Writing on the Ether: Self-Publishing’s Parallel Disruptions

21 November 2013 iStock_000002016601XSmall photog hfng texted story image 2

Table of Contents

  1. “The Trap (for Many) of Self-Publishing”
  2. Question: Which Event Would Mean More to You?
  3. “A Diminishing Part of the Market”
  4. “Increasingly confusing and complicated”
  5. Not Ready for Publication? Not Even Ready for Editing


“The Trap (for Many) of Self-Publishing”

The 10,000 hours required to master the complex art form of fiction is a lot to ask. Most [writers] seek validation along the way, hence the trap (for many) of self-publishing.

This is one of two parallel disruptions generated by self-publishing. And this week, they’ve come into a little clearer view of each other.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road Press
Donald Maass

It comes as news to no one in the industry! the industry! that self-publishing is controversial. We may tend, however, to think of it as controversial for that industry, while not looking at what it can mean for writers and writing. It is, in fact, a development full of argument not only for publishers but also for literature.

I sometimes wonder whether self-published authors actually read other self-published authors. There are stacks of such stuff at my agency and just an hour with them would show anyone why those novels didn’t make it with New York publishers.

This is agent Donald Maass writing about “such stuff” in one of his terrific comments at Writer Unboxed. Maass is a fellow monthly contributor with me there, and a frequent, effective responder to many of the posts.

Dave King
Dave King

He was exceptionally articulate in his comment, for example, on my own post from the end of the last week, Leveling Up: In Praise of Writer Dads. And he’s no less eloquent in the comment he’s made on editor and contributor Dave King’s post, Creating a Masterpiece.

I want to use some more from Maass before I go further on this because his comments, especially paired with some others I’ll show you shortly, are some of the most potentially troubling yet.


The road to traditional print publication is longer today but it can be done. Writers are doing it all the time, even now. True enough, publishers are highly resistant. This is the toughest market I’ve seen in my 36 years in the industry.

However, it’s tough because recession battered retailers and readers don’t have the patience to see new authors through their early training novels. They want mastery, in the modern sense, right away. Especially for $25. In a way, who can blame them?

His phrase “in the modern sense” about mastery, by the way, gets at King’s very apt point:

In the days when many professions were controlled by guilds, your masterpiece was not your best or most celebrated work. It was your first halfway decent work – the piece you presented to the guild judges to show you deserved to be named a master of your craft.


But, as King writes:

One supposed shortcut I try to steer clients away from is self-publishing. I realize that there are examples of much-rejected novels finding self-published success. I’ve also encountered writers for whom self-publishing made sense for other reasons. But for most writers, self-publishing is a distraction from the real business of writing. I certainly understand and sympathize with the temptation. If you’ve already put in a year or more of hard work creating characters you love and a plot you can recite in your sleep, the siren song of Amazon Kindle can be nearly irresistible. But while you will get something to put on your shelf, or in your e-reader, you will probably spend a lot of time and money trying to market a novel you should be rewriting.

Those words, like Maass’ comments, won’t fall easily on the ears of many.  I know that, you know that. Let me give you King’s most succinct layout of his point:

You don’t become a writer by writing a novel. You become a writer by learning to write. Your novel may only be a means to that end.

And Maass, from his rejoinder:

The very conditions that make it so difficult can also be taken as a challenge. High mastery is expected of symphony musicians, ballerinas, Olympic athletes, brain surgeons and more. Why not novelists too?

What do you “hear” in your mind’s ear when you read King and Maass on this?

It’s easy to say that they’re condemning much of self-publishing as a dodge, isn’t it?—to say that they’re accusing self-publishers of jumping to get their work out without paying a true journeyman’s dues.

We’ve been doing a lot of time on what self-publishing means to the industry. What about what self-publishing means to the work? To the art? To literature?

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Question: Which Event Would Mean More to You?

We frequently hear speculation about when “a really big author” is going to cross over into self-publishing, primarily, abandoning a major house in the process. The implication in the question is generally that we’re talking about more than a “hybrid” author’s split of work between traditional and self-publishing. This question normally imagines a kind of sonic boom in the business, a huge icon’s ardent defection to self-publishing. It’s a question of industry.

But here’s what we don’t hear a lot of speculation about: When does a  native self-publisher—a writer whose career is originally in self-publishing—become that “really big author”? When does it run the opposite direction, when does someone from the “indie” ranks, in other words, ascend to the status of a “big book”-writing, market-driving, industry-influencing powerhouse author?

Can we see such a phenom yet?

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey may be among the closest so far. Not only is his WOOL (or Silo Saga) trilogy, of course, getting a lot of genuine long-distance traction (as of Frankfurt, he had 30 foreign publishers for it), but he also continues to roll out  new work, much of it helping to set him and his writings in the context of success that generally helps define a major talent.

For example, he writes this week from here in Europe (still on tour for the Silo Saga) of The Apocolypse Triptych he’s producing for publication in summer 2014 with John Joseph Adams of Lightspeed, the heavily regarded and awarded science-fiction anthology.

Apocalypse Triptych artwork by Julian Faylona
Apocalypse Triptych artwork by Julian Faylona

Of special importance here is that Howey is electing to write material that relates to the WOOL books, “one [story] from the before, one from during, and one from after.”

The triptych has given me an excuse to revisit a place I didn’t think I would ever see again. I’m excited as hell about that.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Digital Book 2013, IDPF, BEA 2013, Writer UnboxedParticularly in new treatments of the Silo Saga construct, this project can represent the sort of maturing of a creative consciousness that could well, yes, mean a potential runaway some day. But clearly that’s not how Howey or anyone else goes about creative work of any kind. The intentional, self-made blockbuster is a mythic beast.

And for our  purposes here, it seems interesting to note that, in general, we tend to await the “big author who goes indie,” the business move, with more anticipatory excitement than we watch for the independent author who goes big, the rise of a writer’s literary profile.

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“A Diminishing Part of the Market”

What publishers need to understand is that they have some built-in handicaps. One is speed. Publishers are slow compared to authors. And there’s very little a publisher can do to change that.

The second thing is that publishers need to share more of the revenue — a big chunk of the revenue. That’s two things a publisher has to compensate for if they’re going to be appealing to an author.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker
Mike Shatzkin

Mike Shatzkin is probably our best-known longtime industry consultant and a player in the business for  more than 50 years. He seems unusually pointed about the potential upheavals of self-publishing on the business in his Jeremy Greenfield interview, The Challenge and Opportunity of Self-Published Authors for Publishers, ahead of the #DBF14 conference (January 13-15) that Shatzkin programs.

As sales move online and concentrate at Amazon, a publisher can’t really make a huge difference in Amazon compared to what an author can do on their own. So, the publisher has to make a difference in a diminishing part of the market, which is everything else.

And here he sums up the possibilities from the viewpoint of many author who may be skeptical of what traditional publishing can do for them.

If it [ebook adoption and Amazon market-share growth] stopped where we are now, with amazon getting 35% to 40% of the [print and ebook] business, and online being half the business, then you still have a pretty firm basis for a publisher to make a difference in the career of an author. But if Barnes & Noble closed or if the Amazon share goes up to 60%, it’s going to get extremely difficult for publishers to persuade authors that they’re worth employing.

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“Increasingly confusing and complicated”

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing
Jane Friedman

It may come as a relief to some writers to find our great colleague and Ether sponsor Jane Friedman addressing the question of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing this week by writing:

It’s an important question—one that tends to result in heated debate—but it’s becoming an increasingly confusing and complicated question to answer because:
(1) There are now many varieties of traditional publishing and self-publishing—with evolving models and varying contracts.
(2) You won’t find a universal, agreed-upon definition of what it means to “traditionally publish” or “self-publish.”
(3) It’s not an either/or proposition. You can do both.

4-Key-Publishing-Models-662x1024If Friedman thinks things are getting more complex, not less, then maybe the rest of us aren’t crazy, after all.

Friedman is introducing Infographic: 4 Key Book Publishing Paths, a smart second-version update to her Key Book Publishing Paths Infographic

In consultation with self-publishing writers and observers—including those in discussion at Mick Rooney‘s Independent Publishing Magazine , she now identifies four key paths, making an original fifth path, partnership publishing, part of the traditional pathway.

Her four pathways, each fully explicated in this free infographic, are routes she characterizes as traditional; self-publishing; do-it-yourself; and community. The details in her infographic are well worth your attention.

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Not Ready for Publication? Not Even Ready for Editing

Never mind publishing. What if the author’s manuscript is not ready for editing?

Carla Douglas
Carla Douglas

That’s the question posted by Carla Douglas in Self-Pubs: Is Your Editor Trying to Tell You Something? at Beyond Paper Editing.

Friedman’s infographic and good counsel are, like Shatzkin’s observations, more related to the industry questions, the state-of-the-business issues around self-publishing.

King’s points and Maass’ follow-up are closer to concerns held by many about quality and, most keenly, about authors’ own abilities to appraise and execute on their own personal levels of capability. This is where Douglas, an editor, is focused, writing:

Catherine Ryan Howard, at her self-publishing blog Catherine, Caffeinated, published the results of a poll that asked: Do you read self-published books differently? The answer? A resounding “yes.” …Howard’s respondents regard self-published books as WIPs. Ah. 

So remember when Maass writes, “I sometimes wonder whether self-published authors actually read other self-published authors.” Douglas is pointing out, through Howard’s unscientific but telling bit of survey work, that self-published writers may be reading each other’s work, but seeing it as works-in-progress, unfinished, fixable.

It’s doubtful that paying readers see it that way or want to.

It’s not likely at all that self-published authors might announce their work as such to readers.

Tanya Egan Gibson
Tanya Egan Gibson

And Douglas finally points us to where I want to leave you on these questions about quality and about author responsibility in self-publishing, with a piece by Tanya Egan Gibson run by Brian Krebs  at Writer’s Digest.

In 10 Things Your Freelance Editor Might Not Tell You—But Should, Gibson parses the problems of premature publication and editing with easy clarity some won’t like at all.

She elaborates well on each point, I’ll just give you some highlights.

  • You should avoid the temptation to hire someone to edit your first draft.
  • An editor is not a ghostwriter.
  • Your editor is likely to feel more invested in the kind of book she enjoys reading.
  • It’s a waste of time and money to hire someone to copy edit your book before you’ve addressed all developmental and line edits.
  • There’s a difference between wanting to publish this book and wanting to learn how to write better.
  • Tinkering is not revising.

There are more points there, I hope you’ll look at them.

And I hope we all can put some thought into what really comes down to two bodies of debate running in parallel about self-publishing.

One is the industry question. As Shatzkin tells us and as Friedman’s infographic reveals, the technical questions of what self-publishing and how it can affect the industry and/or be best deployed by authors in various circumstances.

The other is the literature question. Which, finally, lies closer to the readership question. As King and Maass and Douglas and Howard and Gibson all have flagged in different ways, the process of writing and editing, of conceptualizing a work and its readiness for editing, let alone publication, is being disrupted along with the industry’s traditions. This part of the field is harder to argue (no matter how you see it) because it’s never far from charges of subjective opinion, writerly professionalism, and—if you really want to clear the room—talent.

The issues of the marketplace, of publishers’ and authors’ practices within the business, will work themselves out on the floor of the plaka, as ever, although, as we’ve seen, it’s hardly a quiet process.

Our questions, though, of how self-published material is prepared, processed, appraised, and produced may be, in the long run, the more difficult.

In the traditional model, even an amateur writer, if picked up by a publisher, has had a team of professional text-wranglers standing between him and his readership.

In self-publishing, that same writer has no such experts to guide and enrich the work unless he, the writer, (a) knows he needs them and (b) takes on the responsibility to engage them before publishing.

Which disruption—of industry or literature—do you think is likeliest to prove most critical?

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Main image: iStockphoto – hfng

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