The Bonfire of the Straw Men Publishing Writing

In the third of a series of increasingly misguided essays for The Guardian – Why social media isn’t the magic bullet for self-epublished authors – Ewan Morrison builds a bonfire of self-publishing straw men.

Morrison is convinced that “epublishing is another tech bubble, and that it will burst within the next 18 months.” The reason given:

epublishing is inextricably tied to the structures of social media marketing and the myth that social media functions as a way of selling products. It doesn’t, and we’re just starting to get the true stats on that. When social media marketing collapses it will destroy the platform that the dream of a self-epublishing industry was based upon.

Where do I start? Perhaps I should first point out that Morrison has made this prediction before, in the second essay in this series: The self-epublishing bubble.

Given that it is now August, and the bubble essay was published in January, I presume there are only ten months left on the clock before we can ultimately judge Morrison’s prediction. However, I don’t think we need wait that long.

Your logical reaction to Morrison’s claim might be to query how “epublishing” or “self-epublishing” can be a bubble, given that it’s not a class of asset which can be traded – potentially leading to dangerously over-inflated prices, driven by excessive speculation rather than market-based fundamentals.

Don’t worry, this reaction is normal.

Ewan Morrison appears to have an aversion to logic. Even when presented with Joe Konrath’s complete refutation of the bubble hypothesis in the comments of the Guardian piece, Morrison carries on regardless.

The eagle-eyed among you may have noted that Joe Konrath’s post puncturing the bubble theory was written in March 2011, some nine months before Ewan Morrison resurrected this particular zombie meme.

Morrison has form here. Last August, in the first of these essays – Are books dead, and can authors survive? – Morrison advanced the laughable notion that:

ebooks and epublishing will mean the end of ‘the writer’ as a profession. The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.

This, of course, ignores the ever-growing amount of writers making more and more money from e-books and self-publishing; the whole article is a succession of misunderstandings stitched together in a pseudo-scientific theory which does little to convince.

I could list the facts, quote the data, and highlight the numerous points where reality collides with Morrison’s hypothesis, but he appears to place little stock in facts, data, and reality. Even so, he might take a glance at the Kindle Boards thread listing the burgeoning number of self-publishers who have sold 50,000 e-books (177, for the click-lazy).

But I digress. Let’s get back to Morrison’s current article, and the reason for his doom-mongering.

epublishing is inextricably tied to the structures of social media marketing and the myth that social media functions as a way of selling products. It doesn’t, and we’re just starting to get the true stats on that. When social media marketing collapses it will destroy the platform that the dream of a self-epublishing industry was based upon.

Newsflash: digital self-publishing (I refuse to use the term “self e-publishing”) is here to stay. Authors are trying it in rising numbers, attracted by the relative ease of the process, the ability to distribute anywhere on the planet, and the opportunity to earn 70% royalty rates. And, as the above link to Kindle Boards attests, the number doing extremely well is expanding at a furious rate.

But we know all that. The viability of self-publishing was debated in the US at length last year, but no-one tries to tell you that you’ll never make any money from self-publishing anymore. At least, that’s the case in the US. In the UK, it seems that argument is only starting.

In fact, when you read Morrison’s entire article (and his supporters in the comments), you realize that everything they are arguing about is out of date. These arguments have already been had!

I find it fascinating that as the UK follows the same path as the US in terms of digital adoption rates, the conversation follows the same track too. Within days of Morrison’s stale views being aired, Amazon announced that their UK customers were now purchasing more e-books than print books (about fourteen months after the identical US milestone).

For those like Morrison who haven’t been paying attention to the US market, it might feel like they are advancing fresh thinking. But I’m afraid that e-books are no fad, bookstores are in trouble, self-publishing won’t damage your career (and can make you money), cheap books don’t destroy minds, and marketing is not about Twitter-spam.

Morrison seems to think that the decision of writers like Amanda Hocking in the US or Mark Edwards & Louise Voss in the UK to accept eye-popping advances for previously self-published titles is some proof of the ephemeral nature of self-publishing.

The logic is torturous (and it was painful the first time this meme surfaced, last year), but the obvious point that Morrison misses is that these writers were able to take the books that were roundly rejected, self-publish them, build impressive readerships, and leverage that into the kind of deal that most writers will never see: a life-changing advance, and huge marketing support.

That’s proof of the bona fides of self-publishing, not the opposite.

Further, self-publishing is not “inextricably tied to the structures of social media marketing.” None of the successful self-publishers I know are dependent on what Morrison dubs “social media marketing.”

If Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, WordPress, Tumblr and Pinterest disappeared tomorrow, self-publishers would continue to sell books. It might be harder for readers to share information about the books they enjoy – whether self-published or not – but I’m sure they would find a way.

This gets to the heart of Morrison’s misconception of how self-publishers use social media. It’s not about selling books, it’s about making connections. The only thing that has ever really sold books is word-of-mouth.

The difference today is that social media can act as an accelerant to the spreading of that “word.” If a reader discovers a book they enjoyed (whether self-published or not) they don’t have to wait until they meet somebody in person to recommend it to them. They can email their friends, blog about it, post it to Facebook, or tweet it (reaching all their friends in less time than it takes to meet one of them for coffee).

Note: I said “a reader” not the author. If you are friends with somebody, and trust their taste in books, you will place value in their recommendations. What happens with social media is that such recommendations can spread much more efficiently.

Authors – whether self-published or not – who attempt to mimic this organic process through relentless tweeting about their own work will soon find that such an approach is ineffective (and counterproductive).

That doesn’t mean that authors don’t do it. You only need to log on to Twitter and Facebook to see plenty of “buy my book” spam.

The problem for Morrison’s argument is that he (a) assumes that all self-publishers use social media in this way and (b) assumes that such marketing is integral to self-publishers’ sales/marketing strategies; neither claim bears any resemblance to reality. In fact, I would wager that there is an inverse relationship between a self-publisher’s sales and the amount of “buy my book” spam they emit.

I don’t relentlessly tweet about my work. I announce a new release, or a special sale, and I might point my followers towards a nice review now and then – but that’s about it.

The rest of my time on Twitter or Facebook is spent connecting with people – hashing out the issues of the day, making friends, joking, sharing advice, seeking help, getting to know each other; you know, just like meeting people in real life.

So how do self-publishers market their books if they aren’t relentless flooding social networks with purchase links?

The first step is ensuring you have a good, well-written story, professionally edited, with an attractive cover, an enticing blurb, and a price which will encourage someone to purchase right away, rather than mulling it over. The absence of the foregoing will limit the effectiveness of any marketing strategy, so it’s essential to get those basics rights before considering anything else.

Next you need to make sure your book is discoverable. That topic is worth a post on its own, but essentially all that means is that you pay attention to things like what comes up on Google or Amazon when you search for your book’s potential title, what categories your book is classified under on the various retailers, and what keywords you use.

You also want to ensure your book is shareable. Back-matter is crucial, and should contain things like (clickable) links to your new release mailing list, retailers where readers can leave a review, and your own social media accounts. In short, give the reader the tools to recommend your book to others.

Finally, and trickiest of all, you must try and make your book is visible to new readers as often as possible. Visibility is a continual challenge, but it can be achieved through a variety of means (of varying effectiveness) including: ad spots, blog hops, author events, limited-time sales, book blog reviews, freebies, cross-promotion, and interviews.

If you do it right, and get a big enough sales spike, Amazon will begin promoting your book for you – not just via the personalized recommendations you see around the site, but also in the all-powerful email blasts that can really drive a book into the stratosphere.

Critics might argue that all this is just another hypothesis. However, I’m willing to test mine. My historical novel A Storm Hits Valparaiso is currently ranked #261,306 in the Kindle Store – which should make it an interesting case study.

Until a few months ago, it was my bestselling book in 2012. While I’ve been busy writing the follow-up, it has slipped down the rankings quite a bit. I haven’t been worried, though. It’s selling okay in print and has always done well when it has achieved any visibility whatsoever. As such, I’m confident that all it needs is a little exposure to start selling again.

My plan is this: drop the price to 99c for three days and promote the sale with some ad spots. When the book peaks in the Amazon rankings, I’ll raise the price back up to $4.99 and start pulling in much higher royalties. Hopefully, I’ll sell enough over the three days that Amazon will start promoting the book for me (and at the higher price too).

Of course, I could be wrong about all this stuff. Keep an eye on A Storm Hits Valparaiso over the next three days and find out for yourself.

UPDATE: I left this out of the original post, but, in hindsight, that was a mistake. I think it’s important both to defend the reputation of Joanna Penn and to show the kind of rhetorical tactics that Ewan Morrison employs. From his Guardian essay:

Self-styled eSpecialists such as [Joanna] Penn often invoke the 80/20 rule which advises that, as a sales person (in this case an author), you should spend 20% of your time writing and 80% of your time networking through social media.

Joanna Penn, as anyone is familiar with her will know, said nothing of the sort. She said that writers should spend 80% of their time on social media not promoting their work. Nothing to do with how much your time you should spend writing versus marketing. Morrison took this misrepresentation and then built a theory out of it. From his essay:

Let’s look at the stats. If we take Margulies and Penn seriously, how much time does this leave for actually writing? Most self-epublished authors hold down a day job, so let’s give them three hours a day, after work, for author activities. That’s 1,095 hours a year. Reduce this to 20% (since you have to spend 80% of your time covertly self-promoting online), and you get 219 writing hours a year, which works out as 18 12-hour days to write a book.

You see what he did there? Now all self-publishers spend 80% of their free time not writing. The article goes on in a similar vein ad nauseum.

Livia Blackburn called Morrison on this misrepresentation in the comments of The Guardian (and I followed up) and his response was particularly mealy mouthed:

David, thank you for your concern, Joanna and I have exchanged communications about this since.

The 80/20 rule is ubiquitous and something of a industry standard in emarketting. At the LCC conference at which both Joanna and I were keynote speakers earlier this year it was agreed on and much debated by the pro-self pub panel, of whom Joanna was a member.

I agree that Joanna’s position is much more complex and highly developed than this simple piece of reductionist thinking but in the context in which it was first presented to me – at the conference- there were two camps, those for and those against this proposition. Joanna and I were on either side of the debate.

Thank you for being concerned with standards in the Guardian.

Needless to say, that’s simply not good enough. Morrison should apologize and The Guardian should print a correction. But I won’t hold my breath.

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.

117 Replies to “The Bonfire of the Straw Men”

      1. Purely in the interests of linguistic pedantry, I feel I must point out that chicken wings *should not contain viscera*. Unless you’re eating at the “Roman Omen Takeaway”, of course. Supremely mordant post, by the way.

  1. I completely agree with your statement “Authors – whether self-published or not – who attempt to mimic this organic process through relentless tweeting about their own work will soon find that such an approach is ineffective (and counterproductive).” tweets are useless to me, unless 100,000 people tweet OMG U gotta give Summoning the Strength to your mom & grandma. #awesome
    My readers don’t tweet and it seems that most tweeters don’t want to read.

    1. I had a (probably well-meaning) person tweet a BUY link for Storm every 37 minutes for twenty-four hours. It had no appreciable effect on sales. Similarly, a mysterious team of spambots appear to be tweeting purchase links to Let’s Get Digital every few hours for the last couple of weeks (Example: ). I have no idea why, but I’m guessing they pick out books that are doing okay and then keep tweeting links in the hopes of earning affiliate income. Either way, again, it does nothing for sales.

  2. I looked up the word ‘meme’ a couple of months ago as it was baffling me a little. When I read the definition it baffled me more as it was talking about genetic replication of cultural ideas which seemed scientifically/creatively oxymoronic to me. But I still like it. And it’s in the velvet lined box of loveliness with zeitgeist for me. Anyway, what I meant to say was, absolutely fantastic post. I’ve worked in IT for over 15 years and have been writing as a hobbyist for a lot of that. I’m investing a lot of time, money and effort in taking the three novels I’ve produced in the last six years to market in a few months and Morrison’s original post made my stomach contract a little, initially. I had been very set on the trad route of publishing, but a couple of things changed my mind. Firstly, a boost of confidence from serious interest, feedback and validation from literary agents but mostly what I consider to be a maturation in the independent publishing market – it was becoming viable, people were learning that they need editors. And massive slowdown and contraction in trad. I noticed a serious lag in the return of my rejection letters ;-). Seriously, though, in 1995 I was just starting out and was part of the bubble/bust – this is not comparable – it’s not the same thing as what is going on now, not even vaguely. I bumped into an old University friend at my local train station one day, who works for a massive non-fiction publisher in the city where we live, and told him what I was doing and he URGED me to self-publish because everything is WORD OF MOUTH. You can market, to an extent, you can haunt every festival, book a billion book signings, twitter and FB like mad… but if your book has something and you hit the branch on the lucky tree, you’re up! But social media is here to stay. It’s not a fad. It’s not ridiculously overvalued (which was the problem in the tech bubble hello). But it is just a part of how we network today. And I like it. And we should network it NATURALLY like we do with our mates. Hello – how are you doing? That’s awesome, what happened then? They said what?! Oh, I’ve been doing this… Yeah.

  3. I read Morison’s article (ironically it was shared to me on Facebook, does that disprove his theory?) and ultimately wondered what his endgame was? Why all the Chicken Little bullshit? I do agree that Facebook and Twitter are not a self-publishing goldmine. After reading Locke’s book, I thought I would have to spend hours connecting with readers on Twitter, subtly promoting myself, which I dreaded because I don’t love the idea. The reality is that Amazon and Barne’s and Noble’s algorithmic systems are really what ultimately sells books. I published my grandmother’s book, The Gamester, in February, and after reducing the price to .99c it shot up to the top 100 for regency romance and held that spot for months. It’s currently in the top 10 Regency Romance and 50 for Historical Romance. Her books begin selling minutes after I publish them. My own books are much slower to sell and do better on Barnes and Noble than on Amazon, even though I have less reviews there. I have done tons of promotion for my own books and very little for my grandmother, yet she is running circles around me in sells and she’s been dead for eight years. Go figure. Still, self-publishing is awesome and even selling only a few copies is still noteworthy and totally sweet.

    Seems to me the brass ring is having good covers, good formatting, good editing, and a good book in a hot genre.

  4. I think that social media is just a vague notion for some people. And they don’t really understand what social media does. Sadly, there are a lot of self-publishers who also fall into this category.

    I agree with what you said about word of mouth being the true engine behind the success of a book. But I believe there’s one more thing about social media, one that you begin to realize only when you’re “there.” People love buying stuff from other people. From real people. That’s, probably, the secret behind any artist who has ever built a real fan base. And social media helps you connect with both fans and potential readers. There’s this personal touch that social media has made effortless.

    Also, on the fact that self-publishing is just a bubble. This is something that a person with no real knowledge of the phenomenon would say. Because it’s not like all self-publishers are just following a set of rules, a specific recipe. They’re trying to find new ways of reaching readers, new ways of promoting their books. I don’t even think that the death of the Internet would stop self-publishers from selling their books.

    Indeed, most of what self-publishers do in terms of marketing takes place online, but I think that what made self-publishing so widespread today has a lot to do with the fact that writers have the opportunity to take matters into their own hands. They can write the stories they’ve always wanted to write, they can try to find an audience, they can choose the cover art, they can experiment with pricing.

    It’s my honest opinion that readers are the only one who can decide whether a book is good or not.

    1. I would say there are a lot of *people* that fall into that category.

      And I agree about people buying from people. Authors are beginning to learn that they are the only true brand in publishing (with some limited, notable exceptions) and social media is a powerful way to forge genuine connections with people from all over the world.

      All the walls between the writer and the reader have been torn down.

  5. Great post, David, and good luck with the promotion for A Storm Hits Valparaiso (which is the only one of your books I haven’t yet read, although I own it and it’s in the queue). I’ll be watching its progress keenly. Out of interest, where are you placing your ad spots?

    1. I’ll be blogging about that when the numbers come in, but I’ve got a mini-sponsorship with Kindle Fire Department and an ENT Book of the Day lined up. I hadn’t been on ENT before, but I experimented with ENT’s Bargain Book ad last week and sold 250 copies in a couple of days (and had another 250 in the following week), peaked at about #450, and settled in at around #3000 for a good spell. I have high hopes for Storm. More soon!

  6. I can’t begin to tell you how much I look forward to your posts on this subject. Nice work, sir.

  7. An interesting article. We are definitely in a transitional period. Will printed books disappear altogether? No. Will e books pick up some of the slack? Yes. Can writers make a living at writing anymore? Not many. Can they try? Sure. Personally, I don’t care for
    Facebook and other social media. Do I sell any books? No.

    1. No-one has a divine right to earn a living at the profession of their choice. However, the digital revolution has enabled more and more writers to make a living for the very first time. You would think *all* writers would celebrate that.

      1. Writers are good at writing. What else do they have to do to self-publish, and will they be any good at it? It is the Division of Labour situation. There’s stuff highly-ranked on Amazon which isn’t very good. Somebody, it seems, knows how to sell a book, but not how to write it.
        I shall call myself an amateur writer. Am I pessimistic about my work? Is it worth the hassles?

  8. The exact same arguments about the dangers of regular people creating content were made by “professional” journalists when political blogs started gaining popularity a bit less than ten years ago. I think it signifies deep issues of insecurity and fear amongst the elite, and Morrison is practically shaking in his boots. They’re the ones living in a proverbial bubble, adhering to a gatekeeper model that has been made irrelevant in journalism, music, and now books.

    Very good counter-argument, David, and cool pic of Burning Man!

  9. Cutting Block Press linked to this ( article with
    Ewan Morrison the other day on Facebook. The section of the article that sent me over the edge and screaming on my blog (and I reference you there by name, David) was:

    “Many will cheer, Morrison admits, including the more than one million new authors who have outflanked traditional gatekeepers by “publishing” their work in Amazon’s online Kindle store. “All these people I’m sure are very happy to hear they’re demolishing the publishing business by creating a multiplicity of cheap choices for the reader,” Morrison says. “I beg to differ.”

    All these people? Can this gentleman call himself a serious person while painting an entire class of people with such a broad brush? It’s not as if those who digitally publish without the backing of a major publisher are some roving, foaming-at-the-mouth, horde.

    Ewan Morrison is on a crusade against digital self-published authors. And there’s something of a creepy flavor to his war cries.

  10. His comments are funny, aren’t they?

    the only good thing it has brought, is that he has mentioned some good indie authors in a big national rag. The hope is that people who read it are smart enough to make their own opinions and maybe check out a talented writer or two

    We live in an age where you have the power to do things on your own. We don’t need a company to help us. Will we succeed? Maybe notm but if we plan, work hard, and produce quality, then yes…yes we can

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

  11. Excellent article accurately debunking an embarrassing one. Thanks for the good work again, David!

    I honestly think there is a culture of hostility among literary people toward technology. Any tech-driven shift in how things are done is met with dismissal or rage. They usually fancy themselves as progressive in thought, but are actually very conservative to the point of being reactionary when you seek to change their quill into a ballpoint, or switch their typewriter for a computer. I recall sending in manuscripts printed on a laser printer and having them returned unread because computer-generated work was unacceptable.

    As an ex tech-developer, I’ve been told for literally decades that every technological shift was a fad. When I first changed my major in college to computer science, I was considered a fool. I was wasting my time. All those jobs were going to move to Asia within a few years. Later, in the dot-com crash, the jealous journalists all scribbled delightedly that tech was finally dead, and good riddance.

    In short, these types of self-comforting essays are nothing new in the literary world. The popularity of such articles among those entrenched in the current industry is the most predictable element of the new publishing paradigm that is being shaped as we watch.

    1. I think there might be something in that, but I think it goes deeper. I write (some) “literary” fiction (and science fiction, and historical fiction), and I’m not sure it’s quite fear of technology that’s driving these hysterical reactions. Rather, I think it’s something much more profound, of which this tech-averse disposition is a mere symptom: fear of change.

      It’s quite easy to deduce Morrison’s true agenda if you read the lengthy comments to that piece. His primary concern appears to be that, in the digital world, writers of literary fiction will struggle to receive grant funding and/or deals from publishers who want the prestige of publishing “literary” fiction, despite its poor sales. Genre writers (in the US especially) have long felt that they have subsidized “literary” writers, and “literary” writers seem to fear that these subsidies are evaporating as publishers tighten their belts and the genre writers start self-publishing.

      Viewed through that prism, his antipathy towards e-books and self-publishing begins to make some kind of sense.

      1. Ah, “literary fiction!” Only for the snooty, pretentious, and supercilious. And as for “genre fiction”, only for the great unwashed lumpenprole masses. LOL. What’s really hilarious about Morrison and his ilk is the fact that literary fiction is, itself, a fiction.

        In reality, the literary fiction authors so lionized today were actually pulp fiction writers. Dickens, Dumas, Hugo, Poe, Twain, Hardy, and Verne all wrote exciting popular fiction that was often serialized in the periodicals of the day. Their stories, and they were *storytellers*, featured cliffhangers to ensure readers purchased the next issue of the periodical. For example, in The Count of Monte Christo, people were lined up overnight in Paris to get the new issue of Journal des Debats– much like modern teenagers waiting for the premiere of a “hot” movie – to learn if Edmond Dantes made it out of Chateau d’If in the body bag.

        It’s obvious that Morrison is quite queasy about what’s happening in publishing today, and longs for the status quo ante. Let him long all he wants while indie publishing rushes into the future.

  12. David,
    I spoke on the opposite side to Ewan at a publishing event (and he quoted me out of context in that article) but I truly wish you had spoken instead of me. I don’t like a polemic, preferring a measured response. Here’s my article on the Bookseller in response here:

    Now you’re in the UK, I shall recommend you for speaking events and really hope to see you vs Ewan live 🙂

    To add to the discussion, Ewan is promoting his latest book (available on Kindle) at the end of his posts and doesn’t seem averse to the ‘all publicity is good publicity’ approach. I personally think this might backfire in a social world where authenticity and generosity can help spread the word.
    Thanks for tackling this on our behalf.

    1. Hi Joanna,

      If it makes you feel any better, he classified me as an “internet guru/marketeer” (and completely misread my post that he linked to).

      All joking aside, his misrepresentation of your views was despicable. Even worse was when he was confronted with that in the comments by Livia Blackburne and myself, his response was particularly mealy mouthed:

      David, thank you for your concern, Joanna and I have exchanged communications about this since.

      The 80/20 rule is ubiquitous and something of a industry standard in emarketting. At the LCC conference at which both Joanna and I were keynote speakers earlier this year it was agreed on and much debated by the pro-self pub panel, of whom Joanna was a member.

      I agree that Joanna’s position is much more complex and highly developed than this simple piece of reductionist thinking but in the context in which it was first presented to me – at the conference- there were two camps, those for and those against this proposition. Joanna and I were on either side of the debate.

      Thank you for being concerned with standards in the Guardian.

      Ewan Morrison is a coward. The article should have been amended and The Guardian should print a correction/retraction.

      I wanted to keep personal stuff out of my piece, but in hindsight, I should have dealt with that. In fact, I may put an update at the bottom of the post regarding this.

  13. I see your book has already got to #11,325, up from #261,306 (at 10am BST on Tuesday) so it’s working – congratulations!

    And thanks so much for sharing your data with the rest of us. Your blog and others on self-publishing are convincing me that I don’t even want to try to get trad published. I prefer autonomy and now that self-publishing seems viable, it looks like the way to go.

    I loved Let’s Get Digital, by the way – again, thanks for putting your experience and knowledge on epaper for the rest of us.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Sasha. It’s at #10,266 now. I expect it to slip back a little for a few hours, then get another boost. Maybe all the way to #2000 or #1000. Fingers crossed!

      1. Took a little leap up: #2,797 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
        #100 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Fiction > Genre Fiction > Historical

        Historical is a tough category, esp. because of lack of sub-cats), but that also means it’s stickier than most. For that to happen, I need another jump. End of page two (Top 40) which is about #1200 in the rankings. A tough call, but I think there is another leap up coming, judging by sales trickling in. Will it be enough? We’ll see…

  14. Hi David,
    “Until a few months ago, it was my bestselling book in 2012.” I looked A Storm Hits Valparaiso up on Novel Rank and couldn’t find the numbers to match your statement: is Novel Rank totally and utterly unreliable ?

    Would love to know how many copies you sold of ASHV to give it ‘bestselling’ status on this blog.

    Ultimately Ewan is right:
    People know the price of everything and the value of nothing:
    Dropping prices for books to less than that of a magazine in combination with free blogging: the professional writer is doomed. To illustrate it just look at what happened at the Huffiington Post. 9000 contributors had been contributing for 5 years for free and Ariana sold HP to AOL for 350 millions but not a cent was passed on the writers who made it happen.

    I only found out after I had contributed and I’m livid! On top of it all you are not even allowed to advertise or link to your own website, not to mention the censor ship involved for placement!

    There will be no professional writers if that is the unethical and disrespectful attitude prevailing on line and elsewhere. And so what if millions of writers can publish their work on Amazon and sell it to their friends and family: Amazon is laughing all the way to the bank, no one else.

    The only thing that changed is readers now expecting debut novels at the price of a pair of socks!

    50 shades may have been self published but the author is a TV producer and I don’t buy into it ‘went viral all by itself’.

    And I’m also tired of hearing the Konrath/Locke/Hocking saga repeated endlessly: What has their writing to do with enduring, quality literary fiction? A quality literary novel can take years to develop and can never be sold at 0.99 or even 2.99 if everyone involved, (editors, cover designers etc) including the author, get paid a professional rate!

    Where is the selfpublished, literary novel sold at a decent price with a decent profit for the author? I’m probably not as well informed as you and would love to stand corrected regading your bestselling novel and those of other self published authors writing deep novels that actually stir our soul and change the way we perceive the world and are more than 0.99 cents a pop entertainment.

    1. Hi Denise,

      Novelrank is a reliable enough at tracking Sales Rank, but extremely inaccurate as a measurement of actual sales numbers. If you are selling not too fast or not too slow (i.e. my UK sales in general), they will be reasonably accurate. Otherwise, they are totally off. A case in point: Novelrank tells me that I’ve sold 16 copies of Let’s Get Digital in the US in August and 16 in the UK. The actual numbers are 23 in the UK and 157 in August.

      So, yeah, Novelrank isn’t even close.

      I never said Storm was a “bestseller” (although it did crack the Top 20 Historical Fiction in April, it nowhere near qualifies for use of that term IMO), by *my* bestseller. It was my top-selling book in 2012 until some time in late April/early May. It was released in December, had a good January, dipped in Feb/March, then sold a stunning amount in March and April (the latter was something in the region of 300-400) before dying a very quick death in May. I largely expect such inconsistencies to continue until I get another book out in that genre.

      Part of the challenge with historical fiction (and literary fiction) is that there are no sub-categories. This means that if you are not ranked below #2000 to #3000 you won’t even hit the back of the chart. Other genres have very granular sub-categories, allowing indies to gain visibility each time their sales tick upward. But with historical/literary, if you don’t sell a huge amount in a short space of time, you get none of that – which makes it very challenging for indies in those genres.

      All that is compounded by the demographics. Romance/Thriller readers went digital first. Followed by SF/F. Historical/literary readers (and non-fiction fans) are slower to move across for all sorts of reasons. But they are coming and we’ll soon see lots more success stories like this one:

      I don’t agree with you on pricing though. I think you are confusing price and value. I also think that authors should price at the level that maximizes their income (which they can discover through experimentation), not at some arbitrary level that may make them feel like they have written a better book.


      1. Cheers Dave! I still don’t quite understand how Novel Rank works: it says that you have sold 6 books in the states and UK combined, this year! How weird.
        (I’m also asking in case I’ve been tracking my own wrongly!)

        Btw, I wasn’t saying that the price indicates that someone feels they have written a better book but one that took more time and money to produce as the production included paying professionals on the way, and that it and may have taken years rather than months to write! And I don’t think that we should let the consumer have everything at ‘made in china prices’… The low pricing means people have a sense of entitlement to get an author’s work at bargain basement price.

        1. I don’t believe that we are training readers to only accept ridiculously low prices. I think (going out on a limb here) that we are getting readers used to the idea that prices are fluid (much like airline tickets).

          Personally, I don’t price anything (regularly) at 99c, other than short stories. I usually price full length stuff at $4.99. Not because of any belief that is where prices should be, but because that is the price which seems to maximize my income. It also allows me a lot of room to run limited time sales for a few days. IMO, that gives you the best of both worlds.

      2. Novel Rank has its purpose… primarily as a site to send the tax man to.

        Apparently one of my titles only sold 800 copies in July. Which, if you give or take 5000 copies, was almost spot on!

      1. In my experience, watching Novelrank on my books for over a year, if you are selling 2 to 10 copies a day, it tends to capture most of them. But if you have a sales burst, and are selling multiple copies per hour, it will only record one of them. It takes a feed from Amazon and tries to calculate sales based on ranking jumps. But if you are selling quickly (i.e. more than a few an hour), it will miss most of them. Another thing it misses is sales you make while ranking is slipping. For example, if you had a sales spike and reached #500 in the rankings, and then very gradually slipped to #10000 over the course of a week, you could have sold 200 on the way down, but Novelrank might record no sales whatsoever.

        1. I mean, if you published your book yourself via KDP, then you can track your sales there instead of relying on Novelrank.

    2. “And I’m also tired of hearing the Konrath/Locke/Hocking saga repeated endlessly: What has their writing to do with enduring, quality literary fiction?”

      You mean, other than producing books that tens (hundreds?) of thousands of readers love? I’m not a big fan of any of those writers, but clearly many people consider them quality fiction.

      “A quality literary novel can take years to develop and can never be sold at 0.99 or even 2.99 if everyone involved, (editors, cover designers etc) including the author, get paid a professional rate!”

      How many trade-published literary writers make a living today from writing one book every few years? Most of the lit fic writers I’ve met on the Internet seem to be lucky to sell a few hundred copies of their book through a small publisher.

      1. “producing books that tens (hundreds?) of thousands of readers love? ”
        People love these books because they consider them entertainment, which is great! And by lit fiction I’m not talking about ‘up its own arse, riddled with metaphors’ fiction either, pardon my French. Just books that take a long time to develop and that may have an effect on how we perceive the world and even change it!
        The difference between entertainment and art can not be measured in sales, necessarily.
        When self-publishing took over I was so excited: now we can talk art and find authors that would never have been published by mainstream publishers because they didn’t see ‘a market’ for it. It seemed that publisher were churning out stuff according to formulas regarding market and readers.
        Instead, all the talk is about sales, sales, sales, (which is why the K/L/H saga is being repeated over and over?) and how to climb the charts, pro/contra amazon, self-publishig versus trad etc.
        Is (self)publishing turning into this giant entertainment industry producing easy reads for next to nothing with give aways thrown in like prezzies in a cereal box?
        Again, this is only my personal impression, have I totally missed the point? I more than gladly stand corrected, it’s all a tad sad…

  15. Hey David,

    as per usual another post that is a pleasure to read.

    Find it really intriguing, I’d never heard of Ewan Morrison until I came across your post in my inbox – A post that is from your blog that I signed up for online – Having heard about you via wordpress (I think originally, seems so long ago now can’t actually remember!)

    From this article I’ve taken some great advice on methodology of online retailing, have now read Catherine Caffeinated for the first time, once again found myself on Joe Konrath’s blog thinking ‘ I should really read some of his stuff sometime’, had a good old read of the Kindle board and then waved at the Joanna Penn on the computer screen (mainly because I’ve been reading her website a lot lately – found myself going ‘ahh its joanna, ooh lets have a look at

    And at no point did I think to myself ‘I should check out who Ewan Morrison is and perhaps buy one of his books…’

    Makes the point really doesn’t it. For all his bashing and wiping up any-sort-of-publicity-even-if-its-negative sort of storm, can’t imagine it’s going to drive up Ewan’s sales within the online community…?

    only time will tell.

  16. Hello again,

    having read through all of the comments on here now, wanted to add my two pennies worth briefly about self publishing because I increasingly feel there is a need to clarify further when this big term is discussed.

    I want to respond to Denise’s comments specifically. I have no issue with what she wrote (not having a go at you Denise, more referencing point made) but do feel quite strongly about some of the points she raised.

    At the moment the self-publishing industry is exploding and the traditional model is certainly taking an absolute battering. In many ways it is clear that is deserved and what amazon et al have done is open up the market to writers and readers. But I think we are starting to need to distinguish the different elements more and more within the massive self-pub marketplace.

    You’ve got plenty of writers, like David, who are self-publishing professionally (and spending serious time and money on their books) and doing much better than they ever would have in the traditional model. And a lot of these authors are publishing books that wouldn’t be given mass market coverage by a traditional publisher (take a look the next time you are in a supermarket, airport, WH Smith or bookshop at what genres actually get noticeable space) Historical fiction, or Sci-fi or any other smaller genre, never got the promotion it deserved. So logically self-publishing is an obviously better way to go.

    But I think it is extremely important to distinguish between those who are approaching self-publishing their work in as professional a way as possible and those who are, for all intents and purposes, vanity publishing still.

    But lets also be honest, I know this is a little bit controversial, there are plenty of people self-publishing out there who would never have been professionally published, no matter what their genre. I’ve read more and more self-published work in the last year and some of it is truly atrocious. It clearly hasn’t gone through any sort of system to make sure it is professionally reviewed, edited and corrected. Nor has anyone gone ‘do you know what, this doesn’t quite work’ or ‘this bit isn’t up to scratch’. It is not professional enough yet. But by by-passing the publishers it can go straight to market. There are a lot of people self-publishing who are not spending money on their product (for a whole variety of reasons) and the result does unfortunately look amateurish. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but, in an increasingly saturated marketplace, a professional looking cover is crucial. It shows the potential buyer that this has been made to a certain standard. Personally I don’t buy anything anymore that has a home made looking cover.

    But this doesn’t mean those people shouldn’t have the opportunity and chance to self-publish their hard work. Amazon understood that and make money out of it. But so do those who self-publish, sometimes. Other times they don’t but at least they have had the opportunity.

    But I do believe people should see the difference between the professional writer who chooses to self-publish and others.

    People who write professionally can make a good living through self-publishing. It doesn’t mean the death of the writer nor the death of quality literature. But it does mean that that person has to become more sophisticated in marketing themselves to the world and getting people to try their product because the market is saturated. This is where the advice of people like David and Joanna is so helpful and experimenting with blogs, advertising, pricing and so forth crucial.

    That is all the traditional model did that was fundamentally different; they stopped the saturation but in return all you had to choose was what they deemed good. And as we’ve all seen, that is certainly a debatable point.

    I could say a lot more on this but think I shall have to write a blog post instead! Its getting way too long…


    1. I think UK publishers have always been better at backing historical fiction than US publishers. It’s certainly read more in the UK than the US, although whether that’s a chicken-egg situation is hard to say.

      I don’t know if this is the publishers’ fault or the agents’ fault (or both), but in both the UK and the US they seem to have a narrow view of historical fiction – what kind of style is acceptable, what kind of setting etc.

      A common reason Storm was rejected was because agents didn’t think they could sell a story set in South America. One even told me that he only shops books set in Rome, India, and England. All of that would be fine if it beared any relation to reality. But I recent survey of historical fiction readers said that only 2% of them felt that geographical/time setting was important and what was of far greater importance was whether the book was set around a major or minor historical figure, whether it was set during a war, whether the MC was male or female, and so on.

      As for the general quality level of self-published books, I think things are improving with regards to a professional approach: covers, editing, proofing and so on. But I don’t have to answer for the typos in someone else’s book, and neither do you (just like Penguin wouldn’t have to answer for the shoddy formatting in a Hachette book).

      I’m not too concerned with how much crap is out there though (whether self-published or not). The overwhelming majority of it is invisible. The few turds that float to the surface can be easily spotted by looking at the cover, reading the blurb, and sampling. The tiny percentage that pass even that test will get slammed in reviews, and the star rating will serve as a giant neon warning to anyone who stumbles across it in the future.

      1. Thanks for the response David.

        Completely agree with you about historical fiction. Just looking through my bookshelves before reading this, I’d say most of the fiction I own is historical in one way or another (even a lot of the crime stuff).

        I still find it amazing to hear about the agents comments – had he not read Louis de Bernieres? Surely his fans would have been an immediate market?

        There loss, your gain ultimately.

        As for the increasing professionalism of self-pub (or indie or independents or writers) I’d agree its definitely getting better and better. I suppose what annoys me are the number of people who grandly claim ‘I’m an author’ and then put out shoddy work.

        I suppose my view is biased though through running SolQu Shorts. It has been an eye opener. The whole premise of the site is to help people showcase their work for free, no catches. So often you’d get a submission email with people grandstanding what a successful author they are, links to site that promote that view (often with moody photos), a list of ‘published’ works and the submission attached. Then you read the story and go ‘wow, really?’. I never thought I’d have to turn so many ‘authors’ away. Yet often the work is so far below standard its shocking. It is basic, elemental stuff like grammar, punctuation, plot, structure and storyline. Sometimes you email people back and suggest changes because you can see the potential of the story. But for many its impossible.

        I suppose much of what I am getting at is that often those we reject have already ‘published’ one or more books (which are on sale on amazon etc).

    2. Excellent and critical points, Ewan. The self-published marketplace includes (a) professional independent authors who take writing and publishing seriously and approach it in a business-like manner, (b) people who put a book together, upload it, sit back and believe their work is done, and (c) people who publish, sit back, and wait believing a publisher will come calling. Unfortunately the latter two groups tend to distort the statistics for all self-published books, but what is great about today’s publishing environment is that they have every right to publish unfettered by subjectivity. What each author makes of today’s endless opportunities is entirely up to oneself.

  17. Note to above blog

    Name Ewan at the end was a typo, not my name nor Ewan Morrison replying to David’s blog post. It was a part of another paragraph I was going to write!


  18. Thank you for this intelligent and thoughtful response to the Guardian and Morrison.

    The one thing I’d like to ask is that writers/bloggers stop using the term “self publishing” when referring to independents and individuals. Your term harks to epithets of the twentieth century and has no place distinguishing between Big 6 hardcovers and independent ebooks. The Big 6 are publishing ebooks and the independents are publishing hardcovers. The distinguishing traits are whether the producer of a book owes his/her allegiance to millions of giant multinational shareholders.

    Peace, Seeley James

    1. The label argument is just going to run and run. One section of the publishing/writing community is vehemently opposed to self-publishing’s appropriation of the “indie” label, whereas others feel just as strongly about shedding the older labels. Here’s what I think: labels are inherently reductionist. Sometimes I use “self-publishing” to ensure their is no confusion in what I mean. But sometimes I use “indie” because it has less bloody syllables. Personally, I’ll be happy when we find a newer word that everyone agrees with. How about: writer?

      1. I label myself ‘bloke who writes things and deals direct with booksellers’.

        By the way, I’d like to thank you for Let’s Get Digital — a veritable mine of information that helped me immeasurably along the way.

  19. Pingback: The Bonfire of the Straw Men | The Passive Voice
  20. For the folks confused about value and price, I have a question. What’s more valuable, toilet paper or caviar? Caviar is more expensive, to be sure, but given the choice of spending the rest of your life without caviar or toilet paper, what would you choose? Indeed, for most people in the world, this choice is made for them.

    Of course, what people are really talking about is the perception of value. No one thinks that toilet paper is particularly valuable until that uncomfortable moment when you realize that you really need it and, for some reason, it isn’t available. Writers need to understand that they are in the business of storytelling (which, if it isn’t the world’s oldest profession, surely has to be in the top 5). There have always been free stories and that hasn’t undermined the value of paid storytelling.

    Digital publishing has fundmentally changed many things, but what will never change is our need for stories. They don’t even have to be new. How many copies of what is essentially the same story as Cinderella have been sold? Even “50 Shades” is just one more retelling. Then there is the monster under the bed, the hero’s journey, etc.

  21. Ah yes, the day is coming when readers will be fed up with self-published tripe, and only buy $10 e-books vetted and edited by major publishers– like Snookie’s “Shore Thing”…

    Morrison’s most revealing statement is: “I, for one, could never have guessed that writing about the end of books would generate more income for me than actually publishing the damn things.”

    The real bubble, in other words, is the money being paid by major newspapers for anti-self-publishing articles…

  22. And I’m also tired of hearing the Konrath/Locke/Hocking saga repeated endlessly: What has their writing to do with enduring, quality literary fiction?

    Thank you, Denise, for reading my entire oeuvre of over two million published words. I’m sorry that it didn’t meet your standards for “enduring” or “quality” and I’m sorry I don’t write literary fiction, but I know you wouldn’t have formed an opinion of my work unless you read it extensively. Perhaps the thematic subtexts of the majority of my fiction, including the importance of loyalty, the value of struggle, and the need to adapt to the curves life throws at you, were lost among all the action and jokes and sex, for which I apologize. I tend to focus on keeping the plot moving, and sometimes my themes get lost in my desire to entertain. But, as I said, I do appreciate you reading me.

    Dropping prices for books to less than that of a magazine in combination with free blogging: the professional writer is doomed.

    I blog for free. And my ebooks are less than most magazines. Yet I manage to make a pretty good living. Please don’t confuse “value” with “list price.” I’d call a self-published $2.99 ebook that sells 100,000 copies pretty valuable, as it has earn the author $200k.

    If you write stories people want to read, and keep at it long enough, you have a much better chance of finding an audience and making money that you had with the legacy publishing system. More and more evidence supports this position.

    David, as always, nice work.

    1. Also, I should note I fisked Morrison’s silly “Are Ebooks Dead?” nonsense a while ago.

      Barry Eisler is going to do a live debate with Morrison tomorrow at 2pm Central time on Morrison, if he has any sense, will not show up. But his Guardian articles are proof that sense is something he doesn’t have an abundance of, so I’m going to tune in and listen to fun.

      1. Listening to it now… David’s name came up (and they didn’t know how to pronounce it!) as well as, of course, Joe’s. It’s a bit infuriating to listen to, and there’s quite a lot of heat, but we have a good champion in Barry.

        I hope it will be available afterward for listening.

        1. I think it will be downloadable soon (tomorrow?). I thought Barry did well in quite a hostile environment. Morrison was quoting made up statistics (he was right that Bezos said over 1000 self-publishers are selling over 1000 books a month, by very, very wrong to assume that they are all selling for 99c and making very little. It’s simply not the case), Barry wasn’t allowed to put his feet to the fire. The two other guests were agents, and it felt like they would all interrupt Barry, but force silence for Morrison’s bull.

    2. You’ll like this quote by Isabel Allende:
      “The fact people think that when you sell a lot of books you are not a serious writer is a great insult to the readership.”

      Please do not apologise for jokes and sex! It’s so irritating when authors skip the sex, as if weren’t part of life. And let’s remember that it’s all so personal and no-one owns the truth or can claim absolute good taste.

      If Wikipedia is to be trusted you’ve started writing in 92 and were first published in 2003 and as you say yourself, you have since published 2 million words.

      Now take Isabel Allende who started writing in 1967 and was first published in 1981 and who has since written 20 books. Let’s estimate that her novels are 100 000 words on average.This means that she has published 2 million words in a career that spans 31 years as a published novelist.

      So you have both published the same amount of words but it took her four times longer even though she started writing 45 years ago! (As a famous author she must be getting substantial help from her publisher, too.) On her blog she says that she looks herself into a room for 12 hours a day so she puts a lot of time into each book…

      That was the point I was trying to make. If books are being sold cheaply then literary fiction can hardly survive. Don’t you think that there is more depth in work that takes longer to write? And isn’t the depth the enduring quality that will be enjoyed by generations to come? xx

      1. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks. Graham Green spent the same amount of time writing The Confidential Agent in the mornings, while writing The Power And The Glory in the evenings. And, Anthony Burgess said A Clockwork Orange was “knocked off for money in three weeks.” By your crude metric of time = quality, and speed doesn’t, those must be some awful, awful books, right?

      2. Don’t you think that there is more depth in work that takes longer to write? And isn’t the depth the enduring quality that will be enjoyed by generations to come? xx

        You do know the most widely read novelist in history is Agatha Christie, right? She’s endured just fine for many generations. Yet she wrote her first book on a bet, and it didn’t take her very long.

        Please don’t confuse how long an author takes to write a book with quality. And don’t dismiss genre fiction as lacking depth. It would be just as misguided for me to dismiss lit fic as plotless, meandering, self-indulgent character studies.

        I got into an argument with Denis Lehane once, when he touted novels are character-driven. I explained that we’re storytellers, not charactertellers, and that conflict drives narratives. The moderator broke us up.

        The thing is, whatever type of fiction you like, that’s fine. But don’t criticize work you haven’t read, don’t make uneducated assumptions, and work to avoid careless generalization and blanket statements.

        If books are being sold cheaply then literary fiction can hardly survive.

        As long as there is an audience, it will survive. And the cheaper the book, the more it will sell. Now one owes me, or Isabel, a living. If you are truly concerned for her well-being, send her a check for $10,000. But you can’t blame me because I can write popular books at a quick clip.

  23. As a somewhat successful self-pub’d authors (2 Amazon bestsellers, over 20K sold), I fall into this dude’s category of someone people now come to, to find out what exactly I’ve done to repeat my success. I started my own social media company last year and business is great, which according to him is a bad thing for me. I have happy clients, I’m paying my rent and feeding my kids — not to mention almost done with book three (and yes, I use a professional editor, formatter, graphic artist, and proofreader). So, um…what?

    I agree that social media will not sell a ton of books in and of itself, but without it people cannot discover you via the largest search engine in the world, Google. Blogging fresh content, interacting with people on different social media channels, paying for the ads he hates, are how people find us, tell others, and ultimately create money in our pockets in terms of sales. And that’s a bad thing?

    What I don’t get is why he’s so hateful of self-pub’d and social media in general. I work with amazing authors, support them on my blog, and RT and share their work every day. As an avid reader myself, my primary source of hearing about great books (no matter HOW they’re pub’d) is Twitter, Facebook, PInterest, and blogs.

    My final note is that I do agree with him — endless tweeting and self-promotion are more detrimental to an author than good. That’s typically a newbie mistake and more seasoned authors have learned how to properly use Twitter to create friends, followers, readers — a fan base. Nobody wants to listen to ‘that guy’ at the party — so quit being him.

  24. Excellent post and perfect response, David! As they say, ignorance is bliss. What can you do with ignorant viewpoints? Very little as impliedly, they come with a closed mind and deaf ears.

  25. I don’t know much about the social media thing, but twitter is not static, at least in my case. I don’t know how they can make predictions about it. And my facebook is like Topsy. I used to think mine was dying. I get lots of political unfriends even from family. But lately, I think because of linked-in, it is so ridiculous, I skip 75% of it. My blog hits are the only guideline that is relevant to me. Book sales as a guideline? Um, no. June supposed to be bad. Mine was great. July, awful. I have no clue what affects it. For sure the epub market s not going to pop and disappear. Where do some of these guys get these ideas? Don’t answer that.

  26. The bubble that will inevitably burst is the “anyone can write” balloon. What we’re seeing with the new tech at the moment is a lot of people jumping aboard the bandwagon who stood no chance with the trad publishing bandwagon (and who will eventually be thrown from the indie bandwagon, probably as Morrison suggests).

    Until we’re past that stage it will continue to seem as if indie publishing is “the death of writing” (or whatever).

    My guess is that writers will continue to write, and while some will continue to go trad, many will pursue the indie route. Once the chaff has been cast aside, what we ought to be left with is more quality writing, not less.

  27. Further thought. All analyses so far are based on how things stand at the moment, ie a social networking bubble linking in to a self-pubbing bubble to produce a huge Pears’ soap venn orb of the kind of #buymybook tweets that Morrison rails against in his Guardian articles.

    What is beyond doubt is that both bubbles will morph. It may be that both pop and die, but I suspect not. What is likely to emerge is a synthesis of bubblitude specifically honed by writers to self-pub and promote their work — all the stuff that hasn’t happened yet. Evidence of this phenomenon proliferates web-wide — stuff, previously non-existent, havehappened by a combination of will, new discovery and new combinations of old things.

    Morrison’s presumption that self-pubbing will falter because the social networking to which it’s currently allied will run out of steam kind of overlooks the spirit of invention for which writers are known (even the currently unknown ones).

  28. Thank-you for demolishing Morrison so comprehensively. So much of what he writes about eBook publishing seems to be a tissue of misinformation but even when his errors – of fact and logic – are pointed out, he just presses on regardless. I think what I find most disturbing is the way he characterises himself as a ‘literary professional’ and proceeds to behave as though his own fortunate experience – creative writing degree, agent, publisher, decent advances and very little writing ‘on spec’ – as being some sort of norm. It’s that false assumption which allows him to cry wolf about some hideous future in which – God love him – he might actually have to write without being paid in advance!
    Has he any idea of how lucky he has been, and how much of an anomaly his career path to date would seem to the vast majority of professional writers?
    I’ve news for him – most writers work on spec most of the time. And most writers have to do other work to fund the writing. Even ‘established’ writers. Join the real world, Ewan. When I was much younger, I suppose I used to think of myself (if I thought about it at all) as a literary writer. Certainly I was a fairly serious and well produced playwright – one of my plays even made the Scottish school syllabus – but my agent at the time told me that my fiction, which I loved writing even more than the plays, was ‘not nearly experimental enough’ to be literary. Nevertheless, as an established writer, I found myself sitting on an Arts Council literature panel for a couple of years. It was an eye opener and in no good way. There were always many more applications than available grants and many of them were from good, well published writers who were living on the breadline in an attempt to keep writing.
    Maybe Morrison is just discovering what most of us learn a lot earlier: that a writing career is a game of Snakes and Ladders. I’ve done all kinds of other things to make the money to buy the time to write but it has never stopped me thinking of myself as a professional. And now – thanks to eBook publishing – I’m reaping some pretty good rewards for that same mid-list work which successive agents and publishers told me was ‘too well written to be commercial but too accessible to be literary’. I have a lot of it still on file – all those years of writing on spec. It’s one of the reasons why some of us oldies are embracing the digital revolution with such enthusiasm. The liberation of being able to get the work out there and move on is incredible. Most of all though, I resent Morrison’s reference to the ‘digital masses’ and their tastes. I’ve nothing against cutting edge, experimental work – it can be exciting – but few writers are so conscious of their own ‘literary worth’ as Morrison and it’s not a nice trait. If it also leads a writer to greatly over-value himself and his work, and to despise and misrepresent other writers and readers, in a profession where truth and humanity should be paramount – what on earth is the point?

  29. What did Morrison mean when he talked about Google scanning 130 million books to sell cheaply? Surely this would be illegal copying, unless they had the permission of authors?

  30. David – I’ve been relentlessly testing non-fiction ebooks on kindle for just under a year now. And I can say with absolute certainty that you can sell a lot of books with no social media, no advertising and no external marketing at all. Amazon gives you all the tools you need inside their platform to be noticed and to be purchased. I’m sure your experiment will show the same result 🙂

    Whether the bubble will burst – gosh well I guess new channels and new media will emerge so nothing is forever. But if i were the predicting type i would say we were good for a few years yet!

  31. David: I see you’re at #765 Paid in the US! Bravo!!

    I’ve had quite a slow couple of months, so I am looking into doing something similar with my big political thriller.

    Thanks for all the great blogging you do. You are a constant source of rational information.

    P.S. I trust you have found a new home? (Uh oh, I’m going to inadvertently create a rumor that you are one of those poor homeless self-published writers…!)

  32. Yogi Berra would be proud:”It’s Déjà vu all over again.” (If someone else already used this in a comment then I guess it’s all over again plus one)
    Don’t they get the USA internet feed in the UK? This has played itself out. I love the Guardian but this fellow is so misguided it is hard to believe he’s serious.

  33. Why are Morrison and others so wrapped around the axle about this? If self publishing is such a fad then wouldn’t it clear out the slush pile for him? I’d think that he and others with a Jones to traditionally publish would be happy because their signal to noise ratio just got a whole lot better. He really needs to strike while the iron is hot and get his book out. (I’m having a sale on old saws, btw)

    Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.

    We’re clearing shelf space just for him! A thank you would be nice.

    1. He claims that self-publishing is a fad and the bubble will burst soon. On the other hand, he claims that publishers are forced to take radical actions which damage authors’ ability to earn a living – like selling ebooks for 20p – because of the “race to the bottom” mentality of self-publishers.

      If self-publishing is powerless bubble, how can self-publishers force billion dollar corporations to change their pricing strategies.

      He seems to think all self-publishers sell all their work at 99c. I’m beginning to think he doesn’t know the first thing about self-publishing.

  34. Dave

    Great work in this piece and in your comments in the Guardian replies as well.

    I particularly liked your European perspective in how the mass audience there is lagging some behind the US with ebook adoption.

    My single greatest wish regarding Morrison: with the multiple fisking’s he received for his article’s complete lack of any logic or facts, that he now only concerns himself with writing Lit for the traditional market, and never comments on e-pub. Ever. Again.

    I have a feeling I’m not getting what I want thouogh, Too bad, I genuinely get a headache just reading his name now.

    1. He appears to be making more money writing articles saying that e-publishing is a fad and the traditional publishers will triumph, than, you know, publishing books with traditional publishers.

      Draw your own conclusions…

      1. I’m thinking about taking every stupid thing he said in that interview and fisking it. Interested in joining me, David? I was refuting his points left and right in the chatroom, and was completely ignored.

        I don’t like it when pinheads spout nonsense, because they can get other pinheads to believe them. That’s dangerous, and needs to be nipped in the bud.

        1. Totally. Listening to that podcast was infuriating. Aside from the tech issues, any time Barry tried to hold Morrison’s nonsense up to the light, he was shouted down by the other guests (often Blofeld just shouting “Amazon” in an increasingly desperate manner).

          Hey, I’ve even got a title for you: The Many Myths of Ewan Morrison

    1. Damn it, I was asleep! Novelrank says I peaked at #360, which would have put me in Top 10 Historical Fiction. I miss all the good stuff!

      The biggest driver was ENT Book of the Day.

  35. It is a shame this debate is polarised around pro/anti Amazon. Morrison’s article actually has some good advice for ePublishers. His central thesis is indeed wrong as David has established. But his points about the Facebook bubble and the shortcomings of Facebook are valid. It is just ridiculous for Morrison to tie it to the future of ePublishing. But Morrison is addressing the central issue that . competent writers should be able to make a decent living from their craft. I have said it before but it bares repeating that most indies need a model which provides high margins on low volumes. I am not sure Amazon provides this.
    Also Morrison certainly references all the internet scams out there targetting tyro authors and we all shook our heads in disbelief when a desperate Penguin became party to these. I would advise authors to re-read Morrison to harvest the wheat and don’t choke in anger on the chaff.
    How is the job hunting going, David? I suggest a post on what job should David take..

    1. “I would advise authors to re-read Morrison to harvest the wheat and don’t choke in anger on the chaff.”
      Well said!

  36. Draw your own conclusions…

    Yeah, I still can’t figure out which is more hypocritical: Morrison decrying the social media aspects of indie-pub (cuz, y’know, every other professional entity in the universe with a FB and TW prescence is just doing modern day business, while ANY indie writer with one..well…is proof they aren’t a real writer because they’re obviously tweeting all day instead of writing serious work like Morrison) all while he has FB and TW buttons to help promote his article and his prescence…as Joe pointed out. His flame piece has probably done more for his visibility and sales than anthing else he’s down.

    Or…the traditional authors coming out as critics of the evil Amazon empire, like Mr. Turow, who very undoubtedly are cashing their checks from Amazon sales without delay, if not checking their sales rankings daily and hourly.

    I think you were too nice in calling Morrison a coward. Fear is at least a natural response. All the hypocrisy from the traditional side, from all these intellectual professionals, is what I find despicable.

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  38. Am gobsmacked to find that Morrison is the ONLY writer on a panel discussing digital publishing at Edinburgh University’s forthcoming Turing Festival.

  39. @David:This, of course, ignores the ever-growing amount of writers making more and more money from e-books and self-publishing

    As a reader, this is what I LOVE about ebooks. Instant feedback and an incentive to deliver a quality follow on product.

    I now have a DOZEN authors I’m waiting on their next book that exist almost purely in ebook form. Oh, one is a print holdout about to make the transition; mostly as he *finally* realized he could monetize the backlist. 🙂 The other 11… Only two more ever had a paper book ‘published,’ but never in the quantities the audience demanded. Who here isn’t waiting for an ebook from an author they had not heard of two years ago and is an indie author? That is the bulk of my reading today. I would have love to have heard the debate.

    We need more ‘evil’ companies like Amazon.

  40. Whenever I read or hear someone say that something is going to go the way of the dinosaur, I just sigh. I saw that there is a store which repairs and sells manual typewriters – and they are doing great! Things change and evolve over time but to think e-publishing, and writing, is going away is silly.

  41. As someone working on their first novel, self-publishing is the impetus behind me working on it at all. Knowing how difficult it is to get traditionally published, the thought of working on a book for months or years only to have it buried in the slush pile wasn’t terribly appealing. After doing some research, including reading this blog, I decided that I can write it and market it and have it read (at least by a few).

    There’s an analogous situation in photography and graphic arts. Shortly after relatively inexpensive digital SLR cameras first hit the market in 2003, professional photographers using high end dSLR cameras (that were out of reach of most consumerss) bemoaned the loss of their business and the “race to the bottom” that self-publishing critics cry about.

    The same thing happened in the graphic design world with the advent of programs like Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop. The programs are often prohibitively expensive, but are pirated at an alarming rate, putting the software into the hands of practically anybody who wants them. Again, professional designers were afraid that their work would be diluted and undervalued.

    In both cases, as with writing, quality trumps everything. Well-written stories, quality photography and creative design work are all still in demand. If anything, at least with photographers and designers, the creativity has jumped up a notch or two.

    Great post, David.

  42. Reblogged this on Sailing the Void and commented:
    I missed this post when it came out on the 6th as we were on holiday, but it’s more solid argument from David refuting the ‘self-pub is dying/non-viable/killing writing’ noise that keeps popping up.

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