October 20th, 2010 by Will Entrekin

There’s No Such Thing as Self-Publishing

A few years ago, back when I published my collection, I used to argue that doing the same thing with a novel didn’t make sense. The market for a novel is different from the market for a short story collection, I argued–and still maintain, as they’re very different forms. I’ve always preferred writing novels, but never realized just how much I preferred it until I practiced more at short stories and screenplays in grad school.

Grad school was good for me, as a writer. I’d spent years querying agents, moving beyond form rejections to requests for partials, but finally recognized a painful truth: I wasn’t yet as good a writer as I could be. So I sucked it up and decided I was going to learn how to be a better writer, and I applied to USC and got in. I took workshops with great teachers who read like a who’s who of contemporary American writing, and I remember how formative my first ever fiction workshop was. I learned a lot about the marketplace, and publishing, and did so on top of experience actually publishing, albeit in a trade versus commercial publication.

Toward the end of my first year, I realized that the market for short fiction sucked. Honestly, not much has changed since then. There are a handful of publications–like Esquire or The Atlantic or Playboy–that reach a lot of readers, but they’re nigh impossible to break into unless your last name is Moody or McEwan or Franco, and then there are the smaller literary journals, mostly affiliated with university-level writing programs. Easier, at times, but filled with often homogeneous writing that all pretty much sounds the same and is often about middle-class ennui or the dissatisfaction of getting drunk at parties. They don’t pay much, and usually in complimentary copies when they do, but writers who get stories published in them get publication credits, which look good on a query letter.

For me, frustrating. I don’t write for publication credits. I write to get to readers. And chances are most of the readers of those small literary journals are either the volunteer university staff who published them or the writers who hope to submit to them.

Maybe I should have. Maybe I should have played the game harder, written more stories with blank characters nobody cares about who live lives in which nothing much happened. Freedom seems to be doing pretty well, after all.

Thing is, I know I’m not that sort of writer. And I liked the stories I had, so I put them together and made them available to readers.

At the time, I hadn’t thought I’d ever do the same with a novel. I thought the market for novels was still viable. At the time, I think it seemed to be.

Which brings to bear that it’s rather amazing just how much has changed in the past few years. Because now, obviously, I disagree with all that. Which isn’t to say I don’t think the market for novels is viable. Or maybe it is.

What I know, here, is I’m scared, but in that way that reinforces I’m doing the right thing. That way I was scared before I got an apartment in Hollywood before I knew I was accepted at USC. That challenging sort of fear.

***

In preparing Meets Girl for availability, a couple of people have questioned my decision to self-publish (though not all. The response so far has been generally supportive, and I’m grateful for that). Again.

Here’s the thing. Let’s be clear:

There’s no such thing as self-publishing.

“Self-publishing” is a marketing term invented by corporate publishers terrified by the idea that readers are finally going to realize that they sold completely out and threw wide the gates everyone thought they were keeping to let in insta-lebrities and former strippers with the knowledge they could make a quick buck.

(No. That’s not actually true. Just controversial.)

The Internet renders “self-publishing” moot. “Publishing,” as a term, means making content available and distributing it to a potential audience. Content can include any sort of information, really, and the Internet means not just that anyone can do it but that everyone is. Twitter? “Self-publishing” 140 characters at a shot. Facebook? “Self-publishing” updates to groups of friends. LinkedIn? “Self-publishing” to business associates. FourSquare? Geographic “self-publishing.”

This changes the publishing industry. Culture doesn’t actually need them anymore. Do we need encyclopedias when we have Wikipedia and Google-based fact-checking? If you encounter a magazine that doesn’t offer content online, do you think more highly of the print you hold or less highly of the antiquated means by which it is delivering content?

The big question is whether writers need third-party publishers, be they major corporations or independent presses.

The answer is a resounding: in some cases.

In which cases? Well, look at the functions publishers fulfill. They don’t really keep gates or vet quality; Franco, Snooki, and the Sarahs are evidence enough of that. The argument might go that publishing those sorts of books allows corporations to support unknown authors, but that’s like applying trickle-down Reaganomics to publishing. Seems not to work, or in fact even be the case. They do provide services. Editing, designing covers, formatting, but most of those things can be accomplished more cheaply than authors end up paying, anyway.

As I see it, now, publishing with a major third-party entity is about two things: legacy and monetization. I think it will move in those two directions as we go. Because Scribner isn’t actually claiming Franco is a good writer, just that they can sell a lot of his books, and about that, they’re totally right. In fact, about that, the model makes sense: pay Franco a huge advance so they can piggyback on his name to sell books, cut him in for a bit of profit of the back-end. It’s even a little like getting points on top of initial payment as when an actor does a flick. Tom Cruise gets, like, $20 million per movie and then some portion of the net profit.

When looked at in that way, publishers are right. Because, to be personal, I’m not ready for numbers like that. I just finished my MFA, and I’m close to done my MBA. Anyone to whom the name Entrekin sounds remotely familiar is probably thinking of Morgan, president of Grove/Atlantic. I’m also already a huge amount of money in debt because I went and studied fiction and marketing, and honestly, Harper Collins could offer me a six-figure advance and I might well shit my pants. It’s an advance against royalties, after all, and what I’d basically be signing my name to is the belief that Meets Girl could make more than $100,000 in profit for the company.

At this stage of my career–which is nascent–I can’t imagine being beholden to Harper Collins for six figures. I already owe my universities that much. It’s rare for publishing companies to demand the advance back, but good luck being an author querying a second manuscript when the first never managed to recoup costs. How many authors have had to resort to pseudonyms after their first three books didn’t perform well enough for publishers to keep their names on the cover of a fourth?

***

I never really queried Meets Girl. A few agents saw it, but never first or directly; a few received the first few chapters after they’d requested partials of The Prodigal Hour, which they tended to reject because, they maintained, time-travel is a tough market. The responses to Meets Girl were positive: “You really are a great writer with good ideas. It’s just a really difficult time for fiction right now.”

It may be. I don’t know.

But I guess I’m about to find out.

Comments

20 Responses to “There’s No Such Thing as Self-Publishing”
  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Roy Pickering, Will Entrekin. Will Entrekin said: New post: There's No Such Thing as Self-Publishing – http://is.gd/g9ToW [...]

  2. JEFFREY says

    Well, yes, you can publish a book through a site like Lulu and get physical copies (and nice ones, too) without having to rely on a publishing company. But you say you want to get your book in front of readers, so I think there’s one thing you’re neglecting to mention when it comes to publishing houses: the business apparatus that a publishing house provides to its writers.

    Most writers don’t know how to get their books in front of readers, even if they did “self-publish.” A publishing house will connect you with marketing representatives to help line up things like signings, book fairs, and so forth, which give you the opportunity to show your books to people who’ve never heard of you and who otherwise wouldn’t know about your book. And the more people who know about your book, the more people they tell.

    Publishing houses are also connected with the proper distribution channels to get the book stocked on shelves. Yes, book stores are suffering, and when I know the book I want, I go straight to Amazon. But when I *don’t* know what book I want, that’s when I go to my local B&N and browse the shelves. And it’s the browsing that gives your book yet another opportunity to meet new readers. It’s much more difficult if your book is only listed on web sites.

    Publishing houses can also handle many other aspects of distribution (translation and international sales, for example) that a writer would be hard-pressed to figure out himself.

    For a new writer, these are things about publishing houses that are invaluable and definitely worth the reduction in pay to mere royalties (assuming the book is good enough to sell). Yes, if you’re savvy you might be able to do a lot of this yourself — but at your time and your expense. To some, that may not be worth the effort. Some (many? most?) don’t want to handle the business side of it — they are *writers*, and that’s what a publishing house is for. Every bit of time you spend doing what a publishing house does, that’s time you could conceivably be spending writing.

    Others may want to do all of this themselves, but they may simply feel lost trying to do it. In the end they give up (or don’t start at all) because they don’t want to deal with the hassle of it. And in come the publishing houses.

    You may have your MFA, but not every writer’s next step is an MBA — a writer may not have or want the business acumen necessary to really and successfully publish a book himself. If you (and by this I mean you, Will) are successful in getting your books in front of many readers, I think it will be because you are the exception. You have a pretty solid understanding of how the publishing game works, and you’re doing your best to get your text in front of readers. Will it be enough to satisfy you? I don’t know. But it would seem to me that if you’re really concerned about the size of your book’s readership and the audience you’re able to reach, working your ass off to get the attention of a publishing house might be the better way to go in the long term.

    Note that I’m not criticizing you or your decision. But like you said in the blog post, some writers do need publishers. I’d even say *most* writers need publishers. Because the vast majority of writers are not publishers and wouldn’t know how to publish their book themselves — if getting it in front of as many eyes as possible is the ultimate goal. Generally speaking, publishing houses are simply better at that.

    All I’m saying is that publishing houses aren’t all about designing your cover and laying out your text on the page. They offer very substantial benefits to a writer looking for his audience.

    All that aside, you bet I’ll be buying Meets Girl, and when I do, I hope you’ll let me mail it to you so you can sign it. You’re a great writer, and if anyone can succeed in this business, it’s you.

    – Jeffrey, your classmate over at USC

  3. You bring up some great points, Jeffrey. I’d figure you would. You always were an astute colleague.

    I don’t think I’m exactly neglecting the business apparatus, as from a business standpoint, the apparatus seems flawed nearly to the point of broken. Let me ask: do you think Sony lets Best Buy return any CDs they don’t sell? Do you think Sony lets Best Buy remove the disks and sell them at a substantial discount while demanding credit from Sony for the lack of a sale? I’m not implying I thought you had. What I will say is that I think all these problems will only be borne out as the digital market increases.

    I mean, ten bucks for an ebook is batshit insane. There. I said it. I can see $6.99 at the max. Meets Girl will go for, like, three, I think, before hitting five after the new year. But ten? Silly.

    I know what you mean about MBAs and such. I mean, I’m a *writer*, first, as you’d say. But here’s the thing: most of the writers I’ve seen lament and begroan publishing in business because they’d rather “be writing” in fact spend that “rather be writing” time on Twitter and Facebook. I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. I’d probably be halfway done my next trilogy and read to start posting Certainty if only I dropped offline more often.

    I think you’re right that most writer will need publishers, but I also think that the writers who most need publishers will still fail to sell.

    And yes, I’ll make sure you get a signed copy, somehow, and thanks for that support. Always appreciated.

  4. [...] I’ll let Will Entrekin have the final word here, from his post, There’s No Such Thing as Self-Publishing: Well, look at the functions publishers fulfill. They don’t really keep gates or vet quality; [...]

  5. ANONAUTHOR says

    i agree with most of this, but, but advances in publishing aren’t the same as advances in, say, the music industry. you don’t owe the publisher your advance back if you don’t earn out. you just won’t see any royalties. most books don’t earn out, but the only way you would owe the publisher is if you don’t deliver the book or fail to fulfill the contract in some other way. even then i’ve only heard of publishers trying to get the money back under fairly egregious circumstances.

    you’re right that getting a huge advance on a book that flops is not a good thing for a person’s career in the long run, but i don’t think failing to earn out is necessarily a career killer. you definitely won’t wind up in debt from it. and no matter what happens, at least you’ll have gotten the advance money!

    yes, i do think publishers will become less and less necessary in the coming years and decades. still, i’d personally have a hard time turning down a publishing deal right now. i survive (barely, but still) on my advances, and even though my publishers have done an abysmal job at distributing my books, they do a better job than i ever could. i would have zero chance of getting my book into almost any brick and mortar bookstore or library, which for the moment is still important. furthermore, while it’s not particularly fair, getting reviews and awards is also still extremely difficult without the backing of a known publisher. in addition to their importance to a writer’s delicate ego, things like reviews and awards matter a lot for books that don’t have any other way of breaking out of the pack.

    but really what i’m trying to say is you shouldn’t worry about your advance putting you further into debt. it doesn’t work like that. publishers may be stupid, but they’re still smart enough to know the odds of getting money out of a writer.

  6. Oh, no, anonauthor, I get how advances work and all that. I think, however, there are other ways to be in debt that aren’t to do with finances. When I mentioned being beholden to a contract, it was in a more nebulous fashion. I know, were I to get a six-figure advance for Meets Girl, that money would be mine. I also know it means that I wouldn’t see a dime of royalty until after Meets Girl had earned six figures in author royalties.

    But there’s something more complicated, too, which is about future advances, and a person’s career in the long run. Because if you don’t earn out–and as you mention, most books don’t–publishers are less likely to consider another similar advance. And eventually the advances come way down, and then eventually publishers know authors as those who haven’t earned out, and the only way to sell another is by use of a pen-name . . .

    I mean, I know it’s all more complicated than that. But the simple fact is what you said: most books don’t earn out.

    Which is why the corporate publishing industry is in such rapid decline. Now that so many bookstores are going the way of extinct animals, how likely is it to get any books into brick-and-mortar shops? Is that where people buy books? This past holiday season, Barnes & Noble and Amazon–the two biggest names in book retailers, basically–saw their most popular product be digital reading devices. Not books.

  7. You suggested I read two of your blog posts; here I am.

    Let me make something clear immediately: Big 6 publishing doesn’t appeal to me for a lot of reasons, some of which you mentioned above.

    You quoted my comment at Nathan Bransford’s blog:
    “This is a huge part of the problem in the discussion, as well as Alice’s contribution to it–which of course included the “HOWEVER, for the vast majority of books, the fact that an objective, independent entity is willing to invest large sums of money in your work speaks to its quality, or at the very least, its readability.” line of thought.”

    I genuinely believe that, proportionally speaking, Big 6 publishers can be more relied upon than self-published authors and most small presses to produce good, readable books. You seem not to share this belief, and I was hoping you would explain why.

  8. Good question. One has to start defining words, like “quality,” “good,” and “readable.”

    Proportionally speaking, corporate publishers can be more relied upon than anyone to produce most books, I think, so you may be right in terms of sheer numbers.

    I was disagreeing more with your note about investment and money. For the most part, the fact that an objective, independent entity–here a corporate publisher–is willing to invest large sums of money in work speaks not to the quality of the work but rather to that publisher’s belief that it can make a lot of money from it. Sometimes this is because said publishers believe the book is good, or readable, but a lot of times it’s just because they believe they can make some cash.

    The problem, then, is two-fold. First, a claim that there is some vetting, when obviously that’s problematic, both because of what has already been “vetted” has been vetted for quality rather than predicted quantity of sales, as well as because, looking at many publisher’s lists most often reveals a highlight or two among a lot of other less-than-quality work.

    The second is the fact that for the most part, the business model of the corporate publishing industry doesn’t make sense in the first place, and the vast majority of publishing can’t be trusted to know what will sell (as it most often hasn’t).

  9. “First, a claim that there is some vetting, when obviously that’s problematic, both because of what has already been “vetted” has been vetted for quality rather than predicted quantity of sales, as well as because, looking at many publisher’s lists most often reveals a highlight or two among a lot of other less-than-quality work.”

    This is equating values that cannot be equated. We agree that large publishers produce a lot of mediocre and even bad books. However, this doesn’t mean that the percentage of bad and mediocre books produced by Big 6 imprints is greater than the percentage of bad and mediocre books produced by self-publishers.

    If you apply a measure of even partially objective quality control to a pool of objects — any measure at all — that pool will have a higher percentage of better quality items than a control group. Self-published books are a control group. Authors are simply not objective observers of quality when it comes to their own work. (More accurately: they’re far, far less likely to be objective than an outside observer.)

    Furthermore, if third parties are financially invested in the objects they choose , they will be certain to apply stricter criteria of quality when vetting objects. This does not mean that quality and saleability are the same thing — not at all. However, saleability IS inversely linked with BAD quality items. In book-specific terms, unreadable manuscripts.

    Thus, the percentage of good quality manuscripts in a pool of randomly selected traditionally published manuscripts will be vastly greater than the percentage of good quality manuscripts in a pool of randomly selected self-published manuscripts. This applies under every definition of the word “good” that is inkeeping with the basic definition of “not bad nor mediocre”.

    Another way to think of it: editing is the process by which pieces within a manuscript are selected and modified to improve the manuscript. (Sorry, I know you know this and that you’re not stupid; I’m just trying to be as clear as possible.) An edited manuscript is a pool of sentences that have been selected and modified by an objective third party (possibly with a financial interest in the success of the manuscript). A self-edited manuscript is a pool of sentences that have been selected and modified by their creator. Would you ever recommend that an author publish his manuscript without ever asking someone to read, edit and check his work? It would be nuts, right?

    As for the comment about publishing entities not knowing what will sell: a lot of it is trial and error, I grant you. However, the selection process takes care to first weed out the crap BEFORE it weeds out the unsaleable work. Everyone in publishing will tell you this. A manuscript that is horrible writing always goes out the window, but great writing that may not sell will sometimes stay.

  10. Ah, I forgot. I actually did a few posts on quality judgements recently in my blog, and my opinions about quality are neatly laid out there. Here’s the series, if you’re interested:

    http://maybeandthewolf.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/amandahocking-dexraven-1/
    http://maybeandthewolf.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/judging-quality/
    http://maybeandthewolf.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/amandahocking-dexraven-2/

  11. “Everyone in publishing will tell you this. A manuscript that is horrible writing always goes out the window, but great writing that may not sell will sometimes stay.”

    Really? Have you read A Shore Thing? It’s pretty demonstrably horribly written, but it didn’t go out the window. Likewise, isn’t there a lot of great writing that might sell that goes out the window as well? By what rubrics are we measuring anything here? Of course everyone in (corporate, if you don’t mind my adding) publishing will tell you that; they’re in publishing. I’d argue they’re a bit biased.

    Do readers say this? I’m not sure readers care about the distinction.

    Interesting posts there. A few days ago, I posted my own Hocking-Keene Zombie-pocalypse Death Match-stravaganza (it’s here: http://willentrekin.com/2011/03/30/the-hocking-keene-zombie-pocalypse-death-match-stravaganza/), in which someone of my acquaintance brought excerpts from two zombie books to her class to discuss quality. The results were interesting. For my money, to be candid, I don’t think very highly of Hocking’s writing, and what I’ve read of her samples have been poorly formatted (in terms of pagebreaks and the like) and unengaging.

  12. We’re talking about different things here.

    When I say writing is good or bad in these discussions, I’m severely, SEVERELY hedging my bets and lowering my standards. My personal preference is for high-concept literary fiction. I enjoy SFF and it’s what I read when I want pure fun, but my bread and butter, so to speak, is literary fiction.

    You can probably tell; Maybe is technically a fantasy but I couldn’t help my literary bent leaking through. I initially wrote it because sometimes I needed a break from my literary projects but didn’t want to stop writing. I never intended it for publication. I chose fantasy specifically because the genre allowed me freedom to do what I wanted in terms of plot without needed to research anything — Maybe was originally a steam valve. Once I signed for it I took it off the back burner. As soon as it doesn’t need constant babysitting anymore I’m going right back to my literary projects, which I’ll eventually shop traditionally. If they don’t make it, I’ll self-publish them.

    When I talk about “bad” I refer to genuine error. Bad formatting can be fixed to a point. I’m talking about illegibility (like the example in my “Quality” post) — a handicap of spelling, grammar, plotting, whatever that is so bad it renders the book unreadable. The reason I do this here is that the purpose of this discussion is not what is “good” or “bad” in my opinion but what is “good” or “bad” in a way that involves other people.

    In terms of what *I* think is good, the pool would be severely restricted and wouldn’t include fiction that I find enjoyable but not good: the Harry Potter series is an excellent example of this.

    My point is that you will find many unreadable self-published books. You will find many self-published books that are readable but full of glaring errors. These are books you won’t find in traditional publishing, except when required for artistic purposes (like the Faulkner).

  13. “without needed to research anything” –> “without needing to research anything”

  14. Well, sure, a lot of people are going to publish crap. Just look at the internet. But you will also find many independent books that are both readable and free of glaring errors. You will also find published books that have typos.

    A lot of people are going to publish very thoughtful, very well written, very good books like the ones you’re talking about, which is interesting because the very books you mention as enjoying (“high-concept literary fiction”) are often the ones that face the steepest climb to publication and are most often rejected. A lot of people with MFAs in writing, who deeply studied craft and execution but are not Snooki or James Franco, are going to experience a lot of rejection from agents and editors who’d rather rep insta-lebrities and Sarah Palin, and those young, hungry writers are going to realize that the people who want their books have Kindles, anyway, and are going to hopefully take advantage of opportunity.

    And then, to be candid, they’re probably going to group together to found companies like the one who’s publishing your book.

  15. Funny you should say that…it’s not very far from the truth when it comes to my publisher.

    I’m all for small independent publishing houses. I love independent publishing houses. But for me there is a very black, very clean permanent marker line between an independent publishing house and someone self-publishing: simply, that most people cannot objectively judge their own work. Even authors who have spent years honing their craft are more likely to miss errors and use indifferent, perhaps bad covers.

    Self-publishing is always going to be hampered by the nature of quality as a whole. Always. Self-published authors will always need to rely on objective judges such as reviewers and readers to lead others to their work.

  16. I think the two most important words in your most recent comment are “for me.”

    Of course authors are more likely to miss their own errors; we all suffer from subjective myopia when it comes to such things. That’s why successful independent authors hire editors. There are a lot of freelance editors about; most of them were laid off by corporate publishers rejecting MFA graduates while publishing Snooki et al.

    All authors rely on reviewers and readers to lead others to their work. It’s called “word of mouth,” and the entire publishing industry has fretted for years over how to inspire it.

    I very much disagree with your marker. Consider Dave Eggers, who founded McSweeney’s, which has published several of his books. There are plenty of examples of “independent publishers” who are really just a couple of authors who teamed up to publish each other’s work.

  17. And yet…the trend of probability favours small publishers.

    There will always be exceptions and exceptions and exceptions. Again: the *balance of probability* does not favour self-publishing in terms of quality, and it will never favour it, because self-publishing is a control group. Unless you begin to compare it with a group selected for BAD traits, it will always perform badly by comparison, probabilistically speaking. You keep saying, “BUT here’s an exception. BUT here’s another exception.”

    If you admit self-publishing is a control group in terms of quality, then you must admit it will display a similar quality profile to the writing capability of the population at large.

  18. “You keep saying, ‘BUT here’s an exception. BUT here’s another exception.”

    Within this particular page, from post to comment, I’ve never said that. Once. Never even used the word.

    Small publishers. . . well, sure. There’s no smaller an operation than an army of one. Who, as always, needs an editor.

    I don’t admit anything is a control group.

    What I’m saying is that publishing has changed, and the whole point of being independent is independence. You’re not independent. You have a publisher. You may even be your publisher. I can’t tell. I don’t know who you are, or what you do, except that you moderate the forums of your publisher. You claim some objective measure of quality as bestowed by some publisher, but again, I don’t know any of the qualifications of anyone who’s bestowed anything. Your publisher claims it’s a translator and some book enthusiasts. I don’t know what that means.

    I just know we’re talking in circles, and you’re obviously against independent authors, and it’s fine that you need external validation for the quality of your work, but I think that it’s shortsighted to dismiss everyone who wants to reach the marketplace however they might. You’re making this some discussion about quality, but yet there are no standards or measurements of quality. Fine, you think it’s bad. Fine, you prefer Faulkner. Not everyone will, and not everyone does, but to argue that those who seek to make a business through the distribution of information are able to provide some objective measurement as to a standard of quality is demonstrably incorrect.

    Anyway, thanks for stopping by. Stick around, if you like. The Prodigal Hour‘s gonna be epic.

  19. Huh.

    That was rude all of a sudden.

  20. Really? Huh. I thought it was rather civil, considering your tone and the claims of your posts. I’m fine with agreeing to disagree, here. We seem to have exhausted the discussion.

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