Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

More on self-publishing

by Rob - February 18th, 2010.
Filed under: Publishing.

An interesting exchange took place on my Facebook wall recently (starting on 8 February 2010). Facebook content scrolls away and is very hard to access after a few days, so I thought I’d reproduce some of it here. There were 109 messages posted in the exchange, but the first two were the first two below, and the rest of the ones quoted here were interspersed in the remainder; they are a conversation between me and a self-published author, hereafter referred to as SPA [slightly redacted, out of kindness, to obscure SPA’s identity]:

RJS: You know, the mindless cheerleaders for self-publishing who say “Oh, go ahead and do it — spend your money that way; it’s a GOOD idea!” never seem to be around when the poor sap ends up heartbroken at the end with a book that no one has read.

SPA: Unless the poor sap is savvy enough to avoid vanity publishers, uses POD technologies, with excellent distribution, hires the services of an excellent editor, and markets the hell out of the book.

RJS: Not to be mean, and I know you’re a big advocate of doing it this way, but what do you mean by “with excellent distribution”?

I happen to know that you’re a Canadian author. Canada’s largest bookstore chain is Chapters/Indigo, and Canada’s largest city is Toronto. So I just popped over to, looked up your latest book and asked for a display of store stock in Toronto.

The site served up 25 locations, and every single one — all 25 — shows “Quantity available: 0” for your book.

There may come a day when the vast majority of books are not sold in retail outlets, but that day is a ways off yet, and until then anything that doesn’t include getting physical books into bookstores can’t be meaningfully called “excellent distribution.”

[SPA then replied to some other people, repeatedly using the term “legacy publishers” to refer to the traditional publishing houses.]

RJS: “Legacy publishers.” *snort*

You know, we started calling serial and parallel interfaces on computers “legacy ports” when people stopped using them; when they no longer represented the dominant, current paradigm; when they had fallen out of fashion.

To call — as an example — Penguin Canada, my own current Canadian publisher, which is a $100,000,000 (one hundred million dollar) per-year operation, with books in thousands of retail outlets coast-to-coast PLUS all the other places you’ve referred to, a “legacy publisher” is to reduce the debate to precisely the kind of mindless cheerleading I was decrying in the post that started this thread. You may want established publishers and the existing business models to fall out of fashion, but they have not.

The number one publicity source for books: being on bookstore shelves. All this talk about disintermediation ignores the fact that most people buy books because they can reach out and touch them, leaf through them, and carry them away.

Publicity is, in many ways, the easy part (if by publicity you mean online promotion); distribution is the hard part. So the flaw in the argument that “if you have to do your own publicity anyway, then why not do the rest” is the assumption that you CAN do the rest.

You’re a case in point: despite all your hard work, and the fact that you are a good writer, you haven’t been able to do the one thing that so-called legacy publishers would consider an absolute necessity for being a publisher: getting books into the big bookstore chains.

SPA: Some of you may find this blog post of interest.

[In response to which, Jim C. Hines chimed in on the truth about Amazon rankings, to which I added:]

RJS: To add to Jim’s very cogent analysis, the big flaw with Amazon numbers is that they give the impression of an ordered array from best selling to worst selling. But in fact Amazon doesn’t move enough physical units of most books for the rankings to be meaningful once you get down the list a bit.

You might think that the book that’s ranked 200,000 sold better than the book ranked 200,001 — but in fact they almost certainly sold identically. Indeed, rank 200,000 and rank 800,000 might all have sold equally well, which is to say hardly at all, and rank 1,000,000 to 6,000,000 might very well have never sold a single copy on Amazon (and almost certainly didn’t in the last year).

I always get antsy when people touting new paradigms refuse to cough up hard numbers. They say, oh, look, my free online book had XXX,XXX downloads and now it’s in its nth printing — see?

Yeah, well, even in mass-market a printing might only be 2,500 copies these days [and the most-frequent-citer of the “printings” statistic has never had a book in mass market], and in trade it could be 1,000 copies or much fewer (and of both those, perhaps half the copies will actually sell).

And now we have a case of, look see!, these Amazon ratings prove my point.

Marcello Truzzi said (and Carl Sagan frequently quoted): “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”

The people making the claims have access to or can find out the numbers of copies sold (and printed); they know precisely how many copies their print publisher actually sold or how many they shipped of their self-published book to Amazon.

But they don’t tell us; they instead have us look at numbers that could mean just about anything while crowing, “See! See!” Sorry, but those numbers don’t prove a thing.

[SPA was not heard from again.]

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Leave a Reply