Small Press versus Indie

(Mind rant warning)

A question came up the other day, in regards to the post I did from WorldCon where I watched the dipwad from NY Publishing talk about Amazon and Indie publishing in the vein of being a “vanity press.”

He didn’t get it. Many folks wedded to the idea of New York Publishing™ don’t get it. But a significant part of their problem lies with what I frequently see as two different definitions of success: Money and Fame.

As a rule, prestigious journals (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Alfred Hitchcock, Strange Horizons, etc.) pay six cents per word. Figure a story that runs five thousand words published, and you are making three hundred dollars US. That’s it. And six cents per word is a fairly recent increase, roughly 2014. Before that, the rate went from three cents to five cents in around 2004.

There is upward pressure to increase that number, but it is still not keeping pace with inflation. Not by a long shot.


Warning: Math Nerd Ahead


If you look at the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in January 1946, it sat at a rate of 18.2. In January 1966, it stood at 31.8, so not quite a doubling of overall prices for consumer good in the course of twenty years. The 70’s saw a huge burst of inflation, for those of us old enough to remember it, or the stories. In January 1976, the rate had doubled in ten years, up to 55.6. In 1986, we’re at 109.6, so another rough doubling of consumer prices in a decade. In 1996, 154.4, so inflation has cooled some, but still going like hell. In 2006, the rate stands at 198.3. This last year, January 2016, the rate was at 236.9.


Year Rate
1946 18.2
1956 26.8
1966 31.8
1976 55.6
1986 109.6
1996 154.4
2006 198.3
2016 236.9


Math Nerd over

What does this mean? It means that in the old days, at a penny per word, you could make a nice, middle-class living, by churning out 3-6 short stories per week and keeping them all out at the various magazines (and there were a whole bunch more magazines paying professional rates in those days). Lester Dent did it quite successfully. So did a number of other writers. The problem is, there are fewer magazines out there these days paying standard rates. And more writers with the skill and craft to compete.

One of the reason behinds there being fewer magazines is the explosive growth of the Indie Press over the last ten to fifteen years, driven in large part by the success of Amazon and the creation of a standard, easy-to-use marketplace, both for readers and for writers.

In the old days, Traditional Publishing saw itself as a gatekeeper of quality. If a story was going to be published, it had to meet certain standards (and occasionally also bizarre themes), set by the editor. Those standards relaxed as you went down the ladder of prestige and importance, but there were still many more stories written than ever got published.

(We call the leftovers “trunk stories” indicating that you tossed them in a trunk and forgot about them. If you got famous, maybe the publisher put out a collection of your short stuff that was otherwise too “something.”)

So that’s what we’ll today call Small Press Publishing.

These are periodicals and publishers still wedded to the way things have been done for the last century. Writers submit a story. Editors judge them and keep the ones that best fit. (Not the best stories, mind you, but the ones that hit a set of monthly themes best, as determined by the editor.)

Writers get paid up front at the going, professional rate, or some lesser number indicating their willingness to take less money at a lesser magazine, in trade for the publicity of being published. Of “being someone,” as it were.

That is the path of prestige, such as it is. If you publish a story, as we covered above, maybe you get a check for $300US.

How many of those would you need, monthly, to cover all your needs? How many stories would you have to write for every one that actually made the cut and earned you money?

I’m guessing the numbers don’t add up for you, either.

On the other side of the coin, you have Indie Press publishing.

The only filters on Indie Press today are those limits imposed by ebook reader devices, which require a fairly sophisticated, technical format. One that is easy to hit, once you have learned the nuances.

I can put out any novel, novella, or short story I write. Any length. Any theme. Any idea, as long as I’m willing to sign my name to it and have you judge it.

I have First Readers and copy editors that I pay to make sure the quality of the story and the coherence of the words is better than it first comes out of my mind, but they are not in a position to say “you aren’t allowed to publish this, it is the wrong (length, theme, gender, genre, socio-economic thesis, etc.).”

If I want to write stories about a pre-cognitive ant nest exploring outer space, that’s my prerogative (Hive 3 will be going off to the New Yorker for standard rejection in a month or so).

I just got a “complaint” from reader yesterday that she loved Queen of the Pirates, but (SPOLIER ALERT) was pissed at me that I killed Warlock. She understood why, and loved the story, but wanted Jessica to have a better ending. I could end it the way I wanted, because I don’t have an editor telling me the story I have to write, if I want it to be published.

The fourth Jessica, Goddess of War, is, in many ways, radically different from the first three. I can do that. I just started the fifth one this last Saturday, Flight of the Blackbird. It will be even more different. I can do that, too.

I get to tell my story.


In many ways, the modern writer frequently has a rather stark choice to make. They can pursue the prestige of being published in a major magazine. They can hone their craft over years of occasional short fiction publication, until they feel they can undertake writing a novel. Then they must find an agent, and either write the novel, or build a proposal package sufficient to entice a publisher. That’s the traditional way. Tried and true. Old School.

With luck, they get a novel deal.

With even greater luck, theirs is one of the handful of novels that actually breaks out every year, and they get offered better novel deals and riches. A generation ago, you might be able to have several novels published as you honed your craft and found your audience. Today, you pretty much have to make your sales numbers out of the gate (and I mean in the first month), or you’re cut loose.

On the Indie side: I put out collections of short stories on Amazon, Kobo, B&N, etc., because we didn’t know any better. I would tell someone starting out today to just put up everything they have individually, and keep putting up short fiction as fast as they can. People who could save money buying the collection still go get the individual stories instead. (No, I don’t know.)

After twenty or so short pieces, I stretched and wrote a novella (24,000 words instead of 6,000, when my previous longest story had been about 16,000). And I can publish a novella, and people will buy it, as long as I price it right and look like a professional. After several novellas, Fabulous Publisher Babe™ told me I should try writing novels.

It is an interesting facet of writer psychology. There appears to be a distinct social hierarchy, as I have watched TradPub writers interact. If you are a novelist, you rank higher than a “mere short story writer” and I have watched them circle each other like wary hounds, sniffing at that difference. (Think sharks looking for weakness.)

The definition of novel, per SFFWA (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the main organization), is 40,000 words. That’s not really that much more than the 24,000 I had done several times previously, so I set out to write a long novella, by making sure I crossed 40,000 before I ran out of words.

I managed. And learned how to tell a longer story coherently.

After that, I did the first three Jessica novels back to back to back. (70k/90k/85k). It is a muscle you develop. My sixth novel is coming out in a little more than a week. Number Seven comes out in mid-October.

Where does that leave us? (aka tl;dr)

If I wanted to pursue Traditional Publishing, I would have to spend a great deal more time chasing leads, researching editor tastes, and keeping a number of short stories (3,000-6,000 words only) in the mail. As each got rejected, send it on to somewhere else. And it would be very hard to do, because you and I are competing for magazine space with a whole bunch more people that we did twenty years ago, to say nothing of fifty.

(That, by the way, is time I’m spending not honing my craft by writing.)

I might have even had some success. I think I’m a good enough technical storyteller by now to compete in short fiction, if I had focused on it. I know several people who do make livings these days playing the short game, but most of them are sending things out for the magazines a few times, and then just putting it up for sale on Amazon or their web site. For them, the occasional magazine title puts them in front of a wider audience and helps with discoverability. But then tend to make their money on their own fan base and cross-pollinating with bundles and anthologies.

If I had gone down the TradPub path, I would not have been in a position to be publishing my seventh novel, and starting on my eighth. Period. I don’t make enough money each year to be able to support myself entirely on my writing. I don’t expect to.


There is a theory I have heard that somewhere around ten to fifteen novels not only in the same genre, but the same sub-genre, you hit a breakthrough in terms of reaching a new monthly plateau of sales, fans, and exposure. I’m not there yet. I’m not close. Jessica will be nine novels plus associated tales. Kai Di is a trilogy I still have to write two-third of. Fairchild will be a whole new series, but I will need at least three there as well to call it that.

I’m three to five years away, I think. Six of the nine Jessicas. All of Kai Di. Several Fairchilds. Some others.

But I can see it in the distance.

I will probably never be up for consideration for a Hugo, or a Nebula, or any of the major awards. Those currently tend to go to Traditionally Published authors. Folks who pursued prestige.

To date, I do not have a single “professionally-qualifying” publication to my name, since the few places I have put stuff out other than Knotted Road Press do not count to make my bones with SFWA. Fabulous Publisher Babe™ and I joke that one of these days, I’ll accidentally start my Campbell Award clock timer with something I send off, because “what’s the worst thing the New Yorker could do? Publish me?”

There is simply a major divide in the world these days, between those seeking prestige, and those seeking money. In the old days, you might be able to get rich if you turned out to be another Stephen King, or some brilliant writer like that. Today, there is less and less chance you will be the one who turns out to be JK Rowling or Suzanne Collins.

On the other side of the divide, I made good money last year. I will make good money this year. Not enough, but a stable starting point that helps me grind down the debts from building the farm, and get my monthly needs down to a point where I might make enough, one of these days.

Hell, SFWA even changed their membership rules over the last few years, to recognize that there were a whole bunch of people making a living without ever going through New York, and thus, not qualifying for inclusion. I would qualify easily, if I wanted to produce my sales figures from the last few years for them to review.

In another few years, I might even consider it, but only after some of the old dinosaurs who look down their nose at me finally die off. The ones who think doing Indie via Amazon and Kobo amounts to vanity press. The ones who make a small fraction of my annual writing income, and from whom the smell of sour grapes frequently wafts (or moldy paper, hard to tell).

As TradPub faces an ongoing existential crisis (see previous blogs about the 6,000 people who went to WorldCon versus the 165,000 at San Diego Comic Con), very few people are making the leap successfully. Wordfire Press (run by Kevin J. Anderson) is one. Kevin has seen the future, understood it, and adjusted. He’s acting like an Indie Press rather than trying to emulate the old model. And he is a big enough name that he might convince people. Those of us on the Indie side will continue to experiment with what works and what doesn’t, and adjust.

I want to have a career as a writer, and not just a one-and-done novel shot followed by barely making coffee money every month. If I have to be a complete unknown in Manhattan, that’s even better, as long as you people tell your friends, and I can keep making money.


shade and sweet water


West of the Mountains, WA

One thought on “Small Press versus Indie

  1. J. D. Brink

    Very nicely done.
    And I can sense the frustration in it, as it’s the same frustration we all have facing those spear-toting guards around the gates. Not that we want into those particular gates anymore, but we just want them off the wall, want them to give up their stranglehold on the industry, and want them to stop making everyone else believe there’s something wrong with us because they haven’t given us citizenship in their dystopic society.
    Personally, I actually have had four short stories accepted by anthologies/online zines in the last year (a 400% increase), and even though they’ve only paid me about a penny a word each, I’m happy with that. (Of course, I started out with the higher pay/prestige mags, and worked my way out from there.) For me, getting that exposure and making those connections is totally worth temporarily renting out my rights to them. Some of those stories I only had farmed out for a couple months. Some for a couple years (not kidding). I am now gearing up to just indie pub one novella that has literally earned 20 rejections over the last 2 years. So screw it, it’s time to pub it myself. I don’t think as many people will discover it that way (as my aura in the astral space of publishing is still quite small), but there’s no point in trying to push that particular story around any more.
    Which is especially disappointing, because it did get an honorable mention in the WotF contest, which seems for me a branding like a big A on its chest rather than an indicator it’s going to find a home elsewhere. Which leads me on another, related tangent…
    My Writers of the Future finalist story (1 of 8 of thousands) also swam the shark infested waters for over a year after not placing in the top 3. It earned some very nice rejections, most notably one from an editor at Tor (which took the better part of a year to come back to me). I eventually said, “Screw it, I’m just going to pub it myself and let the dollars roll in that way.” Of course, there was no rolling. Not really even any trickling. Now that same story is going to appear in an anthology this fall as a reprint. (A journey that has taken a year in itself because that editor had the anthology yanked out from under him by a shrinking publisher, so he had to find another way to make the project he believed in happen.)
    But it just goes to show, there’s no telling what either road will do, trad or indie, and no matter which way you go, time is a big factor.
    It’s like you’ve said. Even though you already have way more books than me and have sold way more of them, you still aren’t living on it. It’s a hard road we travel (and now even harder as evidenced by the horrible/wonderful inflation illustration you’ve given us). But those of us who keep walking up that hill and navigating around those spiky barricades have a far better chance of making it than those who sigh and give up.
    The readers will determine it all, in the end. Not the editors, or the gatekeepers, or even us, the writers. The hard part is suffering the rotten tomatoes from those who would brand us heretics (and those who believe them) long enough to get there.
    …Okay, my exhaustive ranting is over. Thank you. 🙂

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