Image representing Lulu as depicted in CrunchBase
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Self-publishing has the stigma of being the last hope for the impossibly unpublishable. It’s a stigma that’s fading fast as books like “The Shack” and “Still Alice” dominate best-seller lists despite either being self-published or starting as self-published.

Just over a year ago, I self-published my first novel, partially because I could and should, but also to learn. A year later, I find myself working on my third novel, and working hard to juggle writing with book blogging, a book signing, interviews about the books, and discussions with a movie producer.

Yeah, self-publishing’s for losers.

Well, now this revolution in publishing has a new recruit — John Edgar Wideman, a National Book Award finalist, a winner of two Faulkner awards, and a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant. He’s the author of the award-winning Brothers and Keepers, Philadelphia Fire, and Fanon.

Now, he’s published a set of microstories called Briefs via Lulu, along with titles from his backlist, deciding, according to his press release:

. . . against a traditional publishing contract — and royalty advance —  for Briefs because he wanted more control over the publishing process and to develop a more direct connection with his readers. He also wanted to experiment at a time when the publishing industry is undergoing more revolution than evolution.

Wideman goes on to make comments I took as distinguishing quality from quantity, an interesting rebuke to the attitude among defenders of traditional publishers, which has often confused quantity (sold) with quality:

I have a very personal distaste for the blockbuster syndrome. The blockbuster syndrome is a feature of our social landscape that has gotten out of hand. Unless you become a blockbuster, your book disappears quickly. It becomes not only publish or perish, but sell or perish.

Wideman is the first client using Lulu’s VIP service, which ties promotion to publication, helping to create awareness beyond family and friends. But perhaps the most potent part of the PR event here is Wideman’s choice itself, which may generate more attention for this work than traditional publishing would have.

Of course, the novelty of this will wear off, but as many have argued in the past, the financial benefits of self-publishing may be enough to bring even more prominent authors into the practice. Stephen King and J.K. Rowling really should do the math.

But, as Henry Baum at notes about Wideman’s choice:

Sure, you can still make the argument that it’s hard to sell a self-published book, but you cannot make the argument that it’s only for second-rate writers.

Who knows what’s next? For book publishers, this source of competition — the power of independence — is sure to change negotiations, and not in their favor.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


18 Thoughts on "A Renowned Literary Author Self-Publishes"

Interesting post, Kent, though I have to wonder if being a well-known author makes it easier to self-publish. My assumption is that readers are probably more likely to pick up a self-published book by someone who is already well-known than a self-published book by a first time author. That is why I decided against self-publishing my first book. I knew that if I went that route only a handful of people would read it. I felt that having the imprimatur of an established publishing house would be important in getting my book more attention than it otherwise would, especially since I do not have the flexibility to fill in the roles traditionally occupied by publishers in terms of promotion.

Additionally, I chose against self-publishing because I knew my book would need the attention of an editor. True, editors can be hired, but (rightly or wrongly) I felt that a hired editor would not be as invested in making my book the best it could be since they did not have as much of an interest in it doing well/being well-received. For me, at least, working with an editor has been very important, and that is something I would have missed had I decided to just go ahead and self-publish.

Overall I think established authors who already have fans could do quite well with self-publishing, but what about new authors? I am not sure that they would receive the same benefits. At present it still seems like new authors have to fight through the more traditional process to gain credibility and attention only to later go the self-publishing route if they prove to be successful. There will be occasional cases in which breakout writers have their self-published books picked up, sure, but right now it seems that the people who stand to benefit the most from self-publishing are those who have already established themselves through publishing houses.

Being a well-known author definitely makes it easier to publish in general, and self-publishing makes even more sense for big names. I’m still not sure why more don’t do it, especially given the control and margins. I think the upside for a major author would be significant. As you note, editors can be hired, and big name authors probably have an editor or two they’d use no matter who published them.

I don’t understand your point about an editor doing a better job if they work at an established publisher. I think a good editor would have the same concern, and give the same level of attention, no matter what.

Your book is being published by a small literary press, which has much more in common with self-publishers, including the marketing challenges, a probable use of print-on-demand to create the printed books, and difficulty getting meaningful retail shelf space.

New authors fail at a high rate, whether self-published or traditionally published. It’s hard to break into the mainstream. I always think about this while browsing through a bookstore, which only represents a fraction of all works published traditionally — and most of the authors I’ll never read or hear of again. If fame and fortune are your reasons for writing, I’d ratchet my expectations down a few dozen notches. I think most authors publish because they have something to express, and the rewards come at different levels — having your ideas received, having readers enjoy the book, and growing as a writer. Self-publishing lets writers publish, attract readers, and grow as authors. I think that’s better than books going unpublished because some literary agents following the market du jour thought a particular book wasn’t marketable. There’s too much mimicry in book marketing right now, and a narrower and narrower purchasing band among publishers. Self-publishing lets new voices emerge, and as you note, some of them go mainstream. Some never do — whether traditionally published or self-published. But the publishing modality isn’t the determining factor.

Congratulations on your book, and good luck!

The arguments against self-publishing are less about mocking the authors who do so, and more about the increased quality and value a publisher can add, as well as the economic advantages one provides. First, it should be noted that many vanity presses offer unscrupulous practices, which taints the reputation of the reputable self-publishing firms.

Next, one has to gauge by the individual author. There may be authors out there capable of self-editing, of doing good design, etc. But it is likely that they are few and far between. As author Charlie Stross notes recently:

“…a manuscript is not a book. The author’s job is to write the manuscript. The publisher’s job is to turn a series of manuscripts originating from different suppliers into consistently produced books, mass-produce them, and sell them into distribution channels…In fact, the actual division of labour on a book is split roughly 50/50 between the author and the publisher.”

Most authors would rather write than do all the sorts of things a publisher does. As a commenter here explains:

“…the publishing industry exists for a reason – you don’t make better books and better money by “cutting out the middleman”, you just take all the work on yourself, and do it without their experience, expertise, or, as you write, distribution network. Let alone their budget.”

And the key word there is “budget”. For an author to self-publish and get the same professional treatment for their manuscript, they’re going to have to lay out a large amount of cash to hire freelance editors, designers, etc. And they’re going to have to pay the bills while they do their actual writing. For someone going with a publisher, the publisher pays all those costs and often provides an advance, letting the author concentrate solely on writing, rather than doing so in their spare time (not to mention all the time dedicated to editing).

Stross’ blog series points out how much a publisher contributes to a book, and how the industry has a major image problem, as many seem to believe that we’re just middlemen with no value add in what we do.

Well, misperceptions abound. My favorite in your reply is that publishers accept all the financial risk while giving authors advances sufficient to allow them to “concentrate solely on writing, rather than doing so in their spare time”. There are so many counter-examples to this it’s almost tragic. For instance, advances are shrinking fast, and usually amount to a few thousand dollars. One New York Times bestselling author revealed his financial picture, and showed that for his best-selling novel, he received an advance of $20,000, which would take 3-5 years to pay out, meaning his book generated for him at best a few thousand dollars per year. And he has a series of novels out. Most aren’t paying out yet, and the advances aren’t enough to live off. When they do pay out, it’s a few hundred dollars a year. It’s small money. Most authors have to work full-time jobs while they write. It’s the rare bird that doesn’t.

In addition, marketing budgets for new books are virtually nothing, and many authors are being asked to spend their own time and money to market their books. This is erasing the contrast between traditional publishing and self-publishing.

The “division of labour” argument is from a bygone era, when publishers did do more — but there’s no way it was 50% of the “labour.” As you state, it’s about risk — publishers demand upside because they assume the risk. That’s not a “labour” argument. Publishers should be clear on that. They’re scaling infrastructure and creating a continuum around a work that authors can’t match. If authors think that’s important, by all means, fight for it. But if you think Amazon, Google, and the iPad might be creating an equally viable alternative for consistent availability, maybe that old-world risk model doesn’t hold water anymore.

Now, many traditional publishers are shells of their former selves, and authors are feeling it. The financial picture is bleak, the marketing support minimal, and the editorial lift scattershot. One of my favorite stories is from an author who publishes both traditionally and via self-publishing (J.A. Konrath). He disparages self-publishing (because he’s an important author that a publisher has accepted), but then admits that he makes more money and gets more enjoyment from his self-published works. He personifies the contrast.

To publish a book well takes time and money. Traditional publishers have less of both. Authors are finding that, for less than they ever imagined, they can get a high-quality book out, with a professionally designed cover, strong editing, and a compelling story. I just finished one such book — independently published, but with only one typo, a lovely writing style, a great and enjoyable story with memorable characters, and unlike anything I’d ever read before (“Do the Math”). The author is part of the consortium of literary authors I belong to (Backword Books). These people all have had success with their novels — awards, sales, media attention, etc. — and 3-4 of the authors were traditionally published first, but moved to self-publishing after that experience.

But of course, “Do the Math” wasn’t published by a traditional publisher, so it was probably only half as good as it could have been, since a publisher didn’t add that 50% it needed to be really good. And, of course, you can’t buy it, because a publisher didn’t get it distributed.

Well, there are certainly higher and lower quality publishers out there who do a better or worse job for their authors (though I’m not sure they’re worse than some of the rip-off vanity presses). But as I said, it comes down to the individual author, their ability to edit their own work (a rare skill–note that editing goes beyond just fixing typographical errors) or their ability to afford to pay for quality editing and design. For many, they’re not skilled at things other than writing, and they have no interest in spending a huge amount of their time working the business side of things (read John Scalzi’s amusing take on this here), or they don’t have lots of spare cash to spend on quality editing and design.

I note that you’re a self-published author, but you have a day-job to pay the bills. How many of the folks in your consortium are supporting themselves and their families entirely through the profits from their self-published books?


The point I was refute earlier is the tired and mistaken notion that traditionally published authors don’t have to keep their day jobs. The vast majority get small advances that take years to pay out (especially because publishers hold back royalties to deal with the latency of returns), so day jobs are common. Yes, I work a day job, and so do the other authors at Backword Books. But that’s no different than the vast majority of traditionally published authors. Even “best selling” authors often have to keep their day jobs. There are self-published authors who don’t need day jobs, as well. It’s just not a useful or realistic point of contrast.

As I said, whether it makes sense comes down to a judgment based on the individual author, their skills, financial situation, etc.

I agree. That’s why self-publishing is valid. It makes sense in enough circumstances, and the stark differences people like to draw between it and traditional publishing are vanishing. I only started looking into it about 18 months ago, and the degree of change in the overall environment has been monumental. I can only assume the next 2 years will be even moreso, with the iPad and such.

I think that’s fair, but I also think it’s important (at least from the point of my trying to remain employed) to note the value that a publisher can (and often does) add to an author’s work, and how much easier a good publisher can make their lives.

I wonder about the 50/50 split b/w publishing and writing when the book doesn’t require anything special in terms of formatting? @craigmod makes some interesting points about the value of e-books when content itself doesn’t require much beyond a simple container: “Formless Content can be reflowed into different formats and not lose any intrinsic meaning. It’s content divorced from layout. Most novels and works of non-fiction are Formless.”( While marketing, editing, and distribution don’t go away– and the self-publishing author must make decisions about how to invest in those tasks–it seems that a 50/50 split for print spilled into justified columns is over-estimating the contribution of the publisher to design. (not sure if it matters, but I have published once through a kind of vanity option with Cengage (and found they lied about most everything related to marketing, even when I provided very specific information on who would use the book)where I had to produce camera-ready text — all the design components were mine. I don’t know if those components were successful b/c Cengage offered no editing and no route for user feedback, but since it was my first time publishing, I have a hard time handing over how a book looks –meaning how the reader will experience it–solely over to a publisher.)

E-book design is a lot more complicated than just creating one XML file and assuming it will magically flow perfectly into every one of the many, many formats that are out there in use now. One of the most common complaints about e-books (aside from price or DRM) is the poor design and the frequent errors that are introduced in the conversion process. As the tools and formats become more sophisticated (think of an e-book more as an iPad app than an ePub file), design may become even more important.

Also, e-publishing alone is not yet a viable exercise for most writers, given the small size of the market. Again, Stross on the economics:

if I went to direct publishing via ebook tomorrow, I’d have to trouser the book production costs ($7-20K per book) that my publisher now handles, but I’d be receiving only 3-5% of the current revenue stream.

You know what? That implicit 70% pay cut is not looking mighty attractive …

I find this discussion most interesting as an author who has previously co-authored 2 work-for-hire projects and this month, released my first solo effort through a traditional publisher.

I am shocked at how much an author is expected to do to market and publicize his/her book considering the publisher is keeping 90% of proceeds from sales in most contractual agreements.

I have several writer-friends who have gone the self-publishing route and done very well for themselves. It is an option I will seriously consider for future efforts.

I have a good friend who just published through a major house as well, and had a similar reaction toward the lack of publicity offered. It is an interesting part of the equation. I’m not sure how much of the lack of efforts on the part of a publisher are about cost-cutting in general or about removing ineffective uses of money from the system (does an expensive book tour for an unknown author really sell enough books to pay for itself?).

But as for the 90% figure, Stross’ series is worth reading as he’s getting more and more into the economics of things as he goes along (parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 so far). The idea is that book publishers operate on very small margins (NY Times article on this here). On a rough basis, 80% of what comes in is meant to cover the costs of producing, distributing and marketing the book (all of which are paid by the publisher). The remaining 20% that’s profit is split evenly between the author and the publisher. When looked at that way, it seems a little fairer. Note also that in many fields, only a small percentage of books make enough sales to cover the costs of the advance paid to the author, so the author is actually making a bigger cut than their royalty suggests. As e-books have lower distribution costs, many publishers are offering higher royalty rates on those sales to authors.

Thanks for your reply, David. I managed to negotiate 50/50 splits on the subsidiary rights, so yes, that’s the upside. And thanks for the explanation regarding rationale of publisher’s expenses and all. I’ll try and read the other resource material you’ve referred to.

Stross goes into great detail in posts 3 and 4 about what should and shouldn’t be part of a contract, and all the other ways that a successful author can profit from their work through rights sales and such. Definitely worth a read for anyone pursuing writing through any channel.

As a published novelist and now book publisher of joint ventures, I offer the following responses to the comments I’ve read.

1. Being published by a established house does not guarantee more attention. If that were the case, then every author who is well known has to have been published by an established house. We know that is not true.

2. Most editors are freelancers–whether at an established house or a print on demand operation. The quality varies by the individual, not by the house.

3. A unique distinction exists between a subsidy or vanity house that will publish anything an author pays for, and a self-publishing house that adds as many services as the traditional houses. Differences in quality and philosphy differ across the board. For example, why do most established university presses put the copyrights in their names rather than in the author’s?

4. The 90-10 income split doesn’t exist. Begin with the fact that no publisher receives more than 50 or 60 percent of the list price if Borders Books must get at least a 40 percent discount.

5. Reviews? Let’s face it, there may be fewer than a dozen outlets in the country that publish serious reviews any more.
And there are too many examples to prove that reviews often have very little impact on sales.

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