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The Main Event: Self v. Publisher

literary culture

If you’re new to this writing and publishing thing, you should know there’s a giant tug-o-war going on between traditional publishing (get an agent, get a publisher, sign over lots of rights and profits for those honors) and self-publishing (write, publish, and publicize on your own, but earn a much bigger slice of the profit pie for yourself).

This blog post won’t pick which side is correct for you, but it will offer some observations on the big proponents from a writer in the trenches.

My biggest takeaway from reading the arguments from both sides is that they both sound like they’re screaming the same thing at me: It’s my way OR YOU’RE DOOMED TO A LIFE OF POVERTY despite your ENORMOUS natural talents at writing best-selling fiction.

The latest, greatest article is the opening post at, a new project by superstar self-published writer Hugh Howey. Howey teased the article and site launch via social media, and the blessed thing arrived to so much readerly anticipation that it crashed several times as Howey fans ravaged the resource moments after he clicked publish. (Part of the ebook marketing mystique is infusing everything you do with event status.)

AuthorEarnings is a great resource that declares its “purpose is to gather and share information so that writers can make informed decisions” and also “to call for change within the publishing community for better pay and fairer terms in all contracts.”

Not a bad force to have our backs. I’ll definitely be adding AuthorEarnings updates to my feedly list.

The post itself, The Report, details what a new method of analysis teaches us about current sales trends at Amazon. Howey suggests that part of the success of self-published books is their low price, which results in readers generally feeling that they’ve received a better value when they read a good book that was also inexpensive. Basically, two books can be equally good, but readers will rate the self-published book higher because they paid less for it. The offshoot being that self-published books are trending higher ratings that traditionally published books. Yet another omen that the pub-pocalypse is coming.

The self-published blogosphere is filled with responses to Howey’s report. Many sing its praises, while others critique its data collection technique.

Just for clarity’s sake, I tend to think the best course for writers like me (that is, those who aren’t also marketing geniuses or wealthy enough to bankroll marketing geniuses) is to join the ranks of hybrid writers, writers who engage in a mix of traditional publishing and self-publishing. While these writers embrace the possibilities offered by the explosive popularity of self-publishing, they also see the value of the traditional publishers’ support for their work. It does have its perks.

After reading arguments about the lack of value for writers in the traditional publishing setup (agent gets a cut, publisher gets a cut, writer gets the smallest cut of all), I’ve concluded that it really depends on your individual needs. What do you hope to get out of it? And an even more important question might be what are YOU writing? Where do those books fit in? Some of your projects may fit better with a traditional publisher, while others are a better fit for self-publishing.

No matter which publishing route you choose, it really is up to you, the writer to make or break your own career. Agents can give you legal and industry advice, publishers’ backing can give you literary cred, but no one who is paid is going to represent you as ardently and honestly as you. Traditional publishers offer hand-holding, but in the end, you still have to do a lot of the grunt work.

No matter what, YOU need to learn to be a marketing genius, so stop staying not my job, and get on that.

Generally, the vibe I get from keeping up with the publishing tug-o-war is the same vibe I get from reading the regular news: OMG, the sky is falling, and we’re all gonna die. Sensationalism, exaggeration, link bait for those who are desperate for success and approval (aka, all of us in some shape or form).

Learn as much as you can from resources like AuthorEarnings, and then do what you feel is right for you and your work. Writers have never had more choices and opportunity. That’s kind of scary and complicated, but it’s also awesome.

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