Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Self-Publishing is a Bad Idea

For the longest time, as long as I have been in this business and working to be in this business, which now boarders on 35 years, the idea of self-publishing your own work was always a bad idea. And there has been for decades some very fine reasons for this belief system. And I was a firm proponent of the belief myself. I even argued against anyone doing it up until three years ago.

And I can’t even begin to describe to you the problems that my wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, had with her stories being in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction when she was editing that magazine, even though it was common knowledge and stated often that the former editor and publisher, Ed Ferman bought and edited her stories and forced her under contract to show him all her stories first. She paid a very large price because of this belief system that self-publishing is bad, to the point where she almost stopped writing short fiction and ended up quitting editing because she wanted to go back to writing.

The belief that self-publishing is bad was solid and very nasty for about fifty years. And for the most part, it was true. But like so much these days, things are changing and this belief now threatens to become a myth held by a few snobs just like so many other myths. So that’s why this is a chapter in this book.

Some history:

Most people don’t know that Mark Twain self-published much of his own work, that back in the 18th and 19th century it was common, and we wouldn’t even know about Tarzan or any Edgar Rice Burroughs if it wasn’t for his son convincing him to self-publish his own work when he couldn’t sell to publishers or magazines of the time.  There are thousands of stories of small presses, usually thinly hidden self-publishing ventures, or publishing ventures by friends or fans, that kept certain authors in print.

So why over the last half of the 20th century did self-publishing become so hated?

The answer boils down to a few different reasons, a couple that still apply today. But let me lay out the historical reasons first before talking about modern 2010 times.

Why Was Self-Publishing Looked Down On?

1… Books that were self-published were pretty much universally lower quality. Over the last fifty years publishing with traditional publishers has always been like auditioning for a play on Broadway. You weren’t allowed on the big stage for any reason until your skill and story ability were up to national levels. So lazy writers (or writers with too much ego and thought everything they wrote from word one was gold) would spend thousands to get a garage full of their own books to hawk to friends and family and local stores. That was usually where they stopped, their dreams shattered by the costs, the reality of distribution, and lack of room in their garages.

2…Quality of production was pretty much universally lower quality. Back before easy work on computers, pasting up quality professional-looking covers was difficult at best, so self-published writers usually allowed some scam company to do it for them for a large fee, and they always looked awful. And they all had a certain “look” to them of a badly put-together trade paperback that stood out in the days of mass market paperbacks and hardbacks.  And those writers who thought they could paste up their own and have a local printer do the job soon discovered just how difficult it was.

And that says nothing to the lack of proofing and interior layout design. Self-published books of the last fifty years just looked awful. Some still do, but we’ll get to that.

3… The Writer’s Digest Problem. For most of the last seventy years, Writer’s Digest has advertised to writers that they could get their books done cheaply and quickly. Sort of get-rich-quick schemes. And this constant push to find a shortcut to being publishing lowered the value of anyone self-publishing anything. Projects that should have been self-published because of topic or content were scorned, which cost all of us some fine books in niche areas.

4… The Only Game in Town Problem. Traditional publishing in the last half of the 20th century did a fine job of pushing the belief system that they were the only game in town. If a writer wanted to be respectable, to get into bookstores and distribution chains, they had to be published by one of the big companies. Of course, most of those big companies grew up out of small one-or-two person publishing companies. You know, like the two guys named Simon and Schuster. Or the guy named Putnam. And so on. But in the 1950’s and 1960’s the big companies tended to buy up any smaller press or just copy what they were doing to drive the small presses out of business, thus turning traditional publishing into the only game. And the rise of agents with close friends in editors tended to speed up this process. I can’t begin to tell you how many agents over the years I have heard talk down about small presses. Even when I owned the 5th largest publisher in science fiction and fantasy and horror and was working with Bantam Books on a co-publishing deal for books, agents wouldn’t hardly deal with me, or thought it below them to even have to call me.  In other words, if a publisher wasn’t in New York, they didn’t exist or was worth the time. And that went double for self-published books of any kind.

Also, large traditional publishers made deals with distributors to only distribute the larger company books, basically freezing out any smaller publishers and all self-publishers. The traditional publishers controlled the distribution completely and that just got worse with the advent of the large chains and the reduction in numbers of independent bookstores. For a time the specialty bookstores in science fiction and mystery kept many smaller publishers alive, but those stores are mostly gone now as well, leaving the large traditional publishers in almost complete control of any sort of distribution. At least up to about three years ago.

What Has Changed?

Some things have changed, some have not. But for sure it is no longer bad to self-publish or small-publish your own work now. Big traditional publishers have lost their grip on almost all areas. And that’s great for writers and for readers. Let me see if I can detail out the good changes from the no changes.

1) Quality Can Vary. Interestingly enough, quality of fiction out of traditional publishers can now vary just as much as it can with self-published work. Budget cuts and overworked editors and staff have made traditional publishers fairly sloppy these days, completely killing one major argument for only going with traditional publishers. Selling to New York does not guarantee your book will have a great cover or be well proofread. Nope, no longer the case.

But that said, writers thinking their first or third novel is golden and should be published might be better served to just let it sit in a drawer. Sure, the huge “noise” level out there will allow the good books to float and get word-of-mouth and the poorly written ones to sink like stones. But still, if you are too lazy to try traditional publishing because it just seems too hard, you might want to worry about your quality.

Here’s an idea for you to test your quality: Over a year or so send your book to twenty or so major editors in traditional publishing houses. Major editors are quality readers. If you are getting major editors to give you great rejections and telling you they are sorry they can’t buy your book, more than likely it’s good enough to put out on your own. But if you can’t get anything but form rejections from the super readers who are major editors, you might think about improving your craft before jumping into self-publishing. Just saying. Use feedback from major traditional editors as a sign of quality, even if they can’t buy your book for some marketing reason.

2) Anyone can do professional covers and professional-looking content. Computers are a wonderful thing and with a slight learning curve anyone can do covers. And if you have a little art background and have been paying attention to covers of the books you read over the years, with some practice you can do a cover good enough to look professional. That is so different from just ten or fifteen years ago.  However, as I have said in other chapters in this book, most writers don’t want to take responsibility for their own money, let alone go through a learning curve to design covers.

3) Electronic and POD Distribution Has Snapped the Traditional Publisher’s Monopoly on Distribution. That’s right, any smart small company or self-published author can get books now into the distribution chains, both in electronic markets and paper book markets. This has all changed in just the last three years. And traditional publishers are lost to this fact and did nothing to stop it as it started to protect their monopoly. Now stopping it would be almost impossible. They lost their stranglehold on distribution. That simple.

Authors and small publishers would still have a very, very hard time buying their books into the shelves at Barnes & Nobel. Or Walmart. Traditional publishers, for the moment, still control that. But that is quickly becoming a minor way that books are found by readers, and as many people have noted lately, all stores seem to have the same books in them these days. Readers have always wanted variety and they can get that through Amazon and other online bookstores, both with paper books and electronic books. And today, anyone can get a book easily and cheaply into those stores. Anyone. And once again independent bookstores are starting to vary their inventory, picking up the local books by local authors.

And anyone can get their book into the order system at all the major bookstore chains. Again both electronically and paper editions. That is easy and cheap.

4) The Writer’s Digest Problem still exists, just in different forms. I can’t begin to tell you how many small business have sprang up offering to writers to do the work for a percentage of the sales. One major agent in New York, seeing this coming a number of years ago, got a lot of his clients to let him put up their electronic books for a percentage. Of course, by the time all the cuts are taken from the work along the way, the writers see less than if their publisher was doing it. And that amount is tiny. One writer friend of mine was going to let someone put up his backlist for 15% of the money earned until he got smart. I think he finally understood that 15% of money coming in for decades was a ton of money for a very small amount of work.  So this problem is still there. Just morphed to catch the lazy writers who don’t want to do it themselves in any fashion.

5) Backlist is Gold! For those of us who have been writing for a long time and signing good contracts and getting our books back when the reversion time kicks in, this new world of electronic and POD publishing is pure gold. Konrath has been talking about this a great deal. I have a HUGE backlist of stories and novels and so does my wife. All of those stories were making us NO money for decades. Now they are coming slowly back into print, earning some here and some there, but a ton more than they were sitting in drawers.

Dropped series books can now also come back into print. My wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, had a very, very popular fantasy series called The Fey that ran for seven books before Bantam dropped them. Kris has all the rights back and all seven books of the The Fey will be coming out over the next year, and now there is a reason for Kris to write the new Fey novel, actually the three novels in the Third Place of Power series that so many fans have been hoping for. New York would never touch a dead series, but now in this new world, fans can get the books they want and authors in control can give it to them. Yes, fans of The Fey, Kris is scheduled to write a new Fey novel next spring and it will come out in about a year after all seven of the first Fey novels have been brought back into print.

How Will This Myth Play Out?

I don’t usually make predictions, but for this myth I think I am pretty safe on a few.

Prediction #1… Right now there are still some people who think self-publishing is a bad thing. Mostly they are older editors and writers and English Professors who do not know the history of the writers they have their students study. So they will bad-mouth anything they think is self-published. It’s going to be part of how this myth will develop shortly. These people will think they are defending some mythical gate that needs to be defended. Ignore them, folks. They will die off in twenty years or so.

Prediction #2… Readers will not care. Readers love a good story told well. They will buy a book if they hear good things about it, know an author’s name, or run across the cover and think it looks good. Sampling in electronic and paper sales will help a great deal. Readers will not care if a big traditional publisher’s small imprint published the book or a small press imprint of an author published the book. No one buys books because of who published them. That is a proven fact and will not change.

Prediction #3... The crap, the bad writing, the bad stories, even over-pushed books by an overhyped authors, will sink like stones in this new world. Traditional publishers can no longer hold up a book through sheer might. Readers now have too many choices and too many ways to get their reading. Top stories told well will find audience, maybe slowly, but over time. The days of treating every book like a quickly ripening tomato to be sold at once or tossed away are almost gone. Thankfully. Books take time to find readers. Now, for the first time in a very long time, they have the time.

Prediction #4… Big publishers will not go away, but many will fail who do not adapt. Traditional publishers will not shrink either. Smaller publishers just starting out now will become major publishers down the road and the cycle will continue as it always has for centuries. But now, standing side-by-side with the traditional publishers in the distribution system are the small publishers and the self-published authors. The smaller players can get their books into almost the exact same distribution channels as large publishers, and what few differences that still exist now will slowly vanish over the next ten years.

What kind of Conclusion Do I have?

Simple, actually. The traditional publishers’ control over what readers can read has ended. The traditional publishers’ control over what writers can write and get into print has ended. There will be those who will badmouth anything small-published or self-published. And from them this myth will grow for a short time. But I have a hunch that like the myth that every writer needs an agent, this myth will die quickly over the next twenty years. Granted, it was a myth grounded in fact for a few decades. But now that the world has changed it’s time to accept that these days it is perfectly fine to self-publish your work and your backlist.

Just do it smart. Don’t pay anyone else to do it for you.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith

Okay, I admit it, I am self-publishing this chapter of this column and will self-publish the entire book when done. And this is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, losing control of your writing, having it made, speed equals making money, more on agents, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Thanks, Dean

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59 Responses to Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Self-Publishing is a Bad Idea

  1. Paul Tseng says:

    “The traditional publishers’ control over what readers can read has ended. The traditional publishers’ control over what writers can write and get into print has ended. ”

    What a great explanation and historical perspective, Dean. It’s good to know that the “bad” books and stories won’t muddy the waters too long.

    But great to see that good work will rise to the top, regardless of the venue. This opens up huge possibilities for many great writers who have been controlled by the traditional system.

    In the end, it seems that the ones to benefit will be the writers and their readers (and the smart publishing companies who adapt to the new order.)


  2. Alex says:

    I’m very glad time did change, that technology has given us certain freedoms back. It’s an exciting time to be around, to be there while the change is happening.

    A few years back I looked into how the publishing world worked and I just could not understand the why it was as it seemed nor could I see myself see myself submit to its craziness.

    I’m very thankful to you Dean and your blog, it showed me that the belief how publishing seemed was not necessarily how it is. This gave me the motivation to keep writing and I hope soon to be able to self publish my first book.

  3. Mark Terry says:

    Probably the only prediction I question is your assertion that traditional publishers won’t get smaller. I think it’s entirely possible they will. One of the big NYC publishers has a tremendous amount of overhead and if revenue shifts to e-books, as I suspect it’s going to do, the corporate media giants that own these firms are going to take a hard look at who’s doing what and why. That maybe shift, of course; who’s dealing with sales & distribution now? Get rid of them and move everybody to IT.

    Some people think they’ll die out and I don’t think they will, at least not for a while, but it’s entirely possible I’m wrong. We’ve talked a lot about Too Big To Fail in the last year or so, but I’m not sure any of the major publishers are Too Big To Fail. However, I don’t think they’re just ignoring e-books. I think they’re clinging by bleeding fingernails to a failing pricing and royalty structure and they’re going to lose some big authors pretty soon if they don’t start increasing their e-book royalties, and if Stephen King or James Patterson or Mitch Albom, et al., decide, “Huh. I’m no longer sure why I need these guys and 70% royalty will make up for any losses without them…” Well, Too Big To Fail, Inc. will be in a lot of trouble.

    • dwsmith says:


      I have no doubt some companies will fail, but just this last week one major publisher announced a change to longer term thinking, and made a deal with Ingrams POD services. It will take time to float in the new math and the new ways of looking at things for major publishers. But they are not stupid as so many writers seem to think and they will adapt, at least most of them. They still control the access to the big stores and box stores, so the book as produce model will stay, but they are also moving quickly to change accounting practices to longer term thinking.

      Granted, there is a transition point where returns, huge overhead, and labor contracts with trucking and web presses will cause many traditional publishers to tighten even more as they shed those weights, but they will continue onward and in some instances get bigger as they buy up smaller, more adaptive publishers for their lists and methods. That’s the way it has always been in publishing through all the changes and I see no signs of that model changing through this change.

      What will be an interesting jab at major publishers is the big bookstore chains going down. If both of them go at near the same time the scramble will be worse than in 1958 distribution crash and many large publishers then will not survive. But I don’t see both major chain bookstores dropping. Boarders, sure, but B&N is trying to shift, and even though their status was downgraded just lately, they still are at the core healthy. Right now is a wonderful time to start an independent bookstore. And interestingly enough, over the last two years there are more ID stores than the previous years. A great trend.

  4. heteromeles says:

    Lovely post. When people have been asking me what’s going on with my manuscript, I tell them that I’m waiting to hear from publishers, but if none of them take it, I’ll put it up on Kindle and get onto the next project. Well, perhaps I’ll put it up under a pseudonym, depending on the reviews.

    The tiny one quibble I think is #3: I suspect there will always be tastemakers and followers, and the tastemakers, whoever they are, will have a disproportionately large sway on what books get read by their fans. While I agree that books will have time to find their audiences, I doubt that the “best-selling crap” and massive marketing efforts will go away entirely. However, I look forward to writing in a world where being ignored by the tastemakers won’t be an automatic kiss of death.

  5. David Schibi says:

    Thanks Dean! Another great, educational post. And you answered my biggest question (at the moment) in this new age: What about those of us who haven’t sold a novel yet? When should we (or should we at all) consider the self-publishing route? Great answer, thanks.

  6. Judy says:

    Dean, this is a wonderful article and so true. The Mark Twain example is a good one. Twain pre-sold Huckleberry Finn, going from door to door. When the book was banned in the south, he jumped for joy because he knew it would increase the sales. And it did!

    Don’t forget Leonard and Virginia Woolf and their famous and very successful Hogarth Press, which started out with Virginia and Leonard doing the handset type work themselves. And Virginia’s artist sister Vanessa did the covers.

    The snobbery is a daunting element still. Even many bloggers will not review self-published books. Think of the irony of that!

    I am enjoying following you on Twitter. Thanks.

    • dwsmith says:

      Judy, do I say anything on Twitter? (grin) I am a very seldom poster there, except for posts I really like I do retweet. And thanks for the comments. I had forgotten all about Virginia Woolf doing that. There are a bunch of examples. Thanks, Dean

  7. joemontana says:

    Great insights as always Dean!

    A previous comment touched on this, but I thought I’d pick your brain a bit more on the subject…

    What do you think of the idea that someone like King or Meyer or whoever might someday just say ‘The hell with this!” and release a book on their own – pay for copyediting, hire someone to do a nice cover and pedal it through POD, Amazon Kindle and/or their own website?

    Seems to be they are not getting their money;s worth from the big publishers. King is the brand, not his publisher. So if he jumps ship, he doesn;t get into Walmart (ok he’s Stephen King maybe he does!) But he makes $18 (just a number outta my butt!) on a hardcover vs $4 if he sells it himself. If he sells it as an ebook for $8, maybe he gets $5 – still more than his cut on a $8 paper back.

    So do you see this ever happening (be it King or anyone else?) I just imagine a world where big shot authors see a way to dump the 15% agent cut as well as pissing way over half the cover price to pay for the publishers Manhattan offices and bookstores’ Jurassic return policies.

    • dwsmith says:

      JoeMontana, I’m sure some big gun will jump solo at some point or another. Actually, the readers won’t be able to tell. The writer will start their own company, hire their favorite editor away from the New York publisher, hire a small staff to do the typesetting and layout, and hire a small sales force to get the books where they are needed. Cheap overhead and the writer would make a ton more than the ton they already make. It will happen, given time.

      Numbers of bestsellers over the last ten years have already set up publishing companies. One major one in romance is based out of Georgia I think. Anyhow, just a matter of time.

  8. I think B&N is trying to figure out how to make the shift. They have about 800 stores across the USA right now, and I think they have seen the light of the train coming at them through the tunnel (to twist a metaphor). They know those stores will not be sustainable in the not so distant future. I think they have a decent shot, if they can keep pushing the Nook’s tech to match the Kindle. But they’re going to move a LOT of their business online, or fold.

    I also think Mark is onto something with his comments on publishers. Borders is probably going under. B&N will probably be cutting back on their stores and moving more online. The void will get filled by indie bookstores to some degree, but those were always harder to control than the big chains. Publishers will lose their two main values: the ability to heavily market specific books to the big chains, and the ability to have a great deal of control over what “average reader” even sees in print.

    I think publishers are going to *have* to become more nimble to survive. And they’re going to have to find new ways to provide value for authors. As the ratio of ebook sales to paper book sales continues to go up, writers are going to have less reason to go with a traditional publisher. If nothing in the publishing business model changes, within two years I think most writers will be looking at Big Publishing the same way Dean talked about the “Writer’s Digest Problem”: leeches who take money from an author for doing something the author could easily do him or herself.

    They *have* to change, or become increasingly irrelevant. They have to find ways to add value for what they take, or they’ll cease to exist.

    • dwsmith says:

      Kevin, I’m pretty sure I don’t agree about traditional publishers becoming irrelevant. Maybe to business smart writers who can do all the new technology stuff, but remember that 95% of all writers just want someone to take care of them and don’t even care that someone else sees their money first and all the paperwork with that money. Most writers won’t even notice changes I’m afraid. So because you are here and on a few other early adapting writer’s blogs don’t think the entire industry is going that way. Most writers won’t be looking at publishing the way I do. More than now, sure, but not most. Most will be trapped right down the old lines and will be still sending their stuff to agents and wondering why their money is low and their career dead. Sad, but very, very true.

      However, that said, many of those writers will just fade away and the newer writers coming in now and over the next twenty years will take their place, so given enough time, an entire new crop of writers will understand these new ways. But don’t expect many of the older and established writers now to change. They will go with the traditional publishers. It’s going to take decades to change and by then new smaller publishers will have grown into larger publishers to fill the holes left by the larger publishers who couldn’t adapt. Not much will look that different. But writers will be far more in control of their work and where and how it is published, and that’s a great thing.

  9. David Barron says:

    “Ignore them, folks. They will die off in twenty years or so.”

    Dang: harsh. But, um…fair.

    I agree especially with Change #2.

    I’ve been experimenting on making some cover art, and my reasonable photography skills combined with a decent understanding of Photoshop (or GIMP/Inkscape, if you want to get super-cheap and aren’t going for anything fancy) seems to be working out pretty well. Quick & Dirty, but it works and looks good.

    ‘Typesetting’ for eBooks is even easier. I haven’t tried it out for POD pieces, but I’m sure I can figure it out when I come to it. If I RTFM&FAQs.

  10. J.S. Lewis says:

    Like the start of the NFL season, I’m excited about the kick off on this topic. I was on a panel with some other authors tonight, including the fine young lady who introduced me to this blog. I was involved in at least three separate conversations throughout the day about this very subject and I can’t wait to see what the future holds!

    I haven’t been around long enough for a backlist, but I’m excited about producing stories directly for the self-publishing market. One of the other authors, who sells books by the truckload, talked about dusting off some of her early works that didn’t get picked up, working with an editor, and offering them for the Kindle. Another author has three books where the rights were recently awarded back to her and she’s excited about having an opportunity to re-package them and get them back to market.

    Having this additional revenue stream available is an amazing opportunity for writers. And reading your link to Amanda Hocking’s website further underscored the value. As a middle grade and YA author, I’ve wondered if there is a digital market for my books yet. Amanda answered that in spades.

  11. @joemontanna
    Talking of authors self-pubbing hardcover print runs and making a killing at it, Scott Sigler’s been doing this very thing with a series that his publisher (Crown) didn’t want for branding purposes. You can find the talk he gave at O’Reiley detailing the profit margin, process, and business rationale here. Very enlightening, and useful, example of having one foot in each pond and using both markets to mutually promote each other.

    Regarding GIMP, don’t let the free-ness fool you. Though it lacks the filter packs available for Photoshop, in the hands of a decent graphic artist it is quite nice. Granted that I’ve been doing graphic design work as part of my photography and production business for several years, but I’ve found that I quite often prefer GIMP to Photoshop when I don’t need one of the features exclusive to Photoshop. The podcast cover art pieces here (as well as the header graphic) are good examples of what a journeyman graphic designer can achieve with good photography backing him up (the elements that are photographic were all shot impromptu in my home studio, which is decidedly modest).

    I owe you a major vote of thanks (and a drink of your choice when I eventually bump into you at a conference or manage to make it to one of your workshops). Your Sacred Cows series and Kris Rusch’s Freelancers series have helped immensely in my education, particularly with demystifying publishing and getting me off my ass and into the marketplace. A strange thing, but it never occurred to me until a conversation with Steven Goldin earlier this year that I should be applying the skills and instincts I’ve acquired in the last ten years as a small business owner and tech writer to my fiction endeavors.
    For reasons that are now too embarrassing to recount, fiction publishing always seemed to me like a looking-glass world impervious to the normal rules of business and economics, so I avoided the market even while getting my practice in.
    The tips and very accessible business-minded advice I’ve found on both blogs have helped me untangle my head from this particular intellectual pretzel. Some results: several short story sales to anthologies, a rapidly growing pile of the *right* kind of rejections on my novels and other shorts, a new series of novels developed specifically to test the e-book marketplace (releasing later this month), and a major jump in both my writing speed and the quality of my output.

    And, paying heed to Heinlein’s words of “When a man speaks of honor, make him pay cash,” I’ve got a number of your shorts now sitting happily on my Sony E-reader. Can’t wait for the retail version of Sacred Cows so I can give copies to other semi-pro friends for birthdays and Christmas.

    Thanks much!

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, Dan, for the great comments. And you are more than welcome. And Steven Goldin, a great writer and darned smart businessman is right, they apply across. Glad that “looking-glass” curtain is down now. Sounds like things are going great.

      Any questions on anything you think I might have an opinion on, please just shout. Thanks again for the great comments.

  12. Jeff Whittam says:

    Dean – your insight to the world of publishing? Inspirational. The will to go-it-alone is at last, alive and well and living in my house.
    My best regards,
    Jeff Whittam

  13. PV Lundqvist says:

    Try this game, go to the bottom of the book pile on Amazon (or whomever) and play self pubbed or NY pubbed? Read the description, and guess.

    After I did that, I didn’t feel so intimidated by Big Publishing. Yes, they are pros and know what sells, but that does not make them pontiffs of quality.

  14. baen gets it. Check the number of dead sf series on webscriptions… And more prominent than one in a bazillion at amazon

  15. C.E. Petit says:

    The major problem I have with the myths, the predictions, and the history of American self-publishing is a simple one: They are all predicated on a lie — that there exists a monolithic, uniform “publishing industry” with uniform practices, expectations, and characteristics.

    There exist instead the multiple bastard offspring of a three-century-long orgy among thirteen distinct (which is to say incompatible) subindustries.

    Virtually nothing that one knows about “publishing” from, say, commercial-category fictional books, applies to, say, serious and academic nonfiction. Or to self-help/mental-health-oriented nonfiction. Or to illustrated children’s books. The “ordinary” contract terms, the editorial cycle, the sales expectations, defining a “good” versus a “bad” book, the acquisition process, finances, distribution systems — these, and a wide variety of other critical aspects are all different, and changing even any one of them would make all of those myths/predictions/precepts/realities about “self publishing” of dubious validity.

    This is the real problem with the Writer’s [sic] Digest approach to self-publishing that DWS alludes to above: That it attempts to teach a universal toolkit. There isn’t even a universally acceptable grammar toolkit among the segments I just cited above; for example, for multiple reasons this sentence would be considered “bad writing” in three of those segments, for entirely different reasons.

    Historically, self-publishing has been commercially/economically/financially viable to different degrees, and for different subcategories of works, in different ways. For example, a method that can only be called “self-publishing” has a long and honorable (not to mention lucrative) history for technical manuals, not to mention poetry. Conversely, self-publishing of serious/academic nonfiction is the fastest way to damage one’s reputation, even if the work is objectively superior to the typical offerings (and yes, I have three specific examples in mind). Even the definition of what constitutes self-publishing changes across categories: One famous children’s author worked as an editor at the publisher, acquired the author’s own works, edited the author’s own works, and directed the marketing efforts for the author’s own works… all of which sounds an awful lot like self-publishing to me, but for the Other People’s Money issue.

    Self-publishing is part of a spectrum of tools. Historically, it has been an inappropriate tool for distribution book-length category fiction, just as a hammer doesn’t ordinarily work very well with a screw. Things could change, though, as materials change; a hammer is a necessary tool in putting a molly-anchor screw into hollow drywall.

    My caution is not to try too hard to learn from others’ experiences — positive and negative — with self-publishing without carefully ensuring that the context of those experiences is relevant. And the less said about learning from “doctrine,” the better.

    • dwsmith says:

      C.E., I completely agree. Which is why I try so hard in these blogs and posts to talk only about fiction. I started as a poet into publishing and that part of this industry just makes me shake my head even more than fiction. And I quickly came to learn that the different sides of nonfiction, the different heads, from tech writing to academic writing, were all different areas, with different rules. I know fiction, sticking to fiction. But I do appreciate the very clear warning to everyone that this business is not one large single thing. Thanks!

      So, folks, remember, C.C. is exactly correct. This business is far, far from a large, single monolithic and uniform “publishing industry.” Far, far, far from it. And what I talk about here is always JUST about the fiction slice. Move into those other areas with eyes open and toss out everything you learned in the fiction world.

  16. Dean, I think publishers are/have been relevant. If they weren’t, they would not have been able to maintain their business model for so long. They have been providing value to authors.

    However… Ebooks are gaining ground. When ebooks will pass the 50% mark is still in question, but it seems almost certain to happen within the next 2-5 years. And as ebooks gain ground, the paper publishing model will begin to crack and fail. Big publishers, as they are operating today, will no longer offer sufficient value to authors for what they are taking.

    I predict that the net results will be:
    1) A number of fresh small publishers will arrive on the scene. New, nimble, and up on the latest tech, they will find ways to provide valuable services, and compete with each other and self-publishing to deliver that value.

    2) Some large publishers will see the writing on the wall, and will make changes. They will understand that the old model no longer provides enough value for the money taken, and will change to compete with the new model publishers arriving to compete with them.

    3) Some large publishers will not change; they will refuse to see change as necessary, and will continue on their way. They *will* become irrelevant, and will likely close down eventually, or fade into lesser status.

    I think you’re absolutely right about most authors preferring to just *write*, and not have to worry about business. Actually, from what I’ve seen writers as a group tend to be not the best businesspeople in general anyway. 😉 But even the most blind author is going to figure out within the next five years that things have changed. New houses with new offers will exist in enough abundance that there will be plenty of places to go, and that fact will force change upon the large publishers who want to survive.

    But I think it’s almost inevitable that the new publishing model will be smaller and more streamlined. There’s simply less to do; less work hours involved in getting an ebook into market than a paper one. And the fresh competition (that was previously prevented by the lock publishers had on major retailers) will force publishers to operate more efficiently (or fail).

    There’s a possible exception that just occurred to me, though. If reading becomes more popular and *more* books begin to be sold (possible if the cost of books goes down via ebooks), then there could be room for several times as many books produced per year as we see right now. If that’s the case, then we might see some publishers retain size to handle the greater throughput – even though each ebook might require less hours, more books would require more labor.

    • dwsmith says:

      Kevin, still not completely agreeing. What your are describing in your three points is exactly what has happened over and over for the last century. So with that I agree. But I do not agree that traditional publishing will be smaller or more streamlined in any respect. In fact, from the outside, it won’t look at all different. Maybe different company names, but nothing more.

      The key is that no matter how much the writers want to believe otherwise, traditional publishing will fill this new world of electronic publishing far, far faster than smaller publishers and niche publishers and self-published writers. Just look at electronic publishing on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Sony. The vast majority of the books you will see there are traditionally published. That’s why the fight for author share is so important in contracts, to establish an industry standard. The traditional publishers are not missing any bus here. They darn near own the bus company.

      However, what they are ignoring and missing and can no longer control is the distribution of nontraditional fiction books. Because of technology and nothing else, the distribution is now possible for anyone. Will that take a slice of their profits? Nope, or nothing to notice. Will it make some writers a ton of money? Oh, heavens yes.

      And the myth that it takes less hours in traditional publishing to produce an electronic book vs a print book is just goofy. You do realize, don’t you, that to produce a print book, they have to ultimately end up with an electronic book that is downloaded to the web press? So to produce an electronic book or a print book from start to production is no different. It’s just where they send it. And honestly, sending a downloadable file ready for printing to one printer is easier than loading books onto dozens of online sites. Does it save production and printing and shipping and warehousing costs? Yes. And that’s where some traditional publisher’s problems lie. They are in union agreements and long-term leases of warehouses and such. That transition will be tough. But the costs of warehousing, transportation, and printing are minor in the cost of a book. The real key is how this new change will affect the bookstores, because the biggest change to come is the destruction of the returns system, which is really the largest cost in all of traditional fiction publishing.

      But producing an ebook from start to production is no different in costs than producing a print book from start to production. No difference at all.

      Writers who think traditional publishing is going to fail are like the old 1960’s radicals (that I was a part of I’m afraid) shouting to bring down the government. Sure, it can make a difference, but before the wish for the collapse of something comes true, it might be a wise idea to understand what you want to bring down and what you want to replace it with. Traditional publishing in fiction is a multi-billion dollar business that ain’t going anywhere. And if it did, what would replace it?

      And most writers (today, not 20 years from now) will not have the skills, the drive, or the desire to fight the long fight to publish their own work, but will instead just rather turn it over to some agent of some sort and then wonder why it didn’t work out. Most reading this blog are the choir, the writers who do have the energy. But remember, choir, traditional fiction publishing ain’t leaving the scene. It’s shifting, but it always shifts and always will shift. Use it to your advantage.

      The key is now we all have options where a short few years ago we didn’t. And that’s wonderful. The feeling of being trapped by traditional fiction publishing is gone. We are no longer trapped. But don’t let that feeling of freedom make you buy into traditional fiction publishing being all bad. It just isn’t. Use it or don’t use it, each writer now has the choice. Or at least each smart writer.

      • dwsmith says:

        Okay, on the topic of traditional fiction publishing having a major collapse, let me give some warning signs of something like that possibly happening.

        1) News articles about major web press union and trucking union disputes with publishers. Follow those closely.
        2) Major and sudden collapse of both major bookstore chains, Boarders and B&N, with all store shut-downs. (Independent stores will not be able to form quickly enough to fill the gap. Not just bankruptcy filing, but major shut down of the two chains. I will be surprised if both don’t file bankruptcy to get through this. But that is far different than a shut-down.)
        3) Major congressional Green Movement to kill the publishing returns system quickly. That would kill most bookstores and thus cause a collapse of traditional publishing. Very unlikely to happen.

        Those three are the major factors to watch. Again, they will not kill traditional publishing, just cause a very sudden shift in the players.

    • dwsmith says:

      Kevin, you said, “There’s simply less to do; less work hours involved in getting an ebook into market than a paper one. And the fresh competition (that was previously prevented by the lock publishers had on major retailers) will force publishers to operate more efficiently (or fail).”

      Actually, traditional fiction publishers don’t do much of the work hours of getting a book from production to stores. They hire out the web press, hire out the truckers, rent warehouses, and so on. None of that is done in house. It does cost, sure, but when spread over the price of a book, not a high percentage. However, doing that for two books for every book sold doubles that cost. So saying that a publisher will have to operate more efficiently just isn’t the case. They are already pretty darned efficient in most places.

      However, your point at being able to produce more books is correct. And they will keep more books in print than they are able to do now with warehouse storage. So traditional publishers for a decade have been looking forward to this change. But to produce more books, they will need to find more books (good for authors) and they will have to hire more editors and tech people in house and so if a traditional fiction publisher does make this accounting transition, they will become larger, not smaller. Still good for authors. Just a possible future I see far more likely than a large failure. And even after a large failure, the larger traditional publisher might still end up being the case when the dust settles.

  17. Yes; the more I think about it, the more I think that the ebook changes will probably bring about more reading, more sales of more books due to convenience of the selling point and price. When you move the point of sale into the home, you raise sales – we’ve seen it with TV channels dedicated to sales, pay per view, iTunes, and Netflix style selling. If anything, ebooks are more in line with the latter two because they offer instant gratification.

    So more books being sold, and more demand for new books. That equates to a greater need for editing, titles, and people to manage the business end (publishers). Things could very easily go that way – but frankly, I see that as a good thing for the author, too.

    (And you’re absolutely right, I was mentally including the entire distribution chain in my comparison of ebooks to paper costs, including returns… And should have been more clear about that.)

  18. heteromeles says:

    You know, for those of us who aren’t knowledgeable about the publishing industry, something like “News articles about major web press union and trucking union disputes with publishers. Follow those closely,” isn’t terribly useful.

    Search terms like “union,” “trucking,” “publishers,” and “web,” get all sorts of interesting disputes about budweiser beer, marital problems of random stars, french labor disputes, and similar.

    Care to give a few more hints (preferably a link), or is this something only for the cognoscenti?

    • dwsmith says:

      I’m just saying that when you see articles in such places like Publisher’s Marketplace and newspapers about those kinds of problems, then it will be sign. Nothing has started yet that I know of. But if I see something, I’ll shout.

      The thing that most people don’t understand are the union trucking contracts, the warehouse space, and the web press contracts, which are also union, that will need to be changed as electronic sales cut into paper sales. And many of those are long-term contracts that can’t be changed easily. That will put an undue cost strain on books that with the returns system will already be carrying too much weight for the price points. That’s why so many people who follow publishing closely say the tipping point is 25% of all book electronic. It’s not because publisher’s won’t be making money on those 25%. Of course they will. It’s just that the weight carried by the produce model with returns and high overhead will really force the other 75% of books sold into some nasty problems, such as price increases that they can no longer carry. That’s why the canary in the coal mine in this area is the contract and labor disputes. Nothing yet, but of course, electronic is still only 8%. There is still time.

  19. Blue Tyson says:

    Certainly excellent that The Fey will be back! :)

  20. Pati Nagle says:

    Fascinating about the labor disputes. Thanks, Dean.

  21. heteromeles says:

    Thanks for the clarification. That makes good sense.

    • dwsmith says:

      One more point I want to yet again be very clear on here that C.E. brought up. I am only talking about commercial fiction when I say traditional publishing. I will attempt from this point forward to make sure that remains clear. Publishing in general is a large and varied industry, and what I am saying here will not apply to so many areas of it, such as textbooks and the like. So remember, if I slip up and am not clear, I am a novelist and I know the fiction side of this business and that is what we are talking about here and that is what is changing. Some of the other areas of publishing have already made huge changes, some have not. Just talking about fiction publishing here.

  22. Megs says:

    What kind of self-pub you talking about? An e-book, you can get out there (if you know how to build a network). An e-book, not too expensive.


    Not cheap. No matter how you slice and dice it, especially if you want distribution. (Excepting Lulu and its like.)

    How are you suggesting to self-pub?

    Also, I’ve seen a lot of covers by writers that self-designed, thinking it looks awesome. And it isn’t. As a graphic designer, I can truly say, not everyone can just learn art and do it well if it’s not their calling.

    • dwsmith says:

      Megs, can’t argue with you on the covers, especially when looked at from someone who knows what they are looking at. But thankfully, 99.9% of all readers are not graphic designers, and if a cover is cool-looking and doesn’t look like a kid in the 5th grade put it together, then a reader won’t notice.

      I’m going to do a myth post short on the myth that other writer’s opinions count, and that graphic designer’s opinions count. They just don’t, anymore than a real detective’s opinions counts in CSI shows. All that counts is readers and trust me, none of us outside of the literary genre are writing for other writers. And trust me, unless you have spent years in advertising, you really don’t know what makes a reader pick up a cover. A quality cover, designed perfectly to graphic designer standards, could leave readers cold. And what you would think as a beginner’s cover mocked up in three minutes with PowerPoint will get readers to grab it. If publisher’s really knew what they were doing with covers, every cover would be perfect FOR READERS.

      Thanks for the comments. You are really helping the readers here who are doing some self-publishing, including me, understand what we are up against in myths. Luckily, the readers just don’t care that we don’t spend much money getting the book to them and they don’t care if the cover was done by a rookie if it looks good. Readers are interesting that way. They just love good stories. And that is really where it all ends up. Good stories find ground and sell over time.

      • dwsmith says:

        As for how to do all this, Megs, let me tell you, I sit around with some very forward-thinking writers every week and we are all constantly learning new stuff. This is all BRAND NEW folks. And is changing by the minute.

        What has happened is this: 1) Traditional Fiction Publishers have dropped the ball and allowed their monopoly on distribution to be broken, which allows small press and authors to get their work to readers cheaply and easily.
        2) 95% of all authors won’t care.
        3) Electronic publishing is growing faster than anyone ever dreamed, and could be at 25% of all books sold in two years. Or less.
        4) Traditional fiction publishers, at the same time, have become very tight, only taking same old stuff, and seemingly closed off submissions to only agents (not true, but what most authors believe). Thus they are driving some quality books to self-publishing and electronic publishing.

        As for how to do this, I listed out the steps in my last response. But that said next month two professional writers (one a professional web and graphics designer) are teaching a workshop here. I am one of those writers teaching and I am not the web designer. I have been offering this workshop now for over a year and have 25 signed up. (It’s closed now.) The workshop is to teach the 25 signed up, in a lecture/lab situation, how to do all this stuff FOR THE MOMENT. If we had taught this class a year ago, it would have been different. Will we make the 25 professional writers signed up into professional graphic designers of covers by the end? Nope, but they will all know how to easily do their own cover and make it look good enough that readers won’t notice. And that’s just two hours of the weekend. By the end of the weekend I hope to have the writers attending understanding their options, and cut down on the fear of simply getting a book up electronically. It is simple and free to do.

        Am I do this workshop again next year? Nope.

  23. Megs says:

    Note: I’m saying this because I actually WENT and self-published a book and regret and am not so sure I want to attempt the process again. I am not a salesgirl. I don’t do well at handselling and I don’t even want to try. Social networking isn’t so bad, but to get decent publishing, editing, distribution, etc. costs money I just don’t have.

    • dwsmith says:

      Megs, I agree, to pretend to do what traditional fiction publishers do costs money. Why would you do that? In this new world there is no reason to do that.

      Put your novel up on Kindle. Cost: Free
      Put your novel up on Smashwords, which gets you to Sony, Nook, iBook, and other places. Cost: Free
      Put your novel through CreateSpace in trade paperback form in POD. That gets it to Amazon. Cost: Free (or $39.00 if you want better distribution into all stores.)
      Put your novel through LighteningSource in trade paperback form in POD. That gets it to Ingram. Cost: around $100.00

      No reason for a self-published author these days to pretend to be a traditional publisher and go into the produce model. And besides, why do it until you’ve tried to sell it to a traditional fiction publisher first?
      Read up on all the new ways of authors getting books to readers. You will be stunned at how cheap it really is. But of course, you also have to write a quality novel that readers want to read. You do that and they will find it if you offer it and tell a few people on social sites and such.

  24. James A. Ritchie says:

    I agree with pretty much everything except the quality issue. It’s true that quality can vary with traditional publishing, though the worst traditionally published books I read are better than almost everything self-publishing has to offer, but I spend a LOT of time reading self-published novels, both in full, and with sample chapters. As varied as the quality may be in traditional publishing, my experience tells me that at least 99% of the self-published material I still find is garbage, and simply lacks any redeeming qualities at all.

    There are always exceptions, but quality is so rare with self-publishing that it simply isn’t worth the effort it takes to find it. Pretty much every piece of quality self-published books I find are self-published by tried and true, proven writers. Names you can already find listed with traditional publishers.

    I know things are changing, and will continue to do so, but the one thing I haven’t seen change even the tiniest bit is how incredibly difficult it is to find anything approaching quality reading in world of self-publishing.

    I suspect the big change is going to be more and more good, proven writers moving into self-publishing.

    Bad remains bad, and self-publishing doesn’t improve the quality of a book in any way. Almost everything I see self-published is rightfully rejected material by traditional publishing companies.

    • dwsmith says:

      Wow, James, that is so last year. (grin) But that’s why I told people to get quality feedback from professional editors before going self-publishing. Of course, no one will listen to that.

      But in truth, what you are saying is a taste issue. You may think all self-published is crap, but I have two questions for you. How do you know ALL AUTHORS and how do you know ALL IMPRINTS AND PUBLISHERS. For example, both Kris and I have a bunch of stuff out that you would call self-published or small published that is under pen names and by imprints you would not know. By your definition, if you recognize our real name, it’s not crap, but our pen names are crap.

      I would highly recommend in this new world that you back off of that opinion. It might be a taste opinion and that’s fine, but don’t paint all self-published books with the same brush until you are sure that you know all AUTHOR NAMES and all IMPRINTS. You don’t and no one ever will. And thus, you will just sound silly spouting such opinions. In these days of impossible agents and tight New York budgets, quality fiction is finding its way to readers in all sorts of new ways.

      Sure, there is a lot of crap being published. Let it, it will sink like a stone because it’s crap. Trust the readers. But in case you haven’t noticed, not every book in every section of a major bookstore put out by traditional publishers is great also. As Sturgeon said, “90% of everything is crap.” I agree, and that includes both traditional published novels and self-published novels.

  25. Steve Perry says:

    Yep, I started uploading some of my backlist, new stories, and even a couple of new books as e-titles, doing covers with links on my blog, and while I’m not gonna go get that yacht based on those sales, Dean has it nailed precisely: A ebook on or Smashwords is going to earn more than the same book stashed in a file on my computer.

    And while I’ve had a graphic designer shake his head over my cover ideas, he offered some advice that made sense, and of the books I’ve done covers for, I am getting progressively more pleased. Snap a picture, or d/l a public domain image, fiddle with it using a shareware graphics program, add the title and my name, and zap — I’m done.

    Since most of the covers are going to be view most of the time as thumbnails, you can’t put a lot of crap on them and have them make sense, that’s different than traditional publishing. And since’s Kindle program offers grayscale, you need to see how that applies, too, but it ain’t rocket science …

  26. Megs says:

    Thanks for all the additional info. I definitely haven’t found anything to like about Smashwords yet, but I’m starting to get which side you’re coming from. More electronic sales/distribution than print, which makes a huge difference. (And less hand-selling, thank goodness!)

    • dwsmith says:

      Not sure what is wrong with Smashwords for you. They have treated me great and got my books and stories to places I could not get them to yet. And I’m sure that in a short time they will not be the only game in town, but they are the best game outside of Kindle at the moment.

  27. A very well stated explanation.

    I think acknowledging that on average many self-published books were lower quality is important and it is certainly true that we have all picked up a book in the last few years from a traditional publisher and thought, “This stinks.”

    I think that doors of traditional publishing are opened to newcomers less frequently every year and so many smart folks are looking for alternative paths to their goals.

    And now that I’ve run across this post (which someone referenced on the forums), I’ll have a look around at the rest of the blog.

  28. Colleen Lindsay says:

    Dean –

    I think that the major problem has always been the confusion between “self-publishing” and “vanity publishing”, two very different things. I’m not opposed to self-publishing. There are great avenues online for putting together your own book, from paper choice through interior design and even onto wide distribution.

    But I am opposed to vanity presses who present themselves as legit traditional publishers in an effort to take advantage of a naive writer with money to spend. I’d like to see more education about the difference between the two, frankly.



    • dwsmith says:

      Colleen, I completely agree. Vanity presses, often found advertising in Writer’s Digests, are scams. Avoid at all costs.

      But if you look at it closely, Vanity Presses are not self-publishing. They are publishers and you pay the money.

      I am talking about self-publishing, meaning you become a publisher with your own imprint and everything and do it yourself. Very different than going to a publisher and paying them. Very different.

      Very good point. I had better do an entire blog about that, huh? Thanks!

  29. Zoe Winters says:

    Thank you.

    I’ve been saying most of this for the past two years now. The longer I go at this, the more people who listen to me, however, as a self-publishing author, there is always that contingent of people who will automatically ignore my arguments because I represent what they don’t like. It’s nice to see more and more people coming from traditional publishing backgrounds (Joe Konrath, Michael Stackpole, and now you all come to mind) saying these same things.

  30. Steve Fahnestalk says:

    Dean, I have to agree with you in all aspects of this column. I just did that dirty deed (POD) with the result of my 3-day Novel Contest (okay, it’s more a novella than a book, but so far 24 people have bought it at VCON, and others are inquiring).
    ePublishing is probably the way of the future, but a number of people (like you and me–unless you’ve given up collecting) still want a nice physical book to hold.
    And the Espresso machine is a good way to get some POD copies to, for example, take to a convention. Canadian costs were $99 setup fee plus $5.99 per book (because it was under 100 pages). I did my own cover (and got lots of compliments, btw, at the con), layout, typesetting, proofing, etc. You remember that process, don’t you? It’s still fun if you’re doing your own work.
    Next book will be produced during NaNoWriMo, which I just found out about last month–and this one will be at least 50K words, probably more.
    Self-publishing is no longer limited to vanity presses, folks! Shout it from the rooftops!

  31. Peggy says:

    I have just spent an entire evening being re-educated, I read your entire site in one sitting. As a business writer and copy editor I haven’t had to deal with the official publishing world for a number of years, your appraisal of current state of the business will certainly influence the 2 projects I have under development.

    I want to thank you for taking the time to lay things out in such a sensible way for those of us on the other side of the page.

    • dwsmith says:

      More than welcome, Peggy. We are all in this together at this point and just hanging on for the great ride as things change. Keep firing.

  32. Toni Lendich says:

    Like Peggy, I have read your entire site, though not at one sitting. Crikey, who has that much spare time?

    My great regret is that so much of what you say, Dean, is largely irrelevant in the context of being an Australian writer. As I’ve said before, the Australian market is very small (and very cliquey). And they want subs through agents – but the agents won’t look at you till you’ve had at least a token acceptance from a publisher. The usual Catch-22.

    I am pleased to see so many more agents (oops, dirty word) and publishers are accepting electronic submissions now. And about time. Do you have any idea of what it costs to post a full double-spaced MS to the USA or the UK? Not to mention the dreadful waste of paper. If I sent hard copy to 5 publishers I’d be on Vegemite sangers for a week.

    As far as e-pubs go, I firmly believe that will be the way to go – but not quite yet. I had a request for a partial from an e-publisher, but I must admit I have been a bit reluctant to follow up. E-book? Hmmm. But, big but, I am using that request to get a foot in the door of a BIG publisher.

    Sort of an aside – have you mentioned Penguin UK’s “open slather” which ends on 31 October?

    I like the idea of POD and I suspect that not too far down the track we will see sophisticated coin/note operated booths for writers to do it all themselves (as mentioned in one of my futuristic murder mysteries). Hey, they used to do it with recordings – the Voice-O-Graph was one.

    Moving right along, I would love to attend one of your workshops but alas, distance, cost and acute fear of flying rule that out. Brisbane to Oregon!! Yikes. Have you considered on-line courses? I’d definitely be in that – put me on the waiting list right now, Dean.

    Well, that was my procrastination for the day; back to work.

  33. Toni Lendich says:

    PS How remiss of me – I forgot to say thank you.

    So thank you.

  34. Dean said this: “You do that and they will find it if you offer it and tell a few people on social sites and such.”

    This is just not true. I’ve been self-pubbing for two years, giving away a lot of free material online, selling POD books and ebooks (seven titles in all, so don’t tell me I need a backlist–however, I may have pushed a little too fast, too soon…the issue of course, when doing serial fiction, is running out of material. No new material, no one comes to your site…)

    I know lots of other self-published fiction authors and interact with them in forums online, etc. Near as I can tell, no one’s making much money doing this. Nor is anyone getting tons of exposure either.

    Factoring in expenses (maybe $500 all told, including ISBNs and webhosting), I’ve made like $300 profit over the last two years.

    I estimate my most popular free book (and I market and social network my butt off) has had maybe 3000 readers.

    I love the fact that I self-publish, and I’m proud of it. But I just think that there’s a rosy-eyed view of it getting promoted online that’s nearly as bad as all the other myths you’re debunking. It’s hard work. It’s exhausting. You fight for every reader you get (although once you have them, the relationships you can build are absolutely phenomenal), and no one respects you in the morning. ;P

    • dwsmith says:

      v.j., maybe you should stop working so hard on the publishing side and write more books and have more product. I honestly don’t know why anyone would spend $500 on a book to self-publish it either. Wow, that seems high even to me. And in a couple of years getting three thousand readers sounds damn fine to me as well. Question, how can you make any money if you give books away? If you had fifty things up, then giving one as a lost leader for a short period to sell the other 49 items for sale might make sense. But give it away to sell it makes no sense to me.

      You are advancing a lot of myths here. Sorry to be so pointed, just this is a myth-free site as much as I can help it, and you sound like a person stuck in the old vanity press model of self-publishing.

  35. No, no, I shouldn’t have started off with: This isn’t true. I was in attack mode rather than approach mode. Your response and its tone make sense in that vein.

    To clarify, I should probably explain my experimental publishing model a little better. I publish serial fiction on the web. Readers can read the whole book free, if they’re willing to wait each week for a new chapter. If they’re eager to find out what happens, it’s available for sale. I’ve done seven novels that way. (So I’m writing. I’m not the fastest. I usually do 2-3 books a year, which is respectable, I think, given I work full time.) You may be right that it’s a model that doesn’t work. Lots of people do make money by giving things away for free, from Seth Godin to my friend Danielle Corsetto, who publishes a webcomic. I don’t think I’m idiotic for having tried it.

    Further clarification on the $500 bucks. Works out like this: $250 for a block of ten ISBNs. (I’ve only used four, because three of my books are in ebook format only. It’s much more profitable.) $40 bucks a book for the pro-plan for Createspace. $100 bucks for webhosting and registering a domain name. Various odds and ends like buying proof copies gets lumped in there as well. So the price PER BOOK to self-publish ends up being a good bit lower than $500.

    So we could argue that I’m not self-publishing smart, and I’ve made mistakes. In fact, I’d say that’s definitely true.

    However, I was convinced to start self-publishing by reading posts like this that made self-publishing sound easier than it was, and led me to believe I’d be more successful at it than I ultimately have been (thus far.) I understand that self-publishers are fighting a battle to change people’s minds about the industry, but unknowns who self-publish should be able to find information about the realities of self-publishing. I guess I just feel like it’s my responsibility to make sure other authors are better informed than I was, so I’d just like to go on record and say that self-publishing fiction is unlikely to make you much money and that it is more work than it seems at the outset.

    So I guess I do take issue with the idea I’m advancing myths, as my intention is to be as transparent as possible about the process and my successes. I’m not saying self-publishing is a bad idea, but I am saying that going into it with your eyes open is a better idea.

    • dwsmith says:

      V.J. said, “So I guess I do take issue with the idea I’m advancing myths, as my intention is to be as transparent as possible about the process and my successes. I’m not saying self-publishing is a bad idea, but I am saying that going into it with your eyes open is a better idea.”

      Oh, wow do I agree with that statement. Thanks, V.J.

      When doing comparisons, there always needs to be a scale or a stick to hold the two things being compared up against.

      — “Is self-publishing easier for a beginning writer, even with having to learn all the skills?” Compared to getting a book into a traditional publisher, yes. But is it easier in compared with time it takes to sell to a traditional publisher? No, takes longer for an author to do the work to publish than to mail a submission package.

      —“Can an author make more money self-publishing than traditional publishing?” Of course not, at least not yet in most cases. There are reasons writers are on the Forbes lists, and that is because traditional publishers can shove out millions of books. However, that said, a small amount of money is better than no money, so if the book doesn’t sell to traditional publishing, you will make more money with it self-publishing. So the answer is actually “It depends…”

      So I just laugh at the people doing comparisons like “I can make more money only epubing my own book.” I want to ask “Make more than what, a delivery boy on his first day without directions to where to take the pizza?” But alas, I don’t say that.

      So back to what J.V. stated so well. This is a wonderful new world with huge upsides. Just go in with your eyes open and a long term business plan. If you write one novel, stuff it up online and expect the world to crash down your door, you will be sadly disappointed. Just as those who think that going to a big traditional publisher with their first written novel are disappointed when they get form rejections and don’t make millions. Same on both sides.

  36. D.S. says:

    Hi Dean,

    I just found your site and I must let you know that you are my latest writing hero!

    Thanks for doing what you do and sharing your knowledge of the fiction writing world. I was one of those taken in by some of the writing myths years ago, when I was a young and naive budding writer, but I’m making good progress in my “recovery” now!

    You inspire me and help me “keep the faith” on this often hard road – and also a very satisfying one – of being writer

    Best regards,

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, Dave. Make sure you are reading my New World of Publishing chapters and also Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s series at called “The Business Rusch.” You won’t agree with everything we say, but we’ll give you something to think about. (grin)

      Thanks again.

  37. HMC says:

    Brilliant post, Mate.
    I’ve been thinking about my next two novels, one for children and one for young adults, and am wondering what the best avenues are. I’ve self published before and have also been published by small press. I think you’re right in that the readers become the best judges. It just takes time to build a name for yourself.

    • dwsmith says:

      Yup, takes time, both traditional, small press, or starting your own small press. Takes time and you have to get it out there in some fashion so the readers will find it. That’s the key. They don’t have to find it tomorrow, just at some point over the years.

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