The Straddler

Fence Straddler

As someone who straddles both sides of the publishing paradigm – I release books through traditional publishers and also publish my own – I have found that the straddle model really makes sense for me. Let’s see if it makes sense for you, too.

Broadly speaking, I publish two types of books, novels and how-to non-fiction. The novels are more suited to the traditional publishing model because they need the boost of reviews, national media marketing, and (even in this day and age) bookstore distribution. With my novels, then, I make common cause with a boutique publisher, sharing revenues 50/50 and using the combined clout of our marketing, publicity, and social media efforts to grow and build my fiction brand.

On the how-to side, though, I find that it’s much more effective to indy-pub, because the kind of how-to books I write are the kind of books that people go looking for. It’s a rare reader who wakes up one day and says, “I wonder if John Vorhaus has written any new novels.” But it happens every day that someone wakes up and says, “I need to learn how to write better,” and her internet searches lead her to me. In the case of the novels, then, I’m pushing content toward the reader. In the case of the how-to books, the reader is pulling content to herself. Since such a reader will come looking for my books, I don’t have to work so hard to market them, and I don’t need the marketing muscle, or the distribution functionality, that a traditional publisher offers. Thus I indy-pub and keep most of the revenue for myself.

Note that I use the phrase “indy-pub” instead of “self publishing” to describe my efforts. This is by design because, for better or worse, the latter phrase still carries the stench of vanity press, at least to people of my generation. When you say, “I self-publish,” people (well, some people) will think, “Ah, you’re not good enough to get a ‘real’ publisher.” Annoying, right? But if you say you indy-pub, suddenly you’re as cool as any alternative rock band. And not for nothing, but I hope you’ll join me in my campaign to remove “self publishing” from the zeitgeist. It isn’t helping us, and we would all be better off if we were perceived to be as cool as rock bands, yeah?

With that said, there is still a strong prejudice among writers for going with a so-called “legitimate” publisher. But consider this: a publisher, at the end of the day, is nothing but a content delivery system. It may be that this content delivery system is the best one for you, but don’t assume that it is, just because it has perceived prestige. That prestige is fading fast. In another generation readers will be completely opaque to the source of the content they absorb – if, indeed, they are not already. There will be no more prestige associated with having Random House as your publisher than, say, Nonrandom House, or my own Bafflegab Books. All that will matter to the market of tomorrow is efficiency. You want the content delivery system best suited to putting your words where people can find them.

It makes some people sad to see the death of traditional publishing, but when you appraise it through the filter of efficiency, a different picture emerges. The historical model, after all, involves so many cumbersome steps. A writer wrote a manuscript, physically printed it on paper, and sent that paper through the mail to a publisher. The publisher had the manuscript typeset and reproduced. Physical copies were printed, warehoused, boxed, and shipped to book stores. They were placed on shelves by people in hopes that other people – happy coincidence – would come along and pick them up, take them to the checkout counter, buy them, and carry them home. That’s an awful lot of physical manipulation of something that is not, at the end of the day, at all physical: words.

Contrast this to my indy-pub model. I write a book. I create ebook and print-on-demand versions of it. In the case of the electronic version, the content is instantly available. In the case of POD, the content is produced in physical form exactly once for exactly the person who wants it. That’s maximum efficiency in content delivery.

Yet even as I write the words “content delivery,” a little part of me dies inside. When did words – stories and books – become mere “content?” When did reading become “content acquisition?” Am I not, in some sense, degrading the entire notion of authorship by couching it in these terms? Or am I being overly sentimental in this? Should I not just accept the current reality and try to make the most of it? Wouldn’t that be the “efficient” thing to do?

To tell the truth, I’m torn. I still have dreams of publishing super-stardom, where I’m being interviewed on The Daily Show, and Jon Stewart is holding my book up to the camera. He can’t do that with an ebook, and no matter how many copies of that ebook I sell, the experience won’t be the same. On the other hand, I’m a practical man, and I know that I must sell to survive – to continue feeding the addiction that is the writer’s life. So I adopt the following business model: Go off in all directions at once. You’re bound to arrive somewhere sometime.

Go off in all directions at once. You’re bound to arrive somewhere sometime.

Can I recommend that business model to you? Go off in all directions. Continue trying to attract the attention of big publishers. Make common cause with small ones. Publish your own titles. Build your brand. See what works for you. One thing is for sure: we are in a time of flux. Those who adapt to the changes are the ones best positioned to profit from them.

Is it just me, or do you have that “vanity press” bugbear in your head? What steps do you take to make that annoying voice go away?


About John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!


  1. says

    Pragmatic and clear-eyed. And, your approach does not degrade the quality of the ‘content’ at all, in my view. Finding ways to find your readers is paramount. Thanks for the straight talk, John.

  2. says

    I’m fascinated by your approach to publishing. As a self-published, I mean, indy published author, I would choose the reverse route. I have strong nonfiction credentials and if I decided to write a nonfiction book, I might be inclined to pursue the traditional publishing route. The nice thing about the current environment is that authors have options. Thanks for a thoughtful piece, John.

  3. Michael Kelberer says

    Great post. I like the conceptual framework of Fiction->Traditional and Non-fiction->Indie and I think your point about how NF readers actively seek books is very well taken.
    But I am loosing faith in the amount of real value that traditional publishers bring to anyone but a potential superstar (yes, I have that fantasy going too!).
    I’m leaning more toward a spectrum model – the more toward non-fiction, the more work you can do yourself, and the more toward fiction, the more help you might get. But I lean toward hiring the help on contract, not giving away rights.
    G+: MichaelKelberer
    Tw: MichaelKelberer

  4. says

    Yes, I like your straight talk too, John. I too would like to see the “self-pubbed” author get more respect, and a new buzz word is definitely needed. One question comes up for me: is indie-pubbed interchangeable with self-pubbed? In the circles I’ve been in, saying you are indie-pubbed usually means a small professional publishing firm has published your book and has their name on it. Self-pubbed means the author published it. I know there are a number of book reviewers and bookshop owners out there that get upset (even angry) if you blur the lines about that. It seems to me that as authors, self-pubbed or indie-pubbed (I’m both actually), we still have to be straight about the status of our books and ourselves or we’ll end up losing the trust of the industry professionals and that will only contribute to the black mark against the self-pubbed.

  5. says

    I like your approach, John. What I think matters most is that readers have quality books and a writer who ensures this, no matter what route he or she takes, will do well. Maybe we need to invent a new term for those who self-publish without going through the proper editing and production channels? Meanwhile I think its wise to label your self-published books as indie to distinguish that you have put them through the ringer and not just presented a bound manuscript.

    All the best, John! You’ve inspired me.

  6. says

    Your call for a change in terminology is well taken, I think that’s a great idea, “indie” and not “self-pubbed”. And thanks for sharing your path to publication, I find it interesting that you non-fiction requires less marketing than your fiction, I would never have thought that was the case.

    What you’re saying is that you have the status of an expert and that’s enough to sell books dealing with that expertise. But as a fiction writer, you don’t have the same “expert” status, therefore you still need the “imprimatur” of a respected traditional publisher to draw readers attention, or did I misunderstand you? Or is it the case that fiction books from indies have caused a tsunami of new titles (up to 4.5 million books now available in the Kindle Store!) that have just about saturated the market – therefore, to find readers, the extra boost provided by a big publisher is helpful?

  7. says

    Excellent points here John, and many I’ve thought about myself. When I first started writing, I shied away from anything that smacked of “self-published”, so went with a small, independent US publisher for my first two books. Some of it has been a great learning experience for me, both in the positive and negative. As I continue to write a third book in a completely different genre, I’m seriously toying with the idea of “indie-publishing”. Even better, I’m keenly interested in the hybrid model of publishing, which to me makes excellent sense. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and bringing a smile to my morning routine. Good luck in your future endeavours.

  8. says


    Had to chuckle.

    Folks at Random House might be forgiven for quoting Mark Twain: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”. There are reasons print publishers and bookstores remain dominant, reasons having much to do with readers, but enough of that.

    I think your blended plan is smart. Your non-fiction has a targeted readership who nowadays are more likely to search online than to to browse a bookstore. They’ll find you there first, and so it matters less whether a given title is delivered to them on paper or by electrons.

    (Which reminds me, I have some poker questions for you.)

    A fiction audience is broader, more scattered, less eager to invest, and still–sorry–predominantly reading in paper. Thus, for your crime novels it makes good sense to distribute as widely as possible in places where physical books are found.

    Certain categories such as romance and erotica work well in “e” due in part to low price points. There’s traction there too for SF and fantasy, whose readers seem to live in their computers.

    What I like is that you’ve thought all that through and made choices in your publishing that make sense, given the differences in the stuff you write. I wish all writers were as discerning. Self-publishing is not a one-stop solution for all, nor is the print publishing industry dying, or even suffering a nagging cough.

    Smart authors can now choose based on the best strategy for what they write. As you have done. Thanks for sharing your thinking.

    Now, as to those poker questions…

  9. Marcy McKay says

    You’re right, John. Indie-publisher is rock band cool. I love it. Your blended plan is sound and I love the choices authors have today. When did you first jump into the indie game?

  10. says

    John, I’m a straddler also but with different motivations. My non-fiction book, “Writing With The Master” about John Grisham mentoring me in writing a thriller, is trad published in both hardcover and digital. The novel I wrote with him, “Sleeping Dogs” is digitally published by the same trad house, but I’m indy-pubbing the SD physical book for financial reasons with a new imprint. It’s throwing stuff at the wall like you are to see what sticks which in these rapidly morphing times is a smart strategy.

  11. says

    I think you’re dead on with your remarks about the inefficiency of the traditional publishing model. Indie publishing, whatever its other flaws, has done a far better job of adapting to the modern era than old-school publishing houses. For traditional publishing to survive, it needs to adopt some of the innovations of the indie community. The question remains whether the indie model can financially support the overhead a publishing company requires.

  12. Terry White says

    I’m non-published in any arena and my writing at the moment consists of two pieces of work, one fiction and one non-fiction. I’m a few years away from having anything ready for the world to see, but do appreciate your views on sharing work with readers, and find the possibilities for any writer of any kind both exciting and fascinating.

    Thanks for taking time to share your experience.

  13. Terry White says

    I’m at a loss to explain how that Twitter connection got noted with my entry above (and I wonder if it will come up again here).

    If it does, I can’t explain why because I’m am making certain the blue box below is void……okay, we’re about to find out….

  14. says

    You make some good points here — the publishing industry is indeed in a state of flux and writers stand to benefit from the various publishing options now available. Your distinction between indy publishing and self-publishing is well taken, even if self-publishing doesn’t have quite the stigma it used to. But betwixt and between the DIY model and the big houses is that world of small, independent publishers who operate on the love-of-literature principle. What I think will keep the traditional printing model alive is something beyond content delivery: it’s easy enough for writers these days to hire editors to help get their books in shape, but isn’t that different from an editor who may be struck by a writer’s work– enough to want to work with him/her? Without romanticizing the editor/writer relationship, I think it’s the heart of publishing.

  15. says

    I don’t have the vanity press prejudice because when I was growing up, “self-publishing” on the Internet was the norm. If I had an essay or story in my head, I wrote it and put it up on my free Geocities site. (Oh, Geocities. Bad system, good memories.) It seemed very strange to me, when I started writing novels and learned a bit about the publishing system, that there were all these hoops to jump through just to put something out there for others to read.

    But right now, I think publishers are more than just a content delivery system, and I don’t think the only benefit of going through a traditional house is the prestige of the label. Big houses may influence how likely your cover is to show up in the bottom bar of recommended titles on Kindle apps, if they think you’ll sell well enough (why else do Shug and Divergence keep appearing for me when I don’t read anything remotely like them?). They can get ARCs into the hands of bloggers, who largely don’t accept “indie” books–not necessarily because they’re snobs, but because there are books arriving on their doorstep every day. And of course they can get you into Kroger and CVS, which people visit much more frequently than they do dedicated bookstores.

    Efficiency is important, and I think the big houses need to shape up in that regard, but it isn’t the only thing people care about. Books aren’t in danger of turning into mere “content” because of KDP any more than paintings are in danger because people can take photos on their smartphones. Theater didn’t die because of television, and opera didn’t die because of MP3s. People have been panicking that technology and efficiency will destroy culture for a hundred years, but it hasn’t happened yet.

    Incidentally, I’m rather disappointed that we’re not all shrunken mindless weaklings being catered to hand and foot by sentient robots by now. Those Japanese engineers need to step it up.

  16. says

    I got an email from a BIG author saying she doesn’t do blurbs for self published books as she doesn’t believe it’s the best way to go. I wanted to ask why she thinks this but I didn’t want to push it.

  17. says

    I think what you suggest makes a lot of sense. Change is becoming more rapid. Who knows what will be happening in a year or two. Each writer has to decide what is best for them.