Chip MacGregor

February 12, 2014

Self Publishing as Amway

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BY CHIP MACGREGOR

I’m one of those agents who believes in the future of publishing. I respect the past, but I understand that the old way of doing things won’t work today — everything has changed, we’re in a state of revolution, and people who want to make a living in this business will have to adapt or die. I know that’s true of agents, who must change the way they’re doing things if they expect to make a living in 2014. I think that’s true of publishers, who are big and successful for a reason, and who will continue to try to change their models to remain in business and make money. And I believe it’s also true of authors, who simply have to accept the world has changed and look to the future with a new plan.

The old plan for most authors was clear: write a great book, find an agent, and let him help you land a deal with a publisher. Most authors relied on an advance to make a living, and the full-timers tended to live from one advance check to the next. Royalties were great, when they showed up once or twice per year, but could barely be counted on. The power was in the hands of publishers, and there were a number of middlemen (distributors, retailers, agents) intruding on much of a relationship that SEEMED like it should have been simply “author-to-reader.” In that old system, the roles were clear: the authors wrote books, the agents negotiated books, the publishers produced books, the marketers promoted books, the distributors provided books, and the retailers sold books. Sometimes it didn’t seem fair — as though the authors who were churning out the art didn’t have much control, and were at the mercy of a sometimes fickle or arbitrary system.

Then things changed. Amazon came along and, in essence, removed many of the middlemen. An author could take his or her book, make it available on Amazon, and go directly to readers — to some that meant bypassing the agents, the publishers, the marketers, and the distributors. The number of books releasing grew considerably (one study revealed the number of new titles releasing went from 120,000 new books to 250,000 new books, in just one year). That began a surge of growth in self-publishing. There were suddenly a wave of new titles, and as readers began to change their buying habits, retailers began to feel the pinch that came from going up against an online retailer. When Amazon released the Kindle, ebooks really took hold, and everything changed again. A writer no longer had to learn a long process for creating his or her own book — he or she could simply take the manuscript and make it available almost instantly on Amazon in digital format. And with that, everything in publishing was new  . . . the way books are written, edited, contracted, designed, produced, distributed, marketed, and sold have all changed over the past eight years. Most of those processes have been completely revolutionized.

In the new publishing world, authors have more control over their manuscripts . . . but they also have more responsibilities. They still have to know how to write, but now they have to know how to market and sell their books (those are two different skills, by the way). In addition, they have to know how to map out their careers, and get a handle on the finances of publishing. It’s why I tell authors they have to view their writing as a business, not just an art, if they intend to make a living at it. From my perspective, everything the author does is aimed at growing the business, whether that means bigger stories, a greater platform, a deeper niche, or a more important project. His or her most important job is still to write, but to be successful in the current publishing culture that means to write words that will sell, and to have the acumen to see how best to grow the business through great writing matched with effective marketing strategies.

The role of the agent has also been changed (in fact, I’d argue it’s barely the same task as when I started agenting full time 16 years ago). The agent’s job is to represent the author, and give him or her the guidance needed to succeed in this business. So agents often serve as business managers and career development specialists, helping authors know the right books, the right venues, and the right choices to make. We sometimes serve as story assistants or editorial advisors, occasionally as “publishing introducers,” frequently as e-book consultants, and nearly always as contract experts. More and more we have become marketing specialists. But everything the agent does is with a view toward guiding the author into bigger career success, and that means having some sense of what’s going on in the market and how to capitalize on it.

In many ways the job of the publisher has changed, but it is largely a technological change. Editing is done on-screen, covers are created digitally instead of on paper, and the book’s production is done via a computer instead of steel plates. There have been huge changes in the way books are marketed and sold, but in many ways the role of the publisher remains the same — to produce books and get them out to as many potential readers as possible.

I mention all that because there’s a myth out there taking hold, that authors don’t need anyone else — they don’t need agents or editors or publishers or marketing specialists. That all a writer must do in order to succeed is bang out some words and post them on Amazon, and the rest will take care of itself. These are the “self-publishing as Amway” types. You’ll remember Amway . . . back in the 80’s and 90’s, there was a rush of people pushing all of us into multi-level-marketing schemes. The promise was simple: “You just sign up your friends, and they’ll sign up their friends, and soon you’ll have a huge downline, making a bit of money off each sale, and the dollars will come rolling in!” It sounded great . . . but it didn’t work. We signed on, paid our fees, talked to our friends, but no matter how much we tried, and no matter how many upbeat meetings we went to, the big money never really arrived. That’s been the allure of Amazon — “just post your book, and readers will buy it, and soon you’ll be getting checks!” To buttress that argument, some people are citing a recent Amazon study that notes there have been 150 authors who have sold more than 100,000 copies on Amazon’s Kindle Direct program.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in self-publishing. I encourage the authors I represent to self-publsh, and try to help them achieve that. I think Amazon is great. And it’s become clear that, for all but the A-level authors, the days of living from one advance check to the next are over. Any good working author these days needs to consider the exposure a traditional publisher can offer him or her to go wide, but must also talk with a niche publisher to go deep with a group of dedicated readers, AND must consider self-publishing in order to maximize income. We’re helping the authors we represent to work with legacy publishers AND self-publish their out-of-print books, as well as to create a career plan to strategically self-publish new books. But those who make it sound like self-publishing is the only way to succeed don’t know what they’re talking about.

There are now more than twelve MILLION books for sale on Amazon. Makes it a bit tough to stand out, when you consider the vast number of titles. And while it’s hard to know an exact number, we think roughly eight million of those are self-published titled. More than a million people have posted a book for sale on the site. A few are making a living at it. 150 authors have sold more than 100,000 copies. Um . . . do the math. More than a million authors; 150 who hit it big on KDP. There are plenty of others who have sold some copies and done well (again, we’re very supportive of the authors we represent self-publishing their books as part of an overall career plan), but it’s not as simple as “post it and watch the money flow in.” And simply posting it on your author website may not help you much, unless you have an inordinate amount of visitors to your site. If you treat writing as a business, you’ll know that having some wise and experienced people assist you is generally a good thing. So maybe getting help with titles, cover design, book layout, editing, marketing, contracts, accounting, and an overall career strategy isn’t such a bad idea.

Look, depending on who you talk to, ebooks comprise roughly 23% to 40% of all book sales. And while everybody feels digital books are the wave of the future, right now ebook sales for Big Six publishers are flat. So while I believe online retailing is a great tool, the days of saying book sales are going to be 50% print and 50% digital are still a ways off, because people keep buying printed books. So clearly authors in today’s publishing economy need to look at things in a new way. They need to consider posting their own ebooks, but not give up on the print market, since it’s still currently about two-thirds of the overall book world. They need to consider talking with editors and artists who can help them create a better product, whether it’s self-published or released by a traditional publishing house. The bulk of writers need to admit, even grudgingly, that publishers are in the business because they love books, and perhaps know more about selling books than most authors do. Many need to admit they could use some specialized help when it comes to marketing, since standing out in a crowd of twelve million is a tough task. And some need to talk with a good agent, who can help them map out a plan, so they’re not simply “dropping and dreaming” (that is, dropping their book onto Amazon and hoping wildly for uncommon success).

The writing business isn’t multi-level marketing. It’s creating good art, then finding the best ways to get it in front of readers who will buy it. To do that well, you may want to consider talking with people who have been successful in the business.

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75 Comments

  • Yemcy Gomez says:

    Thanks for sharing this post! I have been researching a lot about Amway and Dexter Yager who is part of Amway. So far I am not interested in Amway even though dexter yager has had a lot of success according to some information I stumbled upon online I still don’t know if I should join or not.

    This article has some good points though, I’ll consider it!

  • Shaun Ryan says:

    I keep coming back to this topic, trying to distill what it evokes in me the most, the burning question it raises, and I think I’ve zeroed in on it at last:

    If the publishing industry continues down the road it’s decided to take, which amounts to the same quasi-instant gratification, short-term, next-quarterly-report thinking that pretty much infects all of corporate America, what great and wonderful books will they be using to teach young people about the importance of the written word a hundred years from now?

    Assuming folks can still read and write.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Well… I’m not quite so pessimistic, Shaun. Even in today’s world of instant gratification and chasing after short-term gains, I see great writers working hard to tell their stories that speak to the great questions of life. In other posts I’ve talked about authors who have moved me — that, to me, in the antidote to any pessimism.

    • Shaun Ryan says:

      I hear you, and agree. In moments of darker reflection though, I can’t help but wonder about a possible future full of soundbite books. This image of farmers irrigating crops with Brawndo rises before my mind’s eye, and a cheerily vacant voiceover chimes in with, “It’s got electrolytes!” Looking around for forty-two years at BS selling by the boatload–and the price always going up–Mike Judge’s little dystopian satire doesn’t seem so farfetched.

      It’s not publishers or writers or corporations, or even politics or marketing I’m skeptical of.

      It’s people.

      Fodder for fiction, that.

  • michelle grover says:

    “The writing business isn’t multi-level marketing. It’s creating good art, then finding the best ways to get it in front of readers who will buy it.” I love the creating good art part, and I’m thankful that there are multiple ways to get it in front of readers these days. I personally appreciate the wealth of insight agents and editors bring to the table. As with counseling in any other area, it’s helpful to have truth and hope spoken into our lives–not just at the critical/crisis moments, but on a regular basis along the way. Thanks for your encouragements along the way, whether it’s a personal email response or a blog post. I appreciate what you’re doing.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s nice of you to say, Michelle. And I agree — I think I’ve learned most when I’ve been in a situation and asked others with experience to offer me some advice.

  • Great article, Chip. I’m an Indie author who tried the traditional route of landing an agent. I sent out around seventy-five queries over the course of many months, only to receive the standard form letters: “Not for me.” I didn’t even get so much as a bite to see my manuscript. I didn’t become discouraged by the rejections though. I kept plodding on looking for ways to improve my work. I also placed my free manuscript on Smashwords and Amazon in 2011 just to get some feedback on whether or not I should “quit my day job.”

    My book had not been professionally edited, and the initial reviews on Amazon
    were harsh. But, wasn’t that what I was after? Real opinions? I had plenty of
    good feedback to buoy my spirits too, so I kept plodding on. You referred to “easy money” in your article and the belief that some people have about putting their books out there and becoming rich. I don’t think I ever felt that way. I used Amazon and Smashwords as a sounding board initially, trying to figure out what I needed to change or improve in my manuscript to be able to catch the eye of an agent or publisher. You are right though; plenty of authors just dump their work onto Amazon without a clue about the amount of work it takes for marketing. They don’t understand how much responsibility they’re taking on. More than anything, if the Indie author is too proud or doesn’t have thick skin, they won’t make it very far.

    Fast-forward to the present, nearly three years since launching my manuscript to Amazon and Smashwords (who then sent it to many retailers such as B&N,
    iTunes, Sony, Kobo), I’ve had over 140,000 downloads and over 1,300 reviews/ratings holding a 4.5 star average on just that one title. (I’d probably be able to get at least a bite from an agent now, if I tried again.) The book is still free. For a short stretch of time in 2011, I tried pricing it at $0.99. It made the
    Movers&Shakers list and became a Bestseller. I wrote more books in the
    series and decided to take the loss-leader approach and have the first book be
    free as an introduction to my series. The other three books in the series cost
    money. All four books have made the Bestseller lists (US and UK) and book two
    is a #1 Bestseller. I make a steady modest income from my series and my fan base is growing. I receive emails from people who tell me my books were recommended to them from other people, so I can tell the popularity is growing.

    Would I entertain an agent at this point? I don’t know. I’ve already found a professional editor who is going to work over my books. Plus, with Amazon’s CreateSpace making it possible to get my books into print and
    distributed and into my readers’ hands on demand, I don’t know what other advantages an agent could offer me . . . other than handling movie rights.

    I do believe that printed books will never go away. Digital books will continue to grow in popularity, and authors who have the tenacity to do what it takes to be successful will continue to follow the Independent route, but the demand for published printed books will remain. That’s good job security for agents and publishers. Of course, an agent will need to become a “Jack of all trades” and expand his/her services like you listed in your article. They will need to evolve like Wite Out or Liquid Paper. Remember that stuff? It’s still around, in many forms, even though the manual typewriter is not.

    I appreciate your article, Chip. You definitely bring to light many of the issues facing Indie authors. I can honestly say your use of the word Amway is what made me decide to click and read. Keywords get results, don’t they? (I’m not an Amway fan, but I wanted to see how you related the two topics.)

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Nice of you to write, Lorena, and congrats on your success. I think you’re hitting on a number of thoughts here, as you try to figure out the next steps. Two things come to mind as I read your words… First, you might really benefit from somebody who could offer you some counsel. Second, your plan will probably be different from another author’s plan (and that’s okay).

      The notion of giving away books is much-discussed, and something I need to post about sometime. It was beneficial to build readership… but now I’m wondering if there are a ton of readers out there with a backlog of free books they’ve downloaded, and may never get around to reading. In other words, is that still an effective strategy for full-length books? That’s a great discussion for another day. Appreciate you coming on to join in the conversation.

  • shannonb says:

    Chip, I enjoyed this article. As someone who recently released her first self-published book (The Feather Chase went up Sunday on Amazon), I’m interested in this new role of the agent. It sounds as though an agent would be able to negotiate international rights, film rights, etc. Correct? (Yes, I am thinking big 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think there are a number of things a good agent should be able to do, shannonb. Film rights, international rights, large print rights, possible print or mass market rights, foreign language rights, merchandise rights (depending on how big you want to think) — the list goes on. Negotiating a good contract if a legacy publisher wanted to pick up your book. Helping you with map out a career plan, discuss next books and release dates, reviewing your contracts, checking your royalty reports, helping with story discussions or editing, talking marketing strategies, linking you with other helpful people… It’s a long list. And your list will be different from someone else’s list. Does that make sense?

  • Shaun Ryan says:

    Great discussion, Chip.

    I think there are some harsh realities about writing and publishing that a lot of folks don’t want to face. Many have been covered here. I would ad that you can’t really blame the publishers for being narrow–my choice of words over the much-bandied “picky” I keep hearing–in their choices of titles to publish. Self publishing has sort of enabled this. But in the end it’s the readers who are driving it. The bean-counters running the bottom line mentality at the big houses are just selling what people are buying.

    E.L. James writes like an eighth-grader? I agree. Thing is, apparently millions of people read like eighth-graders. Sort of scary, really. So “picky” doesn’t fit, in my opinion. We-want-to-publish-only-best-sellers is closer to the mark, and unfortunately, a lot of best-sellers are crap. But look at any interstate business loop through Main Street America, note the mile-long chain of neon stabbing the night sky, vying for your attention and your dollar, see the $60,000 SUVs lined up at the drive-thru. Visibility and ease trump quality in a ton of cases, across the board.

    I give you “Bose is best.”

    No, Bose sounds like tin and cardboard, but Paul Harvey says otherwise, and he has the ear of millions, and they repeat what he tells them, whether they’ve heard Bose–or anything else–or not. So we need to look at ourselves and the mentality we’ve adopted as a society, not point fingers at the publishers and cast them in the role of Big Corporate Bad Guys. They’re only selling what we’re buying. Consumer is as Consumer does, and if you invest in that identity as a human being, you have to live with the results, and if you don’t, you still have to live with the results, because those of us who disagree aren’t doing much to change things.

    As a writer, I’m studying this issue for all I’m worth these days. In the past, I was of the opinion that most self published work was crap, and was reducing the overall body of work out there by diluting both its content and value, and still am to some degree. But I’ve revised to ad that this is only the case with writers who aren’t investing in either the craft, or the business end of the job, just throwing first drafts out there and hoping to sell. Which is most of them, apparently.

    Ain’t never going to work. But they heard it will on the internet.

    Bose is best.

    Part of me rebels at the idea of standing on a virtual corner with a flashy sign in my hands hawking my goods, but that’s the only thing that gets anyone’s attention in a crowded marketplace. I and my stories are commodities, plain and simple, and I’m still learning the art of promotion as I hone the art and craft of writing. Hell, I still hate writing pitches and synopsis, although I think I’m getting the hang of it. Finally. But regardless of where I am with that, lots of folks are going to bypass my driveway and pull into the fast and easy drive-thru, because that’s what they want, and it gets more air-time than me, has a bigger budget to grab their limited attention and time.

    Fifty Shades of Flash and Grab is where we are, and all we can do is keep writing and bust our asses doing our best to be heard, studying the market and formulating a strategy that fits us and our stories. Like Chip says, it’s on us to get it done, no one else.

    My biggest disappointment is seeing knock-offs selling like hotcakes for a few years, and then what? After the public gets tired of the flave du jour? The author keeps jumping on trends or disappears? Has become disposable? Seems so, given the number of Twilight, Hunger Games, and Harry Potter clones out there. Best of luck with the log-term thing, I guess. Investing in an author and building their career and audience and down-the-road profitability over a number of books is a thing of the past. Welcome to the next-quarterly-report field of view.

    It is what it is, and it’s still evolving. You can’t think about all that while you’re writing, at least I can’t, and don’t.

    My biggest hope in all this, strangely enough, is T.V. (I call cable and HBO and Showtime T.V.) Still a lot of garbage out there, but there’s some really good shows too, and they’re popular, which tells me that not everybody wants fast food stories, but real meat, real drama and not melodrama, substance and not air. Having said that, and being a music lover, the parallels between what the recording industry went through over the last decade and a half and what the publishing industry is going through now haven’t escaped me, nor has the fact that I haven’t bought a new album put out by a major label in a long, long time. Just about all of my favorite artists who’ve hit the scene in the last twenty years record on indie labels, or just create their own and put it on their website for sale and download.

    Food for thought.

    Now, if I could just convince some of those artists to offer FLAC and high-res downloads in addition to the MP3 garbage. 😉

    • chipmacgregor says:

      A long post, but I appreciate your thoughts, Shaun, and I’ll offer a couple of responses:
      1 – I didn’t make the point that bad art doesn’t sell. Bad art often sells a LOT, and frequently it sells more than good art because of the “lowest common denominator” factor. That’s a given.
      2 – Traditional publishers don’t just want to sell great art. I’d NEVER make that argument. The fact is, they want to sell books that will sell a lot of copies. But… let’s be fair. I’ve spent my life in publishing, and I can attest to the fact that publishers want to do great books. I’ve never met a publisher (he or she doubtless exists, but I’ve not met one) who really desires to do crap.
      3 – I know that you didn’t sign up for the Author gig so that you could spend all your time as a marketing flunky. It’s just what the system is currently asking of authors.
      4 – Your comparison of books to TV is spot on. There are a bunch of lame TV shows. (After ten years, I still can’t figure out what “Burn Notice” is.) But there are also great shows. So for every “Breaking Bad” there is a “Two Broke Girls.” For every “Game of Thrones” there is a “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” Greatness and gall shared on the same venue. That’s the world of art.
      Really good thoughts here. Thanks, Shaun.

    • Shaun Ryan says:

      1 – I know, just saying we really can’t bitch about it because collectively speaking we’re the ones buying a LOT. We are the lowest common denominator because we’ve allowed it to determine policy.
      2 – All true. But they pass on a lot of great books as well. I understand that economic realities often make that necessary, and I’m sure a lot of editors hate it. But I think the real frustration lies in the Jerry Springer Factor; Everyone bashing E.L. James sold a lot of copies and landed a movie contract. But someone puts some real brass balls fiction out that is certain to ruffle some feathers and call a boatload of BS, not so much. It ain’t juicy.
      3 – No, I didn’t, but it doesn’t matter what you’re selling, you have to sell it. Most of us envision it differently when we start out, but that’s nothing new. Ask any parent how they envisioned parenthood, and how that actually turned out.
      4 – You got me on Breaking Bad. Never watched it. I don’t watch much TV at all, a few shows my wife and I both like, a handful of movies a month. Stuff blowing up and trophy-wife catfights as a premise don’t do it for me. It’s the same with books.
      And sorry to be so long winded, but it’s an involved subject for sure.

  • David A. Todd says:

    Chip: Thank you for a good balanced discussion, with a tone that avoids the hysteria I see in so many self-publishing discussions.
    However, the one thing I don’t see in your article (I read it twice and don’t think I would have missed it) is the odds of a writer making it in the door to traditional publishing. Those odds are so small, regardless of how good a book may be, that to continue to beat our heads against that door is the definition of insanity. So we set aside the rejection letter, form rejection letter, or non-response rejection in favor of the no-sale report.
    Today is the third anniversary of having a self-published work available. I now have 13 works published and have sold 259 copies for $542.08 in accrued royalties. Had I kept trying for a trade publishing deal, that would have been 0 copies and $0.00 royalties.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You raise a good point, David. I guess I was assuming that everyone already knew the long odds at making big money with a legacy publisher. My point (and, actually, my criticism of the current discussion) is NOT with self-publishing, which I think has become a valid part of many authors’ career plans. My point is that there are hucksters and know-nothings out there, selling their services or making promises, and they are basically making the claim that “you can make huge money just by posting your book.” It’s those guys I’ve come to really dislike — they act as though they’re smarter than the rest of us; that they’ve figured out the key to making money at writing and everybody else is stoo-pid; that it’s obvious the ONLY choice is to self-publish, etc. Those are the people I’ve grown exceptionally tired of.

      I think it’s great that you’ve made $500 with your self-pubbed projects. Now… it’s possible (no over-the-top promise, but it’s POSSIBLE) that a legacy publisher could have sold more copies and made you more money, or that one of the new indie publishers could have worked with you and helped you to sell more. Again, I’m not arguing with you, David — I think it’s wonderful that you sold some copies. I’m just saying that you made a bit, and perhaps there was an alternative that might also have worked.

    • David A. Todd says:

      Oh, no doubt I would have sold more and earned more than that had a trade publisher published any of my books. The problem is the miniscule chance of getting in the door, no matter how good your books are. Not saying mine are of the quality needed, because I don’t know. I’m just saying the odds are so stacked against you there’s no point trying any more. Eight years was long enough.

    • Shaun Ryan says:

      This raises an interesting point. I hear a lot how more books than ever are being published, traditionally as well as self. But I think there’s some spin going there. Let’s see the stats on how many genres get published, in what numbers.

      Not sure if 99,000 cookbook cozies, formulaic thrillers, YA urban fantasy, and bodice-rippers, and 99 of everything else, equates to more books getting out there. An exaggeration, sure. But you see my point.

      One big piece of wisdom offered by almost everyone who gives advice about writing is don’t try to jump on trends. Yet that’s exactly the strategy publishers–and therefore agents–seem to have adopted over the last decade.

      This is quite good, but I can’t do much with it. Got a thriller you can show me?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think there’s a balance to this argument, Shaun. I generally don’t like to see authors jumping on trends, because by the time they have something written, the trend has been identified and maximized, so you’re late to the party. Besides, you’re better off writing the story that’s been given to you, rather than trying to chase someone else’s story. BUT it’s true that some publishers and authors will spot a trend and say, “Hey — there’s potential money to be made.” They see it as a business decision — which is a fair enough choice, since I’m the guy who is always telling authors to treat their writing like a business.

  • JeanneTakenaka says:

    Thought provoking article, Chip. I appreciate the idea that things have changed in the publishing arena. And whether an author goes the traditional route or the self-pub route, or a mixture of both having a well-thought out plan in place is essential for success. I can definitely see the value of having others “on my team” who know more about the publishing world than I do.

    Thanks for your insight on this topic!

  • I thought this article was great. I am one of those. I have a professional editor and proof reader but not an agent. I am doing a lot of rethinking.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think you’ve GOT to be rethinking things in this age of publishing revolution, Liberty. Thanks for the comment.

  • The article was terrific, but just an FYI… Amway works. It’s still
    around. People, like myself, are making great money. The corporation did
    $11.8 Billion in 2013. They have had 7 consecutive growth years in the
    worst economy in decades. Number 1 in health and beauty online; that’s
    number 1 in the world. They have one of the top-five prestige brands of
    skin care and cosmetics in the world (Artistry). They have the number 1
    vitamin supplement line in the world (Nutrilite). They have the #2
    energy drink in the world, just behind Red Bull–number 1 in the world
    in online sales (XS Energy Drink). And I can keep going on.

    Chip,
    your metaphor is deeply flawed. Next time you write an article and need
    a sales model that failed, look for a failed company, not the most
    successful direct marketing company in the world (according to the
    Direct Sales Association – 2013).

    But, except for the metaphor … terrific article.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Nice to hear from you, Frank. Yes, Amway is a very successful business, and I’m glad you’ve done well. I’ve met others who have done great an made a bundle with it. But, of course, the metaphor was for most of us who once got involved (particularly during the multi-level craze of twenty years ago), discovered it was a lot of activity and commotion, but made us nothing. Congrats to you for making it succeed. You are doubtless similar to a successful author — dedicated, hard-working, with great belief in your product. I realize there are people who make money with Amway — just as there are people who make good money with traditional publishing, and people who make good money via self-publishing, I guess. Glad you liked the article, even if you hated the metaphor. Maybe next time I’ll use Melalluca? :o)

    • Frank Lattimore says:

      Thank you for taking time out to respond, Chip.

  • Geralyn Beauchamp says:

    Great post! Thanks, Chip!

  • Patricia Zell says:

    Although I have a self-published book under my belt, I know I need an agent to help me in the business of developing my career. As it turned out, by self-publishing my book, I was able to give my husband the opportunity to give signed copies to his friends (and to other people he met along the way) before he passed away.
    I have also realized that I need to give an agent something to work with–one self-published book is not enough to build a career. So, I have set the goal of having five screenplays (I’m drafting screenplay #4 now) and a non-fiction book proposal done by June 1 to go along with my self-published book. I’m hoping that there are agents out there who handle both books and screenplays.
    I want to go the traditional route with both the screenplays and books because I value outreach more than having a bigger percentage royalty.
    The feedback that I have received from my self-published book has been that I present a coherent argument that is based on scholarship plus logic and a coherent argument that is personable and easy to read and understand. I know that the stories that I tell in my screenplays and the arguments that I present in my books will bless many people.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s a sweet story, Patricia, and I’m sure he was proud of you every time he handed one out. Thanks. As for agents who handle both books and screenplays, you’ll find there are a bunch who CLAIM to do both. The reality is that books and screenplays have very different worlds and require different relationships, so most of the agents who tell you they handle both are exaggerating (or possibly just out-and-out lying to you). So ask questions (particularly something such as, “How many screenplays have you sold in the past two years?”).

  • C. Kevin Thompson says:

    Chip, I hear both sides debated almost ad infinitum, ad nauseum (I’m sure you hear it more). What I have found is that those who’ve had bad experiences with agents and/or publishers tend to fall on the side of self-pub. They don’t make anymore per book than those with a publisher, per se. But it revolves more around the “I’ll show them” mantra. I know because I’ve wrestled with those feelings and arguments. Should I self-pub or not? Should I get an agent or not? Speaking strictly for me, in this ever – increasing, litigious society that is presently wading through uncharted territory, I have decided that the 15-20% spent on an agent is well worth the “investment.” I know of self-pub authors who hire everything out, from formatting their mss to attorneys who read the contracts. Haven’t they hired an agent, piece by piece? So, there you have it. I showed my hand. Will be seeking an agent at upcoming writers conference.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Appreciate your perspective, Kevin. And, of course, another author can make a totally different choice. I think the bottom line we’ve all learned is that it’s hard to make a living with art, no matter what route you take to get there.

  • Angela Moody says:

    Again, Chip, your blog posts are so educational for me. I’m new to the writing world and I learn so much from you. Time for me to learn the business of writing. As for Amway, been there, done that so thanks for the warning.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’m sure there are plenty of great Amway people out there, so I”m not running down the company… just the culture that surrounded those types of multi-level marketing silliness. “Just sign up, and the money will flow magically.” That’s exactly the message I’m hearing from some people on the self-publishing side. I think it’s baloney.

    • Angela Moody says:

      I didn’t mean to imply that there are bad Amway people out there. I’m still friends with my Amway Emeralds. I’m just saying I understand the culture you’re speaking of.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, I know, Angela. Lots of good folks in Amway. I was just using them as an example of the multi-level marketing stuff that a lot of us found didn’t work. No worries.

  • Gayla Grace says:

    This is a great post. I can’t wait to hear more this week-end at Writers University in Dallas!

  • Lauren H Brandenburg says:

    This seems to be the subject of my Twitter feed this morning, and oh how timely it is! I think one of the issues that was not addressed is that not all writers who use self-publishing are “dropping and dreaming”, but rather are hoping to use it as a means of exposure to agents or potential publishers. There is a rumor with some self-publishing companies that if you can market yourself well and sell a specific number of copies, you will catch the eye of one who can take you to the next level. I currently find myself completely torn between marketing myself through self publishing and continuing to seek an agent. As I type this, I have a book sitting with Amazon that I have not felt released to market. Why? It’s not because I don’t want to market my book – I am more than wiling, it’s because (let me get honestly spiritual) it’s not the desire of my heart. I want the traditional, the agent, the advice, and then the final product…and I am willing to work for that. For now, Amazon will have to wait, because for me, it’s not about the money, it’s about the getting a good book to the right audience.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’ve had a couple people send me this same thought, Lauren, so I’m really glad you posted it in the comments section. And yes, it happens. Some authors want to do a sort of “limited release” of their novel to catch the eye of an editor or agent. That seems like another reasonable alternative approach (and another good benefit to self-publishing).

    • Mirta Ana Schultz says:

      Kindle it. One of my FB friends put her book on Kindle, promoted it on her own, and while it was not formatted or edited to her perfection standards, it hung in there, made high on the list, and a Legacy publisher (one of the BIG ones) came in with a juicy offer for the book –and the sequels–that had already sold quite a bit in Kindle format. She got the editorial advice, the cover, the nice formatting, the legacy marketing–after she’d made some nice bucks ON HER OWN.

      So, Kindle it. If it’s good and gets noticed, you may have a Big 5 come with a lovely 5-digit check in hand. Maybe even 6-digit. An agent may contact YOU. Self-pubbing does not kill a traditional publishing dream. It just might make it happen. If the book has legs. 😀 If it doesn’t have something to catch the eye, what makes you think a trad publisher will want it? Just give it some thought. You don’t have to be torn. Go for it. You might get the best of BOTH worlds.

    • Lauren H Brandenburg says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, and the advice! I think I needed to hear the words, “self-pubbing does not kill a traditional publishing dream”. I believe that my fear may have resided somewhere within that statement. Blessings!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      It’s not that scary, Lauren… give it a shot. Try Kindle, or their KDP program, and see if you can get it noticed. That’s not necessarily a magic formula (there are plenty of authors who have posted a novel on Amazon and it hasn’t helped them land a deal or an agent, of course), but it’s another alternative strategy.

    • Lauren H Brandenburg says:

      Thanks! Fear may have been the wrong word choice. I self-published the first in the series two years ago with a good press, however I believed it in my interest to move my novel to a different press so that I could sell it for a lower cost as my price per copy was very high (I write middle grade Christian fiction, and the resale cost in order to make any profit at all was WAY too high for that market). I learned so much in the process, but as I am looking to release the second very soon for some eager pre-teens, I want to do it right. So, I guess my hang-up was either to spend my time amping up my promotion of book one and self-publishing book two, or continue soliciting agents and potential publishers – no reason why I can’t do both at one time. Thanks again for your responses. It has been an oddly informative day, but as I believe in divine intervention…I am feeling extremely encouraged and will pray for footstep placement.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      And, of course, there may not be a right answer, Lauren. Maybe you can do both. Or maybe you try one avenue, then try the other. But glad you’re encouraged.

  • Susie May says:

    Fantastic article Mr. MacGregor. I think we all need to think about how e-publishing adds to our arsenal of publishing opportunities, instead of replacing traditional publishing. I think the temptation is to jump into self-publishing, wooed by the Amanda Hocking success stories we hear. But you gave us the “other side” to help us consider the cost. Excellent info (as usual. :))

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Susie. And I love to hear about Amanda Hocking, and Suzanne Collins, and even E.L. James, though I think she writes like an 8th grader. But the reason those books are news is because they are so RARE — an unknown creates a book, and it sells a bajillion copies. Safer to buy a lottery ticket, I think (and less work). I love the opportunities self-publishing offers, but I think it has to be approached as a business, not a lottery.

    • Mirta Ana Schultz says:

      The ones who make hundreds of thousands or millions are the outliers (even in Legacy, let’s admit that), and so they are news and always will be. 🙂 But the ones making 10K, 25K, 50K, and managing to pay some not insignificant amount of their bills with self-publishing get much, much, much less press, but you see more of them blogging or commenting. Which is why a trickle, stream, flood may reject the small advance and risk going indie. I’ve seen so many, so many comments where they might make hundreds, a few thousand, tens of thousands, but not the magical 100K…and it’s not stopping. They seem to be less shy about talking paycheck–or posting them.

      I think this will get much more interesting when fast and skilled writers–those who can put out 2 to 5 romance novels, or mysteries, or fantasy tales already in pretty decent editorial shape in a year , those who’d have to wait 12 to 24 months to see a publisher put it in print, while fans WAIT..well, they might decide: I’ll publish 3-4 books a year and my fans don’t have to wait. I’m thinking they will reap..faster. And fans will be happy knowing the next installment won’t require a year+ of longing.

      There are authors right now that I would pay for their books without covers. Without blurbs. Just gimme the book. 😀 Especially those with a great series I enjoy. I don’t care about the book, the blurb, the tweets–I just want the story, and I will talk it up on FB and Twitter. Free promotion. That’s what fans do: freely promote. So, I can’t wait until there is a more comprehensive tally of the authors making 1K TO 99K ANNUALLY, and especially those making 10K plus, the number of them, making more self-pubbing than the advance and royalties from Legacy yearly. I think we’re in for some interesting stuff…

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, we are in for some interesting stuff, Mirta. And making money RIGHT NOW is one of the reasons why self-publishing has to be an option for every writer.

      One point about doing multiple books: It used to be that legacy publishers were arguing that a novelist could really do one, possibly two, books per year. Then James Patterson came along and did ten books in 2011 — eight of which hit various bestseller lists. It’s clear that readers want books from their favorite authors, no matter now rapidly they are released. That was another important change in the industry.

  • Tim Osner says:

    Looks like self-publishing is really going on the path film making took some decades ago – not so much self-publishing as independent publishing as in independent film making (a total team effort though with a producer/director’s vision). The investment is not only time, but money to produce the best product that can get legs and succeed in a flood of competition. With the agent’s changing role in the independent productions of written work, shouldn’t they be compensated with the percentage of royalties as they are with traditional publishing? Are they? I think they should.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think both film and music offer good parallels, Tim. Both went independent, and that led to changes — some good, some not so good. The bottom line, though, is that it’s still hard to make a living at art. Whether film or music or painting or books, “art” is simply a tough way to pay the bills. Which makes me love the authors I work with all the more, I suppose.

  • I’m curious, which aspects of agenting “then” did you prefer to agenting now? And how about the reverse?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That would be a great idea for a post, Nicole. Hmmm… Off the top of my head, I’d say I liked the fact that I had more time to focus on book development in the previous season. Now? I like the role I play, getting involved in so many aspects of the process with an author. Really appreciate this question, and will ponder it more.

  • wanderingsoles says:

    I have so many friends who have agents and publishers handling their books, yet they are still having to do all the rest of the legwork when it comes to marketing their work. Seems too many publishers will sign an author and not spend much money or time promoting them… so when the author then has to do most of their own work, a small royalty percentage vs 70% on Amazon with self-publishing, raises some serious questions.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Agreed, wanderingsoles. In fact, I’ve been arguing for almost 15 years that the author is going to have to do most of the marketing for his or her book. A good agent ought to be helping an author with that. And yes, we’ve all seen publishers sign books and then do zero to market them… drives me crazy.

      As for the royalty issue, there’s no question: If you can get 70%, it’s better than getting 15%. That part is obvious. What’s not so obvious is the answer to the question, “What are you going to do in order to sell those books and make some money with that rich deal?” I see WAY too many authors post a book to Amazon and sell a hundred copies. Whoopie.

    • Daniel Martone says:

      As you said, too many authors just believe that if they write the novel, they will find an audience. Seems that no matter if you are self-publishing or going a more traditional route, authors have to have a much larger plan… an author’s platform. And, if you are going the more traditional route, you can’t depend on the publisher to do this for you… unless you are an A-list author, they probably won’t. I come from the indie film world, where filmmakers make exactly the same mistake. Once post production is finished, they believe they are done… when in fact, that is just the first step in the process. Authors (and filmmakers) need to listen to your advice and treat this as a business.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Daniel. I appreciate you coming on and sharing your perspective from the world of film. What other parallels do you see?

    • Daniel Martone says:

      Chip, I think it’s the mistake that all creative types make. I’m sure that the music and art worlds have similar stories… painters with talent but not investing any time to learn other aspects of the process. Guess that is why the saying “starving artist” is so true. I run 2 film festivals and am amazed at the number of indie filmmakers willing to put a several hundred thousand (or more) dollars into their films but leave zero money to enter film festival, to pay for a rating from the MPAA, to buy E&O insurance… the list goes on. They get to the end of post production and come to a screeching halt. And then, lose their (and their investors) ass. That is why I think the publishing world is better, because there are people like you out there (that they trust), telling them to get prepared and treat it like a business. Not many in the film world doing that.

  • Jill says:

    So are agents available for hire these days? Last I checked (and granted, it’s been a couple years since I sent out any queries), it was the authors being rejected by them and not the other way around. I’d love to have an agent who would guide me in my career. Have the barriers come crashing down?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s an excellent question, Jill. In my view, the role of the agent has changed dramatically, and part of that is the way they are interacting and working with authors. What exactly are you hoping to get from an agent?

  • “I think it’s become clear, that for all but the A-level authors, the days of living from one advance check to the next are over.”

    This is exactly the reason, non A-level authors SHOULD consider self-publshing solely, but only if the author is willing to seek professional editing, cover design, etc. There are a lot of wonderful writers these days who have studied the craft and the business and are fully equipped to establish themselves as serious creators of good art while honing their skills to run a business of publishing. A lot of fabulous authors are making a good living while getting to know the readers they serve at the same time. It’s a beautiful thing.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Okay. I’m wondering why you’re sounding as though I’m opposed to self-publishing, when I stated very clearly that I’m in favor of it, Heather. But we probably agree on most of these issues. I don’t know that most authors will want to “solely” self-publish, since that means they give up other opportunities, and in my view the most success has been with authors working every angle.

    • I do think we agree on some, maybe even most, things above, Chip, but I keep reading articles like this from agents and people from publishing houses stating that authors shouldn’t solely self-publish and that they need agents and traditional publishers in order to succeed (as if it’s easy to obtain an agent or a publisher), and that’s simply not the case. There are an infinite number of ways to succeed as an author these days.

      Let me ask you this… I read that you are in favor of self-publshing, but are you in favor of authors solely self-publishing having never published before? Would you ever represent an author who wanted to self-publish ebooks, but desired an agent only for other subsidiary rights?

      BTW, as a side note, I loved our talk at ACFW a couple of years ago. You are a wonderful agent to bounce ideas off of, and you partially inspired the direction I took a novel that was only in idea form at the time. Thank you!!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes — I understand what you’re saying, Heather. I think there are some on the agenting side who fear for their livelihoods, so they’re saying, in essence, “You don’t want to self-publishg.” That’s WAY too short sighted for me.

      To answer your question, I don’t know if I’d take on an author who wanted to simply self-publish and let me handle sub rights… depends on the author. For most, there wouldn’t be enough money in it to make it worthwhile.

  • Hm. I think you might unleash a storm of comments on this one. Since I have the flu, I won’t wax eloquent. But I will say I’ve noticed that self-published authors tend to stay on Amazon bestseller lists and often have higher rankings that traditionally published authors. So yes, you can definitely get noticed in that pool of 12 million authors, but only if you commit to staying on top of things, from cover art to edits to the many venues you can get your book out to readers.

    So I guess I’m saying don’t lump all self-publishers in with Amway. I had three agents, and it took me many years and a lot of thought to decide to go indie. But once I did, I found my audience (niche though it may be) and loyal readership. I wouldn’t trade that for the world, and I would never have committed to going this route if it smelled ANYthing like Amway.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Not lumping all self-published authors in with Amway, Heather. In fact, I’m very supportive of self-publishing, and helping authors do it regularly. I just have grown tired of hearing some self-appointed publishing prophets basically argue, “You don’t need publishers or marketers or sales people or agents any more… just post it on Amazon and watch the money roll in.” What tripe. My guess is those authors on Amazon who are regularly doing well are working very hard on marketing, and probably listening to some wise counsel on things like books, publicity, focus, etc. Appreciate your comment, and hope you feel better soon, Heather.

    • Mirta Ana Schultz says:

      Most of the self-pubbed authors I read (and one I read when he was selling books with a Legacy publisher, then followed him into self-pubbing) have agents, hire book designers, etc. They advocate controlling your own book production and hiring pros as needed. They pay for marketing/ads. I wouldn’t trust anyone who said, “Just toss a book on Amazon and see how it goes,” as that sounds really unfocused and unrealistic. But I do like the maverick edge they have of saying, “I’d rather keep 70% of royalties and pay folks to do the editing, cover, marketing for me.” In other words, author as entrepreneur, taking the risks of the initial outlay, but then keeping most of whatever may come, for years and decades to come. For writers who already have some kind of audience (romance, thriller), genre authors especially, I think moving on to being the one in control might be quite lucrative. Keep your rights, get an agent to negotiate the stuff that needs negotiating, and hire freelancers. And then there’s the simple logic for the one who hasn’t passed the Legacy gates: Zero money from Legacy Publishers who say no is not as good as SOME money self-pubbing. Any amount is better than ZERO. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Um… You sound like you’re parroting Konrath’s arguments, Mirta. All comments are welcome here, but you’re throwing out a lot of advice, it seems (ditch your publisher, step away from your agent, do it all yourself, etc). I think you’ve made good points in the comments section in the past, but, well, I don’t actually know that you’ve done any of this successfully. So while it sounds reasonable, and you have every right to an opinion, I don’t know that you’re bringing a bunch of book business success with you. Am I incorrect? Again, I’m not trying to be rude, simply asking a question.

    • Mirta Ana Schultz says:

      You’re right. I’m not out there selling. I intend to have something to sell before year’s end. I have zip interest in the trad route at this point, even though 4 trad publishisng editors have requested work from me. What I follow and what I have: I have friends out there selling. 🙂 Some well, some not at all well. It’s not rude to ask, btw. For the record, I don’t tell people to leave their agents, because I think agents are STILL needed. And even Konrath has an agent. 😀 I don’t think people can do it all themselves, so I never recommend that. At least, not the folks I know who still need to have covers done, copy or structural editing, etc. I’ve got buds who do editing for freelancers. And one of my best buds online is a literary agent for the CBA. I simply am one of those who thinks that barring specialty books–art, textbooks, pop-ups, etc–looking to move away from the trad publishers is probably a very good idea, especially for the orphaned or dropped authors who may have skills and good stories, but no champion for them in the trad routes. I think Konrath and Howey ARE outliers, as are Stephen King and Nora Roberts, as are Karen Kingsbury and Jerry Jenkins and Ted Dekker, but I think the midlist of self-publishing is finally getting heard, bit by bit. And the story may not be what we’re hearing from the trad publishers. I’m looking at this with a whole lotta interest, because as a bibliophile who has spent 10s of thousands on books since childhood, and owns a separate apartment for my hoard of books–and that is literally a separate place for my library of 3K–I hardly buy print anymore. Not even as gifts. I have 4 e-readers, 2 of them Kindles. And I look for bargains. I rarely will buy a book that’s more than 7 bucks anymore, and I try to buy only when they are 5 bucks. And I see this trend among many of my reading acquaintances. So, I want to see just how seismic a shift this is gonna be. And for authors, it might be a win/win–cause trad publishers will need to concede more to authors who are profitable and may just decide “gimme a better contract with higher royalites, or I’m gone.” That’s just how I, as a diligent observer and book lover, see it.

    • Thank you for clarifying, Chip. I know you’ve been supportive of self-publishing (more than many agents), and that’s why this post sort of came out of nowhere and surprised me, since no author wants to be likened to Amway shysters.

      I think we’re saying the same thing…if you want to succeed at self-publishing, you have to go at it 100%, and put in more time than any agent could ever possibly manage to put in FOR you. I do think some indie authors can handle more responsibilities than others, depending on outside jobs, finances, etc. But I’ll just say that the indies I know are some of the most business-savvy people I know, staying informed on everything from formatting to marketing. I think we challenge and push each other to bring our A-game. I’d just love to know that CBA agents are also keeping informed on the indie scene and even READING indies before making blanket statements that are increasingly prevalent.

      Thanks again for clarifying, Chip.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’m sorry, Heather… it’s not the AUTHORS, it’s some of the commentators/advisors who I think are promoting an unreal image of self-publishing. I think you and I are in agreement on the issue, so you know. I’m certainly trying to keep up on the indie scene (and yes, I read some indie novels, though it’s impossible to stay on top of the millions of titles releasing).

  • jillkemerer says:

    Excellent post. For five years I’ve been reading from a variety of sources about publishing. Everything you said sums up my thoughts. Thank you for your honesty. Not sure why it’s such a touchy subject, but I’m guessing it’s because everyone is looking for a magic formula to become a breakout author.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s exactly right, Jill. Many want the magic formula, and don’t like hearing things like, “It’s just a lot of work, making good decisions, and maybe some luck.” I’m reminded of the quote from filmmaker Samuel Goldwyn: “Seems like the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

    • That Is All (@ThatIsAll2014) says:

      Stephen King has a tremendous number of quotable sayings in his book “On Writing.” Those that apply to how much work involved pretty much echo Chip’s sentiment. I highly recommend it, even if you are not an author, nor planning to become one.

  • Jaime Wright says:

    I am SO thankful for my agent. Muddling through this publishing world on my own would make me feel like someone dropped me in the middle of a Stephen King novel.

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