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January 7, 2011

The Importance of Context (Part 1)

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A couple of recent news items have me thinking about the importance of looking at information in context.

The first is an article from the Los Angeles Times entitled "Book Publishers See Their Role as Gatekeepers Shrink." The article covers a number of writers who are bypassing trade publishers to publish their work themselves--such as Joe Konrath, who has had a great deal of success self-publishing his backlist on the Kindle; Seth Godin, who last year decided to become his own (and apparently other people's) publisher; and Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson, who are serializing a collaborative novel online.

The second is a cluster of information about ebook sales. According to USA Today's latest Best-Selling Books list, ebook sales for the week after Christmas were higher than print sales for 19 of the top 50 sellers. Amazon reported similar news in October, when it revealed that for top-selling books, Kindle ebooks were outselling both hardcovers and paperbacks; and in December, Barnes & Noble announced that ebook sales had surpassed print sales on the B & N website.

Everyone loves a juicy news bite. But before you decide that ebooks rule and print is dead and it's time to self-publish your magnum opus online, there's a bit more to be said about all these stories.

The "Gatekeepers" article does something that many discussions of the seismic changes that are rocking the publishing world too often seem to do: it takes several non-typical examples, and, either by implication or omission, makes it seem as if they can apply to anyone. The authors discussed in the article are successful, established writers--in some cases, best selling writers--who possessed substantial platforms and self-promotional savvy before deciding to bypass their commercial publishers and self-publish. These are advantages that your average debut author, who must begin from scratch, or your long-time midlister, whose small audience is mainly characterized by the fact that it never gets much bigger, don't possess. What Seth Godin can do, in other words, probably isn't what you can do.

Are there platformless authors who've achieved self-publishing success? Absolutely. Right now, this seems especially to be a phenomenon of the Kindle, where self-publishing authors are tapping into the growing enthusiasm for ebooks (and for the Kindle itself). In a recent blog post, Joe Konrath provides a list of self-pubbed Kindle authors who he says are selling at least 1,000 ebooks a month. Even here, however (and assuming these are documented figures, rather than anecdotal reports), things need to be put in context. Many of these authors have multiple books on offer (i.e., they may be selling 250 copies each of four books, not 1,000 copies of one book), and/or are pricing them well below what larger publishers charge (which makes them extra-attractive to ebook enthusiasts, many of whom are very hostile toward trade publishers' ebook pricing strategies). And even if, as Konrath claims, the list is only a small sampling of high-selling Kindle self-publishers, these success stories have to be considered in the context of the thousands of self-pubbed authors whose ebooks aren't selling in large quantities. Konrath seems to assume that just about anyone, with some effort, can move a substantial number of ebooks, but I'm betting there are a lot of writers out there who know it's not that easy.

I'm not saying you shouldn't self-publish if you want to (though I would urge you to do so on the basis of knowledge rather than hype), or that self-publishers can't become successful (clearly, they can--something that has always been true, for every possible value of success). I'm just saying that it's risky to assume that others' success stories will apply to you. "Anyone can do it" are dangerous words. Look for the story behind the story--it may be as instructive as the story itself.

What about ebooks outselling print, though? Doesn't that say something about the potential for self-publishing success in a digital world? Doesn't it prove we've reached a tipping point, beyond which the dominance of digital is assured?

Well, there's some context here, too. As USA Today notes, the surge in e-sales is a post-Christmas boom, spurred by all the people who got Nooks and Kindles and iPads for Christmas and spent the holidays busily filling them up with ebooks. A better test of the trend, if it is a trend, will be to take a look at the situation a few months down the road. It's also good to remember that the ecology of best-sellers is rather different from that of other books, and trends displayed by high-selling books may not apply across the board.

As for Amazon's and Barnes & Noble's ebook figures, they say something important about the huge popularity of those retailers' ebook devices. But while ebooks can only be bought online, print books are bought both online and off. In other words, Amazon's and Barnes & Noble's figures represent the totality of Kindle and Nook sales--but only a fraction of print sales.

Per current estimates, ebooks account for about 9% of all trade book sales (a figure that's probably a good deal higher for some genres and some books). Ebooks are rapidly gaining market share, and this time next year they'll undoubtedly hold a bigger chunk of the market. How much bigger, though, is anyone's guess. Beware of prognosticators--nobody owns a crystal ball, no matter how much they may want you to think they do.

Be forward-thinking in your quest for publication. Embrace trends; take risks. Just be sure to research everything, investigate everything, and remember that facts and statistics don't emerge from a vacuum. They may look very different when considered in context. Whatever decisions you make about your publishing future, you'll be most assured of achieving your goals if you proceed on the basis of knowledge, rather than headlines and hype.

Oh, and happy 2011, everyone!


Doreen McGettigan said...

Very informative post; thank you.

Jenny said...

Every single article hyping e-publishing cites the omnipresent Konrath and Godin. This says much for their self-promotion skills, but makes you wonder why all the other e-book successes aren't stepping up to be profiled. Could it be because they don't exist?

If you look at the Kindle bestseller list you'll see that many of the top books are priced at $3.00 or less. In the genre that sells the most downloads, Romance, many are priced at $.99.

A thousand books sold at $.99 are earning the author $300, or $3,600 a year. Even struggling midlist authors are doing better than that with mainstream publishers.

I would love to see a breakdown of Konrath's income to see whether he is currently earning more from giving talks about e-publishing than he is from e-publishing. The time he devotes to it makes you wonder, especially since none of his very visible promotion gives readers who aren't already fans any reason to seek out his books. Mostly all you learn about him is that he's selling downloads.

gniz said...

Hi Victoria,

This is a balanced post you've written and yet it leaves out some key elements of the discussion.

Firstly, although you mention the lower eBook pricing, you failed to discuss the higher royalty rates which more than make up for the price reduction (on the author's side). Do the math if you don't believe me.

And although you raise a valid question about just how many eBook authors are having success relative to the whole, you offer no means to reach a conclusion one way or the other. Saying that a lot of authors are surely failing without any evidence to back it up is not very persuasive logic.

And in any case, even with print books, most do not earn out and are considered failures. Since eBooks don't cost anything, every penny authors make goes directly to profits (unless they spend on advertising or cover art, etc).

And lastly, although you acknowledge that the technology is here to stay, you equivocate on just how big of the market eBooks will end up with.

My response is this: How many DVDs did you watch this year? How many CDs have you purchased at record stores in the last two years? Either way, most people are downloading from iTunes and watching movies on Netflix.


An E-Publisher's Manifesto

Anonymous said...

Great post as always, Vic. The notion of "hey, he did it, so can I" is why Konrath's arguments drove me nuts. I wince every time I hear this thinking at writer's conferences. Success isn't based on a template - it's all tailor-made and very dependent upon the author's book, her personality, her platform, and her budget.

gniz said...

Hi Jenny, that's not really accurate: re JA Konrath's sales. Here's a link to his discussion about his sales numbers:
At the end, he says: "Joe has made $22,000 in December."

Also, have you heard that Amanda Hocking sold over one hundred thousand copies in December? Also, many authors sell some books at 99 cents for the lower royalty rate but then later books in the series at 2.99 for a much better rate.

An E-Publisher's Manifesto

True Life and Fiction said...

Great post, Victoria. And, as others have said, very informative indeed.

I think that Jenny made some excellent points as well.

I have limited personal experience of the self-publishing ebook market as I recently chose to use Smashwords to publish my first work in a genre I do not normally write in.

I agree with you, and think that one should educate themself on ebook and self-publishing before jumping headlong into the mix. I came into this without delusions of breakaway sales. I am an unknown author publishing my first novel independently of the support and backing provided by a major house or even an agent.

That being said, I will put forth my numbers in a way I hope will open the eyes of those who might see your post and still be convinced that self-publishing and ebooking is the only way to go.

First, I used this vehicle for a specific purpose - to test the waters within a genre that is new to me. I wrote under a pen name knowing full-well that the venture could be a horrible flop.

Smashwords proved to be a wonderful option for me. They are free and even give an ISBN once approved through their premium catalog. My book published at the beginning of December and has accumulated 118 sales since then. The majority of those sales was through a coupon I offered for 100% off-basically, a free book. That was by design in order to get more people to read the work and possibly provide feedback.

Then novel is also offered on amazon in both ebook and paperback. In the first month, I've accumulated over 20 ebook sales and 3 paperback sales. Now, this may be a real eye-opener to some but I believe these are average to slight better than average results for a writer like myself moving into this market. And I expected much less. I think that it would be foolish to expect more.

Now, of course, genre, price, and author familiarity have much to do with sales. I did not hype my book before its release. It just kind of showed up on amazon one day. The book is not mainstream genre - paranormal erotic fantasy. But I priced it at $2.99, which I believe has limited influence over purchase decisions.

We'll see how it goes in the future, and as I release a sequel to this work. But, this just proves your point that one must be knowledgeable and honest about prospects before going into something like this. It was right for me on this project although other project might be better suited to seeking regular publication.

I maintained honest, objective, expectations and surpassed them. I'm happy but I no not expect to quit my day job anytime soon. And, that too is ok with me.

I will most likely use this platform again because of rights and royalties, but hold no outlandish expectations either.

Victoria Strauss said...


You're right about the income, depending on the price of the ebook and what p-book you're comparing it to...but the point I was trying to make wasn't about what authors can earn, but about the promotional advantage lower-priced ebooks have, given ebook enthusiasts' strong feelings about how ebooks should be priced. Also, for many authors, the issue isn't income, but exposure. Yes, 70% of $2.99 will earn you more than 10% of $14.99--but if you're only selling a few copies a month, that may not be such a big advantage.

Saying that a lot of authors are surely failing without any evidence to back it up is not very persuasive logic.

Low sales are an enduring feature of self-publishing. For some evidence, see the Sales and Statistics section of my article on POD publishing services. It's not a stretch to assume that the general principle applies to electronic self-publishing as well.

Beyond that, alleging that electronic self-publishing is a path to success for any author on the basis of a limited sample of successful authors is also not very persuasive logic.

And in any case, even with print books, most do not earn out and are considered failures.

Not earning out isn't a definition of failure--a book doesn't need to earn out its advance in order to be profitable for the publisher.

And lastly, although you acknowledge that the technology is here to stay, you equivocate on just how big of the market eBooks will end up with.

Of course. That's one of the points of my post--that no one can predict the future, no matter how much they might want to.

(BTW, I watch 2-3 DVDs a week).

Victoria Strauss said...

JL Stratton, thanks for sharing.

Frances Grimble said...

Part One

There's another important wrinkle to e-books published for the Kindle, and for Barnes & Noble's Nook. (Amazon's new Kindle policy imitates that of the Nook.) See:

Note that, despite all the e-book reader-enthusiasts' claims about how nice it is to share and discuss e-books with personal friends, there are entire websites set up to trade loans of Nook e-books. I saw ones set up for the Kindle the day after Amazon announced the new lending program. Because no physical/personal meeting is needed to trade files, anyone can halve their e-book purchases with organized trades of loans. Most people don't have time to read most books twice, so a two-week, one-time loan is quite enough for them to avoid purchase.

Note also that Amazon can change their lending terms at any time, possibly to expand the number of times a book is loaned.

Some libraries get around loan restrictions by buying Kindle hardware, loading it up with books, and lending this hardware to patrons. Libraries are extremely concerned with costs these days and they, like many readers, feel e-books should be, if not free, very cheap indeed.

Frances Grimble said...

Part Two

A huge problem with e-books is the ongoing race to the bottom on prices as e-book publishers like Amazon and Google struggle with each other for the greatest market share. List prices, discounts, and loans are all part of that struggle.

Authors and self-publishers can only lose out by these low prices, as they spend considerably more money and time to create the books than Amazon (or whoever) spends to keep those books listed in a database. Even some self-publishers believe that if you lower the price enough, you automatically sell enough copies to make up for it. Not so. Lowering prices does not increase the audience for a niche book. (Amazon has discounted the prices on my printed books as much as 37% at times, but I'm still selling the same number of books to the same people.) Lowering prices also does not mean more people automatically hear about the book--the author and publisher still have to spend the same amount of time and money on marketing.

In sum, I would encourage everyone self-publishing e-books to price them so he or she can make a profit, and to look very carefully at all e-book contracts, preferably with the aid of a lawyer.

Frances Grimble said...

J L Stratton,

If the ISBN is from Samashwords, they, not you, are likely the publisher of record. You can and probably should be buying your own ISBNs from R. R. Bowker.


Since Amazon insists that all publishers in their 70% royalty program either agree to unpaid, currently one-time loans of their e-books or go to a 35% royalty rate, authors are no longer getting a 70% royalty for each reading of a book.

And, as a print self-publisher, I get all the profits from my books. Not a royalty.


Publishing with a POD publisher/vanity press is the marketing kiss of death. Reviewers do not want to review such books, and brick-and-mortar bookstores do not want to carry them. There is also industry prejudice against non-vanity self-published books, but they have some chance of commercial success. Vanity press books have almost none. Of course, some vanity press books were never intended to be commercial (as when a self-publisher I know published his 13-year-old niece's novel on Lulu as a birthday gift.) It is unfortunate that industry figures lump the two kinds of publishing together.

Anyone who wants to discuss self-publishing is welcome to join the Yahoo self-publishers' group:

It's free and open to all.

Frances Grimble said...


Also, maybe e-book technology is here to stay but that does not mean print technology will go. We still have live theater, and movies, and TV, and DVDs. We have live concerts, and radio, and CDs. We had had audiobooks for a long time, but they have not outsold print books.

Even though these different media overlap each other to some extent, they provide different experiences and are convenient in different situations. (For example, people can listen to the radio or audiobooks when driving, but they can't watch TV.)

I think e-books will soon evolve into a new art form incorporating sound, animation, film, Internet connection (for information, not just book downloads), and other capabilities of the hardware. They will not be books as we currently think of them. They will also be more expensive to produce than just flowing text onto hardware.

For myself, I'm sticking with offset-print books, which do a better and more attractive job of presenting the reading-only experience than e-books do. POD books currently have a higher unit cost than offset books, but I expect POD costs to come down and POD quality (especially of color illustrations) to go up. At which point I may switch to POD. For an unillustrated book, the actual cash outlay of printing POD is already quite affordable for most people.

Frances Grimble said...

By the way, a POD publisher is a vanity press. A POD printer is just a book printer. There are many companies that will print books POD without laying any claims to being your publisher.

Andra M. said...

To add to what Frances said, when I'm looking for a new e-book, I indeed look at cost. However, I'm not always looking for the cheapest. If one book in my chosen genre of the hour costs $5.99 and another costs $0.99, I'm more likely to gravitate to the $5.99.

Even with books, sometimes you get what you pay for, and I'm willing to pay more for quality books than saving a few dollars by buying a book I may not enjoy.

Granted not all $0.99 books are crap. But as a writer who's self published a novella, I'm willing to charge more because I believe the reader will get his/her money's worth. I expect other authors to do the same.

In other words, never sell yourself -- or your writing -- short.

Maryannwrites said...

Thanks for putting this all in context. I think all the changes in the industry are going to be good for authors in the long run. There is nothing against an author having a book out in hardback and or mass market, then later taking advantage of digital publishing. I just bought an early Faye Kellerman book for my Kindle because it was only priced at 99 cents. I'd read it before in paper, but I knew I'd enjoy reading it again. I wouldn't buy the paperback again, but the e-book was so reasonable, I couldn't resist.

Nathan Lowell said...

As one of the authors listed in the Konrath piece, I probably should point out -- although, yes, it's rather anecdotal at this point -- I was selling 1000 units a month in ebook with only one title. It was my debut novel. I'm a complete unknown. I have no connections in the community of letters. No degree in literature. No MFA in fiction.

I'm also not self-pub, but my publisher is a very small indie press with only a few titles and a handful of authors. We're a long way from NYC and we certainly do not share many of the values that the more mainstream presses do. Which is good, because I've seen good authors with exceptional platforms and very good works get put thru the Big 6 wringer.

And advantage I do have is a great platform. I spent three years ignoring all the best advice that the writer gurus offered and managed to amass a following of 15,000 fans from around the world. (There's a reason so many writers have trouble building a platform, but nobody really wants to hear it.)

Starting in December, with only my second book on Amazon, I'm making more in book sales than I made from my salary as a PhD at a Research II university.

I'm a fluke, probably, but I'm also proof that it can be done. There's no secret to it. Right now, I'm helping one of my friends along the path to see if we can get lightning to strike twice.

Maybe we can, maybe we can't. He's about a year behind in development but by this time next year? Who knows. The market is changing very fast and we're breaking the trails.

Time will tell , and a year from now it could all have been a pleasant dream. In the mean time, I'm paying my bills by writing my stories.

BeckyE said...

Great post, thanks. It's so hard to sift through all the information pouring out there.

Krissy Brady said...

Thanks Victoria! A very insightful post that I'm sure will help other writers as much as it's helped me.

Unknown said...

I've been published by two independents over the years, and I designed and published about 17 shorts on Nookbooks within the past month. I'm getting some sales, not many yet, if ever. I'm having a ball making the covers because I can do what I want, use several different fonts, and experiment. I've got at least 50 stories and non-fiction articles to put into e-book form.

JA Konrath said...

Anyone can self-publish.

Not everyone will be successful.

But how many authors land an agent, sign a big deal, and live happily ever after?

I used to be very much against self publishing. Lately, I've become convinced that writers can make more money, find more readers, and have much less stress and heartache if they do it themselves.

I never said everyone will get rich.

But earning $100 a month in Kindle royalties is better than spending $50 a month querying agents.

Right now, the publishing and bookselling worlds are in turmoil. Even if a new writer does land an agent and a deal, it could be two
years before the book sees print. I'm guessing the industry will be in much worse shape then than it is now.

But a good book, with a good cover, priced low, can start selling right away.

Speaking of low price, I earn $2.04 on $2.99 ebook. I earn 64 cent on a $7.99 paperback that NY printed.

Guess which is easier to sell?

Anonymous said...

It seems the biggest issue of CONTEXT is being completely ignored. Most beginner authors have almost no chance at ever being published by a mainstream publisher.

With that reality in mind, the eBook revolution lowers the barrier to entry and provides ready distribution to any person who has the right entrepreneurial spirit and wishes to independently publish. Does it guarantee success--no. Neither does traditional publishing.

Most authors who are published by a mainstream house will never get a NY TIMES review. Or EW review. OR a PW review. Most will not get a second book published or earn through a significant advance.

Publishing, in all its facets, is a long shot.

Victoria Strauss said...

Joe, thanks for commenting. I have huge respect for what you've accomplished with electronic self-publishing, though I don't agree with all your conclusions, or all your advice.

Re: the earnings issue: for many authors, it's not about the money, or not only about the money. Exposure is just as important. As I noted in an earlier comment, low exposure is a fact of self-publishing, and it doesn't seem unreasonable to assume that also broadly applies to self-epublishing.

I do think that right now it may be somewhat easier to succeed with self-epublishing than with self-publishing in general--and specifically, with Kindle publishing--mainly because the ebook market is currently so small. It's easier to stand out in a limited market, especially if you're writing in popular genres and have attractive price points. The ebook market is expanding rapidly, though--and as it gets bigger it's going to get tougher for electronic self-publishers to achieve visibility. In other words, I think there may be a limited window of opportunity here, during which electronic self-publishing is a more viable path to success than it will ultimately become.

It's true that publishing is in turmoil. But equally, no one can predict how the digital transition is going to shake out. It's not a sure thing either way.

Writers need to do their research, evaluate their goals, and make informed--not impulsive or emotional--choices.

D.G. Hudson said...

I love the way you dissect the articles, and put the information in perspective, Victoria.

Writers want to believe what these articles are saying,and hearing a different view on the subject may save some of us from jumping in too soon. Commenters on some blogs rave about their sales for the e-books they uploaded to Amazon. There's a lot of confusing information in the webworld. That's why I read your posts.

This blog always impresses me with it's sage advice. And on a Saturday, too. Thanks.

JA Konrath said...

it doesn't seem unreasonable to assume that also broadly applies to self-epublishing.

That's not unreasonable. But it is incorrect. ;)

I'm not only making more money self-pubbing, I'm reaching more readers.

I've compared the number of books I've sold through the Big 6, with their marketing machine behind me, and the amount of ebooks I've sold on my own. Crunching the numbers, I can sell more ebooks in a shorter amount of time than a Big 6 publisher can sell hardcover,s paperbacks, audiobooks, and ebooks, all combined.

It's easier to stand out in a limited market

There are about a million ebook titles on Kindle, and best guess is that there are 15 million Kindles in the wild, and maybe 70 million Kindle apps.

I think I'm correct in assuming that the future means more ebooks, and more Kindles.

I don't need to outsell all other ebooks, or sell to a majority of Kindle users. I only need to appeal to a specific audience. And that audience is growing. Not only that, there is no competition amoung ebooks. Someone could easily buy my ebook and your ebook as well. This isn't like choosing between two $28 hardcovers.

The growth I've seen in the last two years is incredible, and as you've said, it's still a small market.

But it's growing.

I don't see any evidence that the bookstore market is growing.

Anonymous said...

Ever since I heard that quote from Amazon, that e-book sales were greater than hardcover sales, I've been wondering if the e-book sales number included all the public domain and other free titles.

And though there's nothing much we can do about it, I keep wondering about accountability. With traditionally published paper books, there's an accounting chain: the publisher knows how many the printer printed, the distributor has a record of how many copies went to the stores, how many were paid for, and how many were returned. Easy to come up with an accurate number of sales. But with e-books, what's to stop an unscrupulous retailer from claiming that every other royalty-worthy sale was instead a public domain title? Wonderful possibility if this quarter's results were a little low, isn't it?

--Ian Randal Strock
Publisher, Fantastic Books

Victoria Strauss said...

It's clearly incorrect for you, Joe. And for anyone else who is realizing high Kindle sales.

But incorrect for any individual author? Not necessarily.

Frances Grimble said...

No matter whether your book is a print book or an e-book, you have the huge marketing task of letting readers know it exists, then convincing them your book is informative and/or entertaining enough to buy--when there are hundreds of thousands of other books out there. Just publishing an e-book, and/or listing your book on Amazon, will do very little for you.

I would encourage self-publishers to look beyond exposure as soon as they can and as much as they can. Exposure doesn't pay any bills. And, being paid does not mean you don't get exposure, or that you aren't building your audience, or that you aren't informing or entertaining readers. You can have ALL those things.

Michael Capobianco said...

The other factor that is not being addressed is that the quality of the writing DOES have an effect on the salability of a book whether it's self-published or published by a commercial publisher. The vast majority of the books that are self-published are terrible, and, presumably because of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the authors are unable to tell how bad they are. The old system was based on someone other than the author investing money in a book, which was the most effective way to tell the good books from the bad (not foolproof by any means, but largely vanity-proof.) With self-publishing, there's no such filter, or, generally, any filter, and the results reflect this. The bottom line is that it's unlikely that an unedited, terribly written book is going to sell copies to disinterested parties, and the poor author will never know the reason why.

Nathan Lowell said...

francis - yes, people have to know about the book. that's why platform is so important.

michael - writing quality *is* a big problem. again, i've found that developing the platform makes the difference. before any of my work saw text-pub, it had been vetted by 10,000 fans -- in podcast format. when it came time to edit for text, we had a pretty good idea what needed to be fixed. And we also knew that there was an audience for it.

Frances Grimble said...


It's not entirely true that publishers accept books on the basis of whether the manuscript is well written. A number of kinds of books are accepted where the publisher undertakes to do considerable rewrite work. These include: Unfinished books by established authors, often because they died before completing the MS; books by subject experts (not necessarily well-known ones) who are very knowledgeable but don't write well; and just about any book by, or in some cases about, a celebrity.

It's also not true that self-publishers are so obsessed as to have no objectivity. For many, the problem is that they do not have sufficient skills in all the tasks that must be carried out in addition to writing--copyediting, design, layout, illustration, indexing, etc. Or the money to pay freelancers to do them. This means that many books are self-published that could have been made into much better books. This is not a problem that using an e-format will solve.

Frances Grimble said...


The idea that anyone can get 100,000 fans by social networking is a complete fallacy. I publish niche books and I don't think there are anywhere near 100,000 people who would be interested in them no matter how I marketed them.

Also, I was formally trained as an editor, and I spent many years working as an editor for other publishers. I know a lot more about how to edit a work than most of my readers. If I didn't, I could hire one professional editor to go through the whole manuscript. Having also been a technical writer who had to pass out copies of the manuals I wrote to the entire programming team and seen every programmer want to impose a different editorial style and graphic design on the manuscript without having a clue what they were talking about, I really, seriously, don't want 100,000 people editing my manuscript.

Besides, I have discovered from unsolicited reader input that many will ask for things that are impossible to provide, inconsistent with other things they want, and otherwise completely unreasonable.

And you know what? It's my book. It is not a collective effort. Readers are welcome to buy it or not after it's finished, but it is not their creation.

No, I have not sold 100,000 copies of any book. But I have managed to publish nine as print books (ten if you count a second edition), and stay in business for 19 years.

Frances Grimble said...


The problem with many self-published books is not that the writer was overly in love with the book, but that the writer did not have the skills to edit, design, illustrate, lay out, index, proof, and etc. the book--in addition to writing and marketing it. Or the money to hire a freelance editor, graphic artist, and other professionals the way a larger publisher would have done. This problem is unconnected to whether it is an e-book or a print book.

Nathan Lowell said...


100,000 fans? Did I miss something?

Scott Sigler is the largest one I know about and the last I heard his fanbase was somewhere around 65,000 worldwide. JC Hutchins had a fanbase of about 55,000 when his Seventh Son novel was released by St. Martins and Mur Lafferty was running around the 40-45,000 mark when she published with Swarm (I think that's right).

By comparison, I'm one of the little guys. My fan base has grown from 10,000 in Jan 2010 to just under 15,000 today.

Really, the only reason I stuck my oar in here was because Jenny (way back up in the second comment) said "...makes you wonder why all the other e-book successes aren't stepping up to be profiled. Could it be because they don't exist?"

We exist.

Frances Grimble said...


Sorry, i misread. But I don't want 10,000 people editing my manuscript either. It's my book, not theirs.

Likewise, when I buy a book by an author, I want the style of that author, not their style boiled down to the lowest common denominator by 10,000 feedback tweets from random people. Someone who, for example, thinks Stephenson's novels are too long, or Wolfe's are too full of symbolism, or Jane Austen's lacking in sex and violence, should just be reading a different author instead of trying to remodel the book before publication.

Nathan Lowell said...


I couldn't agree more. I don't want 10,000 people editing my book either.

I *think* the point I'm failing to make was offered in response to your comment:

"No matter whether your book is a print book or an e-book, you have the huge marketing task of letting readers know it exists, then convincing them your book is informative and/or entertaining enough to buy--when there are hundreds of thousands of other books out there. Just publishing an e-book, and/or listing your book on Amazon, will do very little for you. "

I actually agree with you. Which led to my comment on platform and the importance of it.

Frances Grimble said...


What then do you mean by "vetted" by 10,000 fans?

I'm also not quite sure what you mean by the term "platform."



Anonymous said...

Not to miss the main points as I see them: After twenty years and several reads, being told I'm not marketable within current trends, I'm tired. Think agentfail. Snookie has a contract. Think publisherfail. Readers now have a choice, if we can tell them where we are. Our words lead the way. Our words will make or break us. That is what this is all about. I want readers to enjoy what I offer. The money is the icing on the cake, because the skilled will make more than the rest. They will build a readership day by month and year. No gatekeepers. Just readers. Crunch the numbers now. I'm not waiting another year to suddenly become marketable, getting a small advance in today's marketplace, with a zero promotional budget, expecting to be all I can be with no backup, and then possibly getting dropped like so many midlist authors whose numbers don't add up. I will give all I can to my readers. 150% to be 99.8% mistake free. Fast paced, and as entertaining as I can be. I'm tired of being passed over. Sometimes even the best get passed over, and you all know that to be true. Bestsellers turned down by many, sometimes for years. I'm good. I know I'm good. But, I'm tired of playing a game I don't think I'll win. Now I don't have to play any games. I just have to be good. I have to please my readers. It isn't really about the money, not with us. With me, getting someting is much better than twenty years of nothing. Agents, publishers, they worry about money. Me? For the first time in too many years I'm happy.

Nathan Lowell said...


The word platform has gotten twisted all around but I believe that an author's platform is -- very roughly speaking -- the fan base. I generally characterize it as the aggregated conversations between a writer and the fans and among the fans who are talking about the writer or his/her work. It's an index of how much leverage an author can bring to bear in his or her market niche.

I'm sure others will argue but that's my working definition.

I'm probably using the term "vetted" incorrectly. I realize that usually it's having an expert review a piece -- as in "I had my lawyer vet the contract before I signed it."

When it comes to works of fiction, I think the readers are the experts. They are the ones who will be buying the books in the end. Feedback from a small sample of readers doesn't necessarily yield a valid result -- particularly when we're considering marketability of a product when the market is in flux.

So by "vetted," I mean I've had around 10-15,000 people listen to my books in audio form. They've given me feedback.

By feedback I mean they rate my stories on the iTunes Music Store and leave reviews there. They also rate them on They write to tell me they shared the books with their friends. They've asked me to make the novels available in text format so they can share them with their friends and family who don't listen to podcasts or audiobooks. We have conversations about the stories and what they like about them -- both on my website and on the Podiobooks blog. I even have several people who really don't think my work has merit or value and have hunted me down to tell me--in detail--what a terrible writer I am.

I built a community of fans using social media tools like podcasting, blogging, ning, and twitter. Because of that community -- what I call my platform -- I was able to go into the marketplace with a defined customer base. That gave me a target and allowed me to work my way up out of the sea of unknowns to gain a significant following in text formats -- primarily Kindle.

Said another way, I've test marketed my stories in serialized audio format and grown a substantial audience for my work. What I'm doing now is expanding out of the small world of podiobooks and building that platform out into the paper and e-book marketplace.

I started that work four years ago this week. It seems to be working out nicely.

TheSFReader said...

If I may, Nathan, your interlocutor's name is FrancEs, not FrancIs ...

Frances, regarding your part 1 comment, I know of some people for whom 2 weeks is insufficient to read a book. Myself, I tend nowadays to borrow 2-3 books and not return them before one month. And beeing able to lend a book only once is simply SILLY !

Secondly, your price point comment seems to miss one point : given the royalty rate (as long as it keeps fixed the way it is (I admit that it may change)), the author gets as much (2 $) with a 3$ self-published book as with a 15$ classically published (as Victoria recognizes). That means that for customers who want to spend 15 $ in books, in the second case 2$ will go to the author (one single sale), while in the first one, the author'll get 10$ ... With such a royalty rate, if the author sells as many books when self-published as when publisher-published, why have the customer pay 13$ more ? That's dollars he won't be able to spend on additional books ...

Consider this : if a customer buys 5 self-published books, 3 of them beeing rubbish ... He'll stil have bought 2 good books instead of one, with 4 $ going to the good authors nstead of 2$... And after he'll have posted reviews on the 5 books, the 3 rubbish ones will have less chances of beeing bought by other customers, whereas the good ones will sell better, thus enhancing the good author's sales.
Time limited readers will most probably wait for reviews on books before buying them, with no harm done, while more adventurous ones will "pioneer"/test non reviewed books, establishing the future for them...

Regarding Frances and Victoria's argument about making an author's work known, that's what marketing is for. Historically, it is one of the publisher's role, which is also part of his justification with regard to royalties repartition. However, as I have stated in a post on my blog, that role may not be the main motivation for the high royalities rate the publisher deserves in the "classical" pbook schema, and may also be either done by the author, or subcontracted if he wants to self-publish.

Frances, you're right, some (a majority ?) of the authors who self publish may not have the editing/presentation/formatting skills that a professional team has, and those will get ejected out of the market unless they learn to do or find out people to help them do it (either for free as an exchange or by paying).

All in all, after all the arguments both ways, I fail to understand why publishers who take less risk with ebooks as with pbooks should be compensated the same regardless of the form...

Nathan Lowell said...

Oh, ACK!

My apologies, FrancEs. (I can't believe I've done that! Color me chagrinned.)

Thanks, TheSFReader. I'll slink back to my corner now and sit on my hands for the rest of the day.

TheSFReader said...

No need Nathan :)

BTW I don't understand how you can see my post since I can't ! Blogger told me it was too long or something like that ! :(

Nathan Lowell said...

TheSFReader - I subscribed by email and read it in my inbox. It *doesn't* show here for me either.

Sorry for the logistical side trip. We now return you to the discussion already in progress.


Frances Grimble said...


However, you could publish a print book instead of, or in addition to, an e-book. The print book could be done by a POD printer or from an offset printer.

Frances Grimble said...

Part One


The term "fan" embarrasses me. It sounds so gushy. I just think of readers as readers, and of the marketing categories they are in as audiences. If they like the book, great. But the bottom line is whether they buy it.

I am also uncomfortable with some forms of social networking. My readers are not my personal friends, and I don't want to pretend they are. They are not collaborating on my book, I am not writing it to order, and I don't want to pretend those things either. I am not willing to give them endless free personal advice on my areas of expertise. I don't really want their feedback: I'm the expert and can write the book on my own. I only feel honest giving them a straightforward sales announcement: A finished book is available and you might want to buy it for the following reasons. No matter how good the book is, the majority of people will not be interested in it, and some people who read it will not like it. That means it is not the book for them, but not that it is a bad book and that it should be changed by popular vote.

I've never once blogged, tweeted, given a podcast, posted a video on utube, or distributed free copies in any form except a small number to carefully screened reviewers, mostly print reviewers. I have no intention of ever doing any of those things.

Frances Grimble said...

Part Two

I didn't build a platform and then publish my first book. I published the book and then started to market it. I did have a very good idea of who my readers would be when I was writing it, and of their needs, but I don’t consult them.

It's not that I don't social network a little. But it's incredibly time consuming and for many authors, does not seem to pay off in relation to the time spent. My strategy is to belong to a bunch of related forums (such as Yahoo’s). I drop in roughly once a month to answer a recent question and in the course of that, mention one of my books. If I can't find a question to answer that way, I post a link to some site I've found on the net that is likely to be useful to the group's readers, and leave a sig line mentioning my business and/or one of my books. Occasionally, I answer posts on other people’s blogs here or there. I never have to gather an audience just for social networking, keep a discussion going, or screen spam for a forum. If I need to drop social networking for weeks on end while I'm working hard on a book, I just do it.

No muss, no fuss, no hype, and it takes only about 15 minutes a day. I couldn't write a really good blog post in that time (what you see here are first drafts). Anyway, I could not explicitly sell my books in most blog posts. It would be utterly obnoxious. By going around to different groups, I'm not constantly marketing to the same people.

It can work to go where people are already gathered. And it makes sense to spend as little time as necessary to sell books, and as much time as necessary writing more books.

By the way, every new book you publish also boosts sales of your backlist, if you mention the backlist in your marketing (but give it less prominence). Likewise, every new book you publish adds to your readership.

Frances Grimble said...


And no, I don't believe that readers are the experts. I'm the one who not only has the expertise in research, writing, and publishing, I'm the one who does all the work. Readers are just the consumers of all this. I'd just be extremely annoyed if 10,000 of them tried to stick their fingers into my work.

Victoria Strauss said...

For some reason Blogger routes longer comments to my spam folder. Sorry to those of you whose posts have gotten caught in that limbo. I do check regularly, and release any legitimate comments that may have been sidelined.

Nathan Lowell said...

Sounds like you've got a system that works well for you, Frances.

If it's not broken ... as they say.

And I agree with you about the ridiculous levels of "push push push" that are out there. I understand where that comes from, but it doesn't work well in the new media marketplace and is based largely on old-school broadcast models. Luckily, I don't have to do that either.

Social media does take time and I was really only able to write about a novel and a half a year while I was working full time and teaching on the side. Still it let me get eight books behind me in four years. (I wrote a couple extra the first year before I started really developing my platform and people started discovering me. The books were short, too.)

But without the social media platform and the new markets, I would never have been able to go from nobody to professional author in just four years. I wasted about a year working through mainstream agents and contracts before I realized that the "best case scenario" was not a direction I wanted to go and abandoned it.

Now that I'm writing full time, I'm looking forward to seeing what I might be able to accomplish in terms of new work while we get the back list books ready for text publication.

It should be interesting.

Frances Grimble said...


I've always felt that professionalism rests more in the quality of the work and a determination to be professional, than in whether people have heard of the author. To me, whether people have heard of me--or rather, my books, because I'm not selling services--is marketing. It does not affect my self-image.

No way could I write a book in a year and a half, while holding down another job. My hat is off to you.

But--you have already found this out but other people here may have not--once an author self-publishes he, or she, finds out that there is not only marketing but a host of other things to do besides writing. You can't just write the book, pour it into e-format, and say, "Whew, that's it." Whether you do tasks themselves or hire and supervise freelancers, somehow you have to deal with all the stuff your publisher would normally deal with. Editing, book design, page layout, proofreading, indexing (for nonfiction), illustration (sometimes), etc. All this takes a extra work, time, and if hired out, money. Then there are all the tasks and costs of running a small business--accounting, etc.

That is another reason self-publishing is not for everyone: You cannot be just an author.

Michael Capobianco said...

Frances, you should seriously consider starting your own blog to state your views on copyright and publishing, which, I believe, are shared by many professional writers.

Frances Grimble said...


Victoria is very generous to let me sound off on her blog. But I don't want to keep up one of my own. I am considering writing a how-to book on self-publishing. I said for years I'd never do it, but maybe I will.

Marcia said...

Thanks for reminding us that context is always important. It counts whether the issue is as small as word choice, or as large as publishing. We really can't just take everything on faith :)

Anonymous said...

Excellent... to the degree that I felt the author was communicating with me alone. Had the last word (everyone) not been included, I wouldn't've felt others were in the room with us. :-)

Laura Ruby said...

Hmmm. It seems to me that the personality traits that drive a person to sit in a room by themselves dreaming up imaginary people for hours on end are not necessarily the same traits required to become a marketing juggernaut. : )

But as much as I'd like to be "just an author" — that is, doing the writing and nothing else — I can't. I'm not sure anyone nowadays can be "just an author." I recently attended an event for published writers (these are people with major print houses) and apart from a handful of people who had successfully sussed out the marketing piece for themselves, the rest of the 50 or so people in the room were still trying to figure out the best, most effective ways to market their work. Yes, they had the support of their houses, but unless your name is King, Rowling, Meyer, Crais, Roberts, etc, that support is mostly bare bones. The responsibility for publicity is with the author, whether you're publishing with a big six print publisher or self-publishing on a Kindle.

This isn't an argument for or against self-publishing ebooks. What I'm saying is that this marketing piece is a huge part of being an author, much larger than I'd thought when I got my first contract in 2002. I don't see that changing any with the ebook revolution.

-- Laura

Kokab Rahman said...

Hi Everybody,

I have a few things to say.

I am a writer only just starting with self-publishing my book Arabic Made Easy. I am using AuthorHouse to publish the book and I don't know how this experience will be, whether I will like it or not, whether the company will provide satisfactory service or not. But my book means a lot to me. I've been writing since I was a child and am a talented writer. I've taken many courses online and read many books on the craft of writing and received much feedback on my work, so know that readers do enjoy my work. I am also proficient in providing a self-study course such as this book.

So why did I choose to self-publish instead of traditional publishing? The main reason was that I couldn't find a publisher who wanted to give my book the time. I queried a couple of publishers who publish that sort of books but they didn't give me the encouragement, although I did get some helpful advice from one. Having already posted the preliminery version of my book Arabic Made Easy on an online forum, I learned from reader feedback that they found the book very useful, giving me the go-ahead to publish it.

So I think that self-publishing is a great way for a writer to get their work published instead of keeping their book in the desk or closet (or computer) for no one to look at. That isnt what writers do. Writers write to have their work read, not keep in the desk to pile up dust! And not being published by a traditional publisher doesn't mean the work isn't good enough. There are plenty of works that were initially rejected by publishers only to become bestsllers. Some works, such as the book of the classic writer Emily Bronte didn't even get published until after the author's death! But the book Wuthering Heights is now a classic.

Why so much discouragement for self-publishing? We live in an era of entrepreneurship and experimentation and where would we be without experimentation? We might not have a plane today if the Wright Brothers had listened to those who said that man would never fly. And if man can fly then why can't an author do so with self-publishing? LOL . I think we should all encourage people to self-publish their works if they can't get a traditional publisher but do your research, study the craft of writing, and get feedback on your writing before you actually send the book to get published.

Feedback is very important for the writer and that is why there are so many writers' circles, writers groups, and forums where aspiring writers read each others' work and provide feedback. it is the only way to find out what is wrong with the book and to try and fix it. Of course you'll need a group where there are at least some professional or advanced writers who can provide really helpful feedback. Never overlook the power of feedback. We get feedback in college writing courses from the instructor which helps improve our writing and we can get just as good feedback from readers in a writers' group or forum. And that's a great way to get readership for one's book too. (One forum I greatly like is Writers Village University where hundreds of writers get together to comment on each others' writing.)

I think that the biggest thing to be wary about is self-publishing companies that try to take advantage of writers. It is my only complaint about self-publishing as there are companies whose only interest is in selling the publishing package and add-on services. They have no further stake in the author's work, unfortunately. Maybe if they received a small percentage from the book sales they might try harder to provide a better service. So, yes it's important to research the various companies and to get the best deal you can. If anyone has used AuthorHouse, I would be happy for any comments you can share.

Thank you for reading.

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