Is the future of book publishing with the Big Five or with the self-published author/marketer?

When it comes to book publishing, traditionally published authors, as John Green has said, tend to favor the Big Five. Self-published authors pull for their side, as Brenna Aubrey convincingly illustrated in her article. There has been a lot said on the topic in the past year or two, but I’m going to throw my hat in the ring and propose that an important mode may end up being “The Third Way”, a path that winds between these two.

So who am I?

To start with, I’m very much a newbie to the publishing business, but one with recent success, and that affords me an interesting (if limited) view into this world.

In 2011, the year before I self-published my first novel, I was turned down by over a hundred publishers and agents who told me—in a nutshell—that my book, Atopia Chronicles, wouldn’t sell (Atopia has now sold over 70,000 copies, and my second novel, CyberStorm, nearly 120,000).

Now, by self-publishing and without any help from the Big Five, I’ve gathered nearly 200,000 readers in under two years. This was only possible because of the new platforms and outlets that became available to authors in the past few years. Without them, I wouldn’t be an author, or at least, not a “published author”. And, because of my self-publishing success, 20th Century Fox purchased the film rights to my second novel, CyberStorm.

In 2013, I turned down several six-figure offers from most of the Big Five for publishing my second novel, CyberStorm, choosing instead to continue self-publishing—at least in the domestic US market. Now I do have publishing contracts with several of the Big Five, but for foreign markets—I have about a dozen foreign country deals, and these make up a good chunk of my revenue.

The Harper Collins (Canada) version of my CyberStorm book just came out, and I have to admit having a big publisher name on the cover made me feel special. I’m not being sarcastic. It’s an accomplishment I’m very proud of, and I look forward to working closely with Harper Collins and other publishers in the future. Working with them has helped improve my end product dramatically.

So—and now we’ll get to the financial part—when all is said and done, in the 18 months since I self-published my first novel in August of 2012, I’ve earned an average of into-the-tens-of-thousands a month…which even I am dumbfounded at. Almost unbelievable.

But the real point I’m trying to make is this: half of my writing revenue has come from self-publishing, and the other half from working with the “publishing establishment”. This is The Third Way that I think may become more accessible and more important for authors in the future.

I fully realize that my kind of outcome is rare and unlikely (and very, very lucky), and yet, there it is. I’m going to draw a few conclusions from my experiences, with the full acknowledgement that I’m just one (quite rare) data point. And I’m going to say, up front, that I’m no expert…if you want an expert opinion and view into the book business of 2014 I recommend having a look at Mike Shatzkin’s excellent article on the topic.

My first conclusion is this: Not only do I see electronic self-publishing as a new way to get into the writing game, I see it as just about the only way in for new authors. My perspective is colored by my own entryway, but after watching a string of self-published authors (in my circle of contacts this includes Andy Weir, A.G. Riddle, G. Michael Hopf, the Wearmouth brothers and more) get courted by “the establishment” it makes more and more sense.

(Ed. Note: Yes, I know some of you are screaming that self-publishing has a long and storied history, but I’d be careful of some claims that writers like Twain, Clancy, or Stephen King were self-published as detailed in this Huffington Post article. More to my point, by “new way” I mean using the electronic self-publishing platforms that have only become available in the past few years.)

As I see it, the route now is that a new writer self-publishes, works to generate an audience, and in the process creates a “virtual team” of people who are enthusiastic about their writing and helps them hone their craft. Once they pop up onto the Amazon charts, writing agents take notice and start contacting them. When an agent gets involved, they can start selling to the establishment (Ed. Note: getting an agent involved was the best thing I ever did as a writer—a little shout out to Paul Lucas at Janklow & Nesbit!!—but it’s a very personal and difficult process…this will be the subject of a different article).

I’ve watched this process happen time and time again in the past year, myself included.

Let me get back to that “virtual team” idea. One of the most amazing things I’ve discovered is the enthusiasm that readers now have for self-published authors. I have a database of nearly a thousand readers who’ve volunteered to help beta read, proof read, and even let me interview them about their lives and work. Doing an initial crowd-sourced content edit has now become a standard part of my process.


(And if you’re an aspiring author, make sure to tap into this as much as you can.)

The second conclusion that I’m going to draw is that to maximize the revenue a writer can generate from their work—if they can get a self-published e-book success on their hands—it’s possible to work both the self-publishing and traditional publishing angles at the same time. Hugh Howey famously managed to retain his electronic publishing rights while doing print deals, but there are more options that are more accessible.

If a writer manages to get out a self-published book that is successful, they can separate out rights for: domestic US, Canada, UK, rest of world country by country, audio rights, film and TV rights and so on. As I did, they could keep self-publishing in the US domestic market (both print and electronic), but sell off rights for each of these separate parts individually through an agent. With enough volume in e-book sales, this becomes possible.

All I’m saying is that it’s possible, and that working with the “publishing establishment” doesn’t need to be antithetical to self-publishing at the same time. Of course I realize that I’m not the first person to think of mixing self-publishing with book publisher contracts, but I’m saying that the new electronic platforms have created a dynamic that makes it more possible (and for a wider audience) than before. I think some other commentators have called writers who employ both self-publishing and publisher contracts “hybrids” which makes sense.

I’m going to make a guess that as a new generation of writers rises up through the ranks, often coming through the self-publishing route (as illustrated in a great article from Hugh Howey), many are going to remain “hybrids” and keep at least one foot in the self-published world and push to create better deals for themselves and everyone else.

That’s The Third Way that I see coming.

ps. feel free to ask questions–the best place to do this would be on my author Facebook page at on the posting linking to this article