This blog post is best-selling author Christopher Nuttall’s fault. I’ve been on vacation, actively avoiding the internet. Only when Chris saw this ridiculous article he knew I would be compelled to fisk it and sent it to me.
Fisking is like one of those espionage movies, every time I try to get out, they pull me back in. Only since this is from the HuffPo, there’s less espionage and more bad writing advice given snootily.
As usual the original article is in italics, and my comments are in bold.
Self-Publishing: An Insult To The Written Word
By: Laurie Gough Award-winning author of three memoirs, she is also a journalist and travel writer.
Who? (but don’t worry, I’ll get back to why you probably shouldn’t take professional writing career advice from somebody who has gotten like 50 Amazon reviews over the last 16 years, and their hot new release that came out a few months ago already has 1.2 million books selling better than it)
As a published author people often ask me why I don’t self-publish. “Surely you’d make more money if you got to keep most of the profits rather than the publisher,” they say.
Those random dinner party acquaintances Laurie made up actually ask a very good question. In today’s market, can you make more money self-publishing? It is a complex business undergoing rapid changes because of new technology. How will our award winning author answer?
I’d rather share a cabin on a Disney cruise with Donald Trump than self-publish.
Well, okay then. Between that and the catchy title of her little article that pretty much sets the tone for our discussion.
To get a book published in the traditional way, and for people to actually respect it and want to read it — you have to go through the gatekeepers of agents, publishers, editors, national and international reviewers.
BWA HA HA HA HAAAAAAA
Oh… Wait… Laurie is being serious. Dear God.
At this point I realized that Laurie wasn’t providing writing advice for people who actually want to make a decent living as writers. She is providing advice to people who want to be aloof artistes at dinner parties, before they go back to their day job at Starbucks.
As for what Laurie says about gatekeepers, it is all horse shit. She has no flipping idea what she’s talking about.
Publishers are the “gatekeepers”. If they like you, you’re in, and if they don’t like you, you’re out. Problem is, at best they only have so many publishing slots to fill every year, so they cater to some markets, and leave others to languish. And at worst, they are biased human beings, who often have their heads inserted into their own rectums.
Agents represent the author. Their job is to find stuff they think they can sell to a publisher, and then they keep 15%. So “good” is secondary to “Can I sell this to the gatekeepers?” And then we’re back to slots and rectums.
Editors try to make the author’s stuff better. Period. They aren’t gate keepers, because it is their job to make the stuff that got through the gate suck less (seriously, the HuffPo should hire one). Only self-published authors can hire editors too. Andy Weir hired Bryan Thomas Schmidt to edit the original self-published The Martian. Last I heard that book did okay.
“National and international reviewers” are on the wrong side of the gate, and I’m baffled why she included them. Reviewers come along after the fact, some are useful, but most aren’t. Even though I was ignored or despised by most of the big review places for most of my career, they haven’t made a lick of difference to my sales.
These gatekeepers are assessing whether or not your work is any good.
The problem is that “good” is subjective. What you personally think is “good” is irrelevant when there are a million consumers who disagree. I wouldn’t buy a copy of Twilight, but the author lives in a house made out of solid gold bars. “Good” is arbitrary. The real question is whether your product is sellable. (and yes, it is just a product, get over yourself)
Readers expect books to have passed through all the gates, to be vetted by professionals. This system doesn’t always work out perfectly, but it’s the best system we have.
It was the only system we had before technology came along and upset their apple cart.
When only the gatekeepers could vet what was “good”, sometimes they were right, but since often the “professionals” were 20 something lit majors just out of college, or some clueless weasel who had spent his whole existence in the echo chamber of Manhattan publishing, often the system fed its own tastes and ignored vast swaths of the market.
And when you neglect a market, it will spend its entertainment dollars elsewhere. So in this case, competition is good. Because the real competition isn’t between traditional and indy publishing, it is between reading and movies and video games and streaming. Ultimately the market decides who wins, not some self-appointed gatekeeper.
Good writers only become good because they’ve undertaken an apprenticeship.
Nonsense. Writing is like any other job. Some get training, some are self-taught, and everybody gets better with practice. If your first product isn’t perfect, but somebody wants to give you money for it, take their money!
The craft of writing is a life’s work.
Nope. It is just a job. Again, get over yourself. Writers aren’t that special.
It takes at least a decade to become a decent writer, tens of thousands of hours.
I haven’t hit my ten year anniversary of being a writer yet, but I crossed the million bucks in royalties milestone a couple years back, so I can’t wait to see what happens when I finally become a “decent” writer!
The tens of thousands of hours part? Yes. Practice helps. The more you work at something, the better you will get. But if your first book is sellable, and people want to give you money for it, SELL IT.
Your favorite authors might have spent years writing works that were rejected. But if a writer is serious about her craft, she’ll keep working at it, year after year.
At the end of her self-imposed apprenticeship, she’ll be relieved that her first works were rejected because only now can she see how bad they were.
Laurie made sense for a whole half a paragraph and then had to go and screw it up. Yes. Writers get better the more they write. So of course all of us look back at our first book and kick ourselves for things that we could have done differently now that we know better. But that doesn’t matter if that first book was SELLABLE.
Every career has to start somewhere. And the sooner you are selling enough to quit your day job so you can focus all your energies on writing, the better.
So write your book. Try to sell it the traditional way. Once all those gatekeepers reject you (seriously, it is something like a 99.9% failure rate) then take a good hard look at your product and decide if you want to publish it yourself. And self-pub zealots aside, it isn’t a free lunch. It is hard to make a go of it. I’ll talk more about that below.
Did you ever hear what Margaret Atwood said at a party to a brain surgeon? When the brain surgeon found out what she did for a living, he said, “Oh, you’re a writer! When I retire I’m going to write a book.” Margaret Atwood said, “Great! When I retire I’m going to be a brain surgeon!”
I’ve used this too, but I think Laurie is missing the point.
The irony is that now that brain surgeon really could dash off a “book” in a of couple months, click “publish” on amazon, and he’s off signing books at the bookstore. Just like Margaret Atwood, he’s a “published” author. Who cares if his book is something that his grade nine teacher might have wanted to crumple into the trash? It’s a “published” book.
And here we see the real problem with Laurie’s whole world view. Yes, the doctor wrote a book and now he is “published” and apparently that wounds her. Because being able to put Author on your business card is sacred or some shit.
In real life, the doctor cranked out a book and self-published, but so what? If the book was crap and people didn’t like it, then he didn’t sell many, didn’t make any money, and the book faded into obscurity and was forgotten. (probably languishing in the Amazon rankings around the 2 million mark with such traditionally published hits as Kiss the Sunset Pig by Laurie Gough)
But if the book was entertaining and connected with some market, then the brain surgeon sold a bunch of copies, and now congratulations, Doc! You are in the Real Author business.
Either way, it is no skin off Margaret Atwood’s nose.
People like Laurie think being an author is like an Yes/No proposition. On the contrary, it is a ladder. What she needs is the OFFICIAL ALPHABETICAL LIST OF AUTHOR SUCCESS https://monsterhunternation.com/2014/07/24/the-official-alphabetical-list-of-author-success/
The problem with self-publishing is that it requires zero gatekeepers.
Nope. The problem with self-publishing is that there are so many competitors that the challenge is to differentiate yourself from the herd. Sure, lots of them are crap (I can say the same thing for tradpub too), but if you find a way to market yourself and get your quality product in front of the right market, then you can make quite a bit of money.
From what I’ve seen of it, self-publishing is an insult to the written word, the craft of writing, and the tradition of literature.
From what I’ve seen, I’d say the same thing about the Huffington Post.
As an editor, I’ve tackled trying to edit the very worst writing that people plan on self-publishing just because they can.
As an actual editor who gets paid for this stuff, that sentence reads like garbage.
I’m a horrible singer. But I like singing so let’s say I decide to take some singing lessons. A month later I go to my neighbor’s basement because he has recording equipment. I screech into his microphone and he cuts me a CD. I hire a designer to make a stylish CD cover. Voilà. I have a CD and am now just like all the other musicians with CDs.
Only you just described exactly how most real working bands got their start. Add a couple of kids with a guitar and drums, set up in your buddy’s garage, and start jamming. Eventually you will get good enough that you can book some local gigs, and if people like you, they will give you money for your stuff.
Except I’m not. Everyone knows I’m a tuneless clod but something about that CD validates me as a musician.
Nobody gives a crap about “validation”. Validation don’t pay the bills.
It’s the same with writers who self-publish. Literally anyone can do it, including a seven-year-old I know who is a “published” author because her teacher got the entire class to write stories and publish them on Amazon. It’s cute, but when adults do it, maybe not so cute.
So a grown up self-publishes a book, nobody buys it… Now most of us don’t care, but Laurie is offended, because how dare this nobody, this prole, this LOSER be able to say that he’s a writer too? HOW DARE HE?!
This all seems to be about how Laurie is offended some self-pubbed nobody can claim the same job title as her. Well congrats, Laurie, now you know how bestselling professionals like me feel about writers like you. Oh, but according to your bio you’ve written for Salon and the Guardian? That’s cute. 😀
With the firestorm of self-published books unleashed on the world, I fear that writing itself is becoming devalued.
Your fear is idiotic. The pie is not finite. If some other author gets a piece of pie, he is not taking pie from your mouth. You sound just like that other HuffPo writer who was mad at JK Rowling for stealing all the readers. https://monsterhunternation.com/2014/02/24/fisking-the-huffpo-because-jk-rowling-is-nice-and-im-not/
Which reminds me of another ridiculous HuffPo writing advice article I fisked https://monsterhunternation.com/2015/09/15/fisking-the-huffpo-because-writers-need-to-get-paid/ Why do you horrible people want writers to fail so badly? I swear, HuffPo writing advice reads like it comes from the demons in a C.S. Lewis piece where they want everyone to be as miserable as they are or something.
I have nothing against people who want to self-publish, especially if they’re elderly. Perhaps they want to write their life story and have no time to learn how to write well enough to be published traditionally. It makes a great gift for their grandchildren.
“I don’t hate you little people, I merely think you are beneath me… But I will grant a dispensation for your old people because they will die soon and no longer trouble me.” Sniff.
You know, when your sales numbers are shit, and you’re writing for HuffPo (which pays in exposure), maybe you should get off your fucking high horse, lady.
But self-publishing needs to be labelled as such. The only similarity between published and self-published books is they each have words on pages inside a cover. The similarities end there.
How bizarrely condescending and totally untrue… The only thing that matters is whether those words on those pages are entertaining enough to get people to give you money for your stuff. If the author went through the gate, or around the gate, as long as they are entertaining who gives a shit?
I think the real issue here is that Laurie feels like she has served her time, yet some of these self-published nobodies have far more readers than she does. How uncouth. How barbaric!
And every single self-published book I’ve tried to read has shown me exactly why the person had to resort to self-publishing.
Which indicates that you have not read that many, or you suck at target selection.
These people haven’t taken the decade, or in many cases even six months, to learn the very basics of writing, such as ‘show, don’t tell,’ or how to create a scene, or that clichés not only kill writing but bludgeon it with a sledgehammer. Sometimes they don’t even know grammar.
And sometimes they are good enough to sell hundreds of thousands of copies and launch careers. The guy who sent me this article is self-published, and on any given day sitting comfortably in the top 100 ranking for his genre at the world’s biggest bookseller, way above most of his traditionally published competitors.
Author Brad Thor agrees: “The important role that publishers fill is to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you’re a good writer and have a great book you should be able to get a publishing contract.”
No offense to Brad, but wrong. They should, but often they don’t. My first book got rejected by all the supposedly wise gatekeepers. It wasn’t until after I’d self-published and sold a bunch of copies, that I got picked up by a traditional publisher.
Author Sue Grafton said, “To me, it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy and s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research. … Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall.”
Sorry, Sue, but you can’t assume that everybody who goes indy is short cut trash. Sure, there are a plenty of hacks churning out garbage, but there are also plenty of great authors who got rejected by tradpub who went indy and made money. Or tradpub authors who self-pub their niche products. Or tradpub authors who self-pubbed stuff their publishers dropped the ball on, or that they got back the rights for things that went out of print and self-pubbed. The list goes on.
But since we are quoting successful authors now-
My first novel wouldn’t have been picked up, sold a quarter million copies, and turned into a six-book series if I hadn’t self-pubbed it first. Not bad for an insult to the written word. – Marko Kloos
Not all self-pubbed work is garbage, and not all traditionally published work is some sort of brilliant artistic achievement. They both have their fair share of crap. And ultimately the market will decide.
Writing is hard work, but the act of writing can also be thrilling, enriching your life beyond reason when you know you’re finally nailing a certain feeling with the perfect verb.
The verb I would pick for Laurie’s essay is Bloviate
verb (used without object), bloviated, bloviating.
1.to speak pompously.
It might take a long time to find that perfect verb.
Naw, it was pretty obvious right out the gate.
But that’s how art works. Writing is an art deserving our esteem.
Holy shit, GET OVER YOURSELF.
It shouldn’t be something that you can take up as a hobby one afternoon and a month later, key in your credit card number to CreateSpace or Kindle Direct Publishing before sitting back waiting for a stack of books to arrive at your door.
No, seriously. You bossy know it all… Why not? What if that book was brilliant, but the gatekeepers didn’t like it for some biased reason? Where do you get off being the arbiter of what the market can or cannot have access to?
If that book is garbage, it’s garbage. It probably won’t sell very many copies, but looking at your Amazon ranks, neither do you.
Let’s all give the written word the respect it deserves.
Which is why I took the time to fisk this awful article. Unlike the HuffPo’s abysmal writing advice pieces, my goal is to help writers achieve financial success, rather than some arbitrary and capricious fluff about art.
Thank goodness we got that tripe out of the way. Now onto business.
Okay, aspiring authors, this is how it actually works. I’ve said this plenty of times but there are really only two steps to becoming a successful pro author.
- Get good enough that people will give you money for your stuff.
- Find the people who will give you money for your stuff.
That’s it. That is how it works. Whether you do it traditionally or independently, that’s all there is to it. You want to make a living at this, you need to produce something that people want, and then you need to find a way to get it in front of them.
I’ve done it both ways. I’ve got friends who are making good livings traditional or self-pubbed, and I’ve got friends who are dirt poor and struggling both ways too.
Contrary to what you may believe, getting a tradpub deal is not all roses and sunshine. The average midlist author only makes like 30k a year. Which is way more than you get for writing for the HuffPo, but still not something that enables you to quit your day job. Only the top 1% of us make over 100k a year, which is kind of sad if you think about it. I’m making several times that annually and I still don’t meet the HuffPo’s standards to be a *real writer*. So basically they can kiss my ass.
The key is building a fan base and providing them consistent content. And unlike HuffPo staff authors, that means putting out books every year, not once a decade.
I’m not some self-publishing evangelist. It isn’t an easy button. It is freaking hard work. If you self-pub, you need to figure out how to differentiate yourself from the hundred thousand other scuts who just released something. If you put something out there but have no other means to drive traffic to it, it will remain obscure.
All of the self-pubbed successes I know aren’t like the hypothetical Doctor Book In A Month above, they are professionals who work their asses off building up a loyal fan base and consistently providing quality product.
The big thing self-pubbed has got going for them is that they get to keep a far higher percentage of the sales price (something Laurie’s imaginary friend touched on in her opening paragraph but she never came back to). So you can self-pub, sell fewer copies, but still come out financially ahead of somebody who is tradpub, but only keeping 8% of the cover price of every mass market paperback.
But, because of distribution, and things like being on the shelf in every Barnes & Noble, tradpub folks are going to sell more copies (hopefully). I can’t say if it will even out for you or not, because that depends entirely upon your market. (hell, one of the biggest things I’ve got going for me is audiobooks and ancillary foreign rights, which we haven’t even talked about at all)
Tradpub can be awesome for writers, but I’m not one of these twerps that worships at the feet of Manhattan publishing. They are dinosaurs, and not the cuddly kind.
All her stuff about Time Enough for Art is bullshit, because your editor is going to be dropping some nasty deadlines on your artsy-fartsy ass. And if you aren’t selling like Patrick Rothfuss or George Martin, they ain’t going to give you half a decade to leisurely finish the next one, they are going to cut you off.
Don’t believe the idealized hype. Tradpub turns out plenty of trash, and their gatekeepers often screw up, BUT if you can get picked up by a traditional publisher, they’ve got wide distribution, and if you are one of the lucky ones that they decide to throw some marketing money behind, you can make bank. If you get a good editor, love and cherish them, because they are the best thing ever.
However, watch out, because many of the dinosaurs are carnivorous and they will eat you. I know many authors who have been screwed over in a wide variety of exciting ways by their big publishing houses.
Most tradpub authors aren’t treated like artistic royalty. The golden child gets all the love and marketing money. The rest are treated like monkeys banging a keyboard, and if you fail to bang the keyboard good enough, they will get a new monkey. Some publishers are ruthless. They will give you a deal, then give the book zero marketing push. It gets tossed out there on its own. And if it doesn’t sell well, or doesn’t earn back its advance, so long loser. Sink or swim.
So either way, you are your own best marketing department. If you are indy, you are it. If you have a traditional deal, you can’t count on your publisher selling your books for you, so you might be it.
Regardless of how you get your stuff out there, you have to keep doing it again, and doing it better. Most of us don’t have the reliable income to quit our day jobs until we have four or five books out, with more on the way. You live off of your back list. And your back list remains viable because every time you release a new book, the old stuff gets a bump up.
So each method has pros and cons. Only idiots and zealots get caught up on the method of delivery rather than the product being delivered. No matter how you do it, the more you produce art, the more art gets produced, the more likely we are to see great art.