Hugh Howey: Self-publishing is the future -- and great for writers

Books have changed forever, and that's good. Writers will find readers and make more money going it alone, like me

Published April 4, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

           (<a href=''>Kativ</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>/<a href=''>yuriy kulik</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Kativ via iStock/yuriy kulik via Shutterstock/Salon)

Contrary to recent reports, I am not the story of self-publishing.

The story of self-publishing is Jan Strnad, a 62-year-old educator hoping to retire in four years. To do so is going to require supplemental income, which he is currently earning from his self-published novels. In 2012, Jan made $11,406.31 from his work. That’s more than double what he made from the same book in the six months it was available from Kensington, a major publisher. He has since released a second work and now makes around $2,000 a month, even though you’ve never heard of him.

Rachel Schurig has sold 100,000 e-books and made six figures last year. She is the story of self-publishing. Rick Gualtieri cleared over $25,000 in 2012 from his writing. He says it’s like getting a Christmas bonus every month. Amanda Brice is an intellectual property attorney for the federal government. In her spare time, she writes teen mysteries and adult romantic comedies. She averages $750 a month with her work.

Like Schurig, Robert J. Crane is quickly moving from midlist to A-list. When Robert shared his earnings with me late last year, his monthly income had gone from $110.29 in June to $13,000+ in November. He was making more in a month than many debut authors are likely to receive as an advance from a major publisher. And he still owned his rights. His earnings have only gone up since.

Right now you are probably thinking that these anecdotes of self-publishing success are the result of my having cherry-picked the winners. In fact, these stories appear in this exact order in my private message inbox over at Kindle Boards. The only sampling bias is that these writers responded to a thread I started titled: “The Self Published Authors I Want to Hear From.” I wanted to know how many forum members were making $100 to $500 a month. My suspicion was that it was more than any of us realized. Every response I received started with a variation of: “I’m actually making a lot more than that.”

My fascination with this story began back when major media outlets like Entertainment Weekly and Wired magazine called to interview me. Perhaps the transition from near-minimum-wage bookseller to New York Times bestseller was too surreal for me to embrace, but my reaction to these entreaties was that I couldn’t possibly be the real story. For every outlier like myself or Bella Andre or Amanda Hocking, there must be hundreds of people doing well enough with their writing to pay a few bills. The more time I spent online in various writing forums, the more this hunch hardened into a real theory. People I interacted with every day were appearing on bestseller lists or emailing me for advice on handling calls from agents. The hundreds appeared to be thousands. And this could only be a fraction of the actual number.

My call for anecdotes was my first attempt to find data to support this theory. Before I wrote this article, the first thing I did was click on a random page of my private message inbox. I received such a flood from that forum post that any page likely would have worked, and the first one did. I could regale you with hundreds of accounts of publishing success, all from people you’ve never heard of, all making more than most traditionally published authors, and all messaging me within a few hours of my call to arms. The story, I started to realize, was much bigger than I had thought.

Of course, you’ll see articles lamenting the paucity of sales most self-published books enjoy, but there’s a problem with comparing average self-published sales with traditionally published books. In self-publishing, the slush pile is made available to readers. These comparisons between the two paths take the tip of one iceberg (the books that made it through the gauntlet and into bookstores) with an entire iceberg (all self-published books). It’s not a fair comparison.

Another problem with the data that disparages self-publishing is that much of it comes from the age of self-pub authors having to print hundreds of books and warehouse them in their garages. These tales of literary woe will include all the people who simply wrote and published a book to tick off a task on a bucket list. Or those who wanted to share a memoir with family and friends. Or those who only had a single book in them. Or those who gave up after completing that first novel. Or those who chose to write in a genre that has a very limited readership.

I celebrate writing for any of these reasons — I wish more people wrote more often. But what fascinates me as a self-published author are not those who publish a single novel but rather those who approach this as a major hobby, a second job or even a career. Those who take their writing seriously, who publish more than one title a year and do this year after year, are finding real success with their art. They are earning hundreds or thousands of dollars a month. I’ve watched several online friends go from publishing their first books to hitting the New York Times bestseller list. I’ve watched even more get themselves out of debt while pursuing a lifelong dream. There’s a silent mob out there making hundreds of dollars a month while doing something they love, and this should be celebrated.

None of this is meant to say that everyone who self-publishes — even those who study the craft, take their work seriously, and produce a constant stream of material — will find material success. There is also luck involved and the fickle tastes of readers. But what is becoming more apparent with every passing day is that you have a better chance of paying a bill or two through self-publishing than you do through any other means of publication.

Many of you are no doubt wiping beverage spittle off your computer screens right now. Some of you are probably angry at hearing this. You may think that this is post hoc reasoning from one of the people who had success happen to him. Except that I was espousing this view well before my own works took off. It seemed logical to me then, and it seems logical to me now. As soon as the cost of distribution and production both hit zero, the game changed. It just took a while for everyone to realize it (we’re still waiting on a few laggards, but they’ll catch on eventually).

Let’s compare music and literature for a moment. No, not the industries, which are following similar disruptions due to the arrival of the digital age, I mean the people who make music and those who craft literature. Let’s look at the artists.

How many people teach themselves to play the guitar? We celebrate this, don’t we? Even as they go through the callous-building phase, we admire anyone who learns the grammar of chords and then strings these phrases together into music. They begin by playing cover tunes the way an aspiring author might write fan fiction. They go on to strum on the sidewalk with a hat by their feet much like someone might blog and hope for a donation. They play small venues on open-mic nights that we can think of as free books on Smashwords. They get a few paying gigs, which is like self-publishing on Amazon. They hope to gain a following, local at first. Maybe they’ll get invited to open for a bigger act, which would be akin to scoring a blurb from a bestselling author. Perhaps a scout will see them live or on YouTube, like an agent noticing an author on a bestseller list. This is how artists are born. They are self-made. They perform for people. They learn and improve as they do both.

The old route for literary success looks stodgy and outdated by comparison. You write in a vacuum or for a professor who frowns on genre; you workshop with other writers; you craft a query letter; you appeal to the tastes of an intern at a literary agency; you claw your way out of the slush pile; you hope to win over an editor at a major publishing house; your book comes out a year later and sits spine-out on a bookshelf for six months; it gets returned to the publisher and goes out of print; you start over. The general reader is a mile away from you in this process. You never had a chance to be heard by the only people who truly matter.

With self-publishing, you learn your craft while producing material. You win over your fans directly. You own all of your rights, and your works stay fresh and available for your lifetime (and beyond). Nothing goes out of print. I think this advantage is difficult to fully appreciate. My bestselling work was my eighth or ninth title. As soon as it took off, the rest of my material took off with it. To the reader, it was all brand-new. To those being born today who will become avid readers 15 years from now, those works will still be brand-new. My entire oeuvre will always be in print and always earning me something. Nothing is pulled and returned from the digital bookshelf.

Another advantage is price. I recommended a book to readers recently, only to discover that the e-book was priced at $12.99! I can’t believe publishers do this to themselves. But then, they have to worry about competing with their other products. If they price their backlist too low, the fear is that readers will ignore the works currently being promoted. When John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series came out at $11.99, they lost a customer: Me. At $2.99, I would have purchased every single one of those classics. I doubt I would have actually read them (again), but I would have bought them. They would have competed with nothing; the electrons wouldn’t clutter my house; the price would be impulse territory. It all comes back to the fear that the e-book will cannibalize a print copy or a more recent title. When you self-publish, you care about your work more than anyone else ever will. That means pricing it to gain as many readers as possible.

The twin advantages of price and permanence made it easy for me to walk away from offers from major publishers. Even when those offers soared into the  seven figures, there was no chance that I would give up a monthly income for the rest of my life for a one-time payment, especially when that payment meant that in six months, my work would be seen as competition to whatever was newly released. The print-only deal I signed with Simon & Schuster was advantageous because my physical sales, even at thousands of dollars a month, were a fraction of my total self-published earnings. Digital is where it’s at, and even major publishers understand this.

That’s why the self-publishing community shook its collective head over a recent story here on Salon. A professed self-publishing failure turned out not to have an e-book available. Old thinking like this has no place in today’s publishing world. For all the author of that piece knows, his story might find its audience 10 years from now and hit every bestseller list. The chances aren’t great, of course, because he only wrote one novel, gave it mere months to succeed, and chose the medium least suited to discoverability. That’s how it used to work. It no longer has to.

Here’s the reality: How you publish will not significantly affect the quality of your story. If it needs a ton of work, it’s not going to make it out of the slush pile anyway. These days, manuscripts need to be perfect before they’re submitted to agents or before you self-publish, so don’t fool yourself into thinking a rough draft can become a great novel with the help of an agent or editor. It’s simply not likely to happen. Your book will be your book no matter what path you take. It won’t suddenly be horrible because you self-publish it, and it won’t be amazing just because some agent or editor seems to think so. It will need to prove itself to readers one way or the other, whichever path you take.

There are two possibilities. Your book might be in the top 1 percent of what readers are looking for — whether by the magic of your plot or the grace of your prose — in which case you are far better off self-publishing. You’ll make more money sooner, and you’ll own the rights when it comes time to negotiate with publishers (if you even care to). If, on the other hand, your work isn’t in the top 1 percent, it won’t escape the clutches of the slush pile. Your only hope in this case is to self-publish. Which means there isn’t a scenario in which I would recommend an author begin his or her career with a traditional publisher. Not a one. Even Jim Carrey is going the self-pub route with his children’s book, and he’ll make a mint because of it. The new top-down approach is to self-publish and retain ownership. The course of last resort would be to sign away your rights for the rest of your life.

Louis C.K. proved this for comedy. The better you are, the better it pays to produce and own your own work. If you’re not on that level, producing it yourself is the only option. Only option or best option. It’s that simple.

“But I only want to write,” you might say. “I don’t want to be a publisher.” Well, good luck. Even if you land with a major publishing house, the success of your work will depend on you knowing this business and embracing all the challenges that a self-published author faces. There are only a handful of authors in the world who can make a living writing and passing along those words to someone else and not doing a single other thing. Most people who attempt this method teach creative writing for a living, and not because they want to. Promotion will be up to you. Your publisher will want to see your social media presence before they offer you a book deal. Learning the ins and outs of self-publishing before signing with a major house is the best training imaginable. Not doing so would be like a hopeful race car driver not caring what’s under the hood. I’ve been shocked to discover, having worked with major publishers, that many of my self-published friends know more about the current publishing landscape than industry veterans with decades of experience. The more you learn and the more you keep an open mind, the better your chances for success.

The rest of this story will be written in the coming years. It is early yet, but I predict that more and more people will find success by self-publishing first and proving themselves to small audiences. They will follow the route of other artists who work their way up from small beginnings rather than hoping to blow it out on their first attempt on the stage. I’ve already heard from authors who gave up on self-publishing only to have their still-available works bloom years later and earn them real money. Some books will be like locusts, emerging by some fickle whim long after they were forgotten. What will matter for those books and those authors will be that the work was created and made available, and neither of those feats will expire.

Aspiring authors email me all the time asking for advice, and I tell them the same thing: I found success because I wrote for the love of writing. I self-published simply because I wanted to own my work and I wanted to make it available to readers. I expected nothing. I wrote as one might garden or knit, simply because they enjoy the act of creation. The fact that I pay my bills — a feat growing more and more common by the day — is an unexpected bonus. I’d be doing this on the street with a hat by my feet if I had to. I’d be building callouses and nodding my thanks to anyone who tossed a coin my way. Sure, it would be crazy to think I might become the next Clapton or Hendrix, but for every outlier like that, there are thousands of musicians playing steady gigs on the weekends, loving what they do, and paying a few bills as a result. Finally, the same can be said of authors. And that’s the real story of self-publishing.

By Hugh Howey

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