A brief comment on the traditional vs. self-publishing debate

Over on Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s blog today, Bryan discusses “Why Quality Still Matters” regardless of how you are publishing. I posted a comment on a Google+ thread to this post that I think is worth reproducing here. It touches on both quality but also on where I think the evolution of both traditional and self-publishing is going. Here is what I wrote:

Quality is one aspect and I completely agree that if you are going to self-publish, you need to have a good editor. An editor is, in my opinion, someone looking for more than just spelling and grammar problems. That is what a copy editor is for. An editor is someone who knows the field, can (more objectively than the author) identify places where the story slows down, where the pacing is off, where there are inconsistencies of character, etc. They also know what tends to sell well and what doesn’t. An editor for someone self-publishing should not be afraid to say, “Hey look, given the market that’s out there, this just isn’t going to sell. Trunk it and try again.” In the long run, that editor may be helping your reputation. But many who self-publish don’t want to hear that or wouldn’t believe it if they did.

The problem is that self-publishing’s image got off on the wrong foot. Many amateur writers that I know see self-publishing as just another Get Rich Quick scheme and there is good reason for them to see it that way. Almost everyone believes they are a good writer. How hard could it be to write a novel, put it up on Amazon and watch the money roll in, right? Self-publishing–what I’ve seen of it so far–does not attempt to establish a career path. It’s more like an open tryout for [pick your major league team]. Maybe one person in a thousand will make the first cut. Most others won’t. Some will even be hurt in the process.

This will be cured over time. Self-publishing and traditional publishing will evolve into something fairly similar. The economics of publishing virtually guarantees this. It is a kind of Duverger’s Law of publishing. Both sides will need to moderate their positions in order to accommodate the changing demand (just as Duverger’s law’s makes a third party difficult to emerge in a 2-party political system because each of the parties moderate enough to make the third party unnecessary.). What each side will concede is something I couldn’t predict. But it will be interesting to see what things look like five years from now when some of this moderation has occurred.


  1. Interesting thought, that the two publishing “parties” might move toward the middle, but I’m not sure if that can entirely apply here. The collection of self-publishing authors aren’t organized in any way, so they can’t really set policy cohesively, or “move” their position as a group. Publishers can, of course. They’re organized and more or less in contact with each other, both informally and via organizations like the AAP. But the set of authors self-publishing is anarchic; there’s no “Self Publishers Association” an author has to join to self-publish. Since anyone can, anyone will. 🙂

    As for the “tryout” idea you mention, yeah, that’s a fair analogy. But the failure rate is probably no worse than under the current system, where an author tries out for each publisher’s “team”, and 99.9% fail to make the cut there anyway. So it will probably remain the same that 99.9% don’t earn much, just a different avenue to reach that point.

    However– The 0.1% who succeed might well be a different set of people. Those who Make It via self-publishing are likely to include writers who would otherwise have been rejected by all the major houses. Here’s where I’m coming from with this:

    Right now, the optimal strategy for a major publisher is _not_ “Publish all the good stuff that comes across my desk”, but, rather, “Publish only the most sure-fire moneymakers that come across my desk.” Major houses don’t want to lose money, so they have an understandable tendency to be risk averse. A book could be awesome, but possibly not as obviously commercially successful as they’d like. They _might_ be commercially successful when it comes down to it, but not obviously so in advance, so a publisher might pass.

    Case in point would be something like Dune, where Frank Herbert had submitted it to every major publisher and had it rejected. A smaller publisher took it out of what sounded from FH’s autobiography less on the grounds of it looking like a moneymaker and more on the grounds that the guy liked science fiction. (This being Chilton’s, the car manual people.) FH relates that it really wasn’t commercially successful at first, and took a good many years before it was. Obviously now many people view it as one of the enduring classics of the field.

    So, with self-publishing, those books that may not look like winners at first, but turn out to be eventually, will get that fair chance via self-publishing that they can’t get from a bottom-line watching major publisher.

    (There will probably also be reverse stories: People who self-publish and their work never gets any recognition for lack of marketing, but had they submitted it to a major publisher might have been picked up and become a bestseller.)

    The other question comes down to economics / profits for the author. If a new author gets, say, a $5,000 advance from a major publisher, and the book never earns out, that author would only have to have sold about 700 copies in their _lifetime_ to earn that same $5,000 from a $9.99 ebook they sell online and earn the usual 70% from that Amazon/etc. pay. 700 copies over many decades is entirely imaginable. With major publishers paying only like 25% of net for ebook rights, and with ebooks on a trajectory to be (at least potentially) the lion’s share of the income stream, it’s a hard decision to make to take 25% for life.

    Those trends argue for more anarchic diversity in self-publishing, not any kind of moderating move to a center. Those same trends do suggest that the publishing industry, however, will need to adapt. If there is a move toward a similar position, I suspect it will be the publishers who have to do pretty much all the moving. (Perhaps multiple tiers of what they publish, e.g. publishers offering ebook-only, no advance, higher royalty contracts for riskier books; and what the author is accepting from them, which would be a lower royalty rate than they could get alone, would be a commitment from the publisher to do serious marketing of the book. If ebooks continue on their juggernaut path and reduce print to more of a niche revenue stream, then publishers will have lost their monopoly power over low-cost printing/distribution of paper objects, and have to compete for business in some other way; which I’m guessing will be marketing dollars.)

    1. Andrew, funny I was just discussing with someone how if I’d written this as a post instead of as a comment on someone else’s post, I might have been a little more coherent in my overall purpose. Agreed that the “tryout” analogy is better than Duverger’s Law. The reason I called out self-publishing alone was in the context of the original post. But yes, the tryout applies to traditional publishers as well. That was part of my point. For the type of quality and consistency that readers expect (or, at least, that I expect) in the books that I read, one would think that the works published regardless of method, would have to go through a somewhat similar process: copy editors to eliminate the infelicities of typing and correction of inconsistencies. Editors for storytelling and what is and isn’t working for the product as a whole. And on the other side is production, whether it’s the typesetting, cover art, or quality of the e-book format itself. These are the things where I see room for moderation (e.g. a self-publisher author admitting, yes, my book might be made better it is passes through an editor). I can’t speak as well to the economics simply because I’m a short story writer selling to the pro SF markets, and there at least, the model is a little different than a self-publishing equivalent (i.e. I’m paid by word, on acceptance for limited rights.) But who knows, maybe that too will evolve.

      Interesting point about publishing the money-makers. I think Mike Resnick has made a similar point, and I’ve heard it from others as well. I suppose a Venn diagram would show that sometimes a surefire money-maker could also be “good stuff”, but I get your point.


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