Train_wreck_at_Montparnasse_1895Wow. There’s someone who’s bitter.

Author Derek Haines has written a blistering diatribe against the current state of the self-publishing market. From such portents as Sony exiting the e-reader business, the end of Diesel eBooks, the loss of Flipkart and Oyster’s all-you-can-eat services, and Scribd paring its own all-you-can-eat selection down, he sees a “train wreck” coming.

That’s not all, of course. He produces a chart of a gradually-declining squiggly line as another sign from which he reads doom (he never clearly explains, nor is it captioned, exactly what that squiggly line actually refers to, though I’m guessing from context that it’s search activity about the term “self-publishing”). Then he flourishes another chart showing that regional search interest in the term “self publishing” is limited to the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia. (Oddly enough, those happen to be the main countries where English is the primary lingua franca. Funny that an English-language search term should be most popular in those, huh?) From these, he concludes that self-publishing interest is on the wane and nobody cares about it outside a small portion of the world.

And he complains that Amazon has switched from paying authors per checkout to paying them per page for Kindle Unlimited! Whereby it used to be that people got paid just because someone actually borrowed a book, now they actually have to read it all the way through. (How terrible that people actually now have to want to read what you wrote for you to earn money, rather than you getting it simply because they thought your book looked nice on their electronic shelf!)

Haines opines:

Self publishing as it has been since 2009 is dead. It was all so simple back in 2009. You wrote a book, published it, and readers bought it, or not. There were no conditions attached. Even subscription borrowing had some merit. You borrow it, I get paid. But now, it’s a convoluted disaster. I do not want to get paid for someone reading five pages of one of my books and then thinking, ‘oh damn, no vampires. I’ll try another book then.’

Maybe you should try writing a book with vampires in it, then? The world doesn’t owe you a living just because you wrote a book, you know. (Oddly enough, he even admits to that elsewhere in the essay, bemoaning the fate of poor naïfs who are lured into self-publishing by the promise of easy money “with no idea at all about book marketing, but with a firm belief that if they have written a book, they will make a fortune.” What’s sauce for the goose…)

So, Haines concludes, he will pull his e-books out of Kindle Unlimited as soon as he can, and redirect his promotional efforts toward paperback books. Fair enough. He wrote the books, he gets to decide how they are to be marketed. All the same, this post kind of reminds me of all the “short Amazon’s stock and sooner or later you’ll be right” posts I see pop up on Seeking Alpha from time to time.

And my response to this is the same as my response to that. Go ahead. Put your money where your mouth is. Short Amazon until the cows come home if that’s what you want to do. Withdraw from self-publishing if it makes you feel better. If you’re right, well, you’ll reap the benefit of your foresight while others get what they deserve. If you’re wrong, you’ll get what you deserve while others reap the benefit of their foresight.

Search results are not necessarily the best tea leaves from which to read (or make) a fortune. There could be any number of reasons why those charts are the way they are. Maybe fewer people feel the need to search on self-publishing now because so many of them already know how it’s done. Maybe other languages have their own terms for “self-publishing.” (Was that reflected in the chart’s methodology? It doesn’t say.) Anyway, the English-language e-book market has always been years ahead of other languages’, just because countries who speak it tend to have capitalist economies and there are so many people in the world who speak English. It hasn’t exactly needed buy-in from people who don’t speak English in order for authors who do speak and write it to make a living.

I can’t help thinking that if the self-publishing market really were on the wane, it would have shown up somewhere such as Author Earnings’s charts—but so far, they’re showing self-publishing’s marketshare steadily growing while traditional publishers’ are declining. So from those charts, it looks like traditional publishing is heading for the train wreck. (Is there such thing as a train wreck wreck?) Granted, those charts only measure Amazon’s market share, and take no account of all those other services that have had to close down. But all the same, that’s a pretty large chunk of the overall market, and any crisis in consumer confidence that affected the whole market should be affecting Amazon, too. Maybe those other businesses just weren’t able to compete with a much bigger one?

This isn’t the first time Derek Haines has been featured on TeleRead, by the way. In 2012, he complained that the Kindle e-book store’s liberal return policy allowed readers ample time to complete one of his books as many as three times before they returned it for a refund. (It’s amusing to juxtapose that complaint with his current complaints about Kindle Unlimited only paying a fraction of the book’s price even if the reader completed it. Be that as it may, Derek, at least with Kindle Unlimited you will get paid something for them reading it, whereas if they “return” the e-book they purchased you’ll get nothing. Which would you rather have, something or nothing?)

I have a hard time imagining that this sort of disillusionment with self-publishing is anywhere near universal, either among readers or authors. So, let the chips fall where they may. In a few more years, I expect we’ll know who was right.


  1. Given Sony, Oyster et al sold very few self-published titles anyway, what possible relevance are they to this argument?

    And why has it taken until now to work out the payment model for KU2 is not to his liking?

    It was spelled out pretty clearly from day one, now several months ago, and authors were given the choice to opt out. Clearly this author chose to stay in.

    As for his assessment of the global ebook market based on an English-language string search… Too funny.

    China aside the global markets may not be as big as the US individually, but collectively they already pack a punch, and in a few years will dwarf the US market.

  2. I posted it over on TPV but if you compare ‘self-publishing’ to ‘amazon kdp’ search terms you see that over time people have become more knowledgeable and searching for specific terms instead of generic ones.

    I’m sure the same would be true for Smashwords and D2D if I knew a specific keyword for their publishing like ‘amazon kdp’ is.

  3. The most telling part of this is that if he genuinely believed in the train wreck, he’d be crowing, ecstatic with schadenfreude. He obviously doesn’t believes his own argument, though I’m sure he wishes it were true and probably hopes his post will somehow bring it about…in some fantasyland.

    See: Who Moved My Cheese.

    Good luck with that.

  4. You can see one reason self-publishing is in trouble by comparing Harper’s first published novel (To Kill a Mockingbird) with her recently published second (Go Set a Watchman).

    To Kill a Mockingbird was the result of two years of editorial feedback that at times drove her crazy. On one occasion she called her editor and told him that she’d just throw her latest manuscript out the window. He told her to retrieve it and get back to work. The result was marvelous.

    Go Set a Watchman, while recently published, was written first and apparently didn’t get any editing before release. The result, I think, is a rather ho-hum book. Even trivial changes that a writer should correct, like calling one character by different names in adjacent paragraphs, haven’t been corrected.

    I’m not saying that editors in every case make a book better. Sometimes they will get it wrong and gut the best parts. What I am saying is that in the past publishers have provided gatekeepers and editors who, in general, made what was published better. Rarely did books people found at bookstore drop below a certain level.

    Self-publishing lacks those checks and, perhaps even worse, it turns many readers who have always been wanna-be writers into actual writers. But loving a particular form of literature doesn’t mean you can write it. The result is, I suspect, that the more popular forms of writing have also become the most glutted with books that aren’t that good.

    That means that even if you write good romance, thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy, or similar popular genres, you’re buried beneath a sea of junk. Amazon pretends to help with its KDP program, but that only makes matters worse. There’s no filtering that says a KDP book is a better book. It is merely one whose author has given Amazon an exclusive. And the very fact that Amazon ‘puffs’ KDP books means that other books, even better ones, don’t get as much attention.

    My own recent response is to avoid ‘me too’ books. Search Amazon keywords of “hospital embarrassment” and the first hit is my book. Search it for “hospital mentor” and again the first hit is mine. That’s because I’ve chosen to break new ground, taking up topics no one or almost no one is writing on. And I write and rewrite for months to make them as good as I possibly can. Last but not least, because my recent books have a common theme (hospital care), those who read one book are likely to read another.

    That’s one option for self-publishing authors. You might say that it is avoiding a train wreck by leaving the rails—meaning writing books like everyone else—and taking a path through the woods instead. If you do that, maybe the theme you’ve chosen will take off, or maybe it won’t. But at least you’re not lost in a crowd of similar books competing for a limited number of readers.

    –Mike Perry

    P.S. One additional remark. I wouldn’t equate any declining share of the ebook market that’s held by major publishers as signaling their demise. They’re making a sensible business decision to price ebooks high to keep their share of the market centered on print books. Stressing print books and pricing accordingly, they protect a host of bookstores and retain their freedom from Amazon.

    If the major publishers let the bestselling, major-publisher market go digital, within a few years they’ll be totally dependent on Amazon, which owns that market. Amazon will be able dictate prices, terms and conditions. For Amazon that means reducing those prices to the point where every benefit that a major publisher provides, from editorial to marketing, is squeezed out. Since those of the key benefits that large publishers bring to the market, their competitive edge will shrink.

    In short, never think someone is stupid (in this case publishing CEOs) simply because they don’t do what you or I want them to do. They didn’t become CEOs by being fools. They may understand factors that others don’t see.

    In this case, they understand that, under present conditions a growing ebook market for bestsellers will unavoidably be an Amazon dominated and controlled market. That they don’t want, and that they may just be able to prevent from developing. They believe it’s better to forgo a little profit now to retain long-term freedom than to sell out of a year or two of greater profit.

    Unfortunately, that’s not something many self-publishers understand when they sign up for Amazon exclusives. They’re the ones being foolish. They’re the ones not anticipating the future. They are the ones who may find themselves trapped.

    • “You can see one reason self-publishing is in trouble by comparing Harper’s first published novel (To Kill a Mockingbird) with her recently published second (Go Set a Watchman).”

      Your topic sentence seems to be a non-sequitur. Neither of the two books was self-published, unless HarperCollins has suddenly gone indie. Therefore, self-publishing has nothing to do with GSAW, unless you are attempting to argue that self-publishing has somehow prompted traditional publishing to lower its standards. If so, that’s their problem, not ours.

      What has happened is that the publishing industry of today (and, I would suggest, since the 19080s) is far more focused on short-term profit and is more inclined to take shortcuts. They know GSAW will sell on Harper Lee’s name alone; why put into it the kind of effort it deserves? Make a million and move on.

      This damns traditional publishing, not self-publishing.

      And by the way, why resurrect the tired cliche of the badly edited or badly written indie? Traditional publishers love it when they read all of us painted with such a broad brush, even if the colors are wrong. Society seldom if ever points at a beginning guitarist’s ineptitude and damns all indie rock bands. Why do it with indie authors?

      Never fear. The cream will rise. In fact, I’d say it’s already riz, and it tastes lovely.

  5. I published my first book back in 2004. Back then self-publishing meant the author truly had to do everything and figure it all out; cover and interior design, editing, distribution and printing. Now there are companies who will do it all for the author for a fee. We are one of them.

    Writers are artists who want to share their work. No different then musicians or painters. A very very small percentage of them will go on to commercial success, but they all have the right to TRY and succeed and to find their own level. In most cases this means finding out what their best work looks like and polishing and learning their craft. This is their right.

    We tell the writers who join our Emerging Authors Program that they will probably not succeed with their first book. Or possibly ever. But they MAY succeed. The goal is to turn the work into a work of art. Then that art is compared by the readers. They are the final arbiters. Not the literary critics who moan about self-publishing muddying the waters with crappy books.

    There ARE a lot of crappy books coming out via self-publishing (4500/day was one figure I heard recently) and hybrid publishing, ie fee-based models. And out of that some real talent will arise. That talent would have never made it through the traditional find-an-agent literary method. Readers will find them. Never doubt the collective brilliance of the readers.

    So for me the purpose of this type of publishing is threefold:

    1) To allow artist to become the best they can be by treating them like professionals and holding them to the highest standards of literature and publishing

    2) To create a playing field from which stars will be born

    3) To give readers more options

    As writers we must call them up to greatness. As publishers we must treat them with respect and give them a hand up. As readers we must simply consider them and reject or accept their work as we always do.


    John Koehler

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