Why DIY Publishing is not a Dead End

This morning I read a post by Anderson Porter about a four-piece article written a few weeks in the Boston Phoenix by Eugenia Williamson, entitled The dead end of DIY publishing. I had read the Williams piece earlier, and the more than fifty comments, which in my opinion had done a more than adequate job of pointing out its problems. But when Anderson seemed to accept much of her analysis, and labeled the comments as “the usual pitchfork-waving, spittoon-dinging dismissals, I found myself spending the rest of the morning writing a reply. When I finished, I thought I ought to expand abit, and post what I had to say as a blog, thereby at least justifying a morning lost to writing on my next book. So here goes:

I am a DIY self-published author, who found Williamson’s piece upsetting because it did what so many other pieces have done, alternated between describing self-published authors as a group in dismissive terms and using some of the most unrepresentative examples to prove its points. I am not going to argue that traditional publishing is dead, or that self-publishing is the best or only route for every author to take, but what I am going to do is give you my reasons why I don’t believe that self-publishing is a dead end.

Williams is making 3 points: That publishing is not profitable, that when it is, it is not because of merit, and that it can not provide “the equivalent of research and development: the nurturing of young writers with a first book of short stories as well as critically worthy mid-list authors provide the equivalent of research and best sellers paid for.”

For example, in Williamson’s article she has as a heading the statement: SELF-PUBLISHING ISN’T PROFITABLE, OR MERITOCRATIC. I don’t know how you would interpret this, but I read it to mean that if you self-publish you won’t make money, and if you are successful it isn’t because of the value of the work you produce. As a self-published author who is successful (in this my 3rd year as an author the income I am making per month in sales is well over what I made as a full time history professor), I naturally found the first part of the statement inaccurate and the second point insulting.

Her proof of the first statement is that for every Konrath there are thousands who don’t make any money. This is a meaningless statement since, while I am sure it is true, it is equally true that for every Steven King there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of traditionally published authors who make no money. Writing, at least until now, is not profitable for the vast majority of the people who engage in this activity. If she really wanted to make a statement that added to the discussion, she should have said that self-publishing was less profitable than traditional publishing for the majority of authors. But she can’t say this, not just because the systematic data comparing the two doesn’t exist, but because the increased number of traditional authors who are choosing to self-publish would argue that the statement was untrue.

Since she can’t prove her statement that self-publishing is unprofitable, she instead feels the need to insult those people who do it by suggesting that the authors don’t care if they make money because they “wouldn’t make a dime because no publisher would take them,” or that if they make money, it was only because they had the money to invest in the process because the “truth is self-publishing costs money.”

Then she picks one of the least representative examples of a self-published author she could find–De La Pava to prove this point. Here is an author who published a book and “forgot about it.” How unrepresentative is that! And she mentions that he spent thousands of dollars, which sounds like he used an “authors services” package. If she had either done her research or wanted to paint a balanced view of self-publishing surely she would have taken the time to interview one of the hundreds of self-published authors she could find on the internet (we blog incessantly about our experiences), and mentioned that Smashwords, Amazon’s KDP, and Barnes and Noble’s PubIt, and Amazon’s CreateSpace and Lightening Source have made it possible for authors to publish without that large initial investment.

But no, she doesn’t do that, instead she tries to use this author to make the point that there is no meritocracy in self-publishing because this particular author was successful because he had good luck. The implication is that success has nothing to do with the work an author puts into the writing of the book, or the marketing of the book, or the judgment of the readers, hence the idea that those who are successful don’t “merit” the success. If Williamson had spent just a few hours reading the blogs of self-published authors she would see how much time is being spent on the craft of writing, on learning how to design better books, inside and out, on how to most effectively promote, and on actual promotion, and she might have been able to see how little luck has to do with it.

Finally there is her third point that self-publishing doesn’t nurture young authors through the provision of advances or research and development possibilities the way traditional publishing does. Porter (and many of the authors who commented on the article) pointed out the problem with her assumption that traditional publishing uses its bestseller profits to nurture their midlist authors, so I won’t belabor this point. What I will argue is, that if we are discussing fiction, which Williamson seemed to be doing, the nurturing that authors need the most is a steady predictable income so that they don’t have to work full time at something else, and the research and development they need is marketing data that they can then use to develop new strategies for getting their work to the reader and getting that reader to buy their work.

If you compare the traditional to the self-publishing model, the self-publishing model is anything but a dead end. For the traditionally published author, small advances, spread over 3 or 4 payments, and royalties, that only come 2-4 times a year, mean that most authors have a very insecure and spotty income. It is hard to take the leap to leave your “day job” when your money comes in dribs and drabs and you don’t know from year to year what you are going to make.

In contrast, as a self-published author I see my sales daily, I get my checks monthly, I have sales data for 2 1/2 years and can tell you which months I will make the most money, and which months the sales dip, so I can make my fiscal plans accordingly. Within a year of publishing my first novel, I was making enough money monthly to replace my part-time teaching salary (I was semi-retired), and I retired completely to write full time. As with most small businesses, it may take authors who self-publish years to grow their business to the point of making a living, but I am hearing many more stories of authors finding this sort of sustainable income than I ever heard from mid-list authors in traditional publishing. And with more income coming from ebooks, which don’t have the short life span of print books, this income has a much longer impact on an author’s financial security.

I have every reason to expect that the two books I have published will continue to sell, and that as I publish more books, my income will go up. My traditionally published friends know that in most cases they will never make any money after the advance, and they have no guarantee that the next book they write will ever be published. Which vision of the future would you find more nurturing?

Williams says that if traditional publishing disappeared the only books published would be by those with “the money and the time to publish and promote it.” But if she had done adequate research she would have seen that the initial investments in self-publishing are generally small (mine was $250 for a cover) and can be recouped quickly, and only a small percentage of future profits need to be plowed back into the business on a yearly basis (upgrade websites, professional editing, etc.), and you don’t need to even do that to get out another book, which can then double your earnings.

And for fiction, research and development should mean researching the market and developing good promotional strategies. But again, traditional publishing doesn’t do a very good job of this for most authors. Traditional publishers are just starting to talk about shifting their marketing focus from book sellers to book readers, and most authors are still expected to come up with their own marketing campaigns based on extremely limited data and often years-out-of-date information about where and how their books are selling. Even if they get direct feedback from their fans, they have little control over covers, interior formatting, pricing or promotions. So even if they did their own research, they don’t have authority or mechanisms to use that information to improve the product.

In contrast, because I know every day how many books sold, in what venue, I can mount a promotion, change a price, upload a book into a new book store, and know instantly what the effect of these actions are. I can change a book cover, go in and correct formatting errors instantly, not wait until another edition is printed (if ever). And, as I write my next book, I can take into consideration what 100s of my readers have said in their reviews, not what an editor says based on limited marketing analysis of my mid-list genre.

Just three years ago when I started, it was very difficult to get any information on how other authors were doing with their sales. (Which is why Konrath’s willingness to publish his sales data was so revolutionary!) While there might have been a top down mentoring system among agents, editors and successful authors, there wasn’t the vibrant community that now exists among authors that is open to all. Self-published authors share information readily about what promotions worked and what didn’t. We share information about sales data, how to over come formatting difficulties, what covers work, what fonts to use, and promotional strategies. We open up our blogs to guest reviewers, form cooperatives for cross-promotional purposes. Self-publishing welcomes writers of any age, any background, who write about every subject in every form. Any time spent online looking in Barnes and Noble or Amazon’s stores, or reading writers’ blogs demonstrates that authors are experimenting more than ever before. Short stories, novellas, graphic novels are being published and read that would never have made it through the narrow gates of traditional publishing, which tended to strain out anything that deviated from the recent bestseller trend.

Will some authors fail, or be disappointed? Of course. Will some of these experiments prove unsuccessful, certainly. But, without self-publishing these authors wouldn’t have gotten the chance to fail, and many others, like myself, a former academic in her sixties, wouldn’t have ever gotten the chance to succeed.

I would love to hear from those of you who have had experience with both traditional and self-publishing and examples of nurturing you found in both.

26 Replies to “Why DIY Publishing is not a Dead End”

  1. Thanks. I agree with what you say. You could have added that the traditional publishing industry seems to avoid any science, or measurement and seems totally committed to using hunch and prejudice as the main decision making tools. I have yet to find anyone in the trade who publishes any data to back up anything they say.
    I was at aconference last year when a publisher said he didn’t believe in market research because it interfered with his judgement. I’m a 67 year old retired professor, so I’ve heard a few stupid things in my time, but that has to be close to the most stupid.
    Obviously I have no proof that they are all like that, but no one from the trade at the conference got up to say what a load of rubbish.

  2. I feel sorry for those who are so short sited.Maybe she is only hoping she will raise her rating on the backs of the self published.

  3. Great post. I feel sorry for anyone who falls for those high-priced self-pub services because they don’t know any better. A cover and editor are the biggest expenses these days and reasonable are reasonable.

    Morgan Mandel

  4. Very cogent in-depth response to Williamson and Porter! I was surprised to see that Williamson was published in the Boston Phoenix, which has traditionally been more vox populi than voice of the establishment. An unassailable truth here is that publishing is in flux. The old system (and it did and does have great merit for the few admitted to its halls) is in disarray as a result of the successes of the new system. Analogizing to the postbellum South, there are disaffected plantation owners (Big 6 publishers, agents and some authors), unscrupulous carpetbaggers (those overpriced publishing “services”) and thousands of suddenly freed slaves (writers), among whom many lack the necessary skills for success. Those skills include a facility with the English language, a grasp of narrative forms, and no less importantly now, a willingness to learn and function within the constraints of commerce. For me, that last one is about as appealing as a plate of live tapeworms, and I admit to missing the old days when my now defunct big publisher, Warner Books, did it all for me. But would I go back? No way! I LOVE re-publishing my backlist and new novels as I write them. So does everybody else. And while the wide-open flux that is “self-publishing” admits truckloads of really awful stuff, so what? Better that than the door that slams shut on a fabulous book. The naming of this wild, lively chaos a “dead-end” is a curious, but irrelevant, blindness.

  5. Great rant. I have to agree 100%; and congrats on your success! ๐Ÿ˜€

    Without boasting, I have been published since 1994 and **by choice** self-published after that. I am consistently (pretty much every day) outselling the top names in the world and my books are the best reviewed in my genre. I know the (publishing) game–and it is changing, and will continue to for a few more years. I can tell you all kinds of stories of accounting malfeasance among those in the publishing world (and you thought the record industry was “bad”), multiple allegations of (some) publishers outright stealing people’s ideas and handing them off to in-house writers, bi–annual payments (if at all), pitiful royalty rates, authors owing their publishers money, and TONS of highly successful DIY’ers who changed the world. Anyone who argues that a pedigree makes you a better person is a racist. Period. The same holds true for those in the literary world. Quality is a matter of choice and consistent effort, it is not something you can slap a label on like a brand. Your article is inspiring to any who have been kicked around by “mediocre minds.”

  6. Well said, Mary Lou! Additionally, a lot of independent authors don’t discuss their earnings in public so this can lead people like Ms Williamson to completely misunderstand the extent to which times have changed. Costs have come down; earnings have increased; independent authors are much happier than their counterparts.

  7. Completely agree. The changes in the publishing industry are creating more opportunities for self-published authors than ever before. I might add a bit of caution and say that with this opportunity comes great responsibility – get a professional editor, create a marketing plan, focus on your personal branding, utilize social media technology, engage with your base, and get out there and promote your product! Ted Turner once said, “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise.”

  8. I am insulted by the likes of Ms Williamson, as a self published author that simply refuses to write about vampires and witches, because that’s all publishers think we want to read about right now. My first book which was turned down by a few, is actually doing extremely well and my second will be realsed next month. I’d rather be in control of my work and not be told what the readers want, at the end of the day this is not dead end, it’s a chance in a world that is otherwise a closed off street to far too many of us writers and I am proud of what I do. So far all my book has cost me is $25…take that Ms Williamson.

  9. This morning I uploaded my soon-to-be-released debut novel onto my Kindle for one last proofreading to check for typos and formatting errors.

    And I was really excited–almost as excited as I was the first time an agent asked for a partial. But then I realized, this excitement will have a happy ending. I don’t have to wait 6-8 weeks for a response (or none at all) that my book is not wanted (with no reason given). This excitement will end with my book finally for sale on Amazon.

    One recent poll (sorry, can’t remember which) found that, while self-published authors don’t make large sums of money (and many make none at all), the overwhelming majority–close to 90%–said they were happy and would publish again.

    I don’t think traditional publishing makes people that happy.

  10. Reblogged this on Keri Peardon, Once and Future Author and commented:
    While self-publishing is becoming more mainstream, there are still a lot of people who are prejudiced against the process and the authors.

    And I’m not saying that there’s not some horrible stuff out there–I’ve read it!–but I don’t think it will take much to shake those writers out. Negative feedback will either 1) cause them to try again and write better, 2) cause them to stop writing, 3) cause people to stop buying their stuff and forcing either #1 or #2 to happen.

    And, let’s be honest: I’ve read some pretty bad stuff that was traditionally-printed. My husband was just complaining the other day about a bad book and said, “Why can’t my wife get her good book published when crap like this gets published–and in hardback!”

  11. I just posted this comment over at Anderson’s article and I thought folks here might be interested as well:

    Let’s talk about economic models for writers. I didn’t say publishing because that puts the emphasis in the wrong place. It’s really useful to think about why we use the term “publishing industry”. There was no publishing industry before Gutenberg, but you can start to see that term make sense pretty soon after that, at least in Europe. That bit of new technology created a new industry. The marginal cost of a book (and other printed materials) dropped dramatically.Scribes didn’t go away overnight. For a little while, there were things they could do that printers couldn’t.

    So it will be with the traditional publishing company. But in the digital age, it really doesn’t make economic sense to organise the production of books the same way it did when there was an unavoidable marginal cost to producing and distributing a book. The zero marginal cost for producing another copy of an ebook and the effectively zero cost of distributing that copy completely changes how the book production industry will be organized. There will be enough authors who can afford the risk of developing their first book and then fund subsequent books with on-going profits. The power in the industry will shift to authors.

    I believe that the model that will make the most sense for professional writers will be the professional group practice, just like doctors and lawyers. The value of cross-promotion and the sharing of paraprofessional expenses (preproduction costs like editing and graphics as well as being able to sharing marketing and promotional expenses). These groups will take the place of today’s imprints, but will actually be able to develop a brand.

    That’s where the nurturing of new talent comes from. The smart aggressive groups will be on the look out for new writers, even fan fic writers or bloggers who fit the brand they’ve established. I can see a lot of experimentation with various forms of partnership arrangements. Perhaps work-for-hire with an option for full partnership.

    These groups will want to have a much stronger connection to their fans than any publishing company dreams of having with its customers. That will give writers a level of protection from Amazon attempting to exercise its power in a monopolistic fashion. If Amazon’s conditions become too onerous, these groups will be able to take their most loyal fans (and therefore highest value customers) with them to their own webstores. More likely, they’ll just bring those fans to their own sites to upsell to them

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment William.

      I am currently the president of the Board of Directors of the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative (you can see our website at http://hfebooks.com/), and, while we have banded together primarily to offer support, share information, and cross promote our books, your idea of a new model of a “professional group practice” is intriguing. I must say it is a great deal of fun to be part of such enormous changes in the way that authors get their work out to readers, which makes it all the more depressing when writers like Williamson, and Porter for that matter, continue to focus on the negatives.

      Mary Louisa

  12. Found your post via Yvonne Hertzberger’s blog and glad I did! I was so afraid to try self-publishing,but after the long wait, rejections from trad pub and agents, I started following Konrath, McQuestion, Amazon, etc and my belief and passion in my writing came back. My debut novel is out 2 weeks now and doing well on Amazon. I’m still nervous, but am so glad I took this step! Thanks for sharing this post and I am so thrilled to follow yet another Author who believes in DIY publishing ๐Ÿ™‚ Continued success to you!

    1. Hi, Amber –
      Congratulations on your new book! I’m glad to hear it’s doing well and especially glad to hear that your belief in and passion for your writing weren’t crushed beyond hope by the many rejections that are part of the writing life. DIY is a whole new world and the best part is, it’s fun. So happy to have you aboard!

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