Barry Eisler Turns Down $500K to Self-Publish

Fascinating discussion between Barry Eisler and JA Konrath at Konrath’s blog.

Barry: Here’s something that happened about a year ago. Anecdotal, but still telling, I think. My wife and daughter and I were sitting around the dinner table, talking about what kind of contract I would do next, and with what publisher. And my then eleven-year-old daughter said, “Daddy, why don’t you just self-publish?”

And I thought, wow, no one would have said something like that even a year ago. I mean, it used to be that self-publishing was what you did if you couldn’t get a traditional deal. And if you were really, really lucky, maybe the self-published route would lead to a real contract with a real publisher.

But I realized from that one innocent comment from my daughter that the new generation was looking at self-publishing differently. And that the question–“Should I self-publish?”–was going to be asked by more and more authors going forward. And that, over time, more and more of them were going to be answering the question, “Yes.”

There’s a saying about the railroads: they thought they were in the railroad business, when in fact they were in the transportation business. So when the interstate highway system was built and trucking became an alternative, they were hit hard.

Likewise, publishers have naturally conflated the specifics of their business model with the generalities of the industry they’re in. As you say, they’re not in the business of delivering books by paper–they’re in the business of delivering books. And if someone can do the latter faster and cheaper than they can, they’re in trouble….

I think what’s happening is that publishers know paper is dying while digital is exploding, and they’re trying to use the lock they’ve always had on paper to milk more out of digital. In other words, tie an author into a deal that offers traditional paper royalties, which are shrinking, while giving the publisher a huge slice of digital royalties, which are growing. The problem, from the publisher’s perspective, is that their paper lock is broken now.

This was one of the reasons I just couldn’t go back to working with a legacy publisher. The book is nearly done, but it wouldn’t have been made available until Spring of 2012. I can publish it myself a year earlier. That’s a whole year of actual sales I would have had to give up.

Personally, I’ve had my disagreements with JA Konrath in the past.  At one time he thought self-publishing was for suckers who didn’t have the talent to make it.  Now he sees self-publishing’s value because it’s a good business model.  That’s fine – because he’s right, and he has the numbers to prove it.

When I started Self-Publishing Review, my main idea was that the thing to turn the self-publishing stigma around was for better and better books to be self-published.  Basically, I was wrong.  The thing to turn self-publishing around is not the quality of the writing, but the volume people are able to sell.  Amanda Hocking is a far bigger story than some literary fiction writer choosing to self-publish.  Self-published books may still be terrible, but if writers are making a lot of money, people will find less fault with it.  That’s just the way of the world. There’s nothing to suggest that self-published books that are selling a lot are any better than when the stigma cloud hovered over the industry.  But profit is killing the stigma – which is fine by me because the stigma was stupid to begin with.

So this is an amazing time for self-publishers.  Everyone’s been vindicated.  This does not mean that everyone should self-publish – because you could still potentially sell more books with a traditional press.  Publishing is still a total mystery – why one writer takes off considerably when another writer doesn’t.  The thing is self-publishing is no different than it ever was.  If you look at Amanda Hocking or Zoe Winters – they are niche writers.  It was always determined that self-publishing is easier if you fit in a specific niche.  Eventually, though, more and more people will buy ereaders and ereading will be the norm across all niches.  But we’re not there yet.

So, really, everything has changed and nothing has changed.  It’s possible to put a book out on the Kindle and sell a lot of books.  But it’s also possible that if you waited it out to traditionally publish, you could sell a lot more.  It depends on the writer.  A writer like Barry Eisler who’s already had 7-figure book deals can afford to experiment.  A writer just starting out might not want to take the initial plunge.  However, if an agent/publisher doesn’t pick it up, there’s an increasing incentive to do it yourself.  If you write commercial fiction, there’s an even greater incentive.  Books that are harder to market are, well, harder to market.  As it ever was.

At first the argument against self-publishing was that you couldn’t get distribution.  Now you can.  People are selling on the Kindle in one month what some university press hopes to sell in a year.  The second argument was – yeah, but you’re lucky if you sell a hundred copies.  Personally, my Kindle sales suck compared to the new wave of Kindle sellers, but I’m still selling 50-100 a month without really doing anything.  And before people were mocking self-publishers for selling 100 copies total.  So that argument is over with.  At some bizarre point in the (probably distant) future, self-publishing is going to be the mainstream and everything else is going to be the niche.

Meanwhile, John Scalzi produces this amusing and cynical bingo card:

He captions, “If you see one or more of your favorite arguments for how ZOMG EPUBBING WILL CHANGE THE WORLD FOR EVAR on the bingo card, you can be assured that your argument is not, in fact, anywhere as good (or original) as you might think it is.”  I guess, except ZOMG, EPUBBING IS GOING TO CHANGE THE WORLD FOR EVAR.  Mocking these talking points doesn’t make them less true.  He goes on, “He does occasionally get tired of hearing the same e-publishing arguments, some a decade old now, presented as This Year’s Model.”  Given that the iPad is only a year old, whatever arguments there were for epublishing ten years ago are almost totally irrelevant.  Clearly, this is a very different world, and changing rapidly.


Moriah Jovan has her own Printgasm Bingo Card:

  • Thanks for posting this, Henry. Just goes to show what a game-changer electronic distribution is becoming, not just for self-publishing but for the whole industry.

  • Henry, I’m pleased that niche-writers J. A. Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and Zoe Winters are making millions off their self-publishing efforts. As you indicate, what they’re doing is changing the game for everybody. But even as a writer of literary fiction, I believe independent publishing is the way to go. I doubt that I’ll ever come close to the numbers that the niche-writers are putting up there — and, as you say, erasing the stigma. On the other hand, I got a glowing review from Kirkus Discoveries for my first novel, an outsider tale if there ever was one. And this week I learned that the judges in the inaugural eLit Electronic Book Awards gave it the gold award in the (you guessed it) Literary Fiction category. Although I’ll make every reasonable effort to market my novel and some day turn a profit on it, I don’t really care how many people end up buying or reading it. I love it as if it were my child, and independently publishing it has been great fun. I thank you and the other leaders in the self-publishing community for making the adventure possible.