A Self-Publishing Reality Check

I’ll try to keep this short.  I have only one very simple point to make here today.  And it’s not pretty.

But it is important.  Every movement of mass hysteria has a voice of reason and moderation, and this is it.

This is about getting real with your dream of being published.  Because – newsflash – it isn’t the same dream that you started with.  And the new one doesn’t come with the same perks.

Earlier this week we ran a terrific guest post (from Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn) about the brave new world of self-publishing and why even the dreariest of cynics should give it a close look.  I absolutely agree that the emerging digital venues for fiction are changing everything in a way that opens doors formerly bolted shut, in addition to rapidly shutting down the chain bookstores (a debatable disaster) and putting many independents at risk (a true disaster).

 But let’s all file in with our eyes open and our dreams still in our pants.

It wasn’t that long ago that self-publishing was a haven of last resort.  Traditional publishing rejected you (I know they sure did reject me), so you spent your money and got the thing printed yourself.  Or – for even more money – you signed on with a third party to help make that happen, hoping they might get you into the bookstores that you can’t.

They didn’t.  Nor did they give you your money back.  There was no market for independently published fiction, the only market was for the folks offering to get you into one.

But now there’s a new self-publishing sheriff in town (that’s Sheriff Kindle, to you), and he’s swinging open the publishing doors to anyone and everyone who knows how to download a digital file.  And because the bookstore of today is just a few keystrokes away, everyone has access to the marketplace.

Or so the theory goes.

What used to be a concert by John Denver is now allowing anybody with a ticket up onto the stage.

Advocates love to herald the success stories of how a handful of self-published books are being “discovered,” how they are landing seven-figure contracts or, more recently, selling hundreds of thousands of digital copies via Kindle and iBook and other technologies.

I have to be careful not to rain on this parade.  I may be marching in it myself before long.  Come to think of it, I already am, as my ebooks are selling well on Kindle and my new trade paperback (not self-published, it’s from Writers Digest Books) has a digital version available, too.

I could rain a torrent of caveats on that issue, but none of that is my point.  But, to help me make what is my point…

This Just Happened

Part of my writing journey involves reading and critiquing unpublished books and screenplays, with a view toward coaching them toward salability.  The idea, of course, is to see if there are issues that can be fixed and opportunities to be seized before sending them out to the big bad world of traditional publishing. 

Which, in case you’ve been writing under a rock, is about as stable and viable as the Egyptian stock market lately.

One recent project didn’t go as the author planned. 

Many writers send me their work in the hope of affirmation, and sometimes we have to do a little reality dance before they open their hearts and minds to the feedback they’ve paid for. 

In this case… well, let’s just say the author needed to start over.  Nothing about the novel worked.  There was a seed of a story there, somewhere, but it needed replanting in a more fertile dramatic landscape, and watering from more capable hands.  So I wrote a 17-page, single-space opus of constructive criticism, ending with ideas for a resurrection leading to a rebuild.

In the game of manuscript feedback, I’m way more Paula than Simon.

The response was something like this: okay then, thanks for trying, but I love my book the way it is.  So do all my friends.  So I’m going to publish it myself, as I’m hearing all the time that great books are selling well even though New York publishers rejected them

And off he went to throw three or four thousand dollars at this wonderful new strategy.  And yes, he’ll probably “be published” at the end of the day.

But is that really the goal?  Simply to hold a copy of your book in your hands, one with your name on the cover?  It’s legitimately intoxicating, to be sure (even though you could arrange for the same thing at Kinkos… but that’s a little cynical, so never mind), but it’s a little like sending your money to diploma mill or buying air time on the local after-hours cable channel. 

 Does that make you executive material?  Does that make you a television star?  Does anyone ever really know it’s happening?

It’s interesting to note that the only people sending me manuscripts with checks attached are still trying to crack the traditional publishing code.  Nobody planning on publishing their book themselves, ditial or otherwise, seems to think professional editorial help is necessary.

Interesting.  And scary.  Because it defines this new marketplace, as well as makes my point.

Is this really the dream you’re chasing?

Now, I know stranger things have happened, and I’m certainly not the standard-bearer for what is publishable or not publishable.  But I do know a turkey when I see one, and this thing was gobbling from page one.

I also know a turkey will sell a few dozen copies out there, maybe a few hundred.  And, that among the flock, there may be a golden goose waddling about waiting to be discovered before Thanksgiving.  It could happen.

My hope is that writers go this route with their eyes open and their expectations in check.  Because publishers are not employing scouts to find the next passed-over gem floating around in digital space thanks to Kindle, and when it does happen – which it does – it’ s more an accident of serendipity than it is a coalescing strategy.

The sad and ironic truth is that your shot at writing a breakout self-published book, one that makes you real money and/or scores you a New York deal and launches a career, is significantly less than simply submitting your book to an agent who can sell it to a major publisher. 

The former happens two or three times a year.  The latter?  Two or three hundred times a month.

The game hasn’t really changed at all, it’s just harder than ever to get in.  So maybe a minor league is the answer afterall.

Writers are forgetting how to do the math.  Because the allure of holding a book that you’ve written in your excitied, clammy little hands, even if its on a Kindle screen – something self-publishing is certainly making feasible – is that powerful.

The publishing dream is a drug.  And the internet is making it legal and easy to come by.  It’s just that the high isn’t as high, and it won’t last long enough to even get you hooked.

The moral of the story is this:

Set out to write a great story.  One good enough to get published.  When you are told that it isn’t, find out why and fix it.

With the frenzy of opportunity and enthusiasm that the new world of digital self-publishing is dawning in a glorious burst of spontaneous manuscripts showing up all over the internet, one might be easily find themselves seduced.  Sucked into a dream-swap that displaces worthiness and opportunity with accessibility.

The minor leagues are like that.  At least you get to play.  Even if it’s in Walla Walla.

We’re hearing this a lot lately: it’s easier than ever to get published these days.

But is that really the goal?  If you buy your own seat on stage are you really part of the show?

Hear me clearly, there’s nothing wrong with publishing your own book, even after New York as told you to take a hike.  Hell, I’m reading one now (“Bitsy’s Labyrinth” by Mary Andonian, a youth novel that’s nothing short of beautiful in its execution), and my hope is that this becomes a stepping stone to what has already been her publishing dream for some time.

Thing is, writers are starting to confuse the stepping stone with the real dream.  Because the internet is dressing them in the same uniform.

That’s the point here.  Use this is a strategy.  Don’t confuse it with the end game. 

The Old School Is Still In Session

What is getting lost lately is the fact that the standards of traditional publishing really haven’t changed at all.  It’s the machine that’s broken, due in part to the unprecedented number of incoming submissions and competition from the very technology that is changing the marketplace into uncharted territory.

But if you look closely, even within the chaos, you’ll notice that a shift has taken place.  It used to be that a book had to be good enough to impress an agent and then a publisher.  Now, with the digital venue available to absolutely anybody, and with agents pushed out through a side door, a successful book has to be good enough to impress a reader willing to pay for it.

And readers, as a collective whole, have always had a higher bar than publishers.  That’s why not everything that is published ends up selling.

Make no mistake, self-publishing your book is a proposition measured in the hundreds of books, not the thousands or tens of thousands you hear about in those exception fairy tales.

Which means the dream has shrunk to the size of a trade paperback from Lulu.com, one that you can hold in your hands and show your friends.

It feels good.  But is it The Dream?  Don’t kid yourself, it isn’t a career.  It may become a stepping stone — now that’s a viable strategy — it may not.  But until it becomes one, it’s an illusion.

Hear me clearly, digital publishing is a good thing for writers.  

But it doesn’t change a thing in terms of what we, as writers of books, need to know and need to shoot for in our work.

The bar isn’t lower than it was. 

Don’t confuse that with the fact that the walls to getting “published” have come down, and indeed, that the very definition of “getting published” has evolved into something with very little relationship to what it was.

Not long ago a major writing conference of, say, 500 folks would find three to eight published writers in the audience.  These days, you’ll find thirty to fifty, maybe more, all because of the availability of the distinction of being published.

Bottom line: if you want to sell a book that will find readers, that will stick around and actually appear on a bookstore shelf in addition to its Amazon page, that stands a chance of being discovered among the exploding pool of digital product out there, then you better not settle.

You better understand what makes a story work, and deliver something that adheres to the principles of the six core competencies in context to what the market has shown that they want.

Because if you don’t make that distinction – if you think you can publish a manuscript that is otherwise sub-par, or so original New York won’t buy it because it’s never been done before, but somehow the digital reader will forgive you and spread the word – the marketplace will make that distinction for you.  And you won’t like it.

Cream still rises to the top.  It’s physics.  Even among traditionally published books this remains true.  It’s easier than ever to get into the dairy these days, but whipping up the cream is as hard as it ever was.

You thought the slush pile was huge and intimidating before?  Today it’s bigger than ever.  Because now it’s on the web, available for download for only $6.99.

Don’t bite. 

Write like you are still trying to impress someone at Random House. 

And while some masterpieces will certainly slip through into self-published digital nirvana due to the inevitable chaos of traditional publishing, there’s no indication whatsoever that the standards of readers are lowering.

Getting published is less than it was.  But selling your work to a mass audience is very bit as hard, and as rewarding, as ever.  And if you think you can do it without a Warner Books promotional budget…

… well, perhaps you should consider the fantasy genre.  Reality may not be your thing.

Dreaming is good.  But every dream that ever came true did so because the dreamer woke up and got to work.

And no, I didn’t keep this short at all.

Let the debate begin.  I can already hear the rocks hitting my window.

70 Comments

Filed under getting published

70 Responses to A Self-Publishing Reality Check

  1. Larry, thanks for the motivation.
    “Dreaming is good. But every dream that ever came true did so because the dreamer woke up and got to work.”
    Excellent quote. It’ll find its place on my desk.

  2. Great post, and I couldn’t agree more. Readers’ standards have not dropped and I, for one, am not willing to fork out even a few dollars to read something I know I won’t enjoy.

    This is why I’m aiming to write a story that I would love to read, something that meets the high standards of all the (print) books I have enjoyed reading over the years.

  3. I agree, Larry. I still look to see who the publisher is before I consider buying an ebook. Unless a whole bunch of people whose opinions I trust are going gaga over a self- or indie-pubbed ebook, I’m not going to spend my limited book dollars on a gamble.

    For that same reason, I’m still holding out for a traditional publishing house.

  4. Karen

    I so agree with this. Aspiring novelists are a peculiar bunch. Defensive about criticism, blind to their weaknesses and resistant to doing the hard work necessary to up their game. Trouble is when writers self-publish inferior work it hurts everyone. Readers become suspicious of trying new writers.

  5. I think you’re making some gross assumptions that everyone out there on the self-publishing bandwagon was a) rejected by New York and b) wouldn’t know a professional product if it bit them in the ass. Certainly there are plenty of those speshul snowflakes out there. But there is also a sizable contingent whose dream is simply to MAKE A LIVING as a writer. If it came down between holding my physical book in my hands while being forced to keep working my lousy day job or actually doing what I love and supporting myself by those listings on Amazon (and elsewhere), there is NO CONTEST which I’d choose. And I can give you lists of a couple dozen indies right off the top of my head, who aren’t Amanda Hocking, who are doing exactly that. Making a living. A good one. And dozens more who will be doing so over the course of the next several years.

    Certainly digital publishing IS a stepping stone for many of us. I AM one of those exceptions you mentioned who recently got agented as a result of the solid platform I’ve built as an indie. But it’s a mistake to assume that every single person out there has an end game of being traditionally published. I was not looking for an agent or traditional contracts, and I was doing quite well on my own. There are indies who LIKE being indie and want to keep it that way. That doesn’t lessen them or their work. It doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in well-edited, well-formatted, well-written story. The indies I know work incredibly hard to rise above the stigma, knowing that we have to produce something as good as or better than New York to succeed. It’s why we spend time studying craft in the form of books like yours. Why we take the time to find good cover artists, and, yes, editors, to make sure we put out good work. Sometimes we hire out for these things. Sometimes we trade among each other (and before you say this is the blind leading the blind, a lot of us do professional editing FOR our day jobs). None of this means that we’re somehow settling for self-publishing, and suggested that we are is insulting to those of us who chose to do this as responsible business owners (because it IS a business). Many of us feel that we are better off in our own hands than in the hands of an industry that’s fighting tooth and nail to hang on to an antiquated business model. And those of us who put in the work to produce the quality don’t deserve to be lumped into the stereotype.

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  7. Brilliant post. Thank you.

  8. Never sacrficie the story. Never sacrifice the dream. In that order.

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  11. @Kate — thanks for the thoughtful response. Didn’t mean to insult anybody, as I acknowledge that there is plenty of cream and solid strategic thinking within self-publishing. Like I said — and I’m like you in this regard — I do it myself, I make money from it, and it led me to a traditionally publishing writing book. So perhaps my point wasn’t clear enough, probably because the point is complicated. You ask me not to assume that everybody is in the same self-publishing boat, that they aren’t all formerly rejected by NY or “less-than” when it comes to craft. Not at all. On the other hand, I urge you not to assume that everybody publishing their own work is putting the same level of effort and craft into their work that you are. Read the other comments here, this bears out. The quality bar is lowered, you can’t argue that. Just as you can’t argue that among the engorged crowd there remains some stellar work. My message, which I intended to be simple (and wasn’t) is simply this: publishing yourself brings you no closer to a career or a wide audience than traditional publishing (neither are sure things), because the standards of quality and the fickle high bar of readers is every bit as high as it was. In fact, it’s higher because, with all that unfiltered work out there, readers are pickier and more skeptical.

    Always good to hear from you, Kate. Thanks for contributing to this conversation. L.

  12. I couldn’t have said it better myself. In the words of Vikki: “Never sacrifice the story. Never sacrifice the dream. In that order.”

  13. Thank you for writing this. It was what I needed to be reminded of today. It’s hard to stay the course when you keep hearing about the breakout self-pubbed writer. I’ve jumped over a few of the hurdles–including having completed 6 novels and landing a literary agent through the query process, but we’re still waiting for that first elusive sale.

    In the meanwhile, several of my past crit partners have gone the self-pub route and have stories out in the world.

    It’s hard when well-meaning friends and relatives want to know why your books haven’t sold yet and suggest you self-publish them. I’m still hopeful and committed to the long, traditional road for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that any book I self-published would be a molecule of a drop of water on the ocean of what’s out there.

    I did have a momentary cringe when I read this from your post:

    “Getting published is less than it was. But selling your work to a mass audience is very bit as hard, and as rewarding, as ever. And if you think you can do it without a Warner Books promotional budget…

    … well, perhaps you should consider the fantasy genre. Reality may not be your thing.”

    ‘Tain’t nothing wrong/low class/simpler about writing fantasy. Don’t think you meant that, but, hey, we writers are a sensitive breed.

    Thanks again for a super post.

  14. Patrick Sullivan

    This is such a weird topic because of the number of people who go into self-publishing without doing the research first.

    They see the Hocking’s, the Michael J Sullivan’s, the JA Konrath’s, and figure “oh hey I can just do it” without figuring out things like editing, covers, getting word out (Konrath can get away without pimping himself anymore, someone new can’t), and so many other topics.

    But at the same time, this is an opportunity that can’t be ignored. Every month it seems like there is another 1000+ books sold a month indie author. When you consider priced at 2.99 on kindle and PubIt! that’s over $2000/month pre-taxes. How many traditionally published authors manage that?

    And to those saying they won’t touch a book by a non-standard publisher, a) that opinion is coming towards the minority of late, and b) that is why Kindle and B&N allow you to sample… 10% of the book before buying I believe? You are given a chance to take a taste and make sure the work is not riddled with errors and just written terribly in general before buying. We as readers have that safety net.

    It’s a brave new world for those willing to take the risk who also do their research 🙂

  15. Patrick Sullivan

    As to the point about needing the budget of a major publisher, good luck getting them to open the purse strings before you’ve already sold well. I haven’t heard of a new minted author getting real ad dollars invested in them unless the publisher already had to fork out a big advance due to the book going to auction due to demand from multiple publishers.

    Which is why I think self-publishing may become the new slush-pile at some point, because they let the audience do the vetting for them.

  16. Amen to that, Larry! This is the best post I’ve ever read, seriously! Thank you.

  17. Larry, you are 100% right! Right on the money.

    The truth is, editors at the big houses are not idiots. They know writing and they know the market. Of course there are exceptions, good books that get passed on and bad books that get bought. But an exception does not invalidate the rule. No more so than a life-long smoker who lives to 100 should disproves the rule that smoking is generally bad for you.

    Most–and I mean on the order of 99%–of books that get passed on are done so because they aren’t good enough.

    Technology is great. It has allowed legions of people to pursue writing as a hobby and to see their words in print and for sale. Just like public golf courses allow the non-country club set to get in 18 holes. But that doesn’t mean those weekend hackers should be playing on TV on Sunday.

    Access to digital publishing sites does not improve anyone’s writing. It only allows bad writing to go public.

    I have taught fiction and nonfiction writing and I can tell you that most people, despite best effort and intention, just can’t write worth a darn.

    Writing is about discipline. The vast majority of people who think they are writers are simply in love with the idea of being writers, not writing itself. I think most of what you will see online are first drafts. There may be a story in there somewhere, but it’s not what got “published.”

    Taped to my computer is my favorite quote from Ernest Hemingway. “The first draft of anything is shit.”

    Chuck Hustmyre
    http://www.chuckhustmyre.com

  18. Great post and awesome comments.
    I will be one of those who rises above the crowd in this new self-pub venue for a few reasons:
    1) I’ve been in this business for years, working the craft, networking with agents, editors, and published authors who have successful careers in both e and print.
    2) I have a background in marketing and understand the nuance of platform and am planning the promotions into specific niche markets
    3) I’ve hired an awesome editor that has a solid track record and has won awards as a writer specific to the style and presentation of my nonfiction book
    4) This book has been shopped around publishing world and the answer is always the same – they want to read it when it’s published – the don’t want to work on it to get it there because it’s not in their comfort zone of experience. They have recommended the self-publishing route. 😀
    5) Here’s were I get into the ethereal – I am envisioning e technology to continue to mutate quickly and soon become a platform that is more in line with how I envision the final product than is currently available for the price point I want my book to cost.
    6) The career potential is – I do have companion projects that would be available for future “traditional” publishing and more in line with what “sells”. I also have fiction projects being shopped to agents and editors.

    All that said, I applaud the “rain-on-the-parade” hard truths against any newbie writer thinking they can suddenly live the dream as a novelist without a sense of responsibility of the value of their story to the reader. This is as true in print books as e.

    As long as writers think their books are their “dream” or their “baby” it will be rare a reader will find value in the words or story to spend $$ or time. Anyone can be a writer but an author needs to be a business that brings value to an audience.

  19. Mary

    Good information with a bad attitude.
    Why do conventional people *assume* that those who are unconventional live in fairy tales?
    Truth ist he big guys didn’t want to let go of their outlandish cut or move into technology without a guarantee of the same cut.
    I believe in proofreaders and editors whole heartedly. If you’re going to do it, do it the best you can. However, there’s as much slush written and published on paper as there is on the net. I know because I just finished reading one.
    Bookstores, independent and chains, need to rethink their strategies like any other business. That’s the bottom line to survive for both authors and stores — get out of the box.

  20. Frederick Fuller

    Larry is right, and Kait is right. I published my first novel with createspace in December, 2009. My second is in proof stage right now, also with createspace.

    My first book sold very little, something I expected. The major reason I did not sell many is because I did nothing to promote the book. I gave many copies to family and friends. The few sales resulted from family and friends telling others.

    However, I don’t care. I wrote the book for me because I enjoy writing. No, that’s not true: I have to write. I have had to write since I was eight years old. Indeed, I did not publish the book so I could hold it in my hands. Fact is, I was not looking to publish until I saw how inexpensive createspace is. And, it sounded like fun.

    Creating covers, formatting text and doing the sundry other tasks needed to get the manuscript ready are, for me, fun. I see doing all that as part of the creative process, the same as I do writing.

    Would I like a “traditional” contract? I’m not sure. A friend of mine, a traditionally published author, screams and pulls her hair out whenever she publishes because of what the publisher demands. Example: Correcting galleys is a horror because she says they are so sloppy that repairing them takes longer than writing a chapter.

    Now, we so-called self-publishers do everything a publishing corporation does, but we can control such things as the quality of galley proofs by doing a good job of writing. Digital publishing does not make mistakes; it simply produces when we send. We are our own typesetters. Likewise, all the other things a traditional publisher does are what we have to do, and, like typesetting, we control them.

    In short, like Larry was short (LOL), I enjoy the work of self-publishing. Next, I will learn how to promote my second book although I am not all that concerned with sales. I’m not after a second career. (I was a teacher for 30 years.) I am after the satisfaction of writing every day, telling lies…oops!…stories and the joy of the craft of writing. If I make a few bucks, terrific; my lady and I will go out to dinner. If not, my lady and I will still go out to dinner.

    Finally, “The play’s the thing,” Hamlet said. The craft’s the thing, say I. In the end we have to ask ourselves why we write and be true to our answers.

  21. Great post by Larry and great comment by Kate. I have to admit I’m considering a self-pub experiment. Not because I can’t get an agent (had one, got close to a Big 6 contract that didn’t pan out, have two agents requesting a look at my work right now), and not because I want to use it as a way to attract one of the Big 6, but because I want to see if I’d like being an indie writer for the long haul.

  22. Margo Lerwill

    Yikes, my apologies, I meant great comment by Kait. I recognize the name from some of her books.

  23. Great post, Larry. I think you need to dream big, but with your eyes open. I also think that, as authors, we need to get less sensitive. Reviewers, critics, editors and agents are going to tell us things that we don’t agree with — I think taking what’s useful and leaving the rest, without getting defensive, is what’s going to move authors to the next level. Otherwise, we’ll implode in a self-righteous ball of flame. Worse, we’ll implode in full view of the social media public. That’s just my opinion, though.

  24. Diana

    The following should be on every writer’s desk and tattooed on every writer’s forehead (in all caps, bold-face):

    “Set out to write a good story. One good enough to be published. When you are told that it isn’t, find out why and set out to fix it.”

    Thanks again.

  25. @Frederick — bravo, sir, and well said. The story’s the thing, absolutely.

    @Terripatrick – “Anyone can be a writer but an author needs to be a business that brings value to an audience.” That’s the short and sweet I was trying for.

    @Mary – bad attitude? Just trying to help. What’s true is true. Not all writers get it. Even the published ones.

    @Patrick – you’ve capture the point-counterpoint of this well, better than I did (it seems). That’s why this discussion is timely and valuable. Also, once in a while a first novel gets a decent promo budget. My first book was a bestseller for that reason, I never kid myself about it being otherwise. The one person you need to impress is your publisher, I guess, for that to happen.

    @LJ Cohen– you’re right, I wasn’t dissing fantasy (love it), it was trying for a bad analogy. What’s fantasy is thinking that your self-published book doesn’t have to be as good as a traditionally published book. It does if you want to sell it to people and establish a following and a basis for your next book. That’s the whole point of the post. And you’re right, simply “getting it out there” is a good thing, very fun and satisfying. And therefore, that alone is reason enough to self-publish. But there’s no denying — and this isn’t a bad attitude, it’s the truth — it’s changing everything. Upside and downside. The up: the experience and opportunity is available to all. The down: there’s more mediocrity out there than the traditional publishing world (which has its share of mediocrity, to be sure, some of it with my name on it) ever allowed.

  26. “Write like you are still trying to impress someone at Random House. ”

    Oh goodness, I so agree.

  27. Great post! I have to say I’d never thought of — but completely agree with — self publishing as an even larger and more intimidating slush pile. At least when you take your chances on NY slush pile, you have a reasonable assumption that your book will be read. In the slush pile of self-publishing, where some has to pay to read your book, you can make no such assumption.

    Thanks for the great article!

  28. Patrick Sullivan

    BTW I’d like to say, I’m glad to see this discussion going on here, the more authors and would be authors who get serious about talking about the incoming tide of self-publishing, the better off we all are. Everyone has some information that few to no one else does, and if we pool it all maybe we will have a better chance =-).

    Also I _mostly_ agree with the quote Patricia mentioned of yours, but not 100%. You should write for the quality level, but also don’t be afraid to go after a niche that the big 6 won’t (for example, while I wouldn’t write it, some people are doing very well writing erotica and self-publishing). The whole thing is a crazy balancing act.

    In the end, to have a high chance of success, I think you need to be more than a great writer (and you do need that, and moreso than going through trad publishing, other than maybe if you serve a niche they won’t touch as mentioned above), but an entrepreneur as well.

    To succeed in the new world of self publishing, you are becoming a business. Picking your market, finding your market, getting word out to them, and finally selling them on what you have. The pitch is no longer one aimed at the Editor, but at the reader. It still needs to be short (both a one sentence and a couple paragraph ones are needed) because you MUST convince them to download the sample, so that your writing can convince them to pay.

    It’s not easy, but with some luck, a ton of skill as a writer, and the balls to put yourself out there, it can be done. And you don’t have a two year wait time the way many authors do for their first book in the current publishing climate.

    Word is also getting out about some nasty clauses in newer contracts from the Big 6, so we’ll see how things are going forward.

  29. Curtis

    No rock-chunking from this location. I wonder how many “writers” there would be if the technology that is supposed to deliver us all whole and well into Publishing Kingdom disappeared and all we had was a college level portable Royal typewriter with a bad ribbon.

  30. Chillytv

    Loved this one! Wow, I think this is one of the few times that the comments were needed as much as the post itself. I’ve read through all the ones that came before me and I have to say that I’ve learned a ton.

    I’m going to do some serious research on “indies” or Independent vs Traditional publishing. (Which is what I think was the point of this post and the last -. i.e. get people looking beyond the blog.) It sounds like with anything there needs to be a balance.

    My two cents:

    Writers write because we gotta-like eating ; having others love what we write as much as we do is cake; and selling…well that’s the icing on top.

    That being said there’s nothing worse than being told that your publisher determines whether your cake tastes good or not. Let the writer decide for themselves if it’s edible and if the reader isn’t poisoned after eating it, maybe wants seconds, then you’ve done well enough. Write another 😉

  31. First, let me say that I’m glad I found this blog and hope to contribute on a regular basis.

    Now, being the new kid on the block, I want to say that Larry’s article had some great points in it and his clarification helped much as I was going to bring up some points that was addressed in Larry’s response to others.

    The bottom line is that self-publishing is just as hard as trying to break into the Big 6. I’d say harder. Not only do you need to write, understand structure, plot, characterization, theme, and so forth, but you also have to have business acumen or be willing to learn business and the business. Having a plan of how you’re going to market the book after you complete is more work that you have to do yourself. Not all people have that same kind of entrepreneurial drive (especially writers). They get into it then find out, “Well shoot….this is HARD.”

    However, it’s not that it cannot be done. The fact is there are MANY people who doing well self-pubbing via Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords. However, those people are driven to succeed and…well..they write decent books. Like it’s been said already, quality still is what people want. Doesn’t matter if it’s self-published or not. If it’s good, then a solid marketing plan well help spread the word of it being so. If it’s wack, then a solid marketing plan may help sell books this time but it may hurt your reputation and people will avoid you like the plague the next time you put out a book. Reputation is a hard thing to get back once it’s been tainted. If you do it, do it right.

    My 1¾ cents.

  32. I so agree and appreciate this. Write a book that is worthy of being published the traditional way, regardless of how it’s published.

  33. Genie

    No rocks here. You say what I’ve been trying to say and couldn’t get across. I have friends who can’t wait to finish their FIRST draft (“Draft? What’s a draft?”) so they can whip up a great cover on PowerPoint and get it up on Kindle. What scares me is that sometimes I think the reading public is losing their ability to tell the difference between a badly written vampire story showing something gory on every page and a well-written vampire story containing your six core competencies, just as they see no difference between “no difference” and “know difference”. Or maybe they just don’t care anymore. Yes, by simply getting up on the stage many are thinking it makes them just as good as John Denver. Like a concert audience, the reading audience would — eventually — I hope — recognize the difference, but personally I resent the time I now have to take to weed through a slush pile that has become mind-boggling in size. I most certainly resent having to compete with it. Used to be you had the choice of buying the milk or going straight for the cream. Or both. Now it’s all mixed together, and who’s got the churn?

  34. Great post. It had a lot of great information to take into consideration and really dig for the inner writer. Thanks for the post.

  35. Loved the post and really loved the comments. What a great group to discuss this hot button topic! One fallacy I see, though, is the assumption that everyone who writes has a dream of being able to make a living from it, to have a career as a writer. I, personally, love my day job and wouldn’t mind playing in the minors, to be honest.

    I appreciate that self-publishing and indie-publishers give people the opportunity to play in the minors when the majors have turned them away. Not everyone can play for the big leagues, but everyone should be allowed to play.

    I do wholeheartedly agree with you about the editing and proofreading. There is no substitute for good writing. Still, I like that the new environment gives writers a straight shot to their audience, without the middle man of the traditional publisher who is trying to guess what the reader wants.

    It remains to be seen how this will all work out, but I have to believe it’s a move in the right direction. Like karaoke, you may have to listen to a bunch of terrible singers but once in a while, the most beautiful hidden voice emerges and that makes it worth the wait.

  36. Outstanding column today, Larry.

    The only thing that has changed as you so eloquently pointed out is the bar to entry has been lowered…but crap is still crap and believe me, I’ve read a lot of it that has gone on to be self-published with zero real editing, no proofreading, poor covers and bad stories.

    The silver lining in my opinion is we are no longer held hostage by the big publishers to their whims. Much like the big record companies, their days are numbered because in due time, they will go the way of the dodo.

    Take this column to heart folks.

  37. Larry: A fine and needed post. 90% of my clients either already are published via traditional publishers or are seeking such. A very small handful, though, have approached me to review their ebooks and P.O.D. books. I cannot generalize accurately about these clients. Some of them are receptive to my suggestions for global revision and stylistic overhaul. Some of them shirk and cringe and go on their way. Years ago, one of them said basically what your recent client said: “My friends like it. I like it. I’m going to publish it my way.”

    All that said, traditional publishing is alive and well. Exceptional books are being published. Exceptional ones are being over-looked. Mediocre books are being published. That’s nothing new. What is new, as you imply, is the preponderance of slip-shod books now being published by self-publishers. It’s book glut.

    In a Times article, I believe, last year an executive with one of the top Pay-on-demand publishers said in essence, “We’re the largest publisher of bad poetry in the world.”

    Your advice is spot-on: Aim to write an exceptional book. Period.

  38. Larry

    Awesome article, as always. However, I’m still trying to compute your client’s statement:

    “Okay then, thanks for trying, but I love my book the way it is….”

    Thanks for trying!!! What did you try to do?

    I had the same experience a few weeks ago with one of my clients. After R&R, I sent recommendations and suggestions over to him, only to see him promoting his new SP e-book, on Facebook, a few days later! He sent me copy and, I cringed.

    On another note, I’ve been published via the traditional route, but I’m going the SP route in a few weeks — by choice. Though I’m an editor, I still employed the services of a qualified editor. Emerging writers need to understand that when one is too close to their works, they become cock-eyed, and can overlook many things, not to mention there are other elements that needs to looked at.

  39. Did anyone spot my deliberate errors above? 😉

  40. Roy

    Great reading both the article and the comments. Thank you. I’m presently in camp Self Pub. The draw for me being… control. the self pub’ers chant of “I like it, my friends like it, so I’m going publish it my way” is, I feel- rather valid.
    Every convention panel, conference, meet n greet thing I’ve seen, agents and editors will always tell you don’t write for the trend ( like vampires), write the story you want to write. So, you do that and submit, but what are they buying? Vampires. I’ve submitted manuscripts to agents and ultimately had them rejected, only to read their blogs about what author they just signed and how awesome that pitch was… and I find myself saying “really? That’s what you liked? That’s the lamest story idea. I’m so glad that agent rejected me.”
    So control. I’m writing the story- I want to write, and it’s been my experience that anytime you ask for an opinion, or advice… you will always get one.
    I’ve heard advice that. “well, flashbacks in a story are bad. and agents instantly spit upon your manuscript when they see that”.
    “Well LOST was really successful and THEY had Flashbacks.”
    “oh well, that’s the exception, not the rule”.
    okay… but it was successful. Isn’t that’s the new rule?

    Anyways- Control. There comes a point when you take control and say no, those suggestions on improvement are actually just your story ideas encroaching on my actually written full manuscript. Go write your own. My story is what I’m wiritng about. I had an agent read 3 chapters of my 25 chapter story and proceeded to tell me how she expected my story to be something else and how my story should have been written. Sorry, that’s your assumption and your story idea. Not mine.

    Control is also about timing. I have a book and a time frame I want my book out in the market by. Waiting 3 months or whatever to get a response to 3 chapters or a full manuscript, then having to follow up and find out I have to resend it( or whatever) I do not have the time to wait on agents too busy to send me an e-mail but who can constantly update their blogs everyday. To bring something to self pub will also take, and should take if done properly, a fair amount of time to get it in a good way, anyway. Timing is a mjor factor in favor of Self Pub.
    Control is also about respect. If a self pub’er is going to put something out there it needs to be in the best light that he or she can bring it to. On the flipside, yes the bar is lowering, also thanks to the “E” revolution. Education is not what it used to be, and writing is not what it used to be either, the classics, mary shelly, jane austin, melville, culturely, we just do not communicate like that anymore. Also, electronic technology- the other E, has made us soft. The efficiency of conveying LOL and shortening sentences because ” readers won’t understand this or that is too confusing for readers” is favored over expression and eloquence of language. “Too wordy”?
    So with Self pubbing you get control. you can presume your readers are smart enough for them to handle your story. You don’t have to battle various levels of opinion and advice that lessen the story you wanted to write in an attempt to make it “better”. It’s your cover… not what the trend is. There was a set way you did things- traditionally, if you wanted to get published. It was a monopoly. But now- there’s actual healthy competition thanks to self pubbing. I’ve got “author controlled publishing”. My story/vision gets out there, with minimal interference. Some people will like it. Some won’t, some will be too snobbish to not see the forest for the trees ( ewww, it’s self published. Ewww.) Really, with the option of self pubbing, I have a choice. I will self pub, because Ultimately, I don’t care for the traditional publishing model. Plus now, I’m going to sink my own money into it. I’ve got ownership and responsibilty now to make sure it’s good, or if it’s bad I have only myself to blame.

    Self publishing is now like bands that produce their own albums and distribute them. And really, what’s wrong with that? There’s a lot of music out there I don’t like but some independently produced stuff I’ve found and enjoyed. Self Pubbing is also like Reality TV vs. the traditional publishing, or the networks. like Reality TVm it’s pretty successful and really changed industry as a whole. It’s cheaper to produce, anyone can be a star, and there’s more variety, though most of it I don’t watch. But right now the only thing the networks are ( for the most part) putting out are the same ol’ cop dramas, courtroom dramas, acronym dramas, doctor dramas, and unfunny sitcoms. Yet they all want to have a success like LOST, which was the exception to the rule.

    sorry for the long post and any grammar or typo stuff.

  41. Steve Smith

    @Kait: There’s something silly about claiming that an author is making a “good living” in such a volatile field as fiction writing when she’s been publishing for only a year. I wish her (and everybody else) well, but let’s see how she’s doing a year from now or five years from now. Readers are fickle and success is momentary. Self-publishing is not going to change any of this.

  42. I think we have to be a little careful that elitism doesn’t creep into our view on this.

    Those who are opposed to self-pubbing, if not directly but indirectly, are using the same exact arguments that were presented in the music industry during the dawn of the MP3 craze. They were wrong and music companies had to adjust in order to survive. It’s no different here.

    When someone was successful not going the “traditional” (who defined it as such?) route, naysayers were quick to say it was a fluke. It was not the norm. It was few and far between. Yet more people kept coming out and doing the same thing but differently. It’s easy to be negative. It’s harder to be humble and congratulate folks on their success because it involves putting aside ego and pride, something people don’t like to do.

    What self-pubbing has done is opened up the door for there not to be a “norm”. Some things are still a part of the equation: good writing, good story, persistent marketing, a willingness to adjust. You need those things no matter what. However, how those are implemented to be a “success” is different for everyone because success doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing for every individual.

  43. Andrea

    I think self-publishing without reflecting about the rules of how an entertaining story has to be written is like putting a bottle containing dark sugared water onto a supermarket’s shelf, labelling it with Coca Cola. Fraudulent labelling. Even if your ebook is free, to begin with. You are stealing your readers time by seducing him with a free book but fooling him with the story. The reader will punish you by writing a bad review on amazon, giving you only one of these four (or five?) stars. Thus you punish yourself the worst. You’ll get angry first at the people and later at yourself. Also you get disappointed at yourself, you probably even stop believing you could do what you’ve loved the most. Writing. You spend so much time and energy on being disappointed and questioning your abilities that you eventually stop writing.

    I am utterly convinced that writers who actually spent time on thinking about quality before putting their baby on amazon (or any other self-publisher page), and writers who haven’t, feel different kinds of disappointment.

    Someone who knows about the tools takes the critic and scans their knowledge, searching for what they could do differently.
    Someone who knows about the tools does not give up but picks up the drill again.

    Just because the opportunities of letting loose your story changed, does not mean that the reader – the end-consumer – changed as well. After all I (as a reader) still prefer original coke to unidentifiable, brown sugared mush. (no, I do not work for the coke company, I’m just addicted to it. And yes, I know it’s not healthy)

    So, I’m afraid, but you will still have to study and practice the craft of writing before even thinking about passing it on to others.

    All of us who dream of seeing their books published are surely in love with telling strories. But I think we have to add the thought that what we do should also be a service to the reader, not only our thoughts spilled over him or her.

  44. Think of American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent and shows of that ilk. We’ve got amateurs (people who don’t currently do their act for a living) competing for the audience’s and judges’ attention.

    The “winners” _will_ have their basics in and practiced until they are so solid that all the adrenaline pumping them doesn’t override their delivery.

    Larry’s mentioned before that in this new world, we have to be even better than before on our basics — Six Core Competencies.

    I’m holding off on Kindle and Amazon publishing to do full rewrites on all my novels. Once I discovered there was an actual Craft, the stuff I wrote wasn’t, em, Crafty enough. Structure? What’s that?

    To bring up John Wayne: Nowadays, we must “talk the talk” (Six Core Competencies) _extremely_ well before we can even think that our “walk the walk” (publishing) will even get noticed.

    Doesn’t matter which publishing route we’re looking at.

  45. Figuring this out: A guy sends you a story and a check; you send him the feedback he paid for, then decides to ignore it? Is this someone who asks for their money back? That wouldn’t be a surprise.

    My trip: I took the screen writing class with Cynthia Whitcomb and read her notes that said half my story didn’t work.

    Started over with the good half.

    I buy coverage from Scriptshark on the new version. They say half the story doesn’t work, and it’s not the new half.

    Started over with that good half, which was about a quarter of the original story.

    Sent new, new, story to contest and made quarter-finals.

    If you buy into the feedback, use the advice. If you buy into the feeback and reject it because you know better, and maybe get your feelings hurt, what do you do? Find a youth soccer coach with an extra juice box and a trophy from the last game. All the kids are winners, until they get the difference…scoreboard.

    The same goes for writers. Everyone’s a genius, a winner, until they get the difference. Since Larry’s not handing out trophies and a juice box, why not pay attention to what you pay for? Great post on reality. (I’ve got two ‘books’ self-pubbed on Kindle. It’s not something I hold in my hands with my name on the cover, but it’s a google link. That and a bus ticket gets a ride on Tri-met.)

  46. @Prez — good stuff, I agree completely. And a genius analogy with the advent of mp-3. Same deal almost exactly, and look where we are now. Thanks for this perspective, very valuable. L.

  47. I was thinking about the independent music analogy also. There are thousands of musicians flogging their wares on bandcamp and the like that don’t have a label.

    The ones that are succeeding in the independent arena (Zoe Keating comes to mind) have quality product and a unique product.

    The decision to go independent (self-publishing) needs to be tempered with the willingness to put in the hard yards to produce quality. You said it best – the readers have a higher bar than the publishers, and they are the ones forking over their cash.

    Did you realize the hornet’s nest you were kicking with this post?

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  49. @Tony — two words: oh yeah. What I didn’t realize is that I might come off as judgmental of self-publishing, or naive about it. I’m learning as much as anyone from this dialogue, I assure you. L.

  50. Great post. All I’d add – aside from what’s been said before about the fact that some of us don’t want publishing done TO us, and have turned down agents and publishers – is that you need to reverse the traditional model.

    If you set out to self-publish, especially if you plan to do it on a budget, the publishing has to come last rather than first. A short marketing campaign won’t do it. You need to build your readership in advance: dig the well before you’re thirsty; get to know your future readers by name; make it THEIR book.

    I wouldn’t have considered publishing until people were asking for my book every day. Now they are, so I’m going to publish.

    Rebecca
    http://twitter.com/rebeccawoodhead

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  52. Thanks for some necessary clarification. As an aspiring writer, the self-publishing industry doesn’t just seem easier, it seems less expensive than the traditional way to do it. And part of that, admittedly, is that a writer does not need to hire an editor or an agent in order to self-publish. That means, as you’ve outlined here, that many books go forth unedited into the world of publication… which, in time, could lower the expectations of self-published books. And then we’re back to where we started: readers won’t buy self-published books and the venue again becomes a last resort for writers.

    I love hearing the success stories of self-published novelists. It’s inspiring to those of us who have never been published. But like you mention, it’s not really our dream come true. It just seems more feasible and less complicated… but in order to be successful, I tend to think that self-publication is actually much harder, especially because the author must take care of all the marketing.

    So the dream could come true in the self-publishing world, but only if you really know what you’re doing and you work diligently. For those writers that mistake self-publication for the easy route, a reality check is due.

    Great post.

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  55. Great post, and thanks. I really don’t want the dream to be whittled down to standing at a Christmas bazaar asking strangers to please buy my book. There has to be more, and I have to keep working for more.

  56. It’s beginning to look more like an entrepreneurship out there. Many people think they know what it takes to make a business, and without any research go out and try it, only to be met with failure. However, those of us who have taken writing courses, researched all areas of not only writing but the book industry, understand this:

    You must be willing to edit and make your ms better.

    I believe this is the point you are trying to bring here. If so, I agree. If not I can’t agree. I’m not riding a horse because you dislike automobiles. Lets face it, it’s no longer a question about horse verses automobile, the focus is do you want a reliable automobile or a cheap peace of crap that will just get you there and back.

    If you just want a cheap peace of crap ms that you can show your friends, then you pay what you get for. But if want your name to be associated to quality writing, traditional publishing or self publishing makes no difference. The difference is in the writing. If you’re going to write, write something to be proud of, something that could make your name a house hold word (as in good), something for which you’ll be remembered. I don’t know about anyone else here, but that’s why I write. I want to be remembered.

    There are pros and cons to both sides, the only difference is in the writing.

  57. @Orlando — very well stated, my friend. Thanks for contributing to this conversation. L.

  58. Dan

    So here’s a guy that pays to have a professional edit his manuscript, and then ignores the advice? Brilliant. I love your points, Larry, but

    “And off he went to throw three or four thousand dollars at this wonderful new strategy. And yes, he’ll probably “be published” at the end of the day.”

    just where the hell was he self-publishing? Last time I looked, Kindle was free as long as you could produce a half-decent cover and lay out a basic book. Even if you have to pay someone for those services, you can get away for far less than three to four thousand dollars. Is there anything wrong with throwing up something on Kindle and seeing what sticks? Can you harm your career by doing this? Or are you simply warning self-publishers to not get their hopes up? Submit crap, and get crap royalties in return?

  59. @Dan — okay, I was ballparking. Folks who do both digital (Kindle and such) and a hard copy print-on-demand, and use a professional editor and a graphic artist for the cover, and start a web site for it… yeah, that can get you to three grand pretty quickly. And you’re right, you can toss something onto Kindle for next to nothing PROVIDED you either a) know how to format it for that venue, which isn’t as simple as downloading a Word doc, or b) don’t care what it looks like Word once transferred to Kindle. A lot of options out there, and as usual, quality costs money. Thanks for contributing, you make some good points. L.

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  61. Mitzi

    Your “recent project” sounds like the person I’m working with. Loves his work and I’m screaming “flat writing” as loud as I can. He’s encountered someone who has an e-zine/website who wants to publish one of his stories. The appearance of your work on this website is supposedly payment enough. He thinks he’s hit the big time & this offer validates his worth as a writer. OMG! He claims he doesn’t want to be a professional writer so there’s no need to revise, consider any constructive criticism, etc. He’s a published writer now. The new venues available for “writers” certainly dilute the criterion or need for quality writing.

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  63. Good stuff mate.
    I may not be like other writers, but at the end of the day, then I go back and read my own stuff, *I* want to be entertained.

    It’s not easy to separate myself completely from the story, but if I’M not impressed while I’m reading it, then it’s a clinker.

    I’ll probably start on the Kindle route, just to see how it goes, but I’ve always reckoned my writing should speak for itself. And if it’s saying “I’m CRAP” then I’ll find out right quick, won’t I?

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  65. Kim

    Thank you for pointing out the different between promoting good writing and promoting oneself. Unfortunately, many of today’s “writers” are unable to make that distinction. The instantaneous communication age has a lot to do with it; so does not paying attention in English class.

    Your article reminded me of my Grandma’s old cream separator. It was worth the patience it took to produce cream. Thanks again.

  66. Kim

    Proofreading also has a lot to do with it. I meant to say “the difference” between… 🙂 Being able to laugh at yourself is part of the process!

  67. I plan on self-publishing primarily because I don’t see myself as ever being a professional author. I enjoy writing and want to put out the best I can, but I don’t think it’s going to sell a million copies. Or even a thousand! I’m thankful that self-publishing allows me to continue writing (making me happy) and publish my works in a format to share with family and friends.

  68. “I’ll try to keep this short.”
    I’ll clearly need to set some time aside for your longer articles 🙂

  69. I think self-publishing on Amazon is great–for writers who are already published, already have a platform and a clue about marketing, and have the contacts, resources and skills to make self-publishing a quality product a low-overhead project. The people I know who are doing it and succeeding at it are mostly not folks who have been rejected by publishers. They’re already successful authors who know what it takes to make a good book (I hope to join them in the next couple of weeks with my own self-pub on Kindle).

    This is one of the rare occasions where “following” a bunch of working writers in social media may not give a newbie the best perspective on the issue, I think. Reading about the successes of an established author in their self-pub venture may lead an unpublished writer to think it’s an easy starting place. Then, like your client, they get the idea that they can discard all the conventions of the industry and just go forth (they don’t ever seem to read the part where the established author used multiple stages of professional editing to get the book as clean as a whistle, or took a week or two just to format the product and test it on different readers until it was displaying perfectly).

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