Archives for category: Self publishing

There was a flurry of concern a few years ago about agents elbowing in onto publishers’ turf, and getting their clients books printed without the benefit of a publisher. We all seem to have gotten spine-stiffening injections since then, and now one doesn’t find the same panic among publishers. We have always had societies and clubs publishing, and we have become accustomed to bookshops and libraries doing their own printing and publishing. We are now much more relaxed about the fact that anyone at all can publish a book, so why should literary agents be left out.

In 2013 Porter Anderson had a little series of posts about agent-assisted publishing at Publishing Perspectives. Here they are: The first, the second, the third, the fourth, and the wrap-up.

Amanda Luedeke at MacGregor Literary Agency (link via The Passive Voice) says it is now “ridiculously easy for any schmuck to pound out a terrible novel and send it to the best editors” who don’t have the time to read them all. Saying “send your terrible novel to me, you schmuck” hardly seems like a winning marketing slogan, but alienating a few awful authors might not be too damaging I guess.

Agents have long provided an invaluable service to the publishing industry by prescreening manuscripts. It was always a natural step from there to providing editorial services, ranging from rewrite to copy editing and design. And now that typesetting has become virtually (or potentially) a side effect of copy editing, producing press-ready files is clearly a logical progression. So what’s so sensitive about the next step, getting the books printed? If we want to allow an agent to do this task for us, why not? From a publisher’s point of view the beauty of having agents do stuff is that they tend to be paid by authors.

As Ms Luedeke points out the role of agents in publishing is not as an alternative to the Big Five, it’s as a sort of service to authors. Many of these are going to be self published, and can use all the help they can get.  However one wonders why a self-published author would need the services of an agent to negotiate a contract with their self-publisher self. Just shows the twists and turns going on in the business.

Joe Konrath, (in a comment on the following story at The Passive Voice) informs us “Signing with a publisher is like getting into the car with a drunk driver. You really can’t be surprised when they crash and cripple you.” It should not need restating that many authors demonstrably do appreciate having a publisher. They keep getting into the car. Those who don’t share that appreciation have other options now that we’ve “invented” self-publishing, the equivalent perhaps of the bicycle. Isn’t that the end of the story? Apparently not, if you look at the many comments. This sort of excessive hatred of publishers no doubt comes from the exaggerated expectations that some authors have allowed themselves to build up.

Merritt Tierce wrote a well-reviewed novel, Love me back, in 2014 and now bitterly complains at Marie Claire that people have stopped buying her book, something she seems to think is her publisher’s fault. “Publishing is always moving on. Foolish poet that I am, I didn’t realize how hollow that would make me feel. But of course publishing is moving on. Because publishing is also an industry, employing people who need to pay their own utility bills.” The moving on appears to have included issuing a paperback edition the year after the hardback came out, so I don’t think Doubleday can be said to have dumped a disaster. Indeed Ms Tierce discloses that her book sold 12,000 copies, which didn’t earn out her advance — (a nice, generous advance for a first-time author). Some of the comments at The Passive Voice, to be fair, do point out that 12,000 copies for a first novel is actually a rather good performance — certainly not Mr Konrath’s crippling car wreck!

Her problem is “I would like to be paid to write. I would, right now, sign in blood a contract that would pay me $40,000 a year for the rest of my life. No advances. No royalties. No freelance checks, no honoraria, no prize money, no film or TV options.” Who wouldn’t sign up for this deal? Heck many of us might sign up for less than that. Indeed many do: it’s called a job in book publishing. Get over it Ms Tierce. It’s not Doubleday who’s forgotten about you, it’s book readers. Let’s assume the 12,000 who bought your book all liked it — what do you expect they should do? Go out and buy a copy of the same book every month? No. Write another. Maybe it’ll sell beyond average expectations just as your first one seems to have done. Maybe it won’t. If the book is good the credit goes to you. Where do you think the blame should go if the book isn’t?

Being a novelist isn’t a job.


Here’s an interesting piece on why self-published books tend not to get reviewed. According to the review editor quoted (he is talking about children’s books) there are just too many of them; many aren’t that good; many don’t have a sense of their real audience; many self-published authors don’t have a clear idea of their market. Any journal just cannot afford to spend the hours needed to sift through the hundreds of thousands of potential offerings which they would be inviting by soliciting indie books. I suppose if there were any method by which a good self-published book could easily be identified from the mass, then it would be safe for review media to cover them. It’s the finding and analyzing them that’s prohibitive. I have seen one or two self-published books reviewed in traditional review media, but these must have resulted from the coincidence of the editor’s hearing by chance about the book. There just isn’t any mechanism for a regular scrutiny of the universe of self publishing. We all, and review editors in particular, may well be the losers because of this, but the stark reality is if the author is the publisher, there will be an irresistible tendency for all geese to be described as swans.

The traditional book trade has evolved methods by which such pre-sorting gets done. At The Washington Post “we’re getting about 150 books a day. A day. And these are books that had to find an agent. And then a publisher. And then were professionally edited. And now are being professionally marketed by people with money on the line. Many of these books, of course, are bad, but many — far more than we can review — are interesting, engaging, informative, moving, timely and/or newsworthy for various reasons.” Note in this sentence that one of the “methods” that traditional publishing has evolved is an acceptance of the brutal fact that not every book, not even every good book, will get reviewed. We are accustomed to accepting that you can’t win ’em all. If you are publishing your own work, accepting this is obviously much, much harder.

Maybe the self-publishing world will settle down and develop a means by which a similar sorting methodology can be achieved. But just as self publishing is a different business than traditional publishing, so unfortunately will the reviewing of self-published books probably have to be done somehow differently. That we have not yet worked out what this means surely doesn’t mean we never will. One probable route is the on-line review, though just how readers can become aware of reviews they might be interested in is a hard problem. A sort of crowd-sourcing Goodreads model may end up being the answer. Of course, getting your book reviewed is one kind of problem: getting it favorably reviewed is a horse of a different color. Businesses, and no doubt individuals, have not always been above trying to get the fix in. Well at least review integrity is secure in California, where they’ve passed a law imposing a $10,000 fine on companies which seek to enter contracts prohibiting unfavorable on-line reviews. Gigaom brought the news.


According to Publishing Perspectives ISBNs cost £89 (US$117) singly or £149 (US$196) for 10. No wonder lots of self-published books dispense with them. Now that you can get them on-line in UK as well as in USA, one wonders why they have to cost so much.


This chart comes from a report by Bowker trumpeting the increase in indie publishing. (Click on it a couple of times, and it should enlarge adequately. Or just follow the link to the Bowker report.) But of course it doesn’t tell anything like the full story as it is just a report on ISBNs issued — which is what Bowker does. Almost 80% of these ISBNs are for print books with Amazon’s own CreateSpace as the consumer of almost three quarters of those. One can see how having an ISBN on a print book might be a good idea — otherwise it’s going to be hard to get it into established distribution channels — but an e-book can thrive without such help. There seems to be no real way to measure the true extent of the self-published e-universe, but we can rely on its being more than 153,160 titles in 2015.

Of course we have to acknowledge that nevertheless, almost three quarters of a million self-published ISBNs represents a huge number of books. I despair of finding what the real number of self-published books might be.

For those who may want to know how an ISBN is constructed, and what its various bits signify, my post Bookland EAN & ISBNs may be helpful.

We tend to think of self publishing as a recent phenomenon, but if you were in Oxford in June 2014 you might have gone to this presentation on Self-publishing in 18th-century Paris and London. Naturally things were not exactly the same in those days. You might want to argue that it all looks rather like the subscription publishing I wrote about previously. The current explosion of self publishing results from the invention of the e-book, though of course lots of writers still get their books printed, either through services like Lulu, Blurb, or Amazon’s CreateSpace, or still in many cases by contracting with a regular printer. But digital is the big difference-maker, and many commentators keep weighing in on the “to do, or not to do” question as if it was important in some real way.

Why is it that the question “to self-publish or not?” stirs up such emotion? What does it matter to you that this person decides to publish their book by themselves, and that person goes to Simon & Schuster? You might as well try to get an emotion-choked debate going on the folly of choosing a publisher with fewer than 206 employees, or a publisher with more than two “r”s in their name, or a publisher more than half of whose employees have blond hair. Now if anyone wants passionately to be published by blonds and blondes only, they are perfectly free to go ahead and seek out a solution to their mania. I can’t see why anyone else has any need to complain. Some people will favor self publishing; others won’t. Some people find controlling the entire publishing and marketing process by themselves empowering and gratifying. To others it’s a bore. End of story — surely.

The current flurry of nonsense is provoked by Ros Barber who writes in The Guardian an utterly rational explanation of why a (serious) literary writer shouldn’t touch self-publishing with a barge pole. Ed Renehan at Medium reacts in an emotionally-charged manner to what he sees as the snobbery and elitism of Ms. Barber’s post. Mr Renehan maintains “In the end, the publishing imprint is not the brand. The author is the brand.” One could possibly agree with that I guess (though Penguin was certainly a strong brand for me in my youth), but it’s hard to work out what it has to do with choosing to publish on your own or to go with an established house. For those keen to follow up even more reactions to the piece, here’s a round-up from The Digital Reader. After all this spilt ink all we can really conclude is that we’d be surprised if Mr Renehan didn’t self-publish his next book with his own indie imprint New Street Communications, and similarly surprised if Ms Barber were to self-publish her fiction (though she does apparently self-publish non-fiction). This certainly makes a huge difference to the world!

In 2014 Eoin Purcell’s blog published a thoughtful piece entitled “Why traditional publishers should surrender to self publishing”. It’s all rational and responsible in tone, but it is based on the proposition that the “war between self publishing and publishing, [is] over and authors (who are the major self publishers and hence the foot-soldiers, commanders and field marshals of self publishing’s forces) have won it.” I can assure Mr Purcell that nobody in publishing has ever thought they were in such a war. If the slightest hint of battle had ever arisen, we would never have considered self publishers the enemy. We spent all our time finding books, getting out the books we were about to publish, trying to get people to buy them, and making sure the older ones remained available. We might feel some pique that this or that competing publisher had beaten us to this or that book signing, but self publishing wasn’t a perceived threat. (I do realize that this will only be regarded by the indie promoters as further evidence of the stupidity of traditional publishing. They aren’t however any more likely to be correct in all their assumptions than I am.) A more genuine threat than authors opting for self publishing is their failure to complete this manuscript, their failure to deliver that manuscript on time, or even the failure ever to start writing the manuscript. We acknowledge the existence of hundreds of other publishing houses and recognize that authors can always decide to publish elsewhere or even do it themselves. God knows there are enough books out there for all of us.

Mike Shatzkin naturally has sensible things to say about all this. When an author should self-publish. . . is a thorough and sensible survey of the whole issue. Digital Book World proves that marketing is the secret sauce: if you can and want to do it, self publish; if you don’t, don’t. For those addicted to compromise, a sort of half-way house, agent assisted publishing, is well described in this 2013 post by Melissa Foster on the Jane Friedman blog. A different sort of half-way house, the in and out kind, apparently called hybrid, is discussed by Porter Anderson at Thought Catalog.

Give it all a rest folks: there are lots of ways to publish, and one kind doesn’t have to kill off the others for them all to run merrily along.


The Passive Voice links to Hugh Howie’s latest rant from The Wayfinder trashing traditional publishing while yet claiming to love it. I guess this is what we know as tough love. “We think individual entrepreneurs are cooler than mega corporations” he says, but what’s cool got to do with it? I’m sure the board of Bertelsmann sits there in Gütersloh bitching at PRH that they aren’t being cool enough — we didn’t say big profits; we said cool profits! No doubt Hugh Howie is way cooler than the Bertelsmann board, but then he’s probably the coolest guy in any book room. There are doubtless other cool indie publishers, but there are also lots of uncool old farts. So what?

On the same day, 12th February, The Passive Voice also includes this refutation of some of Howie’s claims from Book Business, and here from 8 February is their account of the latest Author Earnings report which Porter Anderson at Publishing Perspectives also analyses. It is perhaps worth considering the possibility that Author Earnings is right: but that, while interesting, doesn’t really mean much does it? In so far as the effort is directed at persuading traditional publishers to pay authors a 70% royalty, it’s surely no more than an insane delusion. In a bit of a scoop, Digital Book World publishes this interview with the Data Guy, the anonymous statistician who collects and analyzes the data for Author Earnings. He reveals that he started his data analysis in order to clarify for himself whether he should self-publish his book or seek a traditional publisher’s contract.

Life’s too short for this discussion. The world has room for both — or neither, if that’s what we end up wanting. Either Howey and Data Guy are right and the Big Five (plus the smaller hundreds) are doomed, or they are wrong, and they aren’t. Who gains anything by pontificating about something which will eventually be proved by the passage of time? It’s all a bit like little boys boasting about the size of their equipment. They all work, in pretty much the same sort of way.


UnknownA settlement is announced by The Passive Voice. I guess where there’s money there’s trouble. I had read that there was dissatisfaction in the fan fiction community with the way this had all exploded, but hadn’t realized it was this sort of big-money dissatisfaction! $11.5 million! As I sarcastically noted the other day, no indie publisher ever does it for the money!

Jane Friedman’s brief post nails it quite well; just what is a publisher for? It’s unusual to find a commentator talking in such moderate tones. It’s not all or nothing, it’s one option among several.

The Passive Voice, comments on Ms Friedman’s piece as follows: “PG [the Passive Guy] suggests an additional question for authors, ‘How much is a publisher going to cost me?'”

“PG suggests that analysis of the true cost of a publisher must consider that the publisher will be costing the author money for the rest of the author’s life plus 70 years under typical tradpub contracts.”

“PG almost created a spreadsheet comparing costs of publishing vs. self-publishing, but decided that would lead down an OCD rabbit hole where he would spend way too much time. If anyone wants to build a spreadsheet and sends PG a link, he’ll probably do another post.”

Well I guess we know he’s not a friendly witness; but it isn’t all about money. Sure money comes into it, but publishers do have an expertise in getting writing noticed. In the past, when publishers provided the financial access to the printing press, they bankrolled the book, and most authors had no option. Now they do have options — but that doesn’t mean that a traditional publisher is worth nothing. My observation is that the first-time author craves the validation that getting a publisher contract brings.

Babelcube offers self-published authors a free translation service in return for an exclusive distribution agreement for five years. Just Publishing Advice brings us the news (linked via The Digital Reader). Of course you might have feelings about just who it was who did your translation — but then free is free.

Author Kristine Kathryn Rusch here discusses the issue for self-publishers of getting translated. (Link via The Passive Voice) She spends much time developing that (to me nonsensical) argument that American publishers don’t want to do translations, telling us here that the reason for this is alleged to be that American readers don’t want to read them. Now, I dare say she did meet publishers who said this — but they were just repeating a mantra and talking nonsense. An examination of the evidence is so obviously contrary to this claim, that there’s no need to mention it again.

On the other hand, it might be argued that American publishers don’t want to publish translated books because it’s a hassle. In a trade world where you are charged with bringing in a certain number of books a year, you are likely to select the first best-selling candidates over others. You have a network of agents around town, and will maybe visit the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs. At the book fairs you might find a foreign blockbuster or two — but it doesn’t really matter because your New York agent pool will be feeding you proposal upon proposal. If agents push 200 projects at you, selecting the 20 best isn’t a hugely onerous task (though getting it right is not easy). Going overseas and researching who’s good, going after them, and arranging for a translation to be done, represents real work. It would take a highly motivated editor to disregard the easy pickings in his/her own backyard and go for the tougher stuff overseas. Ergo: translations happen less than translation-pushers would like. The reason is not that American publishers don’t want to do them: it’s more that they are too lazy, or comfortable, to have to do them. This doesn’t apply to French, Dutch, German, Italian etc. publishers where their domestic writing machine is less fruitful (because smaller).

Our problem here is the size of our market. A bestseller can sell millions of copies. If we had a smaller population a bestseller would sell thousands of copies. Unsurprisingly trade publishers are fixated on millions, and we are constantly hearing moans about how the “mid-list” is being squeezed. Most translations fall into the mid-list category. And smaller publishers are doing lots of them, just as they are picking up the domestic mid-list slack. So all this moaning about how American publishers won’t do translations really means “American trade publishers won’t do translations” — and that’s not even true.

I’ve held forth on this before and before.

“Do not assume a publisher has an interest in your book selling well. They should, but they don’t. Their interest is in seeing which books unexpectedly hit. That’s it. If it’s not you, you’re screwed.” Thus Carolyn Jewel: Writer’s Diary telling of her difficulties in getting rights reverted from a failing publishing house. This does sound achingly familiar: we publishers make life and death decisions about hundreds and thousands of books as if they were SKUs, not the result of years of work on the part of a sensitive individual. But of course it can’t really be any different. If it were we’d all be self-publishers, which may be the best way to go if you haven’t got a potential blockbuster. Big publishers just have too many books in their catalog to lavish individual attention on all of them; plus we know from bitter experience that most of the books will “fail” — where success is measured by the achievement of large sales. But publishers are by nature optimists, or they wouldn’t be in this business, so they are always reluctant to give up the right to try again — even if they never get around to doing so in the case of your book. In the old days when we didn’t have POD and e-books, reversion could occur when the book went out of print. But that stage is now never reached, so if you haven’t got some clause in your contract specifying some level of sales, some date beyond which, or some mechanism for the right to publish to revert to you, then it won’t. Ever. If the publisher goes out of business, look out. Your book is an asset of the company and has to be made part of the bankruptcy proceedings.

The problem of getting your rights back from a failing publisher was being ventilated last year because of the problems at Ellora’s Cave. This post from Vulture explores the possibility that it was Amazon that dun’ ’em in. (The picture alone is worth the click-through.) It would seem that their bankruptcy scare is now less pressing: maybe they are finding they can compete with Amazon after all. Ellora’s Cave is still trading, and had a large impressive booth at this year’s BEA. But apparently rights reversions to the author within 12 months prior to a company’s going into bankruptcy can be regarded as fraudulent, so authors have an unexpectedly large investment in the health of their publisher.

Clearly the right course of action is to refuse any clause that restricts your right to a reversion of rights and insist on one which specifies in some detail the conditions under which that will take place, right by right, but that doesn’t help much in the real world where authors’ negotiating power is so much less than the publishers’. The site Writer Beware® gives solid advice on how to request a reversion. The Authors Guild is agitating about a whole raft of contract issues, and rights reversion is one of them. This all makes sense of course . . . but this is a lopsided negotiation, so good luck to any but the most powerful bestselling authors. Here’s a link to the Authors Guild announcement of their Fair Contract Initiative.