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House Slaves vs. Spartacus

Others, most notably Dean Wesley Smith, have written far more eloquently than I shall about the issue of the coming civil war between writers. I actually don’t expect the war to be very civil at all, largely because the internet is not a place which cultivates or rewards civility. In fact, the very title of this post is, I admit, incendiary—but I chose it (and the illustration) for a very specific reason. And, given the reading I’ve been doing lately for a new project, the title could have been “Doughboys vs The Stars in Paris,” but no one gets World War One references these days.

Battle lines are being drawn between writers who are perfectly comfortable within the traditional publishing system, and writers who are embracing self-publishing in the digital realm—house slaves versus the gladiators. Full disclosure here: I still have contracts with major publishing houses; and were I offered substantial contracts with favorable terms, I’d certainly consider doing more work for traditional publishers. So, in the eyes of some folks within publishing, I’m a house slave gone feral, a back-biting ingrate who is bitter because Random House hasn’t tapped him for a Star Wars® novel in over a decade, and because they dropped him from their non-media publishing program after The New World came out. To them, bitterness and refusal to accept failure is what’s driving me to write hateful things about the demise of the publishing industry.

And, as a kicker, they get to toss in snide comments about my reliance on tie-in work—which they all know isn’t real writing—and my willingness to self-publish In Hero Years… I’m Dead and Tricknomancy, since, clearly, my skills have faded to the point where no real publisher would pick my work up. The discussion gets couched in the same terms and tones that one uses when talking about a once beloved dog that has gotten old, snarls too much, and really needs to be put down.

To the credit of the house slaves, they have it pretty good. They’re the writers who made the cut and are secure in a position with their publisher that has them above the midlist. Their publishers, either because of long-standing friendships and/or commercial savvy, push their work and reap the rewards. The house slaves have no reason to rock the boat—even though they started their journey on the Titanic and are now in a lifeboat. The point, as far as they can see, is that they’re not wet. While remaining dry is certainly admirable; it’s a far cry from riding in style on a luxury liner.

I’ve undertaken at recent events (both online and real world) to ask readers how long it takes them to consume a book. Most come up with a reading rate of one a day to one a week; and we’re talking novels that run 80,000-100,000 words, though most readers classify them as “books” regardless of page count. Go ahead, take a moment and figure out what your reading rate is. I’ll wait.

In terms of writing, I know I’m fast. The novelization of the Conan movie—including edits—took me twenty days for an 80,000 word novel. (I should note that my speed has not diminished since moving on to Of Limited Loyalty.) For the sake of making the math simple, let’s peg the Conan book at a month.

The significance here is simple: Readers consume a writer’s output at a rate that is four to thirty times as fast as the writer can produce. Yeah, staggering. This means that the demand for our work is, in effect, infinite. We are incapable of satisfying demand. While readers can and will go back and reread their favorite books, they will not do so preferentially to purchasing new work by that author or in that series.

So, if a writer, like me, is capable of turning out, say, six books a year (slowing things down for convention season, etc.), why don’t publishers publish more than two books a year by most authors? This is a legacy of the current distribution model, where the publication of new books too quickly would make book distribution resemble magazine distribution. This is significant because the second a new issue of a magazine hits the stands, the back issues go away and sales of them die. Since stores do not keep back stock on hand, this would apply to novels.

Now, if the publishers move to a model where all back stock becomes digital (as I think they will), they can increase their output, and still reap the benefit of an author developing an audience. The vaunted “long tail” of merchandising (the idea that new or front list product drives the sales of backlist product) will be back with a vengeance and publishers can profit because they won’t be storing paper in warehouses for years on end. It’s a win for them, and certainly means the house slaves will have a house to live in.

You could logically ask yourselves why, if the above transition is going to take place, other authors and I would be in the Spartacus camp, rebelling against a system which, after a bumpy transition period, will settle back down and it will be business as usual? If my prediction is right, after all, they’ll need more books and get them out faster, and I’ll benefit from that because I can work quickly.

In this case, the devil is in the details. Let’s examine a number of problems.

1) Paranormal romance novels have come on strong over the last decade. If a publishing house publishes twelve books a month and increases their paranormal romance part of that from two books to six, what happens to the writers who used to write the fantasies or military science fiction or hard SF that used to make up the four books that have vanished? They suddenly find themselves sitting on the sidelines. Well, one could say, that they should turn around and write paranormal romance and cash in. That would be great, provided they read the stuff, understood it and liked it enough to do a good job. If none of that is true, the job would be soul-crushing, the book would be crap, and they’d be out on their butts because they couldn’t deliver—plus their core audience wouldn’t care for the new work anyway.

2) In the pursuit of profit, publishers choose what will go into their lines irrespective of quality. Their job is to sell books, not buy literature. This is why the whole gatekeeper myth—that publishers only allow works of quality to go out—is a load of hooey. If that were true, if they were the gatekeepers, we’d never have a book that sucked hitting the stands. (Yes, Snooki, I’m talking to you.) Remember that whenever you hear the whole legitimacy argument brought up. Tradpub and the house slaves maintain that self-published authors don’t have the same legitimacy as traditionally published authors simply because they don’t have their imprimatur upon them. (Though I heard a New York Editor tell a crowd at a convention that I was doing the whole self-publishing thing right, by dint of the fact I’d already been published in New York. I guess that means, in some odd way, that Spartacus’ former owner took some pride in his rebellion. I wonder if God, maybe just a little bit, thought Lucifer a tad cooler than the other archangels.)

3) The numbers simply do not work out in favor of traditional publishing in this digital realm. Ignore for the moment that writers make a much higher percentage when we self-publish. One of the critical factors involved in all this is time. If I publish the work myself, I make the money for it in 1 to 60 days from the point of purchase. A traditional publisher will pay me 6 to 9 months after the sale, and will withhold from accounting as many copies as he deems fit to resolve future accounting difficulties. In effect, this adds another six months to a year until I see money from that sale.

4) Cash flow management is a very important part of any business. Tradpub provides an advance, which is a lump sum of money which is paid to the writer to finance the writing process. At least, that’s the way it was supposed to be. Many publishers have instituted an “on publication” portion of the advance, so I don’t get it until a year or more after I finish the book. Moreover, because of reserves against returns, I never know what I can expect to see in a royalty check. In essence, the only money I can count on for a book is the advance, which will be spread out over two or three years. Now, I can be as frugal as the next guy, but making $10,000 last for three years (well, less, since 15% goes to my agent, and another 20% to the government) is a bit of a stretch.

In the world of digital self-publishing, on the other hand, things become a lot more clear. I sell novels at $5 retail, which means, from Amazon, I’m making $3.50 a sale. Every thirty books is $105. I can monitor my sales on a daily basis and on any day I sell thirty books, I know I have $100 coming to me in sixty days. And, sixty days later, on the first of the month, money shows up in my checking account. Suddenly I have a cash flow which is reliable and, more importantly, predictable. I can plan my spending in ways which, previously, were closed to me.

The house slaves will offer certain arguments against why they don’t do digital stuff.

1) I don’t write that fast, so I won’t benefit. Any writer that can say that, I guarantee, has a boatload of stories and/or a trunk-novel or two, that they could dust off and offer for sale. They don’t have to write fast—they’ve already written! Just get that work up and let it sell. It’s like having a garage sale where you never run out of old records, bundles of coat hangers or boxes of paperbacks selling for $1 each.

2) I can’t do the computer stuff. I always love that one. This from folks who can make up whole universes, can read and research and understand particle physics or ancient cultures; and, all of a sudden learning how to “Save to PDF” is beyond you? Really? These are the same folks who now get sent their manuscripts with copy editor comments in electronic form, and are required to track and make changes in the manuscript. Heck, if they can do that, they can easily format a story for electronic publication.

3) If I do this, I will be blacklisted by traditional publishing. If traditional publishing could find its ass with both hands and a flashlight, you’d have something to worry about. They are profit-motivated. If they could make a nickel at it, they’d suck the eyes out of their dead grandmothers’ skulls. It doesn’t matter what they think of you personally: if they think you will make them a profit, they’ll give you money and take your work. (Again, Snooki, that’s for you.)

4) Since everyone can publish on the internet, there is no way to stand out. I’ll just get lost in the crowd. Sure, and being spotted in a crowded bookstore is easy? First, you need to find a crowded bookstore—and in an uncrowded bookstore, the chances of your books being there at all are trending toward zero. The fact is that your name recognition means readers know to search on your name via search engines and online outlets. And those online outlets also have that nifty “Purchasers of this book also bought…” function that we don’t see in stores. And, let’s face it, that “also purchased” bit is far more marketing than most books get from tradpub.

5) I don’t want to be distracted by all this. Okay, that’s a fair cop. If you choose to remain ignorant, that is your choice. However, it’s a bit disingenuous when you snipe at folks who are addressing the future, and then affect shock and hurt and horror when folks shoot back. All I have ever advocated is that authors should, at the very least, get their out of print books and short stories up and available online. So what if you only sell $10 worth a month. It’s $10 more than you had and you know it will make a fan who wants to complete his collection of your “Fluffy, Priest-king of Felantis” stories happy.

All of the house slaves really need to ask themselves a simple question: why are the traditional publishers dismissing ebook sales as paltry with one hand, and yet insisting they already own the rights to ebooks for which those rights were never purchased?

The answer is simple: up to this point they had mistakenly equated having a monopoly on the means of distribution with having a monopoly on the means of production. Without writers, tradpub has nothing; and this terrifies them. So they tell themselves that there will always be new writers who can come in to replace the old writers. And the fact is, dear house slave, that there always comes a point where any of us can become an “old writer.”

The battle here is not about which group is right, house slaves or the legions with Spartacus. It’s about the fact that we produce the content that others have made a living distributing. The contracts the publishers offer us have only changed to their benefit since the advent of publishing. Now that a new means of distribution has arisen, allowing us to sell to our audiences directly, and at a more economical price for them; the old distributors are fully invested in discrediting those who are getting out in front of the changes. They choose to do this instead of reforming how they do business and offering us deals on terms that are far more equitable for all parties concerned.

So they pat your heads in that kindly manner, sweet house slave, and they tell you not to worry your pretty little head about things that don’t concern you and that you couldn’t possibly understand. They tell you it will all be okay, and that you’re safe right here with them. That’s what they told you in the stateroom on the Titanic. It’s what they’re telling you in the lifeboat now.

But ask yourself, when the lifeboat starts sinking, who do you think goes overboard first?

Just because you’re dry now, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn how to swim.


Writing up this series of blog posts is cutting into my fiction writing time. If you’re finding these posts useful, and haven’t yet gotten yet snagged my latest novels, please consider purchasing a book. Nice thing about the new age of publishing is that you become a Patron of the Arts, letting writers know what you’d like to see more of simply by voting with a credit card. (Authors charge less when they sell direct, so you save, we make more, and that frees us to write more.)

My latest paper novel, At The Queen’s Command, is available at book retailers everywhere.

Tricknomancy is a braided novel. That’s author for a serial story told through a number of shorter pieces that all come together as a novel. Think of it in terms of a television series. This is series one, consisting of seven episodes. The stories feature Trick Molloy, a magick-using, ex-cop who left the force because he was framed for being a dirty cop. He now works as a bouncer in a strip club, helping friends, solving murders and dealing with an insane family, most of whom would like to see him dead or worse. It’s available for the Kindle, and for sale directly off my website for any epub compliant ereaders

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35 Responses to “House Slaves vs. Spartacus”

  1. Brilliant. Beautiful. Awesome.

    What more needs to be said?

    (except thanks for one of the best QotD moments I’ve had in awhile with the Lucifer reference.)

  2. Great post! In respect to your point about productivity, do you think readers have been conditioned to think it takes a year to write a book? Suppose you were to crank out six or more books a year, and publish them on your own. Do you worry that readers would assume you are rushing through things and would subconsciously perceive a lack of quality, ascribing it to your “hurried” writing pace? (Am I making sense?) BTW- just bought At the Queen’s Command. Looking forward to it.

  3. Sure, readers might decide things are rushed, but, heck, I write all of my novels at that speed. I, Jedi, for example, was written in 31 days of a 41 day period, yet folks pick it as their favorite Star Wars novel.

    The proof will be in the pudding. If the works don’t stack up (no pun intended) then readers will go elsewhere and I’ll take the hint or I’ll be going elsewhere, too.

  4. Well, let me say one thing: You are too slow ;-)
    I am a slow reader in English, not my native language, just about 55 pages per hour (belletristic paperback)

    Readers don’t care how long it takes to write a book. They just want to read.

    The main problem is (IMHO) the idea, the story line. Most authors annoy me. Even if the idea is good, implementation is lacking or the story resolution is idiotic.

    To smear some honey: Not only do you write very good, I mean technically. You also have good/great ideas, but on top of that, you know how to tell stories. So, please, give me more, more, more… ;-) (To quote the Duke: I need it bad!)

    ’bout publishing: I think that we will see a new kind of service soon. “You are a writer? You want to publish yourself? We can help you! We do the layout, marketing, have a shop, publish at amazon, …”

    A middle way between “house slave” and “going rogue”. When that kind of service appears, publishing industry is truly screwed. A lot of “house slaves” will go rogue…

    Btw.: I hate to mention it, because I want you to write and nothing else, but have you ever thought about doing that yourself? Get a bunch of writers and add them to your shop? Publish them?

  5. Brilliant, as always, on this topic.

    On the point about “legitimacy”; I think if there is anything that will give a writer a sense of legitimacy in the age of digital publishing, it first comes from the belief in their own work as being the best it can be. After that, it ultimately comes from the readers, IMHO.

  6. A pint awaits you Michael whenever you’re in Las Vegas.

    Well said and keep on!

  7. “If they could make a nickel at it, they’d suck the eyes out of their dead grandmothers’ heads.”

    Ha ha ha. Great line.

    I love the dragon-page podcast, btw. Any others you would recommend?

    My blog, and some thoughts on the digital shift:

  8. Wise words from a wise man. Now, get the rights to Wolf and Raven so I can have it on my Kindle. I need a Shadowrun fix.

  9. Nicely done. I’m a multiple bestseller on amazon and have NEVER been pub’d by a NY house. It CAN be done. Thanks for the good words for those of us working in “nontraditional” markets!

  10. Interesting post, Mike, but I’m going to pick up a few points of your argument.

    “Readers consume a writer’s output at a rate that is four to thirty times as fast as the writer can produce. Yeah, staggering. This means that the demand for our work is, in effect, infinite.”

    That “demand”, though, isn’t demand in the economic sense. There’s no indication from the speed at which people read books that they’ll buy more books if only they were available.

    There’s two reasons for this. First, the rate of reading doesn’t actually tell you anything about whether a person is willing to spend more money on books, and that’s what matters when it comes to selling your work.

    Second, it assumes that I’m only interested on one person’s work, when in fact I want to read a spread of books from different authors. Even if I read a book a week, there’s no guarantee that I’ll buy a book a week from a single author – or anything approaching it.

  11. Ian,

    In a theoretical sense your first point has validity; but practically speaking we know it’s not true. Regardless of reading rate, once a person has finished a book, they want another. If the book they just finished is in a series and the next one is available, AND the digital book has a link that immediately allows them to buy that book, chances are excellent they will make the purchase right then.

    Your second point is not at all lost upon me, it just wasn’t quite on target for the discussion at hand. Most reader, to keep up with their consumption, read multiple authors. This is where author speed becomes immaterial. As long as you are producing work that readers can slip into their reading schedule, you will have customers. Even if you, as a single reader, are more selective than just to buy blindly by series or author, the fact is that other reader’s criteria mean they’ll select a book you don’t. When the internet and digital sales mean that everyone with a smart phone or computer can buy your work, an author has to be nuts not to have work available.

  12. Two possible root complaints triggering some of the others: “I’ve spent so long (or just finished) learning how to publish this way! I’m not going back to study-school for some other way!” and “Why fix what’s broken? I’m published. I don’t want to run a business.”

    Yes, I realize that any type of publication leads to business. But even the easily-refutable myths persist about writing.

    If I had a dollar for every time folks have assumed that because I’d written a novel, I’d published that novel—and paid to get it published…

  13. Well, there goes my last diet root beer. All over the monitor. Nice work ;)

    I echo the praise, and thank you for the clarity of the argument.

    One note though: Let’s be fair to Snooki. It’s not like she wrote the book.

  14. As a library user, let me point out that the more people put a book on order, the more books the library will/should buy. I don’t know anyone who could afford to keep me in books, but that doesn’t mean my reading doesn’t support authors. Vote Yes on your library levy!

  15. This was a GREAT article! I wrote something similar a couple of months back, but it’s nothing compared to the detail this one offers. Found it on Kindle boards. Glad I click the link. I’m going to repost it on Twitter :)

    Christopher David Petersen

  16. Oh, you and Dean and Kris are such troublemakers, Stackpole!

    Just because you are right and all is no reason to make the Emperor feel bad because he’s running around naked …

    The e-train has arrived at the station, and it’s time to get your ticket and get onboard, folks. If it leaves without you, you are apt to regret it.

    I have to imagine that there was once upon a time a buggy whip maker who shook his head at the newfangled auto-mobiles scaring the horses and thought the contraptions a fad that would pass …


  17. There’s a bit of irony in anti-Sparticus folks self-posting their naysayings on blogs rather than firing off a letter to the editor of some magazine or newspaper.

  18. Great post! I love the analogy.

    You mentioned a few rebuttals to the ‘traditional pub does this for you…” argument that were outstanding. Think I’ll add them to my repetoire when discussing the Roman Games we’re all in the midst of.

    I’m also going to add a link to this post on my blog.

    Thanks for taking the time away from your novels to share your insights with us!

  19. Michael,
    That may be one of the most eye-opening columns I’ve read in a while. Quite informative. If you have the time, perhaps an article on taking those three manuscripts I have sitting in a drawer and making something of them. Thank you.

  20. Very interesting. I’m not sure I can at this stage apply your advice about using your name to stand out from the crowd in the great ebook ocean, seeing I don’t exactly have a name at the moment, but it’s good to hear about where things are going straight from the horse’s mouth.

  21. I loved this article. I couldn’t agree more with your analysis of the publishing industry, and their backward views on digital technology. After a small amount of experience trying to get my first novel accepted by an agent and publisher, I felt that the publishing industry is designed to discourage writers. But how can this work out for them in the long run? I also write quite quickly and your post has again justified to me that unless a publisher is going to be innovative and encourage the use of digital technology to find more readers, I’m better off self-publishing!
    I wrote this post about an idea I had for self published authors to make money from their work, without having to physically sell their books to readers:
    I hope it is of interest.
    Thanks for your post. I have tweeted it and I am about to purchase your book as it looks like something I would really enjoy.

  22. Matt, the use of a name point was directed at those who are caught up in the legacy publishing industry, not folks who are just getting in. Writers like you are so much better off in this regard because you’re more comfortable doing the work that’s required to promote your work and build an audience. Too many of the house slaves don’t believe they should have to do that (an odd entitlement idea), so they won’t do this stuff. As they fall by the wayside, you get to rise and push beyond where they fell.

  23. Oh, come on, Mike. Admit it – you just wrote this article because you have visions of 10,000 writers all standing up at once yelling out:

    “I am Spartacus!”


    (Well done – I loved this one.)

  24. Great post Michael,

    I’ve been calling conventional writers employees as apposed to business owners.

    They get paid like employees, i.e. 20% or less of the profit from their work.

    They have about as much control over their work as employees.

    And although publishers like to hide this employee/employer relationship behind this idea of “royalties” conventional writers are virtually doing “work for hire” writing.

    In all my years in business I’ve never seen such a one-sided relationship as that between writer and publisher.

    It’s just appalling that writers have put up with it for all these decades – actually 571 years, since the invention of the printing press.

    This new electronic/self publishing model that you and Dean talk about – this is exactly what’s needed.

    Write on… and publish!


  25. The House Slaves are busy silencing dissenting voices even as we speak.

    Robin Sullivan, wife of indie (and recently signed by Orbit, I think, to publish his six book series) fantasy author Michael Sullivan, and publisher at their imprint Ridan Publishing, was just banned at Absolute Writer because she kept telling the truth about self-publishing and traditional publishing. Since she and her husband have done both, she  knows what she’s talking about.

    The post from the moderator shows just how deeply their heads are in the sand and how scared they are. The private message she was sent, which she posted, was breathtaking. It makes me angry on her behalf.

    I’ve shared the link to her blog post below.

    Thanks again for the great posts and great stories.

  26. Terry, thanks for the link. I read the posts and retweeted via Kevin’s stuff.

    Incredible. Thank goodness there’s another website on publishing I don’t need to explore!



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