March 22nd, 2011 / 3:00 pm
Craft Notes

Taking No For An Answer: Some New Thoughts on Self-Publishing

Lately, a number of  writers have chosen to self-publish their work. Self-publishing isn’t new but with all the e-publishing options becoming available, there’s far more democracy to publishing and self-publishing than ever before. It doesn’t take much to get a book listed on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or the Apple Bookstore and with a few clicks of the mouse, you are your own publisher. Some of these self publishing writers say that they’re circumventing mainstream publishing as if they are self-publishing by choice, not because they couldn’t get their work published any other way. Sometimes that is actually the case. Sometimes it is not. I have no problem with self-publishing. It is not an option I would choose for myself, mostly because I don’t have the time to do the work required of someone who self publishes. However, I don’t begrudge writers who do avail themselves of the self-publishing route and it can be a really interesting way of challenging the publishing establishment and getting your work out there without having to deal with some of the more problematic aspects of mainstream publishing. At the same time, just because you can do something does not mean you should.

I read this excerpted interview between Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler (full interview here), the latter who turned down a $500K deal with St. Martin’s to self-publish his book and I had a few thoughts: 1) Wait, what?; 2) He must be able to afford turning down half a million dollars; 3) I am not familiar with Barry Eisler; 4) I admire that kind of confidence; 5) He must have the reputation (the talent being implied by the size of the deal) to make more money publishing his book himself; and 6) Neat, ballsy. The interview itself was really interesting but man, I really think there are some writers who underestimate the power of a traditional publisher. I wonder about the direness of publishing implied by some of the comments. I wonder, wonder, wonder.

I have also been thinking about Amanda Hocking who has achieved some measure of success self-publishing her books and now stands to earn more than $1 million from a deal, at auction, with a major publishing house. Her success is the kind people who self-publish strive for, hope for, and rarely achieve. She circumvented mainstream publishing, established a market for herself and even without the major book deal that’s rumored, is doing quite well (though not as well as some of the hysterical, inaccurate reporting surrounding her success suggests.) She is now being held up as a model for self publishing without acknowledging that there were a lot of different factors contributing to her success beyond sheer will.

The argument can certainly be made that there is very little distinction between self-publishing and publishing with a micropress, for example, save that you don’t have to spend your own money. There is, however, even with a micropress, a certain level of vetting or curation that takes place. A manuscript is chosen and someone believes in that manuscript enough to put some money behind it and do their best to get that book out into the world. That micropress might only get fifty copies of your book out in the world but that’s still something. Hocking herself noted on her blog that, “Self-publishing and traditional publishing really aren’t that different. One is easier to get into but harder to maintain. But neither come with guarantees. Some books will sell, some won’t.” That’s a fairly accurate statement. Whether a book is published via self-publishing, a micropress, a small press or a mainstream publisher, people are trying to do the same thing–get books out there, find audiences for those books, and make money. The real difference between the various levels of publishing is a matter of scale or scope.

I recently bought a few self-published books via Amazon and other means because I have always been curious about the quality of self-published writing, particularly the writing of writers who claim they are forging this new path because their writing is simply unable to be appreciated or understood by mainstream publishing, because their writing is falling through the cracks. Only one of these books, No Shelter, by Z. Constance Frost, was excellent—memorable and something I’ll read more than once. The book is genre fiction, not a perfect book, but I really loved it and the story totally kept me engaged. The writing was solid and it certainly held up to similar books I’ve read from mainstream publishers. Additionally, female assassins are awesome. Quality is certainly very subjective but even with that, given the self-published work I’ve read (admittedly not an adequate sample to really draw broader conclusions) there’s a reason most of those self-published books were not picked up by publishers great or small. There was no misunderstood genius in these novels. These books fell through the proverbial cracks for a reason. As an editor it was painfully easy to identify the weaknesses in plot, characterization, tone, dialogue, pacing and all the other elements that comprise a good book. Some of these books were adequately written but boring. Some of these books were plain terrible and filled with sloppy writing, making the very strong case for the value of a competent copyeditor and the value of a gatekeeper to say, “no,” this book should not be published, at least not in its current state. These were not books that could be published by anyone but the writer themselves.

There is also the matter of price which seems a little out of control for self publishers. Particularly where e-books are concerned, many self published writers are basically giving their writing away for $.99-$2.99. Lincoln Michel wrote a really great article for the Faster Times about e-book pricing. The $.99 price point is a terrible, terrible idea and it sets a terrible, terrible precedent. It makes no sense to sell a 300 page book for the same price as a three minute song. If we as writers don’t value our craft enough to price our work appropriately, how can we expect readers to want to pay appropriate prices? If you have to basically give your writing away, what does that tell you? It feels like we’re avoiding some of the really difficult questions about self publishing to worship at the altar of empowering ourselves and challenging the status quo. I could see myself selling a short story for a buck or two but a book, a whole book? My work is worth more than that. Your work is worth more than that.  If I cannot sell my books at a ore reasonable $8-$10 price point, perhaps the market is telling me something about my writing. Humbling? Perhaps.

We live in an age of entitlement. We want therefore we must (and should) have. We are encouraged not to take “no” for an answer. Writing, or publishing really, is primarily an endeavor where we must learn to appreciate rejection or at least accept rejection. As writers we will always hear “no” more than we will hear “yes,” because taste is so subjective, because for many publishers, there are a finite number of books they can publish because they have finite resources, even if they are some of the largest publishers in the world. Persistence is an important quality in a writer. Some of my greatest writing successes have come from being persistent in the face of constant rejection. And yet, I wonder if there comes a point when we should take no for an answer, when we should use rejection to reassess why we keep meeting with rejection. At what point does faith become foolish or even delusional?

Writers ask me if they should self-publish and I struggle to find the right answer. On the one hand, why not? If that’s a choice you would like to make, there is ample evidence that self publishing is a viable option and in some cases you can do better for yourself than someone else can. On the other hand, I sense a certain impatience when I am asked this question, a certain need for instant gratification. Often when a writer is asking this question they are saying, “I wrote a book, and I want it to be published immediately and rather than wait, I’m going to go it alone.” I suffer from this delusion. It’s awkward and I am constantly reminded that this is not always how it works. I also sense that these writers want to have a book, any book, even a mediocre book, rather than wait for the right agent, publishing opportunity or even the right book from their arsenal as if we each only have one book in us. While publishers have finite resources, writers, generally do not have a finite number of words they can write. If you write one book, you can probably write another. What’s more important—publishing a book or publishing a good book?

I remain fairly optimistic about publishing even now. I continue to believe that if you have the goods, you will get a book deal. That deal might not be at your first choice or second or third choice but I feel confident in saying that good writers end up with good presses. There are lots of good writers and a glance at Amazon or a stroll through any bookstore bears this out. We are inundated by books.  Forgive this one shred of optimism but getting published seems to be well within the realm of possibility for good writers, great writers, and even mediocre writers.

The publishing industry cannot always the problem when a writer cannot get their book published.  Maybe sometimes we must face the fact that it’s not them, it’s us. That’s an uncomfortable thing to talk about and it’s even more uncomfortable to confront in ourselves. I believe everyone is extraordinary. I have yet to meet someone who wasn’t interesting in some way even if the most interesting thing about a person is their utter lack of personality. But are we all special? Does every writer deserve to be published? I am reminded of Stephen Elliott’s series of Daily Rumpus e-mails where he talked about genius, about being special. In one of these messages, he wrote, “But the first thing is that their are many great writers. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s kind of nullifying. Even if the great writers are swamped by the intentional mediocrity of lazy artists and greedy executives, there’s still a lot of great writers. So here we are, putting our work into the world, begging for attention, and yet nobody owes us anything. We’re not special, not really. I don’t think I believe in talent. I think if you write every day for years and years, ten at the minimum, and you’re willing to be honest with yourself, then you’ll probably become a good writer.” I’ve thought about those statements since I first read them and there’s something there. There’s something to accepting that we’re not as special as we think we are. Just because we want a book doesn’t mean we will (or should) have a book. Maybe sometimes, “no,” is the final answer and we should learn to be okay with that.

A lot of the rhetoric around self-publishing confuses me. I wonder when publishers became the enemy.  All too often, the rhetoric of self-publishing sounds like writers who are trying to convince themselves that going it alone is the best option because they don’t want to wait or re-evaluate their work or take no for an answer. This is not to say I think publishers are magical and benevolent entities who always have a writer’s best interests at heart. I know how the world works but I do not believe publishers are hell bent on being evil either. Publishing is not that simple. We cannot make sense of who gets published and who doesn’t by reducing the process to a writer believing they are talented and having that faith somehow translate into a book deal. There are any number of factors involved including confidence, timing, and the right people at the right publishers seeing in your writing what you, as the writer, see in your writing. It’s amazing that anything gets published when you think of all the small miracles required to get published. Or, of course, you could go on a reality television show on MTV, wear a lot of spray tan and say ridiculous things. There are all kinds of options when you think about it.

I suppose part of my attitude toward self publishing involves laziness. I want to write the books. I don’t want to have to do all the work of publishing them too. That’s old-fashioned of me but I’m in my thirties. I don’t feel that DIY drive I might have felt in my twenties. The majority of my work is done once I have written the book. I understand that writers have to hustle and do all kinds of work to promote their books even when they are published, and I am totally down for that, but the idea of having to be solely responsible for the design, copyediting, layout, distribution and marketing of my book is not terribly appealing. The idea that I would have to pay to publish my own book is even even less appealing than having to handle all the production and distribution. I believe in my writing, I do,  but if I had to choose between self-publishing a book to get my work out there or never having a book published, I’d choose to never have a book published. My life will go on. Writing is what I love. Publishing is an awesome side effect. I also confess that my ego plays a part in my reluctance to self publish. It isn’t enough to think my writing is “good enough.”  I could be delusional. I wrote  a good chunk of a “novel” and lots of stories during my twenties I thought were amazing and reading most of that writing now, I am absolutely mortified. I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself like that on a much bigger scale by self publishing a book. I want someone else to say my writing is good enough. Most writers want that validation. We are human.

Many years ago, while I was living in Nebraska, I interviewed for a position at iUniverse which was, at the time, headquartered there. The company was brand new and I had a really good interview, lasted a couple hours. Great people worked there–genuinely enthusiastic about helping writers to publish their work themselves and there wasn’t a predatory vibe about the place that you see in similar ventures. Their bread and butter was people publishing projects like cookbooks, genealogy-related books, memoirs and what have you. I read a few sample books and they were quite terrible but there was no harm in those books being published. What I couldn’t help but realize, though, is that iUniverse was, as Hocking noted, doing the exact same thing traditional publishers were doing–trying to make money. Their fees were fairly reasonable if you have that kind of money, but there were fees for every little thing from cover design to layout to acquiring an ISBN to printing the book, distributing the book, etc. They have packages now but the packages range from $600 to more than $4,000. When you look at the services offered at each price point, those services are not really the kind of efforts that will get your book the attention needed to sell. Most people reading this  know there are more cost-effective ways of self publishing but there are all kinds of writers out there who don’t know better, who think that handing over thousands of dollars is the only way to get your writing published, who are willing to forget that money should flow to the writer. If you believe in your writing enough to invest that kind of money, I wonder why you don’t believe in your writing enough to pursue more traditional alternatives or, in the face of rejection, revise your work such that it will, eventually be published.

For writers who have established a good reputation for themselves, it might very well make sense to go the self-publishing route. Steve Almond has certainly met with a great deal of success recently doing so but the success he is having self-publishing his work was likely made possible from first going the traditional publishing route. He also has boundless energy. You have to have the personality for it.  Stephen King could self publish his grocery lists in a collected volume and use the proceeds to buy a small island in the Caribbean because he is Stephen King. Writers like Almond or King or Joe Konrath or Barry Eisler, writers who choose self-publishing and succeed or are likely to succeed, these people are by far the exceptions to the rule. When they evangelize about self publishing it’s like watching a Jennifer Hudson Weight Watchers commercial and believing that all it takes is following the program to look as amazing as she looks right now. For every writer like these bigger hitters there are, literally thousands of writers who will never do more than sell a handful of their self-published books. There’s nothing wrong with that. Success is a personal measure but it’s important to acknowledge that there are just as many small miracles required to succeed via self publishing.

I keep coming back to having faith in our writing and learning to take no for an answer. These ideas are not antithetical. A case could be made for learning to take “no” for an answer, to learning what that “no” means without attaching some kind of conspiracy theory to it, and having enough faith in our writing to wait for the right opportunity and to do something more productive with the “no” than believe our only or best option is to go it alone.

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  1. Indie publishers vs. self-publishing « Alluringly Short

      […] 2011 tags: indie publishing, self publishing, small press by E Mena This article by Roxane Gay, Taking No For An Answer, over at HTMLGiant got me thinking about self-publishing’s defensive stance against […]

  2. Erica Mena

      This is a great post – got me thinking about where indie publishers fit into the self-publish vs. big publishers dichotomy that seems to be fueling most of the ‘publisher as enemy’ rhetoric.

  3. stephen

      Thank you for your thoughtfulness, Roxane.

      here are my friend Steve Roggenbuck’s thoughts on self-publishing:

      here are Steve’s thoughts on selling art:

      I think Steve has a lot of interesting ideas about these subjects and other ones.

      I’m not sure how I feel about traditional publishing versus self-publishing. I guess if I could be published by a publisher who I respect, or who has published other authors I like, that’d be exciting. And I think ultimately I would like it if I was published by a major publisher, IF that meant an increased chance of making more money. This is all presumptuous, though, because I haven’t written a book, and I don’t know if anyone will want to publish it once I do.

      I do know that I want to reach an audience, and I don’t think I necessarily need anyone else, any literary journals, etc., to do that.

      I see compelling examples in the music industry of both unsigned newcomers (Odd Future) and huge stars (Lil Wayne) growing a huge fanbase by essentially self-publishing, posting their music themselves, online, for free.

  4. david

      good article. i like to do both though: use a rejection as an excuse for a revision, but never put too much weight in the opinion of one or two people who may have had their car stolen that day (although statistics may one day show that getting a car stolen makes acceptances jump)

  5. Brendan Connell

      Having a book published with a publisher is so much work – back and forths about editing, design, etc etc etc. To self publish something well would just be too much I think, unless it was something fairly short…

  6. M. Kitchell

      I both self-publish things & send things to lit journals et. al. (I don’t have anything “book-length” written that I think a major publishing house would be interested in at all, so I haven’t even considered how that factors into my ideas yet). Generally, I end up self-publishing more things that I think, in terms of form, would have a harder time finding a place in journal X or as a chapbook from Y etc.

      I enjoy the craft of making books/zines/chapbooks. Coming from an art background, my entire time in undergrad, as a photo-major, was basically spent making books. I think it’s fun. I’m also kind of a control-freak when it comes to layout, fonts, design, etc. I suck at promotion, but I’m not overtly concerned about that at the moment, because I am not counting on my self-published works to make it day to day.

      However, a lot of the stuff I have self published– well, let’s put it this way. I self publish on a very small scale. I don’t think I’ve ever done an edition of more than 30 copies of something, and I rarely go that. I am out of everything I’ve self-published except a poetry chapbook I made 2 years ago that is basically only available if you specifically ask me for that. Do I think I’m bucking the system? Not really.

      If I were to find a place that was specifically looking to publish works that combine text & images & can afford to print color & are going to publish more than 30 copies of it, and they wanted my work, I would fucking jump at the opportunity. However, I don’t know how to find these places, if these places exist. Also, the work I end up self-publishing also tends to be my most experimental work. I think, perhaps, that there’s more to be said for the merits self-publishing formally experimental work than there is to be said for the merits of self-publishing genre fiction. A publisher wants to find something that will sell. I think it’s fairly safe to assume that writing that does not look like writing is generally red-flagged as non-marketable. There is more or less the history of publishing to back this up (a lot of stuff will eventually get published, but how often do you see wildly experimental work the first book released by a totally unknown author on a major house? House of Leaves probably only got picked up because it’s ostensibly genre fiction– maybe Blake’s new book will be the first exception here, though I haven’t seen it so I don’t know how formally experimental it is. Even Burroughs’s first three books, that established his reputation and made him available to the public, look like and mostly read like “normal” fiction).

      I don’t know where I was going with this. I think there are just things I thought of while reading this post. NO PUNCHLINE.

  7. Andrew Bowen

      Good article. It’s true that this is a subject that will never die and with technology in favor of the consumer as opposed to an elect few (the Gutenberg press comes to mind), self-publishing is a fixture in the world of art.
      I think it’s unfair to assign a single motivation to why artist elect to self publish. I’ve traditionally published short stories and have a novella forthcoming, as well as a new novella recently self-published( Both novellas were vetted by editors. Turn around for the traditional: nearly two years. Turn around for the self-published novella: one month. The reason I’ve chosen self-publishing follows: 1) I can deliver my material to readers faster without dealing with the muck of the traditional model. 2) I control the content and art (with the help of a cover artist and editor). 3) I can directly connect with my readership without the traditional middleman.
      As for your assessment on pricing. Think about it. If you have a book traditionally published, the author makes a few cents (we’re talking the majority “mid-list” folks) per book. These books in brick and mortar stores (as well as online) have been over-priced for years and few authors make a living despite the high per-book price tag. This makes it harder to fork over cash on an unknown or any new title. Therefore, fewer authors are discovered. On the other hand, if I charge only $.99 for a Kindle version of my novella (which I do) and $9.99 for the print version (got that too), then every one wins. The reader is paying the true cost of the book (cheaper) and I end up making more per title than I otherwise would from the traditional folks because my royalties aren’t going toward the massive overhead. Plus, the author creates loyalty. Authors can spend more time working on their material rather than the roller durby that is traditional publishing. It’s simple profit by volume, and no this doesn’t devalue one’s material; it simply ensures more of their material is being read.
      That’s exactly why folks like J. A. Konrath (who was traditionally published for years) became turncoats. They were tired of the game and are now doing better than before. The idea is to do it right, i.e., professionally. There’s a fine line there.

  8. Robert Swartwood

      Good post. The only thing I don’t agree with is what you say about price point. Because the value of the book is not the price but what the author gets in return. So an e-book priced at $2.99? If the author sells through Amazon they can earn just over $2.00 per unit sold. They wouldn’t make half of that with an e-book published by a traditional publisher pricing it at $9.99 (or more), not with the current 25% author royalties, as that 25% is not a true percentage after the agent takes the cut and whatnot. Plus, a lower e-book price means more potential readers. Since Random House went to the agency pricing model, all their e-books have skyrocketed. I was planning on buying Scott Snyder’s VOODOO HEART, had seen it for $9.99 on Kindle awhile back, then went to finally buy it the other day but stopped when I saw the price was now $14.99. The trade paperback was priced less than that. What publishers are doing now is trying to save their print books by jacking up the price of their e-books when they really should be embracing the technology and figuring out ways to make it work. Not that I’m against major publishers, as you know (I send my new stuff to my agent), but for my unpublished manuscripts lying around, I figure why not try it myself?

      On a side note, genre fiction seems to have a better shot of making more money than literary fiction when it comes to self-publishing. I know a writer who self-published a zombie novel under a pen name, didn’t do much marketing except for mentioning it here and there on Facebook and Twitter and some message boards, and he sold almost 7,000 units in the first three months. The book was priced at $2.99, meaning it made just over 2 bucks a unit. He told me his agent even said he wouldn’t be able to sell it for more than he’s making doing it himself. Of course, not everyone will have that kind of success, but it’s worth thinking about.

      Regarding Barry Eisler, he has the fan base, so it’s a smart move. Suppose he sells 250 units a day priced at $2.99, it would take him less than three years to make that half million. And the best part — for him at least — is he doesn’t have to share it with anyone.

  9. Z. Constance Frost

      OMG, thank you so much for the shout out, Roxane!! I’m so glad to hear you liked it! :-)

      Also, my reason for self-publishing the book is because no major publishers wanted it. My agent tried shopping it around, and while a few editors really liked the book, they said they weren’t sure how to market it. So then I was stuck with the first book in a proposed series, and I decided to see what might happen on my own.

  10. Brendan Connell

      Andrew…how do you figure the author makes only a few cents? Normally it is 8-15% of the cover price, so on a paperback it should be a dollar or slightly more. You charge 10 bucks for your book. That is about the same as in a book store. As for charging 99 cents for your kindle version, well, under Amazon don’t you get just 30 percent or something? So, that is 30 cents. My new book will be on kindle, but I’ll get much more than that per copy. The only people really making money off the .99 book is the corporations. It also sets up an expectancy in the kindle readers that everything should be close to free.

  11. Roxane

      Lots to think about, Andrew. I am definitely not assigning a single motivation for self-publishing. I’m mostly focusing on a certain kind of self-publisher, one who might be more impatient than truly interested in putting a good book in the world. Your reasons for self-publishing are interesting and the time thing is huge. Publishing is so damn slow. It is really dispiriting, sometimes, to see just how slow. I personally don’t have the time to do all the work required to connect to my readership without the traditional middleman, but I do respect the people who choose to go that route. There are so many new options available to writers. It’s pretty mind blowing. In terms of pricing, what you say makes sense but I’m still not personally interested in selling a full length novel, for example, for $.99 no matter what cut I get. My thinking might change in time. Right now this is where I’m at.

  12. Roxane

      Well I’m glad you did. No Shelter was fantastic.

  13. Roxane

      Having started my own micropress, I am really enjoying the process of crafting wonderful books. There’s definitely something to be said for the artisanal aspect that cam come with self publishing. I also get the control freak part but I am willing to cede some control to the publishing process. I have lots of other things I can be controlling with, fortunately.

      Finding someone who can afford to print color and more than 30 copies is definitely tough. Sometimes, as I note in my post, there truly is no one who can do better with your work than you, as the artist.

      I do think its a mistake to assume that publishers aren’t interested in experimental work. Mainstream publishers (and to a greater extent indies) do, sometimes, take a chance on experimental work. It is, as with all genres of work, a matter of finding the right champion.

  14. Heather Fowler

      :) Interesting discussion. Honestly, I think Roxane is right about the issue of self-publishing–it’s great when you already have a fan base and enough marketing wheels behind pre-existing work, but the quality can be sub-par when there are no gate-keepers and the work and expense to market and promote such things can take away from the writing time. What saddens me about this article is this part: “There’s something to accepting that we’re not as special as we think we are. Just because we want a book doesn’t mean we will (or should) have a book. Maybe sometimes, ‘no,’ is the final answer and we should learn to be okay with that”–and the reason why this saddens me is because even some of the most amazing writers I know tear themselves up this way.

      Maybe I think that we are all as special as we think we are and we all should do what we love because we love it damn it, no matter whether success comes our way or not. What builds a solid writing career IS perspiration as well as the grind and I think each path to success differs. It’s frequent that someone has toiled for two decades to hit upon a sudden success with a piece of work that contributes to the sales much earlier work. And its perceived market value.

      What I hate are lazy people who want instant success and don’t put their hours in at the keyboard–but I guess I think everyone who does put those hours in is kinda beautiful, and hey, they might make it one day, and gee, wouldn’t that be great if they did. So I don’t want them to learn to be okay with “no,” if what that means is giving up, or giving up what they love, due to a relative index in a constantly fluctuating marketplace that took years to value, for example, Moby Dick, which Melville dumped his fortunes into and died thinking was a critical and popular failure.

      So, Dick on, is what I say to those folks with a fervor for what they do. As Melville said about that text, “I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb.”

      Personally, I haven’t wanted to self-publish because I’ve wanted to be an academic, because I’ve had some ego attached to wanting gatekeepers’ help, and frankly, because I’d rather keep writing and keep sending stuff out until I do get the marketing machine behind me for book-length work, but that is also just because I care more about writing than researching such opportunities and I do secretly fantasize that one day someone else will do tons of the book promoting work for me (for the next ten or twelve manuscripts I’d like to get out), the stuff I don’t like–because it’s all about writing and reading and dreaming for me, or I’d like it to be. And then it’s about reading and dreaming and writing some more..

      Cheers all,

  15. Roxane

      The Internet has definitely made it possible for writers to reach an audience without traditional venues. The music industry has set quite a precedent but I do think its dangerous to always point to the wild successes. For every Odd Future (not familiar with them) or Lil Wayne growing huge fan bases by self-publishing, there are countless people who have no fan base, who don’t achieve those levels of success. It’s important to know what’s possible at both ends of the spectrum.

  16. Nick Mamatas

      There’s no reason to fear the one-dollar ebook, not any more than one should fear the 25-cent paperback from fifty years ago. What does one buy when one buys an ebook—the content without any physical element to is, and a limited license to the content at that.

      We already know what a book sells for when there’s no real book attached—go to a Goodwill and buy a used paperback. It costs a buck or two.

      The comparisons to songs are inapt, especially if one is only measuring the length of time in a song versus the number of pages in a book. Songs take time to write, arrange, practice, perform, master, and often substantial capital purchases of instruments and recording equipment. But neither mp3 files nor ebook files should be priced on a cost-plus basis for the simple reason that you’re not just selling one of them. One doesn’t “sell a book for a dollar”, one sells a book for thirty cents times however many units sold. In some cases, this has been thousands of dollars, and more rarely thousands of dollars per month. (And, of course, in many cases, it’s been dozens of dollars.)

      Frankly, the whole worry about the dollar ebook smells to me like nothing more than the most disgusting class snobbery—only poor people shop at dollar stores! Buy something for a dollar?! Eeeew!

  17. Lincoln Michel

      Why is .99 cents the “true cost of the book”? I can’t imagine the logic behind that….(even if one believed in “true costs,” which I’d say is a myth.)

      “Authors can spend more time working on their material rather than the roller durby that is traditional publishing.”

      This seems totally bonkers to me. Self-publishing is a viable track for certain authors, to be sure, but it requires that the author take a much heavier load of marketing, editing, and proofing duties (unless the author is paying for those things, in which case he/she is getting less of a cut). The author has much less time to work on the material than the traditional publisher.

      Most of the successful self-published authors also seem to have to crank out books at a fast pace, so the time spent on a single work is much lower. Amanda Hocking published 9 books in one year.

  18. Roxane

      I love the Dollar Store. Not everything is a class conspiracy. People can sell their books for any price they want. I simply don’t feel like that’s a great option for me or many of the writers I know. It’s not worry as much as it is thinking about the long term consequences of undervaluing writing. The $.25 cent paperback was a pulp novel. I don’t write pulp novels. The comparison isn’t the same.

  19. Lincoln Michel

      Do you, or anyone else here, believe that Amazon will actually keep its author cut at 70%?

      I find it fascinating that everyone repeats this percentage as if it is an ironclad rule of e-book publishing, instead of, you know, a business decision Amazon recently implemented and will likely change in the future when it is a smart business decision to change.

  20. Roxane

      Great comments, Heather. I don’t anyone should give up on something they truly believe in but I also think that sometimes, we need to re-evaluate our writing to the end of revising, of trying something different instead of automatically assuming that we are right and the naysayer is wrong.

  21. Lincoln Michel

      Thanks for the shout out Roxane, and good article!

  22. T-Math

      I don’t know if I’m missing something, but is that quote from Stephen Elliott in the sixth to last paragraph (where he talks about being a genius) supposed to have grammar mistakes? There’s a wrong form of “there,” and a singular on “there’s” when it is supposed to be the plural “there are”.

      I just can’t tell if it’s ironic or if there are sics missing.

  23. Robert Swartwood

      Honestly, Amazon is trying to steal as many authors from publishers as it can, so it’ll be around for awhile. After that? Who knows.

  24. Nick Mamatas

      No, not everything is a class conspiracy. But there are tons of class conspiracies out there–and frankly, “The $.25 cent paperback was a pulp novel. I don’t write pulp novels” is just an example of what I am talking about.

      One, you’re wrong—pretty much any writer who had paperbacks, like Steinbeck, Faulkner, etc. had paperbacks at the low price, which was rather the point of the paperback in the first place. It’s not just “pulp” (or for that matter, not just novels). The more expensive trade paperback is a relatively recent invention.

      Two, the notion that some types of fiction are should be differently priced is original to you, just now. You’re not going to see the “good stuff” set at a different price than the “pulp” in any bookstore; prices are determined by format (hardcover, trade paper, oversized, mass market paperback, etc.) You are engaging in class snobbery and yes I am telling you to check your class privilege.

  25. Anonymous

      Hey there Lincoln,

      The low price with the .99 cent model reflects a Kindle ebook. So yes, it does reflect true cost. It would be insane to price a print edition at such a price. This is why mp3’s sell like hot cakes: low price and higher probability of risk taken by a potential buyer.

      Authors are burdened with the task of editing, proofing, and marketing whether they use traditional pubs or go the self path. Why not get more of the pie for doing the work?

      Most of the successful self-pub authors crank out more work because they don’t have to wait around for contracts and proofs and edits (rinse, lather, and repeat) which are tied up in a queue with the work of other authors. Plus, these folks are out to make a living. How do you make a living? Make more for people to purchase and enjoy.

  26. Anonymous

      Good point Roxane. It does become an easy out for folks who are impatient. However for those who’ve worked the system for a few years and know who to play the game, the results can be great.

  27. Nick Mamatas

      Not everything is a class conspiracy, but you just demonstrated class snobbery right now, and yes you should be checking your class privilege right now. “I don’t write pulp novels.” Pardon me, madame!

      One, you’re wrong. The twenty-five cent paperback was not a pulp novel, not exclusively. Pretty much any author of hardcovers who went into paperbacks did at that low price in that time. That’s rather the point of the paperback.

      Two, walk into a bookstore. You’re not going to find the “good stuff” at price point A and “pulp” at price point A/2. Prices are determined by format and, to a lesser extent, length. Genre isn’t tied to price hardly at all. You’re spinning a self-satisfied delusion to think that you’re stuff is so hot that it must needs be more expensive than other material, just for the sake of its non-pulp (and all those dirty poor uneducated people who read that junk!) content.

  28. Brendan Connell

      Nick, the thing is, the 25 cent paperbacks from Gold Medal and the like were put out in the 50’s. My Dad was renting a loft in Manhattan then for I think 25 bucks. You could buy a hamburger (I mean a real one at a diner) for 15 cents. The value of the money was totally different. The minimum print runs for those books were also 200,000 copies and they paid 2,000 dollar advances for such print runs, which in the 50’s was ok money.

      Let’s not forget that to read that .99 cent book someone had to lay out a chunk for the reader. Now, I myself am too poor to afford one…I get my books mostly from the library.

  29. Roxane

      There are, indeed class conspiracies abounding out there but not here. Nonetheless, I will wear the elitist label on this one, absolutely.

      I never said pulp was the bad stuff and other writing was the good stuff. I actually make money as a writer writing genre fiction and feel far more allegiance to that writing than anything else.

      I think all fiction should be priced affordably but above $.99. I do. I think it sends the wrong message to assume that books should be cheap because that’s the only way people should buy them. If we start by pricing books at $.99, there’s nowhere to grow, there’s nowhere to go but cheaper and then books will be free. Sure, it would be nice for everything to be free but free doesn’t help writers unless all you want is to be read. If all you want is to be read, by all means, work that price point. I’m one of those insane writers who wants to both have my work read and be compensated for it. I don’t need to be compensated richly but I would like to see something for my effort.

  30. Brendan Connell

      Also, Nick, just for the record: I do agree that price has nothing to do with quality, since guys like Jim Thompson, who were only published in paperback originals, were by any literary standards just about the best this country had to offer.

  31. Anonymous

      Hey Brendan,

      I don’t remember the last time I saw a new paperback in a book store for ten bucks (let me know where you’re shopping!), but we’ll go with that.

      Okay, so let’s go with your 8-15% model. With a 10.00 book, that puts the author at making about a buck on each sale. But wait a minute, what about the agent (in the likely chance the author has one). She needs her 15% cut on sales. And if I’m not mistaken, I think the author makes their 8-15% on net sales on the publisher’s price to the book store, not the bookstore’s mark-up once it hits the shelves.

      Bottom line: I make around 3 bucks on every one of my $9.99 books…and that 3 bucks goes in my pocket instead of paying the overhead of a publisher and an agent. Granted, this isn’t a model for everyone.

      As for the 99 cent Kindle issue. How does it devalue your content if you price material to move? You establish a willing customer base who’s willing to take a risk on a new author. I hate leaving a bookstore after spending 30-50 dollars and only coming out with two or three titles. Why not get more for your money AND help the author out as well? These high prices are for the corporations, as you say. Does the fact that you only spend a buck per song on an album (and 9.99 per album instead of 15 to 20 bucks in the old days) devalue the content? No, it means the artist sells more because now you can AFFORD more.

  32. Heather Fowler

      This is true. But then, I think all the time about how I hate the work of certain big literary stars–and don’t think they deserve revering–but conversely love the ones I love and woe betide anyone who tells me they didn’t create the universe… In other words, taste is relative. If the point of the argument made is not “accept the no”–but “accept the no for now, because you need to work harder and make it cleaner and better–do that and we’ll talk, or at least you’ll be more deserving of someone else picking you up–and what do you think this is, the lotto?” then I can get behind that. xo

  33. alanrossi

      interesting read. that stephen elliot quote, that has me thinking:

      “We’re not special, not really. I don’t think I believe in talent. I think if you write every day for years and years, ten at the minimum, and you’re willing to be honest with yourself, then you’ll probably become a good writer.”

      i agree that writers aren’t special, but it seems overly optimistic to me to think that hard work (and being honest with oneself) is going to make one a good writer (he does say “probably” but still). ten years of hard work could very easily do nothing. i could work on math for ten years and still be pretty deplorable at it – i might be improved, but i would still kind of suck, is what i’m saying. if we want to extend these metaphors to more easily visualized actions, someone who is a poor athlete could practice soccer every day for ten years and still be pretty bad at soccer relative to good players. i think practice is important, of course, but it seems to me that great writing or great writers are able to tap a kind of hidden magic which can’t be learned through practice – one might be able to learn to write clearly and follow a generic story, but to be able to really create something original or new, nah. i suppose i’m of the school that good writers are born, though like a professor of mine used to say, you could be born at forty-five.

  34. karl taro

      this was a good essay. (and yes, this was an essay!) i especially liked that you bought a bunch of self-published books in your little survey. i have read a few self-published books and I agree with your assessment, most couldn’t find a publisher for a reason, and that reason very often was that there is something just a little off or unprofessional about the writing itself. sometimes it was obvious—word repetition, jarring metaphors, strange perspective shifts—and at other times it wasn’t clear what was wrong but something was—you just wanted to bang the top of the book like an old TV having picture problems. and you make a very good point, if you are trying to publish a book and nobody wants to publish it—and this is a process that can take years—then 99% of the time the reason is the manuscript itself. the other 1% is where it gets interesting, and where great, transcendent genius may indeed lie. i would imagine those outliers don’t give a fuck about this debate

  35. Nick Mamatas

      Yes, Brendan, I know that inflation exists. Twenty-five cents back then was about a buck-sixty today. The difference is that for the extra sixty inflation-adjusted cents you got a book you could give away, lend, cut to pieces and turn into a collage, sell, etc. For sixty cents less, well, you get fewer rights or licenses.

      I agree that e-readers represent a surcharge, but many many ebooks are not read on dedicated e-readers, but on people’s smartphones or other devices. There are a couple dozen million devices with iOS on them, for example. People read on their iPads, iPhones, iPod Touch devices, etc.

  36. Robert Swartwood

      Length of the e-book becomes an issue, too. Some of these readers become so accustomed to buying novels at 99 cents, that when someone tries to sell a short story or novella for the same price, they balk, thinking it’s too much. That’s my only beef with the 99 cent price point, that misperception.

  37. Nick Mamatas

      Well if you wish to wear your elitist label you shouldn’t complain here that I’m seeing class conspiracies or elsewhere that I am putting words into your mouth.

      It’s also hilarious that you’re objecting to the idea of “free” now, given that PANK pays contributors…what exactly? Oh yeah, nuffin’. Your desire for cheap books, but NOT 99c books tells me that I’m right—there is something about that price that upsets middle-class elitists that has nothing to do with supply/demand curves, profitability, or anything else except for some sort of social revulsion.

  38. Lincoln Michel

      You didn’t explain at all why .99 cents is the “true cost”….

  39. Anonymous

      Because much of a book’s cost is reflected by the physical book itself. An ebook is easier to replicate without all the printing costs, shipping, etc.

  40. Roxane

      Nick, I simply disagree. I don’t object to the $.99 price point for the reasons you think I do. And really, we’re talking about people who have disposable income because they own a Kindle. They can afford to pay $5.99 or $8.99, in many cases.

      Literary fiction does not pay. You know this very well. It is unfortunate and we are actually getting closer to being able to pay our contributors. Literary magazines not paying contributors doesn’t have much to do with ebook pricing, does it? As a writer publishing in literary magazines I never get paid. It’s not like I’m sitting on a pile of cash. I live paycheck to paycheck with six figure student loans I will be paying off for the rest of my life. I am fine with that because I do what I want. I do have class privilege and lots of it, but I’m not sitting on the top of some tower gleefully cackling while I count my money. I’m working every angle to keep my head above water and having my books priced appropriately is one of those angles.

  41. Lincoln Michel

      You still aren’t even attempting to answer the question. A physical book costs about 2-3 dollars per copy on average in physical printing and distribution costs. Delete 2-3 dollars from our average paperback book and you aren’t being left with .99 cents….

      Why is .99 cents the “true cost”? The main “cost” of a work is the author’s time and effort, which is impossible to calculate. The technical cost of simply downloading a book is surely a fraction of .99 cents in bandwidth and electricity. So what is .99 cents? The cost of hiring an editor, a proofreader, and someone to format an e-book? Such costs would depend on how many copies were being sold.

      .99 cents is a purely made up number that doesn’t reflect the “true cost” of anything.

  42. Lincoln Michel

      Well I’m glad you agree it isn’t something set it stone. Hell, Amazon didn’t even offer this deal until recently and they currently only author it for a certain price range and some other parameters.

  43. Lincoln Michel

      “Authors are burdened with the task of editing, proofing, and marketing whether they use traditional pubs or go the self path. Why not get more of the pie for doing the work?”

      Cop out. It is true that every author needs to market themselves like hell, but it is not true that all authors have to proofread or do all the other things that publishers do.

      Could you please explain your logic that self-publishing gives you MORE time to write? By what logic do you think that having a publisher means you spend more time on the non-writing parts of making a book?

  44. Brendan Connell

      No, it isn’t net. It is cover price. Some publishers (particularly small ones) offer net, but then it is usually more.

      I don’t buy many books because mostly I read older things. I know my most recent books though sell in Powell’s for 12 dollars and 14. So, a bit more than 10, but not much….I suspect other books can be had for similar money :)(GOOD VALUE!!!)

      As for the agent, well normally they are involved when you are getting advances, often in 5 figures, sometimes more. So, might be worth giving them a little money for their work.

      You only make 3 dollars selling the book yourself? So who get’s the other 7? How long is the book, what are the printing costs? How many copies can you sell yourself?

      And most importantly: a publisher if they are worth their salt, offers a support system: editing, marketing, design, etc.

      Honestly, I have had so many people suggest to me that I buy their 99 cent ebook that I am tone deaf….

      But, after all that, I hope you make a mint. I am not saying YOU shouldn’t do it. I am just saying it seems like a lot of work….

  45. Brendan Connell

      Also, if you make 3 dollars on a print copy and 30 cents on an e-book….um? Doesn’t really make sense.

  46. marshall

      self-publishing is easy and fun

  47. Nick Mamatas

      Roxane, if I am wrong about the reasons you object to 99c books, it’s because you have used words and sentences inadequate to describe your objection. You’ve had plenty of chances to try again; you’ve instead resorted to more of the same snobbery.

      And literary fiction often does pay. All the literary fiction I’ve ever published has pay. It’s as easy as avoiding the no-pay markets. You can afford to give your work away, but that’s on you, not on me, and that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t hypocritical to fret about compensation while not offering the people you publish any. Your failures of the imagination as far as funding PANK have little to do with that either.

  48. Anonymous

      As a few folks here have said, this method isn’t for everyone. If traditional works for you, awesome. The .99 cent price is indeed inflated compared to delivery cost, however it is an easier price to bear by a consumer already prepared for that medium. You answered you’re own question regarding volume. The cost an author places on their work is subjective, so if the goal is to turn a profit, an author depends on volume, and at these prices, this has a fighting chance. Again, this isn’t for everyone. Stick with what works for you.

  49. Anonymous

      I never said more. I said that writers work just as hard promoting whether traditional pubed or not, so why not bag more cash for your effort? This might not work for you. That’s cool. To each their own as this doesn’t have a right or wrong answer

  50. Anonymous
  51. Anonymous

      Thanks for that clarification. My point exactly. This works for some and not others. Just as being self employed works wonders for some and is terrifying to others.

  52. Roxane

      You are wrong, Nick. It’s not snobby to think my writing is worth more than $1.00. I believe this for any writer, period. It is not that a text priced at $.99 has no value. It’s that it is very difficult for a writer to make any kind of money at that price point. If you start by pricing too low, we won’t be able, in 5 years, hell even in 2 years when ebooks are even more dominant, to price our books higher and capitalize on that dominance. Readers will be really reluctant to pay more for something they have paid less for. I feel it is far more important to start pricing higher. You can interpret any motive you want in that. I understand what you’re saying, I do, but I’m not the devil here. And if I am, I am okay with that. This is all new territory for writers and publishers and it is important to have these conversations now and to set precedents that are in the best interest of writers now, before it is too late.

      As a book publisher, I priced the press’s e-book at $3.33 and then $5.33 and stand by those prices. Readers have paid those prices which funnels more money into the press, and in terms of royalties, far more money into the writer’s pockets. As a publisher, I’d rather be giving the writer $2-3 per e-book sale than $.50.

      I share a failure of imagination with almost every literary magazine out there. I am in very good company.

  53. JenKnox395

      This was a really considerate post, and I agree that there are real benefits and costs to self-publishing. Instant gratification is so tempting… Cheers to accepting “No” sometimes. Personally, I find I struggle with this less the more I write.

      Honestly, I worry about the direction of self publishing. Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed many a self-published author’s work. But, as publication becomes more widely accessible, there’s no question that the number of self-published authors will continue to grow at an exponential rate, especially when it comes to ebooks. And I agree that this will add to the pool of enduring work, but only occasionally.

      It’s nice to think the best work will surface and find its home in the literary world. But, the doom-sayer in me thinks, what if in ten years every literate person has a self-published ebook and most of them suck? We’re back to square one, no? I mean, the original problem that has led serious (good) writers to self-publish (I’m thinking epublishing specifically here) is that they are struggling to be seen. And if the market is too saturated, won’t self-publishing just become akin to saving one’s work as a PDF and emailing it to a bunch of people? And if so, won’t it again boil down to money and connections, to advertising? … The very same problem we began with.

      I’m seriously fishing for more optimism here, which you seem to have, Roxane. I think about this topic daily.

  54. Nick Mamatas

      No, that’s not true. Discounts to distributors can be as high as 55% of the cover price. Printing alone is 10%, that is so.

      And of course no book, not ever, is priced according to the time and effort it took the author to complete the book.

      What 99c is is roughly what a used paperback with ratty pages and a crumpled cover and yellow edges costs. It’s what people have been paying for the content minus the physical form for decades. (Except a used paperback has a more significant suite of rights wrapped up in it than an ebook.)

  55. Nick Mamatas

      True, but the price range—2.99 to 9.99—isn’t onerous, nor are the other parameters. I don’t think most smart people think 70% will last forever (not with Apple wanted 30% of anything bought via iOS), but that’s why there is such excitement to get on board now, before it’s too late.

  56. Nick Mamatas

      No, I am not wrong. You can’t do arithmetic, which is even worse than being a snob. (Though you are still also a snob, period. Live with it and own it.) Setting a price of a book at a dollar is not the same that the writing is worth a dollar, not anymore than one’s writing is worth $25 in hardcover but eighteen months later is somehow worth ten bucks less when the trade paperback comes out. The monetary worth—as opposed to artistic worth—of one’s writing is how much one gets paid for it.

      Would you rather sell 2000 copies of a $15 book at 7% royalty, or 30000 copies of a $1 book at a 30% royalty. Ebook prices must be low simply because less is being offered—there’s no physical object, nothing to resell to secondhand shops, nothing to lend out permanently or give away, etc. The market is making them low because otherwise people simply aren’t buying them. To make up for this, the portion of the cover price that goes to the author is much higher.

      Your arguments are ancient; they are in fact the very same snobby arguments leveled during the paperback revolution. Nobody would ever buy a hardcover! The bookstores would be covered in Westerns and stroke books (you know…”pulp”)! Who wants readers who pay for books with pocket change!

      I agree that most literary magazines are failures of the imagination. That doesn’t make the company very good.

  57. Nick Mamatas

      Depends on how many copies of the ebook you sell, doesn’t it? That 30 cent royalty implies a one-dollar ebook.

      Products that are one dollar often sell in greater quantities than a roughly similar product (same book, on paper) that is priced fifteen times higher. Weird, I know. I mean, I just spent forty bucks on a Big Mac to make sure that everyone at McDonald’s wasn’t fired, but but…

  58. Glen C Strathy

      The problem with traditional publishing it is inefficient at spotting new, good writers. Steven King had to submit his first novel to 99 publishers before it sold. Some publishers take 6 months to reply, so if he hadn’t done simultaneous submissions, he could have died before it sold. Today, it’s much harder to break in. Of course, you have to be sure you have an outstanding book before you self-publish. So you need an expert appraisal. But who wants to grow old waiting to win the publishing lottery?

  59. Drew

      Nick, you seem like an asshole.

  60. JenKnox395

      I guess what I’m saying is, I have no confidence that writers, especially beginning writers with the means to self-publish with some glossy, fancy covers, will listen to the “No”s.
      Editors and ghostwriters will have a lot of business though :) <- There's optimism!

  61. Drew

      Hey Nick, Just a quick note to tell you that this post makes you seem even MORE like an asshole. Try being less combative. You’re flipping out.

  62. Taking No For An Answer: Some New Thoughts on Self-Publishing | HTMLGIANT | For Omina Quries

      […] the original here: Taking No For An Answer: Some New Thoughts on Self-Publishing | HTMLGIANT This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged amazon, apple, apple-bookstore, […]

  63. Brendan Connell

      Nick isn’t an asshole. I’ve met him. He is very friendly.

      To be honest, for the 99 cent thing – Nick’s arguments are the best I’ve ever heard in its defense.

  64. Mcgarnagle

      Having a publisher tell you your book is good enough for them to be willing to actually produce it is a good sign, but publishing companies aren’t necessarily looking for great intelligent literature. They look for books that will sell. And it takes only a short look around a big book store to realize that a lot of popular books are actually pretty terrible. A publishing company’s ‘okay’ on a project, is simply not the only judge of its quality.

  65. Dylan Hicks

      Great article, Roxane.

  66. Dylan Hicks

      Great article, Roxane.

  67. Anonymous

  68. Drew

      Maybe I would have noticed his arguments if he weren’t behaving in such a way that makes him *appear* to be an asshole.

  69. Lincoln Michel

      I was responding to this “Authors can spend more time working on their material rather than the roller durby that is traditional publishing.” Not trying to pin you, just curious about the logic.

  70. Lincoln Michel

      You are correct about the distributors cut, except that Amazon takes 70% of the cut for a .99 cent e-book.

  71. Lincoln Michel

      You are correct about the distributors cut, except that Amazon takes 70% of the cut for a .99 cent e-book.

  72. Lincoln Michel

      “We already know what a book sells for when there’s no real book attached—go to a Goodwill and buy a used paperback. It costs a buck or two.”

      I find this to be a pretty disingenuous argument. You can find tons of stuff, from designer suits to LPs, for a few bucks at a cheap thrift shop. That doesn’t make the price the true price of content or anything like that.

      I find the class conspiracy argument pretty suspect too. The worry, whether right or wrong, is that the price fo all books will drop and consequentially writers will get less and less money that can’t possibly be made up for on sales across the board (even if a handful out outliers can make up for it.)

      The class argument is also, frankly, pretty absurd when the people buying expensive electronic readers or tablet computers are definitely more likely to be upper class than poor.

  73. Alec Bryan

      I love the picture at the beginning of this article. Great article and the truth is that writing a book is different than it once was when very few people wrote books. I personally suffer from the same egoism you have described in this article. Self gratification and the right to say, “I have published a book,” regardless of whether or not it is good does play into that egoism. I must say, I have one book published, “Night on the Invisible Sun,” and when I do signings at small venues, I have numerous people turn the book around and look at who the publisher is and where they are located. A lot of my discussions with my possible readers begin with why I chose that press and whether or not it is the same as self publishing. This tells me that readers are aware of what kind of substance and quality they can expect from the traditional publishing firms. That being said, genius will always go undiscovered, or like Melville’s “Bartleby,” find its audience long after it should have, but the cream does rise to the top eventually, and even if it doesn’t, I think a writer who truly believes in his or her talents should also be willing to suffer the pangs of rejection and of the ride that goes along with the process of making it to the top. We all have different motives and different definitions of “the top.” For some, just having the book in print is making it, others need recognition and rewards, others, and I like these others, know because they generally are their harshest critic can come to a point when they know that what they have written is well written and do not need the public’s validation. This being said, what we seek when we first set out on the venture of writing a book should determine the route. The patience is the hard part. The patience of being rejected and the patience of belief when others stop believing is what separate many writers. To those that have the talent and something to say. I believe the old, rigorous route is still the best route. And, when i finally decide enough rejections have verified that the piece doesn’t work, I still say it is misunderstood genius to pad my ego, then put it up for the public at and consider it finished, and I let it fuel the fire to write something better and to demand more from myself–evolving as a writer and letting rejections and the old red pen of high school papers serve as reminders for betterment rather than resentment. Roxane, I can never validate your writing, but what I have read is wonderful, and worth the struggle

  74. Lincoln Michel

      Again, the people with smartphones and ipads are more likely to skew rich than poor. I think you are quite incorrect to try and jam this into a class struggle narrative. Personally, my fear is that people are going to still spend tons of money to read books, but all of it is going to go to electronics manufacturers and none of it to writers. Certainly it is in Amazon and Apple’s interest to work it that way.

  75. Anonymous

      It’s cool. different strokes for different folks.

  76. Nick Mamatas

      Yes, and an author selling a book to a commercial publisher allows the various other stakeholders to keep anywhere from 96% (for some mass market paperbacks) to 85% (for hardcovers that sell well) of the cover price. So it’s tricky all around. What made self-publishing formerly very foolish was the failures of distribution and price control—self-published work was almost always more expensive than comparable commercially published work. With ebooks finally being widely consumed, those two issues have evaporated.

  77. Lincoln Michel

      That’s totally fair, and good on them. I just think far too many writers sound like shills for Amazon and put far too much trust in a corporation that has given us no reason to trust it (not that I think the corporate major book publishers are super trustworthy….)

  78. Nick Mamatas

      More middle-class nonsense. People flipping out because OMG 99 cents is what hamburgers and pulp fiction is for and not THEIR rarefied prose isn’t class? The point isn’t that ebook consumers are poor, but that middle-class folks who can’t do arithmetic are flipping out at the vision of their work being “worth” 99 cents.

      But way to simultaneously build a strawman and reveal that multiplication is beyond you.

  79. Nick Mamatas

      And you are…

  80. Nick Mamatas

      Ah, “the tone argument”! Bingo!

  81. Lincoln Michel

      I’m unclear what point of disagreement you are really having with me. My point here is that .99 cents is not the “true cost” of anything. There is no such thing as a “true cost” of a book. Disagree?

  82. Lincoln Michel

      haha middle-class nonsense is exactly how your posts read to me, so perhaps we are at an impasse.

      My point is that these tech companies are working to devalue content in order to lower prices and increase their own profits. Amazon and Apple are not warriors for the poor.

  83. Nick Mamatas

      What’s disingenuous is comparing a medium like a book to designer suits. And you’re not actually going to find a lot of designer suits for cheap in a thrift store, which is why people spend must a lot of time “thrifting”—to the point of it being a time-consuming hobby—in order to find anything good. Most clothing one finds in thrift shops were inexpensive to begin with and are more inexpensive secondhand.

      The idea that cheaper books will spell the end of writers’ incomes was defeated fifty years ago, of course. Do a little reading on the paperback revolution.

  84. Lincoln Michel

      Um, same goes for books…

      You can definitely find more name brand clothes at the thirftstores in my hometown than decent books.

  85. Brendan Connell

      It is easier to call someone an asshole than actually address the points he mentioned. I guess it is because he mentioned something about “elitist”. To be honest, I think a certain portion of HTMLgiant posts do come off that way. I like the site – actually find it to be one of the more interesting lit sites – but the accusation is valid. Yeah, he might have said it in a rough way, but it seems like the comments sections of these things often tend to be a bit rough.

      Once Nick said that though, I pulled back a little myself. Maybe part of my distaste for the 99 cent ebook has been the “ewww the common people”. I mean, I never thought that – but maybe that is part of the reaction – a lot of uneducated wannabes shilling their unedited work for pennies…While the lit mags often do have some God awful writing in them. Edited, granted, but still often writing that is much worse than any 50’s pulp I have ever read.

  86. Lincoln Michel

      Do you believe that people don’t buy .99 cents songs because “ew poor people?”

      The argument seems weak to me. The more prevalent force is that people have grown up with the idea that content is worthless (or, if you prefer, “information wants to be free, maaaaan”). I know lots of wealthy people who pirate all their music and bittorrent all their films. They aren’t thinking “ew i’m poor!” when they do it. They think that they are more or less owed the content and that taking it for cheap or free is almost a rebellious act.

  87. Brendan Connell

      I am not saying that people don’t buy them because they think that. I am saying maybe some authors don’t want to price their books that way because they don’t want to be a “bargain bin” author. I sort of think that is what Nick was driving at…the snobbery of the authors, not the buyers.

  88. Brendan Connell

      this thing is double posting

  89. Lincoln Michel

      “The idea that cheaper books will spell the end of writers’ incomes was defeated fifty years ago, of course. Do a little reading on the paperback revolution.”

      This also strikes me as a weak argument. First off, no one is saying if e-books are cheaper it is doomsday. I’d assume everyone here thinks they should be cheaper than print books, at least by a few bucks. Secondly, surely you don’t believe that any price is sustainable. If cheaper books can automatically be made up for in volume, then why not price books at 5 cents? Or 1/2 a penny?

      So surely we agree that at some point low price can’t be made up in volume, yes?

      I suppose one may say the magic invisible hand of the market will work things out, if one is of such a mindset. There are always more forces at work than the magic hand though.

  90. darby

      i value my favorite song more than my favorite book, i think. i think there are songs in my ipod that took more effort to happen than many books on my shelves.

      price points are set by what people are willing to pay for something, not by how much that something’s creator “feels” it is worth.

      a really great self-published book is Dramatic Frogs by Diego Morelli. Here is a poem from it…

      Friendship will lead
      and stand up
      as a truly bear

      I love ya
      because i believe
      ya and I ain’t no

      And finally
      doing curls,
      she read
      of science
      and fell asleep.

  91. Alban Fischer

      Ultimately, posterity will decide whether you existed.

  92. darby

      “And it takes only a short look around a big book store to realize that a lot of popular books are actually pretty terrible.”

      haha. did you read those books in that short look?

  93. Lincoln Michel

      “i value my favorite song more than my favorite book, i think. i think there are songs in my ipod that took more effort to happen than many books on my shelves.”

      Surely there are short stories in books on your bookshelf that took more effort than entire music albums too.

      I don’t know if I value my favorite music more than my favorite books, I probably have listened to my favorite song (whatever that might be) for longer than I read my favorite book…. maybe. On the flip side, I feel that I get some value out of almost every book that I read, whereas most of my music is disposable and only listened to a few times totaling a handful of minutes….even if my favorite songs get much more play.

  94. Lincoln Michel

      “i value my favorite song more than my favorite book, i think. i think there are songs in my ipod that took more effort to happen than many books on my shelves.”

      Surely there are short stories in books on your bookshelf that took more effort than entire music albums too.

      I don’t know if I value my favorite music more than my favorite books, I probably have listened to my favorite song (whatever that might be) for longer than I read my favorite book…. maybe. On the flip side, I feel that I get some value out of almost every book that I read, whereas most of my music is disposable and only listened to a few times totaling a handful of minutes….even if my favorite songs get much more play.

  95. darby

      if we just used Wheel of Fortune logic, all vowels would be worth $250

  96. darby

      if we just used Wheel of Fortune logic, all vowels would be worth $250

  97. darby

      they are comparable i guess is my gist.

      [interesting side note: i just looked up the spelling of “gist” at ud and the wrong spelling “jist” it turns out means “The act of inserting one’s fist into another individual’s vagina or anus until he or she experiences sexual climax, or “jizzes.” A combination of the words fist and jizz.”]

  98. Lincoln Michel

      I dunno. Historically, we’ve tended to price story collections and novels similar to full albums, not to individual songs. A band can easily put out many songs in a year, and a writer can write many stories in a year. Most authors can’t write a bunch of novels and/or story collections in one year.

      And if a full-length book is comparable to a single song, where does that leave novellas? Or single stories?

  99. darby

      i would say it is only recently that i have been valuing the music i listen to more than what i have been reading. like if i could only have one or the other on a desert island, i would choose my music library over my actual library.

  100. mimi

      thank you for using the correct spelling

      (haven’t and won’t read this post and heavy thread but saw your comment in the sidebar and just had to remark . . . )

  101. Nick Mamatas

      Clearly, there will always be a range of prices, but the range is dependent on many things, and tends to be fairly narrow, especially on the low end (say, mass-produced consumer books as opposed to automobiles).

      Right now, ebooks are occasionally more expensive than the closest paper analogue, which is pretty nuts given that the reader gets much less out of the deal. Demand for ebooks seem highest when they are priced below the price of a mass market paperback. I don’t think a buck is far off from where the prices will settle, though of course there will be some dynamism.

  102. Nick Mamatas

      Interestingly, a number of magazines that make content available for free on the Web nonetheless manage to get hundreds of paid subscribers via Kindle. People are willing to pay for the convenience of having free stuff on their reader—this is also true of public domain material one can read from Project Gutenberg. Part of what makes this so is that it is very easy to buy something with an e-reader. It’s a one-click solution.

  103. Nick Mamatas

      Yeah, where do you live? (Or, what do you define as a decent book!)

  104. darby

      i guess. im never comparing “songs” in the way other people might be. i keep thinking of music in terms of things like etudes or sonatas or symphonies.

      i mean i think that all this art content is comparable in a broader sense, that no one can really price anything. or maybe i mean incomparable. or maybe i mean its all a dress with shoulders and no one knows who’s going to pay six for one, half a mil for the other. its all subjective silliness. why is anyone here even having a coherent conversation about anything on a tuesday night. where did all the incoherent baby onions go away from htmlgiant? where did they go because i want to go there next got


  105. Nick Mamatas

      Is any price sustainable? Hmm, depends! There have been some interesting stuff going on in microcharging and, for that matter, simply giving electronic books away to build brands or to encourage the sale of print books or to encourage other forms of consumption.

  106. darby

      you are welcome, mimi.

  107. Brendan Connell

      He was talking about the 50’s when publishers (primarily Fawcett to begin with) started putting books directly into paperback. Before that paperbacks were used almost only for reprints of hardcovers. The hardcover houses completely freaked out. They said all those books were rejects – why else would anyone want to be direct to paperback? But probably about half of the great American novels of the 20th century originally appeared like this. And the hardcover publishers did stay in business…and many of those paperbacks are very hard to find, though some times you are lucky enough to find a good one at a thrift store.

      I dont think the situation with ebooks is the same, but there is a valid comparison.

      One of the differences I see is that some of the original paperback houses had some really fine editors.

  108. Herocious

      thank you for sharing steve’s ideas. i want to get in on guerilla distribution. please be so kind as to check out what i have so far:

  109. Nick Mamatas

      And nobody ever said they were warriors for the poor. Just another strawman.

      As a matter of fact, amazon raised ebook prices—it used to be that one could upload a book and allow it to be downloaded for free. Now the minimum is $.99. When Amazon and Macmillan had its big tussle, Amazon’s desired cap on ebook prices was…$9.99. Tell me, do people who publish their books in mass market paperback form (around $7.99 usually) undervalue their work vis-a-vis ebooks then?

  110. Nick Mamatas

      Indeed, some of those paperback houses did have fine editors. Some of them also had editors who would pull out pages of text and simply tie the orphaned sentence fragments on either side of the remaining pages together so that the book could come in at the right page count. Samuel R. Delany recounts this editorial technique in his memoir of the 1960s.

  111. Lincoln Michel

      hahaha, I love how two posts after your stellar “People flipping out because OMG 99 cents is what hamburgers and pulp fiction is for and not THEIR rarefied prose isn’t class?” you talk about strawmen. You might want to put some lotion on your fists, dude, you’ve been swinging at a lot of straw in this thread.

  112. Lincoln Michel

      I’m abundantly aware what he is referring to. The fact that some people freaked out unnecessarily over paperbacks does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that cheaper books can’t hurt author’s wages. These situations aren’t the same for a variety of reasons. A unique question about happenings in 2011 was not “defeated” by something unrelated in the 1950s. Just weak argumentation.

  113. Crafty Green Poet

      This is an excellent post, lots to think about. I have two poetry chapbooks out. The first I self published (to raise money for a charity). I found an excellent printers who has lots of experience of helping people to self publish poetry, their fees were very reasonable and they helped me all along the way (gave me proof copies, had some editorial imput etc) and all I had to do was market the book (which okay is a large task but one which I enjoy). I made a nice amount of money for the charity too. The second book was published with a local small press, who didn’t do any editing of the manuscript other than rejecting a couple of poems and ordering the sequence, such that the book went out with the acknowledgements section full of typos though there were no problems with the poems. The publisher has helped with marketing but as almost all sales go through the publisher, I’m selling fewer copies of this than I could of the previous one and haven’t made my money back on the copies I bought (at reduced price) to sell on.

  114. Marianne G. Petrino

      At 56 years of age, I decided that I was not going to wait for Prince Publisher. After completing my NaNoWriMo novel, I set up my own “publishing house” by registering as a sole proprietor, got 10 ISBNs from Bowker, set up my Lulu account, edited my book and designed my book cover. God, bad or indifferent Coffee with Thunderbolts is all mine, and well priced too.

  115. matthewsavoca

      i have constantly heard something along the lines of ‘good writing does not go unnoticed in this world’ or ‘good books will find good presses’ or whatever but i don’t see how anyone can honestly say that when there are so many bad books that find good presses and bad writing that is not only noticed in the world but somehow excels. if good books always find good presses than bad books never should, but they do.

  116. Anonymous
  117. Steven Lyle Jordan

      As a self-published author, I’d like to point out something you may have overlooked.

      When, in 2004, I began submitting my books for traditional publishing, I was not told, “No.” I was told, “Don’t bother sending it.” Most of the publishers I contacted weren’t even accepting queries, so they couldn’t very well tell how good or bad it was. The few who did accept the manuscript have, to date, never responded to them.

      So, when you suggest authors do something constructive with their “No” responses, I’d suggest that going independent is a very constructive alternative to traditional publishers who don’t have time to even look at new authors. Assuming all unpublished authors are necessarily bad is doing a disservice to a lot of good writers that the publishing industry chose to ignore out of hand.

  118. Dawn.

      Great essay, Roxane. I agree with your views on self-publishing. I’m not personally interested in self-publishing because I have no desire to be solely (or even primarily) responsible for the actual nuts-and-bolts production of any full-length book I complete. I’m a writer, not a production company. More power to all the writers out there who have the time, skills, and resources to be your own publisher.

      Also, I don’t trust my own editing abilities. Of course I edit my ass off, but I really don’t believe I could adequately edit a full-length collection/novel of my own. I need professional eyes for that. I would rather choke down a 20 oz rare steak (I’m vegetarian) than be one of those self-published writers whose book is just obviously begging for a competent editor.



  120. Roxane Gay Taking No For An Answer: Some New Thoughts on Self-Publishing : Barbara Jane Reyes

      […] Wow, and Amen! We live in an age of entitlement. We want therefore we must (and should) have. We are encouraged not to take “no” for an answer. Writing, or publishing really, is primarily an endeavor where we must learn to appreciate rejection or at least accept rejection. As writers we will always hear “no” more than we will hear “yes,” because taste is so subjective, because for many publishers, there are a finite number of books they can publish because they have finite resources, even if they are some of the largest publishers in the world. Persistence is an important quality in a writer. Some of my greatest writing successes have come from being persistent in the face of constant rejection. And yet, I wonder if there comes a point when we should take no for an answer, when we should use rejection to reassess why we keep meeting with rejection. At what point does faith become foolish or even delusional? […]

  121. peterwknox

      This is awesome. Thanks for writing it.

  122. Roxane

      Hi Steven. It is, indeed, nearly impossible to get a manuscript read at a traditional publishing house without an agent and it is difficult (though not impossible) to get an agent so I’m not unaware of many of the barriers to publishing traditionally. There are any number of ways to circumvent the system including self-publishing. I don’t assume all unpublished authors are necessarily bad and I cannot fathom how you got that from this post. I suggest that in some cases it can be useful to think about what a “no” means. As I note in this post, there is ample evidence that self publishing is a good option for writers. It is simply not an option I am presently interested. My perspective might change in 10 or 20 years. I do not know.

  123. marilynsue

      I have allowed this year to find a publisher, and after that, I will seriously consider self-publishing. I just bought a book self-published by a friend, selling on Amazon for $9.95. She thinks I should self-publish because I will make more of a profit. My book is non-fiction and it may be my only one, so I’m not looking for a multi-book career, anyway. If I have to promote and publicize the book myself, and the publisher might go out of business, lose the editor who wanted my book, or have a change of heart, why not self-publish?

  124. Howard

      Roxanne this was a very interesting and well worth while read, though I must take issue with you on a couple of issues however. Don;t we always :-)

      I have been reading books, like most people, for many decades. I have read a hell of a lot of awful books. Books with awful writing. Books with awful plotting. Books with awful grammar and awful characters. I don’t know how many of them ever got a publisher. I suggest to you it is erroneous to think that mainstream paper publishing is any guarantee of quality. In the last 18 months I have bought quite a few self published 2.99 eBooks and my experience is that they are just as likely to be as awful. Except when they are, I don’t waste as much money….

      I have been interested in the new eBook publishing model for about 18 months now and contribute on I really think that your emotional attachment to the selling price is misguided. What matters, if you really value your work, is the total earnings from a title. If selling at 2.99 produces a wider audience and a higher gross earning than an 8.99 price, then you should be delighted. You will be reaching a wider audience and earning more for you work. This is why a producer of a personal creative product, whether it be art or craft etc, should never be the one to price it. Too much ego and emotional baggage.

      I am puzzled at your placing of so much import on ‘waiting’ to be published. Why is that ? What is the value of being delayed two or three years before your book gets to the public ? This makes no sense to me. It is demotivating. It is a waste of creativity and effort. Looking for approval from other, totally subjective, people on your work is not a measure of quality. What other creative, artistic human effort allows corporate business people to decide if their work is ‘valid’ ?

      “I also confess that my ego plays a part in my reluctance to self publish. It isn’t enough to think my writing is “good enough.” I could be delusional. . . . I want someone else to say my writing is good enough. Most writers want that validation. We are human.”

      You see I don’t think most writers do what this, or need it. If you want validation, then get it from readers ! from people who buy and read your book ! not from business people who’s ONLY measure of acceptance or rejection is whether they can make money from it.

      “the idea of having to be solely responsible for the design, copyediting, layout, distribution and marketing of my book is not terribly appealing.”

      This smacks of a spin off from your need for validation mixed with some feeling of self doubt – and I do sympathise. But authors who are self publishing are engaging professional people on a short, once off basis to design a cover or copy-edit. It’s not really a big deal, though it is a small investment in your book, if you feel it is good enough to want other people to buy it. Distribution is as simple as uploading to an eRetailer and filling in some forms. Marketing can be whatever you want it to be … communicating with your readers, writing a blog and having fun cross fertilizing with other self publishing writer’s blogs. It’s really not that hard and you should not be intimidated.

      Best of luck !

  125. Roxane

      Thanks for your comment, Howard. I note that there are indeed mediocre books that have been published. Taste is subjective and then there are just plain old bad books that are published. Given the sheer volume of books published each year, some are going to suck. Going the traditional route is no guarantee of quality but there’s a lot of evidence that it is a benefit to have a book ushered through the traditional publishing process. This is not always the case and I don’t automatically assume something that is self published won’t be good. I name a specific book I loved that was self published and as I read more self published books, I’ll have more of a sample to draw from. You’ll also note that I explicitly mention I am drawing from an admittedly small sample. I actually don’t place import on waiting to be published., I say I understand how the waiting can be frustrating and a deterrent from entering mainstream publishing. At the end of the day, in addition to my other concerns, I don’t want to have to deal with the production of my own book or paying to print my own book or distributing my own book. That’s my preference and I am not alone in this. Clearly there are many writers who are willing to invest in themselves in those ways and that is their right. Self publishing can be great but it can also be challenging just as is the case with mainstream publishing. There is rarely such a thing as an easy route to publication.

  126. Shannon

      I read this last night and because I’m working on a project I am self publishing it is very timely. I spent a lot of last night thinking hard about what my aims are with this project and what I want to accomplish and what is and isn’t important.

      After reading all the comments as well (thank you everyone) I feel like what I’m doing is really as important to me as I thought it was and isn’t the exercise in ego circling jerking with myself.

      I’ve also come to the conclusion that my plan to make sure what I put out is quality, my plan is pretty solid.

      Thank you Roxane and everyone. You helped me out today way more than I can adequately explain before I’ve had more coffee.

  127. Tim Laquintano

      Hi Roxane,

      I enjoyed the thoughtful post. I’ve been doing some pretty extensive research on self-publishing in the last few years, and I wrote a brief response to the question of ebook pricing ( Cheers. Tim

  128. Chicagopoetry
  129. I have to try. « About that Writing thing.

      […] read this by Roxane Gay about self publishing at HTMLGIANT. I’ll talk more about why it was really […]

  130. Pete

      Having faith and taking no for an answer are definitely not antithetical. You can take the no as a hint that your book isn’t quite good enough – at which point the having faith will make you realize that you have the ability to make the book better, which will get you back to work.

  131. gabrielle gantz

      great article.

  132. Mcmfs

      Not sure if this has been mentioned yet, but there have been a few authors who have used self-publishing as an actual stepping stone to getting a contract with a press. Poets and Writers published an article a few months ago by a woman who’d orchestrated a release event for her self-published memoir in order to attract attention from big presses.

  133. stephen
  134. Plwinkler

      Ms. Gay wrote, “There’s something to accepting that we’re not as special as we think we are.” That doesn’t strike me as the expression of a snob or someone poisoned by class privilege.

      You have the prerogative to disagree with her all you want, but I think her concerns about the 99 cent ebook have validity. Let’s not get sidetracked into royalty rates and what someone gets from the sale of a Leisure paperback they authored, or how you can find a beaten-up hardcover bestseller that cost $25 new at a thrift store for a buck, if you want to wait long enough and handle a book that looks like it was pulled out of a dog’s ass.

      Let’s talk about perecived value and consumer expectations. If self-publishers all start pricing their ebooks at 99 cents, consumers will soon expect all ebooks to be similarly priced. Unless you are an unusually prolific writer and/or each ebook you write and publish sells very well in a relatively short time after you release it, how will you generate even a subsistence income from writing? And you don’t have to tell me that many writers who identify themselves as full-time professionals don’t make that now. It seems I’ve read it already.

      A 99 cent price point will just about guarantee that there will only be two classes of writer — writers who have a best seller each time out, and the literary equivalent of Sunday painters, with no one in between.

  135. Sara

      Thanks for this thought-provoking piece. Balancing honest self-assessment and the need for perseverance is a challenge for any writer

  136. Peter Winkler

      The retail price for an item is not it’s true cost. The manufacturing cost is the true cost. A Rolls Royce carries a price tag of $300,000 or so. Is that its true cost?

      Once you write and publish an ebook, it has an effective cost of $0.00. It sits there on Amazon, and being digital, is infinitely replicable with no additional input of physical resources or effort from the author/publisher — unlike a paper book. True cost, sales price, and perceived value — which is determined by the consumer — are all different things.

  137. Plwinkler

      “What 99c is is roughly what a used paperback with ratty pages and a crumpled cover and yellow edges costs. It’s what people have been paying for the content minus the physical form for decades.”

      No, 99 ents or so is only the price people have been paying for decrepit used books. That doesn’t make it THE de facto standard for all bound books. People have also been buying nice, new hardcovers for $25 a pop for years. Then thereare people who check books out of the library for no upfront cost. So right there you have three standard prices for content on paper, so to speak.

  138. c2k

      Another thoughtful, interesting piece by Roxane Gay.

  139. Christopher Wills

      I can understand the emotional reasons why many people believe traditional publishing will survive because I share those emotions. I love books and bookshops. But the economics don’t add up. Various reports suggest the split for books that Amazon sell is around 60% to 40% ebooks to print books at the moment. That number of ebooks sold is only going to go up for two reasons. One as technology advances colour ereaders etc will make ereading much more interesting. Two as print book sales go down cost will go up so prices will have to rise. Print books can already cost 5 x the price of an ebook.

      Bookshops are closing, publishers are struggling financially. Look at the music industry. Emotion is not going to save the book

  140. Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing (Round 2) « My Writing Life
  141. Kate C.

      I’m on the fence myself on a lot of what you said, and I self-published my book. hahaha
      There is a lot of crap out there, for sure. All things being equal, I’ve read a lot of crap in the self-published world, too. I read a lot. A LOT. And while I’ll say, I don’t have any indies in my top ten best authors, by paying attention and listening to my fellow readers, I have found several writers that I think put out content as good as some of the legacy stuff I’ve read.
      I think you are SPOT ON with the .99 cent comments. It is devaluing ALL markets, indie and legacy. I think it DOES convey the wrong message, especially to people who aren’t big readers, but think they will be because they bought a Kindle. Zoe Winters wrote a great blog about that, too. Her perspective was a bit different, but I think the gist is the same.
      Some of what you say will be hard for people to take -indies, I mean. We all have a dream in life, and no one wants to give up on it. Look at American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance. I begrudge no one their dream. Imagine the pleasure they get from singing, dancing and writing. So they suck. They aren’t hurting the world with their cheap, bad books or their off-key tunes.
      I fully admit my book could suck (Amazon Reviews aren’t everything!), but I can’t give up on the desire I have to keep writing. My personal failing, I guess. :)

  142. Jules Archer

      Enjoyed this post very much. Lots to think about. The part I most connected was is this:

      Writing is what I love. Publishing is an awesome side effect. I also confess that my ego plays a part in my reluctance to self publish. It isn’t enough to think my writing is “good enough.” I could be delusional. I wrote a good chunk of a “novel” and lots of stories during my twenties I thought were amazing and reading most of that writing now, I am absolutely mortified. I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself like that on a much bigger scale by self publishing a book. I want someone else to say my writing is good enough. Most writers want that validation. We are human.

      So, so true. Thanks for writing a great article.

  143. Enzo Potel

      Thank God Virginia Woolf did not read this text.

  144. reynard

      most books don’t sell, a few do – what keeps publishers alive is the one or two best-sellers they have, which in reality eclipse the tiny profit margins of a ‘moderate success’ the way the moon is only a match for the sun because it is so close to us

      as far as marketing goes, which a lot of people here mention as a reason to stick with traditional publishing, because it is expensive, even larger publishing companies can’t afford to market your book either, unless it’s going to be a best-seller, which it almost definitely is not, and small presses? hahahahaha yeah they are going to ‘market’ you on the internet, give me a break

  145. Self-Publishing Review | Blog | Bad Writing Doesn't Matter Anymore

      […] Gay has a post on HTML Giant which repeats the age-old mantra about gatekeepers: Quality is certainly very subjective but even […]

  146. Indie Authors, Take No for an Answer and Behave Yourselves! | The Passive Voice

      […] to the rest at HTML Giant Tweet/Email/Share This Post Related Posts:No Related […]

  147. Joseph Young

      you know that guy who made an entire thrift store in miniature? he made little hangers to hang little second hand pants and shirts on and made mini clothes racks and mini cardborad boxes full of shoes and old housewares and stuff. that’s one thing self publishing can be that i don’t believe is addressed here (though it may be in the comments, which i didn’t read). self publishing might not be a career move but rather an installation piece, a keen interest in exploring the basic sources and resources of publishing, or what a painter friend of mind calls ‘freaking out on some materials.’ micropresses too, for some people, are not career moves but rather thrift stores in miniature. a lot of indie literature seems to be.

  148. Tonywlls

      I found your post quite tedious. Its basic premise is that there are lots of self-published books out there that are crappy and ought not to have been published. But here’s my problem with it. By your own admission, you bought “a few self-published books via Amazon and other means” (whatever a few means) and you’re satisfied that the quality of those few is a true representation of the bulk of self-published books. You have made a universal judgment based on those “few.” This is disingenuous and I’m sure you know it.

      Reading your piece, one would think that badly written and poorly-edited books are the exclusive preserve of self-published writers. Listen to the words of Andrew Motion, chair of the judges on the shortlist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, on his experience as part of the judging panel. “Not nearly enough novels get the editing they need.” He’s certainly not talking about self-published books. Assuming that you keep abreast with the global book trade, surely you must be aware of the frank admissions by many in the industry, including editors and agents, that cost-cutting and pressing demands on editors’ time are contributing factors to why “traditional published” books are not receiving the editorial attention they deserve. Perhaps you haven’t realised it, but there are loads of the kinds of books you take umbrage with on bookshops all over the world – put there by respectable publishing houses. Crap flourishes on both sides of the fence.

      When you enter a bookstore and browse through the shelves, what do you do? Read through parts of the books and see if they catch your interest. That’s what I do, and I suspect most people. If you don’t like what you’ve read, you toss it back. On publishing platforms like Smashwords Amazon and you’re allowed to sample just as easily – as much as 100% of the book in the case of Just like in the bookshops you, the reader, have the power to endorse a writer or relegate her to the rubbish dump of obscurity. So what’s the problem? Ease up on indie writers. We, the readers, are capable of dealing with them.

      Mark Coker who is in the business, gives us some food for thought. “While I think it’s fair to say self-published books are, on average, a bit rougher around the edges today than traditionally published books, this is changing. Many self-published books are better written, better edited and better marketed than traditionally published books.”

      And as for your comment “There is also the matter of price which seems a little out of control for self publishers.” Don’t you think publishers who are using the agency model to price ebooks higher than hardcover and paperback editions are equally ‘out of control’?

      Again, by your own admission, although there are many publishers, “there are a finite number of books they can publish because they have finite resources, even if they are some of the largest publishers in the world.” Many books with great potential will simply never get to see the light of day through traditional publishers because it’s physically impossible! And I’m not just talking about writers in America and Europe. Do you have even the slightest idea what sort of challenges writers outside these regions are faced with? How many writers around the world – with no hope of making it to the green pastures of America or the UK – but who have great potential have felt forced to give up the fight? In the end we are the poorer for it.

      Here’s my suggestion to you. If you do in fact have editorial credentials, in the future why not spare some more of your time (and counsel) directing self-published writers to sources where they can get help with editing and publishing their work. Be part of the solution.Who knows, in future you might even be a little happier with your sampling.

  149. I’m Glad I Didn’t Get Published (yet) «

      […] when I read this piece on HTML Giant last week called “Taking No for an Answer,” my instinct was to say, YES. Now, you might be thinking that I am part of the […]

  150. Michael Koh

      planning to distribute ‘guerilla’ tactics

  151. Ghostwriter in the South


      Yet another voice weighs in on the topic of self-publishing. And it’s a polarizing topic, isn’t it? Successful self-published authors seem to be those whose reputations were established in traditional publishing. Yes, they have the talent to proceed with our blessing. Alternately, there are the rest of ‘em – the hacks who don’t really know they’re hacks. Okay, for the most part … t’aint necessarily so. Some of them are making nice bank selling 99-cent e-books on Amazon. (… or is it “eBooks” or “Ebooks?”)

      I don’t own a Kindle, so I cannot speak to the quality of content on Amazon. But what I will say that as someone who is published – I am a ghostwriter for hacks who can’t write their own books (irony, anyone?) – is that there are those who fall in that “in between” area. We really do pass muster. We just can’t get an audience. I’m not about to fly around the country to writers’ conferences to “pitch” to agents. Yes, that shows a certain persistence, but it’s also expensive and an inefficient use of my time, given that I actually have a day job.

      From what I can ascertain, Ms. Frost falls in that “in between” category, too. Her writing certainly passed muster, but there was uncertainty as to if it would sell. I’m happy to hear that she didn’t let her novel languish. And I dearly hope that she is extremely successful (I’m kinda wishing I owned a Kindle right now so I could purchase her book).

      So it’s like this: we “in between” writers can either play the agent/publishing house lottery, realizing what a crapshoot it is just to get a query read, much less a partial or a full; or, knowing that we indeed do have the talent to write to industry standards, we can embark on our own path without waiting for Big P to give us the nod. Is my own novel the best prose ever written? Of course not — that’s hackthink. Is it worth purchasing? Absolutely. I have never worked for free.

      What to do, what to do …

      I don’t know. What would you do in my situation?

  152. Roxane

      If you want to read Frost’s book, you can download the Kindle app for your computer, phone or other mobile device. It is available on both the PC and MAC platforms. You do not need a Kindle to read Kindle books.

      I absolutely agree that there are in-between writers and I do try to speak to that somewhat in this post. I am not establishing any sort of canonical rules about self-publishing. I’m just offering up some of my thoughts. At the end of the day, every writer needs to make the choices that will best help them achieve their goals for what they want out of a writing career.

      That said, I don’t know anyone who has flown to a writer’s conference to pitch to agents successfully. I’m not an expert on getting an agent but that is simply not how its done. The most effective way to get an agent, the most common way, is to query agents based on who might be a good fit for your writing and the project(s) you have to pitch. One idea to look at books you love that are similar to what you write, find out who represents those writers, and see if their agents are accepting queries. There are lots of websites and books devoted to getting an agent but at the end of the day its simply sending out well-written queries with the right project to the right agent AND some luck, star alignment, etc. Is it difficult? Yes but it is not as… impossible as I feel it is sometimes framed. I think of it like poker. You’re going to do a lot better if you know what to do with the cards in your hand. In your situation, it’s hard to say. If you’ve been querying agents for years without luck and you truly believe in your project maybe it is time to go it solo. If you haven’t tried querying because you worry that its a crapshoot, if you’re talking yourself out of the game before you even start playing, I’d say get in the game. I apologize for the flagrant metaphor abuse.

  153. Ghostwriter in the South

      I’ve been known to abuse the occasional metaphor when needed. :)

      “At the end of the day, every writer needs to make the choices that will best help them achieve their goals for what they want out of a writing career.”

      Absolutely. I haven’t made those choices yet – mainly because I sense that major upheaval in traditional publishing is coming. Border’s went bankrupt; Barnes & Nobles is floundering. What will happen to the publishing industry if/when major booksellers go out of business? I remember when Big Music crumbled, and it wasn’t pretty. Print journalism is withering on the vine – oddly, as the Old Guard is placed in mothballs, this opens up more opportunities to me as a freelancer. (I could tell you about Old Guarders still demanding $2 a word, not realizing those days are long over, but that would bore you.) My overriding concern is that similarly, the book publishing world’s current way of doing business will seem hopelessly outdated in a year, and no one will be up to speed.

      I’ve begun the query process (tentatively) with some positive results. But every time I send out that partial, I ask myself if this is what I want to do. I don’t know. I see self-published writers making a fairly decent sum, and of course that’s a compelling reason to consider alternatives. My instincts tell me to sit on this for a while, have fun entering contests (get more flare!), attend conferences within driving distance (just for fun) and continue writing until I see the direction publishing is headed.

      P.S. Molto gracie for the info about the Kindle app for Mac – now I don’t have to purchase a spendy gadget. Phew!

  154. The Nervous Breakdown

      […] read with interest Roxane Gay's piece a couple of weeks ago at HTMLGIANT called “Taking No For An Answer: Some New Thoughts on Self-Publishing.” I can understand her motivation for writing such a piece, and I'm generally sympathetic with her […]

  155. Genius Books / Others on self-publishing

      […] Roxane Gay covers all of her feelings on the subject, it seems. I keep coming back to having faith in our writing and learning to take no for an answer. These ideas are not antithetical. […]

  156. This Party Has No End Time: Self Publishing and The Goal | short life spans

      […] that Steve Roggenbuck is mostly responsible for bringing this to light, but the recent post by Roxane Gay on HTMLgiant truly brought an explosion to the topic. This Party Has No End Time will be a […]