Mainstream Publishing is not a dirty word

I read an interesting article – Adventures in Bookselling, via Shelf Awareness, and thought I’d share some thoughts. First off, Lisa Napoli speaketh the truth. Nuthin’ sez lovin’ like an author event. I know, I know, a lot of authors hate the idea of promoting their books. They’d rather sit back and write.

But that’s not the reality of the business anymore, so you have a choice to make: Help promote and create demand while establishing your footprint in readers’ minds, or do next to nothing and enjoy lackluster sales which will make your publisher want to mainline rubbing alcohol. I recommend you meander on over to Lisa’s article and see what she did to promote her new book, Radio Shangri-La – which I just bought.

In contrast, I found Michael Levin’s views on publishing quite disturbing in his cartoon interview – “Are Publishers Stupid?” – on Bo’s Cafe Life blog. Michael’s stance is that The Big Guy publishing is dead due to a number of elements:


Michael maintains big publishers have a monopoly on sales and distribution. Well, yes, they do. And why? Because they’ve been around since publishing began, so it’s not a stretch of the imagination that they have the corner market on distribution.

Furthermore, he suggests that mainstream distribution – meaning bookstores and libraries – is no longer relevant because we have the internet. While it’s true that the internet has had a huge impact on how books are sold, millions of books are still sold in bookstores and borrowed at libraries, so he’s suggesting cutting out a very big piece of the marketplace. Is this wise? Is this something he’d be willing to do with his own books?

Most DIYers feel as Michael does – bookstores and libraries are dead. Ok, fair enough. But here’s the irony; where do authors go when looking for author events? Bookstores. And guess who screams bloody murder when bookstores shut them out? You can’t rewrite the rules and then cry foul when things don’t go your way.

Michael claims all of this ballyhoo isn’t important any longer because of the internet. I can’t help but wonder how he’d feel if his books weren’t in bookstores and libraries. Lofty words for a NY Times bestselling author who will never have to ask that question.

Big Publishers – Who Needs ‘Em?

Behold, says Michael, who needs the big guys when you have Smashwords, Amazon Direct, or CreateSpace – which allows authors to publish their books in a few days rather than the 1.5 years it takes to publish with a NY press. I wonder how many of these books Michael has actually read. My across-the-pond friend, Jane Smith, has read many of these DIY books, and her review blog offers masterful analysis  why a DIY book does or doesn’t work.

Most of these books are pretty bad because there is no litmus for talent other than the author’s ability to convert and upload a file to Amazon or Smashwords.

Rejection used to be a general suggestion that you’re not ready for prime time. Nowadays, it’s the battle cry for saying mainstream publishing is dead because, as Michael says, publishers are stupid. If he would like to compare notes on who’s better able to sell books, I’ll put money on mainstream publishing because they’ve been doing this far longer, they know how to sell books, and they know what sells.

Given his logic, I’m surprised he doesn’t suggest that publishers shouldn’t be concerned about money and just publish everyone. If so, I want what he had for breakfast.


So let’s talk about the differences between DIY and mainstream publishing:

Acquisitions: Michael claims that books are acquired by English majors with no marketing background and they do no market research about what the public wants to buy. This is false. First off, editors aren’t allowed to acquire until they’ve spent years as interns and learning the ropes. By the time they become full-fledged editors, they have a very good idea of what they’re doing.

The idea that no market research is done is pure folly. Virtually every profitable publisher does this in spades because they don’t want to get stuck with a dog that won’t bark. They listen to readers and booksellers in order to judge where the trends are, and when a genre is getting stale due to saturation. If a publisher has too many books that no one wants to buy, the corporate heads are going to scream bloody murder, and heads will roll.

DIY: On the flip side of the coin, the DIYer doesn’t have a team of experts in their corner to tell them whether their book is a good or bad idea. I can’t begin to count the number of DIYers I’ve seen who spent thousands publishing and promoting their books only to end up with a garage full of books that no one wants. Is Michael suggesting that an author, who has probably experienced a large number of rejections and has a day job, is in a better position to know what readers want than a company who is filled with marketing and sales professionals and does this for a living?

Promotion: Michael claims that publishers do no promotion. It’s true that back in the day publishers spent marketing dollars to send their big authors on tour. Much of this money has dried up. This is a lousy economy, folks. Does anyone believe that publishers are immune? Now I’m not saying the big NY publishers have been smart regarding the way they spent money and ended up having to lay off hundreds of editors. But the facts are that promotion still plays a huge part in publishing books, and there is a ton of stuff that goes on in the background that authors are never even aware of.

One of those things is sending out hundreds of ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) to reviewers, libraries, bookstores, print media, TV and radio as a way of letting important people know about your book. This is not free. I might add that this is how Michael received his many lovely reviews.

While publishers may not send authors on a book tour, they open up their wallets to promote their authors. Book conventions are a huge boon to authors’ exposure, and publishers routinely give away hundreds of books to convention attendees, which are comprised of agents, librarians, bookstore owners, reviewers, and readers. Their authors can sign free copies of their books at these conventions and talk to those directly involved in buying their books.

If you go back and read Lisa’s article, you can see what her publisher did for her in terms of support and planning.

DIY:  In short, a mainstream published author has the support of many, many people who are working toward making your book a success. If you have a solid promotion plan, they are able to launch you further than you could do for yourself. Just now I received an email from our Special Sales Manager at our distributor’s office, wanting to submit one of our titles to a very huge specialty client in hopes they’ll pick it up for their stores. I have dozens of emails from our distributor’s various departments who have blasted our titles out to the buying public and venues who sell books.

Who do you have on your team to help you plan and promote your book? Do you even know how to effectively promote a book? Who do you think has a better chance of exposure, an author on their own, or one who has dozens and dozens of people backing them up?

Royalties: Michael complains that publishers take the lion’s share of the proceeds, and DIYers can do much better, financially speaking. Really? It’s easy to forget that publishers buy the rights to publish a book. As a result, it’s in their best interests to do everything they can to ensure they bought a winner. To enhance their chances of success, publishers spend thousands in production and promotion, and there is no guarantee it’ll sell well enough to even make back their initial investment. But it’s all a crapshoot because the marketplace is a very fickle mistress.

It boils down to this: He who spendeth the mosteth money, getteth the biggest share. It’s no different than any other business investment where the one coughing up the most money and shouldering the most risk gets paid a higher share. The flip side is that when the investment pays off, everyone enjoys lovely remuneration.

DIY: Authors always want to earn more in royalties, so Michael suggests DIY is the correct route to achieve that goal. However, it’s important to consider the selling power a publisher has within the marketplace and weigh it against someone who’s going it alone. A mainstream publisher can sell far more books than you can. So while you’re making a higher royalty on your own, you’re making far less money because you don’t have the marketing reach. Given that reality, you’re getting a bigger slice of the pie and no one has forks.

Editing:  Since publishers sell books for a living, they hire quality editors who know how to make a book shine. The bulk of DIY books – especially those who pay to play – are dreadful because editing consists a quick spin and rinse through SpellCheck. People would freak if they saw what editors put their authors through during the editing phase. They do that because they want the books to rock. Most of the time, DIYers rely on themselves because they’re convinced that their books are the bee’s knees. Few authors, regardless where they’re published, have the ability to look objectively at their writing.

Formatting: Book formatting and layout is an art form, and it’s called interior design for a reason, and it takes many hours to do a book, something vanity publishers and authors don’t know how to do. They – and CreateSpace and Smashwords – simply print the files you send in. Rarely have I seen a properly formatted DIY book.


In the end, it comes down to reputation. Are you compelled to buy a CreateSpace book, or one pubbed by a mainstream publisher? Ask yourself why. The first thing that enters a reader’s mind is quality.

It’s important to think about what will propel your book into readers’ hands. Authors like Michael Levin and JA Konrath, and a handful of others, regularly attack mainstream publishing, and I can’t help but puzzle over their biting the hands who fed them quite nicely for many years. Michael didn’t make the NY Times bestseller list all by himself. Would he be where he is today if he had gone DIY?

I think Lisa’s blog post is a nice contrast as to why mainstream publishing isn’t a dirty word, and I’d be willing to bet the beagle’s stash of tequila she thinks I don’t know about that Lisa wouldn’t have done nearly as well had she not had the support of her publisher.

24 Responses to Mainstream Publishing is not a dirty word

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    As I’ve said before, it’s that litmus test that makes ME not want to go DIY.

    I’ll go small press (as long as they do NOT use CreateSpace to publish…I’m fine with that for anthologies, but not for my novels) or ebook only, but I would only go it alone if I had a strong level of confidence that the book I had was being rejected for reasons OTHER than its quality AND hundreds of dollars spare to spend on editing and professional cover art.

    I do think the big, major houses have problems, however.

  2. Jason Stuart says:

    While almost everything said here about DIY is true, less is true about Big Publishing. If it’s really a litmus test for quality, then where does the Jersey Shore memoir fit in?

    And, Createspace is just a printing company. They happen to be the cheapest on the market. So, as an editor of a review and micropress, why would I not use the most efficient means of distribution available to me? If we want to really talk about dollars and cents, then let’s talk. But, we don’t really want to do that. We want to uphold dying myths of old publishing and protect an outdated business model.

    Sorry, guys, but I’ll stick with Createspace until something better comes along, which it will. Because that’s the nature of capitalism.

  3. NinjaFingers says:

    Because when you use Createspace to print your books, then the Amazon listing for that book gives Createspace as the publisher not you.

    The physical books do not show Createspace, but the Amazon listing is the first thing people see. Because most Createspace books ARE self-published (and thus unvetted and in MANY cases unedited), this puts an ‘amateur hour’ mark on the book right there. I don’t care so much with anthologies, which tend not to end up in physical bookstores and don’t tend to sell as well as novels…I’m in anthologies that were published using Createspace. But I won’t do it with a novel.

    What are the real cost differences between using Createspace and going straight to Lightning Source?

  4. danholloway says:

    Lynn, there’s too much very interesting stuff here to comment on it all.

    Two particular points – I’m a DIYer who most definitely doesn’t think bookstores are dead. They are, like you say, my first point of call for author events and I’ve never had the door slammed in my face – I have a great time working with them.

    Acquisitions – Michael may be slightly OTT but there *is* a valuable point to be made on market research. Market research as you outline it and as I understand it to be carried out by most publishers is great for making sure there’s a market for a book – it’s based on what sells, so there’s as good a chance as possible that what is selected will also sell. The flip side is that the converse (that what isn’t se;ected wouldn’t sell) isn’t true because this can’t of research can’t by definition break new markets. Now I’m not wet enough behind the ears to say that publishers *aren’t* also carrying out that kind of research the way R&D departments at tech companies do (I honestly don’t know), but it’s somewhere where self-publishers can perform a useful service by doing just that. Of course, most self-published books are in traditional genres so the chances of them proving a new market are slim.

  5. Jason, when it comes to capitalism, you won’t find a bigger proponent. And this is why your logic doesn’t hold water for me. The end result to publishing is a quality product.

    You mentioned that no one really wants to talk, I hear that all the time when this discussion comes up. For starters, the accusation is untrue. We have talked about the DIY phenomenon ’til we’re blue in the face. We’ve cited fact upon fact about the inconsistencies in claiming mainstream publishing is dead and DIY is better. The problem isn’t that we don’t want to talk about it; it’s that you don’t like what we’re saying.

    CreateSpace is a printer, as Ninjie pointed out. There is no design work that goes into printing. This means that every mistake and blunder that’s in the file is going to print up. Anyone who uses their services doesn’t have any assurance of quality. I can’t tell you how many times my printer has called me with some technical point that we overlooked. That’s what a quality printer does.

    And as Ninjie pointed out, anyone who uses CreateSpace to print their books is instantly defined as a self publisher. It’s like a red flag to savvy authors who realize you have no distribution.

    Capitalism goes on the tenet that those who can, survive. Those who can’t wither away. This is exactly what befalls most DIY books.

    Is big publishing perfect? Of course not. Name me any industry that is. Do crap books like Snookie get published? Of course. But I think it’s folly to impeach mainstream publishing based on a few bad eggs. They publish a ton of fabulous books, but that always gets overlooked.

    I’m happy to live and let live, but I get impatient when DIYers insist their way is better. The facts don’t bear that out.

  6. NinjaFingers says:

    Just to slightly correct. It is apparently *possible* to upload through CreateSpace and show as the publisher.

    I don’t worry about distribution with anthologies because only anthologies with BIG names in them get into bookstores anyway.

    And when I say ‘big’ publishers, I mean the big dinosaur publishing houses who are dumping their poor midlisters and not taking any risks right now. I think the way of the future is going to be the smaller niche publishers who can truly concentrate on producing a quality product in one specific area.

  7. Hi Dan. Good to see you here. You said:
    The flip side is that the converse (that what isn’t se;ected wouldn’t sell) isn’t true because this can’t of research can’t by definition break new markets.

    Your sentence is a bit muddied, but I think I understand what you’re trying to say. How can you do market research on a new market? It’s true; you can’t. However, publishers know romance is huge. Publishers know vampires are huge. So when Stephanie Meyers decided to combine the two, it made sense to give it this hybrid genre a go.

    And that’s how hybrids are born – their foundations are based on a well-established genre, thereby giving an acquiring editor and their submissions committees something to hang their hat on. My feeling is that DIYers will have a much harder time doing research on forming trends because they aren’t hooked into the industry. We have at our fingertips, hundreds of bookstores, corporate buyers, and marketing and sales teams whose job it is to listen to the marketplace and relay readers reactions back to us.

    As you said, most DIYers write mainstream fiction – which is THE HARDEST genre to break out and swim to the top.

  8. Dan Holloway says:

    Hi Lynn 🙂 Yes, there may be one converse or flip too many 🙂 absolutely on hybrids.

    I wasn’t suggesting that DIYers *do* the research – I was suggesting they *are* the research. They will put things out regardless in a way publishers can’t afford to – and 1 in every few thousand will hit something new.

  9. Lev Raphael says:

    Big publishers aren’t dead or bypassed, but some of them sure do make plenty of stupid mistakes; their size makes them sloppy and overconfident they’re right; and they don’t treat authors as well as they could. My own experiences over the course of twenty books have been better with boutique, indie, and university presses than with the giants. So I understand the hostility out there towards the big guys. They’ve earned it.

  10. I know you’ve had some horrible experiences in your publishing career, but I know many debut authors who have been treated very well by their big guy publisher. But I’m not quite sure I agree with you about their overconfidence. They’ve been shaken to the core over the amount of money they’ve lost with their previous bad decisions and vast overspending. Their corporate benefactors are equally unhappy.

    I remember how many editors were laid off when one book…ONE BOOK…tanked. I consider that tantamount to idiocy. I’m not saying dumb decisions still aren’t made. There will always be dumb decisions because we don’t have that magic crystal ball working on all cylinders yet. All we have are the gifts of hindsight – after the damage is done. And I do see the big guys learning from their lessons. Heck, that’s WHY everyone is hopping mad about them right now. They need to make money just like everyone else, so they need to go for the “sure deal,” or as sure as anything is in this world.

  11. […] At Last, Someone Calls It Lynn Price, a small press publisher, has recently posted in her blog some truths that I think are lost in all the hype about the internet as a new medium for disseminating entertainment. (See here and here.) […]

  12. NinjaFingers says:

    Firing an editor because one book tanked is ridiculous. Now, if books acquired by that editor KEEP tanking, then sure…show them the door.

  13. Sorry, Ninjie, I explained this poorly. The author was given a record-breaking contract, so when the book tanked, the publisher had to lay off a lot of editors because they couldn’t afford them.

  14. NinjaFingers says:

    Which is why advances are going down all over the place. But then, personally, I’d rather have a smaller advance and a better chance of sell-through.

  15. Jenny Bent says:

    I’m all for defending mainstream publishing. But what you describe is not market research, it’s an informal process of discussing what books have worked in the past. No publisher except Harlequin conducts formal market research. But in a way, isn’t that a good thing? Do we really want publishing to turn into some sanitized version of Hollywood where characters and endings have to pass some litmus test of popularity? That we only publish books that a majority of readers will like? I think the fact that we can’t predict what readers like means that, to a certain extent, we can let originality and individuality live free in the books we choose to publish.

  16. Hi Jenny, thank you for your comments. Every successful publisher does market research, formally or informally. It’s what allows us to keep our fingers on the pulse of the markeplace. My sales guys are rabid dogs about following the trends of what’s selling and analyzing why.

    We run into a problem when talking about only publishing what a majority of readers will buy because that’s how we keep the lights on. But this is where smaller commercial presses shine. We don’t have the overhead and huge mouths to feed, so we *do* publish the books that are more off the beaten path.

    So, to that end, I do believe we can scratch that originality and individuality itch quite nicely.

  17. Lev Raphael says:

    Lynn, I meant overconfident that they’re right/the author is wrong. I know too many authors who have told me stories that illustrate that.

    On another note, in ref. to one of the points you raise, I tell all beginning authors that they can’t expect a flourishing career unless they involved themselves deeply, enthusiastically, and permanently with promotion.

    It never ends–as when my 20th book prompted me to do a top-to-bottom redesign of my web site:

    I studied other author sites I admired, identified what I thought worked best, and worked with my designer to apply that to mine.
    And that’s just a small part of promoting oneself.

  18. Ah, hubris is a nasty beast. It’s a fine line between listening to your own experience and allowing the fact that authors often have excellent ideas. Point taken, Lev.

    As for your success, I never worry about you!

  19. tbrosz says:

    On the bright side, Michael does like small publishers…

  20. Lynn, thanks, that’s sweet, though did Beagle Bailey nudge your elbow to write that? 😉

    When it comes to author input, the smaller houses are much better at a relationship, at listening. Example: somebody trying to get me to read at a certain bookstore where I knew they were sloppy and had said so to the publicity dept. Yet they insisted it was a good idea–based on what, exactly? They never said. “Trust us.” isn’t good enough.

  21. Bill Webb says:

    Lynn, how do you feel about the rash of e-publishers that have popped up on the net? It almost seems that folks are going that direction thinkikng its one better than DIY but you sell just about as littel as you do as a self-pubber.

  22. Hi Bill. Heck, it’s a free country, so these folks are free to open up their companies. Now, it’s a real question as to whether they can effectively sell their books. I wonder if there is going to come a time when the epub industry is going to be so jammed-packed with a million little epublishers that it’ll implode on itself.

    The problem I’m seeing is that most of these guys have no clue as to how to sell their product, effectively edit, or produce attractive cover designs, so I think we’ll see a lot of them implode of their own lack of ability.

  23. NinjaFingers says:

    I’m guessing that it will be up to economic selection. The good ones will thrive. The ones that can’t edit or make good covers will die. Hopefully if I go with one I’ll pick a winner, but then, I know what a good cover looks like, at least ;).

  24. […] Business first! Editor Lynn Price looks at important differences between mainstream and DIY publishing, and explains why mainstream publishing is not a dirty word. […]

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