Publishing, Ponzi, diversity, and you.

/Publishing, Ponzi, diversity, and you.

If you’ve been around The Wyrd for a little while you’ve probably had the misfortune to hear me rant about self-publishing. Or, rather, not self-publishing in-and-of-itself, but rather the rhetoric that surrounds it.

Like the endless sexual assault comparisons. The implicit class warfare. Or the latest round comparing the tradpub/selfpub divide to Jim Crow and racial segregation (for the love of the publishing gods don’t, just… don’t). Self-publishing in the 2010s is both Viable and Good. So why is so much of its rhetoric so awful?

Here’s the latest one, from ex-tradpub-turned-selfpub-advocate, Joe Konrath. I’ll leave aside the comparison between tradpub and religion–which, even as an antitheist I find offensive–and move straight on to this claim:

Legacy publishers NEED authors to feel that they’re the only way to succeed. Because without authors, the Ponzi scheme of publishing (the few successful writers supporting the entire infrastructure, including authors who aren’t successful) collapses.

Well, okay. It’s not grossly offensive to some sort of vulnerable minority group, which is a nice change, except, wait. “Ponzi scheme”? Really?

I mean, Ponzi schemes are bad, right? Everyone knows that. They’re some sort of, like, pyramid thing? With Fat Cats at the top raking in all the cash, and everyone else struggling underneath? So that sounds a bit like bestsellers versus the midlist… right?

Well, no. From SEC.gov:

A Ponzi scheme is an investment fraud that involves the payment of purported returns to existing investors from funds contributed by new investors. Ponzi scheme organizers often solicit new investors by promising to invest funds in opportunities claimed to generate high returns with little or no risk. In many Ponzi schemes, the fraudsters focus on attracting new money to make promised payments to earlier-stage investors to create the false appearance that investors are profiting from a legitimate business. […]

With little or no legitimate earnings, Ponzi schemes require a consistent flow of money from new investors to continue. Ponzi schemes tend to collapse when it becomes difficult to recruit new investors or when a large number of investors ask to cash out.

The point here is that a true Ponzi scheme requires the money from new entrants into the system in order to pay off older ones. In other words, this is exactly the opposite of how Konrath is suggesting traditional publishing works.

Actually, I should take out the “suggesting” there; ironically, minus the word “Ponzi”, the model Konrath describes is, in fact, how traditional publishing works. That is, profits from bestsellers are used by the publisher to produce works by new authors, in the hope that one of them will become the new bestseller. This practice is called reinvestment and every corporation on the planet does it. And not in a “HQ in Delaware” way, either; reinvestment into new products, even knowing some of those products might fail, is the 101 on how you grow as a business.1

What, you think Apple takes a loan from the bank every time it wants to sink a couple of hundred mil taking a risk on a new smartwatch? No, it does not; it takes a cut of the money it makes from its own bestsellers. And publishing doesn’t have iPhones and smartwatches but it does have George R. R. Martins and, well. Me.

So, okay. Maybe the accounting’s not quite that straightforward, but the point still stands; successful Big Name authors are what allows a publisher to take on risky new projects, like yours truly’s odd urban fantasy about queer PoC geeks and their adventures in Norse mythology. Let’s pick no bones about it; “diversity projects” like mine are a risk. A business risk. “Queer PoC urban fantasy” is not a proven market in the way “cishet white boys punching things” is, meaning my publisher has no (well, few; the genre’s there, it’s just not huge) metrics against which to make an estimate on the ROI of my work.

Yes. That’s business-speak. Because that’s what we’re talking about here; a business. And businesses exist to make money. (Actually, any publicly traded corporation is obligated under law to do exactly this, for better or worse.)

Will Liesmith be profitable? I have no idea. And, really, neither does my publisher. They took the project on because, a) they wanted, for whatever reason, to take a chance on me and/or the genre, and b) they had the slack to do so because of “the few successful writers supporting the entire infrastructure”.

So you’ll have to excuse me if Konrath comparing this to a Ponzi scheme gets my back up a bit.

This kind of rhetoric isn’t just factually inaccurate; it’s dangerous. I get that Konrath is going for the hyperbolic pathos here; he’s a writer, and writers are masters of rhetoric and narrative. We’re professional liars who spin so much of the world into stories it gets hard for us to see sometimes what’s the wool and what’s the tapestry.

But I also can’t believe Konrath really doesn’t know the difference between “illegal investment scam” and “business 101”. And presenting the main benefit for an author signing a tradpub contract–that is, that the costs of production are cross-subsidised by more successful books–as some kind of con is deeply disingenuous. Particularly given Konrath himself is a prime beneficiary of exactly that.

As I’ve said before, this meme of tradpub-as-a-scam hurts the most vulnerable; writers from minority groups who don’t necessarily have the capital, either in time or in money, to “make it” in the indie scene. Authors who can’t afford editors or cover artists or who don’t have the education and experience to navigate tax laws or EPUB formatting. It’s easy–too easy–for the rich and the white and the educated and the able-bodied and the neurotypical to sneer at these barriers as nonexistent. Because, in most respects, yes; for us, they are. Could I have afforded to throw a few grand at freelance services to publish Liesmith? Absolutely. Just like I can afford to pay for this site, just like I have the technical knowledge to develop it, just like I can take an afternoon off my day job to wrangle with the accountant and the tax departments of two different countries.

Just like I have the general knowledge to know these are things I have to do. I pass white and work in technology and own like twelve computers and am married to a guy with an MBA from Harvard who serves on company boards for gods’ sakes. I’m about as freakin’ privileged as I can possibly get.

And, even then–even with all that, plus a great agent and a sharp lawyer and a tradpub contract–even then I find some things in publishing difficult to navigate.

You’ll notice I haven’t spoken about sales or royalties or percentages yet. We’re not even at the point where we can begin thinking about all of that; this isn’t the weaving or the tapestry. This is the spinning and the dying of the wool, the shearing of the sheep.

This is the part where access matters. And this is the part where tradpub has something selfpub, by definition, doesn’t have.

Money. Right there, up front. Not advances, but the money to actually produce books. Even if we’re only talking four figures–and, nowadays, it’s likely that we are–that’s still a bunch more figures than a lot of new authors can afford on their own.

Money matters, and so does access. Yes, there are problems with diversity in tradpub. Lots of problems, and part of the solution to those problems is selfpub and small presses and crowdfunding and whatever.2 Anything that allows the minority voices who are able to jump the hurdles prove that a market for their work exists. (Whether this is “fair” or not is another issue; it isn’t, but it is A Thing That Exists.) Where the market exists, tradpub will follow. And, in the long run, that means more voices and more diverse voices, all singing in the choir.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spent the rest of my life reading books by cishet white men about cishet white men. Or white women, for that matter, given the dominance of romance in selfpub. Selfpub on its own isn’t going to solve the diversity deficit, especially not with so much of its advocacy rhetoric being so tightly linked to privilege.

For example, this comment from the blog Passive Voice sums things up pretty perfectly. Linking to an article about gender balance in the publishing industry, blogger PG writes:

PG suggests that indie publishing is a level playing field for various genders, races, etc.

For one thing, if an author is worried about these issues, that author can use a pen name that suggests membership or non-membership in any group.

Passive Guy could become Passive Gal or Passive Punjabi in very short order.

Um. No. Not that. Pretty much exactly not that, in fact, in the same way Konrath’s description of the industry is pretty much exactly not a Ponzi scheme.

And, look. This issue–around publishing and access and diversity–is complex because anything involving power and capital is, inevitably, complex. I think the reality is that, within the next decade, the vast majority of authors will be what we now call “hybrids”, i.e. people who self- or tradpub depending on what model best suits the work they’re presenting. (See also comics, for example, where writers and artists split between work-for-hire and their own titles.)

But in order to be in the game you need to, well. To be in the game. For a lot of authors, the only door they can afford to walk through to get there is the one opened by the legacy houses. For people who’re on the other side of that entrance to pretend the jamb comes equipped with insta-death lasers and a secret trapdoor to an oubliette full of spikes, and the only real option is to cut your own hole lest you meet Certain Doom? When some people can afford a wrecking crew and others are stuck chipping away at the concrete with a spoon?

Yeah. How about no.

There are already enough inequalities in the industry as it is. Let’s not exacerbate it by adding more.


  1. Again, somewhat ironically, Amazon is the biggest modern example of a “0% profit, 100% reinvestment” business. And it also occasionally gets accused of being a Ponzi scheme, just in case you were still feeling a bit anemic.
  2. The other part of the answer is agencies like NLA and imprints like Hydra who are actively looking to acquire diverse projects. Yes, full disclosure; that’s my agent and my publisher. There are others.
2018-07-27T14:18:02+00:0020th May, 2014|Tags: books, business, publishing, self-publishing, xp|Comments Off on Publishing, Ponzi, diversity, and you.