April 17, 2011

While I’ve been waiting, the world has changed: To E Or Not To E

Filed under: Backstory,Kids and Life,The Writing Life — jenny @ 9:48 pm

Today on his blog Joe Konrath asked me if I was an idiot. OK, he may not have used quite that word. And I suppose he wasn’t exactly talking to me. (Joe doesn’t know me).

But I felt as if he were.

It used to be that if you wanted to publish a book, and you hadn’t been graced with validation from a publisher, then it meant one of two things.

1) Your work wasn’t very good


2) Your work was good but publishers didn’t agree and so you’d better be ready to fork over a lot of money, and a lot of shoe leather, to try and prove it

I know several people who did exactly that. One fell into category 1) and the other into 2). All that differed between them was their level of success eventually. But the blood, sweat and tears along the way were the same.

No more.

Now, as Joe points out, and out, and out (because dummies like me might need to hear it twenty-hundred times as my five year old would say–the twenty-hundred, not the dummy part) you can publish a book that publishers won’t touch. For free. And quickly, too.

All it takes is a smattering of technical skill, or some cash to pay someone with a smattering of technical skill–or a baby and six years.

By that time, the baby will be able to get your book out on however many apps we’re using then. Maybe imprint it directly onto your retinas. Saves the piracy problem.

What does this mean? Well, first of all it means a lot of [insert word here] stuff will be put out there.

Mystery novelist Jeff Markowitz said at a recent Writing Matters panel that 80% of Americans think they can write a novel.


“Eighty percent of Americans,” said Jeff. “Can’t boil pasta.”

So there’s going to be a lot of [insert word again] clogging the pipelines. But so what? Did you think everything the majors publish smells like daisies?

Joe wisely points out that most self-published writers won’t make a living off their writing. Then again, most traditionally published authors don’t either.  The figure I’ve always heard batted around is 200.

Two hundred Americans earn a living off their fiction.

I am pretty sure my book isn’t [insert word]. It’s gotten more than a dozen blurbs from big authors. Ones who weren’t contractually obligated to read my book since, well, no one would ask them to do that. It’s been blogged about and tweeted by two authors whom I’d count among the best.

So why I don’t I follow Joe’s advice? Like, tonight?

Two reasons. First, I love print. I am thrilled if people–more people by all accounts–are reading digitally. I’m happy (OK, more than happy) for them to read my work that way.

(Ooh, and now you can! Yes, go to this link and you can download a short story of mine that represents my very first paid for piece of work. No one’s reviewed it yet as far as I can tell, so if you do you get an extra doughnut, or at least my heartfelt thanks).

But, all the above notwithstanding, I do love print, and I love bookstores (duh, that’s obvious, my 7 year old would say before I nailed her with a mommy look) and I’d also like to be able to read my own book. Joe’s method doesn’t cover that because he believes books are going the way of the T Rex.

The second reason is that I’m searching to repair an age old wound of invalidation and lack of recognition left over from childhood days at school.

Well, I am.

Don’t a lot of us want to be published traditionally for the validation? The, “See [insert name of prom king or queen/varsity star/valedictorian here]? I did it!!! You wound up dried up and dried out and wallowing in a bog somewhere and I. Got. Published.”

Joe would say that a hundred thousand readers and a million bucks will afford a lot of validation.

And maybe he’s right. Maybe it’s time to put away childhood–and childish–things and follow the eleventh commandment of Nike.

You know what that is, don’t you?


  1. I Heart you Jenny Milchman!

    I’m thrilled Cupcakes, Lies, and Dead Guys was published by Krill Press, a super duper Indie Publisher after that kerfuffle with my former agency. I will happily self-publish my fun self-help bodywork book filled with easy tips on how to look and feel younger. I’ll even finish writing the next book in the Cupcake series and see how that plays out.

    But honestly. I still want to find a new agent who loves my YA ms, and I want it to go to a big publisher. Because I think it’s a big book.

    So, maybe I’m a little crazy, too.


    Comment by Pamela DuMond — April 17, 2011 @ 11:11 pm

  2. Yeah, the changing situation in publishing seems chock full of a lot of pros and some cons, from where I sit. I agree with the point you made that easy means of self-publishing will likely result in an increase of bad fiction on the market, and weeding that stuff out is going to take a lot of effort. But at the same time, there are a lot of benefits to authors of good fiction, who’ve been rejected by traditional publishers for every bizarre reason in the book. And it seems to be a useful choice for well-established authors, who want to make a bigger cut of their own profits, and who have a dedicated pool of readers who will follow them into electronic media and POD.

    At the same time, I agree with you in wanting to see your book in print and distributed in actual bookstores. I’ve always dreamed of that, too. When I ever finish my behemoth of a novel and hopefully land an agent, I suspect I will probably go the traditional route first, and repeat the same hopeful waiting game I’ve seen so many people go through. But who knows what the market will look like in a year or two? I might have a completely different strategy by the time my novel is finished and as polished as I can make it. I will likely not be trailblazing my way like Karen McQuestion or Amanda Hocking, because I’ll have the advantage of watching what happens over the next few years, while I focus on writing.

    No matter which route you go, Jenny, I still think of you as a trailblazer, because you’ve opened a dialog with so many people on the ups and downs and details of the publishing process. I’m still hoping your last-ditch effort with the sole remaining major pans out, so you can have the pleasure of seeing your book in bookshelves, and know that you “made it” at least that far. But if it doesn’t, you know what you’re going to do, and I think you will succeed with either method. After all, you’ve done more than many published authors in getting your name out there, networking, and being a resource for other writers. That’s a large part of what publicity folks do anyway!

    Comment by Becca — April 17, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

  3. Hooray for this, Jenny! You’ve captured not just the publishing situation, but also the emotional situation, perfectly.

    Comment by David Ebenbach — April 18, 2011 @ 7:04 am

  4. Pam, I will happily *read* that book with tips on feeling younger, just as I happily read CUPCAKES–proving Becca’s point, that loyal readers will follow a writer wherever she is.

    Becca, I very much appreciate your comment, although I don’t think of myself as a trailblazer–more a follower. But I suppose I have had to strike out a bit during these many long years.

    In terms of a “big book”–the challenge is for a writer with a book with that potential to make it big, digitally and in bookstores. That would be the best of both worlds, and unlike Joe, I don’t see print and bookstores going the way of the big D. So, that’s what I’m working on (hint, hint :)

    Comment by jenny — April 18, 2011 @ 7:05 am

  5. 80% of Americans also pee in pools. Not a bandwagon I intend to hop …into… anytime soon. :) I think some of the “80% of Americans think they can write a novel” idea comes from the way that ghostwriters will descend upon anyone who’s ever had anything happen to them that garners a moment of media attention, and — boom. Mega book sale.

    I still feel that too much junk is allowed in through self-publishing. Too many people who cannot even edit their own grammar and spelling think they’re the new Tolkein and will spend 700+ pages proving it. However, I’ve only heard of maybe 3 success stories from the self-publishing world, while at the same time I hear many other stories of people who feel cheated or disappointed. Those are the tales you don’t get to hear because they’re not publicized.

    There may well come a time when I feel differently. I have gone through 3 agents with no success yet, and am already tired of “the game”–but, at the same time, I don’t feel a single agent has yet actually marketed my work to publishers. I want to give that a shot before I give up.

    And that’s the question I have to ask: if self-publishing feels like giving up? Then one should probably not do it. But if it feels like a new adventure, or a way of rebelling against a stagnant, dinosaur industry, then go for it!

    Comment by Savvy — April 18, 2011 @ 8:24 am

  6. I think you nailed it there in your last, graf, Savvy. And I think it also depends on a writer’s ability to be honest with him or herself. Is the book 700 pages of unedited crap and didn’t get picked up because it was? Or does it, um, have 12 big blurbs, 5 almost offers…OK, I realize this isn’t all about *me*. It’s about all of us. And what we should do.

    David, so nice to see you here, and so glad you felt I captured something.

    Comment by jenny — April 18, 2011 @ 8:30 am

  7. Excellent blog, Jenny! I think that all of us here in e-publishing are going through the same conflict – do I keep beating my head against that agent’s door or press that handy little send button?

    And – what if I am one of the 80%?

    One last comment – there is still a lot of shoe leather involved after pressing that send button, but now it is virtual. Those of us with ebooks are marketing ourselves and our own works faster than snake-oil salesmen with briefcases full of bibles and encyclopedias.

    Comment by Alison DeLuca — April 18, 2011 @ 9:19 am

  8. Well said.
    The writer snob in me loves the 80% comment. LOL. And also Savvy’s comment about the next Tolkein.

    Maybe the problem is that those who write well, utilizing the tools effectively, make it look easy–the way good actors make playing a part look easy. Naturally, bad actors remind us that it isn’t something everyone can do.

    So, here’s to self-publishing–the American Idol for writers.


    The Literary Version of William Hung

    Comment by Cal Noble — April 18, 2011 @ 9:24 am

  9. Oh, very good point, Alison. I was referring to literal shoe leather–this author I know who succeeded literally hoofed it up and down the eastern seaboard, visiting booksellers and book clubs (and without much help from the net in finding them–can you imagine??)

    But e publishing has been likened to eating an elephant. The only way to do it is one bite at a time. The amount of work you and others are doing is phenomenal.

    Comment by jenny — April 18, 2011 @ 9:26 am

  10. I’m in the same muddle.
    I just don’t belive SelfPub is the place for LitFic–not yet.
    So, I just keep plundering forward.

    Comment by Rosemarie (Summertime Rose) — April 18, 2011 @ 9:39 am

  11. I don’t think there is any “right” answer. I think there are many answers, all different shades of gray, as opposed to black and white. All I know is that is very, very hard to be a new author today –or a midlist author — or any author who isn’t one of those two hundred…

    Comment by Judy — April 18, 2011 @ 9:47 am

  12. I think Judy’s right–we all must find our way and acknowledge that there is no one right way.

    Cal–spot on! It *is* the American Idol for writers. And oh, when those notes clang…

    Summertime, keep on keeping on until or unless there is some other path that feels right.

    The one universal I’d recommend to all of us is to get our work read by as many as will read it. Avid readers. Industry folk. Other writers. Authors. This will serve two purposes. 1, it gives us some insight into whether our books are ready despite what the Big 6 maybe be offering (or not offering). And 2, it breeds opportunity. I know of writers who met agents, got blurbs, and even publishing contracts–all from one key reader.

    Comment by jenny — April 18, 2011 @ 10:06 am

  13. We all want to be loved and appreciated for our hard work and story-telling abilities. We all want to get to the publishing prom–however we define that.
    An agent or a publisher gives us a little of that attention, one-on-one, but could dump us at any time–shades of high school romance.
    Thousands of e-readers might love us, but in an anonymous way (unless they post a review)and their votes for prom queen don’t count because they’re dancing to a different tune at a different venue than those in traditional publishing.
    But if you already have the dress and the corsage, it’s tough to set aside the dream.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — April 18, 2011 @ 10:18 am

  14. Dress, corsage, limo paid for, make up applied…You’re right, Carolyn.

    OTOH, dreams get much bigger as soon as we learn that there’s more to life than high school.

    Comment by jenny — April 18, 2011 @ 10:32 am

  15. Well said. By the way, I found that 80% stat (and some other sobering statistics) in a 2003 essay by Robyn Jackson, posted on the University of Dayton, Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop website – http://www.humorwriters.org/startlingstats.html

    Comment by Jeff Markowitz — April 18, 2011 @ 11:40 am

  16. Thanks for the link, Jeff! I love Erma Bombeck, goodness, I remember her IF LIFE IS A BOWL OF CHERRIES from when I was a kid…

    Comment by jenny — April 18, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

  17. But can 80% of Americans do what I can do: boil a book?

    Comment by Eric — April 18, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

  18. I think Cal’s comments are spot on and I would just amplify his statement: those who write well AND market well make it look easy and more doable than it truly may be.

    I have a new perspective to add. My novel was published by a biggie (Penguin) and hugely promoted (NYTimes review, Costco flyers, etc.) and then reissued and promoted by an in-house publicist. Of course, I did my own marketing, too. My paper sales were good; my publisher was pleased. My total e-book sale royalties were . . . well, maybe enough to buy me a really good pair of shoes. That makes me doubt I could do better with e-sales totally on my own.

    I also wonder if genre and target readers are greater factors than writing and marketing skills in e-book sales. Seems to me the whopping success stories for fiction writers are those who mostly write YA paranormal.

    Last, as a writing teacher, I admit I’d have to overcome a lot of skepticism to buy a self-published book. Everyone thinks he’s a better writer than he is (including moi). In fact, except for my friends’ books, I have not bought any.

    Comment by Sara — April 18, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

  19. All good points, Sara. But–two important things to keep in mind re: e rights from where you’re coming from. a) The world has changed in the last year, let alone the last couple. It’s changed in the last month where e sales are concerned. And b) the majors are decimating e sales by charging far too much for them and not promoting them effectively.

    You guys know I am enormously wedded to print. No matter how pervasively people read digitally, if there’s a bookstore left standing (mind this is an apocalyptic vision I’m painting) I will be in it. However, even I have become wary of an offer from a major–and there’s only one possibility left–because I think it may very well *cost* me a fortune. There are much smarter, or at least more business savvy, writers than I worrying about their children’s inheritances if a major house secures e rights to their work.

    Prestige, validation, that woo hoo moment, and easier (although potentially ultimately less successful) distribution–all that the majors can deliver. But I’m not sure how much else.

    In terms of quality, I see it as a mixed bag, with more concentrated in the lower end than with the majors, but probably not more per capita title. IOW, great books are rare as hen teeth, no matter the venue.

    I am a big fan of your work, Sara. I hope whichever way it happens, it gets out there again soon.

    Comment by jenny — April 18, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

  20. I happen to be re-reading Sara’s book right now and am STILL utterly blown away. I can’t believe I can even talk to the gal that wrote that. It’s brilliant, and so confidently written.

    Comment by Savvy — April 18, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

  21. Validation! That’s what the big guys offer and it’s what writers crave. But think about the flip side for a minute. How many times have you been reading a big publishing house, hardbound book, validated by and editors and agents alike that is bad? Really, really bad. There are the typos and sentences that are obvious glitches from previous edits? There are also the tired plot lines, boring characters and authors who would have been well-advised to cut significant chunks of material.

    The prom queen isn’t always the most beautiful girl in the room and books with the NYC stamp of approval aren’t always the best.

    Btw, LOVE your site Jenny. Thanks for discussing all these hard issues!

    Comment by Johanna — April 18, 2011 @ 10:10 pm

  22. “The prom queen isn’t always the most beautiful girl in the room and books with the NYC stamp of approval aren’t always the best.”

    In the words of the truly great author Nancy Pickard, the above needs a big ole ‘like’ button beside it.

    Life sometimes needs a ‘like’ button, huh?

    Welcome to the blog, Johanna. So happy to see you here.

    Is it a secret or can I say that I suspect Johanna will be considered a great author in her own right before too long?

    Comment by jenny — April 18, 2011 @ 10:16 pm

  23. There’s still a ton of us who are a bit scared of going the e-route. For me, it’s not that I’m scared of being an e-pubbed author. I’m scared of figuring out how to do it. I’m pubbed by a university press, but I’m thinking of going e.

    Comment by Helen Ginger — April 19, 2011 @ 10:00 am

  24. Hi Helen, and so glad you joined the discussion. I’m curious as to what’s making you contemplate a switch from university press to e…?

    Comment by jenny — April 19, 2011 @ 10:05 am

  25. Let me add some comments from Canada. Amanda Hocking, a 27 yrs old, from Minnesota got many rejections from Print (P) Book Publishers. So, she self-publshed her books in e-format and sold herbooks from her website and made over $2 million in 2-3 years. And now she got a contract to publish her books from a Major Print Book Publisher. She moved from E to P. Her story showed that you can get a deal from a P Book Publisher if you do well in an E format. But, ofcourse, what she did is out of this world, anf very few can sell like her from their website. But she’s an inspiration to all.

    Unlike some of you, I never wanted to be writer. I wrote a book of love and adventure in China, based on the concept of my Musical, as an alternative way to promote my musical. I’m highly educated and view my Book as a business project not as a vanity projet to satisfy my need to see my book in stores, or to validate myself as a writer. I got many many rejections from literary agents and some book pulishers so far, but I keep finding new names of literary agenst and new names from P book publishers and keep sending. Unlike the only 2 alternatives that Jenny gave us (1) and (2) at the beginging.. my conclusion is that many good books are not being accepted by P Book Publishers because the economic business of P publishing is really bad. P Publishers don’t make money, so they reject many good books because of economic reasons, not literary reasons.

    I wish that I was like Amanda Hocking and had her energy to build a website and sell my only book like she did. But I don’t and can’t see my self even getting closer to her E publishing success. So I still pursue the P Book Publishers. Not because of vanity, but for economic reasons. I feel that they can better promote my book than I can, and if it will be in stores with catchy cover, many more potentials readers will notice it. So, I am pursuing the P Book Publishers and P literary agents till no one of them will be left standing. I understand that P Publishers don’t do much promotions also, but at least the physical presence in book stores is a good exposure. If I had the energy and talent of Amanda Hocking, I will immediately go to E books. But sadly, I don’t.

    At the end for writers it’s not to E or not to E, but what to E and what not to E. I have only one book and don’t plan to write another. So I am pursuing only the P alternative at the moment, now mainly in china. But for writers who have few books and can write more, they should do some E publishing, just like Jenny did as a way to reach readers out there and build some presence, but still in my humble opinion pursue their main Book with P publishers until they get rejections from everyone. Good luck for everyone reading this comment in getting their books published.

    Comment by Giora — April 20, 2011 @ 6:17 am

  26. Giora, thank you so much for this meaty and substantive comment. I think you exposed some nuance that didn’t make it into my post. You’re what–what to e is an excellent way to look at things, especially starting out. And you’re completely right about the role the economy is playing, and that it’s changed things in publishing.

    Depending on how e/print levels out, I think going with a major could a few years from now be a losing proposition financially, unless they change their current e pricing (and royalties) structure. That’s a dimension I’m watching very closely, and if people are interested, I’d be happy to explain my thinking on this.

    But I am HUGE believer in print and want my books in bookstores and long after Amazon is selling Kindle 20 and no one’s books downloaded onto the earlier version exist except in landfill, I will be holding a book in my hand…

    And I hope someone else might be holding mine.

    Good luck with your own Path, Giora. Please check in here with any questions, steps forward, or more interesting thoughts you might have.

    Comment by jenny — April 20, 2011 @ 11:44 am

  27. I came very close to going the self-pub route (back in the POD days, before e-pubbing hit big) because I’d come so close to being traditionally published only to have my work turned down for bizarre reasons — the fantasy novel that was liked by an editor and pretty much everyone else at a big house was rejected by the publisher because the house lost too much money that year on a sci-fi thriller ghost-written for a big-name politician. (I didn’t like the Big-Name Policitian *before* that happened, and I sure didn’t like him afterwards!)

    But in the end I chose not to self-pub because I knew that I couldn’t do as good a job of it as a professional publisher could. I’m very glad I made that decision, and very pleased to have eventually found a small press to take on my work. Actually, TWO small presses for two different genres! Like you, I love print and it is a huge thrill to see a book with my name on it in a bookstore.

    My bookshelves at home are Memory Lanes to me – souvenirs of trips well traveled. I love to scan over the titles and covers and remember the stories and scenes and characters. If all of those books were stored on an electronic device, I suppose I could still scroll through them, but I’m certain that all of the joy would be lost in the ether.

    Comment by Alex MacKenzie — April 20, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

  28. I heart you too! Well said. I, too, love books and bookstores and validation. I hear you. It’s a tough call.
    I was there for the 80% comment & it was great! And true. I don’t expect to live off of writing, but I do want a physical representation of my work. I can’t help it. I want a book.

    Comment by stacey Gill — April 22, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

  29. I think most of it has been said. I’d sure love to think of myself as one of the 20%, and maybe that’s what part of this e-publishing effort on my part is about… finding out for sure. I think I could get the validation this way (although I’m still shooting for the traditional route). One good thing about the way things are trending with e-books is the presence of free samples. I feel like the fact that it is so highly recommended that you do this (and not even a choice on most sites like Amazon or B&N), a large bit of that 80% will be weeded out. At least I can hope. And at least I can hope that I won’t be one of them.

    Comment by Paul Dail — June 30, 2011 @ 9:50 pm

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