Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 45

by Laura Anne Gilman

You’d have to be living under a rock that’s under a rock not to know that there’s some massive change going on in the publishing industry.  The technological advances in e-book development and distribution have taken “self-published” from an insult (poor quality in prose and production) to a viable business alternative.

Along the way, many people have been choosing up sides between “self-published” or “traditional” publishing.  And the language thrown between the two is getting fierce, with both sides attacked for their perceived failures, including the recent “house slaves” comments from Michael Stackpole and Barry Eisler, and the resulting counterpunches and flamewars*.

May I be a voice of disgustingly calm (meerkattish) practicality?

Sit down, shut up, and cool off.

If you’re so busy yelling that Your Way is the One True Way, you’re missing the really amazing thing that’s happening.

First, let’s look at the basics.

There is much to be said for self-publishing your work.  You control how it’s presented, you control how it’s priced (assuming you’re in accord with Amazon’s plans, anyway), and you get 100% of the profits.  For writers long abused by the chain of publishing economics, those are very tempting things.

But it requires certain skill sets beyond the ability to write a good story.  That means you either need to acquire those skills yourself, have friends who have them (well-meaning amateurs will make your books look like the work of amateurs), or hire professionals.  The first will cost you a copious amount of time, the second will cost you money – well before you’ve earned a penny.

And that’s before you try and sell your work, either digitally (say hello to the pirates,) or hardcopy (see previous essay on selling author copies).  And if you sell through a third-party, as you will want to…well, then you’re probably going to run into the same problem publishers are facing: the first distribution may be free, but then the distributor wants to make their cut, too.

Traditional publishing – going through a house, be it micro or major – is reviled as being out of touch, of not listening to the author or taking enough risks with new and exciting projects, of not sharing the profits equitably or being transparent with their bookkeeping.   And much of that is undeniably true.  Publishers have always looked to their bottom line, with the writer trying to make the best deal they can, to take advantage of what the publisher offers.

And yet, mainstream publishing houses do still offer a number of significant advantages to a writer.  They pay advances, a guaranteed sum before the book hits the market.  And they have trained editors.  Despite the claim that ‘editors don’t edit any more” (something I heard when I first got into the industry in 1989!), many certainly do, and a good editor can not only save a bad book, she can kick a good book up into fabulous.

Publishers also have production departments, an entire team of people whose sole job it is to make sure that your book is proofread, copyedited, typeset, designed, and bound properly – and the digital equivalent, as well.  And then there’s sales & distribution.  Yes, we love to rag on the sales force.  But until you’ve tried to get your books into stores on your own, or had to haul boxes to and from conferences to hand-sell, don’t dismiss their value.

And it’s not just the ALL or NOTHING scenario – there are small press publishers, too, from micro-presses to companies that can compete with imprints of some of the major houses for quality and distribution.  Small Press publishing tends to pay, at most, a small advance, or, you will be offered a shared-royalty deal instead.  However, a small press has the same advantage to a writer as the larger presses, in that the production work is done for you, by people who know what they are doing.  This frees us up to do what most of us do best: write more.  And let someone else handle the back-room paperworking.

My point?  Just as earlier in the year I warned you against following any one “guru” when planning your career, I truly believe that there is no one “perfect, author-friendly” system of publishing.   In fact, if you plan on having a long and viable career, you’re best off following not an ‘either/or’ philosophy, but rather “all, at different times.”  This?  Is an amazing opportunity.  Instead of your publishing options being a set menu, with no substitutions, it’s now a la carte.

Today, the smart writer ignores the shouting and the ranting,  looks at each option and asks not “what’s better?” but “what’s the best way, the most productive and profitable way, to publish this particular project?”

* If you are trying to convince people as to the rightness of their path, insulting and condescending to people is probably not the best way to go.  Nor is telling people, in effect, that they’re being mentally manipulated – especially when you’re in the process of trying to mentally manipulate them to YOUR point of view.


Coming up in Week 46:  Almost But Not Quite

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, including the THE SHATTERED VINE, Book 3 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy, IN STORES NOW! (ahem), and the forthcoming urban fantasy TRICKS OF THE TRADE (11/15/11). Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, which SF Signal called “amazingly evocative….a potent ride through a changing future,” was published by Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)

She also runs d.y.m.k. productions, an editorial services company (

And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.


About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at Learn more at, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.


Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 45 — 5 Comments

  1. I should say, for full transparency, that I am published by two major NY publishers, a small press out in the Midwest, and am in the process of self-publishing a project, as well as working with BVC [which is neither self nor indie but something else entirely). As ever, I try to walk what I talk, and vice versa.

  2. I love how many options we have as writers (and readers!) today. It used to be that if I wanted to write something clearly noncommercial, or too wacky or too outside the body of my traditionally-published work, I had to squash the story into a short form. Sometimes that works, and sometimes — we all know what happens when you try to force 100K words of idea into 10K. Now when I write short, it’s because that’s the right length for the story.

    I agree with you that the small presses often produce books of excellent quality. I think they’re reviving and sustaining the midlist, works of value that don’t easily fit the mass marketing categories. Epublishing and POD print versions mean that a new small publisher not longer needs a huge capital investment, so we’re seeing a spectrum of creative folks coming into the field.

    My own disclosure is that I love my traditional publisher, but I also love having the ability to bring out my out of print back list in ebook format, and look forward to publishing (through BVC, for quality editing, among other things) my non-generic-common-denominator work. As an editor and lover of anthologies, I am grateful for how small press and epublishing offers new niches for publication of wonderful books that NYC won’t touch.

  3. I’m just glad you’re mentioning small/micro presses. In this very loud war between traditionally published and self-published, it usually feels like small presses (which are a little of this, a little of that) get completely overlooked.

  4. The big problem for any self-publisher (whether it be via Vanity Press, POD, or eBook) is publicity. Tor, for example, has a regular schedule of conventions they attend where they do a 1 hour presentation of up-coming books, they put a new author in front of thousands of people and say “I read this book and thought it was good enough to publish, trust me. If you like so-and-so books, you’ll like this one.” When the book is actually available, hundreds of copies are already pre-sold.

    No self-publisher can have that kind of reach unless s/he is already a NAME in the field with a following of thousands waiting for their next book.

    If you are an unknown author, no one is going to believe you are unbiased in pronouncing your book as a “good-read.” The only way to get your book out is to hand-peddle it at conventions and send it to every reviewer you can find, and then hope it catches on and begins selling.

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