The great thing about blogs is that they serve a purpose even if no one is reading them. They are a way to journal out loud and a great method for gathering your thoughts. Blogs can also (hopefully) become extended conversations that go on for years. The problem is, the people who arrive in the middle of this conversation will have missed so much of what’s already been said. There are posts buried pages deep here that underscore so much of what I love about self-publishing. After seeing some comments elsewhere about the slim chances self-published authors have of earning a living, I thought it would be nice to dredge up a few reminders and gather my thoughts on the current state of an ever-changing industry.

One reminder that I’ve blogged about at length is that most books don’t sell very many copies. And that’s okay. It’s not a self-publishing thing; it’s a publishing thing. 98% of manuscripts submitted to agents never get published at all. They don’t sell a single copy. Nobody mentions this when they deride self-publishing as an option. The false premise seems to be that you can choose to self-publish, or you can choose to have your book on an endcap in every bookstore while you are sent on a 12-city tour by your publisher. That’s not the choice. The choice is to self-publish or submit to an agent. This is the choice.

If you self-publish, you can immediately move on to writing the next work. You don’t have to look back at all if you don’t want. You have the rest of your life to promote that work, if you decide to promote it at all. If you are one of the 1% to secure an agent, the earliest you might see that work in a bookstore is a year. More likely, it’ll be three to five years. And you’ll be asked to rewrite that work, not based on any artistic vision, but based on what’s currently selling, what publishers are currently looking for.

Most analysts don’t cover these options honestly from the writer’s point of view. I’ve blogged about this before. What you get is coverage of what books do once they have already been published. Which means hearing experts hold up NYT bestselling Big 5 authors as the perfect example of what publishers do well while claiming that any self-publishing success story is an outlier and a fluke. I’ve got some news for everyone: Any book that gets published by a Big 5 publisher is a fluke. The books on the endcaps? Those are the flukes among the flukes.

The truth is that when it comes to trade fiction, more self-published authors are making a living today than traditionally published authors. And despite what some people claim, this isn’t because of output. Those self-published authors are doing better with fewer published titles, on average. The biggest names and highest earners in traditional publishing are overwhelmingly authors who debuted prior to 2009 and have a lot of works available. And the biggest earners on both sides publish in the genres that readers overwhelmingly prefer.

Also, despite what some experts would have you believe, self-published authors are still breaking out with their first works. AJ Riddle and Brenna Aubrey are two examples, and the current bestseller lists on Amazon are loaded with new self-published authors you’ve never heard of. Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN sold a ton of copies and was picked up by Random House and 20th Century Fox. This was a debut novel, and Andy hasn’t published anything since. He succeeded through self-publishing faster than he would have landed an agent if he went the traditional route.

The claim that these are exceptions ignores that every book in the bookstore is an exception. It also ignores the fact that there are more exceptions among the self-published crowd than there are among the traditionally published crowd. We know. We counted.

Another thing that has been mentioned over and over again here but rarely gets any press is that not all of us got into this because we wanted to make money. Many of us would pay to write if there was a fee involved. We love this like a hobby, one that we attempt to do on a professional level. I pay more for a single lens as a passionate photographer than it costs to have a manuscript professionally edited and wrapped in gorgeous cover art.

I’ve had a grand total of three paying gigs as a photographer. I will never earn back the money I have spent on camera equipment, and this is camera equipment I saved up for back when I was working for $10/hour shelving books. Where is the outcry? Why don’t we approach literature like we approach music and the fine arts? Yes, there is a commitment when it comes to time and money. Yes, the chances of “making it” are slim. But with music, photography, and the fine arts, we “self produce” while we grow our audience and hone our craft. We work our way up, rather than break out. We love what we do, and we dream of making a living doing it, but it isn’t necessary. What’s amazeballs about self-publishing is that you have the freedom to do all of this, and your chances of making money are still greater than submitting to agents! Note that I’m not saying your chances are great, only that they are greater. 98% of those who go the traditional route will earn precisely zero dollars.

Meanwhile, what I’m seeing in the trenches is a rapid rise in the quality of self-published works. Here’s another reminder: How you decide to publish does not appreciably alter the quality of the end product, and this is more and more true every day as publishers do less editing and self-published authors do more editing. The output of the two paths are converging. Part of this is due to people making different choices in how to publish in the first place. As more hardworking and serious writers skip to self-publishing, the quality of books available to readers will continue to increase, while the number of gems in the traditional publishing slush pile will go down. This is a self-reinforcing system.

There are other pressures as well. Traditionally published authors are expected to do more and more of their own marketing these days, and fewer of them are being sent on book tours. Authors are even expected to shell out their own money to attend book conventions. Meanwhile, publishers are still wasting money on traditional media advertising that no longer works. These days, it’s not uncommon for self-published authors to know more about metadata and how to market a work than publishers do. I have met people in charge of publishing and marketing procedures at major houses who don’t even know the basics. I could tell you horror stories—and I’m not alone.

Critics of self-publishing will say that not every writer wants to be a businessperson. Meanwhile, publishers expect just this of their successful writers. And they should. Few musicians make a career of their art without understanding the business side of performing and releasing their work. The same is true of commercial artists, photographers, and filmmakers. Yet somehow, the myth of the writer who just pounds out words and hands in rough drafts persists. One of the top-selling authors at this very moment is John Green, and where are the critics who make fun of all the hours he and his brother Hank pour into their YouTube videos? If theirs was a self-published success story, it would be denounced as a gimmick of social media. But all I see is genius and hard work.

The simple facts are these: Writing can be a blast. It should be a blast. People do it on places like WattPad and FanFiction.net for free. Yes, it’s almost impossible to make a living at this, and that’s true no matter which direction you go. The chances are just orders of magnitude greater if you self-publish. It’s not just the greater royalties or the ability to control your prices. It’s the ability to write stories that readers want but publishers fear to invest in. And there’s the greatest advantage of all, which is that self-publishing allows you to complete your work, make it available, and then move on to the next project. There is less chance of burning out or getting discouraged.

Those who submit to agents often drop out of the race before they even cross the starting line. They don’t get to their fifth or sixth work to see what they are capable of. Publishers no longer give authors that much time to grow. A good friend of mine published his first work with a Big 5 publisher and got a fat 6-figure advance. His editor botched the second book (demonstrably), and no offer came for the third book. This is by far the most talented writer I personally know, and he has given up on the one creative outlet that he is best at.

On the other hand, I have several friends who self-published and got discouraged by their lack of sales. They quit, but their books were still available. When sales picked up and reviews and emails began filtering in months later, they rediscovered and returned to their passion for storytelling. The eternal nature of the modern book is vastly underappreciated, because the development is so new. Of the dozens of advantages self-publishing has over signing away lifetime rights to our art, this may be one of the most powerful.

Here’s a fun trick: When you see someone deriding self-publishing, ask yourself if their critiques don’t in fact apply to all publishing. Generally, they do. And then remember all the advantages listed here and elsewhere that those critics try to wave away but can’t. Among my peers, I’m seeing more and more authors move from traditional publishing to self-publishing. Even Pulitzer Prize winners, Edgar Award winners, Hugo Award winners, and mega celebrities.

I’m also seeing writers like HM Ward, Brenna Aubrey, and myself forego 6 and 7-figure contracts in order to self-publish. The biggest untold story of them all, however, is the number of authors I know who have tried traditional publishing after having success on their own who swear to me that they’ll never do that again. And yet you have pundits claiming that every self-published success runs immediately to a New York publisher. That simply isn’t true.

To recap:

  • Very few writers of any stripe earn serious money from their work. Most earn nothing at all.
  • Self-published authors, on average, earn more than their traditional counterparts.
  • It is disingenuous to compare all self-published works to the mere two percent of works that manage to get traditionally published.
  • What is expected of authors is not as different as people think. Self-publishing isn’t that hard, and traditional publishing doesn’t mean writing and doing nothing else.
  • The output of what manages to get traditionally published is not any better than the corresponding top 2% of what is self-published.
  • Genre matters however you publish. You can shelve it under “fiction” if it makes you happy, but it’s probably still a mystery, fantasy, romance, or speculative fiction story if it’s selling well.
  • More than half of all print book sales are now online, and audiobooks are as popular as ever. The “digital revolution” isn’t just about e-books, which is why the playing field is even more level than most care to admit.
  • The claims that e-book sales have flattened comes from sources that ignore self-publishing completely. The sales needed to hit the same ranking on Amazon’s bestseller lists keep going up, which means the market is still seeing growth. Ignore pundits who are only covering roughly 50% of the market.
  • Most of us write because we love it, not because we expect anything from it. Success cannot be measured by someone else, only yourself.
  • Anyone covering this industry from the perspective of publishers or bookstores should be ignored. Seriously. This industry is about the reader and the writer. All discussions about those in the middle should be secondary, at best.
  • Finally and most importantly, there shouldn’t be any animus between writers, however they publish. This is hard enough without trying to tear each other down. We are in this together. It’s our world that’s changing. In many ways, we should be standing together and demand that it change faster.

135 Responses to “The State of Self-Publishing”

  1. “It’s the ability to write stories that readers want but publishers fear to invest in.”

    This statement is the reason why I decided to self publish. Sure, when I write enough books of good quality, then I too will be able to make the decision to leave my day job. Until then, I get to “write stories that readers want but publishers fear to invest in.”

    I once had a meeting with an agent from a well-known publishing house. Upon looking at my sample, she said, “Nobody puts chapter titles in books anymore, nobody does that….” I was about to explain why I had, and she said, “Well unless you’re doing something old fashioned.” Since my book was set in 1946 Victorian London, I was about to say, well, yes, it is an old fashioned book. Then she said, noticing my expression, “I have been in this industry a long time, you know.”

    Well, that’s the thing. Most of the legacy publishing folks have been in the trenches a long time. i guess they can’t see over the top, or are even afraid to look. Otherwise, they would see the bunch of us out here, from fanfiction.net and the Archive of Our Own, writing our sweet little hearts out and GIVING it away. Bet that’s giving them a collective heart attack in the Big Five.

    • Laura Kirwan says:

      That statement jumped out at me too. I’m one of those authors who went directly to self-publishing without trying to find an agent. I have an urban fantasy series whose protagonist is a grumpy, menopausal, fifty year old lawyer. I was pretty sure if I got any response from the legacy industry it would be along the lines of “interesting idea, but you should rewrite the character to make her younger. Like Katniss. No one wants to read about middle aged women.” Except for maybe the millions of middle aged women who read fiction and buy books?

      • Yup. I have a book with a gay protagonist, but it isn’t a book about being gay. I can imagine the notes I’d get from an agent about that book.

        • Laura Kirwan says:

          Oh, I have a couple of gay characters in the next book. And a whole race of snarky hermaphrodites. The middle aged protagonist isn’t the only thing that would get their shorts in a bunch.

        • Astrid Julian says:

          And I have a book a with an African-American protagonist that isn’t about being black. Am loving the freedom of self-pubbing.

          • Laura Kirwan says:

            This is another wonderful thing about self-pubbing. It opens the door to a much richer experience for authors and readers. Female, gay, and minority characters are marginalized when they’re routinely relegated to stories that focus solely on the “otherness” of their experience. People in these groups live rich, full, three-dimensional lives and do stuff besides struggling with this supposed otherness. They can have adventures. Yet we all ended up self-pubbing these stories because we knew the chilly reception we’d get from legacy publishing.

      • Lee Dennis says:

        Read Laura’s last 2 sentences. Go to Amazon, read description. Open sample. Menopause – identify. Dad with Alzheimer’s – identify. “..brother whose third marriage had dissolved within months.” Buy! :>)

      • You go girl! My first book (Silver Element) was described by someone as “Karate Kid meets the the Golden Girls!: I picked that age group and am proud of to be a part of it. Fun time for us old ladies!

        Also, great post Hugh! Thank you for being our advocate!

  2. Kirk Jolly says:

    Great post as always Hugh. One point that you touch on that I think needs to be hammered home is the false claim that the traditional publishing industry takes decent writers and makes them great writers. The only way to become one of the 2% is to go through the traditional publishing vetting process. Like you said, traditional publishing does little in the way of author development anymore. As soon as they sign you, it’s more that they are looking for an excuse to drop you rather than invest in you and make you realize your potential. They get you on retainer if you will and then cross their fingers that you will realize that potential on your own.

    Sure, working with experienced editors can and most certainly does elevate a writer’s game, but the only way to really improve as a writer is through trial and error; hours and hours of hammering it out until you start to get it. The traditional publishing route is no more conducive to producing polished, professional writers than the self publishing route. I think even the publishing industry realizes this, but that’s the line they’ve been selling to authors for decades so they have to keep pushing it to maintain the façade. If we choose you, that means you are the very best. It has nothing to do with luck or good timing. Don’t pay attention to those guys over there who are cutting out the middleman and doing it on their own. They can’t possibly be good writers, otherwise they would have been traditionally published long ago.

    • One thing I didn’t mention but should have is the real need to hire an editor before you submit to agents. Unless you have an established name or following elsewhere, if you are serious about breaking out, you should invest in that manuscript before you start querying agents. Another way that self-publishing and traditional publishing are becoming similar. In every way except the control of your art and the pay, of course.

      • Kirk Jolly says:

        Hiring an editor before anybody else has their eyes on it also helps break new writers of the illusion that their writing is perfect, that their poop doesn’t stink. When you get your MS back riddled with red you are quickly broken of that line of thinking. You may even decide to rewrite the entire thing and/or shelf that book for the time and start writing something new to submit. That’s a process every writer needs to go through, trad or self published. If you can make it through those first few embarrassing messy manuscripts, and actually learn and grow as a writer, then you might just have a future.

      • Terri says:

        And . . . if you pay for the big edit before you query, you have the cash tied up in a book that may sit for years and still go nowhere.

        I am on the cusp of self-pub. Not for lack of interest. If I do it, I will be withdrawing three fulls out of agents’ inboxes. But a chat with a legendary agent told me that I’m not “breakout” enough. And true, reading my book will be more like watching a 70s car chase movie combined with the kind of tense edgy awkward romance of Moonlighting and X-Files.

        I don’t read “breakout” books, so I am unlikely to write one. That present-tense 2nd person POV LGBT dystopian steampunk magic realism YA written in haiku is unlikely to come from me. That doesn’t mean there is a damn thing wrong with my book.

        I am working with an editor now. He is educating me on some of my structural errors. The second book in the series will need less editing and the one after that. I solved my last problem, high end cover art, has been solved.

        *dips toes in pool*

        Terri

      • Sean Carlin says:

        I am a working, repped screenwriter that’s decided to take a very commercial story I’ve developed — one I’ve already pitched to enthusiastic responses from accomplished Hollywood producers — and compose it instead as a novel with an eye toward self-publishing. The reason? Having to seek story approval and take endless notes from fickle, risk-averse creative execs (among others) who know nothing about the art of storytelling has left me creatively frustrated, and I find the freedom offered by the burgeoning frontier of self-publishing — the opportunity to shift the balance of power back in the writer’s favor — fairly irresistible for all the reasons Mr. Howey propounds above. (Working with production companies is, from what I glean from this site and elsewhere, analogous to doing business with publishing houses: corporate interests dictate the creative agenda.)

        Question for Mr. Howey: You mention the need to hire an editor before soliciting prospective agents; I would imagine, though, if one intends to bypass that stage in favor of going straight to self-publishing, one would still want an experienced editor to critique their manuscript? (As a screenwriter, I certainly depend on thorough, reliable feedback through multiple drafts of my material.) Can you recommend any reputable work-for-hire manuscript editors worth considering? Thank you, sir.

      • Suzanne says:

        I’m a new memoir writer and I hired an editor for my first two chapters and my proposal before I submitted to agents. Although I’m passionate self publishing I’m also very curious about the publishing world. I wanted to give it a whirl to see what I got back. I heard back from 3rd query to an agent she said “you have a very powerful and compelling story. But with all that your story has going for it, the writing is not strong enough to sell to a major publisher. Have you considered working with a developmental editor or a ghost writer? If you decide to rework the manuscript, we would be happy to look at it again.”
        Promising, but confusing! I hired an editor but come to find that now I need a “developmental” editor too? I totally understand that I am new to writing and I am hungry to learn more. Being new in the industry, it is very hard to understand where to turn to get the help you need. Love your stuff Hugh!

    • Chris Eboch says:

      The first book I sold to a traditional publisher went straight to copy editing. The next novel I sold had to be expanded in order to fit that publisher’s guidelines for series for ages 9 to 12. The editor didn’t offer any suggestions on how to do that, he just said it needed to be done. When I turned in the revision, his entire editorial comment was “It needs to be spookier, with the ghost more active.” Which was true, but would not have been true if I hadn’t expanded it based on their needs. I turned in that revision and it went to copy editing. The next two books in the series went directly to copyediting, where they corrected maybe 20 typos or change things to fit their style (OK versus okay).

      I’m not claiming this means I’m a brilliant writer. If I could re-write that first book, I would make some major changes. Rather, my point is that you do not necessarily get major editing from a publisher. I certainly know writers who love their editors and say their books would not be the same without that input, but a publisher does not necessarily improve the quality of the book. And I agree, especially these days, that most of the hard work has to be done before you even submit.

  3. Lisa says:

    Storytelling – For me, this is what indie publishing has breathed new life into.

    Where I’m from, storytelling is a part of our fabric. From the old man down the road who would scare us off his trees with horror tales, to the coconut man who philosophized on any and everything, to the market vendor whose hot gossip had the heat raised up more than her hot peppers could.

    And the internet, soon followed by indie publishing, has allowed authors to tell their stories as they please to anyone who would listen. Just as it was meant to be. Just as it was.

    Uninhibited storytelling captivates absolutely.

    And that’s why I love it. And I’m sure it’s why readers appreciate it.

  4. - “Why don’t we approach literature like we approach music and the fine arts?”

    As with the rest of the blog post – well said Hugh. Thanks for sharing your insights. It’s great to try and look at things from all angles, not just what’s considered “the norm.” Great post.

  5. R.T. Edwins says:

    Well said, Hugh. I’ve been a proponent for self-publishing ever since I entered the writing game and believe that it is the future of all writing. I suspect that one day in the not-so-distant future we will completely give up on traditional publishing, or at the very least, drastically overhaul the system.

    I’m happy to say that I am one of those writers you mentioned. I was able to publish my first book and then immediately start on the next one while I grew my readership. I’ve had tens of thousands of people pick the first book up and now that the second one is out, only a little over a year later, I’m starting to make money. It may not be enough to make a career out of it, yet, but while some of my peers are anxiously awaiting responses from agents/publishers, I’m fortunate enough to be paying off student loans with the royalties while I write book number three.

    • Congrats, R.T.! You are the real story of self-publishing. And I have yet to go to a talk or conference without meeting a handful of people who have had the same results. Does that mean it’s easy? No. Likely? No. Just easier and more likely than it has ever been.

      And more fun as well. Keep it up!

  6. Lisa Grace says:

    I like the control self publishing provides me. I’m building a mailing list of readers. While I don’t make a living from my self publishing yet, I do make low five figures, which is greater than many advances from tradtional houses.
    I’ve also optioned two books for movies, (currently in development), and have a well-respected agency shopping around a series with publishers.
    Meanwhile, I keep self publishing, and building my reader base. I love what I’m doing and the sense of freedom that comes from writing and publishing exactly what I want, when I want.

  7. Nathan says:

    Nice post Hugh. Really nice. You hit a point very important: ” And there’s the greatest advantage of all, which is that self-publishing allows you to complete your work, make it available, and then move on to the next project. There is less chance of burning out or getting discouraged.”

    This is a much bigger deal than many people think. I got exhausted pitching ideas to my publisher on ways to market my book. The only thing they replied with was, “That sounds great. Let us know how it goes.” How absurd is it that a publisher is not willing to help it’s own author market their book of which they are financially invested in. That was my burnout point.

    Not again. I will determine my own fate from now on, thank you very much. I do not have a lot of data on Indie sales, as my debut will not come out until this August, however, I have already been able to peak interest enough myself that I am willing to bet that I will sell more in my first 2 months as an Indie than my traditional book did in its 3 year life span thus far.

    • I’ve lost count of the number of authors I’ve seen comment on publishing articles to say they out-earned their traditionally published books within a year of self-publishing.

      Many successful self-published authors are dismissed by critics because they came from traditional publishing. As if they brought a legion of fans with them. But most were unsuccessful in traditional publishing. Bella Andre deals with this criticism a lot. Barbara Freethy as well. They didn’t take off *until* they self-published. But people still try to dismiss their amazing accomplishments.

      • Nathan says:

        I have followed Bella’s story as well as many other’s and how they came from the traditional published background and the frustrations they had. No doubt going the indie route can be great for those who are serious about their writing and serious about running it like a business.

        I think that ties into another important aspect. In business, it is about building relationships. That seems to be something Indie Authors do really well. From my short time in the Indie world as I prepare to release my book, there seems to be a deep sense of comradary, whereas the feeling I had while under a traditional publisher was competition with authors of the same genre, fighting for the attention of the publisher.

        On a completely unrelated topic, I was just wondering when you worked in the APP Bookstore. I was there from 2000-2004, and was just wondering if you were working on your writing career in the margins of your life while I was in Tradewinds with my nose in a fiction book from hours on end.

  8. […] website I’ve come across thus far.  Today, he published an excellent article entitled “The State of Self-Publishing.”  You should read it in its entirety, but Mr. Howey also provides a helpful recap of his […]

  9. […] via The State of Self-Publishing | Hugh Howey. […]

  10. […] Self- vs. traditional publishing = false equivalence Rather, he argues, the choice writers face is between self-publishing and submitting to an agent. His argument: […]

  11. Neicole says:

    Thanks, Hugh. I’m a newcomer to your blog and fiction writing. I’ve been following you for a few months and trying to wrap my head around this debate, as I consider what to do with my first novel (currently out with beta readers). I’m really enjoying your blog. Thank you for taking the time to write on these topics. It’s really helpful to newbies like me.

    As a newbie, it is so tough trying to figure out whether to try to query or self-publish. The biggest factor in my mind is the marketing aspect, and that’s where I can’t get a clear read. The main reason I would consider going with an agent/publisher (if I pass the bar) is because they presumably can help market my book. Marketing can be a full time job, and it’s clearly tough to get seen with all the books out there.

    I’ve had a difficult time figuring out just what publishers do and how much they invest in marketing the books of authors that aren’t in that elite 1% or 2%. Aside from getting on certain key lists by virtue of going with a publisher, what will they do on the marketing side for the majority of new authors?

    • Unless they fall so in love with your manuscript that they pay you hundreds of thousands of dollars for it, you won’t get much marketing at all.

      I say this having been on all sides of those marketing efforts. As a bookseller, I saw the books they paid $50,000 for in the back of their catalogs. I ordered one copy and shelved it spine-out. The only books we ordered lots of copies of were those the publishers paid a lot of money for. Those deals are very rare. Most are for established authors. Debuts rarely get any attention at all.

      As a reviewer, I received books in the mail from a lot of publishers. Same disparity of effort. As a writer, I’ve seen marketing plans from publishers who offered me a little and a lot. Vast difference.

      If they pay you half a million dollars, who cares about the marketing, right? If they don’t, you won’t get it. The marketing isn’t about you becoming a bestseller, it’s about them making back their investment. Which means marketing is not a reason to sign with a publisher. It’s a byproduct of the size of your deal, not a value-add you can count on.

    • rickchapman says:

      I speak from personal experience on what publishers will do to market you.

      The answer is nothing at all, especially if you’re not a major name in the industry.

      Let me provide you with a practical example. In 2001, I decided to write a book called “In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters.” I thought it was a fun topic and it was also my revenge on all these “Excellence” courses I’d endured in the 80s because of those phony Tom Peters’ books (the data in the original “Excellence” book was faked, btw.)

      I wasn’t going to bother with conventional publishing but self publish, something I had experience with in the realm of targeted business books. My wife thought ISOS had broad appeal, and persuaded me to approach conventional publishers. After one rejection, the second publisher received the completed manuscript on Friday and accepted it on Monday. I received a 10K advance and royalties.

      ISOS was an immediate financial success. It went to 64 on Amazon, stayed in the top 1K for two years, went into the black quickly. I did a second edition in 2006, another 10K advance, royalties, etc. I still receive royalties.

      What did my publisher do to market the book? Nothing. I did all the marketing, which included:

      Approaching potential reviewers and arranging for the sessions.
      Doing E-mailings for the book.
      Publicizing the book via specialized technology conferences I appeared at or hosted
      Radio appearances
      Some local TV and print media articles
      Developing a website for the book (www.insearchofstupidity.com)

      And so on.

      My publisher did not arrange for a single one of the above.

      What DID they do?

      Sell the international rights to the book. It was translated into Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Italian, etc. This was something I couldn’t have done easily or cheaply on my own.

      Put it in bookstores. However, they paid for NO in-store programs.

      One thing I pushed hard for them to do was place the book in some airport bookstores. When I wrote ISOS, I designed to be the ideal hub to hub read. The cover was a lot of fun and a strong visual draw. The topic was compelling to a technology audience, heavy consumers of air transport. Everyone understood the take off on the “Excellence” series. (And a lot of people by the time ISOS was written knew how nonsensical much of Peters’ work was.) I pushed very, very hard for this when the second edition came out.

      Did they do it? No. They agreed it was a great idea and made business sense, but, you know, they just had a layoff, times were tight, the marketing guy had just been fired. etc.

      You will always hear the above with print publishers.

      So, if you can’t get a publisher to market a book that’s a solid financial success, what do you think they’ll do for you initially?

      Crickets, crickets, crickets.

      The issue for print publishers is what utility do they bring to the publishing equation? The most important function they played was shelf access. Now, shelves are going away. So, what utility do they bring to the equation? Direct E-mail lists to targeted audiences? SEO expertise? Website creation systems to help support your titles? Review lists and and systems that enable you to connect quickly with interested parties? Advice on optimizing placement on Amazon and the other platforms?

      No. They do none of that.

      What is their value to you?

      Rick Chapman
      http://www.softletter.com
      http://www.saasuniversity.com
      Author “SaaS Entrepreneur: The Definitive Guide to Success in Your Cloud Application Business”
      Read Excerpts from all 10 chapters at http://www.saasentrepreneur.com
      Author “Rule-Set: A Novel of a Quantum Future.” Just releasedy

  12. C. Behrens says:

    Well said, Hugh! I just released my first book, a children’s book, this past spring. Been working on it for a few years, and hired a freelance editor, author Jim Whiting. He did a great job. I think it can be difficult to concern yourself with the grammar while trying to be creative. Just my opinion. Can’t hurt to have an experienced eye on your “stuff”.

    I am extremely proud of my self-published book: Savanna’s Treasure. I even got a positive review from Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus gave me several great comments to use on my cover.

    When I started my book, there was a big taboo associated with self-publishing, but in recent years that has diminished. Your article details everything very well.

    Thanks for being a beacon, for all of us selfies, LOL!!!

  13. Nikki says:

    “It’s the ability to write stories that readers want but publishers fear to invest in.”

    This is basically why I have an e-reader in the first place. Most of my favorite work has been done by self-published indies whose work I can’t even imagine getting picked up by a big publisher because rarely does what I read fall into what the big publishers consider to be “popular” and in demand at that time.

    • I’m hearing this more and more.

      • Gary Ponzo says:

        One day in the not-too-distant future, Indie writers will be considered edgy and innovative like Indie musicians and Indie movie writer/directors, instead of the putrid system-dodging pariah they are now.

        • Paul Draker says:

          Got news for you, Gary. :)

          That day is now.

          • Yup. And when I said this to a boardroom full of Big 5 editors who were offering me 7 figures to sign with them, I got wide eyes and a lot of shocked silence.

            Of course, I turned them down. But there are pundits who think that never happens. :)

          • Paul Draker says:

            Heh.

            I’m a nobody newbie indie midlister, and even *I’ve* already turned down unsolicited offers from big publishers.

            If — as the pundits claim — that never happens, then I guess it’s “not happening” more and more often these days.

  14. I self-published a sci-fi novella in Jan 2013, and although it didn’t receive a grand reception, the experience was a positive one. Enough to encourage me to write a full-length novel, currently scheduled for release later this summer, which I will again self-publish without hesitation. Thanks Hugh for being such a strong advocate-not just for self-publishing-but for the writer, so we can each tell our stories with hope in our hearts that we may indeed find our audience.

  15. John Bonner says:

    Hugh Howey. . . Now officially the only person to be able to write a well sourced, well written, passionate yet objective, optimistic yet realistic, first rate analysis of a subject. . . AND use the word “amazeballs” at the same time!

    That photography equipment may yet pay for itself, my favorite advice to photographers is that the first 300,000 pictures are the hardest, after that it starts to get easy. Along the same lines, my favorite joke is “How many photographers does it take to change a light bulb? 100. 1 to change the bulb and 99 to point at the bulb and say “I could do that!””
    I am guessing that the same things could be said of writing. The first step is to start writing, the second step is to write (and get feedback) a lot, and the third step is to keep doing it and keep getting better. The second you stop is the exact moment you have given up your chances of success.

    Your assessment of the business and marketing side is spot on as well. 90% of the reason David LaChapelle (sp?) is so successful is that he is a master of networking and selling his vision, his artistic genius gives him something to sell. The same is true of portrait, wedding, fashion, and even pet photographers. It does not matter how good your product is if nobody knows it exists.

    Thank you for such a great article, and your great books, they make me want to give this whole writing thing a shot, even if I only ever make $.99 (I am pretty sure my wife will buy a copy no matter how bad it is :)).

  16. I’ve heard about self published writers who did go traditional, but many of them regretted it. I personally would have a problem handing over the control I have now. I love to be able to make a marketing plan that works for me, but actually once you get rolling with self publishing you’ll see that you have to do far less marketing than you’d think. It can get to the point where your books sell themselves all you have to do is keep publishing. I do an ad about once a month and that’s really it. Getting a backlist helps after and after about three books in a series, things really can take off, or that’s how it’s worked for me. The main thing is to not give up just because of lackluster sales in the beginning. Things do build over time.

    • There are many authors out there dissatisfied with their publishers who fear saying anything in public. I speak privately with them all the time, and my email inbox is full of horror stories. A few blog posts I’ve seen recently were pulled down, presumably because of their publishers’ objections. Instilling this fear works against publishers, though. They would be better off hearing the truth and knowing how to fix it. Many in the publishing industry are oblivious to how their authors feel. That’s not a good business culture to foster.

  17. Lily Bishop says:

    Thank you so much for continuing to defend the indie choice. Choosing to publish my books myself has been so liberating for me. Yes, I still work full-time in a non-writing job, and probably will continue to do so. I need to get out of the house and be around people. But strangers have contacted me to tell me how much they love my characters and my stories, and that is priceless.

  18. Tamara Leigh says:

    Excellent article, Hugh. Thank you! I’m a traditionally published author who, after nearly 20 years with Bantam, HarperCollins, and RandomHouse, struck out on my own in 2012. It took perseverance to find the audience my publisher refused to believe was “out there,” but I found it. My 9th self-publishing venture, released two weeks ago, has snagged one of the #1 slots on Amazon (at full list price). I adore indie publishing–and those lovely monthly checks. The grass really is greener on this side :)

  19. Hugh, I love when you write posts like these. You make so many excellent points and cut through the negativity.

    When I became a stay-at-home mom, my husband and I carefully considered our finances and accepted that I wouldn’t have an income. Guess what I now have? It’s not a living wage at this point, but I hope someday it will be. Either way, I’m extremely grateful for the supplementary income. Were it not for self-publishing, we wouldn’t have been able to go to Europe last year and visit my husband’s family. There’s no overstating how important this was to me. His parents live overseas, which means they don’t get to witness their grandkids growing up, so it meant the world to me that we were able to go visit them, enabling them to spend time with their grandchildren.

    I nodded a lot at your point about the love we have for writing. I’ve written since I was a kid, and I’d still be writing even if I didn’t self-publish. Writing is and always will be my life’s passion. In the past, I had little to no hope of anyone ever reading my books, but now people do read my books. I’m fortunate enough to hear from fans, an experience that blows my mind every single time it happens. I had dreams of being a published author, but I never, ever thought I’d see a day when people all around the world would be reading my books. I hoped and dreamed I would, but that was my fantasy world, not reality.

    As for the business side of things, I frankly don’t enjoy it, but I accept it because it allows me so much creative freedom. I pick my own covers and can (and sometimes do) change them if I feel they’re not working. I choose when and where to market. I write whatever I like whenever I like because I don’t have to worry about writing in the trendy genre of the moment. I pour my heart and soul into my books every day and I love every minute of it. I wouldn’t change a thing about this whole experience–except to opt to self-publish sooner than I did.

  20. Omigosh, this industry is sooooo hard. Yesterday, I saw all my trad friends posting photos of themselves at ALA and I had a moment, I was like, I wanna poster, I wanna booth, I wanna be there signing books with millions of ready made fans–all milestones I wanted to achieve, before I self published that now (in this moment) feel millions of miles of impossibility away…and then I was like, why do I care? Do I care? Really? (The pang hit me so hard yesterday wrote a post about my writer’s ambiguity/neuroses on my blog at http://garlickbooks.blogspot.ca/2014/06/wrangling-in-writing-neuroses-serving.html?spref=fb.) And then I remembered, I had an agent, a great agent, I wrote great books (so all the rejecting editors told me) and yes, you are right, self pub has given my stories a voice and an ear and the chance to be read, when they otherwise would have still been gathering dust on my hard drive, yet, on the other hand this is hard, REALLY HARD, it is SO hard to find your way to a readership as a SP, with limited funds (dwindling)…and the glimmer of trad pub–with their power to splash your name around established circles of readers, and their ability to secure a great number of reviews where, as a self pub, doors have been slammed in my face–becomes temptingly shiny again, (it’s like childbirth, you forget all the painful stuff with time)…and it all gets very tempting…almost tempting enough to consider sacrificing one work JUST one artistic premise for the trade off of visibility…and then perhaps, just perhaps THEN, my SP efforts will finally sprout wings…but then I hear you and other say, it wasn’t worth it, you’d never do it again, and I sigh…
    And then I wake up the next morning and think of packing it all in, and going to work for Walmart and steady shitty pay…lol
    And then along comes this blog post. With it’s truths. And your final wish for us all to be valued the same way, SP and Trad–exactly my wish when I move to SP, and I think to myself…this industry is soooooo hard, SOOOOOOO hard…but thanks for this. J

    • This shouldn’t make you feel better, but publishers can’t sprinkle your name around and make you a bestseller. I’ve watched several books come out recently from the ARC to the big splash. These were great books that I loved. They’ve done almost nothing on the market. I watched this over and over as a bookseller.

      • I hear you Hugh, I’ve seen that happen to my friends as well. I just have this delirious notion that if I could just get that little leg up from the trad world, I’d work like heck to fan those merger little flames on my own, with social media and great writing, and perhaps, eventually, get a little fire rolling over here…lol Dreamer…nothing but a Dreamer…lol

  21. Carol Cram says:

    Thanks, Hugh. Everything you say resonates. After years of agent mining and getting discouraged, I self-published my debut novel in February 2014 and in May was picked up by Lake Union Publishing which as you probably know is an imprint of Amazon Publishing. I thought long and hard about what they were offering and decided to go with them for the re-release of my novel in December 2014. In the meantime, I continue to sell my novel on Amazon and print.

    I’m curious – what is your opinion of Amazon Publishing? I researched long and hard before signing the contract and I’m cautiously optimistic that they will get my book to a wider audience online and offline than I can. In the meantime, I’m full speed ahead on Novel #2 and doing a bit less marketing while I wait for the new cover to be designed.

    Appreciate your championing of self-publishing. I am a firm advocate. The novel would still be on my hard drive with no readers, never mind getting a publisher, if I hadn’t taken the leap.

    • I think the Amazon imprints are doing the things the Big 5 should do. They get it. They have a very pro-writer and pro-reader culture there.

      • Carol Cram says:

        I’m glad you think so Hugh. I do too – Lake Union really doesn’t act like a traditional publisher. I have had over 50 books published in non-fiction (textbooks) with a big US publisher so I’m pretty familiar with trad publishers and I have to say Amazon Publishing seems to get it as you say. They are respectful of all the work I’ve done so far as an indie, they are giving me complete say over the cover (“If you don’t love it, we won’t use it”) which I’ve NEVER had before with a trad publisher, and they treat me like a partner not an underling. Thanks to my experience, limited as it is, with going indie, I feel like I’m entering into the relationship as a professional looking to the publisher to provide a service just as I provide a product. If the service is not great (e.g., more sales than I can get myself), then I don’t need to publish the next book with them. Mind you, I am optimistic but it is early days.

  22. Alan Tucker says:

    The myths are so entrenched and pervasive, it can be disheartening. I attended a small local writing conference two weekends ago and the amount of ignorance out there from people who claim they want to make writing a profession astounded me. There were people who had no idea what an ISBN number was, or even what an ebook really was.

    We should submit all these publishing myths to Mythbusters so they can be officially “busted”. If they won’t do it, we can make our own show and upload to YouTube. I’ve been told on many occasions I’m a dead ringer for Adam Savage ;-)

  23. “Anyone covering this industry from the perspective of publishers or bookstores should be ignored. Seriously. This industry is about the reader and the writer. All discussions about those in the middle should be secondary, at best”

    This is a great point. And part of the reason, in my opinion, that indie writers are truly finding a footing in the publishing shift. A person can write an amazing story with a compelling voice, make sure it’s edited perfectly and that their prose is first-rate. But it won’t make a lick of difference if the publisher isn’t looking for that type of material. Because if they aren’t, then the agent sure as heck isn’t. And the ones who are hurt by this are, as you said, the writer and the reader. There may be 100,000+ readers out there salivating for this new story, begging for something that’s not so mainstream. And until indie writers had the tools they have now, it was impossible to see that new voice blossom. The shift in publishing from a select few large houses to an infinite amount of individuals is truly a change in the paradigm. I’ll gladly read a new voice rather than settling for a stagnant one.

  24. Mike Burton says:

    I’ve always had stories in my head. I remember checking out a book from the library when I was younger about getting published. I was utterly and completely frightened away from writing a single word. I’ve had that ingrained fear for a long time that prevented me from writing. Getting that e-reader for Christmas and finding WOOL brought clarity. I now know that there’s another option… and one I can be included in. I’ve started a novel, written a short-story, and am now participating in my first Camp NaNoWriMo… all because of Hugh.

  25. […] The State Of Self-Publishing, the self- and traditionally publishing Howey (more than 30 contracts, remember) offers a useful […]

  26. Robert Kent says:

    Great post as usual. I think part of the problem on both sides of publishing, traditional and indie, is authors’ expectation of money. If money is a writer’s end goal, they should simply raise 25k and day-trade all day. It’s easier than writing and pays a lot better. Plus, these days, you’re primarily skimming money from hedge funds and banks, so it’s mostly morally okay:)

    That being said, I’m making more money from my writing than I ever expected and certainly more than I would make if my book were sitting on a shelf unpublished. At no point have I said “this check isn’t large enough for me not to need a day job, so I’m not cashing it.” I’m writing every day whether I get paid or not because the writing itself is the payment, but monthly money sure is nice:) And every month the checks are getting bigger. Better yet are responses from honest-to-God readers.

    I spent a decade and a half seeking traditional publication and was one of the 1% to get an agent. In a way I’m glad because I didn’t publish all the manuscripts I wrote that weren’t ready for prime time. On the other hand, if I had published them, some 1-star reviews might’ve helped me improve my craft faster than vague, conflicting rejections from publishers.

    I’m publishing my third ebook tomorrow and I’m already promoting my fourth through my blog. The indie option has made publishing as much fun as writing.

  27. HM Ward says:

    Fo shizzle, Hugh.

    Thought I’d add – in about a year I’ve hit the NYT list 16 times. There’s no way that would have happened if I went trad. For one, the big 5 (3.5, 4.2 – what r we calling them?) don’t take risks. I’d say failure to adapt to a changing market is a risk, a bad one, but that’s another conversation entirely. Failure to act is an action.

    Anyway, most of my books that hit the list were risky – too dark, too edgy, and just too much. Too much what? He’s too nice, she’s too slutty, and swing dancing? wtf? Who swing dances anymore? Stuff like that. Add in the weird animal things that tend to happen to me and all of a sudden my stuff starting hitting lists.

    I’ve written over 55 books (novels and novellas) over the past 3 years. Last year I released a new title and averaged about 2.5 new books per month. Readers are rabid for new material. Those who can keep up the pace are seeing some weird stuff, like I am. There’s no such thing as too many books. Readers are consuming faster than I can write, even at that rate. If I went trad, and I had the chance, there’s no way I’d have all these bestsellers. ;)

    I tell people to do what makes sense to them even though I turned into an Indie poster-child. I didn’t mean to, it just happened. Some people HAFTA have that trad experience. I didn’t. The readers are the core of this change, imho. More readers, more ereaders, means we need more writers. I can’t imagine the implications for what this means for the arts and society as a whole a decade from now. It’s awesome.

    • Holly, your story is by far the nuttiest in all of authordom right now. I love every single detail. 16 NYT bestsellers?! You do realize that you’re outdoing Patterson while writing all of your material yourself, right?

      Your readers are lucky to have you and lucky that the platforms exist to get your work to them as timely as you do. I think you’re a marvel.

  28. Leo says:

    “Finally and most importantly, there shouldn’t be any animus between writers, however they publish.”

    I cannot begin to tell you the ugly comments I have gotten from writers about how LARGE my name appears on my self-published books. Um…why shouldn’t it? I don’t have to answer to anyone. I have never had a READER complain my name is too large.
    :)

  29. LJ Cohen says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve been writing seriously for 10 years. After I had written novel number 4 (over 5 years ago), I was picked up by an agent – a reputable agent from an agency with a ton of high profile sales. 5 years later, (and a bunch more novels later) we parted ways after she was unable to sell any of the projects we both agreed were ready for prime time.

    Along the way, I had self published 2 novels that hadn’t sold, to solid reviews and small sales. A month after dissolving my agreement with my (former) agent, I self published my 3rd book, a book, by the way, she had recommended I not waste my time writing, and it broke out in a big way.

    In a month, it has sold over 4,000 copies and I’ve already earned more than I would likely have as a debut SF author from any of the big publishers. And the book continues to sell over 100 copies a day, all through organic word of mouth.

    It can happen. It does happen.

  30. Sabine says:

    Thank you so much for your posts. Every time when i read them, you inspire me! I am working in Germany. There is the self-publishing also a grown business. I work on my third book and whenever i read your post, you tell me: go on. Thank you!

  31. I, for one, am honored and humbled that anyone pays for any of my books, let alone in quantities sufficient to let me do it full-time without a day job. If they’re going to pay me the great compliment of buying my books, again and again, the least I can do is approach it seriously as an entrepreneur with a professional business-minded attitude.

    The worst part? I’m starting to like the business side of things. Like a lot. I don’t think I could go back to letting a publisher handle it.

    Maybe that’s the best part.

  32. Phyllis Humphrey says:

    Hugh;
    Thanks for another wonderful helpful post. I just received my May Amazon sales notice and it was for less than $10. Disappointing. And then I remembered that’s for only one book and I have eight others on Amazon (which make even less). But I’m new at this. I’ll keep writing and hopefully get better and the readers will find me eventually. I write because I must and I love it and everything else is gravy.

  33. Excellent post. Self-publishing has always been my only avenue, because I believe that people will happily support someone who entertained them. The essence of art isn’t just that people create it, it’s that others appreciate it and are made richer for the experience.

    And because of that belief, I’m refusing to maintain true control of my work. It’ll be up for sale, but the exact same content will be available free, direct from me. All work will be licensed CC-BY-SA, and that’s it. I believe that people will still pay for the books because they enjoyed it and want to see more, even though they don’t have to at all.

  34. Terry Odell says:

    I got into writing late(r) in life, but before indie publishing was more than vanity presses. I did it because it was a new creative outlet; something new to learn. I was first published by a big e-publisher that published erotica but wanted to move into mainstream. I gave it a shot, and faced countless people saying “Oh, tell me when you write a REAL book and I’ll buy it.” I got another book picked up by a smaller hardcover-only, library only press. When they remaindered that book, J.A. Konrath was just hitting it big in indie publishing and I figured I might as well self-publish that book to see if things were as hot as he said. (If you weren’t J.A. Konrath, they weren’t). However, I kept getting my rights back, and re-publishing my books as indie titles, then moved into original works. I’m working on my 14th novel now, see no reason to do anything else but go indie with them. Yes, I hire an editor (lucked out that she was my editor on a couple of my small press titles, so we knew each other.) Found a cover artist I liked. Putting a book out there is an investment. However, after looking at this year’s tax return, my retired husband now makes sure it’s okay with me before making plans to go somewhere or do something .. “You’re the one with the job,” he says.

  35. Plum says:

    I instinctively understood some of this in 2011 when, after being rejected by agents who never even requested the first chapter of my middle grade book, I decided to self-publish.

    Boy, am I glad I did. My query letter itself may have been the problem, but rather than hone my query letter and go around again, I self-published and moved on to the next project.

    Last May, my book “It All Started with a Bicycle” received a Kirkus starred review. I am so proud of that! The quality isn’t the difference between self-published authors and traditionally published ones, the staggering amount of time it takes is.

  36. Brenda Hiatt says:

    Thank you, Hugh! This post tackled the trad/self argument from a direction I hadn’t seen addressed before (and I’ve seen LOTS of those arguments–I’m on a lot of writer loops). As someone who traditionally published for 20 years before going the self-pub route, I can absolutely affirm that there are NO guarantees in traditional publishing, even for those fortunate enough to land a deal with a big 5 house. I’m both happy and richer self-publishing. :) My current series has been described as “Twilight with Martians” and no agent would touch it. Readers, on the other hand… I’m LOVING the degree of control I now have. The increased earnings are just a bonus.

  37. Karl Fields says:

    Hugh,

    I don’t think you took it far enough when talking about flukes. It’s become somewhat popular for agents to post their year-end query stats. Here are just a few from 2013:

    Sara LaPolla – signed two clients out of 3,206 queries received, or .0006 percent
    Rachel Dahl – 2/3914 (.0005)
    Jennifer Jackson – 2/6152 (.0003)
    Natalie Lakosil – 5/2244 (.002) Clearly an outlier ;-)

    Forget being on an end cap, just getting an agent is something of a fluke.

    • My agent signs roughly two new clients a year. And receives thousands of queries. So yeah, the idea that we choose how to publish is bizarre.

      Thanks for these numbers.

  38. An author can freely choose to enter either or both systems. Entry to traditional publishing is a query letter. Entry to self-publishing is the Kindle upload button.

  39. Dave James says:

    We self-publishers are proud people, and if you belong to that section of the publishing community you know you have good friends and honest co-workers. You no longer are obliged to cringe, beg and humbly wait for that brown self-addressed envelope that’s taken months to reach you – or, even worse just a day – and contains a slip saying ‘try elsewhere.

  40. Bob says:

    You know what I just don’t like about all those traditionally published books? They all look the same. They all read the same. You pick up one book and you already know how the chapter is going to end… how the last chapter is going to end and that’s it. Reading is not fun anymore. I wonder why that is, given that there are just sooo many books published every month??? This is especially true of fantasy and sci-fi books for middle grade audience.

    I’ll tell you why that is. It’s the editing process of all those traditionally published books. There’s absolutely no variation in the blending or consistency of the storylines and that’s the reason that very different stories read like the same old stories again and again and again. Because they’re essentially told in the same manner as so many other books. It’s like the editors of those thousands of traditionally published books have found the perfect Juicer/blender in which they pour their manuscripts and out comes the final book that has the perfect consistency. Somebody needs to tell those editors that some adventurous food lovers like to have real fruit chunks in their milkshakes and smoothies!

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen some clever writers evade around that kind of “editing formulas”, either consciously or unconsciously, and give something new to their readers. And that always feels like a breath of fresh air. But that begs the question? Why not leave the comfy old armchair and taste the storms raging outside?

    • Deb says:

      I’m really glad you said this, Bob, I’ve noticed exactly the same. When I read older books (say, more than 10 years old), the excitement and pure enjoyment of reading is still there. But modern titles, especially for some reason YA books, unless it’s just that I tend to read more of those, seem so formulaic now. So predictable. There is no joy in reading them as every ‘twist’ is signposted chapters before, and they seem so repetitive, too. Even the covers all look the same.

      I’ve not long since finished my first novel and I have been querying agents, and got some lovely responses telling me what a great story it is but ‘the market is very hard to break into so I’ll have to pass,’ etc etc. Reading this article has more or less cemented my decision to self publish. If an agent can see that something is a ‘great story’ but still refuses to even read the whole manuscript, then I find it really hard to see the point continuing with that line of enquiry.

      As a reader, a great story is all I want. A great story, well-written – that’s it. I couldn’t care less if it’s trendy or marketable or more or less the same story but with different names as all the other books in that genre. Just a great story! And it seems to me, that’s what indie publishing is all about.

      Thanks for this post, Hugh!

  41. Scott Ralph says:

    Love this post. I wrote a book in 2004, collected a bunch of rejection letters from agents to prove that I was a real author, then dropped it in a box in the garage for ten years. I started writing again in 2013, talked to authors that had just sold works but wouldn’t see them on bookshelves until 2016/2017, and learned about the self-pub explosion (I’m always late to the party). Self-pubbed my Nano book in March, ran a successful Kickstarter to pay for a hardcover edition, and not a day has gone by that I haven’t earned another reader thanks to KDP. Never seen less than 4 stars on reviews for that book.

    And yes, I did pull that 2004 book back out of the box, wiped the roach turds off of it, completely rewrote it, and put it out in May. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes! It is the book I always wanted to write, and I thank the agents for not taking it because it is sooooo much better now after gestating for a decade. :)

    I may be as broke as an honest politician, but you can’t put a price on seeing a dream come true, baby!

    • I love your story! This is exactly what it’s all about. “You can’t put a price on seeing a dream come true.” Hear, hear!

      • Scott Ralph says:

        Elizabeth, I remember when that first proof from CreateSpace came in the mail. To hold a book in my hand with my name on it for the very first time was unreal. To turn the pages and see my words in a book gave me a feeling that I may never be able to describe, no matter how good a writer I become someday. My wife took the book and had tears in her eyes. Tears. She said, “Your daughter is going to be so inspired by what you’ve done.”

        And that right there is worth a writer career, my friend.

  42. Paul says:

    Hello Hugh–

    Like many others here, I am trying to navigate the world of publishing and have been doing a lot of research. I also have been spending a lot of time around the kBoards to hear about other people’s experiences. I may be one of those people you talk about so often that skip the slush pile rat race and go right to the readers! I have no doubt that self-publishing could be a fantastic option, but I have concerns.

    Primarily, I see a lot of advice out there that says “write serials” or “write a series.” There is nothing necessarily wrong with this (readers love them), but that is just not the style of writing that I do. I tend to craft one-offs, which I have frequently seen to be not nearly as successful in the indie world. A lot of the breakouts are either a series or a serial. It almost seems like it is a necessary component of success in the indie world is to write in one fictional world or in a very narrow genre. Whereas in the traditional publishing world, many authors don’t seem to need to do the same thing. I worry that I won’t even have a shot at being successful because I won’t be doing exactly what is expected of an indie author.

    How would you respond to someone who would say that an indie writer needs to produce is a certain kind of book in order to have any traction?

    I would love to hear your thoughts! Thanks!

    • I would say look at my body of work. I write in a lot of genres and for a lot of ages. I write a lot of standalones. I’m all over the place.

      I also didn’t promote much at all before breaking out. I wrote and published the stories I wanted to read. WOOL was an accidental serial. It broke out as a 99 cent novelette. There are no rules. Trends, maybe, but no rules.

  43. Hugh, as always, thank you so much for your incredibly clear-headed take about how self-publishing works. A lot of extraordinarily successful authors (particularly the trad published ones) seem to have lost perspective and forgotten what it was like to just be starting out. For someone like me, who hopes to self-publish by the end of this year, it’s wonderfully refreshing to hear such a positive take on the state of the market.

    Yes, it’s hard to succeed as a writer however you’re published, but you give the rest of us more than just hope: you give us an instruction manual. I’ve found that so many authors in the self-publishing community are not only accessible, but welcoming to us newbies. The “we are in this together” attitude you have towards your fellow authors is part of what helps me keep going, even when I’m not sure if I’ll ever succeed.

    And considering the fact that I couldn’t quit writing if I tried, it’s nice to know just how many people are out there on the internet cheering me – and each other – on. :D

  44. Yes. Yes. Yes. Thanks, Hugh. Excellent writeup!

    I definitely fall under people who would pay to write, if there were fees involved. I think that means we’re all addicted. ;)

  45. TM Simmons says:

    I spent ten years and thirteen books in trad publishing until it beat me down to the point where I couldn’t write for three years. I quit myself, rather than being dropped by my publisher. Then I tried a small press for three books. It wasn’t as bad, but still sucked a lot.

    I’d been watching e-publishing for years, and in the meantime, I was one of the lucky ones who grabbed all my rights back during my hiatus. Three years ago I started putting up my backlist romances myself and never looked back. I’ve also written and self-published several more books and short stories, to the point where I’m finishing my 27th book. It will go up next month and I have absolutely no desire to “shop” it to an agent. I’ve already turned down three offers and that nearly feels as good as writing and self-publishing my work myself now does.

    I’m not one of the mega-earners, but you can’t count the joy of writing that I have now in dollars and cents. Thanks, Hugh, for being one of the authors out there who tells the truth about the publishing industry.

  46. Janni Nell says:

    Big thanks for a very wise post. I wish I’d read something like this when I started out. It would’ve made my dreams more realistic and the journey easier.

  47. David Forsyth says:

    Awesome roundup of the industry, Hugh. You shared some of those insights when we met last year and I took them to heart. I’m far from being among the top earning ebook authors, but I am earning a living at it now. I remember when I told you last year that I had earned over $17K on Amazon and you told me that was more than most traditionally published authors ever see. You encouraged me to keep writing and your advice played a role in my decision to turn down several offers from genre presses.

    I’m happy to report that I kept writing as an indie and my latest release did better than ever before. Amazon made a 5 figure deposit into my bank account yesterday! Not bad for a monthly royalty payment (mostly on $2.99 sales). It’s not that good every month, but I know that it will be again as soon as I complete the sequel. And, as you predicted, I am building a library of previous work that also spike in sales with new releases.

    When people talk about “legacy publishing” they SHOULD be thinking about the digital rights (books without a shelf-life) that will continue to produce royalties for the rest of the author’s life and even their heirs (for those wise enough to retain those rights). That’s become the foundation of my own “retirement plan” although I plan to keep writing as long as I can! :)

  48. Jim Musgrave says:

    The conditioning one gets in the academic world also leads to this misnomer. When I taught college, the only “acceptable” work for tenure consideration was work done for the respected (i.e., big) publishing houses. Today, most independent authors in both academia and in the general publishing area, know which way the wind is blowing, and they look long at hard at the advantages of being independently published. Authors are creators, and the logic says that creators should receive most of the credit (profit and respect). I agree 100% with what you way, Hug.

  49. This … says:

    […] … just this. […]

  50. Anonymous says:

    “The false premise seems to be that you can choose to self-publish, or you can choose to have your book on an endcap in every bookstore while you are sent on a 12-city tour by your publisher. That’s not the choice. The choice is to self-publish or submit to an agent. This is the choice.”

    My own experience:

    I got a big shot agent, who said he loved my material and we could get “serious money” for it. So I seemed to be on the runway for the sort of choice these publishing mouthpieces present as “what happens to you” if you choose traditoional publishing.

    But then, for reasons I’ve never understood (and which he declined to explain to me when I asked; he just assured me he knew best), he sent it to only one editor (an editor with whom he did a lot of business) and accepted that editor’s opening offer: $20,000 per book for world English language rights and basket accounting (meaning I would not be paid a single penny of the royalty earnings for the first book until after the final book in the deal, published several years later, had earned out its advance).

    This was a lot less money than the six-figure advance the agent had suggested the book could get before he decided to send it to only one publisher in an exclusive submission and accept their offer. I was also disappointed in those contract terms, but the agent told me they were “non-negotiable.” (The agent also told me that his verbal agreement on a deal of MINE meant -I- was now legally committed. This struck me as very improbably, but he stuck to that story.)

    The following year, after the first book had been scheduled for release, I met with my editor for the first time. He was very high on the book, now scheduled for hardcover release the following year (2+ years after I delivered the finished/revised manuscript). He talked about how terrific he thought the book was. He specifically compared it to a first book by another writer who was also edited by this editor and agented by my agent, saying my book was so much better. Since the publisher had put shoulder to the wheel for that author’s first book (endcaps, banners, posters, front-of-store placement, all of which put it on bestseller lists–today, that author makes 7-figures per book), I was very encouraged. I had seen the blitz of marketing and PR for that book, so I asked what were the plans for mine?

    The editor looked at me as if I had just farted at lunch.

    And the startled, bemused answer was… well, NOTHING. Why would we have any plans to market or promote YOUR book? Don’t get a swelled head. Who are YOU?

    Thinking I should be able to solve this down-the-rabbit-hole problem, I reiterated everything we had just discussed–the book was great, it was BETTER than that other author’s book, so I wondered if my book would get the sort of push and promo his did?

    And I was again treated as if I were farting at the lunch table. The answer was, no, of COURSE not.

    Why? There didn’t need to be a WHY, it’s just wasn’t going to happen, and it was (I was given to understand) in bad taste of me to ask.

    So I thought, well, maybe he DIDN’T think the book was great. Maybe he’s made insincere statements to be nice to me, and was shocked when I tried to discuss the ramifications of those statements in business terms (as in: okay, how will you promote this “great” book?). So I let the subject drop.

    But in the months that followed, the book got tremendous advance quotes–mroe than a dozen glowing endorsements for the cover, the catalogue, etc. Then the CEO told me he had read it and thought it was great. So I again raised the subject of, look, if this is indeed a terrific book, what are the promotion plans for it? I saw what you can do for a book when you get behind it, with this other author–so will this book get any of that support?

    The CEO got angry at me and treated me like I’d gotten drunk and taken off my underwear in public. Then I got an angry letter from the editor–how DARE I embarrass him by talking that way to the CEO? (“Talking that way” as in, I politely asked business questions about my own book, and then dropped the subject when coldly asked to do so.) The editor informed that now my name was mud at that house.

    The book came out, got great reviews, and earned out its advance despite a complete absence of marketing or promo. So when it came time to prep my next book for the company, which I was told after delivery was “impressive,” I asked if anything would be done for this book. And the bemused answer was, no, of course not, the previous book had “disappointing” reviews and “flat” sales. I gathered the (by then) large mound of GLOWING reviews for this book, and pointed out that it had quickly earned out, according to my royalty statement (although it would be years before I’d get a penny of that, since I had not yet even written the final book on the contract, which would have to be released and earn out before I’d get a penny of royalties for the first book).

    The publisher, which had ISSUED the royalty statement showing that the book had earned out and ws acrruing royalties.. DENIED that the book had earned out. (And did not answer the email in which I suggested we discuss this by phone while looking at the most-recent statement together.) The publisher also denied the book had received many glowing reviews, and ignored the email in which I quoted from those reviews.

    The next book in that deal wasn’t just dumped on the stands, it missed its release month and was dumped IN THE WRONG RELEASE MONTH, so the big chains thought it had been canceled and they, in turn canceled readers’ orders for it. Despite that, the book earned out its advance, got starred reviews, and made Year’s Best lists. None of which the publisher acknowledged when dumping the third book on the stands without a backward glance.

    I later talked to a writer who went through the exact same thing with this publisher (a major New York House, btw). The only difference in her case was that her first book made the New York Times list. Even so, everything about her story is virtually identical to mine.

    So I’m so bemused by these online mouthpieces who talk as if there’s a magic carpet ride one you get a big shot agent and/or land a deal with a major publisher and a good book.

    • One of my very best friends had a similar experience with one of the Big 5. He gave up writing because of it, and the guy is the best writer that I personally know.

      Publishers treat far more of their authors like crap than those they truly “nurture.” Your story should get more eyeballs, friend. Sending you hugs. My heart goes out to you.

  51. Simone says:

    Once again, your words inspire me to the bone. You’re one of the reasons I decided to self publish instead of send out batches of queries letters to uninterested agents. I’m doing pretty well with sales, and since the 2nd book launched both have been in Amazon’s top 100 in my genre for weeks. That is so much fun to say (although you’re right about the money part – not enough to quit my freelance work just yet), but what’s even MORE fun to say is that I’ve published two books. Had I gone the traditional route, I might still be shopping houses and getting one rejection after the next, or drinking myself to death. I’m so incredibly grateful for pioneers like you who have changed the publishing landscape — and lived to share about it. Your generosity is a blessing to all of us little prospectors. Because of you, I’m using my blog to share my experience with other writers. Thank you for all that you do.

  52. […] remember the days of yore when I had the time, the fingers and the inclination to write blog posts like this. But, alas, I have to retreat into what one indie author used to call her “bat cave,” […]

  53. […] post by Hugh Howey on the state of self-publishing. And if you have time (but wouldn’t you be better off writing?!), you can check the latest […]

  54. Mark Edwards says:

    Hi Hugh – I’m one of the lucky few who is making a living from writing (and supporting a family of five) though I know it could all go wrong so never rest on my laurels.

    My story: spent 15 years trying to get a deal, had an agent but never found a publisher, self-published through KDP and hit the No.1 spot on Amazon UK! Then got a 4-book deal with one of the big six (as they were then), and got dropped by them after the books under-performed (books 3 and 4 weren’t in any shops AT ALL). Then self-published again and, guess what, hit No.1 on Amazon UK again. Now have a 4-book deal with Amazon Publishing. So I’ve done it all in the space of three years.

    I am actually preparing a talk to give to creative writing students tomorrow night and my agent, who runs the class, has told me they will be ‘snooty’ or ‘sniffy’ about self-publishing. I want to give them some stats to show them that they should leave all their options open and give them a reality check about how hard it is, however you are published.

    My agent takes on 1 in 500 of the books that are submitted to him and he says that about 50% of these will find a publisher. So the 2% figure (of books that get trad published) actually seems very high to me. I would also love to know if there are any stats anywhere that show what % of trad published debut authors go on to get another deal after their initial deal. Any ideas? Anecdotally I would guess it’s about 50%.

    Thanks for a great blog as always.

    • You may have one of the most fascinating stories in all of self-publishing. To have success on your own, watch the books get botched by the publisher, then hit the top of the charts again . . . have you written this up anywhere? It’s fascinating. And instructive.

      As for the percentages of books that get deals, remember that the manuscripts go out to 20 or so agents each, so you see a lot of duplicates across the various slush piles. Also, a lot of writers are submitting more than one book. I did a lot of searching a while back and found a few sources that listed 2%. Many more listed 1%. Some said it was more like .01%. I went with the number that serves my argument the least, as is my habit.

  55. […] remember the days of yore when I had the time, the fingers and the inclination to write blog posts like this. But, alas, I have to retreat into what one indie author used to call her “bat cave,” […]

  56. […] I ran across the following quote from a recent Hugh Howey Post titled, The State of Self-Publishing: […]

  57. […] In The State Of Self-Publishing, the self- and traditionally publishing Howey (more than 30 contracts, remember) offers a useful put-together of key themes, talking points around which he has built and promulgated his views for months. He has become not only an incisive observer of his own and other writers’ experiences in the fraught field of publishing today, but also a producer of input, himself: his AuthorEarnings.com site is, quarter by quarter, creating a succession of sales-data snapshots for comparative analysis. […]

  58. Selina says:

    Oh my goodness, this article was just what I needed! I have always dreamed of writing, but it took until grad school (in a completely unrelated field) to push me into finally doing it…and that was about a year ago now. I’m so happy to finally have realized that writing is a great love of my life and have finished 2 rough drafts (almost 3!) and have been starting to think about where it’s going for the last few months. When I started the process, I really thought, like so many people, that traditional was the only “real” way to publish. That self-publishing wasn’t respectable. I have never been more happy to be wrong. I think this article just sealed the decision I made without making that I want to self-publish. Thank you for a logical, reasoned explanation of the state of publishing and adding that last piece I needed to make the decision. I have a lot of editing to do, but I finally feel confident about deciding to self-pub. Looking forward to the ride! :)

  59. “Traditionally published authors are expected to do more and more of their own marketing these days, and fewer of them are being sent on book tours… expected to shell out their own money ”

    It seems the reasons one would have for considering traditional publishing are dwindling. I could see the draw of traditional publishing being, “hey there’s someone who can handle the marketing for me” which can definitely justify a lower cut of the sales. But if they are expecting more from the authors now and still offering the lower percentage of the sales then why wouldn’t you choose to go the self-publishing route?

  60. Hi Hugh,
    First of all let me say that I really enjoyed “Wool” :)
    Thanks for the article. I’ve been published by two of the big 5 and two smaller publishers as well, and a book that I ghost-wrote (is that a word?) just got picked up by S&S. I have also self-published about 15 books (mostly novellas) over the past 2 years. My royalties from the major publishers do not even come close to what I’m earning as a self-pubbed author in my teeny tiny niche: African American Christian Fiction. The readers I had before I self-pubbed are a little sad because they can no longer find my books in stores, so I do think I’ve lost some readers by making the switch, but I have gained many more in this ebook change. I think right now the only thing that would make me really happy would be if Amazon had some healthy competition. Thanks for the forum!

    • Congrats on all the success, Michelle!

      It’s amazing how many people publish both ways and do better with their self-pubbed works. I’m sure there are plenty of people with the opposite experience, but who would have thought we’d even be discussing this five or ten years ago?

  61. […] check out ‘The State of Self Publishing’ on the great Hugh Howey’s blog (http://www.hughhowey.com/the-state-of-self-publishing/). Please come back here after you do. Please. Seriously, I need […]

  62. C T Brown says:

    Brilliant post, couldn’t agree with all of it more than I already do. It inspired me to write a post on my own blog about why I self-publish even though it has only led to a couple of hundred downloads of my books. We write because it is what we do, after many years writing for an audience that consisted of me, and me alone, even a couple of hundred downloads feels like a massive success!

    Of course, I would love to have a massive break-out hit with one of my novels – however unlikely that would be – but I wouldn’t move to traditional publishing even if I did, too many horror stories. In self-publishing everyone seems happy, whether their figures are high or low, as long as they are realistic about their prospects. In traditional publishing everyone seems to be annoyed and stressed all the time, why would we prefer that?

  63. Jim Wilbourne says:

    Hi Hugh,
    It’s hard to research about self-publishing without your name coming up at least once.
    I’m currently working on my first Epic Fantasy series and it’s going well in my writing group who helps me edit for content while my english major graduate friend comes in behind and leaves technical editing notes for my scenes (that I’m ignoring for now) as I write them.
    I’ve been bouncing back and forth between whether or not I should go traditional or self-publish.
    I haven’t read an article about this, but I think what I may end up doing is (after I’ve revised and edited a couple times) is submit to agents and see if I get a bite. Since few books get past this step, I’ll use my waiting time between each rejection as time to write book two in the series. Once (as it likely will) it’s rejected by the agents I submit it to, I’ll then go back, send it to be professionally line edited and proofread then Self-publish.
    This way, I’ll be far ahead in my second book by the time I self publish… unless of course I get that 5 or 6 figure deal that will likely not happen.
    what do you think of this strategy?
    is it a viable option or a waste of time?

  64. Hugh,

    This is a great piece and I really enjoyed reading it. It’s a wonderfully concise and clear bird’s-eye view of self-publishing and I’m really hoping you’ll let me quote from it at my site, indiespotlight.com. If this was a WordPress site I could obviously just reblog it,but I’d like to present it with a little more fanfare. I’d like to introduce the post with a quote about all published work being as much of a fluke as successes in the Indie field as I think that’s both a great point and one that will resonate. I’ll then stick you site banner and a link to this page and name you in the post title. Is that okay with you?

  65. […] (and who is affiliated with the report above) debunks criticisms of self-publishing in a recent article that reminds writers that this profession has always been like the NFL. Only a few (and not always […]

  66. […] them. They are a way to journal out loud and a great method for gathering your thoughts.” http://www.hughhowey.com/the-state-of-self-publishing/ (He goes on to recap his writing and ideas about the publishing industry. He’s very thoughtful, […]

  67. […] words are from a recent blog post by Hugh Howey, which I just loved. One idea that struck me as a really cool and unique way of looking at things […]

  68. […] consider this post from best-selling self-published author Hugh Howey last week on the state of self-publishing a […]

  69. “There shouldn’t be any animus between writers, however they publish. This is hard enough without trying to tear each other down.” Great point! Everyone has different goals when they write, who are we to judge the path of a fellow writer? As you said, “Success cannot be measured by someone else, only yourself.”

  70. R. Barclay says:

    Hugh,
    I’m very encouraged by your assessment of the self publishing world. A great article! I’m off on my next project in a set of completely different MG and YA novels set in and around actual events, such as the train stranded in the Sierras in 1952, the Spanish Civil War in 1937, and the nation’s first UFO scare in 1896. No ‘series’ for me. Also, no dystopia,no zombies, just good old adventures.

  71. Hugh, thanks for using your notoriety–yeah, I know there are some in the publishing world who’d label it “infamy” instead–to speak common-sense truths. Special thanks for exposing the absurdly false choice of Self-Publishing vs. Endcap Publishing.

    I rode the query-go-round for many years. I was agented twice. Neither sold a book for me. In the end, I spent years and years and accomplished nothing on the publishing front. At least I’m moving forward by self-publishing. There’s a long way left to go, but in under two years I’ve sold tens of thousands of those same books the trad publishing world didn’t want. I love readers.

  72. […] to guess, would not have achieved any sort of publication without Amazon’s existence.  As Hugh Howey has pointed out, the idea that every writer faces the choice between self-publishing and having their book on an […]

  73. Andrei Cherascu says:

    Hugh, I’ve been following your blog for a few weeks now and I can credit you with single handedly changing the way I look at publishing. I’ve happened upon “Wool” at a (Romanian) book-store and loved it. Then I found out it had been self-published and had become a huge success on Amazon so I just had to find out more about you. I read up on your career and read most of your blog posts and now I have a new-found courage to take my career into my own hands.

    I recently finished my first novel and was planning to start querying agents (because I could think of nothing else to do afterwards). I wonder, realistically, what my chances would have been of having an agent take me on? I’m a guy with a Eastern-European-sounding name who wrote a sci-fi (of all things). I fear I was heading for a desolate future of heart-breaking rejections.

    I completely gave up on that idea and now I’m 100% committed to self-publishing. The more I read about the topic the more I feel it’s the right thing to do. At least this way I will have complete control over my own success (or failure). So thank you Hugh! Would have never known as much as I do now about the publishing industry if it hadn’t been for you. Your posts are encouraging, inspiring and – most importantly – informative.

    You’re not only a great storyteller, you are a great friend to your readers and fellow-writers. You are the kind of writer I hope to become one day.

  74. […] A look at the myths surrounding success in publishing, especially where weighed against self-publishing and in favor of traditional. http://www.hughhowey.com/the-state-of-self-publishing/ […]

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