Home » Self-Publishing » Why I don’t self-publish

Why I don’t self-publish

2 April 2013

From Charlie Stross at Charlie’s Diary:

Left to my own devices, in a good year with no major disruptions (which, alas, don’t come along as often as I’d like) I can write around 200-240,000 words of finished fiction — a pair of 330 page novels or one big doorstep plus a novella.

. . . .

However a modern trade-fic publisher is an organization dedicated to handling the work-flow of book production. Over the past 30 years they’ve ruthlessly outsourced everything that isn’t a core part of the job of publishing — including many tasks that an outsider might think were core competencies. Copy editors work freelance, paid by the book. Proofreaders ditto. Typesetting is carried out by DTP agencies. Printing is the job of a printer, not a publisher.

The stuff that remains in-house is editorial, marketing, accounting, and (occasionally) sales. “Editorial” in this context means workflow management — someone to ride herd on the pool of copy editors and proofreaders and to make acquisition decisions (in their spare time). “Marketing” includes book design, blurb writing, ARCs/review copies, presence at trade shows, glad-handing the big chain buyers, commissioning advertising, organizing signing tours and author promotion, and so on. (There’s also a “production” side, sometimes subsumed under editorial, whose job it is to organize typesetting and printing and the business of turning the manuscript into a physical product. Generating ebooks slots into this workflow in place of “send PDF file to printer, order x thousand copies”).

. . . .

So, I estimate a book takes roughly 2 months of publishing company employee labour to produce.

. . . .

When you add it all up: if I’m as efficient as a trade publisher, it would take me roughly 3 months to produce a book that also took me 6 months to write. More realistically, I’m likely to be less streamlined and efficient than a publisher who specializes in this job. This supposes I’m sufficiently plugged-in to commission my own copy-editor, book designer, cover artist, and typesetter. I then have to handle the contractual, accounting, and tax side of things.

Link to the rest at Charlie’s Diary and thanks to Ant for the tip.


65 Comments to “Why I don’t self-publish”

  1. I’m not sure even where to start with this one.

    I like Charlie, but when I first read this…I was speechless.

    To get the full idea be sure to read the comments.

  2. I do like how Charlie specified that he’s speaking about why he doesn’t self-publish, and not that he’s saying that people shouldn’t. I hope people can make the distinction, but judging by the comments, not so much.

    However …

    “When you add it all up: if I’m as efficient as a trade publisher …”

    That presupposes that trade publishers are efficient. It seems to me that competent self-pubbers can run a far more efficient operation than a big house, as they’re only concerned with their own projects.

    Three months to produce a book? Yikes.

    • The academic presses I’m working with take eighteen months to two years, longer if you start the clock with the submission of the manuscript.

  3. Lol, this will be hilarious to read in April 2014 when he will have changed his tune. I’m commenting just so I sound prophetic.

  4. And it’s also ignoring that all those things that trade publishers outsource? Self-publishers can do the same.

    • Sure. If you build a house, you hire a general contractor, who then outsources the plumbing, wiring, painting, etc. to subcontractors.

      What you don’t do is give the general contractor 80-90% of your house, forever, in exchange for that service.

  5. Mr. Stross has every right to his opinion/path, but to me, the point of self-publishing is to be MORE efficient than the trad pub houses.

  6. Reading his list of things trade publishers do for him, he really appears to be saying ‘because I need a trade publisher to get into big chain book stores’.

    The rest is trivial to outsource without handing over most of your e-book royalties to the publisher for two months’ work.

    • Who will be the next biggest chain store, after B&N is gone?
      The only big chain we have in Canada is Chapters/Indigo. I’ve seen one of those in Detroit (Well, it was in Novi, to be exact) but I don’t think they have much of a presence in the US.

      • @ Andrew – there really isn’t a chain in the U.S. after B&N. Just independents and some stories that carry a relatively small collection like Walmart and Target.

        • So, eBooks will likely see another burst of market penetration over the next couple of years as the B&N stores continue to dwindle. If the CEO said it would be twenty stores a year, then it will probably be thirty this year, fifty the next and so on….

          I hope the independent stores will get a chance to flourish during the upheaval.

        • Well, there IS Books-a-Million, but they’re only in 31 states and the District at the moment. There’s nothing between them and B&N in terms of size. The midwest has Half Price Books and I’d LOVE to see them expand.

          • Thing about Half-Price is that, far as I know, they’re only for used books. (At least, they were the last time I was in one.) And it’s a lot easier, I bet, to be an indie used-book store.

            • HPB now carries a very limited selection of new releases (I don’t know when they started but the first one I remember them making a flap about was J.K. Rowling’s new non-HP book.) However, they will not become a significant outlet for tradpub without a radical shift in their business model. Given that the one they have now works great and that the model they’d have to shift to is dying, I don’t see that happening.

              • Out here in Washington half price carries both new and used books. But they are having trouble and are closing several stores. I don’t know if they are going completely out of business or just downsizing.

      • George from Toronto

        Hi Andrew, I’m in Toronto and I don’t have to tell you that Indigo/Chapters is having its own challenges. I haven’t stepped into one for a while but I needed to get something I can’t get at Amazon–yet, the monthly copy of a SF digest magazine. Anyway I was there this morning at the Indigo near Bay Subway Station. Very few people in the aisles, and they were all older men in suits (these gentlemen were at least 65+). The large kid’s area, deserted. Of course this is on a weekday. Yet it didn’t stop piles of people from using the Bookstore’s in house Starbucks:

        All the younger types were at the in store Starbucks sipping on coffee and looking at their iPads and smartphones (I mean the Starbucks in the store was packed while the book area was a ghost town). The workers were all a little TOO nice too me, it was a bit…unnerving.

        Anyway, a good friend of mine is one of the lawyers who is working on the bankruptcy of World’s Biggest Bookstore (one of the stores that belongs to the Indigo/Chapters and definitely the largest one). He told me it looked to him that Chapters/Indigo piled lots of its new and outstanding debts onto this largest store to set it up for bankruptcy. I don’t know how that would work or is even legal and I didn’t ask but I noted that the newspapers have already reported that WBB is in trouble.

        My point is: I’m not so sure how healthy Indigo/Chapters/Coles is either. Its healthy parts are KOBO Inc connection of course (its answer to Amazon Kindle and a subsidiary of the doing well Japanese shopping site: Rakuten ) and the Starbucks that can be found in some of their bigger stores. WBB of course had no starbucks. I am not happy its closing but neither am I unhappy. WBB NEVER had real sales and most of the time all the books were on full retail price. I think Amazon has spoiled me.

        Anyway, will Indigo/Chapters brick and mortar operations go the way of Borders or B&N(ie an increasing focus on nonbook trinkets over books apparently –from what I hear)? I don’t know but I wouldn’t be surprised.

        WWB is a BIG store, the biggest in the Indigo/Chapters/Coles empire. And soon it will become history (and probably a TARGET but don’t quote me on that).

        Here is an article on it (the media are not privy to the info I have through my lawyer friend they don’t mention the bankruptcy only that the lease will expire –but the bankruptcy is the story behind the story according to my friend.

        PS the last time I went to WBB only the magazine section had a few people in it. The book aisles were deserted, though this was on a weekday also.



        • George from Toronto

          PPS my apologies I am not using my full name yet or a home site link. I am a new indie writer in the process of setting up my website and books and my homepage is under construction.

        • George there’s an experimental Chapters layout here in Calgary that puts the focus on books. It’s a radical idea for the franchise. I’m not sure if I would go to one of their stores if I couldn’t also pick up a new mug or a head gasket for my Subaru…

          I’ve been to the WBB, years ago. I was pleased to find an Uncle Duke Doonesbury book with poseable action figure. I’m a little sad to hear they’re turning into the Chapters whipping boy, but I’ve been worried about those guys ever since I heard they sold off Kobo.

          We used to have a McNally Robinson store here for a while but it seems to have closed down. I think the customers lost to the big fish aren’t flocking to the independant stores, they’re heading to the keyboards.

          • I quite liked the McNally Robinson that was in downtown Calgary, and was so disappointed when it closed. Which Chapters has this experimental layout? I’d love to check it out.

            • Hi Alyssa. The Chapters I mentioned is the one in Cross Iron Mills. They still have some general merchandise but it’s tucked off to the side and nowhere close to what you would see at Sunridge. The last time I looked at the Sunridge store, maybe a third of the floorspace was dedicated to knick knacks and it was front and center.

              A very nice lady working at the Cross Iron store told me that it was a ‘new idea’ they were trying out. It had a decent crowd (you have to pass through the store to get to the Starbucks) but I haven’t bought a single book there.

              When it comes to bookstores, I’m very conflicted. I love them (the McNally Robinson downtown was the nicest store I’ve ever seen) but I just don’t buy paper books anymore. I use the place as a showroom and then buy from Amazon. I made a few attempts to buy from Kobo, but the prices were almost always higher by a couple of dollars.

              I wonder if we’ll see Kobo or Kindle stores in malls. Instead of racks of paper books, they would have LED walls displaying the featured titles with touch screens for browsing. Customers could download to their accounts or send the title to an espresso machine behind the counter and pick it up from the single attendant on duty.

              I think there’s still some advantages to a brick and mortar outlet, but it wouldn’t look anything like the current model.

              • I don’t buy paper books anymore and it’s a half-hour-ish drive from the southeast where I live. I’m not sure if it would be worth heading up there one weekend, but I confess I am curious about this experimental layout.

                • Probably not worth it if you prefer eBooks. The spot inside the main door has an eReader display, but the rest is paper books.

                • In which case I may as well visit the one on 130th Ave. I admit, it has more paper books than I would expect these days (though mostly spine out, save for bestsellers and local authors), and I have shopped there in the past. But I’m far too attached to e-books these days. They’re simpler, take up less space, and if I find I’m not in the mood to read anything I have on my Sony or my Kindle, I just go and find something online and grab a sample (Kindle or Smashwords) and if I like the sample, I buy it.

                  It’s cool to find two other Calgarian authors right here in the same thread. We’re taking over.

                • More than two, Ryan. Tom Simon is another Calgarian. Who knows how many others might be lurking…

          • George from Toronto

            Andrew, Calgary what a great city! I’m in Toronto but I’ve always been attracted to the West. One day I hope to live half the year in Alberta and winters in California (not L.A. anywhere else in Cal though).

            Yes they sold the majority shares of KOBO off but I think they still have some minority presence in terms of shares? I did not know they sold all of it off thought it was just the controlling majority.

            Love the Doonesbury strip myself I read it (and Dilbert) daily have several strip collections of each.

            Well all these Canadians especially Calgarians here in PGs blog! What does PG think about this –why are all these Canadian writers congregating in his blog–coincidence?! 🙂

        • “I haven’t stepped into one for a while but I needed to get something I can’t get at Amazon–yet, the monthly copy of a SF digest magazine.”

          Which one? F&SF, Asimov’s, and Analog are all available on Kindle. Maybe not yet in Canada?

          If it’s a small, indie magazine and they’re not yet available on Kindle, they need to fix that, pronto.

          • George from Toronto

            Hi Tony I should have been more specific I meant to say the monthly HARDCOPY of a sf digest. It’s Analog. I buy the kindle version for personal use but I need a hardcopy for the private library that I buy for. Yes they still insist on having a hard-copy of specific genre mags believe it or not. We get any small press stuff you get in the US, including some British mags and Australian small press as well (ie hardcopies), especially in Toronto.

            Anyway you can buy kindle copies of Analog and the others of course on Amazon/online etc but you can’t buy single hardcopy issues is what I should have said. If I could then I’d never step into the Indigo/Chapters again –and I’m not a Starbucks fan myself.

            Also about Analog –now that Schmidt has left I am not sure how much longer I will be reading it myself because I don’t know if this new fellow will pick them the way Schmidt did. I’ll wait and see.

            • George from Toronto

              PS I should point out that though we get everything you can get there –subscriptions of US sf digests are not great. Last time the library had a subscription they would get the Analog 6-8 weeks late EVERY ISSUE not just the first issue as the subscriber card proclaims. I suspect that maybe some of these distributors would get the unsold copies (the WBB brings in 20+ copies every month and many are not sold) and ship them to the subscribers. hence the subscribers get them late. I don’t know what it is like now but popping into the store to get the latest hardcopy seems to be the best solution (until even this little library moves into the present and decides that ebook copies are enough).

  7. Take some project management classes. The process shouldn’t take months.

    • I find the longest process involves revision, editing, writing, or some combination thereof. Cover design rarely takes more than a week. Back cover copy, layout and design. They’re all quick processes even if you learn to do them yourself. And sometimes they’re a much-needed break from writing.

  8. I tried to engage him in the comments, but there was a definite failure to communicate. I found it especially interesting that he couldn’t see that he had adapted his writing process to the traditional publisher’s workflow. He never got past that.

  9. Mr. Stross lives & works in the UK, where in publishing industry terms it’s 2008. I read his blog from time to time when I feel the need to hear what the other side is thinking from an intelligent point of view.

    This is the first post to utterly disappoint in that respect. But then again, in 2008 I hadn’t even heard of indie publishing.

  10. From the comments:

    Most publishers are not unscrupulous, most of the time.

    There are a small number of bottom-feeders who exploit the vulnerable; Preditors and Editors keeps track of them, and is a vital resource if you’re trying to get published in genre fiction. (Remember Yog’s Law: Money flows towards the author. If it doesn’t, something is wrong.)

    He obviously hasn’t been keeping up on the industry. Most of those popular bottom-feeders are owned by the big fish.

  11. I spent an hour writing a thousand words of brilliant satire in response to this post but then I realized that my only point was ‘oh, you poor dear’.

  12. So, this is another way of saying: I want to spend all my time writing, so I’m going to publish traditionally.

    I see that he’s published quite abit, and I guess it’s working for him. That’s cool. He also clearly wants to be in bookstores.

    I read the comments and he seems like a nice guy, but his arguments were not persuasive for me.

    For example, his statement about the loss of ‘control’ by going the traditional route. His response was that if the author doesn’t want to change the cover, etc. the way the Publisher wants him to, then the author can return the advance money and leave.

    Okay. But that seems like an extremely time consuming process. To sign contracts and work with a Publisher until you decide you don’t like the cover, at which point you leave. Wouldn’t it have been faster just to pick your own cover?

    There’s also the reality that most Publishers are out-sourcing a good chunk of their marketing, and even editorial functions, now – to the author.

    After all, isn’t Charlie blogging in part due to an expectation by his Publisher? So, I’m not really sure the author does save that much time by going traditional, especially since they are required to do things Publishers tell them to do, or they may need to do, like copy-edit, spell-check, meet deadlines, return re-writes, argue contract points, engage in social media or even go on book tours, when the writer could spend that time writing instead.

    I’ve always gotten the idea that Publishing traditionally is quite a time-suck, actually.

    Lastly, the money. I think that Charlie is off base with the money. I think that’s in part because he is thinking about print, rather than e-books, but also because he is believes his royalty rate of 10% is appropriate – in that it couldn’t be increased. His idea that the Publisher only makes 10% profit, while the bookstore makes the remaining 80% seems alittle off.

    So, again, I can’t argue with the fact that he likes the Traditional route, but I don’t find his arguments about why to be compelling.

    • Charles Stross actually did have cover issues and was able to persuade Tor to change the cover of one of his US editions (the US cover showed an image of the London skyline on a book that’s set in Edinburgh) probably by threatening to walk away. Since then, he has been inflicted with horrendous US cover monstrosities such as this one. Being saddled with that makes self-publishing look like a great alternative indeed, but then what do I know?

      • Holy Self-Published Poser Pic, Batman! O_o

        I mean, it’s a cute pic. For, y’know, something self-published… (And, quite frankly, if I get ’round to doing my pen-name erotica, I’m likely to use Poser for the covers. So I do mean it’s a cute pic.)

        I suppose they figured (probably correctly) that if they put his name on it, they could slap any old thing they wanted on the front.

        But it does say Space Opera; maybe it’s an accurate sort of “Hi! This is a campy book!” cover to indicate the contents?

        • The cover is reasonably accurate. It depicts the protagonist, a female android originally designed as a (sexual) companion for lonely humans. So using Poser for an imitation human was probably artistically appropriate.

          “Freya Nakamichi-47 is a femmebot, one of the last of her kind still functioning. With no humans left to pay for the pleasures she provides, she agrees to transport a mysterious package from Mercury to Mars-only to become hunted by some very powerful humanoids who will stop at nothing to possess the contents of the package.”

          It sounds like a noirish mash of Simak and Chandler with more than a bit of FIFTH ELEMENT and gratuitous sex.

          • The point is not that it’s a Poser pic, the point is that it looks like a “self-published Poser pic,” which even self-published me took to mean, “Looks like somebody downloaded Poser, threw a purple wig and sparkly jumpsuit on V4, and called it a day.”

            • I get that, but why should a story about a sex doll not feature a tacky cover of a sex doll? 😉
              There are plenty of really crappy tradpub’ed book covers out there that don’t have even that excuse.

      • Yeah, that is a bad cover. Good book, though.

    • He was waxing enthusiastic about the escalator clause, but frankly, increasing the payout to the author with increased sales volume sounds like an incentive for creative accounting.

  13. I have a question. Is he spending 8-10 hours a day writing to produce those 350k words? Because if not there is a lot of overlapping time. If i didnt have a day job, i would write probably 6 hours a day before burnout. I currently work 10 hour days at my day job, so let me plan on keeping that schedule when self employed. That still leaves 4 for publishing duties. (i am a mean boss and make me et at my desk.) 20 hours a week. Even if that means it takes 6 months of time (which it wouldnt, and that is experience talking), that is STILL two books per year. It isnt as though writing one means you cant work at publishing the previous at the same time. But maybe he needs all 50 hours for writing those 6700 words per week….

  14. I have no problem with anything he says.
    First, because he is speaking for himself.
    Second, because what he says is valid…if you think B&M bookstore access is vital to your particular market.
    Big IF that one, though.

    For people who accept that they have near zero chance to reach B&M bookstore distribution–which is most of the midlist these days, if I understand the situation correctly–the theoretical value of that B&M access tends to vanish in a puff of smoke and brimstone, though.

    The traditional economic model has been good to him by letting him ignore everything but writing and still get satisfactory returns (for him). Now, the trends don’t seem to favor that model but the trends could *conceivably* change. But if they don’t start changing soon I suspect he’ll be having second thoughts in about two years or when B&N hits chapter 11, whichever comes first.

  15. Charlie Stross replied to this comment from Michael. | March 22, 2013 17:28 |

    In any event, it’s not my editor at Tor who gets to decide to sell my books via a given channel; it’s folks at Macmillan, a level or two up the corporate totem pole. (I can ask, but whether I get an answer …)

    And this is where starts to screw himself in a business sense. The guy making the decisions at Macmillan is trying to maximize the profits @ the publisher. He is not going to do something that potentially sacrifices 50k sales across all of the publisher’s other authors to get Charlie book to sell double. (based on the numbers he’s posted it sounds like he’s happy to get 10-15% of the $9.99 average sale price on about 25k units.)

  16. It is weird how some of these myths are perpetuated, I assume by those with a stake in ensuring that they continue to be so.

    It almost gives me the sense that no matter how many people decry “the end of the golden age of indie pub,” the folks who read TPV, DWS, Konrath, Kris, Howey, and all of the other great indie pub resources without preconceived biases are still way, way ahead of those who bleat their well-ingrained dogma on either side of the debate without thinking about the long-term business implications.

    If you look at everything as a businessperson, it starts to make a lot more sense. For me, that means indie pubbing for now. My tactics might change if trad pub would ever offer me a Hugh Howey or Colleen Hoover deal.

    The important thing is flexibility, staying agile, and keeping an open mind.

    That said, which side of the industry offers more flexibility at the moment? Indie pub? Or trad pub? FOR NOW, it’s simple…

  17. Good marketing would be time-consuming (and is something I would outsource in an ideal situation), but I can’t see why all the other stuff would take any more time than it would if you went through a publisher. Yes, the first time you’d need to find the people to do your cover, etc, but after that, you’d be set (assuming they did a good job). So, I’m not really sure I understand this argument. I’m assuming he wouldn’t be designing the cover and copy editing his own book.

  18. I suspect that in the future there will be a new paradigm to a successful young writer’s career, more closely following that of other professionals such as accountants, lawyers, PR people, even scientists, who work in a huge corporation then establish a business for themselves. In the future young writers might write 5-10 books for trad publishers, learn the ropes and go freelance once they’ve learned the business. Go indie.

    • Uh, the model that seems to be evolving seems to be more like:

      New writers selfpub as a second job until they build a deep enough catalog and revenue stream to earn a middle-class living and quit the day job.
      If along the way, they get hit by lightning (SHAZAM!) and break through the visibility barrier, the BPHs will *then* swoop in with a “life-changing contract” to milk the success for a few years and then drop the author lie a dead fish as soon as performance shows a hint of decline. After which the not-so-young writer returns to self-pub but with the validation of once having had a tradpub seal of approval. (Or with the Indie cred of having turned down such a deal 😉 )

      More realistically, lightning never hits but the catalog grows deep enough and the writer finds a “thousand true fans” they’ll remain in selfpub, earning a comfortable living for life while leaving a 70-year revenue stream for the kids and grandkids.

      All of which assumes the writer is consistently good in their genres of choice. 🙂

      In other words: few will strike it right but *most* of the *good* writers should be able to make a living writing. Which would be something new under the sun.

      • Er, “few will strike it *rich*…”

      • I like this model. It is the one I am currently following.

        • It’s the only one the market is supporting right now, no?
          The tradpubs don’t do submmissions anymore, they are publishing less and less titles and paying less and less more more and more rights and they drop authors without blinking an eye. The only choices are to play the trad-pub game, making no money, while waiting for a miracle, or play the self-pub game and make *some* money while waiting for a miracle. 😀
          (That buck here and there while waiting to get noticed seems to add up over time.)

          • I hope so. Getting a steady income, even if it’s just enough for a beach vacation every year, is my top goal in self-publishing. The lowest goal was simply to be published, which I’ve accomplished.

            You could add in there, pursuing small press publishers. They tend to be more open minded with selections, especially the ones that deal exclusively with ebooks. I’ve found a few that produce good quality work, enjoyable books, well edited and with eye catching cover art. I’m planning on focusing all my future submissions to those.

  19. I was a bit put off by Charlie’s rather bold statement about how books are written. Comment 58, someone suggests that he could save time by editing while writing, which I’ll admit, didn’t make sense to me either. But Charlie’s response made no sense to me either, because he started throwing out statistics on how people write. Not just talking about himself, but claiming insight into how the majority of others write. I’m curious where he got his information that only 10% to 30% of writers outline before they write.

    • If you meant my comment, i wasnt saying edit while he writes, but pointing out that you can edit and prep for publication book a while writing book b. I dont see the part where he says he writes 8-10 hours every day. So imho what all these “i only want to write” authors are really saying is, “i dont want to make this writing and self-pub thing a full time job.” I of course speak only for myself here, but i don’t have 8-10 hours of writing in me every day. I do have 6, and 3-4 for cover design, proofreading, etc. The time save comes in by overlapping projects not doing one to completion and then starting the next. Also 350k per year is less than 1000 words a day. How can that take 8 hours? If he is doing it alongside a desk job the argument makes more sense (until you realize his 3 months supposes nothing but that project). 🙂

      • Thank you, that makes much more sense, and I agree. I usually edit one book while in the process of writing another.

        Charlie’s method just sounded very odd to me, because I would never start even minor revisions on a novel until the first draft was done. Even if I know there are plot holes that will need to be fixed, I just make a note in the margin, and keep on writing until I get to the end. Most of my writing friends write the same way, and agree that they could never finish a novel if they got bogged down making revisions before they completed the first draft.

  20. “So, I estimate a book takes roughly 2 months of publishing company employee labour to produce.”

    That two months includes lots of tasks the eBook doesn’t need, but the print book does. He’s comparing two different work flows aimed at two different products.

    It would be more reasonable to survey selected eBook authors to see how long the necessary eBook tasks took.

    • Someone skilled in cover design and book layout can do the print cover wraparound and interior book layout in a week (two if you count proofreading and making any tweaks as might be necessary, possibly more if they need to wait on shipping from CreateSpace). I fail to see how that takes roughly 2 months.

      If anything, the bulk of the time would be in copy editing and possible revisions.

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