DECEMBER 30, 2011 7:21AM

The Truth About "Indie Publishing"

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Most people who write feel this knowledge in their fingernails and the roots of their hair; it moves in their blood like too much caffeine on a hung-over morning.
But no one says it because it's too depressing.
So I will: if you take that book you've been laboring over for (fill in the blank) year(s), which (list ten) friends and family members totally loved and thought was awesome, and spend $300 dollars or so for a clean elegant e-book conversion at someplace like (as I did), and post on the Kindle and Nook stores (ditto), and unleash the full force of your 'social media' (in my case, a handful of OSers, 285 Facebook friends, my e-mail list and my three twitter followers), here's what will happen:
Get ready for it  ...
Well, not exactly nothing, I guess. Somewhere between two and two hundred people might buy the book at $3.99, giving you a maximum income of under five hundred dollars. So what will you have done? You will have added a tiny, straw colored (That's cruel, but it's the only color they come in) needle to one of the biggest haystacks in the world. Or is it a grain silo roughly the size of that building in Dubai that Tom Cruise was playing around on this Christmas?
Who will find your hay-tinted needle in those millions of metric tons of hay?  Your friends and family, basically. So how is it different from the old "Vanity Press" days, where beady-eyed delusionoids spent $30,000 to fill their basements with dozens of boxes of books that no one would ever read? Well ... no $30,000, no boxes, no books.  So that's an improvement.
But otherwise, it's pretty much the same. No offence. Hey, I'm the delusionoid who just did it! See for yourself:
So who can succeed in this new e-book world?
From my study of the current situation, I'd say, the succeessful authors fall into three categories:
1 - The already published author with a huge backlist of out of print titles which his (or her) publisher thinks are worthless (Like J.A. Konrath). Guess again, stupid publishers!
A subset of this group would be just plain successful authors who choose to go e-book, like Konrath's pal and top-ranking thriller-meister Barry Eisler. Or at the top of the heap, JK Rowling, who will be selling all her e-books through her own website.
2 - Authors of the kind of books that teen-age impulse-buying girls can't seem to get enough of. Essential ingredients: hormones, angst and vampires. Also: werewolves witches, fairies, zombies or dragons. Mix and match:  A teen age werewolf zombie dragon, hopelessly in love with a vampire fairie? Start counting your  money! (Amanda Hocking leads this category, for the moment).
3 - Celebrities. I'm sure Kim Kardashian sold a lot of e-books last year.  Yes, she wrote a novel, in case you weren't depressed enough.
So the best move -- if you don't write young adult urban fantasy --  is to get successful either at writing or something else, first. And this is where traditional publishers enter the picture. Well, actually they never left, though some of them are feeling slightly left-behind.  Alas, the best way to become a professional writer is still to  just ... get published. And that remains as hard as it ever was.
It means finding an agent (As I did);  or submitting to smaller houses that don't require  an agent (Did that too). It means your work will be evaluated by exigent strangers, mostly rejected; and if someone wants to go into business with you, rewrites (Some of which you will find distasteful) will have to be done. For one thing, they'll make you get rid of the passive voice, which I just used in that last sentence.
So let me correct it: YOU will have to do rewrites you find distasteful. Lots of them. And you probably won't like the cover they choose, either.
Self publishing is so much more fun! And Monopoly is so much more fun than real capitalism. But it's just a game, and you can't spend the money and nobody really wins.   
The problem for publishers is people like Barry Eisler, who turned down a $500,000 contract to go it alone, though he later hooked up with Amazon. Another problem for publishers is Amazon itself, which is stealing authors right left and center by offering them much better deals, hoping for a monopoly position, at which point I'm sure their deal will become just as horrible as the one old-school publishers are offering today. The primary reason for these new contracts -- in which you sign over your life and future work, much as musicians did in the ninteen-forties and fifties -- is that publishers want to make sure they earn the most from the writers that remain, and hold onto them for as long as possible.
Because the fact is that although a published book is the primary way to establish the readership you need to 'go indie' and publish e-books on your own, the publishers know that once you're established you'll be gone. they're just a stepping stone, now ... a convenience like the soon-t0-be extinct bookstores which threten to become little more than showrooms for your e-reader. People are even using in-store wireless to buy the books they like for their Kindles and their Nooks, right in front of appalled clerks and other customers.
 I don't have much sympathy for publishers, though I will mourn the bookstores if they ever fade away completelely. Still, for the moment, the stubborn fact remains: writers need Hachette and Simon and Shuster and the rest just as much as those companies need their authors .
I need a publisher. I've finally come to admit it.
I'm one 'read' away from a small house taking one of my books. The Editor-in-Chief is reading it this weekend. If she likes it, I'll be delighted. If they publish it, I'll be thrilled. If they want me to edit it, I'll oblige. If they want the e-book rights, they can have them.
If they're reading this, I mean it.
I'm sick of being part of the hopelessly obscure DIY riff-raff, finished with pretending that an e-book at the Kindle store makes me a published author. I'm tired of Monoploy money. I'm ready for the real world. I want an actual career with an actual publisher.
I just hope they want me. 

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This is excellent and very helpful. It seems the writer is one of the few careers where all of the work must be done and only then is the promise of maybe getting paid is offered, and that's a big maybe. That fact alone should discourage any sane person from wanting to become a writer, but who says writers are sane?
I write because I want to say something and perhaps a few people will comment. I no more want to be a Writer than I want to be a Movie Star or an Astronaut or some other commercial success. I'm happy to be alive and whatever talents I may possess most surely are not worth the supreme effort to become a commercial success. I am used to living on the edge and I cook and bake satisfactorily and life is too short for anything more.
Thanks for this, it pretty much sums up (and illustrates) what I've been thinking. I know from experience that even with a "real" publisher one's chances of getting read, let alone earning money, are pretty minimal, and tossing what amounts to a literary message-in-a-bottle out into the great electronic ether seems entirely futile. Facebook notwithstanding, why should anybody ever bother to look at it? Still, there's always a temptation to give it a try anyway, but since none of my books have vampires or even werewolves in them, what's the point? For most books, you still need a large publisher which, if nothing else, provides a book with a seal of approval (if nothing else, it shows that at least somebody read it and decided it was readable). It seems that in publishing, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Good luck, Steven, if your book is available for Nook I will get it. I did the whole self publishing thing of a physical book last year. I didn't even try to get a traditional publisher because I wanted the book to come out before my parents passed away, and I knew that my odds weren't that great. I tried to find you a WP article from last summer, 2,700 physical books are now published EVERY DAY and the eBook statistics are higher. Technology has changed the picture. After three months of very, very hard work, I moved from the red into the black, but it has about run it's course, and I'm not sure I would do it again the same way.
Best of luck to you. This was interesting and informative, I hope many here who want to go this road, see the post.
Enlightening and sobering read. Ugh. Not a pretty picture.
I used to work with Bill Weld, former governor of Massachusetts. His first novel and mine came out at the same time, mine self-published, his trade published. I noticed the flaw in my marketing plan after he started getting a lot of reviews and I got "Who did you say you were again?" from book editors.

It helps if you become famous/notorious/well-known before you try your hand at fiction, not afterwards.
Thank you for this very honest and helpful account. I'm on my way to maybe making some mistakes of my own. Now, maybe not.
I self-published a novel in 2000. My agent wasn't able to sell it despite my track record of 5 other books. I sold 4000 books and a publisher picked it up (St. Martin's Press.) They signed me to a two book deal. The second book had an atrocious cover and hasn't been Kindleized. Plus, they promised lots of promotion and didn't do a thing. I did better publishing it myself than they did. So, even with a publisher, your odds aren't that great of getting anywhere. Worse than that, your book gets on BookScan, so publishers and agents can tell how well it sold. If it didn't do well, you're toast. Forever. So what's the difference? If you think that publishing with a mainstream publisher is the answer, you're wrong.
even back in the old days, nobody ever got a few thousand for a paperback novel. & the pro authors cranked em out in a few months. so theres a point where researching/slaving over a manuscript increases the quality, but theres a point where it doesnt. so anyone who spends a few years on a novel, even the hardcore authors like King would not recommend that Im sure.
anyway, cyberspace has highly democratized publishing even more than it was previously, and thats gonna have a heavy commoditizing effect on the biz so that even elite authors are pulling down less than they used to. turned it into a populist activity. and maybe now we know why politicians hate populism so much.
Thanks for this. I've been involved with the world of songwriting for years, and it's pretty much the same thing. But I've been thinking of writing a book anyway, even though I know the odds are very high that no one will ever read it...just to prove to myself that I can do it.
Is the goal to get merely published for its own sake? Or is it to write something people want to read? I think writers need to get their heads out of the game, and put more of their hearts into it. It's not about making money or getting published just to get published. It's about really having a compelling story to tell. It's about breaking new ground, or writing in a way that really blows people's socks off. Or it's about repacking old ideas in a fresh way for a new generation. I loved Ann Rice's smartly written vampire novels way back in the '70s. Who knew another writer would come along to repackage that genre for an entirely new generation? Points two and three in your list drive me insane, of course. R
Good luck, Steven.
I guess I'm thinking now that the best thing to do is just write. I don't have the energy or skills to do a whole DIY publishing business, and I'm running out of time anyway to get all the books I want to write finished.
The small publisher considering one of my books seems ideal, though, at least from the outside: smart, not overly greedy or tyrannical, respected by writers and other publishers. Of course, even if they pick the book up, it still might not sell. But some books sell, don't they? I mean, people still buy books, so at least it's possible. We'll see. I like the idea of someone else working the business end.
Isn't this just another version of "If it's well known enough to be touted as an easy way to be successful (with requisite statistically infinitesimal example provided) it's more Amway"? Whether self-publishing in a world where it can be done for $ 50 or the latest way to make money at home on the internet (which this is actually a variation of) doesn't it connect with people that if they know about it, too many other people do, to?

Like most things of this nature, which propose that one can raise the statistically unlikely odds of significant success, there's an immediate and obvious glitch to me: If you raise the number of occasions at which any goal is obtained, the significance of obtaining it (IE the rewards) have to diminish. No matter how many people compete to be the fastest runner in the world, only the handful at the top will ever impress the rest of us, regardless of how many public tracks we build to enable competition.

Same thing with anyone trying to sell a product (“writer” is the nice title, but really, in this regard, you're just a salesman with a product). The more people there are out there selling a product, the fewer will enjoy “success” (making a lot of money). And as in all cases of human endeavor, the only people we'll consider really successful are those at the pinnacle, the ones that the other people being successful will slap us across our collective psyches with, to sell their advertisements, cajole us with dreams and yes, make money themselves, perhaps collecting your $ 50 to self-publish.

Bottom line: “Success” of this nature will always be hard to achieve.
You have my best hopes and wishes. Perhaps more useful, however, is your eloquence and an engaging writing voice. I hope the EIC enjoys your offering. Happy New Year.
Ouch. I've self-published three essay collections now, and yes, while I'd love to have the fairy godmother of publishing appear with a traditional book contract, I'm still happy looking at the glass as half full. (And thank God I have a day job!) There are rewards to reap from putting your words into print that are intangible, and fun to be had that you wouldn't have thought of. Keep your chin up! And for fun, read my take on self-publishing that focuses on the positive...
This cuts through the bullshit and tells it like it is, or at least as my gut has been telling me for the last ten years. If there is one thing I love, it is directness. Thank you! Rated with admiration.
I've just started writing as a hobby, but I already have two books in mind. Think they'll stay in my mind. I love Eddie, but who else will?

Good luck (as you have said luck is part of the game of publishing). I hope you'll do well.

Happy New Year!
Dear Steven:

There are some excellent comments here, but the most relevant is John Blumenthal's.

Based on my own recent experience as well as extrapolation from reading a great deal of other authors' experience, my conclusion is this: unless you are a celebrity or born lucky, nobody will notice your book, whether it is self-published or traditionally published. Unless you receive a six-figure advance or something closely approaching it from your publisher, they will do nothing to promote the book. Without a competent publicist and a well-funded promotional campaign, nobody will discover your book.

You can't effectively promote the book on your own. I know, based on my own experiences with my biography of Dennis Hopper, which was published on Sept. 16 of this year. I tried everything I could think of, even enlisting someone else to pretend to be my publicist, sending out email pitches that I wrote to book review editors and radio talk show host producers, faxing them the press release, etc.. Local bookstores–both independent, who supposedly love books [but didn't love me or my book]–and several branches of Barnes&Noble, rejected my request to schedule a signing. Rejected for a signing! I finally managed to have a signing at Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood because the store is famous for specializing in books about film, TV, and theater, and because Jeff, the owner, who has a genuine love and dedication for what he does, thought that a signing for a Dennis Hopper biography was a no-brainer for his store.

Through my sister's rather tenuous connection to a Los Angeles Times' staff writer who writes human interest stories, she wrote a feature story about me that the Times published on Dec. 4. The story was picked up an tweeted by Roger Ebert, Maria Shriver and editors at The New York Times and the Houston Chronicle. The Tribune Co., owner of the LA Times, syndicated it to their other papers, including the Chicago Tribune.

I did the social media thing, too, before and after the Times article was published. I bulked up on LinkedIn, connecting to as many people with publishing or media affiliations as I could find. I blogged, Facebooked, and tweeted. And you know what the result was? Bupkis. The only inquiry I received from a legitimate media outlet came from a writer for, who wrote a small story about my book and the Times article. I did, however, receive three emails from purveyors of quack arthritis remedies, a bible thumper, and an end times kook sent my sister a letter to the school where she teaches that included a small pamphlet whose cover had a picture of heaven with the assuring title "An End to Suffering Is Near," because God has decided that his experiment with mankind has failed, and he will soon rapture all the believers skyward. As I am a secular Jewish atheist, I did not feel comforted by such revelations.

I can take some small comfort in the fact that I avoided the stigma of self-publishing, my book is/was actually in [some] bookstores, a British edition was published, and an Italian edition might be published in 2012. It is available in all the expected ebook formats.
The sole benefit of being published is cathartic. After 19 years of sporadic but sometimes furious effort, I have had a book with my name on the cover published by a traditional, [barely] legitimate publisher. I didn't have to pay for the privilege. Having achieved that goal, I no longer need to keep obsessing about it and chase wild geese.

My final thought is addressed not just to you, Steven, but to all writers. In their secret heart, writers want to be recognized for something. That's what drives them. Writing comes out of a sad, lonely desire to win the love and attention of others. You may say that you are the exception, that you do it for the love of writing. I call bullshit on that. If your love of writing is what motivates you, then why are you making such strenuous efforts to become not just published, but recognized? To quote Emerson, “Whatever games are played with us, we must play no games with ourselves, but deal in our privacy with the last honesty and truth.”
I found John Blumenthal's and Peter Winkler's comments enlightening. I took a seminar about preparing a book proposal and it sounded like I could make more fruitful use of my time by buying Lotto tickets. The fact is, 99% of books aren't going to be read no matter which route you take. With self-publishing, I can at least have the book not read now, rather than not read a year from now.

I don't want to pile on, but given what information you have about your putative publisher, you are almost certainly going to remain just as "hopelessly obscure" after they publish you as before. And being traditionally published once, absent hitting it big with a fluke bestseller, will not impress any other publishers into giving you a bg deal on your second book. I wish it weren't so, and would love for you to be an exception.

You should read this:
Enlightening, the thing is, everything that involves other people involves promotion of one sort of another. It is about being a salesman. There is never any utopia, anywhere. Risk, chance, birth, whatever....If you want it you got to do it, you got to try it.

Most humans have a need to communicate. Some have a need to know. People who write do want to communicate, they want to tell something. They take the risk of telling their stories and sharing their thoughts. Like many ancient artists, their work is often unappreciated or even read in their lifetimes, they are recognized and famous long after they are dust in the ground. Do what you do, do what you must. If there is a serendipitous method in life to be recognized with respect to publishing, you will only discover it if you do the work, and begin the effort.

I can tell you several life stories, real stories about how people do build social capital campaigns to foster interest in something that was important to them. Some are successful by luck, by other things happening in the universe that seem to buoy their ambitions.

Do whatever you can to fulfill your dreams, but write, by all means commit to the task if you have something to say. Sorry for the ramble.
Thanks for this, sobering and yet somehow a relief to know other people 'get it'. Good luck! kt
Peter ... Well, sure I'd like to be rich and famous with those 'writer groupies' you always hear about ("I just love your... semi-colons"),
but I always called myself a 'hobbyist' in the MFA workshop intros, and to a large extent I still feel that way. I just don't buy the idea that most writers sit alone making up gossip about imaginary people in the wan hope that strangers and distant relations will pay them compliments at some remote point in the future. There's got to be a better way to achieve that puny goal. I just like pushing words around on the page. Is that really so perverse and implausible? I doubt I'm the only one.
"I just like pushing words around on the page. Is that really so perverse and implausible? "

Yes it is, considering the thrust of your post to which I and others have commented upon. If your reward for the considerable effort involved in writing is simply standing back and admiring your handiwork, why all the concern expressed above about how self-publishing is a dead end? Obviously, you are seeking an audience as well as recompense. Otherwise, you wouldn't have gone through the considerable effort, which I'm very familiar with, of querying agents and publishers and suffering the agonies of rejection that is required to finally achieve the hotly desired goal of being published by someone not yourself, which is itself a badge of honor, as it gives cause for the writer to be able to say, "I'm a profesionally published writer."
You're ahead of me. These days, being a self- published author is a club only slightly less exclusive than those individuals with a college education. I had a reading at a local bookstore (where I lost money due to promotional expenses), and friends came. I got to tell them stories about my life (and bullshit) that I'll never have to tell them ever again.

Maybe this is what being an author is really like. Perhaps I might go back to making my artwork. I've been working on an American flag for many years because somebody has to replace Jasper Johns eventually -- so it might as well be me, even if I'm a figure in my own mind.
i'm late getting here (and it's a long, boring story), but i'm glad to read what you have to say in both the piece and your comments, steve, and the info from others in the string is interesting too. well, most of it is anyway.

i don't aspire to write a book and am perfectly happy with the short pieces that work on a personal website or blog. but make no mistake - i wish i had a lot more readers than i do, enough to get some advertisers interested and have some money coming in. but i don't want a bunch of dumb commenters saying "your story is awesome lol," so ideally all my readers would be smart and cool and would write clever comments. and although the comment string would read like a script from the algonquin roundtable, it wouldn't draw in as many lurking readers as, say, someone who took fringe political positions for the sake of argument or someone else who wrote about the kardashians. if i wanted the ad rev more than i wanted to be admired by smart people and thought of as an artist, i'd try being provocative and commercial to drive the numbers up. i guess what i'm saying is that i want both - to be 'adored' (i think that was the word someone used) and paid in real dollars. and i don't think most of us would choose one *or* the other, would we?

the sad fact of all this writing stuff is a book has to be a four-bagger to really make it, not a single or a double. and there are a zillion singles and doubles and even triples out there.

a woman who blogged here anonymously for a while is a real author, a serious published author with a string of very well-received books under her name and a long career in teaching writing to college and grad students. i'm paraphrasing - she said 'there's no lack of talent. look around OS at how incredibly well many of these people write, how funny or wise or interesting what they have to say is. there are thousands and thousands of people who can write, really write." that's both depressing and uplifting. you're one of those people, steve, and even more - a rare *excellent* writer whose stories are plot-sharp and characters are real, and you especially get the dialogue exactly right. you might have a chance, i think. and i think you have it right - that you need a publisher for a better chance at making money than self-publishing would get you. sorry for the ramble. it begs for an edit, but i've got to get back to a few unfinished pieces of my own.

happy new year, friend.
I'm late to this post, too, but it was a fascinating read. Good luck, Steven, and I hope that the editor in chief smiles kindly on you.
Steven - I've been reading (most of) your posts on OS for three years now and I consider you to be a serious and dedicated writer. This post was honest and helpful, including the comments that it generated. Keep at it. Keep banging away... telling your stories. What's the alternative?
Jeff -- exactly. One good thing -- having no choice greatly simplifies decision making.
Publishers pick up books pitched by agents for one reason alone: they think they can sell more than a few copies. That makes the case for first-time fiction harder than hard to pursue. What else can we say? Other points, like the role of Amazon, Shiva the Destroyer of the existing model of book distribution, what else can we say? But we will always need curation, a filter, some assistance in directing would-be readers to good books, but really, for first time authors of fiction, can ninety-nine cent novels be far off? Good luck (zero snark in that last sentence at least!)
Good luck, Monday. Well said. It would take a lot of space to explain how Amazon does it but in a sentence nobody can compete with their prices because they don't make their money from book sales any more than newspapers make their profits from newsstand sales. I've been on this ride for a dozen years. Advice from the former head of S & S; Become famous and then you get approached by top agents and most everything else falls into place (being famous could be anything from having a blog w. a half a million hits a month, releasing a sex-tape or doing what I did which is juggle a few monthly columns in major markets creating a brand name.). You don't look for agents, you create situations in which they look for you.
Sorry. i realize now how this post was dated way back. I was away for awhile and just catching up.
Steven, the comments below and your story above, make me feel on the verge of hopeless. There is some trick of the trade to get published that I think is a mighty big secret. I've done it both ways, and 1) The traditional S & S with a famed editor had the misfortune of being upstaged by one month by a book written by someone more famous, could not be less, and though his was not as good as mine, there went my publicity. (They do that: trade books giving pub to some, none to others.) I went pro-active but even then virtually no books appeared in the most obvious places.

so I wrote a novel about the first book, which everyone loved, all 10 who read the last draft and I picked some VERY hard readers. Kudos galore. And then the paper back by a self pub place arrived full of typos and nothing like my last draft. The fault was mostly theirs and they did allow me to re-write and re-name but by then I was, I am: into my third book to publish. This book is exceedingly hard to write but I got myself a great agent First, and now I'm deep in the work of making sense, of what to include/ exlude which is in a way as we all know, an exercise in futility.

Because the traditional published book takes two years to come out. Whereas the inducement to self-publish is that when you are done it arrives. I thought I just had bad karma but now I see that is far too self-referential, the whole biz is hard, that is when it isn't rigged. Good luck. You surely write well enough to get published. Keep us posted, please. R
Thanks for all the comments. It does seem like an odd-against game, but if you have the proverbial day job and you don't need to support yourself with writing, you can unclench about it a little .
I'm 1/2 way through the rewrite of my book for this small publisher. If they wind up putting it out, it might not sell. A million things can (and usually do) go wrong. But I'm enjoying the ride. The secret may just be low expectations.
Steven--from your last comment, it seems like yes the publisher you wanted wants you. I think you should be more hopeful. But understood, hard to hope in this pub biz, any which way.

I have one single idea about how to get published by a name publisher. You work yourself to the friggin bone. You just make that book good to great. You don't have a social life or remember your kids' names but you work it hard, edit hard, rewrite hard. I have so many flaws as a writer, esp with fucked up computers adding to my original problems but this above is not about me it's about anyone wanting to sell. You have to outdue your best writing self and then 6 months at least before pub-date you must get a top PR person who is not inhouse. That means the day job funds go to the PR person, and then you might not get readers but you well might and that's all i know.

Congratulations and maybe maybe you'll be in the driver's seat someday soon, travelling and getting more press. But ask John as he's a pro.... love Wendy working on my last book, hard.
All true, Steven, but going the mainstream publisher route (and I have, 7 times) will yield pretty much the same results. Unless you're a big name or have a great back list and lots of followers, or have written a book that looks like to might take off (i.e. not a novel), your publishing house will give you a $3000 advance and then do nada to promote you execpt send the book to reviewers (you won't get any) and to libraries (you might sell a few.) Everything else will be up to you.

Good luck with that last reader at the publishing house but I can't tell you how many times I've heard that story.
Well, here's a quick update: I turned in my revision and got an even more extensive 'editorial letter' outlining the new and more sweeping changes the editor wants. I guess this is normal. What convinced me to take on this new chore was the shrewd, skillful, committed and engaged line-edit she did on the original manuscript. If I had to pay for that kind of surgical, word by word critique, it would cost thousands of dollars, and it left me wanting to work at least as hard as she did.
I still can't say where any of this will wind up, but it's new territory and I'm enjoying the chance to wander around and see the sights.
Fortunately, I've never had to do extensive revisions on a book, so I don't know how to interpret that. However, in Hollywood, when you finish their suggested revisions, they tell you they don't know why the script is so different from the one they bought. Then they shelve it.