A “State Of Self-Publishing”…With No Retort


The Glass Half…

There shouldn’t be any animus between writers, however they publish. This is hard enough without trying to tear each other down. We are in this together. It’s our world that’s changing. In many ways, we should be standing together and demand that it change faster.

Hugh Howey is right. And the fact that there isn’t an author in traditional publishing who is meeting his steady delivery of opinion and guidance on authoring is not his fault.

In The State Of Self-Publishing, the self- and traditionally publishing Howey (more than 30 contracts, remember) offers a useful put-together of key themes, talking points around which he has built and promulgated his views for months. He has become not only an incisive observer of his own and other writers’ experiences in the fraught field of publishing today, but also a producer of input, himself: his AuthorEarnings.com site is, quarter by quarter, creating a succession of sales-data snapshots for comparative analysis.

His new summer summation, if you will, presses home some important clarifications that by now should strike publishing people like good therapy: as soon as you hear it, you feel like you always knew it.

It Rains On The Just And The Unjust

Here’s a Howey point, emphasis mine:

Most books don’t sell very many copies. And that’s okay. It’s not a self-publishing thing; it’s a publishing thing. Ninety-eight percent of manuscripts submitted to agents never get published at all. They don’t sell a single copy. Nobody mentions this when they deride self-publishing as an option.

Of course, 98 percent is an estimate: we don’t even know how many manuscripts are submitted to agents, let alone how many never get off the desk. Nevertheless, most of us are comfortable accepting Howey’s point here and his reminder is excellent: It is not a self-publishing problem that most books don’t sell, it’s an industry-wide problem. To assign commercial failure to self-publishing as evidence of a faulty path to a career is flawed reasoning and frequently a sign of bias.

How Free Is That Free Will?

Here’s another helpful Howey point immediately following that one, emphasis again mine:

The false premise seems to be that you can choose to self-publish, or you can choose to have your book on an endcap in every bookstore while you are sent on a 12-city tour by your publisher. That’s not the choice. The choice is to self-publish or submit to an agent. This is the choice.

Howey is correct here, of course, and he’s holding up one of those peculiar potholes of perception into which people fall so easily. If you wanted to widen his assertion just a bit to say that, yes, you could submit to a publisher directly, not just to an agent, the bottom line of his point would lose none of its veracity.

For those who see the self- vs. traditional-publishing debate as critical, it becomes awfully easy to start talking as if the choice is between “self and trad.” In truth, while you can choose to self-publish, you cannot choose to traditionally publish. You must be chosen. That’s both the problem, of course (those “stinking gatekeepers,” you know) and the quickly overlooked reality, as Howey is pointing out.

Human nature does this to us a lot. I read a blog post this afternoon by a very fine editor who twice referred to “the subjectivity of art.” Of course, art is not subjective. Our perceptions of art are subjective. Thomas Eakins’ career-cinching 1899 Wrestlers —  in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which unfortunately doesn’t have it on display at the moment — is making no subjective judgment of anything. Our perceptions of that canvas are subjective. That’s all.

And likewise, a lot of our community is walking around thinking that an author can “choose” to publish traditionally. Just say yes, baby. Actually, no, not so much.

Tarnished Experts

Howey has become increasingly outspoken about pundits and self-proclaimed specialists in publishing whose stances are based in the concepts of the industry! the industry! I’ve been using that italicized double-yelp for years now, myself, to indicate the many folks in the business who seem to be far more interested in the business — as business — than in its output (that would be books) or people (they would be authors, editors, designers, artists, et al).

Mind you, to a person, you would likely get a declaration of love for literature and allegiance to the people of publishing from everyone in it. Nobody gets up in the morning saying to him- or herself, “I’m going to get over to the office today and completely ignore our books and our workers and simply focus on the numbers.” Of course not.

But in Howey’s apparently deepening perspective on this, “the story” is being badly skewed:

The biggest untold story of them all…is the number of authors I know who have tried traditional publishing after having success on their own who swear to me that they’ll never do that again. And yet you have pundits claiming that every self-published success runs immediately to a New York publisher. That simply isn’t true.

Flukes, All

This is such a good point, emphasis Howey’s and a bit of mine. He starts with an impressive debut that I heard about first at Frankfurt Book Fair last year:

Andy Weir’s The Martian sold a ton of copies and was picked up by Random House and 20th Century Fox. This was a debut novel, and Andy hasn’t published anything since. He succeeded through self-publishing faster than he would have landed an agent if he went the traditional route.

The claim that these are exceptions ignores that every book in the bookstore is an exception. It also ignores the fact that there are more exceptions among the self-published crowd than there are among the traditionally published crowd. We know. We counted.

The “we know / we counted” part is a reference to the May report from Howey’s AuthorEarnings.com.

Those of us who are not focused on seeing self-publishing or traditional publishing “win” will be less interested than others in the idea of who has more “exceptions.” For the widest readership, the really salient point here is that success in publishing is hard to come by, no matter what pathway is tried.

And with all but three people in the known world now trying to write and publish books, this will get worse, not better.  The percentages of hits will get smaller simply because the percentage of tried-and-missed will get bigger. The digital dynamic, as Amazon’s Jon Fine likes to remind us, means that today everybody can publish a book…and it also means that today everybody can publish a book.


Very few writers of any stripe earn serious money from their work. Most earn nothing at all.

Truth and Other Truth

Here’s Howey, emphasis mine:

The truth is that when it comes to trade fiction, more self-published authors are making a living today than traditionally published authors. And despite what some people claim, this isn’t because of output. Those self-published authors are doing better with fewer published titles, on average. The biggest names and highest earners in traditional publishing are overwhelmingly authors who debuted prior to 2009 and have a lot of works available. And the biggest earners on both sides publish in the genres that readers overwhelmingly prefer.

This statement is based on the observations and conclusions put together by Howey and his unnamed associate (“Data Guy”)  in the AuthorEarnings.com reports. He links to them, and they’re compelling reading, too, a tremendous assist, in fact, in getting the very opposite of what he’s seeing as the blinkered perspective of the industry’s traditions. He and Data Guy are gradually creating a base of calculated evaluation on which to rest various assertions that don’t lie in the viewpoint of the establishment.

Nevertheless, even the AuthorEarnings.com reports are estimates. They’re created from single-day data crawls of sales pages on the pooled earnings information from authors in the field. They’re easily the closest thing we’ve seen to online-retail sales reports and many of us have welcomed them for the new perspective they’re bringing to the picture we’re all trying to draw. But we simply do not have the actual, book-by-blessed-book sales data we need to know beyond a shadow of a doubt what’s going on out there. The retailers don’t report it.

What We Need: The Traditionalist Howey

Here is where some will feel that Howey overstates his case:

Anyone covering this industry from the perspective of publishers or bookstores should be ignored. Seriously. This industry is about the reader and the writer. All discussions about those in the middle should be secondary, at best.

Actually, you learn a lot when you read something like consultant Mike Shatzkin’s recent fisking of a Howey post. Mike’s headline is: Much as I like Hugh Howey, I disagree with just about all of this recent post of his. This is not something to be ignored but to be read and considered, along with its bottomless comment string. I’m not saying you’ll agree with anything Shatzkin brings to the table (nor with Howey’s points to which Shatzkin is responding). I’m saying the give and take is enlightening.

You want both sides of any question when you can get them, and especially where it concerns your career.

And as much of a service as Howey does us in formulating a slate of issues and positions about self-publishing, I remain sorry that we don’t yet seem to have the traditionalist Howey. Again, that’s hardly his fault. He has done us the favor, in fact, of setting a high bar of commentary and sticking with it.

But the longer we go without a publishing-traditionalist author as willing as Howey is to speak up, the more, of course, it appears that no one in the established camp feels that good about their end of things — or is able to speak freely about how they feel, which is just as bad.

When the gifted critic and traditionally published author Emily St. John Mandel jumped into a recent #FutureChat session we were hosting from London’s The FutureBook, I was delighted that she’d been able to drop in and make some points. She told us where she feels having a publisher helps her. (Her latest, Station Eleven, is due from Knopf in September.) Hers was the only fully traditional-side author’s voice brought to the discussion on that day, and her interaction, however brief, cast a terrific dimension on the conversation.

What Howey is doing takes remarkable amounts of time and work. His contributions to the community, to the industry, are tremendous. I continue to hope that someone willing to make an equivalent investment of time and commitment to the more traditional approach will join the fray at some point.

Such eloquence is only better in counterpoint.