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Brandon Sanderson on Publishing and Self-Publishing

17 July 2012

From The Fictorian Era:

Joshua Essoe: It used to be that producing a book a year was sufficient, even productive, but now it seems if you’re not getting at least two or three books out there every year to feed the cavernous maw of impatient e-readers, you’re too slow and the tide will just pass you by. What do you think of the difference between e-books and traditional publishing?

Brandon Sanderson: Authors are doing some interesting things in e-books. One thing you’re noticing is that in e-books—probably for pricing reasons—the books are growing shorter and coming out faster. It’s moving closer to a much older model, where you would release serialized editions of books that were more like episodes rather than an entire novel. Some of the market is going that way. I think it’s just a different model; I don’t necessarily think it’s going to be the only model. It’s just a new and interesting thing that e-books are doing.

JE: Is there a pressure that has developed from traditional publishers for their authors to be pushed towards more production? When should an author consider self-publishing instead of trying to land a book deal in NY? Should one self-publish while trying to land that book deal and use potential sales numbers as part of the pitch?

BS: I don’t feel that there has been any push from New York to publish books at any different speed at all. In fact, one of the main reasons to publish with New York as opposed to self-publishing is if you are an author who doesn’t write at least one book a year. If we’re to take The Way of Kings as an example, there’s no way that I’m going to be producing 400,000-word epic fantasies as fast as a lot of the self-published writers can put out books. There’s no way that anyone could have made that book at that speed. It’s a book that takes a year, maybe eighteen months to write. So for long epic fantasies, New York certainly has some things going for it.

One of the reasons that it’s really good to publish fast and short when you’re doing self-publishing is that you don’t have any sort of marketing push behind you. You don’t have bookstore shelf presence, which is one of the major forms of marketing—people seeing your book there on the shelves. Word of mouth is always the most important thing, but it becomes even more important for the self-published writer. Publishing quickly and getting a lot of books out helps to get your name in more places in the market and helps to push some of that momentum through. That seems to be the key way to make it as a self-published writer.

When would I self-publish versus New York-publish? I would not abandon either model. Self-publishing has proved itself so viable recently that if I were a new writer, I would be looking at doing both at the same time. Maybe taking the longer, more epic-style books to New York and doing the faster-paced, more thriller-style books online, and seeing what works best.

Link to the rest at The Fictorian Era and thanks to Lynn for the tip.

Fantasy/SciFi, Self-Publishing

27 Comments to “Brandon Sanderson on Publishing and Self-Publishing”

  1. From the original post, “Do you want all your eggs in one basket? Do you want to write one book and then spend the whole year promoting it, trying to get it to take off, or do you want to, in that time, write three books and try to get one of the three to take off? I don’t think there’s any right answer; they’re both valid ways to go.”

    I browse and read tons of self-published books, and I’ve seen too many authors who have published one book over a year ago, but haven’t yet followed up with another, but they seemingly have time to write blog posts about marketing and writing, and also commenting on other blogs.

    The problem is, this single book they’ve written is not going to launch their career. When your book isn’t that good, it doesn’t matter how many people you expose it to. Marketing can only work if your book can find an audience.

    For many of these single-bookers, I’ve sampled their work, discovered it wasn’t for me, and immediately looked to see if they had published anything else. Nope? I’m moving on, and I probably won’t remember their name by the time they’ve eventually published a second book.

    He may not feel there’s a correct answer, but to me the answer is obvious. Where do you want to be a year from now? Do you want to be nursing one book, or two or three books? The more books you have published, the greater the chance of landing a sale.

    • It’s worse than that. Many of the people giving advice to writers haven’t even written one book. Most are social media “experts”, whatever that means. 🙂

    • I agree. There are so many people who think getting out a single book is going to launch their career. If you want to build a business as an indie published author, you either need to write fast or have a stable of books that you can roll out rapidly(say…two or three per year for the first couple of years). Otherwise you run the risk of being quickly forgotten.

  2. It’s just a side point, but this bit:

    It’s moving closer to a much older model, where you would release serialized editions of books that were more like episodes rather than an entire novel.

    made me go, “Huh?” I’ve gotten the impression that Mr. Sanderson is a yougish man, so maybe he’s just going by what someone else told him, or maybe he misunderstood something he heard, but I don’t remember either seeing or hearing about a time in the last century or two where you released “serialized editions” of books. I’m not sure what he even means there. That they were releasing novels in chunks, one volume per chunk? Okay, there was Lord of the Rings, but beyond that…? I suppose one might call Doc Savage and similar series “serials,” but still, each book was a novel.

    Back in the seventies, books were just skinnier, and used books I bought from the sixties and earlier were usually skinnier too. Books didn’t really start getting fat until later, late eighties or into the nineties, when the cover price was so ridiculous that the publishers felt like they had to give the reader a little more heft for their money.

    Most of the used (mass market) paperbacks I bought in the seventies and early eighties were about 3/8″ thick, up to maybe 1/2″. Historical romances (the ones with sex and running-around adventures) were usually 3/4″ to 1″, and they were referred to as “fat” romances, as opposed to the skinny romances (back to 3/8″ to 1/2″) which had no sex, and no real adventures; they were focused in on the developing relationship. Most of them were Regencies, but there were others too.

    Dune was considered a pretty long book (MMPB about 1″ thick) and my MMPB edition of Sword of Shannara was about an inch and a half or bigger, with 726 pages. I remember that number because Sword of Shannara made everyone go OMG that book is FreakingHUGE!!! at the time. Now it’s just an average size fantasy book.

    My point, though, is that not too long ago, pretty much all novels were a lot shorter. Certainly paperback originals were, which means most genre books. A lot of stories fit very comfortably into 50K or 60K words. They’re still novels, despite the sneering one hears from some people in these days of hefty doorstops.

    Mr. Sanderson is right that the older model featured shorter books. He’s very wrong about them being “serialized editions,” though. They were novels, period. It’s nice that writers have the freedom once more to work at those shorter lengths, if the story they’re writing wants to be that length.


    • Exactly. Books grew thicker so publishers could justify their high prices, and not because the readers suddenly wanted thicker books.

      “They’re still novels, despite the sneering one hears from some people”

      Very true. And that’s why so many books these days spend pages upon pages describing what the heroine is wearing, what the room looks like, and every other minor detail. How else do you raise the word count to 90k? 🙂

      • I’m not sure what books you are reading, but if a novel is stuffed with needless description, I am not going to read it. And chances are, it will get poor reviews on Amazon anyway, so it will not be purchased in the first place. If anything, the word count is being lowered, not raised – as there is this expectation that readers have less of an attention span (which I don’t agree with), but that is the trend in many of the newer books that I have purchased.

      • It’s easy to hit 90K without padding the descriptions, actually. I have a book coming out in about a week and a half that hit 114K despite my best efforts to keep it down. [wry smile] But that wasn’t the fashion in the seventies, and my point was that shorter novels are just as valid, and just as much novels, as longer ones. I’m not trying to dictate what length writers should shoot for, only point out that there’s a very broad valid range.


    • Dickens published most of his work in the form of newspaper serials. If I remember correctly, that was fairly common at the time.

      • True, but that wasn’t the book you bought at the bookstore, after the serialization was complete. I didn’t get the impression that Mr. Sanderson was talking about serials in magazines and newspapers.


        • Angie: I think you’re using book to mean just the bound product and he’s using book to mean the written story. I read him as referring to the Dickens model, although I may be projecting things I’ve heard him say before on serialized fiction.

          • It’s possible I’m misunderstanding him. [nod/shrug] But if he’s talking about the length of indie-pubbed e-books — actual books, the things that get published and that people buy — then that corresponds to the length of the whole work, not the length of the chunk that might’ve been published in a periodical. And if that is what he’s talking about, then why bring it up in this context? The conversation was about the length of books that indie writers are selling, not the length of chunks they might be serializing.

            If he’s not talking about book-books, then I’ll admit I’m confused. 🙂


            • The difference is that “The Martian Chronicles” “Foundation” “Sherlock Holmes” and so forth were published in magazines as serialised fiction. The new method is more “The Green Mile” you publish in instalments and charge for each one individually.

              It’s the obvious way to utilise ebooks. A 250000 word fantasy epic would have to be priced somewhere around the $10 mark for the writer to make any real money of it. You cannot write and edit something like that in less than 6 months (and you would have to be pretty freaking fast to do it in that time–I’d guess 12-18 months would be a more realistic figure.).

              So you put it out in 5 or 6 instalments at $2,99 a pop. Let’s say 5. this will garner you 70% of $14.95 = $10.47 (or thereabouts).

              People buy the first one (you could always set it at .99 or free to raise interest) and then — if they like it — buy the rest. Much easier to sell at those prices to impulse buyers. Then when you bring out a version of the whole novel for say $9.99, it still looks like a bargain. Or set it a bit lower, because screwing over your readers is not a great business plan.

              And then you can sell the print version too.

              It’s the same model as selling through magazines only without having to use the magazines (with all the gate-keeper problems that poses).

              You could argue that ‘Wheel of Time’ is a serialised novel. It’s just using rather large instalments 🙂

            • Steve, the only place I’d disagree with you is that the magazines are different than paying for installments: In the old days, you paid for each issue of the magazine. And sometimes the installment was the only thing of interest in the issue.

              This is different from newspapers, and large slicks which didn’t just carry fiction. Often people bought those for other reasons and the story “felt” free.

              But the models we’re seeing now are a lot like the ones we saw back then.

            • True, Camille, it was actually a much more complex ecosystem than the near monoculture of the last few decades.

              The fact that we are returning to that complexity can only be a good thing. And I suspect it will be even more complex. The cross-fertilization between genres (and even mediums: comics riffing on literature, youtube vids riffing on comics, even music and art riffing, and all pollinating each other), the get it out fast and don’t aim for perfection ethos, and of course it will largely be DIY with no quality control at all.

              It’s gonna be a fun few years until law, order, and ‘responsible’ gatekeepers once more reassert control. Thar’s gold in them there bits.

    • Actually, he was more correct than it seems at a glance. I think you’re just looking at a narrower slice of publishing than he is — see below.

      • So he was talking about the magazines, then. Maybe. [wry smile]


        • Think about how different ebooks are from books, and yet we still think of them as books.

          A magazine is just a different kind of book. So is a scroll. Or a newspaper, or clay tablets.

          Those formats of paper are either gone or marginalized — and for that matter, so are books. They aren’t as pervasive is they were in the golden age, and they are used in a more limited, almost proscribed, way. The audience is more specialized.

          eBooks allow us to return to the variety we once had, and a much more natural way of consuming them. Because of the internet, particularly blogging and social media, the written word is once again more pervasive.

    • Go earlier, perhaps. Go to the Alan Burt Akars/Dray Prescot/Scorpio/Kregan series. (Skinny books. Around 40 of them.) Go to serializing novels in Analog (some Bujold was in there). That kind of novel serialization, I suspect.

      On the other hand, it’s kind of still happening. Or at least, there are some series out there which are Another Installment In The Saga. C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series is one (and I buy each installment happily!). Laurell K. Hamilton’s stuff is another.

      Edit: Oh, and Wheel of Time! Heh.

      • That’s a good point — about how books in series are these days are often what serials used to be.

        Just WAY longer.

        (Of course the “big book” versions were done in the old days too.)

  3. “One thing you’re noticing is that in e-books—probably for pricing reasons—the books are growing shorter and coming out faster.”

    And why not? Too long have writers been forced to pad their books to meet some arbitrary word count that the publishers needed, and that only made sense in the print world.

    For example, I’ve routinely heard agents and editors say that a book has to be at least 80-90000 words to be of any depth. And yet my favourite book, The hitchhikers guide to the galaxy, is just around 45k.

    Another thing I’ve heard is (in the print world)- if there are two books of the same price, the reader will choose the thicker one. So writers must write longer books so they can give “value” to the customer.

    To me, it seems like the agents/editors think readers buy books the way they buy toilet paper- so if they can get 20% extra, they will go for it!

    On the other end, many people who like to write long books, can write however long they like without having to cut their story, again to meet some arbitrary standard of print publishing. I have seen quiet a few books in the 200-300k word range.

    • Too long have writers been forced to pad their books to meet some arbitrary word count that the publishers needed, and that only made sense in the print world.

      A complaint I have made myself, if you will permit me to point it out:


      It is rather wonderful to find this complaint being addressed, a mere five years after I made it, and in just the right way — by letting people publish books at whatever length they need to be, rather than the length that will make a book thick enough to justify a high cover price but not thick enough to be unreasonably expensive to print.

      • Good article Tom.

        It’s nice to know I’m not the only ‘victim’ (LOL) of the pad your book crowd.

        The problem is, this thinking has become so deep rooted, that many writers automatically expect “long book = good book”. I’ve far too many reviews where a 70,000 word book was dismissed as too short, and 300,000 words tomes are said to be “just the right length.”

        Now some people write long, and some people like to write short. But all the advice on the Interwebs seems to be “Kill your darlings”, “remove extra words” etc, ie, how to make a long book shorter.

        It is automatically assumed writer will write 100,000+ word books, which they may then need to scale down. Go to any of these writer groups, and all the discussions are about how to make books shorter. You maybe lucky to find 1, maybe 2, on how to make them longer (which is the problem those who started with Nanowrimo like me face).

        It doesn’t help that people who love to write long books are the ones who also write all the blogs / books, and they keep repeating advice which makes sense for them.

        Its nice that self pub allows us to write books that are
        the length they need to be, rather than the length that will suit someone’s business needs.

  4. Well, first, it sounds like Sanderson is agreeing with the self-publishing model of ‘write fast and quick’.

    He believes that works for self-publishers because it’s a way to bring yourself to the reader’s attention without marketing. For a big marketing push, however, he recommends N.Y.

    Except – I haven’t heard of N.Y. doing a big marketing push for many authors other than their bestsellers.

    On the other hand, what I like about this article is the meta message. He is trying to make a case for N.Y publishing being relevant. That’s good. I don’t think he makes a strong case for it here, at least not for PG’s crowd, who know about things like pitiful royalties and lack of marketing support, but it’s definitely thinking in the right direction.

    • Except – I haven’t heard of N.Y. doing a big marketing push for many authors other than their bestsellers.

      Well, Mr. Sanderson is one of the bestsellers, and was groomed for that role from the moment Tor took him on. They have room for exactly two bestselling fantasy writers in their system, and he has inherited Robert Jordan’s spot (as well as his unfinished series). So perhaps he isn’t sufficiently aware just how bad the general run of writers have it.

  5. RE, “serialized editions”

    Sanderson is actually correct in his usage here, even though his terminology is cloudy and unclear.

    It’s only unclear, though, because he’s trying hard to cover the very wide range of ways fiction was produced and purchased in the old days, particularly the “golden age” of publishing, pre-WWII. (I.e. before paperbacks.)

    A lot of people didn’t buy books as books at all. An awful lot of fiction was published in pulps, and only in pulps. “Whole novel in this issue!” was the mantra — nearly every magazine said that somewhere on the cover or TOC.

    And magazine publishing is also called “serial” publishing, even if the story was whole in one issue.

    As a matter of fact, it was common for early “serials” to not break up a story, but rather be a series of stories, each complete in an episode. (This was how The Perils of Pauline, and Exploits of Elaine were presented. It wasn’t until much later that the standard “cliffhanger” we associate with such stories were common in an actual “serial”. Serialized novels were a separate thing.)

    So from this vague interview, I can’t tell if he knows what he’s talking about, but he is actually correct about what he’s saying.

    And he’s correct that the new model is coming out very much like the old — which a wide variety of formats and lengths and purchasing habits.

  6. I’ve heard him talk about this kind of thing before, and he’s referring to the serialized works of Dickens and the like. I’m honestly not sure where the confusion lies, except for someone who thought Dickens published in bound books. I don’t see how he’s acting “youngish.”

    Brandon has impressed me with his perspective on self-publishing. He was given the keys to the NY kingdom a few years ago, yet hasn’t turned into a publisher-defending snob. He does give them too much credit, though.

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