By Pen as by Spear

I get asked this question from time to time: “why do you put so much effort in remaining traditionally published when you might make much more by going indie (and retain full control)?” Bear with me, as the answer requires a bit of digging around in my box of metaphors.


In ancient Greece, all the city-states but one relied on citizen militias for defense of the polis. Farmers, artisans, tradesmen, even resident foreigners would train for the inevitable summer campaign under elected generals. Sometimes, there’d be war; other times, simply a muster, some drill, and then back home for the harvest. Only Sparta maintained a full-time standing army, who trained year-round and became, by extension, the most terrifying land force the Greeks had ever known.

In publishing, there exists a similar dynamic. Anyone who can afford it (and a good many who can’t) can hang out a shingle and call themselves a publisher. Some might even be quite good at it. These are the hoplites of Athens, Corinth, Thebes, and so forth. They do not lack courage and have the victories to prove it. At the other end of the spectrum sits the editors and publishers of the Big 5, the New York publishing establishment; these are the hoplites of Sparta. They are surrounded by allies and “dwellers round about”: agents, industry journals, distributors, sales and marketing folk, even battle squires and helots (assistants and interns), all of whom work in unison to support their Lakedaemonian literary phalanx.


My editor, when I miss a deadline.

There is hardly any difference between the product produced by small or indie publishers and that which the Big 5 produce. The Athenian hoplite wears the same corselet as the Spartan; he bears the same basic pattern of helmet and greaves, wields the same 8-foot spear, and shields himself and his companions with the same round aspis. These similarities coincide with the covers of books, the typesetting, the production design, even the quality of the words between the covers. The difference is what cannot be seen; what resists quantification: the support network of editors, designers, artists, copy-editors, editorial assistants, marketing personnel, distributors, accountants – all of whom, by and large, have no other career but the production and sales of the best possible book. All told, the writer who braves the fierce agoge of commercial publication with one of the Big 5 publishers will have hundreds of years’ worth of collective experience to draw upon – men and women who have shepherded countless authors from the slush pile to the ranks of bestsellerdom.

(Coincidentally, Amazon is the Epaminondas of the publishing world: the wily Theban with one good stratagem for breaking the Spartan phalanx; time will tell how effective it is.)

MoB blog

I’ve been published by both small and large presses – a citizen of both Athens and Sparta, if you will; and while I may have had more of a voice in the great democracy of the small press, when bronze meets flesh on the bloody threshing floor of literature, I feel safer in the hands of my current editor and publishing house. So that’s why I stay, why I resist the call to go indie: the support, distribution, and experience more than make up for both the perceived lack of control and loss of possible income.

As always, your mileage may vary . . .


2 thoughts on “By Pen as by Spear

  1. I love this. Really. I understand where you’re coming from, and if I had the opportunity, I would do the same.
    I have refused self-publishing and small presses for most of my writing career. I still cringe slightly at my own author name sometimes, because I’m not quite where I always dreamed to be. I guess, for me, it comes down to wanting to sit at the cool table (vain, huh?). I think of it less like the high school nerd wanting to be popular, and more like a peasant wanting to prove himself worthy to sit at the round table.
    I still want it, but at this point in my life, I can’t afford to wait through query letters and rejections. I will have a project one day that I will hold off from self-publishing, and push to the big 5. But I need to have a certain income before I get there, and I can only write so often when I have kids and a home to give attention to as well. I’m writing full time now, but as an indie. One day, I’ll get there.
    One day.

  2. juliaergane says:

    It is so tempting to go that Indie root — but — don’t do it. There is no editorial support unless you pay extra for it, do all the editing yourself, hire out the editing, etc; cover art (art?) is usually crap (not all computer designers are equal here); etc. etc. etc. You are just too close to your baby to do it justice. Do the 5 complete re-writes before even looking for an agent. You will be glad you did. Even a PhD dissertation cannot go immediately to being a publishable book.

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