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Is Self-Publishing A Dead End?

Guest Post:  by Mary Louisa Locke

A while back, I read a post by Anderson Porter about a four-piece article written over a few weeks in the Boston Phoenix by Eugenia Williamson, titled The dead end of DIY publishing.

I had read the Williams piece earlier, and the more than fifty comments, which in my opinion had done a more than adequate job of pointing out its problems. But when Anderson seemed to accept much of her analysis, and labeled the comments as “the usual pitchfork-waving, spittoon-dinging dismissals, I found myself spending the rest of the morning writing a reply. When I finished, I thought I ought to expand a bit, and post what I had to say as a blog, thereby at least justifying a morning lost to writing on my next book. So here goes:

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 three 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 for.”

For example, in Williamson’s article she has as a heading the statement: SELF-PUBLISHING ISN’T PROFITABLE, OR MERITOCRATIC. I don’t know how you would interpret this, but I read it to mean that if you self-publish you won’t make money, and if you are successful it isn’t because of the value of the work you produce. As a self-published author who is successful (in this my 3rd year as an author the income I am making per month in sales is well over what I made as a full time history professor), I naturally found the first part of the statement inaccurate and the second point insulting.

Her proof of the first statement is that for every Konrath there are thousands who don’t make any money. This is a meaningless statement since, while I am sure it is true, it is equally true that for every Steven King there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of traditionally published authors who make no money. Writing, at least until now, is not profitable for the vast majority of the people who engage in this activity. If she really wanted to make a statement that added to the discussion, she should have said that self-publishing was less profitable than traditional publishing for the majority of authors. But she can’t say this, not just because the systematic data comparing the two doesn’t exist, but because the increased number of traditional authors who are choosing to self-publish would argue that the statement was untrue.

Since she can’t prove her statement that self-publishing is unprofitable, she instead feels the need to insult those people who do it by suggesting that the authors don’t care if they make money because they “wouldn’t make a dime because no publisher would take them,” or that if they make money, it was only because they had the money to invest in the process because the “truth is self-publishing costs money.”

Then she picks one of the least representative examples of a self-published author she could find–De La Pava to prove this point. Here is an author who published a book and “forgot about it.” How unrepresentative is that! And she mentions that he spent thousands of dollars, which sounds like he used an “authors services” package. If she had either done her research or wanted to paint a balanced view of self-publishing surely she would have taken the time to interview one of the hundreds of self-published authors she could find on the internet (we blog incessantly about our experiences), and mentioned that Smashwords, Amazon’s KDP, and Barnes and Noble’s PubIt, and Amazon’s CreateSpace and Lightening Source have made it possible for authors to publish without that large initial investment.

But no, she doesn’t do that, instead she tries to use this author to make the point that there is no meritocracy in self-publishing because this particular author was successful because he had good luck. The implication is that success has nothing to do with the work an author puts into the writing of the book, or the marketing of the book, or the judgment of the readers, hence the idea that those who are successful don’t “merit” the success. If Williamson had spent just a few hours reading the blogs of self-published authors she would see how much time is being spent on the craft of writing, on learning how to design better books, inside and out, on how to most effectively promote, and on actual promotion, and she might have been able to see how little luck has to do with it.

Finally there is her third point that self-publishing doesn’t nurture young authors through the provision of advances or research and development possibilities the way traditional publishing does. Porter (and many of the authors who commented on the article) 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 argue is, that if we are discussing fiction, which Williamson seemed to be doing, 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 know that in most cases they will never make any money after the advance, and they have no guarantee that the next book they write will 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.

I would love to hear from those of you who have had experience with both traditional and self-publishing and examples of nurturing you found in both.


Self publishing author M Louisa Locke’s Maids of Misfortune

Mary Louisa Locke is the author of the Victorian San Francisco Mystery seriesthat begins with Maids of Misfortune. She is on the board of The Historical Fiction Authors Co-Op

16 Responses to Is Self-Publishing A Dead End?

  1. Cordelia Freas October 21, 2012 at 5:36 am #

    Put it onto a 2nd or 3rd screen, problem solved.

  2. Sean Platt September 7, 2012 at 11:19 am #

    I really, really liked this. And I’ve not left a blog comment in months. Just. Awesome.

  3. Tahlia Newland September 6, 2012 at 2:53 am #

    This is an excellent, well-balanced article, happily free of the wild accusations, hype and misinformation of the articles you mention.

    I’m one of the SP authors not making much money at the moment, but I’m well aware that I’m building up a business and this is early days, with only small stuff (SS & a novella) published. My experience with trad publishing is that I got an agent and 2 years later she still hasn’t found a publisher for the novel even though she said that 5 years ago the book would have been snapped up. After publishing some SS on ebook and
    selling more than I thought I would, I decided to go the same way with a novella. I didn’t bother to show it to my agent because I knew a traditional publisher wouldn’t even look at it –it’s just too different. I love that I don’t have to wait for years to have it published and that I have complete control over the whole process. I’ve set up a little Indie publishing company with my husband and put out a paperback and although my other novel is still with some publishers, I’ve decided to publish it myself as well.
    I’m sick of waiting and I had enough feedback of the following kind, ‘we’d love to publish your book, but we have filled our quota of YA at the moment,” and “I love the story and the writing is excellent but our marketing department doesn’t think they can sell it on top of the other work they have’, to know that the book is good. I don’t want to give control and part of the profits to others, especially when I have a terrific editor and a bunch of other authors who beta read for me, not to mention my very-hard-to-please business partner who all make sure that my writing does develop and that it does have merit. I may not be selling much, but I have fantastic reviews by genuine reviewers who (mostly) know what they’re talking about. That’s my mark of merit.

    The only reason I was hanging out for a trad publisher was because I thought I might sell more books because they would be on the shelves in books stores and I would have the publisher’s publicity machine behind me. I also wanted to avoid the SP stigma and have the stamp of approval that comes from getting to the end of the submission process, but now I don’t care. I like doing it myself. Peer reviews are my approval. I’d still be doing all the marketing I do now and the books are lucky if they stay on bookshelves for more than 3 months. Add to that the fact that I’d have to sell at least 10 times as many books to make the same money, and I see no reason why I should keep tromping the trad publishing path.

    • M. Louisa Locke December 7, 2013 at 10:26 pm #

      Dear Tahlia,

      I hear this story so often, and it was really the similar to mine–only played out over 20 years.

      I am so glad that I didn’t try the traditional route yet again in 2009 when I semi-retired. One of my writing group got a wonderful contract with Random House the same time I decided to self-publish. And while It will take me 3-4 years more income to approach the total amount of money she got as an advance-4 years later I have 3 books out, a much more robust fan base, and no fear that the next book will not be published. She had to wait 3 of those 4 years for the book to even come out, is just starting on a second book, and has no guarantee that this book will be published. I much prefer my past 4 years and my future to hers–because it isn’t just about the money.

      MLL

  4. Rich Meyer September 6, 2012 at 1:14 am #

    Excellent post.

    I’m not much of an author at the moment, as I write e-book quiz books. I’m not anywhere close to being self-sufficient as an writer, but I have published 25 books since December 2010 and sales are increasing as time goes by. I usually make enough to cover my internet and telephone bills now, which may not seem like much to most folks but I’m quite happy with that level of success.

    My particular oeuvre is not something I could really market to a print publisher right now, since the trivia craze of the last decades of the previous century is kind of dead right now. But there is a small market for it, and self-publishing electronically lets me reach that small segment. That’s the major advantage I’ve gotten from this.

    I’m slowly working up to something that I hope can be marketed properly as both an e-book and a print book, but I have no problem waiting. I don’t have an ego that needs to be fed like some. 🙂

    • M. Louisa Locke December 7, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

      Dear Rich,

      25 books! That sounds like a successful indie author–no matter what the content. You certainly are getting lots of experience which should really help once you are ready to publish that something special you have been “working up to.”

      MLL

  5. jswwrites September 5, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    Excellent post!! I don’t have experience in both, as I “found” self publishing (through Joe Konrath’s site) while I was tweaking my query letter for agents, and haven’t looked back. My first book came out in July, and I’m a pure novice on marketing, so it’s slow (I’ve sold a good number of autographed print copies, though, which has been great, and more profitable!), but I’ve made back my modest investment (cover and formatting). My second book will come out this week, and my third next month. I’m not a perfectionist or a control freak (except when my kids are learning to drive, then that control freak comes out!), but I LOVE being in charge of my own covers, my own formatting, my own layout. As someone who owns both a business and non-profit, I see this as a long term business proposition. I’m not writing the next “50 Shades” or “Twilight” but trying to build an audience and keep them. Many who’ve have said they’ll buy everything I write – it’s a small group, but my goal is to grow it and have a steady fan base over time. Articles like the one cited above (which I didn’t read) are the same knee jerk defensive reactions that all “old” industry has for the new. Legacy publishing can adapt or go the way of the Model T. I’m not waiting around.

    • M. Louisa Locke December 7, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

      Congrats on getting 3 books out. This took me 4 years to do. I know that some of the reason I am slow is the research that goes into historical fiction, and some is the time I spend marketing, but I always admire writers who are good at putting the writing first. This really is a key to success.

      MLL

  6. EmilyHill September 5, 2012 at 11:47 am #

    Oh! A big Bookmark on THIS blog post!

    I, too, am a self-published commercial
    writer and loved every word of your article.

    Here’s my story: I attended the
    2010 Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference with a manuscript in tow.
    That year, tragically for organizers, the theme of the conference was
    ‘Connecting With Your Agent’ … because the brooding economy could be seen on
    the horizon agents were fleeing, yes FLEEING to their rooms, ripping off their
    little string-tie credentials at the close of every workshop. They were
    not picking up manuscripts.

    At the opening luncheon the welcome-speaker,
    DuBois [House of Sand and Fog] asked the *500* attendees for a show of hands of
    those writers who had found their agent THAT year. Five people raised their
    hands. FIVE. I knew then that the traditional-publish gig was up for all
    but a few. And, every experience I’ve had after that conference has
    confirmed same.

    I was on a radio show with Kirsten
    Nelson [a point/counter point format] and she admitted that The Nelson Literary
    agency (in 2010) had received 36,000 query letters that year. They
    published THREE submissions – one of them (luckily) was ‘On the Corner of Bitter
    and Sweet’. So being a Pay-Attention kind of gal, I self-pubbed my
    historical fiction to a sluggish market and then discovered the popularity of
    ghost stories! Yippee! Three years later, I could NOT have made a better
    choice!

    Love your column, Orna. See you
    here often! ;D

    • M. Louisa Locke December 7, 2013 at 10:06 pm #

      Dear Emily,

      My wake up call came in the fall of 2009 when I was deciding whether or not to pursue the traditional route (yet again) and attend the Left Coast Crime Convention. The continued insistence by the agents and editors I listened to that they would not look at an author who had been self-published, that they would not consider putting an ebook out at the same time as the print edition, and that they couldn’t promise putting out a book once the contract had been signed for at minimum 18 months is what did it for me. I was about to turn 60, and I couldn’t imagine waiting for years to discover if anyone wanted to read the book I had written (over a twenty year period). And I couldn’t believe that they so resistant to the ebook revolution that I could tell was coming. So glad they were were so discouraging since it made my decision to self-publish so much easier!

      MLL

  7. Yasmin Selena September 5, 2012 at 9:55 am #

    Loved this piece, I’ve consciously elected to self-publish Gunshot Glitter over the traditional route for all the same reasons you have cited – creative control, cover control, control of pricing, profit margins, outlets, tweaking formatting. It s a massive gamble, but it’s a gamble I feel I have more influence over. I wrote a similar post to you a few weeks ago on Rebecca Bradley’s Crime blog, after a certain writer knocked self-publishing authors for being lazy. I’ve never worked harder in my life!! I love that you are actually at a stage much further down the line from me and are happy with this route. I found what you had to say very encouraging. Thanks for the post and for arguing the case for self-publishing so convincingly. The one thing I have noticed in the week or so since my launch is that my peer support has so far mainly come from new writers and self-publishers. I am very curious to see how things pan out on a broader scale when I approach critics and bloggers for review and features. Readers, so far, have told me they don’t care how a book is published, as long as it’s good and they can either a) sample it or b)it comes recommended. I encourage people to sample, I don’t believe in hard sell. I know I am an unknown quantity like any new author. I know self-published books get a lot of stick, some of it deservedly so. I hope that the ability for readers and critics to sample will help eradicate that.

    • M. Louisa Locke December 7, 2013 at 10:01 pm #

      Dear Yasmin,

      My experience is that the self-published books that have real problems usually just disappear. As you mention the sample really helps, I know I usually check the first chapter before buying from an unknown. And then lack of positive reviews discourage people from buying even at promotional prices so these books drop off of the radar. Therefore I don’t really think we have to spend a lot of time worrying about this.

      And I do find that once readers do find books they like, they really don’t seem to even notice or care if the book isn’t by a traditional publisher.

      MLL

  8. Fenella Miller September 5, 2012 at 7:09 am #

    I have had 9 books published traditionally (plus 14 long novellas) and sold 2000 books of my frist title in the first month with indie publishing and my second book is selling as well. I’m making more money a month from KDP than I did in a year from my trad books.

    • M. Louisa Locke December 7, 2013 at 10:19 pm #

      Thanks Fenella,

      Isn’t amazing to see those numbers build! I sure hope you are getting your back list back–or at least seeming them get new interest–because of your recent success!

      MLL

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