The punk publishing revolution, the Publishing Con, and how Amazon freed authors from serfdom


Ahead of the launch of Punk Publishing – a DIY Guide, here’s the first chapter……………………….

The punk revolution

In January 1977, a little-known punk fanzine called Sideburns published the now famous Three chords – Now form a band image you see here.

What has this got to do with  self-publishing?

Well, we’re going to teach you how to be a Punk Publisher, so we’re going to use that three-chord concept throughout this book.

You could say this is a three-chord guide to publishing books. We’ll try to break each lesson down into three simple rules.

Above all, as with punk music, we want to present the most simple and direct way of becoming a publisher. And we’re using the DIY punk ethic every step of the way.

We think it’s a guide that’s suitable for writers who are planning to go indie, whether that’s with a series of novels, or equally, the one-off writer who just has that one book they want to get out there.

You’re probably the kind of person who doesn’t need justification from anyone else. You’re sure about what you produce, the strengths and the limits of your talent, and you want to know a quick and easy way to publish your writing.

You don’t need anything else but this book, and the gumption to do it.

So when do I become a Kindle millionaire?

If you’ve read some bullshit article in a magazine about how you can become a millionaire from self-publishing, then this book is probably not for you.

Yes, it’s possible to become a millionaire from self-publishing, and maybe you’re the one who’ll strike oil, the stars will align, and you’ll be writing your second book on your yacht, but to be honest, it’s unlikely.

And we think that if you’re all about ‘making a million’ you’re probably not the kind of person who will put in the hard work you need to put in to make a living out of writing.

In Andy Conway’s foul-mouthed football fan novel, The Striker’s Fear of the Open Goal, he put in a comic scene where the hero, a frustrated writer who has always been poor and unpublished, is told about the new dawn of self-publishing:

–You should do that ebook thing everyone’s talking about.
–What’s that?
–Amazon opened their ebook store so anyone can publish. Over a year ago, I think. Loads of writers have been putting out their work and making a living off it.
–A living?
–Uh huh.
–Did you say a living? From writing?
–I know. World’s gone crazy.
–Are you sure about this?
–You need to get online and take a look. Tons of mid-list authors making a living by putting up their books and selling them direct to the reader. No agents, no publishers.
–Because it would be a very cruel joke if you’re shitting me.

Andy Conway. The Striker’s Fear of the Open Goal [2011]

The Publishing Con, or how traditional publishing turned writers into serfs

You see, we believe that this is what it’s really all about. Self-publishing gives writers the opportunity to make a living from their writing. Maybe not a fortune, but a living (or a second living, or even just beer money). And that is a revolution, because it’s something the traditional publishing industry has failed to do.

What are you talking about? you ask. Writers make mega-bucks off big money publishing contracts and sleep on mattresses stuffed with banknotes.

It’s a common misconception that authors who have the privilege of ‘being published’, not only make a living, but are stinking rich.

And ‘being published’ is the only way.

This is the Publishing Con.

But on creative writing courses around the world, lecturers (who are always authors who don’t earn a living wage from their publishers) are told the importance of ‘managing student expectations’. They have to tell those eager students that they will probably never make a living as a published author; that most first novel advances are south of $5,000; and that they should never, ever, ever give up the day job.

There’s no career structure either since the traditional publishers disposed of their ‘midlist’. This was where authors could make a reasonable amount while building their readership, mastering their craft and gradually climbing the ladder of success. No longer. If the first book doesn’t sell well (i.e. anything other than setting the publishing world on fire), forget it.

With less product arriving, and lower sales, bookshops have diversified away from actual books. They’ve kept the best-sellers, of course, so it’s the mid-list authors that have been hit once more. It’s become, like so many things, a huge lottery win of incredible success or… nothing: Hollywood actors paid millions versus desperate actors working as temps; Britain’s Got X-Factor Voice manufactured success versus musicians who gig with their mates; Dan JK EL James Pattersham versus people who wallpaper their houses with rejection letters.

And that’s the harsh reality of the publishing world.

Publishing is, in fact, an industry that offers good rates of pay for everyone connected with the production of books – except the author (and, let’s be honest, those unpaid interns).

This is the scandal of publishing.

This is the Publishing Con.

In America the Authors Guild, an organisation notorious for representing the interests of publishers rather than writers, and whose members are almost entirely traditionally published, recently announced: “the majority of authors would be living below the Federal Poverty Level if they relied solely on income from their writing.”

A recent article in the Irish Times went where most of the British and US press have failed to go and spelt it out in plain words:

In 2014-15 the British and Irish publishing industry turnover was £4.6 billion, up from £3 billion in 2013. Against this apparent boom the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society warns that authors’ incomes have collapsed. The median income of established professional authors is £11,000, down 29 per cent since 2005. But the typical median income of all writers is less than £4,000 and declining yearly. Output of books is rising steadily: 185,000 releases this year in the UK and Ireland. The writer’s share of this benison is about 2.8 per cent – that’s 28 cents on a €10 book.

The disparity between a seemingly buoyant industry and third-world income-streams for those generating the product is deeply puzzling, concerning, appalling, actually.

Fiona O’Connor, The Irish Times. [July 21, 2015]

Fat-cat publishers raking in super-profits. Serf authors shelf-stacking in Tesco on minimum wage. And the gap getting wider and wider every day.

That’s pretty damning.

That’s the Publishing Con.

What about small press publishing?

There is small press publishing, of course. David was involved with Beccon Publications, who produced a thousand hardback copies of The Drabble Project (1988). He knows there were a thousand, because he personally hand-numbered them and had the hand cramp to prove it. But that ended up with boxes of books in the publisher’s hall, on his stairs, the landing and everywhere.

A little while later, David met a well-known SF author, who had just been published by a big publisher. They’d printed 750 copies, it had sold out, so the big publisher decided to leave it at that.


How can, David thought, three blokes who met in a pub rival the likes of the big publishers? They shouldn’t have even been in the same league division. It was like forming a school band, doing a gig in a church hall and then discovering, years later, that you’d made more money than a famous rock band’s massive Wembley stadium show.

You see, The Drabble Project sold out. It was a niche book hawked around conventions and needed a few years to do so, but it out-competed the big boys. It was a risk, though. Beccon Publications might still be tripping over boxes stacked in the hall if it hadn’t sold a single copy.

When you look at it really closely, small press publishing is really self-publishing by an individual who was somehow believed when they said, “Actually, I’m a publisher”, so they were accepted amongst the gatekeepers.

But authors no longer need to grovel to the big boys or the small presses.

It’s all changed.

Both the means of production (the manufacture of the books) and the means of distribution (selling to readers) have been democratised.

The revolution has happened.

And in the case of manufacture, the revolution has happened in a way that could never have been foreseen. Books have gone digital. Ebooks mean that a book can be distributed for nothing and in the blink of an eye.

Even if you prefer to publish real dead tree paperback books rather than ebooks, you still don’t have to order and pay for the stock in advance, thanks to the miracle of Print On Demand (see chapter 11, Kill Those Trees! Paperbacks through POD).

How Amazon freed authors from serfdom

It all changed on the day that unlikely revolutionaries Amazon opened the Kindle Direct Publishing store to everyone and placed their books on an equal footing with the publishing corporations.

At a stroke, it democratised publishing and allowed any writer, anywhere in the world, to compete on equal terms with the corporate media giants like the Big Five: that’s the Hachette Book Group (a subsidiary of Time Warner), HarperCollins (a subsidiary of NewsCorp), Macmillan Publishers (a subsidiary of Holtzbrinck Publishing Group), Penguin Random House (a subsidiary of Pearson and Bertelsmann), and Simon & Schuster (a subsidiary of CBS Corporation).

Amazon also created a gigantic upsurge in books for voracious readers who were being ill-served by the publishing corporations, who saw it as their job to restrict the flow of books to readers so they could charge a premium.

Amazon’s philosophy was the opposite: more writers writing more books for more readers at lower prices with better financial terms for the content creators.

That’s the writers, in case you’d forgotten.

So, if you buy a book published by one of the Big Five publishing corporations in the world, the author is supposed to receive about 17% of the money you paid. And to have been published, they’ll have an agent, who’ll take 10-15% of that.

If you buy a book by a self-publishing author, Amazon will keep 30% of the price for itself and give the author 70%.

That’s 70% versus 14.45% or less.

This is why self-publishing authors like us make more money from a $2.99 ebook sale than a traditionally-published author makes from a $9.99 ebook sale. And we’ll sell way more than them at that price too (as long as our books are visible – which is a whole other ball game, and the subject of our next book!). The customer can buy one novel from a traditional publisher or three novels and a short story from an indie.

This is why you won’t find many self-publishing authors who think Amazon is an evil company. There are a few, but they tend to be those hawking around a few printed copies and limiting themselves because of it. There’s a very good reason indies like us like Amazon: because it created the business eco-system that freed authors from serfdom.

As Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings site noted recently:

It is also worth noting again that self-published authors are earning more money [than traditionally published authors] on fewer titles. Our data supports a truth that I keep running into over and over, however anecdotally: More writers today are paying bills with their craft than at any other time in human history.

Hugh Howey, The 7k Report. [Feb 12, 2014]


Data Guy, the mysterious number cruncher behind Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings site, recently put it like this:

Those million-plus-a-year earning outliers aren’t the real story here. The far more interesting story is the many thousands of indie authors who are now earning $10K, $25K, $50K, $100K, or even $250K a year – real living wages, earned by far more authors than at any previous point in history.

Data Guy, Passive Voice, Sep 24 2015.

In traditional publishing, outside of the big name outliers at the top of the table, it seems that everyone but the writer makes a living.

But in the punk publishing world of the indie, writing can be a valid career again.

This is why all the ‘Amazon is the Devil’s Spawn!’ meme creation you see in the world is coming from newspapers and news outlets who are owned by media corporations – who just happen to own the big publishing companies.

Think on that the next time you see another screed about Amazon being bad for authors, readers and our culture.

But it’s not all about Amazon. There are other platforms too that have contributed to this revolution. Smashwords founder Mark Coker talked about this recently on author and self-publishing guru Joanna Penn’s podcast:

Mark Coker: It’s a worldwide cultural movement. This indie author movement [is] here to stay and it’s going to transform publishing for the better.

Joanna Penn: I think that indie is a movement too and not just in writing. Look at indie film, indie music, we’ve got the maker movement, even things like Farmer’s Markets I think are in the same movement. It’s a move away from supermarkets to buying from a farmer, away from a big publisher, buying from a creative. It really is a movement. Podcasting – this is not a commercial radio show, but we’re still self-publishing audio, as such. So I’m really excited too, and we think similarly in many ways.

Joanna Penn, State Of The Indie Nation With Mark Coker. [Sep 7, 2015.]


While we think Amazon is the best and most formidable platform for the punk publisher, in this book we’ll look at others and tell you how to use them too…

Punk Publishing will be out soon. Get on our mailing list to make sure you don’t miss it.