The Business Rusch: Quality

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The Business Rusch: Quality

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Last week, I finally figured out how to describe the changes going on in the publishing industry. My post, “Scarcity and Abundance,” went viral.  If you haven’t read it, please do so, just so that I don’t have to redefine my terms again.

As usual with a viral post, I got a lot of push-back. Only this time, the push-back didn’t come from the people I call “thudding writers” and whom Barry Eisler calls writers of high dudgeon—folks who spend most of their time screaming on other people’s blogs rather than doing anything constructive.

This time, I got a lot of push-back from traditionally published writers, mostly in e-mail. Others—editors, agents, nonfiction bloggers —in the publishing industry blogged or wrote articles about my piece. While most of them agreed with the premise that traditional publishing is based on the scarcity model and the new world of publishing is based on the abundance model, they pushed back on this: Quality.

These people believe that only traditional publishing can guarantee that the reader will get a quality product. They say that traditional publishing has a much high quality control standard than independent publishers/writers.

In the comments on those blogs, a lot of reader rejected those ideas, pointing at celebrity books (particularly Snooki’s) and claiming that quality control no longer exists.

Honestly, celebrity books are an easy target. I challenge anyone who throws stones at traditional publishing to open their reading histories and prove that they are pure—that they’ve never read a celebrity book. Those things sell because we read them, even if it is in the privacy of our bedroom with the lights on low so that our spouse can’t see the cover. (Thank heavens for e-readers, huh, folks? Because now we really can hide what we read. But that’s another post for another time.)

Let’s ignore the celebrity books for a moment, and have this discussion of quality. Because on the one hand, it shows a complete lack of knowledge of the traditional publishing industry (mostly on the part of those traditionally published writers) and on the other, it shows a complete lack of understanding of any part of the United States outside of New York City (on the part of those employed in one way or another by the traditional publishing industry).

Let’s take the writers first.

As I said last week, those of us who got our start in the old scarcity model (and that’s all of us up until about 18 months ago) have some built-in assumptions. One of those assumptions is that the folks in traditional publishing know what they’re doing.

When we writers scale that mountain of slush and finally break through, selling our first article or our first novel, we believe we have finally achieved quality. We’ve finally become good. It’s a dangerous assumption for a writer because if our career tanks, does that mean that we’re no longer good writers? Even if our career tanked because some bonehead in a traditional publishing house screwed up the marketing of our novels?

It’s insidious, and that attitude alone has destroyed more writers than I care to think about.

Besides, it’s a fallacy.

The fallacy is this: Readers believe that all traditionally published books are good.

Writers who spout that nonsense have lost touch with their inner reader. Because we’ve all read a truly crappy traditionally published novel, one that we find offensively bad.

Fair-minded writers used to push off the idea that traditional publishers made a mistake by publishing a certain (crappy) book by saying that “it comes down to taste.” But sometimes, it came down to both parties (writer and editor) tossing up their hands, giving up on the book, and publishing it anyway. And sometimes it came down to a deadline and that book had to be in the pipeline because money had already been spent on its production.

There are a million reasons that crappy books got—and get—published by traditional publishers.

But let’s ignore that argument as well as the celebrity book argument, and look at the core of the traditionally published writer’s point. These traditionally published writers claim that because traditional publishers limit the number of books they publish, only the best books get through.

That means, according to the traditionally published writer, that readers don’t have to wade through a mountain of crap to get to the really good books.

Let’s ignore the self-serving part of that argument (My book is automatically excellent because a traditional publisher bought it), and give the traditionally published writer part of the point. Let’s assume that all traditionally published books are of extremely high quality.

Where the traditionally published writer goes wrong, and why I say he doesn’t understand the very business he’s working in is this: The crap might be gone from that mountain, but the mountain remains.

In 2010, Bowker, the company that issues the tracking numbers for books published traditionally in the United States (the ISBN), issued  288,355 ISBNs. That means this: In 2010, 288,355 individual titles got published in the United States. And that doesn’t count a lot of e-books, particularly those on Amazon which used Amazon’s tracking system instead. Nor does it count books published by small and regional presses that didn’t need a tracking number because the book wasn’t going into a commercial outlet.

So of the titles Bowker could count in the United States only, nearly 290,000 books appeared.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t read 290,000 books in one year. Fortunately, traditional publishers break up those titles by type (trade [aka commercial books], textbook, etc). Those titles get broken down even farther by genre (romance, mystery, business, history, etc).  Because so many books are being published, the breakdowns have gotten even  more baroque. Each genre has subgenres (romantic suspense, paranormal romance, contemporary romance, etc).

It is an old-fashioned search engine, y’all, designed for the non-digital age.

But I digress.

Look again at that 288,325 book number, and realize that it’s country-specific. Then go to Wikipedia page titled “Books published per country per year,” and look at the breakdown. (The page is well footnoted, so you can judge the accuracy of the information yourself.) The arithmetic is too much for me to double-check, but whoever compiled the page came up with 1,882,944 titles published worldwide.

Let’s only consider the titles in English. As I scanned for countries in which English is the dominant language, I noted that some were missing. I assume that Canada and Australia got lumped into the United Kingdom total. And that doesn’t count English language titles published in countries like Germany (not imported, but published directly).

So let’s only go with the United States and the United Kingdom’s numbers and assume that’s how many titles got published in English in the last few years. Because the Wikipedia page gives the numbers for the US in 2010 and the numbers for the UK in 2005, I’ll move to the worldometer page which gives us US and UK publishing numbers in 2005.  (I’m leaving out India, because I only have 2004 numbers which are 18,752. So I’m ignoring nearly 20,000 titles.)

The 2005 numbers are probably better anyway because they predate the rise of indie publishing.

In 2005, the United States published 172,000 new titles.  The United Kingdom published…wait for it…206,000 new titles.  (How much you want to bet that 288,325 number from five years later in the U.S. includes a lot of indie writers?)

For the year 2005, I see that 378,000 new titles got published in the English language. Before the indie-published books descended on the industry.

So, how was it easier back then to find one quality book among 378,000 titles? What was the difference? Some publishing mojo that I’m not familiar with?

Because it seems to me that 378,000 titles is more than anyone wants to filter through in one  year. And that doesn’t count the 300,000 from the  year before or the 400,000 (guessing) from last year.

Readers don’t get to those quality books in the year the book got published. They get to those books when they find that book—in a library, on a  used bookstore shelf or because of an e-reader algorithm that states “people who bought this book also bought that book.”

Sorry, traditionally published writers. I feel your pain. I really do. We all want to believe that our books, published with great difficulty through traditional methods, are guaranteed to be good because they went through that gauntlet. We also want to believe that readers will find our books easily because traditional publishers will make it easy to reach into that mountain of titles and find the book specifically meets some reader’s needs.

But it ain’t so, and it never was so. And if you believe it’s easier to find a book because it’s traditionally published, because traditional publishers make it easy to find “good” books, then you need to study the industry you work in. Specifically, you should start reading things like Publishers Marketplace and other publishing trade journals so you get a sense of just how large the traditional publishing side of the industry is.

Since some of you will ask rather than figure this out for yourself, how do readers rise above that mountain of crap (um, I mean quality) to find the book they want? The way they always have—word of mouth, then by author, by the cover, and so on. (I linked to the studies on how people by books in my post on Promotion which you can find here.)

I’d love to see someone do a new study and see how the algorithms from online companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble help readers find books these days. I’ll wager—based strictly on anecdotal evidence—that Amazon’s “if you liked x, you’ll love y” algorithm has introduced a lot of readers to a lot of writers.

The traditionally published writers approached me mostly in e-mail. The folks who make their living in jobs other than writing in (or around) the traditional publishing industry made some comments on last week’s blog or they blogged about it themselves.

The gist of the argument is this: Only traditional publishing companies can publish a quality product. Traditional publishers’ editors, copy editors, graphic designers, and sales staff are all trained professionals who greatly improve any product they get their hands on.

First, let me say—and this is important—that all writers need a second eye to go over their material, whether that material is nonfiction, fiction, a blog or a short story. Textbooks in particular need an expert or two or three to look over the manuscript and make certain that no egregious errors exist. Some nonfiction books, particularly about living people or current events, need lawyers to examine the content for liability.

The question on the table is not whether writers need a second eye or some kind of assistance in publishing their book.

The question is whether or not traditionally trained New York publishing professionals guarantee that they will greatly improve the product—more than anyone else could.

Let’s take it one by one.

Editors. I am an editor. I haven’t practiced that trade for some years now, but in my tenure as editor at Pulphouse Publishing and at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I got nominated for the top editing awards in the business. I won both the World Fantasy Award and the Hugo award for my editing. I co-edited books with Betsy Mitchell when she was at Bantam Books. I was routinely counted as one of the top editors in the science fiction and fantasy field.

Did I receive any training? Hell, no. I was a history major in college. I never majored in English, never took a publishing course. I did edit the college literary magazine my freshman year, but that was a case of the blind leading the blind, since our advisor never advised.

How did I learn how to edit? By reading. By being opinionated.

When I quit F&SF to focus completely on my writing career, I got dozens of phone calls from major New York publishing houses offering me an editing position. I still have head hunters call me when a major editing position opens. At the last conference I attended, I got two editing job offers.

Believe me when I tell you that my editorial training is not unique. Yes, many editors got apprenticeships at major publishing companies through East Coast universities, but those apprenticeships consisted of opening mail, getting coffee, and breathing the rarified air of a publishing house.

It has always been thus. Read books on the history of publishing, if you don’t believe me. Ian and Betty Ballantine helped start Bantam Books in 1945, and later started Ballantine Books in their apartment. Neither of them went to school for editing. Ian Ballantine’s training was in economics (and not from some measly little school either, but from the London School of Economics).

Judy-Lynn del Rey, considered one of the most clear-eyed editors in the sf field, got her start by making connections at science-fiction conventions. She was a fan first (which showed up in her book choices) and used her sf connections to get into the business where she then learned all of it from the ground up.

But let’s talk about the act of editing. Some editors do it and some editors don’t. Most modern editors believe that line-editing—going over sentences for consistency—is what editing is all about. That’s the easy job, folks. It’s harder to look at a piece of fiction and see what’s missing or whether the structure needs changing. (See my recommendation of Robert Crais’s most recent novel to see what I mean.)

And it’s even harder to tell a writer to start the book again—which most modern editors will not do.

Editing isn’t a dying art. It’s a rarely practiced art. Over the past twenty years, many of my traditionally published books got a quick read from their editors and no revision request at all. Not a touch-up, not a word.  My indie published sf novels will have more editing on them than they ever would have gotten from the editors in a traditional publishing house.

And that’s not unusual. While I’ve encountered some excellent book editors over the years, mostly I’ve encountered nice, overworked people who were happy to have a professional writer on board, someone they didn’t have to pay a lot of attention to.

And frankly, that’s just sad. It also shows that at least on the editing side of things, traditional publishing does little to increase the quality of a book’s content.

Copy Editors, Proof Readers, And Graphic Designers: If I were a professional in any of these categories, I would get royally pissed off every time I heard someone in traditional publishing say that there are no good copy editors, proof readers, or graphic designers outside of New York.

Every community has copy editors, working at the local paper, on the local television news, or in dozens of other places. Every community has graphic designers doing everything from creating logos for businesses to designing ads to designing covers—yes, covers—for publications from regional magazines to newspapers to tourist brochures.

To say that these people aren’t professional, aren’t worth hiring to go over a book, is to insult thousands if not tens of thousands of very good, high quality professionals who often bring a lot more to the table than many of the people who work in traditional publishing.

And yes, a lot of these people “undercharge” by New York standards. Why? Because they don’t have to pay New York rents. Not because they’re undercutting “professionals” and not because they’re offering a cut-rate service. But because they’re charging the going rate for communities outside of one of the top ten most expensive cities in the nation.

This is where I get off saying that traditional publishing professionals don’t understand anything outside of New York. Because if those people did understand the world outside of their little hothouse environment, they might understand how it’s possible for a company like Lucky Bat Books to have skilled copy editors and designers no New York publishing professional has ever heard of.

Writers who want to indie publish should find out who these people are in their community, and hire them to make sure that each book is the best it can be.

Sales staff. From marketing to publicity to actual sales to bookstores, somehow traditional publishing believes they—and only they—understand how to sell books.

And that’s just silly. Because book sales have narrowed to the point of ridiculousness. As I wrote about a few weeks ago in a post called “The Book Trade,” most people on a publisher’s sales staff market to people in the book trade. (Please see that post for a longer analysis.) They learn the box, and they think deeply inside of it. They don’t do any actual sales any more. They only sell to their friends.

As for the people in promotions and marketing, they are (for the most part) the people who have moved up from fetching coffee. They now answer the phones and e-mail book bloggers. Sure, some publicists stay with the company long enough to get seniority, but honestly, if you’re a good publicist, then you should work for a firm specializing in publicity because that’s where the real money is. (And those firms aren’t all that good at actual promotion either.)

I can do everything that the traditional publishing companies I’ve worked with have done on sales over the past 20+ years—and I can do it better if I so chose (and I probably will chose in the next two or three years). I care, for one thing. For another, I’m not just going to market to the book trade.

So what do traditional publishing companies have that indie publishers don’t?

It isn’t quality. Nor is it a limited number of products, special in their scarcity.

It’s money. Traditional publishers have oodles and oodles of money to spend on some products. Not all products. Just a limited handful.

If you’re one of the lucky authors on whom a traditional publishing company has decided to spend some its hard-earned cash, congratulations. You’ll get some worthless things, like book tours, and you’ll get some valuable things, like a simultaneous release of book in all possible markets, from brick-and-mortar to e-book.

But if you’re a midlist writer, forget it. You can duplicate everything your traditional publisher does if you’re willing to do the work. You need an excellent first reader (or a group of first readers) to help you with editorial content. You need to hire a copy editor. Do not stint on that or your readers will be angry with you. You need to design a kick-ass cover. If you can’t do it, hire an artist or a graphic designer. Or offer your book as an experiment at the local community college and see what a class of budding graphic designers comes up with.

Traditional publishing does bring professionalism to the table, but that professionalism is not unique. Nor is it only found in New York (or London or Barcelona or Milan).  Traditional publishing brings an attitude to the table—a rubber-stamped, we’re-the-old guard attitude. Traditional publishing also brings a lot of money to the table—on some projects. But if you’re offered a $5,000 advance for a book (or hell, a $50,000 advance) that will be released in trade paperback or hardcover only, then I can guarantee that traditional publishing won’t be tossing its oodles of money at you. Only the folks who get six-figure advances—and usually mid-six figure advances—see oodles of money devoted to their work.

Everyone else gets a version of the same treatment—a good or bad editor (depending), a good or bad copy editor (depending), a good or bad cover (depending), and a lot of crossed fingers. The traditional publisher will market you to the book trade, and if your sales are better than expected, you’ll get nicer treatment the next time. If you eventually break out, then you might see oodles of money spent on your next book. But most writers never break out because traditional publishers find it easier to start a new writer than develop an established one.

As for finding quality in abundance, let me ask you traditionally published writers who now know that you have lived in a world with mountains of books for a lot longer than you ever realized, how did you discover your favorite writers? Hmmm?

Things are no different now than they were back when you started reading.

Well, that’s not true. Because things are different. The world has better search engines. It’s not just about commercial fiction and textbooks any longer. Or genres or subgenres. All online bookstores have algorithms that help you find a book you want. Some of those algorithms are better than others.

Plus places like will let you know where any book you want can be found for sale (if it is for sale) on the web. And you can order those 206,000 titles from the United Kingdom if you want, where you would have had trouble putting your hands on those books in 2005.

From where I sit, it’s a lot easier to find quality books now than it ever was before.

And from where I sit, it’s a lot easier to publish a quality book than it ever was before.

A number of bloggers complained that I didn’t discuss quality in last week’s blog. I was rather stunned by that. Because I assume that all business people—and that includes writers—will produce the best product they possible can, releasing to market only when it’s ready to go.

And as for quality, who decides that? Not me, not you, and certainly not traditional publishers.

Readers decide if a book is quality or not. Readers, who plunk down their hard-earned dollars, that large percentage of their tiny entertainment budget. If they read a book and recommend it to friends, then those readers are the best advertising in the world. And if those readers like a book, they’ll read another book by the same author, plunking down those hard-earned dollars again.

Readers don’t care who published a book. Readers only care that the book gives them a few hours of solid entertainment, worth the money and the time the reader spent on that book.

Are Amanda Hocking’s books better because St. Martins Press published them? No. They got a better copy editor, because the person Amanda Hocking hired to copy edit her indie volumes didn’t know the difference between a comma and a space. The St. Martins books also have nicer covers.

But are they better books? Hell, no. They’re the same books.

And they would have been the same books had she hired a new copy editor and a better cover designer, and redid the books herself.

Readers find quality books in the mountains of crap, and have done so for more than a hundred years. The arrival of indie publishing on the scene will not change how readers find their books. It will only change how some authors publish their books.

And that’s not the same thing. It’s not the same thing at all.

I published hundreds of articles in traditional magazines and newspapers over the years, wrote columns for national magazines, and had a career in journalism. I never thought I’d be a blogger, let alone a “champion of indie publishing” as several people called me this week.

I still publish traditionally. And I publish indie. I think the fact that I do both is the reason I can write this blog.

However, I make my living as a fiction writer, and the day that this weekly column ceases to pay for itself is the week that I quit showing up for our weekly date. I am a working writer, after all, and one rule of working writers is that we get paid for our work. If you feel like you’ve received some value from this post, please leave a tip on the way out.

I do need to thank all of you who have donated in the past, and those of you who comment, send me links, or e-mail me. I appreciate all of it.

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“The Business Rusch: “Quality” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.






82 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Quality

  1. THANK YOU for writing this.

    I now read 50-50% traditional and indie-published books, and I’ve actually been much more impressed with indie, especially in how they take the time to fix all the formatting kinks for their e-books when traditional publishers tend to slap things together and ship it out to market. That’s not quality. That’s shoddy work.

    As for the books themselves, gatekeepers aren’t “arbiters of quality” so much as they are a funnel for a specific taste in fiction.

    It would be like saying you can’t find decent articles on blogs because they’re not in a magazine, when clearly that’s not the case.

    I’m so glad whenever I read your blog that though you are blunt and opinionated, you also never fail to have an open mind and take everything into consideration. I really admire your hybrid, do-it-yourself, take-the-best-of-all-worlds approach. These articles are really making a difference, too, in making people confront the new world. They have taught me a lot, so I thought I’d drop in my two cents to say thanks.

    1. I appreciate the comment, Laura. I love your blog analogy, because in the past (five-ten years ago), people considered blogs “anti-news” for precisely the reason you name. And now we all read them. I know I do. (I just spent the morning doing so.) We will get used to the new system, with indies and traditional. It’s just a matter of time. Thanks–

  2. Thanks for this fabulous post. You put succinctly what i’ve been struggling to communicate to writing students for years. Betsey Mitchell edited my first four books and she was a fabulous editor. I learned a lot as a writer from her.

  3. As usual, everything you’ve said makes complete sense. I would argue, however, that there is a level of analysis missing: contrasting indie publishing with “traditional” publishing glosses over the significant changes in that traditional model over the last few decades. In the old days, say the 1960s, the model sort of worked as editors competed with each other, and therefore put time and money into developing manuscripts and authors. But over time, trying to predict which manuscripts would become best sellers proved to be too difficult, so some of the bigger corporate players changed strategies: instead of increasing market share by putting out better books (which they couldn’t reliably predict) they increased market share by buying out the competition. The end result is a concentration of ownership (and a resulting ‘rationalization’ of imprints) such that instead of the 40 editors competing for my SF manuscript, there are only, what, six major imprints left to whom to submit it? Consequently, few editors bother with the development work that used to be routine: it’s literally a buyers’ market, so why accept anything that requires any work at all? Similarly, few publishers can be bothered promoting an author who is only going to sell a few hundred thousand copies — the economies of scale required by the new monopolistic publishers mean that they require monster best sellers to realize a reasonable return on investment. The few surviving editors are pressed by marketing focus groups and accounting to stick to safe predictable work, to produce processed cheese rather than great quality books. It is not that the traditional model had nothing to offer authors and readers; I would argue that the branding provided by editors and imprints in the early days was quite useful. Instead, it is the dysfunctional concentration of publishing within a very few giant corporations that has undermined the usefulness of the original model, and which — now no longer serving a useful purpose for the vast majority of authors or discerning readers — is on a long slow decline. It remains to be seen if indie publishing can fully take up the slack.

    1. Robert, excellent analysis. I agree. Once the big traditional publishers got bought out by suits that didn’t see publishing as anything different from, say, cars, the individual publishing voices got lost. Before all the major mergers, people knew the difference between a Simon & Schuster book and a Scribners book. Not any longer. A few companies retain brands–Harlequin, for one–but it’s rare among the bigger companies.

      And it’s not just the writers and books who became interchangeable, but the editors as well. A Maxwell Perkins wouldn’t have survived in the modern market. He paid his writers too much money, coddled them–letting them slip deadlines–and he spent years (at times) helping them on various projects. When you view everything as a widget, including your employees, you end up with widgets.

      We’ll see what happens. We are certainly living through interesting times.

  4. I’ve been meaning to visit your blog for a while (so many words to write, so little time!) and I am glad that I finally did. I saw the link on The Passive Voice.

    Your post is a detailed and honest discussion of some of the misconceptions regarding the value traditional publishers supply. Sometimes they do provide quality — but there is no guarantee. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience on both sides of the fence. It is sobering.

    One of the things that has surprised and thrilled me in reviews of my own first self-published novel is how readers themselves are… well… surprised and thrilled! A number of them seemed amazed that a book of such quality is self-published, and a first novel. Of course, folks who know me know that I was knocking on the doors of traditional publishing (and almost squeezing through) for two decades before deciding to do it myself.

    Your response to John W., above, is spot on. Only a year ago I was spouting the conventional wisdom that self-publishing was for the desperate and less-talented, and the kiss of death for “real” writers. However, now that I am a real self-published writer, selling books, entertaining readers, and making money, I’m so glad to have discovered the error of my ways.

    It’s a wonderful time to enter the brave new eworld.

    1. Thanks, Patrice. And congratulations on both the publication of your first novel, and on the great response to it. I greatly appreciate the comment and the support.

  5. John_W, I wonder if that’s a fair comparison — a new book from a multi-book author is likely to be better out of the gate than a new book from a previously unpublished author.

    Aside from that, though, I don’t think I’ve seen Ms. Rusch (forgive me the formality; I got indoctrinated that titles indicate respect) say that self-publishing isn’t full of a lot of crap. The quote goes, 90% of everything is crap. The more of everything, the larger the absolute values of crap. But the larger the absolute values of non-crap, and the point here is that the readers get to vote what’s non-crap for them. And what would be too few readers for a big publisher… maybe a plentiful number for a niche writer.

    What readers need are ways to winnow through the 90% (or more) of what they don’t want, and then the 90% of what they want that’s written badly, and get to the 10% that they’ll love. And those ways are evolving. (Right now, I think Amazon is ahead of the pack on this one, though there’s still room for improvement.) Reader-habits should be evolving, too; sample before buying!

  6. This past Christmas I received a trade pb as a gift. This trade pb was from a major publisher and written by one of the best-known authors in the country. This author’s name is so popular even most Americans who are not readers know the name.

    Unfortunately, 30 pages of the book were missing. Not torn out. Just not there.

    I grumbled, but then last week I went ahead and purchased another copy of the novel, figuring it was high time I got around to it.

    Guess what? 50 pages were missing. And it was a different 50 pages!

    No one can convince me the trads have a lock on quality. Are there a lot of crappy indie novels out there? Sure. But I’d say the percentage of crappy indie books is growing smaller as writers get smarter while the percentage of crappy traditionally-published books has grown larger over the last 10 or so years.

  7. Canada’s numbers shouldn’t be included in the United Kingdom. I used five Canadian ISBNs last year, and I’ll be using more this year. I’ll call Collections Canada on Monday and see if I can get updated numbers from them, and update Wikipedia.


    1. Wayne, Kerry from NZ had better eyes than mine and found Canada at #22. So no need to call. Although the number on Wikipedia is awfully small, imho, for Canada.

  8. I wanted to be on board with you. I agree that there is quality work in the self-published market, and that there are some incredibly talented and hard-working freelance editors, and that many of the traditionally-published writers will be better off moving to self-publication, and most certainly that there are publishing house editors that slack off.

    But so much of this diatribe is oversimplified or feels like deliberate untruth. How many of those e-mails actually espoused the belief that, in your words, “only traditional publishing can guarantee that the reader will get a quality product.”? I’m willing to bet few, though I don’t have the evidence since it’s your inbox, not mine. No one in my inbox, and no one I’ve ever talked to, espoused this belief. It’s the first of what feels like many oversimplifications and strawmen. I have run into many people who presumed it more likely that a traditionally-published book would be good than a self-published one, and that’s a serious concern authors must deal with, but that doesn’t get a fair hearing above.

    Not everyone who works in traditional publishing thinks all their products are better than all the products in the self-publishing market, nor do all writers view it that way, nor have I ever heard anyone ever voice the opinion that “Amanda Hocking’s books [are] better because St. Martins Press published them.” For such a long article, you create many unfortunate strawmen that only undermine the credibility of your argument, especially when what you’re arguing towards can easily be oversimplified to “Any self-published books are just as good as any traditionally published books.” That’s not even what you’re necessarily saying at all points, but you invite the snark and oversimplification by acting this way.

    I’m reading Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers right now; no self-published book I’ve read in the last fifteen months can touch it. In fact, most of those self-published books weren’t worth finishing. Does that mean all self-published books are crap? No. Does it mean self-published books can’t meet the high quality of the best traditionally-published books? No, and I’d sure hope not, as it’s the avenue I’m considering. But does it indicate that most self-published books don’t meet that level of quality? That’s the sticking point you fail to address rigorously, and in my experience, that ardent self-pubbers circle around in over-defense of their distribution model.

    1. John W., what your post shows me is that you don’t read widely in publishing trade magazines or in the mainstream press. I’m not setting up straw men, but actually answering comments that have been made for two years now. I link to just one such post (from last year’s Wall Street Journal) in another post of mine called “Slush Pile Truths.”

  9. From where I sit as a reader of a niche sub-genre of romance it is easier to find books in that niche than ever before but it is hard to find quality. Everyone has their own definition of quality but for me the book it is a book that has been edited. I can’t trust the reviews because most of these reviewers are so grateful for the niche story that they don’t seem to care about editing, grammar, spelling, continuity, plot holes, realism, likeable characters, showing the romance etc. I’ve stopped buying them and gone back to traditionally published mainstream romance because I’m tired of wading through and paying for slush. The story-lines may sometimes disappoint in mainstream romance but I don’t feel the need to break out a red pen.

    1. Rae, I have one word for you: Sampling. Most of the problems you cited are easy to find in the free sample. As for plot holes, continuity, etc, I’m finding those in traditionally published romances as well. (Including one of my favorite examples–a big name writer who had her Regency meet-cute happen in a library above a ballroom. The couple (who has just met and is not married) performs all the positions in the kama sutra, then gets up, puts their clothes back on, and go back to the ball–and only 15 minutes has elapsed. Um. No. Just taking off and putting on the clothes would have taken fifteen minutes…) So that part of the problem happens everywhere. It’s important that the writer solve the plotting and structure problems before turning in her manuscript, whether it’s for traditional or for indie. As for the rest, sample, sample, sample. I do, even with traditionally published books. And I’m a much happier reader when I sample than when I fail to sample.

  10. This is exactly what I needed to read right now. Thank you so much for the post, I really appreciate all the insight and experience. I have a series of novels I wrote this year and my first instinct was to hire an Editor I respect to give them a read-over (done) and then e-publish. My friends in the book industries convinced me to ‘at least try’ to get my books published the traditional way (they are lovely well-meaning folks so please, do not deride them for their advice, I still value it) so I’ve been dutifully sending out query letters every weekend.
    This post gives my gut impulse a boost, and I needed that.

  11. Hi Kris.

    I have to admit that as a reader of fiction for 30 years, I have a built up resistance in my mind to the idea that self-published books aren’t, because they haven’t gone through the gauntlet, inherently inferior to traditionally published books.

    I was listening to a podcast recently which took it as an a priori assumption. And I noticed that I didn’t completely agree with it when I once would have nodded along without noticing it.

    I’m slowly, thanks to experience, coming to the conclusion that you are more correct than I. I’ve read a couple of traditionally published, rather hyped books that turned out to be on par with a novel I read some months ago that was completely self published. None of them were “A list” books in the reading, all of them were around the same quality for me.

    So I am accumulating data to change my irrational opinion.

    1. Thanks, Paul. That’s one reason I write this blog–to think out loud about my changing opinions. I learn a lot from you all too, so that helps shape what I’m thinking as well.

  12. In my first job as an editor, my brand-new manager gave me a review to edit — my very first. I looked at it for about three hours and finally came back to her and said, “I don’t see anything wrong with it.” She said, “Good answer,” handed me three more, and said, “Now make these as good at that one.” I did wind up getting more training than that because everything we did went through three rounds of editing, so I had a chance to see what the editors who edited after me did to my work, but it was definitely all very informal. It’s amazing to look back and see how much we took that lack of training for granted–I don’t know that it ever occurred to anyone that editors might need to be trained.

    1. Sarah, that’s more training that I got. At least they tried. 🙂 But yeah, I think you’re right. I don’t think anyone in traditional publishing ever thinks editors need training. They’ll just “absorb” the culture.

      1. One of the things I’m loving about this week’s comments (and private e-mails) is how many are coming from readers who don’t write. If the system was Just Fine, then readers wouldn’t notice a problem. But readers have known for a long time that things aren’t right with publishing. I think they feel frustrated too. So thanks for the good and interesting comments, y’all.

  13. Well said, Kris. I hear this myth all the time and frankly I’m sick of it. I think an important lesson you writer about here is Amanda Hocking. Her books are no worse or no better because they’d published by St. Martins. They are what they are period. Unfortunately for her she’s losing income overall, but that’s her call.

    I had a short story published in a St. Martins anthology with no edits of any kind! Is the story fun? You bettcha. Does the story have some errors? You betcha.

    Stupid arguments like this distract from tales meant to entertain.

  14. Exactly.
    New York has been staring at its own navel so long, they’ve lost sight of the real world.
    I’m seeing so many authors propped up by NY Publishing– can we say Scott Turow– defend it. Duh.
    If you’re midlist, watch your ass. I did it for 20 years. I had an editor write cover copy that had a character as protagonist who wasn’t even in the book. I’ve had horrid covers. Zero promotion. Lackluster sales force. Pathetic distribution.
    NY focuses 95% of its efforts on 5% of their authors.
    That’s fine. That’s the way they run their business. But to pretend more than that, that they are some curator (to quote someone who had been curated) is a big stretch.

    1. Bob, thanks. I agree with you 100%.

      I think the bestsellers are very, very scared. They’re unwilling to learn how to take care of themselves, and they see this all as a threat to their income, which it is. The average network television show gets less than one-tenth the viewership of the worst network television show from forty years ago. Yes, network shows still get more viewers than cable shows, but network shows no longer dominate the market or the awards or any part of the industry. The same thing will happen to traditionally published bestsellers, and their income will go down accordingly.

      All of us midlisters–and we outnumber the silver-spoon writers like Scott Turow (who never submitted anything via slush)–we can really benefit from this new world, if we’re willing to take the chance. We will go from the lackeys of publishing to the folks who are making a real living and dominating the conversation (like cable does).

      So to tell us–and our readers, who suffer with us because series never get finished or we just plain disappear on them because we can’t sell another book–to tell all of us that the old system is better and that traditional publishers are the folks in charge of “good” fiction is quite laughable. We all know better.

  15. Here’s another facet of why it doesn’t matter if mountains of crap get published every year: readers have MORE THAN ENOUGH leads for “quality” books to fill their capacity for reading.

    I posted about this here:, but the central idea is that leads for good reads are EVERYWHERE and far outnumber our capacity to read.

    There are recommendations from friends, family, reviewers, celebrites, and Amazon’s this person bought that. There are leads from best-seller lists (another type of tacit recommendation). Leads from browsing.

    Readers have leads for “quality” books COMING OUT THEIR EARS!

    And the number of leads any given reader has far excees that reader’s capacity for reading. Most of us aren’t Harriet Klausners reading a book a day or more. Many of us read one or two a week and feel lucky. Most read far less.

    That means all one individual reader needs to do is find 2-4 books per month. 24-48 a year. Okay, push it for some big readers to 100. If you read 100 books a year, you’re an anomaly, btw. People look at you with awe.

    So let’s say I need to fill those 100 slots.

    Let’s see, Suzanne Collins just took up 3 of those slots for a lot of readers. Oh, and Kris just mentioned Taken by Crais. I just found three more glancing through the USA Today best sellers a few minutes ago. Gee, that was easy. I should be done finding my 100 before dinner.

    How long does it take you to find just one book that looks interesting? From browsing or recommendations or whatever?


    Maybe if you’re having a really bad day, it takes an hour.

    But it takes so much longer to read one novel than it does to find one you want to read. That’s why we all have two year’s worth of books to read in our queues.

    Individual readers will NEVER have to navigate a sea of crap. Even if 99% of what’s out there was written by monkeys. Because they get far more leads than they will EVER be able to follow up on.

  16. I was reading Lawrence Block’s new book “Afterwards” last night where he commented on a lot of the same topics you have mentioned here.
    The book detailed a lot of the decisions that the editors had made with his work over the years. He tells of the instance where his book was renamed from “Grifter’s Game” (fairly descriptive) to “Mona” just because the editor had previously purchased a painting he could use for that title. He also spoke of professional editors who felt they had to make changes just to make changes. One example was given of an editor who had replaced most compound sentences with two shorter sentences and reversed the process with short sentences.
    Some of the worst books I have read in recent years were traditionally published. One fairly famous author brags in her blog that her editor is just there to correct the spelling and grammar. From the quality of her recent work, I can believe this.
    Kris, thank you for taking your time to explore the publishing business for those of us on the outside. I can honestly say that I have learned about publishing from your site than from any other source.

    Thanks again,

  17. I wouldn’t buy a book JUST BECAUSE it is traditionally published, but there are some publishers and imprints that I know are more likely than average to produce the kind of book I want to read, even if I don’t recognize the author’s name. For example, when I was picking over the SF shelves at a Borders going-out-of-business sale, I saw a title published by Haikasoru (an imprint specializing in SF/fantasy translations from Japanese). I’ve been reading the LJ of Nick Mamatas, a (the?) Haikasoru editor, and I’ve liked the other Haikasoru books I’ve bought in the past… so I bought this one on the strength of its brand.

    (OK, and also because it was 80% off. But there were plenty of other books in that bookcase that I wouldn’t have even considered taking for free.)

    So I think there will still be a role for people with a taste for literature who read a thousand different books from a thousand different authors every month and then say “Out of those thousand books, I’m going to stamp this one with my company’s brand to make it stand out in the marketplace, make it easier for you to purchase it, and split the loot with the author.” That business model sounds a lot like traditional publishing.

    1. Seth, nice point about brands. I still sell short stories to magazines because they have strong editorial voices. Readers go to the magazines for the editorial voice (whether they know it or not). Some publishing companies let editors have their voice, and buy whatever the editor deems “good” usually by giving the editor her own book line, named for her. That’s increasingly rare, however. Even the Name editors have to go through the sales force gauntlet.

      Why am I stressing this? Because editing is a creative endeavor, and whenever a committee gets involved, the uniqueness quotient goes way down. An editor operates like a good friend whose taste you admire. If she loves something you probably will. When publishing companies work that way, then the brand means something. But most companies don’t. They don’t have that strong point of view or voice and they’re all chasing that illusive bestseller.

      Is the editor “editing” the writers to death? Probably not. It’s more in the choice that the editor makes–whose work the editor buys. If publishing companies go back to that model, then they will have more value in their brands. Right now, very few large houses in the US do. (I don’t know about other countries.)

      I believe traditional publishing has its place, but with everything changing right now, traditional publishers need to examine all that they do and stop deluding themselves about what they don’t do. They don’t bring “quality” as in “improving” books any more than some freelance editor in TX might, given the right project. They might bring other things, but quality of that type isn’t one of them.

      1. Thanks, Dave. I’ve been reading Lawrence Block’s Afterwards too, which just goes to show that publishing hasn’t changed one bit in my lifetime. 🙂 He’s doing a great column for Mystery Scene Magazine as well. He wrote three installments on the Scott Meredith Agency which anyone who thinks agents are gods should read. Great stuff.

        Sometimes professional editors must ask the writer for changes, whether the book needs the changes or not. It has to do with the contract pay-out schedule. If the second payment is “on acceptance,” the publisher doesn’t want to make that payment the day after signing the contract. So the poor writer has to tinker with a book that needs to no tinkering so that the publisher can delay payment. Most of my editors, knowing that I edit/publish, simply tell me when they would have bought the book as-is, and explain that the next payment will be six months from the first. But most writers don’t get that courtesy, and must monkey with a book that’s just fine as is.

        I always hire an editor on my indie books. And I’ve won awards for my editing (as mentioned above). But like all writers, I can’t see my own work clearly enough to go without that editing step. So I make sure it’s there, no matter how the book gets published.

        One more thing: I used to have a rubber-stamp editor on my traditional books. I knew that editor wouldn’t edit, maybe even wouldn’t read the book after I turned it in. So I always made sure I had an editor look at the manuscript here at home before I ever sent it to that traditional editor. Fortunately, the changes in publishing mean I no longer have to work with editors like that. I never saw it as a compliment, but as a concern. I need a second (or third) eye on my work, just like everyone else.

  18. The concept that “traditional publishing can guarantee that the reader will get a quality product.” can be logically extended to the belief that involvement of the studio professionals guarantees that movies will be uniformly of a high quality. The same for network executives and TV shows.


    William Goldman said it best about successful movies: “Nobody knows anything.”

  19. As for the “tradpub = quality” argument goes:

    -About 4 of 5 books from tradpub are considered commercially unsuccessful.

    -If the argument were true, you should be able to walk to your favorite genre’s section of a bookstore, grab a random book, and be satisfied with it almost every time. Does anyone experience this? Because I sure don’t.

    -If the difference between great and horrible books were the editing and marketing teams, writers would be interchangeable. There would be no household name authors getting hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in advances, and readers would buy based on the publisher’s name. Is this the case?

    -In the end, quality = reader satisfaction. There are a huge number of factors in this besides an ace editing and marketing team. I read the early version of Spellmonger by Terry Mancour and loved it. The editing was atrocious and ripped me out of the story at times, but it was the most enjoyable book I’d read in a long time.

    -I believe Terry has hired a good editor for the book now that it and the sequel are finding success. Not only does selfpub cream rise to the top, sometimes it gets creamier in the process.

  20. A great piece as always, Kris. Thanks so much. I don’t often chime in here because i assume that wisdom as obvious as yours will be listened to, so i’m often astounded to hear about the kind of blowback some of your posts receive. I don’t know our numbers, but i think it’s safe to assume that there’s a fairly large number of non-thudding writers who appreciate the time and effort you put into sharing your thoughts and experience, but who are too busy actually writing to add to the discussion as often as we’d like.

    As to the greater point: At a public library used book sale this past week, i saw (and avoided at great distance) “Snakes on a Plane: The Complete Quote Book”. HarperCollins. Not kidding.

    1. Thanks, Scott. I always figure if I’m doing my job right, I will get pushback. I’m challenging people. If they’re not pushing back, then I’m doing something wrong. That said, I greatly appreciate your comment. I know there are a lot of people who read the blog who never comment and never e-mail. A goodly percentage of them donate, without comment, so I know they like the blog. And they return. (Thank heavens for Google Analytics!) The fact that readers keep coming back means a great deal to me. And the fact that I’m helping writers means even more. I know a lot of folks can’t afford to take our workshops, so this is one other way I can pay the field back for all it’s given me.

  21. On wikipedia Australia is at #37 (8,602), Canada at #22 (19,900), NZ at #47 (3,600) – all quite low figures

    1. Thanks, Kerry NZ. I scanned that list quite a few times and missed them. (But I was writing this thing in a hurry–I’m in the middle of a novel and wanted to get back to doing fiction pages–so I didn’t look as hard as I should have.) You live in NZ: does that number seem right to you? Or Australia’s? Because Canada’s looks low to me. I wonder how they measured it.

  22. “Readers don’t care who published a book.”

    I respectfully disagree. Ever since Agency pricing began, all I’ve been hearing from the readers I’ve been talking to is how much they hate the “Big 6” publishers.

    My intense dislike for certain publishers began with Agency pricing and since that event, I have been looking for more information about the Agency Model and the publishers. In my search for that information, I have come across many other news stories, industry news sites and blogs which have pointed out many other things about Traditional publishers in general and the Big 6 in particular which has stoked my anger towards them, be it withholding library lending rights, author’s royalties and contract clauses, etc.

    When I worked in a bookstore many years ago, there was one rule we always obeyed. Keep the customer happy. The publishers have lost sight of that and the customer’s resentment of publishers is mounting. When I hear people complain about the library issue or e-book pricing, they quite often name the publishers to which they are referring. My resentment is such that I now check to see who publishes a book that I am about to buy. If it’s by a publisher I resent, I more often than not, will not buy the book. Even if it’s on sale or even offered for free (read, loss leader), I find it very hard, and in most cases, impossible to get around the publisher angst and order the book.

    The silver lining in Agency is that it has forced me to look for other authors not with Agency publishers and I’ve found many good authors who I would never have given a chance if it hadn’t been for the publishing decisions which shook me out of my established habits of buying mostly a few authors in my prefered gendre of reading.

    In the “good old days”, customers wouldn’t have known anything about the publisher and perhaps that’s the way it should be. The product should be the focus, not the distributor.

    Sorry about any grammer / spelling mistakes. I am not a writer. I am just a person who reads books and I could not afford a proof reader (my cat charges way too much!)

    I love your blog. Please keep it up. I find it very informative.

    1. C. Sears, thanks for the great post. I’ve been hearing anecdotally that a lot of writers are mad at the Big Six. (C uses that term correctly here, folks. For a rant on the misuse of term, see my husband’s blog from earlier this week.) I know I think twice about buying an agency priced book. But I don’t want to penalize favorite authors. Besides, they *are* favorite authors. 🙂

      However, the fact that you know the term Agency and know about the Big Six, means you pay attention to publishing, so you may not be the average reader in that regard. I think, however, readers do pay attention to price. And whether or not, they know who published a book, they will not buy even a favorite author if the price is too high. So you might be right about average readers as well–only they don’t know they’re avoiding certain publishers. They just are.

      Thanks for the good comment.

  23. Kris, you sure are getting at the good stuff now, but be aware how dangerous the topic of ‘quality” can be. I’ve been publishing and teaching about quality in the software business for half a century now, and the topic never fails to generate heated arguments. Why? Well, in the s/w industry, there a several popular definitions of quality, but I (in all modesty) prefer mine (and so do tens of thousand of other professionals).

    “Quality is value to some person, in some circumstance.”

    With many different people, there are sure to be many different opinions about what is the quality of a particular book or piece of software. Yet many people continue to believe that “quality” is something IN the book or s/w. It’s not. It is, rather, a relationship between a person (in some circumstance) and a product.

    I have spoken to many traditionally published authors who avoid ebooks because they are poor quality (which, to them, means they have typos). To me, if the book provides me an entertaining story (or useful info, if non-fiction), then it’s high quality, even if it has a moderate number of typos.

    Because of the idiosyncratic definitions of quality, I’ve learned to refrain from arguing with people about “quality,” is s/w or literature. It’s a waste of time that could be used to write quality books.

    1. Jerry (Gerald), I agree with your definition. But right now, the way I used “quality” in this post is the way that traditional publishing uses it. They believe they “improve” what they publish, not seeing all the evidence that they don’t. As for bringing added value, yes, at times they do. The latest Stephen King, 11/22/63, is a beautiful book. The design is lovely, the book is pleasant to hold, the photographs in the interior perfect. Did they “improve” King’s writing? I’ll wager they didn’t. I’ll wager they didn’t touch his prose. He’s a master at the craft. But they did bring something to the table–spectacular production, some wonderful advertising and placement (I noticed it in appropriate places), and a far-ranging and wide-reaching simultaneous release of hardback/ebook/audio. It was nicely done.

      But it had little to do with “improving the quality” of the manuscript. That’s up to the author, imho. And then the readers decide if they find value in that author’s work.

  24. The fallacy is this: Readers believe that all traditionally published books are good.

    What a profound statement. If readers were all mindless believers, the proliferation of book review Blogs would be largely ignored. Since these blogs are closely followed by everyday folks with limited dollars (or time) for reading entertainment, I must conclude that they provide some sort of return on investment for the time spent searching for them and reading through all the reviews. THEREFORE (cue trumpet music)… READERS DO NOT BELEIVE THAT ALL TRADITIONALLY PUBLISHED BOOKS ARE GOOD.

    I read a Traditionally published book just this week that had plot holes large enough to become vast frozen lakes filled with mediocrity.
    Truthfully, I’ve also found my share of self-pubbed books with the same problem. Shouldn’t a professional Editor, likely paid better than the author, be able to find these every time?

    Feel free to forward my rant to all traditional Publishers/Editors who are wondering where their profits went.

    1. Susan in AZ, yes, if traditional books actually brought quality to the table, you’d think the plot holes would get caught. Really, I think traditional publishers need to change their tune, and think about what they successfully provide writers and readers rather than delude themselves about what they provide. But that–like everything else right now–will take some rethinking on the part of traditional publishers. Thanks for the comment!

  25. I didn’t buy I Am Not Spock, though — my spouse did, before we met. I just unpacked it when we moved. And maybe shelved it. I’m not sure. 🙁

  26. I always wonder with the quality argument what that means for NY editors who move away and go out on their own. Are they suddenly inferior due to the change in address and/or letterhead?

    Recently, we had Dayle Dermatis edit a book for us. She was great. I knew she was great; that’s why I brought her onto the project. What I didn’t know was she had worked for the press that published my author’s previous traditionally published books. I think I can safely argue this author did not lose anything in quality going with Luck Bat vs his old publisher. But he did gain a whole bunch of money.

    Your post also reminds me of the time I impulse-bought a laser keyboard. It looked so amazing, I figured it had to be worth the $250 I paid. But it turned out to be useless. Still, I defended that ridiculous purchase for a year, trying to find some circumstance where the silly thing would be useful rather than admit I’d made a costly mistake. I wonder how long I would feel compelled to defend giving up 80% or more of my income on a book? I’m guessing it would be more than a year.

    I believe NY has its place. It has something to contribute, and I don’t want to see it go away. I even advise some writers that they’d be better off with a traditional publisher than with Lucky Bat. But quality has never been one of those reasons.

  27. Kris, another fine post.

    I studied editing in college. Since there wasn’t a program for fiction editing, I got permission from the university to create my own program track, which was much more involved than your typical Bacherlor’s. It involved studying editing and English usage, modern literature and literary criticism, and of course I spent a good deal of time writing. Later, in Hollywood, I worked as a green-lighting analyst for a bit, and got trained there.

    While I’ve met many clear-eyed editors in New York that I respect and admire, I’ve always been surprised by the dearth of training that these people get. They make terrible choices time and time again simply because no one ever showed them better. Even the best of them are untrained. The worst really have no idea what they’re up to.

    1. Thanks, Dave. I was shocked too when I learned that editors got no training. In every other profession I’ve been in or around, people got trained. Even writers get trained (as bad as that training might be). But editors–not so much.

  28. I lost my trust in editing last year.
    I read a book that had a good idea but was executed with a stupid plot and terrible prose, in the style of “she ran quickly to the car” and “he said angrily while punching his fist on the table”. Most of it could have been brought to an ok level with a quick once-over by a decent editor. Wouldn’t have fixed the stupid plot, though.
    It was a debut novel in a genre that isn’t popular here, so probably nobody cared. Ok, I thought – but this isn’t exactly the way to help the genre. Shrugged my shoulders, carried on.

    Then I picked up a novel by one of THE bestselling german authors. Never read him because I’m not interested much in the genre he’s at home. But why not try and look how he does it? I opened it at a random page and was shocked, SHOCKED I’ll tell you, to read one of the worst sentences ever printed. I can’t translate it (you’re lucky) but it was like this: “He pulled the lever, calm on the outside while still angry, up.”
    Just move the “up” in front of the first comma and you’ve improved the sentence 100%. A minor detail, yet no editor saw to it. Did an editor read it at all? I have no idea.
    But this writer has sold millions. Why take the risk and chase readers away from your cash cow?

    I don’t get it.

    And this was my anecdote in which I defy the quality argument. Yes, a lot of self-published and indie titles are quite crappy. But usually, you can see it at first glance, e.g. with lots of spelling mistakes.
    Above that level, I can see no difference between trad and indie.

    Looks like the author is the only one responsible for the content of the book. So why split the money?

    1. Frank, some of it does boil down to taste. But sometimes you can’t blame the editor when a Big Name Writer is poorly edited. Said Big Name Writer might have a high asshole quotient, and refuse any suggestions at all–including copy edits. Many Big Name writers are great people, who constantly want to improve, but there’s a small subset who…aren’t. That said, I love your last line: Looks like the author is the only one responsible for the content of the book. So why split the money? Exactly. The writer has to find another reason besides “Quality” to go with a traditional publisher. And traditional publishers need to be honest about the services they provide.

  29. I must heartily disagree with KKR’s post this morning on why publishing in
    NYC is so screwed up.

    It’s nothing internal to publishing.

    Instead, it’s something much more familiar to people living in Western
    Oregon (hey, I grew up in Seattle in the 60s and 70s, so I know): the
    distance from their dealers.

    That is the only possible explanation for the “agency model” — not only
    were they really smokin’ some good stuff when they came up with it, they
    were too stoned to look up the correct name for an already-existing sales
    system in a bloody dictionary.

    When I queried an acquaintance at Macmillan on this, his reply was
    enlightening: “____ is unable to respond to your message at this time. He
    will respond when he returns from his munchie break.”

    {sound of futile attempts to remove tongue from cheek}

    1. LOL, CE. And honestly, you’re the third person to point this out to me today (the other two in e-mail) as perhaps reflective on quality… LOL!

  30. @Kris — Curse the moderated comments–I didn’t see that a number of other people had already mentioned the ISBNs!

    The longer I work in this business, the more convinced I am that there is no correlation between talented writing and success. Not that all the succesful books are terrible–there’s no correlation at all. I’ve been a book reviewer and a freelance copyeditor, and there’s nothing like reading a random selection of the books that are coming out to realize that a vast majority of it is terrible. But terrible with a hook somebody thought would sell.

    1. And sell to a lot of people, awasky. The revelation for me after all my years in publishing was that not everyone shared my taste. (Imagine that!) Some of the books that I thought were absolute crap, other people believed were brilliant. My husband and I still have the discussion about some bestsellers–the ones he loves and I don’t, and vice versa. No problem on the moderated comments. That’s one of the fun of the blog–having my readers add important details.

  31. Ab-so-rootry.

    As for the question of quality, I read about 50/50 indie books vs. trad books nowadays, and it seems like the bell curve of quality is about the same for both types of books.

    However, I can say for sure that the two worst books that I’ve read in the past year, which were so bad that they stayed with me and I must restrain myself from ranting at the crappiness of them, were both traditionally published. My book club ranted at both these books last night, so it’s not just me. These were actually outliers on the quality curve, a two-book blip on the left end of the long tail, they were so bad.

    I have not read any indie book that approaches the sheer badness of those two major NY-pubbed books.

    It seems like when an indie writer is bad, they’re amateurish in safe, predictable ways, and sometimes you can actually see them improve during the book.

    When a NY-pubbed book is bad, the writer is arrogant and blind to how terribly the book has gone wrong, because they are a Professional NY-Published Writer, Dammit, and then the book gets worse as they go farther astray and defend their terrible, terrible choices. The badness becomes exponential.

    Yes, quality is not the exclusive domain of the large publishers, and shlock is certainly not limited to indies.

    TK Kenyon

  32. @ABeth I suppose I’d assumed that new SF&F got its day in the sun on B&N shelves, for the picking up and perusal…

    Those prominent placements in bookstores are called co-op, and they’re paid for by the publisher. It’s another case of the few titles the publisher has decided to promote getting the benefit of the not insignificant co-op dollars, and being easy for readers to spot. Everyone else? Spine-out on the bookshelves, if they’re lucky enough to be ordered by the bookstore at all.

  33. I just have to have a quick nitpick that the number of ISBNs does not equal the number of individual titles. Separate ISBNs are issued for different editions of books (hardcover, mass market), as well as for sales prepacks (16 titles by one author, say), or special editions for specific outlets (if there’s an edition for Target at a different price point, or an international edition). One manuscript can end up with half a dozen different ISBNs. ISBNs are also usually issued in a different year than the book is published, and publishers buy them in batches, further skewing the numbers.

    The point about the mountain remains, but counting ISBNs is not a good way to come up with an accurate number of new works published.

    1. I know, awasky, but that’s just too complicated for my point. And in those 1.8 million books worldwide (which probably isn’t accurate either), that doesn’t take into account the titles–Like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo–published in multiple languages in the same year. See my response to Michael Bracken, below. I do appreciate all of the clarifications, but as y’all said, the point is the mountain, not the number which is–by definition–wrong.

  34. “In 2010, Bowker, the company that issues the tracking numbers for books published traditionally in the United States (the ISBN), issued 288,355 ISBNs. That means this: In 2010, 288,355 individual titles got published in the United States.”

    Actually, there isn’t a direct correlation between number of ISBNs issued and number of books published. ISBNs are sold in blocks of 1, 10, 100, or 1,000 at a time. (See .) I do freelance editing for a periodical publisher that occasionally publishes books and still has several unused ISBNs from a block purchased several years ago.

    Even so, the difference between number of ISBNs issued in a given year and the actual number of traditionally published books released in a given year probably isn’t significant enough to alter the point you were making.

    1. Yes, Michael, I know. I’ve bought ISBNs in bulk for a variety of different companies. And not all ISBNs are used. But if you factor in all of the books that never have ISBNs published in the same year, I’m hoping that the number of titles is equivalent. After all, I made it clear how I feel about statistics a few weeks ago in “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.” These numbers are all inadequate and approximate, but they make my point. There’s a lot of books being traditionally published. A mountain of them, however you count it.

  35. Nice article, Kris.

    When you mentioned the number of ISBNs sold in the US last year, I remembered Mark Coker saying Smashwords bought 50,000 of them last year. That’s more than 1/6. I’m not sure what that means, but I thought it was interesting.

  36. When I was in business, I learned something called portfolio management.
    I’m now trying to apply it to my writing career. Basically, it would mean having books out in all media, depending on the genre, where you can get accepted, and the money and time that you have to spare.
    I don’t see why a writer should restrict herself to one method. So have a book with one of the big six, but also explore the smaller publishers, as these days some of them offer a much more lucrative and inviting contract to the writer, and don’t forget the digital first publishers, either. Self-publishing, why not? You can ensure your own quality level by employing the right people. You can even join a co-op, and offer your level of expertise in exchange for something else – an edit for a book cover, for instance.
    Don’t think in straight, single lines. Think in trees, in bunches. If the writer uses this new market to her advantage, then she’s the winner, and won’t that be a nice change?

  37. The actual fallacy of the folks who objected to your definitions of scarcity and abundance is more basic, I think: whether they like it or not, it’s what’s happening.

    Folks can cling to their idea of “quality” but all it will mean is one more niche in the long long tail.

  38. I was wondering when you might mention Amanda Hocking. Her success is what motivated me to start publishing my manuscripts as eBooks. I worked hard on editing my novels with help from my reader, and I hired a cover artist.

    Right now I can’t afford to pay a copy-editor, so I’m hoping the stories within my books are good enough for readers to ignore any typos that I might miss.

    1. Suzy, find an anal reader. The bigger problem isn’t spelling. It’s misused punctuation, wrong words (that the spell check won’t find, and missing words. Surely you know someone who always complains about mistakes in books. Bring that person in, buy them dinner, ignore what they have to say about the content, and have them go over it word for word. Not quite as good as a trained copy editor, but good enough.

  39. 1: I actually do not recall ever reading a Celebrity Book. Maybe the title of I Am Not Spock, but I don’t think I opened it. I’ve read Wil Wheaton’s blog — does that count? (I also read Barbara Hambly’s, M.C.A. Hogarth’s, Tanya Huff’s, Tamora Pierce’s, and Patrica Wrede’s. And yours.)

    2: I was cured of the notion that publishers publish quality when I read a certain bloated book some 20 years ago. The last fifteen pages were summarized every five pages or so. I counted. (I will also name-and-shame that book if asked and Kris-sensei permits — compared to a prior book by that author, which was equally infuriating in some ways but about 200-300 pages shorter, it was obvious that any editing that happened was of the “fix typos and commas and try not to look at the actual text” variety.) Publishers publish what they think will sell, with the minimum amount of massaging to get it to a publishable state; if they think that the book’s fandom will eat it up with a spoon no matter how poorly-edited it is? They aren’t likely to do much editing unless the author begs them. (And what author is going to do that, I ask you!)

    3: I suppose I’d assumed that new SF&F got its day in the sun on B&N shelves, for the picking up and perusal… (On the other hand, I get aaaaaaaaages in the moonlight on the ebook-store “shelves.” I’ll take it.)

    4: If sales staff “only sell to their friends,” then I just cracked that with a review from someone whose name I don’t recognize, and a positive mention on someone else’s blog post! (Who heard about it from an online friend on her blog post, I admit. But still! …I may be terribly excited. 🙂 )

    5: says “The United Kingdom comprises the whole of the island of Great Britain—which contains England, Wales, and Scotland—as well as the northern portion of the island of Ireland.” So no Canada nor Australia. Raise the number of books again!

    Must run! Thank you for the post!

    1. ABeth, I could be mean and say that Wil Wheaton’s blog counts, but I meant actual books. (And if you own I am not Spock, even if you didn’t read it, that counts. Good other points except…that Canada is part of the Commonwealth, so perhaps they’re counted in the number. It’s not my number–it comes from a variety of sources and links back to the UK’s Bowker equivalent, so who knows. (Well, they do. But I don’t.)

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