The Gospels of Publishing

We start this service with a reading from The Book of Maass:

“…because some authors are now—voluntarily!—willing to bear the expense and undertake the effort of building an audience by themselves, print publishers have the luxury of culling the prize cattle from the herd. Even print-only distribution deals with a handful of successful e-published authors are terrific: easy pickings and effortless profit. Most authors are still knocking at the gate, too, since after all seventy percent of trade book sales are of print editions. In many ways these are good times for print publishers.”

“…the self-publishing movement has produced gold-rush hysteria in the writing community. While not exactly a mass delusion, questionable beliefs have been widely accepted. True believers sneer at doubters. So what is the real truth? High success at self-publishing has happened only for a few who have mastered the demanding business of online marketing. A larger, but still small, number of authors have achieved a modest replacement income from self-publishing. Growth from there will be hard for them, however, because wide print distribution still is needed.”

“…the position of the vast majority of self-publishing authors is no better than it ever was, though probably there are fewer cartons of books in their garages. Consultancy to self-publishers is a new job category, however, and that has to be good for the nation’s employment stats.”

And now, a reading from The Book of Konrath:

“…The royals vs. the peasants. The bourgeoisie vs. the proletariat. The establishment vs. the revolutionaries. The haves vs. the have-nots. The gatekeepers spouting bullshit vs. the new breed of writers calling them on their bullshit.

“…for those countless midlist authors stuck with unconscionable contracts because they had no choice, and the multitude of authors kept out of the industry by gatekeepers such as yourself, it didn’t work. It actually sucked wheelbarrows full of ass. Your industry f***ed the majority of writers it provided services for. And that same industry was built on the sweat, tears, toil, and blood of those very writers it exploited.”

“…we talk to each other. We read each others’ contracts. We know how much we can earn on our own. And more and more of us believe the publishers you work for are, indeed, evil f**ks.”


The emphasis in the above excerpts was added by  me. I recommend reading the full posts if this is a conversation you’re interested in.

Personally, I find it frustrating and tiresome. Look, I’ve been the author who got crapped on by a major publisher, and I’ve been the author who got book deals in the mid five figures. I’ve hung out with New York Times bestselling authors. I’ve hung out with self-published authors who have moved hundreds of thousands of books. I’ve watched friends move from self-publishing to traditional publishing, and I’ve seen traditionally published authors move into self-publishing.

This whole Us vs. Them thing? It’s bullshit. Traditional publishing isn’t Evil. (Certain individuals within that system, well, that’s another blog post…) Self-publishing and e-books aren’t asteroids coming to wipe out the Dinosaurs. And there’s no One True Path to success as an author.

I’m doing rather well as a mostly traditionally published author, but I’ve had people come along to tell me how stupid I am for not self-publishing. They lay out math full of ridiculously flawed assumptions and generalizations to “prove” how much more I’d be making if I published my own e-books. It’s possible they might be right — maybe I would do even better — but it’s in no way a sure thing. They assume everything my agent and publisher do for me, either I could do just as well myself, or else it isn’t really necessary.

You see it from the other side too, the idea that self-publishing doesn’t count. I haven’t personally seen as much of this side, but I suspect I’d see it a lot more if I was a primarily self-published author.

You want “the real truth”? Here’s some truth for you.

  • There are authors doing ridiculously, amazingly well with traditional publishing.
  • There are authors doing incredibly, mind-blowingly well with self-publishing.
  • There aren’t a hell of a lot of people in either category.
  • Being a writer is hard work, no matter what path you choose.

It’s that last bit I want to stress. There are plenty of paths out there, which is wonderful, but it’s also nerve-wracking. Which way is the right way for me? What if I make the wrong choice? What if those people are right, and I really would be doing better if I’d self-published all of my stuff instead of going through a traditional publisher? What if I self-publish my stuff and nobody ever finds it?

I wonder if that anxiety is part of why so many people are quick to cling to that false Us vs. Them framework. Personally, I think Maass’ view of writers as cattle is insulting and ridiculous, but if I tell myself that he’s representative of all of Them, then clearly I’m on the side of Right by self-publishing. When I see a self-published author repeatedly spamming people online and desperately shoving self-promotional material into people’s hands at conventions, all to promote a book with a cover that looks like it was done in MS Paint, a part of me wants to cling to that as proof that I’m better off with my publisher. I have to remind myself that this isn’t The Awful Truth of self-publishing.

I love reading folks like Tobias Buckell and Chuck Wendig, or watching what the authors over at Book View Cafe have been up to. These are people who avoid the Us vs. Them trap, who admit there’s more than one way to succeed as a writer. They try different things, and they acknowledge different paths.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t read what Maass or Konrath have to say. Just don’t fall into the trap of believing there’s One True Path. We’re all figuring this out, and the path that’s worked for me might not be the right one for you. In fact, it probably isn’t, since mine started almost two decades ago.

Do your research. Learn about the different possibilities. And make your own path.