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I met Andrew McRae, the author of Murder Misdirected, in the cafe of a local bookstore. In our brief conversation, we each discovered that the other is also a published author.

A few weeks later, I ran into him again. He mentioned that he bought my book, and that he and his sweetheart loved it. At that point, I felt like it would be courteous for me to buy and read his, too. I was somewhat reluctant, because most books are not very good, and that can lead to uncomfortable conversations.

McRae’s Murder Misdirected pleasantly surprised me. It wasn’t bad at all. I quite enjoyed it. Here’s a brief review:

A decade or more ago, my family and friends were all quite taken with a show called The Sopranos. They wanted me to watch episodes with them, and I ended up seeing quite a bit of the show, despite the fact that I didn’t like it. I didn’t like The Sopranos for several reasons, but one issue in particular was most problematic for me. Every single major character on the show was a scumbag. Because of this, I had no empathy for the characters. Thus, I didn’t care what happened to them. I was unable to engage myself in whether they would live or die, or anything else about their stories.

I mention this because the main character of Murder Misdirected is a pickpocket. There’s a risk that such a character will leave readers cold, similarly to the way I was apathetic toward the trials and tribulations of Tony Soprano and his companions. McRae deftly handles that potential issue. He makes you believe that Kid, the main character of the book, has made some bad choices, but is fundamentally good-hearted. He leaves you eager to find out whether Kid manages to shape up. One of the great themes of literature is growth of character, and Murder Misdirected at least touches upon that theme. From this perspective, it’s possible to emotionally invest in Kid, despite his shortcomings. After all, if a character is going to grow, he has to start somewhere lesser.

The plot was handled fairly well. It wasn’t intricate, but it was tight. My only real criticism here is that I was able to predict some of the major plot points. I’m not sure whether most other readers will, too. In any case, I enjoyed the book despite predicting where things were going.

Throughout the course of the story, we’re given enough details about the ways of a pickpocket, and about life on the seedier side of San Francisco, to be satisfying. Murder Misdirected somehow had a bit of a cozy and charming feel to it, despite the murder and mayhem.

This is a pretty strong debut novel. If you enjoy crime novels where you have to figure out who’s the bad guy and where the treasure’s hidden, I imagine you’ll enjoy this one.

I recently read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, to learn how to write that kind of pop page-turner novel. It was actually very helpful for this; I learned a lot about stuff like beginning with a bang, ending every chapter with a cliffhanger, starting the book at a crux, making the whole story take place over a few hour period, and so on. It even inspired me to come up with a plot of my own in the alternate-history / find-the-artifact-of-power  genre (which I’ll make into a novel, eventually.)

Here’s a quick review, with no serious spoilers, for those few of you who haven’t read it yet.

First, let’s be clear that everything about the plot of this book is ludicrously over-the-top. To put this in perspective, there’s a giant, albino, monk assassin knocking off the world’s expert in his field, in the opening pages of the book. The sheer preposterousness only increases from there. The book is not only absurd; it is daringly absurd – by which I mean it is more cockamamie than I would have thought an audience will accept for this genre of book.

Second, there is a lot in this book which I find almost painfully contrived to read. The kind of artifice, pretension, and gaffes that might lead one to throw a book against the wall in disgust. I’m talking about stuff like describing the main character’s looks as, “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed,” and describing his job as a “professor of religious symbology” at Harvard. That said, I don’t think these are unintentional faults; I think they’re integral to the kind of book this is supposed to be.

Third, it bothered me that it is full of nonsense about the golden ratio. At this point, some of you who have read it might be thinking, “That’s what bothered you? Not the nonsense about the history of Christianity? Or any of the other nonsense?” Well, OK, the rest bothered me a bit, too, but the hokum about the golden ratio bothered me the most. Perhaps that’s because, as a photographer, I encounter so many golden numberists (i.e., people who believe fantastical notions about the golden ratio) – and some have specifically mentioned that they were influenced by this book. Of course, there are plenty of books in the world that are chock full of balderdash, but most of them don’t start out with a disclaimer to mislead people that they’re true, as this book does.

Fourth, The Da Vinci Code is rife with bland and simple riddles integrated with major plot elements. Admittedly, these riddles are at least better than those in The Hobbit, but they are not good enough to carry the book the way they have to. At least, for me they aren’t. I was able to instantly recognize backward handwriting and anagrams, was able to instantly figure out what orb was missing from Newton’s tomb, etc.

Fifth, there is basically no significance to anything in the book. I know that this book lead a number of readers to reconsider what they believed about Christianity, but that’s beside the point. There is no depth. There are no great themes. No profound statements. No introspections which resonate and stick with me. Nothing that changed the way I see the world. Compare this to a book like Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, where you have to put down the book to think about what you just read, every page or two. Even comparing this to picture books for young children, like Ian Falconer’s Olivia, there’s less depth in The Da Vinci Code. It’s probably one of the least deep books I’ve ever read.

All of that might sound pretty harsh, and might make you think that I hated this book. Not so. If you can look past the stuff mentioned above and just read it as a page-turner, then it’s really not a bad book at all, in terms of what kind of book it is supposed to be. The plotting is intricate, very tight, and often very clever. There were several instances where I was quite impressed with how Brown wrote his characters out of difficult situations. And the man knows how to weave an alternate history. The prose is readable, too. Not elegant, but mostly serviceable and unobtrusive.

I wouldn’t’ve read The Da Vinci Code if I wasn’t looking to learn how to write this kind of book – but I’m not unhappy that I did. It was a fun way to pass some hours. I tend to like more substance than this in what I read, but in this case, perhaps some hours of silly fun were enough.

Thanks for reading this.

Cement Mixer ©Mike Spinak

Cement Mixer ©Mike Spinak

A couple weeks ago I posted an article about why self-publishing might be more appealing to authors, and a week ago I posted a companion article about why self-published books might be appealing to readers. However, I didn’t address the main concern readers have with self-published books: quality. We’ll discuss the quality issue today.

It’s popularly believed that (1) publishing houses serve as gatekeepers, maintaining publishing quality standards; (2) self-publishing has a lower barrier to entry, allowing people to publish junk; (3) authors self-publish as a last resort, when they fail to get past the publishing house gate-keepers, because their books aren’t good enough; and (4) books published outside the publishing houses don’t go through a team of book experts to be proofread, formatted, designed, etc., and so are terribly flawed by amateurish production values. There’s some truth to each of those, but they’re not the whole story.

Publishing houses do serve as gatekeepers, but – from a quality perspective – they do a poor job of it. Many excellent books don’t make it past their gates for a variety of reasons, from poor editorial judgment to crass commercialism – while many terrible books do get through, for the same kinds of reasons. Likewise, many books with poor editing and other sub-par production values are released by the big publishers, albeit the percentages are lower than in self-publishing. Believing that the publishing industry has done well at selecting good books from bad is like believing that Housing and Urban Development has done well at maximizing safe and affordable housing.

Self-publishing does have a low barrier to entry, and many people are indeed publishing junk. I would venture to guess that the vast majority of self-published books are awful. However, that doesn’t mean that the only reason people self-publish is because there are no barriers, nor does it mean that all independently published books are rubbish. There are lots of superb self-pubbed books mixed in with the garbage.

Perhaps some self-published authors went that route as a last resort, after failing to get past the gatekeepers because their books weren’t good enough. However, as I discussed in Dreaming of Middlemen, there are plenty of other good reasons to self-publish – such as keeping full creative control, avoiding unconscionable contract terms, and getting substantially higher profit margins. In short, publishers are often asking too much, and offering too little in return. In many instances, the authors rejected the publishers, not the other way around. For example, I never submitted my book to a publisher, because I thought I could do better on my own. (Statistically speaking, I was correct.)

Most of the dreadful self-published books out there probably didn’t go through a team of editors, formatters, designers, etc. Nonetheless, many self-published books, like mine, did. All of those responsible for the production values of a book can be hired freelance. In fact, authors can often get help better suited to their particular book through hiring freelancers than they’d be able to at a publishing house; they have a much larger pool of potential hirees to chose from.

I’ve explained that there are plenty of good self-published books, some even better than most books from publishing houses. Yet it’s undeniable that the vast majority of self-published books are horrendous. As long as this is the case, many are reluctant to try indie books.

I’m not sure that the overwhelming preponderance of terrible self-published books would actually present a problem for readers. To some degree, “the cream rises to the top.” The converse is even much more true. In other words, the bad books usually sink so far down that you’re not likely to come across them, no matter how large of a majority they are. When your friends recommend books to you, they don’t recommend the bad ones. The bestseller lists and the top-rated lists are also unlikely to include the incompetently amateurish books. Book review blogs don’t recommend them. They don’t show up in Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…” feature. And so on. The horrible books tend to be mostly invisible, no matter how many are out there. You have to actively search for them in order to find them.

That said, let’s suppose that you’re trying to decide whether to purchase a particular self-published book, and you don’t know if it’s good or bad. How can you tell the difference, so you don’t get burned? There are indicators you can look at, which will usually provide you enough clues to choose with confidence. Books on Amazon let you read a sample of the first few pages. Are those pages interesting, well written, and relatively free from errors? You can also look at the customer reviews and the ratings of the book on Amazon (and  other places, such as Goodreads, if you want to read even more reviews). Are the reviews positive? How many reviews are there? How detailed are they? Are any from independent book reviewing organizations, from the top-rated reviewers on Amazon or Goodreads, or the like?  You can usually get a fair idea about a book by reading its reviews and ratings. (You need to be careful about inflated ratings and glowing reviews that come only from friends and relatives, or perhaps even from a service the author hired. Generally speaking, this is less of a problem for books with many reviews than books with just a few; and longer, more detailed reviews are likely to be reliable and informative.) Is the cover professional looking, or is it not? Does the book list a credit for a professional editor? If you look at such things, it’s normally not difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Between the facts that (1) the offensively unprofessional self-published books generally have low discoverability, and (2) there are usually plenty of solid clues to discern the better books from the worse ones, I think the risks of buying bad self-published books are low, if you take simple precautions. You don’t have to go out of your way to get self-published books, but there’s no need to go out of your way to avoid them, either.

Gates of the Valley in Autumn ©Mike Spinak

Gates of the Valley in Autumn ©Mike Spinak


The other day I posted the article Dreaming of Middlemen, explaining why self-publishing might appeal to authors. Today’s post is a companion piece about why self-published books might appeal to readers. This post doesn’t address the main reason readers tend to stay away from self-published books: concerns about quality. I’ll discuss that topic in another post, soon.

Here are 7 reasons readers might find self-published books appealing:

1) Self-publishing allows authors to publish ambitious work that publishers won’t touch.

James Joyce had to self-publish Ulysses, one of the most critically acclaimed novels of the 20th Century, because it was too weird for any publishing house to have it. That may be an extreme case, but it also applies to many everyday instances of more modestly ambitious books. Even my book Growing Up Humming. There’s a popular standard for children’s picture books to be exactly 32 pages long, with 500-750 words; and this standard is adhered to fairly rigidly by the publishing industry. My book is 44 pages and about 2,000 words, and cutting it down to fit the standard would have considerably worsened it. Furthermore, my book is its own unique genre; it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the preexisting categories. It’s also an oddity in regard to the aim of truly appealing equally to all ages from small children to elderly adults. (The reviews indicate that I succeeded at this.) For all of these reasons, it would have been nearly impossible to get my book published through the publishing houses.

Every year, innumerable books are written which are too ambitious in some manner or another for the risk-averse mainstream publishing industry. If you want to read these innovative and interesting works, then open yourself to reading self-published books. That’s where you’ll find most of them.

2) Self-publishing makes it possible for the author to keep full creative control.

Publishers demand creative control over books as part of the contract to publish them. They exercise this control toward making books more commercially viable, which often diverges from making the books more entertaining, more informative, or more artistically significant. Sometimes publishing houses make substantial changes to books. Self-publishing keeps full creative control in the author’s hands. This can be a double-edged sword, depending upon whether the author has good judgment, but when it’s good, it can be very, very good to get the unfettered work exactly the way it was intended to be.

3) Self-publishing gives readers greater variety.

If you’re avoiding self-published books, then you’re ignoring about half of all new books published this year. Among them are all variety of highly specialized books. Do you have any really obscure niche interests? If you do, there’s a good chance that the publishing houses don’t find bringing books to market on those topics to be worth their effort. Self-published authors are more likely offer such works. The same is also true for the more esoteric sub-genres of fiction. Self-publishing also includes a large number of books that were originally published by the publishing houses long ago, but went out of print; when authors are able to get back the copyrights to their old, out-of-print books, they often republish the books themselves. These are just a few of the many reasons that self-publishing can add to the variety of books available to readers.

4) Self-publishing can be more rewarding for authors and can help them keep making more books.

When publishing through a publishing house, authors usually get only a small percentage of a books’s cover price. Authors often have to give up writing careers for work that pays better, or have to write just a little bit, in their spare time after work. Their output is often thereby limited by the amount they can make. Authors can often get 5 or 10 times as much per book sold when self-publishing. The higher profit margins can help authors you especially favor make the money they need, in order to focus more on writing, and less on other sources of income.

5) Self-publishing allows authors to publish more, by removing artificial limits imposed by publishers.

Putting aside the argument in #4, there’s another way that your favorite authors can publish more books through self-publishing than through publishing houses. Most publishing houses only let an author publish 1 or 2 books per year. (You can read more about this, here.) Meanwhile, many authors are capable of writing several times that amount. Self-published authors often can and do publish several times as many books per year as authors publishing through publishing houses. So, if you find you’re always champing at the bit for writers you like to release their next books, then perhaps you should try self-published books, where you’ll be more likely to have the next book in your hands in a few months than in another year.

6) Self-published books are often less expensive than books published by publishing houses.

By cutting out the middlemen who take the vast majority of the money, self-publishers can often simultaneously charge readers a lot less for a book while still making a greater profit per book. This is especially true for ebooks, which almost always cost much less when self-published.

7) Self-published books stay in print.

Publishing houses tend to take books out of print as soon as the first print run is completed, unless there’s a huge demand for a second run. They also tend to pull books from distribution as soon as the initial wave of sales starts to slow down. In practice, many books are no longer available after just a few months, and most become unavailable within a few years. However, this is not the case with self-published books. Through ebooks and print-on-demand paper books, self-published books can remain available. Most self-publishers intend to keep their books on the market forever. If you’ve ever tried to purchase another copy of a book you liked long ago, only to discover that it’s only available used at high collector’s prices, or that it simply can’t be found at all – you might like that self-publishing keeps your favorite books on the market for the long-term.


  • Ryder ziebarth - Nicely laid out . This is “keeper” info. Thanks for the crystal clear view.ReplyCancel

    • Mike Spinak - You’re welcome, Ryder. Thank you.ReplyCancel

Long-Eared Owl Stare ©Mike Spinak

Long-Eared Owl Stare ©Mike Spinak

Imagine you start a small business. You make something, intent to sell it to earn a living. How many layers of superfluous impediments would you like to put between you and your customers? How lengthy of a delay would you like to add to bringing your offering to market? How much would you like to reduce your profits?

If you’re wondering why anyone would want to do any of that, I often wonder the same thing when I come across unknown authors doing all of these. By which I mean: looking for publishers and agents.

Writers who seek publishers are, in essence, running small businesses. They make written content of various types, and then try to sell it.

The ostensible model of the publisher-author relationship is that of venture capitalist-entrepreneur. The author has a creation to sell; the publisher has the money and means to bring it to market.

In exchange for putting up the money and bearing the financial risk, the publisher demands a cut of the profits. How large of a cut varies, depending upon which publisher, whether it’s a printed book or ebook, and so on – but it’s typically the lion’s share. Correspondingly, the author’s share is attenuated. Usually, an author ends up with somewhere between 2% and 17.5% of the cover price for a paper book, and perhaps a little more with a digital book.

Meanwhile, publishers also demand certain other terms and conditions, such as creative control. They get to choose the title, book cover – everything. If they decide to cut it down 100 pages and slap on a happy ending, that’s their prerogative. They can do whatever they want with a book, and stories abound of authors dismayed by how publishers exercised this control.

This relationship between publisher and author is predicated upon the author’s need for what the publisher provides. The publisher provides the capital, which covers such things as editing and cover art, and most of all goes into printing thousands of copies. The publisher then provides the distribution system to get the book placed in bookstores and other appropriate venues.

Or so the theory goes.

Authors no longer need large sums to pay for big print runs for their books. Nowadays, it’s possible to get books affordably printed on demand, one at a time, as books are ordered. Furthermore, it’s now possible for authors to sell electronic books, which have practically no material costs at all.

As for distribution, authors can now directly put their books on Amazon’s online bookstore, and also Apple’s, Google’s, Sony’s – all of the biggest online book retailers. While distribution in brick and mortar bookstores would also be great, authors have quite decent access to book distribution on their own.

Authors still need developmental editors, proofreaders, cover artists, and the like, but authors can easily hire them freelance, rather than relying on publishers to provide them. Depending upon the book, the hired hands will likely cost between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars. That’s not trivial, but it’s a lot less than the share authors would otherwise give up to publishers. It’s also a low enough cost that most truly determined authors can find ways to bring publishing within reach on their own. Especially now that crowdsourced funding has become a realistic option.

When you remove the writer’s need for venture capital, what value proposition does that leave publishers to offer writers for negotiation? Marketing budget, savvy, reach, and connections, plus a distribution network with brick-and-mortar bookstores. Whatever the publisher can bring to the table to spur book sales. Publishers purportedly still have an advantage in this area. Most writers have no idea how to market a book, and even if they did, they’d rather devote their time to writing more.

However, the sands have shifted in the last several years. People have stopped reading newspapers, and most magazines have gone out of business. The yellow pages have been displaced by the world wide web. Record stores have disappeared and been replaced by online retailers such as the iTunes store. Major television networks have lost most viewers to other alternatives, like small cable channels, Netflix, video games, and the internet. The large bookstore chains, such as Borders and B. Dalton, have gone out of business. Amazon has become the dominant book retailer. In this environment, the publishing industry’s tried and true marketing strategies from the past no longer produce the results they used to. Publishers don’t actually have much effective marketing savvy and connections, anymore.

Nor are they likely to earmark marketing dollars for unknown authors. Instead, they shift the onus of marketing and selling books onto the authors. They want authors to build their marketing platforms and their readership before seeking publication. Then the publishers want to pick the authors who already demonstrate they have the ability to sell the book, and who come with a fully developed book promotion plan ready to implement.

In addition to everything above, many publishers are transitioning toward digital-only publishing runs for many of their books. This means both that they are not venturing the capital to print these books, and they’re also not distributing the books to bookstores.

The main purpose of a publisher in the publisher-author relationship – venture capital – is being obviated. The secondary purposes of a publisher in the publisher-author relationship – marketing and distribution – are also being obviated. From a practical standpoint, publishers don’t actually offer most lower-and middle-tier authors anything compelling, anymore. Just a willingness to take most of the money, while stripping creative control and greatly slowing the process of bringing books to market.

This is doubly true for agents. Not only do you not need a vestigial publisher in order to bring your book to market, but even if you insist on one, you still don’t need an agent to get one. Agents have no better ability to get publishers to publish your work than you do on your own. And as for negotiating contracts, you’re better off hiring a lawyer for a one-time fee to negotiate your publishing contract than getting an agent to do so for a 15% cut of all future profits. You’ll get more competent representation for a better price, while avoiding conflicting interests.

Big publishers have always leveraged their financial upper hand to unequalize deals with authors in their own favor; now they’ve lost the upper hand, but continue to offer the same deals. Yet most unpublished writers still strive for book deals with vestigial publishers. When I ask them why, after years of no success with agents and publishers, they don’t just decide to independently publish their books themselves, they mostly give me answers like, “I’ve always dreamed of publishing my book traditionally,” or, “A deal with a publishing house would make me feel like I made it.”

This attitude is perhaps unique to the writing industry. To put this in perspective, imagine a farmer in a similar position. Let’s say the farmer has an option of selling fruits and vegetables from a stand, where her farm meets the road. If she did this, she’d sell the produce for retail, and keep most of the profits for herself. Let’s say the farmer may also be able to achieve an option to consign fruits and vegetables to Safeway to sell in their supermarkets. If she did this, she’d get a much lower wholesale price, but could perhaps sell a lot more.

Maybe the farmer will think the fruit stand makes more sense, or maybe she’ll think supermarket distribution makes more sense, or some combination of the two. Perhaps changing circumstances, such as the government turning the small country road next to her farm into a major interstate highway, will affect her choices. She can make whatever decision she wants.

In this scenario, the supermarket chains would basically be serving as middlemen between the farmer and the produce consumers. That’s not intrinsically good or bad. If they’re useful, then she should use them. If not, then she shouldn’t.

In such a case, we’d expect the farmer to choose the option which seems best for business. Or, to put it a different way, it would be surprising if the farmer sentimentally pined about supermarket distribution. It would be bizarre for her to let out a wistful sigh and say, “I’ve always dreamed of supermarket distribution,” or, “I’d know I’d made it as a farmer if my produce was in a big chain supermarket.” They’re just middlemen. Romanticizing middlemen into some sort of corporate versions of Prince Charming who will one day see that the glass slipper fits your foot, so he can turn you into a real princess, is nonsensical and counterproductive.

So why do writers fantasize about putting middlemen between themselves and their readers?

It’s largely for emotional reasons. Authors feel unsure whether their creations are any good. They can’t tell on their own, so they crave external validation. They latch onto the notion that landing an agent and / or book contract with a publisher will definitively confirm that they are good enough.

Publishers and agents are poor indicators of whether an author’s work is good enough, and are ultimately likely to be dissatisfying at fulfilling the need for validation. Putting aside that their record of picking winners is shaky at best, they’re not even picking based on quality. This should be obvious to anyone who looks at the choices they back most vigorously, such as celebrity gossip and ghostwritten politicians’ campaign tracts. They pick what they think will sell, which is not the same as what’s good. Moreover, they’re not even picking based on what will sell to readers, but instead upon what will sell to bookstore managers.

The best validation is from people buying books, posting reviews and ratings, sending letters and emails, meeting you at events and telling you what they think, etc. In other words, the best validation is that which comes directly from readers. They’re the only ones whose say in the matter really counts. And the best way to maximize feedback directly from readers is to eliminate the middlemen separating readers from you.

I meet writers too often who endlessly beat their heads against the wall, attempting to get publishers or literary agents to take notice of them. They delay their writing careers by years or sometimes even decades over this unnecessary task, whiling away their time researching speculative contacts and sending out submissions according to each one’s idiosyncratic guidelines. All while their confidence in their work slowly erodes away. They could be published right now. Their work could already be out there, getting read and loved. They could already be receiving feedback and improving, already be making money, already building their dreams. Instead, they’re letting their literary aspirations get trampled and unfulfilled.

Does all this mean you should never publish with a vestigial publisher? No. There are always exceptions. What it does mean is that you shouldn’t let unnecessary middlemen determine your outcome as a writer. If they can truly help you, then work with them. If they’re hindering you, then just go around them. You have options. Why would you let other people control your future as an author?

You can take your literary destiny into your own hands, now. Please do.



Further Reading:

The Assumption of Agents

Do You Have What Publishers Really Want?

Mass Paperback Publisher Goes All Digital 


Ten Truths About Book Publishing

  • Julie Kitzenberger - Mike, GREAT article! So well written: very clear and well worth my time to read in its entirety.
    So glad Bill Henderson brought this to my attention!
    Julie Kitzenberger http://www.CATsnaps.comReplyCancel

  • Pam Boling - Excellent post, Mike!! I know an author who wrote for a publisher (with agent and editor) for nearly three decades, at about 4% royalty, before realizing that she could earn far more by self-publishing. She has over 100 titles in nine languages. In the seven years since she “fired” her publisher and agent, she has earned about half as much as in the previous three decades!

    You are definitely on the right track!ReplyCancel

  • admin - Thank you, Julie.

    Thank you, Pam.ReplyCancel

  • Suzanne - This is very informative I will send it along to a writer friend. Thanks MikeReplyCancel

  • 7 Reasons Self-Published Books Might Appeal to Readers » Mike Spinak - […] other day I posted the article Dreaming of Middlemen, explaining why self-publishing might appeal to authors. Today’s post is a companion piece […]ReplyCancel

  • Self-Publishing’s Quality Problem » Mike Spinak - […] get past the gatekeepers because their books weren’t good enough. However, as I discussed in Dreaming of Middlemen, there are plenty of other good reasons to self-publish – such as keeping full creative control, […]ReplyCancel