Batting for a Broken System

There was a ridiculous article last week in the Wall Street Journal called “Cherish The Book Publishers – You’ll Miss Them When They’re Gone.”

I was going to write a take-down of this, but Kris Rusch and Joe Konrath beat me to it. You should check out both their responses. Krus Rusch goes point-by-point, and Joe Konrath, in a post titled “The Tsunami of Crap”, laughs at the ridiculousness of it all:

“Some people believe the ease of self-publishing means that millions of wannabe writers will flood the market with their crummy ebooks, and the good authors will get lost in the morass, and then family values will go unprotected and the economy will collapse and the world will crash into the sun and puppies and kittens by the truckload will die horrible, screaming deaths.”


Michael Stackpole weighed in too with an exploration of the genesis of this myth. All worth reading.

I’m not going to follow suit, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, and this carp is already riddled with bullets. In any event, I’ve already dealt conclusively with the myth that a “mountain of crap” will prevent good writers from making a living in this blog post.

Also, as Kris Rusch pointed out, it’s hardly a new story, and snooty bloggers, as well as various people invested in the status quo, have been pushing this line for some time.

I’m sure you remember last month’s hullabulloo instigated by one publisher hysterically claiming that 99c self-published e-books were “destroying minds“.

What was interesting to me about this Wall Street Journal article was that it was trying to elicit sympathy for the billion dollar corporations that have lost their monopoly over book distribution.

And it was also trying to spread fear about how horrible the world would be without the gatekeepers that shut out tons of new writers to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into books by Snooki and The Situation.


But I don’t want to talk about that. Instead, I want to look at all the terrible developments since the rise of self-publishing:

1. No More Disappearing Genres. Before, if you were a fan of a genre that New York declared “dead”, as happened with Horror and Westerns, you would struggle to find any new books. Self-publishers have shown there is life in these genres, and that readers were craving new books. This is good for readers and good for writers.

2. Writers have more options. So you went on submission with your agent, and only got one lousy offer. Before, your only choice was to swallow your pride and accept, or write another book. Now you can self-publish, make some money, build your audience, and still pursue that trade publishing dream if you wish. And, if you could never crack the system, now you are no longer barred from reaching your readers.

3. Writers are getting fairer pay. We put all the blood, sweat, and tears into a book. Why should we only get 8% (or less) on paperback sales? Why should a publisher keep 52.5% of e-book royalties? Well, we don’t have to take that deal anymore. We can get a 70% cut through selling on Amazon, or even more through our own websites.

4. Writers are getting more control. We can decide how our book is presented, when it is published, and what price it will sell for.

5. Readers are getting a bigger selection. Anyone that does a lot of traveling will know that every airport bookstore looks the same. It’s like there is a list of 20 writers somewhere, and they can only stock those books. And if you don’t like those writers, tough. Not anymore. Now you can buy whatever you like, wherever you like, whenever you like.

6. Readers are getting cheaper books. $12.99 for an e-book? $14.99? Or would you rather $4.99? What about $2.99?

7. Writers are trying new things. Short story collections were always a “hard sell”. So were novellas. So were longer books. None of that matters anymore. We can self-publish whatever we like. And guess what? It turns out readers like short stories. They like novellas.

8. Writers can write more. Before they were told they could only release one book a year. Prolific writers were forced to adopt a number of different pseudonyms, often having to build a new audience from scratch each time. Not anymore. And surprise, surprise, readers can handle more books written by their favorites.

9. Writers can earn more. After you had sold a short story, the reprints, and managed to get it into an anthology, the market was pretty much tapped out for that story. Now, you can self-publish it, and earn money off it forever. And those backlists that fell out of print? Turns out there were readers for those too.

10. More people are reading. Every day I get messages from people who say that since they bought their Kindle or iPhone, that they have taken up reading again, or they are reading more than ever. Lower priced books allow them to purchase more than they ever did before.

Well, we can’t inflict that upon the world. It only seems to benefit readers and writers. Sorry, self-publishing, it’s back into the box for you.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time he spends outside. He writes fiction under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

90 Replies to “Batting for a Broken System”

  1. What do you want from a guy who is known as the ‘Cocktail Guru’. Until recently, Felten wrote a column for the WSJ called “How’s Your Drink?”

    If he stopped hoisting a few before writing such columns, and let his mind clear, then he’d really see the landscape of publishing for what it is and what it will become.

    1. Heh.

      I wonder if he praised all the artisanal microbreweries that are popping up and giving people alternatives to the bland, tasteless beer from the megacorporations.

    2. Werner – thank you so much for that tip. My suspicion was correct. Guess what? He said the poor sales of Bud and Coors were down to “better customer awareness of their bland flavors” because of the rise of craft beers and microbreweries, and the companies treating their customers like idiots. Feel free to make your own analogy.

  2. With the gatekeepers out of the way I can only imagine what sub-genres will flourish in filling a demand and need not yet realized.

    1. And they will flourish. Big Publishing is set up for big hits. It needs them to survive, because only a small percentage of books make them money. And they are terrible at guessing which ones will do that. That’s why half of all books printed end up being destroyed.

      If you write for a niche sub-genre, you have no chance in the traditional system. However, with self-publishing, you can get your books out cheaply and quickly, directly target your particular audience, and sell direct to them. Your overheads are small, you can price cheaply, and you can make money.

      1. Targeting your specific audience is what John Locke talked about at length in ‘How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months’. The Big 6 pretty much declared Western’s as “dead'”, but John proved there is still an audience out there for them – and he filled that need.

        1. He certainly did. And if he had been snapped up by the Big 6 midway through the Donovan Creed series, then told them he was going to publish a Western next, they would have thought he was crazy.

  3. Interesting thoughts, David. Thanks for adding to the discussion. I’ve never understood why independent music and film are lauded as brave or groundbreaking or worthy, but independent writers are not. I’m sure some of the same arguments were made in those industries but strangely, the world has not ended.

      1. Not a typo, but a there/their mix-up: Self-publishers have shown their is life in these genres…

        What time do I show up tomorrow? 😉

      2. I wouldn’t normally say, but as people have started already: “Turns out there was readers for those too.” Should of course be “were readers”

        Great post, though. I’ve only realised how big self-publishing is becoming this week. The past few days I’ve read most of Konrath’s blog, a bunch of Eisler’s stuff, John Locke’s book, and now I’m going to read through your blog too. My head is spinning with the possibilities!

  4. Oh, come on. Doesn’t your heart just bleed for those big publishing corps?

    No. Mine doesn’t either.

    Thanks David – excellent post, as usual.

    1. I think there are a lot of crocodile tears being shed. I have nothing against big publishers, I don’t call for their demise, or cheer headlines about layoffs. But if someone tries to elicit sympathy from me for a billion dollar corporation that has historically forced poor conditions on writers because they monopolized the distribution network, that’s not going to work.

  5. I’m lovin’ what I’m readin’ here. In fact, I’m “pressing” this on my WordPress blog, which links to my two Facebook pages. Hope you get a lot of traffic on it.

  6. Awesome post! It’s true: readers and writers are the great beneficiaries of these changes in the industry and have nothing to fear. All the doom and gloom is coming from the people who for so long have made their living by causing obstructions in the middle.

  7. I think for writers like Stephen King all the new horror books written in the past two years have given him a new Spring — a renewal of interest in his works. He had gone off the radar a little (for him), but now people are taking his work more seriously and, IMO, it has to do with the genre getting more attention as a whole from all the fresh blood (some pun intended) from the self-publishing authors.

    It is win-win.

  8. Hi David. I enjoyed your post. With the rise of self-publishing, there will be fewer literary and financial limits on writers, and there will be fewer limits on what’s available for the public to read. Everyone benefits.

  9. As for point number one, I remember several years back I was really into scifi romance. I loved the whole love in space thing. But it was getting harder and harder to find anything new. I finally asked the lady at my local bookstore what was up. “Oh, it’s not popular anymore. Or so the publishers say. So, they’re not publishing scifi romance.”

    And there went my latest favorite genre.

    But now if I want romance in space, well by gum, I can have it!

    Point number three… why do I have Twisted Sister in my head all of a sudden?

    1. I always liked short stories, but until the internet came along, they were impossible to get in Ireland. It was either really dry pretentious literary stuff where nothing happened, or it was the musty masters. Nothing new or fresh.

    1. Getting an agent or a publishing deal is getting tougher and tougher all the time because the bandwidth of the publishers is just getting smaller and smaller. Doors are getting slammed in our faces every way we turn. But it doesn’t have to be like that any more. There’s another way.

  10. I just released a fan periodical for action / adventure fiction that could never have been published traditionally to such a niche market. Its received excellent reviews and is actually selling copies. I’m working on one full-length novel and a series of World War Two action novellas. I would never have stepped up my writing game without evidence that independent e-pubbing works. I hope to release one novella inn August, and the novel by the end of the year.

    Suck it, Big Six.

  11. I have to say that since I’ve been reading your blog, you give me more hope for a future to be a published author. Even if it means I won’t necessarily have a physical book on a shelf.

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  13. David
    another great article- you have a knack for pulling the various parts of a discussion together and refreshing it – many thanks.
    To add a small piece to this … cross genre… try getting that across an agent’s desk. If you mix science fiction, political thrillers and a bit of fantasy (psychic abilities) you get looked at like you’ve only just been released from the funny farm. Not any more thanks to self publishing. It’s certainly interesting times.
    Ian Martin

    1. Thanks Ian.

      You make a very good point. Publishers and agents often try and pigeonhole writers. However, many writers are keen to cross genre boundaries. I understand the position of the publishers – you often have to build a brand new audience. Writers know this, but I also think they don’t give readers enough credit, they are often more adventurous than supposed. In any event, if you can build an audience in two genres, then you could get some crossover, adding to your overall sales and readership.

  14. This is to scare off the unaware….I’m sure the same was said at the time of the ‘penny dreadfuls’…Heck…Dickens was one of them in as far as his stories were serialized as was Collins though their stories cost 12 pennies or a shilling…the point here is there is a market and the sour grapes are pressing for money.

    1. Dickens and Austen were castigated by their peers for playing to the peanut gallery and publishing commercial tripe. Those peers are no longer read, while new readers enjoy Dickens and Austen every year. Those old pulp writers were vilified too, but many, many fine writers emerged from that tradition, such as one of my heroes, the peerless Philip K. Dick.

      I have no problem with someone being a snob. Everyone thinks their taste is better than everyone elses. That’s fine. But when you try and objectify your personal preferences and use that as some kind of proof that everything that falls outside your comfort zone is tripe, then that’s a problem.

  15. Another great post on the benefits of self publishing.

    I like how you mentioned novellas, because I wrote a book that will never be more than a short story. Now, there does not have to be stress or disappointment that it didn`t make it to a full length book. An author can self publish a novella that will appeal to many people that prefer reading shorter stories. Novellas could even become a new trend. Authors can soon control and determine trends rather than huge publishing houses.

  16. Excellent blog post! It’s all so true! I’m delighted to discover people like you, Kristine Rusch, Joe Konrath and others taking an honest look at the half-baked arguments against self-published eBooks. Since discovering this market as a reader, I’ve found soooo many fantastic books of the type too niche to be published for years now by the traditional publishing houses. And, as a writer, it’s also been wonderful. Not only have I been seeing increasing sales for my novels that I priced at 99 cents each, I’m seeing the same type of increase in sales for my 99-cent short stories. This all makes me very happy. 🙂

    1. Reading Joe’s blog and Kris’s blog is a free education in modern publishing. I learnt most of what I know about self-publishing from them and people like Dean Wesley Smith. They have been putting this free information out there for years. It’s just the world is catching up with them.

      And, as John Locke has conclusively proved, there is money in the niche if you target it right.

  17. Excellent – could not have said this better. I had the extreme pleasure of denying Penguin NZ the right to publish digital editions of my best-selling novels last year. They had no marketing plan, and were offering me a maximum of 25% of the profits. Fortunately for me several years ago I asked for and got my digital rights back. Now I and my children can profit forever from my talent at writing erotica and not BIG Business alone.
    Just wrote a publishing contract for my new publishing company. It’s 50% for my authors and I’m proud of that.

    1. And of course that 25% is really 17.5% after Amazon’s cut, and 14.9% (or less) after your agent’s cut.

      Good thing you looked ahead and got those rights back early. Would be trickier today.

  18. Good stuff, man, good stuff. Back when I was first learning to write, I wrote novellas all the time, because I loved the form. But nobody bought ’em, so I eventually switched entirely to short stories and novels.

    But it’s a new epoch now, and I’m looking forward to returning to novellas. I’m more excited about writing now than I have been in years.

  19. Great postt!

    And: Novellas are awesome! As a reader, when I have a few choices on my kindle for what to start next, I have chosen the one with fewer dots many times. I don’t think that’s just me. I think it might be a generational/attention span thing. Regardless, the explosion of short story collections and novellas has been a boon for me as a reader and as a writer. Good times, good times.

    Another point- I am fascinated by the concept E. Hunter talked about- how indie music and film are courageous but we indie writers are sad and pathetic. John Locke made the point even more broadly when asking if any other industry has been so successful in creating a stigma around independence and competition. You have to give the establishment credit for that feat.

      1. Thanks David. Thanks Kate. I think it’s up to us to change perceptions. Readers need to realize that there are so many more reasons to independently publish than just rejection from large publishers. The desire to publish what you want (yay, novellas!) and when you want are two very big reasons.

  20. Found this through a Barry Eisler tweet, read it and immediately subscribed to your blog. I’m starting to feel pretty confident about self-publishing, but can always use another boost. 🙂

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  23. Out of all the comments I have seen no one has stated this one. Out of all the traditionally published books by experts so many end up in the bargain bin. Does it mean that expert agent wasn’t really that good at picking winners. Also most agents went to the same type of colleges which means that the books that they publish all start sounding alike. Many of them are sadly overwirtten, too much description. I went to one of those MFA programs, and got all A’s for my writing, but I didn’t enjoy many of the stories of the other students, they were just rich kids feeling sorry for themselves. I had many agents read my novel, I even had one call me on the phone, but I know they wanted a formula novel, and only I work in the casino business. The world doesn’t need one more formula novel. Everyone should hire an editor. But as has been said many times before if you download the sample you can figure it out for yourself. And this probably is not very well edited but it just some rambling thoughts.

  24. This blog post said it all. My first thoughts about big publishing was the small royalties and that got me to looking into self-publishing. Plus the variety is exploding, including the podiobook community (taking spoken word books and turning them into real books, i.e. Scott Sigler). This also paves way to experimental writing styles the publishing companies would shutter from. This is a good change.

    Although there are limitations to self-publishing like publishing software, freelance editors – lucky to find one to do it for free, proof copy checks, and others. I hope to get my book out soon.

    1. Hey LJ,

      Nathan Lowell is another that started on PodioBooks and went on to huge things. I will have a guest post soon from someone who knows all about podcasting. Should be up in the next couple of weeks.


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    Dude, I love your writing style! Personally, I don’t see how anyone would think there’s no market for short stories. Sure, short story /collections/ might not sell well, but if so, I think that’s because penny-pinching readers don’t want to shell out so much on a book when the author they like only has one story they want to read in it. Give them an opportunity to buy the story itself directly, and they can’t get thier money out fast enough. If you like the writer, you’ll buy his stuff, because you’re assured of quality you like, no matter the length.

    As far as disappearing genres go… there is no auch thing as a disappearing genre in fanfiction, where I’m native to. Underappreciated, perhaps,but they’re all there. And since it’s fanfiction, we get some pretty silly but fun things like King Arthur Western, Star Trek horror and Mork and Mindy murder mysteries…

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