Publishing…where is it headed?

This seemed to be the prevailing theme at this weekend’s Southern California Writer’s Conference in San Diego. Event organizer Michael Steven Gregory tossed this question out in his typical trademark fashion (honestly, you have to experience MSG because he’s impossible to adequately describe in print).

Since he asked the question about where is publishing headed, he posited that power should return to the hands of the authors. I can’t disagree with that. After all, without authors, we publishers and agents would be slinging hash and the beagle would have to get a real job. MSG went further to suggest that big NY publishing would be dead in four years.

I’m not a prognosticator, so I can’t say whether he’s right or wrong. I do know that NY publishing has undergone a huge change because I see it in the submissions that come to me. The big advance money is drying up and the big guys aren’t buying the kinds of books they did years ago. They need the big blockbuster books because they have a lot of mouths to feed. And guess where those good books are going? Yup. To littler spuds like us.

The notion of the big pay day has changed, and I can’t say I’m sad to see it go because it was unsustainable. These books hardly ever earned out, but they kept tossing money around like it was water. It was good times for all. Lots of books were printed, lots of stores bought them – and as long as the balloon didn’t pop, things could remain unrealistically status quo.

From a financial/business standpoint, this made little sense. Small publishers couldn’t act that way. They had to remain  financially solvent at all times, and that meant not spending more than they had in reserves. That’s why, traditionally, small publishers didn’t get the big books. “They don’t pay enough,” the agents would say. And sure, it’s logical to gravitate toward the bigger payday.

And then the bottom finally fell out and the big guy’s had their comeuppance. “Holy bouncing checks, Batman!” they cried. “We gotta lay off a ton of people to keep ourselves afloat.” Agents also had a huge reality check. Their big paydays were affected as well. So in the course of a few years, we saw the Great Return Implosion, where publishers suffered record-breaking returns from bookstores and the Great Editor Layoff – which is still happening today. NY editors are now finding themselves working as agents or indie editors. Many agents decided to do something else because they couldn’t make the big sales to sustain their businesses.

So Michael Steven Gregory’s opening salvo this past Friday night was a call to arms for authors to get into the driver’s seat – don’t be afraid to consider self-publishing. “Publishing as we know it is dead,” he said.

While I’ll agree that NY publishing is undergoing a huge evolution – and fighting it every step of the way – I also did a bit of squirming in my seat Friday night and wondered if they’d sling me up on stage and pass out rocks. I felt slightly irrelevant. Passé. And this bothered me a great deal because I felt there is much more to publishing that meets the eye. It’s one thing to heed the call to the battle cry and chant “death to publishers!” and quite another to actually go out and do it. And be successful.

Understanding how books are sold

Anyone considering publishing their own book MUST know the publishing business and how books are sold. Remember, you’re competing against publishers who have been doing this for a long time, and you need to know how to navigate those same waters. I see so many authors who self-pub – either via vanity or true self pubbing – and they didn’t understand how hard and expensive it is to should the complete burden of producing and selling a book. They end up disillusioned and broke. Prevent that outcome and educate yourself on the business so you can tip the scales for your success (suggesting Writer’s Essential Tackle Box).


One of the biggest uphill battles that I see with a self-pubbed book is quality. Usually what happens is someone writes a book and tries to sell it – to no avail. So they say, “the hell with it, I’ll do it myself.” The problem is, many times those rejections are a sign that there’s either no market for the book, or it’s poorly written. Sometimes rejection is an indication that you need to write a better book rather than soldier on with something that has little chance of sales.

But let’s go on the assumption you have a good book and are determined to be your own publisher. Part of that education process should include cover design, editing, interior design, and more editing. The reason self-pubbed books have a bad reputation is because they richly deserved it. All you need to do is go over to Jane Smith’s blog Self Publishing Review to see that many books are substandard in their quality.

This means you need to hire an excellent editor who can run you through the rinse and spin cycle, and hire a respected cover designer to complete the outside look. But don’t stop there – hire a good interior designer who will do a proper layout of your manuscript. Sure, the average Joe and Jane reader may not notice that bottom text doesn’t align from page to page, or that the sentence spacing is unusually narrow, or that you orphaned your sentences in odd places at the top and bottom of the pages. But they will notice that it’s harder on the eyes to read. There is an art to interior design. I recommend that you avail yourself to it.


You can write the best book in the world, but if no one knows of its existence, then it’ll sit there gathering dust. Most authors are limited in distribution because their footprint goes only as far as their feet can take them. That isn’t to say they can’t sell a lot of books at their local events – I’ve seen plenty who have – but they’ll reach a point of attrition, and this means they need to travel further outside their local community.

To date, the best way to get a book seen is on a bookstore shelf. And this requires distribution – something that is beyond the reach of the self-pubbed author. Publishers have distributors with teams of sales people and marketing and promotional experts whose sole job it is to sell your book. They have national ties and exposure. And they have a reputation within the publishing/buying community which is hard to deny. They open doors. They get sales.

Marketing and Promotion

In order to prevent your book from falling between the cracks into oblivion, you need to market and promote. This is expensive and time consuming. I’ve had conversations with many authors who vanity press published, and they were exhausted – as were their checking accounts. They bought tons of books in hopes of selling them within a few short months. Years later, they still had a garage full of books. And it’s not because they didn’t try. It’s because they were ill-prepared for the rigors of marketing and promotion.

Bookstores are much pickier these days about who they host for signings, so the self-pubbed author may find himself searching high and low for a store who will take him on. Self pubbed authors need to understand the art of marketing a product and capturing someone’s attention long enough so they’ll buy it.

Remember, the self-pubbed author is competing against publishers who already have established relationships with media outlets because it’s their business. It will be vital to think outside the box and have a solid promo plan that will attract attention. The one thing you cannot do is sit on your hands and wait for the money to roll in. It won’t. Everything is on your shoulders, so if you don’t make it happen, it won’t happen. You don’t have the support of a learned, experienced team to help you out. And this is where most self-pubbed authors lose heart.

So it may be that you’d like to take complete control of your publishing future. But if you do, you have to appreciate the realities of swimming upstream. As Michael said in his talk, publishing is changing – on that we can agree – and where it’s going is anyone’s guess. But the one constant is exposure, quality, talent, time, distribution, and money. There are the Cinderella stories out there, to be sure, but don’t make the mistake of believing they’re the norm.

They are the exception. And hopefully, so are you!


14 Responses to Publishing…where is it headed?

  1. Very insightful. I revisted my Tackle Box, now that I have actually published “Harnessing a Heritage”. There are things I missed the first time around that will be very helpful. If you have interest you could see Chapter One on my website: . Thanks for your blog.

  2. NinjaFingers says:

    I think there will still be a place for publishers. But they will be smaller, they will be more specialized, and many will focus on electronic publication as the market changes.

    What I think is on the edge of dying is the huge conglomerate that tries to publish *everything*.

  3. I agree with you, Ninjie. A few of us discussed this very issue at the conference. The conglomerates are like big giant school buses that have a lot of passengers telling it what to do, and it can’t turn on a dime. The smaller publishers are like the Maserati, that can turn faster and more quickly in order to navigate the twisty turns of publishing. And they have fewer passengers pulling their strings.

    In a word, they’re efficient because they have to be.

  4. Louise Curtis says:

    I come across a lot of professional types (agents, publishers, and successful writers) who push the path of self-publication as if it’s a perfectly normal way to get your writing career off the ground. Every time I hear self-publishing wholeheartedly recommended I feel a little dirty, because I think that the best thing about self-publication is that it thins the crowd of newbie writers taking up agents’ and publishers’ time. And I think people are doing it on purpose.

    For the ordinary newbie who’s had their first dozen (or first hundred) rejections, the only realistic benefit is being able to tell themself, “Yes, I’m published – I did it” and stop writing without feeling like a failure. (Plus having a few nice-looking copies for family and friends.) It’s a gentle, psychologically-useful scam that is all the more pervasive because it does work out for a tiny minority.

    Louise Curtis

  5. Louise, I don’t know of any agents or publishers who advocate self publishing. Anyone in this business knows how difficult it is to sell books. Self pubbing is that much harder, so for anyone to recommend this as a launching pad is certifiable.

  6. Tara Maya says:


    With all due respect, I think that you’re not taking into account the changes to the industry if that’s still how you see self-publishing. I’m agog that a major conference actually came out and declared writers should self-publish, but… if there is a moment to do so, this is probably it.

    The proof is in the pudding. The writers whose books appear over on the Self-Publishing Review might not be making any money, but the authors featured on Joe Konrath’s blog are making quite the pretty penny. They are the ones who start with a good book and invest in a good cover and professional editing.

    Of course writers have to realize that self-publishing, even in the indie-friendly world of ebooks, doesn’t mean you don’t deal with a publisher. It means you must become a publisher, albeit a small one. Rather the last thing I’d think indie authors would want to do is sneer at publishers when what they need to do is learn from them.

    I also agree that small publishers, who are by nature more nimble and niche, will probably have a better time surviving. I predict that many of the sucessful indie authors will themselves become small publishers as well.

    Tara Maya
    The Unfinished Song

  7. Louise Curtis says:

    Lynn: No-one is saying, “You’ll make a packet by self-publishing” but four of the last five cons I went to featured presenter comments of, “Have you thought about self-publishing?” and/or self-publishing success stories/experts. This was all in Australia though.

    Tara: An average advance is around $5000 for a print book that bombs. I can name 3 self-published authors who’ve made that much or more – and about 300 traditionally-published authors in the same financial basket. Yet there are a LOT more self-published books (especially ebooks) around. Recommending self-publishing is fine – if the author is also informed of the odds against them.

    But hey, we’re authors. The odds against success are always going to be high for the simple reason that writing is so much fun that everyone’s doing it.

    Louise Curtis

  8. Tara Maya says:

    Well, on Konrath’s blog you’ll find a list of dozens of authors who make that every month, and a handful who make much more.

    Will all self-published authors make money self-publishing? Of course not. But chances are, the majority who fail will do so because their writing sucks. They are the same wannabe writers who would not have made it traditionally publishing either.

    What’s changing now is that writers who previously would have held out for a traditional publishing deal–serious, dedicated and excellent writers– are now looking at self-publishing. It may be that in the future, all writers self-publish first, let the cream rise to the top of customer reviews on Amazon, and go from there to the publishing houses for help with added distribution and promotion.

    Tara Maya
    The Unfinished Song

  9. I don’t know about the others on Konrath’s blog who are making money, but Konrath has his mainstream publisher to thank for establishing his platform. I’ll give Konrath his due – he promoted the heck out of himself, but it was his publisher who got his books widely distributed.

    If he were just starting out now with Kindle, how long would it take him before he’d reach the success he’s having now? And will every self pubbed author be able to duplicate his success? I ask because that’s the kind of fervor he incites, and I think it’s unrealistic for most writers.

    Tara, you suggested that publishing in the future could see writers self pub first and those whose cream rises go to a mainstream publisher. Your scenario still has publishers as the brass ring of publishing – something Konrath is very much against at this point in his career.

    No one knows where or how publishing will evolve, but I still submit that most self pubbed books aren’t ready for prime time, so we are seeing an unprecedented number of cruddy books blanketing the marketplace.

  10. Tara Maya says:

    There are many authors featured there who have never had a traditional publisher. Everyone is talking now about Amanda Hocking, who has sold more than half a million ebooks in less than two years. This is not the norm, of course, but it shows that one can become a bestseller.

    I don’t know if trad publishing is the brass ring or not, but I know that I was always too frightened to self-pub before because I was given to understand it would ruin my chances at a “real” publishing contract. I’m not afraid of that any more. If you can sell enough books to live on, that’s the “real” deal. I have already seen many cases where big pubs are wooing successful indie authors. The question the publishers have to answer is what is the added value that they bring to an author who is already paying their mortgage with their writing.

    Note, I don’t disagree about the crud. The majority of self-pubbed writers are not serious or realistic about it, and they would have been unlikely to have been successful in trad publishing either. They aren’t anything publishers need to worry about. If anything, the gobs of bad books probably drive readers to look for a trusted brand, a publisher.

    But I am talking about writers who had or could have held out for traditional publishing contracts and chose to self-publish instead. Here is the paradox: the writers who will do well in self-publishing are the same writers it will most hurt publishers to lose: writers who are talented, prolific and savvy about marketing.

    I know of a couple small pubs who are hurting because of authors breaking contracts to self-publish, or demanding their rights back. I don’t know if that’s been a problem for you, but in this market climate, I’d say it’s a danger.

    In a year or two, all publishers may switch to selling ebooks, and it’s possible that once again there will be no advantage to self-publishing. Or maybe publishing will be changed forever. Honestly, I don’t know.

    Tara Maya
    The Unfinished Song: Initiate

  11. As I’ve said before, there will always be Cinderella stories, and those serve as mouth-watering hors d’oeuvres for those who believe they can do it too. And who knows? Maybe they can. I’m just saying that from my perspective of talking to authors all over the country, there are far more disenchanted self pubbed writers than happy. I hope you’re one of the successful ones.

  12. Lynn’s hit it on the head, yet again. The field of targets may shift and change, but certain principles never change. Chief among them, if it’s valuable, it don’t come cheap! Nothing as rewarding as a writing career comes after an easy-in lark. It takes lots and lots of hard, hard work, self-inspection and perseverance. And luck.

  13. Tara Maya says:

    Thank you, I hope I do well too, of course, but even if I don’t, I think this is about more than a few outliers.

    According to this analysis, 40% of the ebook bestseller list on Amazon is indie. That kinda boggled my mind.

  14. Maggie Dana says:

    “But they will notice that it’s harder on the eyes to read. There is an art to interior design. I recommend that you avail yourself to it.”

    Lynn: as a book designer, THANK YOU for this.

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