Why DIY Publishing is Not a Dead End

This morning I read a post by Anderson Porter about a four-piece article written a few weeks in the Boston Phoenix by Eugenia Williamson, entitled The dead end of DIY publishing. I had read the Williams piece earlier, and the more than fifty comments, which in my opinion had done a more than adequate job of pointing out its problems. But when Anderson seemed to accept much of her analysis, and labeled the comments as “the usual pitchfork-waving, spittoon-dinging dismissals, I found myself spending the rest of the morning writing a reply. When I finished, I thought I ought to expand abit, and post what I had to say as a blog, thereby at least justifying a morning lost to writing on my next book. So here goes:

I am a DIY self-published author, who found Williamson’s piece upsetting because it did what so many other pieces have done, alternated between describing self-published authors as a group in dismissive terms and using some of the most unrepresentative examples to prove its points. I am not going to argue that traditional publishing is dead, or that self-publishing is the best or only route for every author to take, but what I am going to do is give you my reasons why I don’t believe that self-publishing is a dead end.

Williams is making 3 points: That publishing is not profitable, that when it is, it is not because of merit, and that it can not provide “the equivalent of research and development: the nurturing of young writers with a first book of short stories as well as critically worthy mid-list authors provide the equivalent of research and best sellers paid for.”

For example, in Williamson’s article she has as a heading the statement: SELF-PUBLISHING ISN’T PROFITABLE, OR MERITOCRATIC. I don’t know how you would interpret this, but I read it to mean that if you self-publish you won’t make money, and if you are successful it isn’t because of the value of the work you produce. As a self-published author who is successful (in this my 3rd year as an author the income I am making per month in sales is well over what I made as a full time history professor), I naturally found the first part of the statement inaccurate and the second point insulting.

Her proof of the first statement is that for every Konrath there are thousands who don’t make any money. This is a meaningless statement since, while I am sure it is true, it is equally true that for every Steven King there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of traditionally published authors who make no money. Writing, at least until now, is not profitable for the vast majority of the people who engage in this activity. If she really wanted to make a statement that added to the discussion, she should have said that self-publishing was less profitable than traditional publishing for the majority of authors. But she can’t say this, not just because the systematic data comparing the two doesn’t exist, but because the increased number of traditional authors who are choosing to self-publish would argue that the statement was untrue.

Since she can’t prove her statement that self-publishing is unprofitable, she instead feels the need to insult those people who do it by suggesting that the authors don’t care if they make money because they “wouldn’t make a dime because no publisher would take them,” or that if they make money, it was only because they had the money to invest in the process because the “truth is self-publishing costs money.”

Then she picks one of the least representative examples of a self-published author she could find–De La Pava to prove this point. Here is an author who published a book and “forgot about it.” How unrepresentative is that! And she mentions that he spent thousands of dollars, which sounds like he used an “authors services” package. If she had either done her research or wanted to paint a balanced view of self-publishing surely she would have taken the time to interview one of the hundreds of self-published authors she could find on the internet (we blog incessantly about our experiences), and mentioned that Smashwords, Amazon’s KDP, and Barnes and Noble’s PubIt, and Amazon’s CreateSpace and Lightening Source have made it possible for authors to publish without that large initial investment.

But no, she doesn’t do that, instead she tries to use this author to make the point that there is no meritocracy in self-publishing because this particular author was successful because he had good luck. The implication is that success has nothing to do with the work an author puts into the writing of the book, or the marketing of the book, or the judgment of the readers, hence the idea that those who are successful don’t “merit” the success. If Williamson had spent just a few hours reading the blogs of self-published authors she would see how much time is being spent on the craft of writing, on learning how to design better book, inside and out, on how to most effectively promote, on actual promotion, and she might have been able to see how little luck has to do with it.

Finally there is her third point that self-publishing lacks the nurturing of young authors through that advances provide or the research and development possibilities of traditional publishing. Porter (and many of the authors who commented on the article) pointed out the problem with her assumption that traditional publishing uses its bestseller profits to nurture their midlist authors, so I won’t belabor this point. What I will argue is, that if we are discussing fiction, which Williamson seemed to be doing, the nurturing that authors need the most is a steady predictable income so that they don’t have to work full time at something else, and the research and development they need is marketing data that they can then use to develop new strategies for getting their work to the reader and getting that reader to buy their work.

If you compare the traditional to the self-publishing model, the self-publishing model is anything but a dead end. For the traditionally published author, small advances, spread over 3 or 4 payments, and royalties, that only come 2-4 times a year, mean that most authors have a very insecure and spotty income. It is hard to take the leap to leave your “day job” when your money comes in dribs and drabs and you don’t know from year to year what you are going to make.

In contrast, as a self-published author I see my sales daily, I get my checks monthly, I have sales data for 2 1/2 years and can tell you which months I will make the most money, and which months the sales dip, so I can make my fiscal plans accordingly. Within a year of publishing my first novel, I was making enough money monthly to replace my part-time teaching salary (I was semi-retired), and I retired completely to write full time. As with most small businesses, it may take authors who self-publish years to grow their business to the point of making a living, but I am hearing many more stories of authors finding this sort of sustainable income than I ever heard from mid-list authors in traditional publishing. And with more income coming from ebooks, which don’t have the short life span of print books, this income has a much longer impact on an author’s financial security.

I have every reason to expect that the two books I have published will continue to sell, and that as I publish more books, my income will go up. My traditionally published friends know that in most cases they will never make any money after the advance, and they have no guarantee that the next book they write will ever be published. Which vision of the future would you find more nurturing?

Williams says that if traditional publishing disappeared the only books published would be by those with “the money and the time to publish and promote it.” But if she had done adequate research she would have seen that the initial investments in self-publishing are generally small (mine was $250 for a cover) and can be recouped quickly, and only a small percentage of future profits need to be plowed back into the business on a yearly basis (upgrade websites, professional editing, etc.), and you don’t need to even do that to get out another book, which can then double your earnings.

And for fiction, research and development should mean researching the market and developing good promotional strategies. But again, traditional publishing doesn’t do a very good job of this for most authors. Traditional publishers are just starting to talk about shifting their marketing focus from book sellers to book readers, and most authors are still expected to come up with their own marketing campaigns based on extremely limited data and often years-out-of-date information about where and how their books are selling. Even if they get direct feedback from their fans, they have little control over covers, interior formatting, pricing or promotions. So even if they did their own research, they don’t have authority or mechanisms to use that information to improve the product.

In contrast, because I know every day how many books sold, in what venue, I can mount a promotion, change a price, upload a book into a new book store, and know instantly what the effect of these actions are. I can change a book cover, go in and correct formatting errors instantly, not wait until another edition is printed (if ever). And, as I write my next book, I can take into consideration what 100s of my readers have said in their reviews, not what an editor says based on limited marketing analysis of my mid-list genre.

Just three years ago when I started, it was very difficult to get any information on how other authors were doing with their sales. (Which is why Konrath’s willingness to publish his sales data was so revolutionary!) While there might have been a top down mentoring system among agents, editors and successful authors, there wasn’t the vibrant community that now exists among authors that is open to all. Self-published authors share information readily about what promotions worked and what didn’t. We share information about sales data, how to over come formatting difficulties, what covers work, what fonts to use, and promotional strategies. We open up our blogs to guest reviewers, form cooperatives for cross-promotional purposes. Self-publishing welcomes writers of any age, any background, who write about every subject in every form. Any time spent online looking in Barnes and Noble or Amazon’s stores, or reading writers’ blogs demonstrates that authors are experimenting more than ever before. Short stories, novellas, graphic novels are being published and read that would never have made it through the narrow gates of traditional publishing, which tended to strain out anything that deviated from the recent bestseller trend.

Will some authors fail, or be disappointed? Of course. Will some of these experiments prove unsuccessful, certainly. But, without self-publishing these authors wouldn’t have gotten the chance to fail, and many others, like myself, a former academic in her sixties, wouldn’t have ever gotten the chance to succeed.

I would love to hear from those of you who have had experience with both traditional and self-publishing and examples of nurturing you found in both.


This is a reprint from M. Louisa Locke‘s blog.