How Not to Break Into Publishing

One of the fun thing about being at home for a weekend is that I get to see a close-up view of the death of the American newspaper. When I was a kid, Binghamton had two daily papers, the Sun-Bulletin and the Evening Press, published in the morning and evening, respectively (bet you couldn’t’ve guessed that). They merged into the Press and Sun-Bulletin in the early 80’s, and ave been declining ever since. These days, it takes about fifteen minutes to read the whole thing cover to cover. Twenty on Sunday.

Today’s edition, though, includes a story on self-publishing, which is a sad reminder that more people need to know about Yog’s Law:

Money always flows toward the writer. Alternate version: The only place an author should sign a check is on the back, when they endorse it.

From the Press and Sun-Bulletin story:

“I don’t want to die leaving my stories in the garage, barn or attic, thinking that no one’s ever going to read them.” said [Stephen] Poleskie, 71, of Ithaca.

So he contacted Wasteland Press, which produced his book, “Grater Life,” which might remind readers of Mitch Albom’s 1997 bestseller, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” a true story that chronicles the lessons of life Albom learns from his dying professor. Poleskie’s book is a fictional account of a developing friendship between a man dying of AIDS and the volunteer who visits him.

It’s not the first book that Poleski, who retired as a visual arts professor at Cornell University in 2000, has self-published. He previously contracted to have his novel, “The Third Candidate,” produced by Wasteland Press, which publishes about 500 books each year. The cost to Poleskie: $1,200. What he got: 150 copies of his paperback book, a full-color cover design, an ISBN bar code and 100 press releases sent out nationally announcing publication of his book.

This is practically a perfect example of the sort of thing Jim Macdonald and other talk about. And, indeed, the links in the sidebar of the article include several vanity presses that are listed as “not recommended” by Preditors and Editors, including AuthorHouse and XLibris.

Of course, there’s a big difference between people who see self-publishing as a way to route around the normal gatekeepers of publishing and achieve fame and fortune without needing to deal with pesky agents and editors, and those who merely want a small number of copies of their book just to see it. Those in the latter category are better off going with Lulu than anything else in the links on that article, though Writer Beware does include a positive recommendation of RJ Communications for those seeking to self-publish.

Sadly, the Press and Sun-Bulletin article hopelessly muddles the two categories, and is probably doing its readers a disservice as a result. The stories of self-published books that made it big are also no help.

As for Poleskie, which category is he in? Well…

At one point, while he was teaching at Cornell, Poleskie said he did have a reputable literary agent for a two-year period. “But he wanted me to change everything I’d written for one of my books. He promised me the moon and the stars if I would do things his way, but that wouldn’t have been honest, so I decided he wasn’t the right agent for me.”

Getting to the point where you’re signing checks on the back is going to involve some changes to your deathless prose. That’s the way the business works. Signing checks on the front to avoid that is not doing yourself any favors.


  1. #1 Bernie
    June 29, 2009

    Chad, nice article. You want to know what I can’t figure out? There is still a stigma against self publishing, while blogging is all the rage. Content is content. If you have good information pursue multiple channels.

    There are people making quite a bit of money by cutting out the middle man and going straight to the marketplace. That is why there is such a rise in e-publishing and e-books.

    What is really sad, is that with the right tools and a little time you can publish your own work on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. for a few hundred dollars by cutting out them middle man.

    It is actually pretty simple if you understand the steps to self publishing.

    Remember knowledge is power and you want to maximize your return on investment.


    Bernie Malonson

  2. #2 Jonathan Vos Post
    June 29, 2009

    “… by cutting out the middle man and going straight to the marketplace.”

    Self-publishing is not publishing. It’s merely printing.

    I’m not saying that the medieval distribution system in North America isn’t broken. I am saying that the new paradigm has yet to replace it.

    Meanwhile, the conflict is between:

    Hacker’s Ethic: Information Wants to Be Free.
    Author’s Ethic: Authors Want to Be Paid.

  3. #3 Ian
    June 29, 2009

    Why anyone, in this day and age, would choose to subject themselves to a traditional publisher of whatever ilk, is a mystery. It’s not necessary and is a waste of time when you can publish your book online and in a format which promotes its use via web sites, ebook readers, cell phones and electronic paper.

    Yes, there are some hold-outs where a physical book still holds sway – like in classrooms, for example, but those days are numbered.

    Paradoxically, our advanced (by some estimates!) technology is consigning traditional books back several hundred years to an age where they are rare and expensive and only the wealthy can afford them. The Internet, ebooks, electronic paper, book readers, and cell phones will do this.

    There are some of us who love the weight, feel, and smell of a new book, but we’re dinosaurs now.

  4. #4 Thomas
    June 29, 2009

    It’s not so much the physical vs electronic that matters as the filtering and editing.
    Rejections reduce the amount of crap, and editing improves the quality of what is left. They certainly aren’t perfect, but the average editor can judge the average writer’s work somewhat better than the average writer can judge their own work.

    Suppose we start off with 90% crap (per Sturgeon’s Law) and the editors reject half the good stuff and accept 5% of the crap. That gets us to about 50% crap, which is a big enough improvement that I get most of my book-length reading material from (physical or electronic) bookstores. The fact that good books may get rejected is hard on the writers, but doesn’t really hurt me, since it’s not like the world is short of books I haven’t read.

  5. #5 Teresa Nielsen Hayden
    June 29, 2009

    Bernie, Ian: You submit your work to conventional publishing houses if you want it to have any significant distribution to brick-and-mortar bookstores. You also go with conventional publishers if you want to have a lot of readers. You definitely go the traditional route if you’re a fiction writer who aspires to be read by people who aren’t friends or relatives.

    E-books are selling far better than they used to, but they’re still a small fraction of the market, and they’re still a hard sell if the author isn’t already known to prospective readers. POD hardcopies have the same problems, and are less convenient.

    The only species of self-published book that sometimes sells on the basis of its advertised content, to readers not previously familiar with the author or publishing program, is specialized nonfiction with a well-defined audience that already wants to buy books on that subject. Even then, the numbers are modest.

    I’ll grant that every fifth or sixth or fourteenth blue moon, there’ll be an anomaly like The Celestine Prophecy, which sold in some quantity in spite of being self-published. Let me tell you why that doesn’t mean much.

    First: those anomalous books sell far more copies after they get picked up by conventional publishers. Furthermore, their authors are more than happy to let that happen.

    Second: most of those stories are frauds. Almost without exception, modern authors and titles that are famous enough to be instantly recognizable got that way via conventional publishing and distribution. The fraudulent versions are based on cases like an author selling a few cartons of a title before conventional publishing makes him a household name, or a famous and successful author privately publishing a Christmas chapbook, family memoir, or collection of verses. Instances like The Celestine Prophecy are in fact quite rare.

    Third: consider the case in which a hitherto unknown author writes a really good book and submits it to an agent or publisher. Editors fall upon it with cries of glee. The contract is all about money going to the writer. Editing, copyediting, interior typography, proofreading, cover design, sales materials, promotional mailings, review copies, etc., are all done to professional standards, and cost the author nothing. The book gets published and distributed with full-scale support from Sales, Marketing, and Publicity. Reviewers are happy. Readers are happy. Bookstores are very happy, and order more copies. The author may put some effort into helping to promote the book, but most of his or her time goes toward writing the next book. When it comes out, readers will be waiting to buy it.

    You know what about cases like that? They happen all the time. Every author with a successful career started out as an unpublished nobody who succeeded on the strength of the work. They’re about a hundred times commoner than cases where a self-publisher manages to scrape together enough sales to be called respectable, and the ratio skews even more when you look at successful second and third books.

    And then there are the self-published writers who claim they don’t care about money, and just want to be read. To them I say: Hogwash. Unless you’re writing fanfic or erotica, money follows the readers. No money = no sales = no copies in the readers’ hands. Also, a book that’s good enough to attract its own audience is above the cutoff for publishable works. If you want to be read, stop hiding behind the appearance of publication. Get out there and join the fight for the readers’ attention. It’s tough, but nothing else works. We are all the readers’ slaves.


    Chad: you might want to look at the site Bernie links to.

  6. #6 Jonathan Vos Post
    June 29, 2009

    As usual, Teresa Nielsen Hayden nails it completely. Well said!

  7. #7 Dave Bell
    June 30, 2009

    There are bits and pieces of my fiction out on the web. Not erotica, and not fanfic, but definitely a narrow market if I were to try and sell it.

    Last year, I was a NaNoWriMo winner: I did my 50,000 words. Some good bits, some rubbish, but a complete story, and I feel a touch of pride. And I reckon it’s that sort of pride which keeps the sharks fed.

    I’m not going to go PoD on it yet, if at all, but getting a printed copy is possible, not expensive, and feels a rather satisfying idea.

    And that, I think, is the advantage of PoD, especially the PoD linked to distributors such as Amazon. It’s an outlet for that pride which doesn’t rip you off. You have your own printed copy. You can tell people where to buy it. And it’s hardly more a breach of Yog’s Law than paying for the paper and ink and wear on the printer for the copy of the manuscript you sent to a publisher.

    In a sense, PoD and blogs might both be offshoots of the traditional SF fanzines. I have a copy of Warhoon 28, and I can see that as a fannish PoD project.

  8. #8 William Hopper
    June 30, 2009

    PoD has huge hidden costs. You upload your book, but you have to OK the final product before it gets put on Amazon. This means you have to order a copy yourself, which costs about $35 or so, plus ridiculous shipping. Once you pay for this demo book to be shipped to you, any changes or edits you find that need doing will cost you another $35 plus shipping because you have to redo the process. If you are scrupulous and want a good product, this process costs you a lot of money and a lot of time.
    Once you DO get listed on Amazon, it is then up to you to get people to know about it. No reputable reviewer will review the book unless it has Harpers or Bantam on the spine, so it’s up to you to pay for ads. Blogging doesn’t work to sell books because you have to get people TO the blog first, which is a whole other story.
    Me? I’m going old school now. If you know a good agent give him my e-mail.

  9. #9 Teresa Nielsen Hayden
    June 30, 2009

    Bravo, Dave Bell.

    It’s an accident of our times that we think commercial writing, uncommercial writing, fan writing, and literature are natural categories. They aren’t. It’s all part of the same great river of conversation. The real lines of division are who wants to read it, whether they’ll pay money or egoboo for it, whether there’s a structure in existence that will accommodate sales and distribution and/or feedback and egoboo, and whether the rewards to the author make additional writing possible.

  10. #10 Ashok Banker
    July 1, 2009

    Teresa does nail it as usual.

    But the world of publishing is changing in one important way: US publishers are barely able to cater to their own authors and readers. There’s also a great deal of over-publishing and wastage in the current system. Publication according to genre and sub-genre is leading to absurd imbalances in content being published, and causing an attrition of demand at a faster rate than ever before. Trend cycles are spinning faster, ending sooner each year, due to over-supply and over-availability of ‘same but different’ content. This is leaving a number of authors and books that may be perfectly good candidates for commercial fiction normally, but because they don’t fit this year’s (or rather, this season’s) trends, out in the cold. The movement towards what editors want to publish (based on their study of what has sold well recently) and what agents are willing to push to said editors is creating a rash of overlapping content, books that are obviously trying hard to look like, be like, and often are like the benchmark bestseller in that genre or category. And cutting out a great deal of original, good commercial work that needs more individualized brand positioning, marketing and promotion – they’re just not seen as worth the effort or risk, increasingly.

    There’s also the issue of US publishing’s growing insularity in certain genres, SFF in particular. While mainstream fiction publishing has embraced multicultural, or rather other cultural content, SFF has grown even more inbred and insular, and the burgeoning quantities of work by non-US, non-white, non-Judeo/Christian authors with their unique sensibilities are just not perceived as fitting into the narrow segmentation (segregationism?) of present-day SFF publishing in America. Whereas, if one simply broadens one’s perspective to look at overall publishing realities, mainstream has taken over the best and brightest of SF commercial fiction and ‘broken it out’ into the big-time. The dwindling numbers of hardcover SF-labelled fiction only underlines the fact that most SFF-labelled genre fiction is essentially being written, edited, published, and read by the same insular ingrown group of people over and over again. The larger readers have moved on because there’s really nothing left to see in that increasingly limited and narrow-minded genre space. True there are notable exceptions but any SFF author that’s really selling big is an author that can often be better served by being published under a more mainstream imprint of the same house, or even published simply as ‘Fiction’ rather than SFF.

    My point in all this (and I could go on for a while about the increasing insularity of American SF and its growing irrelevance to present-day publishing) is that the real change and growth is happening ‘elsewhere’. Countries like India and China are experiencing double-digit growth in publishing – 26% growth last year – and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world takes over in terms of content as well as sales figures, volumes, advances, etc. Probably another decade to two decades.

    Because US genre publishing is so behind the times and losing its grip a little more each day, I think self-publishing is a viable and healthy alternative for a large number of non-US authors who have a sizable readership in the US but can’t reach them through conventional publishing channels. There could be a number of reasons why they ought not even bother to try: A non-white/non-Judeo-Christian/non-US author of SFF is going to hit the brick wall of Racism, Bigotry and Cultural Prejudice endemic and systemic to SFF publishing in the US, regardless of the quality or commercial worth of his or her work. So it’s either self-publish or perish. Circumventing the paleolithic monoliths of US genre publishing and going directly to readers is a kind of anti-fascist protest that may not garner much revenue to begin with, but if enough protestors use this alternate method to reach readers directly in the US, it could eventually snowball into a meaningful movement.

    I see self-publishing as much as a statement and protest against the inherent Fascist regime of racist SFF genre editors, agents and publishers and as such, something worth attempting for a large and growing number of non-US authors. It’s time someone took a stand, and stood up to be counted, and did not bow down or simply ‘submit’ to an essentially totalitarian and reader-unfriendly as well as author-unfriendly publishing system, and if enough someones do the same, self-publishing will be a profitable if small niche nibbling away at the decaying body of SFF genre publishing in the USA.

    Viva La Choice!

  11. #11 edward oleander
    July 1, 2009

    Hmmm… What an … interesting … position. Ashok? You do realize, don’t you … Oh, hell … Just thinking about how to sort out your particular train wreck gives me a headache … you just go ahead and enjoy life in your bunker. I’ll fold you up a nice tinfoil hat.

  12. #12 Jon H
    July 1, 2009

    Teresa wrote: “E-books are selling far better than they used to, but they’re still a small fraction of the market, and they’re still a hard sell if the author isn’t already known to prospective readers.”

    And they’re a really annoying part of the kindle store: way too much self-published stuff on there, which I just assume is dreck. There’s also way too much public-domain stuff, with the same texts being published by multiple people through self-publishing outlets, so that these people can try to skim a little bit of money. That’s legal, but it clogs the store up.

  13. #13 JL Bryan
    July 2, 2009

    I thought I’d comment because I’m experimenting with this now.

    I’m not self-publishing novels because I want to ‘overthrow the establishment’ or anything radical like that. I just can’t get anybody in the field to look at my work. I’ve dedicated my whole life to writing. I’ve written almost every day of my life. Studied literature in college, studied screenwriting at UCLA. I sold an option on a screenplay for several thousand dollars a few years ago.

    I’ve written many novels and scripts, but only tried to submit the last couple of them to editors and agents, because the work was finally up to my own standards. I studied how to write query letters, but I’ve only recieved form rejections, or no response at all. Despite my efforts, nobody in the industry has ever read any of my work, and the only thing I’ve done with my life is develop my writing craft.

    I self-published (through Amazon CreateSpace, which is free) because I was desperate to reach an audience, because it’s depressing to spend hours every day since childhood writing stories, only to have them accumulate in your office and never reach anybody.

    Since self-publishing my two books, I’ve sold many copies to strangers, and I’ve had several people I do not know send me comments about much they enjoyed the book, and how they read it all in one sitting because they couldn’t put it down, etc. (One guy wrote from Germany, saying he loved one book so much he’s going to spend his own time translating it into German.) Surely, if there are several people who feel this way–out of the very few people who have ever looked at the two books I’ve put out–then there must be a much larger market that would embrace it, if I had the distribution.

    But none of that will happen, because nobody felt like responding to my query letters. Since self-publishing two months ago, I’ve been ‘discovered’ by two different authors who enjoyed my book, and one of them recommended me to her agent. (No news there yet) I’m gradually building a base of readers, as fast as you can when you’re doing it alone.

    Most important to me is that I’m reaching readers, and there’s tremendous validation in that. It’s one thing when family, friends, teachers and classmates say your writing is great–what else are they going to say? It’s entirely different to hear from total strangers that they love my books and are recommending it to others.

    So, I don’t think I’m ‘outsmarting’ the system or any such thing, or that I’ll ever make a living through self-publishing. I do get clear validation of the tremendous time and effort I’ve put into writing, and less of a feeling that my whole existence since childhood has been totally wasted.

  14. #14 Ashok Banker
    July 3, 2009


    Well, since I have in excess of half a million copies in print of my last book, film rights sold to Hollywood (after a bidding war by 7 major studios), graphic novel adaptations, television adaptations, etc and numerous other sub-rights sold, and an estimated one million readers more interested in buying my next book than in what imprint (self-published or otherwise) it comes out under, I think you’re not just misjudging me, you’re also betraying the exact same unfortunate bias of most SFF professionals in the US towards non-US/non-white/non-Judeo-Christian authors. God forbid that anyone should have a successful business model (more successful than any of you) that contradicts your world view.

    And taking personal cracks at people like me doesn’t help your image any – the ‘bunker’ sounds appealing but let’s leave American SFF in there where it belongs. I’ll lay a bouquet of oleanders at the door to the crypt. Sorry, bunker.

  15. #15 Ashok Banker
    July 3, 2009


    What you said. Well said.

    My point of view is simply that, my point of view. It’s not likely to work for the next person, nor would that person’s work for me, most likely.

    I hear you. I think you made the right choice and are doing the right thing. Big publishers are already successful enough and powerful enough without needing to ‘come down’ into the garrets and lecture us on why they are right (and apparently only they are right) and we are wrong. They should stay in their ivory towers till they burn. We’re happy here on the streets, where it’s real.

    I wish you all the best.

  16. #16 alex
    July 3, 2009

    Hey, Ashok, you may think you’re cool, but you sound like a goddam’ loony, and that’s straight. So take your millions and buy some time with a PR expert, OK?

  17. #17 JL Bryan
    July 3, 2009


    I really don’t share your basic angry attitude here. I don’t want the remaining sf publishers to ‘burn’ as you say, because I like their books! Many book publishers are struggling, and they have very scarce resources to risk on new writers and very little time to spend reviewing manuscripts from unknown writers. I’ve been on the other side of this, reading submissions for a literary agent, and most of what comes in really is junk. After a while, you start expecting it all to be junk.

    I don’t blame the editors or agents for the situation. The real problem is that so many people would rather watch TV than read. That’s why there just aren’t many resources to risk on new writers–the publishing companies can’t afford a lot of risk, when books are a smaller and smaller share of how people get their entertainment and information. There just isn’t much money there and they have to be careful.

    Maybe I suck at writing query letters. Maybe my writing just isn’t very interesting to the agents I’ve contacted. Maybe I’ve done everything wrong. Maybe I have bad luck. Maybe I’m just stupid, or delusional about how well my writing compares to (or fits in with) what’s being published now. Maybe I just suck.

    I would believe any of the above long before I would imagine malice on the part of those in the publishing business. It isn’t their role in life to help me out and make things happen for me. If someone connected with my work and believed in it, that would be great. But I don’t blame those who are too busy or are just, you know, not that into me.

    Everyone else–sorry for wandering in here and cluttering up your message board.

  18. #18 Bernie
    July 4, 2009

    At the end of the day publishing is a business. Editors, agents, etc. are not necessarily looking for great literature or fiction, they are looking for what sells. In many cases they want the author to bring an existing audience to the table.

    J.K. Rowling or Stephen King could self publish under their own imprint, distribute online via Lightning Source or Booksurge into Barnes and, or and still make a fortune.

    As self publishing mentor Dan Poynter says, “Bookstores are lousy places to sell books.” The entire consignment model is going the way of the dinosaur, and will eventually be replaced with in store print on demand kiosks like the Espresso book machine.

    Although there is a fair amount of complexity to getting your book self published, outside of marketing and promotion it is a fairly mechanical process. You can find a good list of
    self publishing basics here.

    I agree that money should flow toward the author. If you self publish with your own ISBN’s as the publisher of record your percentage of revenue and profit increases substantially.

    The big publishing houses would still expect you to get out and hawk your book. Since you are going to have to do this anyway, why not make more of the money yourself?


  19. #19 Greg
    July 6, 2009

    “J.K. Rowling or Stephen King could self publish under their own imprint, distribute online via Lightning Source or Booksurge into Barnes and, or and still make a fortune.”

    Which they don’t, curiously enough. Neither do Richard Price, Neil Gaiman, Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, Barbara Ehrenreich, or a whole lot of authors I really admire.

    Why do you suppose that is, Bernie? Why do so many professional writers *not* self-publish? If it’s as great as you say it is, one would think you’d see a lot more pro writers doing it?

    In fact, I’ve never heard of a single professionally published writer who chose to leave professional publishers and go into self-publishing.

    Curious, that.

    (Oh, and by the way, if you self-publish, you’re already hundreds of dollars in the whole. BAD. Money flows towards the writer ALWAYS. If you’re paying money to see yourself in print, 99.9% of the time, you’re getting ripped off.)

  20. #20 rea
    July 9, 2009

    Which they don’t, curiously enough.

    I suspect it’s because they want to be writers–if they wanted to be publishers, they would have chosen a somewhat diffferent career track :)

  21. #21 Brooks Moses
    July 14, 2009

    The big publishing houses would still expect you to get out and hawk your book.

    Actually, no, they wouldn’t. Not at all. They have publicists for that, who actually know what they’re doing and do a good job of it. The author’s job is to write the next book.

    Yes, authors sometimes do signing tours and stuff. When they do that at the publisher’s request, the publisher pays for it, and you’ll notice that the only authors who do that are ones who actually enjoy it. (Sometimes they do that sort of thing on their own dime, even, but that’s for the gratification that JL Bryan was talking about or as a favor for a bookstore they like, not because it sells more than a handful of books or because it’s “expected”.)

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