The Once and Future Self-Publisher

A question from e-mail:

You originally published Old Man’s War and Agent to the Stars on your Web site, and you just recently put up a short story as shareware. Do you think you’ll publish another novel this way?

Well, in the short term, definitely not. I have two more novels under contract to Tor (The High Castle and a novel unrelated either to the Old Man’s War or Android’s Dream universes) and those should keep me busy, writing-wise, though the rest of 2008 at least.

But let’s suppose I deliver the second of my books to Tor, and I get it in my head to write another novel in the Old Man’s War universe, say, Zoe’s Tale 2: The Quickening. Tor doesn’t have ZT2 (or indeed any subsequent potential OMW novel after Zoe’s Tale) under contract, so I am free, as it turns out and if I so chose, to write it up and post it here, or otherwise self-publish it. And let’s suppose that if I do self-publish, I decide to take it seriously — i.e., make a real attempt to make money on it, not just put up something on a lark. Should I do it? Let’s weigh the advantages and disadvantages.


1. I can publish on my own schedule, so when ZT2 (or whatever) is finished, I don’t have to wait months and months for it to snake through a production queue; I can just put it out.

2. Any income I derive from it goes 100% to me, rather than the 8 to 15 percent which is the standard contractual royalty range across the various formats in which I publish (I think I get more for eBooks, but I would have to check).

3. I don’t have to worry about external forces, like an editor who wants changes or needs to have a manuscript at a certain time to fit it into a production schedule, or a publisher who has to prioritize which novels to promote at which time (and that novel might not be mine), or marketers who might not know how to promote my book, or booksellers who don’t know the best way to sell it.

Add to this the fact that at this point I am sufficiently well-known that I might actually have a chance of making some money off of publishing it myself. So there’s that. But now, the flip side of the coin:


1. Well, here’s where I ask myself: Do I want to put out a professional product or not? If I don’t want to, then I can just post a largely unedited text file and see who pays for it. I suspect some folks will, but in the end, not as many as I would want. The fact is at this point all my other books have now had professional presentations, so to maintain established quality I’ll need to pay for a professional-looking product. If I want to, then I have to pay for:

Copy editing
Artwork (original or licensed)
Book/Cover design
Document formatting
Printing (for folks who must have a physical copy)
Shipping (both of printed books to me and then from me to the customer)

The costs here are somewhat fungible (I could, for example, forgo printing and rely on a print-on-demand service, although that means limiting the amount I could make for each copy) but no matter how you slice it a professional presentation for the novel will cost at a minimum about $4,000 and probably rather more from there (I checked this math with a publisher friend of mine; it’s in the ballpark). Point is: It’s not free to present a product that’s of professional quality, and that’s all coming out of my pocket.

2. I have a well-visited site and lots of fans, but, you know, I’m not Trent Reznor. If I want anyone other than the Whatever reader base to know about it, I need to promote myself. Despite my reputation as a tireless self-promoter, the fact is my self-promotion is almost entirely limited to this site, and the “self-promotion” is largely me just writing about stuff I want to write about, which naturally sometimes includes what’s going on with my books. Actual self-promotion (to people and media entities who have no clue who I am) is a pain in the ass — trust me — and I don’t want to have to do it. A publisher has publicists on staff, but if I want one for a self-published thing, I’d have to pay for one. Is this cheap? Guess again! There’s also the very pronounced tendency of traditional and high-end online media to totally ignore self-published work. Again, trust me on this one. So there’s a question of how useful all this promotion would be in the end.

3. No access to bookstores or other retail outlets, because most bookstores won’t take non-returnable items, which my printed books would be. This further limits the chance that people who don’t already know me will find my work. This is a problem because I do in fact get a lot of my readers from people taking a chance on my books in the bookstores (for that I can thank my book and cover designers, who help draw their eyes in the first place). There are ways to get around this, but they take lots of time and effort.

4. In fact, all of the above takes lots of time. Lots and lots of time and effort and psychic energy and so on and so forth, which is time and effort and psychic energy not applied to writing. Unless I pay someone else to handle all that stuff for me.

Which is ultimately the thing, isn’t it: If I end up having to pay someone else to handle all this stuff for me, or pay to make it happen, then in reality, 100% of the income of any of this won’t actually go to me; lots will go to all the folks I am paying to make it all happen. And as long as I’m paying people to make this all happen, why not have professionals who already know how to do all this stuff do it for me? Like, say, actual publishers, with their editors and copy editors and art directors and book designers and publicists and marketers and bookstore reps? I mean, as long as they’re willing to publish me, it certainly makes my life easier.

And this is why I think I’ll continue being published with publishers as long as it’s an option, because when it comes down to it, I want to write, not be responsible for every other damn thing that’s required to get novels to as many people as possible.

This is not to say that I wouldn’t post something novel length here if the mood struck me. But if I did, it would essentially be for the fun of it, and for extra cash, as opposed to doing it as a serious attempt to make actual pay-my-mortgage income off it. This position might change over time, of course, as the world changes. But right here and right now, I can say you’re far more likely to see my novels published by someone else, rather than by me, here. Really, I’m okay with that.

39 Comments on “The Once and Future Self-Publisher”

  1. You know, whenever I tell someone that they should read your blog, I almost always end up by saying, “Well, the thing is, he’s just so sensible.

    This post is emblematic of that assessment. Sensible is what you are, John Scalzi. Just in case you were thinking all of those dancing and tiara-wearing shenanigans might be giving folks a different impression.

  2. John, regarding point #3: That’s how I found OMW – Joseph Beth’s in Cincinnati had a little shelf display for the MMPB touting you as a “local author.” Between the visibility, the blurb on the front, and standing there reading it to “Where the hell did I put the Vanilla?” I figured that buying a copy of all 3 books on the display was the only sensible thing to do.

  3. I was just remarking to someone in a bookstore that I thought the split of revenue was a lot for favorable to the creators in the book world than in the music or movie world. It’s good to see that confirmed.

  4. Marc Moskowitz:

    Yes, we get more in royalties, relatively speaking, and unlike most musicians and filmmakers, we get to keep the copyright of what we’ve produced. Of course, the flip side is that on average, your author with a major publisher makes less than your artist with a major label or your filmmaker with a major studio.

    Gari N. Corp:

    Yeah, although music companies are in worse shape because their traditional distribution channels are going to hell, whereas most of the action for books is still in that industry’s traditional distribution channels: Bookstores and other retail.


    As it happens, I have some idea of where I would take Zoe next, if a) I do another OMW book and b) I decide to stick with Zoe. It doesn’t have her getting pregnant.

  5. John, I went through this agony myself. Sure, to self-publish online there is money you invest, but if you do print-on-demand via, say,, you can set the price yourself. If you set profit at $5/book, for example, then how many do you need to sell in order to see as much cash as your would through a publisher? Assuming that this is about the benjamins.

    Remember too, that online advertising is different than mainstream. You have hugely popular wonderful people like, say, me, who would be happy to blog about it (I’ll have something up about your stuff anyway once I finish the current OMW series), and I bet Wil would as well. Then there are cons you go to anyway, and getting picked up by Boing Boing because they love plugging do-it-yerself online stuff…

    In the end, I decided to go with a publishing house for my second book because I am not firmly established in publishing, and I need the cachet of a well-renowned house. I might make less money, but the prestige is important, especially since I want to give more public talks.

  6. Phil Plait:

    “In the end, I decided to go with a publishing house for my second book because I am not firmly established in publishing, and I need the cachet of a well-renowned house. I might make less money, but the prestige is important, especially since I want to give more public talks.”

    This is indeed a salient point: the money one makes from publishing doesn’t only come from publishing, it comes from ancillary markets which open up because one publishes, and publishes with a well-established house. Reputation is a powerful thing.

  7. No, but I did see Nine Inch Nails at Lollapalooza ’91, and there are witnesses who saw me there, and not onstage when Trent was. Honest!

  8. Lawrence Watt-Evans did this a couple of times.

    Tor didn’t want anymore Ethshar books and rather than let the series idle for possibly forever, he decided to self publish it, a chapter each time a certain amount was met. $100 a chapter it was, and it worked, and later Wildside published it.

    Next time, he charged $250/ chapter and it again, it worked. This time he had the first run printed via POD and Wildside later published the public addition.

    In this case, it worked and if Tor didn’t want any book of yours that the fans demanded, you could do the same.

  9. You may not have to pay (or pay much up front) for artwork, should you go this route. I’d be happy to paint something up for you, given enough advance notice.

    (Not an offer I’d extend to anyone else, really.)

  10. The most positive articles I ever saw on self publishing were in the mid-80’s by Dave Sim, famous for Cerebus the Aardvark comics, before he disappeared down his own navel in a fit of anti-Feminism and about a dozen other -isms. (not counting the fact that when it wasn’t funny, it wasn’t worth reading after a while)

    To a large degree, for him it was all about control. He controlled the copyright, the appearance, the publishing schedule… but on the other hand, he gave complete copyright sharing with all contributors: Gerhard was (theoretically) entitled to create his own Cerebus comics, as were Eastman and Laird (due to an appearance in TNMT) and McFarlane (ditto for Spawn).

    It seemed he liked the sweat and toil of doing it all himself. Of course it affected the schedule sometimes, and I think the quality after a while, but he did finish the 300-issue project. It also affected his marriage, a subject which I won’t discuss further but I’m sure you can find out more on the intarweeb.

  11. John, don’t dis the online chemistry. I own everything (I think), that you’ve written for public consumption, due to Glenn, and some folks on a list that mentioned your work with high regard.

    I think the last dozen books and DVDs I’ve purchased were due to viral marketing (Johannes’ “Outside the Wire,” Totten’s “Moment of Truth,” etc.).

    Just get a kudo from Glenn, and you’ll move some product. :-)


  12. zizban:

    I didn’t say it wasn’t possible to do, just that it takes more work than not, and I’d rather not if I can avoid it, and right now I can.

    Likewise, Marcus, I’m not dissing online promotion, and I’ve found it vital, particularly from Glenn. That said, it’s just one component in an overall marketing strategy.

  13. This isn’t really related to the post subject… I just wanted you to know that I’m totally blaming you for the weird looks I’ve been getting in the control room the last couple days.

    I’m about half-way through Android’s Dream and it’s had me laughing out loud a number of times, and then getting weird looks from my co-workers. Just wanted you to know that I’m blaming you for my co-workers thinking I’m nuts… ok, more nuts, they already know I’m weird.

  14. Gari N. Corp:

    The big difference for me, and I think more and more people, is that a CD is just something I need to get the music off of. It then goes in a box in the closet never to be seen again. So buying music via whatever online method gives me the music I want without a physical object that’s just a pain in the ass after I’m done extracting what I really want from it. Books, OTOH, had desirable physical objects.

  15. Gari N. Corp: In addition to what sng says, the business model most musicians find themselves in happens to be a model where self-publishing is not a bad option. That is, they have a specialized product, they have a niche audience, and they are willing to tour extensively to sell their product.

    What I’ve read is that one case where self-publishing works well is for the guy who travels the country giving being the expert and giving speeches on Obscure Topic A. After the speech, the audience can go buy his book from the conveniently placed kiosk. This maps scarily well to most independently released bands. I think this is one reason why CD Baby is a thriving, non-scam business, whereas I don’t see an equivalent non-scam business of anywhere near the same size for books. (Note: I have no idea if CD Baby actually presses CDs, or if they take over starting with the warehousing.)

  16. sng:
    Indeed. I read ebooks just about exclusively at this point (assuming whatever it is is available in that format) but that doesn’t mean I don’t also want the physical book. Which is interesting, for music I really don’t care if I have the physical object or not, but with a book I care.

    What I’d really like is for a publisher to make available a paperback/hardcover version with a code or something inside that would let me also download the electronic version. That way I wouldn’t have to pay for something I really want twice. (‘cuz that’s just irritating!)

  17. I’ve been told movie studios make more money on “most” movies in post-theater sales (DVD, pay-per-view, etc.). However, most people will be less willing to give a movie a chance if it never was in theaters; the whole direct-to-video stigma. So releasing to theaters can be seen as a loss leader or an advertisment for buying/renting/downloading the movie.

    I imagine the same will be true of novels for years to come. If it was never printed, the thought goes, it must not have been good enough.

  18. As usual you lay out the facts in clear, concise, no bs way. As a new writer working on my first novel, I have often thought that self publishing could be a viable way to get my work out there, albeit a less desirable one than an established publisher.

    While I knew these are all costs that need to be considered, I rarely see a dollar amount put to them.

    Thanks for the info.

  19. When I was consulting, I emphasized time and again to my clients the importance of directing their energies (and other resources) to whatever they did uniquely well, and letting others — perhaps with better economies of scale — do the other stuff. It’s simply a matter of the best use of one’s time and creativity.

    For a writer who’s climbed over the barricade of getting published for the first time or two, I think that argues for sticking to writing (except for those writers who harbor a secret wish also to be a publisher, God help them…). Notice this argument isn’t really about relative costs.

    For a (so far) unpublished writer, maybe there’s an argument for self-publishing as a means of attracting an agent and/or publisher. But I still don’t think it’s an economic argument.

  20. That’s a nice and well thought-out delineation of the advantages and disadvantages. Two of the classes I’ve taken as part of my Master’s at USC have focused solely on the literary marketplace and the business of the business, rather than being more writing workshops. Both were invaluable, but I got a similar feeling from them as when the WGA struck this past year–everything is changing, and so quickly, that what is true now will probably be only mostly true in a few years, and, moreso, that we can’t really imagine it. Was it Einstein who said that the universe is not only more strange than we can comprehend, but also more strange than we can imagine? I think a similar idea can be applied to media, and how it will change. Five years ago, nobody would have really thought much of, say, MySpace or Facebook, and now we’re already mostly leaving them behind.

    In my Business of the Business course, we did several exercises concerning cost of publishing in general, including using self-publishing as an option. We generally ballparked that one would require anywhere between $5000 and $10000 to do it right, and even writers who attempted to bypass that cost by doing it themselves would have to purchase the right computer programs (good luck laying out a cover without either Photoshop or InDesign).

    I was lucky, when I did it (yes, I self-published a collection, as anyone who’s seen my website, or read the self-pimp threads here, probably has caught); I had extensive prior experience as an editor (which included access to the abovementioned programs). I knew what I was doing, mostly, and I’m still rather proud of what I managed to pull off. But then, I also had a great network of peers and colleagues (one of the major benefits of the MPW)–one of the people who saw my work in its nascent stages was Irvin Kershner.

    Even given my (relatively) good experience, though, I wouldn’t, at this point, use the same approach for a novel. I did it for the collection because, after studying the literary marketplace in some depth, I, quite frankly, found it entirely wanting; I don’t feel the same way about the novel marketplace. It strikes me that there’s still a rather large and thriving market for good novels, whereas the market for short work (whether fiction or essays) caters not so much to readers as to other writers. I personally find that incestuous at best and pretentious at worst, or maybe vice-versa.

    And I know this comment is already long, but Dave Eggers figures into it, somehow. Because his novel, What Is the What was published, first, by McSweeney’s (is that with or without the apostrophe?), of which Eggers is the founder. And no, it’s not straight-up self-publishing a la most of the wannabe novelists on Lulu, but I think it does blur the lines.

  21. Dave Eggers is a great deal more entrepreneurial than I would prefer to be.

  22. I didn’t see you at Lollapalooza in ’91. That might be because I wasn’t there.

    If you are Trent Reznor, I saw you at Mudstock in ’94.

  23. Tudor: The funny thing is that the direct-to-video stigma seems to be lessening, if not altogether disappearing. Look at all the DTV projects that have come out in the last few years. Animatrix, Riddick, Batman Animated/Beyond (several), Batman: Gotham Knight, Hellboy, Justice League New Frontier, Conan: Red Nails, the B5 stuff, etc. There’s talk of a Firefly direct-to-DVD sequel to the movie. Seems the studios are starting to realize that there’s a large enough audience willing to buy the DVDs without needing a corresponding theatrical run that they can make a bigger profit going straight to video than they could if they spent the time and money necessary to push the movie out to theaters and publicize it. (Not to mention not having to play the MPAA rating game if they don’t want to.)

    John: I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but Sharon Lee & Steve Miller have been doing a post-for-pay project over on—posting up a couple of side-story books (the sorts of things that publishers haven’t been traditionally interested in, since they have limited appeal outside the series core audience) in a subscription format; access to the drafts are free, and $25 gets you a complete subscription including a copy of the physical book after it’s been professionally proofed and edited.

    They got 1,200 subscriptions for the first book, Fledgling, and are capping subscriptions for the second, Saltation, at 1,000—and lately Baen has agreed to publish both completed books in printed form, which means Lee & Miller won’t have to go POD with them after all.

  24. Chris Meadows:

    “Look at all the DTV projects that have come out in the last few years. Animatrix, Riddick, Batman Animated/Beyond (several), Batman: Gotham Knight, Hellboy, Justice League New Frontier, Conan: Red Nails, the B5 stuff, etc.”

    i.e., animated stuff and stuff based on TV shows. It’s still a dodgy thing for live action theatrical release sequels, though.

  25. If you ever do decide to give it a try,I volunteer to do the cover artwork for free. All I would ask is credit for the art, and maybe throw a signed copy or two my way.

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