Good day sunshine for writers

This is the best time ever to be a writer.

Especially for those in the vanguard: the self-publishing writers at the cutting edge of the brave new turbulent world of literary art and commerce.

I say that with some authority. As a worker bee from deep within the trenches of the book publishing industry, I can tell you from the inside that we’re living in an era of topsy turvy shifts in the balance of power and major changes in the core business of the book publishing industry.

Authors are steering the ship

What’s emerging is a new paradigm. That was the message loud and clear at Book Expo, the publishing industry’s behemoth annual convention, held recently in New York.

The advent of digital writing and publishing and the spontaneous democratic practice of social networking has in fact revolutionized the book business, challenged and changed how books are written and published irrevocably and forever, and shifted the balance of power from the commercial book publishers to the author.

Yes, you. The authors. The iconoclastic, idiosyncratic, garrulous, shy, outgoing, charming or grouchy writers working at home, courageously facing the blank screen or typewriter paper or yellow pad, getting up early before work or when the kids are still sleeping, up in the attic, down in the basement – you writers now have the upper hand.

Publishers confess they’ve goofed

Here’s why: Book publishers have been very slow to realize this but gradually began to admit that they really didn’t know all that well what they’re doing.

Seriously. They don’t. And they know it. Did you know that nearly all published books – conservative estimates range between 80-90 percent – lose money? These books don’t earn out their advances, don’t have second printings, they sell in the low four digits at best, are returned from the retail accounts and pulped or recycled.

The rest have to make up for it, and often don’t. What kind of a business is that?

So as book publishers have begun to admit to themselves and even publicly that they can’t really predict what will sell or not, they’ve also realized that the old methods of selling, of marketing a book have stopped working.

That $50K space ad in the New York Times? Forget it. It’s only for the author’s mother. The twenty-city bookstore tour with first class airplanes, limousines, and hotel suites? A waste of money.

Not even an appearance on the Today Show can guarantee more than a brief spike in sales. And Oprah, bless her heart, isn’t around anymore to guarantee sales for the very small number of titles she once had as her book club picks.

The old ways don’t work, and smart people in book publishing know that and say it openly now.

It’s all about buzz

What works, all agree, is the creation of “buzz”, one person telling another, “Hey you have to read this!”

This is where you, the author, come in. What creates buzz is when the author connects directly with the reader. Readers don’t care who published the book; they want a relationship with the author.

Authors today can reach their market without an intermediary. Not through the publisher, not through advertising or the mass media. Authors now have the technology to connect directly with interest groups, book bloggers, websites, to use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social networking channels to reach precisely the readers who might be interested in knowing about their work, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, whether it’s an ambitious literary novel or genre romance, sci-fi and mystery, paranormal or super-wholesome faith-based inspirational stories.

You can connect with these readers through the new art of self-marketing which has its own etiquette and best practices, which does require time and effort, but which can be done powerfully and effectively without every leaving the house, while still in your pajamas.

For years publishers have preached “platform, platform, platform” but now they realize that this platform is not built only on media or celebrity status, but most importantly on the author’s ability to reach readers and create visibility and connection online.

Why more authors are self-publishing

So now publishers expect all authors they acquire to be the bedrock of the work’s marketing plans. It’s often in the contract: the author must be available, willing to spend time and energy, willing to figure out the skills of self-marketing.

And that’s why more authors are asking: If publishers don’t know what they’re doing and rely on the author to sell their own books, why should authors endure the long, frustrating, seemingly impossible job of finding a literary agent and selling your book to a commercial book publisher?

And more are saying: “Hey I’m tired of running up against brick walls. The book business is an impenetrable fortress. I can’t get anyone to pay attention to me. No one returns my call or answers my query letters. Months are passing and I’m getting nowhere.”

Meanwhile we’ve all read about Amanda Hocking, The Shack (ten million copies sold), Chicken Soup for the Soul, John Locke, Stephanie McAfee (Diary of a Mad Fat Girl), Bella Andre, and the phenomenal success of Joe Konrath and his many self-published titles.

That’s why more authors are diving into self-publishing.

The myth versus the reality of doing it yourself

Self-publishing has become the tsunami, the 9.6 earthquake, the paradigm shift of the literary world, overwhelming book publishing with more titles published by authors than by mainstream publishers in the year 2010.

So now let’s take a good look at what self-publishing is and what it isn’t.

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Three Myths about Self-Publishing

#1 Commercial publishers won’t touch a self-published book

Not true!

Self-publishing has become the most powerful and effective device for test marketing your book around. If you can sell five thousand books or more on your own, you can prove there’s a market for your book and you know how to reach it, whether it’s through the media, social networking, back-of-the-room sales, whatever.

Conversion from self-publishing to mainstream commercial publishing is becoming more common, frequent, and normal – IF that’s what you want.

Many self-published authors, however, don’t want to convert. They want to control everything themselves: the content, design, marketing of their book and most importantly the division of royalties, since instead of the 10-15 percent of list price publishers pay, an author can receive 70 percent or more of list price and make a lot more money. Do the math. But be sure to read the fine print, since there may be strange restrictions and adjustments in the boilerplate of agreements reached with any vendor, agent, or publisher.

There’s a lot of experimenting going on with lower-pricing, greater volume, and fluctuating royalty deals, but generally you can make a lot more money self-publishing – if your book sells.

#2 Agents won’t represent an author who self-publishes

Wrong.

Top agents have begun to represent self-published authors, including such leading lights as Jim Levine, founder and principal of the Levine-Greenberg Agency and Jane Dystel, President of the Dystel and Goderich Literary Management.

They’re representing translation and film rights for these self-published titles, and they’re selling self-published books to traditional publishers, if that’s what the author wants.

Agents are also beginning to help self-publishing authors to get professional outside developmental and copy-editing, a great jacket designer, set up their website and learn how to social network, make a video for YouTube, get on Facebook, and learn how to strategically blog and tweet.

So agents are becoming managers and coaches in the career development of self-published authors. Not all agents, but more and more of the hipper, younger ones who understand how to do this.

#3 It’s easy to succeed as a self-published author

Absolutely not. Here’s why:

You still have to write a good book. No mean feat. Successful writers I know – whether they’re published commercially or self-published – need to write and rewrite their books many times, usually with the support of a developmental editor, not someone who does spelling and punctuation but a creative partner who is able to identify and solve problems with the story, structure, characterization, dialogue, visual description, literary style, pacing, the narrative arc – with a first, second, and third act that engages the reader and reaches some kind of epiphany or denouement that entertains, illuminates and provides emotional satisfaction for the reader. Read here for my advice on finding your own developmental editor.

You need to put as much time and energy as you can on self-marketing. You need to be online with your website, you need to start blogging, tweeting, connecting on Facebook and making short videos for YouTube.

You still have to expand your platform, be visible, let people know about yourself and your book. The old cliché about platform, platform, platform is still true. Ask anyone who’s made it and most will agree. However you do it, if you want readers to know about your book you have to sell it yourself. It’s part of your job. It’s essential for success if you want to be a writer today. There’s no guarantee it will work, but it’s nearly impossible to get readers without it.

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Forecast: Mostly sunny with a chance of rain

Self-publishing offers more control, an accelerated approach to the market, and a much greater share of the profits. But beyond the myth, our reality is that it’s just as hard as ever to write a good book that generates and sustains the buzz, a book that people want to tell their friends about, a book that produces major sales.

That part is as hard as ever. But it’s still the best time ever to be a writer, don’t you agree?

78 Responses to Good day sunshine for writers

  1. Layton Green

    Excellent, balanced, and fair-minded article. Also, might I suggest Richard Marek for anyone seeking an amazing, world-class developmental editor.

  2. Cindy Nord

    Excellent article. BE A PUBLISHING PIONEER and blaze new trails–exciting times, indeed.

    Cindy

  3. Kati

    This is awesome news and the new dynamic sounds like a lot of fun.

    Now to write the book! :D

  4. ToniD

    After being on submission for eons, my agent and I decided to take my mystery the ebook route. It’s newly up.

    I’ve already put in a lot of time (um, cough, formatting) and effort (in addition to having gotten the manuscript in good enough shape to submit), and I expect to put it a lot more time. Some of it is actually fun. Some not (um, cough, formatting). But I know what’s what, and it sure beats the dog out of waiting…and waiting…and waiting for editors to respond. Or not.

    And hey, two days pubbed and I have twelve sales, not all of them to friends/family. It’s a start.

    The best thing is finding the kind of readers I’d dreamed of. Got an email today from one, who’s partway through the book. She loves it, she gets it, she told me. How cool is that?

  5. Kiki Hamilton

    I love your column. It is one of the blogs that I read on a regular basis. We are definitely at a sea-change in the world of publishing. The old model does NOT work anymore and it’s evident that most publishers are recognizing the shifting tides as well as readers. I, for one, look forward to riding the wave to new opportunities that make publishing a win-win for all parties involved.

  6. Sheila Cull

    Do I agree? Isn’t any time to be a good writer good, if you’re good? And Alan Rinzler, your “but” of that stellar Post, didn’t come until the very end as in, mid and second to last paragraph.

    It certainly feels like an ambivalent time to be a writer.

  7. Cathryn Louis

    For a debut novelist – such as myself, I think working with a developmental editor is the smart thing to do no whether or not one decides to self-publish. I also think the same of building a platform. The former gives you the best chance of delivering your best work; the latter is a good first step toward marketing and brand recognition.

    As for the decision to self-publish, I still haven’t made it, and probably won’t until the very last minute.

  8. Susan J. Berger

    Excellent post. I put it on our Facebook page. There is no doubt in my mind that I would rather be traditionally published. I have three books published with a small ebook press Guardian Angel Publishing. I have not proven to be a great self marketer. One of them. Earthquake, has it’s own website (http://www.earthquake-book.com/) and Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/EarthquakeBook)
    I have queried schools and fire departments. FEMA and USGS reviewers like the book. This has not resulted in a increase in sales
    I recently received a deal memo from a major publisher and there is a significant difference in revenue.

  9. Alan Rinzler

    Susan,

    If you do accept the terms of the deal memo, you’ll still have to spend time and energy self-marketing, since all publishers today depend on the author as the primary marketing tool for selling the book. It’s become part of the job of being an author, like it or not.

  10. Scooter Carlyle

    I think I’m still going to try to do it the old-fashioned way, with agents and publishers and whatnot, but I haven’t ruled e-publishing out. The time it would take to market a self-published book is daunting, though.

  11. Mel Green

    Great article. I became convinced to self-publish through Creastespace a year ago after having so many flaky experiences with agents and the endless wait for a publisher to get back to you. There was something very satisfying about taking the reins. Several months ago “Marker” was optioned for the screen and a screenplay is being written. This pushed me well over into the black against my producing costs. I did hire a quality editor, book designer and had it proofed a couple of times. Now it’s on to the ebook version. You must keep after it–promoting and that is a never ending job. Check out “Marker” at Amazon.com.

    http://www.amazon.com/Marker-Mel-Green/dp/1452893705/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1296684186&sr=1-5

  12. Emily Hill

    While some bloggers this week [Nathan Bransford] are blogging on how to carry on with one’s query process after rejection; someone with industry smarts is actually applying ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ Danish tale to publishing. Reality! Isn’t it refreshing?

    Kristin Nelson was on BlogTalk Radio last month [Angels and Warriors] revealing to listeners that her off-Broadway agency received 36,000 emailed queries in 2010. [Thirty-six-thousand!] A Nelson Literary Agency computer-bot/search system selected 110 writing samples to move forward to full manuscript ‘human-review.’ After what can only be imagined as a gut-wrenching process THREE authors were selected by Kristin and Lindsay for agency representation. These 3:36,000 odds are NOT unusual! Less than 1% of Class of 2011 authors will receive ‘the nod’. The balance, unless they are Smart Cookies, will hide their writing away in a desk drawer, and wistfully read the Best Seller and Mid-list columns for the rest of their lives. How sad, when the technology is here – and the myths have been shattered by one of Publishing Industry’s Greats!

    http://www.amazon.com/Self-Publish-Mid-Year-Independent-Publishing-ebook/dp/B004GXAYO4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2&s=books&qid=1307472541&sr=1-1

  13. Alan Rinzler

    Emily

    “Emperor’s New Clothes” is a great metaphor. You must be a writer. As you may know from reading my blog, I’m generally against query letters of all kinds since they are seldom read and indicate virtually nothing about the book or the author.

  14. Lindsay Buroker

    Great article and spot on with the myths! I e-published my first novel in December 2010 because I didn’t want to play the Agent Hunt game and wait for ages (if ever) to see my work out there. It hasn’t been a quick road to riches by any means, but I have paid for all my initial costs (cover art, editing, etc.), and I’m making a decent part time income from the endeavor now (about to publish my third novel).

    I’m seeing lots of indies get picked up by publishers after they’ve proven themselves (with sales!), so I agree that it’s certainly not a death knell for a traditional deal. Though I personally have lost interest in going that route. The high royalty + the freedom to control everything yourself is very appealing to me. I suppose if the money were good enough, it might be tempting someday, but then again, I am kind of a contrary soul and could see walking away from such an offer too. :)

  15. Cynthia Haggard

    Alan,

    Thanks for an interesting post. I enjoyed reading it and learned a lot too. I’m hoping to self-publish my first novel this fall, so I’m eager to learn everything I can about the publishing industry from professionals such as yourself.

    I just have one question: Is there any way I can sign up for this blog??

    Best, Cynthia.

  16. Shasta Kearns Moore

    Wow, really wonderful article with lots of great advice. Thank you, thank you! I’ve become a new follower!
    Now for how to turn my blog (about my son, an identical twin with cerebral palsy) audience into a paying customer base for a novel (that doesn’t necessarily involve anyone with disabilities… :)
    http://www.outrageousfortune.net

  17. Martin Rots

    Great article! Published The Woodstock Conspiracy (developemental editor: Alan Rinzler)with Createspace in 2009. So far, the response has been underwhelming. I need An Idiot’s Guide to Self Promotion and Marketing in the 21st Century. I have three websites promoting my writing. I blogged faithfully for quite some time and began to develope a following. Last summer, I had this overwhelming desire to continue living indoors and eating on a regular basis, and I panicked. I updated my skills (I was a mechanical engineer for many years), but there’s no work for old engineers who want to be writers. My wife is hinting I need a day job again, and perhaps she’s right.

    She usually is.

    I was leaning towards a garret on the Left Bank.

  18. Alan Rinzler

    Martin,

    Having a day job is still the status of 99.9% of all authors, published or self-published, so hang in there. Also, a web-site is no longer enough for self-marketing. Need to blog, tweet, reach out to book bloggers, readers group, and do daily social networking.

    Bob Dylan tweets!

  19. Who’s an Outlier, Again? at Literary Abomonations

    [...] take my word for it. You can listen to the other “outliers,” or you can listen to the Consulting Editor at Wiley Press, who says exactly the same thing. These are times of unparalleled [...]

  20. Chris Eboch

    Nicely balanced article. I have 12 traditionally published books and an agent, but after a couple of frustrating years dealing with a publisher canceling my series because of a power-play among the editors, year-long wait times on submissions (even with an agent), and a market so narrow that I was advised that I probably couldn’t sell children’s historical fiction set in ancient Egypt unless it involves zombie mummies, I decided to try self-publishing. The struggles are different now — making people aware of my work — but at least I’m learning new skills and feeling like I have some control again. I started with two books — The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery set in ancient Egypt for ages nine and up, published under the name Chris Eboch, and an adult romantic suspense set in New Mexico, called Rattled and published under the name Kris Bock. It’s been especially interesting trying to figure out the different ways to market to those different audiences.

    Getting professional editorial help is definitely important, especially for first-time authors. I do a lot of private critiques and often find that people who think their work is ready for publication still have major problems with plot and voice. Nothing that can’t be fixed, but the author couldn’t see it. Self-publishing isn’t an easier shortcut, it’s just a different route.

  21. Lexi Revellian

    I’m a writer in the UK, and our publishing industry doesn’t seem to have caught up yet to what’s going on.

    Sell five thousand self-published books and attract an agent? In ten months, I’ve sold over 29,000. I am entirely unpestered by agents, and when I thought I’d test the water and approached five of them myself, I got four rejections, only one mentioning my sales figures. The fifth agent? Haven’t heard back from her.

    We’ll catch up with you eventually, no doubt.

  22. Alan Rinzler

    Lexi,

    Sorry to hear about English agents who are reluctant to take on self-published authors. But Ed Victor, a leading English agent based in London, told me at the recent Book Expo in NYC that he’s planning to start his own new imprint to publish new ebook versions for his authors who have out-of-print books as well as original titles by those not wanting to go the traditional route any longer. You can write to him at ed@edvictor.com to see how far along he is with this new initiative.

  23. Cynthia

    My first attempt at finding an agent went no where fast. Two partical request with a rejection and the other is still out, it’s been almost a year now. I’m going to try the old fashioned way again for my second novel, but the first I’ve decided to go the self publishing route digitally. Hey, I work to hard on my novel to let it sit. I think many people who agree with that.

  24. Marilyn Peake

    I definitely agree! I recently self-published three novels and three short stories on Kindle, and am now seeing sales almost every day. I’ve been approached about a possible movie deal with a big name in Hollywood. I turned this down for reasons I’m not at liberty to discuss, but some of my indie-published short stories are being considered for a major TV series. It is a stupendously awesome time to be a writer!

  25. Mosaica Press

    What about small, independent publishers? I think an author can find the best of both worlds with a dedicated team behind them.

  26. Lisa Carter

    This was a really great read, Alan. I’ve been pondering self-publishing for some of my own projects and believe it is the way to go, in some instances, for the reasons you point out. I’m also pondering how self-publishing might work for literary translators (of which I am one). There are a few more inherent difficulties in terms of rights but since only about 3% of all books published in the US are works in translation, I believe it’s time for us to take a bold, new route as well. I will be referencing this post in an upcoming one of my own as I simply couldn’t say it any better.

  27. Karen Wheeler

    Just discovered your blog by chance and WOW what a ray of sunshine it is to find someone in the publishing world with something positive to say.

    I’m a journalist and author – my first book, Tout Sweet: Hanging Up My High Heels For A New Life In France’ will be published by conventional means in the US this August – and your posting chimes exactly with what I am thinking. (And I’m guessing, what many other authors are thinking too.)

    I have a very good agent and I am very happy to have had my first two books published by conventional means, so I’d like to stress that what follows is not a reflection or a comment on the various publishers around the world who have bought and published my work but rather a comment on the publishing industry as a whole.

    I absolutely agree with you that scene is set for a significant shift in the balance of power between author (once happy to have a deal at any price) and the publisher. Not only is self-publishing becoming acceptable – a good book is a good book and will always rise to the surface – but the key factor/wake-up call is the issue of ebook rights.

    The current ‘industry standard’ in the UK is for the publisher to take 75% of the revenue from electronic books, with 25% going to the author. Given that there are no typesetting, printing, distribution or warehousing costs this seem greedy. If there is a justification for taking such a large helping of the pie, I’ve yet to see it, despite reading extensively on the subject.

    The Royal Society of Authors in the UK recently commissioned a major report into the economics of ebooks (it can be viewed in the news section of the Society’s website, ww.societyofauthors.org). It demonstrates that at present royalty rates, publishers benefit from higher margins on ebooks while authors receive less income than on the sale of a printed book.

    Many feel that a 50:50 split would be a more realistic way of divvying up the rewards for all the hours that we’ve spent alone in front of our iMac. And some of us are starting to ask ourselves the question, ‘what exactly is a traditional publisher going to do for me, that I can’t do by hiring the relevant professionals myself?’

    How good is their marketing plan? Their publicity department? How much money, if any, are they going to spend on promotion and publicity? Are they going to pay for my book be displayed at the front of the store or will it be on a bottom shelf in the basement? (A big issue if, like me, you write travel memoirs and your surname begins with a ‘W’.) What in short, am I getting in return for handing over 75% of the rights to my work?

    The usual answer is ‘marketing’ but the fact is that many authors – especially those from journalistic backgrounds – are very media savvy and often better placed to market their books than their publishers. In my own case, before I’ve typed even the first work of a new book, I’ve planned the angle of the articles I am going to write and the newspapers and magazines I am going to target to publicise it.

    Thanks to my blog I also have a very direct relationship with my readers. I cherish each and every one of them for, not just for the uplifting emails and feedback they send, but because they have provided me with the best marketing of all: word-of-mouth.

    By recommending Tout Sweet and Toute Allure to their friends – and in some cases buying multiple copies – and by writing wonderful reviews on Amazon UK, they have contributed directly to the success of my books. And thanks to the emails I receive, urging me to get a move on with the next in the ‘Tout’ series (and not waste time taking my dog for so many walks!) I know I have a significant audience waiting with impatience.

    I was flattered when my publisher asked about a third book before my second had even hit the book shelves. But I have for the moment held back from signing any deal. As I work on the final chapters of my third book ‘Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness In Rural France’ I am asking myself many question.

    Do I really want the bother of setting up my own publishing company, of hiring the necessary professionals to edit, copy-edit, type-set, design the jacket and all the rest? Do I really want to concern myself with finding a distributor, wholesalers and warehousing and setting up e-commerce tools so that people can buy directly from my blog? Do I really want the hassle of arranging electronic formatting?

    The answer is no. I’d rather be writing and I’d rather have a dedicated team of talented professionals behind me. If my agent finds a publisher who is prepared to offer a decent five figure sum – and yes, I do have a minimum figure in mind – along with an innovative marketing plan and a more realistic split on ebook rights, then I’ll happily sign on the dotted line.

    But hand over 75% of the electronic rights? As your ‘Good Day Sunshine’ posting implies, there really has never been a better time to say ‘thank you, but I’d really rather not.’

  28. Alan Rinzler

    Karen,

    Very interesting. But even if an author is lucky to get marketing from a commercial publisher these days, it’s limited and may not be effective. It will always be the author’s marketing, including emails, tweets and blogs to readers, as part of continuing social networking that can also include outreach to book bloggers, via FaceBook, and YouTube, with more new techniques developing as we speak. So, many wonder the point of traditional publishing any more since you have to do this kind of marketing anyway, and, as you point out, your royalty is so much lower with publishers.

  29. Rosanne Dingli

    It has yet to be proven to me that media outreach translates into actual sales. The profile of a reader and maker of comments on FaceBook seems to me to be different from that of the avid paperback reader (or inveterate peruser of books on their eReader).

    I do it all, of course – it would be silly to do oneself out of a means of exposure. Even if I managed to attribute or ascribe some sales to a particular social medium, however, I would be at a loss as to how to maintain a reasonable measure of sales in that way.

    Who buys what and what works is still a big mystery to most authors. I have published in both ways, so my independently published volumes tend to show me when I do something right, but it’s still guesswork. My trad published volumes? I can only see results when royalty statements appear half-yearly. And are they results or mere chance-and-opportunity sales that ‘just happen’? This is all airy-fairy, with cause-and-effect impossible to pin down.

    Media outreach serves to brand an author and make them appear willing to interface with their consumers directly. It is confirmation of the effectiveness of disintermediation, for sure – but it does not clarify how readers are choosing material, or what prompts them to do so.

    Someone please elucidate.

  30. Alan Rinzler

    Rosanne,

    Who buys what and what works is still a big mystery to not only most authors, but to publishers, editors, agents, and everyone else in the world. I think readers choose what to read when it’s suggested by a friend, they pick it up in an old brick and mortar retail store, they browse online, particularly when Amazon says “if you liked this, you will like this” (an incredibly useful service, as a rule), or they find it in some other serendipitous way.

    From that point on it’s subjective and idiosyncratic. My taste and temperament may be quite different from yours. If enough people like what you’ve written, they’ll buy it. Mystery solved? Only until the next experiment.

  31. Martin Lake

    It is wonderful to see what one secretly believes and even more secretly hopes for and desires being endorsed by such an authority.

    Yor article has brought a smile to my face, in fact with the tan I got from a week in France, I look rather like the sun.

    Selling my books has already brought me such a lot of pleasure and this article has added to it.

    So it’s back to the writing and re-writing and the marketing for me. Thanks Alan Rinzler.

    Martin Lake

  32. David Harp

    Dear Alan,
    Back in late 1976 or early 1977, the late and lamented Andy Fluegelman (we were both Wesleyan grads, and I’d met him through BriarPatch) sent me to you for advice on what to do with my idea/manuscript/package “Instant Blues Harmonica for the Musical Idiot.” You generously agreed to meet me in your home and advised me to self-publish. Though I had been hoping you’d say that a plethora of big NY publishers would surely pummel each other for the rights to my crude near-book, I took your advice.

    That book/audio package has sold a modest but ongoing 225,000 copies over too many years and nine revised editions, and I’ve written and self-published dozens more since then, some on music, some on mindfulness (“The Three Minute Meditator” was self-published but foreign rights have been sold in a dozen languages, and I’ve done a number of mindfulness books with New Harbinger Publications). My best selling book has sold over 300,000 copies, a few are in the 100,000+ range, and more in the 50,000+ area.

    While contemplating the act of trying to find a publisher (I’ve finally admitted to myself that I’m much better, by temperament, at producing print, audio, and video content and doing workshops than at marketing or sales), I happened across your blog just this moment. And am amused to come so full-circle, and see that you still sing the electric, eclectic, eccentric, body of self-publishing!

    I hope that you and yours are well, and thank you for your kindness to a silly, hippie-identified man-boy with few thoughts other than his own self-aggrandizement and a love of the blues harp, a boy who had no idea of the impact and quality of the work you’d already done, nor (alas) the wisdom or courtesy to ask you about it…

    Best,
    david harp

  33. Alan Rinzler

    David,

    Book sales of 200k, 300k? Dozens of titles? Wow! You’ve come a long way since the original “Instant Blues Harmonica for the Musical Idiot,” a title I remember very well. Thanks for the kind words and for getting back in touch.

    Your story of independent and traditional publishing makes you a pioneer in the field. Congratulations on all the good work, editorially and, evidently, in marketing and sales.

  34. Remus Shepherd

    But it’s still the best time ever to be a writer, don’t you agree?

    No, I do not agree.

    Now is the best time ever to be an extrovert, a marketer, or a social gadfly. It’s a great time to be anyone who knows how to connect with people and muster an army of followers.

    But not all writers are like that. If what you outline is true, then the reclusive writers, the introverts and the thoughtful hermits, are going to become extinct. They can’t navigate self-publishing on their own, and the publishers won’t touch anyone without a commanding net presence. Writers in the style of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and J.D. Salinger are no longer viable. The introvert’s perspective is disappearing from modern literature.

    It is a terrible time to be someone who focuses on writing. The only winners in this new age will be those who spend most of their day thinking about how to make themselves into celebrities. In my opinion, that marks these as vapid and depressing times.

  35. Alan Rinzler

    Remus,

    Wanting to be successful is not the same thing as wanting to be a celebrity. Anyone who spends all day worrying about being a celebrity isn’t going to write a book read by anyone but their mother.

    Many successful writers I know are far from extroverts, but nevertheless their books sell, whether they’re self-published or released through commercial houses. Buzz, or authentic recommendation from a trusted source, may be accelerated by media and the internet, but ultimately comes from literary quality.

    Current examples of bestselling books by non-extroverts include: Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants), Abraham Verghese (Cutting for Stone), Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner), Yann Martel (Life of Pi), and Howard Jacobson (The Finkler Question.)

  36. John G. Hartness

    I dove into self-publishing for perhaps the worst reason of all – impatience. But just because the root reason was possibly incorrect doesn’t mean that my gut feeling wasn’t right – my work doesn’t deserve to sit in a slush pile, read by no one, until six months later someone looks at a one-page letter and says “No Thanks.”

    It deserves to sit in its very own electronic slush pile of the internet, where it can be found and enjoyed by thousands of people (soon to be tens of thousands if things continue to go well). I think there’s a lot of good things going on right now, and it’s an exciting time to be a writer. Thanks for a well-written, balanced article.

  37. TheSFReader

    In addition, to the answer to Alan above, I also must say that even if self-publishing is not for everyone, it puts pressure on publishers, maybe allowing writers better contractual terms.

    Where Publishers will provide added value is also by “reselling” it’s pools of “external experts” : editors (devlopmental and others), cover designers, blurb works …

  38. Judd Exley

    Brilliant article mate, and aside from The Passive Voice (how I found you) I think this is one of the best ways this whole scene has been set thus far. Many other blogs and such out there want to paint a picture of one side being uglier than the other or argue why both have a point.

    Yours feels the least pressurey, and that’s coolio.

    Well done! Now you can RSS feed me…

  39. amy

    But….but… it seems so lonely and scary! Although sooooo tempting!

  40. Cheryl Shireman

    This month I will surpass that 5000 copies sold threshold you mentioned in your wonderful article. My first novel, Life is But a Dream, was published in the last week of January – almost 5 months now. Every month it has more than doubled in sales for the previous month. I not only will pass that 5000 copies total this month, it looks as if I may sell 5000+ copies this month alone! It truly is incredible and a dream come true.
    But it is also a lot of hard work. Unless they can afford such services, and usually they cannot, the Indie author is on their own. You will not only write your own book, you will design your cover, edit the work, and serve as your own marketing team. All of this, of course, takes time away from the actual writing.
    This revolution in publishing is a win/win for all involved – writers, editors, agents, and publishers. The key to success will be in determining how we might best navigate the new trail ahead. Like the days of the gold rush – some will make money mining gold, but many more will make money selling pick axes and shovels. I have staked my claim. And now back to work…

  41. Suzanne Tyrpak

    Thank you for this inspiring and upbeat post. It’s great to hear this from a trade publisher.

    Self-publishing my books has been a wonderful experience. Last August I brought out a collection of short stories–so far I’ve sold about 7,000 copies of that book. Then I brought out a novel in late December, historical suspense, and it’s sold over 2,000 copies with sales building every month. Very exciting!

    I would still like to be traditionally published, because I’d love to work with a great editor. Also, a trade publisher could get me distribution into bookstores. But, even if that never happens, I’m delighted with my experience!

  42. Alan Rinzler

    Suzanne,

    Editors with excellent experience and bestselling titles to their credit are in fact available for self-publishing authors. Click on the link in this post for my specific advice on “Choosing a Freelance Editor”. The recent downsizing in the industry and the absence of developmental editing by commercial book publishers has established a broad choice of great editors available for hire. Search the internet and you’ll find websites, including my own.

    It’s not inexpensive. In fact if someone offers services at low cost, they’re not developmental editors but copy editors for spelling and typos — not what you’re looking for.

    Developmental editing is an essential investment made by virtually all successful writers today.

  43. Cheryl Shireman

    Alan – how would one go about finding a REPUTABLE copy editor? Of course, the internet is full of ads for copy editors, but how can a writer find a reputable copy editor with great credentials?

  44. JR Tomlin

    Mr. Rinzler, I have to tell you (speaking as an indie author, here) this is one of the best and most honest articles I’ve ever seen on the tsunami taking place in publishing. I’ve gone both ways, so to speak, and being indie is NOT easy. Making the decisions about covers, blurbs, and editing are a long way from easy, but some of us love the freedom to make these decisions.

    Editing is the hardest part. I agree with you that for most of us, we need a developmental editor and finding one not only with experience, but one who is good at it in our own genre is rough. Worthwhile but rough. I believe I have found one.

    Promotion is hugely time consuming, too, but as you so point out, we have to do that however we’re published.

    So thanks for a great article.

  45. Cheryl Shireman

    To clarify my last question – is there a professional organization or some sort of credentials that one should look for when searching for an editor? Obviously, someone with your background is a well-respected professional. But if I am searching through the vast internet, are there certain credentials or accreditations that I should be looking for beyond work experience? Thank you!

  46. JL Oakley

    Your post came up on Twitter today. Thanks for the three myths. I self-published my historical novel, TREE SOLDIER, through Createspace, but not until I had it edited, got a great cover design and a marketing plan in place. I do hope it catches someone’s attention in traditional, but if not…

    I just started book talks at bookstores, libraries and museums and hope to get it into a book club program. It’s on bookstore shelves as well as on-line at Amazon and in e-book form.

    I moving along slowly but I feel that sales are growing. Reviews are good and I’m using all forms of social media. There is an audience out there for a story about the Civilian Conservation Corps. With our economy, it is connecting with people who have come to my talks. Marketing is definitely a critical part of self-publshing.

  47. Robert W. Walker

    I have placed up all my DEAD books, that is out of print PRINT titles onto Kindle shelves as well as some five or six new titles I call ORIGINAL to KINDLE titles, totally some 45 titles in a range of categories. I am the happiest of midlist authors today for having made the leap from traditional to the new frontier in publising, that which rewards the reader and the writer more so than the gatekeepers of old. My title CHILDREN of SALEM for instance, I was told NO ONE wants to read another book on Salem Witchcraft, and yet my readers made Children my number one bestselling title of all my 45 titles, and for the first time in my writing career, I can pay my bills via monies from writing crime novels, historical thrillers, suspense, and horror. But the beauty of Indie publishing is that it has given me a lifelong dream–to publish myself and support myself on my writing alone. It has also had the surprise gift of a sense of freedom and pride that was dead in my days as a midlist author with 8 separate publishers, all of whom made the wrong moves with my books, and yet all of whom gained far more monies from my efforts than I did.

    By the way, I have 8 Series characters, so I need the speed of access to publishing that Kindle publishing offers me.

    http://www.robertwalkerbooks.com
    Children of Salem, Titanic 2012, Bayou Wulf – my latest Kindle Original works

  48. Alan Rinzler

    Cheryl,

    Traditional publishers don’t ordinarily want authors to do their own copy editing, nor do they have copy editors on their staff. Rather they use a regular stable of free-lancers whom they have tested, trained to fit their own house style, and used repeatedly in the past.

    In my own experience as an editor over many decades, I came to appreciate several excellent copy editors who not only cleaned up the spelling, punctuation, typos and other technical errors, but often had a specialty that enabled them to focus on parenting, relationships, or other psychological issues. Other copy editors specialize in literary fiction, history, business, mysteries, sci-fi, YA, science, education etc.

    The best copy editors have a very light touch and never intrude on what has already been resolved by the developmental editor.

    These free-lancers are available for hire to self-publishing authors directly, if they have the time. The way to check their credentials is simple: ask what publishers they’ve worked for, and specifically what books they’ve done.

    You can search for copy editors online or in the classified pages of periodicals like Writer’s Digest, Poets and Writers, and other magazines for writers.

    Regarding your second question, there are no formal credentials or degrees for developmental editors. I go into detail about finding a good developmental editor at this earlier post: http://www.alanrinzler.com/blog/2009/07/02/choosing-a-freelance-editor-what-you-need-to-know/

  49. Anonymous

    This summarizes exactly what we are trying to do and explain to others along the way. Thanks for the great article!

  50. Phillip Good

    The best editor is time; read the book aloud each time you edit; set the book aside for several months and proof it once more.

  51. C. M. Barrett

    Thanks so much for this article. Having immersed myself in indie fiction, I have noticed a striking feature of many of the books I’ve read. They are highly original, not easily lending themselves to the canned categories beloved of big publishers and bookstores.

    My own novel, Big Dragons Don’t Cry, resists easy categorization and was greeted by agents with confusion. Whatever possible benefits the gateway maintained by the traditional publishing world may have provided, it was keeping a lot of fine novels from being published. Independent authors now have the chance to let the readers decide.

  52. Alisa LaGroue

    Thank you so much for your wonderful advice. I have been trying to decide if I should self publish. Your advice here and in other post has helped me toward a decision.

    Being a “Shy” person with no desire to social network, I have never been good at promoting myself, but I cannot avoid the necessity of platforming. So, I’m learning a little bit every day.

    Maybe one day I’ll be like some of the authors who are already making money on Kindle, successfully selling my very first book, “The Search”, and finishing up my second book while readers are anxiously waiting.

    All this brings a question to mind though. With all the blogging, connecting on Facebook, video making, and website making, when does an author have time to write? I know you’re going to say hire someone, but I’m just a poor person. I could get a teenager, but I really don’t know any. So, how much time does an author put into each platform. Is there a good rule of thumb?

    Thanks for your help!

  53. Alan Rinzler

    Alisa,

    Hiring someone is not the best way to establish personal connections in the internet community. You have to do that kind of social networking yourself, in order to insure that it’s your voice, your personality, that gets known and trusted online. This requires organization and discipline, since you certainly can’t spend all day away from your writing.

    Most successful writers I know spend one or two hours a day on internet social networking at the most.

  54. Velda Brotherton

    Thanks so much for this post and all the great comments. I too have come from midlist to begin publishing on e books. First getting the back list up and running, with three or four novels waiting in the wings to publish first on ebooks. I enjoyed so much all this input and will keep plugging along. My first book is scanned and edited, now on to Mobi Creator. Thanks to all who’ve gone before and tested the waters. I buy books for my Kindle regularly and most of them are books that haven’t been previously published. I like discovering new authors who are so good. What is New York thinking?

  55. Claude Nougat

    I wish one could spend only one or two hours a day on internet social networking! I certainly seem to spend more than that and then proceed to hate myself for not writing my book: my time spent on Internet has become something of a new form of writer’s block!

    But it’s good to know that when you publish yet another post on your blog, it’s not time lost from a marketing point of view. And I do enjoy blogging enormously. Still, the blog is not the primary thing, writing is.

    Setting that aside, I have to say you’ve hit it on the nail and made my day! Sunshine on us poor writers, wow!

    I still have a nagging doubt: I know that when I get tweets from fellow writers asking me to download their latest novel, my reaction (as a reader) tends towards the negative. Direct selling doesn’t work very well, it’s word-of-mouth among readers that does it. Or so it seems.

    As to publishers not knowing zilch about what’s the next bestseller, there’s no doubt about that. But why the hell don’t they commission good, old-fashioned, in depth market research and find out exactly what their readers’ tastes are really like?

    That’s something writers cannot do, no matter how highly networked and Internet-savvy…

  56. Alan Rinzler

    Claude,

    Time spent on the internet can indeed become an addictive way to avoid writing. It’s the kind of writer’s block that can be overcome, however, with the necessary discipline an author needs. You’re also right about direct selling, which is poor internet etiquette. The way to attract readers and fans is to offer something they need, be helpful, suggest links and solutions to solve problems they’re having, and other forms of mutual aid. Experienced social networkers advise authors to establish personality and friendship, but never hard sell.

    Other points you raise: The reason publishers don’t commission market research is that they can’t afford it. No kidding. Real market research is very expensive and it just can’t be done for the hundreds of new titles publishers release each year. Also, no market researcher I know will predict if a book will sell or not because, frankly, nobody knows. Unexpected books sell and books by authors with previous acclaim fail. It happens regularly and it’s a mystery to everyone.

  57. Theresa M. Moore

    I spent about 40 years honing my craft and during that time never received a positive response from any agent or publisher. Most of the time it was no response at all or the standard rejection. The fact is that I was hampered by the lack of digital resources, or my stories and novels would have been published years ago. However, in the last five years I have published 15 books and associated ebooks on my own and I bear all the responsibility for their editing and marketing, as well as their selling. I never look back, only forward, and I don’t see myself depending on the archaic publishing standards which existed before. I also social network by passing on what I have learned to others, in the hopes that some of it will rub off and help them to produce their own books with the same focus and attention to detail. How do I juggle all this with writing? By thinking about the next segment while doing my research, writing emails, posts and other things. I learned how to multitask as part of my regular jobs over the years, and it is a job just like any other. The only difference is that the risks and rewards are entirely up to you.

  58. Michael A. Robson

    This is awesome! I, like many, felt that, if I started selling my work online, a Publisher would consider that work tainted and un-saleable. Thank you for your great words of encouragement. Like you, I don’t want to walk into a publisher meeting holding a bag of [poop]. I want to have great stuff, that I can confidently say, I’ve already sold a few thousand of, and with their marketing power, we can sell a few hundred thousand of. That’s it. That’s a win-win, right!? :D Thanks.

  59. JAWAR

    This is a straightforward read about self-publishing. Thank you for sharing. None, have any excuses for not publishing their own book after reading this post and all the encouraging comments that follow. These sources may help you as well http://selfpublishforprofit.blogspot.com/ http://bitly.com/eHR6fd

  60. Marion Gropen

    Let’s all remember that lots of books make money even when they don’t earn out their advances. Other than that, a very nice post.

  61. Alan Rinzler

    Marion,

    Thanks for mentioning a little known fact. In the strange and mysterious world of the traditional commercial book business, an individual title can earn subsidiary income for the publisher, but only if they either control or have a percentage of the royalties from dramatic rights (film, tv, theater, radio), translation rights, book-club, paperback reprint, if the book is sold to another domestic publisher (rare these days), and of course from the new elephant in the living room: electronic rights. And it’s possible that this income will reduce if not eliminate the gap between the advance paid and the total author earnings.

    If the author’s agent has managed to retain all the rights mentioned above, however, the publisher doesn’t get this income and relies only on primary sales, hard and soft. So the only other way the advance vs earnings gap can be rationalized is as a “loss leader”. That is, if a retailer wants a to sell a few copies of a celebrity title that will never earn out an inflated advance, the buyer may agree to spend some time with your rep, and consider other titles to try as well, at least before returning in five or six weeks.

    A crazy business no matter how you look at it, yes?

  62. Rebecca Woodhead

    Great article. I LOVE being indie. I looked at the ‘traditional’ route for a while because I couldn’t quite work out how to do it all myself, but I went from dreading rejections to praying for them. One day, I became terrified that a publisher would accept my work. At the time, it was with a couple of publishers and an agent. I contacted them all and told them I would not need their services. Every one of them was miffed, and told me they were seriously considering taking me on, which was a wonderful compliment but my feeling when I read their words (dread) told me all I needed to know. I don’t want publishing done to me.

    I published myself, was in profit within two weeks, and the book started to earn great reviews. I sold independently initially then, a few days ago, I uploaded my book to Amazon. It’s already on a number of niche bestseller lists. On some, it’s in the top 10. My dream is for it to reach a major bestseller list by Christmas. Whether it does or not, I won’t drop myself. I have given myself a four book deal, and I have no advance to pay off. LOVE IT!!!

    Rebecca
    http://amzn.to/rebeccaw (UK)
    http://amzn.to/palaces-and-calluses (US)
    http://rebeccawoodhead.com (author blog)

  63. Booksignings for an Indie…is it worth it?

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  64. Lauren F. Boyd

    Great post! Your blog continues to help me as a writer teetering between traditional and e-publishing!

  65. Ann Medlock

    When I was a NY editor and then a NY agent, it was clear The System didn’t work. And that was decades ago. It’s good to see writers rising up and taking charge. Publishers have had it coming for far too long. I’ve now “privately” published a book of poems and a novel–won’t say “self-published” because there’s still too much negative baggage attached to the term. Hired a great development editor, copy editor, designer, chose fabulous art for the covers, collected some stunningly fine reader reviews. But am I good at the hustle? Turns out, no. I have this day job and so limited time plus the reclusive/contemplative/writer personality that makes for good creating but not good marketing. Still have fantasies of the great publishing experience I know all too well is indeed a fantasy, but the reality is I’m settling for the books existing–they’re not tattered manuscripts making endless rounds, they haven’t been mishandled by silly people who think they know better than I and my team do. And I’m on to writing my next book, this one a non-fiction memoir about building a house with architect Christopher Alexander. Now if I could just stop dreaming about that great publisher…

  66. John Stanton

    ‘But it’s still the best time ever to be a writer, don’t you agree?’

    I think my answer is it’s “the best of times and the worst of times.”
    I first started seriously writing in the mid-1980s when it was still called ‘vanity press’ and saw commercial publication as a form of validation as an artist. Of course, over the years I watched publishing houses publish their fair share of garbage, culminating with the trend of publishing ghost written junk food by vacuous, empty headed, reality TV stars with absolutely nothing of value to say. As I got deeper into the biz, I also learned about the blood thirsty, savage nature of contract negotiation. After self publishing a couple of books, I felt liberated from it all but for some reason still craved that commercial attention that would give me whatever emotional fulfillment I thought I wanted.

    I had one manuscript that I felt was my most mainstream, marketable piece and held it in reserve for years trying for a traditional agent or publisher. But last week, I finally let it go. I’m doing an E-book pre-release with the trade paperback planned for late August. I have finally let go of whatever it was holding me back.

    I’m a member of a writer’s critique group and we have a commercially published author who is actually leaving her publisher to be her own publisher, increasing her royalties by an order of magnitude. Since she was responsible for so much of her own promotion anyway, it made no tangible difference in her life as a writer. We have another member who has self published her first novel and is now selling hundreds of copies a month with no agent or publisher to pay.

    But as I take on all the responsibilities of a publisher with my own books, I find my time consumed by chores like creating web sites, sending emails, editing, artwork, and distribution. While I really enjoy doing the public events like signings and readings, I’ve come to understand that I am a writer, I am an artist. This is about the craft of the written word and I want to write. If I could be involved with a publisher that allowed me control of my art and handled all the B.S. for me, it might be worth the significant bite they take.

    The unbelievable changes in the nature of books have not affected the basic fact that you have to write a great book before anything happens.
    I want to write great books, not great press releases. I want to be a great writer, not a great publicist. I want to create great stories, not great book covers.
    The new age has produced great opportunities for the artist paid for by great burdens for the artist.

    Thank you for a positive and uplifting view of our new world

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  70. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    I’ve gone all the routes and one of the worst–so far–is having one of my books published by a small independent publisher who is doing nothing for the book, and to my dismay, I agreed to his outrageous contract that controls and owns the copyright. I could kick myself for being so stupid, having missed the unfavorable copyright clause on the contract. Someday I hope to get the publishing rights back of that book. It deserves better. That’s why I’m leaning toward controlling my publishing destiny. When I get control of my book again, I’m going digital with it and will add it to my bookshelf at the Kindle store where it will get a new lease on life, so to speak. A new day has dawned for us writers. We no longer have to be “galley” slaves to the big trade publishers in New York. For instance, I rewrote three of my novels that ended up novellas. And we all know that novellas are today’s step-children of literature and publishing with no place for them with a regular book publisher, being too short, and yet are too long for magazine publishers, the few who still publish fiction. So, I made them available on my bookshelf at the Kindle store and already they’re getting attention and downloads. It’s refreshing to know that our readers will decided which works to read, not the big and overbearing arbiters of what should or should not be published.

  71. Pete Morin

    Wonderful post. So Alan, do you mean to say that those precious reviews in the literary journals and in Publishers Weekly, etc. don’t sell books? I keep hearing from the traditional publishing acolytes that those are the REAL reason to hold out for a traditional deal.

  72. Dominic de Mattos

    I only read half the comments, so apologies if this has been mentioned before … one is lead to believe that the process of seeking an agent, and then publisher sifts out poor work and leaves only the shining examples of our work. I don’t for a moment believe that every book that falls by the wayside deserves to do so, but I worry that the result of rampant self-publishing will be a flood of material that frankly is not worth the paper it probably isn’t written on. (and my work might well be among them, so don’t think I am being supercilious!) How will discerning readers be able to pick out the gems from the trash? Only it seems by robust and honest judgement in the form of believable reviews. Ah but there’s the rub! I won’t provide bad reviews. If I don’t like a book I won’t review it at all. Rightly or wrongly, openly criticising a fellow writer feels like stabbing a friend in the back. An essential part of the self -promotion it seems to me is gathering a credible and broadly ranged body of positive reviews.

  73. Alan Rinzler

    Pete,

    An enthusiastic review in Publishers Weekly may tick up the advance order of an independent or chain retailer. Literary journals, however, have very small circulations and are more about publishing fiction, academic critique, and poetry than producing reviews that have much impact on sales. But do print reviews really drive book sales these days? Traditional publishers are depending much more on the authors to promote and sell their own books, online and direct to readers.

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  76. susanne T Schroder

    Oh yes I most certainly do agree – have found it so exciting publishing my own books – the book has only been out a month and have had loads of interest in the form of reviews including PW and The Bookseller, re-orders from bookshops who have been amazingly encouraging and even passed the book onto publishers.. and openings in areas including toddlers plays, kids animation and sales rights in different countries. Of course it helps, like you say, if it is a good book, but considering all the publishers I could actually ‘get to’, rejected it originally, I’d say it has been the best move to self publish.

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