Self-Publishing in the Age of E

by Erin Brown

Last month, I was honored to be one of three panelists on the Publishers Weekly SXSW (South by Southwest) panel, “Self-Publishing in the Age of E.”  The other two invited panelists were Hugh Howey, self-publishing phenomenon and author of Wool—which was recently featured on the cover of The Wall Street Journal and earned Howey over $1 million before it was bought by Simon & Schuster—and New York agent Kirby Kim, of William Morris Endeavor. Obviously, I was the most famous and esteemed person on the panel, but I decided to humble myself and participate.

Publishers Weekly wanted to bring this topic to the hippies of my hometown of Austin and those who had traveled to SXSW from all over the country and world because self-publishing has changed drastically in the past five years. One of my first articles for Authorfour years ago was all about how self-publishing was a last resort option. There had always been a stigma with self-publishing. Well, times they are a’changin’. In 2012, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy sold like gangbusters, making the author millions, becoming the bestselling adult series of all time, and introducing everyone’s mothers and grandmothers to the world of S&M and erotica (yeah, thanks for that, E L James!). According to the publishing services company Bowker, the number of self-published books produced annually has nearly tripled since 2006, growing by 286%. So what does this mean for you?

Well, the first thing is that you, too, can make lots of money self-publishing. Now, are the odds stacked against you? Most definitely! Is it a one in a hundred thousand shot? Pretty much. I was asked on the panel what I tell my authors about self-publishing. Starting out as a freelancer, I would tell writers to self-publish only if they wanted a nice copy for their friends and family, or if they wanted a few copies to sell on their website or at conferences. Now, if someone has a commercial novel, and they can crank out new titles quickly, they might be a perfect fit for self-publishing, especially in ebook format. Self-published ebooks are certainly ideal for fans of genre fiction because successful self-publishing depends on higher volume output at lower prices. In other words, get out titles quickly for readers and keep the prices low. Genre readers tend to power through books quickly, so they’re buying a lot and buying them often. Genre readers historically also seek out low prices, which is a perfect fit for self-published ebook titles.

That said, if I read a manuscript by a client that I enjoy, I still usually recommend that an author try the traditional route first, only because I believe that traditional publishers have a lot to offer in terms of distribution, print run, publicity, marketing, etc., in general. It’s pretty tough to get a small, self-published title into Walmart, Target, Costco, etc. Traditional publishers also jack up the print run.

And many times, but not always (simmer down now), getting an agent or editorial interest is a great litmus test for the quality of your writing. Again, don’t stone me… this does not apply to every self-published author by any means, but often finding representation means “you’ve got something.” Also, if you receive consistent feedback from agents about issues that pop up in your writing, then you might want to revisit and revise your manuscript. I think the traditional submission process can be very beneficial for an author’s work, even if you eventually self-publish. Are there exceptions? Yes, and case in point: I asked Hugh, and he told me that he’d never submitted his work to traditional publishers. For Wool, he simply uploaded a short story and online fans went crazy. He lengthened it into a book and word of mouth between sci-fi genre fans turned him into a case study. He then sold his print rights to S&S, but kept the ebook rights. Why? Because that’s how he makes his money. By the way, this type of publishing deal is virtually unheard of, but perhaps contracts with traditional publishers will begin to change along with self-publishing popularity.

Overall, I think indie authors and traditional publishers need each other. Going back to Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James didn’t need a publisher, but once she was signed by Random House, her moderate success went global and the money really started rolling in. And traditional publishers keep an eye out for successful self-published titles and authors. Traditional publishers have even cultivated sites like, a place for indie authors to converge and share ideas. The big companies can then swoop in and find promising new authors on their own sites! Brilliant… and very sneaky!

There are pluses to both forms of publishing. It depends on your material, your motivation, and your sales goals. I always tell clients to be realistic. The chance of becoming the next Fifty Shades or Wool is a long shot. But then again, it’s always nice to dream big!

As the panel concluded, we were asked the biggest misconceptions about traditional and self-publishing. I feel that the biggest misconception about traditional publishing is that publishing companies are faceless, heartless conglomerates that will suck the creativity out of you. Every publishing house I was privileged to be a part of was staffed with people who simply loved books. Editors, the art department, the legal department, marketing, everyone’s assistant… they eat, sleep, and breathe books. Sure, we had to be aware of a bottom line, but we wanted to create books we were proud of, and we wanted authors to be happy as well. There’s a wonderful relationship between an author and their editor (and agent), and no one is out to screw over the author.

For self-publishing, the biggest misconception is that you don’t need an editor. Obviously, I’m biased, but I think it’s incredibly important to hire an editor for content and copy editing. In addition, many authors think that just because they’ve written something, people want to read it. Not true. A self-published novel usually has to have “something” to be successful: great writing, concept, or simply something new and juicy. Ideally, it will be a mix of all three. But please, let’s stop with introducing new sexual tomes to our parents and grandparents. There can be way too much of a good thing.  

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at

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