Wednesday, January 07, 2009

"Daemon" and the self-publishing question

Oh, noes!

I couldn't help but notice an article in yesterday's USA Today about the self-published thriller "Daemon." (Ever notice how it's awkward to talk about "USA Today" in anything other than the present tense? I hate that.) You can't tell from the on-line edition, but the story is pitched in the print edition using somewhat more colorful language.

From the front-page sidebar: "Daniel Suarez's self published techno-thriller, a hit, nets a two-book contract with Dutton."

And the sub-title on the article: "Web makes hit of internet tale."

Interestingly, the attention-getting word "hit" doesn't appear anywhere in the on-line version.

You can read the article yourself, but the gist is that Daniel Suarez (writing under the pseudonym Leinad Zerauz, which is Daniel Suarez backwards, in case you didn't figure that out) produced a high-tech thriller which he tried unsuccessfully to market to conventional publishers. He then went the self-publishing route, promoting the book through bloggers and on-line pundits to achieve enough success to interest a major publisher. The book sold on a two-book contract, and movie rights have been optioned a major player.


Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are going to see exactly three words out of this article: self published and hit.

As you know, in past posts (here and here) I've thrown my share of muck recently at the whole idea of self-publishing, so I was curious as to the facts here.

In a way, I anticipated this in my first post on the subject. Without making you go back to read it, here's what I had to say about it at the time:

The whole vanity publishing thing is like Dracula. You think you've got it staked real good, and it just keeps popping out of the grave. It doesn't help that every now and then you hear (usually a lot, because it makes a good story) about the exceptions to the rule, the self-published books that went on to great success, that were picked up by major publishers, and in a few cases, even turned into New York Times best-sellers.

I shake my head every time I hear one of these, because they are rare exceptions, because most of them would have sold through conventional means if the author had only been a little smarter about it, and because I know it's the nature of would-be writers to treat any crumb of false-hope like the all-you-can-eat buffet at the Rio.

Just because somebody won 40 million in the Powerball doesn't mean you should invest your life savings in lottery tickets.

It still leaves questions though. If Daemon is an exception, what kind of exception is it? It is a fluke, or the vanguard of some new trend? Does it change in any way the basic issues of self-publishing? What can we learn from it?

Like I said, to figure that out, I needed facts, and USA Today was notably light on those. At least the kind of background information that I'd need to make any judgments about about how Daemon came to be. Fortunately, it did mention a Wired article that helped bring the book into prominence, and that was easy to find on-line. Not surprisingly, the Wired piece (read it here) has some more meat on its factual bones, enough to develop some more informed opinions about the situation.

First question: What efforts did Suarez make to place his book initially with a conventional publisher?

According to the Wired piece, his effort weren't minimal, but they were probably less than exhaustive. He submitted to "dozens" of agents. That's a little vague, but I'd say it's probably not close to or over a hundred, or they would have said "nearly a hundred," or "over a hundred" or "hundreds." My gut feeling is we're talking a couple of dozen here, though that's only a guess.

In any case, a quick search for "general fiction" agents on Publisher's Marketplace turned up 233 pages (some of which might be agencies with multiple agents). Not all of those are going to handle thrillers, but I think it's reasonably safe to say that Suarez ran out of patience before he ran out of agents.

Of the number he did submit to, he reports that "three read it." Unless he received several-dozens-minus-three letters telling him that they didn't read it, I suspect what this means is, he got three responses. Lack of response doesn't necessarily mean lack of consideration. Sad but true, in the publishing world, no response is simply another way of saying "no." Of the three that did respond, he reports that one said it was "too long" (I don't see any mention of how long the book actually is) and the other two that it was "too complex."

The article doesn't tell us if those responses were of the "get lost" variety or if maybe they were suggesting a rewrite to correct what the agents (correctly or not) perceived to be legitimate marketing problems, of if they were saying "close, what else have you got?"

Frankly, it's often difficult, even for those of us who have been in the business a while, to read past the "does not meet our needs" part of a rejection letter for the editor or agent's actual intent, so it's highly possible that Suarez wouldn't have known the difference anyway.

Let's look at the options that Suarez apparently didn't take in marketing Daemon.

He apparently didn't keep submitting till he ran out of agents.

He didn't rewrite the book to respond to the agent's marketing concerns.

Okay, I'm not saying he should have rewritten the book at this point, just that it was an option.

My gut sense is that this was a good call. Start rewriting when you're out of marketing options. I'm also guessing that the "too complex" comments were way off base. The "too long" comment could have been fundamentally right though, even if the book has now sold at the longer length. This is guesswork, of course. I don't know how long it is. But since thrillers are often big books anyway, I'm guessing that this is really, really long. Overly long books are a harder sell. Maybe this book needs to be this long, but I'll just bet it could be tightened (and one wonders if that will happen by the time the print edition comes out).

Okay, and the third thing he apparently didn't do: He didn't submit the book directly to publishers. It's a totally fallacy that you can't get a book read or sold without an agent. Yes, it can be more difficult to get in the door, especially for a new author, but it can be done. Near as I can tell, Suarez didn't try.

Bottom line, it's by no means certain that the book wouldn't have sold without going the self-publishing route. Maybe self-publishing was a valid route to publication for this particular book, but it's also possible that it was simply a pointless detour on the way to the final destination.

There's something else we can learn here though. The book did sell. It sold for major money. It sold without an agent (though not through the most direct method possible). It apparently sold without being shortened (at least in submitted form) or dumbed down. Though not yet published, it's already gotten good reviews from Booklist and a starred review in Publisher's Weekly.

From this we can take three important lessons:
1. Agents can keep you from selling books as easily as they can help you sell them.
2. Agents don't know everything.
3. Sometimes, agents don't know anything.

Next question...

Was Daemon a "hit" as a self-published book?

By the standards of self-publishing, it was pretty darned successful. Maybe even hugely so. What information I have comes from the Wired article, which was published in their August issue of last year, so they can't be assumed to be current. But at some point the book was selling 50 copies a month, and as of March of last year, the book had reportedly sold 1,200 copies.

Underwhelmed? Well, breaking four-digits in total sales is huge for self-published book. I'm fairly certain that few break three-digits.

It's pretty likely that Suarez made a profit off his self-publishing venture, but it's hard to know how much. I don't know how much he spent, for instance, on set-up, editorial and design costs. I don't know how much (if anything) he's spent on other promotional efforts. I also don't know what the cover price on his POD edition (sold through Lightning Source) was, or what his deal with Lightning Source was.

Let's just take a wild (and perhaps generous) guess and say he made $10 per copy. That translates into $12,000. This isn't chicken-feed, but it's pretty puny by publishing standards. That's a entry-to-low-midlist advance.

In reporting deals, Publisher's Marketplace calls this a "Nice deal." That means it's in the $1-49,000 dollar range, their polite way of saying its at the bottom of the publishing food change. And I'll confess, the biggest deal I've ever gotten is at the ragged high-end of "Nice." I'd be happy to get another such "nice" deal today.

(The Dutton deal seems to have turned the original book into an instant collector's item, with used copies on Amazon selling at $80. Ironically, if Suarez had gone the traditional vanity-press route, he might be liquidating the pallet of books in his garage for some serious bonus-scratch right now.)

Okay, so what did Suarez make going with a traditional publisher? Well, first of all, lets observe first that he did go with a traditional publisher. Apparently without hesitation. If self-publishing is so swell, ask yourself, why was he so quick to cast it aside?

Neither USA Today or Wired was any help here, so I turned to Publisher's Marketplace and their deal-tracker feature for info. The deal was announced in May, two months after the cover date of the Wired article. An agent did handle the deal (interestingly, from their PM listing, they mainly handle business and technical non-fiction, and Daemon is their only listed fiction deal of any kind).

So what did he get? Well, PM doesn't give specific numbers, but it wasn't a "Nice" deal. It wasn't "Very Nice," their next category, meaning deals from $50,000-99,000 It wasn't "Good." It wasn't "Good." It wasn't "Significant." No, it went right to their highest category, "Major Deal." That means $500,000 and up. That's the advance (though for a two book deal, not one). If the book takes off, there could be significant royalties, foreign sales, subsidiary rights, and he's already sold a movie option for unknown money.

And mind you, that "Major Deal" is just what they're passing along to the author. The publisher has an expectation of grossing at least 6-10 times that. That's a lot of books. That's a hell of a lot more than 1,200 books.

So, it's obvious why Suarez went with a regular publisher. For a book like his, self-publishing sucks.

Real publishers know that too. They look at a self-publishing "hit" and figure that if a self-publisher, even a motivated self-publisher like Suarez, can sell 1,200 copies, they can sell ten times that amount without breaking a sweat. If the book is good and they put a little effort in, they can probably sell a hundred times as many. Maybe a thousand.

Most self-published books are over-valued by the people publishing them. Most are unmarketable, flawed, or lacking in some why that they're better off not being published and will never find a market.

But when a success like this comes along, it usually means the self-publisher has undervalued their work. Whatever sales and returns they're getting from their self-publishing efforts, they could be doing much better with a regular publisher.


Now, this post shouldn't be taken as a criticism of Suarez or his choices. He's written what is reportedly a good book, and he's found a path to success. Great success. And as I said up front, I don't have all the facts on his history or circumstances. I'm reading a lot from a little data.

But was self-publishing an absolutely necessary part of that success? Perhaps, but I remain unconvinced. Even if it was for this book, there are special circumstances.

The bloggers that Suarez used to create early buzz on the books were the very ones he'd mined to research the novel, so of course they were likely to respond positively. And it should hardly be a surprise that a book about the internet is especially suited to being promoted on the internet.

None of this applies to your self-published cozy mystery or literary novel about a girl growing up in Poland in 1939. It probably doesn't apply to your thriller, unless it's also about computers and the net.

The book also found an important advocate, Rick Klau, an executive at Feedburner (now part of Google). I don't see how that could be anticipated or replicated.

Finally, there's nothing about the self-publishing that leads inevitably to the Wired, article, which I suspect had more to do with getting the Dutton deal than any other single factor (other than the quality of the book itself).

Suarez found a path to success. It's impossible to say it was the best path, and it almost certainly wasn't the only path. But you can't argue with success.

That still doesn't mean that this path can be emulated, or that you should even try.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The media, of course, LOVES these types of stories. It's why we're reading about it at all.

    Yes, this happens "all the time." Well, no, not ALL the time, just from TIME TO TIME.

    After all, from TIME TO TIME, somebody wins the lottery. In which case, the media will write about it. The media--because it's boring--doesn't write about some jackass that spends $100 a week on lottery tickets for 45 years and dies penniless instead of investing the same money in the stock market (okay, maybe NOT today's stock market, maybe real estate... okay, not today's real estate market... uh, gold, no, silver, hmmm.... Barack Obama memorabilia? Anyway...).

    This is an interesting story. Jeremy Robinson (Antarktos Rising) has an interesting story about self-publishing, too. There are others. It doesn't mean that it's the rule or a trend. It's an exception. There are enough exceptions in publishing to suggest that if you're really, really lucky, you can self-publish, do okay, and get picked up for a gazillion dollars by a major publisher.

    I wonder, though, how different the odds are from writing your book, getting an agent, getting picked up by a traditional publisher and getting a gazillion dollars. What often seems to go unsaid in so many of these articles is that ANYBODY making a LOT of money PUBLISHING fiction is RARE.

    Otherwise, just because somebody gets struck by lightning and survives doesn't mean it's a good idea to go up on your roof with a golf club in your hand during an electrical storm.

  3. This whole topic makes me sad. I have a few friends convinced that self-publishing will bring them riches and they're spending ALOT with the impression the there's a tipping point which will buy them a bestseller (I'm actually reluctantly helping them with the design and such because I have experience asa designer and I'm watching do everything wrong.). I do feel you were unfair to Dave Carnoy. I just read that post and ironically he's a friend a recently had lunch with to discuss his book and I see he mentioned mine in the article (I published a book with Simon & Schuster). I have alot more to say but I don't want to add to the gloom of the situation. I did write a humorous feature on my disastrous book tour and I'll send you the link for your reading if I hear back you have any interest – I don't want to come on and promote myself without an invite.

  4. Snowman, feel free to post the link on your book tour. I'd love to read it.

    Was I unfair to Mr. Carnoy? I don't think so. "Tough" would be the word I'd use. But any publicity is good publicity, and you'll note I went to lengths to link back to his book.

    He seems like an upright guy, which is why I felt a little bad about being so hard on him, but like they say in law, he opened the door on this line of questioning.

    Anyway, I hope he does well with the book, except that if he does, he'll just be another Daemon, leading thousands of others into unsuccessful self-publishing ventures.


  5. Thank you, Mr. York for the invite. Here's the link to my piece The Sad State of Publishing; My Disastrous Holiday Book Tour. It received some nice feedback and appeared on the cover of as well. While somewhat insightful to some publishing details ultimately it was meant to entertain.

    Yes, Dave Carnoy, I'm sure was okay with your comments. I'm actually overly sensitive and probably not even cut out for this business which really does require a thick skin.