Thursday, August 03, 2017

The Persistent Taint of Self-Publishing

By Dario Ciriello

Part of the Indie Authors Series

One of the signs of Napoleon's greatness is the fact that he once had a publisher shot.
—Siegfried Unseld1

It's ten years since Amazon launched Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and changed the face of publishing forever.

Today, indie/self-published books make up around 40% of the total US eBook market. Authors who started off as indies—Amanda Hocking, Andy Weir, and Hugh Howey, to name just a few—have sold books well into the millions and are close to household names. Although numbers are hard to come by, there’s definitely a sizeable “middle class” of probably a few thousand indie authors who make a comfortable living upwards of $50,000 a year. I know several myself.

The overall quality of indie books has steadily risen, with more authors than ever now using professional cover designers and editing services. And with indie eBooks overwhelmingly priced in the $2-$4 range (as opposed to $9 and up for traditionally published eBooks), readers are devouring them. Readers want a good read, not a Big Five seal of approval. Price point, along with reviews and recommendations, are what matters to them, not how the book came to be published.

So where’s the taint?

Shockingly, the notion of indie or self-publishing as garbage is most visible today in the author community.

I was reminded of this recently when one of several guest posts I wrote to coincide with the launch of my new book, a post only mildly critical of traditional publishing, generated some mild nastiness and haughty disdain from a number of authors (all traditionally published, of course), editors, and hangers-on. Of course, they complained of my hubris and lack of qualifications not in the blog comments but on social media (please laugh along with me: I didn’t rise to the bait, but thanked them politely once they’d settled down.)

My key sentences which drew their ire were:
Editors get set in their ways and don’t take well to risk.

[…] editors, agents, and industry professionals are prone to forget that what readers want isn’t necessarily aligned with what the publishing industry sees as good fiction.

As a writer and someone who today makes a good part of his living as a freelance editor and copyeditor, I believe the worst thing any editor can do is to forget that it’s about the reader. It’s always been about the reader, not the industry professional. And when I work on a client’s novel today, I always bear that in mind.
I stand by this. Five years ago you could still make the argument that agents and publishers were the shining guardians of quality, the last barrier between legions of innocent readers and an ocean of vile dreck; today, I suspect nobody, even in the publishing industry, believes that anymore.

So why do some writers—and I know several of these, too—persist in the face of rejection after rejection, year after year, in trying to secure a trad pub deal? Because the odds against a new writer landing an agent (never mind a publisher), and the chance of success even if they do, is so low as to approach vanishing point.

Since I’m clearly beyond redemption with the Trad Pub Rules! people anyway, I’m going to speak my mind about what I see as the reality of traditional publishing in 2017.

The traditional publishing model, especially among the Big Five is completely broken and needs to go away. Yes, there are many agents and editors in the industry who care deeply about trying to give newer authors a chance; but the likelihood of anyone who isn’t already a name getting a book deal is so slim, and the road to publication so time-consuming, burdensome, and peppered with potholes, that I can no longer advise anyone to go that route.

Many writers cling to the need for validation they’ve been taught to associate with a book deal. They may have concerns about the stigma historically attached to indie (a leftover from the days of the vanity presses), or not want anything to do with the business side of book promotion and distribution—and I understand that. They want to get into lots of bookstores and have a publisher go to bat for them, get them reviewed in the mainstream media, and arrange book tours.

Since the depth of the recession back around 2010, instead of investing small sums in cultivating promising writers over time, publishers are cherry-picking a few authors who they think have that magic something and throwing six- and seven-figure advances at them2, along with keeping their current Big Name authors happy.

Unfortunately, this all comes at the expense of the midlist, that stable of new and existing authors whose books sell moderately well but aren’t—at least yet—ready for stardom. The midlist, publishing’s middle class, has been put on starvation rations and is on life support. Not only are current midlist authors not getting their contracts renewed, but much less money is available to invest in new authors.

A lot of things which a new or midlist author once took for granted, like reviews, a decent marketing budget, and perhaps even a book tour, may well not materialize or meet the author’s expectations. It’s not uncommon for books to be released with near-zero marketing and promotional support.

Now, a book released without some muscle behind it is unlikely to sell enough copies to earn out its advance. That not only means you get no more money but, since sales numbers are logged, your chances of selling the next novel are materially reduced. Your own publisher set you up to fail.

Nor should anyone be dazzled by the lure of a presence in brick-and-mortar stores: between three and six months after publication, your book, unless it does well, will vanish from the stores. For an extra reality check, ask your friends, family, and co-workers how many print books they bought in a physical bookstore over the last year as opposed to buying from an online retailer in either hardcopy or digital format. (Full disclosure: I haven’t bought a single one.)

Still think trad publishing rather than indie is the way to go? Just five years ago, I’d have said it’s an even money bet, depending on your disposition. Today I believe that, all things being equal, the new writer is better served by going indie.

But what about the smaller presses, you say? Surely they deal more fairly with authors, etc., etc. Well, maybe. Just be sure to research any publisher who may offer you a deal very, very carefully, and look hard at the fine print. Ask yourself if an ebook-only deal with a (maybe) $500 flat fee where you get no promotion at all and only appear in print if you sell well, and where your rights are tied to the publisher even if they don’t perform, is really better than self-publishing.

If you’re one of those authors who still believe indie is tainted and has a bad image, and are hanging in there trying to place a novel despite year after year of rejections, I wish you every success—really. We each must be true to ourselves.

In the meantime, I’ll be publishing my next book or two.

Do you see indie publishing as remaining stigmatized today?

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing.

His fiction includes Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic; Black Easter, a supernatural suspense novel which pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island; and Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short science fiction work.

Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. Drown the Cat: The Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, July 4 2017) is his second nonfiction work.

In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles Area, offers professional editing and copyediting services to indie authors.

Website | Facebook | Goodreads

About Drown The Cat: The Rebel Author's Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules

Drown the Cat is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing. Although a few rules really are necessary, the vast majority are either dogma or passing fads. Worse, so much advice like “show don’t tell” and “open with action” is often poorly explained and entirely misunderstood, causing writers no end of problems.

Drawing on fifteen years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explodes writing myths, shreds conventional wisdom, and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers by books and blogs, agents and publishers. Drown the Cat gives authors the necessary tools and insights to retake control of their story and make it unique.

Whether your interest lies in novels or screenwriting, Drown the Cat shows you how to tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience, eschewing formulas and cookie-cutter fiction to remain true to your own, exceptional vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo | Panverse


1Siegfried Unseld was a giant of the German publishing industry and literary scene. As head of the publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag, he published, among many others, Isabel Allende, Roland Barthes, Bertholt Brecht, Michel Foucault, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

2Interestingly, if you take a vaguely decent book by an unknown an give them a million-dollar advance, the media attention based on the payment alone will work to make that book grab the spotlight and climb the charts. Cynical practice? You decide.


  1. I never considered there to be a real stigma to indie publishing. I mean, would I love to have a book deal? Sure, who wouldn't? But this to me, is like the DIY movement of early punk music, or the explosion of the Seattle Sound during the 90's grunge movement. Things go with the times and the tech. We, as writers can now control aspects of our own careers that weren't available to us in days of yore. It takes more work on our own to get things done, but labors of love aren't as bad as toiling at the yoke under the direction of others.
    Just my two cents worth.

  2. Eric, I couldn't agree more. And yet the stigma is real: there are plenty of authors, including some friends of mine, for whom the trad deal is still the goal despite all the compromises.

    There's a different kind of inertia here to what existed in the music scene; although I think there are some comparisons to be made between the two largely dysfunctional industries (publishing now is where the music industry was maybe a decade ago, some years after Napster changed that world), but also significant differences. Trad publishing for a long time enjoyed (and still, for some, does) a sheen of respectability and centuries-old tradition which the music biz never had.


  3. As an almost-published author through a self-published avenue, I find myself stammering when asked, "Oh, you have a book? Who's your publisher?" I'm trying to overcome an embarrassed, 'oh, I self-published.' What's a better answer??? (I've thought going with, "It's actually through an Amazon program, Create Space." --a true statement." How's that?)

    1. I understand. You can have your own imprint, as I do, which also may help with branding. Then you can just give the name of your imprint (mine is Panverse Publishing).

      But really, you'd be better served by just looking them levelly in the eye and saying, "I'm indie." And then, after a second's reflection, pre-empt them by adding, as if they might be a slow in the head, "Why would anyone *want* to work with a traditional publisher today?"

      Just saying. ;-)


  4. My energy flags sometimes, but I haven't thrown in the towel. I'll be self-publishing my tenth novel under my own imprint Silent K Publishing in a matter of weeks, and I'm remarketing a trilogy self-published eight years ago with a new cover and title.

    I read your latest book with interest. You made good sense. Indie is the only option as far as I'm concerned, and it's up to the evasive X factor of synchronicity if I ever break into sales that could turn an editor's(or my)head.

    It's frustrating but there it is. I highly recommend 'Drown the Cat'

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