Are self-pub ebooks from the Devil? Hail the New Pulp Fiction!

The explosion in self-pub ebooks continues, and shows no sign of abating. JP Locke has become the first self-pub author to join Amazon’s Kindle Million Club, alongside the likes of traditional authors such as Stieg Larson and James Patterson. Have the major publishing houses taken note? You betcha. Are they quaking in their boots? Nope.

Don’t get me wrong, the Big Six are very much focused on ebooks, but their focus is primarily on how the ebook phenomenon affects the monetization of their authors’ works. In other words, they want to get all the milk out of their cows that they can. Pity the poor cows!

So what effect, if any, is there from this surge in self-pub ebooks? Three major results come to mind immediately, and I’m sure there are more (since I’m not that bright). The surge in self-pub ebooks: helps bypass the gatekeepers, provides an avenue of growth for emerging writers, and fosters new markets.

Traditional publishers have been scrambling, at least since November of 2007, when Amazon introduced the Kindle. When you sell water in the desert, you don’t want anyone else’s hand on the spigot. They didn’t joust at windmills. They knew the lessons of Sony v. Universal Studios, a 1984 Supreme Court case that found VCR time shifting, or recording of TV shows to watch later, was not a violation of copyright. The poor networks were afraid their business model was going the way of Uncle Miltie, with people being able to fast-forward through commercials. An ill-founded fear. Last time I looked, the big networks are still around. The lesson: embrace and exploit new technology, and don’t try to keep the genie in the bottle.

And what about the movie studios and their reluctance to embrace video tape? Anyone remember when a copy of a movie cost upwards of $80? (Dating myself here.) But along came E.T., with its $20 price tag, and voila, the viability of home video sales as a profit center was proven. Years later, most movies made more money from DVD sales than from the box office. The lesson: instead of ruination, a new market was born!

So, how does this affect the Big Six? Well, they were mainly concerned with ebooks not cannibalizing paper book sales. Amazon wisely went to school off the iTunes model and gave the copyrighted material some proprietary protection to deter piracy, but the Big Six wanted more. After an initial push where Amazon subsidized sales, capping the price at $9.99, the Big Six wanted, and got, higher prices for their ebooks. What’s a book lover to do?
Enter self-pub ebooks.

As any ambitious Big Six mailroom clerk will tell you, quality is not guaranteed when you purchase a self-pub ebook. This is not a lie. The imprimatur of a major publishing label is a promise of a measure of quality and thorough vetting. But let’s be honest, it is not a guarantee. Promises are occasionally broken. While agents and publishing houses do serve as gatekeepers against the barbarians at the transom, they are also profoundly interested in branding and synergy. The Patterson Inc. books, with its universe of coauthors, are evidence of this. And try to find anything of merit in a Kiyosaki book. I dare ya!

Self-pub ebooks, with all their flaws, bypass the gatekeepers. Writing which never would have seen the light of day in a commercial format now has an outlet. The gatekeepers still keep their eyes open, and will cherry-pick the ripest fruit, such as in the case of Amanda Hocking. But by and large, these books escape the gatekeepers’ scrutiny.

What are you telling us, John? We should rejoice that there are lesser quality books abounding and now available?

No. First off, they are not all lesser quality books. Most of them are not. And I’m telling you this is something to celebrate. Think of this as a rebirth. We have returned to the halcyon days of true pulp fiction, an era which ended in 1957 with the liquidation of the American News Company. Those glory days brought us the likes of Lovecraft, Chandler, Hammett, Bradbury, Heinlein, and many more.

The low entry costs of self-pub ebooks, along with the promotional leverage of social media, have created an era of New Pulp Fiction (minus the pulpy paper from which the moniker derives). Emerging writers have a venue to ply and perfect their trade. Gone are the months long process of sending inquiries to agents, and mailing off three chapter packets only to receive Xeroxed rejection letters. Now writers can get near-immediate feedback on their work, and develop the crucial confidence built on the satisfaction of knowing that someone found their work worthwhile.

Furthermore, self-pub ebooks are not stealing market share from the Big Six. The Big Six will not suffer or wither on the vine. This is a new market. The type of reader who will roll the dice on a 99-cent book from a previously unpublished author is a risk taker, a gambler. Such a reader is a sunny-eyed optimist who is willing to search for that particular new author whose writing strikes a chord within his or her breast. And when that chord is struck, there follow repeat sales of other titles.

Besides sunny-eyed gamblers, there is another important segment of this new market, and that is self-pub authors themselves. A writer writes, and a writer reads. I buy and read self-pub ebooks for enjoyment, to further my understanding of the market, and to improve my own writing by observing what does and what doesn’t work. I am sure that I am not alone.

Sure, the quality can be uneven. And sometimes I pick a lemon. But I liken the experience to attending community theater, where I don’t expect Broadway production values, and I don’t expect Broadway ticket prices. Or it’s like buying something at a craft fair. A homemade tchotchke might not have the machine-straight sewing lines of a factory produced item, but it has character and heart, as the work of an artisan always does.

Viva la ebook! Long reign the New Pulp Fiction!

18 Responses to “Are self-pub ebooks from the Devil? Hail the New Pulp Fiction!”

  1. carol ritzel says:

    im not quite convinved about self publishing on line , not enough good news yet ,im seein more bad news than good news. im going to try to self publish a beautiful poem i wrote first and see how that goes in some ways it doesnt seem as professional as the traditional way.advertising is big for any product.

  2. SL Clark says:

    “Good vs. Bad” news isn’t something to hang onto. Conventional support systems keep the giant wheels turning. For instance, what if J. Locke had a traditional contract and midstream he wanted to create a Western? That would have been laughable; news worthy from a “he’s going to crash” standpoint. The NYT Bestseller list is based on *paper* sales to stores, aka warehouses. Armies of folks are in business to support this system – which eBooks are rapidly dismantling.

    As for your self-published poetry, can you articulate who the target audience is as clearly as J. Locke wrote about his? Read his “How I sold…” for why this is vital.

  3. While the jury is still out on how e-publishing will change books forever, I’m feeling pretty optimistic about the future for books. Something needed to change to make them relevant to young readers, and I think that change has definitely hit. Interesting post.

  4. Hi John,

    Interesting article.

    I think there are a lot of parallels with the Pulp era. Cheap books and prolific writers are just the two most obvious.

    Many people, usually literary snobs, think “Pulp” is a pejorative, forgetting the great writers that emerged from the tradition, such as one of my heroes, Philip K. Dick.


  5. I love the analogy with the VCR. I do remember a fear that the networks would make us pay for taping a show and skipping the commercials. But TV (and commercials) are still here.

    And in today’s paper I saw the amazing statistics that proves what you’re saying here–Kindle sales are not taking away from hard-copy sales. Book sales are up a whopping 46%!! People are reading MORE because of the Kindle. How cool is that?

    You probably saw I posted today about how indie publishing is going to allow us to choose our own genres (thanks for the Tweet), instead of blindly following corporate dictums that we MUST read nothing but zombipocalypse steampunk this year. So many great genres and forms are coming back–like the novella. Come on over and add your 2 cents about what genres you’d like to see revived.

    I don’t see a downside to this for writers.

  6. Maureen Gill says:

    Great article — spot on! Thank you! May I share my story?

    I investigated trad’l pub’ing last year & was honestly shocked at the process, as well as the odds. I’ve worked & been published in academia and business so I thought I knew a thing or two about publishing; boy, was I wrong. Agented publishing for commercial fiction is a theatre of the absurd built upon the willingness of authors to continually abase themselves, to grovel and toady, to suffer untold doubts about their self-worth — because of an unhealthy need for validation.

    Am I being harsh? Well, possibly — but nonetheless I’m amazed at the many good and decent people, many of whom have great talent, who continue to seek agents. More astonishing, they’re newbie authors. What don’t they understand about the odds of an agent getting a publisher to toss the dice on a newbie? In all fairness to the “other side,” I know that if I were an agent or a publisher trying to survive in today’s grueling marketplace that I would never take on an indie; ever. Why bother? Even proven writers are risky; why gamble with an unknown? The smart money’s on letting newbies go indie and seeing who rises to the top and picking them up if they prove they have some staying power. Konrath said this is essentually what’s happening over a yr ago. So, I say to anyone who’s a newbie — get out there and show some moxie. The odds of getting an agent are greater than winning your state lottery. If you don’t believe in yourself enough to get out there and strut your stuff then why would anyone else? And anyway, the odds of getting an agent today are worse than ever before — and they were never very good odds for a new author.

    This said, I want to just add this to share with you some more of my journey: I actually did win the state lottery (maybe 3); I emailed 48 queries and within a few wks was talking to 3 agents. I gave one agency a 90-day exclusive but while they were exploring their options w/me I was busy exploring my options withOUT them. I went deep into the indie world and even before the agency came back to me I was fairly certain I’d go indie. I know this sounds incredible to people who salivate at the feet of agents but it’s true. In any event, the agency came back & wanted to continue what they called “our relationship” but it was to be predicated upon two things: (1) removing the one element in the story that made my novel unique in American fiction (because it was “controversial”) and they didn’t think a newbie should be “saddled with controversy” and (2) they decided the story was “too sophisticated” — that, in fact, it “needed to be dumbed down.”

    As to removing the controversy, that was impossible. It would unravel the entire story. And as for the other, I don’t “dumb down” for anyone; I write what I like to read and if no one else reads it — oh well.

    I had a choice and took it: I chose to go indie and I have no regrets. Even though it is a lot of hard work at times, that’s OK. It’s a growth experience. If I’d gone traditional there’s a good chance the book still wouldn’t be out & about and, even if it were, it wouldn’t have been my story any more anyway. It would have been just another dumbed down so-so book that fit into the gatekeepers’ ideas about what dumbed down Americans like to read and I wasn’t prepared to sell either myself or American readers so short.

    My advice: if you’ve written something you believe in then the next step is to believe in yourself. Don’t wait for an agent to validate you. Their validation is hollow and means nothing anyway; it’s no guarantor of your ultimate success, let alone your strengths as a writer.

  7. The fact of the matter is, that there is only so much bandwidth (i.e. slots) at the big-six for all the quality writers to “make it to market”. The emergence of do-it-yourself publishing has made places at the table for good books to find their audiences. A bad book will never spread virally but if enough readers find a good read from a new/indie author they can have success equall to or exceeding that of traditionally published authors. There are more opportunities for writers now and this is good for both wriers and readers.

  8. Karin says:

    Great article, John. I’m undecided as to whether it’s a new golden age or a limited window before big publishers get on board with making titles cheaper and publishing backlist titles, but it sure makes for interesting times.

  9. Great article John – I think there is a pulp fiction revolution brewing. As a self-published author myself, I have to hold down a day job and it is tough enough to find time to write, much less battle with agents and publishers to get my work discovered. I like that self-publishing lets me write “my way” and if my readers like it, then win-win all around. Anyone interested in my work can check it out at (Shameless self plug included in my comment!)

  10. Without traditional publishing, Wings: A Novel Of World War II Flygirls wouldn’t have had the credentials to be picked up by the bookstores at the Smithsonian and the Seattle Museum Of Flight, or get me a TV interview. For me, the gulf between traditional and non-traditional is enormous. There are always exceptions, of course. But considering the amount of product out there, I think those exceptions are few.

  11. Excellent article, John!Emerging from my cave with a completed novel, I discovered that the publishing business was not what I imagined. I learned, from the voices of the agents themselves, that the only “vetting” they gave was whether or not they thought the Big Six could make buckets of money off my novel. Publishing is a business; I understand that. But I had a story to share, and so I self-published. My book has now been truly vetted … by the readers I wrote it for.

  12. The publishing landscape is changing too rapidly for any opinion uttered today to be valid tomorrow. A lot of what’s going on seems to echo Thomas Friedman’s observations in The World is Flat. One caveat—faith in oneself notwithstanding, a new writer can’t assume that his/her work is in fact publishable; just because an agent DOESN’T like your book doesn’t mean it’s good, either. A freelance editor can be a very good investment here, a disinterested party who’ll tell you what works and what doesn’t, and what you can do about it. There are plenty of fine ones out there, seasoned editors who got to be over forty and lost their jobs to younger (and thus cheaper) replacements.

  13. [...] other day about self-publishing being akin to the lost age of pulp fiction (read that blog here: If we do look at the new age of self-publishing in this way, then Mr. Block is guilty of getting [...]

  14. So sorry for the time it has taken me to get to this article to read. I thank you so very much. Yes we are on the same page! (I am @TheosTrek on Twitter).

    I look forward to the days when we will once again have Dickenses and Thackerays out there e-publishing serialized novels. It would be so much fun to read a new section each week or so, and then champ at the bit for the next installment! That’s one of the things I loved about King’s “The Green Mile.” I read it in installments – waiting impatiently for each new part, and bought it as soon as it hit the shelves!

    I worry a bit about the schlock out there, though – James Patterson and his toadies club – (YIKES! What crap!), adds to the problem of a lot of great writers who cannot be seen or read for all the junk flooding the market.

    I do believe that ultimately some sort of euilibrium will be reached, and it will be much easier to separate the wheat from the chaff. Until then, I will be patient, enjoy the “free sample” feature on my Kindle, and just keep reading – in whatever form available.

    I am linking this blog article to mine for tomorrow (7/20), in which I will post an “Ode” I wrote a while ago. I might have posted it before, but I can’t find it in my archives. So it’s a new post or a repost – whatever! Hope to see you over at RFACM. I’m sure you’ll get some “Pingbacks” or “Trackbacks” from this one!

  15. Dannie Hill says:

    Hi John, What a great debate you’ve started. As with Maureen, I went through the process and in the end was told my manuscript was too easy to read– I needed to use bigger words. I didn’t do that to a very good tale.

    I got mad and pulled out my lexicographic skills and wrote what turned out to be one of my favorite manuscripts. But at the time I wanted to slay the agent and publisher with words that would force them to the dictionary. I’ll give you one guess what they said… Yep, you got it.

    I decided to go on my own and haven’t looked back.

    The world is changing and for those who think not– don’t close your eyes or you may become lost.

    A far bigger problem with self-publishing is the people- I won’t call them authors- that don’t bother to edit their works and just throw them out so they can claim to be an author. It’s a great disservice to readers and writers alike. It hurts the self-publishing world by keeping the reputation low.

    There is so much talent out there today but it is hard to weed thrugh the hacks to find the flowers.

  16. [...] I posted yesterday, in response to J. J. Gannon’s article on the whole e-pub hoopla, my loverly ”Ode to My e-Books,” I wanted to post for you [...]

  17. Self publishing worked well for me – I sold more than 60,000 books (40,000 of them between Nov 2011 – Feb 2012) and leveraged it to a six-figure deal with a big-six publisher. In addition my Riyria Revelations has also been picked up by several overseas publishers netting another $200,000. None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t self published first.

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