The New Top-Down Approach

An extremely pro-traditional publishing friend of mine just pointed out, after conceding many of my points on the new publishing landscape, that there is no “universal answer” on how to publish.

This is the last redoubt of those who do not want to admit that self-publishing is a superior option for the vast majority of writers. It’s an appeal for equivalence, which should be victory enough. I mean, who would have thought that anyone entrenched in the publishing industry would ever fall back to: “Hey, traditional publishing is still at least as good as self-publishing.

But I’m not happy with an appeal to equivalence. When someone says “there is no universal answer” what they really mean is “there are always exceptions to every rule.” Which I’ll grant. Out of all the authors who debut this year, one or two of them will hit it big. They’ll look like geniuses for going with a publisher. And nobody will ever care about or mention the authors who didn’t make it.

Bestselling author Val McDermid admitted this today in this amazing story in The Telegraph. Val broke out with her fourth novel, and she knows that no publisher would have given her room to grow these days. She would have been dropped like a steaming hot potato. Literary agent Jonny Geller (joint CEO of Curtis Brown) was on the same panel with Val and agreed.

So let’s not equivocate. The chances of these two publishing paths being equal is a fantasy. That’s like flipping a coin and claiming the thing will land on its edge. One must be better for more writers than the other path. Forget the exceptions, what’s the general answer? According to Val McDermid, Jonny Geller, and myself, the answer is to start your career with self-publishing.

Here is how we know this to be true: Self-publishing is the new Top-Down Approach.

What does Top-Down Approach mean? It means you leave your options open. You start with the path that leads to any other path you care to take in the future. Five years ago, the Top-Down Approach was to query agents first and only resort to self-publishing if all else failed. Self-publishing was the very last resort. Because to self-publish under your own name was to commit career suicide. Practically no agent or publisher would touch you after.

We know for a fact that this is no longer true. People move from self-publishing to traditional publishing quite often. Which means: The former bottom of the Top-Down Approach is no longer a deal-breaker. But wait . . . it gets even more interesting.

Five years ago, publishers didn’t value backlist and e-books like they do today. Backlist books went out of print, but this is no longer true thanks to POD. Or backlist books disappeared from bookstores, but now most books are sold online. Because of these shifts, publishing contracts that once allowed rights to revert to authors are getting stricter. These days, reversion of rights are getting less likely, because books are worth more for a longer period of time. Also: non-compete clauses mean that you no longer have the freedom to publish other works how or when you choose. Because of these trends, the former top of the Top-Down Approach no longer leaves open other paths.

You can self-publish and still do whatever you like later in your career. You cannot traditionally publish and do whatever you like later in your career. The Top-Down Approach has completely inverted.

The quickest way to ruin your career these days is by publishing with a major publisher and having your book not do well. Five years ago — going back to what Val McDermid is talking about — if you published a flop, your publisher might give you a second, third, even fourth chance. That is no longer the case, and one of the most powerful agents in the business admits as much.

This is a very real shift in the way both publishing options work. It was this revelation in 2009 that made me put a contract for my second novel in a drawer and strike out on my own. I was blogging about this inversion even then. It hit me like a lightning bolt that signing lifetime rights away removed all further options, but self-publishing left open every future choice.

Which leads us to the big reveal: Signing with a traditional publisher is as risky today as self-publishing was ten years ago.

Let that sink in.

Of course, if you focus on the one or two authors who debuted in bookstores this year and hit it big, you’ll miss this. These exceptions become the equivalency. You can say “there is no universal answer.” Which will continue to lead thousands of authors astray. But who cares about them, right? Not publishers. And not pundits.

I care about advice to authors, not publishers. Pundits and publishing peeps will deny the truth of the new Top-Down Approach and continue to gamble on thousands of authors in the hopes that one of them hits it big. They’ll drop the other authors and reload next year. Val McDermid knows this. Jonny Geller knows this. Anyone with a clear mind knows this.

There used to be a path that allowed authors to nurture themselves, to hone their craft, to make mistakes, to grow as writers, to establish a following and a backlist. That path has changed dramatically in the last five years. That path used to be querying agents. Today, the path is self-publishing. It’s the absolute best way these days for the vast majority of writers. No equivalency. No appeal to exceptions. For the overwhelming majority, the surest method is similar to what other artists do: Produce your best work and make it available. Rinse, repeat, and grow. Start at the new Top. You can always fall back on a traditional publisher if all else fails.

68 responses to “The New Top-Down Approach”

  1. This is a great post, Hugh. I think a lot of people realized publishing was going in this direction, but few of us expected it to happen quite this fast. I have friends who are still querying the same novel they were querying a year ago, and I just have to shake my head. I have other friends who just recently signed with a publisher and have a release date in 2016!

    WHY??? It doesn’t hurt to put your work out there and see what happens. That’s what I did back in 2010. I had no idea if I would eventually query again and try to sign with a traditional publisher. I had no idea if I would find success or enjoy self-publishing. But I knew I wanted to get my books in the hands of readers as fast as possible.

    I have grown a lot as a writer in the past 3 and a half years. I hate to think what might have happened if I had signed with an agent 4 years ago and not performed well on a first sale. It’s terrifying! I might have given up! Thank goodness we have the option to self-publish now. I wouldn’t choose anything else at this point. I love it and am grateful for this path every single day.

  2. This is truth. Just mere hours ago I told another author “The days of publishers and agents expecting writers to bend over backwards for their every whim are over. They aren’t used to being dictated to, but the cool kids are over here self-publishing.”
    Self-published authors are a threat to the system and they are afraid. After reading this post, it is with good reason. If a potential break-out author had their manuscript ready to publish, why would they go the traditional route when they could publish independently? I have flexibility and control over my works. I wouldn’t have that with the Big 5 and more and more authors are coming around to that way of thinking.

    1. And the better your manuscript, the better this new system works. Self-publishing has already grabbed an equal share of e-book author income as the Big 5 publishing route in just a handful of years. That’s mind-blowing. What will things look like in 10 years? 20 years?

      I think the inflection point has already been reached. Publishers will soon be rights holders for backlist works and those authors too entrenched to move. The next generation of writers, who are used to seeing their blog posts and status updates go up immediately, will not tolerate 2-5 years to market for their novels. They just won’t. Not with more and more examples of successful self-published works every day.

      So this trend is already dominating and it can only continue. Publishers will be left with e-books at $9.99 that are increasingly inferior to e-books on offer for $4.99. And the author of the half-priced e-book will be making more than twice as much while selling twice as many copies.

      1. “Publishers will be left with e-books at $9.99 that are increasingly inferior to e-books on offer for $4.99. And the author of the half-priced e-book will be making more than twice as much while selling twice as many copies.”

        As a reader this is exactly the trend I have noticed. I am disgruntled to find the newest book in a long followed traditional published series is either $25 hardback or $10 epub when I’ve been discovering new authors writing fresher works and buying them for $2.99. The new self published works come at a faster pace too. I’ve given up on some pretty big named authors in SciFi and Fantasy because their works just do not justify the prices. I’ve written on their blogs this fact and that I wish they’d consider self publishing to get their cost down to where I consider it a value (and for which they themselves would make more revenue) but oh how they howl!.

      2. “And the better your manuscript, the better this new system works.”

        What if you have a good manuscript but no marketing dollars? It still takes a minimum $25k to even start actually advertising on Amazon. Sure you can point traffic to Amazon or wherever, but let’s be honest — if you want to sell the most ebooks, it will happen on Amazon, and everybody and their grandma is Twittering, blogging about their book. I find the marketplace to be saturated and without marketing money to push a book into prime online marketing space, the chances of selling enough of a book to make the 6-12 month development time is where the risk assessment should be focused. Money talks, shit sells.

  3. Awesome stuff Hugh. Its great to read your thoughts on this.

  4. “You can always fall back on a traditional publisher if all else fails.”
    Love this. When taking the new Top-Down Approach, chances are, one will never need to take that path ever again.
    Sadly, some still pursue the traditional route in the belief that they are the true gatekeepers. The audience is the true gatekeeper. They are clearly capable of discerning their own likes and dislikes without the segregation to the tastes and likes of a few people in high places. Nothing else should matter.

  5. “That’s like flipping a coin and claiming the thing will land on its edge.” But Hugh, this does happen sometimes, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it sometimes land on its edge and remain there? Balanced and wobbling?


  6. Hugh, I love this piece. It particularly strikes a chord with me, and let me tell you why. Let me tell you a bit about me.

    As a kid, I was a voracious reader. I didn’t just read books, I devoured them. One of my favorite things to do as a wee kid, when I spent the night with my grandma, was to go to the old house behind their house, and go through the old books down there, and pick out books to pack home.

    In high school, I started writing; and when I graduated high school, I wanted to be a writer. I graduated high school in 1979. Publishing was a TOTALLY different world then. My mom had a heart to heart with me about how hard it would be to break into that and make money at it. So I spent a couple of years at home, learned to cook very well, and then went to business college.

    For most of my life, my writing has been a hobby, a cherished past-time, a reminder of an unachieved dream. That dream was to be a published writer. Now, thanks to the internet, and blogs, and wattpad, and other venues – that dream has been partially achieved. Through self-publishing, in the next year or two, I hope for that dream to be fully achieved.

    Now, at the age of 53, I am finally pursuing my high school dream of being a writer. I’m pursuing it with all I’m worth, 100 percent. I live and breathe it right now. Thanks to ebooks, and adjustable type size, I’ve returned to reading again. Thanks to some generous writer friends, I have a kindle paperwhite that has become my best bud, and I am my old voracious reader self again. I’m always reading something. I even have a book review blog. One of your books, that I got on a free download, is on my kindle.

    I’m watching my fellow writer friends, learning from what they do. What works and what doesn’t. I’m a baby boomer. I grew up with black and white tv, and an outdoor toilet. Things have changed a lot in my lifetime, and I’m embracing it, and I’m chasing my high school dream. And I’m going to achieve it too.

    1. Inspiring. So damn inspiring. Thanks for sharing this, Jacqueline.

    2. Hi Jacqueline. Other than not being a good cook, I could have written exactly the same post as you about how the ability to publish looked to me in decades past, down to the high school graduation date.

      In late 70’s London, you might as well as wished for the moon as a publishing contract. I finished my English Literature degree, kept reading and writing, and went about the business of earning a living in business.

      Here we are several decades later in a whole new world, and I just self-published the first of those many stories that have spent the intervening years migrating from my head to typewritten sheets in dusty drawers to floppy disks to CD’s to USB drives. After a lot of work with an editor and a graphic designer, about a year’s worth, one of those stories has made its final migration, to the public arena on Amazon.

      Where it goes from here is hopefully into the heads of other readers, but the important thing to me is that it is finally out there, and has at least a chance of doing so.

      I now have my own schedule for the next several works that I’m going to publish – it’s all in my control, not at someone else’s whim – and I’m pushing forward. As a writer d’un certain age, I’m conscious that time is less of a friend. On the other hand I’m fortunate to have lived to see the world change in multiple ways, the most important of which to me is the inversion of the publishing paradigm.

      Keep on that path, Jacqueline. If you have the same experience I have just had, you’re going to get a tremendous amount of satisfaction the moment you are able to look at your story, say to yourself ‘it’s done’ and publish. In many ways, I’ve found the journey to be the important thing, but I’ll tell you there’s nothing as great as seeing your story out in the wild and starting to attract readers.

      Best of luck to you, and I look forward to seeing your stories out there in the world.

  7. I suppose I’m a “hybrid” author – I have a traditional publishing contract and have had five books published, plus one (soon to be two) I self-published. I’d agree with everything you said were it not for the fact that my traditionally published novels have sold many times more copies than my self-published one, and my royalties statements show that they are selling in paperback in bookstores at ten times the levels my trad ebooks are selling. My publishers did very little marketing – the difference just seems to be the fact that they are on a shelf in a store. You don’t get that with self-publishing.

    Having said that, my latest royalties statement also showed that I’m getting very little money from all those sales, so financially there seems to be very little difference between the two models.

    1. I really appreciate this insight into your sales thus far. I’d love to know more, especially how things play out for you over the next year or two. (Not asking for a follow-up so much as whining about my lack of a crystal ball. Really annoying not to have one.)

      The disheartening bit right now is that you aren’t seeing income from either route. I’m guessing you are selling in the thousands of total copies thus far not to be making much from the physical books. (You don’t have to say.) What worries me for authors in your situation is that the print books will only be on store shelves for a limited period of time, and then they’ll be pulled and returned. Your e-books will be priced too high to gain traction. And you’ll never get the rights to those works back so you can do your own price and freebie promotions.

      Taking that gamble and signing over lifetime rights is what this top-down approach is all about. If I had written 20 novels over 10 years (my plan, starting out), and none of them had taken off so that I could support myself, I could have unpublished all my works, taken my best one or two books, and sent them out to agents. I would have had all that writing experience and that real market research (aka customer reviews, or lack thereof).

      Ten years is a long time, but that was the window I gave myself. If I wanted to write great music, I would give myself ten years with an instrument and daily practice. What I didn’t like the idea of was selling control of that art to someone who was just taking an educated gamble on it. If the gamble failed, it would be hard to try again later when I had a better book or what I perceived to be more talent.

      I hope I’m wrong in your case and that your future skyrockets from here. Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

      1. Yes indeed, my paperbacks have sold between 1,000 and 3,000 copies, whereas my ebook sales are all below 100. The problem is that ebook buyers are used to paying US$5 or less for a good book, so why would they buy my historical fiction ebook for $11.38, or my romantic thriller for $7.62? The ebooks are priced too high, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

        Oh, wait, yes there is–I can self-publish. I wish I had a crystal ball too, but I’ll let you know what happens if I go entirely down this route in future. (I do have a right-of-first-refusal contract (eep!) but it’s generally quite easy to get my publishers to refuse a book if I want them to.)

        1. Anna – If you only sold 1k – 3k copies of your paperbacks, will the publisher consider your books as successes or failures? It was my understanding publishers need a book to sell at least 5k copies within the first three months to be considered successful, and to consider re-signing the author’s next book.
          I have two trade friends who were both dropped after each of their last books sold less than 5k copies. One is now self publishing her book that was dropped and making more, the other has decided to quit pursuing publishing.
          It seems to make it harder to get the next contract if a certain number of books isn’t sold in a short period of time.

    2. And there is the point, people who self publish are making just as much as successful authors, which is why the kindle is such an exciting device for us. If your goal is numbers of sales, you can always lower the price of the ebooks too. But your numbers hint that you are selling ten times as many ‘real’ books as ebooks and yet the ebooks earn about the same? That settles it for me.

    3. “My publishers did very little marketing”

      ^That is the problem. Marketing sells books and publishers aren’t providing marketing, so authors trad and self-published alike must bear that huge cost of the business. Look at the balance sheets of any major developer of a retail product (I research market performance of certain video games, which sell much the same way as books do) and see how much is spent marketing the product — it’s always a huge percentage of expenses and generally larger than net profit. IMHO, unless you are lucky and hit the zeitgeist and sell a bazillion copies (which I hope you do), marketing and advertising dollars are a must.

  8. Thanks for this, Hugh. I still go through peaks and valleys over whether self publishing is the way to go. There are days when I still want that verification from the established system. It’s even stronger when colleagues of mine are receiving contracts and kudos. Then I read something that makes sense (like this) and it pulls me back to reality.

  9. You’re gonna laugh but I saw this title and thought you took up knitting! Because when Barbara Walker revolutionized knitting by teaching people to knit their sweaters from the top down, a new paradigm was born. Suddenly, you could start your sweater at the neck and shoulders and try it on as you went along until you finished with something amazing at the bottom.

    Top Down Approach works WELL and is awesome for many things including publishing. Just recently I was looking at a bunch of new releases and thought, “How does anyone stand out?” But authors do, by producing a lot of good work, publishing, and moving on until they gain momentum. Authors on the traditional path don’t have this option. Unless they have a very liberal publisher, they’re not publishing several books per year, some times it’s less than a book a year. LESS THAN.

    As usual, I agree with every thing in your post :) I’m glad to see people self-publishing and getting noticed. A new path has been laid out in front of us. The brave ones are charging ahead at full steam.

  10. The quickest way to ruin your career these days is by publishing with a major publisher and having your book not do well.

    That sent a shiver through me.

  11. And once again, Hugh, you’ve hit the nail on the head and fired up my jets more so than my morning coffee ever could. (note to self: check Hugh’s website first thing in the morning every morning) One thing I think isn’t being said — at least not as clearly — is how terrified the Publishers are now becoming of this New Normal they find themselves in.

    When Self-Pubs, those unwashed masses, start raking in sales and profits on a par with THEIR authors — and, in some cases, even more — what’s the incentive for new authors to sign up? They’ll have editing help? Nope. Ex-Big 5 editors, who got chopped due to budget cuts, are now available for hire. Publicity? Well, $10,000 worth — i.e., not much — and anything beyond that is taken out of your royalties. You are still expected, as the author, to actively promote via FB, Twitter, blogs, your upcoming new release. So, as a self-pub without the Big 5, with social media and the guidance of completely affordable publicists, you can have a successful book launch and draw in new readers for much less. What was once difficult and almost impossible is now doable. And the Big 5 know that.

    You see? The fact of the matter is, self-publishing has gained a great deal over the past couple of years. More respect, greater ease of use, higher quality. It’s not as frightening anymore for someone to self-publish. And it doesn’t carry the stink of failure it used to. For many, especially if it’s done smartly and has a professional, cleanly written product to back it up, it’s now seen as a smart business choice and a completely viable way to find readers and forge a long-lasting career.

    As I said, it’s the New Normal. And Publishers are still trying to figure out how best to deal with it while keeping their authors, especially marquee names, from abandoning ship.

    1. Most writers never see $10,000 worth of publicity / promotion, Jonathan. My books got a cover thumbnail in the catalog, and when I called my publicist, she provided names of bookstores in my state who were known to do author signings. That’s it, and that’s how it was and still is for everyone except the few the publishers are betting on this season. And if book 1 doesn’t make a splash, bookstore buyers order fewer of book 2. In my case, book 1 went OP as book 3 was coming out.

      Then, as Hugh points out, “They’ll drop the other authors and reload next year.” And once your name “fails” one big publisher’s sell-through expectations, you can’t hope for a contract with another under that name. So you start up again with a pseudonym or do work-for-hire under house names. Either way, the publisher and your agent make money while your career spirals on down. That was my story, anyhow, and that of many others I know. I also know a few who started around the same time who are now household names in their genres.

      And this was the 90s. Things have gotten so much worse for trad-pubbed authors since then that I consider myself lucky not to have been treated worse. For 99.99% of writers, tradpub is a terrible career path, not the least because it isn’t even a career path until some publisher chooses your book. Until then it’s just a series of brick walls against which you can keep slamming your head. Not surprising so many are choosing not to go there.

  12. This felt good to read. I chose my path two years ago, based mostly on the fact that querying to agents is a big pain in the ass. Since then, I’ve self published two novels and a dozen short stories, and they’ve all been doing pretty well. Had I gone the traditional route, I shudder to think of what kind of piddly advance I would have probably jumped at. The money I’m making from my self published books is creeping ever closer to matching what I make at my day job. Will the third novel bump me ahead? Here’s to finding out soon.

    1. That’s amazing, Robert! It’s crazy how many writers I hear this from, that their self-publishing is matching their day job earnings. That’s very rare for traditionally published authors. This is a movement that few can appreciate the size of.

  13. Publishers have a brass ring. The trouble is, the thing is tarnished beyond all recognition in all but a few spots. The publishing industry — and many big name authors — buff and polish those dwindling areas so they still shine brightly, blinding the uneducated.

    Self-publishing offers many brass rings. They vary in size and brightness, but they are there for anyone to take hold of with hard work, persistence, and yes, a bit of luck.

    I’ve been at this for about five years now. I have five books out, working on my sixth, along with another that I ghost wrote for someone else. I’ve sold close to 4,000 books over that time, but about 1,500 of those have come this year alone. It’s not enough to quit my other forms of income, but it’s growing, and I’m in control of what I write.

  14. Hugh

    Re “Five years ago…if you published a flop, your publisher might give you a second, third, even fourth chance. That is no longer the case, and one of the most powerful agents in the business admits as much.”

    I would add the caveats: unless the author doesn’t cost a lot and if the house likes his/her stuff. This may be the one situation where literary authors have an edge over genre authors. If a mystery fails, it fails, there are plenty of other mystery writers out there to publish. If a literary novel doesn’t sell, but reviews and literary buzz suggest the author may become someone down the road, and if the house has fallen in love with his/her work, that potential for prestige and personal devotion would be worth taking another flier on him/her. These are the authors a lot of editors want to be able to say they work with. If you can keep that person around for under $7500, why not? It makes everyone feel good about having to do that Snooki book too.

  15. Love this post (and several of the others I’ve been fortunate to find here) You write very thorough, insightful posts, Hugh. I’ve struggled for four years to land an agent, and it was only about two months ago that I finally said to myself ‘What the heck are you doing? Self-pub your book! ‘ I’d avoided self-pubbing for different reasons, firstly the fact that I’d get overwhelmed because It seemed like a lot of work and energy that I felt I didn’t possess. HOWEVER, I’ve discovered that it’s all about having a good team around you. An editor, proof-reader, cover designer etc. A team. Isn’t everything? Who achieves anything alone? I’m happy to say that I’ve seen the light. But guess what, as soon as I made that decision, an agent who I queried months earlier came back to me asking for the full. Sod’s Law, right? But I’m still going to go ahead and self-pub. I sent that agent my full over a month ago and I’m still….waiting. Everything happens for a reason though. In those four years that I was seeking an agent my book was professionally edited, read by different people, and it’s completely changed. I won’t go in to how many rewrites I’ve done, but it’s made it much stronger.

    I’m embracing the whole aspect of self-pubbing, and am on a journey of learning so much thanks to authors such as yourself, Joanna Penn, Jim Konrath, Orna Ross, and many others.

    Suffice it to say, when I told family and friends that I had decided to self-publ, a collective chorus of hallelujahs went up! LOL.

  16. In 2005 I was trying to figure out how to publish a photo essay book. I went down the path of traditional publishing because that’s all I knew about at the time. I talked with agents, writers, editors and publishers — in fact everyone who could help me figure out how to get my book published. As a tech entrepreneur in San Francisco, the more I learned about the publishing industry, the more appalled I became. I remember saying (and to quote John McEnroe the famous tennis player), “You can’t be serious,” again and again. I just could not get over the idea that the people who created the work were often the very last people in the food chain to benefit. Clearly this was a broken business model and it was going to crack wide open as a result of the power and ubiquity of the internet. So, totally pissed off, but also v. inspired to figure out a new way to help people publish independently, I decided to found a company to put agency back in the hands of the creators. I thought this would be a good business — but what I did not realize at the time was how rewarding it would be to enable all those whose work was not seeing the light of day, to get their voices heard. Many thanks to you, Hugh, and all the other early and brave independent authors out there who are making independent publishing not only legit — but for many, their first and best option.

  17. I love this post! LMAO at “Hey, traditional publishing is still at least as good as self-publishing.” No it’s not!

    I’ve chatted with a lot of big name authors in traditional publishing and learned that they’re not making as much money or having as much fun as lesser known names on the indie side. The Veronica Roth’s of the world should absolutely traditionally publish (and the Brad Pitts of the world should dump Jennifer for Angelina), but the rest of us are better off on the indie side.

    What amazes me is the shift in readers. When I self published in 2003, bookstores wouldn’t talk to me, event organizers looked at me as though I were a child asking to sit at the grownup table, other writers gave me pitying smiles, and readers were wary of my book as though I were selling an off-brand. 10 years later, I self published and found readers excited and welcoming, other writers are supportive of my choice, and even my literary agent friends are encouraging. My writing has improved, sure, but it’s a different world than the one I trained to write in.

    As a reader, I’m seeking out indie books because they’re more reasonably priced and I’m more likely to get something I haven’t read already with a different cover. Also, when it comes to ebooks, the indies are better formatted and more accessible (and often better edited). I like reading stories the way the author intended them to be presented rather than what’s left after the committee has been through it.

    1. Jennifer is SO MUCH HOTTER than Angelina. Not even close!

      I never censor comments on my site, but my finger twitched a little bit just now.


      1. They’re both extremely hot, which is why it’s good to be Brad Pitt. May I be faced with such a dilemma! Though truth be told, I’d choose my dream woman Danai Gurira (Michonne on The Walking Dead).

      2. There is so much wrong with that statement I can’t even begin to fathom it all. I am now going to have a Hugh Howey book burning in the backyard while I screen Wanted on the big screen just for the hot tub scene.

        And I thought you were supposed to be smart or something!

        1. NOT YOU TOO!!


          The worst offense was falling in love with a woman who named our dog Jolie. Should have been Jennifer!!!

  18. This article REALLY hits home for me. I met an agent at a writer’s workshop who asked me to send my first three chapters. For various reasons, I delayed in doing so (she told me it was no rush as she was going to be traveling and busy for a few months).

    Meanwhile, I have been learning more about the whole self-pub vs. traditional pub debate. If you’d asked me a year ago what my plan was, I’d have probably said “Get a book deal from a traditional publisher. Failing that, self-publish.” But the more I think about it, the more it feels like I should reconsider. Seriously reconsider.

    Rushing and bending over backwards to get a book deal now feels to me like being one of those poor fools who rushed to get one of the last few steerage tickets on the Titanic.

  19. Not so sure there was much of a chance for midlist even five, ten, fifteen or twenty years ago. I sold over a million mass market in one series for Random House. They did zero marketing, coop, promotion, etc. And dropped me. And when I got the rights back to those books I told my wife I’d just gotten my “retirement”. And it’s turned out to be relatively true.

    I noticed “Galbraith’s” new book today in Costco. That book would never have been published if the real identity of the author hadn’t been revealed– this despite good reviews, etc. before Rowling was outed.

    Still, everyone’s situation is different and one size doesn’t fit all. A writer has to do their research, then factor that into their career plan and their long range goals.

  20. Hey again!

    I agree about the inversion of things. And over the past few days, I’ve been wondering if, or actually when, I will take my book off my self-publishing site and try it on Amazon, or Bookbaby. I am getting a little marketing with XLibris, and they did a great job putting it all together, yet royalties are low and I can’t set the price. Actually, I can set the price for a fee.

    I am still trying to get it picked up by an agent/house, but like you said, I can do whatever I want with it. If I am lucky enough to get any offers, I’ll keep this post in mind. Lots of good points to remember when signing a deal these days.

    Also, for a fee I can get my book on store shelves. I guess that would allow me to have a book signing, which I’d really to have at some point.

    Any advice on marketing strategy for us selfless? I’m sure you’ve written about previously, so I’ll take a look when I have more time but if you have a some advice-I’d appreciate it tons.

    1. I hate to inform you of this, but Xlibris has a reputation of being a scam publisher. Just a quick Google search has results popping up for complete rip-offs (paying for services not received), poor quality of services received, overcharging for services, bullying/hounding people to upgrade their publishing package; etc.

      For more information, you should look into David Gaughran’s posts:

      1. I did my research a few years ago when I began the process and saw some negatives, but I gave them a shot. Felt they offered the best package for what I wanted. And while I used XLibris to publish the book, I hired my own editor and illustrator. I did experience a few issues throughout the process, but I have to say, they corrected everything I asked for. I am thrilled with my book and the extras that came with my package! Kirkus gave me a positive review. I got the Kirkus Review on my own and I am dealing with some book reviews via XLibris right now.

        Thanks for taking the time to read my note and respond. During the process, I gave some serious thought to switching my manuscript to Amazon, or Bookbaby. But I just felt like I was on the right path for this one. Also during this process, I self-published 2 short stories via Bookbaby. I am probably going to release another short on Kindle. Thinking end of this month.

    1. So one of the last things I did tonight was check a friend’s book on Amazon. His/her book is available on Kindle, but price is high at over $10 and probably locked in due to contract with big house. Never thought about this until I read this post.

  21. I would say there is an exception. If you want to write middle grade you still need to go traditional. Kids still are into physical books over ebooks. Even if you’re doing YA and want to reach the teen audience of 13-18, you might want to consider traditional. The ones buying the ebooks are mainly adults. I’ve done both, traditional and self-pub. My readers for my traditional YA books are teens. The readers for my self-pub YA books are adults.

  22. Great post, Hugh and I agree! Val’s story is instructive and everyone considering publishing should take note of it before they sign contracts or push ‘publish’.

    If I had lucked out and got an agent for my first novel, a vampire romantic suspense, and it had sold to a publisher, and if it had sold only 3,000 copies in the first months, (i.e. being with a publisher wouldn’t have led to an increase in sales due to the magic fairy pixie dust I’m told that publishers employ), I would never have published the second or third book in the series and likely would have been dropped by the publisher for publishing a ‘dud’. I would have limped away like a wounded gazelle… ;)

    Despite low sales, (10,000 total so far for that series) I got good reviews and developed a small following of loyal readers. I paid a few bills with that money, I appeared on book blogs where my book was “book of the month” because of the few very loyal fans of the series I did have, but I learned the craft. I learned the business.

    When I self-published my next series, a contemporary romance, I sort of “broke out” in a moderate way, and sold 85,000 copies of that series in its first year, hit a few bestsellers lists in my categories. BookBub took the first two books to #2 and #9 in the Kindle Store and I garnered the interest of a Manhattan Literary Agency. No book deal as of yet nor do I expect one since I would not give up my digital rights for a typical advance and normal terms. Being indie rocks!

    I’m under no illusion that my books are ‘great’. I’m not writing ‘great literature’ – I write genre fiction meant to entertain but self publishing and Amazon allowed me to find a place, find readers and make a decent living. This brave new world of self publishing is bringing together writers and readers of books and series that wouldn’t have made it under the old model of publishing.

    In this new world of publishing, disrupted by Amazon and the digital revolution, authors with small and moderate sellers like mine can still get their work out there and find readers because the Amazon algorithms are so damn good. I was able to quit my day job and write full time because of it. Amazon is not killing the book or endangering authors — it is helping books like my first series find their place and authors like me make a living.

    I am making more income than anyone else in my family has — ever. Seriously — we’re poor folks. :) It blows my mind and makes me wonder how much money is being squandered in the traditional publishing industry if little old me can make this much money (low six figures) off my small sales. When I heard one of the panel members last night say that publishing is not a very profitable industry, I had to shake my head. Is Manhattan so bloated and inefficient and wasteful that they have to screw over authors, who should be the whole focal point of their business? They must be if they are paying most of their authors so poorly and saddling them with such bad terms and contracts.

    Listening to the panel members from the traditional publishing industry talk, I thought of dinosaurs shuffling through the underbrush in some cretaceous forest, looking up at the sky when a bright shiny thing comes barrelling through the atmosphere.

    No wonder they’re suffering from Amazon Derangement Syndrome…

    1. Good gracious! That’s an amazing story. Brought a tear to my eye. Seriously. Thank you for sharing this.

  23. Someone posted a thread at Kboards about another author who has to resort to charging $15 to critique people’s first 10 pages because she can’t afford to pay her pet’s medical bill. Her Wikipedia page is huge, including her backlist. I wonder how much she could make if she could put that entire backlist on Amazon and earn 70% of every sale. I guess we’ll never know — but more sadly, she’ll never know.

  24. Everything you say is true EXCEPT your last sentence: “You can always fall back on a traditional publisher if all else fails.”

    There is zero chance that if you can’t self-publish successfully, a traditional publisher will take you on – because all your other options failed.

    They only want to skim the cream off the top.

    That’s the ONLY fly in the ointment – they will probably know (I guess you could change title and pseudonym) that you couldn’t find any readers, and will choose someone less tainted by failure – one of those self-publishers with too many things to do, and a touch of insecurity.

    So. You can have a lot of failure (and a tiny possibility of winning the lottery) if you apply to traditional publishers, OR you can have failure if you self-publish (but with a much larger chance of winning at least some prize money).

    There are always, eventually, people who win the lottery. They are often not good at being rich. And they have no control of the process. Okay, maybe King.

    1. How will they know you self-published? Take your books down. Submit under a pen name. They’ll reject you or accept you based on your submission, not on how poorly books sold that they know nothing about.

      1. Sorry – misread you originally. I believe you actually meant that IF you fail at self-publishing, you can “Take your books down. Submit under a pen name.” NOT that it was guaranteed to work.

        Of course you can try. Of course you can submit. Your chances of Traditional Publishing plucking you out of the slush are as infinitesimal as before you started the whole process – or worse, since you’ve already given readers a chance.

        I wouldn’t discourage anyone from trying; I would just not encouraged them to HOPE. Indies are kinder.

  25. Hugh, I am posting this here so you see it.

    Also, read Passive Guy’s description of the panel last night at the NYC public library.

    I think we need our own letter to go viral. I hope you can take the lead on it.

  26. Hugh,

    Great post. The part where you write “[Publishers will] continue to gamble on thousands of authors in the hopes that one of them hits it big. They’ll drop the other authors and reload next year” was especially interesting.

    I understand this mode of thinking very well. I work in tech recruiting. I find software engineers and other technologists and try to put them to work at my clients. If a candidate seems smart, but not “placeable,” I probably won’t keep in touch with them or send them out to clients (my companies with job openings) as much as I would send out an experienced engineer with a Master’s degree who has worked for Google.

    The reason I bring this up is because traditional publishers are running a business just like I, as a recruiter, am trying to hit my quota each month. If I was dealing with authors instead of engineers looking for work, the mentality would be the same: Can you help me make my monthly revenue quota by selling X number of books? Ideally through your own marketing efforts so I can focus on sourcing new talent?

    The worst thing for me as a recruiter is the same as the worst thing for traditional publishers: potential candidates becoming hunters. Candidates who build their own networks and submit their own resumes to every company in my territory do nothing to help me build my business. SIMILARLY, authors who publish their work to the masses are taking an initiative that hurts traditional publishers.

    As a recruiter, I tell candidates, “Hey, sit back and let me take over your search,” and “I know this territory, therefore I can market your skills appropriately.” This is because I want to make money. Honestly, they could probably do a better job than me at putting themselves out there. I have dozens of other candidates to work with, after all. But my pitch works; candidates sit back and let me set up interviews for them, and I get paid when the talented ones accept offers.

    This is the allure of traditional publishing, too. You can relax. The publisher will do the hard stuff. All you have to do is send out the occasional tweet. They know the business better than you do. They have more in-depth market knowledge.

    It’s an illusion. A sales pitch. They say that to everyone in the hopes that talented authors will rise to the surface. They need to make money, just like I do with my staffing business. That means volume. You’re just a number, unfortunately. But it has to be that way. Traditional publishers aren’t evil, they’re just businesses. Not every author (in publishing) or candidate (in recruiting) is a special snowflake. A profitable sales business works with high volume as a means to find the moneymakers. No need to criticize this method; it’s just the nature of capitalism and competition.

    Thanks to self-publishing as the new top-down approach, you can get out of this system and prove yourself without any help – just like how, thanks to LinkedIn and social media, candidates can go around recruiters and become hunters where they represent one very special candidate: themselves. This scares me as a recruiter, but it works wonders for the candidate.

    As a recruiter, when one of my candidates takes the initiative and lines up six interviews on her own, you know what I do? I drop everything else and focus on getting her interviews at my clients. I know she’s in demand.

    Authors, you can do the same. Take the initiative, publish high-quality stories, build a following, then publishing companies will come to you and MAYBE see if a traditional deal could be better. Don’t believe the lie that you can let a traditional publisher MAKE you successful. I make 2-3 placements a month on a good month as a recruiter (working with perm jobs, not contracts). But I work with 20-30 candidates at any given time. Success means FAILING 90% OF MY CANDIDATES, the people who rely on me – the people I promised to help.

    Traditional publishers are in the same dilemma. They can’t help 90% of authors. But they don’t know who the magical 10% are, so they need to have the kind of volume that means failing the other 90% on a consistent basis, and churning new talent in order to fail 9 out of 10 more.

    Traditional publishing is sales, and in sales, people are just numbers. Never forget that. Start your own business. Be your own number. Be number 1, line up your own successes, and before you know it, powerful publishing companies will start throwing contracts in your face.

    Then you can reject them, because the money in self-publishing is better anyway.

    1. That’s the problem with both traditional publishing and tech recruitment, since you make the comparison. It may be business but it’s not forward-thinking enough. Making quota each month at the expensive of nurturing long-term relationships and growth will eventually grind itself out of existence; that is, after the 10,000,000,000 recruitment emails have clogged up the world’s spam filters.

      It can only last so long, this volume-centric mentality.

      Who knows, there might be a magic 25% out there.

    2. Richard, I love your comparison of recruiting / staffing and publishing. A new way to see how indie writers threaten the traditional publishing structure. I’m so glad you posted this.

  27. I think one of the lessons I’ve learned from my traditionally published and Indie friends is that there’s no one answer for everyone.

    The thing that scares me most for authors with traditional publishers is the rights issue. I don’t think a lot of new authors (or even old hands at publishing) truly understand what kind of rights they are giving up. And they can’t really count on their Agents to get them better deals.

    I keep thinking back to LJ Smith (Vampire Diaries author) who not only lost the right to continue publishing her stories, she lost her name.

  28. Hugh, In the words of Andy and Red, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

    I don’t know what the future holds, but it will be mine. Thanks for the inspiration, Dan

  29. […] Howey just posted an article called “The New Top Down Approach” which continues his argument for self-publishing being the favorite option as a starting point for […]

  30. Great post. On August 1st, I’ll be pulling my fulls out of agents’ inboxes and self-pubbing. The Hatchette debacle has a lot to do with it, coming right on top of S&S vs. B&N last year. There will be another next year.

    It reminds me of the paradigm of law school.

    1. Mortgage yourself into penury to attend a “top-tier” school if you are one of the 2% admitted. If you can’t get in, go down the list more and more desperately until you find one that will take you. Because being a lawyer from a 3rd tier regional school is still better than nothing, right?

    2. Mortgage up to 10 years of your life to work 60-80 hours per week as a “junior associate” to “pay your dues.” Yeah, the your condo may be nice, but you’ll never see it.

    3. Live and die by your billable hours.

    4. Finally be up for partner review and find out that they are turfing an entire tier of associates because “the market is over-saturated, business is down, and profits are too thin to be shared any further.” You are shown the door or back to your cube with a cheery reminder that next year’s review might be better.

    5. Find yourself hanging out a solo practice shingle.

    I talked with a recruiter/career change advisor at my old school and she said that her number one clients were burned-out disillusioned big-firm lawyers and some of the happiest she knows are ex-traditional-firm lawyers.

    I’ll be blogging more about it this week as my thoughts congeal. Thanks for all that you do.


    PS: Shameless plug. I am running a Kickstarter to finish my launch. My air-conditioning fried and took the funds I had set aside for the project. Any sharing of the link would be greatly appreciated and the cover art by Matt Norris Photography is worth the click: Devil’s Deal Kickstarter Campaign

  31. Guys, it’s simple. Traditional publishers are NOT looking for authors and new books that they would like to publish. The fact that 98% of manuscripts go down the slush pile should be a good enough indicator for any budding author that traditional publishers are only looking for money-minting machines (or what they believe will be a money-minting machines based on their “experience”). They’re just not interested in selling anything new or anything adventurous enough that hasn’t been tried before. They want to sell the same old stories re-labelled as “new and exciting… captivating… original”. You know the most misused adjective of the last decade or so? EPIC. The traditional are not guardians of literature or the epitome of quality books available out there or any such thing. How many crappy books have you read in the past decade that were not self-published? How many times did you get the feeling you’re reading the same old story again and again and again??

    Budding authors HAVE to give self-publishing a chance. It’s only natural. ‘Do it yourself – for yourself and by yourself’. That should be the mantra of this new age. You want to develop and explore your writing talents? You want to actually create something original? Just do it and put your work out there. Learn from readers feedback and improve. You don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to do that. Learn to trust yourself. Make your own decisions and learn from them. Grow!

  32. It kind of makes you wonder if copyright laws need to be updated and modernized because books DO hang around so much longer these days..

    1. Originally copyright was for 34 years, two 17-year terms. That was expanded and then expanded again. Now it is life + 75-years and covers a lot more than books. This is all fairly new law. I’m not what you mean by “updated and modernized.”

      What needs to be “updated and modernized” are publishing contracts because writers are the ones who hang around so much longer these days.


  33. I’m sitting on the boat this morning as Hurricane Arthur swirls around me reading articles about the state of publishing. Dominating the news of course is the fight between Amazon and Hachette. In many of the blog discussions, this spills over into the traditional vs self-publishing route, which is better, which is stupid, etc. Same ole arguments…
    Anyway, What I find STUPID about these arguments is that there is a supposition that you, as a writer, get to choose which way you want to go.
    Those of you who are writers will back me up on this, I think. Choosing isn’t usually the option. You can’t just say, “Okay, I have decided to be published by the Random Penguin and it will happen.” You can fight years and never land an agent (who is your key to the trad publishers) and even if you are able to obtain an agent you may not have any of your books accepted by a publisher…ever. Trust me, I know. I had an agent for two years and never sold a single title to a big publisher.
    Is it because I’m a bad author? I don’t think so. I now have 12 books self-published all averaging 4 stars or above in reviews. I just didn’t have what a traditional publisher wanted at the time.
    So, as a writer, at some point your only routes left are to try a small press that is more accessible, or self-publish.
    If you want to build a career as a writer and can’t break into traditional publishing, you don’t have a “Choice”. If you want to make a career as a writer and release your stories to readers to enjoy, you most likely have to take a different path.
    So to me, arguing about which is better seems pointless. You do what you have to do to be published and hope you find readers who enjoy your tales. I’m thankful I have another option than trad publishing, otherwise I’d be sitting here with zero books published.

  34. […] Indie authors already know what’s up in the publishing world. Hugh Howey has known what’s up for a long time, but a lot of indie authors are still figuring it out. I […]

  35. High, it would be terrible for me if those were the only two alternatives. I was with a Big 5 and it was a bad experience; my books went out of print and I got the rights back. I considered digitally self publishing them and the new books I’d written, but I know I’d be terrible at it. it take a certain kind of personality and drive to successfully self publish, as well as interest in the process, and that’s just not me. I have no drive, no interest whatsoever in publishing; I only want to write.
    But then I found a small publisher who loved my books, acquired them for an excellent royalty, did all the work to make them look good, the work I would hate doing, published them, put them on amazon for a low price — and guess what, they are selling brilliantly! What more could I want? I feel I have found the best of both worlds.

  36. I was thinking this today while reading Chuck Wendig’s blog but I think you worded it much better than I could have.

    Wendig is one of the main people who likes to pretend the two paths are equal, without actually giving good reasons why he thinks that (which, if you read even a couple of his blogs, you can tell that’s because he hasn’t got a good justification for thinking this way). I do think this is a victory, but there will also be more victories to come. The pro-traditional publishing side really doesn’t have many positives to it anymore. The big names are very concerned. They’re all watching B & N to see if it’s going to be able to weather this…but they’re not actually *doing* much but whining to the government and to customers. They’ve got nothing. They have very little to actually offer people. Some writers, to be sure, can still carve out a good living from trad pub, but many more are looking at that path and seeing that they can’t even defend their own existence adequately. That is very scary and it leaves little reason to go with them when they could be seriously struggling for survival in 5 years or less. That doesn’t make people feel confident about placing their books with trad pub.

  37. I’m looking to self-publish in the future, and this post has helped me to realise that my desire to self-publish, rather than traditionally publish, was the correct decision. I know it’s a battle to get my books known to others, but I’ll work hard on that. But what made me think that self-publishing is the way to go is that I want complete control over what I write. I believe in my story. I don’t want someone telling me what I can or can’t publish. Thanks for this post!

  38. Hugh–
    I sense the rightness of what you say here–I’m a commercially published writer (long ago), and have ever since been on the nasty receiving end of what I call the agent-publisher machine. But to avoid preaching a half-truth by pounding the lectern for self-publishing, you must add the following: no amount of talent, mastery of craft or anything else is going make much difference for self-publishers who are not skillful at self-marketing. Without mastery of social media and the rest of it, the indie writer is just doomed. So: indie writers must be two things: writers and marketers, period. And this effectively limits the field of possibilities mostly to the young, who have grown up and are comfortable with the instruments of self-promotion. or to those with pockets deep enough to buy this expertise.

  39. […] give authors two or three books to build an audience. However, as Hugh Howey points out in his post The New Top-Down Approach, publishers nowadays expect almost instant success. Of all the books released by new authors, only […]

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