Self-Publishing is Over

Alan Jacobs, writing at TheAtlantic.com:

[O]ne of the illusions most common to writers — an illusion that may make the long slow slog of writing possible, for many people — is that an enormous audience is out there waiting for the wisdom and delight that I alone can provide, and that the Publishing System is a giant obstacle to my reaching those people. Thus the dream that digital publishing technologies will indeed “disintermediate” — will eliminate that obstacle and connect me directly to what Bugs Bunny calls “me Public.” (See “Bully for Bugs”.) And we have heard just enough unexpected success stories to keep that dream alive.

I’ll chime in with my own success story, but only in service of paying off this post’s title:

I spent most of the last decade financing, producing, directing, editing, marketing and promoting, and distributing a series of documentary films. I did everything from hand-delivering cans of 16mm film to the lab to hand-addressing envelopes to send DVDs directly to customers.

In that time I produced 7 films, and sold upwards of 50,000 DVDs, with a “box-office” (ie retail) gross of about $1.25 million dollars. Of course we didn’t pocket all of that money. Some of it was our retailers’ cut. But we did collect enough money that we were able to shoot on film, pay our crew union-scale, appropriately compensate our subjects, pay mortgages on an apartment in Manhattan and a house in Montauk, pay health insurance for a family, and save enough money that when my fortunes as self-distributed filmmaker turned, there was working capital to throw at a new venture.

Yes, I’m proud of all of the above, but I also want to make it clear that I have lived the experience of successful self-distribution, and hope that that will lend some degree of credibility to what I’m about to say:

Self-distribution is over.

Done.

Going into self-distribution now is like buying Apple stock now. Yes, it might go up, but it might go down. Either way, the opportunity for returns disproportionate to risk and effort is long, long gone.

As Alan points out in his post, going the traditional route offers him the ability to focus on what he likes to do: write books. Not speaking engagements, not copy-editing, not proof reading, and certainly not designing, printing, marketing and promoting, warehousing or shipping orders. (Or even worse, selling Alan Jacobs t-shirts and tote-bags!)

I’m not saying self-publishing doesn’t work. The fact that I’m spending my days building a 40′ ocean going catamaran is proof that it does, or at least that it did for me.

I am saying that it takes a very particular sort of person to do it, and that person has to be comfortable with the idea that they’re going to spend upwards of 75% of their time and effort doing things they (probably) regard as secondary to the creative act, and that there’s no (longer) special reward for undertaking the effort. The chances of your work being embraced by the market are not higher than going the tradition route; the return on your investment of time and effort (and in the case of movies, money) is not higher than going the traditional route.

And self-distro is certainly not the (much hyped) solution to the chaos and uncertainty that reigns in music or movies or publishing. It’s simply another route that might work, but probably won’t.

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45 thoughts on “Self-Publishing is Over

  1. Do you think there’s a middle ground to be cleared out at this point?

    I see the monolithic model of old, and the self-publishing (and promoting) model of the relatively new, but not much in-between.  Right now, there’s not much in the way of independent promoters – do you think there’s a niche for that?  Somebody who already has a high interest in film, who gets a presence and uses it?

    I’m thinking of the “old” middle ground of the college radio station.  Big radio stations played established bands, promoted by the big guns, but the college radio stations played the local bands and the indies and (here in Los Angeles at least) a good number of those big guns got to be big guns because they played clubs as independent acts, got on college radio stations, got word of mouth, and then had a record guy show up at a gig and sign them to a label.

    Is there an analog for the college radio DJ, somewhere in the New Media Landscape?  That you can see?

    By the way, I more or less find the 75/25 split to be completely credible.  About the only side note I can say for that is for non-artistic types who do things they feel some sort of calling to do, the split is probably comparable.  Worse, if you’re in… say… social work, where it’s probably more like 95/5… and better in some other jobs.  But to take an example that’s nearer to my experience, most programmers spend about 3/4 of their time doing what they call scut work and the other 25% of the time doing stuff they actually enjoy.

    I mean, it sucks to spend 3/4 of your time doing stuff that is very tangential to the core thing you want to do, but this is kinda the status quo for most jobs, I’d say… or, at least… “many” jobs.  Maybe not “most”.  An independent boat operator probably spends a good chunk of his time doing the books and arguing with suppliers and arranging meetings with the C.G. inspector, too, right?

    • To say that a self-publisher spends 75% of their time on scut-work just like everyone else ignores the fact that there’s scut-work in that 25% of actual creating, too.

      Not only did David spend 75% of his time on the publishing stuff, he probably also spend another 15% of it banging his head against the wall in the editing bay or re-re-re-re-recording a voiceover or doing other ostensibly creative things that he found tedious and boring.

      • I’m not really trying to get into a pissing contest over who has the worst job, Alan.  I’m just pointing out that if you asked people, in general, across all jobs, how much time they spent during their day that they found actually fulfilling I’d expect the number to be low for a goodly number of professions, if not most.

        Now, granted, if you spend 75% of your 25% doing stuff you also don’t like to do, that sucks pretty hard core.  And, *most* importantly, if the lion’s share of your job is doing things that you actively dislike with seething hatred, that’s another major factor.  I know a guy in a position much like David’s except instead of cutting out of the filmmaking business to make boats he cut out of the filmmaking business to teach filmmaking as an academic, for pretty much the same reasons David has: he’s not sanguine about the industry, as a whole.  He has a project in the can (it’s quite good really) and it’s got a number of possible deals still, but he *hated* that part of the business.  For him, it was like he spent 10% of his time doing stuff he loved, and 15% of his time doing stuff that he’d tolerate as necessary to bring that 10% about, and the rest of his time hitting himself in the yabos with a hammer. So I understand that self-publishing, or self-promoting, can be particularly self-destroying for different people.

      • The “creative act” for an independent film producer/director/editor is already pretty broadly construed, and includes things like waking the film to the lab. Among all the manifold and varied tasks that encompasses, the time and energy spent doing what comes to mind when you think “shooting and editing a film” is the lessor part.

        Taking on independent marketing and distribution takes that entire rubric of “indie producer/director/editor” and embeds it within a larger frame work that is that much more removed from “shooting and editing a film.”

        Some of this work I liked. From 2005 to 2011 I spend more time writing about what I was doing than doing what I was doing and in that 120,000 or so words, there’s some good work. But there’s also something a little absurd when you spend more time and effort on the meta of your work than on actually making the work itself; it would be like spending 2000 hours to build a boat, and only few dozen hours sailing it…

        As to a middle ground..

        In the Summer of 1986 I was working at a very small, very prestigious New York graphic design house. I saw the very first Macintosh cross the threshold and watched the owner/head designer scratch his head trying to make it work.

        Since then, as computing power has increase, I’ve watched Information Technology sweep through my professional world, and what I notice is this:

        When the computers come, they broaden the bottom, raise and narrow the top, and severely winnow the middle. More and more our world tends towards enormous, well financed, heavily promoted blockbusters and amateur efforts on Youtube (and yes, I see that as a metaphor for larger trends.)

         

      • This gives the unconnected individual two avenues to pursue if looking at the arts as a source of remuneration as well as pleasure: short head or long tail.

        Breaking in to the short head is a proposition with daunting odds, requiring a lot of luck, substantial assistance from professionals like agents and lawyers, and at least reasonable levels of talent focused on producing salable material (not to say that salable material necessarily lacks artistic merit; it’s just a different axis as I see it).

        Working the long tail — in this context that means some kind of self-publication — means accepting that your work will have a small audience and probably only generate modest revenue at best. If the compensation associated with the art is going to be more than a supplement to income from a “day job,” the artist will have to also become a relentless marketer. I assume that marketing is the bulk of what the OP refers to as “the 75%.”

        I think your assesment of the curve is right, though: the shape of the overall market curve is such that the junction between the long tail and the short head is very sudden, severe, and dichotomous, demarked by the value added of a third-party marketing apparatus.

      • Didn’t used to be that way. Magazines used to be where writers got trained — less risk, more return for coaxing/moulding an author into something better.

        And then you had published cred to write the book you wanted.

        One does NOT need a professional Agent to get a short story published. One does not need to be a good copy-editor (though it helps!).

      • I’m not sure that he’s wrong, to be clear.  But I do think that this is masked under the pain of transition (heck, it took the greater society about 400 years to incorporate the printing press, really), and I also do think that things will change.  Maybe not fast enough for David (and my friend) to make it through the middle while making a living, which sucks.

        What I see (right now) is that there are subcultures in that fat bottom that are spontaneously organizing themselves.  Some very large percentage of the stuff on YouTube is junk, but there’s a surprising amount of quality work on there, and the quality workers are self-organizing, like a bacteria colony in a whole new culture.

        So I see a potential, there, for talent miners, people who want to be independent producers, etc.  Right now, people use Kickstarter.  In another few years, you’re going to see someone arise on Kickstarter who serves as a middle man on Kickstarter: he or she handles Kickstarting your project, which saves you time, and because he or she is known for Kickstarting great projects, people are more likely to contribute to Kickstarting projects he or she starts.

        There will always be a place for the marketeer and producer, I expect.  That place is just not embedded in a large movie house in the future.

      • Jared Diamond asserts that it took 500 generations for the health and welfare of the average person to recover from the effects of the Agricultural Revolution.

        That’s a long, painful transition.

  2. I won’t argue that self-publication is really no where near what some would have you think.

    I recently self published  a book I wrote several years ago, and over that time have been working to edit it, and to sell it to an agent.  My efforts were unsuccessful, perhaps because the material wasn’t good enough for an agent to want it, or because my efforts to sell it to an agent were not up to the material itself.  Given that there isn’t any time for a give and take with an agent it’s hard to tell just ~why~ I got rejection letters.

    But what’s also happened, and I see this in the Amazon Customer forums very vividly, is that there is a deluge of self-published, for lack of a better word, Crap.  Pure, unadulterated Crap.  Is my book Crap?  Maybe.  I don’t think so.  But having read over Mrs Teacher’s shoulder many times as she’s worked through an advance reader copy of a self published book, I’ve cringed at the words some would put on the page, and then pay to have printed.

    I flatter myself to think my work is above that kind of critique, but I’m realistic enough to know such is more than likely really just self-delusion.

    But what has happened with the electronic age is that Vanity Printing is effectively free.

    It costs nothing to upload a file to Create Space.  It costs nothing to use their editing software to make a quicky cover.  It costs around $4.00 to print it and $4.00 to ship it and you get to say “look!  I have a book”.  And no one else ever has to order it and you get to say that you have a book.

    For my purposes, I’m planning to propose that our Creative Writing classes look to publish a book a year, taking the best that each class produces, uploading it, printing it, and stocking it in our media center.  What fun for someone to come back 4 years later and see their prized short story sitting on the shelf for others to enjoy?  Maybe no one ~does~ enjoy it, but what’s the harm in that?

     

    • Odd question. How much would you pay a top-notch copy editor to edit your work for you?

      (fwiw, most authors suck at copy-editing. galleys are full of just crazy shit)

      • I have no budget so the most I could spend is my entertainment budget which translates to…. $60.

        Even going on current sales rates, assuming that I manage to sell equal numbers of books every month for the next year, I would make $15*12… $180 this year in royalties.  I would, maybe, be willing to spend all of that on a copy editor for the next book, which, as i understand is a full order of magnitude short of what I would need to hire someone competent.

        Thus the challenge.  If I were to sell the concept of the book to an agent, I would get the benefit of a full force top-rate copy editor, but that would be with the understanding that within a few months I would have sales in the hundreds instead of the 10′s.  Those orders of magtitude add up fast.

        For now, however, I am blessed with a cadre of friends (who got mentioned in the acknowledgements section) who are willing to read, critique and edit on my behalf.  That coupled with monthly read-throughs on my own seemed to have gotten all but the most subtle of oops’s.

         

      • *snort* shouldn’t be that much, I don’t figure (400 seems more inline). I know a guy who used to copy-edit… (if i were willing to admit I spent time screwing around online at work, which i’m not…). Ahh, but he’s rather brutal towards writers..
      • Unless by brutal you mean “insulting” I consider brutal to be key.  Actually the word I like for editors is “Clinical.”  Tell me where the language breaks down and maybe give me a hint on how to shore it up.

         

      • … yeah, I think I mean insulting. as in printed someone’s manuscript on toilet paper, and then copy-edited that.

        … he says its meant to keep the writers angry at HIM, rather than depressed because their writing sucks.

      • Youch.

        See.. I don’t get that.  If my writing sucks, either I need to work to make it better, or acknowledge that it sucks and do something different.  I find nothing to be depressed about there in either direction.

        And I like to write.  I like to story tell.  I’ve created about a dozen different full sized game campaigns over my lifetime and I’ve got two novels I really, really, want to knock out “soon”.  But if at the end of the day no one else likes it, I’m really not going to get hurt (long term) over it.  I did what I did because I liked it.

        Of course I have a hard time seeing art, any art really, as a labor.  Yes it’s work but if you don’t enjoy doing it, there are better things to labor at.

      • I dunno… but he was copy-editing for a mag that had a policy — “nobody gets an acceptance on the first go” (if you got a detailed rejection, complete with edits, that was basically “you pass. now fix it.”).

        I also suspect that some writers are more prone to the Beethoven school of writing, where they write the whole thing in one drunken rampage — and in the cold light of day, go “oh my god, what have I done???”

      • Yeah, see, that’s not copy editing, that’s collaboration.  And if I wanted collaboration I’d go to a writing group.  Just tell me what I spelled wrong and keep your opinions to yourself, okay?
      • Oh, sure, you say that NOW….

        A copyeditor isn’t a spellchecker. He’s there to catch inconsistencies in your writing, help refine the story (trim this down to two paragraphs, max. elaborate on this. the reader is going to need some motivation for this.) He’s there to tell you what’s working and what’s not.

        Some people are natural editors — they’re the type that rewrite automatically, ten times, before it leaves the house. By the time it gets sent out, it’s as near to perfect as they can refine it.

        Others work like Beethoven, write it all in a mad spree, and then push it out the door, misspellings, wrong character names and all.

      • I was once a copy-editor and I started to think of what it would take for me to do such a project. It got my mind moving – surely a big part of the whole future knowledge/service/customized/social network economy is supposed to be that you can get hooked up with someone who would love to edit your novel at a reasonable price for you. There are surely hundreds or thousands of people out there that once worked in journalism or media and/or have writing or Lit degrees plus some spare time that would love to make $60 in exchange for reading your novel and sending you a markup. I mean, if I would be planning on reading your book, why wouldn’t I want to take $60 to help you with it, right?

        The question is *how* do we hook you two up?

        Now I feel like going on a rant about how hard we make it for folks to go out and sell their services on the up and up, but that’s neither here nor there.

        I remember thinking Amazon’s Mechanical Turk was neat, but nothing ever came up on it that I thought was worth the time.

      • my friend who does strange jobs hasn’t ever had a serious job he can put on his resume… (well, with evidence to back it up). Nom de Guerres, et alia.

        … and then his friends decided to submit (subsitute) a “real resume”… when he was applying to work as a “towel boy.”

        CMWR guy: “So it says here you ran a nuclear power plant…”

        Interviewee: “It… does…? Let me see that!”

      • I know a screen writer.  He just had a fairly decent return on a film starring people with names last year.  It has a 75% rating  on IMDB and a 91% tomatometer rating.  I don’t want to out him, so that’s the only clue you get :)

        This guy is married to a former coworker of my wife.  At her birthday party a while back, we got to talking about comic books as he was apparently pegged as one of the possible screenwriters for Marvel’s Black Panther project.  He’s a pretty good screenwriter, but he’s not a comic book reader so he asked me if I’d be willing to go out to lunch and talk about the project.

        We wound up meeting three or four times and trading a bunch of email.  I told him, as a former comic reader and a target audience guy, what sorts of things I thought would work to tie in the story to the greater Marvel universe of movies (which the executives should like) without ridiculous plot asides (which the audience would hate).  What sorts of things fanboys would find seriously objectionable about mis-representing vibranium, that sort of thing.  We talked about potential villains and motivations and how dark the movie should be and whether or not he should shoot for the PG-13 or R rating and all sorts of other things.  Which Marvel movies worked (in my opinion), which ones didn’t, and why and how.

        I had a huge blast and I was horribly disappointed when the Marvel guys decided to pick the other contender.  I think it would have been a high point of my silly little life to be an uncredited collaborator on that sort of a project.

        I’m not a particularly good writer.  I’m a pretty good storyteller.  I have a hard time getting dialogue and scene description and plot exposition balanced on paper; I’m good at reading somebody else’s stuff and knowing when they didn’t do it right, but I don’t have the magic myself.

        I’d make a good collaborator, and a decent copy editor, but I suspect most people are looking for someone who is much more the second and far less of the first, and I get the feeling I’d spend all my time alienating people I was trying to work with by telling them to tear whole chapters apart and re-write them :)

      • One big part of the problem would surely be how to differentiate between those types – credentialing would surely be a part. As would some history once you have a little bit of a market business going.

        And further, some people might need a lot more help with the first than the second – plenty of writers are actually good at language and terrible at plot!

        This is the part where I feel dumb that I play video games every night instead of working on a business plan.

      • Not an odd question at all. Any writer who is serious about her or his craft should realize that it can’t be done alone; someone other than a spouse or parent needs to look it over and say, “This bit is crap, here’s one way you could make it better,” and “Two sentences in this paragraph are missing verbs, let’s fix that.” Because you’ll never see that sort of thing in your own work; it takes someone objective to find them.

        I’m curious about how much money I ought to be willing to pay for such a service.

      • and for goodness’ sake get an actual artist to design the cover. or at least someone who knows typography as something other than a great scrabble word.
      • There’s really no excuse for that these days…

        There is a ton of royalty free photography out there and CreateSpace has a fairly powerful cover maker that you can use, for free, that makes a pretty passable cover.  It has a certain “I did it myself” but it’s not nearly as bad some people trying to be sure that they have all the major characters shown or something.  Quite often, less is more….

         

  3. The model is changing, that much seems certain.   All markets depend on specialized operators who connect buyers and sellers.   These middlemen have gone to the considerable trouble of finding those willing buyers, but more importantly, found the makers of those goods and seen some market potential in their wares.

    As a software contractor, I am dependent on middlemen.   I know what my services are worth and simply do not care what more the middleman charges for them: it can’t be much more: I know what the market will bear.   I have my own clients, I’ve worked out deals with them on an ongoing basis.

    Value is perceived.   Self-publishers are in a cleft stick:  they’re too close to what they’re producing.   Though it’s possible, I suppose, with elaborate mirror arrangements, to cut your own hair and do your own dentistry, I don’t recommend this approach.   He who makes the thing is not its best judge.   Only he who needs the thing will pay for it.

    Robertson Davies said “Write for one person.”   I contribute to the Open Source community.   Considering how much I’ve benefited from it, my paltry contributions are little more than fixing or improving what I’m already using, or coding up a driver for some device or demonstrating a more-obvious way of doing something.   But really, I’m writing for myself, I use these little tools and improvements.    But most Open Source projects die on the vine: github is littered with them.

    I am specialized to a few areas of the market.  Nobody can do well, repeatedly, in this business unless he is specialized to some degree.    Problem is, the market is constantly changing and I’m constantly analyzing it, only taking an engagement if it will further my career.   There are far too many people in the Java space just now, the rates aren’t so great, but I’ve been in it since the first night Java was available for download.   I’m retreating back into C language.   It’s what my clients want now.

    Most creations die on the vine, in accordance with the laws of natural selection.  They die because they aren’t maintained and they aren’t maintained because they’re not used and they’re not used because the perceived need isn’t there.  Unless you’re writing for one person, you’re not focussed enough.   Just don’t expect to get paid if it is yourself.   If you’re writing for someone else, though, intent upon selling it, you need to understand that person and the market space he or she occupies.   You will not do that, sitting at your workbench.   You need that Someone Else to identify others like himself, of like mind and like need.

      • All introductory programming classes should be in C++. (there’s little difference between that and C, and it’ll give the teacher time to throw in some object oriented stuff).

        Also, pointers!

        Even if you never use C++ in a job, you’ll be glad you learned it.

      • Because BASIC produces cargo cult coders who think there is such a thing as a String variable type.
      • Why did Microsoft put so much work into Visual BASIC?  Because it was the only language Bill Gates could write.
      • because basic doesn’t teach memory models. Ever tried to make an array in basic? It is a barbarous practice.

        If you want something “easy” I recommend python. But i don’t recommend easy.

      • Python isn’t bad for some things.

        Scheme is a very common selection for CS1, but I don’t recommend it myself since nobody uses Scheme, really.

        If you’re planning on becoming a Real Programmer (like, “I understand how the OS actually works”), I’d start with C.  C forces you to learn discipline, in ways that other programming languages don’t (because it’s very easy to shoot off your foot in C).

        For learning programming concepts, most of the concept guys I know are enamored of Haskell.

        Java has a lot of presence, but you can’t be a monkey and a banana guy with Java.  You need the whole jungle.

        If you’re thinking about maybe doing stuff on the web, JavaScript is evil but your alternative for getting stuff up without major infrastructure is… well, pretty much JavaScript.

        If you’re thinking about doing my job, wait five years or learn Perl.

      • Hmm.. duly noted.  I used to use Visual Basic because I knew it and you got that same ability to easily export a project into an EXE and take it home and show off to Dad.  And like Gates I was tainted because it was a language I knew.

        I did try, briefly to have the Neverwinter Nights Mod maker put in our labs so I could teach the kids scripting/ programming right there and they could, again, see the results immediately.  And then kill it.

        Or work to debug interesting problems, such as when I wrote code for a Boss that would “on seeing party” summon a zombie, forgetting that ~every~ time there was LOS between the boss and the party that script would fire.  For reference you can fit 3451 zombies in a 20 by 20 room before the computer crashes.

         

      • I would start with C.   It’s very close to the machine, and learning it can help aspiring programmers learn and understand what’s happening “under the hood,” which is vital if you want to write efficient and well-written code down the line.   And, it’s such a small language, that it can be taught rather quickly.

        The most widely-used languages for commercial development (C++, Java, and C#) are all decendants of C, with object features added.   I wouldn’t advocate for using any of them as first languages, because they put another layer of abstraction between the programmer and the machine.

      • You can take CS1 for free, online, really.  MIT, Stanford, and a couple of other places put their lectures up online.

        There’s a Mindless Diversions post somewhere about it.

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