July 3, 2011

“Indie Publishing” – A Meditation on Words and Their Meanings

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 2:21 am

Over the past few years, I’ve come to understand that when Danielle (our events coordinator) paces back and forth in front of my desk, I should roll my chair back and prepare for a.) bad news about an author event, or b.) outrage on behalf of our quirky parallel career choices.  She’s good at her job, so most of the pacing is because of outrage. Since she’s the sunniest, most optimistic, person I know, outrage seems sort of, I don’t know, weird on her, so I take it seriously and usually leave those conversations with a vague guilt about inflicting my jaded personality on her.  She represents the store well, and she’s almost always justified in her outrage, so it’s worth listening to what she has to say.

A couple of days ago, she charged into my office and paced behind the person I was talking to, briefly rummaged through the kitchen area and walked back to her desk after giving me the look that says, “I have to talk to you” which incidentally on any other person might look like they’ve just seen your stalker and are trying to find a non-intrusive way to warn you to duck under the table.

I made my way over to her desk where she was pondering how nice to be to a self published author who wrote to her asking for an event and then invited her to a “Buy from Amazon Day” on Facebook.  We solved that problem, and the conversation turned to the crux of the matter: Self Publishing.

A stellar article in the Wall Street Journal on this topic.

In the New York Review of Books for July 14, 2011 there is a full page ad on page 51.  The top declares that it’s an “Independent Press” listing.  This is what folks are now calling self publishing – Indie Publishing.

Doesn’t it sound empowering?  Liberating, even?  Take that, corporate drone – I’m publishing on my own.  ON.  MY. OWN.    I will reap the benefits of my work and you shall not reap a dime!  I’m Independent and proud.

Writers, struggling to be heard in the cacophony of other clicking keyboards, have stopped waiting to be picked up by a publisher.  No more papering your wall with rejection letters.  No more editing for months or years to resubmit it elsewhere.  No more relying on the opinions of those pesky editors and publishers in New York City.  What do they know of the writing process?

Instead, they’re turning to Xlibris (one of the “indie” publishers mentioned in the ad) and Amazon to “publish” their books, sometimes even starting with e-versions costing only 99 cents.  What a bargain!

But let’s get past the used car sales pitch for just a second and take a look at the bald tires on this idea.

Here’s what really happens to the writer’s gem:

The author writes her novel in her spare time between teaching 10th grade math and raising her twin 2 year olds.  Her husband understands and tries to give her time, but life happens.  She relentlessly pursues her dream, scratching out dialogue at 4 in the morning for two years before she has a decent manuscript.  After failing to get much of anywhere in New York (she lives in western Minnesota), she decides she’ll strike out on her own.

She logs onto Lulu.com and decides to take the plunge.  After clicking on various links to be sure her manuscript is “retail ready” she chooses from several publishing packages.  The “Best Seller” package is the cheapest, and it costs $629.  She’ll get a Basic Cover Design, Formatting, their editorial staff will give her feedback on the quality of the book (this portion is $200 and will undoubtedly result in the “editors” telling her she has a bestseller on her hands), one unedited proof (or galley) of her book, retail availability on “Amazon, etc.” and a pdf of her own book.  She opts not to select the most expensive package ($4729) which would include editing.

She knows she needs to have some publicity.  Lulu also takes care of this for her.  She has three to choose from.  The cheapest “Book Media Blast” option costs a mere $2,900.  For this, they will “ask her questions about her book,” have a one hour conversation with her by phone, email some magazines, e-zines, radio shows, and tv producers, help her make a list of 20 of her own friends to contact, forward emails from publicists to her when their press release is answered and send her a valuable publicity manual so she knows how to do all of this herself.  Of course, she’ll have to supply them with 20 books so they can send them for free to all of those contacts.  At her expense, of course ($160) – and they’re happy to sell her her own book.

Since the national media is SO eager to give time and space to an unknown writer’s book (that’s sarcasm in case you didn’t catch it) they will see the emails and faxes from Lulu (hers being buried in about a hundred of them) and delete it without reading the contents.

Since the folks at Lulu haven’t contacted any bookstores or national distributors (except of course Amazon), her book will appear nowhere.

She’s read in her handy publicity manual that she should do an author tour.  After some soul searching, she and her husband decide that he’ll be ok at home with the kids if she drives across the state to appear at a bookstore.

She emails the bookstore to ask if they’ll host a signing with her.  She’s addressed it to the info@ email, so it gets deleted because the person reading that email has to read and hundreds of them and hasn’t heard of her.  She doesn’t give up, though.  She calls and talks to the owner, who has never heard of her or seen her book, but wishes her well.  She buys 25 more paperback copies of her own book from Lulu ($200 plus shipping) and mails a copy to the bookstore with a nice note asking someone to read it.

The book arrives at the bookstore in a load of books the store ordered from actual publishers.  It gets opened by a clerk, who recognizes it as an advance reading copy and puts it in the breakroom where there are two bookcases full top to bottom of recent advance reading copies from various publishers.  The staff is supposed to read these things before they are published so that they can talk intelligently about them when a customer asks, but frankly, they just can’t get through 300 books a month, so they give up.  Plus her book was shelved right next to the new Nathaniel Philbrick.  They grabbed that one instead.

After several months, the shelves get full and some books are even on the floor in boxes.  A resourceful bookseller boxes up the old books and gives them to the local women’s shelter.  Meanwhile, our author has had to nurse her twins through an unfortunate bout with the flu and hasn’t followed up with the bookstore.  She calls at long last and asks the owner, who doesn’t remember her, if anyone has read the book.  The owner, trying to tamp down a rising panic, looks through the advance reader shelf to see if the book is still there.  Alas, it is not.  She tells our author that the book has been donated, and the author gets angry.  I mean after all, she bought that book herself!  Yes, the bookstore owes her money.  They screwed up big time.  After a tense phone call in which the bookstore owner politely but firmly tells the author that they do not owe her money for her unsolicited book, the author relents.

She asks the bookstore if they could put any copies on their shelves.  “Possibly” says the bookseller.  “Where can I order it?”

“It’s on Amazon” says our author.

“We don’t order from Amazon” says the bookseller.  Then another tense discussion happens where the bookseller explains that Amazon is actually a competing business and buying books from them is like a Ford dealer buying a Ford from another dealer at full price so they can sell the car on their own lot.

“You can order it from Lulu.com” says the author.

“We don’t order from Lulu” says the bookseller.  A third conversation ensues about how Lulu doesn’t offer bookstore terms and refuses returns.  “But we could take it on consignment” says the bookseller (trying to get off the phone).

“Ok, how do we do that?”

The bookseller explains that the store would pay 60% of the retail cost to her if it sold, and would return the unsold to her after some time on the shelf.  Unfortunately, the author will have to pay this much to Lulu to purchase more copies of her own book so she won’t make a penny.  Never mind that, though.  Nothing has sold on Amazon because nobody knows she’s there.  It’s worth a shot.

Several months later, a bookseller will remove the three copies of the novel from the shelf and call the author, telling her that none sold.  Would she please come pick up the books?  The author lives across the state and has never shopped at this bookstore so she asks if they can ship the books to her.  After explaining that the bookstore won’t pay the shipping charges to return her books to her, she gets angry, but decides to pay for the shipping.

She’s now stuck with a trunk full of books, no marketing, and no sales.  Plus, she’s noticed that on page 47 there’s an spelling error.  She can’t afford to pay Lulu to fix it, though because the twins have started daycare and she needs the money to pay for that.  Plus, she’s now spent $3889 and hasn’t sold a single copy unless you count the 5 free copies she sent to her sister-in-law in Arizona for her book group., and this was the inexpensive package.

Being “Independent” isn’t so easy after all.

It turns out that even though the publishing industry is aggravating to the point of madness for all involved, it actually has a purpose.  Left Bank Books hosts some events for self published authors because we believe in the writer, the book and the privilege of  asking a reader to spend a few hours of their time reading a story.  We make no money doing these events (see my earlier post) and in most self-publish cases we lose money.

This is where Danielle comes in again.  She’s under pressure from her bosses (me and Kris) to perform well and to create good programming.  She works heroically to make the authors and us look good.  Her personal Facebook posts are even about bookselling.  She takes it personally when something doesn’t go well and when someone takes a jab at our industry.

It makes her pace in front of my desk, fretting about how to do the best job she can with what she’s given.  She rocks.  She’s a professional.  She usually works miracles.  This is not because she sifts through all of the books in the world to select someone to highlight.  Rather, it’s because she works at an independent store with relationships with publishers – independent and otherwise.

Calling self publishers like Lulu and others “Independent” is a misnomer.  It’s like calling your pot dealer an independent pharmacist.  There are no quality controls, no support from professional publishers, no support from bookstores – and that’s just for the writer.  The reader gets the short end too.  Imagine a world where all authors were their own bookseller.  Then imagine trying to buy the ingredients for a birthday cake if you had to contact the cocoa farmer, the dairy farmer, the flour seller and the sugar cane farm individually.  No grocery store.

I know I’ll get a lot of flak for pointing out this uncomfortable truth, but it is the truth.

Independent Publishers are businesses.  Independent Publishers Group (IPG) is a good example.  Some small publishers who are a part of Publishers Group West are good Indie publishers.  Soft Skull Press is another good example.  Those are true indies.  Not the snakeoil salesmen who promise riches beyond your wildest dreams –  for the right price.  To call this Independent Publishing is insulting to the agents, editors, publicists, sales reps, accountants, and yes event credit reps in the publishing business, and truthfully it’s insulting to independent bookstores.  Just because you borrow a term and apply it to something else doesn’t mean it’s true.

Words actually mean something.



  1. I have been considering self-publishing with Exlibris, so I’m very happy to get your thoughts on this subject! I’ve heard that established publishers also have too many manuscripts by unknown authors to read. This is discouraging, but I think I will stay away from “independent publishers” now. Thanks!

    Comment by jaxthoughts — July 3, 2011 @ 10:04 am | Reply

  2. If you are going to publish your book yourself…do it yourself. Educate yourself. Pick and dicker and proof with the printer. If you’re going the small press route, get a local one, and get to know them personally. (There are some good ones.) Realize it really is going to be “do it yourself” — that you are buying a printed product, and it’s just like buying shoes or picking out clothes. For the most part, print on demand is a scam; working with a printer to actually order X number of books, and go pick them up in your car trunk is not.

    That’s the key.

    Comment by Jo Schaper — July 3, 2011 @ 10:35 am | Reply

    • Jo, it’s true. You’re completely right. You can go through one of those POD companies but you can’t get their services because it’s all a scam and furthermore all they do is try to upsell you…even years later. But for me it did make sense to just go to work and just have my book available. But I had to hire a proofreader and someone to do my cover art and copy-editing and etc etc. But you’re right. They’re not publishers. They’re simply a service and really not that good of one.

      Comment by U.L. Harper — July 3, 2011 @ 6:26 pm | Reply

  3. Jay, Now I know what you are up to at 2.21 a.m. I do appreciate your knowledge and insights. You know how to put the pen to paper (fingers to the keys) and explain what is going on in the world of independent booksellers. Thank You!

    Comment by Cindy — July 3, 2011 @ 10:39 am | Reply

  4. Physical-world bookstores and libraries will be extinct in about 5 years. Physical book (printed on paper) will be soon extinct except as relics for collections and museums, except for certain specialty books (gift books, etc.). No amount of objecting to this will make any difference. The movable type printing press put the scribes out of business, more or less. The telegraph eliminated the pony express. Very, very few people continue to use vinyl records for listening to music. Humans wiped out the Neanderthals. Native American civilization once rules North America, but is now exists only in a few tiny pockets. Evolution is unstoppable. This is all explained in Ray Kurzweil’s book “The Singularity Is Near,” or, if you prefer, even in Charles Darwin’s books. Evolution doesn’t care about the political orientation of changes, progressive, conservative, whatever. Humans are not the masters of Nature. Humans and their civilization are part of Nature’s unfolding.

    Comment by Tom — July 3, 2011 @ 10:54 am | Reply

    • Now I know why REM’s “End Of the World As We Know It” keeps running through my head. I’m sure your comment was meant to make me feel ashamed and embarrassed and shut up and die already, but I’m one of those pesky humans who wiped out the Neanderthals. I’m much more resilient than that.

      I won’t argue point by point – not because I can’t, but because comparing the mass genocide of Native Americans to Darwinian evolution is too offensive to debate. What I will say is that yes, books and storytelling are changing. Yes, the format of those stories will change with time. And finally, yes bookstores will have to be flexible to stay relevant and useful. Here’s the thing though, books didn’t kill storytelling, movies didn’t kill books, tv didn’t kill movies, the internet didn’t kill tv. It all is part of a diverse and changing mix of media. It’s not the end of the world, just a new beginning. It is interesting, though, that you referred to two books to illustrate your point.

      All of this is really off the subject of my post though. My point was this: Authors shouldn’t fall for self publishing scams.

      Comment by Jarek Steele - Left Bank Books — July 3, 2011 @ 11:32 am | Reply

      • physical books will always be around. Unfortunately, they’re going to need ads in them to keep them cheap. I have to admit I love reading a “traditional book”. You know, that hold and feel thing, and I love searching through a book store. Just love it. But with that said, This new digital world is powerful. Reading has innovated with the ebook. Ebooks are books. Ebooks are stadium seating to theaters. Ebooks are 50 inch screens to compete with the internet, and it has the ability to be economical faster. It’s why the self pubs are so prevalent. And to make matters worse, I’m not sure if the public really wants quality as much as they want fast. That’s my two cents.

        Comment by U.L. Harper — July 3, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

  5. I should explain my immoderate comment above. I have read many authorities saying that even when all texts are “published” electronically and sold over the Internet, there will still be editors, scholars, critics, and other authorities who will guide readers to texts of quality, so that, in essence, the publishing world will function much as it did during the now-ending era of text being printed on paper. There always has been self or indie publishing. The Christian New Testament and the Communist Manifesto are notable examples. There will always be self or indie publishing. Nothing much will change, at least in the near term, except that there will be no physical bookstores or libraries for new books or other texts since practically no new texts will no longer be printed on paper. Many of the current physical bookstores and libraries will become coffee shops were people congregate to discuss texts and hear authors speak in person, and so on. Life will go on. We must stop being alarmed about the disappearance of the physical book. This is happening. We must move on. Lines at the end of Thoreau’s “Walden” seems relevant: “I do not say that John or Jonathan, that this generation or the next, will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn.”

    Comment by Tom — July 3, 2011 @ 12:18 pm | Reply

  6. I’m not a fan of labels. For example, I see the phrase Dead Tree Books and I remind the person that they most likely live in a Dead Tree House.

    Actually, if an author pays someone to publish them, I don’t consider that self-publishing or indie publishing. It’s vanity publishing. Even if an author does it all themselves, the odds are the product will be poor. Not just the writing, but the cover, the editing, the formatting, etc. I have 20 years in traditional publishing with over 40 titles published and have hit all the bestseller lists. I have two years in Indie Publishing in that I have my own publishing company. It was originally formed to get my backlist back into circulation and has since expanded to 7 other authors. I have a business partner who works full time on all the technical aspects of the company and we outsource editing and translation, but for the rest we are collectively owned and operated by the workers. I believe I have a very strong perspective on the realities of publishing from the point of view of the producer of the product: the author.

    99.5% of indie/vanity/self published books are going to die quiet deaths. Essentially the Internet has become the slush pile that an agent’s in-box used to be. The only difference is readers are slogging through the mess.

    Most of these writers are deluded, either by the promises made by companies making a buck off them or by their own ego.

    Even with NY Times bestseller status and over 40 titles in my backlist (some of which sold over a million copies in print) it took us 18 months to really hit our stride. Because it is a business, not the lottery. We tried some things that didn’t work and some things that did. We constantly re-evaluate our business model. We’ll be in NYC this week at Thrillerfest and updating our plan once more. The good news is in June we far exceeded the monthly goals we had set for the end of the year.

    I live on Whidey and have been in your store. While most bookstores are hurting with the rise of the ebook, I think your store’s format is the template that will survive: local focus. There is a place in publishing for everyone, but it is only those who understand the business and who are willing to adapt that will survive.

    Comment by Bob Mayer — July 3, 2011 @ 12:20 pm | Reply

    • Most books will die a quiet death. Period. It’s part of it. There are too many ebook authors making about 2,000 a month to strike them down.

      Comment by U.L. Harper — July 3, 2011 @ 6:53 pm | Reply

  7. Please pardon all my typos. I may be the worst in the world in terms of spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. Oh, my thoughts may also be among the worst too! I try.

    Comment by Tom — July 3, 2011 @ 12:21 pm | Reply

  8. Thanks for this post.

    The increasingly common conflation of the terms “independent publisher” with “self-published” is puzzling to me. It’s just inaccurate: an independent publisher is a publishing house that’s not owned by another company. Period. W.W. Norton is an independent publisher. Grove/Atlantic is an independent publisher. McSweeney’s, Unbridled Books, Two Dollar Radio and Soft Skull are independent publishers. I’ve published two books with Unbridled, and I suspect the basic outline of that experience doesn’t differ significantly from being published by a conglomerate publisher: I sent my work out cold until an agent plucked me out of a slush pile and took me on, my agent submitted my work until they found a publisher who wanted to publish it, the house made an offer, contracts were signed, there were rounds of edits, a professional sales and marketing force started working on the book, I toured the US and Canada, there were foreign rights sales, reviews, royalties, etc.

    I’m not against self-publishing. It doesn’t hold a lot of appeal for me personally, but I think it’s a perfectly valid choice. But my feeling is, if you’re going to self-publish, own it. Call it what it is. Don’t call it independent publishing, because that’s something completely different.

    Comment by Emily St. J. Mandel — July 3, 2011 @ 12:33 pm | Reply

  9. Oh, I regret the offense taken at the connection I made between the genocide carried out by Europeans against Native American and evolution. In defense of that remark, may I say I made this connection because Charles Darwin himself made it. Here’s the most pertinent quote from Darwin, from his book “The Descent of Man”, in a chapter called “The Races of Man.”

    “At some future period not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes…will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest Allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as the baboon, instead of as now between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla” (1874, p. 178).

    Shocking and disgusting, isn’t it?

    I wish the realities that Darwin discovered and discovered were not true. But I cannot join in the Religious Rights rejection of evolution. Survival of the fittest is not a humanist phenomenon, and science shows us that Nature is completely indifferent to both Liberal and Conservative values.

    Yet, in the spirit of activist pessimism of Camus, I remain a Liberal and work for Liberal causes and values. There’s always the chance that Darwin wasn’t right.

    I myself am working through my grief at the impending, imminent extinction of printed texts. I am finding it more helpful to accept the inevitable in this regard.

    Okay, time to mow the lawn!

    Comment by Tom — July 3, 2011 @ 12:37 pm | Reply

  10. It is seldom that I enjoy the responses to comments as much as I enjoy the original post. Thank you for being one of those writers who takes the dialog as seriously as you do the monologue. I fought being a “writer” for pretty much all of my adult life (having been an idealistic youngster who thought being a “starving artist” was a worthy aspiration.) I am now writing at the urging of some writers I have respected for most of my life and still kicking and screaming at irregular intervals. I appreciate this post as I am surrounded by generalists from all camps who lump their advice about writing and publishing into a single bucket rather than admitting that your PURPOSE for your book actually matters. I am writing a fiction work with the help of a mentor who has offered to take it to his publisher and, should it not find a home there, help me to shop it to others. I am also writing a business/self development book intended to be little more than a “take away” from my speaking events. This I will happily self publish as this is a crowded market and not one I intend (or care to) dominate. But I will not use an “indie” publisher to do so – I’m self publishing in ORDER to maintain total control over the outcome, not to delegate (read abdicate) to someone whose only interest is which package I bought and how to upsell me. You validated many of my choices and offered some challenges to my beliefs – I thank you 🙂

    Comment by Dixie Gillaspie — July 3, 2011 @ 1:03 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for your kind words, Dixie. I like what you say about the purpose of your book making a difference. Absolutely true. There are lots of books (valid and sometimes really good books) that are only intended for limited distribution, as you put a “take away” from a speaking event. In this case, self publishing works really well because you have a built in audience.

      One of the most successful self published books in our store was a memoir written by Sally and Nardie Stein, called “Keeping the Fires Burning.” It was about their time as counselors in a summer camp that spanned decades. There were stories and photos of the camp that really meant something to those who had attended all those years ago. Those kids grew up with an affection for the camp that prompted them to keep in touch with Sally and Nardie. When they self published the book, they had in their possession the mailing list of all camp alumni and contacted all of them, telling them about the book. Then they came to our bookstore and asked if they could link to our e-commerce site to sell the books. They brought boxes of the books, which they signed, to our store and spread the word. We sold hundreds. It’s all about context and audience.

      Good luck with your future publications.

      Comment by Jarek Steele - Left Bank Books — July 3, 2011 @ 4:23 pm | Reply

      • “Content and audience” BOOM – exactly what I was saying in 3 words!

        Comment by Dixie Gillaspie — July 3, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

  11. “McSweeney’s, Unbridled Books, Two Dollar Radio and Soft Skull are independent publishers.”

    You do realize that Dave Eggers founded McSweeney’s, and McSweeney’s has been the first publisher of several of Eggers’ novels, yes?

    “if you’re going to self-publish, own it.” When you own something, you’re allowed to change it. Which is what has happened. Indie authors have taken self-publishing away from the condescension of corporate publishers, rebranded it, remarketed it, repacked it, and made it something new and exciting.

    Interesting that the title of this post is “Words and Their Meanings.” There’s a book called “Words that Work” that focuses on the ways words are used to influence perception. I think that’s at play here. Consider Roger Ailes’ demand that Fox News anchors use the term ‘government-run health insurance” because polls indicated that something like 90% of people were against it, while 90% of people supported “public option.” Which was (spoiler) the very same thing. Same with words like “death panel” and the use of “death tax” instead of “inheritance” or “estate tax.”

    “Self-publishing” is big publishing’s answer to the same problem. There’s a perception involved that can’t be avoided. That’s why we indie authors have reclaimed it and renamed it. Because big corporations and those affiliated with them no longer get to dictate our careers.

    “It’s like calling your pot dealer an independent pharmacist.” Um. No it’s not. Because dealing pot is illegal, and moreover, one can’t be an independent pharmacist, because becoming a pharmacist requires special instruction and credentials and licensing, doesn’t it? I’m not totally certain of that last element, but I have several friends who went through pharmacy school; it was long and grueling and demanding. Conversely, I have friends within the publishing industry, too, most of whom have bachelor’s degrees in literature. Because let’s point out, becoming an agent or an editor requires no special credentialing whatsoever, no professional degree, no specific instruction. It’s not like there’s some objective measurement whereby those who’ve long been considered “gatekeepers” have earned their right to a key, after all.

    I get the fear in the independent bookselling industry right now. Especially when not even the big-box retailers can make it (consider Borders. I wonder if they’re going to become the Columbia House of books now). There’s a lot changing right now, and it’s both a very exciting and very terrifying time. Still, I’m not sure such condescension and derision as is demonstrated in this post is really all that necessary.

    Comment by Will Entrekin — July 3, 2011 @ 1:22 pm | Reply

    • I’m not sure how to respond to your comment, Will. There’s a lot going on, and it addresses parts of my blog post and parts of other comments on it. Maybe I’ll just stick to what you say about my post.

      I regret that you thought I was condescending an derisive in my post. I wrote and deleted passages I thought were insulting to authors, of whom I am very supportive. My point was merely that writers shouldn’t be swept away by the promises of vanity presses only to learn that they’ve wasted their money. If my words were harsh, they were meant to be harsh toward those who would take advantage of the hopes and dreams of a writer, promising success and fame when there is no guarantee of either.

      As for the pot dealer line, I won’t apologize for that one. I thought it illustrated my point pretty accurately, plus it cracked me up. It really has nothing to do with legalities or bachelors degrees versus whatever other credentials we all seem to need. It was about comparing a legitimate profession to an illegitimate profession, the latter of which claims to be valuable, but only deludes the customer. But if I have to explain the joke, I guess it’s not funny. Ah well, you win some and you lose some. I certainly won’t lose any sleep about it.

      This “independent movement” as you called it earlier is a construct of disappointed writers in a flawed publishing industry and changing world. It’s a mirage, not a movement. I wish it were easier for good books to find the light of day, but it just isn’t. There are no shortcuts, and except for a very few authors who have already established their careers using traditional publishing and a couple of others who just got lucky, vanity publishing has a very limited reach. Readers want to spend their time reading something they have an outside chance of enjoying, not sifting through every book proposal the way agents and editors are paid to do.

      The system is flawed. It is anxiety producing and brutal. It’s also the most effective means of cultivating and curating that we have. It’s not a plot against the writer. It’s just flawed, much as human beings are always flawed.

      Comment by Jarek Steele - Left Bank Books — July 3, 2011 @ 4:05 pm | Reply

      • Yeah, sorry, Jarek, I hadn’t noticed you had a nesting feature. I just responded to the spirit of the post and the comments in general, rather than with specificity. Still, I’m surprised your passage about the mother of two writing in her spare time survived deletion with regard to insult, as it seems to reek of derision. Some indie authors align with the description you provide, I’m sure, but I’m sure others don’t. You paint your hypothetical author as barely (if at all) talented, desperate, eager to turn to Lulu and deluded about the process; there are, equally, many indie authors who know full well what they are doing and have good reason for doing so.

        I don’t think I used the phrase “independent movement.” I can’t find where I did, at any rate.

        You’re right the system is flawed. That’s why it’s a good thing to change it. I wasn’t asking you to apologize for your pot reference. Controversial statements like it get attention. I once went with “‘Self-publishing’ is a marketing term invented by corporate publishers terrified by the idea that readers are finally going to realize that they sold completely out and threw wide the gates everyone thought they were keeping to let in insta-lebrities and former strippers with the knowledge they could make a quick buck.” Not totally true. Just controversial.

        “It was about comparing a legitimate profession” Er. Except that there’s no objective measure of legitimacy for agents/editors. I taught a course at USC on professionalism and the public interest, in which the professor argued that there are only actually three professionals–doctors, lawyers, and clergy–that require specialized instruction and have some objective sort of accreditation. I’m not saying that’s true, mind (in fact, part of the course I taught discussed how it might or might not be). But you say “the latter of which claims to be valuable,” but how, exactly? As some sort of gatekeeper/filtration system? Through which the Twilight novels and Snooki got through, anyway? Of course, I know, you’re going to say those are exceptions and celebrity books and publishing is a business, except really corporate publishers have built a business model around an action (dissemination of information) that isn’t inherently.

        It is flawed, yes, and I’m not sure I’d agree that it’s most effective, or even was effective. I’m not proposing plots against anyone except protagonists. And even when a new system usurps the old one, there are still going to be kinks and flaws. Deriding authors for trying to improve the flaws of the system doesn’t get anyone anywhere, though. Why not be more proactive? I see so many bookstores clinging to a business model that used to work (even if it made no sense), but so few trying to innovate like so many authors are doing.

        Comment by Will Entrekin — July 3, 2011 @ 5:00 pm

      • Speaking of nesting feature, it looks like it doesn’t work after a couple of back and forths. Hopefully this will land where it needs to.

        I actually thought my description of the author was kind. In my mind, working mothers who write in their limited spare time are completely capable of creating a decent book. JK Rowling comes to mind (pre Harry Potter explosion – she started writing those books for her daughter, if memory serves). The writer I had in mind wasn’t desperate at all. She just believed a piece of advertising that promised her something that wasn’t there. Again, there’s no shame in that, and it doesn’t make her a bad writer. I’m kind of shocked that you would think that just because the hypothetical author was a woman, mother, teacher, midwesterner, I was insinuating that she had no talent. Really. I’m not trying to bait you into an argument here. That’s just really shocking to me.

        As for the rest, I’m sure nothing I can say to you will change your mind about the value of bookstores and bookselling, which is disappointing, but not surprising. I expected angry responses to this post. It’s a painful and complicated subject.

        All I can say is that the point of the blog post was that authors should not trust vanity presses to represent them well. If that didn’t come across, I apparently failed.

        Comment by Jarek Steele - Left Bank Books — July 3, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

      • Great post, Jay.

        @Will Entrekin:

        “Still, I’m surprised your passage about the mother of two writing in her spare time survived deletion with regard to insult, as it seems to reek of derision. Some indie authors align with the description you provide, I’m sure, but I’m sure others don’t. You paint your hypothetical author as barely (if at all) talented, desperate, eager to turn to Lulu and deluded about the process; there are, equally, many indie authors who know full well what they are doing and have good reason for doing so.”

        The description of the author who is a mother writing in her spare time does not seem derisive to me at all. I was actually quite happy to see that the hypothetical author in this piece was *not* the prototypical upper-middle-class man who has the time to do anything he wants, and was instead more representative of the many diverse people who write. Many highly acclaimed authors fit just this description of a mother writing in her spare time and it seems very admirable to be such a person– not insulting at all. Mothers have so many responsibilities already, especially if they are working, raising children and writing a book in their “spare time.” Any mother who manages to write a book while doing all that seems worthy of respect to me. There are heavy messages coming to us that mothers who have ambitions outside of motherhood are somehow “frivolous,” whereas a man who might have the resources to be able to work full-time on a book is “serious.” But the woman in this article is raising two children, possibly working as well, on top of writing a book as well. That seems pretty serious to me. Why do you find the comparison to such a woman an insult?

        Comment by Sarah — July 5, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

      • “Why do you find the comparison to such a woman an insult?” & “I’m kind of shocked that you would think that just because the hypothetical author was a woman, mother, teacher, midwesterner, I was insinuating that she had no talent.”

        (first from Sarah, then from Jarek)

        Well, no. What you said, Jarek, was “Since the national media is SO eager to give time and space to an unknown writer’s book (that’s sarcasm in case you didn’t catch it) they will see the emails and faxes from Lulu (hers being buried in about a hundred of them) and delete it without reading the contents,” after which you alluded to the woman’s typo (which, I suppose in your world, don’t exist in books with a corporate publisher’s name on the spine?). And then there’s “Plus, she’s now spent $3889 and hasn’t sold a single copy unless you count the 5 free copies she sent to her sister-in-law in Arizona for her book group.”

        It’s just obvious that, because you’re against what you consider “self-published” authors taking up the indie publishing crusade, you’re ready to paint indie publishing as rather hopelessly naive. It’s rather obvious the hypothetical author is sketched with a bias against indie publishing. You portrayed your hypothetical author derisively, gender, maternity, position, and geography notwithstanding, Jarek.

        And Sarah, I don’t know why you’re quoting words like “frivolous” or “serious”; I don’t see them before you used them. I don’t regard parenthood in general as an exercise in frivolity and never said so. What I was saying was that Jarek’s tone was of condescension, arrogance, and derision, hypothetical author notwithstanding. I’m sure Jarek dislikes indie publishing enough that he could have used the same tone regarding just about any hypothetical author he envisioned.

        Comment by Will Entrekin — July 5, 2011 @ 6:13 pm

    • “You do realize that Dave Eggers founded McSweeney’s, and McSweeney’s has been the first publisher of several of Eggers’ novels, yes?”

      Why yes, of course I do. As I’m sure you realize that they’ve gone on to become a well-respected publisher of critically-acclaimed and award-winning books written by people other than Dave Eggers.

      Comment by Emily St. J. Mandel — July 3, 2011 @ 4:27 pm | Reply

      • Why yes, of course I do. As I’m sure you realize that other independent authors will, too.

        Comment by Will Entrekin — July 3, 2011 @ 5:01 pm

      • Hm, there seems to be a limit to the number of nesting comments one can do. But anyway, in reply to Will —

        “Why yes, of course I do. As I’m sure you realize that other independent authors will, too.”

        I’m sure you’re right; no doubt other writers will adopt the Eggers model and go on to establish their own independent publishing houses. Which is of course wonderful, since independent publishing houses are putting out some of the most exciting books around. The McSweeney’s list is pretty great.

        Comment by Emily St. J. Mandel — July 3, 2011 @ 5:55 pm

  12. You left out the most evil of them all . . . Publish America. At least Lulu is what it is, a respectable vanity press that prides itself on having the world’s largest library of bad poetry available for sale. Publish America struts around calling itself a “traditional publisher” that all other publishers fear and awe. Jarek, could you comment, or even better do an entire post, on your shop’s experiences and/or opinions on Publish America?

    Comment by Terri Coop — July 3, 2011 @ 1:23 pm | Reply

    • I can’t believe I left out Publish America. Your assessment of them is spot on, Terri. I could go on ad nauseam about our experiences with them. Maybe you’re right, and I should wait for another post.

      Comment by Jarek Steele - Left Bank Books — July 3, 2011 @ 4:09 pm | Reply

  13. Actually it’s not the most effective means. It was once upon a time, to steal an opening line. It is no longer, yet most in the industry are not willing to adapt and change. Let’s face it; the majority of industry insiders have long treated authors as replaceable cogs in the big machine. If you were not a brand name with a publisher, you weren’t considered important. The choke point was distribution and that’s no longer a choke point. I sell more of my books in a day than Random House managed in six months. Publishers focus their attention on the 10% of their authors who make 90% of their money. That makes sense. But it’s also bad business in the long run. For every Amanda Hocking going to SMP, I see 10 midlist authors going indie. And we’re not using Publish America or Lulu or whatever vanity press is out there. That’s the real movement, not the tens of thousands of writers who were never published before. Publishers are losing their next generation of brand authors.
    I had PubIt call me the other day to discuss how we could sell more books. I’ve also been contacted by Amazon in the same manner. What a radical concept. A retailer asking the producer of the product how they could team together to sell more product. In over 20 years of making my living as an author, I never had a bookstore call me to see how we could work together, and, overall, my experience when I approached them was disinterest if not outright rejection. I once sent individual letters to every bookstore listed on ABA (remember snail mail?) with 45 signed book plates in each. This was when there were 3,500 indies.
    Four replied. The rest must have tossed my material in the trash.
    So if there is a backlash, it’s an earned one.
    While you can complain about these writers and their egos, remember there are real writers out there who have busted their hump for decades, been treated like crap, and now, frankly, they don’t need publishers, agents, bookstores, etc. etc. How are you going to start approaching them? I’ve got two of the top ten science fiction sellers on-line right now in the US and the UK. Only Game of Thrones is ahead of me in the UK. I’ve got an indie bookstore three minutes away from me. When I moved here, I went in, introduced myself, pulled my latest NY Times bestselling hardcover off the shelf and showed it to the owner. I signed it. It sold that day (one copy racked). The owner never ordered any more. Didn’t recognize me when I came in a week later. Has none of my books racked.
    When they go out of business in the next year, as they will, there will be articles in the paper about save the indie, yada yada, I had the bisque. Ever see an article about save the author?
    We’re saving ourselves.

    Comment by Bob Mayer — July 3, 2011 @ 5:05 pm | Reply

  14. When one “self publishes” through something like Lulu, Lulu isn’t the self-publisher. They’re merely one of many services the author needs to hire. They basically just print the book and establish the ISBN. That’s why you don’t get any of their services. You get them somewhere else. You have to do research and get a deal that fits you and your project. There are potholes along the way but that’s how it is. Hire someone for the book cover, copy-editing, proofreading, editing, and this is aside from beta readers. And by the way, you have to do this before you even query to an agent. That’s why going through somewhere as lame as Lulu is still self-publishing. Because you still have to do it yourself.

    Comment by U.L. Harper — July 3, 2011 @ 6:22 pm | Reply

  15. Wow. This (all comments included) is so thought provoking. My attitude and perception have changed several times throughout the reading of this blog. I’m not yet sure if I now have clarification or if I’m more confused. But I TRULY appreciate the passion behind both sides written here and will consider all of this come decision time. Thank you!!

    Comment by Joani Plenty — July 3, 2011 @ 6:49 pm | Reply

  16. This is a really weird post. It is really weird because you’re talking about self-publishing without once mentioning Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes and Noble’s Nook. Nobody talked about indie publishing before those came around. Not mentioning this really devalues the whole post, because it makes it look like you’re unaware of why self-publishing has become an economically viable proposition these days.

    The reason people now use the indie publishing label is because they want to indicate that self-publishing has undergone a seismic shift: from a world in which you had to have paper copies with nonexistent distribution, to one in which you can have electronic copies, with electronic distribution that is the equivalent of any major publisher. (The publisher’s outsourcing of all their work to freelancers also means that authors can have the same support staff that major publishers do, too.)

    Printing copies through PublishAmerica is a vanity operation. Electronic self-publishing is (or, at least, can be) a profit-making business.

    Comment by Courtney Milan — July 3, 2011 @ 7:18 pm | Reply

  17. The bald tires are on the car the bookstore in your story is driving, not the writer’s. Send her to me and I’ll tell her how to upload to Amazon, Nook, and Smashwords where she’ll have a fighting chance. 🙂 Disclaimer: my undergrad degree is in English. I worked my way through undergrad AND grad school working in libraries and indie bookstores. I adore bookstores! But life is too short to drive on the road with all those bald-tire vehicles in the publishing industry. The smart indie bookstores will embrace the indie writers and publishers and find ways to work well together.

    Comment by billie — July 3, 2011 @ 8:17 pm | Reply

  18. This is all so upsetting. I’m going to call my therapist, and stay off the Internet for at least six months!

    Comment by Tom — July 3, 2011 @ 8:23 pm | Reply

  19. Good points, Courtney. There are many paths to Oz.

    Comment by Bob Mayer — July 3, 2011 @ 8:48 pm | Reply

  20. Uhmm you really don’t make it clear that you are having a go at vanity publishing, not indie publishing. And they really are different kettles of fish.

    I am just a reader, as you will no doubt see from this comment, there are no skills for authorship here. But I thought I would add my two cents.
    The big publishers are shite gatekeepers, they barely seem to even edit properly these days. (Berkley I’m looking at you) they are only interested in what will sell in big enough numbers, and preferably they will get ten authors writing the same thing… There are many good books that don’t see the light of day, because the publisher doesn’t see them making enough money for them, they are not in the current popular genre… etc Self-publishing is one way to go about it. Though the author should be educating themselves about all the options available, and be aware of the business behind making it a success, and the slim chances of that.
    Yes there is also a lot of stuff that deserves to be on the slush pile, but I want access to my Mormon romances, my odd little space operas and fun lesbian genre fiction.
    And it seems that it is only through self publishing (and some INDIE epub first publishers) that I am going to get it.
    So don’t completely put people off the idea, just tell them to educate themselves.

    Sorry for the rambling comment.

    Comment by Edie — July 4, 2011 @ 10:19 am | Reply

  21. I would use Lulu/Booksurge/ExLibris 1) if i knew I had a good product already, 2) if I knew that my audience were geographically scattered or interested in the slightly offbeat I was writing about, 3) if i didn’t want to need the book to be bought by a large number of people for it to be worth my effort writing and publishing it, and 4) if I knew that I could successfully market it via my own website.

    Clearly, as you’ve explained so well, it isn’t a way to publish fiction that you want to see in the bookstores. It’s horses for courses, I’m afraid, and authors have to be savvy, especially as the whole publishing industry is in for a huge shakeout because of e-books (which you didn’t mention).

    Comment by bibliobibuli — July 4, 2011 @ 10:29 am | Reply

  22. Good post. Options for authors have increased rapidly over the past decade. Know what you want as a publishing writer – or what you want to accomplish – is critical. Then, do your research and pursue the publishing option best suited to help you accomplish your goals, indie or self-publishing. Or even traditional publishing.

    Comment by karlsmediaworkshop — July 4, 2011 @ 3:01 pm | Reply

  23. […] publishing, as alluded to in the quote that Emma Straub shared on Tumblr. The quote was pulled from a longer article by Jarek Steele, which I highly suggest everyone read over many, many […]

    Pingback by The Road to Hell, Good Intentions, Etc. | The Portrait of a Would-Be Artist as a Young Woman — July 5, 2011 @ 1:25 pm | Reply

  24. I absolutely fucking love this. So, so very true. It infuriates me when people conflate “indie publishing” with “self-publishing.” It’s just so inaccurate and misleading.

    Comment by Dawn. — July 5, 2011 @ 8:20 pm | Reply

  25. Your self-published writer should have joined a writing group, or attended a workshop, or taken a course, or bought a book about publishing or self-publishing, and she would have had a better experience. Her error was in believing she could succeed without the advice and support of fellow writers, and without learning the business. No other profession cultivates and celebrates that notion. Even a typical MFA program has no course about the publishing business.

    Comment by Catherine — July 6, 2011 @ 12:04 am | Reply

  26. I think that four or five years ago this post would have been spot on — and it is still an accurate depiction of vanity presses. The vanities are vile predators. I know that as recently as a month ago I would have agreed with most of what you said, painting all forms of self publishing with the same brush. However, I’ve been researching the field recently and I’ve discovered the times — and the industry — they are are achangin’.

    I’ve had three novels published — one by an online subscription site and two as massmarket paperbacks by Roc — two ebooks released by Simon & Schuster and over thirty short stories and novellas. All of these went through the traditional process of write, submit, wait. And these published works represent about 20% of the words I’ve written and submitted to publishers in the last decade. I’ve gotten some beautiful rejections. I have one from the fiction editor at Esquire three years ago — handwritten across my title page — praising my voice and style but saying the story doesn’t fit their current needs. Have not been able to buy groceries with that. But because of the changes in publishing options available to me, I can (and in the not too distant future will) market the story through Smashwords — and quote the good parts of editor’s signed note in its promotion. It will take a while for revenues from independent sales to equal what I missed from Esquire, but the story has generated no cash flow at all in my file cabinet.

    “Indie publishing” might not be the best term for the marketing/publishing movement that is currently in process, but things in the field are still sorting themselves out. But there is a big difference between what today’s writers are doing and vanity publishing. What is happening, and it is not illusionary, is writers are able to take responsibility for all aspects of getting their works into the market place. I’ll grant there is a broad spectrum when it comes to polish and professionalism and quality in these efforts, but we’re still in the early stages of what can be seen as a distillation process. Just as readers have figured out which imprints to look to for political thrillers or horticulture how-to, readers will learn what to expect from the various “indie” marques. This process will become easier when more services such as Foreword Clarion take advantage of the marketing opportunity and provide objective reviews of independent works.

    I stumbled across your essay in my daily research into all things indie. My wife and I are in the process of starting up an-as-yet-unamed independent publishing business. We have learned, among other things, that accountants can be very scary. For some insights into how the publishing world is changing — and how opportunities like this are now availabble — I recommend you visit the blogs of Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. And follow the comment threads; some fascinating reading.

    Comment by Kevin — July 7, 2011 @ 2:56 pm | Reply

  27. I’m a published author/illustrator with a fair amount of success. Twenty-eight books. One NYT Bestseller. Over 3 million books sold. Enviable, right? Well, guess what. I’m struggling. And it’s not because of my limo bill. The publishing world has gotten incredibly tough, and I will try anything to earn a living at what I love. I have several books with the big houses. I’m doing at least one book a year with a REAL indie publisher. I’ve self-published the traditional way (with a garage full of books to prove it). Now I’m trying ebook self-publishing for Kindle and Nook, adjusting prices as low as $2.99 because that’s where the market is. (I can’t bring myself to go lower than that.) I’ve done hundreds of bookstore events. They used to be fun and successful. Now they’re humiliating and lonely. The big stores just don’t care enough, because another author will be sitting at my table later that same day. And the small stores simply don’t have the resources to bring people in. (They want me to supply a mailing list of my personal friends. No way.) So you can criticize writers for taking the low road of self-publishing, but these days, I’m grateful for every road I can find.

    Comment by Warren Hanson — July 10, 2011 @ 2:41 pm | Reply

  28. […] you may end up spending tons of money without selling a a single book, as bookseller and blogger Jarek Steele warns. If the Lulu method appeals to you, don’t jump in until you’ve read some advice, like […]

    Pingback by To self-publish or not to self-publish? That is the question | Young Writers @ The Loft — July 12, 2011 @ 2:28 pm | Reply

  29. This is an excellent post. Thanks for this!

    Comment by li — March 9, 2012 @ 12:09 pm | Reply

  30. Great points altogether, you simply won a new reader. What may you suggest about your publish that you made some days in the past? Any positive?

    Comment by TRSanal — September 1, 2012 @ 2:40 am | Reply

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