Self Publishing: Second Class No More?

Not too long ago, traditional publishers held all the cards.

If publishing houses rejected a book, its author had two choices: self-publish and bear the stigma, or put the manuscript in a drawer, forfeiting years of hard work, all the while hoping the next book would be “the one.” A plethora of legitimate publishing options—ranging from DIY self-publishing platforms to assisted self-publishing partnerships—has eliminated this total reliance on traditional houses, in effect changing the publishing dynamic. Today, empowered authors are asserting greater control over their career—and driving revolutionary changes within the industry.

Rita Rosenkranz, among the first literary agents to work with indie authors, says that in the past “because of the stigma of self-publishing very good stuff was locked out by mainstream publishers.” Literary agent Steven Axelrod, who represents self-publishing rock star Amanda Hocking, credits readers for opening new opportunities for independent authors. Readers no longer see a huge difference between self- and traditionally published books, Axelrod says. By buying books, adds Rosenkranz, and increasing their rank in the marketplace, readers vote on which books are worthy of publishing. As a result, traditional publishers are finding themselves in bidding wars for the rights to republish the very books they once spurned.

With their meteoric rise, self-published authors no longer face a categorical stigma. Many traditional publishers now view self-publishing as a great way to discover new writers, Axelrod says. A quick search of Publisher’s Marketplace, using the keywords “self publish,” turned up 40 deals in the past twelve months, many ranked “significant,” $250K to $499K, or “major,” meaning over $500K. In July, Jamie McGuire inked a “major deal” for her runaway bestseller Beautiful Disaster; in August, Sara Fawkes landed a “significant deal” for her USA Today bestseller Anything He Wants. In an increasingly common sign of the times—agile publishers are altering internal processes to bring books to market quickly—Atria and St. Martin’s republished their newly acquired bestsellers in e-book format within weeks of announcing the deals.

Spurred by astounding indie success—Hocking sold a million books before signing a deal with St. Martin’s worth over $2 million—publishers have adopted “a new set of indicators,” according to Axelrod. By the time Susan Ee queried Axelrod about representation, her Young Adult novel Angelfall had already collected over 90 reviews on Amazon and 230 ratings on Goodreads, with an average of 4.5 – 5 stars, and the book had been nominated by readers for the book bloggers’ Cybils Award for the 2011 Best YA Fantasy. In August 2012, Angelfall was republished by Amazon Children’s Publishing, and currently ranks #30 in the paid Kindle Store.

Another strong indicator of shifting power, and arguably one of the reasons authors have been able to assume greater control: not all successful self-publishers sign on the dotted line. Savvy authors consider their options and choose the publishing method that best meets their career objectives or their goals for a particular project. Ruth Cardello, author of the runaway bestseller Bedding the Billionaire, a shining example of an author taking her career into her own hands, recently turned down a lucrative publishing deal. “I estimated how much my books were likely to make over the next four years and compared that to the deal I was offered,” she says. “When I crunched the numbers, the decision was easy.”

British author Joanna Penn, in an effort to broaden her fan base, hopes to publish her Arkane thriller series traditionally—but she will sign a deal only if it allows her to continue self-publishing. “I need to make a living and self-publishing works in a more financially stable manner,” says Penn. Traditional publishers typically pay advances in half, thirds, or quarters, with additional royalties (if there are any) paid over time, generating spikes in revenue; Amazon, on the other hand, pays publishers monthly. “Because of their detailed reporting you know how much money you will get in 60 days,” Penn says. She prefers this combination of a steady income with periodic spikes as it “creates an overall living wage.”

It took time for traditional publishers to warm to the self-publishing phenomenon, but defensiveness has gradually given way to curiosity and excitement. As examples of industry changes, Rosenkranz cites the foray into e-book romance lines, efforts by Writer’s Digest to court self-publishers through their annual self-published book awards, and initiatives by Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus to review self-published books. In July, Penguin acquired Author Solutions for $116 million, “the first major acquisition of a large-scale self-publishing company by a traditional book producer,” Paul Sonne and Jeffrey A. Trachetenberg write in their story for the Wall Street Journal: “The acquisition illustrates the newfound acceptance for self-publishers in a book world where they were once viewed largely as interlopers.”

While Rosenkranz applauds the choices that have given more authors a place at the table, she’s optimistically wary. Too much choice can be paralyzing, she says. With millions of books flooding the market, it’s harder for readers to choose and for authors to rise above the noise. And 99 cent e-books, a price point favored by many self-publishers, drives sales but creates an artificial market, unsustainable over the long term. As the industry changes, the bar gets raised, forcing authors to find new ways to gain traction. Reservations notwithstanding, the changes in publishing are liberating, she says, and “great for the majority of authors.”

This is an exhilarating time to be an author. Industry change and innovation have afforded authors greater control over their work, their finances, and their destiny. For Joanna Penn and others like her, publishing is a business partnership. “I know what I can do on my own,” she says. “I won’t be curtailing my future freedom or income by signing anything too fast.”

Traditional publishers will no doubt be watching.



Terri Giuliano is a contributing writer for IndieReader and Her Circle eZine. She’s written news and feature articles for numerous publications, including the Boston Globe and the Huffington Post. She lives on the East Coast and teaches at Boston College. Her debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, was a Kindle bestseller for more than 6 months. For information, please visit her website: Or connect via her Blog, Facebook, or Pinterest. OR tweet @tglong 



16 replies
  1. avatar
    Lisa Fantino says:

    As a lawyer, I wrote how the digital world would forever change the music biz landscape and never imagined 15 years ago how it would also revolutionize this creative sphere for writers. So glad it did!

    • avatar
      Terri Giuliano Long says:

      Yes, it’s really amazing! I don’t think many of us realized, even a year ago, that changes would happen this rapidly and to this extent. Thank you so much for taking the time to read the piece, Lisa.

  2. avatar
    Dava Stewart says:

    It’s really amazing, watching the changes happen. Reading accounts written by successful, independent authors is fascinating. Being able to follow the decision making process (through interviews and blog posts) of people like Joanna Penn, Hugh Howey, Amanda Hocking, and so many others seems to show that traditional publishing will continue to have an important place in the industry, although not nearly as important as it used to be!

  3. avatar
    Author Ruth Cardello says:

    Thank you for the kind mention! These are exciting times — especially in this economy. Self-publishing has allowed Author moms like me to help our families in ways that didn’t seem possible a few years ago. I don’t know what the future will hold, but I am so grateful for what this opportunity has allowed me to do for my children.

  4. avatar
    Annie B. says:

    I have enjoyed Ruth Cardello’s Billionaire series since I first discovered her on Amazon. The first book in the series is Maid for the Billionaire, which she wisely offered free. This book hooked me on her writing style and characters. I have read all 3 books in the series and eagerly anticipate book 4 which is coming out in November 2012. Congrats to all the brave self publishing authors out there.

  5. avatar
    Debbie G says:

    Im glad authors have the choice of self publishing. We have such an array of ways of getting books now that even the self published author can make it!

  6. avatar
    Karen Lawson says:

    I love that so many authors have opted for the self-published route, making it so easy and affordable to get their books for our eReaders. It makes me happy that they are making enough on their own to be able to tell big publishing houses, no thanks. As happy as I am for the authors that have made the deals, I am sad to see the prices of their books increase shortly after signing on the line. I admire authors like Ms. Cardello, who have the courage to stay independent! Thanks for the informative article.

  7. avatar
    Wolf Pascoe says:

    “efforts by Writer’s Digest to court self-publishers through their annual self-published book awards”

    $100 to submit your self-published book for this “award.”
    If that’s being courted, include me out.

  8. avatar
    Bruce Blake says:

    While it’s satisfying and exciting to see the changes that are happening in publishing (I recently submitted two novels to HarperVoyager for their open submissions that allow previously self-pubbed books), the playing field is still not level. As another commenter mentioned, Writers Digest charges $100 to enter your book in their self-published book awards, an amount too high for most indie authors as we have to pay for editing, covers, etc. Kirkus charges far more than that to review self-published titles. I’ll be truly happy with the state of the world when those kind of publications do reviews because the book warranted it, not becasue it was paid for.

  9. avatar
    Rinelle Grey says:

    When I first started writing six years ago, self publishing was frowned upon, and no one made any money doing it. I’m so glad it changed. I’m planning to self-publish my first novel in November, and I couldn’t be happier.

  10. avatar
    Michelle Muckley says:

    This is a very interesting perspective, that can give hope to many self publishing authors, mysef included. The freedom of the self publishing world is that you make every decision, you have your hand on every detail, and every last bit of the work is yours. The downside to self publishing is that that you make every decision, you have your hand on every detail, and every last bit of the work is yours. I would love somebody to take some of the load, who perhaps knows what they are doing. For example, yesterday I launched my website, and within an hour, lets just say it wasn’t books that my website was offering. A bit of expertise would have gone a long way!

    However I am very glad to be self published, and do not feel any stigma that perhaps would have been there once upon a time. The difficulty is finding and sustaining the audience. The thing you need most as a self published author is patience!

  11. avatar
    Tara says:

    Self-publishing is a great way for writers to get their work out into the market and into the hands of the readers who will judge for themselves whether it is any good.

    We are so lucky to be able to take advantage of these new publishing platforms!

  12. avatar
    stephen morris says:

    Terrific article! When I left my previous job as publisher at Chelsea Green (an excellent small publisher), I started a new company, The Public Press, to explore the feasibility of small scale publishing. It’s been an interesting journey that has left me feeling more strongly than ever that this is the future of independent publishing.

  13. avatar
    Geri says:

    Self-publishing has exploded and it is our reason for being!
    Here is the obvious dilemma – not everyone who self-published should. Traditional publishing sorts thru the “bad” books and rejects them – problem is they reject most everything often without ever reading a word! Their business is so based on profit that they are not open to giving most authors the attention they deserve. Now, understand, making money is not a bad thing and quite honestly, I am not sure how they can get a system in order where they can again give first time authors a chance.
    We have over 100 readers in 10 countries sorting thru self-published books. Sorry to say, most are badly conceived, poorly edited and not ready for prime time. BUT about 10- 15% are as good as any book out there and deserve to be given a chance to rise to the top and that is what we are all about.
    For any self-publishing company to “reject” any book, makes them a traditional publisher. So, I guess that our Book Readers Appreciation Group has a lot of books to read. So people get back to work-


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