Publishing – A Small-Press Adventure, Part 1


As Stuart mentioned yesterday, he and I had lunch earlier this week and were comparing notes. It turns out that we’re both looking at publication of collections of short stories, but that he’s going exclusively with a ebook version that he’s publishing himself, while I have an arrangement with a small (very small) publisher to do a print version of my collection. I did retain the e-rights to the book and will do the e-version of the book myself (why not; it’s tragically simple to do), but I also really like the idea of having a print version from a small press.

Why? Numerous reasons, most of which have little to do with money (in the short-term).

First of all, no one’s collections of short stories make any real money; even the Stephen Kings of the world see considerable drop-offs in sales when they release short story collections. Writers do them anyway—why not make some more money off of the stories you got paid so painfully little for the first time around?—but as much as anything else, short stories are about marketing, about maintaining name recognition. Studies have shown that all other factors being equal, given a choice between an author whose name they recognize and an author whose name they do not, readers will invariably go with the known name. And the better they know your name, the quicker they will be to pick your book up off the shelf. Having a short story collection published is simply one more way to keep your name in front of readers.

Second, it’s nice to be able to hold a copy of your book in your hands. I do have an ereader (and enjoy it), but to me the experience isn’t the same as holding a book. I also know a lot more people who don’t have an ereader than who do have one, and I’d like my book to be accessible to as many people as possible.

Now that’s nice and cozy and happy and all that, but I can already hear several voices in the audience echoing the same point Stuart made over lunch the other day: Yeah, that’s great, but you can have all that—the marketing/name-recognition, the warm, fuzzy feeling of holding your precious little book, the money that it will generate—but you can have all that, plus MORE of the money the book will earn, if you’ll just publish it yourself. Technology is to a point where POD books look just as good as traditionally printed books (the vast, vast majority of small presses are using POD themselves), and they’re not terribly hard to produce, either.

Those are all valid arguments (up to a point). The do look just as good as most other books, they’re not that hard to produce, and self-publishing will make you more money (assuming an equal number of sales, which, frankly, is a reasonable expectation (though it doesn’t take into account all the upfront expenses you’ll have to cover first, which I’ll get to later)).

So the question remains, why go with a small press over self-publishing? Will it make it easier to get into books stores? Maybe a little, depending on who you sign with, but in the big picture, not significantly so. Will it sell books to people the author might not be able to reach themselves? Maybe a few, but more and more (even with the big publishers), the author has to do the lion’s share of the marketing him- or herself, so, again, not significantly so.

At this point you’re probably asking yourself, Good grief, Edmund, who’s side of this argument are you on?

Quite simply: I’m still on the side that, given the option, goes with a small press over self-published books. Why? Time, Money, Credibility, and The Experience.

Let’s talk about Time first. I make my money editing, but long before I was an editor,  I was a struggling writer like everybody else. And I’m doing everything in my power to spend more time dedicated to the novel I’m currently writing, so the idea of taking the time to self-publish a book (a book I’d really like to see published even though I know it isn’t going to make a whole lot of money (no matter how I publish it or who I publish it with)) doesn’t make me feel as warm and fuzzy as does the idea of holding the book in my hands. My time is precious and I don’t want to give any more of it away that I absolutely have to.

As I mentioned when commenting on Mindy’s post on Wed., I was as involved in the creation of the look of the book as possible and loved every minute of it (see the cover, below). But I didn’t have to go out and find a graphic designer all on my own, I didn’t have to acquire an ISBN (you can’t even buy those individually as was once possible; last I heard you have to buy them in blocks of ten (though that info may be dated; it’s been years I talked to anyone about ISBNs—all of which brings me full circle to my original point perfectly: I didn’t have to worry about a lot of those kinds of things, which meant I could spend my time writing instead of figuring out how to do all that’s necessary to publish a book)).













The second issue—Money—is closely related to the first. Time and Money go hand-in-hand, and if you go the self-publishing route, in addition to all the time you’re going to have to spend on these things, you’ll either have to spend the money to get the necessary computer programs to lay out your interior and design your cover, or else you have to hire a graphic artist. You’ll have to hire (at minimum) a good copy editor to clean up the text. You’ll have to find someone with a block of ISBN numbers who will give or sell one to you. You’ll have to pay the printing company whatever their fees are for set up, and then you’ll have to pay them again for however many copies of the book you want them to print for you—all before you ever make a penny from selling the book.

It may be easier to self-publish than it ever was before, but it’s not free. And those extra profits the self-publishing advocates like to talk about? That’s all based on the  assumption that you sell enough copies of your book to cover all of those expenses. The self-publishing advocates don’t talk about all the people out there with cases of books in their closets or garages, gathering dust instead of profit. And the one person I know who did sell several thousand copies of her self-published book? She ate up all her time and money on gas, hotels, and meals, living on the road doing speaking gigs at libraries and book-clubs. Most of her “profits” vanished as quickly as they appeared while she worked her ass off trying to generate the sales in the first place.

The third issue is Credibility. I honestly don’t know a lot of people who pay attention to who publishes a book, but at the same time, people still make a big distinction between self-published books and self-published ebooks. A self-published ebook? No one seems to care. It’s new technology, so there are no rules, no expectations. But a print book? With print books there are rules that have been around for a long time. People still do not look nearly as kindly upon self-pubbed books as they do books that are published through a traditional publishing arrangement; the want a sense that the material has been vetted somehow.

And lastly is The Experience. By that, I don’t mean the experience that a publisher has in putting a book together that the average writer does not. No. By The Experience I mean this (and I’m going to use my novel as my example, because I think more of you are interested in publishing a novel than in publishing a collection of short stories): when Dreaming Creek was published, it also went through a small press. I had had several agents speak in very complimentary terms about my writing, but the problem, they said, was that Dreaming Creek crossed too many genre lines. It had elements of mystery, paranormal, romance, and comedy: the marketing people just weren’t going to know what to do with it, and if the marketing people don’t know what to do, the deal is dead on the doorstep. But, these same agents suggested, because of the way the small press business model works, they are in a better position to take chances on something unusual like DC.

Was I going to make a lot of money dealing with a small press? No. But I did it anyway instead of shelving the thing or publishing it myself because I wanted The Experience. The Experience of negotiating and signing a contract, The Experience of working with various editors to improve the book (editors I might not see eye-to-eye with), The Experience of having the publisher come back later and say ‘Let’s talk about foreign rights.’ As sadistic as it may sound, I even wanted The Experience of waiting for royalty statements and checks to arrive and The Experience of having a lot of the process be outside of my control.

Was it necessarily fun? Not so much. But I viewed it all as good practice for when I do sign with a major publisher (for a book of my own: I had an IGMS anthology published by Tor, but I have no illusions that that book was published for any reason besides the magazine’s association with Orson Scott Card (though I also learned a lot from that process, too)). The bottom line for me personally is that I’m viewing a big part of what I’m doing with these small presses as paying my dues, learning the ins and the outs of the business. Every time I go through this process—like I did with Dreaming Creek, like I did with the Magical Words book, etc. etc.—I get better and better at it, so that when New York does come calling for one of my novels, I’ll be in a better position to do everything I need to do, and do it well.

In short, it’s an investment in my long-term career, and to me that’s worth a whole lot more than whatever extra couple of dollars I might make by self-publishing a book.


31 comments to Publishing – A Small-Press Adventure, Part 1

  • All good points, Ed. I do agree that money cannot be the motivating factor in either case. In fact, because I *know* a short story collection won’t pull in big bucks, I’m doing all I can to keep my costs down. The only thing I’m paying for is copy-editing (about $200). The rest is being done by myself or through trusted talent/friends (that networking thing) for free. Clearly, the trade-off with a small press, here, is having someone else do all that work with no upfront cost to the author. Of course, you pay that on the back end with less of a royalty but considering how little these types of books make, you’ll most likely fair better than I, in this case.

    Time is a major factor. In my case, I enjoy learning and doing many of the computer-related tasks (like formatting the ebook), so it works for me. For others, the workload involved is a major reason to find a press to do it for you.

    So why the heck am I doing this? Well, one reason is the same as one of yours — the Experience. I, too, have been through the small press both in fiction and non-fiction. And as the reality of my traditional publishing chances dwindle, I want to have the e-publishing experience, so I can decide which way to go in the future.

    As for Credibility, I think you’re right that there is a distinction between self-published books and ebooks. I’m not sure how or if that will change. Ebooks don’t share the taint because a) they are too new to have a reputation, yet, and b) so many established and respected mid-listers (and others) are self-publishing via ebooks. Their influence on how this all gets perceived remains an unknown but important factor.

    After both our posts, and the comment discussions so far, I’m starting the think a small press might be best for the print run while keeping the e-rights and self-publishing the ebooks. Not sure how many decent-sized small presses would go for that, though. But as you point out, while I could use CreateSpace or some other POD publisher for a print run, that will really rack up the cost in setup fees alone.

    Beautiful cover, BTW!

  • Setting up a book for a print run is really pretty easy, actually. If I can do it (and I’ve managed several times now), pretty much anyone with a working copy of MS Word and a free day to become acquainted with changing sizes of documents can make it happen. Most of the POD places also have downloadable templates that you just copy and paste your text into that handles the margins for you. It’s not that bad. I think you’re over-estimating the time and cash it takes to do a POD book on your own. I’ve self-pubbed three novels in the past two years, and none of them have cost me more than $300 total.

    CreateSpace, the POD printer I use, will assign a free ISBN number for you, so I’ve never bought a number. For $40/year, they’ll list the book in Ingrams and most other places, plus the cost for author’s copies drops so dramatically that you save more than $40 on your first 20-book order (assuming the book prints out to at least 200 pages).

    But all that said, I think the idea of having a small press handle the print run and keeping the e-rights is pretty darn brilliant. My suggestion would be to follow a methodology for ebooks that Joe Konrath and Dean Wesley Smith have recently outline on their blogs – individual stories for $.99 each. This gives readers a gateway point to see if they like your stuff. If you put one or two up on Smashwords for free, Amazon will likely price-match, and then you have an even lower barrier to getting new readers to try your stuff out.

    Then collect 5-7 similar stories into a $2.99 collection, for people who like the stuff they’ve tried for free, but may be wanting to cheap out on buying the whole thing. Release 2-3 of these until the whole book is out there. Then release the final version for $4.99, giving you a LOT of market saturation with one short story collection. This will boost your presence on search results, increase visibility, and give you the potential to make money on the same story in three different ways. I would suggest keeping the final price under $5, because that seems to be a choke point for ebook bargain hunters, and is the cutoff for listing on “bargain” ebook sites. And let’s face it, we all know that nobody gets rich writing short stories, so why not keep the whole thing as cheap as possible while still maximizing potential earnings?

    That’s what I’d probably do if I had more short stories to collect, but I’m not a short story writer, so it’s less of a viable option for me. Good luck, hope to see you on the Amazon bestseller lists soon!

  • Stuart, I’m glad you and I stumbled onto these varied paths at the same time; I makes for an interesting conversation. I know I’ve learned a lot from all the things you’ve done and points you’ve raised..

  • Good info. Have you looked into Lulu? They’re a POD company and you can also get an ISBN from them for your book. The only thing about them, which is the same with Amazon, you have to markup the print book to make a profit on it based on how much it costs to produce and the 20% that Lulu takes. A number of small RPG companies use Lulu for their product. I started checking into some places after the past couple days of reading the MW posts. If I were to go self-pub, I’d probably consider Lulu. I’ve got a book from them and it’s held together well, so that’s a plus. They package it and ship it, so you don’t have to have boxes of books in your garage.

  • No, Daniel, I haven’t looked into Lulu (kind of the point of my post; I don’t want to), but for those interested, anyone else have any experience with them?

  • John, Sounds like you’re way ahead of me on the self-publishing learning curve (and some of the short-story marketing strategies). You mentioned saving $40 on your first 20-book order, but not what it was $40 off of. If you don’t mind my asking, what’s the per unit cost?

  • Ed> Interesting post! I’ve heard a lot about small presses and there seems, like everything else, to be ups and downs. Wasn’t the MW book through a small press, too? Of course that was non-fiction, so I’m guessing that it was a slightly different experience. Though I have heard of a couple SP nightmares. A friend of mine had his book (a mystery) pubbed through a SP. They sent it to China to be copyedited. So someone who didn’t speak English was trying to edit the book. The copyeditor did things like try to change colloquial phrases and stuff. It was kind of a nightmare. But overall, he (who is a raging cynic) was moderately pleased with the experience.

    I’d do a small press before self-publishing because of the experience, like you’ve said, and because of the fact that it would give my book some credibility in an already hugely filled market.

    I do think there are similar problems with self-pubbed ebooks as with self-pubbed physical books. And it comes down again to name recognition. Sure, I’ll trust a book from an author whose work has been traditionally pubbed more than from a no-name. And this is why I won’t go the self-pub route, not for a long time. I have no platform. Why would anyone risk their money and time on me? Now, if I got tons of rejections that said “wow, this is really good, but it just isn’t marketable for us…” I might consider it. Or when I knew there was no other way–all traditional routes had been exhausted.

    In comparison cost, looking to go the traditional route has cost us (me and my co-author) about $50.00-$70.00 in postage. Most folks want e-queries now anyway. I’d say maybe 20% wanted hard copies. If we sell the book to a small press, with little to no advance, we’ll still probably make that back.

  • Good points, Ed. I’m still mulling all this but I totally agree about going with a small press over a self pub, particularly because of the way credibility affects distribution. Maybe this will change as bricks and mortar stores die off (assuming they will) but for now, not being able to get your hard copy book into a store because it’s self-pubbed seriously undermines the point of publishing in the first place. The other question I find nagging me as I consider doing a self e-pub is simply this: how often do I buy anything self-pubbed by soemone else in ANY format. Answer? Never. And until conventional publishers go under, I’m not likely to without a really good recommendation/review from someone/place I respect. This is my biggest fear aboutt eh self-pub market: that we get so excited about what’s possible as writers, we forget what we do as readers.

  • @Daniel R Davis:

    Don’t cheap out on an ISBN! Ten is the smallest block size for ISBN’s, so those “single ISBN” deals really are allocating the number out of a shared block. You won’t be listed as the publisher, Lulu will. That’s not good if you have any concern about being associated with a subsidy press.

    Anyone even thinking about self publishing should spend the money and own their own ISBNs. It gives you control over everything about how your book metadata is spread through the distribution channels, because it gives you control over your info in the Books in Print database.

    As for using a subsidy press like Lulu, you are better off going directly to Lightning Source or CreateSpace. Lulu and many subsidy presses use Lightning Source behind the scenes anyway, and they just mark up the printing. You will make less money on your books and get very little but trouble in return.

    Check out some of the posts on Joel Friedlander’s blog from the past month or so for more info about self publishing and subsidy presses (

    @A J Hartley /@Pea Faerie:

    The truth is that most readers have no idea whether or not the book they buy is from a traditional publisher or a self-pubbed author. If the book is in the Amazon Top 100, it’s good enough for them. Being an author, you are a far more educated and sensitive buyer than the majority. Your biases do not echo the reality of the marketplace.

  • Good to know, D.R. And thanks for mentioning Lightning Source. That was another I wanted to look up, but couldn’t remember the name.

  • @Daniel: No prob. Look at CreateSpace as well. CreateSpace is the easier/cheaper way to go, but Lightning Source (LSI) gives you the most control. My wife publishes her books through LSI (and has for years). But I hear CreateSpace is easier for non-techie types, and it has no setup fees. Not sure where you fall on the tech scale, but my thinking is to go with LSI if you can, and CreateSpace if you have to. 😉

  • Emily–You said the magic word: “platform.” Everybody here better be prepared to deal with all the challenges and realities that word carries. (Off the top of your head(s), can anyone recall a MW post on the subject of ‘platform’?)

    AJ&DR–I’m lumping you together on a related topic: I suspect that while people may not be aware of exactly who it is that publishes their favorite books (except maybe Baen readers), the fact is that the vast vast vast majority of books that crack Amazon’s Top 100 are published by established publishers. Saying you you can make it big as a self-published author is like saying you can get rich by going to Las Vegas. It’s possible, yes, but the odds are looooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong and the deck is stacked against you.

    Also, thanks DR for that info about Lulu-issued ISBNs being listed with Lulu as the publisher. Lulu is not a word bookstores want to see or hear.

  • Another great discussion! Each of your issues – time, money, credibility, and The Experience – are all factors in why I want to go the traditional route. I’ve been wondering about small press, too. Thanks for the info, Edmund.

  • @Edmund: You are right about the odds being long. But that is just as true of traditional publishing. An author starting at square one has no better chance of big success going the traditional route than she does self publishing. Ditto regarding the deck being stacked against you. There’s pretty much nothing you can say about the risks and benefits of traditional publishing that can’t be said about self publishing, and vice versa.

    The ONLY thing a big publisher really gives you that is extremely difficult for you to get for yourself is bookstore distribution. Sadly, that is becoming less important every day.

    On the other hand, by self publishing, you can take a book that a publisher’s marketing department isn’t willing to take a chance on and get it in front of *some* readers and earn *something* from it. Getting any satisfaction from your hard work probably better than getting nothing, if you’ve already done the work anyway.

    It’s not fair that a book should essentially be thrown away just because it can’t pass a high enough sales threshold to pay for the overhead of NYC offices.

  • You’re missing one important detail in your equation, DR: advances. With self-publishing, you start at ground zero. But if you get a contract with a NY publisher, you’re going to end up with a check for several thousand dollars. A friend of mine who had self-published one book and written two other on a for-hire basis finally sold her first book to NY. It was to Random House and she got a $25,000 advance. Whether the books succeeds or not, that money is hers. Anybody ever self-publish a book and have that kind of money handed to them?

  • @Edmund You got me there, but $25K is an unusually high advance for a first-timer these days. Plus, that is likely to be all the money she ever sees from the publisher. As I’m sure you know (perhaps personally) most books don’t earn out their advance. If she can get her rights back, she has unlimited potential for an unlimited time period to earn more. Plus, to get that advance, you have to get past those pesky “gatekeepers” in the first place. That’s part of the equation (and the odds) too.

  • DR>You seem to suggest that there are no gatekeepers in the self-pub world. That’s not true. They just aren’t the same a traditional publishers (agents, editors, publishing houses, whatever). Anonymity in the self-pub world is the gatekeeper you have to overcome. You seem to think that you’ll put the book out, do some marketing, and have the same level of visibility as traditional pubbed folks. But (and I’ve asked this before) why should I buy your book? Your website says you’ve got a book coming out in Jan 2012. Why should I buy it? I don’t know anyone who has read it, all authors say their work is good (at least they say it in public, and they better!), but why should I spend my 99 cents on your book, and (depending on the price) 2-7 others rather than, say, buy AJ’s next book? Or Ed’s? Or Faith’s? Or a book by a writer that is on the shelf with one of those author’s books? Or has a cover blurb by one of them? Why should I take a risk, as a reader, on a completely unknown quantity? And, that assumes I’ve even heard of you and your book. THAT’S the “gatekeeper” for self-pubbed books. Complete anonymity. Sure, you’ll have a book out, but who is going to see it and read it?

  • henderson

    @ pea faerie – I cannot answer for dr, but please read below:

    It seems like there is already a market for self-published novels. Many self-published novels are appearing on the Amazon best seller lists.

    People who are interested in reading self-published, some say indie published novels, know where to find them. They are probably as not as discerning as you maybe when choosing to read a novel of a new or unfamiliar author because they are willing to read a self-published novel if it is a free download, $0.99, or maybe as much as $2.99.

    For the price of buying one novel from a tradtional publisher, whether novel or ebook, a person could get as many as ten or fifteen self-published novels for the same price. I am also sure that a person buying a self-published novel that there is a chance that it did not go through the same quality control as a tradtional novel. But because the price point is so cheap, the reader maybe willing to take the risk.

    Also, there is an incentive for a writer to consider self-publishing. Research has indicated that an author gets less than 16% of any profits for an e-book that published and marketed by a traditional publisher. The traditional publisher gets over 50%. There has been blog posts about how some traditional publishers are underreporting the number of e-books are sold. A self-published author would get as much 70% of any e-book sold.

  • @pea faerie

    You’ll NEVER hear me say there are no gatekeepers for self-published authors. I’m aware of three, in fact, all of them shared with traditionally-published authors. Traditionally published authors just have two extra: agents and publishers.

    The first is yourself. Each of us has to get over our fear of rejection, our self doubts, and our inertia. That’s just to get a book into contention.

    The second is, as you say, anonymity. Being traditionally published doesn’t help with that. If we both put a book out, we are both unknown authors no matter who publishes us. However, a reader has to risk $6.99 or more to try you out, while the risk to try me is $0.99. A free excerpt helps both of us. The primary tool for emerging from obscurity is having a platform, which both of us must have, but even that is not enough. The book must be good enough to be accepted by the third gatekeeper.

    The third gatekeeper is the reader. Every first-time author starts in obscurity. We all have to try to overcome this by letting the world know about our book. But all the marketing in the world won’t make a bestseller out of a bad book. The only way to reach big success is to have a good book that goes viral. Until you pass a critical mass of readers who really like your book, you will remain an obscure author. Again, no matter who publishes you.

    Your challenge as a traditionally-published author is that you have to get that critical mass within 6 weeks or so. If you fail, your book is pulled off the bookstore shelves and remaindered or pulped. It will go out of print and your only hope for reaching your audience will be through your ebook, for which you get a pitiful percentage compared to me. At $0.99, I earn a 35% royalty, and at $2.99 I earn 70%. You have to sell several times more books than I do to make the same money, and that’s only after you’ve earned back the advance that you had to spend most of traveling to book signings.

    All that said, traditional publishing is still the best choice for many authors. Self publishing is hard. You have to treat your writing as a business. That takes the fun out of it for some people (I find it exciting). You have to have an entrepreneurial spirit and be willing to deal with the not-so-glamorous aspects of running a business.

    But don’t think for a moment that getting a traditional publisher “gives you more exposure.” Yes, your book gets placement on a bookshelf, spine-out along with thousands of others. To quote you “why should I buy your book?” I don’t know who you are. Why should I risk the insane cost of a paperback to give you a shot?

    Besides, who buys in bookstores these days? The answer: fewer and fewer people all the time. On a virtual bookshelf, I have the same chance as you, only better because my price makes my book an impulse buy.

  • Ed –

    If I recall correctly (and it’s been a few months since I did a hard copy order, so my figures may be off a bit), the author’s copies on my 200-page novel without the $40 Pro Plan from CreateSpace would cost me somewhere around $5-6 each, plus shipping. With the Pro Plan they cost me $3.25 each, so the Pro Plan was a no-brainer. This is for a 6″x9″ book, white or cream paper, color cover and back.

    On the promotional “How will I find you” question, one thing that has helped my ebook sales is cross-promoting with other authors. As self-pubbed and e-pubbed writers, it costs me nothing to put a chapter in the back of my ebook from two or three other writers in similar genres. In print, that takes up valuable paper and increases a lot of overhead, not to mention the issue of authors who are friends working with different publishers and all that jazz. But when I published Back in Black, my third novel, I put a chapter from a buddy’s novel in the back. He reciprocated, and we both saw a significant bump in sales because of it. And it was fun.

    A lot of this discussion mirrors a conversation I had with a friend yesterday who is pursuing traditional publishing. It comes down to what you want as a writer. If you want complete control and a hands-on approach to every aspect of your book’s life, then you should self-publish. If you want the backup of a legion of editors, cover artists, formatters and publicists (whether you get to use all of those people or not), then you should pursue traditional publishing. If you want to make money right now on your book, and probably make more money in the long run than with traditional publishing, you should probably self-publish. If you want your mother to be able to walk into Barnes & Noble and buy your book, then you should pursue traditional publishing.

    Neither answer is 100% right or wrong for anyone. Self-publishing was right for me because I don’t have the patience to wait for the responses, much less spend a couple years chasing someone’s approval for my book. For some people, it’s completely wrong because they don’t want to manage every minute detail of the book’s creation, distribution and promotion. But right now, my rights are only available for a big honkin’ advance, because I’m making good money every month on my book sales. But the rights are available for the right deal. My buddy is writing because he wants to see his book on library and bookstore shelves. I’m writing because I want to earn money working for myself instead of a company. Different motivations, different goals, different paths.

    Only you can answer the biggest question – what do YOU want out of publishing this book?

    I know, TLDNR. Should have just made this a blog post and linked it.

  • I think I’m going to bookmark this and Stuart’s post for future reference. I’m not ready to give up trying the traditional route, but if I do end up putting something out later self-pub, these two posts have a lot of good info, arguments for and against, and plenty of things to keep in mind on both sides. 🙂

  • Great stuff, Edmund (and absolutely gorgeous cover art). Interesting discussion, too. I have to say that I find some of the comments distressing — epub is a good thing in many ways, but it does give the mistaken impression that all books — self-pubbed and traditionally pubbed — are equal. And they’re just not. DR, I have to disagree with your definition of gatekeepers. Authors cannot be gatekeepers for our own work. I can’t do it, Stephen King can’t do it, and neither can you. The reason the world needs editors is that even the most experienced authors are only imperfect critics of their own work. How many of us have read books by well-established authors and realized halfway through that the author has gotten so “big” that s/he no longer is accepting editorial feedback? It happens, and the books suffer for it. I’ve been doing this for the better part of two decades. I’ve published a dozen novels. I would NEVER allow my work out into the reading world without having it edited professionally. I am not a gatekeeper for my work. I’m an author. Anyone who thinks he or she can be both is fooling him/herself.

  • henderson


    I think that you will probably find a very high percentage of self-published authors probably have paid to have their novels edited as well as copy edited before releasing their books in the market place. The difference is that the self-published author would pay for the editing services as opposed to the traditional publishing company with traditionally published novels.

    I know if I decide to self-publish, I will definitely want my stories to be professionally edited and scoured by alpha and beta readers.

    I am also sure each of us has read a traditionally published novel that had story inconsistencies as well as spelling and grammar errors. It just happens. The concern, however, is that the errors are so egregious that it disrupts or distracts the reader.

  • John, You said (among other things) “If you want to make money right now on your book, and probably make more money in the long run than with traditional publishing, you should probably self-publish. If you want your mother to be able to walk into Barnes & Noble and buy your book, then you should pursue traditional publishing.” I think that makes your position pretty clear; you’ve thoroughly dismissed traditional publishing. But if the ‘real’ money is in self-publishing, why do even the self-publishing advocates jump at every contract offered by traditional publishing if/when one is offered? Because they do jump, every time. I’ve never heard of a single case where someone self-published a book, did well enough to get offered a contract with a big NY publisher, and said No thanks, I’m making enough money on my own. Never happened, never will. Why is that the case, if self-publishing is so all-fired awesome and profitable?

  • Henderson, What do you base that assumption on? “…a very high percentage of self-published authors probably have paid to have their novels edited as well as copy edited before releasing their books in the market place…”? Really? I do this professionally and the last person who approached me about editing a book they were planning to self-publish (before I even quoted him a price) came back to me at one point in our email conversation and said he was going to have his cousin do it, because his cousin was “interested in trying his hand at it.” That’s the kind of editing most self-published books receive.

  • Let me say this, so there is no doubt: There is absolutely a time and a place where self-publishing makes sense. There absolutely is. Yes. However, I just think MOST people who follow that path do so 1) too quickly, 2)without really understanding the industry, and 3)with an inferior product that once again reinforces why it’s not a good idea.

    If you’re 100% convinced that none of those three things apply to you, than you’re not going to listen to anything anyone else says. I can only hope for your sake that you’re right.

  • I am going to stick my toe into the raging waters of this discussion. First — Good-on-y’all for being so civilized about this issue. It’s hard to be calm and reasoned when opinions are strong.

    Second — Yes, you MUST have an ISBN. If you don’t, it becomes *very* hard (read impossible) to order your book.

    Third — there is a HUGE difference between getting your book edited (line and copy) and getting your book edited by a New York City Top 8 company editor. This rare person is a *developmental* editor. There are very — *very* — few of them outside of established houses. Developmental editors have to gain several years of experience (working under an experienced developmental editor) to be called Editor. It is a grinding, difficult job to read and rip apart a manuscript and tell someone else what is wrong and then give suggestions on how to fix it. You will seldom get this in a small press. You will NOT get this in a for-pay editor unless you have a personal relationship with a big-house editor and pay them on the side. And then, they will give you less attention, because you are small potatoes and the company they *really* work for gets their best attention.

    Fourth — I have a platform (fans) and so when I e-pub a short story or a book no NYC house wanted, I have fans who spread the word. I have a PR person I pay to spread the word. I have a media presence to spread the word. All this (except the PR person)came from NYC. And the money to pay the PR person? NYC royalties.

    Fifth — No self published book is as polished as a NYC book. Despite the rare author who can pull off a great, un-(developmental)-edited book, it will never be as good as it would have been had it gone through the NYC grinder. And I say that despite knowing that one of our comenters here is one of those excellent writers who deserves NYC and hasn’t found it yet. He wrote a fantastic first novel. I have sent it to my agent. I have the second one in the series on my TBR pile. But it would have been even better through NYC. I hope to help him get that chance.

    Sixth — what is a bestseller? (and here is where my toes will be scalded or ripped off by the current). If we are talking Amazon Bestseller, we are talking an algorithm that boggles the mind to try and comprehend. The rarity of any self-pub’ed book making it to the NYT bestseller list is also mind boggling. Hitting the lottery is LOT more likely.

    Last — all this said, the self published route will work for some. I actually recommend it to those who can affored to pay for a really good, web-savvy PR person, but I recommend it as a way to attract NYC, not to avoid it. I recommend it as a loss-leader. (Lost leader?) Not as an end in itself.

    The market is changing. It is not impossible that NY publishing will be so reformed (demolished) in the next 10 years that the instutition as we know it now will not exist. That is the only reason I keep a toe in the current of self publishing, testing the waters. The water there is murky and swirly and squirrely and uncertain. And I don’t like the temp yet. But I also know that I will try it, because I have a platform. In fact, I already tried to try it. So, let me share my *current* results here. The anthology I was going to self pub was picked up by my publishing house. I will make a lesser percentage on it than I would have, had I gone the self-pub route. But my publisher will broadcast the book far better than I. It will get out there to my fans and to attract even more fans. It will be developmentally edited, for which I am so very greatful.

    Thank you for listening. Pulling toe back in, now.

  • This reminds me a lot of the pros and cons of contracting in IT (at least in Australia)
    1. Go through an agency (like trad publishing): They do the leg work of finding employers, they help you set up a resume and give hints on what sort of interview you’ll get. But they take a cut of your pay and you don’t really know how much. They do take care of tax and superannuation.
    2. Go freelance (self pub): You have to call employers, arrange interviews, do your own tax and super plus you are going in to interviews cold. But you get a higher pay because you don’t pay the agent.

    If you look at the situation from a successful person’s place, there is little difference. Amanda Hocking has made millions self publishing e-books and Stephanie Myers has made millions through a traditional publisher. Starting from square one, the equations are a little different. Self publishing takes more personal effort and produces an experience that is radically different to traditional publishing. Neither path will guarantee good (or any) money. I recon go with where your strengths lie. If you are a fab writer and love to write, go traditional. If you are good with computers and enjoy a business challenge, try self publishing. Or start with one then switch to the other (Amanda Hocking has recently signed up with a traditional publisher because she has had it with all the extra work she has to do by herself.)

  • Edumund said: But if the ‘real’ money is in self-publishing, why do even the self-publishing advocates jump at every contract offered by traditional publishing if/when one is offered? Because they do jump, every time.

    I was just reading Amanda Hocking’s blog. In her case, she’d self-published BECAUSE she couldn’t get past the gatekeepers. She said she’d sent Switched to 50 agents and couldn’t get one to try to get her through the door. So, she tried self-publishing because it appeared to be the only way to get her work out there.

    More and more agents/publishers aren’t willing to take a chance on something they aren’t passionate about–which was the rejection reason Hocking received over and over again. She really didn’t want to be her own publisher, so when the publishers finally decided they liked her work (now that she’d sold over 145,000 books and proved she had an audience and was good enough), she jumped at the chance.

    On another note, there was Barry Eisler, a pro, who had a traditional publisher lined up for a half million dollars, but turned it down to pursue publishing his novel himself.

    Anyway, it does boil down to what you want out of your writing career as to whether or not to self publish. In some cases, it might just be the avenue that gets you noticed by those agents and publishers who’ve been turning you down over and over again. That’s not to say it WILL happen. But it certainly COULD happen.

    Anyway, the discussions here on the topic have been great. It’s really good to see where you all stand on the issue and to hear the pros/cons you all see. There is certainly much to consider on the subject. Thanks!

  • Edmund –

    I want to be clear that if NY pulled up to my door with a bag of money and the opportunity to work with one of those developmental editors Faith mentioned that I’d have to look long and hard at the details of the deal to make my decision. I haven’t written off traditional publishing at all. If anything, I’d be more than happy to self-publish 1-2 books a year and have traditional publishing run 1-2 books a year. Or some other division that lets me keep my feet in both worlds. But for me, self-publishing was the way to instant gratification (and I freely admit that I may have followed the self-publishing path too quickly, I have not the patience for months of waiting) and the path to earning money on my work immediately.

    If an agent called tomorrow and wanted to sign me, we’d probably come to a deal. I know that I can’t negotiate foreign rights, tv/movie rights or so many other things on my own. If a big publishing house wanted to take over publishing my series tomorrow, I’d have to weigh all the pros and cons. If the money is right, then I’m all over it. If the money’s not right, but it looks like the best long-term career choice, I may jump. If we’re looking at a $7,500 advance, then the money isn’t right and I probably won’t take it.

    But self-publishing my work at least gives me something to sell and to show. Yes, my books could almost certainly be improved with a great polishing editor. But if my sales and reviews are to be any judge, they’re not bad as they are right now. So I’ll keep making the best books I can, and if I get the chance to make a tough decision about traditional publishing, then I’ll have to figure that out.

    This series of posts by you guys has been great, because it looks at a big question from a lot of different directions, with a lot of input on a level that most folks never get to see/hear/read. Thanks to everyone who’s posted and commented, I’ve really enjoyed reading all this over the past few days.

  • @David: You are using a very narrow definition of “gatekeeper” and I’m using a very broad definition. I agree with you 100% that most authors, and certainly any beginning author, can’t edit their own work. That even goes for copy editing, much less developmental editing.

    To me, a gatekeeper is anyone who controls whether or not your book gets through the next step in the publishing process. By that definition, the author is a gatekeeper because they can stop their own book from moving forward. Readers are the final gatekeepers because they decide if your book will achieve significant sales, that being the holy grail of this process.

    @Faith: Good developmental editors DO exist outside the big publishing houses, but yes, they are rare. They are also very expensive. You are forgetting about “Black Wednesday” in 2008 when big publishers laid off editorial staff. In an effort to cut costs, publishers are outsourcing editing to freelancers and the agencies more and more, while they outsource marketing to their authors. I’m sure that situation will get worse before it gets better.