The New World of Publishing: 95% of All Authors Will Never Indie Publish

Mike Stackpole, on his blog this last week talked about how traditional publishing traps and holds writers. The Passive Guy also talked about this post by Mike. It is a post that I suggest everyone should read, even those of you offended by some of the words.  Go read it now!

Mike ended his article by relaying a conversation he had at a recent conference with a publisher.

At World Fantasy I had a long talk with a publisher about digital publishing and midway through, he looked at me and asked, “Do you know how I’m still in business in ten years?”

“Nope,” I said.

He smiled, “I’m still in business because 97% of authors are not as aggressive about digital as you are.”

That is what I have been saying now for a year, and it scares hell out of me to have a major publisher agree. And base his very survival and the survival of his company on being right.

I had honestly hoped I was going to be wrong. I still do, because in my opinion, the best writer is a writer who has choices, who can move into a future and write what he or she wants, and sell it either directly to readers or to a publisher. That is how it is working for me and Kris and Mike and Barry and Joe and a number of others who follow here. We haven’t gone knee-jerk indie or defend-the-fort traditional.

The best is using both indie and traditional at will. The writer’s will.

So Why Do I Say 95%?

Honestly, I have zero facts to back that up. Just lots and lots of observations. And, of course, writers who are wrapped into indie-publishing groups like the Kindle Boards will think I am way off because the feedback is one-sided. But I am talking about all writers. So let me give you some observable facts and see if you agree or not when I am done.

Starting up as an indie publisher.

Simply thinking of publishing a book is flat scary to everyone when they look at it for the first time. To those of us who have done this a few times, it is stunningly simple, but to the first-time indie publisher, the process feels and looks terrifying. (Remember, first-timers are also fighting against a huge myth that producing a book is hard.)

That simple fear and the associated myth cuts out just about all writers who think it might be a good idea to try.  And how they justify the fear stopping them is the following worries:

— How can I make my book look as good as a New York book? Or as well-proofed. (snort)

— How will I ever get my book noticed? (You know the silly phrase like “noise.”)

— How will I do a cover? Or afford the art?  (If you can’t afford a few bucks, you have no postage money either.)

–What happens if it doesn’t sell? I will have wasted my great book because if I publish it no one else will want to.

— Kindle might lower the rate, so why bother. (This one is my personal favorite for excuses.)

The excuses just go on and on because publishing a book seems and looks hard from a distance. Thus most writers will never try. Or as I hear all the time, “I could never do that.”

I want to ask, “Have you tried?” but alas, I know the answer.

 The Pause After Two

Almost every author I have met who managed to get a few books up indie published stopped cold after two or three. I did as well. Months will go by and most of the time the author never gets back to doing more. Or only does one or two small things a year and wonders why the money is so bad. Why does this happen and why does it stop so many forever?

Simple: The novelty wears off. It can be done, you have proved it with two or three. But it was work, especially the learning curve part. And for almost all of us, the sales start slow. So the author, either thinking or not thinking, decides to wait and see what the numbers are.

And there is the problem. With only two or three, unless the author is fantastically lucky or already a well-published traditional author, the numbers will be bad in comparison to traditional publishers.  Money will be coffee money at best.

And the author will think the following thoughts as reasons to quit.

— Only big name authors can make this work. (I personally find this insulting.)

— I would be better served having a traditional publisher do all the work. (Lazy. Chances are this group will never make it anyway in either direction.)

— I don’t want to admit no one wants to buy my work. Better to not give anyone a chance than fail in public. (No one actually thinks this, but I have a hunch this is the biggest excuse of all.)

And there are more. Just a ton of excuses. And zero thought about the future.

When I put a couple of things up, I just flat got busy with book deadlines and forgot them. Then one day Kris came into my office laughing about the $12.00 she had made on the two stories of hers I had put up six months before. And she wasn’t laughing at how small that was, as most writers would. She was laughing about how much it was and what that meant. And I did the math and off we went. $12.00 was HUGE! But most writers will look at that kind of sales and just stop because they will not have the understanding of what that $12.00 really means.

The Force is Strong

I think I should have said, “The Myth is Strong” in all writers. And these myths number in the hundreds. Some of the top ones that stop writers are:

— Traditional publishing does better books.

— I won’t be a real writer unless I sell to a traditional publisher.

— I can’t make any money unless I sell to a traditional publisher.

— I will never get into bookstores unless I sell to a traditional publisher.

And so on and so on. We’ve talked about many more than that here over the last year. Huge number of myths around indie publishing and going to a traditional publisher, so many that most writers won’t think of indie publishing, will just knee-jerk right into the old agent/editor/publisher system without one thought of going another way. Why? Because that’s the way it is done.

The Future

95% percent of all writers will stay with traditional publishing. Or better put, stay in the traditional publishing lock-step road map. Most won’t make it, but they have agents and editors to blame that way.

And that might be a figure that is far too low at the moment. Or the number might be 90% or 85%. But no matter, the number is a vast majority of writers at this time in late 2011.

But the future might just change all that.

For example, traditional publishers have yet to figure out how to easily let authors come back direct to them. Now almost all editors look at submission packages without agents even though their house guidelines say otherwise. (We’ve talked about it fifty times over the last two years.) And you can meet and talk with editors at conferences. (If you are going to a conference to talk to an agent when an editor has appointments as well right beside the agent, you really need to start drinking in hopes of growing brain cells.)

There are many ways into editors’ offices and slush piles these days, but the publishers haven’t really come up with a good electronic direct submission system yet that works for the brand new writer with a finished book. They will, trust me, because the agent system is just flat broken and writers supply publishers’ product.

But the longer that direct submission system forces the really unwashed new writers to agents who are failing, the more editors and publishers will look into the indie published books for possible purchases. This is already happening a great deal and will only increase over the next few years.

That means that part of the traditional publisher’s slush pile will move online to published books. So newer writers coming in, the smart ones anyway, will indie publish first and then submit their book to traditional publishers.

But this trend will take five years to a decade to set into place. If this happens, the writers who indie publish first and get bought will pass along the word to others and indie publishing will become one of the ways in the door.

Again, this is a crystal ball look into the future. But if it happens, it will bring that 95% down to 70-80% in ten years.


But I honestly believe that 95% of all writers will never indie publish in any real fashion beyond one or two stories or books.

I have no proof on that number. Just watching young writers for the last 30 years. For most writers, this business is too much work.

For most writers, they are happy to try a few times and give up.

For most writers in the old system of slush and traditional publishers, the chance of survival and making it as a published writer were far, far under 1%.

So I’m being generous when I say 5% of writers will indie publish and see their own works in print in one form or another. Because compared to the old days, that’s a vast improvement.

But alas, 95% of the writers won’t do it. And won’t make it in traditional publishing either.

But still, that’s a vast improvement over the old system.


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