EXTRA ETHER: Will DIY Pay for R&D?

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Will Entrekin, Exciting Press, The Prodigal Hour

Whom does it benefit if J.A. Konrath sells a lot of books? J.A. Konrath, that’s who.

And what’s wrong with that? Nothing at all. But:

No young mystery writer will be the indirect beneficiary of his sales figures. Nobody will.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Will Entrekin, Exciting Press, The Prodigal Hour

Eugenia Williamson

This is an interesting point, and it turns up right at the end of Eugenia Williamson’s four-click aria about self-publishing for the Boston Phoenix.com.

In fact, this is the point in Williamson’s commentary. It takes her a long time to get there, but it’s what’s meant by the headline, The dead end of DIY publishing.

While detractors who left comments on her piece seem to have read that headline to mean  we’re looking at the “dead end” of self-publishing, if you get right through to the final phrases, you realize that it’s talking about a kind of extinction potential — the “dead end” being a DIY-centric publishing community with little nourishment for new work and newcomers.

This is a point of debate about the industry! the industry! that we don’t hear much. If Williamson had spent more time on this issue she might have drawn a more thoughtful crowd.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Will Entrekin, Exciting Press, Nick Earls

Mike Shatzkin, George Washington University’s fifth annual Conference on Ethics and Publishing

The underlying assumption here is that in traditional publishing, it’s the blockbuster books that effectively generate what passes for research and development money, R&D. A major house can utilize the revenues of a monster seller to take risks on the young and the feckless, the debutantes and the dodgy, the genre-challenged and the passion players.

In the old publishing system— whatever its many faults — best sellers paid for the equivalent of research and development: the nurturing of young writers with a first book of short stories as well as critically worthy mid-list authors.

Now, here, I’ll offer four quick pre-emptive notes, because I don’t think we can accept Williamson’s premise — that traditional publishing has done this job of R&D — without some reservations:

  • No, we don’t know how much money may (or may not) have been spent by a major publisher during any given time period on lesser-known authors and works.
  • Yes, if we did know, we’d surely say it wasn’t enough. It is never enough.
  • No, the boards and corporate parents of the publishing houses weren’t likely wringing their hands over how many newcomers out there might need their help.
  • And yes, we’d be laboring on a different planet if we found out that using revenue to invest in other authors had occurred “for the love of literature” in these for-profit corporations.

Still, as the industry morphs and struggles, it’s the kind of question the best heads need to be ready to answer: In self-publishing, with every writer working for him- or herself, where does the R&D come from?

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Will Entrekin, Exciting Press, Nick Earls

Mike Shatzkin, George Washington University’s fifth annual Conference on Ethics and Publishing

How many advances, even lackluster paltry ones, can Kickstarter replace?

John Mitchinson is cranking Unbound as fast as he can but that thing isn’t a pig farm.

Williamson writes:

This new model (self-publishing in general) sounds less like egalitarianism and more like the Bush administration, intent on outsourcing government jobs to private contractors. In both publishing models, somebody’s still paying, and in self-publishing, that someone is the author. That doesn’t seem especially meritocratic.

A Boon for Bidinotto

It won’t surprise regular Ethernauts to learn that comments on Williamson’s article are punctuated by the usual pitchfork-waving, spitoon-dinging dismissals. Gosh, she seems not to have asked the permission of the self-publishing community to write about these issues. Shame on her.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Will Entrekin, Exciting Press, The Prodigal Hour

Robert Bidinotto

Not even the article’s large picture of St. J.A. Konrath seems to mollify this bunch. And we find author Robert Bidinotto among the assembled naysayers.

The Ether covered Robert Bidinotto’s own wide-eyed description of his success when Amazon chose him, unexpectedly, for a post-Thanksgiving offer and shot his self-published thriller, Hunter, right out of a cannon.

Now, Bidinotto writes in a comment on Williamson’s article:

Had I followed the stupid advice of Ms. Williamson, the author of this snarky, factually challenged article, I never would have published my debut novel.

The “stupid advice?”

Williamson points out that there are genuine, deep challenges to any DIY route — as there are in traditional publishing — and that the success stories are not something that self-publishing authors in their thousands can all expect to replicate.

She’s hardly alone in bringing to light how difficult self-publication can be. Author Nancy J. Cohen did this, too, as we reported in the Fourth of July week edition of the Ether. Surely, a realistic experience of the digital disruption of publishing should concede that this is easy for nobody.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Will Entrekin, Exciting Press, Nick EarlsMeanwhile, in this comment, Bidinotto touts being  a “#4 Kindle Bestseller,” a “1 Kindle Bestseller in ‘Mysteries and Thrillers,'” earning “six-figure royalties within two months,” and achieving “financial salvation for my wife and me, and a new career as a novelist, in the wake of sudden unemployment at the age of 62.”

In another comment on this same story (he comes by twice), Bidinotto writes:

I have yet to pay one penny for advertising, yet that hasn’t prevented HUNTER from becoming a bestseller, with over 67,000 copies sold within its first year of release since late June 2011.

And yet in that Ether coverage of Bidinotto’s interview with Jennie Coughlin, he said:

“I had no advance warning that they (Amazon) planned to feature my book as an ‘Editors’ Pick’—in fact, their #1 editors’ selection—for the entire week!”

Some extremely good luck fell on Bidinotto. And we’re all seriously happy for him, of course. Who doesn’t want to see the power of Seattle’s algorithms work so well for authors? But his was a windfall of rare proportion, the combination of being singled out for a “Big Deal” holiday promotion and for an “Editors’ Pick” blessing at once. This is hardly representative of what most authors — self-publishing or not — can anticipate.

Too frequently, the counter to a serious question of stewardship in the industry’s future is the recitation of an anecdotal anomaly.

The rude, the mad, and the ugly

Whether or not she’s dispensing “stupid advice,” Williamson’s biggest sin may be to point out that the vociferous component to the self-publishing community — exactly the sneering, tone she triggers in some of the people commenting on her post. She writes:

Some self-published authors talk about the current developments in militaristic terms: it’s a battle. It’s a war. It’s a revolution that will lead to the death of the publishing industry. Accordingly, the self-publishing sphere has rebranded itself “indie publishing,” even though its venue, Amazon, is the largest, most dominant corporate force in the book world.

And she does bring up the daunting odds:

For every Joe Konrath, there are many thousands of self-published authors who’ll never see much revenue from their books.

The general tenor of the responses to her piece run along the lines of respondent Ty Unglebower’s opener:

The idea that the author of this article got paid to write something so clearly biased, unsubstantiated, outdated and incorrect says more about the problems in the world of writers than self-publishing does.

Shatzkin weighs in

You’ll find that industry consultant Mike Shatzkin has mentioned the same author-investment point, as well, in his talk at George Washington University’s fifth annual Conference on Ethics and Publishing.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Will Entrekin, Exciting Press, The Prodigal HourShatzkin is with Idea Logical and the national and international Publishers Launch conferences he mounts with Publishers Marketplace’s Michael Cader.

He has made his slide deck available from that talk, under the title How the DoJ’s misunderstandings could destroy publishing, and why it’s worth saving. Even if you don’t agree with Shatzkin’s take on the overall situation, it’s worth your time to go through his slides because this is a comprehensive and yet concise explication of traditional publishing’s arguments.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Will Entrekin, Exciting Press, Nick EarlsOf special interest is the clarity we begin to get from Shatzkin these days on Amazon. In his recent post, Royalty Share CEO Bob Kohn alleges DoJ violates the Tunney Act, he writes that he doesn’t believe, as some suggest, that “I don’t see ‘collusion’ between DoJ and Amazon as the most likely explanation for the suit and the disaster the settlement could engender.”

In fact, referring to the George Washington speech, he writes:

I want to repeat only one point from that speech here. Amazon’s behavior is self-serving, but it is not evil! It is both futile and wrong to blame something in Amazon’s character for the industry’s troubles. Amazon’s shareholders are not primarily interested in the health and well-being of the book publishing ecosystem; they are primarily interested in the growth of Amazon’s value.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Will Entrekin, Exciting Press, Nick Earls

Mike Shatzkin, George Washington University’s fifth annual Conference on Ethics and Publishing

And I find some of Shatzkin’s numbers helpful for explaining to folks the sizes of some of the stakes here. For example:

  • Big Six publishers each average 3,000 or more titles each year.
  • The next 10-largest houses each average some 500 to 700 titles per year.
  • An acquiring editor at a traditional house, he says, will do 10 to 15 books each year.

And when it comes to these questions about investment in authors’ new titles and new careers, I don’t see any easy answers.

  • Authors working mainly as independent actors, each naturally devoted to his or her own progress and advancement, aren’t necessarily in a position to invest in newcomers and new material from others, however inclined they might be toward mutual support.
  • And however ad hoc (and untraceable) as traditional publishing’s R&D function of cycling funds back into development may be, it appears — at least on first look — there’s even less such a mechanism in place in a DIY setting.

So this is where I’d like your input:

Do you see a natural investment opportunity and apparatus in place for supporting new talent and the new works of existing authors in a self-publishing setting? Aside from the individual trial-and-error that each self-publishing author funds for him- and herself, where’s the R&D in a DIY industry?

Writing on the Ether now can be followed not only here at JaneFriedman.com (free) but via RSS at the Publishers Marketplace’s Publishers Lunch Automat, in the section, ePublishing and the Future. (A subscription is required for Publishers Marketplace and its many services — easily worth the cost.) The @PublishersLunch industry news service is led by Michael Cader and Sarah Weinman.

 Main image: James Cook, Rome


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Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.
Posted in Writing on the Ether.


  1. These are interesting questions, but predictably you’re not going to get many self-published authors weeping tears over them. Especially not the professional writers who have actually laboured with the publishing industry for years, and have produced the kind of work that is worthwhile, enduring and stretches the artform. I totally agree that these are the kinds of writer that publishers could nurture and develop long term. But the industry has decided it doesn’t need those writers. So what do we do?
    In the UK, Big Six publishers are hunting in the Amazon self-published chart-toppers. The more discerning publishers are closing imprints. I’m not seeing any signs that they want to invest their blockbuster millions in the future of literature – in fact if you ask any UK agent, R&D seems to be the last thing they want.
    As you say, much of writers’ learning is self-directed. Perhaps what will emerge is a breed of writers – and perhaps freelance editors – who nurture each other. Not with fluffy, uncritical kumbaya support, but with quaIity tutoring and discovery. There’s the R&D, and it comes – as always – from dedicated creatives.

    • Thanks so much for this insightful comment, Roz. It arrives with the clear weight of your actual experience on staff at major publishers and now, of course, as a self-publishing novelist. And you do it — unlike so many others — without that mewling, whining, mean-spirited tone that tends to weaken so many good arguments in lesser hands than yours.

      As you can tell from my list of “reservations” in the piece, I’ve had my doubts about how much profit might truthfully be plowed back in to new-author/new-work development at some major houses. While I’m sure there are some happy exceptions, I’ve done too much time in the corporate world, myself, to feel convinced that this was a major deployment of funds, at least in the aggressive way we might like to imagine. Executive suites are good at talking about wanting creativity, when it’s really the last thing they want — creativity is disruptive and corporate settings (as we see before us in publishing) are resistant to disruption by nature.

      So I don’t doubt for a moment the conviction or clear sight of things with which you arrive at the thoughtful, painstaking process of self-publication you’re plying now, with its severe emphasis on quality and care.

      I like your idea of “quality tutoring and discovery” among writers and freelance editors, especially without the “uncritical kumbaya support” that too many support groups become. In fact, I think you’ve nailed it as the thing we have to watch for. Unless we see the rise of some major alternative, this kind of R&D, as you say, from “dedicated creatives,” may be all that’s out there.

      Thanks again for commenting so seriously and incisively, a worthy example, itself, of the straight-ahead, no warm-and-fuzzy nonsense approach that’s going to be required.

    • Thanks so much for this insightful comment, Roz. It arrives with the
      clear weight of your actual experience on staff at major publishers and
      now, of course, as a self-publishing novelist. And you do it — unlike so
      many others — without that mewling, whining, mean-spirited tone that
      tends to weaken so many good arguments in lesser hands than yours.

      As you can tell from my list of “reservations” in the piece, I’ve had
      my doubts about how much profit might truthfully be plowed back in to
      new-author/new-work development at some major houses. While I’m sure
      there are some happy exceptions, I’ve done too much time in the
      corporate world, myself, to feel convinced that this was a major
      deployment of funds, at least in the aggressive way we might like to
      imagine. Executive suites are good at talking about wanting creativity,
      when it’s really the last thing they want — creativity is disruptive and
      corporate settings (as we see before us in publishing) are resistant to
      disruption by nature.

      So I don’t doubt for a moment the conviction or clear sight of things
      with which you arrive at the thoughtful, painstaking process of
      self-publication you’re plying now, with its severe emphasis on quality
      and care.

      I like your idea of “quality tutoring and discovery” among writers
      and freelance editors, especially without the “uncritical kumbaya
      support” that too many support groups become. In fact, I think you’ve
      nailed it as the thing we have to watch for. Unless we see the rise of
      some major alternative, this kind of R&D, as you say, from
      “dedicated creatives,” may be all that’s out there.

      Thanks again for commenting so seriously and incisively, a worthy
      example, itself, of the straight-ahead, no warm-and-fuzzy nonsense
      approach that’s going to be required.


      • ‘Executive suites are good at talking about wanting creativity,
        when it’s really the last thing they want — creativity is disruptive…’ The nail hit soundly with a hammer, Porter!
        The trouble is, executives want (and need) reliability, testability, small increments on what they already know that works. That’s not how true ‘creatives’ work.
        I don’t envy those corporations trying to scratch a living by taming these creative animals, by the way!

  2. As usual, Porter, you bring good thoughts to the table. I
    chewed on this one a while.

    When I chose to self-publish my first work, I had a
    completely different route in mind from what most folks think of as DIY. And I
    believe my concept fully addresses the question of “where is the R&D in

    Here’s my dream: I started Graceful Word, a small fellowship
    of writers who collaborate to produce good literature that’s not only interesting
    to read, but actually has something to say without being in your face (we
    called it “theme” in the old days).

    At present, it’s a fellowship of one. When I reach a level
    of success that allows me to hunt (and bankroll) the next writer, then I’ll be
    looking for that person. I’d like to grow the fellowship to a max of seven
    writers. We’ll write mainly fiction, but there’s room for non-fiction, and
    perhaps even some poetry.

    My main hurdle is this: I’m a nobody. And nobody wants to
    help a nobody, so nobody does. I congratulate Mr. Bidinotto on his success.
    That was the grace of God (or the grace of Amazon, depending on your
    viewpoint). And it appears I must wait for the same grace. I’ve promised my
    wife we’re not going to mortgage the house to get this done. So it’s a slow and
    frustrating route—but many things worth pursuing are.

    Stay tuned.

    Jim Hamlett

    • Jim,

      Thanks so much for this heartfelt and intelligent comment. Your concept of a small enclave of mutually critical and supportive writers is excellent. In fact, I’d be surprised if most authors don’t harbor some form or other of this kind of dream — a safe space to take new and even crazy work, a place to test things where you won’t be thought an idiot for going out of the usual bounds, a place in which you don’t have to prove yourself and re-prove yourself daily, weekly, monthly.

      Very hard to get such a group, as we know, especially if you’re to work among peers on roughly the same level of experience and capability (which may be more or less important, depending on the group members’ interests).

      Don’t give up on the idea, though. If things continue to evolve as seems likely, these hoped-for gatherings may prove mandatory. The more professional gatekeepers fall away, the more those missing hurdles look like safety nets that once kept everyone from rushing to market prematurely. A group of tough cohorts — as Roz Morris says, not the “fluffy, uncritical Kumbaya” (they’re all about hand-holding and how you have to belieeeeeeeve in yourself), but genuinely aggressive intelligences willing to grapple with your work honestly in exchange for an equal turn.

      Keep the faith, the time for what you envision may very well be on the way, maybe before that mortgage comes into play.

      • Well, except for those of us who are natural lone wolves, and there are many writers who are. I’ve never known why people make a big deal about being in a community; to me the best thing about being a writer is the absence of co-workers, and the ability to restrict interactions to what’s needed for the job and no more.

  3. The whole “R&D” argument doesn’t jive very well with all the editors out there showering advice on hopeful authors that basically says “it has to be top notch before it gets to me or I will reject it.” I see the behemoth that Amazon is, but I feel more free in this new writing world. I am happily writing my novel knowing that I will not be sending it around for rejections for three years. Instead, I will be publishing it. I also buy Kindle and Smashwords books that are written by other aspiring writers, and I think this is true for many people who are or plan to be self-published.

    • Hey, Amy, thanks for commenting.

      I won’t disagree with you that a large part of the established industry has abdicated a lot of its own responsibility and shoved it off onto authors. You do need to arrive with work that’s “camera ready” as we used to say in advertising, and this is partly happening because publishers are losing their footing, losing money, downsizing, and simply not able to throw the staff they once could gather into a project.

      On the other hand — and NOT the publishers’ fault — this also has to do with the fact that there are many many many more writers coming at them with material now, too. The field once was a lot smaller. The arrival of the Internet has had the effect of making everybody and his or her mail carrier think that she or he has a book inside and is capable of writing it and deserving of publication.

      As I always say, we’re just lucky that the arrival of the Internet didn’t make everybody think that she or he is an airline pilot.

      The overwhelming number of people, though, and their products, is staggering. You may have missed this, so let me share just two numbers with you:

      In 1998, there were roughly 900,000 active titles listed in Books in Print. And today there are 32 million.

      That mushroom cloud of books has gone up in 14 short years. And I’m indebted to Laura Dawson of Bowker, for those numbers.

      Staggering, isn’t it? In the final analysis, then, this means that the best authors can hope for is a fair chance at fighting for air. There are to many books. There are too many authors.

      I actually understand very well what you say about your perspective on Amazon, no quarrel there. But I think that what I’d say if you asked me for any advice is to get your work just as “camera ready” as you would IF you were taking it to those editors you don’t like, the ones with whom you say the R&D argument doesn’t jibe. Because eventually, the great “decider” is going to be quality. By whatever route you approach the readership, you’ll find they know if a book is “right” or not, they’re spotting shoddy formatting and lack of proofreading and bad story development and weak characterization these days like the pros we think they’re not.

      Learn to love those editors. Because your entire audience looks just like them.


      • Love reading this discussion, Porter. I’d like to add a little asterisk by those numbers you got from Bowker however. In 1998 most fiction books were no longer “actively” in print after a short while, one or two years. Now almost everyone, traditional publishers themselves and the authors who got their rights back to old books, have put all those backlists back “in print.” Electronically but “in print.” It seems to me a big chunk of that 32 million has to be old titles put back into print. Not to say that the new titles haven’t swelled. But the numbers are perhaps not as staggering as they appear.

        • Hadn’t thought of that, Lise, and that’s an excellent point. Loads of out-of-print titles are now back on the market as e-pubs.

          • Hey, AJ, indeed a good point from Lise, but do check the response I’ve left her — the “repeat business” of some backlisting doesn’t mitigate the “avalanche” (I’ve gotten totally lost in my metaphors) of material. We’re facing a mighty wall of content, both as readers and practitioners, and while it sounds just super at first to say, “Hey, everybody can write and is writing and books, books, books,” as soon as you start looking for how our best work will be found, read, and supported in this overwhelm? — we’re all deer in the headlights. Lots to learn yet about discoverability, market viability, consumer support, and content value. Should be a very interesting rest of our lives getting this sorted out. :)

        • Hey, thanks for jumping in! I think you’re right, Lise, that there’s some overlap there. But to me the point isn’t that so many more new titles have been created as it is that there simply are that many titles in play. The problem of being found in a 32-million-book pile is almost incomprehensible. When you then add the unprecedented number of NEW titles heading into the market — unprecedented because self-publishing is enabling so many more people’s content than could be produced before — then you realize that this avalanche is snowballing … or this snowball is avalanching, LOL … any really big, bad movement of crushing amounts of snow will do. :-) You get my point — I think I’m in sync with Stephen in his answer to you — the supply is so vastly much greater than the demand, it’s phenomenal. And while we may agree that a falling away of gatekeepers (let’s say old-style standard mainstream book critics, for example) is a positive thing, it also means that the delineation of quality becomes much more important and much more difficult. This is why we keep landing in the middle of the “discoverability” debate these days in publishing, and Digital Book World is putting up a whole conference in September in New York on that one topic.

          Bottom line: There’s no Goodreads big enough (yet) to parse all this content and get it hooked up to the right consumers … and there’s only more coming in the loading dock daily.

          Our good friend and colleague Don Linn said it months ago: There are too many books. And each of us in the biz is going to have to look at that issue and sort out a response of some kind … hopefully turning to lawn care and dry cleaning won’t be first options, but at this point, we’re simply looking at more traffic than any market can bear.

          Shakedowns await. Do stand by. :)
          Thanks again for reading and commenting, great to have you!

  4. I read Williamson’s piece when it first came out, and again in the last day or so. I’ve come to think that she harbors a nostalgic, somewhat idealistic view of the traditional publishing industry in terms of its dedication to R&D. I simply don’t see the evidence that the Big Six or any others, as a matter of course, provide the kind of long term nurturing of creatives that Williams seems to envision. If and when it does happen, it seems accidental or a function of the personal commitment of a particular individual at the publishing house who takes a special interest in an author. And the fact that the top titles usually subsidize all the rest is not, in itself, an indication of R&D. This is simply part of a business model, similar to the way the produce section of many grocery stores is “subsidized” by the other sections. New customers (readers, shoppers, etc.) are drawn in by attractive offerings which yield little profit, but those same customers will buy other items with higher margins. I think true nurturance and development of creatives happens now the same way it mostly always has happened: in a completely organic way derived from the author’s own community and network. Serious creatives want to improve their craft and will seek out individuals who can help them with that – their status as traditionally published or indie makes no difference.

    I think Williams writes at a time when the DIY publishing world has exploded onto the mainstream, and part of that explosion is the pent-up wrath of millions of would-be writers who, truthfully, aren’t good enough writers or savvy enough as marketers to sell many books but who nevertheless feel a sense of revolution against the establishment. They have nothing to lose but their chains, as it were. This moment will pass. Before long, many of the newly-freed indie authors will have either done well financially with their work (enough to justify the effort both to continue writing and to get better at their craft) or they will see that their work fails in the indie world as much as it did in traditional publishing.

    We live in interesting times.

    • Hi, Jill, thanks for this comment, very cogent.

      I agree with your doubts about the traditional world’s R&D commitments (per my four “reservations’ in the piece — and those doubts seem borne out by comments from Roz Morris here today, as well. (Morris formerly worked inside major publishing houses, she’s seen it from that vantage point.)

      Nevertheless — and even if nothing were done in the past in the way of R&D — I think it’s an interesting and worrisome question for today.

      To me, it’s heartening to hear you talk about the great Losing of Heart to come (as completely malevolent as that sounds, lol). As I was saying in response to Amy’s comment here, in 1998, there were roughly 900,000 active titles listed in Books in Print. And today there are 32 million. And this massive rise of activity because of the arrival of the Internet is, frankly, hurtful, not helpful to an industry trying to find a new way forward. This is like trying to discover an entirely new fuel for jetliners at the very moment that the flying public qaudruples.

      Interesting times, indeed. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Ditto Amy’s comments, but I’ll add one more point that I think got rather breezed over (and that’s not meant to critique the article, which was a smashing good read).

    Kickstarter. That’s it these days. I really believe that, passionately, and without any reservations. I was a fan at first, but Jordan Stratford’s success with his Wollstonecraft project made me a believer :)

    R&D now comes from the process of testing your idea in the waters of community input, feedback, and, most crucial of all, pledged support. If at first you don’t succeed, revise and try again. Model success, research for yourself what has worked for authors writing in your genre, then do your best to duplicate their success for yourself. Not by slavishly repeating what they did, but taking the form of their success and laying it over your ideas.

    The community of readers who buy self-published books are also part of the R&D team. They sample our works, review them on Goodreads and elsewhere, add us to their Pinterest and Reddit and Facebook feeds, and voila! Authors are born. The problem with arguing that DIY leads to a dead-end as Williamson suggests is that we’re still viewing the world of publishing and authorship today through the lens of what it was in 2009.

    It’s a whole new ballgame, and the artists and authors are in the driver’s seat. The gatekeepers are still there, but now, once an artist or author has proved their viability in the marketplace via Kickstarter and the like, the gatekeepers find themselves standing outside, asking to be let in.

    As it should be.

    • Hey, AJ, glad to hear your upbeat assessment of the Kickstarter / crowdfunding concept in general, thanks for reading and commenting.

      You know where I worry about this? Overload. At this point, Kickstarter is still fairly new to a lot of people. We’re getting a few big successes on it (Seth Godin’s recent turn being one, for example), so visibility is rising, yes. But if we look, say, three years down the road and perhaps thousands of people have made small, earnest donations (bless them for that) and they’ve had the experience of seeing “their” projects they took to their hearts and wallets fail, go nowhere, light no fires, climb no mountains — as logic tells us most publishing projects do — what then? Can that community of readers you so rightly and generously hail today stick this out?

      I’m using these staggering figures today (they come from Laura Dawson, a great colleague of mine at Bowker, these are dependable):

      In 1998, there were roughly 900,000 active titles listed in Books in Print. And today there are 32 million.

      And those are already in print or e-form or both. And the Internet-fueled rush-to-write may have yet to crest in a great, massive outpouring of material that already has overwhelmed the traditional industry, as we know, and is one of the main reasons that Goodreads and other “sorters” are the only hope one might have of finding a book one wants.

      How many projects, really, can be crowdfunded? (Especially as the world grinds through difficult economic times.) How many crowdfunding enthusiasts really know what it will feel like when the book they put some money into doesn’t go anywhere? — through nobody’s fault, mind you, I’m not even saying “bad books,” I’m just saying millions upon millions of books. War and Peace might never be spotted today. How many times can Tolstoy go back to his Kickstarter buddies and say, “This time, I’ve really got a perfect book, trust me on this”? — know what I mean?

      I’m going to enjoy your enthusiasm and bright view of things — much appreciated. But I don’t know if I’m sure you’re right that authors and artists are in the driver’s seat. I think readers and arts consumers are. We just went from a few thousand gatekeepers to hundreds of millions. And those same people are being wiped out by the allures of the electronic media. Lots of commentary going on these days about how hard it is to bring many kids over to reading, let alone adults, when the temptations of TV, film, music, and video games are so powerful.

      There’s a place for your optimism, and I’m glad to see it. There’s also a place for realism. I think that driver’s seat is being shared by a lot of people right now, many of whom are fighting for the wheel. Let’s see where we end up once this car parks. :)

      Bests for now, and thanks again for writing.

      • Porter, you make some excellent points here, and I confess to wagging a bushy tail of naiveté in front of my bright eyes…it makes the rosy coloring that much easier to see, you know 😉

        On the issue of the number of titles listed now versus then…32 million? Holy crap…and I emphasize the crap part of that. Abysmal numbers of errors, typographical and grammatical, clunky prose, weak characters, empty dialogue. I’ve seen both in print and e-boo formats, self-pub and trad-pub.

        Yes, the driver’s seat is being shared, and we are seeing a lot of projects getting to the point of fruition (i.e., published) that, due to poor quality, could well backfire on the DIY community, and, if you ask me, is backfiring now. I know two authors whose work I just won’t bother with in the future, because what I paid for ended up being such a poor piece of craftsmanship.

        Quality as a deciding factor also goes to the point you make about seeing KS and other such funded projects not meet their goal. Yes, the reading community, the arts consumers, they are in the driver’s seat alongside us. I should have said co-pilot before :) Readers need writers just as arts consumers need artists, and vice versa. Yes, we’ll probably see a trailing off once we hit a saturation point, fewer projects going up and making funding goals. But I don’t see a future where KS and other microfunding options go away. I really don’t. I mean, where’s the harm in pledging $20 and then at the end of the month finding out you didn’t actually spend it? Hey, I’ve got dinner out this week! :) In the end, it’s about quality of project as much as it is about quality of product. The projects that are professionally managed, the campaigns that are professionally run, will continue to result in products that are communally, but no less professionally, produced.

        I’m optimistic, and perhaps to a fault, but I really believe that the cream is rising to the top with KS. We’ll see how I feel at the end of August/early September when my project has had it’s run.

        • I’m perversely fascinated by Kickstarter – to a point.
          The fundraising consultant in me looks at it as a world-wide capital campaign: you’re raising money from interested people because you’re building something. There are levels of donors who get certain tangibles – and often, intangibles – in return. I think it’s a great opportunity for all kinds of artists, not just writers.
          However, and I have personal experience here, a KS project can be – for want of a better word – tacky. I’ve seen campaigns that went overboard with the tzotchkies – so much so on one that the majority of the budget was for donor gifts. Wrong on so many levels, as my daughter would say.
          KS will continue to be used and abused until, as you say, we hit a saturation point. I think the political world has shown that microfunding – whether a campaign, a play or a book – works. I’ll be using it down the road myself, in all likelihood. But just a warning: no one’s getting tacky souvenirs from me. I’m a class act. 😉

          • Indeed! I’ve seen some reward lists that look like more time and effort are being expended there than on the actual project goal.

            The rewards I’m putting together are straight and to the point, handmade by me with the help of artist friends’ and their expertise and resources (they’re teaching me to use their gear and throwing their scrap my way – which is right in line with my project goal of encouraging re-purposing and reuse!) So with my project at least, pretty much zero of the pledged funds will go towards the tangibles.

        • Well, far be it from me to dampen your enthusiasm, AJ, I wish you nothing but the best.

          But just to clarify, I don’t mean the danger is in situations in which a Kickstarter goal isn’t met. Those cases in which the good-hearted ones get their money back — surprise dinner, as you say.

          No, I mean cases in which the goal IS met, the author produces the great project, the donors all gather for their various benefits, party time, free books, T-shirts, breakfast with the cover designer, bowling with the copy editor, all the premiums are ready, and … the book utterly and horribly and totally and grotesquely sucks.

          Remember those bad-quality books you were discussing that are getting out there nowadays right and left? They can be crowdfunded, too. And as those events occur and donors start feeling burned (there’s even a potential embarrassment factor: “you backed THAT piece of crap, oh, my God!”), this “new” dash for One Free Drink With the Author at Home will start to lose its luster.

          As Roz Morris has suggested (I’ll let HER dampen your enthusiasm, lol), wait until one Kickstarter project goes so unthinkably wrong that the donors start demanding their money back. I might envision, say, author runs off with funds to “focus on the book” — with three comely editorial assistants in Acapulco. Or author produces a book that’s really just self-plagiarism from many of his own magazine articles in the past. (Good thing Jonah Lehrer didn’t Kickstart his book “Imagine,” hm?)

          It’s attractive to think that Kickstarter can be a delineating tool, that “cream is rising to the top,” as you put it, on the milk of human kindness in those donations.

          But remember: When we all donate to support a runner in a charity marathon, the athlete who gets the most contributions is in no way guaranteed to win the race. In fact, the largest money-raisers in those cases are normally the most obnoxious, persistent squeaky wheels, much better at driving you mad enough to make a contribution than they are at running the race.

          Go carefully, keep your eyes open, and above all, don’t rush. Where’s the fire? I keep urging folks to just hang on if they’re about to hurl their work into the world. The publishing industry crisis is actually very real. Launching a box kite in a storm may not be the best thing, Ben Franklin — let somebody else hold that cord, fried authors have short backlists :-)


  6. I think traditional publishing was too exclusive. I don’t think a lot of nurturing was going on. I think there was a lot of talent that wasn’t getting out of the slush piles. There are many stories of popular best-selling authors who had dozens of rejections before their lucky breaks. Who knows how many potential money-makers were tossed out without a “nurturing” review? On the other hand, if we want to say that the exclusivity of trad pubs kept the drek out of bookstores, we’d be wrong about that too. I was a bookseller, back in the day, and there were plenty of really bad novels out there. Now the gatekeepers are the readers, not editors in New York offices. This is only a bad thing for editors in New York offices.

    • Hi, Annemarie, thanks so much for reading and commenting.

      To parrot you — in a good way, lol — I think the only people who wouldn’t agree with you on 99% of what you say, if not 100%, are those “editors in New York offices.” And frankly, I believe that a lot of them are, and have been, keenly aware of the problems of traditional publishing — exclusivity being huge among them — for quite some time.

      In fact, do you know our good colleague Roz Morris? She has a terrific comment here today — the first that came in (because she’s in London and thus up before us Yanks, lol) — and she was, in the past, a staffer in major publishing houses, now is a leading self-publishing author, consultant, coach, and editor.

      By which I only mean to say that traditional publishing, itself, is peopled by a lot of very smart, talented folks who have been unable to change the exclusivity and other effects of the industry, even while regretting it deeply. I’m loathe to paint the entire structure as so monolithic or completely irredeemable in every single office. Time will tell. And there are more and more voices, recently, coming up for air to announce that going it as a self-publisher is extremely taxing, possibly more so than many authors realize even with lots of good research and eyes wide open.

      If there is a chance to save something out of the traditional world that can be organized to support authors without the bad effects of exclusivity — as well as lack of data for authors (that one is particularly galling, I think), bad payment rates to creative people, excessive (mind-blowingly so) long time-lines to market, and more — then I think everyone, including self-publishers that Williamson refers to as militant, owes it to herself or himself to check it out.

      We’re not at the end of this, in other words. In fact, I fear we’re far from it. And I say I “fear” that because the industry as a whole — and in the eyes of the rest of the world — is badly exhausted already by the experience of tearing itself apart over all this. It was years ago, after all, when the infractions that the Dept. of Justice now allege were committed by five of the Big Six were committed. And another year before a trial — and that’s only one corner, a litigious one, never mind the wrenching developments of digital self-publishing and evocation of a “new” kind of author in a post-traditional setting.

      So we trundle on. And thank you again for taking the time to write.

  7. I’m going to take a break from my final, final rewrite before sending my little manuscript to the editor I’ve hired so that I can respond, Porter.
    I find the speculation over what the Big 6 spend on R&D to be…well, a waste of time. Haven’t we all figured out that they’re not going to open their books to anyone, not even their own authors?
    The investment self-publishing authors have to be willing and able to incur can be substantial. My research/interviews have taken me to both coasts and several spots in between. It’s run up my credit card bill, even locally. But I went in with both eyes open, as I did in a previous career as a professional fundraising consultant: the financial (and other), tax-deductible risks are mine, but so are the profits. And the research I’m doing will carry me through not one, but possibly three books.
    That’s not to say that everyone who wants to self-publish can afford to do what they need to do to professionalyl research/write/publish their books. But if you look at yourself as a writer, and not as someone who is writing “a book”, it makes the career a little easier. I can get paid for free-lance articles, on and off my general topic, which helps pay some of my expenses.
    Right now I’m in the “hiring” phase of my mini book (really a stand-alone chapter that didn’t fit in my “big” book): editor (developmental and line) and cover designer; plus buying ISBN’s. The start-up cost for this tiny project is a bit disproportionate, but I already assumed that. That just means I’ll have to be effective in marketing it.
    That said, this mini is also a trial run, a marketing tool of its own. If it draws the attention I believe it will, then I’ll know the bigger book will fly. If it doesn’t, well, we’ll re-group and revise the marketing plan, I guess.
    Lastly, self-publishing as a “dead end”. I guess it can be. I guess I see it that way for me, if you want to be blunt about it, because I don’t see it as a stepping stone to a contract with one of those Big 6 publishers. This is how I’ve chosen to publish my work, and at this point, I have no complaints. Though I’d welcome suggestions on how to convince Rufus Sewell to do the audio versions of my books.
    Thanks, Porter. Now back to work. 😉

    • Hey, Viki, thanks for commenting. Yes, I thought of you and the issue of self-publishers whose goal seems to be a traditional contract, when reading Eugenia Williamson’s piece — the center section of it is a sequence about a self-published book that finally won for its author a traditional contract, in part through the assistance of a very enthusiastic spouse who helped to get the word out very faithfully. Although I don’t think it was intentional (and don’t know for sure, of course), there was a quiet sense that “traditional is the real goal” underneath that element of the piece.

      As I said in the story, I still don’t think the headline of Williamson’s piece is saying that self-publishing is a dead end. I think it’s saying that the lack of R&D support (let’s look at all you’re doing right now without a cent of an advance or support, as an example) is, in fact, what may be “dead” at the end of self-publishing. There’s something less than lively about a form of work that isn’t “giving back” something to move new blood and life into its system. As I mentioned, and you mention, we’re not going to know how much actual R&D support may have reached authors in traditional settings. What we do know is that self-publishers can’t expect such support.

      I like your idea of seeing yourself as the writer and your outlays of time and money and energy at this point to be your investment in yourself as such, not necessarily in the more limited scope of a single book. That — it seems to me — is precisely the right attitude. You’re a business person and know, as I do, that almost nothing ever goes entirely to waste, even though some part of a project can surely go awry from time to time.

      And you’ll certainly be effective in marketing, as long as your intent and focus remain as clear and energizing to you as they seem to have done so far, during these many good progress reports you’ve logged in for us in various Etherly commentary.

      So good. Back to your 10th re-edit and I’ll put in a call to Rufus.

  8. I believe you’ve mischaracterized my views about self-publishing, and the reasons for my irritation with Ms. Williamson’s article.

    I’ve never claimed that self-publishing was easy, and I’ve never claimed that my own success was not exceptional. In fact, I’ve been offering aspiring self-publishing authors detailed advice (drawn from a host of successful ones) telling them exactly what they can expect, and the kind of time and effort they must put in to maximize the odds of commercial success. (I’ll email it to anyone interested; write me at: RobertTheWriter [at] gmail [dot] com)

    Regarding my own success with my debut thriller, HUNTER, which you attribute to “extremely good luck”:

    It’s relevant to point out that even before the Amazon editors gave HUNTER special attention, it had already sold 4,000 copies in its first five months of release, and it had also compiled scores of 5-star customer reviews, achieving one of the highest cumulative customer ratings on Amazon. That is what caught the attention of the Amazon editors, who then cast their spotlight on it, propelling already-decent sales into the stratosphere.

    The main challenge for any writer is to write something that people want to read; the secondary challenge is getting it published; the tertiary challenge is gaining visibility for it before its target audience. The early reader response suggests that I met the first challenge; Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace self-publishing programs, Barnes & Noble’s Pubit program, and Smashwords program, all allowed me to meet the second, without enduring an endless ride on the Query-Go-Round; and then my own sustained marketing efforts finally met the third challenge, bringing the book to the attention of the Amazon editors, who liked it and took it from there.

    So, while It’s facile to attribute my success to “extremely good luck,” a lot of hard work helped me get “lucky.” And that’s the case for virtually every successful indie author, who will tell you so. My objection to Williamson’s piece was that she didn’t simply point out the obvious — that the price of self-publishing success is a lot of time, talent, and hard work, plus a modest financial outlay. Instead, her entire tone was condescendingly dismissive and discouraging toward anyone who would consider that option. It was that attitude — common throughout the traditional publishing industry — which prompted the justifiable indignation of many indie authors, including me.

    Many of us have had plenty of unpleasant experiences with the traditional publishing world — including agents, editors, publishers, booksellers, even fellow authors — and we continue to be belittled by many of its denizens for choosing to publish independently. Established writers organizations refuse to allow us full membership privileges, regardless of our proven sales. Best-selling authors announce publicly that they refuse to blurb, endorse, or review self-published books, regardless of their merit. Bookstores refuse to consider our books, regardless of either proven sales or merit. Establishment reviewers and bestseller lists continue to ignore our work. At a recent book festival, indie authors were segregated to a separate book-signing area, and the prominent bookstore managing sales for the event refused to sell our books.

    No, the “sneering” didn’t begin on our side. We continue to be treated, at best, like black-sheep members of the publishing family, and at worst, like a leper colony. So, if you don’t like our indignant responses to snarky pieces like Ms. Williamson’s, then try to treat those of us who are succeeding in this very difficult profession with some respect.

    You can start by refraining from attributing our success to “extremely good luck,” rather than to talent and hard work.

        • jane friedman said:
          > Have we all really devolved
          > into a “He/She started it?”

          just putting all the facts on the table.

          or did you think that half-the-facts
          would be sufficient for your readers?


          • i find it interesting that you are
            replying to me, when all i did was
            agree with a point that robert made.

            but it would be unseemly for you to
            continue to go at him, when he has
            just pointed out — quite correctly —
            how this article put a nasty spin on
            the nature of his accomplishments.

            was robert “lucky”. yes, he sure was.
            just like every other artist alive who has
            gotten “a lucky break” as a jump-start,
            after working their ass off. every one.

            the people inside the publishing industry
            spent a long time throwing insults at the
            heathens who supported self-publishing.

            now they’d like everybody to forget that
            they’re the ones who threw the first punch.


    • Hi, Robert, and thank you for reading and commenting.

      I take all your points on board and need not try to counter any of them. You know your experience far better than I or others can, and your perceptions are fully as valid as anyone else’s.

      In fact, I’d like to ask you a couple of things that occur to me as I read your thorough comment.

      First, could you tell me what established writers’ organizations refuse to allow self-publishing authors full membership because those authors aren’t on traditional publishing contracts?

      And second, can you tell me what the reason seems to be for the shut-out of self-publishing authors that you perceive in so many areas. In reviews, for example, I was with a short-lived review site called Reader Unboxed (it only lasted several months, unfortunately, before its organizers decided not to go ahead) — and at Reader Unboxed, we covered both traditionally published and self-published work routinely. I was allowed to choose the books I’d cover and I chose self-published works along with traditionally published ones (something that I believe our mutual colleague Jennie Coughlin would recall). What many of us don’t see clearly is what you and others find to be the cause for discrimination? Is it fear on the part of the traditional structure? Is it the overwhelming amount of material on the market these days? Is it a bad rap generated by poor quality in some self-published work being allowed to color expectations of the rest?

      Your input would be appreciated, as is, again, your comment here. Thanks.

      • Those are a lot of questions, Porter, but here goes:

        1. The International Thriller Writers (ITW), for one. You can check out their “How to Join” page here:


        There, you’ll find this:

        “Active membership is available to thriller authors published by a commercial publishing house. This includes authors of fiction and nonfiction.
        By “commercial publishing house” we mean a bona fide publisher who
        pays an advance against royalties, edits books, creates covers, has a
        regular means of distribution into bookstores and other places where
        books are ordinarily sold, and receives no financial payments from their
        authors….ITW maintains a list of recognized commercial publishers. Active members may vote, sit on the Board of Directors, chair
        committees, sit on ThrillerFest author panels, and enjoy other benefits
        including: No dues. Membership is free to Active members…”

        You can check out the other benefits offered exclusively to “Active Members.”

        By contrast, indie authors are relegated to “Associate Member” status, where we subsidize the rest of the group with $95 annual membership dues, in exchange for far fewer listed benefits.

        I am told by other authors that a number of major writers groups in other genres operate similarly.

        2. I can’t state for certain why this apartheid policy persists among various writers groups. I could speculate about motives — perhaps some of your suggestions might be in play — but I prefer not to psychologize. After all, it’s not up to me to explain such policies; it’s up to those that impose them to explain why best-selling indie authors must sit at the back of the bus.

        I am glad that many online review sites are beginning to open up to reviewing self-published work; as I’m sure you know, however, that policy is a rarity among major print publications.

        Porter, I would love nothing better than for all of us to be able to ignore the path by which a book is published, and to focus instead on its merits. What ought to count is whether a lot of readers find a book enjoyable. On that basis, I have reviewed, endorsed, and blurbed many a traditionally published book written by major thriller authors. I’ve also interviewed and profiled some of them on my blog (www.bidinotto.com). I know that over the years, my efforts have generated a lot of fans for their work.

        So, how am I to feel when some of them publicly comment that they will not, as a matter of principle, review, endorse, or blurb any self-published books? Once again, it’s not for me to speculate about their motives; it’s up to them to justify such a bias.

        • One question that I don’t think is raised often enough is whether these organizations are relevant any longer. Are the benefits of full membership valuable (still)? Is it more about status? (Or has it only ever been about status?)

          • A fair question, one that almost answers itself, Jane.

            But let’s take the ITW, for example. This weekend it held its annual “Thrillerfest” in NYC. Among the major authors in attendance were Lee Child, Jack Higgins, Ann Rule, Nelson DeMille, and many other fine authors whom I respect. There also were panel discussions on a host of interesting subjects.

            Now, under normal circumstances, I would have loved to have attended. No, I don’t give a fig about “status,” and never have. But I do value socializing and cross-fertilization with other writers. There’s much to be gained from events of that sort, in camaraderie, personal inspiration, and information-sharing.

            However, I’ll be damned if I’ll pay good money to attend a function held by group that treats writers like me as second-class citizens.

            Several years ago, before I published HUNTER, I paid $95 “Associate Member” dues to ITW. Fair enough, back then: I still had something to prove. But no longer.

            I just received a renewal notice…to again be an “Associate Member.” You may imagine what my response will be.

          • I think that’s almost entirely an individual decision. I joined SFWA when it was very strongly adversarial toward publishers, because, bluntly, when it came to money and rights, at the time it was pretty much a zero sum game between writers and publishers, and I wanted a bigger share and some allies whenever the opposition tried to grab onto my share. I drifted out when it became clear that the SFWA has become very concerned with keeping publishers in business; i.e. they stopped fighting and started collaborating with the class enemy (the last straw was when, instead of beating on Dorchester when they were down, they actually worked to suppress ad hoc and spontaneous writers’ actions against Dorchester.) Now that I’m moving out of traditional publishing, I don’t know what being in an organization will do, one way or another, for self-published writers; if I see a benefit, I’ll join an organization. If not, I won’t. I’ve never seen validation, awards, all that stuff as a benefit. Some people really do.

        • This is really helpful, Robert, thanks. My own focus is in literary (that’s what I critique) and not in thrillers or other genres, so I hadn’t seen this kind of openly stated bias against non-traditionally published work like ITW’s position. Great of you to go to the trouble to lay that out. There are some folks I can talk with who are in good touch with this — at members of the ITW and community, etc.

          You’re right that the onus is on them to explain such policy statements.

          Meanwhile, do have a look at the note Jane Friedman, my host here for all things Ether (and the online editor with Virginia Quarterly Review), has left on your comments, too. She’s asking about the relevance of such groups these days.

          Any thoughts on that, much appreciated.

          And thanks again for all the good commentary here, very useful.

          • I should add the Author’s Guild to the the list, Porter:


            There we find this:

            Regular Membership. You may qualify on the basis of being a book author or freelance writer:

            Book authors must be published by an established American publisher. While decisions on membership eligibility are made on a
            case-by-case basis, generally book contracts are expected to include a royalty clause and a significant advance, and must allow the author to retain copyright. Exceptions to these requirements are sometimes made in the case of small literary presses of national reputation.

            Self-published works and works published by subsidy presses do not qualify an author for membership. Works published by foreign publishers are not accepted as a basis for membership….

            Associate Membership. You may join as an associate member if you have a contract with an established American publisher for
            a work not yet published. The same requirements apply to publication as for regular members. An author who has been offered a contract by an established literary agency may also be eligible for associate membership. Associate members are eligible for the same benefits and services as regular members with the exception that they cannot vote in Guild elections. Once an associate member’s book is published they can become a regular member….”

            So in this veddy, veddy Establishment organization purporting to represent the interests of “published writers,” self-published authors are not even recognized as “writers” or “authors” for membership under any category.

            Frankly, I have no use for the Author’s Guild, but I mention it only to indicate that we indies are not imagining that there is an industry-wide bias against self-publishing. Traditional publishing, including even the quasi-official “writers organizations,” operate like an old boy’s network.

            Please understand: My argument here is not “Please, let us in!” Far from it; I don’t seek the keys to the Executive Washrooms of legacy publishing houses or committee titles at “writers” organizations. I simply aim to point out traditional publishing’s condescending atmosphere and inhospitable policies toward self-published authors and their works.

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

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

    If you want to read my analysis of the problems with the first
    two points, you can go over and read my most recent

    However, regarding the point you featured, I totally disagree
    with her statement that self-publishing lacks the research and development and
    nurturing possibilities of traditional publishing. You (and many of the
    commentators) pointed out the problem with her assumption that traditional
    publishing uses its bestseller profits to nurture their midlist authors, so I
    won’t belabor this point. What I will point out is that if we are discussing
    fiction, which Williamson seemed to be doing, then the nurturing that authors need
    the most is a steady predictable income so that they don’t have to work full
    time at something else, and the research and development they need is marketing
    data that they can then use to develop new strategies for getting their work to
    the reader and getting that reader to buy their work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    • Hi, Louisa, thanks for reading and commenting — you certainly do a thoroughgoing job of laying out your experienced position on this, and I appreciate the time and effort you’ve put into that.

      It’s especially heartening to hear of so much healthy sharing of info among writers, that’s excellent.

      All the best to you for more success, it does sound as if you have it all licked. Congratulations!


  10. Ironically, it’s the publishing industry that turns out to be right wing. They claim the same model of trickle down economics where wealth for a few will trickle down to everybody else. The truth is: this doesn’t work for the publishing industry any more than it does for government. The money is staying at the top.

    Strangely enough, self-publishing turns out to be libertarian – bypassing the “Big Government” of big publishing for individual rights. For libertarianism to work, people have to be altruistic all on their own, so hopefully the big wigs of self-publishing will start supporting the littler guys. I haven’t seen a lot of that – mostly there’s just a lot of self-promotion, even after astounding success, so there’s something to the criticism that self-publishers are too self-involved.

    Even if that’s the case, it’s still better for all books to be available, rather than a few. Money might still be concentrated on a narrow field of writers, but overall it expands the options for making a living beyond what’s offered by traditional publishing. And power is in artists’ hands, where it belongs.

    • Hey, Henry, thanks for reading and commenting. I hadn’t tried assigning political colorations to the players in publishing, glad to leave that one to you.

      There’s an interesting point in the Shatzkin article I referenced in this Extra Ether in which Mike references his own political leanings in terms of his views on the DoJ case against publishers. http://ow.ly/cfFWP — you might find that an interesting sidelight.

      Availability is good, yes. Also overwhelming at this point but many people are working on issues of discoverability, etc.

      Thanks again,

  11. I’ve had thirty novels commercially published, and for most years of my adult life fiction writing has been my largest single source of income. So I’m very much a creature of the traditional publishing side.

    I don’t think what they did was nurturing or R&D; almost nobody does that and the people who genuinely try, the foundations and writers colonies, mostly don’t succeed at it. At least in the realm of fiction, publishers bet on me in exactly the way that a fast food chain bets on a franchise holder. They also extorted a great deal of control, much of it detrimental, on my work, in exchange for their quite small fronting.

    I’m in process of moving to independent publishing, with one book out that would have been impossible as a traditional project (details at my blog, thatjohnbarnes.blogspot.com).

    Traditional publishing has been compared (by me in the blog and by many others) to a dysfunctional family in which the breadwinning members are under the thumbs of the more aggressive crazies. Much of what’s being described as “R&D”, “nurturing”, etc. is simply the process of teaching writers not to write what they mean to say, but instead to write what the marketers (or the editors interpretation of the marketers) want to have a cover depicting. It’s not about “helping people grow as writers”, it’s about converting them into reliable suppliers.

    Not just in genre fiction, where I’ve mainly worked, either. Friends in literary fiction have told me many tales of being pressured to take the “literary” view of things, meaning essentially a kind of mix of NPR/Times Review of Books/urban/hip/somewhat-but-not-too-much-liberalism that can be marketed to English professors and sold through campus bookstores.

    So, no, they didn’t nurture, develop, or do R&D. They trained the exploited to feel that their exploitation was what they needed, and to identify their self-worth with being readily exploitable. Will the indie world nurture, develop, or do R&D on new talent?

    God, I hope not. New writers have a tough enough job. Getting rid of all that nurturing and development is progress.

    Also, writers like everyone else have a vested interest in having the laws enforced. Any reasonable reading of the documents disclosed so far makes it abundantly clear that Apple set itself up as coordinator of an MFN agreement whose exact purpose was to keep ebook prices well above hardcover, and the major publishers immediately agreed to cooperate with that. That translates as GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY. It was a direct attempt to reduce audience size and raise prices to the reader; they were caught; if the antitrust laws mean anything, there should be mass fines, corporate breakups, and jail time.

    • John, many thanks for reading the piece today and especially for this detailed and spirited comment. First, congratulations on your 30 novels — especially having had them produced under traditional publishing conditions you don’t care for, this is an admirable body of work.

      If I may be bold enough to ask — answer only if you like — how much control do you have over your backlist? Are you able to publish some of your earlier books, yourself, or are the rights preventing your reissuing them?

      Another thing I wonder about is workload. While I get very clearly that your experience in traditional was hardly what you’d like it to have been, do you find that you now lose a lot of what might have been writing time to the requirements of self-publishing? (I ask this because many authors I know at the moment are staggered simply with the time requirements of platforming, which tends to make self-publishing look even more daunting to them.)

      Thanks also for weighing in with your opinion on the Department of Justice’s lawsuit action and allegations.

      Thanks again, good to have you on the Ether, all the best with the new efforts in self-publishing.

      • Taking the questions quickly: I have about half of my backlist fully under my control now and will begin publishing them sometime this year. Legally some of my entangled backlist is a bit of a mess and I’ll need a lawyer to figure out what the deal is on it, but since I have a couple years’ worth of publishing I can do with the free-and-clear titles first I’m just not worrying.

        I’m a peculiar case because I have also worked as a magazine editor, stage designer, and marketing intelligence analyst (see my piece, “Author, Market Thyself” over at http://www.TheCMOSite.com for how this is relevant) so the self-publishing tasks are not terribly daunting; I can hire and supervise artists and designers with some confidence and make reasonably quick decisions about them, I know a goodly bit about the physical and ebook production processes, and perhaps most of all, the marketing/communications/PR/sales part of the thing is something I’ve done routinely as part of a day job. So it’s certainly easier for me than it is for some others.

        On the other hand, there are plenty of people around with my skillset, or most of it, and many of us are beginning to realize that we can do some hired-gun work for less equipped writers, either teaching them how to do the parts they don’t know or doing it for them as contract work. I had a terrific symbiotic relationship, in which we both learned a great deal, with Momi Douglas, whose TIME TRAVEL RABBIT (http://www.amazon.com/Time-Travel-Rabbit-Momi-Douglas/dp/4990601017) is a terrific example of a book that has a genuine market but wouldn’t have been doable in traditional publishing in the last few decades. They’d have nurtured Doug right out of his book, and both he and the small cult the book seems to be acquiring would have been the poorer for it. As it was, I learned a vast amount about publishing distribution from him, and he got a fair bit of fictional craft from me. There will be many more such deals for many more writers, I’m sure.

  12. Great post about the self-publishing phenomena, Porter. Thank you.

    I tend to think the R & D argument is a canard (sorry, can’t miss an opportunity to use that word). As a former publisher myself, my feeling is the only R & D excludes authors from being published as one’s discernment as a publisher improves.

    Successful books allow publishers to take risks on books of merit, which they know will likely sell more modestly, and on investments in new authors who may become bestsellers but will require a strong marketing push ($).

    The “dead-end” of self-publishing is, in my opinion, the dead-end of what happens to quality content in an era of content abundance. It gets harder for an author’s work to be found and an author is less likely to get paid for one’s efforts. Lots of people will argue, to the effect, that “the cream always rises to the top.” I’d say that the world facing publishers and authors of all kinds–to extend the metaphor–is a bucket of milk so big that whatever cream there is looks more like tiny specks floating on the surface.

    The challenge for any of us who care about quality books being written, read, paid for being has much less to do with who it’s published by than how prospective readers can trust that it is of quality worth paying for. Whatever you think about the filter of traditional publishing, it helped assure prospective readers that the book was likely to be worth paying for. What we need is a very different way of demonstrating quality.

    • Hey, Peter!

      Great of you to join us, thanks so much for reading the Extra Ether and jumping in, good to have your voice in the mix!

      I get what you’re saying about the “content abundance crisis” (I just made up that phrase). Several times today in responding to others here in our comments, I’ve used Laura Dawson’s (of Bowker) terrific set of figures she reminded us about in one of her own posts this week:

      In 1998, there were roughly 900,000 active titles listed in Books in Print. And today there are 32 million.

      So your metaphor of the bucked of milk being big — we’re talking an industrial vat here — is very apt.

      And you’ve just taken the discoverability issue a step forward, an important one I haven’t heard anyone else voice, when you say: “The challenge for any of us who care about quality books being written,
      read, paid for being has much less to do with who it’s published by than
      how prospective readers can trust that it is of quality worth paying

      There it is, thank you: Trust. You’re absolutely nailing it. Even taking onboard every bad book that’s come out of traditional publishing (and of course there are many, this is art, human and fallible), there has always been the sense of and/or understanding of and/or shared assumption of a trust that could be assigned to the books coming through the traditional pipeline.

      Much as some people eschew art-house films for mainstream Hollywood, as you say, the implied seal of approval of a book coming out of the legacy system was “that the book was likely to be worth paying for”

      Precisely. And yes, we need a very different way of demonstrating quality … and the key to that may involve (I’m guessing) first figuring out how to get ANYthing across in this massive avalanche of content.

      Please supply us with a complete set of solutions in a reply comment. :-)

      Seriously, good work, thanks, this helps position things in a better focused question mark, if you will, and moves this whole, wonderfully energetic debate and discussion among so many folks here in response to the piece forward in a valuable way. No answers, but better questions.

      Thanks again!

      • Thank you, Porter. I so enjoy your posts and your willingness to offer thoughtful replies to comments. Regarding your last paragraph, all I can say is “I’m working on it”–can’t wait to say more.

        • Had to go look up canard there for a minute. Thanks for inspiring some education for me today :)

          Trust. Yes, a crucial piece of the puzzle. The “avalanche of content” image is apt, indeed. But I wonder if we’re still approaching this with eyes connected to a mindset from back then. In the previous model, vetting was a publisher’s domain, and relatively few other entities could hope to be positioned as extenders of trust.

          Then Amanda Palmer earned a million dollars on a Kickstarter campaign, after leaving the major label that had vetted her work in the past. Okay, so she’s established beforehand and had trust built up.

          Better example? Jordan Stratford. Asked for $4K, got $90K. How was he vetted? How did we know to trust him? Did he exude trustworthiness in his video and campaign text and updates? Ultimately, I think it was a personal decision by each of us who pledged to support his project. We made the decision ourselves that he was to be trusted.

          It’s one part word of mouth, sure. But it’s also the case that we are making decisions that we used to let others make for us.

          “We are the media.” – Amanda Palmer

          • Trust can be earned by any sort of publisher or curator. Traditional publishers never owned it and deserved it in varying degrees. Yes, “we are the media” but in order to hope to be paid for creating (authoring) or curating (bookselling) books and other content we need to have ways of earning trust that aren’t in place yet.

  13. “For every Joe Konrath, there are many thousands of self-published authors who’ll never see much revenue from their books.”

    Well, sure. And for every James Patterson, there are many thousands of corporate authors who’ll never see much revenue from their books.

    I clicked through to the original article, and it seemed to follow a similar model as people used to say “traditional” publishing followed: you throw a bunch of books against a wall and hope something sticks. It’s like spaghetti, except not as good with marinara.

    Seriously, though, I’m not sure what people mean here. R&D? I know that stands for research and development, but I’m not sure it’s up to any particular business model to support that aspect of the process. In Hollywood, the work a writer invests in a yet-unsold script is “on spec.” Writers write many, many spec scripts, hoping to find an agent who can option those scripts to production companies. They do it on their own, funded by jobs like waiting tables and etc. It’s a common enough saw to tell writers that nobody owes them a read or a living or an audience, so it’s a little surprising to see someone argue that writers are owed research time. (And don’t we all know writers spend all their research time on Twitter, anyway?)

    If anyone is going to provide a good support system for supporting new talent, it’s probably universities and their graduate writing programs. Which is, I think, a great apparatus in place. Many require significant investment, certainly, but many also offer residencies and fellowships, and, moreover, all support students in pursuit of craft. I often say I went to USC to get a bookdeal, but somehow I ended up a better writer and an independent publisher, and that’s even more valuable to me, in the long run (and I hope my authors are happier).

    As you point out, it’s a little sad to see that much of the argument rests on the idea that the end-goal of independent publishing is a deal with any publishing corporation besides Amazon.

    • Hey, Will, thanks for the good input!

      I agree with you that there’s a terrific role for universities. Judging from my experience with AWP and its member programs, I’m hoping, in fact, that universities can get closer to the commercial world of actual publishing, since so many people they treate in terms of craft are leaving campuses seriously unprepared for the market exigencies they’ll face. (Some fine folks on faculties, for example, may have experienced publishing, themselves during the heyday of traditional publishing or via university presses, and these backgrounds can deliver them to their lecterns with understandable gaps in their knowledge of the stupendous upheavals in the industry now.)

      I think, though, that in terms of R&D here, we’re talking more about risk — as in the commonly held assumption that a publishing house will spend part of its revenue from “big book” sales on relative unknowns and less sure bets. (I’m saying “assumption” deliberately as we don’t really know how much funding was returned to the biz as bets on good new talent.)

      This is not the same function as that provided by university training programs, although university *presses* do often serve as great springboards for careers when folks are new to their work and need a first chance from an outfit less risk-averse than the traditional commercial house can offer.

      So maybe if you think of what we’re talking about here as risk, rather than R&D, it will be a bit clearer. Everyone who wants to say that traditional publishing has never taken enough risk, of course, is still in place and there are powerful arguments to that effect. (Peter Turner in the next comment to this one goes right for that one, in saying that the R&D argument is a canard. He’s hardly alone.)

      Thanks not only for stopping by and participating, but also for your superb sponsorship of the Ether, so grateful to have it!

  14. I’m a senior editor at Wiley who’s keenly interested in what happens to trade publishers now that we’re competing with self-publishers, and I think this is one of the best discussions of that conflict thanks to the back and forth with the authors. Great follow up questions and just as great answers.

    • I’m curious about that, too. And I think that very issue, traditional vs. contemporary, is at the heart of the world’s economic woes.

      What if trad houses are forced to lay off 50% of their editing, printing, publicity, and tech staff, not to mention senior level staff who can no longer be justified as employees because there just aren’t that many subordinates to supervise any more? Is this already happening? I’d love to see some statistics on that.

      Please don’t take this as the gloating curiosity of one who once felt shut out of the market because of the lengthy route through trad publishing. I’m new in the game and watching the ebb and flow with excitement and not too small an amount of worry for everyone. Here’s hoping we see trad houses advance new technologies and techniques that help bridge the trad/DIY divide.

    • Hi, Stephen –

      Many thanks for your note here — and for reading us and following the discussion.

      You sure know how to put your finger on a major question. I think we ALL are wondering how trade will fare in this new scenario of completely unprecedented — and so diffused — competition. I say diffused because , of course, the self-publishing community is vast and highly diverse. There’s nothing of the solidity of “that new store that just opened across the street from us.” Self-publishing forms an almost invisible rival because it IS the trees in the forest.

      There’s a conversation parallel to this one you might enjoy, over at Peter Turner’s blog here: http://ow.ly/chF15 — I think you’ll find an informative and robust round of engaged folks there, as here. In that case, the topic is publishers’ retail stances and how they can and should move — the differences in selling and marketing, for example, and which is more important for a publisher to make available, and with or without a third-party enabler.

      Lots to think about these days, glad to have you with us,

  15. Let’s talk about economic models for writers. I didn’t say publishing because that puts the emphasis in the wrong place. It’s really useful to think about why we use the term “publishing industry”. There was no publishing industry before Gutenberg, but you can start to see that term make sense pretty soon after that, at least in Europe. That bit of new technology created a new industry. The marginal cost of a book (and other printed materials) dropped dramatically.Scribes didn’t go away overnight. For a little while, there were things they could do that printers couldn’t.
    So it will be with the traditional publishing company. But in the digital age, it really doesn’t make economic sense to organise the production of books the same way it did when there was an unavoidable marginal cost to producing and distributing a book. The zero marginal cost for producing another copy of an ebook and the effectively zero cost of distributing that copy completely changes how the book production industry will be organized. There will be enough authors who can afford the risk of developing their first book and then fund subsequent books with on-going profits. The power in the industry will shift to authors.
    I believe that the model that will make the most sense for professional writers will be the professional group practice, just like doctors and lawyers. The value of cross-promotion and the sharing of paraprofessional expenses (preproduction costs like editing and graphics as well as being able to sharing marketing and promotional expenses). These groups will take the place of today’s imprints, but will actually be able to develop a brand.
    That’s where the nurturing of new talent comes from. The smart aggressive groups will be on the look out for new writers, even fan fic writers or bloggers who fit the brand they’ve established. I can see a lot of experimentation with various forms of partnership arrangements. Perhaps work-for-hire with an option for full partnership.
    These groups will want to have a much stronger connection to their fans than any publishing company dreams of having with its customers. That will give writers a level of protection from Amazon attempting to exercise its power in a monopolistic fashion. If Amazon’s conditions become too onerous, these groups will be able to take their most loyal fans (and therefore highest value customers) with them to their own webstores. More likely, they’ll just bring those fans to their own sites to upsell to them.

    • William, thank you for reading and joining in.

      I share your interest in the concept of professional writers’ groups organized as production bases, really — business arrangements that serve the publishing needs of their members. I wrote of this, in fact, in March, at Writer Unboxed, taking a cue from the Magnum Photographers group instigated by Cartier-Bresson and associates in Paris in the middle of the last century (and still a force to be reckoned with). http://ow.ly/cirJQ

      I did find, in writing that piece and discussing it with writers who commented about it, that there’s a bit of a gap here in what many writers think you’re talking about in this regard. They are very accustomed to the idea of support groups, critique groups, reading groups, basically the garden-club enthusiast’s version of community and organization. They seemed to have a lot harder time, most of them, grasping the idea of a business group formed to professionally support the member-authors’ needs of services, personnel, etc, and leading, I like to think, to a form of branding as yet not seen.

      So there is, as with so many things in this industry at the moment, a sharp learning curve ahead, particularly “out in the country,” if you will — the “deep field,” as we call it in UN humanitarian work — where the authors work at such remove from the centers of digital disruption that they’re having trouble tracking and making sense of these changes and developments.

      Miles to go before we sleep, in better words. :)

      Thanks again for commenting, much appreciated.

      • Porter, I keep coming back to your idea of this support(ive) group of authors formed to support their needs. You already nixed my United Artists example. 😉 But if all the services they require are in-house, as it were, aren’t you describing a traditional publisher?

        • No, Viki. A traditional publisher chooses the material it will publish, the authors are basically auditioning to be actors in that musical.

          In this case, the collective of author-members hires the publishing personnel, the services, the supplies, the distribution, everything. If this were a musical? The producers would work for the actors.

          The authors control this company and they control it AS a company, an incorporated firm — just as the services and personnel and worldwide offices of Magnum Photographers work FOR the member-photographers, not vice-versa. In this evocation of Cartier-Bresson’s Magnum concept, the publishing staff takes its orders from the authors and facilitates those authors’ success.

          The reason it’s not comparable to the UA concept is that, in that case, the member-actors were working together on projects, films. Those were creative people collaborating on work.

          In this case, each author is an independent creative player. It’s not about collaboration, support, Kumbaya, or lunch. It’s not about geographical proximity. Just as the photographers of Magnum are based all over the world and fly to their assignments totally on their own. They simply use Magnum as their facilitator, rights-handler, archivist, film-processor, order-taker, payment-collector, etc. Likewise, the authors of this collective are not “in it together” — they may not know each other, in fact, except by reputation and maybe from an annual meeting at which the member-authors gather to make the company’s business decisions.

          Each author-member is a director of the firm. And each author-member is working entirely as an independent (as all authors, at bottom, must be). And each author-member is able to avail him- or herself of the services of the collective to publish without any approval whatsoever of the collective.

          There is no traditional publisher’s editorial board. There are no ad-sales people getting to weigh in on whether a book sounds promising or salable. The collective has no such gatekeepers. It has no yea or nay power over what’s published. It has no ability to demand edits, to impose covers, to generate publicity except at the express order OF an author. Working FOR each member-author, it will edit, design a cover, create publicity campaigns, all to the author-member’s specifications, requirements and approval. And the collective will execute. On the author-member’s say-so.

          In this collective, when an author-member walks in the door, the boss has arrived. That is not a traditional publisher. :)

  16. Thank you, Porter, for this terrific post. And thanks to all the others for your lively conversation on this subject.

    I’m relatively new to the self-publishing arena, and find the thoughtful, incisive, and — especially — relevant, discussion here very encouraging. There are many well-meaning blogs online that simply don’t deliver value for the time spent slogging through them. Ether is definitely not one of those … it’s one of the very few, in fact, that I truly look forward to reading.

    Well done, and again thanks …


    • Totally kind of you to say, Stephen, thanks so much for the good words and for joining us here. Our next full edition of Writing on the Ether runs Thursday, so do drop back to see what all we get up to. I like to use these “Extra Ether” editions for a more focused look at a single issue. And as you can see, it’s really our great readership — the Ethernauts :) — who make it fly. Thanks again!

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  22. I sure hope I’m not jumping into a debate where I don’t belong, but what’s happening with commercial publishing sure sounds a lot to me like what photographers went through a decade ago. I have no street cred as a novelist (I was a screenwriter), but as a photographer, I’ve been through the washing machine that tossed and washed and hung the entire industry out to dry in a bitter wind. If my observations don’t apply, I’m a big girl and have respect for the delete key.

    This is how the story goes:

    There are gatekeepers in place, fat and sassy and over-confident. They toss off young talent without a second thought because they already have their money-making stable of creatives.

    One of those tossed-off young guns gets ticked off to the point of searching for a way to get even. He finds his weapon, and it’s called Technology. With one blink of his camera’s shutter, he throws up a web site and whole new breed of photography is born called microstock. It works. The doors are thrown open to photographers everywhere, and to everybody’s surprise, people actually buy those photos.

    Money is made in every corner by means of pennies turning into dollars. A few of the contributors to this new breed of photography sniff that money and splinter into their own endeavors. Within two years, there’s competition between the original young gun and the contributors he has now ticked off as quality controls were put into place.

    The publishing equivalent to the above would be the Big Six blindsided by Amazon, and Amazon sprouting tiny publishing houses, and all the other distributors now distributing anybody and everybody’s creative product. The race is on.

    The heart of the business is quantity over quality at this point. The race is on to see which of the new distributors can make make it to the top of the heap. I worked at one of the two top contenders for the title, and although my NDA has expired, my integrity and loyalty have not. I’ll just say that as the race accelerated, a lot of junk got through the new gates. It had to because it was a numbers game running on Long Tale theory, and quantity always dazzles the eye of the buyer. During my time there, I learned more about the originator of this model than I did the company I worked for, and there were a whole bunch of back door deals going on that nobody ever suspected. My company and the originator are now the top two, and most of you buy your images from those sites. I recognize the work, and I know the work of most of the photographers.

    But now there’s a problem. Price point has been drastically lowered in the process of equality. The images most bloggers and indie authors use would have cost between $500 and $3,000 a decade ago. Now you buy them for a couple of bucks. A case in point is Fifty Shades of Gray. That cover photo earned the photographer $15. Is that fair? Absolutely, because it’s an anomaly, a fluke. And the photographer already plays the game quite well and has adapted to the new rules–crank ’em out in abundance, shoot them into the blogosphere, and just factor that $15 sale into your spreadsheet as average profit per photo (for every one that’s a winner via multiple sales, there are three that will never sell). Now everybody is flocking to these microstock sites with a whole new mindset that makes them laugh at the old prices.

    The Old Guard freaks out, and those in their stable start bashing the trash put out by those hopping on the new boat to freedom. It’s one heck of a battle, and everybody gets wounded as debates, exactly like this one, start raging. Everything is thrown into question, and everything is called evil or stupid or junk.

    With a few exceptions. One of the best photographers in the field, despite the drastic drop in income made from the “trad” gatekeepers, was glad to see these young guns in the neighborhood. He told me he saw it as a period of transition, with the end result being that the bar was being raised for everybody. He was ready to rise to the challenge because he was hopelessly in love with his art, and loved any elevation of it. He remains at the top of the heap a decade later. It really is true–love conquers all.

    But all the little photographers riding the early days of the revolution suddenly take a blow. Now that the numbers are high on all the sites, their work is getting rejected by the new mini-gatekeepers. And, gee, there just happen to be a slew of cottage industries growing up around this new business model, convincing them all they need to do is spend more money on equipment and software and services to keep their competitive advantage. They take the bait, many of them spending more money than they have. They go broke, bankrupt, drop out, and curse the day they entered the game. Others milk what they’ve got, opting to up their creative game instead, and until the hold tight until the ruckus is over. They slowly add equipment and software as they can afford it, and they afford it because they sweat and hold on and keep loving their craft up the ladder.

    A few are so bitter that they enter one of the cottage industries without any regret or remorse over hustling very bad books, written by writers with great big dreams, knowing it’s a scam that won’t ever turn a bad book into a work of literature. It is what it is, and it’s always going to be there in one form or another. For a time in photography, the first results of a search had reviews factored into the algorithms. Friends gave good reviews to friends, upping their sales, just as friends and fans now give favorable reviews to books. That came crashing down in photography, and it’s sure to do the same with books. I won’t go near a book with less than 30 reviews and a rating higher than 4.5 on Amazon. Too many good reviews has started smelling funky. I also check out those authors whose books match my criteria to see if they have a popular blog. If they do, I pass.

    Now it’s time for a plot twist: The Old Guard starts looking at the money made by the micros. Ah-ha! They smell that money, so they make the young gun who started it all an offer he just can’t refuse, despite his ethics, despite his proclaimed loyalty to those who put them at the top, and despite a published interview where he states he’ll NEVER sell at the exact same time he’s signing on the dotted line. It appears he and his inner circle will be splitting 50 million. A little bit of digging shows that only the young gun was given an additional 45 million in stock options, which he exercised for a whopping profit.

    This is already happening in publishing with the Big Six starting to buy up some of the cottage industries and smaller presses.

    A cry of outrage and betrayal goes out within the industry, but eventually the ruffled feathers settle back in place as the top producers have some of their work placed in the higher price point pocket of the Old Guard. Again, this is already happening in publishing as the Big Six scan indie writers and offer contracts. As it’s gone with photographers, writers can now have one foot on the side of the Big Six and the other dangling independent.

    Ten years down the line, and everything is completely back to normal. There are still gatekeepers, but they’re different gatekeepers, or old gatekeepers following a new business model. There are the stars of the industry, but they are different stars. There is still a huge mid-list that does their own hustling, but they’re a different mid-list. And there are still those at the bottom spending more than they earn in hopes that money spent will ticket to a bigger pay day, they’re just a different group of people at the bottom. The difference between the stars and the bottom is how hard they’ve worked at their craft, their efforts to increase their skill, how far they’ve stretched their creative muscle, and their ability to resist the scams scattered around them like a minefield.

    I’m already seeing this in publishing. As a reader, I resent eBooks because they come in expensive little devices I can’t throw across the room as I used to do with junk books. But I’m also finding plenty of stars-in-the-making that are worth following as they grow, which they will do in public, just as the stars of photography did. The majority of those hidden gems do not self-promote. Some don’t even have a blog. All of them keep writing and loving their language and story and craft and I know this because it’s right there on the page and their grace in handling criticism in the form of reviews and their release of revised books they just want to be better because they love what they’re doing and don’t care that it hurts doing it. A few of them will blow us all away when they completely re-invent the written word. It’s coming. Just wait.

    It’s a whirlwind amounting to a lot of sound and fury, ultimately signifying nothing. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s technology crashing the party and splintering the barriers, but the barriers will be repaired, and quality will always rise.

    Oh, and one more thing. There will be those who make asses of themselves during this evolution disguised as revolution, they’ll just be different asses.

  23. Pingback: » Design exploration notes: Day 7 Contributoria

  24. I’m tired of hearing about self-published writers and how much money they make with their books. Look at the covers.It’s all genre books!

    That’s why I never bought a Kindle or Nook ebook reader. I would never read that kind of book.

  25. Pingback: Is Self-Publishing A Dead End? | Self-Publishing Advice

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