WHAT IF J.K. ROWLING HAD SELF-PUBLISHED?

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You’ve written a novel, edited it, shared it with beta readers and edited some more. As far as you can tell, it’s good to go. Now what?

You sure don’t stick it in a drawer. Novels want to be read; that’s their nature. So you have two basic choices: look for a publisher, which in the U.S. starts with a search for a literary agent, or publish it yourself. If you’re like a lot of other aspiring novelists, you turn to the internet for guidance.

And what you find is an awful lot of people talking trash about mainstream publishers. Messianic advocates of self-publishing predict the industry’s imminent demise and rail against bloodsucking agents and publishers. Writer and industry critic Barry Eisler recently tweeted that “The primary function of the AAR [Association of Authors Representatives] and the Authors Guild is to defend the legacy publishing industry,” and said of Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild, “His real concern seems to be protecting legacy publishers at the expense of the authors whose interests he claims to represent.” Successful self-published writers who sign contracts with major publishers are excoriated as traitors to the cause. Michael Stackpole, another self-publishing advocate, recently called writers in mainstream houses “house slaves.”  As “indie” publishing grows more popular, companies designed to profit from the frustration and impatience of aspiring writers jump on the bandwagon. “Cast off your publishers and be free! Control your own fate! Pay us and we’ll show you the way!”

It gets old. One sad thing about all that overheated rhetoric is that it obscures whatever valid criticisms analysts like Eisler have about the industry. People tend to stop listening when you call them house slaves or bloodsucking goons. I myself have been called a dinosaur for suggesting that novelists try to sell their work to established publishers before considering self-publishing, even though the goal of most (not all) self-publishers is to land such a contract.

For people who work in publishing, the invective is just bizarre. I’ve known hundreds of agents, editors, writers and publishers, and I promise you most of them could earn a better, easier living in another business. The bottom line matters in mainstream publishing, as it does in any business; but people really are drawn to this industry for love of books and in the hope of discovering and facilitating wonderful new voices.

What worries me is that writers who don’t really know publishing are being misled, often by companies with a financial interest in doing so.

I should say right up front that I’m not unbiased. I spent my career working in mainstream (aka trade or commercial) publishing: the type that pays writers for the right to publish their work. I’ve also been published by mainstream publishers, including Simon & Schuster and Viking/Penguin, who are publishing my upcoming novel in 2013. I came up in this industry at a time when the only self-publishing was called vanity publishing and disdained by professionals.

But times change. As President Obama used to say about gay marriage, my views on self-publishing are evolving.  As a writer, I’m thrilled that the option exists. Self-publishing offers writers choices and flexibility they never had before. As models for success emerge, the phenomenon may eventually effect the balance of power between publishers and writers, which right now is titled heavily toward publishers. It’s already ideal for certain applications, including niche non-fiction and the reissuing of authors’ backlists. For fiction writers like Amanda Hocking, who produce good genre books at a prodigious rate, self-publishing can be very profitable. Traditionally published, well-established writers have also made profitable transitions to self-publishing. Right now, though, these writers are outliers.

Some of my writing students have gone on to publish with mainstream publishers, and others have self-published, and the former group was certainly happier with the outcome than the latter. This is admittedly a small sampling, but a recent survey, conducted by Dave Cornford and Steven Lewis for Taleist and published under the title NO GOLD RUSH, suggests that it’s fairly typical. According to the survey, 75% of all royalties generated by self-published books went to the top 10% of writers; and  half of all self-published writers earned less than $500 a year. Of course, it’s not all or even primarily about money. As one of my students pointed out, if a self-published writer sells only 50 copies, that’s 50 more readers than she’d have had if she hadn’t published at all. It’s a valid argument. Nevertheless, for most fiction writers trying to break into print, self-publishing has serious disadvantages that its most fervent advocates (including many who are hawking services) fail to disclose. These include:

 

  1. Gatekeeping. There is none in self-published books, and for me, as a prodigious buyer of books, that’s a big problem. Anyone with a few dollars in his pocket can upload a book onto Amazon, regardless of quality. I’m not saying that good books aren’t occasionally self-published, or bad books commercially published, but unless you’ve read through an agent’s slush pile, you have no idea how sloppy and amateurish books can be. Agents and editors serve a very useful winnowing function for which there is no equivalent in the self-publishing industry.

 

  1. Editing. I’ve published eight novels, and every one of them is significantly better than it would have been without the skilled help of an editor. Most published writers would say the same. Yes, self-published writers can hire editors, but the good ones are expensive. Relatively few writers can afford to pay thousands of dollars for professional editing.

 

  1. Professional book design and cover art. Writers can hire freelancers and may be well advised to do so. According to the survey cited above, self-published writers who hire professional editors and designers sell more than those who did not. Of course, that adds to the expense. Mainstream-published writers get the services of top professionals for free.

 

  1. Marketing, public relations, and advertising. If you have a vigorous online presence, a popular blog, twitter following, etc., you’re in a good position to help your book, whether it is mainstream or self-published. But if you were publishing your own book, how would you like the services of a Simon & Schuster marketing specialist or a Viking book publicist? What would that be worth? Traditionally published writers receive their services as part of the deal. All writers these days are expected to help promote themselves, but having professionals on your team is a huge multiplier.

 

  1. 5.      Distribution and Sales. Distribution used to be the single biggest problem with self-publishing, but now Amazon, Barnes & Noble’s and other online stores have made it possible for any writer to upload e-book versions of their work. However, self-published writers still find it nearly impossible to get into brick and mortar stores, including Walmart and Costco, which sell a growing percentage of print books. Getting published (as opposed to self-published) doesn’t guarantee big sales, but in addition to print sales, a certain level of library sales is common and, for the major houses, almost automatic. Library sales alone represent more books sold than most self-publishers will ever attain. Being published also positions you for other good things to happen: reviews in mainstream and industry publications, most of which do not review self-published work, nominations for awards, foreign and other subsidiary rights sales.

 

Self-publishing offers instant gratification. You write a book, and a month or so later it’s in your hands or on your Kindle. The process of selling to a mainstream publisher takes much longer and usually requires repeated goes at the work. When J.K. Rowling first started writing the Harry Potter novels, self-publishing was not an option. The first book was rejected by numerous agents and a dozen publishers.  Throughout that period, she continued to work on the book and improve it. After Bloomsbury bought the novel for £1500, it underwent further editing. The book so many of us came to love, which launched a series and an empire, was a much improved version of the book Rowling had finished two years earlier. What if she’d published that first draft straight to Kindle?

Most published writers have an unpublished early book or two in their drawers, and they’ve lived to tell the tale. My first novel was never published, and though it hurt at the time, I learned from the experience. My second and much better novel sold to publishers in three countries. Writing’s like any craft: it takes lots of practice to get good at it, and there’s usually a period of apprenticeship.  Instant gratification is, well, gratifying…but it comes at a cost.

About Barbara Rogan

I am the author of nine novels, including SUSPICION and HINDSIGHT; my next novel is slated to appear early in 2013 with Viking. I'm also a former editor and literary agent. Currently I teach fiction writing on my online school, www.nextlevelworkshop.com.
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53 Responses to WHAT IF J.K. ROWLING HAD SELF-PUBLISHED?

  1. You make excellent points here. I might note–having talked to a lot of other authors of all sorts–that many of those who do make money from self-publishing are writers who are self-publishing books that were originally published by mainstream companies, but that have subsequently gone out of print and reverted to the writers. I.e., the “product” has had the benefits you point out, of editorial input and professional design, before being e-published by the author.

  2. brogan1 says:

    Great point, Diana, and in fact your impression is borne out by the survey I cited in my post, which found that mainstream writers who move over to self-publishing earn an average of 2.5 times more than writers who went straight to self-publishing.

  3. Great post, Barbara. As Diana pointed out, self-publishing tends to work best for previously published works. I think that previously published authors can also do well with new novels, if they have a following and pay for good editors and cover art.

    One of the biggest self-publishing advocates out there pushes this avenue, but seems to forget that he got his original audience through a commercial publisher. When you’re a new author, building an audience from scratch is (I think) very close to impossible.

    • brogan1 says:

      Yes, there are a few forgetful writers of that descriptions, actually. BTW, Tiffany, for those who don’t know, is herself a newly-published writer; her second book, SUCCUBUS LOST, is just out, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s not easy building up a new writer, but from what I can see, her publisher’s working hard for her…which was sort of my point.

  4. Allen Varney says:

    You quote Barry Eisler’s tweet that “The primary function of the AAR and the Authors Guild is to defend the legacy publishing industry,” and then you prove it.

    You focus on “bizarre invective,” instead of mentioning indie authors’ widespread expressions of joy that they can retain control of their work, its packaging and marketing, and the connection to its audience. The disadvantages you cite for indie publishing are mostly temporary and fading — not unlike Barnes & Noble. You claim one strength of legacy publishing is the ability to distribute huge stacks of returnable paper books to Wal-Mart and Costco — like that’s less of a crapshoot for the author than Amazon is. You observe that a dozen publishers rejected J. K. Rowling without seeing this as a symptom of extreme dysfunction.

    There’s still a need for agents who are willing to grapple with the new disruptions in the service of authors. But for defenders of the old system, the old gatekeepers who just wish everything would go back the way it was — the need there is less clear.

    • brogan1 says:

      Hey Allen, and welcome. “Legacy publishing?” Is that sort of like legacy tomatoes? I don’t know who came up with that term (do you?), but I’ve often admired the cleverness of using such a quaint image to denigrate and marginalize an entire industry.

      I never said that there aren’t great applications for self-publishing. Writers who combine talent and great speed with entrepreneurial skill, who can get a ton of books out there and keep them coming (preferably in series), and who have the smarts and money to hire professionals to replace the services they’d have received from a mainstream publishing house can do well. But relatively few writers have that particular combination of skills and speed, and IMO it’s usually a better investment of writers’ time to write, rather than master book production, design, marketing, distribution, and promotion. Those cries of joy you mention turn into groans of frustration for most.

      If you’ve had good experience self-publishing, I’m truly happy for you, and for selfish reasons, too: as successful models emerge, writers on all sides of this particular divide will gain power. But to tell a talented neophyte novelist that he/she is better off self-publishing straight off the bat than trying for a contract with first-rate publisher — that’s just bad advice, in my view, for all the reasons listed in my post.

  5. I am a self-publisher who believes the self-publishing market isn’t anywhere close to “there” as a lot of other proponents think it is. And it seems to me that a lot of this “traditional publishing is evil” and “traditional publishing is dying” talk is, essentially, rooted in advertising in PR. There are some genuine revolutionaries, but a number of the voices are, in my opinion, speaking the revolutionary rhetoric because it attracts eyeballs.

    That said, no new venue gets off the ground until people put in the effort to make it work. The few genuine successes notwithstanding, the exciting part of self-publishing (at this point) isn’t that it’s a viable and self-sustaining model inasmuch as it’s a new way of getting things out there.

    Other self publishing ventures (for example, webcomics) started out this way as well.

    It’ll take time, and a lot of self-publishers will be bitterly disappointed at the time it takes, and if webcomics are any indication, while it’s developing a whole lot of people will laugh it. That’s cool.

    • brogan1 says:

      It does make a good story, doesn’t it? Man against the machine, basically: I feel the tug of it myself. It’s odd to find myself on the conservative side of any debate–I’d rather be out storming the ramparts. I agree with you that self-publishing is evolving and we’re going to end up in a different place from where we’re at today. But as things are, I feel there’s an awful lot of misinformation being fed to people who are very vulnerable; because carrying around a full-term novel is as difficult as carrying a full-term pregnancy, only with no assurance you’ll ever give birth.

      • Yeah, unfortunately the PR aspect of internet “revolutions” can lead people down the garden path, and there are groups out there that overtly fan the flames in order to prey on people caught up in revolutionary fervor.

        On the other hand, there is, I think, legitimately revolutionary element to self-publishing — it’s just that it’s the same revolutionary element that always existed with self-publishing, only now there are more tools than there ever have been to give the author a sixteenth of a shot: essentially, saying “screw you guys, I’m going to do it my way” (whether it’s a good idea or not, it’s eternally revolutionary). And that revolutionary element exists independently of a bad guy sitting in a back room smoking expensive cigars and plotting against the future of literary mankind.

        I think the safest way to approach self-publishing right now is took at what tools are available, and try to figure out what you can gain from them, without really looking at the “social” aspects of it at all.

  6. Carrie Murgittroyd says:

    Hi Barbara,
    I have followed your comments on Compuserve for years and highly respect your opinions. I agree with a previous poster who mentioned that the rhetoric against traditional publishing is a means to gain attention for a some bloggers. While that is true…the fact remains that several self-publishers are doing quite well. I think you would be surprised. There is an author’s forum on the Kindle boards with a thread that is starting to compile data on self-publishers. So far, they have listed over 125 authors who have sold over 50,000 books each (many have sold way over 50,000). Here’s the link: http://www.kindleboards.com/index.php?topic=103665.0;all
    I hope it works. A few of the authors on this list have been traditionally published beforehand. I’m willing to guess that most have not. I know one author on the list quite well. He has sold over 400,000 ebooks in one year. :)

  7. Carrie Murgittroyd says:

    Whoops. I just tested the link to make sure it works and reallized that my figure of 125 authors is wrong. If you scroll down on the list, there are several more names added. Probably more like 200 authors who have sold more than 50,000 ebooks.

    • brogan1 says:

      Carrie, thanks for that link. It’s great that some writers are racking up those kind of sales figures, assuming those self-reports are all true and not hype. They might be; the head of Amazon recently pointed out that some 16 or so of the 100 top-selling Kindle titles are self-published (no word on how many had been traditionally published first.) Still, as that Taleist survey pointed out, they are still outliers; at least 50% of self-published writers earn $500 a year or less.

      I’d love to hear how your friend sold 400,000 ebooks in a year, it you’d like to share that story here.

      • Tim Byrd says:

        The figures about what percentage of self-published writers are making $x is only meaningful if we are given figures to compare them to. Saying “most self published writers won’t be able to make much money” is true. But saying “most traditionally published writers won’t be able to make much money” is also true.

        It’s not like a majority of traditionally published authors are making a living at it.

        • Tim, thanks for your comment, which is absolutely true. Only a small percentage of published writers could live on their earnings; the rest of us have day jobs. One thing I love about mainstream publishing, though, is the advances. A student of mine just sold a first novel to one of the big 6 for an advance of $20,000. Not a huge advance, relatively speaking, but for writers earning $500 a year, as (according to the survey) half of self-published writers do), it would take 40 years to earn that much. Advances are the publisher’s way of saying, “I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is.”

          • Tim Byrd says:

            Actually, a $20k advance IS pretty huge, relatively speaking. Most books get advances between $3k and $5k, don’t sell through their print runs or pay off the advance, and don’t get second printings. They enjoy MAYBE six months of shelf time if they actually get stocked by bookstores, which is a lot less likely now than it used to be. Borders is gone. B&N has severely cut back on the stock it physically carries in its stores. Indie bookstores are responsible for less than 10% of book sales. And the majority of books don’t get picked up by Walmart and other big carriers. Most new books fall out of print (except in ebook form) within two years.

            Also, the writer isn’t expected to “help” promote their books, they’re pretty much on their own, unless they are very fortunate. And if you have to do all that work on your own anyway, why not take the lion’s share of the profits from your efforts?

        • Tim, I looked at your website and I see you’ve taken the great leap of faith from mainstream to self-publishing; I also read the blog post that explained why. I wish you every success with that (and since you can’t see my face,I’ll add that this is not meant as sarcasm.) It was a gutsy thing to do. I would suggest (and I don’t think you’d disagree, or am I wrong?) that starting with an established publisher jump-started the series, gave it a platform, got it reviewed, and put you in a position to make the choice you did…and hopefully to succeed at it. Or do you not think you got any benefit from having been published by a major house?

          I’m curious about your assertion that the average advance from mainstream publishers is $2000–$3000. Advances have certainly dropped across the board, but that sounds way too low. Where do you get your stats?

      • Carrie Murgittroyd says:

        Barbara,
        Thanks for your reply! I did want to mention a couple of other things. First, I agree with you that most self-published authors do not sell 50,000 books. I do believe that more and more authors will, eventually, reach some impressive numbers though. Amazon, in its annual report, http://msnmoney.brand.edgar-online.com/DisplayFilingInfo.aspx?filingid=8544006&ppu=%2FDefault.aspx%3Fticker%3DAMZN&type=HTML has stated that over 1,000 authors are now selling over 1,000 books each month on Kindle Direct Publishing. A thousand self-published authors seems like more than 10% to me, but I could be wrong.
        I should come clean and tell you my bias, as you admitted yours! My “friend” is my husband who writes under the pen name Rick Murcer. I should also like to say (and I believe he would agree with me) that you are right in warning self-published writers to be careful of the new “industry” that has suddenly grown up around self-publishing. There are no guarantees of sales.

        • Carrie, it’s super that your husband has done so well self-publishing. I’m going to look up his books and see what I’ve been missing.

  8. Dave Bell says:

    One of the problems for me, as a foreigner, is that the businesses, such as Amazon, which support self-publishing, do it all from the USA. And that means that any payment to me gets embroiled in the US tax system. It doesn’t seem worth the paperwork that’s needed, by both the IRS and my local tax collectors, to handle the cross-border payment. Not, at least, for my likely income from self-publishing.

    When Amazon is doing everything they can to minimise their own tax liabilities, including exploiting EU rules on ebooks, and sweet FA for their suppliers–they employ plenty of people in my country, so they are set up to make payments here–I am reluctant to jump onto that corporate rip-off bandwagon.

    The payments from a traditional publisher are fewer, usually larger, and are something that accountants and tax inspectors have experience of. I wonder how many of the self-publishers have even thought of what they have to do to keep the taxman happy? (The system here is a bit different from that in the USA, maybe not less hostile, but I am used to it.)

    • brogan1 says:

      Dave, thanks for that interesting perspective. I’d never even thought about the tax implications and complications involved, though I should have, having dealt with them myself for many years as an agent.

  9. Carol says:

    Hi Barbara,
    I enjoyed your post and know it’s contentious, but your points are valid and necessary.
    I am firmly in the camp that believes the only difference between vanity press and “self-publishing” is a decade of mutant semantics. It’s really the same wolf in Kindle/Amazon clothing.

    I don’t discount the value of additional electronic resources for authors. It was a techno inevitability. That being said, it mainly addresses, as you say, the need for instant gratification.
    Traditional publishing has a long and invaluable history and purpose and is still the route to take, in my opinion. It may be a long journey, but a writer with a great book who perseveres, will eventually get there.

    • brogan1 says:

      Hi Carol–thanks for your comment. I’m also interested in the semantics of this debate: “legacy publishers” instead of mainstream or trade publishers, for example, and “indie publisher” instead of self-published writer. My problem with the latter is that it usurps a term that properly describes small publishing houses that, like the big ones, buy rights from writers rather than selling them services.

      “Vanity publishing” may be a bit harsh, though, given that self-publishing really is a viable and reasonable solution for certain publishing applications. I think it’s a godsend, for example, for published writers whose backlists are out of print, or for niche non-fiction too limited in scope to attract a commercial publisher. I’m not against anyone self-publishing their work, if they do it with reasonable expectations and their eyes wide open. What I object to is people blowing smoke in those eyes.

  10. Pat Cadigan says:

    Thanks for this. It’s exactly what I tell aspiring writers who ask me if they should self-publish. Many times they point to well-established writers who have turned to self-publishing and are still enjoying the same level of success, if not more. I point out to them that these writers are well-established because they were traditionally published for years before going off on their own. They didn’t achieve success through self-publishing. Their success came about while they were traditionally published and now they can capitalise on it by self-publishing. Big difference.

    Thanks again!

  11. deniz says:

    Great post, Barbara. I think… in an effort to distill povs from both camps I’m going to make a list:

    1. Vanity publishing used to mean that people who felt a desire to write but didn’t know where to turn for help in polishing their work or even marketing it (and certainly the ones I read were authors who didn’t seem to have even read enough to realise that their own writing might need work) could pay a company to print copies for them. And that made them happy but it really didn’t do much good for anyone, and I think the lack of quality has left a bad impression on almost everyone.

    2. Authors who were better or worked harder landed agents who got them publishing contracts and their work was made even better and supported by a whole team that covered marketing, etc. (all the points you make above).

    3. Given that I’ve been raised with #2 I might be biased but I can’t but feel that (barring *ahem* Dan Brown and Julie Garwood type stuff) novels that have been through the publishing process are, generally, better edited, better copy edited and simply look better (barring romance covers, as Jo pointed out in a recent post).

    4. But self-publishing or indie publishing is becoming huge, and a LOT more authors seem to be paying attention to the level of quality that’s required. They’re proud to own every step of the process and they work ceaselessly at promotion, tracking sales, formatting, making friends online, supporting other authors, offering guidance, and – possibly most important – outsourcing what they can. For instance, by hiring an artist to design their cover, something that costs maybe a few hundred dollars (or 40 book sales at 5$ each).

    5. I look to them – okay, yes, I’m mainly talking about Kait Nolan) here – to provide guidance and to pave the way forward. Ultimately, whether to seek the traditional route or self-publish is a personal choice, but it’s so exciting to live at a time when both are available! And harking back to Kait, she’s been so solid for the past few years than agent approached her – and now they’re collaborating on a dual traditional/indie approach.

    6. When I say personal, I mean personal – I’ve so far attempted the traditional route because a) I despise public speaking, b) how amazing would it be to be published by a favourite author’s publishing house (I’ve got to hurry – Tolkien’s is in trouble!), and c) I want the perceived polishedness and clout that comes with a traditional publisher (especially in front of family [g]) :-)

    • Deniz, I couldn’t agree more: it’s wonderful to have choices. I can’t say how happy I am that my whole backlist is all coming out as ebooks in the coming year. It feels like your children are being brought back to life (but not as zombies.) I’m not self-publishing those, but if there hadn’t been publishers wanting to do the job, I would have. As I said in the post, there are application for which self-publishing is ideal.

      I think some of the smartest people out there are doing a bit of this, a bit of that; publishing some work with established houses, some independently. Yes, some self-pub’d writers are getting savvy enough to present a professional-looking package, but there’s still a ton of dreck out there; and as self-publishing burgeons, so does the amount of dreck. I stand by my advice to beginning writers: try mainstream first, for all the reasons I cited. If it doesn’t work, then there’s time to decide whether to self-publish or write a better book.

  12. Doug says:

    Two quick thoughts:

    1. You note that 75% of royalties from self-published books go to 10% of the writers. How does that compare to the shape of the landscape in trade publishers? Citing Rowling grabs attention (I came here from the Nielsen Haydens’ blog, btw) but it’s a bit like citing the Beatles when talking about bands.

    2. Trade publishing has structural problems, particularly from the point of view of a first-time fiction author. Publishing seems sometimes even to revel in those problems; consider the slush pile. What other sector receives large numbers of business proposals, generally just sits on them for a year or more, and then says “Oh, we’ll let any random staff member, especially the youngest and least experienced, evaluate whether these are good proposals”? That’s just nutty, and yet publishing has been doing it that way for decades, and apparently sees no need to change. Let’s not forget the custom of exclusivity: the idea that while your proposal is sitting for a year or so, and the publisher isn’t telling you anything about it, you should not be free to make the same proposal to one of their competitors. This is a very strange way of doing business. (Indeed, its strangeness is revealed at other times when publishers respond quickly and competitively to projects that are, for one reason or another, considered hot properties.)
    Fiction publishing also seems to have settled firmly into a book-a-year pattern. The kind of career a John Brunner or a Robert Silverberg or an Isaac Asimov had is simply not possible anymore under these conditions. The problem runs the other way, too, of course. A colleague’s comment from the early ’90s has stuck with me; she said Stuart Woods’ books were much better when he took two years on each one. Now that they were coming annually (at the time) they were not nearly as good.
    Publishing is becoming more like the movie business, and has been for at least 20 years. This is taking the tournament nature of the business and simply increasing the slope.

    It turns out they weren’t quick thoughts after all. I’m sorry about that.

    Further to the thoughts above on advances, here’s John Scalzi on how to describe the advance in a book deal. For example, “$3,000 to $5,000: A Contemptible Deal. The deal you get when your publisher has well and truly got your number, and it is low.”

    • Hi Doug, and welcome. I’ll try to be brief, too, but I already know I’ll fail, because there’s a lot to say in response to your interesting comment. First of all, thanks for the link to Scalzi’s post, which had me laughing before 8 A.M.—something I’d have said was impossible. He’s right on the money, in every sense.

      On your point #1, I don’t actually have statistics on that, but there’s no doubt that the bulk of royalties go to the bestselling writers, while the others–so-called midlist writers— earn much less. Also true of publishers’ advertising budget, btw: it always goes where (from the midlist writer’ POV) it’s least needed. Publishers are all about return on investment. Once in a while an extraordinary first novel comes along, and they will go all out in support; but most of the time they support only their top sellers with paid advertising. Nevertheless, in the big houses, every writer is assigned a publicist who works hard to maximize exposure and arrange for stuff that doesn’t cost cash, like signings, interviews, blog tours, help setting up websites and FB author pages, and of course pushing hard for reviews.

      Point #2: A few misconceptions here, at least with regard to U.S. publishing. Exclusive submissions have gone the way of the horse and buggy, and a good thing, too. There are still a few agents who insist on exclusivity for a limited time, but they should be at the bottom of the list for writers seeking representation. Here’s an article about finding an agent that might be useful.

      Now, about that slush pile…I totally understand the frustration of writers enduring “Agent Query hell,” which has gotten much worse since agents started accepting electronic queries. They are overwhelmed, and many have given up even responding with no’s—they just don’t answer at all if they’re not interested. I don’t like that approach—I think writers deserve the courtesy of a response even if it’s a formula, “Thanks but no thanks” reply—but it’s becoming quite common. But even if they can’t or won’t respond to the thousands of queries a month they receive, they are still reading and taking on new writers. Several of my students, first-time novelists with no particular “platform”, found agents this year the old-fashioned way, through cold queries, and one got multiple offers.

      Professionals don’t have to read much to eliminate a submission. Standards are very high. Agents (and their staffs) read till they decide a work’s not going to fly, then they stop. Sometimes a few lines are enough to establish that the work is amateurish. When I was an agent, 95% of the stuff I saw was clearly unpublishable; some was virtually unreadable. That’s why I always tell my students that the odds aren’t as awful as they seem, because most submissions aren’t contenders at all.

      You’re right that agents don’t generally do the first read, the exception being material that comes in with a recommendation from someone whose taste they respect. Assistants do the first read of the rest. Those assistants are chosen BECAUSE they’re good readers—that’s the first criterion. Anything that’s even remotely possible gets a second read from actual agents.

      It’s easy and convenient to blame the system, which is not, I agree, author-friendly. But aspiring writers need to consider the possibility that the fault lies in the work, that it’s not quite ready for its close-up. I’m not here to tout my own services, but there is one thing I do for writers that I think really benefits them: if you click on the “Special offer” link at the top of the blog, you’ll see what it is: stringent, professional feedback on the first 5000 words of your work, the sort of thing agents would say if they had time to critique works they’re refusing. There’s a nominal fee, because I’d be swamped if there weren’t, but I actually invest a couple of hours in each of these crits.

      Anyway, sorry for this long rant, but you brought it on with those salient points. Thanks again for commenting.

      • Doug says:

        Scalzi’s good, isn’t he? He’s published financial advice for writers, and he’s also been very open about his approach to the business of writing. He doesn’t have a single tag I could point to for that kind of article, but they are easy to find and worth not only your time but also worth passing along.

        I used to be part of the advertising and promotions team at a large (and now out of business) independent in the Southeast US. We would have 100+ author events each year, so back then I knew a thing or two about promotional budgets (or lack thereof) and publicists’ efforts and so forth. We even figured out how to get, and make use of, co-op dollars that were measured in the dozens rather than the hundreds. Every little bit helped.

        Glad to learn that the “no simultaneous” custom is dying a deserved death. I was actually thinking about publishers’ slush piles; I think there was a recent picture of the shelf o’ slush at Tor, which is what I had in mind when I wrote. We may be talking past each other a bit if you have agents’ practices mind and I thinking about publishers’. They’re probably different, as the priorities (and constraints) are slightly different.

        The discussion inspired by Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Slushkiller posting went on productively for a number of years. The whole post is good, but the heart of it is the breakdown of 14 rejection characteristics. Worth sharing to new audiences.

        Anyway, at this point I’m just an interested observer with solid, if dated, experience in the bookselling business. I’d like to see it prosper, and I’m heartened to hear that at least some counterproductive practices are on the way out.

      • Allen Varney says:

        “Agents (and their staffs) read till they decide a work’s not going to fly, then they stop. Sometimes a few lines are enough to establish that the work is amateurish.” This, when the very post we’re commenting on concludes, “The first [Harry Potter] book was rejected by numerous agents and a dozen publishers” — because, apparently, Rowling’s earliest versions just didn’t cut the mustard — because, apparently, any sensible reader would judge that early Harry Potter unpublishable. I wonder if those agents and publishers would still defend their early judgment.

        Any defense of the existing publishing regime assumes that — despite the year-long waits in the slushpile, despite musical-chairs shifts in editorial departments, despite ever greater concentrations on the top bestselling titles — any defense of the current system assumes it really does bring most of the good manuscripts to readers, and keeps most of the bad manuscripts off the shelves. Even if you honestly believe that, how much longer do you expect it to hold true? With self-publishing on the rise month by month if not week by week, how much longer can you expect the old gatekeepers to remain the arbiters and stewards of quality?

        This conversation neglects the new mechanisms self-publishers can use to improve their books, mechanisms not feasible for (or, at any rate, not employed by) traditional publishers. For instance, a self-published ebook or POD book can be continually revised and corrected, and the author can (depending on the sales platform) notify previous customers of new versions or even push the new versions directly to their readers. Ebooks published to the ePub 3 standard will be able to incorporate realtime updates.

        This, in addition to the many other advantages of self-publishing that strongly favor the author — very short lead times, 70% royalties paid monthly with no reserve against returns, control of covers and sales copy, a worldwide audience, and retention of copyright — should in theory rouse traditional publishers to update their long-held practices for a new century. So far, though….

        • All long-time agents and editors have made mistakes that haunt them. I know I do—one particular Israeli writer whose work I admired tremendously but thought would be impossible to sell without a full translation into English, which didn’t exist. Someone else took the leap of faith, and now this writer’s regularly reviewed on the front page of the NYT. I’m sure the people who passed on HP regret it deeply; on the other hand, they probably already know they’re fallible.

          The thing a good agent looks when reading for isn’t perfection; it’s talent, a real voice, and story-telling ability. Imagine Isaac Stern listening to a bunch of aspiring violin players audition. How many notes do you think it takes him to separate the extraordinarily talented from the average player? Sometimes the aspirant has picked up some bad habits or is playing on a faulty instrument; sometimes you have to listen hard to really hear what’s underneath. I’m amazed that Rowling wasn’t grabbed by the first agent and publisher to hear her voice, regardless of what shape the ms. was in. But despite the fallibility of individual agents, the point is that the system worked for Rowling. Her talent was recognized; she got an agent, and that agent sold her work.

          As I said in my original post, it’s too bad that all the hyperbolic anti-publishing rhetoric is obscuring real issues, some of which you point out in your post. Long lead times, as I’m sure you know, allow publishers to list books in their catalogues and sell in to stores a season in advance; I don’t see that as a problem. But the royalty payment system is a holdover from another era, and long delays in payments of advances, endemic in publishing, is a problem they have zero incentive to overcome. As self-publishing evolves and becomes a more feasible option, it’s bound to affect mainstream publishing practices.

  13. Bryce says:

    You make some great points, but you make only a cursory attempt to answer the question posed in the article’s title.

    What if J.K. Rowling had self-published? You seem confident that her manuscript for HP1 improved dramatically under the gentle, nurturing guidance of… a flurry of rejection letters (twelve in all, doubtless measuring less than a thousand words laid end to end).

    But then the publishing world granted her success: a 1500 pound advance and a print run of 1000, coupled with a well-meaning note telling Rowling to “get a day job,” because she’d never make money at it.

    This is the sort of support that the publishing world gave to the creator of the best-selling book series of all time. Sure, hindsight is 20/20. But as a story of what publishers can do for authors, it reads more like a cautionary tale than a success story.

    Imagine this alternate history, which assumes that Rowling got a thirteenth rejection letter, got a day job, and sat on the manuscript for a decade or so:

    1) Rowling self-publishes HP1, and starts working on HP2.

    2) HP1 starts selling several hundred copies per month, because even without professional editing, the book is pretty awesome.

    3) HP2 is self-published, and starts selling about as well. Rowling is now making enough that she can quit her day job and write full time, if she doesn’t mind sharing a flat and eating lots of potatos.

    4) HP3 comes out, and the series starts to pick up some real buzz, with each book selling about 1000 copies a month. Rowling has to hire someone to handle the business side of things.

    At this point, one of two things could happen:

    5a) Rowling is “discovered” by a major publisher, removes her books from Amazon, and starts re-editing them for traditional publication. She blows up, and thanks to the publisher’s marketing prowess (available to anticipated bestsellers only, not mere midlisters), she goes on to make that billion or so dollars.

    Unfortunately, as the process took an extra decade, Daniel Radcliffe is screwed. The poor kid is doing community dinner theater in Leeds. I suppose that since I’m writing this, I could at least have him be happily married to a beautiful graphic designer.

    5b) Rowling continues self-publishing and makes a comfortable living at it. Perhaps she even blows up and makes a few million dollars, like Amanda Hocking did. She’ll never be as successful as her actual career turned out to be, but she does fine.

    Then again, there’s always 5c: that Harry Potter was a manufactured hit, and in most timelines Harry Potter never made it past the midlist. I’ve long suspected that, regardless of the field of creativity, talent is far more equally spread out than our hit-driven markets for books and music would indicate.

  14. Or 5d), which was my assumption: Rowling publishes her first draft, unedited, but apart from a few friends and family, no one knows about it. She sells 150 copies and takes a job selling shoes.

    Nah, strike the last part. She’s a born writer, so she’d continue to write. But she might not be a born entrepreneur, book designer, marketer, and networker, so her sales don’t attain the critical mass needed before anything can become a break-out success. Also, the book isn’t quite as good. How much of a difference there is we won’t know unless her first draft ever emerges; but in my experience good editing raises the level, however high it was to start with.

    • Bryce says:

      I consider 5d a remote possibility, because Harry Potter is a really good book. Good enough that Rowling would have to be in the bottom 1% of marketers to completely prevent it from going viral.

      The implication is that Rowlings’ mammoth success was well-deserved, yet her early draft could easily have been bad enough that it couldn’t overperform an inept marketing campaign or a less-than-stellar cover design. 150 copies -> 400M copies? Consider the possibility that you might be taking excessive credit for your profession right there.

      I’d be happy to accept a hundredfold or a thousandfold drop in sales, mayyyybe even a ten-thousandfold drop. I can believe that going the self-pub route would leave her in midlist author territory. But to get a three million-fold drop in sales? You’d have to forget to do anything marketing-related, and have a cover like this. Check it out. It’s a thing of beauty.

      The publishing industry rejected Rowling twelve times, gave her a low four-figure advance and thousand copy printing (and presumably an advertising budget to match). I’m having trouble imagining them giving all that much editorial attention to the book either, given the size of the deal.

      Had the book not basically sold itself (up until the moment that the publisher realized it had printed gold on its hands) we never would have heard of it. And I would argue that Harry Potter had a better chance of being published (100%) and then discovered (65%?) had Rowling at least started out self-publishing.

      Them’s my thoughts, worth every penny you paid for them.

      • LOVED that faux cover! Actually laughed before 8AM, which has never happened before. Scared the dogs.

        We’ll have to disagree on the hypothetical. I just don’t see the mechanism whereby self-pub’d books take off all on their own. Publishers too like to claim that books will sell via word of mouth: a euphemism for “We’re not putting any ad money into your book.” But their books are at least in bookstores (for a while) and libraries, and they’re reviewed; they’ve got a chance, a platform. And even then, it’s rare for an unsupported book to sell well; you need both a really good book and a solid base of sales before word-of-mouth can kick in…like it did with Harry Potter.

        Who knows…maybe there’s a series every bit as good as HP languishing right now amidst the millions of self-published books. How would we know?

  15. deniz says:

    But how would we know, if it was a traditionally published book? That is, how would it rise above the midlist? (Just wondering, not criticising (if I wanted to throw fat on the fire I’d mention that Rowling might have succeeded either way – but what about Meyer? I couldn’t get past the first chapter of Twilight; it might as well have been unedited as far as I was concerned. But that’s where it comes down to personal preference, no?).)

    • BarbaraR says:

      But HP WAS a mainstream-published book, published in a very small way for a tiny advance, and people found it. It was available in stores and libraries, and it was reviewed. Enough people read it and raved about it and recommended it and bought additional copies for friends and family that it went viral. You’ve got to have the goods (which Rowling had), the platform (which Bloomsbury provided) and a bit of luck.

      No comment on Meyer.

  16. DJ says:

    Hi Barbara – you make a fair point that you have to go into self-pubbing with your eyes open. And I agree that there’s been a fair amount of invective on both sides of the debate, but I’m of the opinion it’s actually been helpful to generate debate. I don’t believe traditional publishers are out to do anything other than publish books they believe in and make their companies profitable while doing so. But that’s not always easy. It’s all about managing risk and expectations. That goes for publishers and for authors. As an author if you expect to be the next JKR, good luck but chances are you’re in for a rude awakening.

    I’ve been repped by a terrific agent for the past few years but despite her support and track record with other authors neither of my books were picked up by a publisher. Maybe they were crap – who am I to say ? But I believe in them. Amazon offers a great option now with minimal risk, and I’m happy to drink the Koolaid. If you approach it professionally and sensibly, no matter what happens sales-wise, you can at least be the master of your own destiny. There are a ton of resources out there to show you how to do it, and enough success stories to inspire you. Check out Robert Bidinotto, Teresa Ragan, D.B.Henson etc.

  17. BarbaraR says:

    DJ—you’re in a tough spot. I don’t believe for one moment that your books are crap. You wouldn’t have been picked up by a serious agent if they were. The fact is, agents don’t sell everything they take on, often for reasons that have nothing to do with the particular work and everything to do with economic constraints and other forces beyond the writer’s and the agent’s control. Self-publishing might well be a good option for you, since there’s not much chance of publishing commercially a book that’s already been shopped around. My point in this blog post is that self-publishing shouldn’t be a novelist’s first choice. If you do take that route, I’d suggest you have the book professionally edited first, and invest in a good cover. Good luck to you—I hope you’re wildly successful, and a bunch of publishers end up regretting their choice.

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  19. I’m wondering how this conversation might have turned out had it been written pre the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. It could be the most terribly written book in the world (not read it), but note the publishing industry jumped straight on this self-published bandwagon. Of course it made commercial sense for them but doesn’t this blur the distinctions between the so-called gatekeepers of quality and the so-called rubbish they reject?

    • Hi Marie-Ann,
      Thanks for your comment. Publishers are always interested in guaranteed bestsellers, including books like 50 Shades of Gray and celebrity bios, however well or poorly written. That’s a given; like any other business, publishers want to make a profit. Those of us who are not celebrities or who haven’t sold a million copies of a self-published book are held to a higher standard.

      I peeked at your blog, btw. Looks good. Do you know Dorothy Parker’s joke about whoreticulture? She was asked to illustrate the use of the word horticulture with an adage. Her response: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”

  20. Dear Barbara, many thanks, yes – the superb Dorothy Parker! Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is whether a writer should be so reliant on an editor. No-one takes on the editorial role when you write a PhD. You have to make your own judgements. Same with an artist who makes an artist’s book. I am indebted to several quality readers (including two agents and a writer) who read my manuscript at various stages but I was my own editor for Whorticulture (the novel not the blog) which was a very satisfying experience. Readers may disagree!

  21. Peter Pollak says:

    There’s an important aspect of this discussion which is being ignored–the fact that e-readers have expanded size of the market place at the very moment that mainstream publishers are publishing fewer titles. A number of people have told me they stopped reading books because of the cost and the difficulty of knowing whether they’ll like what they just paid $25 for. Now that they can buy books for their IPad, Nook or Kindle for a lot less than $25, they’re doing more reading, and isn’t that what we all want? Of course, many of those $2.99 novels are self-published and yes, many suffer from defects, but authors who find their books aren’t selling will either work to improve their craft or quit and that also has to be seen as a positive. Bottom line: Self-publishing is filling a vaccum as well as forcing traditional publishers to rethink their business model. From where i sit that’s as pretty as a sunset on an ocean beach.

    • Hi Peter,
      Are traditional publishers rethinking their business model? It makes sense that they would be, given the electronic revolution and the dearth of brick-and-mortar stories; and friends in publishing have told me that the major houses have teams whose job is to take account of these changes. And yet so far, the industry seems to be chugging on as usual, without any major policy changes.

      I agree with you that the combination of ereaders and lower book prices has led to more book purchasing, and that’s a very good thing–certainly for mainstream publishers, who see that part of their business booming. For self-published work, I think that new industry’s big challenge is to find a better way of distinguishing the good stuff from the dreck. Eliminating the gatekeepers is like taking the spam filter off your email account: the result is a flood of junk so huge that all you can do is delete everything.

  22. Truly enjoyed this article. You highlight many valid points about what’s wrong with the self-pub industry right now as it undergoes its growing pains. In my road to publishing I felt I had a choice -to continue ramming my head against a wall that seemed to grow more insurmountable by the year, or publish directly and try to build a brand and audience myself over time.

    I’ve taken the latter path, and that’s what I’m focused on right now. It takes an enormous amount of time and effort to try to get one’s work to stand out from the masses, and it’s definitely not the way to go for the easily discouraged or anyone thinking of giving up their day job. But it’s my determination to succeed, and I arm myself with all the knowledge I can about the industry while avoiding the growing number of sharks who prey on the hapless, uninformed authors who don’t have an inkling about how things work.

    Time will be the deciding factor. I haven’t ruled out the traditional route at all, and will probably submit to slush piles and query letters again with a future project. But for now I’m focused on developing my web presence and brand through independent publishing. I believe it will pay off no matter which outlet I end up pursuing.

  23. HI Bard, Thanks for visiting and the thoughtful comment. Writing in general is not for the faint of heart, and almost no one, published or self-published, gets to quit their day job. What you are doing—building a brand– is smart and will help you whether you continue self-publishing or move to mainstream publishing with future projects. As you can see from my interview with Viking editor Tara Singh, the author’s having a platform and sales base is a factor in their deliberations. http://barbararogan.com/blog/?p=70

  24. Sofie Couch says:

    What an enjoyable and RESPECTFUL exchange this has been. I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s responses to Barbara’s article – responses that were thoughtful and able to broach the “politics and religion” of recent industry changes with sensitivity and diplomacy.

    I look forward to seeing the future of “gatekeeping”. One of the accolades I have heard recently about some self-published work is that it is refreshingly original. It would be narrow of me to suggest that traditional publishers have stymied creativity, but if your bottom line is… the bottom line, does it not follow then that accountants have been given the whip-hand over content?

    • Sofie, I’d never say that good books will always be snatched up by publishers. I’ve seen work from some of my students that should have found a home and didn’t. Sometimes writers are told that the editor or agent loves the book but has no idea how to sell it. It’s great that those books get a shot at finding readers through self-publication. But the vast majority of books are rejected on merit, or the lack thereof. You can’t imagine the awfulness of most rejected work unless you’ve read through an agent’s slush pile. The world is full of people convinced that even though they can’t write a single grammatical sentence, they can still write a readable book. And now they can all self-publish those books at little or no expense, and lots of them do.

      Very few editors can acquire a book without persuading higher-ups, including marketing people, that the book can sell. So maybe the play-callers aren’t accountants, but they’re certainly looking out for the bottom line, as they are judged by it. It used to be very common for publishers to run a work by the major buyers–B&N and the late lamented Borders—to see what they think about its saleability. I doubt that’s changed. But if you’re suggesting that the system stifles innovation, I haven’t seen that. There’s a wide range of publishers out there, not just the big 6 and their imprints. A book that’s first rate but too experimental for the major trade houses may well find a home in a smaller literary press: a good alternative, IMO, to jumping straight into self-publishing.

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  26. Sarah H says:

    I think a lot of the answers depend on what your goal is from your writing income. Obviously our goal for our actual writing should always be to produce the best work possible, but that is different for our goal for our writing income.

    I have chosen to self publish initially because when the time comes to approach agents and publishers I want to be able to prove my author platform. I also want to use any money I make from self publishing the initial series I have in mind to build a really good website for a series I have been working on for a long time but is a couple of years away from being publisher/agent ready.
    If I have a reasonable amount of sales of my early books on kindle/kobo/lulu etc and a really good website getting 500-1000 hits a day, a few thousand followers on twitter, facebook etc then I have a good base of an author platform to start from, and hopefully have enough to convince an agent and publisher that I am committed enough, and have sufficient potential to take me on (provided I submit a good enough manuscript of course).

    I believe this is a solid plan of action, and if the traditional publishing doesn’t work out with my long-term series then I will self publish those as well and simply use the income to top up my private pension pot.

    And who knows – I may end up like christopher Paolini and become a million selling author off the back of self publishing and then be picked up by a major publisher anyway! I highly doubt this but you never know.

    • You don’t need a platform to sell fiction, and series are particularly hot right now. Just recently, agent Janet Reid posted a piece on her blog that said the same. (Non-fiction is a whole different story.) That said, all this effort will pay off for you in the end, whether you self-publish or publish.