Sir Hugh and the Snail

21 February 2014 iStock_000018949465Small photog MassonStock 2

When Mollusks Attack

We don’t know why images of armed knights fighting snails are common in 13th and 14th century illuminated manuscripts. 

Through a tweet from one of my favorite authors, William Gibson, I found my way to a post by Sarah J. Biggs at the British Library. “One of our post-medieval colleagues noticed a painting of a knight engaging in combat with a snail.”

Knight v Snail V:  Revenge of the Snail (from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), with marginal scenes added in England (London), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 107r) | Medieval Manuscripts Blog, British Library, Sarah J. Biggs
Knight v Snail V: Revenge of the Snail (from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), with marginal scenes added in England (London), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 107r) | Medieval Manuscripts Blog, British Library, Sarah J. Biggs

Images of knights fighting snails are all over these priceless books, Biggs writes. “But the ubiquity of these depictions doesn’t make them any less strange.”

Her brief essay, Knight v Snail, fraught with gastropods and gallantry, refers to an article by Carl Purdym. He proposes that the imagery was a joke. “Medieval readers thought there was something funny…but none of them bothered to write down what that was.”

So we have the setup. But we’ve lost the punchline. And our poor, peculiar, and staggered business—the focus of this month’s Inside Publishing theme here at Writer Unboxed—has earned a chance to take comfort in the obscurity of such a medieval meme.

Our authors at last may be pulling up alongside those snails and gaining the right to a little modern mysteria of their own: making creative decisions without the bias or prejudice of the publishing realm.

And yet we’re still trying to work out the punchline, to decide what it all means.


Howey the Traditionalist

If you were standing right now in the London offices of Random House’s imprint called Century (this century), you probably would not call Hugh Howey a self-publisher.

Cover art: Jason Gurley @JGurley
Cover art: Jason Gurley @JGurley

You might call him Sir, but you might also call him a traditionalist. Yes, this is the same Hugh Howey, Defender of DIY, Patron of Entrepreneurials, and Mammoth Among Woolly Booksellers.

But he’s also into a deal with Random UK for the print and digital publication of his new novel, Sand. And that’s not a secret. I, for one, reported it on the fifth of the month, in The Bookseller.

So wait a minute, wait a minute. Hang on.

Howey now has released not one but two detailed ebook sales-and-rankings reports showing what he interprets to be the power of self-publishers in the market today, right? Barry Eisler calls each report a “bombshell” of the best kind. Joe Konrath is performing sprightly jigs at his blog site. And it all centers around Howey’s controversial new site.

AuthorEarnings asserts that success may be as feasible for the hardworking self-publishing writer as it is for the hardworking traditionally publishing writer.

So how do we reconcile the traditionalist Howey with the self-publishing firebrand who sallies forth under the fluttering colors of “organized advocacy” and “change within the publishing community” and “better pay and fairer terms in all contracts?”

Easily: It’s not self-publishing vs. traditional publishing.

It’s something else.

Author EarningsIf you haven’t seen the AuthorEarnings site yet (only 10 days old), I hope you’ll break out some time this weekend to have a look. Consider adding your input to that of more-than 950 people who so far have contributed to its voluntary, self-selective survey. You can peruse what those respondents are saying; have a look at the site’s petition; download some of the raw data; poke around.

Howey has earned his man-of-the-moment status. With more than 2 million books sold, this man can speak to power. He’s safe. He’s one of a handful of articulate, committed leaders talking from the entrepreneurial-author corps today, and he’s parlaying his own success into dialog and perspective far beyond his own career.

I’ve been asked if he’s making any money from the AuthorEarnings site. The answer is no. In interview, he told me: “I’m spending my own money on hosting and web design. I won’t do any advertising, and I don’t hope to gain a thing from this for myself. The writing community and profession have already given me more than I deserve or know what to do with.”

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Certainly, some sparks have flown. You bet.

With the help of an unnamed technologist who’s good at scraping data from online book-sales sites (Amazon so far, Barnes & Noble next), Howey is fencing with some in the establishment who may not appreciate seeing self-publishing as what Dublin’s Eoin Purcell calls in his Bookseller #PorterMeets interview (on the stands today in London) “a clear, viable, and sustainable alternative” for authors.

And Purcell goes on today to write in a sterling new essay of his own:

The self publishing war wasn’t and isn’t real. Just like Amazon, in many ways the growth of self publishing is an inevitable outcome of the forces that are powering digital change.

And here’s another voice speaking reason, Smashwords’ Mark Coker in his Publishers Weekly piece, Hugh Howey and the Indie Author Revolt:

I think the business of Big Publishing is broken, but the people of Big Publishing are not. Although it would be beneficial to my business for big publishers to collapse, it’s not the outcome I desire. I think the world is better served with more publishing options.

Meanwhile, Howey is taking it from both sides. “Why would Hugh sign over his digital and print rights to Random?” one self-publishing author asked me in a tweet of pique as soon as the Sand deal was announced.

“I love the team there” at Random House UK, Howey answered when I asked him.

And how does he know he loves that team? Because his WoolShiftDust trilogy—both print and digital—was handled by the same group at Random’s Century for his UK release. He learned then just how good that particular publishing-house crew can be to work with. So good that he was ready to sign up again for his next book, while the “Silo Saga,” as it’s known, is being touted in Random’s London ads in the Underground as “the next Hunger Games.”

In talking to me about it, Howey called out members of the RH-UK team by name: “I love Jack Fogg and Jennifer Doyle and Natalie Higgins and Jason Smith,” he told me. Those are, respectively, his Random House UK editorial director, senior marketing manager, publicity director, and senior designer.

When was the last time you heard an author get into the press to praise a publishing house staff that way? It can happen.

Our Snail-Moderne

Howey has said before that he likes working with publishers if they treat him as a partner. These Random House contracts are proof. And this gives us the singular effect of seeing a thoroughgoing “hybrid” at work: this hero of the self-publishing world is, when it makes sense to him, shaking hands with the publishing barons.

Our goal should not be to point fingers or humiliate, but to lower barriers, to work for contracts that treat people like people, and to allow the great folks in publishing to do what’s right instead of what’s handed down from on high. — Hugh Howey

And as we watch the pause his AuthorEarnings initiative has created in the industry’s ever-obsessive dialog about itself, don’t fail to keep an eye on what this guy is doing in his own career. Because it may not be what you, or they, or I expect him to do. And this may be his best lesson of all.

In fact, why does Howey have 30 foreign publishers for Wool? “Overseas publishers are so nimble and creative,” he tells me. “They get putting the reader first.”

So he works with them. But he’s not afraid to self-publish when that makes more sense.

This makes us queasy because we really like everything and everybody to be predictable, don’t we? Well, of course we do. That’s why it might disappoint some folks to know that Howey not only hasn’t rejected traditional publishers but he’s signing contracts with them when he likes their terms.

  • His celebrated print-only deal with Simon & Schuster in the States was for the first book of the Wool trilogy. And in London with Random House? All three books, print and digital.
  • And now Sand. In the US, it’s Howey using Amazon KDP and CreateSpace. In the UK, it’s Random House Century.

Case by case. What’s good for the project? What’s good for the readers? What’s good for any self-respecting knight in Authorian armor at the conference room round table?

Send in the snails.

Knight v Snail VI:  The Gastropod Conqueror (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 162v)  | Medieval Manuscripts Blog, British Library, Sarah J. Biggs
Knight v Snail VI: The Gastropod Conqueror (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 162v) | Medieval Manuscripts Blog, British Library, Sarah J. Biggs

What’s starting to form is the shell of a contemporary creature, a mystery to us still, something not well known or understood: the author who fits production to content.

Because every joke must find its own audience, every laugh line needs its own timing, every book deserves a fresh look.

Your work needs its own best chance. That best chance may be what traditional-industry pundits tell you is your best shot. (“Get thee to Random House!”) Or it may be something else. (“Self-publish thyself!”)

Again, this is not about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. It’s about finding the right mode, gear, speed, and process for each of your projects.

Howey has just written, in a new post, More Pie, Please! his basic agreement with what Purcell is seeing, with what I’m seeing, with what a lot of us are seeing: the fracas is a figment:

There’s no war here. There’s nothing to fight over…When we in the publishing business come at each other with trust, love, and respect, I believe we will find there’s plenty of pie to go around. Our goal should not be to point fingers or humiliate, but to lower barriers, to work for contracts that treat people like people, and to allow the great folks in publishing to do what’s right instead of what’s handed down from on high.

It’s about the author deciding what is right for him or her, and for the readers.

So traditional publishing, in the right situation, can be the right choice, yes. Robin LaFevers wrote well this month at WU to the reason that self-publishing simply isn’t for her. See Some Economic Straight Talk. She’s making an educated, careful assessment free of somebody else’s insistence that one way or the other way is the only way. Perfect.

Needless to say, you’ll continue to see some in the publishing establishment struggling with this change. They’ve had decades of clear, dependable ways and means laid out for them. It’s disconcerting to have those paths and procedures blur. It hasn’t been the norm for authors to call the shots. Be patient with them.

On the other hand, you’ll see some self-publishing enthusiasts looking perturbed, as well. They’ve grown too fond of the fray, these fight-club swells. Peaceful productivity might not be so dashing. And, hey, it’s a lot more work to sort out your own best course than it is to have it handed to you on an agency rejection note.

The most effective burghers all over the the industry! the industry! today?—are getting squishy like snails.

Flexibility is everyone’s friend now. Choice. Options. Agility. Nerve. Luck. Hard work. All those. But the greatest of these may be flexibility.

If Howey rides out onto the field of debate, his visor down to meet the Shatzkinians or the Caderians or the dreaded Corporati—or even to rally the Self-Publishing Faithful—it’s not because he’s anti-publishers. It’s because he’s siding with the new opportunity the creative workforce now owns.

Choose your own mode, take your own risk, he tells you, estimate your own chances, and flex your own potential.

Eoin Purcell
Eoin Purcell

Our good colleague Purcell at Dublin’s fine independent publisher New Island Books gave me my favorite quote so far on this whole affair:

It’s essential that selfpub realizes that tradpub doesn’t have to die for selfpub to succeed.

I am no scholar of 13th or 14th century illuminated manuscripts. But I’ve looked at quite a few takes on the knight and the snail this week. And you know what? I’ve yet to see a single instance of that standoff in which either the knight or the snail is vanquished.

Whatever the joke might be, the knight lives, the snail lives, everybody survives. No one has to go.

We’re all going to be okay.

And hey, you in that dented armor: what do you think? How (or Howey) can we, as an industry, get past this idea that we’re in a fight? How do we move beyond this War of the Poses and simply walk among our associates as colleagues looking for the best ways to reach readers with each book, case by case?  

Main image – iStockphoto: MassonStock 


About Porter Anderson

@Porter_Anderson, BA, MA, MFA, is a journalist, speaker, and consultant specializing in publishing. Anderson is The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook in London, a sister site focused on developments in digital publishing. He is also a featured writer with Thought Catalog in New York, writing on publishing and on #MusicForWriters in association with Q2 Music. In 2015, Anderson has programmed the IDPF Digital Book Conference that opened BookExpo America (BEA) and is programming the First Word event at the Novelists Inc. (NINC) conference later in the year. And he is working with the Frankfurt Book Fair on special programming for its new Business Club suite of events and facilities, now in its second year, 13-16 October, in the 2015 Buchmesse. More on his consultancy, which includes Library Journal's and BiblioBoard's SELF-e among its clients in 2015: | Google+


  1. says

    This all sounds so grown up! Not ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and’. Maybe the Knight and the snail scenario is a metaphor for the ultimate conundrum. Does one of have to die so the other can live? This is timely for me, as I am re-reading ‘The Once and Future King’ by T.H. White. The young King changing the paradigm, trying to show that there’s more than one way to win through. He had Merlyn, of course. Most of us are looking for wisdom and guidance where we can find it. I found some here this morning.

  2. says

    Hi, Susan, thanks for the great insight –

    Very apt, the Arthurian connection, indeed, that search for a format that doesn’t require oppression on one side for success on the other.

    And, boy, imagine what a publisher Merlyn would have made! :)

    You’re very kind, thanks for such warm words and may we all find the grace to “act grown up,” as we used to say in the South, even when things get a tad childish. :)


  3. Denise Willson says

    I loved this, Porter. Really.

    Ultimately, a writer needs to commit to the path that is best for their work, their career, and their audience. There is no right or wrong, no better or worse, no high or low. There is only choice.

    Wonderful. What a great time to be a writer!

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

  4. says

    Really well said, Denise –

    “To commit to the path that is best for (a writer’s) work, their career, and their audience.” This is it, exactly.

    And if we can help people move past this idea that there’s one big secret “best” way to do things — past the idea that there’s a war between self-publishing and traditional publishing — then authors can focus better on their real choices and choose without so much pressure from one camp or another.

    It never feels real safe to “get squishy” and try to be flexible, waiting for what you need to know to make a good decision. But the more we all can learn to do that and stop depending on the loud assertions that one way is better than another way, the more work we’ll see being produced in ways that make sense for readers and writers.

    Exactly. And yes, what a great — if sometimes scary — time to be a writer!


  5. says

    Hi Porter, What Howey is doing makes perfect sense. The
    whole point is to reach the maximum number of readers, right? If a
    trad pub can do that better than self-pubbing, then it’s time to
    work a deal. Which is exactly what he’s doing. I don’t see any
    conflict whatsoever. I think what a lot of writers don’t realize is
    how incredibly risky publishing is–no matter who does the job. For
    every hundred books published, maybe two or three or four will
    achieve “financial success.” (However that is determined) This,
    more than anything, probably accounts for a lot of wretched, nasty
    contract terms and disrespectful attitudes from trad pubs–from
    their point of view they’re risking bankruptcy with every copy out
    the door. If writers want the real skinny on Howey, they need to
    look not at what he’s doing, but at what he’s done. Through his
    efforts he’s built an immense fan base, developed the necessary
    writing chops and applied himself to learning how things work. That
    significantly reduces his risk factor. Publishers can AFFORD to
    negotiate with him. It takes time and a lot of experience to reach
    that point. It’s a mistake for any writer in the early stages of
    their careers to arrive untested and unproved at the transomed door
    with manuscript (and hat) in hand, hoping for a deal like Howey’s.
    It’s not going to happen. What is more likely to happen is the
    publisher will be in “mitigate risk at all costs and who cares if
    that makes us a$$holes!” mode. I’m as guilty as anybody for getting
    emotional about this subject (I am, after all, a sensitive artiste
    :)), but when my cooler head prevails I can see this is all about
    business. Risk versus reward.

    • says

      No quarrel with anything you’re saying here, Jaye.

      Indeed, Howey was some 8 books into his writing career before Wool took off. And he has worked incredibly hard to establish himself as he has, developing a fantastic network of readers and sharing his work and big moments with them. Textook case, and someone who never, ever seems to stop working — which echoes what I hear from so many of the high-visibility authors I know (they’re coming into the Author Hub at BEA, for example, which I’m programming): you work a lot for this kind of success, and then you keep working a lot. Nothing easy about it. It’s business, as you say, despite being part of the creative industries. And it takes genuine dedication.

      Thanks for your comment!

  6. says


    Ah, the pie charts! The bar graphs! Proof, eh? Positive, undeniable *proof*. Or…wait, those are statistics, and as any scientist will tell you statistics can be spun to support any story you prefer.

    But, really, why quibble? Neither digital or traditional models have got it 100% right. The industry’s evolving to a place that’s neither one, or as I said this month, to a place where indie and biggie publishing are going to look a lot alike. That’s my forecast.

    What’s nice is that when the huffing is over everyone agrees on a few things: 1) There are choices in how to publish, 2) Writing matters.

    I like that. The pendulum is returning to the middle where it belongs. Writers today have choices and the excellent writer Hugh Howley has chosen interestingly. But that’s him. Everyone should choose for themselves.

    • says

      Hey, Don –

      Right on all counts. In fact, even Howey is quite ready to concede that the route he and his data wrangler are having to take isn’t proof positive. Without the retailers’ data (and it’s not just Amazon but other major retailers holding that info proprietary), we simply dont have the actual numbers — hence all these efforts to try to get a handle on what’s going on.

      I agree with you that the really heartening element of this is the multiplicity of choices where once the paths were more limited. And as authors become more accustomed to testing and choosing various options, I think we’ll see some of the collectives and consortia I’ve been looking forward to — in my mind, chances for like-minded authors to band together and hire the publishing support services they need to produce and manage their work.

      And writing matters. We can’t say it too much. So much attention has had to go into the shape of the business, and for all the right reasons but…the writing matters.

      Hear, hear, and thanks!

  7. says

    “Again, this is not about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. It’s about finding the right mode, gear, speed, and process for each of your projects.” –

    so good to hear a sentiment that makes so much sense ;-) thank you porter

    and i’m hopeful another wrinkle for self-publishing is developing via the subscription models, like Scribd, Oyster, and a few others that seem determined to also give it a good try

    for me, as for the majority of creative worker bees, and snails ;-) visibility is the big thing, from there something works or not, for that time period or not – but getting seen, is big

    that seems to be what self-publishing changed and enableed for authors

    and based on my mailing list of readers, this latter model will be, i think, a further extension of self-publishing

    hopefully, as this model grows, and more information about how well it works for both readers and writers (or not) is available, this alternative will be included in discussions about now established outlets, B&N, Amazon, iTunes, etc.

    i myself like print books for some things (“Books to Die For” edited by John Connolly), audio for others (my own includ’d), and ebooks for the vast majority, so as always, i wish the best for all of us :-) thanks again so much porter

    • says

      Hello, Felipe,

      And thanks for this generous and thoughtful response!

      I think a lot of us have guarded hope for the subscription models which, of course, are mostly in their infancy as yet. One to keep an eye on is — do you know them? Based in Madrid but international. Justo Hidalgo and his associates there are incredibly clever in setting this one up (with two models for readers, one a “freemium” service and the other using credits as a paid service). They, Oyster and Scribd are thought by many to have a cousin of sorts in Amazon’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library program, as well, another one to keep an eye on.

      As you say, visibility is all (after writing — I hear Don about to remind us!). There is one sobering thought today, too, from our colleague Eoin Purcell in Dublin, whose new article mentions that there’s another side to the joy of things never going out of print…namely that you must compete with absolutely everything, as well. Because digital can keep books “alive” in perpetuity — which seems a great thing, of course — that does mean that contemporary writers’ work comes up against an ever expanding field of never-out-of-print content.

      So take your vitamins, the trip ahead will not be short. :)

      Thanks again, sir!

      • says

        “a lot of us have guarded hope for the subscription models which, of course, are mostly in their infancy as yet…” –

        so very true ;-)

        and i’ll have to check out, thanks for the tip!

        i’m not too much worried about the growing content to be seen against, or at least less so than not being seen(able) at all (ha!)

        i keep going back to my experience with Netflix (going on a decade now) – many times i felt i was “running out” of material to see & sample, several times i felt overwhelmed by the amt of choices, but always, so glad i could sample, could continue experimenting, finding and enjoying new actors, new directors, and sometimes re-discover decades of work of a newly favored actor, ala helen mirrern’s four plus decades of work

        very quickly, i’m finding the joy, and slight over-whelming, of so many good titles of fiction, non-fiction, pictorial books, and poetry – but the titles, as you say, living on forever – are there a week or month later, if i want to layoff & do stuff like see the grandkids, elderly mom, write, sleep, visit w/wife ;-)

        so yes, very much so – vitamins for the long haul; and being i’m an early senior, maybe extra fiber, veggies, and some consistent exercise!

        thanks so much for your posts porter, always worthwhile :-)

  8. says

    Porter, verily thou art a Solomon in these near-Biblical rainings (and sometimes reignings) of fire and brimstone between the trad-pub and other-pub parties.

    Even with all the willy-nilly changes—seems almost daily there is the announcement of some new kind of co-op publishing/agenting/digitalizing entity—the suggestion that there’s a potential Golden Mean for everybody is golden.

    Great stuff, Porter. I think you’re the most articulate proponent of “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along” around.

    • says


      As usual, you’re way too kind (but I’ll take it, lol) — and yes, that line we heard at DBW about how this is the slowest change will seem in our lifetimes appears to be all too true. The speed with which new capabilities are introduced and pushed into place will seem to keep accelerating. Eventually, each person decides where his or her stability stands. Like shutting out noises that are too disruptive, the mind moves to contain and compress certain disruptions eventually … the “elastic mind,” as Paola Antonelli at MoMA has called it, is not infinitely stretchy.

      As Don reminds us, writing matters. And maybe that’s the best truth to hang onto when these changes and developments seem to swirl by so fast. Eventually, the only criterion that counts may be quality, voice, coherence, genius.

      Don’t unbuckle your seatbelt. :)

  9. says

    In my opinion publishing should be about putting good books into the hands of readers. Instead traditional publishing became too much an exclusive club. I don’t understand why it isn’t easier for any writer to get their work looked at. Why not be able to send in an entire manuscript and get a yes or a no from a publisher? I can read a few pages of a book and form an opinion. Why can’t they? Instead many publishing companies insist writers jump through hoops that have nothing to do with whether or not they can tell a good story. Publishing seems to be more about politics than discovering good reads.

    I’m glad there are authors who have publishers who believe in them, but I also like that authors have the choice to publish independently.

    • says

      Hi again, Susan –

      These are certainly valid questions — you’re not alone in feeling this way about the publishing establishment.

      Economics have played an increasingly burdensome role here. As the number of incoming manuscripts rises (thanks to digital), it becomes harder and harder for publishing houses to be able to afford the amount of staffing required to screen everything.

      While I call it a form of abdication of responsibility, the use of literary agents as the first line of readers has, thus, become the norm because publishers couldn’t keep enough readers on staff to handle everything coming in. This increases the complexity of the process, of course.

      At the same time, some of our most gifted publishing people are found in the agency system and their ability to not only read but cultivate good work and new writers is huge.

      So yes, it’s complicated, at times capricious, and almost always maddeningly slow (speaking of snails) and confusing, but the system is one suffering a very long, slow death, with no quick way to adjust some of its procedures.

      Things will change but only over time. This is why other paths to publication are so important and welcome to many.


  10. says

    If you’ll forgive me conflating a book with a breast cancer, what’s the best way to go about configuring the treatment for the latter in a specific individual? The surgeons are bound to have one opinion, the radiation oncologists another, the patient’s faith-healing spouse a third. (As an example of conflicting approaches to one person’s lump.)

    As for the family physician, they know how to obtain the best health outcome for that patient in that scenario. It’s accompanied by higher scores in patient satisfaction, improved patient compliance, and for the physician, an enhanced sense of meaning and engagement. A three-way win. Essentially, doctors go on a quest for accurate information, establish the primacy of a respectful doctor-patient relationship, then in that context, guide the patient to make a decision which incorporates the patient’s values. Since one woman’s mastectomy is a choice for health, and for another it would be mutilation, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all decision in the world of health. Why would it be possible in publishing?

    From what I can see of how he manages his career, HH would make an excellent family physician.

    IMHO, there is no publishing war except to those who benefit by making the weapons–they win through an elevation in status, platform, and book sales–and for those who’ve been temporarily pulled into taking sides.

    • says

      “IMHO, there is no publishing war except to those who benefit by making the weapons–they win through an elevation in status, platform, and book sales–and for those who’ve been temporarily pulled into taking sides.” –

      so very true, it seems, in so many ways…

      • says

        Hey again, Felipe (and Jan) –

        I think that when it comes to someone “benefitting by making the weapons” of a supposed war in publishing, we may be taking the idea of such a conflict a bit too far.

        I think I know what you’re saying, though. There are some who might appear to benefit from such an apparent war as pundits who like to rile up their colleagues (we’ve had a bit of that) or — if the Department of Justice is to be believed — even some corporate leaders in publishing who felt they could justify certain pricing approaches on the basis at least one perceived war in publishing (construed as a retailer-vs.-publisher scenario).

        On the whole, I think we want to be somewhat patient with those who see a “war” where there isn’t one. Looking back at my experience of the digital disruption of network news, I can tell that it’s very hard when you’re in one of the key centers of an industry as digital begins working you over to understand what’s happening. It feels as if something is coming in to restrict and compress your own ability to thrive. In fact, what’s happening is that your ability to thrive is being handed to many, many others. (In our case, it was “citizen journalists,” in publishing case, self-publishers.) Digital takes an industry’s lock on something and hands it out to everybody. So a great rock band can suddenly record, upload, stream, and sell its own music, no record label needed. A kid with a Sony HandyCam can suddenly capture a news event and distribute it online all by himself. And a writer can suddenly produce book single-handedly, no publisher needed. What SEEMs like a war, an attack, even to very smart, well-meaning people in such industries, then, is actually something quite different — it’s a giving-away of the industry’s key capabilities, which may never have looked like weapons to anyone until they suddenly were in the “wrong” hands — the writers’ or musicians’ or citizen journalists’ hands.

        When the digital dynamic arrives, those previously in power tend to feel their under attack from one quarter or another. In fact, their pants have fallen off.


    • says

      I agree with you, Jan. What publishing war? It’s really just a handful of very loud people who think they’re being picked on, aka, have low self-esteem. Those writers who are beating the street in traditional, indie, or self-publishing don’t have time to quarrel. They’re busy selling damn good books.

      • says

        Hey, Heather, thanks for jumping in (and for the grand tweeterie, as always)!

        I was just commenting back to Felipe and Jan on the idea of a perceived “war,” and in that case I was thinking of the issue as being one of publishers (who can feel under attack in the onslaught of the digital dynamic as we felt under attack in network news and record labels felt under attack in music).

        The kind of “war victim” I think you’re describing, by contrast, is the writer (the noisy kind, yes, whose howls have tended to make many think we’re seeing a “war”). If anything, in these cases, is it possible that the digital disruption appears to them (the complainers) to be a chance for them to somehow avenge the wrongs they feel they’ve been done (presumably when rejected by agents or editors, etc.)? Not to say that they’re right, but isn’t it possible that the rise of digital capabilities might make someone who feels badly served by the establishment believe that a way to “get back” or “prove them wrong” has arrived?

        This comes to me because you talk of others being too busy to carry on this way (I agree) … and I wonder if the focus on complaining isn’t part and parcel of just that?


    • says

      Hey, Jan,

      And thanks for this. I think I’d say that in what seems to me to be a very apt analogy, the only question I might have is whether we aren’t — in publishing — saying, “Physician, heal thyself?”

      I think I see it as the author’s job to take on that family-physician role and try to coordinate and manage the many factors at play and potentially involved in the approach to his or her own work.

      This role could be taken on by a genuine agent-manager of the newer kind we envision in the industry these days, but before such a person may be on the scene, I think it’s up to the author to find the best input he or she can get and then counsel him- or herself on how to proceed.

      Howey is, yes, clearly very good at this. He’s also ably assisted by an agent who is specializing in highly successful entrepreneurial authors (among other fine writers), Kristin Nelson. She also represents Barbara Freethy, Jasinda Wilder, Courtney Milan, Jamie Ford, Josh Malerman, and others. So I think this is a case of both a fine guide (the agent/physician) but also a very wise and intuitive patient.

      In the long run, I think most writers need to anticipate prescribing and taking their own medicine, at least until they can create work that might bring in support personnel and advisors such as good agents.

      Make sense?

  11. says

    One thing no one can argue: this is the Golden Age for readers. And since we’re all readers here, I think we can all agree that we absolutely love having more fantasitc (and not so fantastic) stories available to us. Given that, it should also be a logical leap to conclude that all of this can only mean great things for authors. So why the feud? I think I speak for most newbies when I say that I desperately want industry professionals to give me guidance. I want an agent and a traditional publisher. They will make me a better writer. And I want the option of writing off-the-wall sub genres that won’t sell anywhere but my own website. Most of us don’t harbor illusions of striking it rich. We just want to write well and be read. I will take advantage of any path to that end. And I welcome any professional who is willing to invest their time and money in my future.

    • says

      Hey, Ron –

      Thanks very much for your insights.

      I actually don’t think anyone, even those who believe they’re fighting a publishing war, would suggest that readers haven’t benefitted. There are some interesting comments on this from Eoin Purcell in his fine piece today. A couple of grafs from that ( ) —

      “The only readers who face problems in the years ahead are those committed or locked into print for some reason who might face the risk of bookstores closing more rapidly than anticipated and loosing easy access. However, with Amazon and other marketplaces likely to take up the slack in such a case, it wouldn’t seem to me to be the largest of risks.

      “About the biggest problem readers will have is deciding what to read next, not because they won’t be able to find something they will like, but rather because they will have too many things they like to read at one time. Choice is proliferating. It’s a problem, but not the worst one in era of copious reviews and free sampling.”

      In terms of newbies, I’d probably want to disagree somewhat with your feeling that all of them “desperately want industry professionals to give (them) guidance.” I wish I felt that was the case. However, I think there’s something to the old saying that the problem for many amateurs is that they simply don’t know what they don’t know. And more and more, what I seem to see in newcomers to writing — which tempts them to publish too quickly because digital has made that possible — is a real lack of understanding of how much they may need to have the kind of guidance you’re talking about. I’m very glad to hear you talk of your interest in such guidance but I’m afraid I’m just not sure your fine concern there is shared by a lot of your relatively recently arriving peers.

      Needless to say, we’re immediately in the land of anecdote here and we could probably match each other, person for person — you offering one associate who longs for guidance as you do and me countering with one person who seems to think he or she knows it all and needs no “stinking gatekeepers” to tell him or her anything.

      This would hardly be productive! :)

      But maybe the best thing I can say is that I hope you’re right that your interest in professional guidance (and that does not all have to come from traditional publishing, by the way) is shared by a lot of our newcomers. I’m only too happy to be proved wrong in my fear that you’re perhaps a fine exception in this, not necessarily the rule.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting!

  12. Marcy McKay says

    The snail/knight metaphor was wonderful, Porter! So many try to make this an “us vs. them,” but one truly doesn’t have to fail for the other to succeed. Maybe the snail and knight should go grab and beer and try to play nicer with each other. There’s room for us all…

    • says

      Hey, Marcy!

      Thanks so much for your kind words. I was so struck by this marvelous conundrum of the snail and the knight — not being in the field (though I love illuminated manuscript), I’d never come across this mystery. What a charming puzzle!

      And per your good idea of having the knight and snail just get a beer, lol, I think that if I were a scholar in the field, I might be tempted to think that what’s being depicted in many of these images isn’t necessarily a fight between the snail and the knight at all. In some cases I’ve seen, the snail is given a rather human face and tends not to have a ferocious or angry countenance at all. And as Purdym notes in his piece, the knights usually have a look of surprise on their faces. I start to wonder if we’re seeing some long-lost story of a talking snail or of some other way in which the real issue was the knight coming across a creature whose magical capabilities were amazing but not, maybe, hostile?

      All guesswork, of course. But until our scholars can get closer to what they think really was going down in those scenes, I’m holding out hope that our knight and snail are enjoying a lovely Campari together at the pub nearby, I’m right with you on that!


  13. says

    I’m just thankful we’re living in the e-book age. I never thought I’d say that, but it’s true. Readers can find books that scratch their “niche itch” easier than ever. And authors can connect with their audiences faster, not to mention directly interact with them. I love being an indie, but I know it’s not the route for everyone. To do it right, it’s like a full-time job.

    I do get tired of traditional agents/editors saying “you MUST go through us to succeed!” But I’m pleased that many are seeing there are plenty of options on the table for authors. The ones who champion authors are the ones who will succeed in this brave new world.

    It’s not us vs them, for sure. But mutual respect is definitely something to strive for, and something that’s not always emanating from either side’s posts.

    • says

      Hi, Heather,

      And thanks so much for this input, much appreciated.

      I think the only think I might recommend — and this represents a personal concept of mine, so take it with a grain of salt — is that we all want to be very sure to listen well to those how are in whatever part of the industry seems the farthest from us.

      By that I mean when you explain that you’re independent (and congratulations!) and that you’re put off only by agents and publishers saying that writers must go through them. I do hear from a lot of agents and publishers, of course, as I cover the industry, and honestly I don’t hear many of them saying “authors must come through us to succeed.”

      Mind you, you are NOT alone. Many, many authors believe this is what they’re hearing. And, needless to say, I’m sure that someone HAS heard this, that some agents have said it, some publishers have said it, and so on. But I think that when we listen carefully, we hear such talk far less frequently than we imagine.

      If anything, I know agents and publishers who are looking for ways to become of greater service to authors because they realize that those authors very well may NOT need them to have at least some kinds of success. I see agents, for example, actually recommending self-publishing to their clients when that’s the best way to go and even trying to support their clients in doing this. I see publishers who are trying to help upgrade their authors’ social-media skills so that those authors can widen their followings and grow their readerships.

      Again, I’m in the land of anecdotes here and the upheaval facing such sectors as agenting and publishing is so profound that we won’t really know for a time what the most prevalent models will shake out to be. But I think that in time, we’ll come to realize that these professionals are working in their own ways to find center here along with authors.

      Everyone needs to learn to work together for the art as well as for business — and, as I like to suggest, our snail and knight may be telling us that we can all get through to the other side.

      Thanks again!

  14. says

    Thank you for this illuminating article, Porter.
    How do we get beyond the fight.
    Simply put–with respect.
    Self-publishing is not lesser or greater than traditional publishing–and visa versa.
    As you wrote: ‘[T]his is not about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing…It’s about the author deciding what is right for him or her, and for the readers.’
    I’ve been a self-published author and I’ve also gone the traditional published route. There are advantages and disadvantaged in both. From these experiences I’ve grown to understand what I need, as a writer. And what I need is to be traditionally published. That’s my decision. Other horses for other authors…

    • says

      Hey, Leanne —

      Couldn’t agree more, respect is it. And couldn’t be happier than to hear you say that you’ve researched what works and what doesn’t for you and come up with a route that looks right.

      I’m delighted. I’d have been just as happy if you’d decided self-publishing was your way forward, too. As it is, fantastic, I’m thoroughly glad to hear you say that traditional is what you need and want, that you know that and have had such good experience coming to that conclusion.

      This is great, and I wish you nothing but success and fun with it. Sounds to me as if you’re well on your way!


  15. says

    I find it interesting that Hugh finds foreign publishers to be more flexible to trying different avenues and formats for packaging and selling books. Isn’t America the land of the modern, the home of the brave? It appears not. I’d love to know more about this. What sort of formats and what sort of deals meet readers’ needs better?

    • says

      Hey again, Heather –

      I’ve found these comments from Howey interesting, too. I know that his two months’ tour of Europe — the purpose of the trip being to travel from country to country and meet his publishers there — was a terrific experience for him. I’m still looking for a chance, as a matter of fact, to put together a gallery of his amazing Wool covers from other countries — gorgeous.

      The kind of efforts those publishers are making to serve readers must be quite interesting. I’ll ask Hugh about this and see if he might be able to enlighten us on some of the good things he’s seeing when he describes his offshore publishers as being comparatively nimble and reader-oriented.

      Thanks again, great thoughts –

      • says

        Yes, I would love to know. Are they more flexible on how the novel is pitched and the types of covers they create? The percentages in royalties and other contract terms they’re willing to offer? Also, it makes me curious as to whether or not these foreign pubs treat all authors this way or if it is simply because Hugh Howey is someone the entire pub world is talking about. Thanks, Porter!

        • says

          Hey again, Heather –

          Indeed, these are good questions you have. One of the hardest things to get hold of, of course, is what preferential treatment one author may get over another. As you know, even an author himself or herself may not know, as it turns out, how his or her deal stacks up against others because contractual details are usually not something they or their agents can discuss. I think the non-disclosure clauses are likely to be among the most lasting because, in part, even many authors prefer not to have details of their agreements made public. But we shall see.


  16. says

    I was one of those tweeps who asked why Hugh was signing
    ebook and print rights to Random House. While some might have asked
    out of pique, I asked out of curiosity. Most of the time I see
    writers being treated badly – even when they’re supposed to have
    partnership deals with a more equitable spread of the finances and
    creative power. This obviously isn’t happening with Hugh, so I’m
    curious to know how RH is adapting to such a savvy author. It might
    pave the way for a more enlightened industry.

    • says

      Hey, Roz!

      Thanks for this good comment and, in fact, your curiosity and Heather’s questions in the above comment, I think are well placed.

      I’ll ask Howey if he might let us know some of what he’s seeing — as Heather asks, in terms of what some of the foreign publishers do well for readers and, to your point, what they might do for the author in question.

      As you know from having worked inside mainstream houses, I’m sure that most actual contractual arrangements are likely not to be things that we can know in much detail. But clearly there are cases in which authors don’t feel they’re being treated badly by their publishers and are enjoying what they (the authors) recognize as the kinds of partnerships they feel they need.

      Perhaps we can learn something of what goes into a good relationship of this kind, it would be terrific to know some of it.

      Thanks again, great to have you here — good luck with your speaking appearance on the Guardian’s masterclass program, too!

  17. says

    Does the industry feel like it’s in a fight?
    Are we allowing the grumblings of the rejected to create that perspective for the masses?

    These are Padawan questions.

    When my time comes I hope I don’t use the industry as an excuse for my lack of story or persistence.

  18. says

    You know you’re singing to the choir with me. :)

    What I like best is the idea of the judgmentalism ending. What I get from the data is that good books written by consistently good authors do well. Period. It doesn’t flippin’ matter if it’s trad published or indie published. I think I’m seriously tired of the shrill cries on both sides of the publishing fence crying “foul” or “better than.”

    • says

      Hey, Lara –

      Love this line from your comment: Seriously tired of the shrill cries on both sides of the publishing fence crying “foul” or “better than.”

      That’s it exactly. I think everyone in the industry! the industry! is now on to the crazy excesses of emotionally arguing one or the other way as the One Way and trying to slag the other as somehow incorrect or bad.

      One of the many lessons in how Howey and authors like him are handling their careers is in the flexibility that lets you go in whatever direction makes sense for your content, your readers, and for you. Those are the stakes, the stakeholders, and the routes to follow.

      And, with luck, the multi-level options this kind of thinking offers will eventually scramble things so completely that nobody has time for judgmental thinking anymore!


  19. says

    Hey, Brian,

    Thanks for the great comment. I love how you’re taking responsibility for your own place and performance in the business — a couple of others in these great comments on WU today have alluded to the same thing — we do, of course, tend to believe we’re in a fight when we’re hearing fightin’ words from those who blame rejection of their work, etc., on the industry.

    It really is the persistence each of us brings to the table that determines who and what we are in the mix, you’re right, and knowing what you want to be when you get there? — priceless. You’re sorting out on your own terms what you’re going to be asking of yourself and requiring of yourself. That sort of respectful selfhood is the richest gift you can offer the business. And every time someone achieves that level of grace? The entire enterprise rises a notch.

    So more power to you and thanks for thinking with such dignity about your own place in the business. We’re all better for it!


  20. says

    I’ve always thought Howey’s angle boiled down to leverage,
    be it in dealing with publishers or going it alone. It’s an
    argument than really makes the most sense of any I’ve seen. Use the
    tools at hand to accumulate leverage then use that leverage, either
    to expand your own offerings or getting equitable arrangements with
    others that bring something to the table you either can’t do or
    can’t do as efficiently. I never saw him as an us or them type. My
    own leanings are that a publisher needs to really come with the
    goods because they have a long history of shady, questionable or
    exploitative actions that makes the trust necessary hard to muster
    even when contractually obligated. I think the interesting part is
    Howey’s dealings with publishers are mostly overseas. Does that
    speak to a somewhat toxic culture within publishers in the U.S.
    possibly or at least a greater willingness of their overseas
    counterparts to equitable dealing with authors? Business is
    business, and if someone can expand your business, not impede your
    other business and accept a fair split, it would be foolish not to
    explore it, I think.

    • says

      Hey, Dan,

      Many thanks for the comment.

      I like how you say it: “equitable arrangements with others that bring something to the table you either can’t do or can’t do as efficiently.”

      That’s it exactly. And I agree with you on NOT seeing an “us vs. them” element in Howey’s work. One of the reasons I wanted to do this piece was that in so much of the debate around his initiative, there’s been a lot of rather confrontational energy, of course, which could lead many to think that he and others are hellbent-for-self-publishing, which really isn’t the case. I think that many of our outlier success are, in fact, the very best at knowing, as you say, that leverage is the key — where you find it, that’s where you go, and if you find it in a fair contract with a traditional publisher, then that’s your direction.

      As I say, it’s less easy (for some, at least) to hold such flexibility in mind than to try to go all or nothing one way or another. It’s good to have such a strong example of where flexibility is working and to see what we all can learn from it.

      Thanks again!

  21. says

    I don’t care.

    There, I’ve said it. I don’t care how a book is published. People I know – writers and non-writers alike – don’t care how a book is published (with very rare exceptions). Only writers and publishers seem to care. Except I don’t.

    When I decided to serialize my book into separate small ones, I knew that took me out of the trad publishing model. It’s been a marketing blessing that I did that. Each book has different markets and widens my readership in ways the original book could not.

    At the end of this year, when the series of six is complete, I’ll start on two full-length books that are somewhat related. But those books have a more mainstream appeal. One could be good for a university press. What to do?

    I don’t know. But what I have now are options. And experience. I don’t mean platform (though that’s part of it). I know what to look for and avoid when talking to an agent or publisher. Four years ago I knew nothing, so that’s an improvement. ;)

    I’m open, but cautious, I guess. I look to the Hugh Howey’s of the world for examples of how to do this (or not). I could very well be a hybrid this time next year, but again, I don’t know.

    The content is driving this, as you said, Porter. Does it make more sense to seek a traditional contract for more mainstream books? Or do I stick with what is starting to work? We’ll see.


    • says

      Hey, Viki!

      You know me, I’m going to say you stick with what’s starting to work. The point at which a change or an additional approach is needed will make itself apparent.

      And only in one area would I guess there might be some automatic bias toward a mainstream approach for certain kinds of content — well, two, actually: literary fiction and narrative non-fiction. Those are two areas in which some of us are concerned.

      Your own work in non-fiction is an interesting case because it’s niched by topic to such a degree that it might represent (informally, of course, for the sake of discussion), a kind of “genre nonfiction” dealing with grief and loss. To some degree, we might expect and hope there could be some ready networking and community ready to help form energy for a book or series like yours.

      In other forms of narrative nonfiction, it’s thought that only with traditional advances on royalties can the research be afforded and the books be written. This, at least, is the position of many who worry that this support is unraveling.

      For my part, literary is the vulnerable component. Only in finding and working “adjacent” interest networks to various themes can such work find any ready-made community in place (unlike, for example, romance, mystery, or other genre fiction). There are committed readers of literary at large, but so far I don’t see any aggressive organization of those forces. Digital loves a standing market, a ready crowd waiting to buy; this is why genre support systems seem to dovetail quite well with many aspects of genre energy. Once a literary author has established a following, of course, he or she wears his or her community like a shell. But in the early going, trying to find that cadre — once you’re past the early ranks of the “will read anything literary” — may be a considerably uphill effort.

      We shall see. And you’ll know what to do when the time comes. Working a book itself is a terrific way to understand what it needs and wants.