The State of Self-Publishing at This Moment in Time

Today’s post is brought to you by a “Happy Birthday.” On this day in 2004, the print version of Write Great

Fiction: Plot & Structure was published by Writer’s Digest Books. I wanted it to be practical and immediately useful, the kind of book I was looking for when I was learning how to write. It was my desire to deliver writers from what I call “The Big Lie,” that good fiction writing technique cannot be learned. Bosh. Piffle. Hooey.

I still get emails and tweets each week from authors who give the book an esteemed place in their fictional development.
For this I am truly grateful. So thanks for allowing me a moment to toot a birthday horn and let loose a balloon. Now on to today’s subject
We know some things about self-publishing that we didn’t know a few years ago.
First of all, we have to define the epochs. Yes, self-publishing has epochs.
There were the early years, which archaeologists call the Konrathian Period. Here you will find those who jumped in early and eagerly as the Kindle was taking off (late 2007 to 2010). Etched in the fossil record you’ll find names like Mr. Konrath himself, Amanda Hocking, John Locke, TKZ emeritus Boyd Morrison and many others. The period is marked by some staggering sales of 99¢ novels. Also by wild and sometimes intemperate remarks about the demise and dastardliness of traditional publishing.
Barry Eisler ushered in the next epoch, the Lower Entrepreneurial. This was in early 2011 when Barry turned down a cool half a mil from St. Martin’s Press in order to self-publish his next John Rain thrillers. At the time I called this “The Eisler Sanction” because here was a legit and well-paid traditional author taking a businesslike look at the future and deciding to go indie. It was the sort of risk entrepreneurs take in new and untested markets. Thus, a little more intentionality had evolved out of the rough-and-tumble Konrathian.
Over the last year or so we have entered what I call the Mature Entrepreneurial. The risks and rewards are more evident now. A certain reality has set in. We have track records that help us assess the relative merits of traditional versus indie publishing. For example, some of the risks of going straight into self-publishing:
1. Foregoing an advance (even at the lower rates now being offered by publishers. “15k is the new 50k,” an agent told me recently).
2. Missing out on the chance that a traditionally published novel or series might be that “one in a hundred thousand” that breaks out into huge sales and makes a “star.”
3. Not having behind you a team that does things very well: edit, design, get books into bookstores.
4. Getting lost in the Sargasso of mediocrity that is the digital book world.
However, rewards look like this:
1. Author as master of own destiny.
2. Not roped to a single brand.
3. Books published as soon as the author deems them ready.
4. Royalty structure more favorable.
But what about actual money? During the Late Konrathian and into the Lower Entrepreneurial, dollar signs sparkled in the eyes of many new writers. Dreams of scoring big with one or two books, or maybe a series of shorts, danced like a temptress in scribal heads.
Reality has a more temperate message: Self-publishing is a volume business, and the product has to be quality. And it takes time, lots of time, to grow a customer base.
Gee, just like any business! Imagine that!
Also, for more and more writers, it’s not just a money game. In a recent interview at Huffington Post, Eisler says:
Then, there’s the issue of happiness. I wouldn’t divorce money from happiness. Most people would be happy making more money than less. But my happiness quotient wasn’t driven entirely by financial considerations.
Because of my personality and business experience, I found it very frustrating to have to entrust business decisions to people whose thinking, work process and conclusions I didn’t necessarily agree with or respect. I’ve had publishers make terrible business decisions for my books. I found it painful and frustrating to have to live with those decisions. I find it much more satisfying to be responsible for and in charge of those decisions.
So where are we with self-publishing at this moment in time? It continues to evolve, of course. But every month we have more and more data and testimony about methods and results. Which puts us on the brink of a new epoch, The Vocational, wherein writers wisely choose their path based on what they feel called to, where they feel happiest, where their writing can flourish according to their own definition of success. 
Which is what it should come down to, after all. Not someone else’s definition of success, but your own.
Define it. Write it down. Then go for it.

NOTE: I’m in travel mode today. Mix it up in the comments and I’ll get to them when I can. Talk about where you are in your publishing journey. What does the landscape look like to you? 

46 thoughts on “The State of Self-Publishing at This Moment in Time

  1. Quite an interesting topic and it will be equally interesting to see the perspectives of others along this road.

    Personally, I am in the early phase of a writing career. I have one novel finished, a novelette nearly ready, and have started on the next set of work. Also in the mix are two non-fiction pieces. All will be self-published.

    I will admit to being a total control freak but only in the sense of controlling myself which is why I work independently. I do not think that I willing or happily could relinquish my work to a traditional publisher.

    That said, I also enjoy the creative side of the marketing process and derive pleasure from trying to develop a business. Accounting I shove my wife with a pleading look – the lady is a saint and puts up with me.

    I see no reason why I can’t grow a successful business. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if my first novel was a rousing success and an instant bestseller but I’m not counting on it.

    And happy b-day for your book. It was one of the first I read whrn I decided to write fiction and enormously helpful. Avoided making a lot of routine mistakes and went right to making other kinds of mistakes.

  2. Well, I’m relatively new into this, since my publisher quit the biz–which was good, since he muffed up the edits on my last book and I was trying to think of a way to gently tell him I was going indie. That’s when he told me earlier this summer he was quitting. I thought “Thank God!” The up side, I’m only doing eBooks, but I’ve made more in a month than I did with him in 6–of course he got the lion’s share, but still…
    Since I’ve only had my books out for a little more than a month, I’m not sure how well I’ll do in the long run, but I’m happy about being under control and not wondering when I’ll see a cover or edits (what edits?) I’ve got 4 books out, Only the ones in a series is selling anything, but that’s fine, as sales have been steady, but meager. But 10 years ago, I was depressed and had nothing published. That’s a huge difference, and I’m very happy with the way things have gone so far.

    I wanted to thank you, James, I’ve followed you since I used to get the WD magazine. You’re great, and I think because of your writing advice I’ve been able to pull myself out of the quagmire of the unpublished into the published arena.
    Thank you!

  3. Terrific perspective, Jim. One thing is obvious from your post–things move fast in the indie world. I would add to your “risk” list something that is more of a disadvantage: the chance for foreign rights sales is next to nothing with indie publishing.

    • As someone who made the decision to go indie a while back, I admit I haven’t bothered to research foreign rights sales. however, I’m curious why I would want them. Is there any difference between selling my rights to a foreign publisher and selling them to a US publisher? Through Amazon and other retailers I can already make my books available to foreign markets, and if I want to I can pay for a translator the same as I pay for an editor. MARKETING in a foreign market is an admittedly headache inducing idea, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t be possible.

    • Hi Jess,
      In general, foreign rights sales or translation rights are handled by your agent or publisher. The reason you want them is that you get paid an average of 50% of sales for doing nothing. Amazon does not offer translation rights sales. They simply list your domestic books (English) on their international sites. Trying to manage foreign rights sales on your own is crazy. That’s the job of professionals with international networks. In my case, my books have been translated into over 24 languages. For doing nothing but writing a book, my foreign rights royalties exceed domestic sales many times over. It’s probably the best deal a writer can ever hope for. And I hope this helps. Good luck.

    • Joe,
      Thanks! That does help me understand the situation better. I still don’t see an issue. If self publishing lasts (which I expect it too, but life can be strange) then systems will develop to enable self published authors either access to foreign rights sales or something similar. Mostly likely to my mind is an expansion of what is already happening. Agents and publishers are seeking out self-pubbed authors with offers or representation or publishing deals. Eventually, there is going to be an agent specializing in foreign rights sales who starts seeking out successful self publishers to offer representation for foreign rights sales.
      Congrats on your success with them. It definitely sounds like you have a good thing going for you.

    • This is an area, I think, where agents can remain relevant. Assuming they’re willing to handle only foreign and ancillary rights and not demand a cut of our self-published pie.

    • Hi Jodie — a fan of mine is translating my first book, free of charge, into Spanish as part of her student portfolio. I’ve told her if I’ll offer some payment. I think I’ll use the 10 cent a word — but make it payable over time. So maybe 10% of profits up to 10 cents x Words.

      Something to think about!

  4. I also am new to this publishing quandary, but my strategy, meager though it may be, is to publish traditionally first. A small press has asked for my full manuscript and I’m hoping, even if he does turn it down, he will take the time to point out the weak spots. I do not want anything substandard put out there for the world to read.
    Plus, even though the business side doesn’t phase me, the marketing aspect does. Until I have more self-confidence in myself, I won’t be able to sell myself. One day I think the book is amazing, the next, it’s all horse manure.
    Can I not negotiate a contract where I have some say in the cover of my novel? And the asking price?

  5. Jim,

    Happy 9th Birthday for PLOT AND STRUCTURE. My dog-eared, highlighted, book-marked copy sits prominently out of the book case and on top of the other books. And now, since you were kind enough last month in Indianapolis, it is autographed.

    In my writer’s journey, I’m just beginning. I found an agent at Indianapolis, and have an offer from a small press. My agent is taking me under his wing and helping me with some editing. I’m very fortunate.

    But after studying your comments over the past year, I’ll definitely be watching how things go, weighing the option of self-publishing as an additional path.

    I certainly appreciate your posts–the insight and the big picture.

  6. I’m unpublished after four novels. And this has taught me that I lack the discipline to teach myself. I need the rejections and input from those with keener eyes than my own. I would consider going indie only after I’ve written several traditionally published novels. I believe, at that point, I’ve learned the necessary skills to at write a quality product. Of course I must continue to learn, so I would have to rely on (often vicious) reader feedback and my peers. A professional editor who wants to make money, eat, pay the mortgage, etc. is the best teacher. I would never take that separation lightly.

    • Ron, you can get a very professional edit as an indie publisher – just do your homework and search carefully, ask for testimonials or references, and ask exactly what they look for (don’t settle for just spelling and grammar – there’s so much more at stake), and get a sample edit, or a trial edit of the first 10-30 pages or so.

  7. James, after your seminar in Newark, California earlier this year, I bought Self-Publishing Attack and Fiction Attack. Both continue to help me grow and I’m grateful for the time and effort you give to other writers. I realize the important thing is to get any manuscript proof-read and edited before self-publishing and to the standard of traditional published books. Some of you are ‘hybrid’ authors and that’s where I would like to be. I will continue to submit to large and small publishers to get input where I can and showcase a few chapters of my novels on publishing websites to get good/harsh feedback from other authors. I do like the idea of self-publishing and the control the author has but at the same time Joe Moore’s comment on foreigh rights sales is something to think about. In the meantime, greenies like me are still on the first rung of the ladder and need all the help we can get!

  8. I’ve written my first novel and was wise enough to utilize a terrific editor (Jodie Renner – a frequent contributor to TKZ). I have taken your and other’s advice and focused my effort on making my book the best it can be. Now I am getting around to considering the publishing aspects. Thanks for this post!

    I am uncertain about which route to pursue.
    My curbside view and info I’ve obtained on TKZ, suggests that traditional publishers provide a degree of marketing support and markedly superior distribution capability. Additionally there is a ‘prestige’ aspect of some value.

    Either route will involve a considerable marketing effort on my part.

    In order to even receive consideration for large publishing houses, I need to enter into a financial arrangement with an agent. Any such contract will have far reaching consequences. Additionally the traditional publisher arrangement will involve claims on various “rights” to my work (as I understand it e-book, foreign, movie, etc are elements to be negotiated).

    A reality of traditional versus indie publishing appears to be arithmetical. I will garner significantly less per book sold via a traditional publisher arrangement.

    My ambivalence is likely evident in the ping-pong analysis I’ve shared here (as you know there are many more aspects involved).

    Perhaps it is short-sighted but commitment to a binding financial arrangement to an agent, before I have any idea of what that individual will provide leaves me hesitant to take the first step.

    Trade-offs and impact on future writing/sales are in play — confusing.

    I’d appreciate correction of any errors in my analysis.
    Timely post for me. I appreciate the education you provide (I have all your instructional books, including the birthday boy)
    PS – looking forward to seeing you in Mpls

  9. Another thoughtful post, Jim. Something everyone thinking about self-publishing should read.

    I would, however, respectfully disagree with your “risks of self-publishing” #s 2 and 3.

    #2 was missing out on the 100,000:1 chance to become a star. That’s a risk? Granted, the odds aren’t much better in self-publishing, and may be a little worse, but not by much, and certainly (IMHO) not enough to justify calling it a “risk”.

    #3 was not having behind you a team that does things very well. I have the same caliber of people doing my editing and cover design as any trad-pubbed writer. The only “team member” I lack is someone getting me into bookstores. So I can have one copy in Barnes & Noble, spine outward, for six weeks until they return it to be ground into pulp for the next James Patterson novel.

    You can have Barnes & Noble. I’ll admit my sales aren’t lighting up the sky, but I’m selling a lot more than I ever could if I had one copy, spine outward, in any store.

  10. Congrats on your ninth anniversary of Plot & Structure. Just finished a close reading, gave it 5-stars on Goodreads. Now I’m taking your advice and dissecting six novels, one each by Ross Macdonald, C.J. Box, Christa Faust, Tony Hillerman, Jim Thompson and David Goodis.

    Thanks for summarizing of the state of self-publishing. It would be useful to understand the number of devices and the number ebooks available during the various epochs. New self-published writers face more competition than ever. How does anyone stand out in a crowd of thousands? What can indie writers learn from the music industry’s digital journey?

  11. Congrats on your anniversary. I haven’t picked up WGF yet, but I’ll definitely be checking it out.

    I think I fall between Mature Entrepreneurial and Vocational. I am as much an entrepreneur as a writer–I’ve been planning how to start my own business for as long as I can remember. Being able to make writing my business (and not go through publishers) is like a dream come true. Some I’m doing it to build a business, but also because it’s the approach that makes me happy and suits my personality.

    I self published a non-fiction book for a niche market last year, which is doing reasonably well (by which I mean the net profit would have kept the cell phone on the past 6 months – assuming I had one.) I’ll be releasing my first novel (fantasy romance) in Nov, and I’m trying some new approaches (at least I haven’t seen anyone else using them) to marketing and creating extra revenue streams.

  12. Another great article, Jim!

    I’ve self-published two books in the last year and a bit, and both are still selling really well. Of course, I spend time promoting them on Facebook and blogs, but not in-your-face, annoying promoting, just links at the end of my craft blog posts, etc.

    Is it really an either-or thing? I know several indie authors who subsequently got picked up by publishers, who repackaged and rereleased their earlier self-pubbed novels – LJ Sellers and Andrew E. Kaufman, for instance, 2 of my teammates on the Crime Fiction Collective blog, and I know of others. So if authors publish a few high-quality books that sell well, they could well have a publisher knocking at their door down the road…

    For now, I’m loving the complete control (I’ve updated each of my e-books at least 10 times) and the 70% royalties I get through Amazon. And I get paid for borrows, too, through KDP – about $2 per book or so.

    As you’ve mentioned in your books and other posts, Jim, number one is to produce a quality product (get it edited by a professional independent editor, and get a professional cover designed.); then write more quality books!

  13. Congratulations on WGF: P&S. Thank you for this great update on the state of self-publishing. I’m not sure which path to take, but will likely pursue traditional publishing first. I hope to be ready to send out queries by the end of the year.

  14. I’m just getting started. Your book Conflict and Suspense has been my writing Bible, and I have suggested it to many other writers.

    Great post. Thanks for giving us a look at the strata of the sefl-publishing business.

  15. Just one of the reasons I’m interested in self-pubbing some of my own work is the whole juggling act thing. For those of us who work a day job, are taking care of aging parents, are sandwiched with kids at home or have children who are disabled it could make a world of difference. Just thinking back on deadlines that came at the worst possible time, etc. And when I read that, 15k is the new 50k,” I have to wonder if you can even make a living in novel writing these days. It certainly gives one pause. I think a hybrid approach is right for me.

    • Jillian — I like your point about the “real life” considerations, and have seen that in action. My friend Teresa has been plugging along writing cozy mysteries for several years. She considered traditional publishing, but knew it wasn’t realistic for her, since they have a 20-year-old son with severe Down Syndrome who requires 24-hour care. As she told me, there’s no way she would be free to leave home and go out on book tours. So she chose self-publishing. She just launched #4 in her series this summer, and I celebrated with her as her books hit a tipping point and sales really escalated. In addition to caring for her son, she works two part-time jobs, is a wife, and mom to two other kids. But she’s plugged away, and indie publishing has allowed her to still publish books while managing the rest of life. And she’s now enjoying the fruits of her labor.

  16. Happy Birthday, Plot & Structure (one of my favorite and most-used books)!

    For the past couple of years, whenever my muse takes her coffee breaks — which are frequent — I’ve used the time to research and educate myself on this whole messy business. (TKZ being one of my favorite resources.) I used to feel more torn about whether to pursue traditional or self-publishing, but I’m getting more comfortable with the indie route. From my research, I now know where to find reliable beta readers, quality editors (Jodie Renner *cough*), competent formatters and talented cover designers. And, as Mike Dennis mentioned, I’m not driven by seeing my name on a Barnes & Noble shelf. I’d be happy seeing it on 10+ titles on Amazon.

    I’ve self-published one short nonfiction book and a cookbook, projects which were quicker for me to bring to market than my fiction (which I could get done if my muse were more reliable), and are affording me the opportunity to learn the ropes.

    I’m happy with what I’m learning and am excited about the possibilities. I may change my mind someday and shoot for the traditional gig, but if I do it will be because I WANT to, not because I feel I NEED to.

    Before I sign off, I should add that much of my confidence in self-publishing has come from your generosity, Jim, in sharing and educating us. So thank you for that.

  17. I’ve self-pubbed 8 works and made more money than I had been offered by trad pubs in the past. The agent that got me to the editorial board of the big guys retired andrather than hunt for another i went indie and loved it. That said Joe M’s point about foreign rights, not to mention potential movie rights and audio rights are what convinced me to go back. Having recently signed with a major agency I look forward to seeing what comes out of it.

  18. Fascinating analysis of the past few years, Mr. Bell. As someone who has been in self-publishing since the Konrathian age–although late in that age–I think your analysis is pretty close to the mark. I’m not sure I 100% agree with your list of rewards, because I think perhaps you left something off. There is simply a greater sense of satisfaction for me anyway in having developed my own style and my own following all on my own.

    As for foreign rights and movie rights, it is very possible to hire someone to handle those for you without having to give up the vast advantages of indie-dom. Audio can be and widely is also self-published.

    • You are absolutely right that audio can be self-pubbed, I’ve done it with all my titles and for a couple dozen others that I produced for ACX. One thing I’ve learned in the last couple years regarding audio-self-pubbing is that the marketing mountain to climb to make good money at is a massive mountain indeed. It does fair, but not nearly as fair as those titles that Audible or other producers have paid for.

      An author can self-pub a title at ACX and likely will make anywhere from $1000 – $0, and if it is a royalty share deal half of that goes to the narrator. On the other hand, audio rights sell for anywhere from $2k-$5k or more (half of which goes to the author). And the narrator typically gets a nice payoff too as long as he/she is working at SAG/AFTRA scale. In other words, there is a lot more money in selling those right via an agent/publisher than can be easily (read, not spending every waking hour marketing your audiobook) obtained doing it on your own.

    • I can only say that I know a lot of authors who disagree about the advantages of self-publishing their audio. And your assuming that one will never make more than $1000 is definitely a fallacy. I know many who have and do. It is somewhat time consuming which is why I’m not publishing in audio until next year, but I see that as the only real advantage to selling the rights.

  19. Self publishing offers so many great benefits, but I worry about getting lots in the sea of mediocrity. For now, I don’t have a book in me but if I ever do, I still don’t know which route I will take. Great post, as usual.

  20. Post suggestion: How about some time we get a post up about the growing audiobook bonanza and how it works with both traditional and self-pubbed audiobooks.

    Additionally a discussion of subsidiary rights in general would be pretty interesting.

  21. Hi James…and all,
    After 14 books (2 just released), I’ll have to admit that I’m still in the Konrathian era–i.e., I haven’t been very successful at self-marketing (as opposed to self-publishing), but I follow Konrath’s advice to write the next book, hoping to build name recognition. I’m quite certain, though, that I would not have 14 books to my credit if I had stuck to traditional publishing.
    Here’s a question relative to foreign rights: is there an outlet for books written in a foreign language by a U.S. author? I can imagine being my own translator of my books to Spanish because I’m very close to being bilingual in English and Spanish. I’m not saying that I’d enjoy doing that, but it seems like a better alternative than paying ten cents per word on my meager writing budget. I’m just not sure that there would be a market. Some of my characters are Latinos, but that doesn’t mean that Latinos would want to read my books. This seems like something to worry about when one of my books really takes off, if ever. 🙂

  22. Indie publishing has changed in a lot of ways over the years. I first published with a small indie press in the late Lower Entrepreneurial epoch. 🙂 After publishing a YA trilogy and 6 children’s books with them, my husband and I formed our own publishing company and went indie. It was the best decision we could have made for our career.

    This year we went from making maybe 1k a month in royalties, to 10-15 K a month, most of that from our self-published titles. All in all it took 2 years of actively writing and publishing to go from nothing to making a comfortable full time living as authors.

    While we would consider a traditional deal for print, or maybe even for ebook on specific titles, the majority of our focus will always be self-publishing. We enjoy the creative and business control and have found that the road to success for us has been a combination of writing a lot of books fast, having a solid team of editors behind us, and being flexible in genre/length of books we write.

    We have paranormal, fantasy and contemporary books out from full length novels to serials in novella length. We have been surprised by which books have become our best sellers and which haven’t. It definitely wasn’t what we expected, but we keep writing and experimenting and that is why we love owning our own business,because we have the freedom to try things that might not work, to think outside the box, to do whatever we want in an effort to bring our books to more readers.

    We’ve been blessed that our chances worked and keep working, but we keep writing because in this business you can’t rest on your laurels.

  23. Having spent the past twenty years in corporate America, I completely resonate with what Eisler says. I haven’t regretted once making the decision to not query agents with the series I’ve launched my self-publishing career with. That doesn’t mean I don’t want a team behind me or that I won’t seek out an agent eventually, but I am slowly building a team (editors, designers, publicists, etc.) who wants to stand behind my work. I’m 100% thrilled with controlling who is on my team.

  24. I think your point about self-publishing being just like any business is the most important point here. It will be very interesting in ten years to analyze who has been successful in self-publishing and why based on number of titles, general quality of writing, approach to marketing and other factors. I believe that some of the early self-publishing successes (not to take away at all from the quality of their products) were successful in part because they were early joiners. Now that the market is becoming more saturated, it will be interesting to see the types of factors that contribute to success and if indeed persistence and a large number of quality books are the key. It is not that I do not think that they may very well be, (and I certainly hope that they are), but I think it may be too early to know, as the self-publishing industry is still in such an early stage of development. The degree of quality required and what constitutes quality I think will be critical and interesting developments as we move forward.

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