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Are Publishers Stupid? Interview with Bestselling Author Michael Levin-Part 1

Posted in Interview, Uncategorized by Wayne on July 8, 2011

What do YOU think? Are publishers stupid? Send this link to writers you know and come back tomorrow for Part 2 of Michael Levin’s interview!

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  1. Sarah W said, on July 8, 2011 at 12:35 AM

    I’m still pondering the traditional vs brave new world publishing question, but I’ll listen to anyone who claims to make coffee nervous.

  2. margaret y. said, on July 8, 2011 at 8:26 AM

    I agree with Michael. I fired my agent and am publishing my books myself. Self-publishing is not only easy and profitable, it’s fun!

  3. Laura said, on July 8, 2011 at 9:07 AM

    I still don’t understand how, exactly, it’s going to work if everyone self publishes. How do readers decide which book to buy? I don’t care how great an author is at marketing herself. Of course she’s going to market the hell out of her own book; that doesn’t mean her book will be great.

    For every amazing self-published book, there are plenty of others that simply aren’t ready to be published. There’s no quality control and nothing stopping over-eager writers who rush to publish their work before it’s polished or developed or they have grown sufficiently as writers. I suppose they can post sample chapters, etc. online, but even that sounds exhausting to me — think of all the thousands and thousands of authors bombarding us with their websites and sample chapters and marketing plans.

    As of right now, I never buy self-published books unless I already know the author or the author has built a following by first publishing “traditionally” for years and thus has my trust. Surely my buying habits will change over time because all this is changing, but still…how will I be compelled to take a chance on a self-published book?

    • Michael Levin said, on July 8, 2011 at 3:49 PM

      Dear Laura,

      Great letter. Actually, how much quality control is there right now? How many of the books that New York publishes actually deserve to be published? Most rehash old topics…or are written to benefit the author (by having a book he can use as a marketing tool) than benefit the writer…or are about topics that no one cares about…or will be out of date within months…or are pandering to a political group, left or right, without providing any real insight or wisdom…

      Yes, it will be different without the imprimatur of a publishing house. But not worse. Great writing is so rare that it finds ways to cut through the clutter. This is small-d democracy, and it’s the future.


      Michael Levin

  4. Lauren said, on July 8, 2011 at 9:30 AM

    I think what is being lost in this massive lemming-like rush to self-publish is the reader. If someone writes fiction–and let’s say it is not a big-name author–how do they let readers know about it? Going to Amazon and typing in fiction, or even thriller is going to turn up enormous numbers of books, the well-known at the top.

    Now, there are online book forums. I belong to a popular one called Book Balloon where passionate readers (and I use the term lightly for these are all fanatical readers) talk about books. And though many buy online, they buy because they are recommended by other readers they trust. I have yet to see a self-published book recommended there because they are looking for high quality. That means professional design and professional editing.

    What it really comes down to is, as Laura noted, readers. How ARE they going to decide which book to buy? That’s the big question because that’s the end market. Publish away. The technology allows for it. But selling it; ah, that’s another kettle of fish. One worth thinking very hard about.

    • Michael Levin said, on July 8, 2011 at 3:50 PM


      Very thoughtful letter. You actually answered your own question — word of mouth is what sells books best. And once you establish a critical mass of readers, the major publishers (or those still in business) will grab you up.


      Michael Levin

  5. […] Now, for those of us who like to think our writing is worthy of publication, this is fantastic news.  We bypass all the middlemen, do all the marketing ourselves (which, let’s face it, we probably would’ve had to do anyway), set our own price for our baby and watch the profits roll in.  If this is you, writers, then read the following excellent article/interview with bestselling author Michael Levin, and jump with joy at this publishing revolution, because now you have not only the resources, but the power to become a published author. What do YOU think? Are publishers stupid? Send this link to writers you know and come back tomorrow for Part 2 of Michael Levin’s interview! … Read More […]

  6. margaret y. said, on July 8, 2011 at 3:22 PM

    @Laura, @Lauren,

    I’m not afraid that a bunch of terrible books will be published in the future of self-pub. After all, terrible books are already being published by the mainstream publishers (Snooki, anyone?) and good literature doesn’t die. People will always find the good stuff, the same way they do now–by word of mouth, reviews, or just by browsing. It’s really not something I ever worry about.

  7. Wayne E. said, on July 8, 2011 at 7:44 PM

    The following comment is from Moira Allen, Editor of I interviewed her on June 12, 2011 and I am posting this with her permission.

    Dear Wayne,

    Interesting interview! But unfortunately I can’t agree with Levin. So
    here’s my comment…

    Levin is speaking from the exalted position of an author who has already
    been published, already a bestseller, already, obviously, a HUGE success.
    How did he get there? Did he get there through Smashwords? No, he got
    there through traditional book publishing.

    Has he actually looked at the track records of the thousands, if not
    hundreds of thousands, of authors who have TRIED to become a “huge
    success” through the Internet venues that he speaks of? At most, only a
    handful have achieved anything like the success of Levin, or any other
    “bestselling” author who has gone through the “dumb as rocks” traditional
    publishing model.

    Yes, it’s a piece of cake nowadays to have your book “produced” and “made
    available,” whether that’s online or through POD. If “being published”
    simply means that your book is available on Lulu, or Kindle, then wow, I’m
    such a multi-published author I probably shouldn’t even be in the same
    room with myself.

    But is anybody reading it?

    Regardless of what Internet/electronic technology a writer uses to “get
    published” without the help of a publisher, the burden — the incredible
    burden — of getting that book to the attention of readers rests 100% on
    the shoulders of the author. How do you reach a thousand readers? Ten
    thousand? A hundred thousand? My website is visited by nearly two
    million writers every year (though I suspect that’s probably more like
    500K times four). I sell, maybe, five copies of my “contests” book a
    month, if I’m lucky. Now, it’s hard to figure out how I could build a
    bigger, better “platform” than — and I’m pretty good at
    what I do. So what are the odds for the first-time writer who has never
    written a book before, never published before, never developed a website,
    maybe barely knows how to blog even, becoming “successful” in the
    do-it-all-yourself model?

    Like it or not, people still buy books in bookstores. The problem with
    the Internet model is that it completely misses the “impulse” buyer. If I
    want to buy a book on Amazon, I have to KNOW what I want to buy. At the
    very least, I’m going to be looking for books by a specific author. But
    you can’t just “browse.” It’s not like walking into a bookstore and
    having your eye caught by an intriguing cover or title, picking it up and
    scanning a page or two, and deciding, “Hey, I think I’ll buy that.” You
    just can’t do that in the Internet model. Which is why bookstores are
    still in business.

    Bookstores, however, only sell books produced by “dumb as rocks”
    traditional publishers. And surprisingly, people keep BUYING those books.
    (Obviously a lot of people bought Levin’s books, right?) Yes, publishers
    DO make lots of mistakes. But the big problem that the Internet “Publish
    it and they will come, won’t they, maybe, puhlease???” gurus forget is
    that no one ever walks through B&N and sighs, “Gosh, I wish I could find
    SOMETHING to read… I guess I’ll just have to go online because there’s
    nothing here for me…”

    Now, where publishers REALLY screwed up is totally missing how to leverage
    the electronic marketplace to the advantage of authors and readers.
    Instead, they attempted to co-opt it and make it one more place where they
    could rake in the big bucks, charging a huge amount for an electronic
    (read “no paper, no print, no delivery costs”) edition of the latest
    bestseller and paying no more royalties to the author than for print.

    I’m sorry, but statements like that from Levin make me angry, because from
    where I sit, I see a field strewn with shattered dreams. I see thousands
    of writers jumping into the DIY publishing realm, thinking THIS is the key
    to success — and it isn’t. Yes, you can get published overnight if you
    want to. And if you’re lucky, you’ll sell five copies of your book, not
    counting the one you bought for your mother. Getting “published” and
    getting “successfully published” are two very different things — and the
    amount of effort to achieve the latter is monumental. It’s WHY publishers
    have big buildings and lots of staff (and the rest of us don’t).

    So, “Bo,” keep working on getting that book deal. If you want (a) money
    and (b) readers, it’s still the way to go. Don’t fall for someone who
    tells you that, with absolutely no publishing experience under your belt,
    you can do it all yourself and become the next Stephen King. (Even
    Stephen King, as you may recall, bowed out of Internet publishing because
    HE didn’t find it worked well enough for him, though, frankly, since he
    had something like 18,000 followers for his novel “The Plant”, I don’t
    have a lot of sympathy there…)

    Here’s my own “putting my money where my mouth is.” I’m working on two
    books right now. One is a book on “how to sell on Amazon.” I’m planning
    on self-publishing that, with a firm that I’ve worked with before and
    trust, because I’m pretty sure I know how to sell enough of this type of
    book to make it work. I don’t expect big bucks, but I think it will sell
    ENOUGH to make it worthwhile. (Nonfiction is, BTW, the best “seller” in
    the DIY publishing field.) The second is a romance novel. And if my
    romance novel can’t find a “real” publisher, it will stay in my sock
    drawer. Because I already know I don’t have the time or energy to try to
    convince the romance readership market, with all the other billions of
    romance novels out there, to come and read mine on Kindle or whatever.
    Only a “real” publisher is going to be able to make my novel a “success”
    — and that means, getting back to the hard facts that so many writers
    don’t want to hear, I have to make it GOOD ENOUGH to be a success.

    I suppose what irritates me about this sort of “information” is that it is
    being delivered by a successful person who became successful IN A
    DIFFERENT WAY. If someone says, “Here’s what to do to become successful”
    in a particular field, whether it is writing or anything else, I want to
    know that this person TOOK THE SAME STEPS to become a success. In other
    words, I want to hear you say, “Here’s what I did to become successful,
    and if you take these same steps, you can be a success too.”

    But Levin isn’t saying that. He became successful through traditional
    publishing. But he’s saying, “YOU can be successful doing this OTHER
    thing” — which, so far as I can tell, he hasn’t done. Or, if he has —
    maybe he has a book on SmashWords or whatever — his success in that arena
    is still built on the success that he achieved the traditional way. He is
    not saying, “Here’s what I did and you can do it to.” If you’re going to
    tell me that this is the route to success, prove it by having taken that
    route. Don’t tell me I can become as successful as you by taking a route
    you didn’t follow!


    • Michael Levin said, on July 8, 2011 at 8:55 PM


      Michael here–wow–thank you for your very thoughtful and well-reasoned response. Let’s take a look at what’s happening in publishing. You keyed in on many important points. Let me respond to a few.

      First, bookstores and publishers are both vanishing or about to vanish. Borders is gone, for many reasons. Barnes & Noble is not in a strong financial position and has sold itself to the company that owns QVC. Maybe the buyer recognizes that the B&N outlets would be great places to sell QVC-type products once book buying is over and done with. Simply put, in the age of amazon and immediate gratification, bookstores are all but done.

      This is tragic news for people like us who love to read — and sell — books. But it’s a reality.

      The next grim reality is that publishers themselves are on the verge of disappearing. I know that seems hard to believe. But look at the news this week. Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp., shut down a 150-year-old newspaper, News of the World, as a business response to that paper’s ethical violations. It made no sense to Murdoch to try to salvage the paper’s existence. So it’s just gone. In a flash.

      Rupert Murdoch also owns HarperColllins. Where do you think Murdoch and NewsC Corp make most of their money? Selling books or in cable and satellite TV around the world? Increasingly, the international conglomerates that own publishing houses must be alive to the fact that return on investment is decreasing from publishing houses. At some point, Murdoch may shutter HarperCollins as abruptly as he did News of the World, and for the same reason — that it no longer makes financial sense to keep the publisher afloat.

      This may be very dispiriting news for authors, and readers, but remember that buggy whip manufacturers probably had decent sales years in the five years before cars became prevalent. Once cars came in, no more buggies…and no more need for buggy whips. The end can come in a flash these days.

      As for whether the game has changed, indeed, it has. Simon & Schuster rode with me for three novels back in the late 80s and early 90s. That certainly helped me launch my career. Today, publishers don’t have any patience for the midlist author, the one who is finding a growing audience. So in that sense, authors today do not have the advantage I had back then, in starting my career at that point. On the other hand, it was just as hard then as it is now to find an audience. How many writers who started publishing with major houses when I did, in 1987, 24 years ago, are still in the game? Probably not that many. So I did have that boost, but I also never quit.

      If I were starting today, I would deal with reality as it is. And the reality is that the New York traditional publishing model is dead. Dead. Look at the books they publish. They aren’t the least bit interested in quality. All they want to know is how many books you can sell to your already existing audience, without them having to spend a dime in marketing (or in royalties, for that matter). Most of the books that are published today are derivative, boring, more for the benefit of the author than the reader, about to go out of date, are magazine articles stretched to fit the size of a book, or are otherwise unworthy of being published. The key to getting published today by a New York house isn’t quality or depth of your material. It’s the quality or depth of your marketing plan.

      When I sold my first novel to Simon & Schuster in 1986, I believe they received 10,000 first novels, and only published 10. I got incredibly lucky. I was good, but so were a lot of other people. So luck plays a factor. But I was also incredibly persistent as a writer. That same persistence will pay off for writers today who do not have the New York publishers as an option (or will not in a few short years). Instead, they will recognize and act on the truth that few writers want to deal with, and I know because I felt this way, too: that writing is only 10 percent of the battle, and marketing your work is the other 90 percent.

      You can’t just put your work up on Smashwords, cross your fingers, and wait to get “discovered.” You’ve got to hustle — get your work out to opinion makers. Develop extraordinary proficiency at social media. Find ways to draw attention to yourself. You can’t be Lady Astor or Lady Di–you’ve got to be Lady Gaga, turning yourself and your work into a marketing phenomenon. Otherwise, it’s not a career but a lottery ticket.

      I do feel the pain of the first-time author who’s trying to figure out how to get started. The key is to write, of course, and I’m not even discussing the fact that you have to be really, really good to find and keep a legitimate audience. The real key is to write marketable work and then market the living daylights out of it.

      I was a snob back when I was starting out. I thought being published was enough. Yes, I’ve sold five novels to the major houses and many more nonfiction books, most with famous coauthors. I thought the quality of my work would be enough to win a large audience. I was wrong. I also didn’t write in the same taste as the marketplace, and maybe I wasn’t as good as I needed to be in order to find that mass market. But the main thing for me is that I took the successes I had and never quit. I am still in the game, a quarter of a century after I started, because I never let rejections get me down for long, I just kept writing and selling, reaching out to create relationships with publishers and agents, doing a lot of volunteer work for the Authors Guild and meeting people at the top of the craft, and above all, continuing to write.

      I say all this not to blow my own horn–I hope it doesn’t sound that way. The thing I am proud of is that I have never quit and am still writing my own stuff, in addition to the co-writing and ghostwriting that puts bread on the table. The main thing is that the essential problem of finding a readership hasn’t changed, even though the publishing industry is in its own chapter. It never figured out the Internet, even though it had all the time in the world to do so. It never figured out how to be relevant once it lost its century-long monopoly on distribution and marketing of books. The king is dead. Long live the new king, this unreal landscape we call cyberspace.

      The key, once again: forget New York, because New York isn’t the slightest bit interested in creating new authors. As Dan Poynter, author of the Self-Publishing Manual, told me this morning, you can get a deal with a major publisher but the publisher may be gone before you get the money due you under the contract.

      It’s a treacherous time for authors, but crisis equals opportunity for those writers who will master the game of marketing their work as effectively as they write it.

      • Moira Allen said, on July 8, 2011 at 10:49 PM

        First, let me say that I do not wish to “defend” the publishing industry as it stands — to say it’s not “author friendly” is sort of like saying sharks are kinda interested in blood. And it’s really a shock to walk into B&N and see it filling up with games and toys rather than books (I guess the QVC connection explains that!).

        However, I disagree that no good books are being published today. That’s rather like saying that the ONLY good authors (or good books) are being published by alternative routes. That’s simply not true. Or, perhaps, we can debate that it is a matter of OPINION. My personal opinion is that many, many wonderful books are still being published. And many of these are by midlist authors. The shelves aren’t bare yet. To say that nothing but dull, boring, derivative books are being published is truly an insult to the authors who ARE being published. Further, the vast majority of self-publishing is still “vanity” in the truest sense — authors who want to publish themselves, and have not grasped the essential connection with the reader.

        Second disagreement: That it’s necessary to be Lady Ga Ga. Or rather… I don’t disagree that this may be “necessary” in the brave new world of publishing that you project… However, for many if not most authors, it’s simply not POSSIBLE. If being Lady Ga Ga were easy, there would be hundreds; there’s a reason why there is only one. Can there be thousands in the publishing, or self-publishing, industry? No, because if there were, then this, too, would cease to be sensational and it would defeat the purpose.

        More to the point, it is beyond the ability of most authors. So if this is what is “necessary” to be successful in your model, you’ve already proven that MOST authors, or would-be authors, are doomed to failure. That hardly makes it an inviting “new” model — you’ve just told us that we have to become something most of us simply can’t become, if we want to succeed. Well, the big publishers already told us that — so what is “new” about this model? It’s just “you can’t make it unless you go over the top” in a different guise. It may wear wool but it’s still a wolf, if that’s what it takes to “succeed.”

        For this model to really be a viable alternative to the admittedly incredibly unsatisfactory model we already have, it has to work BETTER. It sounds to me as if you’re admitting that, in fact, it doesn’t; it’s still a model that only a few people are going to be able make work successfully (the ones who can write a blockbuster book and then pull off a Lady Ga Ga promotion effort). That doesn’t change anything for the majority of authors out there.

        Do I think that there are wonderful opportunities in the online publishing arena? Of course I do. But right now it is still a field of broken dreams; so much of it lies in the hands of businesses that are more than happy to exploit the dreams of would-be writers, luring them with promises that cannot be fulfilled. The statistics on sales through the big POD houses are tragic. And the big problem for good writers is that, with hundreds of thousands of self-published POD books, e-books, and whatever else books out there, good writing gets lost in the shuffle.

        Will publishers and bookstores vanish? We keep hearing this, and I suppose the only real answer is “we’ll have to wait and see.” But I argue that a writer must be very careful about embarking on the “brave new world” of publishing — and it’s not a step I’d advise taking just on the premise that maybe, tomorrow, B&N won’t be there.

  8. Michael Levin said, on July 8, 2011 at 8:58 PM

    Should have said “the publishing industry is in its own final chapter.”

    My bad.

    Michael Levin

  9. lynnpricewrites said, on July 9, 2011 at 11:04 AM

    We mainstream publishers are in our final chapter? Pretty lofty words coming from one who made your name from the very industry you now denigrate. Do you believe you made the NY Times bestseller list all by yourself? Or did you make that list because you had a huge team backing you up?

    I don’t believe for one minute that we who work long hours to publish fantastic books every day are in our final chapter. If anything, we’re picking up steam. Why? Support. While everyone is crowing about our irrelevance and DIY is the next big thing, the big issue is being lost in the grumble. Mainstream published authors have the support of dozens and dozens of people whose job it is to market, sell, promote your book. I have a cache of emails from my distributor telling me they’ve taken our titles to specialty accounts, or pitched to TV and radio.

    When you, the DIY author, look around, who’s backing you up and absorbing your costs? Promotion is a huge endeavor and most don’t have the first clue how to do this effectively. It takes time, energy, and money…resources that are in short supply for most.

    In addition to having time, energy, and money, publishing a good book takes talent. Most DIYers take their route because they’ve suffered many rejections. It used to be that rejection (I’m speaking in generalities) was a direct message that the author’s literary grapes are still green. I know that’s the main reason why I reject authors. But nowadays, rejection is the battle cry for “I’m going it alone, dammit!” So they publish a horrible book because they believe they’re entitled to be a “published author,” rather than learning their craft. It’s no accident that many readers avoid buying anything that lists CreateSpace as the publisher. That’s not snobbery talking, but hard experience.

    Despite the constant beating of the death drum, this is not the final chapter for publishing because readers want good books, and no one knows how to do that better than mainstream publishing. We have to because it’s our business. To insist that we’re stupid is simply ignorant.

    For more on this subject, I wrote post on our blog.

  10. Lauren said, on July 9, 2011 at 2:49 PM

    QUOTE: If I were starting today, I would deal with reality as it is. And the reality is that the New York traditional publishing model is dead. Dead. Look at the books they publish. They aren’t the least bit interested in quality. All they want to know is how many books you can sell to your already existing audience, without them having to spend a dime in marketing (or in royalties, for that matter). Most of the books that are published today are derivative, boring, more for the benefit of the author than the reader, about to go out of date, are magazine articles stretched to fit the size of a book, or are otherwise unworthy of being published. The key to getting published today by a New York house isn’t quality or depth of your material. It’s the quality or depth of your marketing plan. END QUOTE

    Michael, are you a reader? I wonder because this statement strikes me as full of incorrect assumptions. I belong to two book forums: BookBalloon and Dirda’s Reading Room, and they are full of enthusiastic, passionate readers. Readers who, for a large if not the most part, buy books that are not or rarely on the NYT or other bestseller lists. And I’ve yet to see any of them talk about DIY books. What they do talk about and buy and recommend are books that are great–and there are far, far, far more of those fabulous, worth-reading books than any or all of them can read in a lifetime. Your generalized statements tend to blown up and this is merely one example. You do yourself no favors by exaggerating (all … everyone … most …) facts. And I would be willing to bet a substantial amount of money that 98% of readers will continue to find new books the way they do now–browsing at bookstores and libraries, getting recommendations from friends in real life or on book forums, and perhaps reading about a book in a magazine or newspaper. What they do not do, I would say, is browse online for authors’ blogs or go to Amazon and type in “novel” or “romance/western/etc.”.

    Plus, those of you who crow about the DIY model always seem so angry. Why? Why is it more important to be angry and to hurl nasty names than to be enthusiastic about your new preferred method? Your anger is now recorded online to remain probably forever. And I never cease to be amazed by this. I know I don’t like reading it so I will never pick up a book, even at the library, by anyone who engages in it. There’s too much negativity around the author for me to suspend my feelings when I read–especially when there are more books available now than I will ever be able to read in my lifetime.

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