Self-Publishing Revolution: Adapt or Die

Jeff Bezos and the Kindle Touch
Jeff Bezos and the Kindle Touch

The publishing industry is still trying to figure out how to deal with the self-publishing revolution that Amazon sparked with the Kindle and their KDP Publishing format. Old guard publishers need to adapt and evolve, not dig in and try to protect the way things have “always” been done, or they risk becoming irrelevant to readers and to authors. What brings this obvious fact to mind today is a recent essay that Steven Zacharius, CEO of Kensington,wrote for the Huffington Post.

Here’s Where We Agree…and Disagree

He starts out by saying a few things I agree with. He says that the self-publishing revolution has brought out a bunch of swindlers eager to take advantage of authors. That’s true. He says that there’s a flood of self-published work on Amazon, and that most of the authors will never sell more than a handful of copies to their dearest friends and relatives.  Also true. He says that free books and ultra-low pricing by self-published authors is driving down the price of books and makes it harder for publishers to make money. I agree with that to some degree, too. He also says its very hard for any book, self-published or otherwise, to stand out. Again, he’s right. But where he loses me, and reveals the desperation of publishers to hold on to the old way of doing things at any cost, is his suggestion that Amazon and other retailers should create a form of literary segregation so “real books” (my phrase, not his), can stand out. Here’s how he puts it:

In a perfect world (okay, in my perfect world) there would be a separate section on Amazon or B& for self-published e-books, maybe even separate websites. I truly believe that it would help the reader distinguish the books as well. Readers don’t purchase books based on who the publisher is and don’t necessarily care. As a result, they might not even know if they’re buying a book that was professionally edited versus one that was self-published.

This suggestion, and the way he refutes it immediately himself, shows how sharply divided he is on this issue even within his own mind.

If he believes that readers don’t buy books based on who publishes them, and that they can’t tell the difference between a professionally edited book and one that hasn’t been, then what would be the point of segregating corporately published books  from those that are self-published?

Clearly, the only point is to throw a half-assed life-preserver to publishers who are struggling to figure out how to remain relevant in this new landscape…and get their books noticed amidst the millions of new titles.

But if you, or even Steve himself, accepted his suggestion, who would establish the criteria for what qualifies as “published books” and those that are “self-published?” Old-guard publishers, of course! And what would that criteria be? That’s not an easy question to answer.

The Way It Used To Be…and Why It Doesn’t Work Anymore

images-8Before the Kindle revolution, and the wave of self-publishing it created, it was much easier to establish criteria for professional publication. I know, because as board member of the Mystery Writers of America and chairperson of their membership committee, I helped craft the rules for vetting publishers for the purposes of submitting books for Edgar Awards and or vetting authors for membership. You wouldn’t have been able to find a stauncher critic of vanity presses and self-publishing than me. But that was a different publishing world, technologically and business-wise, back then. The world has changed and so have I. Adapt or die.

The old rules were essentially based on the belief that the author should get paid for his work in advances and royalties, that his manuscript should be professionally edited, and the final product should be widely available in brick-and-mortar stores.  One of the key yardsticks for determining professional publication was if the money flowed from the publisher to the author, and not the other way around (it was also a simple, and effective criteria to weed out “vanity presses” run by scammers who were swindling writers). But now that most books are sold online and not in brick-and-mortar stores, and now that there are self-published authors selling more copies, and earning substantially more money, than most mid-list “traditionally published” authors, and that so many “established” authors are self-publishing backlist and new works, those lines aren’t so easy to draw and the old criteria seems painfully archaic.

 Who is a Pro….and Who Isn’t?

Steve suggests that it’s important to distinguish self-published books from those that are “professionally” edited. Well, my self-published books are professionally edited… by editors who still work freelance for the Big Six. So what would the criteria be in Steve’s segregation scenario for determining a “professional edit?” And, more importantly, what would be the benefit of this segregation to consumers as opposed to old-guard publishers? None. Deep down, Steve seems to know this, because he goes on to say:

Now don’t get me wrong. If I thought I had a story in me that I felt strongly about, I wouldn’t hesitate to self-publish it either. In fact, Kensington and all major publishers looks to e-book originals to find new talent. We have a handful of 2014 releases written by authors whose work impressed us enough to offer them contracts for new books.

So he’s got nothing against self-published books…as long as they don’t get in the way of a publisher’s interest. Ebooks are great, he says, as a way to find authors who’ve proven they can make money for a publisher. What he doesn’t say is that in many cases it would be more profitable in the long run for those authors to continue self-publishing rather than sign with Kensington which, with all due respect to Steve, is known for paying most of their writers very poorly and doing little to market their books. He still believes that the brass ring that all authors are reaching for is a publishing contract…perceived prestige over readership and lots of money. It’s less clear today what publishers can provide to authors that they can’t do for themselves, particularly if you fall in the mid-list. Publishers are a huge benefit to big gun authors, but don’t do so much for writers who aren’t already household names.

I know dozens of mid-list authors who are earning far more self-publishing than they ever did under contract (several of those are ex-Kensington authors, btw). And I know authors who are under contract who wish they weren’t…and that they could get their hands on their backlists so they could self-publish. That’s right, I know authors who are lamenting that their books are still in print…a point of view that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Because times have changed. Steve and others like him are slow to accept that.

A Successful Author Today Explores Every Option

I have nothing against publishing contracts… although I’ve self-published a lot of my books,  I am also published today by Amazon’s 47 North and Thomas & Mercer imprints, as well as by John Wiley & Son, Penguin/Putnam and Random House. Those publishers are treating me and my books very well and I’m happy to be in business with them. I am also very happy with how my self-published books are doing, and I’ve turned down many offers to acquire the publishing rights to The Walk and Watch Me Die (one editor at a major publishing house actually approached me inside the Amazon Publishing booth at BookExpo to make me an offer!)  WatchMeDie

But every book, and every deal, is different. Today writers have options they never had before…and so do readers. Segregation isn’t the answer to the rising above the clutter and selling books. The answer is writing a good book…coupled with strong packaging and shrewd promotion, advertising and social media marketing. Because for authors in today’s world, whether you are self-published or under contract, you need to be a businessperson, too. It’s not enough to produce the product, you have to effectively sell it, too.

There are those who will argue that’s exactly why you need a publisher…but if you talk to most of the authors I know, they will tell you their publishers aren’t doing diddly for them…or what they are doing is woefully ineffective… and that the burden of marketing the book falls on the author’s shoulders, whether they are under contract or self-published.

But that’s another topic for another day…


39 thoughts on “Self-Publishing Revolution: Adapt or Die”

  1. I also like what Zacharius says in the comments when someone calls him out on the fact that most acquired books get little editing and promotion:

    “That is not the way we work at all at Kensington nor do most other established publishers. Editors take great pride in the acquisitions that they make and will work with the writer from the beginning of the writing process through publicity and marketing. This is regardless if it’s a $5000 advance or a six figure advance. The editor serves as the writer’s contact at the publisher and fields all questions about their book.”

    Yeah, right.

    • Yeah– I called him on that, because been there, done that, with four of the Big 6. I don’t know what publishing world some of these people living in when they act like they treat authors so well. Not my experience with over a dozen editors. Not saying they were bad people– they were over-worked and were more book processors than editors. They weren’t given the time to do the job they were capable of. But this guy is in his own little fantasy world.

    • The fact that an editor might pay $5000 or $500,000 doesn’t make any difference to the editor in terms of their editing of the book. That is an absolute fact. They take pride in their work. So please don’t say you called me out on that when you don’t have any idea as to how they work or handle their books.

      • Excuse me, but I do have an idea having had a spectrum of advances in that range and was treated widely different by four of the Big 6. I imagine they do take pride in their work but this dreamland of publishing that many spout is not the reality for those in the trenches.

        I’ve had books put into production with ZERO story editing done and minimum copy editing. Junior editors are over-worked and more often book processors than editors. Not their fault– they have more titles than they can adequately handle.

    • I should also add to the comment about promotion depending on the “level” of the book. That’s 100% true. Obviously a publisher that is spending big money for an author has to spend big money to promote the book or they won’t make their return on their investment. Publishing is a business unless you’re a non-profit publisher. But with social media having come of age, every book gets some level of promotion. Whether it be email campaigns to the publisher’s in-house mailing lists or being included on different genre newsletters…..there is always a level or publicity and promotion on every book; and in many cases including galleys to bloggers, libraries and key buyers.

      • Yes– there is some level of promotion. Often sending galleys to the usual suspects. The reality is its almost impossible to adequately market fiction because each book is a unique product.

        I’m not even sure why you felt the need to write your article. It felt like a long whine that these self-publishing people don’t deserve equal footing in the marketplace; that publishers and agents, the long-time gatekeepers should get to keep their role. You know, the ones who publish Snooki and give a baseball player an imprint. Those people.

  2. One issue that wasn’t addressed is how to categorize the self-published books by NY-published authors such as Lee. Would they be permitted into the walled garden, or would those bad books be taught a lesson by being left with the trash.

  3. dear lee, like you i’m a writer of traditionals, e-pubs, and also run a full-scale publishing business, and you are deadly right — (as usual) –that the old legacies just don’t get it, they don’t want to change to compete, instead, god help us, they’re looking basically for an unlevel playing field which means subsidies through changes in the rules. silly and useless and good on you for pointing it all out. (no surprise there, you’ve always been one of my heroes.)

      • Mark, I read the first chapter of “Heat Wave.” You’ve got a lot of writing talent. That’s for certain. But are you sure you want so many details in the first 5 paragraphs? They slow the pace. Just saying. A faster pace on page 1 and 2 might spur sales. Or so it looks to me.

  4. I can tell, Lee, that you and Steven are liberals. How? Liberals don’t like to trust in the free market. Yes, it needs to be regulated sometimes, but there’s no other mechanism yet discovered that rewards great work and weeds out all else. So the only point I’m addressing, here, is: good ebooks versus not-so-good. And my thesis is: the free market will work and separate the ones from the others.

    For instance: Take a Stouffer’s frozen chicken pie and a President’s choice. Stouffer’s cost $4.19, PC costs $1.89. Okay, I try them both. Yes, I spent $1.89 for the PC, and it’s really not good, and I won’t buy another. But $1.89 isn’t a lot to sample the offering. Stouffer’s costs twice as much and more, but the quality is, maybe, a hundred times more. So I found out, and I’m telling others. Same thing with authors.

    Yes, we’ll purchase some poorly written ebooks from an author. But only once. And we’ll review the book and tell others. And we’ll find the authors that are great quality. Any book, even written by an unknown, will find huge success if it’s great. But liberals find it impossible to believe this, they just can’t trust in the market. But it works, nevertheless. So the moral is, I guess, for authors to keep trying to dig deeper into their themes, and to keep generating great insights in their work, and to trust the system. Really good writers will win out in ebook-land every time.

    • Just because a book is well written has nothing to do with it being successful. Most people don’t take the time to post reviews. And quality literary fiction generally has very small print runs because they’re not necessarkut commercial.

      • Stephen, hello. Nice to hear from you. There’s nothing wrong in being liberal. I respect that. I’m an independent. I try to chose the best from both sides on each issue.

        I agree with you. A “well-written” book is no guarantee for success. And lots of literary books don’t sell well. My belief is that “specialized knowledge” is valuable to the zeitgeist. And I think that whatever subject a writer just naturally digs into — Lee, obviously, digs into TVLand more than anybody I’ve ever known — is the best route to commercial success.

        As far as the market goes, you, Stephen, as a liberal, (and I’m sorry to say this) will keep finding fault with the market. You will find it so hard to believe, that if a thousand ebooks are offered for sale, the people trying them will make the best judgement on which are best — you’ll want government to intervene or rules to be set up. It’s a valid point of view. I just have faith in persons. And not in a body set up to judge. But then, that’s just me. Anyway, I like to hear your opinion.

        • No, even though a liberal, I don’t like government getting involved. I consider myself a “reasonable” liberal 🙂

          I have no problem with people self-publishing. I’m all for it. I just want people to have reasonable expectations and I think the media talks so much about the few enormous successes that it doesn’t give a reasonable expectation for self-published authors.

          My point about having separate websites for self-published books versus books from traditional published authors does sound elitist when I think about it now and I guess that’s me being selfish as a publisher. Even if there were a site for just traditionally published books; that would be overcrowded as well. It’s so hard to make someone stand out because there’s way too many books being published with very little way to separate the good from the bad. As I mentioned very few people take the time to post reviews. I post a review on FaceBook every time I read a book; whether it’s a Kensington book or not. And when it’s a Kensington book I let everyone know that I might be biased….

          I probably tend to read more non Kensington books just because I like to read all types of thrillers and we publish all that many. I might add, every book I buy…whether it’s a Lee Child or Harlan Coben….I only buy it if the reviews are good. I generally tend to rely on reviews from established reviewers like Publisher’s Weekly because many people post reviews with their own agenda in mind. Maybe they don’t like the price or whatever…..

      • Bravo, Steven! You’re so right about writers and well-written books/authors not getting enough reviews once books are read to affect sales. I am an author and get lots of messages on Facebook and via e-mail about how much a person enjoyed a novel I’ve written, however they likely won’t write reviews elsewhere. I understand some people will mess us in their attempt to write a review (give away too much of the plot) or they don’t feel equipped to pen one in a professional way.

        Full disclosure, I am/was a Kensington author (under Dafina) with 16 published novels–12 with Kensington. I loved my time with your company. I would loved to have been an author that sold in the millions. But never fear: I’m still working to figure out the “formula” to accomplish it! I thoroughly enjoyed the dialogue here on this subject spurred by your original blog.

        • Vanessa, I agree with you and Stephen that lots of very satisfied readers won’t write the good review that they should. Nevertheless, a good book will still garner enough good reviews to make it attractive to new buyers. It’s not the number of good reviews that count, it’s the quality of the review. And, in my opinion, all an author needs is one super-high-quality review, and that’s enough to spur sales. So, if you get your best friend, who sincerely loves your book, and she or he writes a great review, that’s enough. You don’t a hundred more average-quality reviews.

          But let me address your idea of a ‘formula.’ There is one. And you can learn it. First, your book cannot be a re-telling of a plot. Nor can it be a variation of a plot. For instance, if you write a re-telling of the story in the movie, “The English Patient,” it will not sell. The public has consumed that story, already. The zeitgeist wants more, not again. There are only two ways, or two ‘formula’s.” One is, create a catharsis for the reader. The other is, supply deep and fresh and innovative insights for the reader. If you want to learn how to create a catharsis, you can study Tori Spelling’s memoir, “sTORI Telling,” it’s a fabulous example. If you want to learn about supplying great insights, you can study any early novel of Mary Higgins Clark. In the end, what counts with the reader is the intelligence of the author,
          so you if you want expanded sales you need to get in touch with the smartest persons in the field you are writing about and to dig out all their insights. Something like that.

          Anyway, another idea is, you could always convert your published novels into cartoons–not stupid ones–but animations for children’s shows, shows that teach. For there’s an awful lot of animations out there that don’t. And the greatest pleasure, according to Aristotle, and I agree with him, is to learn.

  5. Lee,

    I enjoyed reading your reply to my blog and I will in fact subscribe to yours because I think it’s professionally done. I’m not going to go point by point in replying because I’ve done that in a few comments and on other sites already. It’s time to move onto my next blog and I’m working on it now. But I can assure you that I will do an upcoming article on the positive side of self-publishing as well. There are obviously many authors that start this way and become big successes and others prefer to stay as self-published. It would be interested to do an article on why; but I’m not knowledgeable enough in that area.

    • Glad you’re writing, Steven. It’s good for authors and readers to see things from your side of the table. And I do have one of those miracle editors you wrote about … you might even know her 🙂 Good luck with the blogging.

  6. I wish that “professionally published” really was a way of being sure. I just returned a St. martins Press book to the library that needed a good editing (and a good plot). I forced my way through 75% of another “PP” book that was “not that good.” My point is that “professionally Published” is NOT a Guarantee of a “good” book.

  7. Wait a minute…wait a minute…you said the burden of promotion falls on the author’s shoulders.

    And yet if I tweet a direct buy link to one of my books I subsequently get to read endless blog posts about how I’m ‘just pissing off my friends.’

    I find the atmosphere really poisonous in this industry at times.

    Hi, Lee, how are things going?

    Long time no see.

  8. Very helpful post, Lee, and I’m glad you made the point that there is no single right way to get published. Like you, I have some books with traditional publishers, and a couple of things I’ve done totally indie. I am happy having a finger in several pies. Blueberry is my favorite. (smile)

  9. Steven perhaps you need to take a look at the William W. Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone Westerns that they churn out 2 to 3 monthly. Before you criticize anything regarding the Kindle ebooks or self-published authors. Which are poorly edited, repetitive, fluff writing and they aren’t even close to William’s writing style. Your writing books in series, full of mistakes referring to the latest Smoke Jensen book, were me as a reader knows that the writer never read any of the previous books, even the editor doesn’t catch them or whomever of the Johnstone family approves the writing missed them. But their are several other series effected by this. How can you have in the Cotton Pickens series, have the banker killed in one book, reappear in the next one and his wife who’s in jail for helping kill him also reappears in the books. I have yet to see a self-publish book make a mistake like that in the writing in a series, like you have with the Cotton Pickens series. Like with professionally published books, you’ll always find ones that are poorly edited and the same can be said with the self published ones. It’s just now the readers can get some really well written eBook for a fraction of the cost, of one from a big publisher and really what it’s about.

    • That could indeed be a problem in the Cotton Pickens stories but only if the series is sequential. That is, the texts indicate that one episode follows another in a time line. If they are simply independent stories involving the same characters, it is no problem. The key lies in whether previous stories are referenced.

  10. Honestly? Speaking as an avid reader, I wish there was a magic way to know if a book has been professionally edited, whether it’s self-published or small press (I’ll take it as a given for big publishers). Word of mouth Internet talk, Amazon comments, and web reviews are too often woefully lacking in this regard. I don’t know if it’s because readers are too indulgent or don’t want to vex authors, or other reasons.
    But usually reading a few paragraphs of a kindle sample is more than enough to know how much the author cared about delivering a decently finished book, even if it makes me feel like a submissions editor reading through the slush pile. Which is. Not. My. Job.

    • I think you found the magic way, Laurent. Read the sample before you buy any book. It’s usually pretty easy to tell from page one whether or not you are dealing with a professionally-written and edited book…and even if it is, whether it’s going to be something that appeals to you.


      • Fascinating discussion – thanks to all concerned. But may I ask just how you are using the word ‘professionally’? Do you mean something done by a person who is paid to do it, someone for whom this is a career? Or are you using the word ‘professionally’ in the looser sense, meaning something that is done to a very high standard, even if it is by an amateur?


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