Not A Zero-Sum Game

22 Jan

I had a discussion with someone about publishing, promotion and suchlike that led to this article <grin>.

A year or so ago, there was a brief buzz about an article that insisted that JK Rowling should stop producing books because other writers needed a shot at the golden ring. The article attracted a great deal of scorn, understandably. Why should JK Rowling stop writing when she has literally millions of fans?

The odd thing about it, at least when it comes to traditional publishing, is that the author had a point.

Baen Books, the smallest of the big publishers, puts out around six books a month. They also have a handful of writers – David Weber, John Ringo, Eric Flint – who are heads and shoulders above the rest, in terms of books sold. If Baen had a choice between a new Weber book and a book by an unknown author, which one do you think they’d choose to publish? Baen is pretty much the best major publisher at finding and putting out new authors, but I’d be surprised if they chose to skip a Weber book for an unknown. Tor, too, would be foolish to put an unknown in front of George RR Martin or Brandon Sanderson. They need to make a profit.

This happens, at least in part, because publishing a book can be expensive. Traditional publishers pay for everything, from heavy-duty editing to producing paperback books and paying the author a small advance. Even the biggest publishing firms cannot publish too many books in one month for fear of over-extending themselves. Therefore, in traditional publishing, there is a case to be made that established authors freeze newcomers out of the field.

But this simply isn’t true of indie publishing.

People read faster than authors can produce novels. That is a simple fact. No author, not even JK Rowling, has fans who are devoted to her and her alone. I don’t believe there were many Harry Potter fans who read nothing else between the publication of Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows, or gave up reading when the series finally came to an end. No, they went out and looked for other books to read. JK Rowling kick-started hundreds of thousands of kids into reading books, but she didn’t keep them all to herself. No author could hope to produce enough books to do that. Even if they did, I doubt many traditional publishers could handle it.

Traditional publishing does produce winners and losers. A famous author will get far more promotion than a newcomer. And yes, some of those authors will be unjustly treated because they have the misfortune to be competing with someone who started out by selling better before they ever got into the field. Traditional publishing is a zero sum game. The books have to be balanced.

This is not true of indie publishing.

Indie publishing has two great advantages over traditional publishing. First, anyone can publish a book (this is, of course a great downside too) at minimal cost. Second, the field is so large that one writer doesn’t dominate the field simply by existing.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I am not in cutthroat competition with Chris Kennedy, James Young or any other indie author you care to mention. My success doesn’t overshadow them; their success doesn’t overshadow me. None of us really benefits from engaging in genteel backstabbing as there is nothing to be gained by it. We are not in direct competition over a scarce handful of publishing slots or promotional efforts. The field of customers is immensely vast and, more importantly, it is not exclusive. I can’t hog all my readers to myself even if I wanted to.

A handful of newcomers to the field don’t seem to grasp that, I will admit. There is no shortage of stories about ‘kindle authors behaving badly.’ Getting published traditionally tends to give newcomers a maturity that many kindle authors lack. But I think that most kindle authors recognise that they are not playing in a zero-sum game. There is room enough for everyone.

There are other advantages, of course. There are no gatekeepers. In traditional publishing, books can be rejected because the editor was having a bad day or the writer’s politics clashed strongly with the editor’s. Though indie publishing, the author can appeal directly to potential fans and build a reputation that isn’t dependent on any publisher. But, most of all, there is room enough for everyone. Success – or failure – no longer rides on a publisher.

18 Responses to “Not A Zero-Sum Game”

  1. Dennis the Menace January 22, 2016 at 7:46 pm #

    Yeah, when I think of the 1940s – 2000s and how many authors were ‘shut out’ of the publishing system, it sends waves of dispair up my spine for the huge loss to us all.

    I have read crappy, self-published eBooks. I read many each year. But at least they were available for me to read and determine for myself whether I should read them or not instead of some publishing house editor being my unelected ‘gatekeeper’.

  2. Dustin January 23, 2016 at 7:43 am #

    I’m a fan of indie book publishing, but damn do I wish there was some way to force people to get their books properly edited before they put them out there. I’ve come across books with more mistakes than what you’d see an elementary school student make. Sometimes I look into an author really hoping that English is not their primary language. Sadly, I am generally disappointed on that front.

    • Harry_the_Horrible January 23, 2016 at 10:12 pm #

      Sounds like a bidness opportunity to me.
      “eBooks edited – x cents per word!”

      • chrishanger January 25, 2016 at 7:12 pm #

        Good editors can make plenty of money, if they’re smart about it.


  3. Phillip Nolte January 23, 2016 at 11:00 pm #

    The biggest problem we indie authors face is getting noticed. Like Chris, I am a science fiction author. A quick visit to Amazon will reveal 127,000 books available in this category! Here is another problem with traditional publishing: I emailed a book to Baen and was informed that I would be contacted in 9 months. Upon not hearing back from them, after a year (!) Had passed I made an inquiry and was told that my book had made the “first cut, ” but they had a huge backlog. Six months later, they finally rejected it. Problem is, I don’t have a lot of years and a halfs to spare. In the end it worked to my advantage as I figured out that if it was almost good enough for Baen, all I had to do was make it better! After I totally rewrote the book, I released it on Amazon and enjoyed some modest success. As for the all the “crumby” books out there, we do have sales rank and reader ratings to provide some guidance. My two cents.

    • cb January 25, 2016 at 5:23 pm #

      I noticed this post and added your books to my “to be looked into pile”

      • Phillip Nolte January 25, 2016 at 5:39 pm #

        I got really interested in WW I and WW II naval engagements and have read many history books on that fascinating subject. I was first attracted your works like “Ark Royal” that used the names of some of the famous ships of the era. To my delight, I found books that were well-written a very entertaining.

        I have also had conversations with a couple of other indie authors, Dietmar Wehr (Synchronicity War) and Britt Ringel (This Corner of the Universe) and we all came to the same conclusions as you did: we are not in competition with one another. If anything, we can offer similar works for the all fans who have temporarily exhausted their supply of CN books. I like David Weber but cannot exist on a steady diet of his works.


      • chrishanger January 29, 2016 at 8:49 pm #


        There’s nothing for us to fight over (which we would be doing, if we were competing for publisher slots.) Room for us all here


      • chrishanger January 29, 2016 at 8:48 pm #

        Thank you!


    • chrishanger January 25, 2016 at 7:13 pm #

      That’s the problem. Building up the critical mass of people who NOTICE you.


  4. georgephillies January 24, 2016 at 1:07 am #

    I finally gave up on sending manuscripts to paper publishers, though one is still out there. I am 68, and would like to know that people enjoyed my writing before I pass on to the next plane of existence. The novel book after I made this decision was “Mistress of the Waves”, strap line “Could Her Wits Compete with Starfarer Ultratech” now on Smashwords, Third Millennium, Kindle,…

    I actually write about a book a year, meaning 15+ since the year 2000, but most of them are not fiction. My best sellers are my game design textbooks.

    I suppose I could do more work on publicizing my works, though the time I had no benefit.

    • chrishanger January 25, 2016 at 7:14 pm #

      I’ve been thinking about a mailing list specifically for SF writers, either people i can recommend personally or people with good reviews on amazon. But really, i don’t have the time.


      • CB January 26, 2016 at 4:55 am #

        I find quite a few new authors while browsing over at Its a site that mostly covers the self publishing authors or small pub and I catch good book tips from all the authors comparing their works or tell their tales of woe.

        One good tip which comes from my experience in looking for new authors is find books like your own and hang out where that author or his/her fans do. If I like a type of book I’ll always consider similar works.

  5. Keith January 25, 2016 at 9:01 pm #

    I almost elusively read Indie authors but it’s mainly due to cost. i read about 5 books per month and to prove Chris’ point I would read more but finding new books is hard. I fill in the blank time between new books by going back and rereading a series.

    For a long time I used the “other item” links on Amazon to find books but more recently I find more books via the tools like BookGorilla, BookBud, or pattyjensen promos

  6. Joel M DeClue January 29, 2016 at 10:55 pm #

    Chris, A couple of things for you. First, what is the deal with Kindle Unlimited as it relates to an indie author as yourself and why are you not a part of the program. Two, I have found two other military sci-fi indie authors that I have really, really enjoyed along with all of your books of course. The first is an author named Jonathan Brazee, I almost passed him over due to the book covers, but was very glad I did not. The other is Steven L Hawk who wrote a trilogy named the Peace Warrior. He is currently working on a new book set about 10-15 years after the first trilogy and the book is up in the Kindle Scout program. I was looking through that and the benefit for the authors. Curious as to your thoughts on both of those programs, Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Scout.

    • chrishanger January 30, 2016 at 5:36 pm #

      That’s a hard question to answer.

      My first thoughts about KU was that it wasn’t particularly fair to either readers or writers. One borrows a book on KU, without getting it permanently (a turn-off for me) while the writer receives a percentage of a pot that may go up and down in value without notice. I was not particularly pleased that various promotional tools were only made available to KU-users, which I thought (and still do) that Amazon damaged itself by doing.

      I haven’t seen that much that has made me change my opinion since then. KU is a good tool if you’re starting out, but the more of a base you develop, the more it limits your options.


      • Joel M DeClue February 5, 2016 at 3:35 pm #

        Thank you for your reply. I was hoping for you thoughts and you came through. What I did not say in the original post was the following because I did not want it to have any input on your reply.

        I am a father with a household of five and we are all very veracious readers. As a result the prices of books really started adding up and eventually became to much of a burden so I had to start restricting purchases, an average monthly kindle purchase was in the $150.00 -$200.00 US dollar range. A lot of the YA and Teen oriented series are in the $8.99-$11.99 range and each of my kids could get through one or two in a week.

        After a particularly bad month where over $400.00 was spent I told them no more. So we joined Kindle Unlimited and probably 90%-95% of the books we read are through the program now. Any others must be requested by our kids and we approve them before purchasing. Of course we do monitor what they read and do our best to make sure we keep them appropriate. It has been difficult as I myself have had to keep from buying many books I would like and find new authors and series to try and fill the void.

      • chrishanger February 5, 2016 at 6:20 pm #

        Well, my YA are reasonably cheap

        Seriously, the big publishers haven’t realised that they’re cutting their own throats.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: