Author vs. Publisher: It’s a Revolution

A couple of weeks ago, I was cornered by a publisher after an appearance. The point of her rant was how much she could do for me as a publisher. She made her point while poking me in the chest saying, “You should be writing. You shouldn’t be publishing. You should be writing.”

Well, that was what I started out wanting to do. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. From the beginning, I dreamed of making it to the point in my career where I could stay home all day in my writer’s studio and do nothing but think about murder and write my mysteries.

But something happened to that dream as happens to all dreams. It was a fantasy. It is not the reality. The lack of this happening is not a reflection on my talent or writing ability. Rather, it is a reflection on how the publishing world works.

The truth is: Unless you’re Stephen King, Dan Brown, or J.K. Rowling, the publishers are only going to throw you the scraps of profit from your books. The rest will go to them, the literary agents, and publicists. If you want anyone to know about your book, you will need to spend your advance and beyond, plus your time and energy on marketing it, because the publisher isn’t going to do it for you—unless you’re one of their top one percent selling authors.

Then, to thank you for all your hard work, they take over ninety-percent.

So, writers started thinking, “Hey, since I’m going to have to do all the work anyway to make my book a success, why not publish it myself and; instead of eating scraps, help myself to the filet mignon?”

Signs of the revolution can be seen in the success of self-publishing companies like CreateSpace, iUniverse, and Lulu. Saying, “I don’t need you anymore,” more authors are turning their backs on literary agents who a few years ago read their query letters for laughs.

The funny thing is, I have found that I’m good at publishing my own books. Not only am I good at it. I like doing it.

Yes, instead of spending my days thinking about murder and writing mysteries, I’ve been beating the drum to change the course of publishing. From the looks of things, independent authors are gaining territory:

  • Barry Eisler turned down a half million dollar advance to renew his contract in favor of self-publishing.
  • Penquin Books has dived into self-publishing. That must have caused quite a stir among their fellow big publisher buddies.
  • Independent author, Amanda Hocking has sold more than a million books online with Kindle, joining the ranks of Nora Roberts, Dan Brown, and other traditionally published authors.

So much for self-published authors being second rate hacks. Tell Amanda Hocking and Barry Eisler that they’re wannabees.

This is not to say that I think traditional publishers should go away. I have as much respect for an agented author who publishes through Random House as I do an independent author who puts in all the work to self-publish through LuLu.

Simply, I expect the same respect from that author, his agent, and his publisher … and others in the literary arena.
Yes, many in the literary arena still think of independent authors as second-class writers:

1. Many conferences refuse to let us sit on their author panels simply because we’ve invested in our own books.

2. Most of the big literary magazines will only review our books if we pay them hundreds of dollars for the privilege of them doing so, which diminishes credibility among many of our peers.

3. Some of the bigger bookstore chains (Books-A-Million is one) still won’t let us hold events in their stores, even after our books have proven themselves with reviews and sales.

Yes, some days, these injustices do irk at me. When it does, I think back on a quote by Theodore Roosevelt:

“Believe you can, and you’re halfway there.”

How about that, dear authors? We’re halfway there!

  • What a great post! I could not agree more! Having just recently joined the ranks of the self-published with my novel, The Secrets They Kept, I continue to be taken back by those who insist upon looking at self-published authors as second class citizens. I had one blog I approached to review my book, a small independent blog with no obvious corporate ties tell me she’d love to review self-published authors but it was too hard to vet!

    • And that is what this revolution is all about. Yes, there are terms for a treaty that need to be worked out. Yes, the industry basically needs an overhaul in order to be fair to all sides. But it will not come without a revolution. If our forefathers didn’t go to war, then we’d all be driving on the wrong side of the road. Try driving pass a mall while driving on the wrong side of the road this time of year.

      Sure, there are a lot of bad self-published books out there. However, by banning ALL self-published books, then the book dealers, reviewers, and conferences are denying readers the opportunity to be exposed to a lot of very good books, like yours and mine, whose authors have worked hard to produce with the same, if not better, quality of some traditionally published books. When the author is investing their own money and putting their name on it, there’s a sense of pride that goes into producing a quality product that a faceless publisher doesn’t have.

      Another argument: Yes, there are a lot of bad self-published books, but, for that matter, there are a lot of bad traditionally published books, some published by some very big outfits, not because the book has great literary merit, but only because the subject matter is hot (in other words, what’s selling at the moment) and the literary agent is good drinking buddies with the acquisitions editor.

      So, if we ban ALL self-published books because there are a lot of bad ones being published, shouldn’t we all ban ALL traditionally published books because there are a lot of bad ones out there, also?

      There’s something for that blogger to think about.

      • Anon Reviewer

        if we ban ALL self-published books because there are a lot of bad ones being published, shouldn’t we all ban ALL traditionally published books because there are a lot of bad ones out there, also?

        I don’t think anyone’s talking of “banning” anything. Some reviewers and bookstores simply choose to focus their limited resources on commercially published (as opposed to self-published) books.

        Furthermore, your argument is misleading. While there are many bad commercially published books, there are A WHOLE LOT MORE bad self-published books (as a percentage).

        I’ve reviewed both commercially and self-published books. The average commercially published book is FAR MORE LIKELY to meet a minimum literary standard — coherent sentences, correct spellings — than is the average self-published book.

        With tens of thousands of new books published every year, and limited review and bookshelf space, it makes sense to focus on books that are FAR MORE LIKELY to meet standards of basic literacy.

        Yes, there are some great self-published books. But reviewers can be forgiven for declining to search for the needle in the haystack. They’re far more likely to discover great yet obscure books for their readers if they focus on commerically published books.

        BTW, I prefer the term “commercially” published to “traditionally” published. Commercial publishers are in the business to make money, which is why they reject so many authors. Self-publishers (like all authors?) are in it for both money and ego-gratification, and the latter sometimes trumps their judgment about their book’s commercial prospects. Not an issue for commercial publishers.

        • “Commerical publishers are in the business to make money, which is why they reject so many authors.”

          This is very, very true. That is why when you walk into a B&N or Books-A-Million, the racks are filled with celebrity biolographies, Dan Brown, Nora Roberts, Stephen King, & Why I Killed My Child & How I Got Off For It books (to whom they pay upwards to $20 mil advances). Commercial publishers are in big trouble financially and can’t afford to take the chance on looking for unproven authors. They will only publish guaranteed best-sellers. How they got into this position is not the subject of this post.

          But that being the case, the best option for authors who have not made the headlines for committing murder or sleeping with a celebrity or being a has-been child star turned shoplifter or getting elected to public office is to self-publish.

          Therefore, casting a widespread assumption that all authors who invest their time, effort, and yes, money in themselves are second-rate is incorrect. Actually, as time goes on, it is more correct to see them as realistic.

          “Self-publishers (like all authors?) are in it for both money and ego-gratification”

          I have personally worked with authors who invested in self-publishing only to make their work available for their friends and family. They have no interest in winning awards, getting great reviews, or making money.

          This statement is a widespread generalization, not unlike the assumption that all self-published books are second-rate.

  • As someone who’s worked for major publishers in the past, I don’t have this rosy view of the essential nature of their roles in the process. Anyone who wants to put in the time and the effort can do this and do it well. I’ve shied away from getting back into the mainstream industry the past couple of years because I got sick of the people and their undeserved arrogant attitudes. I ran across more than a few folks in decision making positions who couldn’t locate their rear ends with two hands and a map.

    The whole “gatekeeper” role is bogus, too. As a self-pubbed author, I don’t have to convince an agent, a publisher, a reviewer, or a bookstore of the value of my work anymore. The only gatekeeper that matters is the person with the bucks to buy a copy. Authors have been given direct access to readers now, and that’s the best, most amazing development for us that ever could have happened.

    • You’re right, Dan. Anyone can self-publish anymore and if they work hard, they can sell books and win acceptance with both readers and reviewers.

      With my next to the last book, I ran into only one reviewer who would not review it because it was not published by a traditional publisher. My last book, no one turned it down for a review. Maybe it is because now I have a track record of publishing a quality product.

      Example of second class treatment: I used to be traditionally published. While promoting that book, I attended an author’s conference and sat on panels. Now that I am independent, yes, I can attend the conference, but I cannot sit on author panels, the bookstore will not sell my books, and I cannot have book signings.

      I’m the same author. My independent books are selling better and getting better reviews than my traditionally published books. I have a bigger following now than when I was with the traditional publisher. But, for the simple reason that I invested in producing my own books, I am unable to have the same promotional opportunity as my peers at this conference.

      That is the mindset that authors need to change.

      When it comes to independent producing anything, whether it be films, music, or books, those who are talented and put in the work to produce a quality project will rise above the junk.

      It appears to me that, as I pointed out with films or music making, independent artists have not been met with the same preconcieved notion that they are second class that independent authors are. Since I am not that familiar with films and music, I may be wrong.

      Anyone have knowledge about that?

      • Lauren, I’m glad I found this website. I also am part of various online writer communities. But sometimes I like to talk directly to other indy authors and not have to explain myself. In writing forums where trad published, wannabe published and self publisher intermingle — often the discussion gets hijacked with issues I have already resolved in my mind.

        You bring up a good point. In film and music, indy artists are considered the cutting edge these days. But it probably wasn’t always that way. Also, they had no equivalent I don’t think of the vanity press. It’s interesting that major film studios and recording studios don’t look hostilely now at indy films. Ultimately with Sundance, SxSW, etc.– film distributors flock to the indy artists for discover what is cutting edge and exciting. I think that day will come for indy writers.

        I think more breakthrough books need to emerge and make their mark on the general public. And as more major awards are bestowed on them — credibility will come. Also look at cable stations like HBO and Showtime. Once network TV reigned. But now the bulk of Emmy awards are won by cable stations. Our second class citizen status will change as we writers make greater impact on the cultural scene at large. I have faith that we will. Though the quality of self pubbed books has a big range, there is also a greater diversity. Not just the safe, megaseller, celeb cookbook books. More books are come that don’t fit into the narrow genre pigeonholes.

        When the first self published book gets a Pulitzer or National Book Award, and as the quality of indy books rises — it will be harder to assign a second class status to us. Much of that is up to us I think.

    • Spot on, Dan – that’s the essence of revolution ie that there are no gatekeepers, and no need for gatekeepers. Readers will and do decide who should be read, and that’s how it should be.

  • Great post, Lauren. Times have certainly changed and at a rapid pace; just 18 months ago, it was a completely different scene. Work hard, do your marketing well, learn from each other’s mistakes and anything is possible. It’s a great time to be an independent author!

  • Lauren, I don’t have much interest in sitting on author panels anywhere on this planet soon, selling my books in bricks-and-mortar bookstores, or in signing those books in those stores. Nevertheless, the discrimination based upon stereotype in matters such as these fills me with disgust. I didn’t ride a bus in the Jim Crow South, but Rosa Parks will still always be my hero. As will you and the others standing up to the crumbling (that poking in the chest says it all) autocracy of traditional publishing. (By the way, I do know hateful discrimination personally. I’m a gay man of a certain age who in his youth literally outran vice squads but not, one night, a bunch of homophobes with knives. Oh, well, many stitches and years later, I’m still alive.)

  • I think what’s going to need to happen over the years to come is that the role of the gatekeeper will change. There are few of us who have all the necessary skills to produce a book. And a wise man acknowledges his limitations. I’m a good self-editor but I’m a lousy proof-reader so I co-opt people to support me, to check my text, fix it and then say, “You may now proceed to publish.” Where self-publishing shoots itself in the foot and will continue to do so is where authors are impatient to see their work in print and rush out works that aren’t ready. Someone in a blog I read a while ago was advising ebook authors to publish four books a years, more if they weren’t novels. I commented that even the professionals don’t produce that amount. “How can they,” I argued, “and maintain quality?” The response I got was a simple arithmetic sum showing me how it was possible even factoring in editing and rewrites but only the Prousts of this world will be able to work at that pace and not burn out. On a forum some self-published authors were whinging about reviewers commenting on spelling mistakes and typos in their books as if this was bad form and my response to them was for as long a self-publishing has the reputation it has—and deserves to have—we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. My next novel will be available in about a week. It is two months behind schedule because an editor let me down. Did I say, “Sod that,” and shove it out the door before it was ready? Did I heck. A revolution is taking place but I suspect that it’s going to be a quiet one taking years, decades most likely, but change is irrepressible.

    • Absolutely, Jim. I couldn’t say it better. Do you want it out fast or right? I’ll ask this question to authors for whom I consult. One answered fast. Her book is a memoir and she’s writing it for her family. She doesn’t care what others think about it’s quality.

      Four books a year? I average one book every 9 months to a year. I average 13 drafts. It will be a year between books for this next one because I chose to do a rewrite to make improvements in the plotline. This is all before it goes through 2 editors.

      You are absolutely right, Jim, that there are authors who slap e-books together and churn them out at one a month. Sure, that’s their business, but it reflects badly on those of us who are serious about creating a quality product.

      Typos, grammatical mistakes, and poor writing is irratitating and distracting for readers. Reviewers and writers should comment on them. Just because a writer CAN produce 4 books a year, should they? Just because your car CAN drive 170 miles an hour, should you?

      Serious, self-published writers take the time to get it out right, not fast. When they do, their books will rise about the junk.

      Unfortunately, in the meantime, during this revolution, our comrades, the self-published authors churning out the junk as fast as they can type, are making the rest of us look bad, which makes those who ban us feel justified in shutting all of us out.

  • Tamara Ward

    Great post, Lauren!

  • It is a bit ironic that a publisher is admonishing you for taking it upon yourself to do their job, and doing it better. I’ve spent over a decade trying to break into publishing and haven’t succeeded. Is that a reflection of my lack of talent and writing ability? Or is it merely a reflection of how the industry really works? You can guess my answer on that. I’ve chosen to self publish not because I’m a brilliant visionary, or because I’m some badass anti-establishment guy. It’s simply that no one in New York wants to work with me. My path is my own, but it’s not unique. Many talented and worthy authors are taking the books NY publishing passed on and are now competing with NY titles. Viva L’Revolution, indeed!

  • I can definitely identify with Jim’s thoughts and I am guilty of rushing my first book. Thanks to some wonderful constructive criticism via a review within this site, I intend to take my time and do it right the next time. Quality is a must in order for me to move forward. Like Lauren, I find the process of self publishing entertaining and fun as well. This article is right on the money.

  • Self-publishing is the biggest discovery I ever made,and I’ll explore that publishing books or songs.I have difficulty explaining what I do to those around me,and I’ve not met any net-savvy self-publisher ever,but it’s lovely knowing it can work.Saw I sold my first ebook on Amazon yesterday and was thrilled,if that is how it feels doing all the work and getting that reward,no matter how small,it’s amazing,and for new writers in Africa democracy has never come cheaper.

    • Congrats on your first sell, Tony. I’m proud of you. Keep up the good work and keep on writing and self-publishing!

  • If I remember correctly, Roosevelt also said: “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” Also good advice for the entrepreneur of any stripe.

  • Lauren, I agree with your response to Jim. “Fast or right?” Quantity or quality? Right now, or after further consideration?

    Those are the most important questions “independent,” “indie,” and “self-publishing” authors face. And how they answer them does have an effect on us all.

    Forgive me, though, if I seem too optimistic. I believe the new book-publishing market will find a way to connect readers who don’t give a damn about grammar and illogical plots, but do want a quick thrill, with authors who are willing to provide them that.

    But I also think it will connect readers who want a more serious experience, understanding it might require some effort on their part, with the authors who are capable of giving them that.

    By the way, the heyday of the Roosevelt Lauren and Peter refer to was a century ago. I must be in the not-so-fast crowd. I’d easily choose being quoted by intelligent humans a hundred years from now over appearing in the New York Times “best-seller” list during my lifetime.

    To every person who has contributed to this particular post, I thank you for your comments. You’re what makes SPR special to me. You say what you need to say, and we need to hear, without rancor.

  • The whole argument that traditionally published books are better than self-published is bogus. The gatekeepers in the romance genre let so much trash through their doors to make a buck selling sex, six-pack abs, exposed boobs and thighs, it’s nauseating.

    Some of the very popular romance writers churn out so many books each year it makes your head spin. Take a moment and surf reviews and it’s an eye opener of readers getting sick of the same story lines, reused plots, and boring characters. I’ve read reviews of people complaining about literary content–books riddled with mistakes and poor sentence structure and these are from big-name romance houses. Some of the very popular authors aren’t filled with five star accolades. Nora Roberts releases the same books repeatedly by merely changing their names. I’m reading complaints from readers that they’ve read the same story under a different title and cover. Talk about churning to make a buck, the traditional houses do it as well.

    Depending on the genre, self-publishing can be a daunting task. However, I get a kick when someone purchases my book and then purchases a NY best selling romance author right next to it. It’s a hard genre to break into with huge competition. I know one thing, however, is that I’m not being forced under contract by some traditional house to juice up my stories, change my plots, and market my book with a cover that makes me blush. There are reasons we self-publish, and control over our craft is a huge part of why we do it. I refuse to lower my standards to a traditional house to let them make a buck off of my talent and in the end be ashamed of what’s on the shelf.

    Readers are intelligent enough to weed out the good from the bad. Any self-published author who is serious about their craft and cares about quality will get noticed, but it takes patience and time. Once you’re known as a good read rather than a suck read, it’s like any other author in the world, people will become fans and continue to purchase your work.

    • I applaud you, Vicki. You are absolutely and positively right on the mark.

  • Vicki, you opened a new world to me. I’m not a reader of romance fiction, although I could be. I’m not cold enough yet not to like the idea of two people in love forever, no matter what turns them on to the other. But you explain, in detail, the fraudulence of the “traditional houses” in what they offer the reading public in this genre. “Oh, now I see,” I go, reading your comment. The people behind these frauds should be ashamed of themselves.