Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Self-Publishing II: Attack of the POD People

Happy deforestation day! I'm sitting here with crossed fingers hoping the creation of five million copies of THE LOST SYMBOL (and therefore the subsequent loss of trees) doesn't cause a noticeable decrease in my breathable oxygen.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about self-publishing, and it ignited a small firestorm in the comments section. The majority of it was great, lively discussion and I was really interested in a lot of what you all had to say. Some of it, though not strictly disrespectful/incorrect/&c, was a little heated, and I'd like to revisit the subject to clear up a few things. (Apologies in advance for the rant, but it's in the air this week.)

First (as I've said before), I, too, have been known to write things—primarily poetry, although I also write some weird sci-fi-ish literary-ish fiction. The point being: I am very well aware that what I am writing is not really salable. I am not some sales-obsessed Big Publishing Corporation nut who insists that there is no virtue at all in POD, (fre)e-book dissemination, guerrilla Facebook marketing tactics, &c—on the contrary, I am super in favor of those things. I'm not trying to keep you good folks down! However, what I am not in favor of are vanity presses and self-publishing companies that capitalize on writers' lack of knowledge, insecurities, &c. Which, as far as I can tell, is most of them.

Again, first caveat: if you really don't care about selling books, self-publishing is fine. Go nuts! If you only want to sell a couple copies of your Regional Guide to Edible Berries and Flowering-Type Plants, or you're a college professor who just wants to bind a bunch of notes and excerpts into a DIY anthology for a class, or you want to collect all those fun stories you made up for your children over the years into one neat package they can read and hand down to their children, I say: more power to you. Hooray for self-publishing.

Also, second caveat: this is not a hard and fast rule because there are no hard and fast rules in publishing, but it IS based on probabilities. If you really want to sell your book and you've tried everything and you can't get it published traditionally, you are probably better off shelving it and writing a new one. Here, cats and kittens, is why:

1.) Your book, as I've said, is probably either not something that will earn the publisher (and, by extension, you) much money, is not very good, or both. You have nothing to earn by paying your hard-earned cash to print a tiny run of your book that probably LOOKS self-published (although this can be avoided), doesn't cater to more than six people, and/or is not representative of your best work. (Or, worse yet, is representative of your best work and STILL doesn't pass the proverbial mustard.) Grey Poupon, please, with a dash of mondegreen.

2.) Would you want videos of your very first piano lesson on CNN? Or your first crème brûlée on Top Chef? No? That's what you're essentially asking for if you self-publish. This is not my kidding face. (This is my kidding face.)

Seriously, though, the odds of you getting any attention or money at all for a self-published book are ludicrously small—you'll have to get in line behind all the mid-list authors who are scrabbling for publicity/marketing/fame/fortune/&c and DO have big houses supporting them—but what you're essentially saying when you self-publish is "I want the entire world to read this novel that was declined by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of experts in the publishing field." Again, this is either because it's not considered salable in the existing market, not very good, or both. Again again, there are exceptions. Again again again, your novel is probably not one of them. Write a better one!

3.) If you go through the money and hassle of getting an ISBN and actually getting your self-pubbed book into stores, congratulations: you are now trackable on Nielsen BookScan. Publishers—whose attention I assume you're trying to get (see below)—will now be aware of Self-Published Boy Wizard and His Quest for Publication (as well as the fact it sold three copies in two years) and may likely want nothing to do with you for fear of catching your poor sales themselves. Self-publishing does not show publishing houses initiative. It shows publishing houses you don't have an idea they consider publishable and you're getting desperate.

4.) You're ostensibly self-publishing to avoid having to deal with the Big Cantankerous Publishing Monster... yet, paradoxically, you're also self-publishing to get enough attention from the Big Cantankerous Publishing Monster such that it'll give you a six-figure advance and tickets to the Super Bowl with Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer. Interesting.

5.) But John Grisham and Christopher Paolini were self-published! Oh, wait. No, they weren't. Yes, there are exceptions, but when you consider how many books are self-published every day, the odds of you being the next William P. Young are fractions of fractions of a percent. Your odds are still bad with a traditional publisher, but they're better.

So please, gentle readers, feel free to self-publish if it's not about national media attention, big advances, or triple-digit sales. If you want more than six fans and six dollars in net profit at the end of the day, though, I suggest you write a fantastic book, edit the hell out of it, get an agent, and get a publishing house behind you. E-books will change a lot. POD will change a lot. But we will always need experts to divide the salable from the non-, the well-written from the crap. And let us say: amen.

Tomorrow, our good friends at Nielsen (and everyone else on planet Earth) will have DB's sales figures. The results... when we come back!


  1. There's another good reason to self-publish: if your book is illegal.

    You might write stellar fan-fic, but due to the copyright infringement, you're gonna have to self-publish that online. Same is true of hyperlink fiction and remixed lit. I keep stumbling across examples of this: outlaw literature!

  2. OMG. THANK YOU. Can we get married? We should really get married. This post is so dreamy. Not just because we're in it. That wasn't a RANT, btw. We NEVER rant. We EXPOUND.

  3. Amen (to you, not anon.). There seems to be a surplus of people out there who truly believe that they are the exception to the rule, that they are just not published because the "Big Wigs" don't recognize their brilliance, aren't looking for innovative works, etc. The concept that "it's them, not me" is NEVER a good reason to self-publish.

    I don't mind self-publishing when the author weighs the options, and is publishing for those specific reasons you mentioned above. It's when they think they'll be the ones to rise above, break through, be recognized (at last) for their "brilliance"...those are the ones that make me want to beat my head against the wall.

    And those are ALWAYS the ones that are most vocal. The first ones to bring up the success stories, the first ones to say the numbers are false.

    Here's my idea: if you can't convince someone who's job it is to love books (agents/editors) to love your book enough for publishing, then how can you convince readers (who have so many options already) to buy your book?

  4. With all due respect, one reason this topic is so heated is because you bring a very slanted and biased view of the issue. I don't mean this as an insult, but everyone brings a bias to a conversation based on their point of view. You seem to have a somewhat distorted confidence in the ability of publishers to spot all books worthy of publication. By your own statements, if one can't get a publisher, one should just shelve the book and write a better one, since the prior work was obviously not good enough.

    In my case, I'm considering self publication simply because I have no other alternative. The major houses passed on my eco-novel even though I have pretty good evidence that my book is worthy of publication. I DID have that high powered agent who submitted to all the houses. I DO have several very good reviews and endorsements from industry professionals, including Neil Nyren and Douglas Preston. I even had a Sr. executive at Random excited to publish, only to have some mysterious inter-office politics derail what I thought was a sure thing.

    In ten years of attending writing conferences, I've met many authors whose works were worthy of publication, yet their books languish in obscurity while cookie cutter trash novels fill the stands simply because some author was lucky enough to get that first book published two decades ago when the market was very, very different. Name recognition trumps quality.

    I've discussed this issue with Steve Berry, who saw four of his novels submitted by his (admittedly loyal agent) 47 times to publishers with not a single taker, until Dan Brown hit gold with The DaVinci Code. Suddenly, Steve's books all seemed worthy of publication because of their similarity to Brown's work. His books never changed, only the perceptions of editors. Somehow the public deemed his books worthy of purchase, as he's sold millions of copies.

    The point being: there is a concrete deficiency in the publishing industry that allows books with commercial potential to slip through the cracks. Perhaps it's an unconscious bias and confidence on the part of editors. Publishing houses are fallible. Grisham's Time to Kill was self published for all practical purposes. Grisham had to make the book a success through his own marketing efforts. He just managed to get a very small publishing house to finance the initial print run for him. Of course, in this day and age, those small houses don't exist, nor the opportunities for unknown authors. Do you not think that his success at self-pedaling Time to Kill influenced the purchase of The Firm?

    The only alternative for authors with viable, but unsold books is to self publish. It's not that we want to do it necessarily, it's because the industry is broken.

    I WILL concede that the vast majority of unsold novels are probably not worthy of publication and self publishing becomes an outlet for many undeserving authors, but I'm disturbed by your strong bias that a self published book can never be a gem in a box of stones. There are just too many exceptions. This bias is exactly why so many aspiring authors are finding other ways to market
    their books.

    I'll finish with one final example: Dan Brown couldn't get published either. He finally found a "back door" into the industry by turning his first book, Deception Point, into a self published, e-book bestseller on Amazon. That still wasn't enough to guarantee success. Even though his subsequent novels were published, they languished in the remainder pile until one editor had the insight to snatch up The DaVinci Code. Brown's previous novels became bestsellers once he was "discovered." Name recognition trumps quality.

    Why not follow this article up with one that discusses reasons why a good book might be overlooked by publishers? Why not write an expose' on how editors go about evaluating the marketability of manuscripts? Do they really read the entire manuscripts presented by agents? Or do they make snap decisions based on a few chapters?

    That would be truly interesting.

  5. I thought that Self-publishing was for those who really did not want an audience at their first attempt out of the gate.

    Safer that way, less witnesses.

    That, when they chose to find their true voice in print, they immediately ran with exclamation points in tow, to a...

  6. 1) Publishers almost never reject commercially-viable manuscripts.
    2) Self-publishing is almost never effective.

    Even if #1 is false, #2 can remain true.

    (And neither is false: those 'almosts' cover a multitude of sins.)

    And no, editors often don't read entire manuscripts. If the first chapters don't grab them, why should they?

  7. Insightful post as always. I have to admit, as an author coming down the home stretch of my own self publishing project, this does make a guy a little nervous. I think you hit the nail on the head though when you say it's about the motivations around the decision to self publish that are important. For me, it's not out of desperation. My project--a collection of short stories, many of them published elsewhere--just seems to fit better for me as a self published project. Realistically, I know there's very little mainstream market for short story collections these days so I haven't attempted to get my manuscript in the hands of any major publishers. Instead, I've dedicated my time to the craft of creating an outstanding book that hopefully at least a few people will read. At the end of the day, the process has made me a much better writer (and self-promoter) which was really the goal all along. I can then take the skills and knowledge I gain from my self publishing experience and put them toward creating a truly outstanding (and traditionally published) novel.

  8. Gahh, you just completely traumatized me with that image of your I'm joking face.

  9. Eric you are amazing and I love your kidding face

  10. Having self-published four books successfully (one of which was not mine), I have noticed that my definition of success has changed. I have made all my money back on every title and then some, which tells me 1) that the books are successful enough to sell, 2) that many of my customers are repeat or by word-of-mouth which means they're of good enough quality to be salable, and 3) my overhead is much, much smaller than the average book by a big name publisher. It's very nice to turn a profit after selling only a third of my books. Most big publishers cannot say the same.

    The biggest problem with self-publishing is the distribution issue. Other than that, I prefer self-publishing and constantly consider not trying to agent the rest of my work.

  11. Interesting discussion. Kent Lester expressed how I feel brilliantly. In order to be published traditionally, one must find an agent. If you are an unknown, that is damned near impossible. After two years of querying agents, no one even asked to read the manuscript, so how would anyone know whether it's worthy of being published? Self-publishing was the only answer for me and in 7 months I've sold 100+ books. If I were in it to make money, I'd be a failure. But readers are connecting with my story, and that's why I self-published.

  12. I think there is some confusion here for a few of you. Lots of books are worthy of publication (by which I mean they are worth reading), but that doesn't mean they will *sell*. There's a huge difference.

    For example, right now I'm shopping a vampire novel. The market is flooded with them. There are so many agents/editors/publishers who are sick to death of vampires that the book might not be able to sell now, even if it would have sold five years ago. It's better written than some of the books I've seen out there, but that's part of the problem - I'm dealing with a saturated market. I'm resigned to the fact that I may have to shelve it for a number of years while the vampire market dies down. (I am still shopping it, though. Kinda hoping to catch the "just-graduated-from-Twilight" crowd.)

    Granted, the publishing houses are not always right about what will sell and what won't, especially in this day and age when the majority of authors have to do most of their publicity themselves. But odds are they have more information on what's happening in the industry and will be better able to make that call.

    What interests me right now is small press. With the aforementioned advertising issues, one wonders what the difference in sales is between mid-list big-publishing-house authors and small press authors, particularly the small press authors who are really out there promoting their books.

  13. I'll second that Amen. This is a great post.

  14. Scary kidding face is scary.

    (Angry Kent is angry.)

  15. Love this discussion. What keeps hope alive is stories like Lisa Genova's self published book "Still Alice" that went on to become a literary success.

    What most writers vastly underestimate is:
    1) the total lack of credibility given to self published books and their authors
    2) how much work it is to sell your book, once it is published. This goes for tradtionally published work, and is doubly true for self published. I published with a big house, and thought we would get more support on the PR front. Instead, I've worked non stop for the past year to sell the book.

    Welcome to the world of publishing, right?!

    The distinction between "what is good enough" to be read/ published and "what will sell" is also a fine point not to be overlooked.

    "Mothers Need Time-Outs, Too"
    McGraw Hill

  16. I just read on Cindy Pon's blog that her young adult novel, Silver Phoenix (which I bought and loved) was rejected 121 times before getting that one yes that got her through the door. A lot of people rejected her because they thought it wouldn't be marketable - it's a Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Chinese quest type of story with a Chinese heroine. But she kept going for it...she approached it like one would a battle and eventually came out on top. It's certainly given me hope for publishing me own YA.

    So I don't think people should be afraid of rejections or use rejections as a reason to self-publish.

    Of course, there are many other reasons why people may self publish as so many others have discussed in the comments. Honestly, there are always reasons for and against self-publishing and I don't believe either type of publishing should be knocked or mocked for any reason. I guess it's just about learning about both types, understanding the pros and cons, the arguments, the rebuttals and then discovering whats right for you. Still, I'm going to give myself a good chance going through the traditional route before even considering self-publishing (plus I'm strapped for cash and have student loans to pay so I don't even think self-publishing is an option for me right now).

    People don't need to get overly sensitive or heated about it. Just do what you think is right for you, and if it works and you're happy then more power to you!

  17. I'm with Eric on this, even though there are some good comments that make good points. As he said in the post, there are exceptions but they are few.

    I'm glad to hear about the above writer who is making money self-publishing and sorry about the one who sounds like he has a great novel languishing. I'm sure that happens too.

    But I'm in some writer groups where self-publishing has become an epidemic. They are all losing money. Not a one, that I know of, is even close to breaking even. Fortunately, a lot of these guys are wealthy, or very comfortable, and can afford to throw money away. But some of them are far from it.

    They also complain about the POD publishers not keeping their promises. The ones that have been published by the traditonal houses make money. No complaints.

    Loved the Rejectionist post you linked. Thanks. Although there was an agent blog, where the guy really did hate us, and made it clear. Maybe sick of us is a better way of putting it. But he got out of the industry. Too many "wannabe" writers!

  18. POD is NOT a synonym for a self-published paper book. It is a type of printing.

    Major publishers use it for back list, and academic publishers use it for front list.

  19. Some good thoughts here, both in the post and the comments.

    I started self-publishing (on my own, not using a vanity press) about five years ago for three purposes: learning more about publishing, gaining readers while I look for an agent for other books (I have a few, and have yet to quit writing), and making some extra money. So far, I'm meeting all three goals: I've learned a lot more about how publishing works behind-the-scenes, I've expanded my readership into circles where I was previously unknown, and pocket two or three thousand dollars in profit each year.

    As new technologies become available and the industry does change, perhaps it's not a question of whether self- or traditional publishing is "better," but what your goals are and how you can best reach them.

    That said, I second what you've said about not putting sub-par work out there. I think it would help everybody if more writers took more pride and care in what they publish, however they publish it--and in what they submit.

  20. Glad Mercy Loomis pointed out the difference between "worthy of publication" and "saleable" -- just wanted to call attention to that.

  21. I second Kent Lester's comments. I'm reading a very good book right now that Erika Robuck self-published, "Receive Me Falling" (she has previously commented on this site). It is very well written and entertaining, and I'm enjoying it very much. I bought it, and many others have too. So don't discount the gems, because they are out there, buried. We just have to recognize them.

  22. I work for a printer (plain POD printer, not a printer that preys on writers or offers self-publishing packagers etc). We had one self-published author who hustled for years and sold his "street" books out of the back of a van. Last year he got a multi-book contract with one of the big five publishers.

  23. Use this post and Kent Lester's post for Self-Publishing 101.

    For appetizer, use Gerard Jones' Everyone Who's Anyone in Trade Publishing.

  24. What interesting comments! I've just self-published - without feeling the need to approach a major publisher. If one person buys my book then I'm happy. If 100 people buy my book I'm happy, too. I never had any intentions of writing a "best seller". I just wanted to tell my story. And I feel better inside for having done so.

  25. Karen Walker, if no one asked to read the manuscript, it's most likely because your query letter wasn't attracting attention. Did you get feedback on it from other writers to see where it could be improved?

    It's most certainly possible for unknowns to land an agent. I did. I know of dozens of other writers like me who did, too.

  26. True, Patsy.
    Toni Morrison once said, "I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it."

  27. I would rather never see my book in print then self publish.

  28. I wanted to add a few more comments about self publishing. In today's market, an author's promotional activities should be just as effective, whether a book is self published or published by a large house.

    The one key difference is distribution. If a reader can't conveniently find a book in the local bookstore, the self publisher is at a severe disadvantage. Also, with the price of books, especially when self published in low volumes, the chances of making any profit off your endeavor is almost nonexistent. Score a big point for traditional publishing and a negative for self publishing.

    There is one HUGE dynamic on the horizon that may affect the balance of power currently held by publishers, and I wonder if most publishers are cognizant of the 800 pound gorilla sitting quietly in the corner, biding his time.

    That is of course, e-book publishing. Once a book can be distributed around the world from a single point like Amazon or Sony to an online reader, then what is the difference between a traditionally published book and a self published one? When the production values (and costs) of book covers, binding, distribution, and paper vanish into the "bit-ether," profits will be solely determined by the number of units sold. A self published book will be indistinguishable from a "big house" book. They are all words on a screen.

    This day is coming. When an affordable, color e-reader hits the market (perhaps in the next 3 years) I believe the industry will be transformed. Despite our love for the "feel" of a good paper book, we WILL change our habits when the advantages of mobility and access outweigh our sentiments.

    The one lingering advantage left for big publishing houses will be their validity. Readers tend to trust the big authors and publishers simply because of reputation. So we'll go full circle. The publisher's ability to promote and market titles will become their big advantage. Will publishing houses all become agents and public relations firms?

    Many readers make book choices based on the "front matter" in bookstores, making easy picks from the front table. What happens when there is no front table? How will readers make purchasing choices?

    I would be curious to know if members of the publishing community are asking themselves these questions now. This might make a good topic for discussion.

  29. Lively discussion once again--Love it! :)

    I think there are some misconceptions among the folks saying that the system is broken. I suspect folks think the focus of the publishing industry should be to publish and distribute all books worth reading. While this would be nice, I think we're missing one thing. Publishing is a BUSINESS. It's about selling lots of books to lots of readers. There will always be books that fall through the cracks, but if there's only 1 out of 100, then the publishing industry has a 99% success rate at spotting them. I suspect it's much, much higher.

    In a lot of the first examples Kent gave, while the books were good enough, the timing for the market seemed to be off, so they weren't saleable. That's fair for publishers to hold off because they wouldn't make the money they could make off another worthy book.

    There is no shortage of good books out there, but sometimes the good ones just aren't timed right. It's no one's fault--it's just business. That doesn't mean the business is broken. It's meeting it's goals perfectly.

    I'll also point out that in Kent's examples, almost every work was recognized by a member of the publishing industry as worthy, just not necessarily saleable at that time. That doesn't mean it can't be traditionally published later on and be a commercial success :). It just takes patience and determination on the part of the author to wait for their time to come. And it will, if their book is good and saleable enough.

    I think Patsy up above is a total rockstar and has the perfect motivation for self-publishing :). You rock, Patsy!

    However, anyone who thinks they are going to circumnavigate a broken system, doesn't seem to realize what the system's purpose is. The publishing industry is very effective at knowing what books will sell to a wide readership.

    Like Eric said, if you aren't looking to sell to a wide audience, then self publishing is a great option. Rock on!

    Also, good luck in you writing, Patsy, and the other self-pub authors!

  30. I can only go by my experience, but nearly all POD books I have read are badly need proper editing. Most of these authors will not pay for a editor. This shows a lack of understanding about a basic reality of publishing. The publishing houses know this and just will not look at one of the PODs unless someone they can trust recommends it to them.

    The limit I have found is 5,000 copies. If your POD can sell 5,000 copies, publishers will take a serious look at it. What % of self-published authors sell that many copies in a year? My guess is one or two...if that.

  31. My experience with self publishing was entirely positive because my expectations were not out of line. I learned a ton about typesetting and cover design and I was able to put out a novel that may or may not ever get published for real in less time than it is taking to write and send queries. No, it's not professionally edited and yes, that is a drawback but my friends are willing to overlook the flaws. I'm not trying to sell 7 million copies, if it could do that, I'd be at Bantam by now.

    In the mean time my friends and relatives can log on and buy a copy if they want one (which a couple dozen of them have done) . My first proof copy was free because of a deal Amazon has with a hugely popular, much ridiculed, writing group I participate in NaNoWriMo. After that, each copy costs my readers $15, a price I helped to determine. I didn't have to put out any money at all and I even came away with a couple hundred dollars I can now put toward postage, professional development, or pizza. For an unpublished writer, just starting out I'd say it was a win. Someday, I hope to look back on it and laugh at my naiveté. But that will only happen if I actually am able to sell something.

  32. For most new writers, having readers is more important than making money. I have been working i publishing all my life (however magazines and not books) and now I have written my first novel, I never even thought about submitting it to a publishing house. Maybe I do know more about editing and layout to make it look OK than the average writer, but that's not the point. I did not write it to make money, so offering it to someone who has profit as his first priority would not have felt right.

    For the same reason I also offer it as a free e-book. I do not think you can really charge for digital content as it is free to copy and distribute. If you read my novel on the screen and like it enough to want to make a contribution, just donate money or buy the paperpack.

  33. Yes, exactly. I've just given up yet again on trying to find a local writers group because, yet again, the only groups I could find were filled with delusional fiction writers who call themselves "professional" because they have a box of UGLY, illiterate pages in their garage. About five years ago, I tried creating a group for professional or wannabe professional writers, and stated ad nauseum in the publicity that "professional" means books that are professionally edited and designed and produced and which (usually) make more money than they cost, and which are suitable for being featured in books stores, and which are indistinguishable both in terms of publishing and of writing quality from books you'd pay money for in any major bookstore, etc. etc. etc. I had three other people show up for the first meeting: two were creepily excited because they were getting ready to "publish" their books, and the third person was a porn writer who got off on forcing obscenities on an unwilling audience. As Sparky Schultz would put it, AAAARRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!
    (Yes, POD & SP are great for local history and maybe now and then a poetry chapbook. The only thing POD/SP fiction is good for is making cheap firestarters for camping.) (Yes, I am TOTALLY fed up.)

  34. I have not yet tried to pitch my book to traditional publisher and am considering self publishing for one main reason. Time. I do not want to tie up my project for years waiting on publishers who will not accept simultaneous submissions. For this reason, I am considering the self-publishing route. But I have read a lot of scary posts on the subject and still have not made a decision.
    It's ok. I have another month or so of intense editing before I have to worry about it. It's a shame self-published authors are so loathed and disrespected.
    I recently read a book by a famous author tradionally published and it was disappointing. The plot was amateurish, the characters weak, and the dialogue ridiculous. Yet it had the seal of approval from a major publisher. So, even the big boys make mistakes from time to time.