As Publishers, Agents and Booksellers (unfortunately) (for them) Go The Way of the Dodo, Writers Learn To Fly

(First in a series of articles about the rapidly changing book-publishing industry.)


There are a lot of chickens running around these days trying to convince us that the literary sky is falling—and that if we don’t somehow find a way to slow or at least manage the digitization of book publishing, good writing is going to disappear forever.

Well, guess what, kids and pundits? You can stop reading (and writing) those articles, and you can also stop debating the issue: the traditional world of books has already all but vanished, and it isn’t coming back.

And guess what else? Writers and readers have begun to realize that the sky was not falling after all: what collapsed and shattered was only a glass ceiling.

While these are desperate times for most publishers, booksellers and agents, they represent the dawn of a new era for writers and readers (not to mention editors, publicists, book designers, and those bloggers who write coherent book reviews). After hundreds of years of trying to wrestle our way into (and then survive) uneasy alliances with the publishing industry, writers have—with no real effort on our parts—been unshackled, unbound and freed.

Almost overnight (at least in story-telling years), an entire infrastructure of walls and ceilings that prevented us from reaching our intended audiences have simply fallen away. Suddenly, unexpectedly, fantastically, we find ourselves with room to soar. No longer are we merely the authors of our books: we have become the authors of our destinies as well.

I have been writing fiction and nonfiction, both short and book-length, for thirty years. I have published four books with established presses and hundreds of articles and short stories in books, magazines and journals. Despite the good experiences I have had with various established presses, and the knowledge about book publishing I have gained by working as an editor and editor in chief with traditional publishing houses, I have never been more excited about the future of our art form—and our industry—than I am right now . . .  in fact, I find myself almost unable to get my head around the endless possibilities that lie before us. (Think product placement on your cover as a way to subsidize production and guarantee some sales: ”There are no sacred spaces left” – Morgan Spurlock, Director, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.)

A whole host of components of the traditional book-business continuum are being dramatically altered as the literary landscape changes, raising challenges (and opportunities) that include:

  • how readers will find outstanding writing in the growing pile of crap that is being published every day;
  • how to outsource the contributions that quality publishing houses have traditionally made to the book-production process (from pre-selection to editorial intervention to design to promotion, and more);
  • how writing awards, prizes, grants and reviews will be managed in a world where not only new writers but also those with strong track records are choosing to publish their own books (see, for example, Dean Wesley Smith and Barry Eisler;
  • why the future is still as bright as ever (whatever that means) for niche publishers and small literary presses;
  • why it is ridiculous to think that only rich people will be able to afford to self-publish.

Over the next several blog posts, I will deal with these and related issues in detail.  I will also talk about the upsides of independent publishing—such as the significantly higher proportion of the cover price writers receive on each sold copy of their books, and their ability to get their out-of-print books back on the market cheaply and easily.

To whet your appetite, here’s a rundown of some of the benefits I see for independently published writers (and their readers):

  • Elimination of the gatekeeping role of agents, and of those acquisitions editors who are required to get approval from the sales department before they make book selections;
  • Higher royalties paid to self-published authors (50% or more compared to the traditional 10%);
  • Expanded marketing opportunities (nobody knows a book like the author does);
  • Instantaneous reports on sales and royalties;
  • Creative input by authors re: book covers and layout;
  • Copies of books and reprints when you need them instead of when the system can afford to spit them out;
  • Inventive co-publishing opportunities;
  • The ability to do short-run publications of such books as memoirs intended only to be read by family and friends without having to store 500 copies in your basement—and the capacity to fulfil orders when your memoir suddenly goes viral.

In the post that launched The Militant Writer blog, “The Talent Killers: How Literary Agents Are Destroying Literature and What Publishers Can Do to Stop Them,”  I managed to alienate most of the literary agents on the continent — not to mention the acolytes who’d been hoping to snag said agents as their representatives. This time I’m likely to incur the wrath of publishers and booksellers.

Aside from not really wanting to antagonize people in these fields who are my friends, I’m not concerned about that. Nor am I worried about the comments I’m sure I’ll get again from people who will warn me that I am shooting myself in both feet — that no publisher will ever take my books after what I’ve written here, and no booksellers will stock my titles.

I am now preparing to self-publish my next novel, The Whole Clove Diet. I assure you that if the book sells well, publishers will be asking me for the opportunity to re-publish, agents will be sending me emails inquiring about representation, and booksellers will be making exceptions regarding their policy re: stocking at least one self-published book.

And if my book doesn’t sell like hotcakes: well, at least it will be out there—which it is not right now-—and I will be free to move on to my next book.

I no longer need the publishers, or the agents, or the booksellers.

Neither do you.

18 responses

  1. Look how much the world of publishing has changed since that first post!
    I re-read ‘The Talent Killers’ not long ago – found myself giggling at the comments. Yes, dire threats were made – by people who must eat their words because in the end – you are getting the last laugh!
    Hope your book goes viral. You might want your trailer to say: “By the infamous author of “The Talent Killers” just for fun.

  2. Pingback: As Publishers, Agents and Booksellers (unfortunately) (for them) Go The Way of the Dodo, Writers Learn To Fly (via The Militant Writer) « Kat Jordan's Blog

  3. I agree. This is an exciting time for writers, independent publishers and freelance editors, illustrators, graphic designers and others who are willing to passionately embrace the new reality. I am.

  4. Thanks for this great article! I’m looking forward to the next one and feel that now is a wonderful time for the Internet and writing.

    The Internet was originally created in the 1970s with the sole purpose of providing a massive online library for people around the world to access. The publishing industry has been far too slow in getting here. Writers belong here, and I’m glad to see them embracing it.

  5. Who was it that said the news of my death is a little exaggerated, there are still plenty of old fogies like me who want a book to hold.

    • I’m sure many of us are going to always want to have a book to hold (I like looking at them on my many bookshelves, too. They are my friends–the memory of what I’ve read comes back when I look at them on the shelf). But now we don’t need to print thousands more copies than we’ll ever need and have them end up in the dump. Now each book that’s printed has already been ordered. And there will always be the option of running a few hundred or thousand extra if you do want to place them in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, or take them to a book-signing. :)

  6. Mary – I’m really looking forward to any thoughts you may have on promoting the books and getting readers to know a book exists – because whatever it is I’m doing to promote my book is most definitely not working.

  7. I loved this post. You are just reconfirming the analysis that I’ve been making of the publishing industry over the last two years. I’m really, really nervous at the thought of my book coming out soon with a small indie publisher but that feels so much better than frustrated and miserable because I can’t make it past the gatekeepers. I can’t wait to read your next post!

  8. Thank you for a great article. I have thought many of the same thoughts, but not having a history in the publishing industry, was unsure how far off the mark I actually was. What exciting times to be living and writing in. Liberating!

  9. Having seen a sample of Whole Clove Diet long ago, I’m looking forward to finally getting it on my Kindle (or maybe even holding it in my hands!) I suspect that it’s the kind of book — with a large target audience — that will do extremely well as an “indie” in this enlightened age. I look forward to seeing your continuing series on this.

  10. No one will mourn the loss of lit agents and big publishers, myself included. I was inspired enough by your posts to begin on my own work, duly published on this web site. In particular, I wrote a comical essay on their imminent death – I figure the more the merrier as regards chronicling their fall. A new class of writers will almost certainly emerge, perhaps even a resurrection of quality writing.

    I feel somewhat obliged though to lament the loss of booksellers amidst the fun of celebrating the irrelevance of agents and big publishers. I’m one of the few who regard a physical book as a sort of treasure. They’re the unlucky innocents caught in the middle.

    • You make an excellent point. The independent booksellers are the most significant victims here. I was really thinking more of the big chains, which have generally been unhelpful when it comes to stocking self-published books–and even local authors.

  11. Mary, you are so singing my song!! Thanks for laying it all out there so eloquently for those who may still feel timid about embracing our liberation. Self-publishing is hard work with endless ideas and tasks to sort out and implement. There are many frogs to kiss along the production line, and more than once I said I was throwing in the towel. But in the end it is all about the freedom to write WHAT we want to write, knowing that we do not need to toe someone else’s marketing line. My first self-published book would never have seen the light of day in its present form had I gone with a traditional publisher. It simply cost WAY too much to produce. After 3 years, it is sold out (and I had the power to decide it would be a one-time only edition) and has become a local classic. The income & reader base it gave me opens many opportunities for variations on a theme that will provide a decent base income over the long haul, allowing me to WRITE! Which is what it’s all about in the end, isn’t it? Thank-you for all the effort you are putting in the trumpet the great news and convert the skeptics! You rock!

    • Wow! Congrats to you on the course you’ve taken! You are and the others who are doing this provide the evidence for those who are contemplating similar paths. And thank you for your kudos!

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