Recently I happened on an article in the online edition of Forbes magazine: “Publishing Is Broken, We’re Drowning in Indie Books – And That’s a Good Thing.” The author, David Vinjamuri, assesses the conflict between traditional and Indie publishing and predicts both will survive, even thrive. Vinjamuri begins by quoting two well-known authors who speak of Indies with smugness and disdain.

Brad Thor, a writer of techno-thrillers, declares that publishers “separate the wheat from the chaff” and that any “good writer with a great book . . . should be able to get a publishing contract.” I’ve never read this guy’s novels. Maybe he’s good. But I disagree that landing a contract with a big publishing house proves his or any writer’s excellence. I’ve encountered plenty of bad writing in novels issued by major presses.

Reading Tami Hoag’s Ashes to Ashes, I came upon an expository passage crudely borrowed from sources I recognized from my research into serial killers. It’s not plagiarized. Just partly digested and vomited onto the page. Okay, so Hoag was concentrating on plot and character development and left some crappy writing in the manuscript she sent off to her publisher. Where was her editor? Indie authors are exhorted to hire a professional editor lest their books seem amateurish. Let’s hope they find someone better than whoever applied the final coat of polish to Ashes to Ashes.

Maybe the editing was rushed to meet a publication schedule.

Bestselling authors are expected to write a book every year or so. Otherwise readers might abandon the brand and start reading some other author. Charlaine Harris, an author whose writing has given me delight, has been producing a Sookie Stackhouse book about every year. I’ve read all of them through Dead in the Family. Another has been published since then. Or maybe two. I’ve stopped caring. So have many fans, who find the plots lackluster and become frustrated by the lack of coherence in the story from one book to the next.

Harris’s publisher makes a lot of money from her novels. Maybe the people in charge figure her fans will buy them anyway, so there’s no longer any need for quality.

Commercial publishers are in business to make money. Nothing wrong with that. But the profit motive doesn’t necessarily foster literary excellence. Vinjamuri brings up the famous example of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, a novel rejected because Toole refused to make changes that an editor thought would render the novel more commercial. Later, Walker Percy championed the novel. It was published and won the Pulitzer Prize. Having the right connections helps. There are elements of luck and timing in literary success.

You wouldn’t know it, though, reading Sue Grafton’s sneers about Indie authors:

“I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall.”

Grafton pisses me off for a couple of reasons. First, she makes the broad generalization that every Indie author rushes to publish without mastering the craft of writing. Granted, much Indie writing is awful. But what is true of many (or even most) doesn’t hold for all. As in the process of commercial publication, cream rises. (So does shit, but that’s another story.)

Second, Grafton’s mystery novels aren’t “Carnegie Hall” material either. They’re the well-crafted products of a pedestrian imagination. I don’t want to offend Grafton’s many fans, but her work isn’t as wonderful as she seems to think. Sure, her books deserve to be published. They entertain many, many readers. But so do the novels of Indie authors like Morgan Hannah McDonald and Melissa Foster.

Read Vinjamuri’s article if you want evenhanded analysis of why Indie authors get dismissed while Indie filmmakers and musicians get respect, why the pricing practices of commercial publishers have created problems for them, and the ways publishing could change. As his title suggests, Vinjamuri finds reasons for optimism. It’s heartening to think there might be room for everyone.


One of my friends received a proposal recently. Not a marriage proposal, more like a plea for help thinly disguised as a business deal.

Fame Awaits

She’s an accomplished writer whose memoir was published by a prestigious academic press. She teaches writing at the university level. A stranger called and asked her to write his memoir. Someone had given him her name. An elderly fellow without much money, he couldn’t afford to pay her, but he knew Hollywood would be interested in his story. She would share the payoff when it was optioned.

I happened to be with my friend when she got the phone call. I listened to her explain that she had too much work to take on his project. She added gently that ghost writers are paid thousands of dollars to do what he was asking. The possibility of a Hollywood payoff wasn’t enough.

Why not write the story himself, she suggested. There were local writing groups that cost nothing to join. He swept the idea aside. Transportation was a problem for him, and anyway he just wanted to someone to put his story on paper. It was a tremendous story. Hollywood would snap it up.

The man kept ignoring her tactful refusals, so it took her awhile to get off the phone.

My first reaction is disdainful amusement. How could anyone be that naive? And nervy—to think an accomplished writer would spend hours and hours of hard work for the chance to share his pipe dream.

Some people.

Then empathy kicks in. Here’s a person whose story will never be told because he lacks energy and resources. I imagine him living in some ramshackle house in the country, dreaming of Hollywood. Poor and elderly and maybe sick, he has asked for help. I feel sorry for him, but not sorry enough to offer myself as his ghost writer. Time and energy are too precious. None of us knows for certain how much we have left. The older I get, the more I treasure mine.

Writers face frustration and failure all the time. They work day jobs and forgo a social life to write in the evening. They solicit agents and get perfunctory rejections or no answer at all. Once they find representation, the agent might not put much effort into placing the manuscript, especially if the first few editors show no interest. If the manuscript is accepted, the writer waits a long time for publication and receives little promotional help from the publisher. This process—from querying agents to seeing one’s book in print—takes years.

And seldom does Hollywood notice the book’s existence.

Another Forlorn Place

Writers who decide to go indie have their own set of problems. They become responsible for every aspect of publication—editing, proofreading, layout, cover design and creation, promotion and marking. Only a few writers master all of these tasks well enough to meet professional standards and only a few have the money to pay professionals to do everything. So they produce the sloppy books that give indie authors a bad reputation.

As an indie author, I’ve cheaped out and overestimated what I could do. In some ways I’m ashamed of the first edition of Talion and wish I could make every copy disappear. Instead, they remain out in the world, hard evidence of my ignorance and overconfidence. Like everyone else, I learn from my mistakes and move on.

Seeing the guy with Hollywood dreams from this angle, I’m not so sympathetic. He doesn’t want to create anything. He wants the fame and money that occasionally come from creative work. And he expects someone else to do the work, to spend time and energy on a project likely to fail.

And when it does, he has lost nothing.

The pivotal moment came during the alumni book signing at my college reunion last fall.

I attended Knox College, a private liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois. Knox boasts one of the finest undergraduate creative writing programs in the country, a program just beginning while I was a student there. But graduates from Knox go on to success in many fields. Biologists, historians, political scientists, and educators sat alongside the fiction writers and poets at the tables in the Ford Center for the Fine Arts. The book signing began after Homecoming Convocation as the crowd emerged from the auditorium and filed in front of our tables – so many tables they stretched the entire length of the lobby.

Quite a few people glanced at my paranormal thriller Talion, but few lingered more than a moment or picked up a book. I was selling several copies to old friends and one or two to strangers. Not as many as I’d hoped. Then a woman came over and scrutinized Talion for a few seconds. “I’m not buying your book,” she announced, “because I don’t like the cover. It tells me nothing. I have no idea what the book is about.”

I began my one-sentence pitch, but she was already walking away. Okay, I thought. That was rude.

Well, blunt anyway.

She wasn’t the first critic to pan the cover. Some reviewers disliked it. One even urged readers not to hold the cover against the novel, which was actually quite good. Poor novel, doomed like me during my unhappy teen years: “A pretty girl, really, too bad she has to wear glasses.”

A week or so later, a friend who had just finished Talion mentioned that the text contained a few typos and offered to point them out if I ever issued another edition. Reading his kind email, I realized the decision was in my mind, already made, just waiting for me to notice. There had to be another edition of Talion with a better cover.

The First Cover

Joe's Photo

The image on Talion‘s first cover is a photograph taken by Joe Heumann, the love of my life. It has a brilliant abstract beauty that evokes the beauty my protagonist, Lu, sees in the apparition of Talion. I lacked the skills to make a book cover, so I contracted a graphic artist, Richard Reynolds Taylor, who created a beautiful cover from the photograph I gave him. But as the blunt lady pointed out, it delivers no message. The image has zero connection to the story except in my mind.

The First Cover

I can’t believe I made such a dumb mistake, expecting readers to make a mental leap without sufficient information. A mistake I’ve warned my freshman comp students not to make too many times to count. Worse, I underestimated the importance of having a book cover that would intrigue potential readers and hold their attention for longer than a second. Sure, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but as readers scan books on a shelf or thumbnail images on a screen, they have no basis on which to choose EXCEPT the cover. Jeff Bennington, author of the horror novels Twisted Vengeance and Reunion, puts it concisely: “Your cover needs to grab a reader’s attention, draw them in, or create enough curiosity to earn a ‘click'” If only I’d read Jeff’s book The Indie Author’s Guide to the Universe before publishing in the first place.

The New Cover

I decided to give Talion the cover it deserved, a cover that expressed the drama and atmosphere of the story. Exploring online, I found more than a dozen graphic artists who would create a professional cover for fees ranging from $300 to more than $1000. But I wasn’t shopping for the least expensive option. Not this time. I wanted an artist with a fantastic imagination and distinctive style, and I found him in Duncan Long.

Duncan is a professional who has created cover art for major commercial publishers. And he is prolific. His gallery displays numerous examples of his work in various genres. Looking through them, I was struck by how original his art is. It stands out from all the rest of the covers I viewed in my search. His style and imagery create a world that is distinctively his own. A world where Talion is at home.

Although the cost of the new cover might not be recouped in additional sales, I consider the money well spent. When my next novel is published, I want as many readers as possible to remember Talion.



I have a friend with amazing talent who is ready to stop writing. Her reasons are complex and personal — as reasons for life-changing decisions generally are — but at their heart is despair. Though she has published numerous stories, she cannot find an agent to represent her, and without an agent she has no access to commercial publishers. She has the disastrous luck of seeking publication during a seismic shift in the publishing landscape. The popularity of e-books is soaring, bookstores are closing, and independent publishers are proliferating. Agents and commercial publishers are looking for sure-fire bestsellers — nothing too quirky or original.

I understand the despair. I’ve been writing fiction a long time. Two reputable agents have taken me on, yet none of my novels found a publisher. In the end, I published one novel myself and discovered how formidable the process of promotion and distribution can be.

My friend might argue, “At least you found two agents.” But what does it say that neither of them could sell my books at a time when publication was easier than it is now? Maybe I’m horribly unlucky. Maybe I’m not quite good enough and never will be. Yet fool that I am, I keep trying because writers without readers are alone in the world. And writers do need validation. Very few can persist without encouragement from somewhere, even if it’s the memory of a high-school teacher who said, “You know, you’ve really got talent.” Most need more than that, but not all need the validation of commercial success or critical acclaim.

Photograph by Claudia Nagel

The deeper question is whether writing is necessary, whether life would be too empty and painful without it. In that case, the writer has no choice but to continue working and seeking receptive readers. Once in a while I reread parts of a little book called Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The authors examine the fears that can prevent artists from creating or doing their best work — including, of course, fear of rejection. There’s a passage I’ve gone back to more than once:

Courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts — namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work.

I take a couple of lessons from this passage. First, doing my work, becoming the best writer I’m capable of being, is what matters most. Second, if I’m going to put power in the hands of anyone, it shouldn’t be a stranger who’s looking for something to sell. There are a few people whom I trust to tell me whether I’m making progress, whose honesty, good will, and judgment I trust. They get the power.

In the end, the artist has to decide whether to keep creating. Nobody else can force the decision. But my friend should know that others believe in her talent and hope she’ll come back to her writing.


The Amazon KindleIf you hang around Amazon’s Kindle store, you probably know that many customers are pissed about the higher prices of Kindle books. They grouse endlessly in various community forums and spit invective at Amazon, at publishers, even at writers. Now their protests have found another outlet. Furious that the Kindle edition of Michael Connelly’s latest thriller cost more than the discounted hardcover on Amazon’s Web site, readers began posting one-star reviews of the Kindle edition. They made no pretense of having read The Fifth Witness. Most conceded they love Connelly’s novels. But they felt something must be done to make Amazon and Connelly’s publisher, Little, Brown and Company, take heed.

A couple of years ago, the price of a new release on Kindle was $9.99, far less than half the cost of the hardcover. This price was set not by publishers but by Amazon. The online retailer took a smaller profit (or perhaps even a loss) in order to sell more Kindles. “Look!” Amazon told customers. “Buy a Kindle and never pay more than $9.99 for a book!” Then publishers rebelled. When Apple launched iBooks, they had another venue for their ebooks and threatened to withhold their lists from Amazon unless they determined the price. Amazon capitulated but accompanied the higher prices with the message “This price was set by the publisher.” In other words, don’t blame them for breaking the promise they made when they sold you a Kindle.

By the way, The Fifth Witness now costs $12.99 as a KIndle book, still less than half the full retail price of the hardcover and less than Amazon’s discounted price.

As a writer I have some sympathy for Connelly and other bestselling authors targeted by the protest. Not that they need my sympathy, they’re doing just fine, thank you. Still, the unfairness of those reviews must sting a little. Today I posted a brief review of The Fifth Witness on Amazon, giving it one more star than it deserved to compensate for the many undeserved low ratings.

I have less sympathy for Little, Brown and Company. Commercial publishers style themselves as “gatekeepers” who make sure only quality books are offered to readers; in fact they publish whatever they judge will sell. I once had lunch with an editor at a large publishing house who told me so, bluntly. For a long time traditional publishers have had a monopoly on book publishing, but new technologies are changing things. My dark side is gratified at seeing the arrogant, inbred, weaselly bastards scramble.

Nor do I have much sympathy for Amazon, though the company has always been courteous and fair in its dealings with me. Amazon plays hardball with publishers. They can hardly be surprised when publishers do the same.

In the end, two things determine the price of ebooks: what its costs to produce them and what readers are willing to pay.

Many people argue that ebook prices should be low because unlike hardcovers and paperbacks they cost next to nothing to produce and distribute; only a royalty to the author must be paid. This might be true if you ignore the many expenses of running a business – maintaining office space, paying editors, etc. It seems reasonable to include these expenses when determining what it costs to publish an ebook.

Blow aside their smoke about championing literary quality and nurturing writers and it’s clear publishers are in business to make a profit. Of course they charge what the market will bear. Of course they resist when retailers lower prices to undercut competition and promote sales of other merchandise. And there’s this: the longer readers expect ebooks to cost $9.99, the more difficult it becomes to raise the price. Seeing the long-term stakes, publishers fought hard to wrest control of the pricing from Amazon.

The market for ebooks has created a new economic model, and readers are a major force in shaping what it becomes. When enough readers buy ebooks instead of going to the bookstore, bookstore chains like Borders file for bankruptcy. As bookstores close, Internet retailers acquire a larger share of the market, allowing them to raise prices – up to the point where readers refuse to pay. Those customers protesting the price of The Fifth Witness on Kindle claim that bogus one-star reviews are the only way to voice their outrage. But there’s another way that’s fairer (though less emotionally satisfying). Just don’t buy the book until the price goes down.

By the way, my novel Talion can be downloaded from the Kindle store for only $2.99. (See the link below.)