How To Keep An Open Mind

The publishing industry is changing at the speed of light. The massive disruption caused by the killer combination of e-books, the internet, the Kindle, and open distribution systems like Amazon have changed the business forever.

Disruption on this scale is never pretty. Businesses will go under. People will lose their jobs. Many writers will struggle to adapt to change. Others will find opportunities and thrive.

To ensure you are in the latter group, you must continually challenge your assumptions.

As little as eight months ago, I was skeptical about the Digital Revolution. I didn’t think e-books would soon become the dominant format. I thought it would take, at the very least, a generation for print to fall out of favor.

I was allowing my personal prejudices (preferring print, preferring bricks-and-mortar bookstores, preferring to attain a traditional publishing deal) to color my views. And I was wrong.

I wasn’t challenging my assumptions. I had assumed that while self-publishing might be lucrative for some established mid-listers with reverted backlist titles, it wasn’t viable for unpublished writers. Again, I was wrong.

My views have changed a lot since then. But do I think self-publishing is the right answer for every writer? No. Do I advise everyone to self-publish? No. However, I do think every writer should consider it, at least for certain projects, and especially for those they have been unable to find a home for in traditional publishing.

I’m in favor of more options for writers. Self-publishing affords writers more opportunities to get their work in front of readers. This can only be a good thing, for writers at least. It mightn’t be so good for other players in the industry.

There are those that want to preserve the status quo: a long chain of middlemen between you and the reader, each collecting a slice of the pie, leaving little for the writer.

Those days are over. We can publish ourselves and sell direct to the reader. If anyone wants to have a slice of the pie they now have to prove their worth, with the retailers being the only ones to successfully make that case to most self-publishers thus far.

I give Amazon a 30% cut. That’s easily worth it for what I get in return: access to their global distribution system and to have them handle all the money. Same goes for Smashwords and the other retailers.

It doesn’t make sense, for me, at this point in my career, to hand a percentage to anyone else. I’m not saying I never would, but it would have to be a pretty amazing deal – not so much financially (although that is a factor), but in terms of how many readers they could bring me. You may well feel differently.

I may well feel differently in the future. The business conditions for self-publishers at the moment are very favorable. But I need to be continually on watch that I am not allowing any new prejudices to color my thinking.

After all, I have skin in the game now. I have three self-published e-books on sale, one of which is a guide to self-publishing, and more coming out shortly. I am not a disinterested observer. It is now in my direct material interest for the e-books to capture an ever-larger share of the market.

How do I guard against slipping into faulty thinking? I need to keep challenging my assumptions. I need to ensure my hypotheses are falsifiable. I need to make certain I haven’t imprisoned myself in a series of rhetorical walls, with windows that only allow me to see how I want the world to be, rather than how it actually is.

So what could threaten the currently favorable conditions for self-publishing?

Publishers could wake up and embrace the future, instead of trying to hold back the digital tide. They could lose their fixation with piracy and make all titles DRM-free. They could release digital versions when ready. They could cut publication times. They could end their futile battle to shore up print sales. They could really market and sell direct to readers. And they could slash prices across the board.

Other things could affect the viability of self-publishing. Amazon could lose significant market share to Barnes & Noble or one of the other competitors where self-publishers don’t seem to make as much of an impact. Alternatively, Amazon could gain an effective monopoly, and use their dominant position to slash royalty rates.

Looking further ahead, enhanced e-books could become the norm, and the higher production costs to create all the audio, video, and gaming segments could create insurmountable barriers to entry for most independent operators, and many would again be forced to license the rights to their content to publishers on inequitable terms.

Now, I don’t think that any of these things will happen in the short-term. In fact, I’m not sure that many of them will happen at all. I think the immediate future is quite rosy for self-publishers, and will continue to improve over the next six months as the market swells with new entrants eager to fill their devices.

However, to ensure that I don’t fall into the trap of faulty thinking I need to challenge my assumptions regularly. You should challenge your assumptions. You should challenge mine. You should test those of everyone you listen to. It’s the only way to keep an open mind.

And that is the key to positioning yourself to take advantage of all of the opportunities that this massive disruptive change will present.

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.

38 Replies to “How To Keep An Open Mind”

  1. I think that philosophy applies across the board – but especially in this time of turbulence for the publishing and book industry. Thanks for another quality post David.

    1. Yeah, it’s a good way to approach life in general. We all do it, we all slip into comfortable thought patterns, but we need to keep prodding the flagstones that our arguments rest on, in case the earth has shifted beneath.

  2. Another spot on post David. It’s faulty thinking and not challenging assumptions that has lead publishing to be on its knees at the moment. As well as other industries (film, music and newspapers). All faced the same problem of being blind to change. Like you, I’ve changed my opinions a fair bit over the last year. In fact I’ve flip-flopped on the subject of whether to self-publish or not, but in the current climate, it’s too much of a compelling market not to have a dog in the fight. It will be interesting to see what the big publishers do over the coming years as Kindle and Tablets continue to dominate sales figures.

    1. There are innumerable ways they could regain ground, not just limited to what I suggested. But the real battle here is between the giant tech companies: Google, Apple, Amazon. Apple’s entry into the market is what caused Amazon to double its royalty rates in the first place, instantly making self-publishing more viable for lots more people. Similar giant changes could be on the horizon that we have no power to affect, and could improve or disimprove the general outlook. But some things I can be reasonably sure of: bookstores will continue to struggle, more people will shop online, new e-readers will be released shortly, attracting more people to e-books for the first time, and e-books will capture a larger share of the market. On the other hand, I am fairly sure that publishers will become more competitive on price, there will be an increased selection of quality backlist titles at reasonable prices, and more books will be released digital first.

      Overall, I see more competition on the horizon, but more readers to compete for.

  3. David,

    I was in the same boat as you regarding self-publishing vs. traditional as recently as a couple of months ago, so I understand a lot of what you’re saying and echo those same sentiments.

    I find my opinion on various facets of publishing changing on an almost weekly basis, sometimes even daily. This is a rapidly changing market right now and it really does one well to keep that in mind and to constantly ask questions of both oneself, and one’s perceptions.

    Thanks for an insightful post.

  4. I do find it interesting how Amazon is being more favorable to Indie authors than others. However, I here about success with romance/erotica on Nook.

    I’m into ‘game theory.’ I agree the OP ideas must be considered. I hope the publishers have a list too.. e.g.:
    1. Price war in ereaders, in particular touch screen e-readers
    2. What if B&N changes strategy to support indie authors?
    3. What if Amazon’s publishing arms get into enough stores?


    1. Hi Neil,

      I don’t know the full extent of the reasons why romance/erotica authors tend to beat the trend and do so well at B&N. Could it be something as simple as demographics of e-reader owners? Or is it that the demographics of Nook owners force romance/erotica authors to market directly to them when most indies don’t bother? I’m not sure.

      I have to go through Smashwords so I don’t have my finger on the B&N pulse at all. I think I am selling something there, but I have no real idea. Without that, it’s hard to see what effect, if any, any marketing to Nook owners has. Whereas with Amazon, I can see the effects – instantly sometimes. I only have a limited amount of time for promo, and it’s natural I will spend it in areas where I see the greatest results. If the Nook increases its market-share, I will have to revise that.

      Regarding the general situation of Amazon being favorable to indies, I don’t necessarily think it’s so much that as a battle of philosophies between them and the rest.

      Barnes & Noble and Apple are going to create storefronts for the publishers which will impact on the visibility of indies. It’s already happening, and I think that will increase. They are betting on the larger publishers riding out this wave, and taking the short-term income boost from them for juicing their visibility.

      Whereas, Amazon have developed a powerful algorithm that will always display the book you are most likely to purchase. They refuse to “cook” the algorithm to favor certain books because they take the view that they will make more money in the long run if the results are “pure”.

      There are direct parallels with what happened with search. Yahoo sold the top ad spots to the highest bidder. Google made relevance more important by favoring ads with a higher click-through rate, even if they were bidding less on the keywords. They figured that more useful results would translate into better long term income as the users trusted the ads more – because they were more relevant.

      We all know how that battle ended. Amazon are betting on the same result. Which is why I think they will win.

      1. I seem to recall something about indie erotica author Selena Kitt being involved (possibly with other indie authors…can’t quite recall) in weekly meetings with B&N about making it more indie friendly. At this point, they are doing a darn good job of segregating indie authors from traditional. We can hope, though.

      2. David,

        You have a point on relevance. Yahoo is ‘selling itself’ into oblivion. Not every day, but on some days the finance link on Yahoo are completely worthless, hence I switched to google finance for relevant stock search.

        BTW, how does on customize B&N’s recommendations to be more relevant? It has been easy on Amazon. “Do not use” a book for receommendations is a common click I make. I rate my books (even a few reviews). 😉 The result is I’m down-selecting between books where I honestly would be happy with half the selection. 😉

        Now if I could force it to only show certain authors above selected price points… I suspect there isn’t that option as some would want no offers below certain price points and that is not in Amazon’s long term advantage.

        Amazon’s weak link today is devices. I really like my K2 and was impressed with a loaned K3 that I tried. However, I want more. For some, I am unable to recommend the Kindle as it doesn’t meet there needs. Its ok, I believe I’ve helped sell about 1.5 Kindles per week for over 9 months running. As with Yahoo vs. Google, people go back for relevant finds rather than the short term ‘push.’


        1. Honestly, I know little about B&N’s recommendations. As a grubby international, my money isn’t considered good there, so I only occasionally visit to check my book listings. But there is nothing about the store that makes me wish I could use it.

          This is only a hunch, but I would very surprised if B&N devoted anything like the resources Amazon do into developing a customer recommendation algorithm. Amazon’s isn’t perfect. I do a lot of one-time browsing on topics that are purely for research, and I’ll probably never be interested in that topic again. It would be good if I could switch off the tracker somehow, or assign a lower weighting to certain categories of books. In fact, there is a lot of room for customization. If they could marry it properly with a social networking site (like they have in Shelfari) and I could choose which friend’s recommendations filter through into mine, and weight those, it could get really smart.

          They are a tech company at heart. I’m sure they are tinkering with this stuff all the time, whereas for someone like B&N it’s probably an afterthought.

          I think Amazon will start raising the device game in about a month or so 🙂

      3. I’ll agree Amazon’s algorithm needs improvement and easier customization. I do cut books I look at that are ‘one off’ in a category. (e.g., Gifts, curiosity on alternate genres of a favorite author, etc.)

        If B&N doesn’t change, including investing in international and improving the ease of finding a desired book, your Yahoo analogy is perfect. I know people who are excited over Bing… I searched and went back to Google. I half expected to defect again. In chronological order, my web search engines have been: Alta Vista, Yahoo, and Google. I’m certain I’d be willing to switch book vendor. I’ve looked to see if Google books, or B&N/Nook, and even iBookstore would provide a better experience. I root for the under-dog and yet I’m back at Amazon every time.

        The new devices from Amazon will be interesting. I really hope there is a phone in there. (I want a new phone… it is time.) I suspect I’ll be buying an ereader/tablet and a phone… sigh. Either way, I’m sucked into the ‘Amazon ecosystem.’ 😉


  5. I appreciate you pointing out that self-publishing is not an either/or proposition that the armed camps on either side make it out to be: you can and should consider both methods of publishing, depending on the project and what you want out of it. I’ve heard from lots of writers who have traditional contracts but want to self-publish books that can’t find a home for because they’re cross-genre or “unclassifiable” and hence publishers can’t envision marketing them. There’s also an untapped market for novellas and other lengths of works that traditional publishers don’t usually handle.

    These are the frontier days of self-publishing and a lot of changes are going to come.

    1. Agreed. This is the key line for me in David’s post: “I’m in favor of more options for writers.” Indie publishing will be a good option for some writers and a bad option for others (especially those who just want to write and leave everything else to a publishing company). Even for a given writer, indie publishing will be a good option for some projects but not for others. It’s a blessing that we now have more options. Anything that puts more power in the hands of authors and gives them control (if they want it) is a Very Good Thing and should be welcomed by writers everywhere.

    2. Personally, I think that once authors get a taste of the creative control, the higher royalties, and the speed to market of self-publishing, that they will want to do most of their projects that way. But maybe I’m objectifying my own preferences. Maybe some authors will find it frustrating, maybe they will hate the promotional side, or all the tiny little details they have to keep on top of. However, I do think that learning more about the business side of publishing, and, to be frank, treating it as more of a business will benefit all writers.

      1. I would add one more item to push authors to self-publish: Books per year. While some authors might be content with the 1 book per year, it amazes me to think that some believe that is somehow an optimal rather than a bureaucratic pace.


        1. Fast writers used to have to publish under several different pen-names, as they were restricted by the one-book-per-year rule. Each time they would have to build up a fresh audience for the new name. That must have been grueling. Now, they don’t have to. While there is still a bit of work to be done in building up your name in a new genre, you at least get a headstart with already having titles out under that name where readers can see that you were (hopefully) well-reviewed.

  6. Six months ago I would have said almost the exact same thing. I didn’t think it would take a generation for ebooks to become the dominate format (or even close to dominate). I figured it would take at least a decade, though.


    I also insisted I preferred print books and brick and mortar stores. And while, yes, I still love brick and mortar stores, I don’t prefer print books. I has Kindle! And I loves it. I actually find reading easier. And nothing beats the convenience of downloading books straight onto my Kindle without even having to plug the thing in.

    Humans don’t like having their thinking challenged. Humans like to be right. But if we’re not changing and growing, we’re stagnating and dying. And that goes for all aspects of life, not just writing.

    1. Hear, hear, well said, Shea. I has Nook; iz best friend.

      I’m in the same boat. Just three months ago, self-publishing wasn’t even a viable option in my must-be-traditionally-published mindset. But, here I am, and here we all are, and it’s going quite well, in my opinion. With the support of people like you, David, writers have more options than ever before and we KNOW about them.

      I’m in this game for the long haul. I don’t see it as a battle between trad vs. indie–I see it as a battle for what’s right for each individual author. What a grand revolution we are taking part in.

  7. Great post. The future’s definitely hard to predict. If you’d done a market survey on what commuters wanted 100 years ago, they would have asked for a better buggy whip. Who would’ve thought less than a decade later that cars would transform the U.S. The present situation with ebooks is really exciting with more tech companies (what a surprise (sarcastically)) being the ones to embrace ebooks. I read a article the other day about Facebook considering getting into the game. Can’t wait to see what everything will look like 5 years from now.

    One aspect I’m curious about is whether or not Kindle, Nook, etc. will get into pricing wars over terms for writers where someone will offer 70% royalties, another might offer 80% plus free promotion, etc. Now that would be a lot of fun!

  8. Another great post, Dave — the hits just keep on coming! Once again, I can do nothing but agree with what you are saying. Currently the bulk of my income still comes from print, but it’s not hard to understand how that could change. I hope it doesn’t because print has been good to me, but I am not burying my head in the sand either.

    I believe that print will still be there for the monster hits– the beach books that ship through Walmart and Tesco and are read by the huge majority, the one that buys less than 10 books in a year (ie most of the population). The hardcore readers who buy the majority of titles (not books) will shift to cyberspace. TV did not kill movies. I doubt ebooks will kill print. We’ll see the focus shift to blockbusters for print just as it did with movies. That is simply an acceleration of an existing trend.

    1. I think that’s a reasonable assessment. Personally, I think print will eventually settle at 20% of the market. That’s just a guess though, I could be way off, and I have no idea how long it will take to get to that point.

      But print won’t disappear. There are billions of books in circulation. Used bookstores will continue to do a brisk trade. But I think the days of huge volumes of books being printed and distributed to dedicated bookstores around the country are numbered. That model is under attack from all directions. E-books didn’t kill Borders, they just applied the final blow. Print sales have been slipping for years. What I hope is that e-books will claw back some of those readers that have been lost. If that happens, everyone wins.

      1. 20% is a reasonable number. I’ve been thinking that for gifts, the number might be a little higher. I suspect one reason the CD survived is that Grandma and Grandpa want to give something physical.

        Either way, the meme that ebooks will magically stop gaining market share at some point is ridiculous, In general, markets accelerate their ‘market share’ growth until their mid-point of market share penetration. That’s been true of early farm harvesters, PCs, automobiles, cell phones, and will be proven true of ereaders.

        The first and 2nd graphs clearly show ebook sales are accelerating.

        It would take a major botch on Amazon’s part to keep market share below 70% as I extrapolate those graphs.


      2. I’m more of a belief similar to the outcome of libraries in Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End. In an effort to save money and space, and preserve older works, libraries will start digitising their entire collections and prefer acquisition of digital materials. After the libraries go away from paper, it’s only a matter of time. Paper products will be reserved more for museums, and I seriously doubt that the market will compose 2%, much less 20%.

        Vinge predicted the paper-based book markets might fold by 2025, but this was back in 2005-2006 when he wrote and published the novel. I think that’s still a possibility, and projects like Google Books have already digitized a lot of material. With the budgets of local libraries slashed in the US due to the economy, the rate of the adoption of digital technologies is likely to accelerate–if libraries are to exist at all.

        I didn’t lament the fall of the record or the tape cassette in music. Similarly, paper will not get tears from me. Hardbacks and paperbacks were a staple of industry for hundreds of years. It was a very durable and well done format. It is phasing out though.

  9. I think you and I and a few others found Joe Konrath’s blog about the same time. It was an eye opening experience. If I hadn’t gotten an iPad for Christmas with all the bookstore apps. on it it may have taken a lot longer to appreciate the arguments on his blog. However, I also think I was looking for a way to be able to write the stories I wanted to tell and not worrying if it met the publisher checklist sweetened the deal for me.

    For some people letting go means losing control even if that sounds contradictory because in fact they’d gain more control self-publishing. But they’d have to let go of the idea of sit-down meetings in swanky NY (London etc.) restaurants with editors and production meetings and thick marked up transcripts (they can still get those, but they’d pay for it), etc. It is a lifestyle they imagine. People want to be ‘taken care of’ and reassured that it isn’t all in their head and that is natural. And for them they can’t reassess. They can’t imagine differently because it means letting a hard fought for dream die with that reassessment.

    I agree with you. But I do not think all writers are going to be able to cross the ravine.

    1. I wanted those swanky meetings. And I used to go into bookstores and see where my book would be on the shelf if I had snagged a deal (usually beside Alex Garland). I wanted the deal so badly. And I was reading Joe’s blog (and Dean Wesley Smith’s blog) for a long time before the message got through.

      Slowly I realized that the things I was pining for were mere symbols. They represented something more nebulous: success. And something more tangible: readers and money. But there are other ways to achieve those. It just took me some time to see that.

      I think there are differing mindsets. Some think “what can I do to get a publishing deal.” I can understand that. I was there. Now I think, “what can I publishing deal for for me.” That simple switch inverts the power relationship. Instead of viewing a deal as something the publishing gods could bestow on me, if only I got a break, I know look at it purely in business terms. And the kind of deal I think I could get (if I could get one), don’t make pursuing that avenue worthwhile. At all.

      Others may be different. Maybe they think they have a novel with wide commercial appeal that can secure them the super agent who will get that six figure check. There’s nothing wrong with that. All I suggest in that case, is the same for any writer: weigh the pros and cons of both paths, and choose according to your goals and circumstances.

      1. Yeah, I did the bookstore thing and I’d even plan my outfits to the meetings (a girl can’t go unprepared you know!).
        I think there has to be the idea that we can mix and match our old dreams with new ideas. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

  10. David,
    Brilliant summary on a timely topic. Like you, I’ve been going through a similar process. But I’m a bit more jaded about technology after being around long enough to see global trends in hardware and software come and go–each in turn being hailed as the Ultimate Solution to a Problem.

    I launched my own blog because I wanted to learn, but also because I want to see me and fellow writers grab control of their own destiny. I’m cautiously optimistic about the e-book phenomenon, because it’s utterly dependent on specific, limited technology and only a few providers to distribute and read books.

    Print books have a powerful advantage here–they don’t switch off, you don’t need the publisher or printer after you’ve got the book in your hands, and if necessary, you can publish the tangible book yourself with only a few hand tools. You can also drop it without breaking it. And folks (especially children) who can’t afford an e-reader every few years might be marginalized–I’m not sure yet.

    All that to say–I utterly agree with everything you said. Let’s all go in with eyes wide open and, whenever possible, look out for each other. Writers need each other more than ever now.

  11. I always wanted to write, but I am the kind of artist (yes, I do lots more than just words, and always have) that doesn’t enjoy producing work unless I see a market for it. I started writing when I became aware that self-publishing was viable. The funny thing is, I submit regularly to paying short story markets now. Which I never would have started doing had I not been bitten by the indie bug. Haven’t sold anything yet, but hopefully it’s only a matter of time. I did recently self-epub my first story (which my family assures me is hilarious. The story is hilarious, that is, not that I self-epubbed it.)

    Point being – you never know where one opportunity will lead, or where the next one will pop up. Keep them peepers peeled (or whatever localized non-hickoid version of that sentiment fits your situation.)

  12. I am glad I got into self-publishing in 2011. The longer I am in the game, the more I learn, and one simply MUST be in the game to even hope to track all the changes that are occurring.

  13. “Other things could affect the viability of self-publishing. Amazon could lose significant market share to Barnes & Noble or one of the other competitors where self-publishers don’t seem to make as much of an impact. Alternatively, Amazon could gain an effective monopoly, and use their dominant position to slash royalty rates.”

    This is a big consideration. I hate to have everyone looking at Amazon as the only game in town, the top dog ready to run with the bone. It was the buildup of too much power that put the Big Six where they are now and authors at such a disadvantage. We need to keep our eyes open to all this new emerging market has to offer and not put all our eggs in one tightly woven basket.

    With that said, isn’t it a great time to be a writer?
    Enjoy always. T

  14. I was talking with an agent the other day. He says the “industry” is in a panic with no clue how to rescue themselves from the end times. (But what the heck, neither does the US guvmint.) It’s the agents who should be making them recognize that they need to position themselves differently now, and that would lead to some significant readjustments in the e-pubbing world. Some e-pubbers are going to be breakouts and finally set the scale for all the others.

  15. Hey David,

    Great advice. I’d also extend the philosophy to those beginners who simply want to learn how to write in the first place. I see the “thou must do this” and “thou mustn’t do that” proclamations all the time in how-to-write books. That always makes me laugh, for nine times out of ten what the author is talking about is situational or personal. They make broad-brush statements based on their own style and preference. Never outline! Always outline! Quite silly. And yet new writers take it all in without challenging the voracity of the point at hand. I’m not surprised that most successful writers are completely self-taught. The rest most likely have become too schizophrenic to write.


    Keep creatin’!


  16. So everything I ever could say has been said I think, except one quote I loved that illustrated the initial post.

    I took Brandon Sanderson’s class on writing, and someone asked him about e-publishing and indie-publishing and going independent. His only response was “I’m the highest paid new author of the last decade. I’ve only ever published traditionally. I think my opinions are going to be far to colored to be helpful on that subject.”

    Just a nice bit your post made me think of.


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