Fading Flower or Why Bestselling Self-Published Authors Are Just Better

Donald Maas puts it that agented selected traditional published ‘crème de la crème’ bestselling authors are the first class of books, the midlist being economy or coach class, and the ordinary self-published Joe is freight class. Hmm. Obviously he is as skilled in logic as he is in his understanding of the word ‘cull’. I do understand with a background in the rarified world of NYC publishing that such vulgar agricultural matters may not come his way much, despite the vast quantity of male bovine excreta produced there. In fact, as I will now attempt to prove in terms of that other obviously agricultural matter which obviously isn’t well known in NYC publishing circles, logic — in terms of talent, on average, agent-selected, traditionally published authors are… third class bestsellers, and quite possibly of less value than even midlisters, or largely indistinguishable from those.

Hugh Howey’s excellent data-crawl analysis here included the star rating of Indy and other including big five bestsellers. It’s noticeable that the big five bestsellers had lower average star ratings, which Howey puts down (quite kindly IMO) to price expectation. After all if you pay a Rolls-Royce price, you expect Rolls-Royce quality. While I appreciate his effort and find most of his post accurate, (Update, they are now saying further examination shows price-point for price-point Indy still licks the big 5) on this I must differ. This is not price expectation. This is the Bumiputera effect*. This is why Donald Maas’s big five bestseller clients are, on average, not as good as the Independent bestsellers. This is why on average independent bestsellers – or even those achieving midlist sales, are better than I am.

Maas and his fellow travelers inform us that as they filter, it means that what gets to the top (through them) is better at the top… because it is filtered first. But the final measure of quality is not what it went through to get to the top, it is being at the top of the sales. To put it in slightly different terms. Many skiers wish to get Olympic medals. Three will get medals. The final measure of quality is the medal (a bestseller), not the process that got them there. (A million writers will put their books up for sale, a hundred will become bestsellers). The million entrants and their origins and methods are irrelevant. What counts is that they are bestsellers (or medalists) NOT the run-up to that.

One skier may have been picked up by a talent scout (literary agent) at a minor competition and had all their training and support at the expense of the state and more sponsorship than they can spend (publisher’s dahling), and the best equipment and training money can buy.

Another skier was self-taught, and got there by sheer determination and endless self-training, won competition after competition without sponsorship and without support, and had to sell his home to be there. They’re both in the Olympics. They both win medals. Which had more talent? (Odds on the self-taught got the gold, but that aside.)

On average, the independent bestseller is a better writer, works harder, and deserves more credit for their achievement (and generally seem nicer, more supportive of others, and less insecure too). They had a bigger mountain to climb and needed more skill to get there. Given the degree of support that the Big Five dahling had, the average Indy midlister would eat their lunch. Being an agent’s pick, a Big Five dahling… is NOT the imprimatur of quality that being an Indy bestseller is. Actually, all it may be is the mark of a spoiled brat or a good kiss-up artist. It’s something I’d love to see those in that position show they can rise above, show independence of mind and generosity of spirit, but alas, so many fail. So, in the interests of not being one of them, and with a reputation for insanity to keep up… (I was told I was insane to promote other authors and not myself. Hey, what can I say? You’ve blown my cover.) Here are some Indies that have shown me what hard work and good writing are. (The pictures are links to Amazon) I can recommend all of them, and they cover all types for all tastes. There is something there for you unless you like bleah grey goo.

A-pleasure-to-read sf series. At last.

Our Kate at her snarky best. If you ever went to a sf/fantasy con… do not read in front of a keyboard with liquids.

I wrote cover copy for it. I do not write cover copy. Do I have to explain?

Yes, I know. It’s a dirty job but someone has to write decent shapeshifter/urban fantasy/romance-ish stuff. And a lot of people like it.

As for Maas’s ‘luxury of culling the prize cattle from the herd’: Yes, this is quite an accurate assessment of the future of publishing. Only I wouldn’t call it a ‘luxury’ so much as a ‘total disaster’. And we may differ about what we see as the ‘the herd’ — I see as those well-domesticated cash-cows who are ‘farmed’ by NY publishing, rather than indy writers, who don’t placidly get herded into cattle trucks . Culling the prize cattle – killing the future breeding stock — certainly seems to be what they’re heading for. You know where that ends, don’t you? Just as bankers are finding out the boring bits of banking exist for good reason. They’re reliable and work. Gambling is just that. (Gamblers who are consistent winners or even above break-even aren’t ‘gambling’, believe me.) Maas’s weird daydream that: “Better still, because some authors are now—voluntarily!—willing to bear the expense and undertake the effort of building an audience by themselves” – and then somehow give this for love to help poor little agents and the publishing industry, without it costing said Industry more than they can make without them, is straight delusional. Firstly, I’ve yet to meet an author who chose to do their own publicity because they enjoyed it, and thought that seeing it was so much fun they’d write a book. It may happen, but it’s not just a black swan, it’s a Higgs-Boson black swan. They chose to do it, because they had to. Some are good at it. But having borne that expense and put in that effort, they know what they can reap from it. They will only agree to a deal with a publisher (who 10:1 is from an industry that rejected them) for a serious multiplier of their own effort and income. And they will be setting tough terms, often only possible for a publisher by robbing Peter – existing authors, to pay the new Paul. What is Peter going to do about this, if he can?). In short, the only clients that agents (who, contrary to popular belief, do not, by-in-large work for authors, but are little more than slush filters that publishers generously allow authors the luxury of paying for) can look forward to having, and being eager for publishers to exploit in the traditional way… are losers. Those with no skill, who can’t sell without publisher push, or no self-confidence, will still want the third-class validation.

There are going to be some culls happening, but methinks not quite where you thought they would. Don’t forget that SASE with your resume.

*The Bumiputera Effect – as displayed in Medicine in Indonesia, where historically, most of the Doctors were ethnic Chinese. So in effort to make the society ‘indigenous’, hurdles were put in front of ethnic Chinese students, meaning it was far harder for a non-Bumiputera (look it up, Google is your friend) student to get in to medicine and to graduate, whereas Bumiputera had fantastic support and needed lower marks to proceed. The end result of this was if you were really, really sick, or had a precious sick child or partner, or parent, you took them to a Chinese doctor, because while Bumiputera Doctors MIGHT be good, Chinese ones almost had to be brilliant, because it was so much harder to get there. Yes I know, the entry to making a book available for sale has no barrier for self-publishing, and a huge barrier through an agent. But we’re comparing SALES, not availability. And authors who have been accepted by an agent and a big 5 publisher, even if they’re no better than one who hasn’t, have a substantial bookstore exposure, and supposedly professional help with covers, publicity, editing and proofing. If you’re a dahling, push with promotion and marketing too. If someone who hasn’t had that, has equaled or bettered your sales, they’re more popular with readers = better than you are, in that sense, and that’s the sense the world measures, not Hugo awards.


  1. Yea! Some encouraging news for self-published authors.
    Traditional publishers have gotten so invested in the financial side of a book that they neglect to consider most unknown authors. Yes, it is true that there is an avalanche of self-published books and many (perhaps most) are not worth a reader’s time or money. BUT, at indieBRAG we are discovering books that deserve attention. These books are every bit as good as anything out there from the big 5! The arrogance they have is believing that a reader actually cares who publishes a book- a good read is a good read. I would be very surprised if the vast majority of readers ever check to see who published a book they enjoyed. We check out titles, genre, covers, book description and even reviews- and of course if it has a B.R.A.G.Medallion! – but not the publisher.
    Write a good book, find your audience and go for it-
    Best of luck

  2. I only started reading a goodly amount of indie books about two years ago. Only one have I had trouble finishing, and that had more to do with formatting problems in the work than with the quality of the writing and story. I’ve returned a half dozen or so gatekeeper-approved books to the library in that period of time, and have picked up more, skimmed a chapter, and put them back on the shelf. Bad editing, flat characters, excess gooiness, dull writing, all discouraged me from buying those carefully curated, thoughtfully winnowed volumes.

    Oh yeah, and if you know anything about Cons, do NOT drink hot beverages while reading Kate’s book, and don’t read the book in the dentist’s office waiting room, unless you want to fake a coughing spell to cover wild laughter. What I’ve read of _Pixie Noir_ is good, too.

    1. There are certainly bad entrants from both, there just more likely to bad graduates (bestsellers) from traditional publishing than Indie. And dentists waiting rooms NEED wild laughter.

  3. It will interest you to know that the Bumiputera effect IS another gift that keeps on giving from Obamacare, which demands that more than half the acceptees to medschool be female and PREFERABLY minorities. I have nothing against female minority (or otherwise) doctors, but they’re bending the rules to “get the right mix” instead of choosing the most competent. Also, it’s a known fact that about half female doctors never practice. See, they usually marry male doctors who then support them while they stay home with kids. Apparently, efforts to remake the human instincts continue to fail.

    1. … they’re bending the rules to “get the right mix” instead of choosing the most competent.

      And that, in a nutshell, is why quota systems are never a good idea. Because while it’s theoretically possible that your pool of most-qualified candidates will line up perfectly with the proportions you picked for your quota, in practice you have a better chance of winning the lottery. Which means that to meet your quota, you’re by necessity going to be choosing some less-qualified candidates and rejecting some more-qualified candidates. If the job is for something not too important, like rounding up stray animals… well, the quota’s inherent inefficiency isn’t going to harm too many people. So a few more stray dogs get loose than the better-qualified guy would have caught? Oh well, not the end of the world. But when the quota is dealing with something that affects people’s lives and health… well, let’s just add yet another reason to the ever-growing pile that Obamacare should never have been passed, and should be repealed ASAP.

      1. And even my contrived example does cause some harm: more stray dogs = more crap on the sidewalk that someone might step on, maybe someone’s beloved pet rabbit gets killed and eaten… But unless you’re really unlucky, the harm isn’t life-threatening. (Well, except to the pet rabbit.) Unlike, say, a quota system for doctors.

  4. I’m sorry, but you’re stretching a LOT with your initial thesis. Hugh stretched a lot with that review analysis, and you took it even further. There simply isn’t the data to support his conclusion, let alone yours. IF we had the granularity to verify that the pool of reviewers overlapped between these indie titles and the trade, and IF we took the time to see whether those reviewers were in fact the same, THEN we might be able to make a comparison of relative customer satisfaction. But we STILL wouldn’t know (not without reviewing each and every review individually) whether the reasons for the difference in review scores matches with your thesis. It could be that one simply had more reviews than the other; I’ve noticed that more reviews tends to bring more negative reviews. *shrug* Or not. Point is, we don’t know. I’ll grant you there is some logic to your chain of thought, but there is also a lot of conjecture and assumption, and a bit of wishful thinking as well, going on there.

    1. Okay, Michael, let’s start with the ‘wishful thinking’. I am almost entirely a traditionally published author – I think 17 books so far. I’ve still got several contracts to turn in. I’m not a bestseller, but I have been on several bestseller lists from time-to-time. My only adult Indy novels were traditionally published, and the rights have reverted. Logic says If I was engaging in wishful thinking I would wish to assess myself as second-rate, yes/no? Unless you somehow manage to conflate wishful thinking with ‘honest with my self assessment’ that one won’t fly, or even waddle really fast across the water :-). I see we have not wildly dis-similar backgrounds. I am an OLD diver, and an OLD rock-climber. I’ve pushed the limits in both at times. I’m alive. What does logic say about my self-assessment of my (and others) ability?

      Assumption: What assumption? I know both the level of support the darlings get -I have been involved in this industry for a long time, and am close friends with folk who have been in it much longer, some of whom have been the darlings. I know what support the midlist get, which is a long way under that. And I know, because I have done some re-releases and shorts, what doing it all yourself to achieve the same level of sales (and that is apples-with-apples – as your Pericles Conspiracy costs more or less the same as my A Mankind Witch, and they were both achieving the same sales, same star rating you would have had to work much harder than I did, and have produced a better product, because I have a loyal fan base who will buy and rate my books highly. Given the support system I had, you would have outsold me).

      Conjecture: Hmm. When two opposing unproven propositions meet, which is the most likely to be correct? The one with some supportive evidence and logical integrity, or the one that has neither but is supported by self-interest in claiming it true? Let me be clear on this, there are part of Hugh’s conclusions I am less than confident about being correct. There are a few parts I think the data is too thin to support his conclusions, although they may well be correct. I could go through all of this at some length, because this is an area in which I was expert many years ago (I used to statistically model multispecies fisheries) However his data is openly available, and his methodology is not secret. It’s not outstanding, it could be both extended and refined a lot but it does give considerable force to my disbelieving to the unproven (and there is no evidence at all, good, bad or microscopic in sampling) propositions held aloft by the publishing establishment that 1)The quality of bestselling Indies is poor, 2)They are an irrelevant part of sales 3)What traditional publishing provides is worth the cost to an author with a reasonable following.

      I’m not going to go through your entire post because this is way too long already but there is a false assumption in your logic train re granularity however. As there is no evidence to show that buyers of bestselling books sort BY publisher (I’d have to dig, but basically test this yourself. Ask five of your friends with a broad range of reading tastes to name their favorite books. Then asked them who published them – not who wrote them. No-one has a clue. Basically the public doesn’t know or care, as long as it is reasonably well-edited and proofed – which most bestsellers are. In fact, given that indy authors tend to pay editors and proof readers, and want value for money, whereas editors in traditional houses are involved in a large number of projects, and are well-known to spend the bulk of their time in meetings rather than editing, and proofing is contracted out -often to the same proof-readers as many indies use (and some editors care how good it is, and some don’t) the standards may well be higher in indy bestsellers. So the only selection mechanism to generate a separate subset of indy readers of bestsellers is price. As the Indy’s still win on price parity, and the sample size of ratings is quite substantial for bestsellers. I’m not a gambling man, but I would bet you a scotch of your/my choice that repeated with price parity, and a only for books with 100 + ratings, that indy bestsellers will achieve either either better ratings or statistically insignificant difference.

      And that is a long enough reply 🙂

      1. “As the Indy’s still win on price parity, and the sample size of ratings is quite substantial for bestsellers. I’m not a gambling man, but I would bet you a scotch of your/my choice that repeated with price parity, and a only for books with 100 + ratings, that indy bestsellers will achieve either either better ratings or statistically insignificant difference.”

        And there’s a good chance you’d be right, for all kinds of potential reasons. 🙂

        Hey, I think we’re mostly on the same page here overall. All I was trying to say is that if the same folks rate two books differently, it means something about the books relative to each other, but if different folks rate two books differently, it doesn’t. That’s all. Maybe I used words that were a bit strong or unclear. *sheepish grin*

        For what it’s worth though, I wonder about your comparison with your book and mine. I guess I would have to work harder, or have a better book, to have the same success as you with that one book. I’ll grant that. If we only look at right now. But what about all the work you already put in over the years to get where you are now, which I have yet to do? Seems to me that more than evens the tally. Or not? Wait, I think I just proved your point for you.


        Ah hell, I don’t know. I just got uncomfortable with the assertion in your original post. Seemed like gloating, or something. Whatever. I guess disregard. 🙂

        I look forward to buying you that drink someday. 🙂

        1. No worries. I do apologize if I came across as gloating. Tone often hangs on such small indicators and sensitivities, and the individual interpretation of them. I’ve been doing this for near 20 years and I still do it wrong. Actually what you might be picking is sheer irritation-with-stupidity (and no it’s not you, or 99.999% of the readers here). I don’t suffer fools gladly very well ;-/. The Howey post/data has caused (in public) a lot of sneering from traditional publishers, agents, and traditionally published authors, and in private some rabid vituperation, where I had to either shut up or bite a few fool head off, in a shit-fight where I was right, but winning would just make needless vengeful enemies and gain nothing. Now, I am honest enough to know there are undoubtedly better writers than me, and many of them didn’t win the top 10% lottery (the top 10% of writers submitting are all fairly good, any one of them could be an adequate midlister. – but only 0.01% are lucky enough/connected enough/ suck up enough/be the right place at the right time to become traditionally published.) I am fairly good, but I was also just luckier than a thousand other guys who were as good or better. I know that, I’m not insecure about it, I just know I have to work harder. However, most of my peers are chronically insecure about it. It leaves them frantically kicking at the esteem of self-published authors. I saw Howey’s data as supporting that I might do a bit better financially self -publishing and a good stick to wave at traditional publishers that they could either give a better share to the authors or lose them. They saw it as a threat to their self-importance, because being ‘chosen’ didn’t matter any more. Honestly, I do this for money, not to give myself delusions of grandeur.

          And yes, with time, work, you probably will outsell me. You seem to be putting together a professional effort. And because I believe the pie is one hell of a lot bigger than traditional publishers or agents think it is, I will support and encourage you or anyone else who wants to give it a go and not sneer at them because they weren’t traditionally published. They could easily be a lot better than me, and I like to read.

          1. “Honestly, I do this for money, not to give myself delusions of grandeur.”

            You and me both, brother. 🙂

            Well, that and because it’s fun. No point in doing it if it ain’t fun. 🙂

  5. I have to wonder which indy promotions work for whom. After the Saturday book plug on ATH, and after last Friday’s PJM book plug*, I haven’t seen any sales (could just be that I suck, I dunno).

    *And I learned my lesson, there was a week’s lead time on that, which makes sense since they have to embed covers etc.

      1. Thank you. And you know, this will help me understand the behavior of the rank curve when you’re just bobbling above the bottom, because I’m noticing some interesting trends. (Asymptotic approach to around the 600K mark the longer you go without sales, so I can assume that’s where stuff that doesn’t sell sinks to, and the fewer sales in a certain period, the faster the initial slope down.)

          1. I’m just guessing that’s where the surface of “Hasn’t sold in a long time” begins. But it took two weeks to go from my highest to the lowest. A sale that ended that streak was followed by a faster fall (since it had two weeks of no sales preceding it, while the previous high had an average of 4/week). So basically, the longer it’s been since a sale, the faster you fall back down after a single sale.

            Once I have a second short up to sell, I’ll toy with making it free. Or maybe doing the KDP Select thing with it. Has anyone had any good luck with that?

  6. Dave, and we’ve spoken of this, I can name three writers you know who do love the publicity aspect. Ringo, Corriea, Flint and Hoyt.

    Make that four.
    Ringo, Corriea, Flint, Hoyt and Charles Dickens….well this is turning into a Monty Python skit.

    I also know a lot of authors to whom this task is not their cuppa. THAT’S where agenthood needs to come in. Doing all the crap that needs to be dons, aside from personal appearances, in social media and so forth. Helping an author get their back list on e-books and so forth.

    Eric and I discovered long ago that publishing e-books for free actually increased sales. The traditional agent is doomed. Time for a new type of agent for those that need them. Originally they used to be publicists.

    1. Sweetie. No. I hate publicity. I just hate not selling more. (I was going to say “I don’t love publicity. I just say that to get it into bed” but it’s lame, and my fever is falling, so I GET it’s lame.)

    2. Quilly there are a few. My point is that writers who are good writers AND good at publicity are 1 in every 1 000. Those who like doing it, are good at it, and are reasonably good writers are probably 1:100 000. And they know their worth! They’re not just going to give that value to a publisher or agent. We as readers are poorer a lot of writers who suck at publicity, but are great story tellers, and publishing actually lose because their margins will be less (and readers as result, because the money goes to the 1:100 000, and there is none left for the good books by lousy publicists.) I think you would agree, though, that Maas’s daydream that they – and those who don’t like it but do it anyway, do to help him or publishers turn a bigger profit is BS.

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