Thursday, April 28, 2011

Riddles and Validations

M.E. Hydra

Riddle me this:

What’s the difference between a self-pubbed author who sells X copies and a trad-pubbed author who sells X copies?

(I haven’t, by the way, but if you’d like to help me achieve this goal and have a liking for weird, kinky horror, please feel free to mosey on over here…)

It’s easy to be insecure as a writer. There aren’t finishing lines to cross first, opponents to punch out or teams to score more points than. As with most creative endeavours, where quality is subjective, it’s hard to tell if you’re any good or not.

Acceptance with a publishing house gives validation, or so the argument goes (although Joe Konrath refers to it as an example of Stockholm Syndrome). It’s a stamp of approval. Get that deal—and the advance—and a writer can say with authority, “Yes, I am a real author!”

The problem with self-publishing is the ‘published’ part is always going to come with air quotes. If any old oik can shove their badly written mush up onto Amazon, then ‘being published’ no longer feels like an achievement. For that reason self-publishing is often pushed aside and treated as a special case. If the author had to do it themselves, they probably weren’t good enough to be published in the first place. I think many of us have held this view at some point and some almost certainly still do. Check the membership guidelines of professional writers' organisations like the HWA and SFWA and you’ll see very clear stipulations on what does or doesn’t count as a valid publication for obtaining active membership.

Now that the ebook explosion has burst the dam, how important is the traditional stamp of approval?

As validation goes, that stamp is only a proxy when you think about it. To use a simple fantasy analogy, it’s an entrance exam granting permission to go and slay the dragon. Congratulations! You passed. But you still have to go and kill that dragon…

If someone else decides to skip all those stupid trials, goes straight to the dragon and hacks its head right off, are they any less of a dragonslayer?

In this case the dragon—and true validation—is finding an audience, whether it is small and distinguished or massive and lucrative.

What happens when more and more writers choose to go it alone, not because they aren’t good enough, but because it makes more economic sense than signing away a huge chunk of their royalties? Clauses like this (from HWA’s active membership requirements)

With the sole exception of comic books, self-published work can not be used for qualification purposes. "Self-published work" is defined as written material disseminated by the author (for example, email or electronic publications, publication on the author's Web site, or printed publications sold on consignment or solely by the author), or written material whose basic publication costs are defrayed in whole or in part by the author.

will cease to make any sense. As will references to 5¢/word rates and minimum advances.

Riddle me this:

Person A gets a $5,000 advance from an accredited publisher, but only goes on to sell a couple of hundred copies. Person B makes $10,000 a month selling 99¢ self-published ebooks on Amazon. Which one is the professional author?

(I’m not trying to bash the HWA, by the way. I was a fresh-faced wannabe member a while back and I found them helpful in terms of market information and discovering new writers I hadn’t read before.)

Which leads us back to the original question:

What’s the difference between a self-pubbed author who sells X copies and a trad-pubbed author who sells X copies?

My gut says the answer is this:


  1. I think those organizations are going to have to rewrite their membership soon. Validation of a certain number of sales or something like that. But like you say, won't it be strange that someone with 500 sales is a professional, but someone with 999 isn't?

    "then ‘being published’ no longer feels like an achievement."

    Self-publishing is no achievement at all. It's like earning a ribbon for attendance or a trophy for participation. Anyone can do it. Joe Konrath calls his short stories e-books, so really all someone has to do to publish an e-book is hammer out a couple thousand words, hopefully in the right order, and click publish.

    Writing a novel is an achievement. Selling a lot of copies is an achievement. Hell, getting several hundred followers on your blog is an achievement.

    I'd continue on with an absolutely brilliant point that would totally blow your mind but my water's boiling finally and the fiddlehead ferns are ready to go in.

  2. I think that's where the game is changing. Being published is only walking through the gate. Being read and having people pay to read you is what matters.

  3. How's this for validation: self-publishing is catching among authors like a wildfire. There's no breach traditional publishing can set up now to stop it. Their model is dead, they just haven't accepted it yet. When new authors bring themselves up indie, when every day you see another indie author success story, that's the validation.

    I'm finding a lot of amazing self-published work out there. This variety wasn't available two years ago. So as a reader I have to be excited, too. And that only feeds my muse, which makes me a more productive writer, and so on.

    I saw a Kindle ad the other day with the price at $114. It's going to be a huge seller this Christmas. And when all those new ebook customers start looking at ebook prices for their favorite authors, they're going to be looking for alternatives. That's when you need to be there, offering work they've never seen the likes of before, and cheap.

    In terms of finding an audience, people will continue to use their favorite filters to find work they're interested in. Blogs they follow, authors they like, their friends on Goodreads. So authors have to develop a presence everywhere they can. We also have the freedom to build a community and help each other build our readership. Making connections, and being vocal about what you're up to, that's the key.