Traditional vs. Self-Publishing

Our question today is from Jason K:

Twenty years ago, if you had access to the current generation of self-publishing options, how would you have used them?

This is the last question from our session we recorded a few weeks ago. Stay tuned for our next podcast, Organizing a Day, Organizing a Year. We’ll be sending it out in its entirety to First Look Access members Jan. 1 and releasing one question per week here on the blog.


Steve: Okay, let me segue off of that into a question from Jason Kay. And Shawn, I actually have another question to follow up on this, and I want to ask you.

Jason K says “Dear Steve, 20 years ago, if you had access to the current generation of self-publishing options, how would you have used them?”
I think it’s a great question and sort of my answer is probably wrong or crazy or idiosyncratic. But when I thought about it, and also Jeff, I want to ask you about this too. I would not have used the self-publishing options at all, but my reason is kind of crazy. My reason is because, let me back up a second and say that the self-publishing options, the benefits of that is that you get to bypass the so-called gatekeepers. You get to bypass the editors and the publishers and the agents who sort of screen out bad work or who define what is good, what is worthy of publication.

And so the concept of self-publishing is “Well we won’t even go to these people. We’ll just do an end run around them and get our stuff out to the market directly.” But for me as a writer who had worked for like 30 years, struggling in the trenches, I wanted the validation of the gatekeepers. That was really important to me. I wanted to put my stuff out there with really A-level editors and publishers and have them validate it and say “Yes, it’s good. We’ll publish it”.

That was the most important thing to me. So I would not have gone through the self-publishing options.

Now I want to ask Jeff, Jeff Simon here who is our tech wizard and our young guy around here. Now Jeff, I know that you’re working on, among many things, screenplays and stuff like that. Jeff is 27. We’re here in Silver Lake, which is kind of a hip neighborhood in L.A. and at Jeff’s place where in his back room, he’s got his keyboards and three huge computer screens and every possible tech thing. And what Jeff is working on among other things, among screenplays with partners and stuff, is a web series. So you are using the tools that are available in many ways. And can you talk a little bit about that? Is that the right thing to do? And why are you doing it?

Jeff: I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do. I think you have a lot of hurdles with web series. As you said, there’s a lot of junk out there, so you’re competing with cat videos and you’re competing with funnier die, people riding skateboards and breaking their heads and their helmets. But there’s also a sort of a new level of the market that’s coming out, which is people that are making their own projects that are professionally done that just want to use the free open market, the same way the music industry did it. Now you don’t really need a publisher. You just need to get your music on iTunes, and the publisher’s main purpose is advertising. And if as you’re saying, the publishers are worse at advertising, why go to the publishers in the first place?

Steve: Yea, let me ask you this, Jeff. What is the ultimate goal here of your web shows? Is it to get picked up by a mainstream outlet like a cable channel, or is it to get your work out there for screenplay work? What is the goal?

Jeff: For me, it would be great if somebody like Netflix picked it up. It’s hard to imagine that they will. This is just a first project I’ll be directing. But I think like what you said last time, the purpose of me making a web series is that hopefully when I’m done with this, I’ll have enough money and credit to do another one or to do a film and maybe that one will go somewhere. And so it’s really just about, I was working on a big budget, working for the ‘man’ if you will, and…

Steve: To butt in here, Jeff spent like 18 months in London working on Doug Liman’s new movie as a production designer.

Jeff: As an assistant to the production designer. And nothing wrong with Doug or his film, it’s amazing. I think the work that they’re doing is great. I just wanted to take a bigger responsibility that you would never be able to work up to being a director within the studio system because…
Steve: So that is your ultimate goal here, to be a director or a screenwriter or a writer/director, something of that nature to control your own projects. Right?

Jeff: Something like that.

Steve: That’s great. So in this case, I’ll invalidate what I said earlier. For me, I wouldn’t have done it, to take the self-publishing options, but Jeff, it seems to be a really smart thing for you to do.

Jeff: I think it might be a media difference for books. There’s the solo thing, and when you’re working in films, and everybody wants to be the writer and the director. So it’s just a different situation.

Steve: Okay, good one. Let’s wrap this up for today, and thanks everybody for listening to this. I want to tell you a couple of things we’re thinking about doing for the future that involve participation of everybody that’s listening to this. We were thinking about doing a podcast or one of these Q&A’s to go for the New Year that would go along the lines of a New Year’s resolution of getting set for the New Year, and we were thinking about doing it about how to organize a day for work, or how to organize a year.

How to organize this coming year, 2014. So I’m going to put this on the blog in Writing Wednesdays, but we’d like anybody that has any questions, write in those questions. Do it on the First Look Access. We’ll get that up when it’s ready to go, and I’ll let you know. Then we’d like to do an entire half hour on just structuring. How do you structure a day? How do you organize a year to get the most out of it? And another subject that we want to talk about, and again, we’ll put this out on Writing Wednesdays when the time comes. It’s about mentors and mentorship. So any questions about that would be great. So those are a couple of things coming up in the future and thanks a lot.


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Ulla Lauridsen on December 30, 2013 at 4:33 am

    I’ll tell you why I’ve chosen to self-publish: I have written a short, informative book about something (giving your dyslexic child supplementary teaching at home) that contains extremely important knowledge. Yet, it’s probably not economically viable for at publishing house. I guess the parents who will benefit from this book is going to search high and low for solutions, so they will find my book, and because it is self-published, I can make it cheap to them, while I get a larger cut than from a publishing house. The book initially was e-book only, and now the sales have made it possible for me to turn to a sort-of vanity press for publication as a paper book – something I do to make it accessible via the libraries. I’ve had professionals in the area read it to check that my advice is sound, so I’m sure I do no harm
    My point is: Sometimes content can be very important and high quality and still not economically viable for a traditional publisher. In that case self-publication makes a lot of sense.

    • Laura on December 31, 2013 at 5:35 am

      Could you share the link to your book? I could use more knowledge in this area to support my son. I’m hoping it’s in English since a quick google search on your name yielded a hint that you are in the Nordic countries.
      Thank you
      [email protected]

      • Ulla Lauridsen on December 31, 2013 at 8:29 am

        My book is in Danish, sorry 😀
        But you have excellent ressources in the states. I highly recommend this one:
        Then you’ll need a book to teach from – I don’t know what is available in English, but I can tell you this much: It’s not hopeless. If you work with the child one on one for an hour a day, it will learn to read. That is just not going to happen in any school.

        • Ulla Lauridsen on December 31, 2013 at 8:41 am

          I just found it : you need Maureen Lovett PHAST reading intervention. It’s Canadian.

  2. Mary on December 30, 2013 at 6:11 am

    I understand your point about wanting validation from the gatekeepers. For me, at age 61 with my first novel time lined to be finished in 2014, I don’t know that I have the stomach to try to break through the gates. Self-publishing seems like a more viable option for me. Yes, money is a great validation too, but at this point in my life, I want to find my readers and to know that they are looking forward to novel #2. Thanks for another great discussion. Looking forward to the New Year’s post!

  3. John on December 30, 2013 at 7:41 am

    Had they been there, would Homer have waited for the gatekeepers to approve him or would he have relied upon the oral tradition?

    I wonder…

  4. Linda McLean on December 30, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Writing is easy; writing well is the hardest thing you’ll ever never succeed to do. Mantra “Keep writing and surround yourself with the best team of critical readers you can find (who are not people who love you even when you’re drooling!)”
    2. Publishing is easy; publishing well is the hardest thing you’ll never find time to do anything else doing.
    If you decide to write and to publish, be prepared to wake up heart broken twice as often.

  5. Doug R. on December 30, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Self publishing also means self-promotion. Its hard enough creating a product – be it a book, film or music or other but the realization that the true work is finding the audience in the new sea of products. That is where creative types have difficulty because “marketing” takes one far outside of the arts into the world of diligent business. Acceptance (and payment?) from higher-ups is usually the ultimate goal. Certainly getting a valuable message out to a specific audience for educational purposes is a new available channel…but finding select audiences can be even more challenging without the support of a recognized source. I self-publish for the purpose of practice but I enlist a steady set of trusted souls to give me tough feedback…as I would get with the “gatekeepers”.

    • Ulla Lauridsen on December 30, 2013 at 11:41 pm

      Doug, you really ought to read Kristine Kathryn Rusch*s business blog. A traditional publisher will do very, very little marketing for a midlist writer.

  6. David Y.B. Kaufmann on December 30, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    I think the question is a little misleading. (Misleading is probably the wrong word, but I’m not sure what’s the right one.) 20 years ago, The Legend of Bagger Vance was about to be published (1995, if I recall correctly). So you were at the ‘breakthrough’ stage. The publishing environment was vastly different. Today, the nature of the gatekeeper has changed, and the identity of the verifiers has not been settled.

    (I’m not sure those options would have valued 20 years ago – or valuable.)

    You are currently using the best of the self-publishing options – good production, great editor, etc. But it’s not just the PUBLISHING options. It’s the technical changes to reading and the social changes to criticism and readership.

    I don’t know if anyone’s looked at a correlation or intersection between Harry Potter and the ebook, but it would be a fascinating study. Harry Potter threw the publishing world into turmoil. In the midst of that turmoil – and the music industry turmoil, plus the iPod (and iTunes) – the ebook entered the picture.

    Rowling superficially verified the “traditional” process, validating one gatekeeper’s willingness to take a small risk. But what Rowling actually did was legitimate the bypassing of the gatekeeper. (I remember a couple of Wizarding sites that did Ph.D. level research. Some of that work became books or podcasts.)

    What hasn’t changed, of course, is the need for craftsmanship and an editor.

    Thought-provoking, as always. Thanks.

  7. delores Newton on December 30, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    I am like a fresh fish out of the water into the unknown.Iv’e put my soul and my heart into the writing of my lifes journey which spans over half a century.
    OOh Wee, What a Life!. I begin writing it in 1991.
    This is raw truth from beginning to end.I attend a book workshop once a week. This is my life purpose. My Creative genius.
    A mentor would be a tremendous help.

  8. Erik Dolson on January 5, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    It was an argument with an editor friend that brought me to the Steven Pressfield site, after I said something similar about the validation of the gatekeepers, their role sifting dross from diamonds. I was one, or had been one, on a very, very small scale for a couple of decades.

    “Publishing’s changed,” he said. “You need to catch up.” I subscribed, I read, I believed.

    So I am confused about Steve’s comment “That was the most important thing to me. So I would not have gone through the self-publishing options.” And his later statement, “For me, I wouldn’t have done it, to take the self-publishing options, but Jeff, it seems to be a really smart thing for you to do,” as if Steve wouldn’t do it today.

    Isn’t Black Irish Books an endeavor of self-publishing? Having received the validation of the gatekeepers makes this option now okay? The long tail model? Or have I missed a point somewhere?

  9. Kristen Steele on January 22, 2014 at 7:44 am

    Some authors may never get that validation from the gatekeepers, which is why self-publishing is a great alternative. Your book may cater to a niche audience, so it’s wonderful that authors now have an outlet to share their work without backing from a publishing house.

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  11. MS-203 on October 5, 2020 at 1:51 am

    My reason is because, let me back up a second and say that the self-publishing options, the benefits of that is that you get to bypass the so-called gatekeepers. You get to bypass the editors and the publishers and the agents who sort of screen out bad work or who define what is good, what is worthy of publication.

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