The five types of unpublished books

TL;DR version: go big or self-publish.

(The following was written to help me think through the possibilities for a couple of project I’m involved with. It may or may not be useful to others. Also, none of the following takes the need to diversify into consideration which could completely change the picture. As always, YMMV. And ‘book’ for the purposes of this blog post is any project, digital or print, that is primarily intended to be read.)

If you’ve written a book, there are basically five things you can do with it.

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The splintered author

One of the major problems with yesterday’s blog post was my use of a derivative of the word ‘professional’ (or, ‘de-professionalised’ if you want my garbled, distorted, and modified to hell derivative).

That word, helpful and specific as it might seem at first glance, has a long history of being stretched, manipulated, and abused to suit people’s agendas. It has served very well those who have sought to be exclusionary and divisive.

It was quite possibly the worst term I could have used, except there aren’t that many alternatives with the meaning and history that fits.

So, instead, I’m going to describe very quickly the process that I’ve labeled as a ‘de-professionalisation’. That way, if you still disagree, you’ll at least know whether you disagree with my use of the term, my version of history, or my view of the present.

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What ebook production problems are self-publishers facing?

Driven by curiosity (as always), I’ve just spend a large part of my lunch break browsing through various forums[1], trying to get a handle on what problems self-publishers are facing when they are creating their ebooks.

My impression is that, unlike what I expected from the work and challenges I face making ebooks for a traditional publisher, styling and formatting isn’t a major issue—formatting problems seem limited to edge cases. I’m assuming this is because most self-publishers are doing novels with very simple style needs.

The problems people seem to be facing, in no particular order:

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Book contracts

Normally, whenever Don tweets anything I just nod my head in agreement and move on.

My response to this tweet, however, was more ambivalent because it seems to imply that we shouldn’t be complaining about unfair standard practices in the publishing industry.

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Intermission: sorting through the banal

Everybody who knows what I do assumes that I’ve given up on print books.

You make ebooks? Haha, you don’t need any bookcases then, do you? Must be nice.

Not that I haven’t used it as an excuse once in a while. As a rejection, it’s a little bit nicer than telling somebody that I don’t want their book because it isn’t good enough to put on my shelf—oh, and the cover’s ugly to boot.

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Except, except, except

Publishers really invest in quality and editing.

Except editors keep getting laid off as a part of cost cuts.

If you want proper marketing for your book you need a publisher.

Except you’re expected to do most of the online marketing yourself, and online is where all the sales are happening.

You need a publisher if you want the book to look good.

Except the books from big publishers often look like crap in digital and utterly mundane in print—no better than a well made self-published book.

At least publishers always provide good covers.

Except the covers so often completely misrepresent the book and whitewash it of all minorities and personality.

Publishers can help you sort out your social media ‘platform’.

Except they increasingly won’t even sign you on unless you already have a platform.

The editor always brings out the best in the text.

Except when the editor simply doesn’t see the world the way you do and buries everything unique and special.

The editor always hones and clarifies what the book has to say.

Except when the editor simply doesn’t get what the book has to say.

At least with a publisher the printed book won’t be Print-On-Demand.

Except it increasingly will be.

Books that haven’t been edited are always crap.

Except when they aren’t. Sometimes the combination of beta readers, volunteer editors, and the right book results in something good.

Books that are edited are always improved by the process.

Except when they aren’t. Sometimes the editor is just a bit of a fool. You rarely get to choose your editor.

Books from big publishers are always edited.

Except when they aren’t and the writer has to bring in a freelance editor if they want any real editing done.

A publishing company is a well-honed machine for creating and releasing books.

Except the next available slot in their publishing schedule is in the autumn, two years from now.

There’s this tendency among advocates to compare the absolute worst of the enemy with the perfect, best case scenario on your own side. The crowd that is hostile to self-publishing often likes to compare the worst dinosaur porn (which still sold, though, and made more money than many other titles) to one of those wonderful, Never-Neverland publishing companies that to this day invests massively in editors, doesn’t use exploitative covers, spends its untold riches on making the book’s typography absolutely perfect, has a workflow that spits out beautiful, error-free ebooks with ease, gives every author a personal PR rep, and has a multi-million dollar marketing budget for every title.

Of course self-publishing looks bad when you compare it with a piece of fiction that’s less realistic than the more deranged parts of Alice in Wonderland.

The reality is that book retail has been steadily deteriorating over the years and publishers themselves have been compromised by decades of cost-cutting. Most book sales are online. Titles today get much less editorial attention than similar titles did years ago. Covers have always been completely disconnected from the book’s actual content.

In terms of marketing, quality, distribution and design the difference between a competently published book and a competently self-published one is now less than you think. Competent self-publishing is getting easier every year as tools and services improve. Publishers offer less and less as they try to stay competitive through cost cuts and ‘optimisations’. Over time publishers seem to be devolving into self-publishing services that offer little but demand everything.

One key difference between self- and traditional publishing that is unlikely to fade in the near future is traditional publishing’s rank disdain for the author.

Rank disdain? Yes, there’s no other way to describe it. The standard contracts offered to most authors are insulting. The contracts are de facto for life and make breaking up with the publisher complex and hard. They frequently feature non-compete clauses that shackle the author’s entire career to the whims of the publisher.

These are terms that would be onerous in an employee contract where the desperate victim can at least expect a salary, if not actual benefits. For publishers to expect an author to swallow them in exchange for the pittance that most books earn is nothing short of insulting.

Pointing at other media industries won’t get you out of this one. Standard contracts in other media industries are also unfair and insulting. There’s a lot of disdain for creators going around.

But, Baldur, haven’t you said that some of the biggest pain points for most publishers today are narcissistic idiot diva authors?


  1. It doesn’t matter if the author is a fool. Those are contractual terms you shouldn’t even offer to fools.
  2. Who do you think you are going to get when you make the demands publishers are increasingly making? Somebody who constantly self-promotes? (I.e. does their own marketing and social media.) Somebody who doesn’t consider the primary reward of publishing to be monetary? (Very few can make a living writing books.) Somebody who is willing to do all of this work for the sole perk of being able to ‘perform’ in public as an author? Narcissistic idiot divas, that’s who you get.

What would a fair contract look like?

Fixed term, for five to seven years. If you want more, you can renew the contract for another five to seven years once the first term is up. Or, you can just pay for the privilege of a longer term. Up front.

Absolutely no non-compete clauses. If you don’t want a writer to publish other writing elsewhere, pay them enough money so they don’t feel the need to. If you can’t afford to pay that much then you have no right to complain let alone to demand non-competition.

No options or rights of first refusal. Stand or fall based on your standard of work and the strength of your relationship to the author.

The copyright always, always, stays with the author.

Both parties should have the right to unilaterally end the contract and all of the obligations it entails should there be a major change in the circumstances of the other party. E.g. the publisher should be able to end the contract if the writer is sectioned or jailed. The author should be able to end the contract if the publisher gets sold or declared bankrupt.

(The bankruptcy bit is a bit complex, admittedly, but having language in the contract that covers the scenario is always going to help the author more than harm.)

A fair publishing contract is one between peers, where the rights of the two parties are in balance.

Even if the naysayers are right and self-published titles are always objectively worse than traditionally published titles, at least with a self-publisher you can count on the publisher treating the author with respect.

What books have always had are small teams. Outside of the people who work for the printer, the number of people who work on a book directly—especially compared to other media industries—is tiny. Maybe a couple of editors, typesetter, cover designer, writer, maybe a couple of office staff—making a book isn’t manpower intensive. You could argue that selling and marketing a book is, however, but that’s also the bit that is being disrupted by the web.

Finding your small team, one you can trust and rely on to help you make your book, is more important than whether you are self-published or not. It’s the team that makes the book, not the publishing model.

The problem for writers seeking to be published is that they usually can’t shop around for a good team. They might be able to shop around for a good editor, but not a team. People within a company inevitably vary and the author is forced to trust that they’ll be lucky with the people assigned.

What the self-publishing model does do is put the author in control over the team instead of the publishing company’s stockholders. If the author wants to spend more on editing because the editor is just so good, they can do that. If the author wants to spend less on editing because they have such a good group of beta readers, they can do that. If they want the cover to actually reflect the book’s story, they can work with a cover designer to make it so. They can assemble a team of freelancers around every book as needed, on an ad hoc basic.

The publishing companies that don’t compromise on the small team and can offer the flexibility to respond to the book’s needs won’t have to worry about self-publishing at all.

Other publishers will have to worry.

Losing faith in yourself

(This is the sixth Stumbling into Publishing post.)

It always starts well because I always start alone. Working by myself, I have the peace of mind to just focus on the work, work on the components, polish the details, and simply go where my interest takes me.

Sometimes you share with people you trust; never more than with a small group.

Sometimes you lose interest and just stop. You are working alone and so who is going to judge you for giving up?

As time goes by, the thrill you had when you first started working begins to give way to something deeper—more profound. Your desk becomes the place where you sit down, heavy with troubles and worries, and stand up, hours later, light with serenity and calm.

Your routine becomes a glass palace where your soul lives, made out of emotional transparency and honesty of work; a place as fragile as it is beautiful.

Before 2010, I had always blogged just for myself. When I first started blogging, Facebook hadn’t even reached the point of being an obnoxious idea discussed at a college canteen. If you wanted to write and share with your friends, your options were Livejournal or a blog. I picked blogs, mostly because it offered more scope for experimenting with web technology. (I’ve been making websites for what is approaching two decades. It used to be fun.)

I never had any cause to be concerned about the ‘people out there’ who came to my blogs from outside my social circle.

That changed when I decided to take blogging seriously. It was all a part of the one and the same experiment:

Learn about publishing and study it.

Do it by self-publishing.

Write for an audience on the blog.

Take the idea of having an audience seriously.

Write fiction for an audience.

Take the self-publishing process seriously.

Learn everything you can about the process.

Talk to people.

Take them seriously.

Adjust your writing to suit the audience.

Lose the love for writing.

Let a deluded community guide you away from much more important problems and to focus on the tedious and mundane.

Lose the joy in tackling a hard technical problem.

Let self-interested shills dictate the issues you focus on.

Lose the thrill of figuring out a complex issue.

Lose the love of telling a story.

Lose heart.

I documented earlier the toxic difference between blogging and other kinds of writing, where the immediacy, tight feedback loop, and brevity of the form doesn’t compromise the writing to nearly the same degree.

The problem was more fundamental than that. It was much more basic than a conflict of form and desire. I failed myself.

I got into blogging, debating with people, commenting on the format specification process, talking at conferences, and participating in the publishing community online. I began to take seriously the feedback people in the community gave me and adjusted my writing to suit. I changed my focus of what problems to look into based on the suggestions of people in publishing. I began to rely on external feedback—other people’s responses—to counteract my utter conviction that I suck at this—that I suck at everything publishing.

Because, like so many others, I think I suck.

The feedback loop didn’t counteract that conviction. It strengthened it.


  • Everything I enjoy writing tends to be less popular.
  • Conclusions I come to on my own, through reading, studying, researching, and working, are—if not ignored—immediately labeled ‘controversial’ and ‘provocative’.
  • The only really positive response I get is when I state the bloody obvious—the kind of observations everybody with common sense agrees with.

Even worse is the fact that I was (and am) monitoring the responses. I used to check Google Analytics every week. I used to monitor the response on Twitter. Even though I pretended otherwise, these things mattered to me.

Then I burned out. I didn’t lose faith in myself. I burned out when I realised that the only reason I inflicted this torment upon myself was that I never had any faith in myself to begin with.

When you’ve burnt out, lost faith in yourself, and lost respect for your audience, you begin to play at being deliberately provocative.

Part of it is a desperate attempt to get people to take something—anything—more seriously than just a yay or nay retweet. Dialling the idea up to eleven and having them reject it is better than having them ignore it completely.

Part of it is a loss of respect. While I respect the people I’ve communicated with online and in real life, I haven’t respected blog readers as a group for a very long time.

I think the only way to respect blog readers as a group is to ignore them. Write either for yourself or for a specific individual. The most interesting and rewarding blog posts are the ones that are like a letter to yourself or to a friend.

That means giving up on the idea of getting any real value out of your blog, much like the only way to enjoy social media means giving up on the idea of benefiting from it.

Your blog can either be a resource for your career, or it can be a piece of work you enjoy writing.

Social media can either further your business, or it can make your life richer.

Optimising your activity on blogs and social media is toxic. It’s a pit of venomous adders because all of the compromises and adjustments that increase the response and improve your career are also actions that poison your mind. They draw you away from yourself and into a feedback loop where your self-worth depends on what button some moron decides to press on their smartphone.

Once you’re hooked by the loop you start doing crazy things like compromise your other writing projects, self-censor, and make a truck-load of bad choices in general.

See also: ‘sellout’, ‘Judas’, ‘dishonesty’.

(Lesson one: if you’re going to sell out, do so properly and get paid. Don’t sell out for free.)

I made bad decisions:

I decided I wasn’t any good at anything I do.

I decided that anything I enjoyed didn’t have value.

I decided other people knew better than I did about what I was good at.

I no longer trusted my own taste.

I lost the will to work on projects I enjoyed.

I listened to people’s feedback, adjusted my work to suit, but I didn’t believe them and so lost the emotional connection to my work. I no longer had the bond with my work, the pact you have with your own imagination that you need to make something that interests yourself.

All that crap about how the only way to reach your readers is to be true to yourself? Probably true about book readers but patently untrue about blog readers. The manipulative, evil, and sleazy crap works online. It doesn’t just work, it works brilliantly. It gets traffic. It gets conversions. It gets leads. It gets sales. I have no idea how people do it without completely losing their souls.

The path to repair yourself is to write for yourself again:

Don’t write for the hungry horde of blog readers.

Don’t write to prove yourself or demonstrate what you can do.

Don’t write for the feedback loop.




Wander around the words and see the sights.

It takes a while. Bad habits tend to stick around—those bastards are hard to shake. But, with practice and heavy writing, they begin to fall off one by one.

Some bad habits seem to stick around forever but that’s all right. There’s always room for more improvement.

Most of the posts I’ve been publishing on my blog this January were written some time over the past couple of years. They are not new. Most of what I wrote during this period just went into a folder, to be stored and forgotten. Some of them I wrote to shake some bad habits loose. With many I failed.

In writing largely for myself over the past couple of years, I’ve built up a small pile of text files. Not all of it is suitable for you piranhas. Some of them are. Some of them won’t make sense to you. Some of them are just crap. With a lot of them I was still in the habit of stating the obvious. Some of them are clearly written in the toxic blog style I hate. Some of them I like. Others I don’t like but will post anyway. Some I genuinely enjoyed writing. Others were a torment through and through. Whatever the quality, over the next few weeks I’ll be posting a bunch of them on this blog, roughly one a weekday, until they run out.

I’m monitoring the traffic to these posts and replying to the comments. Not as a part of the old feedback loop where I used to try and figure out how to get to you people. More as a comparative experiment. Since the writing process and the monitoring of the data have been completely separated, there is relatively little risk of the feedback loop reinstating itself.

I don’t know what I’m going to do once I’ve unloaded that bucket of half-digested crap onto the blog. Maybe I’ll just continue in that vein, writing for myself and throwing an occasional one onto the site after it’s aged a bit and the stink of the first draft has been brushed off. Maybe I’ll just stop and just use the blog to let people know about what else I’m up to whenever I’m up to something interesting.

Whatever else I do I’ll keep writing. The only question is whether you will have a chance to read it or not.

I haven’t decided. Whatever I do, I’m not going to take your advice on it. Don’t tell me what you want. You don’t get a say.

What I thought I wanted versus what I really wanted

(This is the third Stumbling into Publishing post.)

The project idea was simple: write and publish a series of novella-length ebooks.

The reason was even simpler: to learn about ebooks and publishing.

I had a few requirements at the start.

  • I was only going to put together four to six stories. Not just for my sake, but also for the reader. I wanted to make sure that the reader had an end in sight.
  • I needed to pick a genre.
  • Ebook only. I have nothing against print, I’m just not curious about the ins and outs of print publishing like I am about digital.
  • My sister would be doing the covers. We had been looking for projects to work on together for a long long time. This publishing project then led to Studio Tendra and the Oz Reading Club, and will lead to more.
  • I wanted to do the whole shebang: ISBNs, formats, design, website, etc. Because that sounded like fun. (Which it was, for the most part.)

I didn’t do this to get published. I don’t have any particular desire to be published or have my writing widely distributed, but I do find the idea of an ongoing readership interesting, especially if it can pay for the work in some way.

The covers turned out great. My sister is a fantastic illustrator. The ebook files were easy but a tad overworked (e.g. there was no point in them being epub3 at the time, way ahead on the curve on that one). The website was easy (websites is what I was doing for a living at the time.) There was more paperwork, bureaucracy, and admin than I expected but nothing overwhelming.

The problems I encountered were both obvious and subtle.

One obvious problem is that I’m crap at marketing. That’s fine. I knew that going in.

The subtle side of that problem is that while I’m pretty sure most of my regular blog readers know about my fiction, they just aren’t interested in it. If I had a penny for every time somebody told me they really liked my blog but didn’t have time to read my fiction, it’d be a bigger pile of money than what I earned from selling ebooks.

Which meant that I was starting from scratch when it came to marketing these stories, I just didn’t know it at the time.

Another obvious problem was with my choice of genre and style. I picked fantasy but didn’t really bring in any of the tropes or traditions people expect from fantasy. Which made it even harder to market. Then again, marketing the stories wasn’t the real problem.

I had four choices for genre. The first was literary fiction. Which, frankly, I’m pretty sure I can’t pull off. Mostly because literary fiction is just a genre fiction with really boring rules and tropes dominated by a big pile of snotty authors. The second was crime fiction. But every other Icelander on the planet is writing crime fiction, so that ruled that out, even though I’m a fan of the genre.

Fantasy or Sword and Sorcery was the genre I chose, mostly because it was safe. It’s a big genre with a big following and plenty of room for variety. Or, so I thought. A big potential audience ought to be easy to market and sell to, right?

I think, in the end, that was a mistake. The mistake wasn’t in choosing fantasy but in choosing it as a safe option. That cut down my emotional investment in the stories right at the start. This in turn compromised my motivation and led me to vacillate during the publishing process as I tried to rediscover the emotional core of the stories and reconnect to them, which then caused the delays. If other people aren’t connecting with the stories, it’s probably because I was finding it difficult to connect with them while writing.

The genre I really wanted to do was oddball unclassifiable weird stuff that would probably qualify as SFF—as in, not scifi, not fantasy, but in the wishy-washy, hand-wavey area that both of those belong to.

At the face of it, that sounds like an even less practical choice than literary fiction. Prose scifi is a tiny niche these days (TV and cinema scifi being less tiny) and, if anything, looks like an even less inviting clique than the fantasy crowd. It’s a community full of old and middle-aged male authors saying awful and horrible things and self-important fans who castigate new writers for not fitting in with their favourite flavour of scifi (hard, space opera, near future, post-human, mundane, whatever). Most of them sound like exactly the sort of people you try to avoid when you go to the comics store.

“Oh, no. It’s a Scott Lobdell fan. Don’t make eye contact!”

(Some writers simply have very creepy fans.)

Wanting to do weird-ass stupid stories that are so hard to categorise that you’d have to just stick with SFF over either scifi or fantasy seemed like a crazy stupid idea. So, I didn’t.

There’s a lot of nice and incredibly clever people in scifi, doing incredible work. Athena Andreatis, Ann Leckie, Debora J. Ross, and Tobias Buckell being a few examples of the many good, smart, and eminently sane members of the SF community (all with good blogs as well), but as a whole the culture surrounding the genre looks worse than inhospitable. It looks outright hostile.

It was a mistake to think I would have to engage in the culture and community around the genre in any way. Fuck community. I’m crap at it, so I’m not going to do it. And, as it happens, these genres—both of them—are crap at it as well, so it all works out.

Anything oddball might well be harder to market and sell. It might not be. Anything that is different should, in theory, be easier to sell because it is easily differentiated. Different makes it identifiable. Different does limit the upside: the maximum number of sales you can make. (Too different: too small an upside.) But, remember, you start with zero sales. Alienating a bunch of non-customers doesn’t matter if it brings you your first real customer.

But, honestly, I don’t care anymore. Fuck sales. My interest is what counts. If I want to be clever, I’ll be clever and play with the thing until it won’t fit anywhere in any genre. If I want to be stupid I’ll be stupid and make something that gives me joy and visceral thrills even if other people groan at the idiocy of it. If I want to be anonymous and alone, I’ll bloody well be anonymous and alone and write in the dark.

Fuck sales.

Which brings me to…

My biggest mistake was not choosing to write the stories that fascinate me the most either emotionally or intellectually. That’s the one that came back to bite me again and again. That choice meant that the stories never quite clicked, never quite worked, never had that spark you drive for. That choice meant that the whole process was a lot less fun.

You have to care about the end result—personally, intellectually, and emotionally.

Otherwise what’s the point?

The last two Knights and Necromancers stories

(This is the first Stumbling into Publishing post.)

A while back I started an experiment where I self-published a series of sword and sorcery novellas.

I’m ready to declare the experiment a failure for a variety of reasons.

The biggest reason isn’t that I didn’t get any readers (although they were very few and far between) but that I’m dissatisfied with the product. When I started I had what I thought were six decent novellas. But, the more I’ve looked at them the more obvious their major flaws and deficiencies become.

My plan for 2014 is to spend the year rewriting the novellas as a single story, fix everything about the setting, characterisation, and plot that isn’t working for me (which is a lot), and then figure out what to do with it once that’s done.

But, for those few of you who have been following the series, below are the final two stories in the series as originally planned, in EPUB and in MOBI.

I’ll be taking down the first four ebooks from sale and the web over the next couple of weeks. And I’m also going to write a few blog posts discussing why I consider the experiment a failure, all the things I did wrong, and all that went wrong.

  • Knights and Necromancers 5: EPUB or MOBI
  • Knights and Necromancers 6: EPUB or MOBI

What are self-publishing’s biggest pain points?

I’ve found that the more time you spend in a problem area the more you realise how many of your preconceptions were mistaken.

So, instead of just assuming I know what the pain points of self-publishing are based on my own experience, I figure the best thing to do is to simply ask people.

In general, publishers face two separate problem areas:

  1. Making the book as good as possible. This means making the text as good as possible (writing and editing) and making the product as good as possible (typesetting and design).
  2. Finding a paying readership for the book. (Selling, marketing, PR, events, etc..)

I’m pretty sure most problems self-publishers face fall into those same areas but I also suspect that their specifics and details are going to be unique to self-publishing.

And by self-publishing I basically mean any publisher with only one or two employees and who publishes only ebooks.

So, what are self-publishing’s biggest pain points? I’d really appreciate any answers, either in the comments below, twitter or, if you want, in email. (My email is for those who prefer not to contribute in public.)

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