2012: Best of Times for Writers, or the Worst?

by | Feb 22, 2012

One thing that happens when you go to a writing conference is you end up spending a lot of time with writers. Many kinds of writers. And that can be very instructive.

There were several hundred writers in attendance at the San Francisco Writers Conference, which ended yesterday. Throughout the four days there were writing workshops, keynote addresses, “ask the pro” sessions and a lot of panels and presentations about options in self-publishing.

Although most of the sessions were on writing topics, the incredible popularity and explosive growth of self-publishing, both with new and already-established writers is the obvious rationale for presenting this material. And there were some people who were clearly interested in pursuing the self-publishing option.

Slogan of the Day

In almost every presentation, somewhere along the line I heard, “It’s the best time to be a writer.”

And why not? Armed with only a laptop and an imagination, a writer today can create her own publishing story, gather fans, learn to market her books, and start to make real money though book sales if she keeps at it and has good skills.

In many of these self-publishing presentations there were stories told of authors who had followed this same path and arrived at the promised land, where agents and editors are calling you with six- and seven-figure offers.

Just before the big panel I was part of on Saturday morning, I read in Publishers Weekly about the latest, Brittany Geragotelis, who used the reader community Wattpad to accumulate over 16 million reads of her work, attracting a six-figure contract from Simon & Schuster.

The Dark Side: Still There

It was also interesting that many writers had never considered self-publishing. On the last day of the conference there was a big, two-hour panel discussion on “The Great Adventure: Joining the Self-Publishing Revolution,” moderated by Carla King (Self-Publishing Bootcamp) and including Mark Coker (Smashwords), Brian Felsen (Bookbaby), Jan Johnson, (Turning Stone) and Jesse Potash, (PubSlush). And me. Pretty good panel, wouldn’t you say?

The room was reduced to half its usual size by dividers, and it was still only about half-full.

Where were all the writers?

They were upstairs, standing in a long, long line that snaked from a room at one end of the hotel, through the lobby and in front of the front desk. Each grasped a sheaf of papers and many looked nervous.

This was the core of their visit to the conference, and maybe the reason a lot of them paid to come to San Francisco: “Speed Dating With Agents.” A chance to sit down and talk face to face to a literary agent is a powerful draw for an unpublished writer.

I thought about some of the writers I know. Many are quite technophobic. Just learning Word is a major accomplishment. I know people who can write prose that will melt your heart, but they never figured out how to attach something to an email.

These writers will never join my training course. They might read the blog because you can get it in your email. The whole thought of “formatting” makes them nervous. They just want to write, and let other people take care of the rest.

I’m not so sure it’s the best of times for these writers. It could be coming into the worst of times. As popular fiction moves to ebooks, publishers try to find an economic model that will survive digitization, and marketing becomes a necessity for the average author, what are non-technical writers to do?

Most of the new self-publishers who are in the news get there through using social media for marketing. Many are bloggers or do blog tours. This is a community in which uploading to Kindle Direct Publishing is about as easy as booking a flight online.

But even in 2012, many writers aren’t there yet, and the dream of landing that contract lives on.

Do you think there will be writers who are pushed aside by the technical requirements of the new era in publishing? Or will there always be publishers to take care of the business end of things for writers who want no part of it?

Photo: Jamison_Judd

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Robert Nagle

    My reading of the market is that you really can’t attract the interest of an agent or publisher until you have first demonstrated 1)an ability to write, 2)an ability to do outreach and audience maintenance via the web and 3)a proven track record of sales and/or publication by recognized writing sites.

    Maybe X or Y is enormously talented, but if they haven’t figured out the basics of promoting online or self-publishing, then why bother with that person?

  2. Joy Cox

    “Speed Dating With Agents”? How appropriate. Stand in line for a chance to convince any willing agent that you’re the cheapest date and that you’ll put out. Ooh baby, work it!

    How long did the “dates” stand in that line? Compare that to the length of time it takes to read the key points of the Smashwords formatting guide, upload, and have your work up for sale in ten electronic formats. And Mark Coker’s more likely to still respect you in the morning.

  3. Michelle Dear

    I may be a bit naive, but how does one function in our republic without the basic skills of word processing?

    Although I have been in the hard-core tech industry for 18 years, I do not expect individuals to possess the skills that I have. I do, however, expect most people under the age of 58 to be able to at least hunt and peck on a keyboard in notepad.

    I am now an editor for indie fiction. Although I request manuscripts in a specific format, I receive all types of formatting. It isn’t difficult for me to format these manuscripts myself. If an author sends me an .rtf file or a plain text file (.txt), I can work with that.

    If an individual can type an email, there is no excuse for the inability to type in at least a plain text editor.

    I have one author that initially writes in hard-copy. She always transcribes into electronic format afterward. If an author cannot find or read the letters on a keyboard, and cannot use “start, programs”, and find “notepad”, or use the help feature to find notepad (or the equivalent in Mac), then there is no help for that person.

    If they can use email, then they can transcribe the entire thing in email. I couldn’t care less. I can format the entire manuscript in about 5 minutes if they were to send it to me that way.

    There is absolutely no excuse for this lack of skill; absolutely none whatsoever.

  4. Jean Ann Geist


    Many thanks for another great post!

    I have stood in the editor/agent lines then waited 6, 7, 8 months for an evaluation of my manuscript, only to receive a two-sentence rejection. When a friend suggested I self-publish my manuscript, the challenge seemed monumental! But, I found a great editor, cover artist, and book designer, and last April I birthed my baby in a successful launch, selling over 100 books. Since then, I have given talks on self-publishing a trade paperback, held book signings, attended book fairs, and nearly sold out of my first printing. But, I am a near-Luddite when it comes to social media. I’m on Facebook; however, most of my “friends” are social, not professional. Twitter boggles me [I still have the same TracPhone we bought back in 2005–not what one would call a “smart phone”], my attempts at blogging have left me frustrated, and I have resisted getting into Linked In for years, in spite of numerous invitations, because I can’t understand its practical application. I’ve opened a Google+ account with the intent of keeping it oriented toward my writing, but am not sure how to find other writers for my “circles.” Now I am entering the world of e-publishing, with the help of a indie publisher in my writer’s group, and am wondering what would be the best social media route to take that wouldn’t overwhelm my limited computer skills and dominate my life! Any suggestions?

    P.S. Doug, As a woman, I find it refreshing to have a writer use feminine pronouns when referring non-gender-specific subjects. We get tired of the overused “he” and “him”!

  5. doug_eike

    “…a writer today can create her own publishing story, gather fans, learn to market her books, and start to make real money though book sales if she keeps at it and has good skills.”

    Is this strained political correctness meant to be cute, or do you really believe that all writers are women? I didn’t finish reading your article, which may well have value, because it’s offensive.

    If you have the writing skill, you can always avoid referring to one gender or the other without using an ungrammatical “they” or “them” to fudge a solution.

    • James T Kelly

      Offensive? You have no idea how much I’m having to reign in the sarcasm here. If you don’t like the way someone writes, just say so. Don’t start wailing about offense. That’s just silly.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Gee, Doug, I never thought of it as “political correctness,” that’s interesting. I switch genders when I write because it helps me remember the wide variety of authors who read these posts, and because I find the generic “they” unpalatable if used too much. I’m sorry that a couple of pronouns interrupted your reading, but much of the value is in the comments anyway.

    • James

      I have to agree with Joel on this one. Gender can be awkward in English , even if you use “they”. I agree that switching back and forth between genders is disorienting to the reader, though, but Joel doesn’t seem to do it willy-nilly.

      And consider: would you feel differently about his pronoun choices if Joel were a woman?

      • Stacy Stutz

        I was wondering if I should be outraged each time a writer uses “he” as the gender neutral…

  6. Turndog Millionaire

    Interesting article, Joel. Certainly a different view to the norm that i’ve been reading of late

    It is strange, self-publishing is still the Plan B (including for me), despite my head saying the smarter choice is to self-publish (more freedom, more control, more flexibility etc)

    The idea of getting a publisher or agent is still appealing though, and i’m not too sure why

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  7. Marianne Wheelaghan

    Hi Joel, just came across your post via a tweet from 40kbooks. It’s really thought provoking, as are many of the comments (what clever followers you have!). As a newbie author with support from a very small Indie Press, I do find it a tad daunting to be in charge of my own marketing. It’d be great if someone, anyone(!) would take it over for me. However, from what’s been said here and from what I understand in my relatively short published life (so far!), being published with a big publishing house doesn’t mean I’d be doing any less of it myself. So, its onwards and upwards , I suppose!
    ps – actually thinking about it, one of the very hardest things for me to cope with being a writer today is the green eyed monster of jealousy. Usually I’m fine, tootling along, so grateful for the sales and invites to a book event here and a talk there, thinking how lucky I am there are people out there who took the time to buy/review/read my book, and then ‘the monster’ rears it’s ugly head and suddenly every other writer appears to be so much more successful and I question what the heck I am doing! I suppose it’s a lot to do with confidence and part and parcel of being published. But I also wonder if this feeling of ‘envy’ is partly because the media focuses so much on a small group of writers who sell zillions of copies of their books, so anything less feels like failure. It never ceases to amaze me how many people ask, when I tell them I am a writer, oh, are you going to be the next JK Rowling (I live in Edinburgh) – or Amanda Hocking or John Locke? It seems that while self publishing and/or indie publishing is slowly becoming more acceptable, the standard by which we measure the success of a writer in terms of book sales, is being pushed higher and higher. So, yep, a good time to be a writer, definitely, but as long as we are prepared to grow very, very thick skins ;o)
    Thanks again!

    • Joel Friedlander


      Thanks for your thoughtful comment (see, you can be one of those clever followers too!). I’m quite familiar with the disease of jealousy, or constantly comparing oneself to the multi-million selling authors we see in the media.

      It seems to me that understanding your own publishing goals, and what it will take to get there, along with having a long-term view of what you’re doing, will help some.

      Thanks for visiting, and don’t be a stranger.

      • Marianne Wheelaghan

        Hi Joel
        what you say makes good sense. I like to think I know what my publishing goals and long term aims are, it’s the ‘how to’ best achieve them that is sometimes a tad blurry. That said, there seems to be a lot of information here on your site that may be helpful, so am off now to have a snoop around ;o)
        Look forward to not being a stranger.

  8. Belinda Pollard

    Hi Joel

    A new difficulty I’ve seen with several of my clients who’ve sought traditional publishing recently is that smaller publishers are now wanting the author to organise and pay for substantive editing themselves, before they’ll even sign them. And then they often even want the author to buy part of the print run.

    Note, these are *not* what we call “vanity presses” that are now doing this. These are independent publishers. Apparently it’s becoming more and more prevalent. Margins are so very tight for publishers these days.

    Taking the time to learn to publish for yourself is worth it, so we have more options for getting our work out there… but it’s definitely a difficult thing for many writers to learn.


    • Joel Friedlander

      Belinda, I’d really like to know more about this. There has been a “partnership” model of publishing for many years that was mostly unknown and unadvertised, but I don’t think that’s what you’re describing. Would you consider emailing me with more details? It’s [email protected]

      • Belinda Pollard

        Joel, it was something that really surprised me. When I was on staff at a smaller publishing house 10-15 years ago, we’d never have asked that of an author. But apparently it’s becoming much more common. I’ll email you with some more details. Belinda

  9. Deborah

    I attended the 2011 San Francisco Writer’s Confernce and it was great. Up to that point, I had only considered traditional publishing, but thanks to great presenters I was introduced to self publishing. I also saw the lines and I thought about how many authors go through that process, or submit their work, hoping to get an agents attention.

    Following the conference, I read everything I could on self publishing. Then I was fortunate enough to find Joel’s Blog which is invaluable. I also took his webinar course to make sure I clearly understood the self publishing market. Armed with all that info I contacted Createspace and contracted with them to publish my novel, which will be out this spring.

    When it’s all said the only validation you really need is your own; each of us knows when we’ve done a good job. For me, it’s important to be in charge of my destiny.

    In all honesty, there are no right or wrong ways to publish, each person should take the journey the way they are most comfrortable with.

    Joel, as usual thanks so much for all your help. You helped me turn a dream into a reality!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Very excited for you Deborah, and hope your book is a success, you’ve worked really hard getting it into print.

  10. carol marlene smith

    I have many writer friends who just clam up when you talk about e publishing. They haven’t the first idea about it, and for some reason, they don’t want to learn. They just keep on the same path, looking for an agent/publisher, year after year. They wait and they hope and they carry on.
    I was one of those a few years ago before the opportunities for e publishing became what they are today. I wouldn’t even want to go the other route anymore, too much stress, too much waiting, too many people telling me what I should do with my books, etc. I’m the head honcho now with all of it, and I like that way.

  11. Michael N. Marcus

    Three thousand miles to the east, the third Self-Publishing Book Expo was held in Manhattan last October

    The exhibit room was filled with self-publishing service providers and eager potential customers.

    But in an adjacent room, attendees could “meet with some of the top editors and literary agents to pitch them their book ideas.”

    That doesn’t sound like self-publishing.

    Michael N. Marcus

    https://www.BookFur.com (information, help and book reviews for authors)
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: https://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    — New: deluxe hardcover edition of “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” https://www.amazon.com/dp/0983057249

  12. Marla Markman

    Love the great discussion this post has sparked! I’m an editor who works with authors on both sides–those who want to go the traditional route as well as self-publishers. I agree with what others have said that no matter which route you take, you’re required to be tech savvy to some extent. Sure, if you’re a technophobe, you can get a virtual assistant to tweet for you and someone to set up your Facebook page and write blogs posts and status updates for you, but I think you can never completely be out of the picture, because you’re then losing a true connection with your audience. I don’t know about anyone else, but I can generally spot a Twitter feed that’s done by a VA rather than the actual author, and to me, that person then become less authentic. At some point, the author needs to jump in and pen a few tweets or status updates.

    There’s another reason I hear for not wanting to jump into the tech world and instead go the traditional route, and that’s time. Authors tell me that even if they could figure it out, they lack the time, whether it’s for social media or trying to find team members to produce their book.

    Thanks again, Joel, for a terrific thought-provoking post. Looking forward to finally meeting you in person at the IBPA University!

  13. James T Kelly

    I hate to say it but I think you’re right; plenty of writers are going to lose out because of technical requirements. Those who go the self-publishing route could get put off by trim, font and layout. Those who go the traditional route could get put off by social media requirements. Carlos is right that writers are increasingly going to have to be more than just writers.

    But I don’t think it’s a bad time to be a writer. It’s just a bad time to be just a writer. Or a slow learner.

  14. Jen Smith (@JenSmithSick)

    Yes, unfortunately I do think some writers will get pushed aside who are not technically inclined. In my very short time blogging and on twitter I can see how this is working. After only two weeks I had a couple comments on my blog from people I didn’t know and had a tweet retweeted by someone with 4000 followers! Social media is the future of marketing you have to be a part of it!

  15. A.M.Burns

    Thanks for the interesting post. Self Publishing has become a hot topic the the writers group I belong to. Every meeting we have discussions with people on both sides of the fence. Even our president who sees the benefit of self publishing is stead fast in his pursuit of legacy publishing, for him, and he admits it, its all about having other people validate his work. One of my good friends, who I just helped get her first flash fiction piece formatted for smashwords, is terrified of having to do the marketing herself, she thinks that if she gets an agent then the agent will handle all the marketing, sending out tweets, fb post, and everything else for her. I keep explaining that it doesn’t work that way but she doesn’t believe me. I know they are all watching me and seeing that since I selfpublished a few months ago my sales are growing, slowly but growing. I keep explaining that to succeed in this new world you have to write, write, write, and get out there and market yourself. Folks are scared of doing themselves. That fear will keep a lot of people from self publishing and at least for a while keep the publishing houses in business. But if you tackle that fear and get out there and try, the rewards are wonderful.
    Write On.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Very interesting, A.M. I wonder whether writers waiting for a contract have thought about the validating power of book sales.

      I mean, suppose you get the contract and, like most books, your book doesn’t sell very well. At the recent writers conference, someone from traditional publishing reminded authors that only 7% of books sell more than 1,000 copies.

      But if you have some networking ability, enjoy social media and actually have a good book that people want to read, you could get lots more “validation” than that on your own. Not to mention the validating power of 100% of your net. Just saying. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

      • Sharon Beck

        You are so right, Joel, about the better chance for greater success by self-publishing, with or without the help of an indie publisher. Social media allows an author to very effectively target market at a relatively low cost.

        This is similar to what happened to the broadcast networks and television programs. When there were only a handful of available stations, few programs could be aired. Now if you have developed a cooking show, for instance, you have at least one (actually several) cable channels who target people interested in cooking. And if you want to advertise cooking-related products, it will certainly be much cheaper to advertise on those niche-targeted cable channels than any of the major broadcast outlets.

        It does take time and effort to build an author’s platform, whether done by the author or publisher, but without it, just throwing a book “out there” seems to offer less chance of financial success.

  16. Nicholas Flugga

    You ask if authors will be punished for not being technologically savvy. I think the answer is yes.

    For starters, publishers these days already want their authors to have a platform. This usually means social media. Also, as we all know, publishers are expecting more and more self-marketing from authors. This also usually means social media.

    Since social media requires some computer skills, and since it is the primary form of contact to people around the world, I can’t see how authors wouldn’t be punished (indirectly) for not having the skills–certainly a self-published author, but even a traditionally published author as well.

    I’m shocked by how many well-respected traditionally published authors don’t have fan pages on Facebook, or who don’t tweet. Some of them don’t even have a website! I wonder how many more books they’d sell if they did…

  17. Stacy Stutz

    This article validates how I feel about the ‘publishing’ world. I would have been in that room learning about self-publishing and not in that very long line. I started writing when I was 10, attempted to publish at 16, kept writing and kept trying until marriage and kids interrupted – they interrupted the ‘trying to get published’ aspect… That said, I have never been a fan of the vanity publishing industry, I fell prey to the adage, “If you’re good enough you’ll get published” mentality. Bad mojo for a writer’s psyche and I got over it.

    Last year, I realized that eReaders are now ubiquitous and then rumors started to fly about how the big publishing houses were planning to increase the price of eBooks to equal or more traditional print, I felt the eBook market was going explode for indie writers. I decided I wanted in and taught myself how to “code” an eBook – I managed to produce professional looking book (mine looked better than some of the Publishing House’s offerings) but then I found Smashwords. I will never code another eBook by hand because of them – they are awesome.

    I think what scares many is the fact that you absolutely have to become a marketing machine. Shoot, I’ll admit that it’s unlikely I would have read and/or posted on this blog except I’m *hoping* that someone will follow the link to my Smashwords page… I imagine that many who post(ed) here thought the same thing, I’m just bold (or perhaps stupid?) enough to admit it. I spend half my time on the computer looking for ways to be innovative in my marketing and be noticed.

    I think what hold back the reader is investing time in an unknown writer – especially when the book is 200k words long. That’s why I’ve opted to focus on short stories and am presenting them in a serialized form similar to the days of old… it worked for Dickens and his contemporaries. I do believe this could be the start to the “best of times” for Indie writers.

  18. Aurea-Vicenta González

    Spaninsh-speaking, translating your words with Google Translator, I see no one says what is obvious in my country: Impossible to publish on traditional publishers for new writings, and less with the crisis.
    I Blogging, writing about others and try to promote myself.
    Earns money with the literature is a dream for me but I LIKE TO WRITE so, present my work free on-line.
    Your article is very interesting.
    I hope I have provided another view of the current literature impossible.
    Best regards.

  19. Patricia

    I imagine the traditional punlishing world will survive. Although it may not look the same when the dust clears, it will hold a place in the hearts of dreamers. However, as more and more writers realize their potential, and reep all the rewards it wouldnt surprise me to see the “big six” publishing houses become the big two or three. And with self punlishers now ranking on many best seller lists, the traditional publishing world is adapting, but id be very surprised if they change all their ways.

    For once, writers are taking control of their own success. That’s exciting!

  20. Elle St. Laurent

    Really interesting to read all these comments. I think I’d echo James’ comment above, that a big piece of it is validation of being ‘accepted’ by an agent and/or a publishing company. I mean, everyone can go to the dance by themself, but it’s nice to be asked by that cute football player, isn’t it?

    Of course, as you get a bit older you start to realize that the cute football player is just going to try to feel you up in the car and then puke all over your shoes, and maybe it’s better to just gussy your self up and go on your own!

    One of the interesting things is that I think blogging gives you a sense of validation in your writing already — when you’re getting comments and feedback and followers, etc. So bloggers / online writers, in addition to be more inclined to digital publishing for technical reasons, are probably also better able to handle it ’emotionally’ as well. Whereas if you’re someone who writes alone at home, without a community of writers around you, I can see you’d be more likely to want that external validation from an agent.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Elle, that’s an interesting distinction, and also shows why, in my opinion, bloggers are the people most ready to take advantage of easy epublishing, although very few to my knowledge have made the connection. But it will come.

    • Belinda Pollard

      Very funny analogy Elle! (but a bit harsh on publishers maybe???) ;-)

  21. Sylvia Morice

    This is a great post. As a newly self-published author I am soaking up as much information as possible to help me in my journey. I currently have two ebooks out there and am working on my third, but also am now thinking of using a POD such as CreateSpace to have paper copies of my ebooks available for any readers out there who prefer to hold a book and thumb through the pages…do you agree that’s a good idea for ebook writers/publishers?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Congratulations, Sylvia. Although some writers are skipping print books entirely, many readers prefer them. The best advice I have for you is to find out whether enough of your readers would rather buy your book in print to make the extra expense in formatting and file preparation worthwhile.

    • Dianne Greenlay

      Sylvia, in answer to your question, read Dean Wesley Smith’s post on whether to do paper copies or not. In a nutshell, he says “Yes” b/c ebooks are 20% of today’s market, and paper copies are still 80%, and why ignore that possibility for sales, especially since POD is so reasonably done cost-wise and the product nowadays is so good? https://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=6399 .

      Joel, I love, love, LOVE your site and as an indie author who has been asked to be keynote speaker at a spring traditional writers’ workshop, I am using your site on my list to them of “must-follow-if-you-want-to-be-successful-in-publishing-today”. I do believe there are many authors out there who are frightened/overwhelmed by the techie demands of self-publishing. I WAS one two years ago, (but gettin’ better and braver all the time) and I’ll be talking to a whole roomful of them this spring.

      • Joel Friedlander


        Thanks so much for that, it sounds like you are becoming “part of the solution” for authors who need a hand up to really understand the opportunities open to self-publishers today. Perhaps you’ll write up a report of your experience? I bet it would be interesting, let me know.

        • Dianne Greenlay

          Joel, I’d love to share my experience. I’ll let you know how it goes. One of the most rewarding things of following and participating in people’s blogs is the willingness I am finding among the self-published group, to share tips, experience and actual figures with regards to selling books. Nowhere else is there such a willingness to be so transparent with one’s sales numbers. My blog today was about what has worked for me and what hasn’t, to improve book sales. I finally have enough experience to have something to share! :-)

          • Joel Friedlander


            If you want to get more readers to your blog, you might consider submitting to our monthly blog carnival: Self-Publishing: The Carnival of the Indies.

            And I’m always happy to feature guest articles here about your publishing journey or other appropriate topics. (This goes for all you other smart people too!). Check out the details here:

            Guest Author Guidelines

  22. Joel Friedlander

    I’ll also be reporting from the upcoming IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association) Publishing University, being held for the first time on the west coast. I expect the audience will be quite different, since it’s oriented toward publishers rather than writers.

  23. James

    At the recent Willamette Writer’s Conference here in the northwest, it was the same scene as Joel descibed. Self publishing (and technology in general) took a back seat to writers who signed up to pitch their work to agents and get quick critiques of work.

    But there seemed to be a bit of unspoken discomfort in the air. Writers asked about self publishing–a lot. Questions came up. A few panels (one included Jane Friedman) discussed it well.

    After that conference, it occurred to me–the writing world can move slowly, especially for more traditional writers focused on fiction and other long-form writing. The discomfort at the WW conference seemed to be–in my own mind, anyway–about the rug being pulled out from under the traditional publishing world, leaving writers, agents and publishers without a satisfying mental and physical model to operate in.

  24. Mark LaFlamme

    Dismal. And uplifting! Depends on which side of the techno road you stand, I guess. Although, I’ve got to believe that if today’s Salinger is out there, dutifully sending out SASE after SASE from his cabin in New Hampshire, somebody somewhere will recognize his mastery and make things happen. God knows how long it will take, though. Aren’t agents and publishers in general apt to be less enthusiastic about the author who hasn’t kept up? You hate to think of brilliant work moldering unloved in a fat, yellow envelope out there, but it seems probable that it happens.
    Awesome conference coverage, JF.

  25. James


    Great general summary of conditions. I have a friend who just published two short stories, and he said: “It’s just great to get that validation of my work”. I thought that quote captures what draws folks to a more traditional publishing route perfectly.

    It’s also quite valid–because a significant number of writers write for validation and acknowledgement. This is an elephant in the room; most writers are uncomfortable talking about it. Especially those writing primarily on (and for) the web.

    About “technophobia”: I agree, that’s likely part of the story, but I rarely encounter a writer who’s avoiding self publishing because of technology. I also rarely encounter a writer who doesn’t have at least a passing understanding of self-publishing.

    The simpler problem is that “self publishing” is a meaningless term. There are too many kinds of writing and outlets for it. When I read sites like yours speaking of “self-publishing”, it’s almost always about “self-publishing your genre fiction novel”. Given what I see self-published on Amazon, that seems to make up well over 90% of all self publishing. And never mind the idea that posting an e-book on Amazon is now called “publishing”.

    • Joel Friedlander

      That’s interesting, James, because I often get the comment that most of what I write here seems aimed at the nonfiction authors and information marketers who traditionally made up the majority of self-publishers.

      • James

        To be fair, I think I meant “the people commenting here” more than your content itself.

  26. Sharon Beck

    One thing I do not understand is why publishers do not also actively participate in marketing the books they have invested in. A friend of mine had a novel published by one of the major publishing houses in the 1990s. Not only did they not promote it, but when she sent out a mailing to promote her book to a targeted audience, they actually objected vehemently to her actions!

    I am used to working with technophobes also in a broader sense than book publishing, and work generally with technophobes as authors. Because it is in our interest as a small publishing company to market our books, we consider that to be a prime responsibility.

    We are working with an author now who had little presence on the Internet. Not only are we creating his website and blog, but also his Facebook identity. We connect him with the people who shared his interests, (finding old friends of his in the process,) and join groups that he can participate in that relate to his upcoming book. We will be setting up his blog tour as well as traditional introduction activities. This began as soon as we signed the contract.

    We do have expectations of the author. As we edit his book, we have told him what sections need additional or rewritten material, and he does comply. If he has earlier relevant writings that can be reworked and used for marketing this new book, we expect to use it. Earlier material can be used to create additional books. The author needs to be shown how to think of himself as a brand with a series of salable products, not the writer of a single book.

    I’m not sure why Mary thinks a publisher of note is going to necessarily lead to success for her book. Of course, there is always the dream of a nice advance for some authors, but advances are becoming smaller and rarer. Rather than waiting for an agent to interest a publisher in her book, she should consider looking for a publisher who will take an active interest in her book’s success. Joel’s website has loads of ideas for hiring to book design, production, and marketing services, and people who will guide an author through the process.

    If the agent has the contacts and can find a publisher, great, but I suggest she not wait for years. Set a time limit, and then look into alternative methods Joel writes about here.

    • Mary Tod

      Thanks for the suggestions, Sharon. Perhaps I should try parallel paths – keep the first book with my agent, self-publish the second book which is almost ready. Hmmm

  27. Karen Hampton

    I enjoy writing and yes, it is more interesting to keep writing than to learn the technology to really consider e-publishing. But I have determined it is time to get modern and get info on the tech stuff. While I am limited because of family health issues, I am studying now as much as possible via the internet and plan to go the self-publishing route, perhaps this year. I do understand the value of hiring people who know tech to help out, and by using blogs such as this hope to learn how to find reliable effective people in the field to get me on the road. So I hope to join the resst of you as a published author very soon. Thanks for the info.

  28. Rick Townley

    Let me first say that you have probably the best site for writers I’ve come across yet and thanks for sharing all your insights. In regard to the tech aspects of self-publishing I think we can take a lesson from the world of reference and news where I came from. We started formatting content for computer storage and retrieval back in the 1970’s and believe it or not the process hasn’t really changed all that much, just the tools. Tagging used to be called indexing and so on. I was with the NY Times and we found that even among our staff there was a lot of fallout by those who were put off by the technology. Many leading journalists and writers wanted nothing to do with the computer aspect of it all, some embraced it.

    I suspect the same will happen again with books and fiction. There will always be three basic classes of “content providers/writers” – the technophobes who eschew any interaction with the tech aspects at all, those who grasp the formatting and preparation bits but have no stomach or desire for the promotion and marketing, and finally those who both write and fully embrace the new technology (and attract 16 million readers). Along with that there will always be a healthy selection of vendors and providers to service all of them and that’s a good thing.

    Other writers I speak to glaze over when I bring up format details and even desktop publishing tricks, which is fine. Many also start to tremble with anxiety when you bring up self-publishing. There seems to be a lot of worry over “missing the boat.” I tell acquaintences that “the boat needs cargo and won’t sail without you, so do what you do best – write.” Publishers are also panicky about all this without realizing that what they do best is filter and polish and promote. Both groups would benefit most from letting a third “class” handle a lot of the technical work for them, including people like yourself.

    That “third class” developed in the news and reference industries and has been a great help. Newspapers had to learn the hard way that trying to handle all the computer stuff themselves was beyond their expertise. I suspect publishers and to some extent writers will figure that out as well, then all the anxiety will hopefully go away and everyone can do what they do best. Publishers need to stop worrying that technical people will take away their jobs and focus on scouting out more talented writers. Writers need to stop feeling like rabbits in an area full of foxes, and formatters need a little respect.

    It will settle down, it always does. In the meantime (and here comes another gratuitous compliment) the hardware people need to stop trying to dazzle us with whiz bang technology and create a stable, long-term platform based around the content, not the other way around. On that note I realize I’m about to go beyond my two-cent limit. I wish everyone success in this brave new publishing world!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for an interesting perspective, Rick. Disruptive technology does truly disrupt the old ways of doing things, and separates those who cling to the old way from others excited about new possibilities. Probably true for Gutenberg, too, with his new-fangled printing machines.

  29. Janice Lane Palko

    With all the opportunity available to writers through epublishing, those waiting to be deemed worthy by traditional publishers are pursuing vanity in their own right. Often times, they want the imprimatur of a traditional publisher to satisfy their need of feeling a bit above the masses doing it the epublisher way. I’ve tried to persuade other writers with manuscripts that are well written but which haven’t landed an agent or publisher to try the self-publishing route, but they just can’t give up the notion that the only true writers are those with a traditionally published book.

  30. Carlos Moreno

    I think that the self-publishing panel you spoke of would be PERFECT — not for authors but for publishers.

    Authors pour their blood, sweat, and tears in to their writing. They want to spend every waking moment working on their ideas, on their stories, and on doing what they love to do. I wouldn’t imagine that a lot of authors want to learn how to become graphic designers, typographers, layout designers, pre-press professionals, salesmen, marketers, PR experts, and website developers.

    I think there will emerge a “third way” between traditional publishing and self-publishing. …not a vanity press type model per-se, but something where the author and the publisher collaborate (with both time and money) on getting the book out there and sold. …and who needs to learn the tools of technology to do more with less, via print-on-demand, ebooks, social media marketing, and everything else that’s out there right now is the PUBLISHER, who can cut their costs and concentrate more of their resources on marketing and sales.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Still looking for that “third way” also, Carlos, but it has to be one that’s truly in partnership with authors, and which relies for its revenue in good measure on book sales, not fees from authors.

      • Janet Angelo

        Ah, but the dark side of that coin, Joel, is what most of us who work on the business side of this industry know, but authors won’t admit: Their books quite likely will NEVER sell enough to provide an income for the author and even a partial business income for the publisher.

        This is why the idea of a third way based on book sales — for most of the 2 million books self- or indie-published each year — is a pipe dream, and we all know it, but nobody wants to mention it because it’s like the dirty little secret of the publishing industry. It is, however true.

        This is why there is nothing wrong with an already-existing viable third way: an indie publisher who DOES share some of the costs, expects to be paid for time and work and services rendered, keeps a smidgen or none of the royalties, and works in partnership with authors every step of the way. I will be a dogged in my determination to speak the truth about this as those are who trumpet that this is somehow a scam. It is not. It is no different from someone paying a professional to cut/color their hair, handle their lawncare, repair their plumbing, and so on.

        • carlos moreno

          janet: your “third way” is what i speak of; again, a model in which the publisher and the author act collaboratively. if the publisher is truly good at marketing and sales of books, they will do a goo job of getting the author’s words & ideas out there to the right audience, and both parties will benefit from that.

          it’s true that the “traditional model” is dead for all except the few HUGE publishing companies left, who bank on the tiny fraction of mass-market rockstar authors.

          self-publishing and vanity publishing aren’t fair to the author. unless you’re a pro speaker and are using the book as a tool to compliment your already growing base, and you’re already building an audience via social media and speaking tours, you’re not going to get anywhere. vanity presses are usually a scam (or at best a great biz model for the publisher, but not for the author) the publisher must take on SOME risk.

          but something where the publisher has learned how to do things lean and mean, and can use that knowledge to do a great job for the author, i think can work quite well.

        • Bev Robitai

          Janet, You are so right. There is space in the marketplace for a non-predatory service to authors where people with technical know-how can format the writer’s work and produce it, in print or online, in return for a fair hourly rate. Marketing becomes the province of the author once their online platform has been set up for them. That way the costs are fixed, not ongoing, and the author can put as much or as little effort into their own promotion as they want. The service provider has been paid and can move on to the next client without the weight of responsibility for ongoing marketing. Seems to be working so far!

  31. Mary Tod

    Hi Joel – being someone whose agent is looking for a publishing home for a first novel, I often ask myself why I am trying this path rather than that of self-publishing. To be as honest as I can be, I think it’s a combination of validation (my work is good enough to warrant a publisher of some note), doggedness (I’ve worked this hard to get this far and I’m not going to give up now) and conviction (my writing is better than many already-published books). I suppose there’s also a little dreamer tucked inside who hopes that my books will be successful.
    I’m technically capable enough to self-publish – or get help from someone like you – and able to think my way through the marketing side but I’d really rather write. For me, writing is like a newly discovered elixir.

    • maureen murrish

      I can identify with Mary. I stuck it out for years for the same four reasons until, not having the stamina of JK Rowling and Mary, I was finally convinced I was hopeless. I stopped writing for a couple of years and then when I couldn’t stand not writing anymore I became a closet writer. In all that time I would not consider the idea of ‘vanity publishing’. For one thing the very name put me off. Besides there was no way I could afford such an enterprise.
      Now I’m not computer illiterate by any means and despite having downloaded hundreds of pounds worth of eBooks I was unaware of the opportunities available for mere mortals to e publish a book and have it available in so many formats to so many retailers. A niece introduced me to this amazing new world and it was like a she’d opened my cell door. I love it.

  32. Bridget McKenna

    I was struck by sadness for the writers lining up to pitch their books to agents, and I realized how much of an ivory tower mentality I sometimes assume as a writer/publisher. But we are quite the minority, aren’t we?

    I’m reminded of Dean Wesley Smith’s conversation with a publisher in a bar at a convention. The publisher says: “You know why I’m still in business in ten years? I’m still in business because 98% of writers aren’t as smart about this stuff as you are.” And I think that ‘s going to continue to be the case as long as the mythology new writers absorb tells that old story. Meanwhile, we’ll be writing a new one.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Bridget, that’s the exact same reason that subsidy “publishers” continue to pull in thousands of writers.

  33. Nathan Lowell

    A large number of writers still do not understand that the dream they’re pursuing comes with a huge cost.

    I think there are those who pursue an independent path simply because they’re wired that way. I think another segment has done the analysis and decides to publish independently because it makes sense for them. A third segment will decide that it’s worth it to pursue the contract and let the publishing company take 80% of the profit for doing 10% of the work.

    The last segment has a problem. They still think that the publishers are going to market their books. They think that once they toss the manuscript over the fence, they can walk away and go write the next one unencumbered by marketing and promotion, fan interaction, or all the other time consuming and messy jobs that come with independent publishing. Those people are in for a shock if/when they actually sign one of those contracts and face the reality of having to create a social media footprint and having to maintain it ad infinitum or face breech of contract.

    “Vanity publishing” has been around for hundreds of years and I can’t see it going away now that it’s so cheap and easy to be a publisher. I think as long as there are people willing to stand in those lines, there will be somebody willing to take their money. I think as long as there are success stories like JK Rowling — people who made it through sheer persistence — there will be people willing to roll the dice and stand in line for a chance at living a dream regardless of what it really costs to do so.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Nathan, I think many of the writers I met at the conference are firmly in your third group, and that’s why I started to think they might be grasping repeatedly at the short end of the straw.

      And this despite the fact that most of the exhibitors and many of the sponsors of this event provide authors with publishing services, from ebook converters to full-fledged subsidy “publishers.”

    • J S

      Yikes about the description of that line.

  34. Toni @Duolit

    Fascinating read, Joel. It’s easy for those of us who “live” in the writing/self-pub community on the web to assume that all writers are totally aware of their publishing options and willing to take the reins of their own career, but that’s definitely not the case. As the barriers to entry continue to lower, however, it’ll be interesting to see if more of those more traditional-minded writers turn to self-publishing, or if they’ll be standing in that long “speed dating” line for years to come.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Very true, Toni, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so important to go to these offline events to really gauge where writers are in relation to epublishing and self-publishing generally.

  35. KS 'Kaz' Augustin

    To me, it’s like the salary-earners versus the entrepreneurs. Just as with the general population, I think an overwhelming number of writers either want the agent-publisher relationship because they don’t feel comfortable doing otherwise, or are self-pubbing in the hope of scoring an agent-publisher relationship so they don’t have to feel uncomfortable again. :)

    There could be some skew because artistic types are usually a bit more independently-minded than the average person, but I think you’ll find that only a small percentage really want to be go-it-alone self-publishers and would eschew a traditional deal even if one came their way.

    In my fantasies, I get a publisher approaching me but I don’t settle for anything less than a John-Locke-Simon-and-Schuster type deal. One can always dream!



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