The book was great and the typos weren't very bad

Last night I received an email from Rob Heinze, who has self-published 14 novels. His latest The Swarm is now riding high on the Nook and Kindle charts. "Reviewers are calling me the next Stephen King," he tells the email list. This is one of many such emails I receive from authors telling me of their indie success - almost daily.

This morning I read too that self-published crime writer Kerry Wilkinson was the biggest selling Kindle book on in the final quarter of 2011. According to his Amazon page, the Daily Express has described him as "The Hottest New Author In Britain". Not bad for an author who has yet to find a publisher.

These are just the latest examples: before Heinze and Wilkinson, there was Hocking and Konrath, Locke and Leather, Eisler and Edwards.

This list represents a growing worry for traditional publishers, but it is also one often overstated. According to an analysis by Publishers Marketplace of the NYT bestseller lists last year, just 11 self-published authors made the charts, and since they were selling at a fraction of the price of other books they were earning a fraction of the income. However, as Joe Konrath points out here, or Lexi Revellion here, they do not need to earn grand sums of cash in order to maintain a living at this (and damage the reputation of those publishers who should be publishing them).

For years the publishing industry has ignored self-publishing and dismissed those companies helping authors reach the market as vanity operations. The authors themselves have been pilloried and left to languish on the slush-pile. It's little wonder so many of them seem pissed off with publishers.
But the world has moved on, Amazon has created a huge freemarket for "published" content where there is little or no differentiator based on quality, or other suitable algorithm. I'm not always sure the big publishers have moved with it. The reaction of some publishers is still to be airily dismissive of self-published writers, as was evident in the recent Guardian piece "Ebooks are being driven by downmarket genre fiction", or Profile founder Andrew Franklin's view, expressed at the London Book Fair last year, that at dinner parties you turn away from self-published writers.

A second reaction is also now evident, the attempt to brush off these sales as insignificant. They are not. A reader who buys the latest Konrath for a buck is a reader who won't have the reading time to buy the latest Grisham for two bucks. At its recent IfBookThen presentation analyst A T Kearney attempted to quantify these lost sales, estimating that with a market value of $20m to $30m in the US, self-publishing was reducing publisher turnover there by $70m to $120m.

What strikes me most about indie writers, however, is not what they write, but how they publish it. Konrath may be a 'downmarket' writer for some, but he is a first-rate publisher for many, as was Hocking: they wrote regularly, priced to the market, and promoted like hell. Heinze and Wilkinson may be looking for publishing deals: they just can't be bothered waiting for traditional publishers to "discover them".

Tradtional publishers need to learn from these successes, if they are to throw off the irritating "legacy" tag some self-published writers hang around their necks.

Some already have. The price-led initiatives from publishers such as Constable & Robinson, Corvus, and The Friday Project shows that they need not be crowded out in the race for Kindle sales by indie authors on a mission.

A model based on the Macmillan New Writing imprint (now sadly closed for submissions just at a time when it should be devouring new 'indie' talent) but digital only, also now makes sense, particularly if publishers are prepared to split royalties in return for no advances. Sure the costs involved in dealing with the submissions might be onerous, but an EasyJet approach to the publishing deal has to be a better approach than Amazon's "see no evil, hear no evil" attitude.

Building author communities around your publishing business as Penguin and HarperCollins are trying to do with BookCountry and Authonomy respectively also looks increasingly important.

Some self-published authors come across like revellers locked-out of a club on News Year's Eve: why not let them in and have them play their part in making the club bigger and better. As Molly Barton, global digital director at Penguin USA who co-founded Book Country, said at IfBookthen, "if you choose to operate outside of that [traditional publishing] world, then we can give you the tools and skills to help you, and do more for you than technology companies, because we understand this".

Of course talent will still slip through the net and some self-published writers will never be wooed back into the fold, but at least by opening the gates a little publishers will come across as a more welcoming option for all writers in search of readers. Similarly, in engaging with many writers, not just the few lucky enough to get published in the traditional way, the books that ultimately reach readers will generally be improved. The clear and present danger with the Kindle's penny-dreadfuls is that overtime they put off readers, not because the books are 'downmarket', but because they are badly edited and poorly presented.

As one reader comment on Heinze's blog makes clear: "the book was great and the typos weren't very bad". That's something no-one wants to read.



I find it interesting that

I find it interesting that you talk about your manuscripts being rejected and say that you shouldn't need to change your story because readers are smart and would want quality writing that makes them think.  Then at the same time say you self-published work that had typos but you knew readers wouldn't mind because at 99c they won't care if it's quality writing.

You cant have it both ways - either readers want quality work, or they don't care if it's quality work as long as it's cheap.  I think you're trying to justify your writing pitfalls and successes but missing the points that have been made along the way.  Quality writing sells, but even in the one review you use as an example of your work being as good as you always thought it was, you say she didn't really "get" the book.  Which is exactly what the publishers/editors/agents had been saying to you all along, that if you didn't make changes that it would leave the story unclear.

I congratulate you on your sucess as a self published author, but from what you've said just I think you're holding your work as precious and haven't really been interested in taking advice (professional or otherwise) or making changes along the way.  I'm a fellow creative, I know how hard it can be to listen to advice and accept change, trying to justify your resolve by saying that it will "ruin the work" and "change the meaning".  But that doesn't mean change is bad, especially if it makes your work accessible and clear for a wider audience, because that is always a good thing.


Everyone makes good points.  I do find it odd that publishers put least experienced people to find talent, which was my point in my reply.  It is as if the higher ups believe their ungloved hands are to good to touch the slush pile.  And herein is the arrogance that is leading them to their decline.  And on the implication that someone indicated Amazon is the bad guy, I don't agree.  Amazon is simply providing readers a way to find more of what they like to read.  Realistically, most readers want a good story that they can get lost in, not a difficult read like Joyce or equivalent.  However, just following human nature, people who like reading zombie stories are unlikely to go look for

literary work, regardless of it is in a bookstore or on Amazon.  So

I don't think reader trends will change.

On a closure note, THE SWARM (which is a more "literary" genre book), is at No. 10 of the TOP 100 NOOK Books in only 1-week.  I was also solicited by two movie production companies to purchase an option to make the film.  Again, all this in one week and the book was passed on so far by 5 senior editors at the big publishers.  Can you smell it?  It's the ripe smell of the Big Six sweating!

The farmer and the cowman should be friends?

Lexi Revellian's picture

I was an Authonomy member from its inception, and watched its painful decline from the inside. Maybe Scott Pack can pull it back, but the most talented writers have left to publish with Amazon's KDP. Penguin's 'help' for self-publishers strikes me as a total rip off. I was enthusiastic about Macmillan New Writing, until, like Harper Collins and Penguin, they rejected Remix.

Remix's sales so far are over 33,000 - and if I can sell that many on my own, doing my own formatting, cover and marketing while working full time at another job, and without the ability to sell through bookshops, how many might Macmillan, Harper Collins or Penguin have sold?

So it seems to me doubtful that traditional publishing is ever going to come to any sort of an accord with indie writers. They just don't have the mindset to make it an option, though no doubt they will continue to sign the odd writer whose success is so overwhelming they can't avoid noticing it.

Commercial enough

Tom Gold's picture

My dialogue with publishers is currently limited to one line emails and letters telling me my writing is not commercial enough. It’s OK though, I get it. In fact I can only imagine the difficulty Publishers face right now in striking the right balance between being commercial and being literary. I guess its why many of them are now getting up to their elbows in ebooks.

But they are still up against the world's biggest online retailer and if Amazon are trying to strike a balance it has nothing to do with which genres and 'unique voices' fit best with their reputation.

What's more Amazon's business model not only dispenses with the aesthetic and moral baggage that their competitors are carrying it also makes self pubbed Zombie stories profitable. In short they are all about the money which ironically makes them the publisher of choice for work that is deemed 'non commercial'.

I'd love to see the traditional Publishers take the fight to Amazon but right now its like watching sir Alan Sugar vs. The National Portrait Gallery.

Oh and....

By the way, it strikes me as odd that publishers put the least experienced people to the task of sorting through the slush pile. It's akin to letting them decide what the company will publish.

Does no one else find this practice bizarre?

If you truly want to find new quality to publish, then you have to run manuscripts past experienced eyes who can adequately evaluate the quality of each.

Ok, enough soapboxing from me. I have a launch today - our first five digital titles!

A time for Indies

Another resounding yes from us, Philip.

We at Really Blue Books have begun exactly with that idea in mind – to be open to fresh new indie talent that traditional, long-standing publishers will no longer take a risk on, sticking with their avenues of least risk. We have to remember that they have limited budgets too, and as a business is always looking for the bottom line/minimal risk which means the money that they DO have to spend is going to go on relatively known successes.

This does unfortunately limit the market and choice for readers.

We hope that digital independents like us will ride the wave of change and bring new content to their devices, so that creativity and literature will continue to flourish.

We're providing the change - without the typos.


Good comment

Philip Jones's picture

Thanks for the feedback. I think it is the just “not for them” line that needs to be changed. If it's not for them, then they need to create an imprint where it is "for them" since otherwise they are missing out on sales they need not miss out from.

Hi, Philip I agree.  And they

Hi, Philip

I agree.  And they need to reinvigorate the slush pile; I think a good editor with an eye for talent should be able to spot "bad writing" immediately (but that's not always the case, right?) and comb through the slush pile.  It may be an unenviable job, but publishers should provide more to its talent who might comb these piles.  Really, what's getting past editors is stuff hyped-up by agents, who also are pushing too high advances on unproven writers, which is in turn making publishers more risk averse.  My thoughts, anyway.  I hope something changes, even more as an avid reader, particularly in the genre that I prefer to read.  We need more good authors on the bookshelves!

Thanks for the chance to reply and throwing the information up.  I am interested to see how the publishing industry will change, and look forward to more from your blog.

Rob H

From Rob Heinze, "Typo Guy"

Hello, Philip

This is Rob Heinze, author of THE SWARM, and I read your post with interest.  I would like to add some background to it, if I may, which provides a view-point of a chagrined author.  Right now, THE SWARM is at No. 1 on NOOK Horror and No. 3 (just below Stephen King's new one) on Fantasy/scifi/horror.

Pretty cool.  I was also solicited by Amanda Hocking's editor at St. Martin's, who is evaluating THE SWARM for print.  And I also got two solicitations from Hollywood production companies, requesting the manuscript to review for potential film rights.  Not bad for a guy in front of whom the carrot had been dangled for so long by publishers that he (me, in other words) had given up.  So, if I may provide some background to your readers on myself, and my experience with “chasing the dream” of writing.  Like a tornado, reality has a way of scattering dreams, doesn’t it?

I am 30.  By the time I was 26, I had 3 literary agents.  The first one sent a novel of mine called THOSE OF THE LIGHT & DARK to 7 editors.  Each one rejected it, some noting it was too "literary" for genre (ACE/ROC) and another noting it felt "too familiar" (MORROW).  There was an editor at GRAND CENTRAL that wrote a full page rejection, expounding on what she loved about the book.  She just didn’t like the ending.  She said in the letter that, if I made changes to the ending, she would consider it again.  No suggestions, no recommendations, nothing indicative of what said editor would have liked to see...and my agent was unable to help either.  So I made the changes as best as I could.  And she passed on it too.  By the time I had my first agent, I had a back-log of 10 novels, most of which had never been submitted because I didn't think they were "good enough" or because the standard “form” rejections I got back from snail mail queries convinced me I sucked.  After THOSE OF THE LIGHT & DARK was passed on, I gave my agent 1 or 2 older books, and couldn't help but feel I was overwhelming or annoying him, because he kept telling me to “pick the one that’s the best”.  Isn’t it the agent or editors job to find the one with the most promise?  After all, a writer who is in-love with him or herself and that which they create is in no position to “pick their best one”.  Grudgingly, he read the books and said he couldn't work with them.  He didn't ask to read any of my other stuff, nor did he provide guidance on what might make the books better.

I started querying agents again.  I got another offer for representation from a "new" agency, started by a big shot of the agenting field back in 2007.  It was for a novel LAKE IN THE BAD NEIGHBORHOOD, which I wrote as an adult novel reflecting on adolescence (kind of like STAND BY ME) and which my first agent thought wasn't good.  The new agency was excited and couldn't wait to work with me; man, I was so happy!  They took me on as a client within two weeks (though when I asked them to amend their contract which said they were entitled to a commission for the life of the copyright, or any renewals thereafter, even in the event that we no longer worked together, they refused…that should have been a warning).  They would just read through and provide some comments and changes, before submitting to editors.  Then the waiting started.  4 weeks turned to 8 weeks.  Then 8 weeks turned to 3 months.  A junior agent kept assuring me that they were working on it.  Finally, SIX MONTHS later, I got an email from the junior agent with the manuscript and changes.  The changes were so extensive that, if made, the book would no longer have been my story.  They saw the book as a young adult book, not as an adult one I had written.  FML, I was not happy.  Had they mentioned this in the beginning, I probably wouldn’t have signed with them.  Here is a case of non-artists forcing their influence upon an organic creation not their own, trying to missile-guide it into an editor's heart and thus onto the bookshelves. 

I subsequently said forget it, and started querying editors directly on my own.  Most jumped at a chance to read my stuff, but the same rejections came back.  "You're a good writer, but I can't publish this genre piece" or "It doesn't fit with our genre line".  (As an off the point topic, I think publishers are insulting their readers in assuming that something is too "smart" for them in the genre places.)  I had one editor (who is actually now as I write considering THE SWARM) who seemed to take an affinity to my writing and read a staggering 3-4 books in a couple weeks.  He wanted me to change stuff, particularly on THE LAKE IN THE BAD NEIGHBORHOOD.  I couldn't do it, not because I didn't think he was smart or what he was saying was valid, but because it would devalue and destroy the book's purpose.  This book, by the way, started as a story about two boys that their yard transformed to a bottomless lake after a strange rainstorm, but it ended being a metaphorical exploration of how crossing into adulthood, which changes kids, can destroy friendships.  And as a self-published book, it is as good a book as any publisher-backed books on the market...of this I am sure.  The single review on Amazon, from one of the Top 500 reviewers whom I do not know, gave it a good review.  And while I think the purpose of the story went past her, as it will unless deeper thought is added, the book was still readable and enjoyable.  So I couldn’t make the changes and nothing happened. 

I got one final agent, who remains to me a representation of a true gentleman.  I won’t call him out, in case he doesn’t want to be associated with me, but he read 2-3 of my books within a month (this on top of all his clients) and agreed to represent me.  We met in Heartland Brewery and he was really a nice guy.  He paid for lunch.  Then he wanted me to, again, change the outcome of LAKE IN THE BAD NEIGHBORHOOD.  I argued that it would destroy the core of the story, and the elements that allowed for a more thoughtful exploration below the surface of the story.  I staunchly refused and asked him to send it to editors anyway.  It went to young adult editors, which I believe was a mistake; it was never a young adult book.  They all passed, expressing the same concerns: the purpose of the mysterious lake was never fully disclosed (geez, whatever happened to deeper thought?) and therefore it would confuse their readers.  After this, I decided I’d keep trying to submit on my own, so parted ways with this agent (though we’ve kept in touch).

My final effort to get published traditionally was with a short story collection.  I put a bunch of my stuff together.  I sent to editors and agents alike.  One agent, Richard Curtis, emailed back within three days and said he read the whole collection and thought they were incredibly, likening me to Alfred Hitchcock.  However, he felt the collection would be too difficult to place from an unknown writer.  And he was right: the 4 editors to whom I submitted expressed the same concern.  They were all good, but short story collections don’t sell.  As a reader, I understand that; I prefer novels too.

I then went into a creative failure.  After all, I had a new baby on the way, my wife wanted to stop working to raise the kids (and I wanted her to as well), and this dream of being a writer seemed not only improbable but stupid.  It was making me no money, pissing me off, stealing time I could spend with my family, and I was near getting fired.

So I started a business of my own, pushed writing out of my mind, and spent 5 years without writing a single word.  I read only 2 or 3 books in this time, when in the past I read 3-4 a week!  I was making a nice six-figure income, finally got the house I always wanted, and with a son in my life, I was happy.  Just in November of 2011, I downloaded the iBookstore app on my iPhone.  I then read Steve Job’s biography, and that was it.  I grew restless, anxious, certain that I was missing my calling in life, which was to write and to tell stories in which I could flex my imagination.  After that, I started browsing through the genre sections, noting authors I had never heard of and seeing Publishers called Lulu and Smashwords, which I had likewise never heard of.  I researched a bit into this, read about Amanda Hocking, and decided I really had nothing to lose. 

I started to put my stuff up, all 15 novels and 1 short story collection, and this gave me back my creative edge and I wrote THE SWARM (the first fiction writing in 5 years).  After all, I had some hope back.  I put THE SWARM up quickly, not really expecting anything to happen with it or my other manuscripts.  Well, it has been climbing the charts.  The first couple reviews were from the quickly placed manuscript, and there were some typos, yes, but for $0.99, I didn’t think readers would mind.  Most of them didn’t; the ones who did were other writers.

THE SWARM, incidentally, was passed by WILLIAM MORROW, THOMAS DUNNE, SIMON AND SCHUSTER and BANTAM, which prompted me to put it up.  All of them said it was good, just “not for them”.  My old agent friend, the true gentleman, read it and wanted to work with it, but wanted me to “tone down the horror” and make it more “supernatural”, which would make it appeal more to publishers.  I didn’t want to do that.  It is, after all, a book of horror, though I believe it is a more complex book than just the story it tells (see my blog where I talk about the ending).

Hmmm, so what is all this to prove?  It’s to prove that publishers are no longer putting any stock into finding and developing new talent.  Or if they are, this task is being delegated to people without an eye for talent.  If all these editors that read my stuff saw I had “talent”, why did not a single one of them say, “Hey, let me work with you.  Let’s really focus on this book and I will get you a deal.”  Isn’t that what happened to Stephen King with CARRIE when Bill Thompson got it at Doubleday?  Editors (and agents) evaluate books based on what fits market trends, personal feelings (I felt like I was being rejected by a potential mate with ever rejection I got from an agent or editor) and whether or not their sales teams can market it.  As a business owner, I understand that, but I think they’re missing out on a lot of talent.  I would argue with your statement that talent will always break through the net; I don’t think that is true.  There are a lot of talented people in tons of fields that never amount to anything.  A key ingredient is luck, and for us talented writers who haven’t been lucky enough to find their Bill Thompson or Maxwell Perkins, well, Amazon and the others is the way.

Would Stephen King have become, well, Stephen King if not for Bill Thompson?  How about John Grisham, who was also “discovered” by Bill Thompson?  Maybe, probably, but reality can get heavy and can kill creative acts…especially with mortgage payments and bills and lack of time.  Would Harry Potter have become the phenomenon it is without Christopher Little “seeing something” in the manuscript?  Who knows?

So for us authors, with some talent (and yes, I say that and stand by it; I have some talent), who haven’t found their Bill Thompsons in the business, long live Amazon Kindle and BN’s NOOK and Apple.

Peace, man

Rob Heinze

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