Why Digital Self-publishing Frightens Some Authors

There are a lot of reasons that authors will offer for why they are afraid of digital self-publishing. Most of them are chaff tossed out to shield themselves from the truth. Digital self-publishing makes the world a very scary place. The real question becomes what are authors truly afraid of.

One of the prime reasons given for not embracing digital self-publishing is that self-published books lack legitimacy. This is a hold-over from the days when every conventionally-published author got to look down his nose at some noob who dropped thousands of dollars in a vanity publishing scheme and ended up with a garage full of semi-literate books. At that time New York publishing was seen as the gatekeeper of legitimacy. Their editors would determine if your book was good enough to be shared with the world. New York still insists this is true, but they’re willing to offer a digitally self-published author like Amanda Hocking $2 million for four novels. So, once a writer has made it, they’re willing to admit them to the club. Nice gatekeeping.

Traditional publishing surrendered it’s claim to being gatekeepers every time they let a crap novel get printed. Am I to believe that Snooki is ever going to be short-listed for a National Book Award? Traditional publishing is in this for the money, just like everyone else. This is why they’ll elevate Hocking, at the same time ignoring the digital publishing efforts of authors like me—while pointing out, if asked, that I’m okay because I already have their imprimatur. Moreover, traditional publishers now use the same freelance editors that any self-publishing author can employ, so on the basis of quality, they’ve lost their edge. Self-publishing authors can compete on price by selling for less; and our publishing schedule allows us to do more and provide it faster to our audience (who consumes our output at a rate roughly four to thirty times as fast as we can produce).

A lot of authors also believe that they don’t have the skills necessary to be a digital self-publisher. This is nonsense. I fully get the idea that I may be sharper than most when it comes to a lot of computer stuff, but any author who has edited a novel or short story can do the prep work needed to make a digital book. And, just as with editing, we can turn to professionals (among whom we doubtless have friends and fans who will work for little or nothing) for graphics and website services. Barnes & Noble and Amazon make it exceedingly easy to get your work up and for sale, and they cover 80+% of the ebook market. Even if you sold no place else, you could do fine selling through them.

Yet another group of authors, who have listened to traditional publishers or have glanced at ebook sales on the royalty statements we get sent, believe there is no money to be made in selling ebooks. To them I offer the following:

1) All of your backlist stories, sitting in your file cabinets, are making you no money right now. Even if you only sell one a month, every month, for the rest of your life, you’ll be making more money off them than you are right now.

2) In February, 2011; ebook sales outstripped paperback sales. In February B&N reported that because of Nook sales, their ebook sales had hit (by the end of December 2010) their sales goals for 2014. That is just how fast the market has grown. Even the wildest optimist did not predict this sharp a growth curve.

3) Since December, 2010, my ebook sales via Amazon have increased 336%. Two years ago my Kindle sales would buy me a nice meal once a month. This year they are on track to pay my mortgage. If the growth rate I’m seeing continues, that will also include my health insurance premiums by the end of the year. And while these numbers could plateau or even slip, the gross numbers are for sales that are a fraction of the sales of my print books. Where my digital sales to grow for say, In Hero Years… I’m Dead, to just half the numbers of my most recent print book, I’d be hitting, I’d clear over $20,000 on that book alone. Given the sales numbers cited by authors like Amanda Hocking or J. A. Konrath, not only is there no reason to assume they won’t get there, but there’s no reason to assume they won’t blow past that.

4) My results are similar to those reported by other writers, but they aren’t universally true. Some folks sell a hell of a lot more, others less. But each and every one of them are making more through digital sales than someone who doesn’t have anything for sale.

But what is the fundamental reason that a lot of authors are terrified of digital self-publishing?

If we digitally self-publish, we have to take full responsibility for our careers.

As much as writers might bitch and moan about how shabbily their publishers treat them, they have a built in excuse for why they aren’t selling like Stephen King. “They never sent me on tour.” “They didn’t give me the cover I wanted.” “They didn’t make me the lead title in their list that month.” “J. K. Rowling released a book within sixty days of my book coming out and you know what that means.” “They didn’t push my book, they didn’t do an ad for it where I told them to…” The list goes on and on and on.

Yes, if you digitally self-publish, you have to take responsibility for your work. If the cover looks like crap, you’re the one putting it on there. You have to fix it. If you want reviewers to post reviews of your book, you need to find them and send them copies. You need to blog about these things, get the word out on the social networks, and do that over and over again.

Basically, you have to do all the things you complained that the publishers never did for you. And while there may be a science to marketing, it ain’t rocket science. It continually boggles my mind that writers who can research technology or history and imagine whole worlds some how believe they can’t, with the same sort of study, learn how to do all this marketing stuff. That proposition is unbelievable; and when folks pretend they don’t know anyone who would help them will all this, well, then it all gets ridiculous.

I do understand that there are writers who are so thoroughly invested in traditional publishing that, for them, to strike out on their own would seem like suicide. And, to be fair, that’s not what any proponent of digital self-publishing is advocating. I don’t care if you only sell novels to big publishers; and if they’re paying you well, more power to you. But if you’ve got a backlist, or you have a trunk novel that they never accepted; you can put it out there easily and make some pocket change on the side.

For the rest of us, however, for those who’ve not been guaranteed a spot on bestseller lists, or who aren’t pulling down six and seven figure advances; self-publishing is a place where we can do well. But that’s if we’re willing to be responsible for our careers. If we’re willing to do the hard work, we should and will reap the benefits

And that idea does not frighten me in the least.


Writing up this series of blog posts is cutting into my fiction writing time. If you’re finding these posts useful, and haven’t yet gotten yet snagged my latest novels, please consider purchasing a book. Nice thing about the new age of publishing is that you become a Patron of the Arts, letting writers know what you’d like to see more of simply by voting with a credit card. (Authors charge less when they sell direct, so you save, we make more, and that frees us to write more.)

My latest paper novel, At The Queen’s Command, is available at book retailers everywhere.

In Hero Years... I'm Dead. A Digital Original novel.
My digital original novel, In Hero Years… I’m Dead is available for the Kindle and in the epub format for all the other readers, including the Nook, iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. (Imagine the Batman, Watchmen and Kick-Ass movies all rolled into one, as written by Dashiell Hammett, and you’ve pretty much got the idea of the book. Oh, and with some satire and political commentary slipped in for irony.)

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

20 Responses to “Why Digital Self-publishing Frightens Some Authors”

  1. Great article hitting all the high points once again. The only point that needs clarification (and I’ll have to re-read her blog post, is that Hocking did not sell a previously published book, but did in fact sell a new, unwritten series. That being said, she knows that it’ll take 4-6 years before those books see print and in her contract she will continue to produce her own self-published works beyond the four she’s committed to.

    So she’s not giving up on Indie publishing, she doing as you said, taking control and seeking new avenues of revenue to gain as many readers as possible. This deal gave her more free advertising than she can shake a stick at.

    As always, thank you for keeping us abreast as to what’s happening in the publishing world as well as the self-publishing world. You’ve given me courage AND hope 🙂

  2. Mike, I’m usually a lurker here, but I just wanted you to know what a fan I am of your posts! Thanks for all that you’re sharing with us. Keep it up, please!

  3. Word, Brother Mike.

    Well said – all of it.

  4. JR,

    Thanks, article snipped to reflect the Hocking situation more accurately. I’d heard it said both ways, and should have double-checked her blog.

    And, yes, traditional publishing will give her lots of advertising. If they don’t, they won’t make their advance back. 🙂 I could not be happier for her, however, and am pleased that she’ll be doing both—as many of us are.

  5. Do we have a general idea how much it’s appropriate to be charged when someone creates an e-book for us?

    I’ve seen prices as high as $600 and as low as $30. I know it can depend upon the length of the e-book. I’d like to put together a series of collections of my already-published stories. But even at $30 a shot that starts getting expensive, especially when my market value is unproven.

    I’ve made an honest attempt (several, actually) at trying to learn the technical aspect of this myself and, to my frustration, it’s beyond me, as well as taking up all my time for actual writing. I don’t want to be one of the “just want to write” people, but I’m trying to find a solution.

  6. Terrific article, Michael. Thank you!


  7. Mike, that’s a very interesting article, and part of the growing trend. I’ve recently released a traditionally published novel on the Kindle and I’m happy with sales. (I’ve provided a breakdown on my blog – it’s the most recent article there.)


  8. Hi Michael,

    I stumbled on your post via twitter and referenced it in my blog post today. Not sure what kind out turn out I’ll get. 🙂


  9. Nice article Michael. I do non-fiction mostly, but like everyone, I have a novel in process.

    I’d published a prediction in January, based on my experience with my IPad, that brick and mortar book stores would be dead in five years. I also suggested that traditional publishers would be gone about the same time. The economics just don’t support their continued existence.

    Then I saw the publishers Ebook sales numbers. I talked to some people, and hastily revised my estimate to two years.

    The digital tipping point came a lot faster than I thought it would. I know a lot of people who still don’t believe that self publishing can and will work, including one writer who swears that if she has to do it all herself she will ‘go back to just blogging for her friends’. She thinks being paid slavery level wages is a good thing (she also has a self esteem problem as wide as a bard door).

    In Canada we face some slightly different issues, due to a different legal framework. To cover those issues, I started Web Lit Canada. Sign up is open to anyone, however special access is given to writers. We are still working out exactly how we determine if you are a writer or not…


  10. Very, very well written. I am so sick of the excuses traditional authors use for not self-pubbing. On the other hand, let them remain in their own little world where they continue to be paid with smiles.

  11. Wow… could you have said this any better?

    The way things are going, Amazon will own the entire publishing industry in another couple of years. They are a key part of print sales and make the lion’s share of eBook sales as well. Their author-friendly commission scheme and ability to make the author’s work instantly available to readers should be the envy of New York.

    The other thing about Amazon and B&N that is great is that an unknown author has just as much chance as a Stephen King to draw a reader’s attention. Search for new novels in a genre you like, and Amazon will show you “unknown” authors alongside the Clive Cusslers, Stephen Kings, and J.K. Rowlings of the world. It levels the playing field. This is good for both authors and readers.

    Congratulations on the success of In Hero Years… I’m Dead. It’s a very cool novel.

  12. Michael — There is some amazingly valuable information for writers in your last ten posts or so. Since my own first novel was published in 1963, and since I have, in my time, been the head of two different publishing companies, I knew much of it already. However, I endorse virtually every word you say. Furthermore I strongly advise any writers who are relatively new to the business to spend some time absorbing what you have to say.

    My personal conclusion, speaking as a writer, is that any new writer would be making a very serious mistake to spend any time at all working the old system of trying to find an agent, waiting for the agent to find a publisher, signing the usual contract, waiting a year for publication, etc etc. The only people who do that are either completely ignorant — which is unforgivably foolish, because the information is here and on some other well informed blogs — or they are incapable of thinking clearly.

    Even six months ago I was still submitting stuff to the occasional gatekeeper — short stories to anthologies, and so forth. Not any more. Straight to digital. Publish it myself.

    The digital age is one of amazing opportunity for writers. And for those publishers who can’t think straight — i.e. nearly all of them — the bell is tolling.

  13. Change has always been tough to swallow. But I think there’s been enough data from ebook sales to prove that the pendulum is swinging digital’s way.

    On Smashwords.com, there’s a running tally of the number of words published on their site. In the month I’ve been there, that counter has moved by about 130,000,000 words. At any given time, there are 500 or more ebooks in their queue waiting to be converted and listed for sale.

    I can only imagine what that number is on Amazon.

  14. Dave,

    I use zapptek.com’s Legend Maker. It works for the Mac, and is all of $50. It’s more than worth the money.

    In terms of what I’d pay, not more than $25, and then ONLY if the provider will do two things for me:

    1) Allowed me to have 5 updates for free (for correcting typos).
    2) Will provide me epub AND Mobi formats.

    Otherwise, the cost becomes prohibitive, especially when it comes to typo correction. Heck, Adobe In Design isn’t that expensive if you expense it over a legion of products.

  15. It’s funny that you should say that traditional publishers have lost their edge when it comes to editing. There are quite a number of paper books I’ve read recently that suffer from lack of decent editing. If the publishers had paid more attention to it, what is a mediorce book would have been excellant.

    There are also lots of books that are now out of print which would still make money if the publishers published them in ebook format. I am soon to be a Zoology graduate and I’ve found on numerous occassions that natural history books which would be useful as background reading are out of print and are either ridicously priced second hand books or falling to bits when I get hold of them, so publishing them as ebooks would make them more easily avaliable and readable. It’s a shame because natural history books that are published today are usually so dumbed down that in most cases they aren’t worth buying and there’s very little that bridges the gap between what I would term to be coffee table books and those written for scientists.

  16. Mike, Dave:

    I charge more than the cheapest, and less than the most expensive – about $2 / 1000 words. That said, I *do* provide Kindle & ePub formats, and also provide a lifetime guarantee. (Also, if you distribute through me to the iBookstore or Kobo, that guarantee extends to them being persnickety about formatting.)

    It’s been my experience that you get what you pay for.

    Largely, I charge that much because of the time commitment on my part – and a large part of my business consists of works that are “harder” than normal for some reason.

    But “what you pay for” includes your own effort. To that point, I just finished my blog series (soon to be – as in by 1 June – an eBook) on how to create an eBook by hand using free tools. The blog entries are at:


    and the announcement of the eBook will be both there, at my main site, and at my business site (linked above).

  17. And back to the original reason I came here to comment – this is an excellent post. Fear is the mind-killer, isn’t it?


  1. SF Signal: SF Tidbits for 4/25/11 - 25. Apr, 2011

    […] C. Hines on Lessons from Fourth Graders.Jo Walton on Hugo Nominees: 1980. Michael A. Stackpole on Why Digital Self-publishing Frightens Some Authors. Jamie Todd Rubin is Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 13: July 1940.More Fun StuffRobot Timers. […]

  2. Carey Corp | Darkly Romantic, Lightly Enchanted: Smart Teen Fiction with a Twist - 25. Apr, 2011

    […] more thought provoking post: Why Digital Self-publishing Frightens Some Authors by Michael A. […]

  3. The Great Geek Manual » Geek Media Round-Up: April 25, 2011 - 26. Apr, 2011

    […] Why Digital Self-publishing frightens some Authors […]