Is Self-Publishing Creating A New Underclass?

by David Vinjamuri

The below post is an excerpt from Understanding Self-Publishing: 2013 (free  through Saturday at Amazon), a 46 page article that includes the “Publishing is Broken” article that appeared in Forbes last year.  Part one of the article, Is Publishing Still Broken? The Surprising Year in Books,  appeared last Friday in Forbes.

Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion.

But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement?

…amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews, to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses.

Jonathan Franzen writing for The Guardian


Franzen might be right about technology: you only have to look as far as the person next to you on the sidewalk to realize that cellphones have encapsulated our attention. I sympathize with his yearning for a vaguely remembered idyllic Wessex where we can be free of the tugs of modernity, (although in the U.S. we might have to slot it into the narrow time between the end of slavery and the beginning of Reconstruction to fit the model).

Ironically, Franzen assaults self-promoting authors while self-promoting his new translation of the writings of the obscure industrial age Viennese social critic, Karl Kraus. Franzen echoes Kraus’s critique of the drain that imagination suffers from technology – substituting the awful coolness of Apple products for the awful beauty of Paris. You’d think only a frail mind would be incapable of closing the door to the outside world in order to dream, but it’s a debatable point. I personally have more trouble inveighing against the same technological forces that have raised living standards in once-impoverished countries, helped those seeking democracy find supporters in the outside world and enabled developing world farmers to sell their produce at fair prices.

The bigger problem with Franzen’s argument is that he mistakes cause for effect when he blames Amazon for the inability of writers to just write. Salmon Rushdie might actually enjoy twitter and self-publishing wunderkind like Hocking and Rachel Thompson might revel in social media. But most authors would love nothing more than to retreat to a cottage, write for months and emerge to a fawning public.

Unfortunately, that avenue has been barricaded for years. Blame Borders and Barnes & Noble, not self-publishing. Book superstores perversely priced the most popular and desirable books 30% or more lower than lesser-known offerings. The marketing theory was to create door busters, in the hope they’d stir up business for the rest of the store, but it was flawed logic. Consumers bought more bestsellers than ever, and the rest of the store became a teeming ghetto.

At the same time these stores dramatically increased the display space available to publishers, requiring them to make more high stakes bets on new authors. The net effect was to force publishers to make stark choices on which authors to support. Not surprisingly, midlist and small authors suffered disproportionately from this arrangement.

Amazon did not create the problem of authors needing to yak and tweet ceaselessly – it has actually improved conditions for publishers and authors. The minor league for authors I predicted last year is growing on Amazon and other self-publishing hosts like iBooks, Nook, The Sony Reader Store, Smashwords, and Kobo. These self-publishing marketplaces are giving publishers a safer way to source commercially viable authors, even if only in the romance and young adult paranormal genres for the moment.

While there’s some question about how well the early signings of self-published authors have done for the big publishing houses, the new bets have been placed. If the score of writers signed by traditional publishing houses over the past year prove out, it will validate the model.

That’s important because every dollar not lost on advances and marketing to unsuccessful genre fiction is a dollar that a big publisher can use to support another literary writer. As Mark Coker, Smashwords CEO wrote during a Reddit AMA:

In other words, they’re [publishers are] really in the business of throwing spaghetti against the wall. And the spaghetti they throw is often selected not for quality, but for perceived commercial merit, and these two factors are often diametrically opposed to one another. They’re simply incapable of taking a risk on every author.

Franzen’s contention that self-publishing is producing a generation of drone writers doesn’t quite mirror reality, either. As I’ll show below, self-publishing is exposing some award-winning writing that might have been lost to history. And on the financial side, there’s evidence that it’s easier to make a living as a self-published writer than a traditionally published midlist-er. David Vandagriff, an attorney and blogger at The Passive Voice told me that:

The big story I don’t see being covered is the increasing number of indie authors who are making a living from their craft. Reddit had a recent discussion about how much fantasy authors make and one of the interesting topics was how little most traditionally-published authors earned and how much more many of the indie authors who shared their sales were earning.

For traditionally-published authors, the consistent advice from agents and publishers is “Don’t quit your day job.” That’s not the case with an increasing number of indies.

Just as the advent of the DVD player didn’t kill theaters and indie filmmakers with handycams didn’t stop people from watching blockbusters, indie authors have not taken revenue from the traditional market, so Franzen’s cause and effect are muddled.

Economically speaking, it’s hard to believe that self-publishing won’t improve the quality and variety of books. There’s not a market in the world that hasn’t produced better products when real, open competition emerges.

This doesn’t preclude a race to the bottom on pricing, of course. But as publishers sign more successful indie authors the extra sales volume from self-published titles will be absorbed into traditionally published book sales. Books on average will still be sold at moderately lower prices, but the market will stabilize.

We’ll all still read traditionally published books.  But we’ll pay less, and we’ll have an eye open for great indie writers, too.


David Vinjamuri writes the “Brand Truth” column online for Forbes where he covers brands, advertising and publishing.  David is also Adjunct Instructor of Marketing at New York University and the founder of ThirdWay Brand Trainers, a leading brand marketing training company whose clients have included American Express, Starwood Hotels, The Corporate Executive Board and the U.S. Army.  David has over 22 years of marketing and management experience.  He started his marketing career at Johnson & Johnson.  As a Brand Manager, David twice received the Johnson & Johnson Achievement Award and successfully launched a new OTC consumer product (Uristat®) from concept to market in 11 months.  David worked in field marketing for Coca-Cola, ran promotions for DoubleClick and was VP of marketing for two other consumer companies before founding ThirdWay Brand Trainers in 2004.  David graduated from Swarthmore College with High Honors and from The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy as a Citicorp-Walter Wriston Fellow.  David studied marketing and manufacturing at Harvard Business School.

David writes and speaks frequently on marketing.  He has been quoted as an expert on brands in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, BusinessWeek, and Investor’s Business Daily.  In addition to writing online for Forbes, David has contributed to both BrandWeek and Advertising Age.   He has appeared on television as a brand expert on the BBC, Fox Business News, Bloomberg TV and MSNBC.  David works worldwide and has advised the German pharmaceutical industry and one of the leading motion picture studios in Bollywood on brands and social media.  David’s book: Accidental Branding: How Ordinary People Build Extraordinary Brands, has been translated into both Japanese and Vietnamese.  David is also the author of the bestselling thriller “Operator” and is currently at work on a new thriller.


12 replies
  1. avatar
    Theresa Cavender says:

    Sylvia Plath said that “nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.” You might say it’s a bit like a pile of smelly fish. Well, I’m holding my nose around my desk right now. I’ve been piling up the pages the last few years and (duck my head) have even self-published a couple of novels. They’re published, but it still stinks!

    Admittedly, I’ve ventured on an agent’s doorstep only once, and that was before I’d finished my first novel. She said she didn’t think there was a market for what I’d written. So I trashed it and started over again. That stinks!

    I’ve gotten caught up in the self-publishing venue now, or what I’ve recently decided is Trout Fishing. Actually, I thought the term appropriate. You see, I got the idea from Richard Brautigan. I’ve never met the man, but he was well-known for his novel, Trout Fishing in America, and used the term quite freely. Thus, I’ve decided that until my novels start to sell to the general public, I’m just Trout Fishing.

    To be truthful, Trout Fishing offers a bit of satisfaction even if it is what some might call poaching, but, let’s face it, this is 2013, and in just the past week, there were more books published than in the entire year of 1950. Excuse me, but my line’s getting tangled up with someone else’s right now … .

    Back to Richard Brautigan: In his day (1945-1984), he wondered if “what we are publishing now is worth cutting down trees to make paper for the stuff.” And he was talking about the stuff written fifty years ago. He didn’t have a clue about the twenty-first century and self-publishing … uh, I mean Trout Fishing. Just think, though, he wouldn’t have to worry about the trees. We have Kindle.

    The truth is I really do love writing, but I don’t care much for marketing … it just takes up way too much time. Believe me, I have better things to do (I won’t bore you with the details), but my days are full enough without all the social media.

    However, if you’ve read this far, you might want to take the time to check out my books on Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble. You might even want to read through the reviews.

    Dancing Naked in the Rain is Vol. I of The Beryl Stone Series.

    Stars Walking Backward is Vol. 2.

    Voices in the Dark, Vol. 3, is still swimming around in my head. Actually, I have completed about one-third of it, so you have time to read the other two before I start Trout Fishing again. Hey, what’s a person to do?

  2. avatar
    Richard Sutton says:

    Nicely balanced post. When we attempt to sum up the cause of the publishing seachange as technology, most of us miss the other component David mentions here. Retail Strategies. While the loss-leader concept was not a new one, it turned the business of marketing a range of books into the business of marketing best-sellers which is as much a part of the resulting desperation as the technical changes and the cost of paper. All you have to do to get a sense of the desperation in the business voices of Big Publishing is to read how a publisher’s quarter was “saved” by the release of: (insert blockbuster book/celebrity author name, etc. here). It reminds me of the many years when it was paycheck-to-paycheck. A single misstep could throw me under the bus. I believe we’re going to see this in the book business for some time to come. Technology has afforded more variety in the market stream and brought new writers to the forefront that might not have had their day otherwise, but it hasn’t saved us yet, and I think keeping one’s day job is only smart business. There are relatively few writers with publishing contracts who can afford the mythical day of writing in a cozy cottage only to emerge to the adulation, etc., etc. That concept has gone the way of the tweed jackets with the nice suede elbow patches. Now, if you want to make a buck with your writing, you’d better be prepared to get your hands dirty and roll up your sleeves.

    • avatar
      David Vinjamuri says:


      I agree and in that sense I think that self-publishing will be a valuable buffer for writers. It will allow authors – even trad published authors – room to explore their passions even when they are outside of the mainstream. This is the way that new genres and new blockbusters are born. It will also let a lot of solid writers function below the radar and make a living catering to small and loyal audiences. That’s probably more useful for writing as a whole than the cult of bestsellers.

  3. avatar
    Rosanne Dingli says:

    Franzen, unlike many authors like me who first went hybrid with their backlist, and then proceeded to outright independence, can only see the industry (if we can still call it that) from inside the corral. He could have no idea what it can mean to cut out the middleman, to lose the fences, or to write exactly what one wants to, and still be able to find a niche of readers.

    Franzen has been wrong before. And those of us who are well on the way to figuring out how the book business will stabilize (and it will, it’s showing signs of that already)cannot stop to argue and prove him wrong. We’re too busy writing. So I’ll make this brief.

    Franzen doesn’t know, or perhaps is too naive, in his narrow view of what publishing is “supposed” to be like, or who is “supposed” to be allowed to write, that democratization of anything leads to a plateau where UTILITY is king. The celebrity cult is fast losing favour in the book world, and that is why he is miffed.

    Brief enough? Must write the next one, sorry.

    • avatar
      David Vinjamuri says:


      Jonathan Franzen is a gifted writer, but he shares the weakness of many people who worked very hard and were successful at a relatively young age: he feels entitled. Whether in writing, entrepreneurship or art, becoming hyper-successful involves luck as well as talent and hard work. I think everything else in his philosophy derives from the belief that the best rise to the top. But they often don’t.


  4. avatar
    Rachel Thompson (@RachelintheOC) says:

    Thanks so much for the mention, David!

    As long as new innovations continue to transform the publishing industry, there will be naysayers who cleave to old ideas. No different, I suppose, than older folks talking about the good ol days, right?

    There’s no question that to succeed as an author (traditional or self-published) an author needs to have an online presence. That’s our new ‘word of mouth,’ if you will. Those who depend on live book signings only (increasingly more difficult to book) and just focus on writing are missing out. Even traditionally successful writers do more than that!

    Personally, I’m thrilled that what people are arguing about are BOOKS.

    • avatar
      David Vinjamuri says:


      It’s a good sign and I still think we owe an unacknowledged debt to libraries. Considering the electronic sirens available to us and our children, it’s remarkable that anyone still reads. Yet reading is expanding. Not comfortably, not easily and not without growing pains. I do think that we’ll discover the next generation of great popular authors from self-publishing just the way that pulp fiction gave us the last generation.

  5. avatar
    Michael J Sullivan says:

    I was one of the self-published authors picked up by one of the (at that time) big-six publishers. I earned out my six-figure advance in less than a year and have received two really nicely sized royalty checks so far, so I think that the jury is in on “my case” and the transition has been a success for both me and my publisher.

    For those publishers who picked up authors that generally sold for $0.99 or $2.99 and paid seven-figures for those series, I think they probably will lose money overall. That being said, St. Martins signed Amanda Hocking to a third series recently and I can’t imagine they would have done that if the the first two series were utter flops.

    To me a self-published author with an established fan base represents significantly lower risk than a brand new author so I think we’ll continue to see traditional publishers doing some scouting from the best-seller lists. The real question is what will be the “offer made.” If too low, the self-pubber will stay that way. If too high then they may be putting unrealistic expectations on the project.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] quit their jobs and write full time. I also read articles on Writer’s Digest and another one by David Vinjamuri (IndieReader) about the success of indie authors. And because we met with our accountant today, I […]

  2. […] Is Self-Publishing Creating A New Underclass? For traditionally-published authors, the consistent advice from agents and publishers is “Don’t quit your day job.” That’s not the case with an increasing number of indies. IndieReader David Vinjamuri 9 October 2013 […]

  3. […] write full time. I also read articles on Writer’s Digest and another one by David Vinjamuri (IndieReader) about the success of indie authors. And because we met with our accountant […]

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