Hugh Howey on why he favors self-publishing

Hugh Howey, author of the runaway self-published best-seller Wool, has a very well-argued, thoughtful, and fascinating look at the relative merits of self-publishing for a median kind of writer, who is not a bestseller and only looks for a supplement to a regular income:

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.

Hugh Howey: Self-publishing is the future — and great for writers (via Waxy)


  1. At least for genre writers (and while bookstores exist), he’s forgotten the #1 source of marketing (and truthfully, the only real marketing that matters for the 98% of authors who aren’t already famous).  And that is to get your book in front of several hundred thousand actual readers who want to buy a book right now.

    No publicity that most of us (Scalzi excepted) can do will ever come close to 1/100th of that.

    *That* is why mainstream publishers still have value.  Now, if you already have followers, then it’s a totally different ballgame.  Lots of mid-list authors may make a living out of it self-publishing.

    But as universal advise?  This sounds like the familiar “if it worked for me, then it’s the best possible advise for every person in every circumstance”.

    1. “And that is to get your book in front of several hundred thousand actual readers who want to buy a book right now.”

      Which is just as easy to do as a self-publisher as it is going with a legacy publishing house. Because all of those “several hundred thousand actual readers” are visiting Amazon. Or Goodreads. Or any number of other sites that are not beholden to legacy publishers.

      While it is extremely unlikely that a self-publisher will ever get into bricks-and-mortar bookstores, it’s not like bookstore access is a $DEITY-given right to those who try the legacy publishing route. Even if you get past the “slush pile” at the publisher, you still have to convince the acquisitions team at the bookstore chains and indy stores. The publisher won’t do all that much to help you push those books, beyond put you in a catalog. And if the *author* is going to do all that marketing effort, you may as well do it for your self-publishing efforts, as you make more per copy sold self-publishing than you do after legacy publishers take their cut.

      1. Which is just as easy to do as a self-publisher as it is going with a
        legacy publishing house. Because all of those “several hundred thousand
        actual readers” are visiting Amazon.

        Unfortunately, this is simply a matter of numbers.  There are a few hundred genre titles published a month.  My back of the envelope calculation was ~1,000 books self-published a *day*.

        And that is where the rubber hits the road.  How do you distinguish your book from the, say, 3,000 self-published books out that month in your genre, all of whom are as desperate to get sales as you are.

        Essentially, *anything* you can do, so can the other 3,000 authors (unless you’re already famous for something else…)  Giving it away free isn’t going to help, thousands are also doing that, and a free bad book is still worth negative money (in opportunity cost).

        But, you are quite right, mainstream publishing has tremendous barriers, but those barriers are *why* it has value.  You need a filter, and nothing says filter like “I’m a disinterested party whose investment of ~$10K in cover design, editor and distribution says I believe enough people will like this book that it will make money.”

        1.  Having worked in a small publishing house, I know exactly what Howey is talking about, and must agree with him.
          My advice to aspiring authors has been (for a good decade now): treat it like a band. It’s great to hold your album/book in your hands, but you’re only going to sell if you go on tour.

          1. May I ask, do/did you publish primarily non-fiction or fiction?

            My observation has been that while self-promotion works for non-fiction (reader realizes they’re interested in this author’s take on a subject after hearing her or him speak), unless you’re such a fantastically entertaining person, fiction self-promotion is often about as welcome as unsolicited telephone sales calls, and for much the same reason.

            Specifically, they *might* be promoting a good book/deal, but the odds of it are low, and the cost of finding out whether it’s a good deal are expensive (your time for a book, your time and $ for a telephone solicitation).

            With respect to SF, I’ve seen aggressive self-promotion make some dealers rooms in conventions almost uncomfortable as desperate authors hard-sell their book to anyone coming within 10′ of their table or on any panel they’re on.

            I’m still hoping for some mechanism for self-published books with the potential to “go big” to get the recognition they deserve.  Paying for objective reviews from respected authorities might work, but who’s going to pay for a review that is 95% likely to be 0-1 stars?

          2.  Fiction.

            Shift perspective: not the book is the product, but “an evening with the author”. It’s a performance event, so don’t be shy to ask an admission fee.

            A comfortable atmosphere can do wonders. Dim the lights, put up candles, hand out a free drink (set your admission fee to cover it).

            Invite press to these events (free admission, of course – and the drink is free as well).

            [ For fantasy and similar stories, a very effective thing is to do is to provide musical interludes, preferably on a medieval instrument. Many young musicians like the gigs, and then it’s not just about the author but a whole art event. ]

            Basically ask yourself: how can I recreate the comfortable reading atmosphere I’ve got at home best for a larger audience. Turn them into little children anticipating their bed time story.

            It should be obvious, but with this much effort, advertise the event beyond a few posters at the library itself. Most venues are busy enough just running themselves; don’t expect them to advertise for you. Since they don’t advertise, they don’t get (much) of the admission fee, either.

            The whole strategy is to build a reputation for the author for providing high quality entertainment. Then you can also sell books as the audience leaves.

            My most successful author friend writes fantasy, sci-fi and crime novels, and manages to make a variation of the above theme work for himself. He is, however, an excellent performer!

          3. “an evening with the author” …

            I’m… in awe, especially of those who can multi-class writer/performer.

            I now understand what you mean about thinking of it like a band.  To succeed in that environment, you’re really selling the experience rather than the book/music by itself.

    2. I’ll just copy-pasta the seventh paragraph from the linked article, on the assumption that you didn’t actually read it.

      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.

      1. I have to say that when I read it in the original article, I found that a bit of a CYA quote, like the late night infomercials for gym equipment that quickly state that you may not see the same results.

        If he was writing an article that was meant to enlighten, it would make sense to have added a dose of reality by indicating that the vast, vast majority will have sales in the teens (once family and friends are accounted for).  Instead, by using a parade of people who’ve done quite well, he vastly exaggerates the potential sales in people’s mind, this one paragraph not withstanding.

        (I have to say, I find it appalling that people who want to be writers aren’t aware that as a mainstream-published writer, you have perhaps a 1-2% chance of being able to make a decent middle-class living as a writer.  At least learn something about one’s chosen profession before jumping in!)

        I consider the original article a disservice to those authors trying to make a more measured judgement between submitting to a mainstream publisher (which of course has low odds of success) and self-publishing, which has an even lower odds of success.

        1. Ah, but he isn’t saying that the story of self-publishing is people who ant to make a living as a writer. He is saying that a lot of self-publishers are at least making enough to pay a bill every now and then.

          For me, if I ever got into self-publishing my absolutely horrid NaNoWriMo books or whatever, this would be my goal – to make a few quid every month on the side of my day job, which I already love.

          1. Actually, that would be a reasonable take-away, and quite frankly, that’s also a very reasonable use of self-publishing, at least until Amazon starts charging a listing fee.

            (Actually, I’m waiting until Amazon starts using an auction for advertising space on their site.  I think it would make them millions from authors willing to spend $25K (after they’ve spent $120K on a Master of Creative Writing) to promote their book.)

            Anyway, I suspect if you surveyed most casual readers of the article, the impression would be of much higher average payouts than that.  The article felt (to me at least) like “you too can get rich…” and not nearly enough “here are likely outcomes” and “here are trade-offs”.

    3. I’m slightly amused at your estimation of the, “wander into a bookstore, pay $15 dollars for a brand new hardcover from an unknown author” population. I guess all the bookstores dealing in brand new books are faking their sales numbers in order to garner sympathy?

      Mainstream publishers have press contacts and money to throw at people who write faux-reviews, so yes, they do have an advantage. Whether that advantage is worth more than what you get by not having to finance an entire middle-man industry is definitely debatable.

      1. Last time I looked, it was pretty unusual for a new book from an unknown author to sell less than 3,000 copies.

        Now, that’s not enough to earn out even a small advance and it will probably get you dropped.

        However, *if* your book has whatever magic elixir it is that will make it popular (I’m not going to say if you’re book is ‘good enough’, because sales and ‘good’ are almost unrelated), 3,000 copies *will* be enough to ignite word-of-mouth, if there’s going to be any.

        In other words, 3,000 books is enough to get a real chance to make it to the 25K mark of continuing to get published.

        Obviously most books won’t.  But at least you have your chance.

        The trouble with self-publishing is that even if your book has that “it factor”, the odds that it will reach enough people to hit ‘critical mass’ is really, really small.  A 100 sales just isn’t enough to launch that chain reaction, even if the book is gets decent word of mouth.

        Where does self-publishing shine?  When you already have 5,000 fans who will buy your work on-line, but you don’t have the “it factor” that will propel your sales to 50K.  In that situation, self-pub may allow you to make a non-starvation living (2 books a year x 5,000 x $3 per book = $30K), while a mainstream publisher would drop you (income = $0).

        (And for genre publishing, press contacts & reviews are nearly worthless compared to being in front of readers. Writers would dearly love to believe that publishers can *make* a book successful if they just push it enough. They can’t. If bookstores disappear, publishers will be near worthless.)

  2. A downside to self–publishing that people tend to ignore is that publishers tend to provide editors. Ever notice how often editors get thanked in acknowledgements of books? That’s because they don’t just catch typos — a good editor can significantly improve the quality of a book over the rough manuscript.

    1.  Ask the folks that were published by Nightshade how helpful their editors were before their books were published (answer: almost no help at all). So, while an editor is good and helpful, not all publishers hire real editors (as opposed to a proofreader).

  3. As I see it, traditional publishing means the author gets very little return on the sales, but perhaps a modicum of fame that the author can use to make money in other ways – whether that is to sell workshops, or make a little cash giving speeches on the local book club circuit, or to sell other goods. If you want to write another book, you have a reputation that makes that easier. In other words, with traditional publishing you build a brand.

    On the other hand, if you want to actually make money off your book, you can sell fewer of them and make proportionally more money by self-publishing. But then there is no rub off glamour of being the “Best Selling Author of ChickieD’s Guide to Good Clean Living.”

    I agree that editing, layout, and design have a bigger influence on the quality of a book than most people appreciate.

  4.  Having a book in a book store does not guarantee that anyone will ever
    see it.

    In fact, it pretty much does.  You probably get 500,000 people who glance at your book over the month it is stocked.  At a reasonable minimum, you will probably sell 3,000 copies.  Of course, if you only sell 3K, you’ll probably get dropped.

    Have you been to a book store? Have you seen how many new books
    are there every day?

    Yes.   For genre, the numbers (approximate at best) are around 100+ new e-books for *every* (mainstream) paper book published, and that number is growing fast.  That is the challenge for e-book writers.

    I’m not saying the everyone should try to publish with a mainstream publisher.  I’m saying they are still (at least while bookstores exist) a viable choice (with their costs and dangers) for a writer hoping to make a living writing.

    At a guess, I’d say the average unknown person who writes a novel and gets it published by a mainstream publisher has perhaps a 1 in 100 chance of eventually earning a living writing.  The average unknown e-book writer, perhaps 1 in 100,000.  This means that if you figure the odds of your manuscript getting published by a mainstream publisher are better than 1 in 1,000, then (depending on your patience and perseverance) it may be wise to try that route.

    Unlike the zealots on either side would have you believe, there are pros and cons on either side of paper publishing/e-book publishing decision.

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