Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List

November 29, 2011 | 2 books mentioned 174 9 min read

In a previous essay, I interviewed four self-published authors I admire, and I examined some of the benefits of that career path. Midway through writing the piece, I realized I’d have to continue the discussion in a second essay in order to fully explore my feelings (complicated) on the topic (multifaceted). You see, Reader, I still don’t plan on self-publishing my first novel, though I don’t deny the positive aspects of that choice.

Below I’ve outlined a few reasons behind my decision, informed by our contemporary moment. I can’t predict the future, though I’m sure I’ll remain comfortable with my opinions for at least another thirteen months. It’s in a list format, the pet genre of the blogosphere. How else was I to keep my head from imploding?

1. I Guess I’m Not a Hater
People love to talk about how traditional publishing is dying, but is that actually true? According to The New York Times, the industry has seen a 5.8% increase in net revenue since 2008. E-books are “another bright spot” in the industry, and the revenue of adult fiction grew by 8.8% in three years. (Take that, Twilight!)

Of course, the industry has troubles. The slim profit margins of books; the problems of bookstore returns; the quandary of Borders closing and Amazon forever selling books as a loss-leader; how to make people actually pay for content, and so on. Furthermore, the gamble of the large advance strikes me as ridiculous — and reckless, considering that editors and marketing teams have no real clue which books will be hits and which ones won’t. (Still, what writer is going to kick half-a-million out of bed?) And there’s the always-chilling question: With mounting pressure to turn a profit, how do editors justify publishing an amazing book that might not speak to a large audience? Talented authors — new and mid-list — are bound to get lost in this system.

And yet. And yet. I read good books by large publishing houses all the time, books that take my breath away, make me laugh and cry and wonder at the brilliance of humanity. I trust publishers. They don’t always get it right, but more often than not, they do. As I said in the piece that started me off on this whole investigation: “I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book; I want them to tell you it’s good so that I don’t have to.”

2. I Write Literary Fiction
coverBefore you get your talons out, let me clarify: I don’t consider literary fiction superior to other kinds of fiction, just different; to me, it’s simply another genre, subject-wise and/or marketing-wise. Many of the writers who have found success in self-publishing are writers of straightforward genre fiction. Amanda Hocking writes young adult fantasy, dwarfs and all. Valerie Forster, who published traditionally before setting out on her own, writes legal thrillers. Romance, too, often does just fine without a publisher. Aside from Anthropology of An American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann, I can’t think of another literary novel that enjoyed critical praise and healthy sales when self-published. That’s not to say that it can’t — and shouldn’t — happen, it’s only to point out that it’s a tougher road for writers of certain sorts of stories. Readers like me aren’t seeking out self-published books. Why not? That’s for another essay. (Please, can someone else write that one?) Until the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides and Alice Munro begin publishing their work via CreateSpace, I don’t see the landscape for literary fiction changing anytime soon.

3. I’d Prefer a Small Press to a Vanity Press
coverThe conversation about self-publishing too often ignores the role of independent publishing houses in this shifting reading landscape. Whether it be larger independents like Algonquin and Graywolf, or small gems like Featherproof and Two Dollar Radio, or university presses like Lookout Books, the imprint at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, which recently published Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (nominated for this year’s National Book Award), independent presses offer diversity to readers, and provide yet another professional option for authors. These presses are run and curated by well-read, talented people, and they provide readers with the same services that a large press provides: namely, a vote of confidence in a writer the public might have never heard of. Smaller presses, too, enjoy a specificity of brand and identity that too often eludes a larger house.

In this terrific interview, publisher Fred Ramey of Unbridled Books puts it this way:

I believe that the iron grip that large publishers and their marketing partners have had on readers’ attention since the 1990s has slipped quite a bit with the arrival of online retailers and opinion-makers. Obviously patrons of online booksellers can see the breadth of reading options – “Others who bought this item also bought….” Patrons of independent bookstores know of those options, too, and depend on the recommendations of their booksellers. The few “designated” titles from the big house are still dominant, of course, even in independent stores. But if you are an author in one of those corporations whose book has not been “designated” your reality can become pretty stark.

Independent presses can offer a real chance to a talented writer who might not fit the formulas of the big house. Yes, I know that each conglomerate has a few imprints and a good many editors dedicated to the best of books — to maintaining the course of American letters. Those are the prestigious imprints that aren’t always required to pretend the sales of a prior book predict the performance of the next book. (I’m often astounded at how willing the industry is to act as though it believes that. We all know it isn’t true.) But independent presses are all dedicated to finding and presenting the best of books, dedicated to the books in and of themselves and to the promise of the authors.

A year ago, I published my novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me with a tiny press called Flatmancrooked, and I consider it the highlight of my career so far. Not only did I get to work with a sharp and talented editor, Deena Drewis, and have my book designed by the press’s risk-taking founder Elijah Jenkins, I also had so much fun participating in the press’s LAUNCH program, where the limited first-edition went on pre-order for just a week. My book sold out in three days, and getting that first paycheck was exhilarating. My tiny book got me on a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a few awesome readings, and it even found its way to two different editors at larger houses. It became my literary calling card. When readers received my book in the mail, it was signed and numbered by me. It also came with a condom.

Flatmancrooked, sadly, closed its doors earlier this year, but Drewis has continued the LAUNCH program with her new press, Nouvella. The success of Flatmancrooked showed me that small can mean flexible and daring in its editorial and marketing choices. Small presses try things that large, established houses are too huge, and possibly too chickenshit, to even consider. The fact that Flatmancrooked is now defunct showed me that a labor of love is still a labor (especially when its laborers have other full-time jobs to go to), and that instability is unavoidable in the small press (or the small, small, small press) game.

Some writers are forever wed to the small press landscape. Others, like Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Benjamin Percy, and Emma Straub first published with smaller outfits and have since moved onto larger houses. Perhaps the small press world is becoming the real proving ground for literary writers.

4. Self-Publishing is Better for the Already-Published
Perhaps the smarter, and far more seductive, path is the one where the writer begins his career with a traditional publisher, and then, once he’s built a base of loyal readers, sets off on his own. The man who loves to talk smack about the publishing industry, J.A. Konrath, already had an audience from his traditionally-published books by the time he decided to take matters into his own hands. It’s much harder to create a readership out of nothing.

coverI’m interested to see how Neal Pollack’s latest novel, Jewball, does as a self-published book. Short story writer Tod Goldberg is also trying this approach with his new mini-collection, Where You Lived, self-published as an e-book. I don’t need an intermediary to tell me about these writers because their previously published books speak for them.

5. I Value the Publishing Community
I decided to ask the most famous writer I know, Peter Straub, if he’s ever considered leaving the world of big publishing and putting out a book all by his lonesome. After all, he’s a bestselling author and editor of more than 25 books (18 novels alone!), and he’s a horror writer beloved by genre geeks and snobby literary types alike. A few of his fans probably sport tattoos of his bespectacled face on their pecs. (Or: Peter Straub tramp stamps! Yes!) In an email response, Straub acknowledged how quickly the publishing world and our reading habits are changing, and he said he just might experiment with self-publishing short fiction in the coming years. He told me:

True self-publication means writers upload content themselves, and plenty already do it. I’m not quite sure how you then publicize the work in question, or get it reviewed, but that I am unsure about these elements is part of the reason I seek always, at least for the present, to have my work published in book form by an old-style trade publisher. The trade publisher, which has contracted for the right to do so, then brings the book out in e-form and as an audiobook, so I am not ignoring that audience.

What he went on to say gave me a special kind of hope:

Most of the editors I have worked with over the past thirty-five years have made crucial contributions to the books entrusted to them, and the copy-editors have always, in every case, done exactly the same. They have enriched the books that came into their hands. Can you have good, thoughtful, creative editing and precise, accurate, immaculate copy-editing if you self-publish? And if you can’t, what is being said about the status or role of selflessness before the final form of the fiction as accepted by the audience, I mean the willingness of the author to submerge his ego to produce the novel that is truest to itself?

This — this! — I get. Even though my first novel was rejected by traditional publishers, one assistant editor’s notes on it — notes that were thorough, thoughtful, challenging, and compassionate — were enough to show me that these professionals are valuable to the process of book-making. I know you can hire experienced editors and copy-editors, but how is that role affected when the person paying is the writer himself? What if the hired editor told you not to publish? Would that even happen?

6. The E-Reading Conundrum; or, I don’t want to be Amazon’s Bitch
Many self-published authors have gone totally electronic, eschewing print versions of their work altogether. I can’t see myself taking that route, however, because I don’t own an e-reader, and I don’t have plans to buy one (not yet, anyway… I read a lot in the bath, etc., etc.). It seems odd that I wouldn’t be able to buy my own book — I mean, shouldn’t I be my own ideal reader? I also prefer to shop at independent bookstores, and in fact, I pay full price for my books all the time. The thought of Amazon being the only place to purchase my novel shivers my timbers. I don’t mind if someone else chooses to read my work electronically, just as I don’t mind if Amazon is one of the places to purchase my work; I’m simply wary of Amazon monopolizing the reading landscape. Self-publishing has certainly offered an alternative path for writers, but it’s naive to believe that a self-published author is “fighting the system” if that self-published book is produced and made available by a single monolithic corporation. In effect, they’ve rejected “The Big 6” for “The Big 1.”

7. Is it Best for Readers?
In September, when my brother-in-law learned that my book still hadn’t sold, he said, “Please don’t self-publish!” He was actually wincing. If I did self-publish, he said, he’d buy it because we were family, but otherwise, he’d happily ignore my novel in search of something he’d read about on The Millions, or heard about on NPR, or had a friend recommend. There are simply too many books out there as it is.

Our conversation reminded me of Laura Miller’s humorous and perspicacious essay, “When Anyone Can be a Published Author,” in which she reminds us that the people who celebrate self-publishing often overlook what it means for book buyers and readers. She writes:

Readers themselves rarely complain that there isn’t enough of a selection on Amazon or in their local superstore; they’re more likely to ask for help in narrowing down their choices. So for anyone who has, however briefly, played that reviled gatekeeper role, a darker question arises: What happens once the self-publishing revolution really gets going, when all of those previously rejected manuscripts hit the marketplace, en masse, in print and e-book form, swelling the ranks of 99-cent Kindle and iBook offerings by the millions? Is the public prepared to meet the slush pile?

As a member of the reading public, I am not prepared, or willing, to wade through all that unfiltered literature. As a writer, I must put my head back to the grindstone and write a book that more than a handful of readers can fall in love with.

8. I’m Busy. Writing.
Today I wrote two pages of my new novel while my mother took my five-month-old son to the mall. I get twelve hours of childcare a week, and six of those are dedicated to preparing for my classes and running a private writing school. The other six hours I devote to my new novel. The old one, the one that traditional editors didn’t go nuts for, is in the drawer. Some might say I’ve given up; I say, I’m just getting warmed up. I’m still writing, aren’t I? My career isn’t one book, but many. And like every other writer out there, I decide what road I want to travel.


Image credit: purplesmog/Flickr

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Great article Edan. I had a collection of stories published by some friends in 2008 and I don’t regret it, however I have 900 copies sitting in boxes in the laundry room. Of course it didn’t help that the stories were “literary fiction” ala Donald Barthelme. There are benefits to both vanity publishing and traditional publishers, either small or large. You really did a great job of illuminating the different sides of this dilemma. The important thing is to keep writing. You ARE just getting warmed up!

  2. Wonderful essay, Edan. You’ve made a good case for your choice.

    I agree with Mr. Straub’s comments on the value of good editors and copy editors. Having a keen eye notice gaps in a story or opportunities missed makes for a better book in the end.

    For now, a traditional publisher, regardless of how small, gives a writer an edge (even if that’s slight) in publicity and marketing. For better or worse, being published by a traditional press suggests that the work passed some sort of test–it’s been deemed ready for an audience.

    Like you, I still love my books on paper and won’t get an e-reader until I have to. I’m traditionally published and will continue to be for a while–and I have no intention of making exclusive deals with any one e-book seller, thus cutting out any potential reader.

    Best of luck on completing your next novel and finding a great home for your first.

  3. “I don’t want to be Amazon’s bitch.”

    I don’t either. Have you ever heard of Smashwords? Or, for that matter, the invention of the PDF? You can sell the files from your very own website, with the aid of another great site: Paypal.

    There are always ways around Amazon’s corporate claws, if you look for them.

  4. I’m thinking that eventually every professional writer will work with traditional publishers as well as self-publish. It all depends on what they hope to accomplish with a specific piece. You may already be self-publishing right now with your blog posts. (Does your contribution to The Millions go through an acceptance/rejection or editing process?)

    At any rate, self-publishing is best left to those that can market themselves more aggressively than their publishers can. There are a number of authors that are better at it than their publishers. And they have access to readers somehow (through aggressive social media or contacts with major reviewers).

    The editing a publisher provides is golden, but lately the editing for major publishers seems to be going downhill. There are a lot of typos etc. getting through. I can only assume that there is less editing being done as well as proof-reading. And an author can hire any of those out-of-work editors that used to work for the big houses. Whether or not they do that is, as you pointed out, up to whether or not the author really wants to put their ego in check.

    Thanks for some excellent thoughts on this subject.

  5. Regarding #2 I would like to say that an author’s success in self publishing has nothing to do with genre fiction as opposed to literary, rather it is the result of a a good story with quality writing coupled with the old fashioned route to building a career: reader promotion. Word of mouth rather than expensive marketing campaigns boosts sales. It is also untrue that there is little or no literary fiction being self published. In fact, there are many gifted writers producing works of art, all one has to do is look.

  6. Wow, this was a good one to read before setting down to my morning business of writing. (Is it “business” if you get paid in contributor’s copies?) Just very thoughtful and human. Nice to see someone thinking out the problems of a changing world.

  7. You know there are a lot of reasons for deciding to go with traditional publishing rather than self-publishing. What I am sorry to see is people making the decision based more on emotion, prejudice and ignorance than facts. And I’m sorry, but that is what you are doing here if your list is honest.

    For example, your first one, that you are not a self-hater made me go, huh? And then I read the whole thing. What were you really saying? That you need validation from a corporation for your writing. That you can’t get enough validation from readers and if a company doesn’t tell you a writer, then you aren’t. I would say that you already — if not hate yourself — then don’t have much respect for yourself. I’m sorry that you are making an important business decision on such a need for validation rather than what may be best for you as a writer.

    On one point you were correct in my opinion, not all publishing companies are dying. They’ll be around for a while. But take a look at what happened to the fiction writers at Kaplan who weren’t even TOLD that the fiction branch was being dropped. Is that really where you should get your validation?

    For heaven’s sake, if you sign a publishing contract don’t do it for validation.

    You make a decision where to publish on the value of editors? And Peter Straub values them? That’s nice. I do too. A good editor is a wonderful thing. I pay mine well to do the job for me. For ME, not for a publishing company. Where on earth did you get the idea that self-publishers don’t use editors. It is simply not true.

    And yes, Joe Konrath was previously published. He will someday sell as many books as Amanda Hocking, who wasn’t. Is it easier for a self-published author who has already been published to sell books? Yes, often.

    Is it easier for a traditionally published author who has been previously published to sell books? Yes, often.

    You don’t like Amazon? Then sell through Apple and Barnes & Noble.

    All that aside, being an indie author may not be for you, but publishing is a business. The decisions need to be made — for your own sake — on reasons based on reality.

  8. A very insightful essay, thank you. You have confirmed my decision to move forward with a traditional publisher for my second novel.

  9. I really hate “articles” like this. Sorry, Edan. There is whiff of anti-technology and that old MFA brainwashing of “if you don’t publish with a real press then you aren’t a REAL writer” mentality going on here. The publishing business is changing on a daily basis and those who can’t or won’t keep up are destined to be left behind.

    My first two novels were published with a small press, but I’m going to give self-publishing a try with an eBook of short stories. I also self-published my first collection of poetry about a decade ago and it continues to sell to this day. I have no regrets whatsoever and would self-publish again in a heartbeat — even literary fiction.

    If your work is good and you’re willing to do a little shameless self-promotion, then the book will rise to the surface. Find a good editor, pick good cover art and find like-minded authors and readers to engage.

  10. It is nice to see a cogent, well-thought-out evaluation like this, as opposed to the brash predictions and wild-eyed haranguing one comes across elsewhere.

    Having said that, I did notice that you present your thoughts as a snapshot in time (even in your post title) rather than a final analysis on the subject. It seems like you see changes coming, but have determined that they are not yet relevant to literary fiction.

    I’m curious what people think: Is it inevitable that a Jeffrey Eugenides or Alice Munro will eventually self-publish their work? Or will literary fiction forever remain compartmentalized from other genres? Thoughts?

  11. Very good post, Edan, I enjoyed reading it all the more so that I’m getting a little tired of the J.A.Konrath and other similar writers’ hype surrounding self-publishing. I recently posted about the pitfalls of self-publishing on my blog, suggesting that with the rising tsunami of self-published authors, it’s going to become harder and harder (if not impossible) to duplicate Amanda Hocking’s success.

    This said, and while I agree with most of your points, there are two areas where we don’t see eye to eye.

    One is the fear of becoming “Amazon’s bitch”: that is a totally groundless fear (and if it exists, you could argue that there is equal deanger in becoming anyone of the Big Six Publishers’ bitch). In any case, as one of your readers said, you can always go to another digital platform: B&N, iBookstores (for the Ipad) or Sony Stores or even sell thebooks yourself like Rowland is doing on Pottermore. Indeed, to spread yourself on several platforms is highly advisable and makes economic sense.

    The other is to believe that literary fiction is not suitable for e-readers. Why? A good story will always sell, no matter the genre. It just so happens that “straightforward genre” as you call it trumps literary fiction everytime in the digital world as much as in the real, physical world in the terms of sales. The real money is made in romance, as every publisher knows. That’s what people like to read most. Next come thrillers, fantasy, sci-fi etc. Literary is bottom of the pile – sad but true!

  12. I’m worried less about how to publish and more about how to promote. Some houses will make a real marketing push for a book, and others barely seem motivated to try to make back their money. In the end, it seems like the author is the one on the hook to find their audience and make sales.

    If you’re going to take on that much of the risk, don’t you deserve that much of the reward? It seems like tireless self-promotion is the only key to success, and you don’t need a publisher taking all of the profits if you’re the one in the trenches.

  13. Those are all fine reasons (I’m a self-publishing person who’s published w/ Soft Skull and other places) but you don’t talk much about what you do if your book is rejected by big and small presses. There are many arguments to go with a press, but there are fewer arguments to say it’s better to have a book languish in a drawer than to find new readers, however small a number it may be – and these days it might not even be small. Good things can happen if you reach people. Nothing happens if you don’t.

    Also: don’t listen to Laura Miller. If a book is good, it will rise above the slush pile, just like in an agent’s office. That’s how the system works. You don’t compete with bad books any more than a good blog competes with a spam blog.

    And you don’t have an e-reader? You can have the complete works of Jane Austen (and others) for free, immediately. It’s a writer’s and reader’s dream. You seem to think ebooks are synonymous with bad writing, because genre books get all the publicity. Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer sell more than everyone in print too. Commercial books always sell better.

  14. Thanks for the feedback, everyone. I appreciate the comments about the Amazon conundrum–I was hoping someone out there would have more information on that topic.

    To clarify, I don’t believe that e-readers are bad, or that what can be read on one is bad. I simply don’t have one, and don’t want one. Not yet at least. I do a lot of my reading in the bath. I also just like books as physical objects, and I like going shopping for them at a store. That’s just my preference–it’s fine if it isn’t yours. Maybe someday my preference will change. I bought a Kobo for my mom and she likes it a lot.

    MacEvoy DeMarest, yes, these are my thoughts on the matter right now. The world is always changing–especially the book world! Who knows what I’ll think in 2013? You ask great questions–ones I’d love to see debated further.

  15. If a writer wants to go the traditional route, that’s fine. It’s very hard to switch up the dream most writers have had to see their book in print. When we were first dreaming of being published, nobody ever thought of uploading an electronic book. I also wanted to go the traditional route. However, it finally occurred to me that agents, editors and publishers aren’t my audience and aren’t nearly as important as readers. They give the real validation–not the few people sitting in NY deciding who gets through and who doesn’t. Also, how many is a ‘handful of readers’? A hundred? A thousand? How about 25,000 and counting?

    So, go ahead and reach for your dreams. I’m living mine now every time someone buys my books and especially when I get an email from a reader thanking me for writing them. Best feeling EVER!

    Also, just a note, an ereader can be read in the tub. Just put it in a freezer sized ziplock bag. I read mine in a hot tub at the gym. In fact, it fares better than a paper book because it doesn’t get damp and warped.

  16. “As a member of the reading public, I am not prepared, or willing, to wade through all that unfiltered literature. As a writer, I must put my head back to the grindstone and write a book that more than a handful of readers can fall in love with.”

    YESYESYES…to this and really, to everything else you said here. I read literary fiction more than any other genre (and, especially as an academic, I despise that term, but it’s a marketing label, right?) and I am NOT prepared to meet the slush pile, nor am I willing to cast my babies (my own books) into it to sink or swim–even though I am not writing “literary fiction.”

    I will keep at it until I can get that traditional publisher. I am also a fan of certain small presses and would rather go that route if big presses don’t see my work as a good fit. But in general, I will probably not self-publish until/unless I have a traditional career and it seems like a beneficial ADDITIONAL strategy to take.

  17. There are different choices for everyone and everyone chooses what is best for them. Me personally, I need a traditional publisher. I do not currently have the resources (ie money) to properly promote myself. I do what I can that is free…and there isn’t much that works.

    In my opinion, if a book is being rejected continuously, well…maybe it’s not that good. Or maybe the market is not right for that kind of book at that time. Literary agents and publishers are professionals and they know this business. If they don’t think they can make money on something, I trust their judgement. Why would I go and put tons of my own money into something that is not sellable? But they are human and don’t know everything…they can’t predict the future.

    My reasons for not self-publishing…. I can’t afford to pay a professional editor, or a graphic designer (and let’s face it, 99% of self-pubbed covers are, to put it nicely, less than desirable). I need the backing of a publishing house- the support and marketing. I would rather spend my time writing than figuring out how to format and upload things, designing covers, etc…

    Self-publishing is a great option for some, but not everyone.

    Thanks for this post!

  18. This is related, I think to the conversation. As an African American writer, I am often asked how I “made the transition from self-publishing to traditional publishing.” The people asking me this are often journalists who assume that this was my route.

    I am not sure what this means exactly, but when I am asked, it’s not framed as a compliment.

    I think it’s naive to think that good writing is all that matters and there are not real advantages to having certain credentials, particularly if you are a person that doesn’t have a lot of built-in social privilege.

  19. Edan, I understand your viewpoint but I’m not totally in agreement and here’s my tuppence.

    1. You don’t have to be an industry hater to self-publish. I’m not a hater but I have self-published. Why? Because self-publishing an ebook give almost instant access to a market of millions with Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, iPad, iPod touch, iPhone, Android and so on. Because it allows the indie author to price as they see fit, earning up to 70c on the dollar. Because I don’t have to wait and wait to access a book-buying market via a publisher.
    What are the statistics on unpublished authors getting picked up by agents and publishers? An agent I know personally looks at 3000 manuscripts and takes on a handful of new authors per year. Then, if published, the percentage of authors that make back their advance for the publisher is very small. Only the 95th percentile of authors then make more than $12,000 a year.
    Also worth a mention that you’ll likely be expected by your publisher to do a fair amount of marketing, no escaping that.

    2. I get the impression you believe that it’s either / or with self-publishing. I have two e-books out this year and I’m an unknown author with genre-bending content. Nevertheless I’ve managed to shift about five hundred paid copies and fifteen thousand free copies of my first novel. Isn’t it better to have that readership out there than to stay inside the cocoon?

    3. Perhaps I’m talking at cross purposes. Self-publishing is and isn’t vanity publishing. With POD, Kindle and Smashwords the lines have become blurred. I don’t consider my e-publishing as vanity but I’m hesitant about going POD because it can have a vanity feel.

    4. Have to fully agree with you there. I also know mainstream authors that are doing very well from their backlist. It’s difficult to rise up out of the noise of myriad independent e-authors. That’s a challenge to rise to.

    5. Agree with you again but see the advantages in my (1) above of the independent approach.

    6. Others have already said it, there’s a lot more to ebooks than Amazon Kindle, although they are key. I just realised in the last few weeks I’ve sold copies of book 1 through B&N, iStore and Sony all around the world and picked up tons of positive product reviews on Amazon and those other e-stores. People are reading e-books on tablets, phones, e-readers, laptops. On planes, trains and listening to them in automobiles. It’s electrifying.

    7. A valid point. To build a readership is a challenge. There are ways and means, but the compulsive communication dangers of social networking are waiting to consume our writing time.

    8. Yep, valid point. Mad marketing of an independent e-book can absorb valuable writing time. Each individual has to choose the road to travel. Here in Ireland, by choosing to e-publish independently, I’m taking the road less travelled. It’ll take some time before I’ll know if it has made all the difference.


  20. I think there is a myth that continues to be perpetuated that if you get signed by a traditional publisher that they are going to do a big marketing campaign, send you on a book tour and guarantee reviews in all the big dailies. I know quite a few authors published by traditional presses and they are doing most of the marketing and promotion themselves, especially if they are with a small press. Self-promotion and marketing is time-consuming and can be a huge distraction, but whether you self-publish or are lucky to get a contract, this whole notion that the book will sell itself (or the publisher will do it for you) is just a fantasy for 99 percent of writers.

  21. I work as an event coordinator/marketer for an independent bookstore that has been inundated in recent years with self-published authors looking for shelf space and store events for their books. We get – and I am not exaggerating – between 400 and 500 requests a year from self-published authors asking us to stock and promote their book. On a slow week, we get 5-10 requests; on a busy week we’ll get 20.

    If you ask most indie bookstore event coordinators about self-published authors, you will probably see some combination of eye-rolling, teeth grinding, or derisive laughter. Self-published authors are the bane of our existence. There are so, SO many would-be self-published authors that would do well to read this piece, and read it thoroughly. And then second-guess their decision to self-publish. But I know they won’t.

    Why do I loathe (most) self-published authors? Here’s why. And I’m saying all this so maybe – MAYBE – there’s a self-published author out there who will read this and then understand what they are up against when it comes to marketing their self-published book through their friendly neighborhood indie bookstore.

    1. Their books suck. There is no other way to say this. Bad writing, bad grammar, bad spelling, bad plot/character development, bad subject matter, etc. Don’t even get me started on do-it-yourself cover art. The book is bad. It’s bad. That’s why it couldn’t get published by a traditional publisher. But you can’t tell the self-published author of this monstrosity that their book is substandard and unsellable. Because they would act like you’ve just told them their brand-new firstborn child is ugly. Hey, I get it. You put a lot of work into this thing, and you ended up with an ugly baby. But that doesn’t change the baby’s looks, or the book’s ability to sell.

    2. 90% of self-published authors are rude, pushy, completely self-absorbed, and relentless. This is my BOOK! It’s my MASTERPIECE. How dare you say it is not worthy of being stocked in your store, unless I pay for consignment?? How dare you, to not jump up and down and beg me to do an event for this book – even though I am not really from around here, I have no friends, and the book has only a very narrow niche appeal since it’s about my past life experience as a 16th century vampire with a skin condition?? Some of them don’t even bother to pitch the book themselves, but hire some poor hapless “freelance literary agent” to do it for them. Then relentlessly prod the “agent” to get them an event. THE BOOK SUCKS. IT’S NOT HAPPENING.

    3. Self-published authors show a really appalling level of self-non-awareness. EVERY self-published author thinks they are the next Stephenie Meyer/James Patterson/That Guy on Amazon Who Sold a Million E-Books. EVERY self-published author thinks their memoir about going on a hiking trip to Alaska where nothing particularly dramatic happened is “special” and that “people will love it!” EVERY self-published author thinks they have written the new breakout bestseller, YA sensation, Great American Novel. I hear the same words from the same types of people over and over and over, about how their books are “different.” The books are never different. 50% of them have badly Photoshopped covers and are printed in Comic Sans.

    You wrote a book. Congratulations. Let me make this clear. WRITING THE BOOK AND PAYING SOMEONE TO PRINT IT FOR YOU DOES NOT MAKE YOU SPECIAL. If the book is actually good – and in the several thousand requests I’ve processed, I’ve seen three or four that actually were – THAT makes you special. But please, PLEASE stop acting like paying AuthorHouse or Smashwords or any other vanity publisher a few thousand dollars entitles you to anything. It doesn’t. Not the adoration of untold legions of fans. Not the respect and admiration of your local indie bookseller. Not sales from your friends (who 80% of the time, from what I can see, end up with free copies rather than purchased ones). Not attention from local or national media. Self-publishing means that instead of the book manuscript being stuck in a drawer, there’s a 99% chance you’ll end up with boxes of unsold books in your garage. Fewer than 1% of self-published authors sell more than 150 copies of their book.

    Please think about all this, self-publishing authors, before you give your credit card number to Smashwords.

  22. Independent presses do indeed offer alternatives, but if you think they don’t come with their own coteries and rules of the game, you’re sadly mistaken. Some of these factors make the indies just as susceptible to problems of convention as the Big Six (and it may also explain why they serve as a “proving ground” — don’t think for a minute that commerce doesn’t motivate ANY publisher, no matter how noble or artistic or alternative the intentions; people do need to stay afloat). As Tayari notes above, great writing is never enough. And even if you have secured some minor station in the literary world, that may not be enough either. There are any number of flukes which cause a floundering book to be published and a masterpiece to be ignored. If you don’t have the patience to deal with this, then self-publishing may be for you. I just worry that figures like Joe Konrath are contributing misinformation to wide-eyed aspirants which suggest a dot com-like trajectory to instant riches. The e-book market, despite its many evident virtues (especially with tied up backlists being liberated), remains a polyglot glut for many of the reasons you cite.

  23. Nice post, indeed.

    There is one reason you missed, though: It’s also a tremendous time-saving for the writer to have someone else do the dirty work of running their publishing company. Most writers would rather be writing or selling their book than doing accounting, customer service or maintaining their website’s shopping cart, etc.

    You can off-load some of that on a “Pay-to-Play” publisher, which is sometimes lumped in with self-publishing, but all of those options come with substantial snags, that make it much, much harder for your book to be successful.

    I work with a lot of self-publishers as well as with small and micro-publishers. I don’t recommend this as a path UNLESS you like the business of publishing books, and are considering founding a new press. Frankly, this is a lot of fun, as businesses go, and many people do get hooked. It’s addictive.

    But if you hate running a company, including all of the accounting and infrastructure, then either you’ll hate being self-published OR you won’t do as well by yourself and your book as you would have done with a traditional publisher.

  24. This is directed to Michelle, who commented above. Smashwords does not take our credit card numbers and we do not pay them to publish us. I just didn’t think it was fair to lump Smashwords in with vanity publishers who do take money upfront. Smashwords sells and distributes books to other retailers. When a book sells, they take a small percentage and pass the majority on to the author. The money flows to the author, as it should.

    I don’t have a print book as I feel that ebooks are the future, so don’t worry, I will never approach you to put my book in your bookstore.

  25. Michelle – you just wrote a manifesto illustrating exactly why people despise traditional publishing. The snobbery and self-importance. Maybe a dying business like a bookstore shouldn’t be so dismissive of its customers.

    Granted, there are a lot of bad self-published books, and probably a lot of clueless, pushy self-publishers, but your use of “EVERY” is ugly, at best. Millions of people self-publish every year – there is no possible way to classify all self-publishers as anything.

    Also: credit card number to Smashwords? Amateur.

  26. Edward, I interviewed J.A. Konrath a few weeks ago for a piece I did for Huffington Post and I have to disagree that he is pushing “misinformation” about self/eBook publishing. If you read his blog, he is very upfront about the path and choices he made and he’s never made any claims that instant riches are just around the corner for every writer. Konrath, like a handful of those traditionally published, has gotten lucky. He’s also a savvy self-marketer. He sells thousands upon thousands of books to many eager readers. You can dismiss him all you like, but he has an enviable fan base.

  27. Michelle, leaving aside the tone of your remarks, I didn’t get the impression that Lepucki’s post was aimed at POD publishing of paper books. Also — “there is no other way to say this” — I don’t care about independent book stores. I’m sure that marks me as a Philistine, but Amazon has consummately scratched that itch for me: if I need a rare book, it’s nearly always just a search and a click away. The other events that an independent bookstore might offer — poetry readings, book signings, etc. — I don’t care about. Never have. I just skulk in my digital cave and one-click purchase whatever I need.

    On a broader note, I think the slush pile can be attacked using search engines and online reviews. Granted, you have to develop a nose for sniffing out the carp, but that’s true even with published reviews from literary journals.

  28. I really value the balanced approach of this essay. But unless I read it too fast, the writer is missing a critical point: self-publishing as the path to traditional publishing. Need I recite — again — the list of famous authors who started out self-published, from Poe to Whitman? Yes, most self-published stuff is crap, but plenty isn’t. And plenty of highly qualified people are shut out NOT because their work wasn’t good enough, but because it didn’t fit a particular expectation, or trend, or marketing spreadsheet.

    Take me for example: professional, widely published writer complete with fancy MFA and highly-respected agent, as well as a memoir manuscript praised by everyone from my teachers to editors at traditional publishers. Still, no go. So I self-published, paid for all the stuff a traditional house MIGHT do, from editors to publicists, got some good reviews, and eventually the notice of Amazon’s traditional publishing arm, AmazonEncore. They gave me all the services, in the quality, that any writer only dreams of, and the book is out there, making its way in the world with a whole team behind it.

    But even if Amazon had never come knocking? The self-publishing effort was worth every penny because it got me what a writer most wants: readers! Readers who sent me thoughtful notes, who showed up to hear me read, who told their friends to buy the book. Yes, a writer writes; but the point of that writing is to be read and shared and enjoyed by others. Sometimes, self-publishing is the only way to make that happen. And sometimes it makes a whole lot of other things happen too!

  29. ” Self-published authors are the bane of our existence.”

    Have you considered that most self-published authors don’t give a hoot about your existence?

  30. I don’t envy you Edan. I admire you for sticking your neck out, but I wouldn’t trade places with you. You clearly state that this your choice and your thoughts on the matter. I see nowhere in the article where you say anyone has to do what you are doing. Yet more than half of the comments are from people saying you are stupid not to do it their way.

    Every time I make the mistake of airing my thoughts and opinions on publishing choices, I have writers who disagree appearing from the woodwork to tell me how wrong I am. It seems impossible to have a rational discussion on the subject. It’s funny, as I doubt anyone who felt obligated to weigh in on my career choice would buy my book regardless.

    When I choose how I publish, I will do so quietly and without fanfare, because of reactions like these.

  31. She wrote a novel. She posted it on her blog. She took it down the next day. She posted it the next day. She took it down the next day. She wrote it out on toilet paper and blew her nose with it in winter. She read it to her grandmother as her grandmother hung dying cause Abuela was a murderess and passive/aggressive to boot. She read it aloud on the street but only every other word and the street was the ocean.

    One writes a novel when one has nothing else to do and suicide is not an option, said Chateaubriand, or so, or so,

    no fun, I’m done.

  32. I have to laugh at the narcissism inherent in all of the above. “My way is best, no matter what.” The answer to which way to go if you’re an author has nothing to do with whether or not your writing touches the people you wrote to in the first place, which used to be the primary goal for people who dared to put words down on paper.

    No, this has to do with questions like, “Do I have the money to invest in my own small business or the skills to market my work so that readers know it’s there?” “Do I have the networks, the distribution channels in place to deliver the book, an understanding of the costs of things that have nothing to do with the content of the book.

    I help people decide which route to take based on the reality of the publishing business (and yes, it is a business) and I assist those who choose to “self-publish” make their product as good as I possibly can. Whether you tout your own books, or tremble with authentic or fake humility with respect to promoting them and decide to go the low percentage route of courting a publisher who spends somebody else’s money…

    Whether or not you stick with the traditional publishing model or go it completely on your own is not the issue. What IS the issue is what goals you have. If you think you’re the next J.K. Rowling, dream of being introduced as a published “author” and want to make millions, self-publishing is not the way to go. If you are a team-building consultant and you have an established network of people who already recognize you as an expert, what the acquisitions editor at HarperCollins thinks about your book is moot.

    In the end, all books are vetted. By the reader. And, I would submit that the masses couldn’t give a rat’s behind about who paid for the production and marketing. The proof’s in the pudding, and this pudding is based on whether you can communicate and whether what you communicate touches the life of the reader in some way.

  33. Folks speaking from an independently published/co-publisher and literary consultant all of you have some valid comments and all of you don’t. Vanity publishing from what I’ve encountered has a pretty pricey cost to it and doesn’t work for a lot of people (from what I’ve heard). There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing as there’s a number of authors out there who have some great works that’d never see the light of day at the ‘traditional’ publishing as Lepucki so wishes for. Is that good or bad? That’s something only the individual author can answer. As my works and the consulting I do for novice publishers aren’t mainstream, they’d never be accepted at either the ‘traditonal’ or the ‘independent’ (and yes, I’ve submitted to both) publishers. Self-publishing works for me and I’m perfectly all right with doing the marketing and promoting. If you self-publish, you have to do that; if you traditionally publish you have to do that. Yes it takes away from the writing time but there’s no ‘marketing/publicity faery’ to do it for you.
    I do take exception to the implications (and I’ll admit I just might be reading the article wrong) that ‘traditional’ is the only way to go to gain acceptance. It’s most definitely not but only the author can decide what’s important to him/her. You can gain acceptance self-publishing, doing the ‘traditional’ route or the ‘independent’ route but to say one’s (i.e. ‘traditional’) is better than the others as Lepucki implies is an overly broad generalization that shouldn’t have been made. It’s a new world out there folks and formerly accepted rules have gone out the nearest window. If being with a ‘traditional’ publisher is so important to you, then go that route. If going through an independent is that important then go that route. If you want to self-publish there’s a number of ways to do it and there just as valid as anything else.
    I’d have to say that not publishing in 2012-2013 is more than a bit silly but again, this is Lepucki’s viewpoint. I don’t agree with it for a number of reasons but there are those of you who do. Instead of taking sides and getting snarky about it, how about we post our comments like intelligent people and maybe exchange our information about our respective publishing experiences among ourselves? From what I’ve read we’ve all have information and experience in publishing that could benefit others. I will ask to exclude ‘Michelle’ from this as at the bookstore I work part-time at we do have self-publishers come in and they’ve all been (from what I’ve seen and heard) very polite and professional and the store I work at does publish self-published works. If you and your co-workers are rolling your eyes and being snarky about how you talk to them perhaps you and your co-workers need to step down and let those more willing to work with people take over your store. If you’re giving writers attitude, they’re going to give it to you back in spades.

  34. This has been an informative article, Edan. Thank you very much for writing it. I hope you don’t stop writing these types of articles because of our opinions. Let me say that I strongly disagree with the people who say most indie books suck. I know some indie authors, including me, who have received awards and gotten good reviews from companies like Kirkus and others.

    I took the indie path because I didn’t have the patience to keep sending out my manuscripts and not hearing back. Since being published I have done a lot of work to promote my books. Whether it’s more work or less work than what a traditionally published author does, I am not sure. All I know is that my books can’t be found in developing countries because I don’t have the kind of reach that a traditional publisher does. Most people in the developing world don’t have ereaders or credit cards, but they have bookstores.

    Everyone has their reasons for how they publish. For me being able to sell in the developing countries is where a traditional publisher would be helpful. Please notice that I said, for me. Thank you, Edan, for prompting this discussion. Looking forward to the next one.


  35. “….I really hate “articles” like this. Sorry, Edan. There is whiff of anti-technology and that old MFA brainwashing of “if you don’t publish with a real press then you aren’t a REAL writer” mentality going on here…”

    I actually kind of loved this article…and it didn’t come off as anti-tech at all. I see it as explaining why the author’s particular path suits her.

    I was doing epub before it was ‘cool’. And it was epub then…not digital. Started in 2003…so the ‘anti-tech’ thing can’t really be slung at me. I believe I’ve got 40+ titles out from epresses.

    I also self-publish. I’ve got 4-5 of those. Started that a year ago.

    I also write for traditional presses…I’ve done that since 2004. A number of titles out there, as well. Haven’t counted those, but more than a dozen.

    Why do I do all of them? Because I figured out one thing crucial thing that some writers have yet to figure yet…certain things work better for some of us, while other things work better for others.

    We’ve all got to find our own paths, and if Edan’s path isn’t one of selfpublishing or digital publishing? That’s her choice, and it shouldn’t matter a flying flip to anybody else.

    Personally, if I was just starting out? I’d look at selfpublishing as my absolute last resort and I’d fight it tooth and nail. Self publishing is fricking HARD. It’s ten times as much work as the other two routes. I’d rather be a writer…not an editor, promoter, writer, etc.

  36. Advantages of self-publishing: faster route to market, plus total editorial and artistic control, and control of everything else regarding the book.

    Disadvantages: most of the significant media outlets will not review you or interview you. It’s very difficult to get your book into bookstores, or — let’s not forget this route to the reader — into libraries. Of which there are many. It is also difficult to get speaking engagements or panel invitations on the basis of a self-published book, which can make it especially tough if you are a nonfiction author wishing to promote yourself at events related to your field of expertise. Perhaps the world is changing but right now, it still helps a lot to have that third-party credibility of being published by, well, a publisher.

    I have worked as an editor and collaborator with a couple of authors who chose to self-publish. One of them wrote a book in connection with a business he was launching — the book, a slim one, very nicely explained some ideas & concepts that his new company would then deliver upon, in the course of its specialized consulting services. In that sort of context, self-publishing can make good sense.

    The other author has a personal-growth book released just this year. He is working hard to promote it in several ways: over the Internet, through his existing personal/professional connections and activities, and by actively setting out to make new connections. It’s not easy, but this fellow is committed and capable, so we’ll see how it goes … and maybe down the road a little, we’ll have another self-publishing success story.

    Oh, and PS: either way, it sure helps to have the book be a good one.

  37. ”Self-published authors are the bane of our existence.”

    Have you considered that most self-published authors don’t give a hoot about your existence?

    Given that we keep getting hundreds of requests a year from self-published authors to do events for their books, absolutely, they do care. They care so much they call our managers’ cell phones after hours screaming about how we HAVE to give them an event because they are SO important and their book is GENIUS. They show up in the store and throw temper tantrums that cause us to call security because they won’t calm down and leave after we turn them down for shelf space or an event. Believe me, they do care. I see it

    I have seen blog posts from local authors trumpeting – exactly as some did here – that they don’t care about indie bookstores, that indie bookstores are dying, that e-books are the “way of the future,” etc. etc. They scoff at my store and the other local stores that ask them to either pay for a consignment event or move along, saying they don’t “need bookstores” to help them sell their book.

    And then the next week they are emailing/calling/showing up in the store, begging for an event. It’s happened to us at least five times, so I know it’s happening elsewhere too. I guarantee that some of the naysayers here have asked a local bookstore for an event in the last year and they just aren’t being honest about it.

    As for being a “dying business” – our revenues are up $600,000 over last year and up 40% compared to same-quarter-last-year. Probably partly due to the Borders closure. But we ain’t goin’ anywhere anytime soon.

    Self-published authors love to think – as Edan pointed out – that there are readers out there just dying to weed through thousands of self-published books to find the gems – which, of course, include their books – and fall in love with them and buy millions of copies. That happens maybe one time out of a thousand. Whether authors here want to believe it or not, “self-published” is synonymous with “no good” to 9 out of 10 of our shoppers. I know, because I have talked to them about it, and heard them complain about how self-published authors act at our events, in our store, with our staff, etc. They think we carry TOO MANY self-published books and do too many events with self-published authors, even though authors have paid for those events.

    There are nice self-published authors out there. There are self-published authors out there who really know how to work it and how to market themselves, and not rely on anyone else to do it for them. There are self-published authors who have built a fanbase and know how to make it work and who do sell a lot of books.

    But answer me this. We just cleaned out our consignment shelf in prep for closing out our end-of-the-year financials. When we called the 12 authors who had outstanding checks or consignment books still at the store, all but one of them was unreachable, didn’t respond to multiple messages, or told us to keep both their checks (average amount was $22) and the books and do whatever we wanted with them.

    These were the same books the authors had previously begged us to carry, begged us to promote, begged us to handsell their books.

    Now they’re going to end up in our dumpster – because the local charities we donate to have told us not to bother bringing “that type of book” to them. They can’t sell them, or get people to take them for free.

    What gives with that? How can it mean so much one month and be Dumpster fodder a few months later, if self-published authors are so committed to their “craft”?

  38. I have read some of the really negative comments and I only have this to say: if you don’t like self-published authors and you are a bookstore, then you only have yourself and Amazon to blame for your loss of sales. The fact is that a bookstore coordinator has no right to judge a book on the basis of its production, and most bookstores will take the good with the bad because it is no skin off their noses to return what doesn’t get sold. They are in the business to sell books, not become a censor. Besides, if I know a bookstore engages in this kind of discrimination then I will not spend my dollars there.

    As for being Amazon’s Bitch, I am not. I just happen to sell my books and ebooks through them as part of my selling model, and I don’t mind stating for the record that I sell primarily through my own site. Amazon does not own me and never will. I also sell my books through Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and a host of other sites. I don’t like what Amazon does but it is the biggest place to have a presence, if not stellar sales. They advertise my books for free by listing them.

    The habit of painting all self-published authors with the same brush is disengenuous and insulting. Not all who self-publish are as bad as you might think, but the closed-minded will always remain ignorant. Go ahead, see if I care. I know my books are good because to date I have always received good reviews. If that does not count for something, then I must be doing something wrong. The other reason I self-publish is that I know how to put a book together (literally), and I have even written a nonfiction guidebook about it. But you lot who disparage self-publish are also insulting a great many classical authors who started out self-publishing and were not picked up by trad publishers until long after their books became bestsellers ON THEIR OWN.

    Look, I didn’t have time to wait around and I’m not getting any younger. I wanted to make money off the deal and also share my stories with others in the hopes that literature survives. Stick that in your dream pipes and smoke it. If you can’t tolerate self-published authors who make a real effort to produce quality books, then go stick your ideas where the sun doesn’t shine.

  39. Shiloh, congrats on your success. No, it doesn’t make a “flying flip” if you choose to self-pub or go the traditional route, but there was an air of condescension and the same old “self-publishing” is bad seeping through the cracks whether Edan intended it or not. The whole being “Amazon’s bitch” is totally misinformation and sounds more like an attention-grabber (which I guess it is) than useful information. I’ve gone the traditional and self-pub route and I’ve found both to be very hard work. Writing and publishing is hard work no matter which avenue you choose.

  40. Love this article, Edan. Having recently discovered PressBook, I’m exactly in your position, wondering if I should dip into self-publishing (children’s novels). I already have 1 trade novel and 2 education titles published here in Australia, but getting that elusive second novel to a traditional publisher is like rolling jelly uphill. Sigh….

    Your article is sensible, insightful and a little scary. I also enjoyed reading the comments. :)

  41. I especially agree with Peter Straub’s second comment. Even Drew Brees, someone at the absolute pinnacle of his profession, has several coaches who help him with every aspect of his game. Why deprive yourself of the opportunity to work with the best of the best? What’s best for your work should always be the final arbiter.

  42. PS I think some of your respondents missed the point of what you’re saying. And perhaps have ‘long toes’. Of course, there are good quality self-published books out there, but unfortunately, for many, editing lets them down. Just saying..

  43. I have read precisely one self-published novel, Sergio De La Pava’s “A Naked Singularity.” It was (as I’m sure most self-published novels are NOT) tightly plotted, packed with interesting and distinct characters, and thoroughly engaging throughout its many (~700) pages. It was (as I’m sure most self-published novels ARE) obviously and, on a few points, painfully in need of a good editor. And it will (as most self-published novels certainly will not be) reissued next year by University of Chicago press.

  44. As a published novelist and professional copyeditor for the book publishing world (and a writing coach) I do counsel many clients NOT to publish if their books are not ready yet. I wish more editors would tell writers that. And I wish more writers would see the need to first get their book critiqued long before they get it edited for publication.

    Too often new writers think their book is ready for an audience and put it up on an ebook site, and that’s their prerogative. However, I have had clients work hard to rewrite their book and then decide to scrimp on the editing since they have run out of money. By rushing to get a book out there without professionally editing it and getting it critiqued to know if it really has what it takes, a writer is just setting herself up for failure and a bad start out of the gate. With the trend (and it will only grow) of writers self-publishing and uploading ebooks, it would be great if agents and others in the industry “encouraged” writers to first take these essential steps to make sure they have a great book to offer. And of course, I’m available for hire!
    Thanks for your insights into this situation!

  45. At this moment I am fortunate to not have to self-publish (because of the work involved). I have published 5 novels with major publishers but there is an early one I have and I have thought of self-pubbing if no would take it (I have not tried). The major reason that would hold me back is that I find pr and marketing to be the most exhausting parts of being a writer and if I have had to work so hard with a major publisher behind me, I am afraid trying to do it on my own would use me up entirely. No statements are final…

    On the other hand, some great books have been self-published first before being discovered by a regular publishing house.

  46. I haven’t read through all the comments, so pardon if someone has already said this:

    Being a literary writer is actually a very good reason to go for self-publishing. _Commercial_ ‘literary” fiction might be better off with traditional publishing, but most literary work is more niche than that. That’s why historically, so many poets have been self-published.

    Remember, that the advantage of self-publishing these days is that you can make a living with a much smaller audience than you can with traditional publishing. You don’t have to be a break out author. This is the mistake that most authors make with evaluating their choices — in traditional publishing, yes, you have to be a best seller. With self-publishing, you simply don’t. You can make a living at the low end of the midlist.

    The other area of literary writing which must stay with traditional publishing, though, are academic writers. If you’re trying to maintain a college teaching career, you have to publish with a press your college considers worthy.

  47. And the debate rages on …

    We won’t come to consensus. Writers’ needs to publish are as different as the books they write. I use the word “needs” because writers pursue publication for reasons only each writer can explain. If you want validation of your talent, there’s plenty of that to be found, but I do believe the marketplace is making it more difficult to go traditional routes. Are book sales going up? Hurrah! But I think any path a writer can take to reach a reader is okay. Writing is about turning inward, and then, for some, reaching out.

    I recently talked with the president of an e-publisher to research whether I should self-publish. Here’s my post with a transcript link (for those interested):
    Thanks for your post, Edan. jf

  48. Very interesting piece, and more interesting comment discussion. I’ve always found that publishing brings out such strong opinions because it’s populated with strong willed creative types, who, by and large, are generally difficult personalities, myself included. The whole benefit of the changes in publishing is that it’s opened options for writers, everyone is free to chart their own course, but now we have far more opportunities than before. I snickered a bit at the “being Amazon’s bitch” comment because writers have, up until recently, been publishers’ bitch. If nothing else, the newfound freedoms will benefit all writers in the long run as viable alternatives sans traditional publishers will lead to better terms for writers on that end out of necessity.

    I will recommend one point to consider that I haven’t seen mentioned here (or surprisingly, very often in any of these self vs traditional arguments), that being rights. Traditional publishing generally will lock up the rights to your material, sometimes far beyond the point that any practical effort is being put into moving your books, whereas with self publishing, the author retains all rights, generally. That’s a crucial consideration these days, particularly with a fast-evolving market and the need to be flexible and nimble.

    Traditional publishers still have some distinct advantages, particularly on the print side of the equation. But tablet readers are proliferating at a large rate as the devices simultaneously improve and get cheaper. In the next few years, ebooks will overtake print in market share, possibly in a big way, and traditional publishings value there will be largely mitigated. You don’t want your rights locked into a print-first dynamic, which still describes many traditional publishers, when print ceases to be the main driving force for sales.

    That being said, whichever avenue you choose, self or traditional, the key term is publishing. Successful writers in the future will understand the business end of publishing. That’s my advice to anyone: learn as much as you can about publishing as a business. As difficult as it is, the actual writing is the easy part. Best of luck to you.

  49. 1.First, I must say thank you to those who did not engage in the condescending tone that is normally found on one of these posts.

    2. Edan, I hope and pray that whatever publishing path you choose will bring you access to the most important individuals in the literary industry, the readers. It has not escaped me that you’re stance on not self publishing has an “escape clause” or “loophole” based on time built into your post. That is something some of the more passionate advocates of self publishing didn’t comment on.

    3. It was sad seeing some of the comments by Michelle, I haven’t contacted any Independent bookstores. Not because I don’t think I need them, just based on the kinds of books they carry in my area, we’re not a good fit. I have a niche readership and prefer to use live technology to interact with the readers who enjoy my books. I’d rather not waste my time talking to someone who doesn’t respect me because of the business decision I’ve made. I have hosted well attended events at B&N but have chosen to invest my marketing, advertising and reader interaction financial and time budget in other places. (You have to treat time like money and budget it when you are in the literary business.)

    4.Edan, again at the risk of sounding redundant I hope you find a publisher to bring your books to life for you. Unless you have some major change of heart in fourteen months you may resent that you chose the self publishing route. Marketing, advertising, sponsoring your own travel to book events and other things will still be your responsibility with many small press and larger publishers. Emotions and money are constantly tied together, spending money without believing in what you’re doing will only cause regret and resentment if you still feel the same disdain for self publishing that you do now.

    5. No matter how your books become available I hope readers find you.

  50. I haven’t written a novel yet, I will eventually, but I’m on the fence regarding
    traditional publishing or self-publishing. I feel like both have their pros and
    cons. You have made the best argument why not to self-publish though. I particularly agree with points 1, 4, 5, and 7. Any writer who tries to say how traditional publishing is dying screams amateur to me. They usually come off as bitter. I read JA Konrath and Dean W. Smith’s blogs regularly, and they always make good points, but both those guys have been traditonally published and have had time and collateral, so how do I know if their method will work for me? 5 is important to me because I wouldn’t want so many people in the publishing industry to lose jobs. Also, for students graduating college with English majors who don’t want to teach, publishing is their only other option. If this goes away, an English degree loses value. And number 7, yeah, I feel like everyone and their mother has a book. It’s always “author of Book X” and “hey come check out my blog.” Look at the comments section, so many self-promoters, it turns me off from a reader’s POV. Not everyone looks at the big picture and you did, and I commend you for that, as I now have this article to help me with my decision.

  51. Although I self-published my first novel, I agree with a lot of your points here. My only quibbles are with #6. The E-Reading Conundrum. Ebooks are *less* monolithic than paperbacks in many ways. There are multiple online venues to purchase ebooks, in all sorts of formats, including, as mentioned above, pdf. And yes, you can avoid *all* corporate retailers by selling them on your own website. If anything, ebooks will not only be the savior of independent writers, but also readers. People who use ereaders are more likely to take risks on new authors or unfamiliar genres because the price of the book is usually lower. The author loses nothing because there is no wholesale discount to contend with.

    And #7, while somewhat representative of the market, comes off as curmudgeonly. I write queer fiction. Is there enough queer fiction on the shelves of the stores I visit? Hardly. The more talented voices that add their stories to the mix, the better. Yes, we are all deluged with choice – welcome to the internet age – but our filters are improving. No longer are readers looking to Publishers Weekly to tell them what to read. Instead, we seek the opinions of our favorite bloggers and twitter friends. Those opinions are more likely to lead us to successful purchases than some reviewer at the New York Times who doesn’t share our tastes.

    Don’t bemoan more content as a bad thing. Celebrate the myriad of voices that now have a platform and a means of distribution.

  52. Very insightful – and spirited – piece. My books have come out with traditional houses, and my last two – mysteries – were published by a small Catholic house. But they plan to end their fiction line, and given my ‘niche’ and the reluctance of Catholic publishers to handle fiction and the reluctance of secular houses to handle anything that has the smell of incense about it, I may need to self-publish the third entry in the series. It isn’t my first choice. But the landscape has truly changed. It’s a different story for my short stories, though. I plan to self-publish a short story collection this year. Just an experiment.
    John Desjarlais

  53. Wow, “Michelle,” talk about an axe to grind.

    You hate aspiring writers and indie author – I get that. I’m not going to change your narrow-minded mind here. I am going to call you out on your uninformed/ ignorant thinking that real indie authors pay to get published. No. That is vanity publishing, OK? Are you with me? I’ll keep going anyway.

    Authorhouse and the lot are not “indie publishers.” They demand $$$ from those too inexperienced or naive to do it themselves (they’re predatory publishers). Smashwords, Amazon, B&N, etc don’t charge you anything to publish your work, they simply take a cut of the royalties for distributing your books. And that’s what’s going on in the pubbing world. What publishing REALLY is is distribution. Those days are slowly disappearing. The readers and writers are the gatekeepers now, not the big pubbing houses. The writers can do all the distributing they need. No need for 7 middle men taking 80% of the royalties. Why do you think JK Rowling is only selling here digital versions of Potter through her Pottermore site instead of traditionally? Think, girl. OK? Still with me? Hang on, I’m almost done.

    And, again, you’re missing the huge picture because of all your vitriol. INDIE AUTHORS DON”T CARE IF THEIR BOOKS SUCK! If they can find a niche and get people to buy them still, and make some cash, and get their stories out into the reading public’s hands, WHO CARES! They’re now able to do it without all the depressing rejection letters and red-tape and hoops they’d have to jump through in order to get their work published traditionally. And, most of all, they have all the control, and they keep most of the royalties. Great ebook, or bad ebook is irrelevant in this argument. They have the entire digital world at their fingertips (if you hadn’t noticed, the digital world is here and now) and they’re taking advantage of it. Kudos to them! Their books will sell well or they won’t, depending on the writing – what do you care about it? Let them feel proud for accomplishing what millions of other people only wish they could do: write a freaking book.

    Since you seem fairly sheltered and unaware of the world we are currently living in, here’s a nickles worth of free advice: get used to digital. The world has been moving from ATOMS to BITS for a while now. Better hop on board, or get left behind, K?

    In closing: shut your big, negative yapper, get informed, remove your head from your ample backside, and have a Happy New Year. Oh, and pick up a copy of my self-pubbed eBook, would you? Thanks.

  54. Like it or not, the times they are a changing and self-publishing will continue to grow as a choice for anyone serious about their writing. Having just self-published my first novel in September, I did my research ahead of time and what continues to amaze me when I read these types of articles is how much inaccurate information floats out there and how little those on what I like to refer to as the “inside” of traditional publishing are aware of the realities of not just the self-publishing model, but of the industry as a whole. Having read through the article and the various comments let me clarify from my viewpoint:
    1- Unless you are Stephen King, your publishing house is going to expect you to dive in deep to your own marketing.
    2- Writing is an art, but if you want to earn a living, you need to treat it like a business, self-published or traditionally. That means a lot more days than you would like you will be working the business end when you would rather be writing.
    3-Your core market, that voracious reader, always anxious to plunk down a few dollars for their next read, has an electronic device. Yes they may still buy print, but they buy electronically more. So get a reader and discover their experience.
    4-POD eliminates ever having 1000 copies of unsold inventory in your living room.
    5-When you sign a contract with a house, you are beholden to them, so whether it is them or Amazon, you will be beholden to something.
    6- Amazon is not the only place to sell your books, although definitely the ones who make the experience most seamless.
    7-Your editor is getting paid to edit your book, whether you are writing the check or someone else. If they have a reputation they want to uphold they will be honest.
    8-There are lots of great editors out there who used to be beholden to a legacy house available for hire as there are cover designers.
    9-The average reader does not know if you published yourself or if a traditional house did. It is up to you to make the story tight and the cover appealing. My goal was to make my novel indistinguishable from a traditional publisher.
    10- Just because a story got a coveted green light from a legacy house does not automatically make it good or better than yours.

    Are traditional publishing houses going away? No. AM radio never went away when television was invented, but it certainly never held the glow it once did.
    Is one option better or the other? No, just different. But when making your decision do the research and be informed.

    ps. Smashwords does not ask you for a credit card. They pay you for books sold.

  55. Interesting piece, Edan. My brother Lee is far more versed on the pros and cons of this than I since he hopped on the kindle wave very early and has had a lot of success with it — I’m still of the belief that you really need to have at least a modicum of name recognition behind you to make a go of it in self publishing, Amanda Hocking aside. But there’s always been that “X person” aside as it relates to self-publishing, irrespective of the format. I still think someone without any following and without at least a bit of money to spend on promotion will have a hard path to follow in order to make money doing this, much less find readers. My little mini-book has sold a few hundred copies since it came out Oct. 1, earning me a few hundred dollars, which is about what I expected from a three short stories that had already come out in fairly large literary journals (if such things exist…), the hope of course is that it continues to sell forever and I retire to an island with the profits. It’s unlikely, of course, but what’s nice is that publishing smaller projects like this in between books is a good way for me to keep in touch with my readership, so I suspect I’ll keep doing it periodically. Even after publishing 10 books, I wouldn’t self-publish a novel at this point in my career for many of the same reasons you’ve stated, but it’s hard for me to understand why someone like Stephen King wouldn’t at this juncture, except that it’s probably easier for him to not do so. Anyway, my larger point is this: I think it’s a good alternative option at this point, but not always the best option for most.

  56. I didn’t know authors were just interested in selling books. I thought the novel was an artistic expression of the author. If you pour your heart and soul into a book, you want it to be read by more than just your family. I assume. Here’s the facts as I understand them from this series of essays. 1) You wrote a book you were proud of. 2) No publisher was willing to publish it. Given these facts, your decision is to throw the novel away, basically. Your thought processes behind this decision seem rather binary. Either you get published by a respected publishing house, or you self publish. There’s also a sense that the choice will be binding henceforth. That is hardly the case.

    I commented on the first essay in the series to suggest that if this novel is truly something you are proud of, then it makes sense to put it out there somehow for others to read. No publicity or other promotion needed. Allow readers to happen upon it, perhaps for free on your web site. Done!

    It seems to me that your decision is somewhat like a couple who decide to sell their child to the gypsies, or worse, because s/he failed to get on the waiting list to a prestigious pre-school with the hope that their next child will turn out to be more marketable.

  57. Every book I’ve written has been published by a major publisher. I’ve written under my own name and under pen names and of all the books I’ve written (ten and counting), only one got a real marketing push from the publisher. I did most of the marketing myself.

    I have many friends who are making—get this—many thousands of dollars per month (many thousands, not a few) through self-publishing. Most of them were previously published traditionally, but some of them weren’t. What sold them in the ebook world was the quality of their work and word of mouth. Not a publicity campaign. One of my self-published friends hit the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks straight, beating out Lee Child in the rankings.

    I have been on the fence about self-publishing myself and have not yet taken the leap, but I’m truly starting to think I’m being left behind. And I can say that most of the arguments made in the article above are largely incorrect.

    I know this because I spent many, many months making the very same arguments, only to discover that I was dead wrong.

    What self-publishing does is put the power in the author’s hands like never before, and, like independent musicians and other artists, puts them directly in touch with the very people who buy their work.

    Traditional publishing won’t die, but it will be severely wounded if the publishing houses don’t start making better ebook deals with their authors.

    Like any change, this one will be slow. But it will happen.

  58. Collin,

    I’m just not seeing it… but then again, I’m not looking for it. Plenty of people here clearly are, as we can see by how upset they are.

    It’s entirely possible that if you expect to see the bad, you’ll find it. Whether it’s there or not.

    Many things are open to interpretation. Many things.

  59. Shiloh, I didn’t come to the article looking for condescension or misinformation, but I found both. My day job is editing a newspaper and I’ve read plenty of opinion pieces in the last 25 years, so whether it’s intentional or not, my antenna goes up. Opinion pieces are subjective, but readers can make up their own minds. If they choose to blithely ignore the underlying mood or myopic viewpoint that is their prerogative.

  60. A very passionate argument more filled with emotion than business. Writing fiction is part art and part business. I’m published traditionally, some by NY houses, and I am an indie publisher, as opposed to a self published author (there is a very real difference BTW). So essentially I am a small press.

    I admire your honesty but I think you have to look at the reality of the NY houses. Their profits are up not because of print books but due to the rise of ebooks. The physical retail space has shrunk and is shrinking as e-books sales rise. NY houses costs are way down with e-books, and profits are way up which they refuse to share with authors.

    I believe there will always be print books, but you have to capture both sides of the market. Now in NY they offer authors 25% after the retailer cut, and if you have an agent your net will be 15%. If you indie publish (or self publish) your cut averages 65% across all sites. You can also create a print copy for about $50 using create space.

    I know you may think NY will market your book but first time authors get little or no publicity anything else you’ve heard is a myth. If your self publish or sell to NY you will have to promote the book yourself.

    As for e-readers themselves, frankly I was like you and thought there was no way I would buy an e-reading device. Now I own one and only buy e-books unless the book is something I would collect. I love my e-reader and I’m no kid.

    Now all this being said you have to wonder how your book would become a success as an e-book without that NY contract and that advance. The simple answer for self published as well as NY books is the same. You write a great story that readers love. No review will ever sell a terrible book.

    I wish you the best in your career and hope you will at least consider your options and don’t dismiss them because of emotion, after all this is a business and we all need to think of it as such.

  61. This is such a thoughtful thread that I had to add my two cents. Self-publishing is cheap. HIre a talented graphic designer to make your product look professional – because bookstores want you to look as good as the other books on display. If you want to go the “traditional route” with a big publisher, editor, publicist and so on, by self-publishing you will only put yourself closer to that desired spot.

  62. Wow–look at all these comments!

    I was not my intention to be condescending to anyone who chooses to self-publish; also, my first essay looked mainly positively at the self-publishing trajectory, and I hope that readers will check out both pieces. Either way, this is just my opinion, and it’s my opinion about my own career. It was my hope that a diplomatic look at the issues would spur a balanced debate in the comments. I really appreciate the comments from those in favor of self-publishing who have clarified certain issues and asked some thoughtful questions. Those who suggest I hate myself–well, of course I do, silly.

    To those of you who think I’m giving up on my writing because I won’t self-publish…well let’s just say I was working on my fiction while these comments were piling up.

    And, as I’ve said, I’m not against e-readers and Amazon–of course writers should have their work available electronically and online. I was simply speaking of my own personal tastes as a reader. (Thanks, though, for the Ziploc bag tip!)

    Anyway. Thanks for the spirited discussion. And thanks for reading my work.

  63. Edan:

    I’ve had my own imprint (Black Dog Press) since 1990 and though I don’t HATE traditional publishers, I’ve had enough bad experiences with idjit agents and semi-literate editors over the years to convince me that the indie route is best for me.

    I completely understand your misgivings re: doing the self-published thing and I’ve had similar back and forth conversations with myself for over 20 years. What it comes down to is CONTROL: I simply refuse to cede any major decisions to outside parties who may not have my best interest (or that of my work) at heart. Because I am my own publisher, I have final say over even the smallest aspect of book production and the volumes I produce are EXACTLY the books as I envisioned them during their long and arduous creation.

    There is undoubtedly a stigma attached to self-published/indie books and by and large the lousy rep that author-produced books have is well-earned. Too many amateurs and wannabes are using technologies like e-books and print on demand to release their childish scrawls and laughable attempts at prose. Their efforts are a pox on literature and do grave disservice to those of us who CHOSE to go indie to protect the integrity of our work and bypass corporate gate-keepers.

    Terrific post, worthy of the debate it has inspired.

    Good luck with your adventures on page and screen…

  64. I know the lay of the land in publishing, most serious writers do. It’s not as cut and dried as it appears either. I hear rebel yell all over, indie presses being touted and revered as an acceptable alternative to the big houses. I like hearing that because, although no one wants to say it out loud, many are created by groups of writers for the express purpose of self publishing. Make yourself an entity, publish each other and the taint will be hidden behind the logo. Personally I think it is crafty and pragmatic but sadly it shouldn’t be necessary but there is an imbalance that needs addressed.

    We live in an age when readers and writers are at war with the incestuous media in all its narrow minded glory. Go into any book store and just look at the garbage on the best seller shelves that passes for literature. Publishing is indeed a business but it has been so degraded by greed and the bottom line that the art has suffered. I can open any best seller and find all sorts of grammatical errors in what is defined as modern literature. Often these books are award winning which makes the lie even more appalling and insulting to readers who buy them expecting the Cadillac of novels. We are being fed a steady diet of intellectual garbage. Fortunately the self published authors who are swimming in the other direction, are actually mavericks effecting change. This sort of dialogue is actually shifting the focus back to what writing should be. We are here to translate the human experience into stories. We are here to entertain and by doing so, touch souls. To be a good writer you require these two components: the skill with which to build a world and populate it and a life that has given you something to say. I don’t know about you, but I think the clerk working at the coffee shop or the custodian dragging a mop around the hospital will have something more interesting to say about life than someone who rarely leaves the grounds of a university. Steinbeck knew this only too well. :)

    If you don’t believe that the true state of traditional publishing is in the crapper, take a trip to your local book seller and peruse the literary fiction that we are being sold. I’ve read and continue to read the majority of what is available, hyped and held above artistic reproach by every literary prize committee out there and to be honest, most of it is academic narcissism in print. Utter nonsense masquerading as a story. You will not find a single volume that could be considered in a league with writers such as Plath, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Salinger, Eliot, Dickens, Bronte et al.
    We have been living in an artistic dark ages and just as the emergence of the printing press granted freedom of expression to writers and expanded their sphere of influence, the internet is dragging us once again kicking and screaming into another renaissance. Whether we like it or not we are evolving and we can’t stop it now, nor should we. There is room for traditional, indie and self publishing but this time there will be no monopoly. This is a damn exciting time to be a writer as we have never had so many options to deliver our work to that person who keeps being forgotten: the reader. THEY buy the books, not Random house, or Amazon and we’d best not forget it.

  65. Self-publishing or working with a publishing house are not an either/or decision. Do both! Submit to publishers. If they accept you, great! [Though be very careful what rights you’re signing away to them.]

    For the occasional book where the agents/publishers say: “This is fantastic, but it’s not commercially viable” then self-publish those. The rep you’ve gained from books published through publishing houses will lead readers to your so-called “not viable” books (and vice versa).

    Once you’ve played around in both areas for a while, you may decide to self-publish more, or less, but as I said it’s not an either/or proposition.

    If you don’t want to promote your self-published books, then don’t. I do barely any promotion, and yet I hit the 1000 books/month mark this month. Even without any promotion, you’re still going to have more chance of making sales than you did when the book was sitting on your hard drive.

    [On a side note – to Michelle the bookseller – that sounds like a horrible experience. I hope I don’t ever encounter the variety of purely nasty individuals you’ve had to deal with. It’s unfortunate that your posts make it appear that you think ALL self-publishers are illiterate, rude and self-deluded (even though you clearly mention encounters with self-publishers who are not like that).]

  66. One important thing gets missed is the analysis of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing: luck.

    For every slot that opens for a traditional publisher, there are MANY well skilled writers capable of filling that slots. For no reason other than bad luck, most good writers will never get a contract.

    Even if you do get a contract, how many of those writers will get their contracts renewed?

    Given these grim facts, what are these perfectly capable writers to do?

    This is the logic that lead me to self publishing. By any rational analysis, assuming that I am a competent author, I have a small chance at a contract, and an even smaller chance at a renewed contract. On the other hand, if I self-publish, I am guaranteed a marketplace, but my odds of success are even smaller yet. That’s the reality.

  67. Snooki has two legacy published books. Just saying. That should tell you all you need to know about the industry as it stands today. The sad part is, if she sold it herself she’d make 3 times as much money most likely.

  68. I wish all those who wish to continue pursuing trade publishing the best of luck.

    While you are all querying and not receiving responses from agents, I’m going to keep making money on the books I’ve published myself. :)

    Cheers! (and viva la indie revolucion!)

  69. I was ecstatic when the dark fantasy novel I had spent years working on got accepted by a legacy publisher. I felt that I had made a step forward in the publishing world and was getting closer to the big dream every writer has of being the next best seller.

    “Spellbound by Fire” was set to be released Sept. 15, 2011, initially. Then, two weeks before the release date, I was told the release got pushed to Nov. 16, 2011 because of “production schedule changes.”

    In the first week of November, I started hearing some bad reviews about the publisher, who I’ll keep unnamed here, from readers and authors alike. Readers were saying that the editing of books from this company was less than mediocre and that they “wouldn’t even consider buying a book published by that company.” I was set to make 10 per cent royalties on print versions of Spellbound and 35 per cent on eBooks. All this fell through about a month or two after I had self-published my poetry book, “She Wasn’t Allowed to Giggle,” a memoir about my childhood growing up with domestic violence and child abuse. The self-publishing of my poetry book went smoothly, without any problems. It has made little sales, as I had expected it would, because poetry is a hard market. (I use it more to give complimentary to organizations who help victims and survivors of abuse and violence.)

    As I did more research into this publishing company, I was pretty horrified by what I found. Horrible editing, less than mediocre cover art and published works that look incredibly amateur. I was horrified that my book, my baby, was going to be treated the same in a matter of weeks.

    When I talked to the publisher, I found out that as of Nov. 5, they had yet to even start the editing process and my release date was going to be reset AGAIN. Annoyed, irritated and fed up, I terminated the contract I had once thought was my dream and am self-publishing the “Spellbound” series. My editor has ripped the book apart at the seams and made it ten times better than what it would have been under the publisher.

    The moral of all this? No matter which route you choose, traditional or self-published, do your research or you will end up unhappy. I am thrilled to be self-publishing. I am thrilled with the tiny sales my poetry book has made because I did it myself and put it out there myself. It is reaching the readers I want it to. That satisfies me. As for Spellbound…we’ll have to see how it does. I’m not expecting a best seller out of it but I am expecting it to do well. At the end of the day, it’s about what works best for you. I’d rather make my 80 per cent royalties if I am going to be doing ALL the marketing and promotion any ways. Anything I don’t know how to do I hire out for. You can find affordable but professional help out there. Smashwords (which you DO NOT pay by the way- Michelle, you are one who has NOT done her research.) has a list of affordable and professional people who do formatting and book cover designs and editing. And Twitter is a great resource for the self-published writer, all the help you could ever need can be found there.

    I can’t slam either side of publishing. I was very dissatisfied with my experience with a publisher but there have obviously been great successes that route as there have been with self-publishing. I don’t expect to be a best seller or make millions- just enough to live on and get to the point where I can call myself a full-time writer. :) I wish everyone good luck, no matter the route they choose!

  70. I haven’t read the comments, so apologies if I’m repeating what others have already said.

    I liked this. I liked that you weren’t wholly dismissive of people who do self-publish, and kept it to outlining why it does not work for YOU.

    I also write literary fiction, and should (when! Let’s go with WHEN. Yes.) the day comes to bring a novel into the world, I want a publisher behind it. I don’t need ALL the work of editing/copy editing/marketing/etc. to fall on my shoulders. Like you said, I got other stuff going on.

    However, I’m also involved in making small-run artsy books that are self-published to the point of having handmade covers. Those, I see differently. It’s closer to buying a painting than buying a book, despite literary elements. I only mention that to say that some projects are suited to self-publishing, but only if the creators involved recognize the work involved, then continue to love doing it anyway.

  71. Also, it’s worth adding to my previous thoughts: Anyone who is reading this thinking that we all have to take stand on self-publishing, and that our stand is forever set in stone? Crazy talk. Just because self-publishing is or isn’t beneficial to you at the moment does not mean that will always be the case.

  72. Doug raises the question that’s been on my mind while reading all these comments. While it’s all well and good to say, “I’m going the traditional route,” luck and timing play a huge role in whether your terrific story ever even reaches a publisher’s desk to begin with.

    This whole debate has a very PC versus Mac feel to it. (Or, for those of us old enough to remember: OS/2 versus Windows NT.)

    Finally, a question for Michelle the bookseller: You seem to understand that there are a few gems in the huge mountain of crap you encounter daily. How, if ever, do you actually find the gems? Or is the mountain of crap so huge, and the gems so rare, that you just don’t bother looking for them any more? Seriously, if you’re self-pubbed and not one of THOSE people, how *do* you overcome the stigma? Your comments would seem to imply that it is possible.

  73. @Michelle, thanks for your funny and insightful comments! You’re getting slammed by others, but having read slush piles and worked retail myself, I hear ya. (I know it’s not fun or funny when you’re still living it, but down the road I hope you’ll have great stories about Salacious Sal, Crazy Johnny….I sure do.) What made me laugh even harder, though, was the way many Defenders of Self-Publishing rushed in, and, although they themselves completely missed your points, they sure helped prove your arguments by example! : )

    —another reader for limiting the slush

  74. Great article!

    I am just completing my fourth trade non-fiction. From the input of the editor, book designer, art director, the publisher and others, it is a far far better book than I could possibly have imagined. Now the end’s in sight, I have checked the final copy, changes have been made and I’ve checked the final final copy. It will now be checked again by the editor, art director and publisher and then sent to a freelance proof reader before I get a colour version to check, which the others will check again, too. Of course, we may all miss something – but these people are all professionals who are employed to do a good job. Some could lose their job if they fail to create the best work possible

    I have worked with the team for nearly a year. Unlike a paid editing service hired by a self-publisher, with limited feedback, there are still 307 emails from my editor in my in-box, and I have deleted many.

    I did once vanity publish a picture book because I wanted to give talks in schools and, without a published book for young children, I felt a fraud – though I did have a book published for adults. Some ‘people who know about these things’ have said nice things about it, and it hasn’t harmed my reputation – but it’s only been an expensive business card.

    Best wishes to all


  75. As a book reviewer as well as a self-publisher, I think it is a fallacy that you can sell your book better than a publisher, or that you will make a ton of money if you do it yourself. The secret is the book. It is still a fact that the cream will rise to the top. Most self-published books are not cream. In most cases they are not even books. They are streams of thought that only interest the writer. Also, most self-publishers don’t realize the gargantuan work to get even the best ones out there and the frustration at the end of the day when your hard work doesn’t pay off. I approve of self-publishing, but people should have books telling them how hard it is rather than telling them it is fast bucks. There are still more starving writers than rich ones. Unless they also have a day job.

  76. My last post was not meant to sound anti self-publishing. I’d certainly self-publish in a niche where I could sell to attendees at workshops. I loved the freedom to indulge in creating a picture book to completely to my own taste. It was worth doing for that reason alone. I know some peole are successful with selling novels through word of mouth. Wonderful if you can achieve it! It can work for many. Congratulations! If you want to go through the process and spend significant time marketing, enjoy it – but know the possible pitfalls

    Sara, I do believe that you are right that producing limited edition arty copies can be very lucrative – and they can be sold to art galleries, state libraries and private collectors at a very high price, easily surpassing what you may achieve through traditional publishing. My next book is a collaboration to do just that – I’m just creating the paper engineering and hand writing the text in calligraphy.

    Limited edition self-published books sell in high street bookstores in Paris, but not in the city in Australia where I live.

    Self-publishing is great if you can come up with a book that a client will buy in bulk, eg a book of gardening tips sold to a fertilizer manufacturer to include with their product.

    There are lots of good reasons to self-publish – but just maybe a team from a traditional publisher would be more likely to take it to another level of acclaim and closer to perfection and better reviews, if it’s possible to get a contract. Even the most famous authors are pleased to consider and acknowledge improvements suggested by their publisher ‘s team – and I definitely need as much help as I can get without paying for it.


  77. There are some great points here about the impact of “genre” on self-publishing success, and about “built-in social privilege.”

    Where I take issue is the assertion that the big publishing houses have an advantage in marketing and advertising. It seems to me like yes, that’s true, but only about 5 literary books get the benefit of that marketing machine per year. That’s not a great strike rate. The rest are left to do their own promotional work.

    If you have to do the promotional work anyway, and the publishers aren’t providing the editing services that they used to, why do they deserve such a high percentage of the profits of YOUR WORK?

  78. A few thoughts on this:

    1. I’ve published several novels by traditional means. The level of marketing support has been extraordinary. I’ve been sent on book tours all over the country. People who make generalizations along the lines of “publishers don’t market their books anymore” are taking a very narrow view of what constitutes traditional publishing.

    Traditional publishing doesn’t begin and end with the Big Six. It doesn’t begin and end in New York. Traditional publishing is Random House, but it’s also Greywolf, Algonquin, and Milkweed Editions. There are publishers all over this country doing exciting and innovative things. Some are better at marketing than others. I’m not saying books don’t fall through the cracks — of course they do. I’m just saying it’s a nuanced landscape. It isn’t true that publishers only care about what sells and don’t care if the book’s any good. SOME publishers are like that, but certainly not all.

    2. Can we talk about elitism for a moment? With regards to the charges of elitism that get thrown around whenever anyone dares suggest that self-publishing might not be the absolute best option for absolutely all writers at all times, there’s something very obvious that we all politely ignore: traditional publishing is by nature an elite activity.

    To put it simply: anyone can self-publish, but not everyone can get a book deal. Traditionally published writers are the ones who persevered, who spent years and sometimes decades perfecting their craft until it was good enough to attract the attention of an agent and then a publisher.

    That isn’t a self-loathing dependence on outside sources for personal validation, it’s having enough respect for your art to refine it until you’re very, very good. Is there luck involved? Sure. Lots. But most writers ultimately get noticed because they’ve written a good book, not because they’re Snooki.

    3. At the end of the day, it’s just a business decision. If Edan doesn’t want to self-publish, that’s a business decision she’s making. It’s hard not to detect just a whiff of insecurity in the negative reactions this brings up among self-publishing proponents.

  79. Choosing to not enter a failing industry is not being a “hater.” Traditional publishing is clearly in rapid decline and possibly a death spiral. I see no need to get on board. But I have no animosity at all toward it.

    If you choose to do it, good luck!

  80. Great article, and I love the comments. (Both sides.) It’s great that writers have so many options. I’m definitely on the side believing that for literary or upmarket writers that a traditional publisher is the way to go. Sure, you can point to Amanda Hocking and John Locke as self published writers who have hit it big, but nobody can point out that kind of success with literary self publishers.

    I know literary fiction typically brings in far less money than many other kinds of writing, but I can’t imagine David Wroblewski hitting the success he had if he had self published an e-book. (And I also know some wouldn’t consider him a literary writer.) I grew up around people who like literary fiction and they are not going to hit blogs and go to the effort of finding new e-book self publishers that many genre readers will go through. I’m fine with genre fiction and think it’s great that more and more people are making a living writing and self publishing their genre e-books.

    But in some of the comments, here, it seems some forgot the point of the article: it still makes sense for certain writers to go with a traditional publisher.

    The first writing I ever sold was a comic book story. In the mid 90s, there was a boom in comic book self publishing, and there were definitely plenty of people taking sides. Some self publishers made it, but most had a hard go because so many people were doing it that it became hard to get recognition. Quite a few self publishers moved on to smaller comic book companies that allowed writers and artists to take chances.

    That’s one of Edan’s big points–while there are publishers concerned, in large part, with the easy (and lucrative) sale, there are many smaller publishers that do wonderful things and still offer authors the ability to focus on what matters most: writing the best story they can write.

  81. “Traditionally published writers are the ones who persevered, who spent years and sometimes decades perfecting their craft until it was good enough to attract the attention of an agent and then a publisher.”

    This implies that books that get rejected aren’t “good enough.” Not really. Milkweed receives far more submissions they’d like to publish than they do. This is the validation people are talking about – as if because a you got a book deal, suddenly you’re an “elite” writer. Acceptance by a publisher is incredibly gratifying, and helpful, but writing doesn’t suddenly become better because it’s published.

    An increasing number of good books are getting turned away by publishers large and small – “We love this, but…” Genre writing has carved the path for self-publishing to be taken more seriously, but there will come a time when literary writers will have some of the same success – when all types of readers have an ereader. That time’s coming.

    If you have the patience to go through with querying – go for it. But if the book’s rejected, this really shouldn’t be the final judgment on a book’s future.

  82. @Henry That was my problem exactly. With Spellbound, I got the “We love this but…” reaction. Publishers wouldn’t take it because they were so backlogged with what they already had to publish. I didn’t have one publisher say that they wouldn’t take it because it wasn’t good enough. All three or four of them I queried loved it but they were already backlogged for two or three years. Self-publishing was a business decision I made after living the horror story of the one publisher who did manage to take it. Getting a publishing contract doesn’t automatically make your book better than someone who is self-publishing. That is such a narcissus attitude to take about it. To be honest, it even sounds arrogant. A writer will self publish if they feel it is best for them. It doesn’t necessarily mean they suck (though there is a lot of junk out there.) As I said though, readers know what sucks and what doesn’t. They are the ultimate judges. Not publishers, not reviewers. Readers.

  83. Really interesting discussion here. I have to admit, I do share some of the concerns that Laura Miller and Michelle express, at the field of self-published literary work becoming the avenue for a slush pile funneled to the masses. I know that this is hyperbolic, and not a good opinion to have, seeing as it propagates the mistaken belief that the industry as it stands is some kind of gatekeeper that’s absolutely necessary to guarding the realm of literary quality. But I’ve also seen some of the kinds of self-published work that Michelle refers to, somewhat poorly composed, with iffy choices in design that tend to take away from any impression of quality that I have of them— and I know, from talking to others about this, how prevalent the belief that most self-published works are mere exercises in vanity actually is. That said, I’ve also run into fantastic, talented, dedicated, and thoroughly committed authors through reading their self-published works, which are often wonderfully written, edited, and designed, and I definitely recognize and appreciate the huge amounts of work that doing that takes. A lot of people who self-publish seem fully aware that readers will be approaching their work as I do, with pessimism—that certainly can’t be easy. I don’t know, I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t have any answers here. I just share many of the concerns.

    (And also, to Henry Baum: I ran across The Golden Calf a few years back on Another Sky’s website and loved it. Just wanted to let you know.)

  84. i love the comment from michelle, the event coordinator at an
    independent bookstore, that many self-published authors are:
    > rude, pushy, completely self-absorbed, and relentless.

    i love self-publishing, but michelle certainly rings true to me!

    some of these authors are so tenacious in their “marketing”
    that i want to _strangle_them_, and then _stab_the_corpse_.

    talk about giving self-publishing a bad name! sheesh!

    michelle also adds that many self-published authors:
    > show a really appalling level of self-non-awareness

    once again, bingo!

    and there’s so many of ’em. they’re a dime-a-dozen. seriously.

    so it’s certainly quite understandable to me why self-publishers
    almost always get a cold shoulder from independent bookstores.
    nobody makes any money when a book sits on the shelf unsold.

    i just hope the independent bookstores understand equally well
    when the self-published authors let their stores die on the vine…

    because if you call someone “the bane of my existence” today,
    don’t expect them to throw you a lifeline in the ocean tomorrow.
    they’re gonna let you drown, and probably walk away laughing…

    either we “independents” are all in this together… or we’re not.

    we’ll see who ends up being the important party in the long run.
    but my money is on the storytellers… not on the middlemen…

    meanwhile, i wish the self-published marketeers would shut up.


  85. To self-publish or not to self-publish? That is obviously the question being debated here. And I am one who did publish two general fiction stories with a so-called vanity publisher. I was pleased with the outcome, but although I have writtine manuscripts for three addistional with my sixth “child” on the way, the cost of doing so can be prohibitive especially for one on a tight bugdet such as I am. But if you wait around and hope for an agent to take on you work, you might just be pushing up daisies before you get an acceptance. Makes you wonder if they are all waiting around for the next Harry Potter. And though the merits of utilizing small presses is glorified here, many said presses I researched have a freeze on new submissions. Wonder what is going on here, and hope someone out there can explain it?

  86. As someone who “self-published” in the music business, independently producing, selling and promoting a CD, I’m here to agree with this assessment of the parallel in the publishing world. Without the heft and breadth of the marketing and promotion traditional publishing (or a traditional record label) offers, it is almost impossible for the average person to pull out of the very-saturated pack of online self-publishers. It’s great to have a place to direct the people you’re able to connect to, but those numbers are usually small and, given the glut available online, finding the hook to get new online visitors, and ALL online visitors to actually purchase your particular work of art, can be daunting. With my CD, I had stellar reviews, a good publicist, a great web presence and was set up at all the right social media…but so are a bazillon other people! It’s crazy out there! :)

    But the dilemma for us “emerging writers” remains: if you’ve got a worthy book but no agent has responded because of the myriad of reasons agents don’t respond (including fear and loathing of literary fiction!), what’s a writer to do? One agent I follow on Twitter made a comment about writers “choosing” to self-publish and, I daresay, it’s more likely, in most cases, the only option available!

    Given my experience in music, given that I write literary fiction, I have been committed to the notion of traditional publishing. But after 2 years of pounding the pavements, and despite my very visible online presence as a writer at the Huffington Post, my own blog, on social media, in film and on other websites, I’ve had no luck snagging an interested agent. I’m working on new book, I”m constantly publishing new articles, but I LOVE this novel I’ve written and believe it deserves a published and promoted life. Not ready to put it on a shelf, I’ve been mulling self-publishing despite my own wariness. Then I read this article and felt myself nodding along with Edan. Sigh. Guess I”m just going to have mull some more….

  87. Bravo to Michelle, who draws from actual experience and provides a cogent argument, unlike her detractors.

  88. This was a great thing to read Eden – thanks for writing it. I’ve published with both a legacy publisher (Random House) and then, a few days ago, with Amazon’s Singles program, for a long work of reportage from Libya. Non-fiction presents, I realize, a different set of initial assumptions for the writer. For me, FWIW, the choice to publish faster and shorter via Amazon, via write a proposal to a legacy publisher, came down to whether the services the legacy publisher offers still promise a greater readership than does direct sales. My agent and I becoming basically an indie publisher (with an unusual amount of help from Amazon, in our fortunate case) means we don’t have access to TV, probably. Random House knows the bookers at the Daily Show or Terry Gross or whatnot. And do I miss the advance? Sure. But I like being outside NY. The idea that my new volume lives or dies on the writing, rather than on the office politics of a Midtown acquisitions meeting, is appealing. And I even doubt the marketing infrastructure the legacy publisher offered me. It was, frankly, Keystone Kops at Random House. All your points are very well, taken, but I’m willing to experiment at this point.

  89. Edan, thank you so much for this. I’m pubbed by a small press and thoroughly enjoyed the process; I’m working on my second book for them. The self-pubbing thought tantalizes and I’ve been weighing the pros and cons. Your article is thoughtful, sincere, and adds to the conversation for writers everywhere. Bravo!

  90. I’ve just tweeted about this yesterday.
    Everyone can publish whatever sh*t they want w/o a problem for now. The more self-pubbers, the more badly edited, poorly written stories. (Honest, I haven’t come across a good one as of yet.) Readers will continue to read that and eventually stop reading all together.
    Traditional publishers publish QUALITY. And all of you that thought you were better than the traditional publishers? Your name will be tainted to agents and you’ll have to wait YEARS & 100 rewrites to ever have another chance @ being an author. Sad, yes. But pride cometh before the fall.
    I say this because most self-publish after a couple rejections. They think they’re in the right and the publisher is in the wrong.

  91. Hey Greta, I did the math on self-publishing vs. the traditional route. If you have a good name and good product, you have a lousy shot at being picked up by a traditional publisher. That’s the brutal truth of the industry.

    Any sane person who looks at the odds will self-publish.

    As I see it, self-publishing will become the bush leagues of the writing world. The talent that rises to the top will move up to the major leagues. Self-publishing will lose stigma simply because almost every aspiring writer will self-publish. That will become the norm. The big publishers will adjust quickly enough when they see profits.

  92. I’m a translator, and reading these comment threads I sometimes get the impression I’m the only translator self-publishing his work for e-readers. Some of my translations have been traditionally published, but in only one instance (for the _Atlantic_) was a piece actually line edited.

    Michelle the event coordinator’s remarks do indeed ring true (though I also think that the worst self-publishers are the pushiest, whereas the best lie low and generally let their work speak for itself, even if there is no one to hear it), as do the remarks of the poster who says that many small indie presses are no more than cliques of writers who band together to publish each other under an imprint that will mask the taint of self-publishing. Finally, as other posters have suggested, “traditional” publishing isn’t really so traditional. In a lot of countries, the business of acquiring rights from an author became the norm only in the last hundred years or so. Think, for example, of the many self-published nineteenth-century classics: Stendhal, Balzac, Manzoni, Ganivet, and many more.

    It’s uncharitable of me, but sometimes I don’t like the thought that my self-published work is sharing space with the work of such writers as those described by Michelle. Sometimes–less often, I’ll admit–I find that my more “traditionally” published work is not in great company, either.

    My impression is that the e-book bubble will soon burst, but the opportunity to publish my work immediately through such sites as the generally excellent Smashwords and the less excellent Amazon has changed the way I work. Instead of seeking original work that is still in copyright, translating a bit of it, and sending a query to a publisher, who will invariably say, “excellent work, but we can’t sell it,” I look for good foreign-language work that is out of copyright, translate it, and e-publish it on Smashwords, B&N, or Amazon. Sometimes, I confess, I still send samples of translations to editors at traditional house, not because I think they will offer me a contract–I know they won’t–but because I want them to feel bad, if they’re capable of it, about having to reject work that they must realize is superior to what their houses are publishing.

    Another bit, then, about the incredible self-delusion of those of us who publish ourselves: I came across a self-published writer who was planning to translate his own work using Google Translate and sell it on Amazon’s French, German, Spanish, and Italian websites!

    Finally, a self-published translator is, I think, less likely to be self-deluding than a self-publisher of original work. If the translator is deluded, after all, the work he is deluded about is only partly his own.

  93. Hmmm. I’m not published (traditionally) or self-published, but I think you are kind of shooting yourself in the foot. Just my opinion, and maybe I’m wrong, but I believe e-readers (which I also resisted) are the future, and I think publishing–inevitably–is going to evolve.

    Let’s face it. It’s a business that is (for better or worse) all about profit, and the way things are working are not that efficient. Plus (Michelle’s obnoxiousness aside), I am sure she is right that there are tons of bad self-published books, but I feel equally confident that there are very good books that are not picked up because the thought is that they won’t sell. And maybe they won’t, but maybe they will. What’s the harm in putting it out there?

    This article reads as being very self-congratulatory about being a Luddite.

  94. Greta, I’d like to take issue with your assertion that traditional publishers publish quality. Sturgeon’s Law, which says that 90% of everything is crud, holds true just as much for traditional publishing as anything else. While the actual percentage may not be as high as 90%, a great deal of what is published by traditional publishing isn’t considered quality by the vast majority of readers. Why else would publishers need bestsellers to to cover the cost of midlist titles that don’t sell? If it were all quality, one would expect most books to at least break even, if not a make a profit, however small. But that’s clearly not the case.

    The problem of course, is that quality is in the eye of the beholder. What the gatekeepers (agents, editors, and high profile reviewers) consider quality isn’t always what the reading public considers quality.

    I’m sorry you haven’t come across any good, well-written stories that were indie published. I’ve read and reviewed several on my blogs since the end of the summer and have four or five more TBR. In one case the author contacted me directly asking for a review; the other books I heard about through various social media. All of them were just as good as, and in at least one case better than, similar offerings from traditional publishers. All of them had clearly been edited, copy-edited, and prepared by people who cared about the work, both in terms of literary values and production values. In each case I am interested in reading more by that particular author.

    I’m not denying a vast number of indie published books are crap. That’s true about traditional publishing as well. But the reverse is also true. Gems exist in both worlds, and it isn’t that hard to find them.

  95. “How, if ever, do you actually find the gems? Or is the mountain of crap so huge, and the gems so rare, that you just don’t bother looking for them any more? Seriously, if you’re self-pubbed and not one of THOSE people, how *do* you overcome the stigma? Your comments would seem to imply that it is possible.”

    Of course I still look. It is possible to find a gem, and it happened earlier this year with a book that I was sent by a self-published author, who then sent me a very nice and polite follow-up email where he said he sent me the book although he knew I may not have time to read it, but he appreciated any feedback I had for him. And, that he would be interested in consignment and possibly an event if we could make it work. No presumption, no assumption, no pretention.

    The book was very nicely turned out – I found out later he had a freelance editor edit it for him, and then a professional graphic-designer friend do the cover. The book actually did not look much different from anything else on our shelves other than the paper and cover stock quality, which I honestly could care less about. I would never refuse to consign a good book because of the paper or printing quality.

    I read a few pages and the writing was GOOD. There was a story there. It was set in our region and there were well-developed characters. Plus: no typos, no grammatical errors, no Comic Sans. Was it the most amazing book I ever read? Would it give Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending a run for its money? No. But it was entertaining. We brought the book in on consignment and did an event for the author. He was nothing but gracious, nice and grateful the whole way through. He invited lots of his friends and we had a nice, successful event. The book has sold quite a few copies and we’re calling him to bring more in.

    That’s how you cut through the “slush pile” and the noise. Be nice. Be gracious. Be understanding. (This is not the same as being a kissass, and we can see through that anyway – I am just talking about treating the bookstore employees as well as you would treat any professional you are approaching about a business opportunity, with respect.) Most importantly, have a good product. Hire professionals to help you – a freelance editor can improve text considerably and many are doing it as a side job, and therefore won’t charge that much. A professional, experienced designer can really help the presentation of the book, and they shouldn’t charge that much either, as long as you keep your expectations and revisions reasonable. Be smart about your self-publishing options and don’t go really cheap on the printing just so you can buy more copies.

    Here’s what you don’t do:
    – Don’t send an unsolicited review copy without an accompanying letter or email, where you politely ask for consideration and/or feedback. Don’t call the store and throw a fit if either A. no one gets back to you about the book the next week or B. you call to get the copy sent back to you and either the store can’t find it, or they won’t pay to send it back to you.
    – Don’t email the bookstore saying you “want a date set” for your event before they have even talked to you or seen your book. Don’t write cocky, overly-self-confident emails or letters about how amazing you are, how amazing the book is, and how we should just be falling over ourselves to carry/promote the book, and if we don’t call you right now, this minute, you’ll take your amazing opportunity for us to be part of your book success to our competing bookstore across town. I realize this is called the ‘assumptive close’ and some people really believe in it. It is off-putting and rude. It will get your letter/email trashed, more often than not.
    – Don’t show up at the store without an appointment and expect bookstore personnel to spend 45 minutes with you giving you advice on editing and marketing your book. That is not their job. Hire an editor and/or a freelance agent. Or, alternately, expect them to take your consignment and give you an event date on the spot. I can’t do that until I look at the book and make sure it is sellable, and that takes more than 30 seconds.
    – Don’t harass your freelance agent into harassing the store to give you an event when the store has already said no. All that happens is we feel bad for your freelance agent and they charge you more money.
    – Don’t ever expect a store to buy from you directly and not tell you they have to bring your book in on consignment. 99.9% of stores do not buy nonreturnable books, ever. Do you think the whole “returnability” issue is ridiculous? You know what? So do I, it actually does not make much sense to me. But it’s the way the industry works and that’s the way stores will work with you. If the financial split doesn’t work for you, just say “the financial split doesn’t work for me because of X and Y reasons” which can be that you will lose money on each copy sold. We understand economics and are sympathetic to that. Sometimes we will adjust the consignment split for the right book/author, especially if the author is NICE.
    – Please, please, please – visit the store’s website before you approach the store, and if there is information there aimed at self-published authors, read it. It will answer 90% of your questions without the event person having to rehash it for you or deny your requests that you would have known not to make, if you had just read the website. You will also be able to see what the store is about and what they do and whether or not the book is even a fit for the store. Pitching a frothy romance novel to a store that has reviews of heavy literary fiction all over the place is kind of dumb, don’t you think? Not every store is right for every book – we don’t order books from the Big 6 that don’t fit our store, either.
    – Be prepared to market yourself and your book even if the bookstore carries it and does an event for you. Once the event is set, that is not the time to rest on your laurels. That is the time to kick into high gear and self-promote. Don’t expect the store to do it for you. Because you know what? We don’t do it all for Big 6 published authors either – we rely on publicists to send us marketing material, set up press interviews for their authors, etc.
    – Don’t make threats. Don’t yell. Don’t scream. Don’t insult the bookstore employee, or say condescending things (like “you know, I used to work at a bookstore in college, too bad you were never able to get a better job!” – this was actually said to me by a self-pubbed author, one who didn’t know I work here by choice and not out of necessity). Don’t storm out of the store in a huff, knocking things off shelves and slamming doors. Don’t hang up on people. Act like a reasonable, level-headed, polite human being. Be professional. You may think this doesn’t need to be said, but it does. We have had people throw things at us when we declined to carry their book.
    – Most of all, do not act entitled. That is the biggest turnoff of all. We are not obligated to do an event for your book. We are not obligated to accept a consignment without charging a stocking fee. We are not obligated to put your book in our window. We are not obligated to take abuse from people because they think they are soooo important. We are obligated to put good books in the hands of our customers and create a good shopping experience for our customers. Period. Our first obligation is to CUSTOMERS, not to AUTHORS. Even if authors are our customers.
    – And finally – no means no. When you hear no, take it for an answer. Don’t take it personally, because if you have not been a huge d-bag to the store employee, it is not personal. Whether or not people want to believe this – we hurt for people who come in all sincere and excited, and do an event, and no one shows up. Or who consign their book thinking they are going to sell hundreds of copies, and in six months, they don’t sell one, and are crushed. Believe it or not, sometimes we want to protect people from themselves, from the disappointment and embarrassment we know is coming when a book is too poorly-produced, or weird, or esoteric to appeal to people. We aren’t turning you down just to be mean.

  96. I’ve read a few dozen self-published books (and quite a few unpublished manuscripts) in the past ten or twelve years and they were all (with three exceptions) unmitigated, sub-literate shit. But it was unmitigated shit I paid little or no money to read, whereas the fifty bad “real” books I bet good money on, during the same interval, strike me, in retrospect, as a con job, in aggregate; a con that set me back by enough money to warrant investigation by the FBI. I’m talking about books by well-known writers. Books with great covers, top notch editing and clever campaigns behind them.

    My mistake: I’d wander into an indie bookshop to replace a stolen copy of “Stories in an Almost Classical Mode”, say, and grab a couple of new books to go with it. Well, I just kept doing that, taking that gamble, undaunted by the astronomical failure rate. Year in, year out.

    The parallel experience of reading even-crappier self-published/ unpublished material was *lots* less expensive… which generates a certain amount of good will towards the self-pubbing “outsiders”, in my opinion. Versus the philosophical grudge I’ve developed towards the slick shit pumped out in continent-flooding volumes by venal houses of note. They cost me between 20 and 30 bucks apiece (sometimes, even more) these c. fifty poorly-written “real” books I was gulled into buying.

    Not that the publishers / book-sellers give a damn about that (or are necessarily clever/ literate enough to know the difference); the publishers and book-sellers are just there to move product. As are most of the professional “writers” out there, today. Nothing new to say and no new way to say it? No problem! You can work-shop it (imagine work-shopping a painting) and market-test it (imagine market-testing a sculpture) and get Chip Kidd to do the cover…!

    I’d love to see one of “Michelle’s” stern lectures delivered to one of the many word-murdering “writers” out there moving mega-gallons of product! Got any salutary admonishments to unleash on James Frey, “Michelle”? Of course not! It’s all about them Benjamins (as another bestselling memoirist once put it).

    The self-pubbers aren’t the only self-deluders out there. And the real divide here is not between one form of publishing and another.

  97. Had a chance to talk to Mike Resnick last year. He has been writing and making his living writing SF longer than I’ve been alive. His statements about ebooks dovetail nicely with your point #4. He has an enormous backlist of short stories and other work, the rights to which have reverted but would require more effort to get published again.

    His wife giggled and said, “It’s the first regular paycheck we’ve had since the fifties.”

  98. @Shelley (2:39 December 3)

    Your epic narrative poem looks rather good; I read a few passages and came away impressed ( Homer does the Dustbowl…?)


    Hell, she never
    Questions it, he thought:
    No more than she does
    Her skin and bones–she
    Don’t ask, just goes on.
    Thomas thought how
    Ignorant she seemed–
    She seemed not to
    Notice he’d gone broke.
    She still sent James
    To him with his
    Questions: weather,
    Birds….And James
    Seemed to speak to him
    Still with respect–
    Oh, Tom watched him
    Close for signs of sass–
    James said yes sir, no sir.
    Tom thought, this is
    Crazy! I’m
    A bum!
    And my family
    Don’t appear to know.

    Tom and Riah
    Startled: car? They
    Traced approaching
    Headlights with surprise.
    Time was way past
    Nine. There came
    A figure floating
    Through the front yard gate.
    Mrs. Marvin.
    “Evening. Riah,
    You had better
    Come. We all are
    There. It’s Earline’s
    Boy. In a bad
    What say?
    The ruddy Stubbs,
    Picture of rude
    Health with his plump
    Cheeks. Last to catch
    The typhoid.

    Riah glanced at
    Thomas. Fine.
    Her: “Be
    Right along.”


  99. Pictures books have also not caught up with the self-publishing train, which is interesting, since I think there are valid reasons for self-publishing a picture book. That whole reading in the bathtub thing is a conundrum in the age of e-readers. I think I’m going to have to invent a waterproof one, kind of like an underwater camera.

  100. Great essay, Edan, and thank you for taking time away from your class prep and your own writing time to share this. I’d like to contribute my observation that some writers are full-on extroverts and love the business of promoting their work, self-published or traditionally published. They’re great at it! They love the interviews (good luck getting those if you’re self-published unless you are already well-known, like Peter Straub, or a 1 in 50,000 internet phenom the traditional media has just ‘discovered’), the touring, the daily ratio of 3 hours spent actually writing original content vs 14 hours spent using social media on four platforms to toot and tweet their own horns, and so forth. Other writers are more introverted, need to focus on their own writing, do not want to spend any of their rationed time being their own publicist, editor, tour organizer, publisher, sales rep, media contact or bookseller.
    As for temperament, I’m half and half and I’ve also worked as a bookseller, editor, publicist, readings and events organizer, sales rep, tour organizer and author. I’ve self-published, in 1981, and I’ve gone the traditional route with independent Canadian publishers of a literary bent. It is my experience that the best thing to happen to my books are editors who are tougher and smarter than me. Having spent decades promoting and selling other people’s writing, the thought of having to do more of the same for my own self-published work makes me sag with fatigue. I respect the pros in the business and I’d just as soon they did all that word of mouth behind the scenes stuff to sell my traditionally published and e-books. It’s hard enough just to write really well without having to take on all the rest of it.
    Furthermore, it’s a big world and there is plenty of room for extroverts and introverts amongst the creators, as there are amongst the readers. Monopoly of the bookselling business leads to entropy. Self-published work, available in many places, is a response, in some ways, to the dominance of Amazon, Chapters, et al, a ragged chorus with rough and polished diamonds glittering amidst the unedited dross.

  101. I don’t know what self-published books people have been reading, but all the ones I’ve read have been excellent. If a publisher is burdened by self-published authors all they have to do is set a bar. For example, we will not even consider taking a look at your book unless it has gathered so many 5 star reviews and sold so many copies, unless you have a mailing list of so many people, unless you have a blog with so many hits, and a presence in social media with so many followers, etc. There are ways to filter out the authors you don’t want. In self-publishing the point is not that the book is good from the point of view of language and story purists, the point is whether the author has a following and sells. That is what you should be looking at.

  102. Many people will say, “if it’s good, it’ll get published,” but that, my friends, is not often true. Many, many authors struggle for years to get publishers to look at their work. In the UK, most publishers will not accept unsolicited submissions – you have to know someone, or meet an editor at a literary event and be invited to submit, or you have to have an agent.

    I once wrote to a publisher to introduce myself and to ask if they would like to invite me to send them my work: the response I got was, “We do not accept unsolicited submissions.” I pointed out that I hadn’t submitted anything to them: I was asking if they would like to invite me to. Their response was, ” “We do not accept unsolicited submissions.” Ho hum.

    Most UK agents are simply not interested in reading 150 submissions per week. AND many are in no way qualified to act as an agent: there is no training academy for agents. Many employ students and others to read the slush pile, or they just return submissions unread (even top agents do this – I have personal experience and an admission).

    There will be crap indie books, and there will be crap traditionally punished books – I read loads of them (Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer and other top selling authors have been accused by many critics as being in this category).

    If you want to read some background try this series short series of posts –

  103. Michele, I posted your post above on my website and it generated a lot of controversy. I also posted my reply to it. Click on my username if you want check it out.



  104. “I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book; I want them to tell you it’s good so that I don’t have to.”

    i don’t understand what you mean. unless you’re a bestselling star at a Big 6, then you’re going to have to self-market, thereby telling others yourself that your book is good. but maybe you’re not interested in reaching readers?

    there are some fantastic professionals working in the publishing world, but there are also mediocre ones and worse. as a 20-something intern at harpercollins, bloomsbury, and literary agencies in the UK, what did i do? i read the unsolicited slush, rejecting or recommending them on a whim. did i have any prior training? nope.

  105. I’ve been writing a book for years while I run a small computer business. I now am thinking of getting the book published. One of my techs tells me over and over I’d be a fool not to self-publish electronically and even tells me how to go about it, saying print is old school. It is amazing having 20 and 30 year old men working for me and telling me how to do things. I’m a computer tech too but I am not as well-versed in the whole media side of it. My techs do everything on the computer including reading books, watching movies, watching tv, and listening to music.

    But I love to curl up in bed with my book, I tell my techs. You can curl up with a tablet or an e-reader, they say.

    It does make me think, all media, including books is going electronically, and on fewer and fewer devices. I still love all my books in the bookcase.

  106. I note this article with interest having put 5 books on Amazon (and to a lesser degree Nook) in the last year. To date, I have sold over 5000 books. I have one stand alone novel, Lifelines, and four murder mysteries that are a series. I am very grateful they have sold so well.

    I couldn’t get an agent. I tried. Over and over and over. I agree that an editor’s or publisher’s comments would have been (and still be) very helpful – but for those of us that the traditional publishers won’t give the time of day to – so what? I suspect that most didn’t even read the queries I labored over so diligently before submitting.

    Agents and publishers are picky and I do understand why. It’s a very competative market and expensive to take on a new author but the system leaves many of us unknown authors out in the cold. Most of the agents were very nice when responding to my query but there were also some who either didn’t respond at all or who were actually rude in their responses. I understand their need to be selective – I don’t understand their arrogance.

    Amazon is the best forum I have found for my books and I have gotten very good e mails and comments from readers, most of whom I don’t know. I appreciate their time in e mailing me and I really appreciate their purchase of my books.

    I am a huge fan of self publishing because for me it provided a forum for my books. Yes, you wade through a lot you may not like but there are gems out there as well.

    For those of us who aren’t Grisham, Connor or Steve Barry, let’s hear it for the e book forums who let us publish!

  107. Your reasons are good ones, but there is a flaw in the logic. You are making the assumption that writers have the luxury of deciding between traditional publishing and self-publishing.

    You describe small presses as though they are always an option, but most established small presses can only handle a few titles a year and are unlikely to take on unagented or unproven writers. Agents are still being overwhelmed by material and won’t take on what they don’t think they can sell. In a tight market even independent publishing houses may not take on writers who need nurturing and whose first book might not get back the advance. Even when a writer does all the right things as you have including building publishing credits in small magazines and journals, it may not be enough.

    Publishing decisions aren’t made because of a book’s quality. They are made based on guesses about marketability, and most publishers won’t take a chance on anything they don’t think will sell enough to make a profit. That doesn’t mean it won’t sell, just that it may not sell enough to cover all the costs involved in publication.

    You’re building a career. I get that. You’re getting published in small magazines and hoping to get the cred to get the contract, but if you’re writing literary fiction and not working on a series with a plucky female detective, that may not be good enough.

    What it comes down to is this: After working on your novel for years, after writing and rewriting and getting critical feedback from those respect, what happens when you can’t find an agent for it, or the agent you have explains to you that it just won’t sell? What happens after the tenth small press editor says no, not because he doesn’t think it’s brilliant, but because they can only publish two titles that year and are going with more established authors? Do you accept the verdict, put it away, and move on to your next project or do you go it alone, knowing it may only sell a few thousand copies, and do little to win you professional respect? Which choice shows more of a belief in your own worth and commitment to your vision?

  108. Does any literary writer set out to publish e-books? I doubt it. I certainly never meant to do so, but since my first agent, Harriet Wasserman, closed up shop due to health reasons and my second agent, Jack Scovil is dead, I’m reconsidering. In both cases all the info regarding my manuscripts was lost/disappeared. As I result I’ve lost valuable time in an industry that’s swallowing itself.

    So now I’m considering self-publishing two novels as e-books. And why not? In today’s publishing world, you have to do you own marketing. I can easily spend another hour uploading each manuscript so I don’t have to share my royalties with any company but a distributor.

    Meanwhile,dear writer, please consider this advice. Find yourself a young, healthy agent.

  109. Excellent article.

    Self-publishing will only make sure than authors that are not best-selling already will never get noticed in the noise. We, readers, assumed that we could expect a minimum quality from the books we found in a bookstore. Now, the only safe choice is the writers have already read. More sales for Stephen King and good new talent wasted.

    And no, we don’t have time to sample through the junk. It’s not practical. We expect someone with experience to do that for us to some degree. Editors are not perfect but they are better than nothing. Imaging examining oranges one by one to find some that don’t stink.

    I also respect reviews from press reviewers and disregard the reviews of self-published books on Amazon. As I have seen, far too many self-published writers will review books written by their friends, and many will hire reviewers, even buyers. A very successful self published writer even admitted it publicly. It’s a well known method, you will find in on the kindle forums and people discuss it openly all the time. They even consider it fair play. Things like that have always happened in the industry, but this is way out of line. It’s a pain to see writers, creators of art, behave like crooks that want to fool their readers.

  110. Edan, I heard you read in Los Angeles, and I really appreciate both your writing and your thoughts on self-publishing. You’ve thought through your personal stance so well that I actually feel like you’ve done the work of explaining my own reasoning to my husband for me. Thank you :)

    I’m both annoyed and amused at some of the comments by self-published writers that say you’re in it for the validation. I didn’t read that anywhere in your post. Sounds like they’re feeling defensive.

  111. Writers who refuse to accept self-publishing as a option are only going to shoot themselves in the foot in the long term. More and more previously trad published writers are turning to self-publishing, not just for the vastly superior profit margins it offers but also the control you have. And when trad publishers usually farm out editing, copy-editing, proofreading and cover design to external companies then why not just do it yourself?

    I read this interesting article yesterday

    about how much money EL James DIDN’T make as a result of signing up with Random House. While it’s far harder to get noticed without a marketing department behind you the results if you ARE noticed can be significant. Good on Hugh Howey for keeping ebook rights, hopefully it’ll become a standard. The trads know they’re missing out, and they’re just clambering for a piece of the pie in an age when they have less relevance than ever before.

  112. re: “…Amazon monopolizing the reading landscape”.
    This is a very relevant concern and folks may not be paying attention to it; thanks for pointing it out Edan :-)

  113. When you look behind the stories, the authors were driven to self-publishing due to being scammed by small fly-by-night publishers or blocked by the majors, but have used their success to sign with publishers. Other authors have not left the fold, and have reasons why self-publishing is inadequate

  114. Interesting information. I dont believe that any one way is the only right way for all authors. For those who choose the traditional route – if they can find a publisher to publish their work, it may be the best way for them. For others, myself included, the very idea that someone else will be given sole power to decide the fate of a particular book is intolerable. Independence and complete freedom to publish our own work as we see fit is more important than almost anything else to us.

  115. Edan, I heard you read in Los Angeles, and I really appreciate both your writing and your thoughts on self-publishing. You’ve thought through your personal stance so well that I actually feel like you’ve done the work of explaining my own reasoning to my husband for me. Thank you

  116. This article and many of the comments that follow confirm my own suspicions. I’ve worked as a bookseller, proofreader, editor and am currently writing my first novel. I’ve long suspected that too many of the self-published crowd laud the virtues of the option through the delusion that they are the next big thing and a dozen agents and big box publishers were simply too arrogant to admit it–dismissing entirely that the more likely reason was that they simply were not good enough. On the flip-side, making any money while you’re honing your craft is better than making nothing. But this too has a downside in that you may never establish a true following beginning as you will from a place of inferior work. The best self-published works I’ve read still pale in comparison to the handful of authors I read between covers. What is clearly missing is the expert collaboration that brings tangible books to the stores. The moniker Vanity Press has not been misplaced.

    If money is the only reason a writer writes, then maybe this is the market for them. If however the goal is something greater, then I say traditional publishing is the only way.

  117. Lepucki is a weird success story, one I remain skeptical of even while I admire her well-collated advice here. She’s on the mark with almost all of it. That said, “I write literary fiction” is an infinitely questionable statement. Lepucki is very much dabbling in genre and her prose isn’t consistently all that artful; at best she’s “literary with a lowercase “l”,” not really literature in, say, the Joyce/Faulkner/Nabokov/Woolf/Flaubert regard.

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