Traditional versus Self-Publishing

dearieme points me towards this illuminating post on the subject of authors getting published. It makes for grim reading if what you expected was something different:

As you might imagine, I often hear from wannabe professional writers who have finished a book-length project and are horrified to discover that getting it published is harder than writing the damn thing. I offer them the sagest bit of wisdom I possess, which is that perseverance counts more than talent. A harsh message perhaps, but essential to incorporate in your world-view if you want to take up the vocation.

It only gets worse from here.

It’s especially troublesome if you produce something original, something that doesn’t fit into a tried-and-true marketing template.

Uh-huh.

I came by this knowledge the hard way, having been fucked around by morons in the publishing industry my whole career — not to put too fine a point on it.

The truth is, you are producing work that nobody asked for and that no one especially cares about.

That last part is particularly important.

You have to grind away at this lonely business day-after-day to get the job done. The only thing that avails to keep you going is your own conviction that it is worth doing.

Which to be fair is the case for anything. From memory, nobody paid me to learn Russian.

Thus, the second morsel of wisdom I offer wannabes is to give up seeking validation from friends and relatives. I never ask friends to read my works-in-progress.

I quit doing this early on because, frankly, only one person was interested. Which only goes to amplify the point that nobody asked for it and nobody especially cares about it. That said, the one person’s feedback has been extremely helpful. Plus all of your comments on the excerpt, of course.

I sent the manuscript out to two editors who had expressed some interest in my work over the years. The first guy, Daniel Menaker at Harper Collins, had a snit when he learned I’d made a multiple submission — a no-no for authors in those days — and told me to get lost.

Publishers really are arrogant shits, aren’t they? They turn people down by the million but get all snotty if you submit your proposal to anyone other than them.

I finished my latest “book” project last year around Halloween. In late December, my publisher turned it down. I’d been with The Atlantic Monthly Press, part of the Grove-Atlantic group, for seven books, starting with The Long Emergency.

They eventually published my four-book World Made By Hand series of novels about life in a small New England town after the sort of economic collapse I described in The Long Emergency, a natural progression for me. I sensed they were none too happy about the project, but perhaps the chance that the series might be picked up by a cable network kept them on the line. My advances sank with each book. In any case, they never offered a kind word (e.g. “Hey, nice job… I enjoyed it….”). They did absolutely nothing in the way of marketing the books.

If an established publisher isn’t going to bother marketing your book, what is the point of using them in the modern era? To get it on a shelf for a week before pulping the lot? And being dropped like a stone without warning appears to be a part of life in the writing world.

So, when I handed in A Safe and Happy Place last year, they dumped me just in time for Christmas. My current agent didn’t want to try to sell it elsewhere, either. He said it was “off my brand” of hard-hitting polemical non-fiction and no other publisher would want it.

Like a lot of so-called professions – recruiters, letting agents – literary agents seem to be very much fair-weather friends, happy take their cut when things are going well of their own accord, but unwilling to put in any effort when things get more difficult.

If his publishers won’t market books and agents refuse to do their job, it’s hard to see why anyone would choose to go the traditional route over self-publishing these days. I suspect in the coming years we’ll see more and more examples like Andy Weir’s The Martian, which was self-published and then snapped up by a traditional publisher when they realised it was doing exceptionally well (it is worth reading, miles better than the film). As I said, fair-weather friends.

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28 thoughts on “Traditional versus Self-Publishing

  1. Good post, and interesting. I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with self publishing, as it still seems hard to get visibility in that marketplace: but- as you say- if a traditional publisher isn’t going to market the book, why bother going that route.

    On the subject of sharing part-completed work: I’ve done this exactly once, and it killed the project dead. Partly because you get all nervy about sharing, but mainly because it killed my enthusiasm for the book in question.

    I’ve now apparently overcompensated: I happened to mention I was writing a book to my longest standing friend this week, and he looked at me as if I’d just told him I was transitioning gender. He had no idea I wrote, and we’ve been friends for 20 years.

  2. I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with self publishing, as it still seems hard to get visibility in that marketplace:

    It’s going to be a very interesting experience, for sure. I am good friends with somebody who works in e-marketing, and she says the key is to “go where the people are”. In other words, start trying to create a buzz in the online forums, chatrooms, and social media sites where your intended readership is already in large numbers, as opposed to hoping they will come to you.

  3. “nobody paid me to learn Russian.”

    RESPECT! I had a few lessons at A level and could not get my head around the bloody alphabet. Same with Japanese. The German special characters are easy by comparison.

    BTW the ‘notification’ function doesn’t seem to work for me …and yes I have checked my spam box etc.

  4. and social media sites
    Someone has no doubt already tried this or there are good reasons why this is a bad idea but it occurred to me the other day that as a pdf is but jpegs stuck together one could publish at least the first few chapters of a book solely on twitter, jpg by jpg.
    I was thinking of it as in terms of a blog published solely on twitter, each new post a jpg but it could perhaps work for a novel too.

    Like I said, no doubt someone has already- I’m not big on original thought- but it might be a way of drumming up some interest.

  5. I had a few lessons at A level and could not get my head around the bloody alphabet.

    The alphabet can be learned in a few hours. The grammar takes approximately a decade, and a century later you’ll have cracked the verbs of motion provided you thoroughly immerse yourself.

  6. Use IngramSpark.

    Load the manuscript and cover art up, order a single copy, proof read, amend, repeat then press “publish”.

    They send it to the major e-bookstores and will print on demand, one at a time.

  7. You’d have to be insane (IMHO) to seek a trad pub contract these days.

    The real question is whether you go for Amazon exclusive (which allows you to enroll in things like Kindle Unlimited) or also submit to other places like the Apple store, Google play etc.

    The good news is that it appears to be perfectly legit to have a “Kindle exclusive” edition that is valid for the Kindle Unlimited and a different non-Kindle edition for everything else that differs solely in a few words that say “Kindle edition”

    Print can be done via Ingram Spark or Amazon’s POD program. Unless you expect to actually get your book into bookshops in large amounts it probably doesn’t matter which, though again given that Amazon is the 800lb gorilla in book sales it probaby makes sense to do Amazon unless there’s a really compelling reason not to.

  8. a century later you’ll have cracked the verbs of motion provided you thoroughly immerse yourself

    I dread to think! After 30 years of speaking German 24/7 I still struggle with the ‘transitory’ ‘locational’ or ‘2-way’ prepositions …just the idea of ‘verbs of motion’…I need a drink.

  9. Phew, just made it back to my desk having slunk like the shadow of a ninja past the LGBT desk in the lobby where they are handing out gender free gingerbread man (“genderbread men!” Ho ho, my sides are splitting). I’m not making this up. No, I’m really not.

    Anyway…

    I agree. My sister actually had a book due out; it was listed publicly as due to be
    released earlier this year and they had had a book cover made and so on. But it was pulled due to security concerns, as the book might have angered certain individuals of aggressive disposition. Not having second amendment rights the publishers did not feel able to exercise their first amendment rights, which, on paper (boom tish) they had. Still unpublished. She has a literary agent in a different country, but he is sitting on his hands; presumably with one thumb (or two, if he is bored) facing upwards.

    In retrospect self-publishing might have been wiser; might be legally difficult now.

  10. You have to look at what music publishing and book publishing were once about: they were basically venture capitalists. It used to cost a sod of a lot of money just to get the thing made ready for sale, and they could manage the distribution.

    At best, they can get you onto some Radio 4 show or Oprah where you’ll plug your book. But for that, they’ll take most of the money. But even then, you often need to be a celebrity or think up a marketing angle.

    The publishing history of the Martian is interesting: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Martian_(Weir_novel)#Publishing_history

    (and yes, the book is better, although I think the film is as good as a film of that story could be – it might have worked better as a series format).

  11. BiW,

    On the Martian publishing history:

    Having been rebuffed by literary agents when trying to get prior books published, Weir decided to put the book online in serial format one chapter at a time for free at his website.

    I was thinking of doing something similar long before I even started writing my book. You’d need a decent fan base and a compelling story, though.

  12. I think it’s really worth talking to self-published authors about this sort of thing. But you need some way to get people interested in your thing. No-one is going to pay £5 for an unknown book from an unknown. 99p? I don’t know. But I guess you need to do something free just to even get a few people talking about it.

  13. No-one is going to pay £5 for an unknown book from an unknown. 99p? I don’t know.

    Ah, no. I’ve only briefly researched this but already the feedback is clear: if you give it away for free or charge 99p, people will assume it’s crap. I need to find the right price-point, but it can’t be too low. Mr Worstall probably has a name for this effect.

  14. “Thus, the second morsel of wisdom I offer wannabes is to give up seeking validation from friends and relatives. I never ask friends to read my works-in-progress.”

    Amen to that. I have asked family to read what I has wrote and frankly, the lukewarm response has largely killed any project. I fully accept what i write is crap of the first order and pretty sure no one shares my world view, so the only reason for writing is its fun. It’s also a better (and largely cheaper) entertainment than at times watching, reading or listening to what others has wrote. When one of my characters suddenly turns out to be a mindless murderer I really enjoy sorting that out, free of charge.

    So what if no one reads the final weighty volume? I read it as i go and I simply love my world view, hehe.

    Also I can has spend time learning myself to wrote proper, like.

  15. One big benefit of Amazon is the “sample”, which lets you try a good chunk of the book without paying. In one case, I got through what seemed like about half of it, so was quite hooked by the time the sample ran out.

    The big names can afford to give just a chapter or two, of course.

    As I mentioned on a previous thread, a lot of the bad reviews I see that immediately put me off are because the author can’t spell or format, so you’re already well ahead of a lot of what gets self-e-published.

  16. WRT the storyline, there should be a market but you never know.

    There’s certainly plenty of unmarried blokes around at our age that should be able to relate, though something “romantic” might be a hard sell. Easier now we don’t have to buy it in person, though!

    Women looking for blokes of our age ought to try understanding how we think about these things, but I suspect often they’d rather not (ref: your unhappy conversation with the Russian lady that was done putting out).

    Hopefully you’ll get more “a keen insight” reviews than “misogyny!” ones.

  17. There’s certainly plenty of unmarried blokes around at our age that should be able to relate, though something “romantic” might be a hard sell.

    I’ll market it differently to men and women: will leave the word “romantic” out of the pitches made to men. 😉

    Women looking for blokes of our age ought to try understanding how we think about these things, but I suspect often they’d rather not

    That’s exactly what I’m going for.

  18. ” I fully accept what i write is crap of the first order and pretty sure no one shares my world view, so the only reason for writing is its fun.”

    This is how I feel about my blog comments 🙁

  19. Tim –

    …if you give it away for free or charge 99p, people will assume it’s crap.

    Will they? I recall reading Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother for free and, as he explained in the preface, his biggest problem as an author was obscurity. With that in mind, surely anything that stands between you and a potential reader – whether it’s a couple of dollarydoos or even the clicking of more than one button – is a bad idea.

    Perhaps a phony special offer might square that circle: it’s normally $5, and so therefore must be legit; but right now, it’s free, so why not download it? And quickly, before the offer runs out!

    Cynic –

    One big benefit of Amazon is the “sample”, which lets you try a good chunk of the book without paying. In one case, I got through what seemed like about half of it, so was quite hooked by the time the sample ran out.

    I don’t understand why this isn’t more widespread. Especially with mystery books: when you get right down to it, you could probably give away almost all of the book and just charge people to find out the conclusion.

    There’s certainly plenty of unmarried blokes around at our age that should be able to relate, though something “romantic” might be a hard sell.

    I think men will be more inclined to buy it if it’s pitched as funny and/or un-PC. Although “un-PC” might be too loaded a term, so perhaps selling it as being written by someone with an insight into how men really feel would be better. I once bought a book called The Average American Male by Chad Kultgen, which marketed itself in exactly that way. I probably wouldn’t have bothered if the blurb had said it was about a man torn betwen two women. But look at this quote I pulled from its Amazon page:

    An offensive, in-your-face, brutally honest and completely hilarious look at male inner life and sexual fantasy—sure to be one of the most controversial books of the year.

    How do you not buy that book? (By the way, it was very good.) Which brings me to my last point:

    Hopefully you’ll get more “a keen insight” reviews than “misogyny!” ones.

    There’s nothing that would boost Tim’s sales so much as controversy, so perhaps getting accused of misogyny isn’t the worst thing that could happen.

  20. How should one respond.to a friend’s or family member’s magnum opu? Insincere praise? An offer to edit? Out of sheer cowardice, I usually shelve the proffered manuscript “until I have the time to really do it justice”. Which is never.

  21. Coincidentally I experienced the unexpected and effective marketing of a book this morning. It was during a small seminar on contractual claims, one of the presenters (an Englishman) mentioned that he had just finished a book that would be published shortly. I think that approach works as I don’t buy books but I might get this one for our company, the sale here was due to his personal introduction.

    You don’t appear to be writing for commercial gain but just thought I would mention this as an effective marketing strategy since it happened to me today.

    http://legal.thomsonreuters.com.au/quantification-of-delay-and-disruption-in-construction-and-engineering-projects/productdetail/125540

  22. >The alphabet can be learned in a few hours.

    After wandering around Ukraine and Bulgaria a few times and staring at signs, I found I understood the alphabet – in the sense that I could sound out words in my head. (I have no idea what the names of the letters are or anything like that). I don’t have a clue about the languages themselves, but this is still a very useful skill.

    And on e-book pricing, my general feeling is that if something looks vaguely interesting and the price is in the £3 to £5 range, I will just click “buy” without thinking about it much. More than that, and it has to be something I really want.

  23. “if something looks vaguely interesting and the price is in the £3 to £5 range, I will just click “buy” without thinking about it much.”

    Heark at Mr. Moneybags over here

    Did you type that yourself or dictate it to your butler?

  24. A small thought (I have those):

    Most men like adventure and action over romance maybe because actually doing things is essentially “problem solving.” You know, end of the world caused by bad guys is really a problem that needs to be solved. So possibly, Mr Tm, you could market your book as “Man solves problem with relationship.”

    Just sayin’

  25. read this guy’s blog on pricing on ebook sales. He is the undisputed expert.

    Thanks Adam, I will. Appreciated!

  26. regarding serialization, the urban fantasy writer Larry Correia had a presence on the gun forum The High Road where he took one of the short story written by an active duty (he was in Iraq at the time) Air Force staff and wrote an opposing viewpoint. They’d each write one chapter from their perspective protagonist and it’s up to the other writer to answer that challenge. Thus was born a very weird series Welcome Back Mr. Nightcrawler. This eventually grew to the novel Dead Six after they clean it up a bit. With the member of that gun community, Correia was able to self published after being rejected by every publisher for his first novel “Monster Hunter International”. After the proven success of that novel, Baen offered him a contract and republished MHI as well as subsequent novels. Correia and Kupari (who by now has been posted to Afghanistan) went ahead and submitted their clean up version of Dead Six and finished the 3 book modern thriller series.

    So serialization does work.

    Bob Defendi went about in a slightly different route in his audiobook/novel Death by Cliche. Every chapter started out as an acted out podcast post. He then edit them into a proper audiobook and a written novel at the same time. I highly recommended the audiobook as it’s one of the funniest novel I’ve read.

  27. BigFire,

    Ah yes, I came across Larry Correia and Monster Hunt Nation a few months back. I didn’t know his background, thanks!

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