Why I Never Want to be Published

Recently, a fiction author told me that because I was “unpublished”–his word, not mine–I was unqualified to offer advice on writing stories. Of course, that’s silly, because getting published is not about whether you can write. It’s about schmoozing with editors and agents and about receiving enough rejection letters. Getting published is an exercise in marketing your work to publishers, not an exercise in writing.

If you want to learn how to give good writing advice, the best thing you can do is to critique others’ work and to have your own work critiqued by other writers. That has nothing to do with getting published. And if you want someone to give you advice on how to tell a story, what matters most is (1) whether he has done enough research to know what he’s talking about, (2) whether he knows how to write (not how to get published), (3) whether you like his stories, and (4) whether he knows more about the art and craft than you do. These are the same kinds of questions you ask when you look for a consultant in any niche, not just storytelling.

Actually, I do have some minor publishing credits: articles, short stories, and such. This was years ago, and I haven’t tried to be published since. Part of the reason, I admit, is that I don’t like to get rejection letters. Who does? And I don’t believe rejection letters are a necessary evil, which I hope to clarify below. But there’s a much better reason. When I discovered that I had the chops to turn an editor’s eye, I ran the numbers, and I discovered that unless you’re Stephen King, there’s no money in being published. No good money, anyhow.

Now after years of research, I believe there is no use in being “published,” at least not for me. As I enter the next chapter in my saga as a self-published author, let me set down some of the thoughts that have inspired me and the risk I’m taking. And where I expect to go from here.

What’s so great about getting “published”?

I started writing this article by putting “published” in quotes everywhere. That started to wear on my eyes, so I cut it out. But the point is still valid. “Published” authors use the word to mean, specifically, “signed with a third-party publishing company.” But this is merely one path to make money with words in print. It has always been so, and in the Internet age, more options are available than ever. Being “published” is only one of the ways authors employ to be published.

And what do you get for being “published”? It’s not all skittles and beer. Firstly, you get to pitch, schmooze, and beg agents and editors. Practically all of these efforts will result in zilch-o. What kind of genius spends almost all his up-front marketing effort on tactics that he knows ahead of time will be a complete and utter failure? And success or failure does not just depend on the quality of your writing. What really matters is how many tens of thousands of copies the editor thinks his publisher can sell of your manuscript, and that may depend on factors such as whether his eyes are already glazed over from reading 70 pages of crap, and whether he had Chinese for lunch that day. Only 70,000 new titles are published each year in the U.S., but more than 8 times that are submitted to publishers. Those are tough odds to overcome. But if you want to be “published,” this is the only way.

Once you’ve finally collected enough rejection letters so that you have to move to a bigger storage facility, you finally catch a break. Your novel is accepted. Now you get to work with an editor who may or may not care about your writing. (The good ones do, though.) And he works for a publisher who probably does not care (because the publisher only cares about how fast he’ll make back his investment). In any case, you agree to give up control over your work to the publisher, because he’s taking the risk in publishing it. Meanwhile, he will do little to help you actually sell your book. You must spearhead the marketing and PR yourself, all the while working on your next book, which you may or may not be able to get “published.” And you get to do this all while living on your advance, because the profits from sales of your book pay back your publisher for that advance. Of titles published, 90% never sell out their first printing. And no one–neither the publisher nor the author–makes much money from them.

Hmm. I’m not sure if that’s the life for me. I mean, maybe if they also forced me to move to Siberia and consist on watery gruel… But I’m just too much of a sado-masochist for that, when I could instead be designing software for more money than most authors ever see.

(And I enjoy designing software. The only down-side is that I reduce myself to a commodity, selling my life to the highest bidder. Where’s the meaning in that?)

Being published is a hazing ritual.

I believe the biggest draw to being published has nothing to do with success. Rather, it’s the same draw that makes college freshmen endure cruel and dangerous hazing rituals, and then turn around and subject others to the same torments.

Dr. Robert Cialdini described the phenomenon in his landmark book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Fraternity pledges persevere through embarrassment, thirst, eating disgusting foods, exposure to the elements, even punishments and beatings and death threats. Despite the cruelty of these rites, they continue on. No efforts have been able to eliminate them, divert from them, or go around them or through them. Bans have merely pushed the practices underground. Attempts to replace Hell Week with “Help Week” have fallen on deaf ears. Regulations to control them have met with physical resistance, even riots. And despite the recognized loathsomeness of these practices, even new pledges are impotent to just say no.

The evidence shows that fraternity and sorority members are just like the rest of us. There’s nothing special about them that makes them want to undergo torment and inflict it on others. Rather, this phenomenon has a well-established psychological cause, explained by a 1959 study performed by Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills. They noticed that “persons who go through a great deal of trouble or pain to attain something tend to value it more highly than persons who attain the same thing with a minimum of effort.” Quoting Dr. Cialdini (pp. 89-90):

The real stroke of inspiration came in their choice of the initiation ceremony as the best place to examine this possibility. They found that college women who had to endure a severely embarrassing initiation ceremony in order to gain access to a sex discussion group convinced themselves that their new group and its discussions were extremely valuable, even though Aronson and Mills had previously rehearsed the other group members to be as “worthless and uninteresting” as possible… Additional research showed the same results when coeds were required to endure pain rather than embarrassment to get into a group. The more electric shock a woman received as part of the initiation ceremony, the more she later persuaded herself that her new group and its activities were interesting, intelligent, and desirable.

Revolting, isn’t it?

You can see where I’m going with this. We finally can understand what makes getting published so desirable in its own right, not because of any advantage it has over other alternatives. Being published is an insider’s club, and getting there is a kind of hazing ritual. In other artistic fields, there are no such barriers. In music, for example, independent bands book their own concerts, record their own albums, arrange their own tours. When they succeed, other musicians admire them for all they’ve accomplished, regardless of whether they get signed by a big label. On the contrary, some musicians look down on big labels, because it’s said that they cater to the lowest common denominator, squeezing out creative expression. For musicians, it’s about the music, not about the size of the signing bonus.

Remember the author I told you about? He told me I was unqualified to give advice on storytelling, because he thought I was unpublished? I’d lay odds that he agrees with at least 90% of what I write about writing. And I’d lay further odds that the remaining 10% would intrigue him. Because everything I know, I learned from other writers and from experience, the same way he did. But he didn’t even want to hear what I had to say. And he didn’t want to see anything I had actually written. He was patently uninterested in arguing my qualifications on the merits.

That surprised me, but it should not have. Because he’s an insider, and I have not gone through the initiation ritual. I bailed out as soon as I figured out I could be more happy going a different route. That makes me an outsider and “unqualified” in his mind.

The publishing industry cannot cope with micro-niche markets.

In the mass market, you’re going after as big an audience as you possibly can. You cater to the lowest common denominator, you publicize far and wide, and you hope that you can make a few bucks off of each of a few hundred thousand people. By “micro-niche,” I mean the converse. I’m talking about a business that operates in a very specific niche, catering to a highly enthusiastic audience. When you operate in this kind of niche, you develop a loyal fan base, and you design your business to thrive on this enthusiasm.

Let’s apply this to fiction. In a mass market, you try to come up with a novel that will sell umpteen gajillion copies within 15 minutes of hitting the bookstore shelf, or else it gets pulled forever. There are also smaller sub-markets: genre fiction (e.g. romance), sub-genre or cross-genre fiction (e.g., historical romance), niche fiction (e.g., chick-lit), and then…

Then what? How would I categorize Abe’s Turn? I’ve been telling people it’s “libertarian fiction,” but that’s not quite right. It’s actually libertarian SF crime romance. And it’s a serial drama, too. This isn’t even a niche. It’s a micro-niche. From a marketing perspective, I’m looking for the handful of readers who fall in love with the unique qualities of this saga, and I want to market to them over and over and over again.

If a bestselling title sells 400,000 copies or more (hardcover + softcover sales), what I’m talking about is, oh… just the 400, without the thousand. I need a business model that can make money even with just 400 customers. There are plenty of such businesses in the world. But not so much in traditional publishing. As a result, I’m finding myself questioning the traditional wisdom and structure of the book-publishing industry, because it’s designed with that 400,000 number in mind. A conventional publisher must sell at least 5,000 copies of a book just to break even. And out of all the titles they publish, most are going to lose money. So they seek out authors they think can sell hundreds of thousands of copies, to subsidize all the titles they know are going to bomb.

Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking:

Wherever along the spectrum my fiction falls, self-publishing is scalable. That is, I can start small and build up. How small? I can start with a single copy. The trick is just to make one dollar profit, and then to multiply it. I’ve done this to some extent with software development. And I’m doing it with 1001 Character Quirks. (Not getting rich off of it yet, but there’s something there.) I have all the control, and I get to keep all the profit. Why would I want to sign with a third-party publisher?

I should add that there are plenty of boutique publishers out there, some with very interesting and innovative business models. And some do cater to very small markets.

In any case, all of what I’m pursuing has been done before. I’m not proposing anything new or radical. But…

I’ll never be Stephen King.

I don’t think I want to be Stephen King. Everyone knows who Stephen King is, even those people who don’t read Stephen King. People like me. I’ve never made it through a Stephen King novel. I’ve tried, numerous times. Always lost interest during the first chapter. Someone went through a lot of effort and money to make sure I knew who Stephen King is. That was wasted effort.

I’d rather be Ted Nicholas. Don’t know who Ted Nicholas is? Don’t worry, his fans do.