The Case for eBook Self-Publication

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Change is afoot in the publishing industry. Stories about self-pubbed authors making big money have been all over the papers... well, all over the websites of the papers, at least. Stephen Leather! Amanda Hocking! GP Taylor! Louise Voss and Mark Edwards! (My examples are admittedly UK-centric, but I’m sure a little digging will unearth some local equivalents.) It’s a siren song: the seedy hucksterisms of the vanity presses are being elbowed aside, and authors heretofore snubbed by the snobbery of literature’s gatekeepers can go straight to the marketplace. Never before has it been easier to write creative works and disseminate them all over the globe; there are even mechanisms for getting people to pay you for the stuff. (And mechanisms for them to avoid paying, of course.)

So what does this mean for you, aspiring writer that you are? Should you play it old-school, chase down an agent, pitch at publishers? Or should you start slamming out as many ebooks as you can produce and see what you can get for ‘em?

The intertubes are full of punditry, and I don’t see any point in me adding to it. So instead I’m going to present the (somewhat caricatured*) cases for and against self-publication, starting here with the case in favour. The following column will present the case against, as well as my personal (and much more subjective) opinion... at which point we can all take to the comments like a pack of rabid meerkats and debate just how much of a scruffy wronghead I really am. Sound like a plan?

Of course it does. So, without further ado:

The Case for Electronic Self-Publication

Leapfrog the gatekeepers!

We’re all good enough writers here that we know a lot of folk who would be writers just can’t write (right?), but we’ve also been around long enough to meet more than a few brilliant penmonkeys who just can’t seem to sell their work, or midlisters-without-current-contract pushed out into the margins by the economics of the Long Tail as applied to tangible media distributed under a remaindering model.

There’s great writing out there that people would be willing to buy, and the publishing houses are too slow and stuck in the past to take advantage of a diverse and hungry market; what better solution than the level playing field of self-publishing ebooks (with maybe POD physical editions available at a premium, too)?

It’s basic late-capitalism economics: publishers and agents are first and foremost interested in making a profit, and the quality of your work is nowhere near as important to them as the ease with which it can be marketed as more-of-the-same to whomever it is that still buys whatever was big news three years ago. Dan Brown, and those who ape him; the serried and seemingly limitless ranks of post-Hamiltonian fangbangers and randy werewolf tales; “celebrity” “novels” ghostwritten by people with only marginally greater writing talent than the people they’re sockpuppeting for... publishers have squeezed the golden goose so hard that it prolapsed.

But there’s a way out, a bridge across that tepid river of avian bumslurry! A shining bridge to a populous promised land full of eager punters hungry for your latest creation... and with money to pay for it, too. So stop chasing agents and contracts, and start chasing readers.

Fast products for a fast market!

That novel you just subbed to the agent you’ve been chasing for a while - you started writing that thing, what, a year ago? Let’s assume you get a positive response today (yes, I’d love some cake and champagne, thanks for asking), and that the agent manages to place it with a publisher within six months of taking you on. Just to add to the fantasy, let’s assume the publisher is keen on your book, that they fast-track it through the publication process and don’t bump it down the list to make way for the Next New Shiny or the shambolic return of some elder statesman of the genre, and that there ain’t no slips ‘twixt cup and lip, so to speak.

So: you get representation for your just-finished debut book today, but you might see it on a shelf after twelve months if you’re extremely lucky. Two years would be more likely; three years or longer, definitely not unheard of. Publishing moves slowly.

A year’s a long time. Time in which you’re supposed to be working on your next book; how’re you supposed to do that without knowing what the public liked or loathed about the first one? And by the time the sequel’s finished and edited and published, who knows how the market might have changed? There are hungry readers out there, and if you can give them what the publishers currently can’t (or maybe won’t), then a bounteous harvest awaits! If werewolf technothrillers are selling hard rightfreakingnow and you’ve got one sat in inventory, for instance, it’ll be dead in the water by the time it makes it into stores by the traditional route; if you push it out now as an ebook, however, you might reap the whirlwind.

And let’s not forget, this isn’t vanity publishing; you know your stuff is good. You’ve even had a handful of rejections in which you were told that your work was “just not what we’re looking for” or “not something we can sell right now”. Well, if they can’t be bothered, why not do it yourself? Why let the caprice of editors and agents who secured their careers on the successes of twenty or thirty years ago decide whether you get your shot in today’s gladiatorial arena? Sharpen your sword, strap on your flamewar armour, and show ‘em what you’re made of!

A bigger slice of the pie!

Best of all, you get to keep a bigger chunk of the booty from your conquests. Why would you want to get a deal with a publisher, anyway? That advance figure you’ll be offered (if you even get an advance worthy of the name, which - for a first non-celebrity novel outside the barely-read critical darling that is the literary genre - is becoming increasingly rare) is basically a loan against possible future royalties that you may never earn out.

Furthermore, you’ll only see - at best - 15% of the recommended retail price of a book heading towards you as its creator; all the rest gets sucked up by not just your publisher (who pisses money away on fancy lunches for their bestseller authors, while the tiny promo budget for your own book is eaten up by paying for a few weeks of the PR intern’s phone bill and a couple of email blasts to barely-known book bloggers) but the big-box retailers and their inefficient business and distribution models, not to mention being rock-and-a-hard-placed by the tug-of-war of publisher/retailer discounting deals. It’s not quite as bad a screwing as the average band gets on their first album, but it’s not far off.

Now here’s a books retailer with a solid reputation that not only has global reach and a popular ereader platform on its side, but that is also willing to offer you, the author, up to 70% of the retail price of any ebook you sell on said platform. After years of chasing representation or traditional publication, there are now writers selling hundreds of thousands of copies of their own work directly to their readers, without any help - or hindrance! - from agents or publishers.

They’re living the dream. You can live it, too.

Go forth, my friends, and publish. This is the new republic; the aristocracy has been put out to pasture, and the future is yours.

[ * OK, strongly caricatured, then. Ain’t my fault if the extreme positions are silly by default, is it? ]

Paul Graham Raven

Column by Paul Graham Raven

Paul Graham Raven writes fiction and non-fiction, and leaves it to his editors to decide which is which; he'll be studying for a Master's in Creative Writing at Middlesex University from the autumn of 2011. He's also editor in chief of the SF/futurist webzine Futurismic, a reviewer of books and music, a cack-handed post-rock guitarist, and in need of a proper haircut."

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Randall Hauk's picture
Randall Hauk from Michigan is reading The Last Werewolf October 7, 2011 - 1:10pm

Nope. Not your fault!

Excellent piece. Cheers!

Jen Todd's picture
Jen Todd is reading your lifeline and all signs are good October 7, 2011 - 2:19pm

and authors heretofore snubbed by the snobbery of literature’s gatekeepers can go straight to the marketplace

So eloquent.

I'm probably going to get a lot of flack for this (so I'm ducking and I'm wearing my teflon) but while I agree with most of the things you've written here, it seems to me that people _still_ say with such sour-lemon faces... but they published it themselves. There's just a prejudice against self-publishing. The arguments about vetting, "quality control", and the "amaturish" by-products.  I'm not saying that's true, I don't think it is and I want to clarify, but I think the stigma still exists.

I'm positive self-publishing, if you're willing to put in the work and really build on it, is more lucrative than having a publisher, but those granddads of literature, the companies we all recognize from our dust-jackets, and I'm tip-toeing very gingerly here, it just feels like there's something about them that self-publishing won't give an author.  The credibility that comes from being sought out by the best in the business.

Mark's picture
Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water October 7, 2011 - 2:46pm

The credibility that comes from being sought out by the best in the business.

There's the rub.  The credibility associated with traditional publishing is in part chimerical and it's loaded with contradictions, but it's still something breakout authors crave.

You could spend all the time you might currently spend on query letters, researching agents, and waiting on form rejection letters in quite a different way: mastering social media.  And I mean more than getting down the basics of Facebook and Twitter.  I mean, using Twitter search to find out what people are talking about and joining or starting some of the best conversations pertinent to what you write.  I also mean: learning to blog on a professional level.  Not corporate or stuffy, but pro, like we do here.

All of that social media work takes a fantasitc amount of time when you equally need to obey the demands of your current novel manuscript, or short story collection, but it's time well-spent as long as you keep on learning and connecting with people.

The irony is that a person taking this self-driven route and mastering the appropriate use of the latest technical platforms may well be both a finer writer and more in touch with reader feedback and current market needs than the writer still waiting for representation and waiting on an antiquated business model that moves far slower than the melt of the polar ice caps.

And double irony: the person sticking religiously to the old model may be craving a certain kind of status and snob appeal more than anything else--a purely social drive not only more imporant to some than bottomline profitability, but also more important than the actual quality of the work and the reader's response to it.  More important, somehow, than the rapid feeding of a potential fan base that's not only hungry, but discerning.  Imagine, writers with a smaller concern for connection to the reader and a larger concern with the self-satisfaction of saying: "Oh, well, my agent takes care of that for me." 

Which of these positions sounds more like vanity?

Jen Todd's picture
Jen Todd is reading your lifeline and all signs are good October 7, 2011 - 4:35pm

Which of these positions sounds more like vanity?


Oh, I completely agree, Mark.  I think you have two camps -- those looking for the kudos and those looking to get their work out there.  Sure, accolades will come for the latter, and a percentage of the others will get published, but with more writers self-publishing I'm forced to wonder if it will become a zero-sum game?

Mark's picture
Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water October 7, 2011 - 4:48pm

Oh, I completely agree, Mark.  I think you have two camps -- those looking for the kudos and those looking to get their work out there.  Sure, accolades will come for the latter, and a percentage of the others will get published, but with more writers self-publishing I'm forced to wonder if it will become a zero-sum game?

I understand that concern, but I'm not too worried by the glut of rushed and poorly edited (or completely unedited) e-books. I believe that new models of credibility will emerge.  For example, there's plenty of room for a qualified editor--or someone who will employ qualified editors--to start an independent label that's for ebooks and later, limited edition print.  For building that label, read unagented and emerging authors.  Only accept those that hit a certain mark. Edit and format their manuscripts to a professional standard.  And build a strong professional reputation--so that it means something when an author is carried by that label.  The name becomes a guarantee of sorts.

And all for a fraction of the operating costs in traditional publishing and with a much faster cycle for bringing new works to market. 

Paul's picture
Paul from Velcro City, UK is reading as much of his Masters course reading list as he can cram into the day October 8, 2011 - 2:59am

Thanks for all the responses, folks! The companion piece will, as you've probably guessed, flesh out the arguments from the other side of the fence. The whole point I'm trying to make, though, is that there's no one-size-fits-all answer to the question "should I self-publish?", and that the answer may well change from project to project. As such, I heartily recommend this two-part essay by J M McDermott, who has done (and is doing) both, and is operating under very few illusions in either direction; he's sold a lot more fiction than I have, and so he's got a much more hands-on perspective than my own. :)

David Morrese's picture
David Morrese from Orlando, Florida, USA October 8, 2011 - 10:05am

My goal as a writer is to have my novels read. I figured more people could do that if they were 99¢ ebooks rather than $8 paperbacks or $15-$25 hardcovers. The challenge is to get people to know they are available and that they are, well, "real" books. An indie lable for ebooks, as Mark suggests, sounds like a great idea to help do that but wouldn't this evolve into something much like what we have now with trad publishers?

Paul's picture
Paul from Velcro City, UK is reading as much of his Masters course reading list as he can cram into the day October 8, 2011 - 11:56am

Some sort of aggregator/curator middleman setup is inevitable; the market is too wide (and search too easily gamed) for it to ever be otherwise. What will be different, one assumes, will be the terms under which they deal with authors and readers.

And I wouldn't write off the traditional publishers and agents just yet, either. There's still a lot of flux  still to come, and the record industry's salutory example of what *not* to do has definitely been taken to heart. If there's any certainty at all, it's that everything will look very different in twelve month's time... :)

Kirk's picture
Kirk from Pingree Grove, IL is reading The Book Of The New Sun October 8, 2011 - 12:13pm

My opinion is that even at $0.99 it is difficult to read your book because books, well, they take a long time to read.

As a reader who has a finite amount of time, I have to choose between reading something that has been on my "pile of shame" for a long time, or reading something totally new and untested, by an author who I don't know.

What I think could be an interesting way to solve this is by publishing a variety of short stories or "singles" as I'm seeing them called now. It's a great way to give someone a chance to hear your voice and experience an entire story with a minimal time commitment. Then, if you jive with their likes, buying a full-length novel is something that becomes a lot more appealing.

Limbless K9's picture
Limbless K9 from Oregon is reading Wraeththu October 8, 2011 - 3:28pm

Great article! A friend and I have actually been talking about topics that pertain to this. She seems to think ereaders will be the death of books. I can't wait to read the next installment!

On the self publishing topic, I have to agree with Kirk, not only because I love short stories, but because his suggestion really hits home with me.

My "To Read" list has become larger than I would like it to be and to top it off, I'm a horrible procrastinator. When I look for books on my Kindle I tend to avoid amateur authors I don't know simply because I don't have the time to waste on a book that might not be so great. That's not to say that there aren't fantastic books written by amateurs to read though.

I think writing short stories and getting them out there is a great idea to get your voice out there. I'm suspicious about how many people will pay $0.99, or a bit less, for a short story by a no name author though. I honestly would have no qualms about paying that amount to test out a new author but I do know a few people who might be cautious. 


Paul's picture
Paul from Velcro City, UK is reading as much of his Masters course reading list as he can cram into the day October 9, 2011 - 2:09am

Thing is, there's already a perfectly good model for the curation of short stories, to which dozens of webzines are testament. Now, sure, no one has yet hit on really good business model for running a profitable webzine: in most cases the traffic figures are too low for standard web ads to make a decent return, the ad providers for that traffic bracket - as I discovered to my own misfortune - are not always as straight-dealing as one might hope, and workable micropayment systems with a broad userbase and trustworthy reputation are still few and far between. But as far as building a reputation for trustworthy curation of fiction in a certain niche genre (be it sf, fantasy, horror, literary, whatever), the selections of a dedicated and experienced editor (or team thereof) accreting around a recognisable brand or masthead are a tried and tested model that fits perfectly into the market gap we're talking about. Even if the decline of ink-on-paper publishing happens as quick as the evangelists hope, the editorial framework will survive it. Heck, if you think about it, the need for curation and wheat/chaff separation becomes even greater in the digital marketplace, because the barriers to entry are lower, and hence the market an order of magnitude more vast...

Garry Crystal's picture
Garry Crystal October 18, 2011 - 6:01am

Great article Paul. Judging by an article in the NY Times on the same subject it seems as if publishers are now becoming very worried. I have also written an interview with a self-published writer who has written three novels and used both Lulu and Amazon to promote them. May be of interest to writers who are considering this route but are still unsure of the pros and cons; still a lot of people out there who do not see the benefits of putting their work out using this method even the though publishers are now beginning to sit up and taking notice. 

Self-Publish or Perish; a Writer’s Perspective on Self-Publishing.


laurelin gilmore's picture
laurelin gilmore from Sacramento is reading Tropic of Cancer October 25, 2011 - 12:32am

Much to think about.  Thank you, Paul "Advocate for the Devil" Graham Raven.  :)  And Mr. Crystal, I liked your interview, especially: Nersesian said of the constant rejections prior to self-publishing, “I decided that I had given publishers far too much power.”

This alone is reason enough to attempt.  I like the analogies amongst independent music, art and literary worlds too.  As a painter, I enjoy being involved in every aspect of my work from concept to collection.  I'm sure there are just as many headaches beating the ground for self promotion in the book world as there are in the art world, but the rewards for having done something independently are pretty great.  Sometimes intangible, but still pretty great.  Now for the equal and opposite argument...

Jason Stuart's picture
Jason Stuart October 27, 2011 - 2:03am

RE: the idea posited earlier about independent publishing labels curating the e-book slush, there are already several such brands operating as we speak. $2 Radio has been out for years now, publishing high-quality paperbacks and ebooks at a rate of 4-5 a year. They're a micropress and one of the best on the market.

Pulp Press exploded out of the gate just recently and has had some real knockout titles. They've got an excellent design team, too.

Crimedog Books (who I was published with) is run throught the popular webzine Plots With Guns, and offers a nice brand label for ebooks. They've been slower to take off than the others, but the work is there, and they are growing.

My own webzine, Burnt Bridge, is branching into branded ebooks and even limited edition trade papers in the coming year (look for us at AWP in Chicago).

And, the penultimate indie label for ebooks, Blasted Heath is about to launch a major campaing in the branded ebooks market that will really rattle some sabers out there. Headed up by Alan Guthrie, a UK based thriller author and lit-agent, these guys are changing the name of the game all over again.

And, meanwhile, the Big 6 in NY are publishing the Snooki memoir. It's a crapshoot. I say, find a brand you like, and target all your efforts toward that.