Friday, March 12, 2010

To Self Pub, to POD, or to Not Self Pub or Not POD -..That is the Debate

My Guest Today is here for a DEBATE.  PA Brown's Bio is at the END of this blog.

The question we are taking up today has complicated answers.  It involves writers deciding to self publish and/or working with a POD publisher.  Does publishing one's own work have a horrible stigma attached to it, and has it spilled over into stigmatizing POD publishing as well? In short do agents, editors, readers, and many a writer confuse the two methods of publishing and is the stigma warranted or not, and in a world of labeling and assuming the a world where appearances are more important than reality, does it matter or help if an author has to stop and explain the difference between self publising and Print on Demand  Publising even to organizaions and witers groups?

To get at this complicated issue, I asked author PA Brown if she would kindly allow me to debate her over these issues as PA or Pat recently posted her feelings and impressions of what happens to an author who publishes in the manner of self publication (without separating out POD and other legit methods of publishing).  Below you find Brown vs. Walker in a friendly but firm banter over these issues.  At bottom too find PA Brown's brief bio and a url where you can locate many titles with PA Brown on the cover..

Question in the main: does producing a self-published version help or harm an aspiring writer find
 a legitimate publisher?

To be fair, PA Brown did not pose this question but it pivots on the word legitimate before the word publisher...using this adjective is what causes POD pubbed authors to see red. It assumes a POD book, novel or nonfiction is illigitimately published, that it is a 'bastard' of some sort without a  legitimate parent or publisher, when in fact PODs go through as rigorous production and editing and vetting as any other published book, and it is a separate creature from a vanity press or a purely self-published book. Unfortunately, many agents, many editors with traditional publishing houses, and many writers organizations confuse these two and prejudge PODs, lumping them in with self pubbed books.  But I am getting ahead of myself in this attempt to clarify a major difference in say a book published by a legitimate POD publishing concern and a self pubbed book.  On the one hand, the  author pays the freight, and on the other, the publisher pays costs and sometimes pays an advance.

For manay inteerested in the difference between legitimate and illigitimate it is a matter of monies put forth for the privilege of publishing the author's work. And there is the rub for many.

Now on to PA Brown's remarks which I shall attempt to respond to here for the first time in any coherent fasion as I have published traditonally, with POD publishers, and more recently as an Indie Author self-pubbing ebooks for the Kindle reader.

PA Brown says: I think any author considering self-publishing has to educate themselves thoroughly and know exactly what they are getting into and what they may be losing.

1. Self-published books that go on and sell well and are picked up by major publishers are extremely rare. You probably have about as much chance of winning a lottery.

RW Walker says:  Agreed. Rare is the watchword here, however not every author who self pubs a book is looking to win any lottery.  There are as many reasons to self pub as there are to write in the first place.  Yes if one's goal is to be on any bestseller list in this country then self pubbing will likely disappoint; on the other hand, if your purpose or goal is something else, say vindication or self actualization, or to share your story with other cancer victims...then you may just win THAT lottery via self publicaton or the separate model of Print on Demand.

Brown:  2. Will it hurt their (self P's or POD authors*) chances of getting a legitimate publisher or agent? I
would say only for that particular work. Future works would be judged on their own. It would help if you have some decent sales on the self-published book.

Walker:  Again I agree up to a point. Most certainly each project is handled as a separate item even by one's agent and once in the hands of most editors. When querying an editor at a traditonal house or even a POD house it is not always wise to discuss a work that was self pubbed but has a poor track record or no record to speak of. And so I would counsel to not speak of it while trying to interest an editor in a current projet.  Sell the one you're with. However, if it is a POD and was vetted by a legitimate small press doing PODs, and it went through a rigorous process, and you got an advance and royalties accrued, by all means, despite sales numbers, I'd toot my horn over it and the fine publishing house you worked with to present a final product, putting it in the best of terms and light.

Brown:  3. Are they (insert: the unwashed or unvetted self pubbed*) prepared to have the novel professionally edited? There is no one, even editors, who can produce a book and trust their own editing skills. I've heard from a lot of editors who will tell you that they would never dream of putting a piece of their own out unedited. 

(*Rob's Inserts)

Walker:  Agreed whole-heartedly; rewriting is writing but editing is cold, objective third party rewriting and invaluable for a manuscript. This is truly where the boys and girls are separated out from the men and women. There is a huge lot of drek published in the self pub world, more so than ever with the advent of online ebook pubbing going on where anyone with a PC can set up shop now and become an Indie Author as I have, but it is sorely needed here--this thing we call vetting nowadays. Has the book or novel gone through a rigorous editing process by a professional editor such as a retired NYC editor or a person with a long history in the field?  A process that again pivots on payment, money changing hands, or in the case of legitimate small publishers whose processes may not hinge on advances but are just as rigorous as any NYC publishing concern or traditional publisher. Often these same publishers have seen their books win awards on top of awards.  My Five Star publisher is a fine example as is my wife's publisher, Krill, Poisoned Pen, Bleak House, Midnight Ink, Echelon with whom I have also published. Again big difference between a vetted POD novel and a purely self pubbed novel that has had no professional editing.  By the way, there is and always has been a great deal of tons of drek published via traditional publsihing as well. Stuff I would not line my bird cage with.

Brown:  4. Will you pay for a professionally designed book cover? Like it or not, book covers sell books. Your book can be the best thing since the Gutenberg bible, but if people think the cover looks like something their ten year old could do then no one will look past that.

Walker:  I agree that book covers need to be competive with the large houses that have whole departments devoted to cover art/design, and the generic covers offered up by lulu, smashwords, wordclay and other online publsihing outlets 'suck'. This is an area where the author does need to either get a GIFTED ten year old to do a professional looking cover or pay out some bucks.  There are many graphic designers willing to take your money to produce precisely the look you want or need. My son does all my ebook covers and Five Star used his cover design for Dead On.

Brown:  5.Realize that while Amazon may sell it for you, it will be next to impossible to get any bookstores to carry it. Libraries are unlikely to take your book and there are very few reviewers who will take on a self-published book.

Walker:  Self pubbed, PA is right, so right about book stores and libraries carrying self pubbed but not so with small press, not entirely.  In fact Five Star only targerts library sales. That is thier niche market. But again this is not self pubbing, so I will defer to PA on this and agree.  On the other hand, Amazon's relatively new Kindle Store and Kindle ebooks program at is a great, great boon for authors who have nowhere else to turn if they wish to re-release an out of print title that happens every day in the world of traditional publishing.  Authors such as myself who have this top-heavy list of titles dating back to 1979 can and are seeing a resurgence of interest in their work, finding a new audience in young readers who were not yet born say when my 11-book Instinct series was in print.

Other authors that I know who sold their 10th book and had 9 rejected ones before it but have confidence in those 9 have also become highly successful Indie Authors via Amazon/Kindle.  The benefits here go beyond self-aggrandizement and self importance as it begins with the best money split in a publishing contract I have seen in publishing anywhere, wherein the author is highly valued as a partner and not the last man on the totem to be paid a decent wage.  What Pat is talking about is old news - some fourteen year old kid self-pubs on his blog his massive four hundred thousand word science fiction epic. This Kindle program is a new day for professional authors whose descripts, cover art, reviews, and reputations sell the books.  But to be fair, Pat's speaking of first time authors who decide to go Kindle, and yes, they do have an uphill battle indeed but it affords them some sense of belonging and being while they wait the two or three or ten years to find an agent or an editor on the roulette wheel of traditional publishing where luck and happenstance play as great a part if not MORE than talent; in fact Amazon ebooks are more likely to display raw new young and old talent than are traditonal houses these days who have thier top ten play lists.

However, again so much depends on how hungry a writer is for fame, money, or recognition of his work -- what he or she is shooting for as in the stars or as in a sense of self worth.  Where on the scale of goals do your dreams properly fall or completely fail and disappoint you? Complete disappointment in your self pubbed book or even a POD or a Kindle can be bleak as hell, depending on what sort of expectations you had for the book which are?

Brown:  6. Realize that all selling and promotion will be on your head. Yes, I know a lot of publishers do that now, but even so, they can usually get your book into catalogs and in front of booksellers. And they can distribute it.

Walker:  I have worked with over 10 or 11 publishers, mostly traditonal with advances and money changing hands or "legit" houses and while I got the occasional ad here and there, once in the New York Times on a Monday deeply embedded, and in the catalogs, ninety percent of the fifty or so times at the trough, the book was pubbed without a shred of promotion, yet I found it entirely on my head. True distribution is the greatest selling point for mass market houses as they have a lock on it in most cases, but even then after the initial excitement of seeing your book in every major box store, bam come the returns period and almost as many of those distributed unpromoted books rush back to the house as stripped copies like a riptide and it was fun while it lasted, and your royalties suffer badly, and next it is the remainder table at Costco and The Book Barn.  I have never seen a remaindered ebook but they can be reduced in price; they can also be increased in price. But there are NO returns that play havoc with your royalties.  In all the ebooks I have sold on Kindle, I believe I have seen three, maybe four returned (no doubt due to language, sin, sex, violence or mistaken identity); none of the riptide stuff. There is a freedom and a sense of empowerment that comes too with publishing the Kindle ebook - if it fails, you can accept the condemnation, accept that it was on your head, your choices, your title, your pricing, your pub date, your promo efforts or lack thereof.  With traditonal publishing, believe me--while you were not consulted on all these matters, and it took nine months to two years to see print, it is your fault when the riptide occurs--it MUST be the writing and it MUST be the author's fault.

Brown:  7.As a self-published author, you will also be fighting an uphill battle to have people take you or your book seriously. A lot of people are going to look at it this way: if no one would pay you to publish it, then it can't be any good. Whether that's true or not, the fact is that there are a lot of very bad self-published books out there and every fiction reader knows that.

Walker:  In traditional publishing you have to battle to get people to take you seriously. Even though some major publisher has laid out a tidy sum to put the work on the market, readers do not CARE who pubbed it and most do not pay attention to whether the words Random House is there or Midnight Ink if they are caught up by the copy - the descript or the cover art, or the title and subtitle for that matter, or your quite literary sounding name in bold letters, or the crime scene tape across the bottom ala Patterson.  In fact, readers often do not care how badly a book is written so long as it catches hold of their imaginations.
But again I agree with Pat Brown regarding the fact that there are far, far too many BAD books being published in self pub world, but then too there are far, far too many BADLY written, even SAD to say AWFUL books being published in the so-called real world of publishing...some, as an editor myself, I could not recommend even to their own authors who penned them! 

Brown:  8. You have a zero recognition factor. No one knows you, no one cares about your book, or how good your book is. You alone will have to convince them otherwise, one reader at a time.

Walker:  Even the professional book jobbers who work for the major publishers will tell you that it remains a business of selling one book at a time, one unit at a time; that is the nature of the book biz. Even online bookstores sell em one at a time.  As a new author with a first book priced at 25 bucks in the real world of pubbing, guess what, no one knows have zero recognition factor going for you. You alone will have to convince strangers otherwise, one reader at a time--beginning with your mother.

To be fair, I doubt that Pat Brown had given much thought to the distinctions I have made here between the vasrious sorts of self publsihing available to writers today that did not exist even a year ago before the kindle reader appeared on the scene, when some of us were pubbling with and such places as - now a Barnes & Noble asset. Now B&N has its own eReader, the Nook--and millions have bought into both this and Kindle. There are probably more things to consider, but Pat and I for two would tell any aspiring writer to try to have your book published by traditional means by all means, as it remains the Good House Keeping Seal of Approval in all quarters, but there are now other Seals of Approval, awards for best ebooks, even best self published books, and more and more review outlets for same are popping up daily along with chat groups such as KindleKorner.

Yes by all means struggle to find a legit publisher but do not overlook the smaller legit publishers, and when you get sick and tired of the horrible game of collecting rejections, you do not have to wait for a decade or two as I did when my 160,000 too-large-for-traditional-houses-to-deal-with novel in three parts, Children of Salem, was turned down by every publisher in the known universe. Once I decided it was better off on Kindle than collecting dust in my drawer, it took me one day to publish it.  This after YEARS of vetting this Hystery-Mystery hybrid, and today it is outselling all my other books combined.  For one thing, it does not cost 25.95 but was priced by the author at 2.99 which goes up in July.

So yes, thank God we have more choices and avenues to publication than in past years when Mark Twain had to self publish at his own cost the Memoirs of President US Grant who was destitute at the time.

A final word from Pat to whom I owe a great deal of gratitude for allowing me to counter each of her eight arguments first posted on DorothyL about a month ago now.  Pat has been a great sport to allow me such sway with her words in this debate and for that I hope you will definitely go to visit her terrific website which displays her remarkable achievements and titles as she is the author of the award-winning LA series of crime novels; find my gracious guest at  and below find Pat's bio.  AND please leave your comments and questions!

Brief Bio for PA Brown: 

At age 22 I left rural life in Ontario, Canada for a place that was called a war zone by the LAPD. There were stabbings and shootings and assaults every weekend. Most of my time in L.A was spent crawling around in the underbelly of the city, trying to find new and interesting ways to kill myself, including a month or so living out of a car. I visited Skid Row, spent time on the streets of Hollywood, befriended a bartender who was killed after she went home with a customer. And you wonder why I write crime novels?

L.A. Heat grew out of those sometimes dark, always fascinating days. During the 80's I saw the advent of a terrible disease that no one understood that became known as AIDS. I knew a lot of people who died in those days. For a brief period of time, I was even a Valley girl, living within spitting distance of the famous Sherman Oaks Galleria. Do I miss it? Every day. I'm hoping to go back there next year for the next Left Coast Crime.

Then I went one better and moved to Hawaii in 1986 where my daughter was born. She's never quite forgiven me for moving back to Canada. I managed to get away one more time, this time to Bermuda for 2 years. What can I say, I keep leaving and Canada just keeps sucking me back in. But the time I spent in L.A, the land of dreams and lies,where illusion battled daily with reality, and reality rarely wins made an indelible impression on me and to this day almost all my writing is set there. I think the fact that my writing is fairly dark can also be laid at the doorstep of the City of Angels. I still immerse myself in reading anything I can find about the place, to the point that some people in my family think I'm a tad obsessive about it. But then the subject matter of my books also raises some eyebrows among them. I mean, I know lots of women write gay books, but it's all new to my family. I can lay the blame for L.A. Heat and Chris and David right at the doorstep of Los Angeles. If I'd stayed in London, Ontario I never would have come up with those two. You decide whether that's good or bad.

Once again my sincere thanks to Pat 'PA' Brown for her contribution to today's ACME Authors. I think it has been a fair fight and that Dr. Phil would approve.

Rob Walker
The latest madness - Name my Next Book Contest


L. Diane Wolfe said...

She covers the points quite well!

An author who truly self-publishes (buys his own ISBN) will achieve far greater success, regardless of printing method, than a subsidy author, and will garner more respect in the publishing industry as well. Self-pubbed and POD have received a bad rap because of subsidy presses.

A traditional publisher is still the best bet, small or otherwise.
Of course, that all depends on the author's goals, too.

Debra St. John said...

Interesting post. Thanks.

This sure gives a lot of food for thought.

Personally, I am very happy with my small press publisher.

Morgan Mandel said...

Amazon has been selling more ebooks than prints, so the publishing world is changing. One reason may be the economy.

Sure, I'd love to get a nice advance on a book to get it published. I'm aiming for that route on a few of my books, but I'm also leaving options open for exploring the world of ebooks, also for self-pubbing again.

I've mentioned before in other places, there are many options and we don't have to choose only one.

Morgan Mandel

Deb Larson said...

So much to consider, Rob. Thanks for posting all the many options we have as writers. None of it is easy - it takes hard work and consistency in writing a good story and then selling it.
DL Larosn

Serenity J. Banks said...

Good stuff, Rob. It is precisely this measured approach and these measured distinctions which so often fall absent from many discussions regarding the virtues of one publishing option over another. As you note, an author's success often lies in the hands of that author, and it is the author's ultimate goal that determines the most effective approach. If we all sat passively around, waiting by the mailbox for that big, dreamy publishing contract to arrive one day, many of us would never see print. While a traditionally published title might well be the shining star and the most powerful tool in the arsenal, it is not the only means by which success can come to authors. I have to chuckle a bit when looking back at where we've been and how far we've come, as even those early Web writing pioneers, who touted the first of the inevitable dreck online, were practicing sound social media marketing practices around their work before any of us began to discuss sound social media marketing practices. There are now so very, very many opportunities for us to take an active role in the success of our work, and frankly, it's silly to dismiss options without first vetting them for any potential gains.

Patty G. Henderson said...

A great idea to have this little debate. It's one I've been going to battle for on more than one occasion. I've been published by three publishers, two of them small, traditional presses. No advance and like you described, once the novels got the initial push after the first few months and the returns started coming in, I couldn't buy one week's worth of grocery on the royalties. I opted out of my last contract and decided to become an indie author. While I may not get the nice royalties up front, in the long run, I hope to make a decent profit. I think you mentioned it, Rob, but it really all depends on what the author wants out of their writing career. I don't want to interest a traditional publisher in my indie books. I couldn't care less if a publisher knows of my indie past because I don't have any interest in them. Not everyone who decides to indie publish or self-publish with a self-publishing company is doing so only to gain the attention of a traditional publisher.

Thanks for bringing this subject up. Good debate.

jenny milchman said...

Very interesting debate. I suspect the "answer," such that one exists, will be different in five years, one year, perhaps even by tomorrow, in this brave new world of publishing.

My agent is currently submitting my novel, and so the focus is on major houses. But I have friends and colleagues who are having such wonderful experiences with independents that they seem to me a tantalizing possibility as well.

I fully expect to do the bulk of my marketing, and even have this idea of criss-crossing the country by car, saying hello to as many booksellers as will have me.

Ah, perchance to dream...

Unknown said...

I think in ten years we won't recognize the publishing industry. The model used by NYC was never a functioning business model in the first place and exists in no other business on earth. There has always been a place for self-published books and always will be. I make the distinction mostly in what I will do -- I will sell to a small indie publisher who does both paperback and ebook (that's a personal bias, I want to see my books) but I do get tired of talking to people at conferences and having them ask if they can find me in a book store. Well, no, because though the bookstores could buy my books and stalk them, they never do, so 90% of the people I encounter at writing conventions and conferences have never heard of me. I also can't be reviewed by major review sites like PW or Kirkus or Mystery Scene because either there are no ARCs to send out or they don't touch small presses. I would print my own ARCs but basically my books go from my final proof to the printers, so there is no time for putting an ARC out months ahead of schedule. All these things will be changing over the years to come -- especially for organizations like Mystery Writers of America or Romance Writers of America who refuse to recognize publishers like mine -- when the 'stigma' of not getting an advance or print runs of thousands of copies will go away. But I will not self-publish. I like having my books edited by a professional and I refuse at this point to pay someone to do it for me.

Good blog, Rob. I think it's a legitimate discussion and people who stifle it for fear of stirring up strong emotions miss the point. It's a strong subject and it's our publishing lives that are on the line.

Ann Charles said...

Rob and P.A. Brown,

Thank you for writing about this subject, covering it in much more detail than I've seen in one place. You really present it as a business case rather than a status measurement. I appreciate the opportunity to look at several aspects of self-publishing, POD publishing, and big-house publishing in one place.

Dan S. Kennedy, an author of several good books on marketing and being an entreprenuer, once said something that was like a bright light flicking on in my head. When asked if an author should go with a NY publisher or self-publish, he said something like, "Why does it have to be 'or'--why not 'and.'" That was so freeing. It's very exciting to see more opportunities open up to authors.

Rob, as always, I'm a fan! Thanks for letting me know about this discussion. It's worth gold!

Ann Charles

Rob said...

Wow and thanks everyone for the lively input and passions I read here. I appreciate your letting me know that Pat and my points - all eight of them - have been seen as important. Hope you will encourage others to visit ACME. We at ACME work damn hard to get word out on all manner of things, and not always to do with publishing or writiing. Again thanks...Great points made by one and all. I will keep checking back but for now have to run to my Dirty Deeds site and Make Mine Mystery to check there.