement to my living while in law school. People came to me to buy and sell collectibles. I am the equivalent of a mid-lister in my niche in the entertainment market.

    Then, BAM, the 8000 pound virtual gorilla of eBay hit the scene. Suddenly whoever wanted to could buy and sell. People scorned dealers saying all we did was hoard the good stuff and and make all the profits. They didn’t need no middle-man! All the work of finding it, identifying it, and lugging it to shows so you could pick through it was discounted.

    Antique store, flea markets, and trade shows dropped like flies. Dealers like me had to compete with the wannabes even at a simple garage sale.

    eBay nearly wiped out the secondary market. I adapted and became a virtual dealer while still schlepping to the trade shows with my husband.

    Yet, 15 years later, the tide is shifting. Collectors are coming back to the experts and remembering that browsing at shows is fun and not impersonal like the Net.

    Kitchen table dealers are discovering it isn’t easy money. It’s pennies on the dollar and that pallet of ceramic clowns they bought because of the how-to-be-a-dealer “book” isn’t going to pay off the house.

    eBay has lost its luster and is considered more of a giant dollar store than a treasure trove. However, it is still a cash machine. Luckily, small niche business websites are multiplying and thriving in the shadow of the Big E.

    Self-pubbing isn’t going anywhere. The Big 6 are losing some of the mystery and grandeur. However, while they may no longer be the 2000 pound gorilla, they are still the 1500 pound gorilla and that isn’t going to change.

    The wannabes who aren’t willing to learn the business and put in the time will fall away like the dude with his ceramic clowns.

    The dealers who are adaptable and willing to learn new skills will flourish and thrive.

    Gatekeepers have a place, but it isn’t the only place. Some people want to pay me to root through smelly hoarded houses, sort through the junk, and then polish the antique figurines so they can pick them off the shelf. Other want to do the digging themselves. There is room for both models and once the flood recedes, there will be new channels dug that allows for both.


    PS: Is there something y’all aren’t telling us? We kids pick up on clues ya know.

  40. Even if Fletch is a prophet, and all his predictions come true, I still don’t see that as a reason for writers to shun self-publishing right now.

    If the Big 6 do manage to overtake the self-publishing village, burn and pillage the place, and raise their swords in victory, won’t they be scouring the ruins for assets to carry back to the Big 6 castle? That was how it worked in ancient times and works today with buy-outs and takeovers.

    So, if self-publishing allows new writers to more quickly establish themselves as long-term assets — more quickly than they would depending solely on traditional publishing, why is that a bad thing?

  41. Change in the world is pretty much of a bottom-up kind of thing. Eventually, the High Culture takes in the popular idea, legitimizes it, blesses it and makes it part of the pantheon.

    And then the next thing comes along…

    Technological innovation, for better or worse, is usually the trail blazer. The rewards and punishments are economic-based. And “social values” come trotting along behind.

    Just trying and get the last word in!

  42. eBay and its evil spawn PayPal are still cash-generating Death Stars, but they have lost their mystery and become common. Just another path and another venue.

  43. “As I said before, you cannot compare MySpace to Amazon or to the ebook revolution.”

    And to boot, myspace is still relevant…for musicians. Go to, and click on any musician’s song and it takes you to their myspace page.

    So if Fletch’s knowledge base can be at all extrapolated from his naive myspace comparison…well, ponder that for a second.

  44. I am a little appalled at the voracity with which traditionally published writers continue to defend the big 6.

    There are a lot of good writers out there who: 10 Left trad publishing on their own for some other viable career, since 5,000 advances once a year do not a living wage make; 2) Left trad publishing unwillingly because their books did not find an audience within the 60-90 day window allotted, or 3) made enough money in their regular career that trad publishing simply wasn’t a viable route unless they wanted to downgrade their standard of living. A LOT of us fall into type 3. I work in IT and mid-list publishing was never going to in any way replace my income, even though I would rather be a full time writer!

    However, self-pub is different. And perhaps you are right, in 5 years the corporations will have found a way to stop Amazon’s current business model that supports independent publication of books (either by individual writers or small e-presses). But by the time they do… a lot of us will have sufficient fan bases, or tribes as Godin calls it, that trad publishing comes calling anyway.

  45. I think there’s plenty of room for everyone in this industry. iTunes made me a believer. After years of resistance, I recently got an iPod. Now I visit the iTunes store darned near every day, purchasing tunes for about 99 cents each. I know practically nothing about music. I stumble through the selections, sampling things and purchasing only the things I like. I have no idea whether an artist is backed by a record label (do those still exist?), or independent. Before the Apple Store, I hadn’t bought an album or CD in 20 years. It seemed like too steep a price to pay, when there was usually only one song I wanted to hear. Now there’s an endless selection available at low cost. I think the publishing industry will eventually become like that. Newbie, untested writers will be able to sell their stuff for under a dollar, and well-known writers will be able to charge more. Publisher-backed writers will benefit from promotion and higher prices at the register, as they do now, but they’ll have to give the lion’s share of the revenue to the publisher. Bottom line: I think publishers will fare well going forward, and so will writers. We’ll simply have more options available to us.

  46. This thread drifted fairly far afield from my original point, but I guess such is the nature of this discussion.

    Fletch in particular, thank you for the courage to step out there and speak your mind–forcefully, no less–with your body turned square to the arrows.

    People will find their way. Some will make money, others will not. I remain convinced that those who will make money (perhaps LOTS of money) will, on balance, be writers who cut their teeth in the traditional publishing world. At least two of the most vehement drum-beaters in this thread prove my point. Not ONE poster has stepped up to say that they sell thousands of books independently, without having first swum in the waters of traditional publishing.

    New folks, listen to me. Don’t pay to be published. Get paid to be published. If you have confidence in your talent, don’t sell yourself short.

    There. I’ve said all I know to say on the subject.

    John Gilstrap

  47. There are good points here but the choice is for the readers to make. It has been hard for new writers to get established but at least now the playing field is becoming a bit more level.

    I’ve read plenty of books that cost a lot and were written by established writers that were a complete waste of money. Some of the self published books I’ve read have been very good and some that weren’t, it costs a couple bucks to find that out.

    Personally I think what happens in the future is editors and publishers are going to have to stop acting like they are kings and start looking at new writings with open arms. How many top selling books right now were rejected by many and made it into the self publishing field? These authors may never have had a chance because of the way the industry is.

    There’s good and bad with everything and the same goes for books. Being a self published book doesn’t necessarily mean it will be bad and a book published in the standard tradition doesn’t mean it will be good.

  48. I’ll definitely have to wade in with one major disagreement. Fletch is not being courageous. In fact, he’s being quite insulting. The only arrows I see are coming from him.

    That aside, I think it would be worth everyone’s time to read Kris Rusch’s post about this bogus indie vs. trad argument she made last Thursday:

    In my view, the only people still making this argument (not even sure why there has to be an argument) are those who remain less than informed about it all. There are a number of false assumptions in Mr. Gilstrap’s post. Thankfully, Mr. Bell addressed those so I don’t have too. (I have to get back to the writing.)

  49. Oh, and to throw Mr. G a bone…

    I have sold “thousands of books independently, without having first swum in the waters of traditional publishing.”

    Thousands is easy. I’m holding out for the long tail, where that turns into tens-of-thousands.

    If you write one book and expect riches, then yes, you should definitely go traditional. Still probably won’t happen, but it’s more likely.

    For everyone else, read Mr. Bell’s latest ebook. He’s got the right idea.

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