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Is self publishing immoral?

31 May 2013

From Futurebook:

Is self publishing immoral?

You could be forgiven for thinking that it was given some of the recent coverage it has had. James Patterson’s recent adverts in the New York Times Book Review and others highlighting the wonderful books that wouldn’t have come into the world if publishers didn’t exist would certainly seem to suggest that it might be.

It is also implicit in the argument I hear all the time from publishers when discussing the subject. “Look”, they say, “at all the talent we nurture. Think of the poor impoverished literary author struggling in her garret. What will become of her if we are not there to publish her books?”

Publishing, they point out, has always worked on an eighty twenty rule, where the profitable twenty percent of books pay for the unprofitable eighty. As no one is all that good at predicting which is going to be which, publishing is – and always will be – a spread bet.

Self published authors – the successful ones – remove themselves from this eco system and so, the argument runs, also remove their subsidy from all those deserving writers who struggle to find a readership – the literary, the unfashionable and the new.

. . . .

Publishers are squeezing the e-book orange for all that it is worth and the profits are flowing. Is there any evidence whatsoever that they are investing any of that extra revenue in new, interesting voices? Not much, no.

And you know why? Because publishers are nervous. As they should be. Self publishing is eating away at their business. By some reckonings self published e-books account for thirty percent of the market. That is a figure that should worry publishers.

Link to the rest at Futurebook and thanks to Sean for the tip

Big Publishing, Self-Publishing

58 Comments to “Is self publishing immoral?”

  1. Just a few thoughts….

    There is a residual snobbishness toward self-published writers, that they aren’t good enough to be published by a “real” publishing house, etc. This is as outmoded as expecting no simultaneous submissions and only hard copy submissions from unagented writers. Who has time to wait a month for an official rejection so you can schlepp the manuscript off to another house by snail mail? Especially when you could have self-published and actually sold copies during that month?

    I think legacy publishers will go the way of traditional record labels and professional pornography (both dying industries) unless they change their business model.

  2. But, but, but, nobody makes money in self-publishing. Rob W. Hart tells us so in Salon today.


    • Hmmmm…

      The author claims he’s sold 200 copies, which is “…enough money to cover the cost of the cover and a nice bottle of whiskey.”

      At 2.99 and assuming 70% royalties, he’s made over $400. Unless that’s a bottle of Blue Label, he paid way too much for that cover (I just looked – good, but not mind-blowing).

      He’s charging three bucks for a 20,000 short story (he’s calling it a novella, tomato toMAto), sold roughly 25 copies a month for eight months. That’s actually, in my mind, pretty damn good for someone’s first attempt, especially with that length and price point.

      I understand his complaints about people getting angry at him for deciding what he wants, but I’m not terribly sympathetic, either. One lukewarm attempt isn’t really something to make your decisions around…

      • Three bucks for 20K words is robbery. And whining is SO unattractive. To counter his Salon article, I give you the ever popular “Show Me the Money”, updated just yesterday: http://brendahiatt.com/show-me-the-money/indie-earnings/

        • One person’s robbery is another person’s voluntary transaction. I sell 10K – 25K novellas for three bucks. I used to price them a bit more variably according to length. When I flattened the pricing sales went up.

          As always, I should point out that I write erotica under this name and different sales patterns very well could apply. However, I like the coffee analogy: my books cost less than a fancy cup of coffee, last as long or longer, and you can read them again. If people will buy fancy coffee at that price I don’t see why my books should cost less.

          • Good point, Marc. And yes, erotica does tend to command somewhat higher pricing. I have a friend who does the same thing quite successfully as well.

        • Those numbers are amazing – thanks for pointing out the update.

          Regarding the article author’s price point, I won’t call it “robbery” per se – I am always loathe to give a price per word pass/fail. BUT, if you are a new author, selling a product that falls into a somewhat unpopular word count (a little long for a short story, too short for a novel) and charging three bucks for it (which many people charge for works several times longer), you have to be aware that you’re taking a chance on coming off as too expensive.

          • “if you are a new author”

            Your logic is highly dubious. Every author is a new author to a reader who has not “met” him before. You don’t stroll into a bookstore, pick up a paperback, and say, “I’ve never heard of this guy so I should pay less than for that guy,” as you nod toward the paperback of an author you read the other day. Seriously.

      • And you can’t count “Well, I only made…” at the same time with Self-Publishing. A book I published two years ago is now becoming profitable. The timeline of sales is different for self-pub.

    • First Mistake: Putting the word “novella” on the cover. The majority of my books are novellas. The majority of my sales are novellas. I occasionally refer to them as novellas in the teaser text, but I would never EVER put that on the cover. Nobody knows what a “novella” is: you’ll mystify most, confuse others, and put off the people who do know when they see your price. (I sell more novellas in a month than he has total, at the same price point. Of course, different field.)

      Second Mistake: Good covers are nice and certainly help. Good reviews are nice and certainly help. But what sells titles is titles. He has one title. He has one chance to be discovered. He is off the new listings list and the search algorithms will deprioritize him for it. “I didn’t do much marketing” is a red herring. If he wants to sell titles he needs more titles. Period. If we know anything about e-publishing, we know this. If he thinks he can plunk down one book and get anywhere, he’s not being an indiepublisher, he’s buying a lottery ticket. Nothing wrong with lottery tickets and somebody will, eventually, win. But the people who win usually buy more than one ticket.

      Third Mistake, related to Second Mistake and alluded to by you above: He doesn’t understand the long tail/marathon nature of e-publishing. 25 copies a month with one title in a supersaturated field IS in fact, extremely good. Assuming the book maintains 20 copies a month for ten years, that’s 2400 copies or ca. $5,000. Like to see him get a $5,000 advance on a novella from anybody, anywhere, ever. (We won’t even talk about the possibility of getting $5,000 in ROYALTIES from a tradpub deal on a novella.) If the book took him a hundred hours to write (which would be a RIDICULOUS amount of time, but hey, it was his first one) that’s $50/hr total revenue. Not bad!

      The thing is, though, if the book is in fact good – I’m going OSC on him and refuse to read it – it should at least maintain that level and could in fact go up as it continue to garner reviews and get added to “also bought” sorts. I have some books that just don’t sell well and have a good month to hit double digits, but the ones that sell tend to do a very little bit better over time (although some months are just bad across the board – April kinda sucked, and I heard that from a lot of writers.) So again, on average, that $5,000 which is THOUSANDS more than he could ever hope to get from tradpub is a floor, not a ceiling, and it’s a sunken floor at that.

      • Total agreement. The “Zombies!” market is SO flooded right now that 200 sales in 8 months without much marketing is pretty impressive, and yes, it’ll keep earning month after month, year after year. That one title could easily earn him more, over time, than his (hopefully) traditionally published novel…if it actually gets published.

    • Wow, Bill. This ‘cult’ article you linked to is terrible.

      Another one of those “Covers and editing are hard!” laments.

      And the kicker:

      Actually, I’ll take one parting shot: I know self-publishing offers the best royalty rates, but if you got into this game with the sole intent to make money, you got into the wrong business.

      I love to write and, by golly, my intent is to make me some money. I guess that makes me a brainwashed cult member.

      I’m a firm believer in the Do What You Love and The Money Will Follow idea. However, I won’t be buying the book because the traditional publisher has priced the e-book at $14.99… http://www.amazon.com/What-Love-Money-Will-Follow/dp/0440501601

      *edited to add bill’s name

      • My favorite part was him pre-emptively answering the “maybe your book just sucks” possibility by referring to anyone who asserted it as a space cadet and dismissing it. After all, his mom loved the book.

      • So far I’ve enjoyed the process of collaborating with great artists on coming up with cover images. It’s been a joy, especially as you see your ideas come to life as a drawing or concept on page by someone who’s damn good at their job.

        • Ditto. Working with my cover artist and seeing my characters come to life, so to speak, was an awesome feeling.

        • Yep. I pointed this out when I was on a self-publishing panel: I LOVE picking my own team to work on a book. I love my cover artist and working with her is a fun part of the process, not a chore. Finding a good artist (or editor) that you work well with can be tough, but generally you can stick with them after that. In trad-pub, you never know what you’re going to get.

      • “Another one of those “Covers and editing are hard!” laments.”

        And they’re always so peculiar.

        It took me about a week, start-to-finish, to acquire ebooking software, learn to format, format a book, convert it to ePub and Mobi formats, open accounts at Apple, Amazon, and BN and learned how to set up my accounts and upload a book there.

        By contrast, it took me half a year to write my first book (and it was a SHORT book, only about 60K words).

        It took me at least a couple of weeks to learn enough Photoshop skills to create my first couple of cover images. They were very basic, and since then, I’ve learned more and tweaked more, and every so often invest several days in upgrading some of my 20 self-pub book covers.

        This is NOTHING compared to how long I spend writing a book. And it’s NOTHING compared to how long I used to spend writing proposals and trying to find publishers for them (sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t).

        As for editing–editing a book is MUCH easier than WRITING one, and it takes a LOT less time.

      • “I’m a firm believer in the Do What You Love and The Money Will Follow idea.”

        I prefer the Joker’s way of putting it: If you’re good at something, never do it for free.

    • I call shenanigans: Last year I self-published a novella…

      This was published first in The Onion, right?

  3. My first thought at seeing the headline was: Is traditional publishing immoral? Poor contracts, long copyright, little to no marketing for most books, poor royalties, no control? ….

    And then I read the article. He makes a lot of good points, particularly the last one. 🙂

    (And yes, there are some writers who would like to be “nurtured” and want the “cachet” of being published by a traditional publishing house, but there are a lot more who don’t want/need that. (and I never realized how pervasive this ‘nurturing’ idea was. Sheesh.))

  4. If the traditionally published literary author is impoverished and struggly in a garret, maybe she should try self-publishing so she earns more from each book.

  5. God, I hope so. Just when I thought nothing could make it any better, the possibility that I am doing something evil arises.

    My cup, it runneth over.

    Of course, given the content of my books, I can say with little fear of contradiction that if you do it right, self-publishing can be immoral, but there are tradpub books as bad or worse than anything I write, so it’s not uniquely immoral.

  6. Is self-publishing immoral?


    It’s also bigger, stronger, and faster. It’s more adaptable, flexible and open to change. It’s immortal. It’s easy and self-rewarding. It’s unchained. It’s fun. It’s growing. It’s the future.

    Almost forgot; it’s more profitable.

  7. Whether publishers contribute to the net good of society is certainly a topic worth debating. I believe that publishers have done much good in the past and that some continue to be capable of much good in the present.

    But I paused when I read this: “Publishing, they point out, has always worked on an eighty twenty rule, where the profitable twenty percent of books pay for the unprofitable eighty.”

    This is an untrue statement, and one need only look to the most obvious examples to prove it untrue:


    Did the mega profits from 50 Shades of Grey go back into the system to give new and interesting voices a chance to be read? Well, at least $26+ million didn’t go in. Instead, it went to Random House employees as bonuses (as opposed to salary for work).

    Now, I’ll be the first to cheer this move on. I can’t say that the editorial and production staffs didn’t deserve such a bonus, nor can I say that it was bad that these funds went to mortgage and car payments, utilities, school tuition, food, and other necessities of life. All good stuff. And, of course, Random House is a for-profit corporation, and how it spends money is its business.

    That all being said, the money still DID NOT go to funding the “unprofitable eighty.” If it did, it could have potentially funded thousands of new books.

    This pernicious twenty-eighty myth needs to die so that we can look at and address the entirety of the publishing situation accurately and decisively.

    • And much more of that money went to Bertelsmann, Random House’s corporate parent, Reinhardt. Bertelsmann isn’t going to allow RH to keep piles of money sitting around to waste on unprofitable books.

      • That’s a very good point PG. If God touches you and you have a powerball winner of a breakout novel in the print world you’re not only paying for the BPH boss’s fancy office, limo and jet, but his conglomerate CEO boss’s even bigger office, limo and jet.

        I have to go dig up the the link up but one blogger, using standard publishing contract rates against announced sales numbers, ballparked E.L. James at earning around $28Mil before taxes, lawyer and agent cut (which sounds incredible) against almost a quarter billion in total sales revenue. Hmmm. Huge payday but still a pittance.

        • Bertelsmann’s HQ still resides in unfashionable Gütersloh, a city of 95000 inhabitants, nor is it particularly fancy. It’s basically a standard 1970s office building, though there has been some landscaping done around it. The Random House building in New York is a lot fancier and pricier than the Gütersloh HQ and they don’t even own that either. In fact, I’m surprised that Bertelsmann doesn’t make Random House move into a cheaper part of the US, but then those nurturing editors would probably mutiny if forced to leave Manhattan.

          Liz Mohn, widow of the Bertelsmann owner, is occasionally seen at charity events and galas and she probably has a limo, maybe a jet, too. But Liz Mohn doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with the day to day running of the corporation anyway.

          Very few German CEOs and billionaires are ostentatious – it’s not in the corporate culture. The Holtzbrinck siblings who own Pan Macmillan are very low-key. Germany’s richest men, the Albrecht brothers who founded a chain of discount supermarkets (and own Trader Joe’s) lived such low-key regular lives that when one of them was kidnapped in the 1970s, the kidnappers demanded to see his passport first, because they couldn’t believe that Germany’s richest man wore such shabby clothing. Jan Philip Reemtsma, the heir to a tobacco fortune, drove to board meetings in his old Volkswagen Beetle, before he sold off the company and founded an institute for social research.

          Yes, you do get the occasional Gunther Sachs (heir to a motorcycle company and famous 1960s playboy who was briefly married to Brigitte Bardot), but the Reemtsmas or Albrechts or Holtzbrincks are far more common.

    • The 80/20 rule is true, although it is more accurately stated in terms of revenue rather than profit from the publishers’ perspective. You have simply made an incorrect assumption about the “why” (“to give new and interesting voices a chance”).

      Forget the publishers’ propaganda, the reason that they publish non-bestsellers is that, in the pre-Amazon world, they didn’t have a choice. Those 80% of books were required to keep retail booksellers in business. The publishers will publish as few of them as possible while still satisfying their retail outlets. Once you realize that, giving those bonuses makes perfect sense.

      The myth that needs to die is the myth that a publishing company is different from any other publicly traded company (i.e. mostly acts like a sociopath).

    • Bernhardt. PG.

      It looks suspiciously as if you guys are basing your comments on math and logic.

      NO FAIR.

  8. Maybe we need a new definition for “immoral” first before trying to answer this question.

  9. So if I do an end around of the giant billion dollar conglomerate publishers and earn myself a little coin in the process, I am shirking on my moral duty to contribute to those same conglomerates’ bottom lines in the vague hopes some pennies will trickle down to the authors they’re busily chewing up and spitting out? Yeah, okay, right.

  10. When I read this, it reminds me of an article published not long ago by Forbes. http://onforb.es/15jK2Ti

    I do agree that publishing though the traditional channels has benefits for both the reader and the Author, but on the other hand – I don’t believe a book should be shelved just because a publishing house didn’t deem it profitable enough.

    What to me is immoral, is holding back potential growth because that person either couldn’t afford to go through the traditional publishing methods or was denied because their agent couldn’t predict enough dollar signs to make it worth their while.

  11. I do hockey blogging and these traditional vs. self-pub debate reminds me of the Main Stream Media vs. Blogger debates that rage online from time to time. Basically MSM looking down on bloggers as not being legit or good because they’re not working for a big media corporation. It’s definitely hard to make a living off blogging but doesn’t mean the quality of work is crap because it’s on a blog and not say ESPN.com.

    Really what’s the difference between writing for online news and blogging? Minor details. Same with trad vs. self-pub. There are some differences but they’re minor in the grand scheme of things, and the reader doesn’t care about such a petty debate anyways. They want quality stories to entertain and/or educate them. If the story does that they’ll keep going back.

    • I think another awesome difference between traditional vs. self-pub is the freedom to write it as you see it – without various truths being edited out by “Big Brother”. Freedom of speech is beautiful and shouldn’t be silenced because someone can’t make a profit from it or believes the public to be too sensitive for the subject at hand. Bah! Such nonsense and thankfully no longer necessary.

  12. I’m not really sure what the context for “immoral” is here. Morality is pretty subjective. I guess if you’re looking at the “morality” of traditional publishing, then yes, an author jumping off that merry-go-round and into the DIY world is definitely “immoral”, simply because they are no longer following the “morals” set forth by by the trad pub world. They are not paying for the machine of Big 5. They are not hoping to be part of that mythical 20% anymore because they know the odds are stacked against them. No one can fight a losing battle forever. Eventually you either give up entirely, or find a different way.

    Now, I’m not bashing the trad pub model. I still sent out a few queries for my new work this year, but after a meager 7 of those with 3 promising nibbles I’d had enough. I was more interested in sharing my story and seeing how well I could succeed using the contacts I’d built. It’s a fun adventure to me, but I think I’d be having fun with it no matter which route I took. And I think that’s the key here. All this debate on “the best way” is making my eyes glaze over. There isn’t a “best” way, it’s more about what’s best for the author and best for the story. I hope the internet will move on from this discussion eventually, but I’m not holding out much hope for that any time soon.

  13. “Is there any evidence whatsoever that they are investing any of that extra revenue in new, interesting voices?”

    Um, does buying Author Solutions count?

    It is investing extra revenue in the attempt to find (and scam) new, possibly interesting (and soon to be angry) voices.

  14. ““Look”, they say, “at all the talent we nurture.”

    They should have given a spew alert. I almost drenched my monitor with tea!

    • Phoebe Matthews

      People who actually nurture beginners are published authors and the self published are tops at this. They belong to online groups who answer questions about everything from the writing itself to the techno stuff to get an ebook put together. I trad published for many years and never got that kind of support.

  15. It breaks my heart when I hear the trad-publishers plead poverty and social consciousness. It is good of them to apply socialist principles to writers, spread the fortunes among the not so fortunate writers. But wait, that’s not socialism. What will the 99% of the writers who will never get published get? Nothing. What they promote is elitism.

  16. It seems to me that if what you want to encourage is “…deserving writers who struggle to find a readership – the literary, the unfashionable and the new.” you should encourage said writers to self-publish.

    Erecting barriers to entry may be what is immoral.

  17. If self-publishing is wrong, I don’t want to be right. 🙂

    How dare people find a way to run a business (or have a rewarding if not all that profitable hobby) without their approval…how dare they? It could lead to mass hysteria, dogs and cats living together…heretics all, those dirty deviant self-publishers.

    The tone sounds like that of any gatekeeper realizing that his job is being rendered irrelevant right before his eyes. I’m sure many monks preached the same thing about that dangerous printing press thingie.

    • “If self-publishing is wrong, I don’t want to be right.”

      that was clever

      also a great song


  18. “Think of the poor impoverished literary author struggling in her garret. What will become of her if we are not there to publish her books?”

    She will click the Amazon KDP upload button.

    • And possibly the Kobo, Nook, iBooks, and/or Smashwords ones, too.

      (Personally, I click Smashwords first — they get my stuff up on their own site much more quickly than Amazon’s 24-48 hours, and that entertains me.)

  19. I guess I’m immoral for not even bothering to ship manuscripts off to traditional publishers. I prefer to do things the hard…er I mean immoral way.

    I like that I can write about certain subjects and only have to worry that the readers will not like the subjects. I guess I write about some immoral things since I have LGBT characters in some of my stories…this goes along with immorality of going purely self-published.

    Is there a cult/group/party/superPAC that we immoral persons all belong to. If so, when do I get invited?

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