Publishing, POD, eBooks, Self-Publishing
—Freelance Independent Editor FAQ

And now we’ve arrived at the fourth of the four questions I’m most frequently asked. I’ve answered: 1. Must you write to a preset wordcount, classify your novel in a predetermined genre, ‘dumb down’ your novel? and: 2. How do you know which freelance independent editors are good and which ones are shysters? and: 3. What is this Line Editing thing of which I speak, and why do I keep speaking of it?

So let’s tackle the one you’re all really interested in:

4. What’s the inside scoop on the state of publishing these days i.e. POD, ebooks, self-publishing, multimedia, et cetera? I mean, what’s really going on out there?

Short answer: fireworks.

Medium-short answer: the most exciting, innovative, anarchic era since the invention of the Gutenberg Press.

Long answer: Let’s sit down for a chat. Go ahead, get yourself a cup of tea. I’ll wait.

Got it? Good. Get comfy.

The crux of the matter is that, historically, printing a whole book has always been simply too complex and required too specialized of machinery for the average layperson to manage—meaning the distinction between writers (who need only pens and paper and at least one physical receptor on the material world) and publishers (who need that specialized machinery and its attendant expertise) has been vast and complex.

Remember those hand-cranked purple-ink mimeograph machines schools used to use for handouts? Well, it would’ve taken some real OCD dedication to turn out an entire purple-ink book that way. And, wow, did that ink smell.

Of course, there was a time—Virginia Woolf’s day—and a place—the small, circumscribed world of London publishing of that era—when you could still run out and buy a small offset printing press, install it in your basement, and just go into the publishing business for yourself.

Leonard Woolf actually bought the Hogarth Press to give Virginia something mindless and rote to do to stave off her recurring bouts of mental illness, which qualifications certainly describe setting type by hand. (As it turned out, that was a little too mindless and rote even for Virginia, so they wound up hiring aspiring young writers to do it for them instead, while Virginia wrote her books and lovely short stories until her mental illness got the best of her and she loaded her pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse.) Hogarth Press originally published such canonical luminaries as T.S. Eliot and Freud.

And, naturally, there was an even earlier time when every single copy of every single manuscript in circulation had to be handwritten by specially-trained monks with simply fabulous handwriting. That era ended with the invention of the Gutenberg Press, which extraordinary mechanical development not only launched the first major European marketing campaign that turned the Tudor family from scary-cousin violent ursurping freakazoids into a recognized and even acclaimed dynasty on the English throne, but also brought the concept of books out of libraries and into universities and, eventually, private homes.

Picture all those monks staring in amazement as they shook out their cramped and aching writing hands.

And the publishing industry has remained hooked to Gutenberg’s machine ever since. In our own twentieth century, printing presses became more and more sophisticated and consequently more expensive over the decades, until the only people who could afford to print books in the identical masses to which readers had grown accustomed were big publishing houses, most of them headquartered in New York City.

However, even into the 1960s and early ’70s small presses did frequently produce what appeared to be books straight off hand-cranked presses, especially in the heady anarchy-soused days of the 1960s. Richard Brautigan’s original works—which sold well enough for him to become an icon of his time—look as though he produced them in his basement.

But in the 1980s and, increasingly, the 1990s and twenty-first century, New York publishing became not about publication, but about creating a lucrative income stream for a tiny (and I mean tiny) handful of people. As of today, many of the best-respected publishing houses of the twentieth century have vanished into thin air (where are Charles Scribner’s Sons when you need them?).

New York’s contemporary Big 5 publishers—Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, MacMillan and Hatchette—are either controlled or owned outright by just five families.

That’s right—five self-proclaimed modern publishing dynasties.

One of them one man alone.

The Big 5

  • Random House is owned by Bertelsmann of Germany, which is owned by the Mohn family, whose leading members during WWII were SS men and the largest publishers of Nazi authors and propaganda—including the author who gave the commemorative speech during the 1933 Nazi book burning—and they did things like get busted for illegally selling bulk-quantity paper during the shortage that was one of the effects of the war (US publisher originally, bought in 1998).

  • Simon & Schuster is owned by National Amusements, which is controlled by the National Amusements theater franchise, its stock controlled by the Redstone family of Massachusetts (US publisher originally, bought by Gulf+Western/Paramount in 1975 which was bought by Viacom in 1994).

  • HarperCollins is owned by News Corporation, which is of course controlled by Rupert Murdoch (US publisher originally, Harper & Row bought in 1987, Collins bought in 1989, along with the Hearst Book Group including William Morrow & Company and Avon in 1999).

  • MacMillan is owned by the Holtzbrink family of Germany. (English publisher originally, bought in 1999).

  • Hatchette is owned by Legardere Group of France, which is controlled by the Legardere family (US publisher originally, Time Warner, including Little, Brown, merged in 1989, bought in 2006).

Take a look at those dates, guys.

Almost all of this has happened within the past thirty years, the bulk of it in a six-year window between 1994 and 1999.

That’s a lot of tectonic shift in just six years!

What this means is that when the people controlling the financial interests of the Big 5 of American publishing today tell the old joke—“How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Start with a large fortune”—they are laughing in their sleeves all the way to the bank.

And this is the situation that we writers lived with for several increasingly-confusing decades (in great frustration and despair) when the technology for Print-on-Demand (POD) and ebooks suddenly hit the publishing scene right around the turn of the millenium.

  1. Print-On-Demand (POD)
  2. Lightning Source, owned by Ingram Distributors, incorporated in 1997 to use new printing press technology to print books individually rather than in print runs of many multiple copies.

    Suddenly—you don’t have to print a copy of a book until it’s paid for.

    In fact, you don’t even have to know anything about printing technology.

    I cannot tell you how this totally alters the distinction between writers and publishers that’s been the great, insurmountable obstacle throughout history.

  3. eBooks
  4. Although the concept of digital books has been in use since the inception of Project Gutenberg in 1970, the first machines designed and produced for the reading of books in digital form were marketed in 1998, only a few years after the launch of Amazon online bookstore began decimating the independent bookstore landscape.

    Within ten years, Amazon had become the Godzilla of the online publishing industry—remarkably and inexplicably remaining to this day unchallenged by the Big 5, who could take it down any time they seriously felt like pooling their resources—and was launching their own ereader, engaging in ungentlemanly hand-to-hand combat over their efforts to leverage their Godzilladom into a monopoly on the ebook market.

    Barnes & Noble is still giving ole Godzilla a run for its money with their monopoly on brick-&-mortar stores and their own online bookstore (while their only real brick-&-mortar competition, Borders, gives a single high shriek and melts like the Wicked Witch of the West), but at this point nobody thinks it will last.

    And this all took a nasty but not unexpected turn when the Silicon Valley Wizard of Oz, Steve Jobs, tapped his chin thoughtfully and said to himself, “I think I’ll take a piece of that pie.”

    Meanwhile, at some point around that time it occurred to everyone else with access to a computer and the Internet that an ebook is just a PDF with a college degree.

    You could publish a book any time you wanted without a printer.

    In fact, your reader doesn’t even need an ereader, so long as they also have access to a computer and the Internet.

    Again, the great, insurmountable obstacle between writers and publishers falls like the Berlin Wall, without so much as a shot fired.

  5. Self-publishing
  6. This combination of developments has turned what was previously a small but valiant subculture of hardy souls—who’d been for a long time investing their own hard-earned money in offset printing and hand-selling of their books out of the backs of their cars—into a primordial explosion of inexpert and often only semi-literate typists who would like very much to become J.K. Rowling.

    The noise of that initial detonation was supersonic and continues to reverberate even as we speak.

  7. Multimedia
  8. Along with the rise of publishing technology, the similar-but-distinct rise of computer technology in the past generation (I used to typeset typewritten and hand-edited copy on a CompuGraphic IV while a friend was getting his computer science degree using punch cards) has created a whole other world of computer graphic and Graphical User Interface (GUI) tools, making it possible for those same eager typists to incorporate all kinds of neat whizbang and even interactive stuff into their works, which at that point become really no longer books.

So where does that leave you?

Should you self-publish—or keep slogging away at the bottleneck of traditional publishing, bowing to its increasingly restrictive dictates on form and content and hoping against hope you’ll be one of the lucky handful caught up in the lucrative income stream for which those restrictive dictates are designed?

Should you release your book for $.99 on Kindle, beg all your friends to buy it the same day, and let Amazon do the rest?

Should you become a self-marketing expert? A newbie-novelist/blogger guru? A GUI programmer? Rupert Murdoch’s masseuse/masseur?

I’m not going to make any quantifiable predictions about the future of publishing—there are plenty of industry insiders doing that already.

I am only going to say this: at a time when the traditional publishing industry continues to speed its own decline in the plummeting quality and intellectual level of its product, and yet the blogosphere continues to deliver onto these literary shores tens of thousands more aspiring writers every day, all seeking a new land of opportunity and hope, and computer technology continues to revolutionize faster and faster what’s possible in the real and virtual worlds with the means at our disposal. . .

The stories and novels that comprise the height of quality literature so far on this planet are still available to us (some of them even back in print after decades of obscurity), still accessible to absolutely anyone with the dedication, passion, and a modicum of intelligence who would like study and model their craft upon them.

Right now—before the paper of those printed pages succumbs to entropy or, if salvaged from the garbage, to the inevitable disintegration of age—they still exist.

The apex of literature.

At the same time as this exponentially-expanding power of publication technology.

We—you and I—are standing this very moment at a crossroads in fiction of unprecedented, almost unimaginable potential.

Can you feel the ground shaking under your feet?

38 thoughts on “Publishing, POD, eBooks, Self-Publishing
—Freelance Independent Editor FAQ

  1. Lisa M Fernandez says:

    What an informative post! What DON’T you know Miss Mixon? By the way, I used to love the ink smell from those old cranking machines. Given that there are alternatives and e-books and e-this and e-that and nooks and Kindels (think that’s how you spell them) fine, but I don’t want any of them. I want to run to a book store the day a book has been released. I want to savor every page, smell the paper and hold the spine in my hand and wait for the sound when I open it for the first time. Shoot me but I don’t want to scroll down and read a book on my ipad or mac or i-whatever. I want vintage, old school, normal old fashioned books the way they were and should remain. Including my own when I am published. (Thanks to brilliant editing by none other than Ms Mixon herself).
    The geneology of the publishing houses was interesting. Great Post!
    A fan and future published author. Lisa

    1. Victoria says:

      Lisa, you’re very generous, considering I know you know I was writing this post instead of working on your ms. 🙂

      I am totally and completely behind you on the physical book. I suffered my worst career crisis in my third year of a computer science degree, when I found myself uncontrollably skipping class to hide out in the back of San Luis Obispo’s wonderful Leon’s Used Bookstore, opening books and putting my face to the pages. . .that beloved smell of words.

      Vintage is my middle name, baby.

  2. Wow. What an impressive walk down amnesia lane! Your post is a great overview of publishing industry history.

    I think you are smart not to go too far down the path of predictions. Everything related to publishing has been thrown into the blender over the past couple of years, and matters are likely to get even more chaotic in the next couple of years. Even optimistic pundits didn’t expect that ebook sales would exceed paperback sales in the early part of this year.

    Self publishing is actually coming into vogue, much to the frustration and annoyance of authors seeking the holy grail of a traditional publishing contract. On the one hand, you have thousands starry-eyed writers with dollar signs on the brain and no patience for production quality, and on the other hand you have holier-than-thou authors who waste their lives begging for deals that will never, ever happen.

    It’s all going to work out though. As Mark Coker says, readers are the new gatekeepers, and they will find ways to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    It may be easy to self publish, but it certainly isn’t easy to make a living at it, Amanda Hocking notwithstanding. Soon, more good writers will get off their knees and abandon the traditional publishing altar. When that happens, the less less patient and less gifted will get a serious run for their money.

    1. Victoria says:

      It’s never been easy to make a living as a writer. But as the traditional publishing industry continues in their mission to squeeze blood from stones for the benefit of a tiny handful of megawealthy hiding way in the background, there’s no question self-publishing will fill the gap left in the lives of those writers interested in the actual writing.

      And ebooks are involved in this, so predictions about their future—and the future of print—get all tangled up in the completely different issues of big publishing finances.

      It’s a heck of an exciting time to be a writer.

  3. Jeffrey Russell says:

    Call me crazy, but for my money Hollywood does a much better job than modern publishing at balancing the need to release stories that are sure-fire money makers with stories of merit and depth. The more shallow, entertaining movies sell a lot of tickets and Hollywood makes sure the public knows about them. But the awards generally go to the stories of greater depth and quality. Hollywood makes sure everyone knows about them, too.

    1. Victoria says:

      Hollywood gets a certain amount of funding from product placement, too. You don’t notice it, but in a lot of movies it’s there.

      Hollywood also has the indie film industry competing with them, which to a certain extent exerts that power lauded by all dyed-in-the-wool capitalists, the power of Survival of the Fittest.

      That’s why I’m watching the self-publishing revolution from the perspective of the indie film and indie music revolutions of recent times.

      1. Jeffrey Russell says:

        I’d guess there’s all sorts of ways to make money from a movie that are not available to the publishing industry, so there aren’t really parallels between the industries. Except for the fact they both sell stories to the public. And they both need to find – and develop – new talent constantly.

        My point is that as far as marketing goes Hollywood is so far superior to publishing it’s hard to believe. I get it that the payoff from a blockbuster movie is a whole lot more than a book, but the upfront costs are far higher too.

        I don’t even go to the movies much. I read. I too like the feel of a book in my hands. And I hope one day I’ll get to hold my own book in my hands. And smell the fresh pages the first time I open it. It’s just that I wish the publishers I hope to do business with were as good at their jobs as the people that make movies.

        1. Victoria says:

          Don’t idealize them too much, Jeffrey. The problem with publishing is that it’s getting a lot more like Hollywood. We’ve all known about the shallow dog-eat-dog Hollywood mentality for decades, but it’s shocking to see publishing moving in that direction, too.

          Lynda Barry once said she admired her friend Matt Groening because he knew how to do business with people (TV industry) who, instead of saying, “I like your earrings,” just rip them out of your head.

          Also, Amazon is hot on Hollywood’s heels with the product placement. They’ve recently dropped the price of the Kindle by some paltry amount if you’re willing to sign on for ads in the books you read.

          Publishing as an industry is splitting in half on these issues. Film did it. Music did it. And if you ever talk to people in the art world—paintings—you’ll hear it’s been splitting pretty much the same way during the same time span.

          Publishers know how to market. But the high-quality movies you’re talking about are probably produced by indie film companies rather than the heavy-weights. It’s just that film is a few decades ahead of publishing, so the indies have had time to develop a little muscle for themselves.

  4. Chris says:

    Informative, scary, daunting, depressing, energizing post all in one, Victoria. 🙂 My take is two-fold: Quality is quality, and all things being equal, great books will get bought and read by millions. Second, technology has improved modern life exponentially in most other ways, so I need to have faith that the leaps in publishing technology will ultimately benefit all- writers as well as readers and publishers. We just don’t know yet how we will benefit. That’s what makes waking up every day so darn interesting.

    1. Victoria says:

      I’d love to agree with you that great books will get bought by millions, Chris, but the truth is the traditional publishing industry is actively seeking to ‘dumb down’ fiction these days because the easy money is in Walmart and Target, where the education level of readers is simply not high enough to inspire them to read for great quality.

      I’m waiting for the backlash, which is the wave that’s going to carry a lot of the currently-invisible new great writers into the public eye. It’s been decades since well-known literature was high quality in general. We’re certainly due.

      It’ll be like environmental awareness—in the early 1960s we were all pretty much just getting dumber by the minute, but backlash set in in the ’70s, and it’s been a long, slow climb to where we are today, a climb we probably couldn’t have achieved if we hadn’t been inspired by the rise of polyester and high-VOC white plastic go-go boots in the first place.

      The one thing I will predict is that, as the publishing industry splits into a dichotomy between dumbed-down blockbusters for the dumbed-down masses and indie mavericks exploring quality for quality’s sake, we’ll eventually wind up with much greater choice in our reading material.

      That’s the day I’m waiting for.

  5. Amazing post, Victoria. I’m spreading this around. 🙂

    1. Victoria says:

      Hi, Michelle! Haven’t see you around in ages.

      1. I know. Totally lame of me, but I DO come over and read quite often! I just never feel like I have much to add to the conversation. 🙂

        1. Victoria says:

          Oh, you should. I know you have your own thriving blog with lots of opinions flying around!

  6. Beautifully put. This is a must read for all aspiring authors. It also points out how many of the decisions about what we read–and think–are made by a handful of all-powerful billionaires. Will RT.

    1. Victoria says:

      Yes, Anne, it’s that old saw, “Follow the money.” Who benefits from the decisions being made by the powers that guide the traditional publishing industry?

      When you realize the Big 6 are either owned or controlled by such a minuscule number of people, you realize all this business about crying poor due to the economy has to be smoke & mirrors. If it were true that publishing doesn’t make much money, well, they’d never have invested in it in the first place, would they? And they’d certainly be in an all-fired hurry to sell out now before the economy drags them into complete bankruptcy.

  7. Most instructive!

    The quality debate is of course the biggie.

    If the legacy publishers are already dumbing down expectations, and new writers are self-publishing too soon (Anne R Allen blogs refer) with inferior quality products, what chance of quality works being found?

    I would love to write “quality” lit fiction, but took an economic decision to co-write a commercial book first. It’s paid off: We have a top five best-seller on Kindle UK (Sugar & Spice, Saffina Desforges). If we can knock up a few more successes like that then I can drift back to writing “quality” at a later date.

    Or maybe, just maybe, I need to rethink what “quality” writing is.

    Is “quality” writing something that only appeals to a minority educated enough to appreciate subtle Latin phrases or passing quotations from Shakespeare’s lesser know works? Or is that just elitism?

    Can a “quality” piece of writing not also engage the masses simply by being a gripping, or at least, entertaining story written in simple, engaging English?

    1. Victoria says:

      Mark, that’s a heck of a good question. Can I answer it on the advice column next week?

  8. Mark, I don’t think ‘quality’ has to mean obscure, or ‘appeals only to people who got English degrees’. Unfortunately many gripping, engaging novels are rejected by publishers, or if they are published they sink without trace because there is no publicity behind them.

    What we need is a better way to give quality novels – conventionally published and self-published – a fighting chance. Keep the flame of good writing alive! Although, as publishing is a business, is that a naive view?

    1. Victoria says:

      This is why I read vintage pulp from the early twentieth century. Once upon a time, it was not naive at all.

  9. one of the most enlightening articles i’ve seen on publishing in a long time. thank you.

    1. Victoria says:

      This is really just a skim across the top—there is of course a great deal more going on below the surface that it would take someone much more experienced in the business to talk about.

      But since I’m talking here to aspiring writers, you all and I are pretty much on the same plane. I know the craft. Anyone can follow the money. They’re just being alienated from one another more and more every day.

  10. Simon says:

    I may have just learned more about the publishing industry in this post than I did in the past 2 years of surfing industry blogs. Huh.

    Thanks for that, good lady!

    1. Victoria says:

      See, Simon, this is what happens when you spend your time hanging out here instead of wandering all over the blogosphere like a little lost lamb. . .

  11. What a wonderful post. Thanks for all the information.
    Thank you.

    1. Victoria says:

      You’re very welcome, Christine. As soon as I told my husband I’d written this, he said, “Did you use that information you dug up about who owns the publishing houses?”


  12. This is possibly the most epic (and perceptive) post on publishing I have ever seen. I am trying to think of a clever response to leave but I believe you’ve said it all – wow. Thank you!

    1. Victoria says:

      Well, hey, Karri, thank you! And thank you for not coming up with a clever response that would tax my poor brain. I blew it all out writing that post. 🙂

  13. One of the reasons the big houses control publishing is marketing. Writing the best novel of the 21st century won’t help if people haven’t head of it. Lightning Source is has an advantage over self-publishing in that Ingram is one of, if not the largest book distribute in the world. Your books will be available on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, Indigo, Powells, and the other large and small booksellers. If you self publish, distribution will be up to you.

    Whichever way you go, the marketing will be your responsibility. Creating that buzz outside of your local market is a real challenge.

    1. Victoria says:

      There’s marketing, but more than that the entire distribution & review industry is set up to favor the big publishers. This is partly due to the self-publishing explosion—booksellers can’t afford to take the time to cut a deal with every single self- or micro-publisher out there, so they only cut deals with the big guys. Reviewers lean the same way. The grassroots aspect of self-publishing is very powerful, but also in some cases a liability.

      Roz Morris, coincidentally, ran a similar piece over on her blog in which the comments dug deep into the reasons behind the power of the big houses. The truth is they have much greater visibility, and visibility translates to money.

  14. The options available now are just staggering. I love that we are entering a shakedown era — the big players are getting sweated by small publishers and an explosion of digital and DIY tech. It’s a good time to be an author, and to be an author in the capacity you want, from send it off and forget it, to run the show yourself from an entrepreneurial standpoint.

    1. Victoria says:

      Yes—“a shakedown era.”

      It’s a fascinating time to be an author. I’ve always wanted to publish my own books and lamented the expense and expertise involved in owning my own offset press, like the Woolfs. Now I can publish anything I want. . .but the waters have gotten mighty deep and crowded, and the sharks cruising them are mighty toothy!

  15. Lyn Horner says:

    Hi, Victoria. This is my first time here. I found you thanks to a recommendation on the Writers In The Storm blog site, and I’m very glad I did. Thank you for enlightening us about who really owns the Big Six. No wonder it has become so difficult to break through the mile-thick wall they maintain between aspiring authors and the reading public. I gave up butting my head against that wall after years of trying, through agents and on my own. Last summer I decided to try self publishing, and I don’t regret that decision.

    My first book, Darlin’ Druid, has been well received and my sales are slowly but steadily climbing. Best of all, I control the content and length of my stories. I’m a cross genre writer, mixing action western, romance and paranormal elements, one reason I couldn’t sell to the big boys. An editor from one of the Big Six, who liked my writing but declined to purchase Darlin’ Druid, actually advised me not to take out the paranormal aspect because it’s what makes the story unique. How crazy is that? They won’t buy it, but don’t change it!

    I took that editor’s advice. Learning how to format and upload my book to Amazon and Barnes & Noble was no picnic. (They make it sound easy, but it’s not, not if you want the finished product to look good and read easily.) But it was well worth the effort. Now I’m going through the same learning process with smashwords and Amazon’s print-on-demand affiliate, CreateSpace. And need I say self-promotion is a bear? Believe me, it is. Yet, I’m having the time of my life, doing what I love — writing.

    Must go and read more of your posts.

    1. Victoria says:

      No, it’s no picnic, all right! I’m totally with you there. We’re going through it with my books right now.

      What you ran into with the editor was an honest soul tied to an industry they can’t change. That’s fabulous that they shared their expertise with you—a real nugget slipped out to you between the bars.

      This is the very, very beginning of the New Publishing Era. We will look back on this time with gratitude for having been around to take part.

  16. Naomi says:

    WOW. My head is spinning, and I think it’ll take at least a week for me to come up with anything even vaguely appropriate to say in response to this clever, informative and prophetic post. So today, I’m just popping by to say thank you, Victoria, yet again.

    1. Victoria says:

      You’re welcome, Naomi! There’s a whole lot going on, but the pieces of the puzzle do fit together to form a picture.

  17. Naomi says:

    ps. I do want to add that thanks to you and for the first time, I feel truly excited rather than intimidated by the changes afoot in our industry.

    1. Victoria says:

      It is exciting. What a time to be alive and writing!

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