240px-Paulbcarr[1] Paul Carr’s current “NSFW” column (which is entirely safe for work; NSFW is just the column name) focuses on the recent announcements by authors such as Seth Godin that they are leaving traditional publishing to go it alone. Carr, who is very happy with his publishers (though it’s possible one of his publishers might not be happy with him), devotes a quite lengthy article to rebutting point by point the arguments in favor of ditching publishers.

The article is quite long even to summarize, but a few of the points Carr covers include the issues of quality and editing, the added credibility that comes with having had books issued by professional publishers, support for things like marketing and copyright enforcement, and the differences in relative market size.

Carr suggests that leaving publishers in favor of self-publishing makes sense for only two sorts of people: those who are already skilled marketers, like Godin, and those who fear they’re about to be dumped by their publishers anyway and want to save face by claiming to be “innovating”.

I suspect that, as with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In any event, the next few years should reveal just how much sense self-publishing makes for most people.



  1. This guy, Paul Carr, strikes me as something of an egomaniac. He refers to a time long ago when he tried self publishing a PRINT book and selling it door to door. Then he claims that this gives him insight over both sides of the debate regarding the self-publishing of ebooks. What a joke!

    Right now we see a bunch of print book publishers attempting to leverage their traditional power base in order to gain control of ebooks. It won’t work. Their focus is entirely on maintaining their existing empire rather than seeking out innovative digital solutions that benefit authors and readers both.

    Maybe we’ll see the growth of publishers dedicated strictly to ebooks. Maybe author co-operatives will arise that provide a form of group editing and publishing. Maybe author-reader interaction will provide a form of co-operative publishing.

    But the one thing that ebooks absolutely do not need are a bunch of print publishing executives in New York skyscrapers attempting to lord over a digital world that they completely fail to understand.

  2. Paul Carr (from his article) seems convinced that the ebook/pbook market ratio will remain small for the rest of “our lifetime.” It is interesting that what he calls a “real book” leads to its Amazon page where you see it’s not available for the Kindle (“Tell the Publisher! I’d like to read this book on Kindle.”)

    So there is a (perhaps intentional?) confusion between pbook vs. ebook and publisher vs. self-publisher. If ebooks dominate, then one should expect to see the birth of epublishers (publishers who are dedicated to publish ebooks).

  3. I can easily see a future where the pyramid of power will be reversed. Instead of the publishers taking solicitations from writers , it will be the writers taking solicitations from publishers. The services publishers offer are useful and needed, but I don’t think they will maintain the position they now enjoy at moment. An author will just hire out the needed services when the book is ready for them.

  4. I think your comments are a bit unfair and inaccurate Philo. I just read this article by Carr and he does not make this statement about eBooks market ratio that I can see (please correct me if I am wrong). What he says is:
    “And yet even if we assume that all book sales will eventually be electronic (they won’t – at least not in our lifetime), the numbers still aren’t all that attractive for the self-publishers.”
    Personally I have no issue with this statement which seems a fair assessment.
    His reference to a ‘real’ book only reflects the period we live in where the names for eBooks and paper books (pBooks ? hard copy books ? hard cover books ?) is still fluid.

    Over all, judging from his other writings, this guy does seem like a bit flaky, however I find his article to the be the height of common sense and pragmatism. He is simply saying that except for two specific kinds of writer, writers in general need the services that are currently offered by publishers … editing and marketing. Is this not absolutely correct ? The only question is what kind of publisher ? an old school publisher or a new ePublisher.

    I and others have opined on this site that self publishing sounds dandy but apart from the need for writers to have the two services I mention above, the public need some kind of filtering process to enable them to chose what to invest their precious time reading. if there is a flood of self publishing in the coming years without some kind of check and filter on the quality, then it is quite possible that the publish will switch off and self publishing could be spoilt for generations.

    On the topic of old school or ePublishers I do wonder how long it will be before an entrepreneur with some vision will establish a small ePublishing house with a small team of editors and a dedicated indie-style web site selling their eBooks with a comprehensive interactive suite of features.

    The link to the original article btw:

  5. Editors would not disappear even if traditional publishers did. It’s more likely that a larger market of independent editors would crop up and their services would be cheaper than they are now. The best editors would be able to charge the most, of course, but better edited books will probably get read more.

  6. What troubles me a bit is that what people call “traditional” publishers are primarily printed-book publishers, not ebook publishers, and may not provide as good editorial support for their ePub product, for example. (I can see this in some Barnes&Noble classics involving poetry, where an editor could have used some basic XHTML+CSS knowledge to make the ebook version appear much better.) “Traditional” editors will have to take as much care in making books look good on e-readers as they do on paper now.

  7. Ugh, Paul Carr. Sorry. What I meant to say was there are a lot of obvious holes in Carr’s rambling arguments. There are already editing and polishing services available for authors who don’t sign with a big publisher. Much of what big publishers do is being carved apart and offered separately since there are no economies of scale or need for huge capital expenditures. And big publishers themselves are cutting back on editing, marketing and, yes, upfront advances.

    Recent posts by Rex Hammock and Mike Shatzkin seemed much better reasoned and more informative on the merits of self-publishing versus going the traditional route.

    See http://www.idealog.com/blog/the-other-comparison-ebook-royalties-versus-ebook-self-publishing and http://www.rexblog.com/2010/08/30/21276

  8. The only service that a self-pub can’t buy that the major publishers offer is respectability and a platform. The author must earn those on his own through many hours of work, if at all.

    I admit I’m confused as to why Binko and Philo seems to think there are no epublishers. There are hundreds with maybe a dozen or so very successful in genre fiction. Many have been around for a dozen years. Some offer POD, or short print runs. Others do not.

    Howard, some epublishers have tried your idea of a dedicated website, etc., but they have failed miserably because readers prefer the one-stop shopping of a distributor like Amazon or Fictionwise. The only publishers who have succeeded have offered one type of book like erotica, and even they now are more successful at distributor sites than on their own site.

  9. Marilynn – I am not a published writer so this is an area I am hazy about … but I am doubtful that an average new writer (or struggling writer), who spends months or years writing their book, could possibly afford a top class editing job. Am I wrong ? I imagine there would be dozens of hours of concentrated work required, and several iterations of the book along the way, by a well paid pro.

    On the subject of dedicated sites in competition with Amazon. Forgive me but I am not familiar with the fact that there are hundreds of operating ePublishing businesses out there. That is great news.
    But it is crazy to say ‘it has been tried’. There is a vast market to be competed for. eReaders are really taking off and this Xmas the sales will probably explode. All that is lacking right now is ambition. We are only at the birth of this new ePublishing world ! to suggest that they have already failed is … well … bizarre !
    I believe that the opportunity for an entrepreneurial ePublisher to stake a claim to this market will never be as good as it is now. An opportunity to develop a really new kind of web site, gather a stable of new and developing writers. Amazing.

  10. Howard, anyone who has taken that long to write a book should spend the money a good editor will cost if they self-publish. To do otherwise is a fast way to make a fool of yourself as well as tossing away any hope of building your career starting with that first book.

    As a writing teacher and pro writer, I have always felt that self-publishing is a very poor choice for a novelist to make. The big publishers are hard to sell to, not only because of the amount of competition but also because of tiny niches publishers want, but small press and epublishers aren’t so obsessed with niches so they are a good second choice.

    If an author can’t sell to them, it’s a quality issue. In other words, the book isn’t of professional quality, and the author would be better served to put the book in a drawer, take some writing courses, and write another book to try again.

    Actually, I’ve been around this industry for over a dozen years, and I’ve seen failure after failure of publishers using only their site to sell books. In my own case and many of my friends, for years, we have had absolutely no sales from our publishers’ sites but loads of sales from places like Fictionwise and the Kindle store.

    Even Ellora’s Cave, the queen of erotica publishers, who started out and became wildly successful with onsite sales, now has a vast majority of sales of friends books from elsewhere, not on the home site.

    I’m afraid, Howard, that you are trying to reinvent the square tire as many have before you, and it won’t roll this time, either.

  11. Marilynn, no offence but I’m afraid I have lost confidence in your comments now. The history of literature is littered with writers who have been refused dozens of times by big publishers. J.K. Rowling was refused by 9 major publishers before Bloomsbury ! Definitive proof that this is simply not an qualification for quality as you claim.

    I am shocked about your statement on the length of time to write a book. I have personally never ever heard of a writer not taking months or years to write a book. yet you say they are writing books in weeks ? I find this non-credible.

    On private editing, J.K. Rowling could never ever have afforded the cost of a private editor ! She wrote the book to try to pay off gas bills and was told that she would never make money writing for children ! and I could dig up a long list of other excellent writers who were the same when they started. You appear to have a rosy image of writers sitting around with several thousands of euros in their bank accounts.

    Your experience of a dozen years in the business is all well and good, but it’s utterly useless in this sector because the emergence of the eBook and eReading is only happening now. So your statements about previous failures and square wheels are tragically irrelevant.

    The future of the market, as evidenced by the hundreds of articles on this site alone, is moving steadily to the eBook (though never 100% so imho) and most people with vision would see it reaching 50% within 10 years. Those eBooks will be sold solely on web sites. It is the WEB that will drive the eBook market and the new world of interactive reading.

    There was a time when no one saw beyond Yahoo. There was a time when no one saw beyond IBM.

  12. Howard, as I said, the big publishers aren’t the only game in town. There are lots of small publishers and epublishers who are possible publishers of that book if the big publishers all reject it.

    I think it a reasonable assumption that if you send your manuscript to a dozen or more small publishers and epublishers who are much more open to new talent and every one of them rejects the book, your book isn’t ready for prime time, and you’d do well to put it aside and work harder at your craft rather than make a fool of yourself by self-publishing.

    These small publishers and epublishers also foot the bill for the editing, cover, etc., as well as giving the book a small platform and respectability that self-publishing never will.

    You are the one who said that a book can take years to write so I referred to that. I said nothing about weeks. My first book took a year to write, and the fastest novel I ever wrote took four months which is Stephen King fast. I know some writers who take years to write a book, and others who can write a genre novel in under a month if they write 10-12 hours a day.

    My comments about a paying an editor was for those who are self-publishing and are smart enough to know they need more than one set of eyes before the book goes into circulation although I know some writers who pay for a copy edit before they send their books out to publishers. They feel that paying an editor is a good investment in their career.

    In the here and now, none of my author friends make more than a pittance from their publisher website, but they sell lots of books through the ebook distributors like Fictionwise and Amazon Kindle.

    Unless readers suddenly change their habits, which they haven’t in over a dozen years, they will continue to buy their books through distributors. The pittance might be a bit more as more ebooks are sold, but it will still be a pittance in comparison to distributor sales.

  13. Marilynn I hope you take all of this as good humoured debate. I have a lot to learn as well as things to say 🙂

    As a matter of interest my first comment on the time for writing a book (above) was:

    Marilynn – I am not a published writer so this is an area I am hazy about … but I am doubtful that an average new writer (or struggling writer), who spends months or years writing their book, could possibly afford a top class editing job.

    So methinks you misread it from the beginning.

    The rest of your reply would appear to me to support my points about the ability to afford editing services and my other points exemplified by JK Rowling.

    We will see how things turn out over the next few years anyway 🙂

  14. Howard, the world of publishing makes no sense whatsoever to those not in it, and any attempt to apply real world logic, as a non-writer sees it, is doomed to failure.

    As someone who has been interested in publishing and its weirdness for almost thirty years, I can assure you that small fortunes are spent by people who dream of becoming writers when they could be spending money on something like lottery tickets where they have a better chance of making a fortune.

    Writers are dreamers and dream big dreams.

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