Why do For-Profits Have Such Low Outcomes?

Higher Education

A ques­tion on Red­dit popped up recent­ly in AskSo­cialScience, ask­ing why for-prof­it col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties tend to have low­er stu­dent out­comes than pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties.

Here’s my reply:


For-prof­its tend to have poor out­comes because they are 1) pri­mar­i­ly dis­tance-based, which is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult and is often the choice of peo­ple with exter­nal stres­sors that inhibit their abil­i­ty to focus and suc­ceed, and 2) have a habit of putting a lot of mon­ey into acqui­si­tion and reten­tion and not so much on instruc­tion. (This is chang­ing, though, as I can tell you about my per­son­al expe­ri­ences with Nation­al, AMU, Capel­la, and North­cen­tral).

Long Ver­sion: 

Take a look at the 2012 Hark­in Report, a study that was done in the US Sen­ate about for-prof­it schools. From the report, it became enor­mous­ly evi­dent that Amer­i­cans were feel­ing like they were not get­ting a return on invest­ment with regard to for-prof­it col­leges. The­se were more expen­sive, had worse over­all per­sis­tence and com­ple­tion rates, and were gen­er­al­ly regard­ed (thanks to aggres­sive mar­ket­ing tac­tics) as diplo­ma mills. Amer­i­cans were drop­ping out at high­er rates, rak­ing up stu­dent loan debt, and get­ting angry that their hard-earned degrees were not lead­ing to high-pay­ing jobs like the Amer­i­can dream had promised them.

Are All For-Profits Just “Diploma Mills”?

Uni­ver­si­ties like Capel­la, for exam­ple, are accred­it­ed by the same insti­tu­tion that accred­its Ivy League insti­tu­tions. The place I’m get­ting my PhD is a for-prof­it, online insti­tu­tion, and is accred­it­ed by the same enti­ty that accred­its all state uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges in the south­east Unit­ed States.

Per­cep­tion of for-prof­its tends to be abysmal for any­one not privy to how high­er edu­ca­tion actu­al­ly works in soci­ety. Some think get­ting a degree is a guarantee–a guar­an­tee that you will become gain­ful­ly employed, be able to sup­port a fam­i­ly, and retire with a good pen­sion. This is the great lie that we’ve all been told, left over from the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion. Remem­ber when we told our kids you could get into a fac­to­ry job out of high school and make enough mon­ey to sup­port a fam­i­ly, buy a car, buy a house, and retire? Those days are gone, and it’s not high­er education’s fault. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, high­er edu­ca­tion is the most tan­gi­ble thing to blame: I spent years get­ting a degree and now I can’t find a job–it MUST be education’s fault! (Peo­ple real­ly think this)

It doesn’t help that there are stud­ies sup­port­ing this notion with regards to employ­ment. Some­times peo­ple think that hav­ing attend­ed a for-prof­it col­lege makes an appli­cant less wor­thy, but the real­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion is that for-prof­it stu­dents tend to be non-tra­di­tion­al (i.e., not right out of high school, tend to have depen­dents, tend to have one or more jobs, etc). More on this in the next sec­tion.

So no, for-prof­its are not “diplo­ma mills,” since they are accred­it­ed by the same enti­ty that is accred­it­ing that school that is being sold as “bet­ter” than the online insti­tu­tion you were think­ing about attend­ing.

Are for-profits just preying on people to rack up student loan debt? 

Yes, unfor­tu­nate­ly, but not because for-prof­it edu­ca­tion is inher­ent­ly bad. The­se insti­tu­tions rec­og­nized a gap in pub­lic edu­ca­tion and filled it, using the prin­ci­ples of free mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism to make mon­ey and serve stu­dents. Think of it like this: pub­lic insti­tu­tions have a gate-keep­ing process that weeds out peo­ple who oth­er­wise would have not attend­ed col­lege any­way, and for-prof­it col­leges tend to have very open admis­sions poli­cies. This means that for-prof­its are going to enroll peo­ple who would have nev­er gone to col­lege in the first place, cre­at­ing a pop­u­la­tion of peo­ple hyped up on mar­ket­ing tac­tics but gen­er­al­ly unpre­pared for the rig­ors of high­er edu­ca­tion. Com­bine this with a pri­mar­i­ly dis­tance-based ped­a­gogy and you have a recipe for fail­ure.

The 2012 Hark­in Report iden­ti­fied some trou­bling sta­tis­tics about for-prof­it high­er edu­ca­tion, one of which was that for-prof­it schools spend upwards of 50+% of their expen­di­tures on mar­ket­ing alone. In my opin­ion, this was unset­tling to the Sen­ate com­mit­tee because it was a hard look at how cap­i­tal­ism solves prob­lems. Again, we have to remem­ber that for-prof­its didn’t just appear out of nowhere; there was a void cre­at­ed by pub­lic insti­tu­tions that for-prof­its came in and filled.

So why are outcomes at for-profits so abysmal?

For-prof­its attract non-tra­di­tion­al adult learn­ers, who have a unique learn­ing style. On top of that, stu­dents who choose to attend for-prof­it schools tend to ratio­nal­ize their choic­es for many rea­sons, one of which being that they feel more in con­trol of their return on invest­ment.

How­ev­er, the open admis­sions pol­i­cy cou­pled with dis­tance edu­ca­tion for­mat is a recipe for out­comes dis­as­ter. Due to cor­re­spon­dence schools of yes­ter­year being scam­my, dis­tance edu­ca­tion has been tra­di­tion­al­ly dis­re­gard­ed as less “gen­uine” and less respectable than in-per­son alter­na­tives. How­ev­er, as peo­ple with degrees from online schools do more and more great things, the per­cep­tion of val­ue for pri­mar­i­ly dis­tance edu­ca­tion based schools is begin­ning to lev­el out.

The recipe for disaster–online edu­ca­tion cou­pled with open admis­sions policies–is why for-prof­it out­comes are so abysmal. Dis­tance edu­ca­tion is extreme­ly tough; I’ve earned a BA, MA, and now I’m work­ing on a PhD entire­ly online, while tak­ing care of three kids, work­ing a full-time job, and active­ly writ­ing and pub­lish­ing. Peo­ple are, in my opin­ion, scared about peo­ple like me because I’m a non-tra­di­tion­al PhD: I’m not teach­ing as a stip­u­la­tion of my matric­u­la­tion (and sub­se­quent­ly, under­grad­u­ates and grad­u­ate stu­dents are not being taught by a master’s lev­el prac­ti­tion­er, a huge prob­lem in tra­di­tion­al uni­ver­si­ties); I’ve got a real­ly suc­cess­ful book out there and in the works on anoth­er one; I’m a strong lead­er at the insti­tu­tion I work at… I’ve met plen­ty of peo­ple with moti­va­tion and ambi­tion who can suc­ceed in a dis­tance edu­ca­tion mod­el, earn a degree, and go on and do what they want. I’ve also met peo­ple who are not intrin­si­cal­ly moti­vat­ed, think a degree is going to solve what­ev­er prob­lems they’re hav­ing in life, and then get dis­ap­point­ed when they are in debt and now can’t find a job.

Speak­ing of grad­u­ate stu­dents teach­ing at uni­ver­si­ties: this is a cost-sav­ing fea­ture. Why have your PhD teach a class when one of that PhD’s stu­dents can teach it instead? Pub­lic insti­tu­tions are cut­ting costs this way and through the adjunc­tivi­sa­tion of high­er edu­ca­tion all the time, but we pun­ish for-prof­its for nav­i­gat­ing the cap­i­tal­ist rules of a free mar­ket and not pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties. Almost hyp­o­crit­i­cal, don’t you think?

An Early Alert System Will Fail Without an Early Alert Philosophy

Higher Education

Con­grat­u­la­tions to the two schools I spoke to over this week­end in their deci­sion to rec­om­mend again­st invest­ing in an ear­ly alert sys­tem before they were ready.

Ear­ly Alert sys­tems are designed to high­light stu­dents who are at high-risk of neg­a­tive behav­ior, like strug­gling, with­draw­ing from a course, or worse, drop­ping out of col­lege entire­ly. Hun­dreds of com­pa­nies world­wide have been offer­ing sys­tems to track and tar­get at-risk stu­dents in every type of edu­ca­tion­al envi­ron­ment, but for some rea­son high­er edu­ca­tion is the most prof­itable one. Any idea why that is?

May­be it’s because high­er edu­ca­tion is con­stant­ly look­ing for mon­ey to spend, even though what it should spend mon­ey on is right under its nose (hint: it’s stu­dents). Ear­ly Alert sys­tems are often seen as the mag­ic ingre­di­ent that your col­lege has been miss­ing. At last, a piece of soft­ware that will get more of our stu­dents com­plet­ing degrees and cer­tifi­cates faster than ever before!

Eric McIn­tosh of Civ­i­tas Learn­ing Sys­tems sums up how a lot of admin­is­tra­tors feel when it comes to the poten­tial of ear­ly alert sys­tems on their cam­pus:

Knowl­edge of which stu­dents need which sup­ports, and when they need those sup­ports, would be a great way to ensure every stu­dent has access to the sup­port they need, when they need it. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it is has been dif­fi­cult to know what inter­ven­tion – or inspi­ra­tion – each stu­dent needs, and it has been dif­fi­cult to know exact­ly when they need the out­reach. For­tu­nate­ly, pre­dic­tive mod­el­ing affords a more nuanced and focused per­spec­tive on stu­dent engage­ment and risk, and let’s us be more pre­cise in our efforts to sup­port every student’s jour­ney.

Yes! Data Sci­ence in High­er Edu­ca­tion for the win!

Except there’s a flaw with Ear­ly Alert sys­tems, and that flaw has noth­ing to do with the sys­tems them­selves. EAB, Pharos, Civ­i­tas, Hobson’s Starfish, and more are doing a great job build­ing great soft­ware to do great things. I’ve worked with many tools over the years (even though I’m a huge advo­cate of build­ing your own) and I’m very impressed with what they can do with the right data. The prob­lem is that insti­tu­tions are buy­ing and imple­ment­ing the­se tools before they need them.

It’s the cart before the horse, folks. We’re buy­ing tools to get ear­ly alerts on stu­dent dropout behav­ior before we have a plan to col­lect the data we need to plug into the sys­tem! Why is that? May­be it has some­thing to do with the Law of Triv­i­al­i­ty, where a group of peo­ple will tend to spend the most amount of time on the most triv­ial of prob­lems in a given prob­lem set. That is, may­be we want to spend all our time play­ing with the tools because we are afraid to admit that we’re not ready to use them.

To be fair, an old col­league who now works at Deloit­te said that there are good peo­ple at the­se third-par­ty ven­dors that try to use the demos of their ear­ly alert tools as a way of show­ing col­leges just what is pos­si­ble if you are col­lect­ing the right data. If you’re not, though, it’s very easy to be swept away with what you could be doing (and enter into a huge annu­al con­tract), instead of focus­ing on what you should be doing.

We need an Ear­ly Alert Phi­los­o­phy. Before we spend any mon­ey, let’s spend some time think­ing about what data we need, how we are col­lect­ing it, and most impor­tant­ly, what we will do with the infor­ma­tion about at-risk stu­dents. If we don’t have at least a phi­los­o­phy about what we will be doing with our ear­ly alert data, then we can­not pos­si­bly ben­e­fit from invest­ing in the tools that gen­er­ates that data for us.

The foun­da­tion­al mind­set need­ed to cap­i­tal­ize on an ear­ly alert sys­tem can be forged by fol­low­ing my free check­list for Ana­lyt­ics Readi­ness. Spend some time with your col­lege lead­ers and the pro­fes­sion­als in stu­dent ser­vices to come up with a solid plan of what you will do with ear­ly alert infor­ma­tion. Ear­ly alert sys­tems should aug­ment exist­ing process­es, not cre­ate them. 

In sum­ma­ry:

  • Don’t invest in Ear­ly Alert soft­ware unless you are pre­pared to take action with what it pro­duces
  • Good intel­li­gence is only as use­ful as the knowl­edge it cre­ates
  • Knowl­edge is only as use­ful as the action is it inspires

Should an author have more control over a reader’s Kindle?


Recent­ly I was talk­ing with a group of Eng­lish majors (I know, I know) about the evo­lu­tion of lit­er­a­ture in the post-infor­ma­tion age. A ques­tion was asked: “What if the future of the inter­net and books was an inter­net specif­i­cal­ly for and about sto­ries?”

This got us talk­ing about our Kindles, and what poten­tial oppor­tu­ni­ties exist for Ama­zon to help bring authors closer to their read­ers. In this arti­cle, I’d like to talk about some of the ques­tions that came up and, more specif­i­cal­ly, some of our ideas around what Ama­zon is doing with the Kindle, what Ama­zon could be doing with the Kindle, and how we might see the future of lit­er­a­ture chang­ing as the way we read changes.

Why can’t authors update their readers instantly?

A post-mod­ern text that changes as you read it. Sounds like inter­ac­tive fic­tion, doesn’t it? Well it doesn’t have to be. Kindles are dig­i­tal tools that hold dig­i­tal files com­prised of basic HTML markup, and enabling lim­it­ed use of Javascript–or even a cus­tom script­ing lan­guage to con­trol and manip­u­late tex­tu­al data–could turn the Kindle into an entire­ly immersible expe­ri­ence.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, stand­ing poli­cies about updat­ing Kindle books pre­vent this type of inter­ac­tive fic­tion from com­ing to your Kindle.

Here’s how it works if you aren’t famil­iar:

  • If an author wants to update their Kindle book, they can pub­lish those updates very quick­ly through the KDP pub­lish­ing sys­tem.
  • If a read­er wants the most cur­rent ver­sion of a book, how­ev­er, they have to login to the Ama­zon web­site with a com­put­er and then man­u­al­ly trig­ger an update on the books that are marked as hav­ing an update avail­able.

Why is it so dif­fi­cult to update a book?

Well, first we should ask, why do we need to keep updat­ing a book? Per­haps this is the under­ly­ing prob­lem here. A “book” or “sto­ry” is always con­sid­ered a sin­gle, immov­able thing that is writ­ten, pub­lished, and then it’s not changed.

I won­der what sort of things we’re miss­ing out on my treat­ing a dig­i­tal book as an unchang­ing, stag­nat­ed thing.

I have a few hypothe­ses.

H1: Ama­zon does not allow authors to have changes to books post­ed auto­mat­i­cal­ly to users’ devices because they don’t want authors to sell one thing and then deliv­er (via change) anoth­er.

This is prob­a­bly the most prob­a­ble rea­son, given that Amazon’s KDP pro­gram suf­fers enough from a per­ceived lack of legit­i­ma­cy due to garbage being used to scam the sys­tem. Ama­zon doesn’t want some­thing to appear to be one thing and then turn out to be bunch of affil­i­ate links–or some oth­er scam­my type of thing.

But this type of behav­ior is already hap­pen­ing. Peo­ple take advan­tage of Kindle Unlim­it­ed all the time, and it’s evi­dent with some of the crap you might stum­ble upon if you hap­pen into the bow­els of KU (like I do when I’m look­ing for the next Chuck Tin­gle book).

From Kate Cox @ Con­sumerist:

Scam­mers are basi­cal­ly upload­ing “books” that are noth­ing but files full of non­sense with some link on page 1 that puts read­ers on page 300 or 3000 (the max­i­mum page length for which Ama­zon will pay out) almost instant­ly. In between there’s noth­ing but non­sense, but the scam­mer can use click farms to dri­ve up the rank­ing of their book and so peo­ple down­load it any­way.

H2: Ama­zon does not allow authors to have changes to books post­ed auto­mat­i­cal­ly to users’ devices because they don’t want peo­ple to live in their Kindles and nev­er vis­it the Ama­zon web­site (and fun­nel them through pro­duct rec­om­men­da­tions).

I’m just going to assume that this one is not sup­port­ed, but hey, it’s always a pos­si­bil­i­ty.

H3: Ama­zon does not allow authors to have changes to books post­ed auto­mat­i­cal­ly to users’ devices because they don’t know that this is a thing read­ers may want.

Here’s the hypoth­e­sis that’s call­ing out to me. I real­ly think Ama­zon just doesn’t real­ize how many Eng­lish nerds like me could be com­plete­ly engrossed in a Lit­er­a­ture Machine if it was designed in such a way that would allow us to be engrossed in one.

Accord­ing to Amazon’s web­site, changes to books that have been pre­vi­ous­ly down­load­ed can only occur if the changes are seri­ous. Even then, the changes will not be auto­mat­i­cal­ly pushed to your read­ers’ devices, but rather, they can login to a page to man­age their Kindle and they will see a link that says “Update Avail­able.”

Two things make this a very poor method:

First, it assumes that authors have all their read­ers on social media accounts, email lists, or liv­ing in their home. I don’t want to spam peo­ple with emails, I want to con­trol the way my pro­duct lives and breathes on their devices. If I don’t have a way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with every­one who has ever down­load­ed my book (which I don’t because that data is not avail­able to me nor do I think it should be avail­able to peo­ple), then how can I reli­ably send out updates to books? I’m basi­cal­ly ask­ing for more than one ver­sion of my pro­duct to be out there at a time.

Sec­ond, this method of updat­ing work restricts the type of pro­duct we can cre­ate. Imag­ine the type of fic­tion we could pro­duct if we could change the words in a sto­ry, or the end­ing, or what peo­ple say, at dif­fer­ent times through­out the year, auto­mat­i­cal­ly and seem­ing­ly mag­i­cal­ly while users are read­ing sto­ries? A sto­ry that changes as you read it? It’s like a liv­ing, breath­ing work of art! Of course, not all sto­ries would need this, but there are many artists out there who are incred­i­bly bright and cre­ative. I won­der what they could come up with?

Amazon could do more to connect readers with authors

If some­one down­loads my book, I want to be able to pub­lish updates to a book–fix a typo, add a page break, or even add a free chap­ter at the end of a new nov­el I’ve just published–and have them go straight to my read­ers. I am con­fi­dent that the vast major­i­ty of read­ers would like a sys­tem like this that they could opt-in to as well. The prob­lem I see is when there exists a sys­tem where authors can pub­lish sub-par work and then spend the next few months fix­ing it. The Kindle­Un­lim­it­ed pro­gram is already plagued by hur­ried fic­tion from authors work­ing inde­pen­dent­ly, though, so what’s the

Here’s what I’m envi­sion­ing:

  • I down­load Hugh Howey’s 2025 nov­el that he doesn’t know he’s going to write called My She, Machine, a sto­ry about a wom­an who copes with her dead sis­ter by cre­at­ing a social media bots that repli­cate her per­son­al­i­ty and behav­ior. Every­thing is great until the social media bot starts rela­tion­ships with oth­er peo­ple, even get­ting employed, and even­tu­al­ly becomes so famous that the liv­ing sis­ter has to assume the real-life ver­sion of the robot she made (you know, for inter­views, talk shows, etc). Well, in doing this she real­izes that she is los­ing a bit of her­self the more and more she becomes this per­son­al­i­ty and final­ly at the end she real­izes that this whole time she’s been keep­ing her sis­ter alive it has been her who is dying, to the point that she doesn’t even rec­og­nize her­self any­more when she looks in the mir­ror. Real­ly dark stuff, Hugh. Are you feel­ing okay?
  • Well, Hugh pub­lish­es a sec­ond nov­el in the same uni­verse because the first one was so dark and mys­te­ri­ous and every­one is try­ing to fig­ure out what the hell hap­pened out there while he was cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing.
  • Hugh then decides that he wants to go back to the first book and update it with links to the sec­ond book in the same uni­verse, and even include a free chap­ter or two. Cool idea, Hugh. Appre­ci­ate it.
  • So here I am, in Kindle land, read­ing my book and fin­ish­ing it, and now I’m done. I have no idea Hugh put out anoth­er book because I spend most of my time dis­con­nect­ed from the inter­net and read­ing fic­tion on my Kindle, but:
  • I see a lit­tle noti­fi­ca­tion that says my Hugh Howey nov­el “My She, Machine” has a new update. 
  • When I go to the update, I see that Hugh has added some infor­ma­tion about the newest book to the ver­sion that I have. How neat!

Put more sim­ply:

  • When you down­load a book on Kindle, that book becomes it’s own por­tal
  • When I go to that book’s por­tal on my Kindle, I can: 
    • See author updates about this book (and only about this book)
    • Auto­mat­i­cal­ly have all my “Hugh Howey” books update in their por­tals
    • Inter­act with Hugh in a blog-like fash­ion when he writes about that por­tal, or when oth­er authors write about it, or when oth­er read­ers are dis­cussing it.

I want to auto­mat­i­cal­ly have updates deliv­ered to my books, and I want to be able to opt-in and out based on:

  • Indi­vid­u­al titles
  • Any books in a speci­fic series
  • Any books by a speci­fic author

When I have decid­ed to add Hugh Howey to my library, I am basi­cal­ly telling Ama­zon that

  • I like Hugh Howey and want to read what he writes
  • I want to receive instant updates when Hugh Howey deems them appro­pri­ate for his work
  • Hugh Howey con­trols the pre­sen­ta­tion of the book on my kindle, not me

The book as a portal

There are real­ly two ways to look at this top­ic: either a book on a Kindle is a sin­gle piece of work that you digest and are done with, or a book on a Kindle is a por­tal to not just the book, but com­pan­ion infor­ma­tion about the book and the entire immersible expe­ri­ence the writer has cre­at­ed. Again, this is not for every type of book out there, but rather, this opt-in pro­gram could be for peo­ple who want to be a “Trust­ed Author” on a read­ers’ Kindle, which lets them auto­mat­i­cal­ly pub­lish updates to that read­ers’ Kindle.

The book as a por­tal also gives us the abil­i­ty to rede­fine what it means to be a Book. Do we still think of books as one-off sto­ries? What about books that have alter­nate end­ings? I talked with a stu­dent one time who want­ed to write a sto­ry about a wom­an diag­nosed with a strange mem­o­ry fail­ure. Over the course of a few years, that author want­ed to change parts of the sto­ry so that when peo­ple dis­cuss the book lat­er, every­one remem­bers dif­fer­ent things hap­pen­ing. What an inter­est­ing idea, right? Not so inter­est­ing that Ama­zon would invest in, I’m sure, but per­haps it spawns ques­tions in the minds of peo­ple smarter than me.

Trust­ed Authors could be vet­ted by Ama­zon, and may­be they could be called an Ama­zon Trust­ed Author. They could be vet­ted by read­ers indi­vid­u­al­ly as a sort of opt-in process. It gives me, the read­er, the abil­i­ty to read more than just the books that my favorite author writes; I can read their non-fic­tion (i.e., blog) as well.

Some­one point­ed out that this idea is real­ly just a “faster, more effi­cient design of the cur­rent Kindle sys­tem.” And that may very well be the under­ly­ing prob­lem for me with my Kindle: it takes too many clicks to get a book in my hand (I tend to read two or three books at a time); the inter­face is sort of clunky and designed, obvi­ous­ly, to push the sales of books; I miss the look and feel of my first Kindle which just list­ed the books like an ear­ly iPod list­ed my music.

What do you think about the Kindle expe­ri­ence? Do you think the idea of an “Author Por­tal” or a “Book Por­tal” would be some­thing peo­ple want? 

Why I Self-Published my Debut Novel: On Respecting Agents and Building a Business Relationship


Is self-pub­lish­ing for every­one? Prob­a­bly not, despite the acco­lades being sung all across the inter­net in the shad­ow of a hand­ful of for­mer­ly self-pub­lished authors. There is an enor­mous amount of work that goes into a sto­ry after it’s been writ­ten, so much so that with two self-pub­lished books under my belt I can final­ly breathe a sigh of relief know­ing that my goals have been accom­plished. What goals exact­ly?

I self-pub­lished because I want­ed to work on becom­ing a good poten­tial busi­ness part­ner for a lit­er­ary agent. I want­ed to bring to the table the best pos­si­ble author and pro­duct. Self-pub­lish­ing my first fic­tion nov­el was about dis­cov­er­ing whether my sto­ries and my sto­ry­telling were sell­able. My first book was non-fic­tion–Data Sci­ence in High­er Edu­ca­tion–and I’ve made enough on that each mon­th since launch to remind me that I don’t write total garbage. After that, I pub­lished my first fic­tion book–Bur­row–and as of writ­ing this it’s been on the mar­ket for 48 days and has aver­aged (com­bined e-book and Kindle Unlim­it­ed reads) about one full sale per day. Com­bined with the steady, non-mar­ket­ed inter­est is a hand­ful of 3-to-5 star reviews that have helped to push me from an “I don’t write total garbage” mind­set to one of “I’m writ­ing some­thing that can sell.”

Being a sell­able author is not the same as being an author. I think any­one who can sit down and write can be an author–I real­ly do. In fact, I think peo­ple would be writ­ing even if no one want­ed to buy or sell their fic­tion. But while some may be able to hit that pub­lish but­ton with ease, ful­ly expect­ing to just watch KDP sales dash­boards every­day and cross­ing fin­gers for con­tin­u­al­ly grow­ing spikes, oth­ers (like me) are a bit more, well, pes­simistic.

Here’s what I mean by being pes­simistic, which I don’t see at all as a bad thing. My mind­set going into self-pub­lish­ing was like this:

  1. I don’t bring any­thing to the table. Pro­ceed to write a thing.
  2. I have writ­ten a thing that I real­ly enjoy read­ing and enjoyed writ­ing even more. But does that bring some­thing to the table?
  3. I would real­ly like to work with an agent, but I don’t want to both­er any­one with some­thing that’s not sell­able.
  4. How can I ensure I’m bring­ing some­thing to the table? I should self-pub­lish my debut nov­el, work hard to make sure I am a sell­able author, and then reach out to an agent.

Not wast­ing an agent’s time is just as impor­tant to me as pre­sent­ing them with a good sto­ry well told. I need to be con­fi­dent that I’m bring­ing some­thing to the table in a query let­ter, even if they decide to send a stan­dard rejec­tion. The impor­tant thing here is not whether they accept or reject me, it’s that I am con­fi­dent that I have a solid con­tri­bu­tion to a busi­ness rela­tion­ship. As Chip Mac­Gre­gor (Mac­Gre­gor Lit­er­ary) puts it, “This is a busi­ness rela­tion­ship, in many ways almost a part­ner­ship, and you don’t want to part­ner with just any­body.”

Do new and/or self-pub­lished authors under­stand this? Fly around on forums across the inter­net and you will see tro­ves of self-pub­lished authors lament­ing about agents. Some don’t want to be both­ered with the pub­lish­ing indus­try, some see agents as road­blocks to their pal­pa­ble (but often­times juve­nile) dreams of overnight suc­cess, and still oth­ers are just look­ing to get their stuff out there as quick­ly as pos­si­ble so they can say they have writ­ten a book. It is this crowd that has, in my mind, taint­ed the self-pub­lish­ing indus­try; at times I feel like it’s either you’re one or the oth­er, and per­haps that delin­eation is delib­er­ate­ly con­struct­ed by both sides. Let’s face it: well all know some self-pub­lished authors who chose the inde­pen­dent route because they don’t see any val­ue in lit­er­ary agents.

Well, I self-pub­lished my first fic­tion nov­el because I think so high­ly of lit­er­ary agents. Fol­low­ing Lit­er­ary pro­fes­sion­al Kristin Nel­son (@agentkristinnla, web) has real­ly helped to frame the writer-pitch­es-agent process as a busi­ness pro­pos­al. After all, isn’t that exact­ly what a query let­ter is sup­posed to be? A busi­ness pro­pos­al? I have cre­at­ed X and would like you to sell it. Here’s what X is and why it’s sell­able. Let’s do busi­ness togeth­er.

Think­ing of the query­ing process as a busi­ness pro­pos­al, you can share my dis­heart­en­ment when I saw that Kristin had to write an arti­cle address­ing the obvi­ous­ly fre­quent asked ques­tion of why do agents need query let­ters. The ver­ba­tim ques­tion–“Why can’t agents sim­ply skip the query pitch alto­geth­er and read the sam­ple pages the author includes with the let­ter?”–is answered per­fect­ly on Kristin’s blog, but what isn’t said is the under­ly­ing assump­tions and atti­tudes that sur­round a writer ask­ing this ques­tion.

If I am sell­ing you a busi­ness idea for a new mobile appli­ca­tion, would I expect you to dive into my source code before telling you about what the app does, why the world needs it, and how it fits into the cur­rent ecosys­tem of mobile apps? Absolute­ly not! So why do we expect agents to give writ­ers spe­cial breaks and just “trust” that their sto­ry­telling and sto­ries are strong enough for them to invest in?

I love sto­ry­telling, but I don’t love sto­ry-sell­ing. So before I go out and both­er Kristin with my book that wrote, I’m going to go out of my way to make sure that 1) there’s a mar­ket for my book, and 2) there’s a mar­ket for me. Self-pub­lish­ing was a busi­ness deci­sion to test the waters; I need­ed to know, with a high degree of cer­tain­ty, that a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple of the pop­u­la­tion of read­ers avail­able to me would pur­chase a sto­ry by a nobody and enjoy it. I need to bring to the table at least something to reduce the inher­ent uncer­tain­ty that comes with a nev­er-before-pub­lished author, and that’s what I have done.

If you’re think­ing about self-pub­lish­ingthink about what your own goals are. Do you want to get your sto­ry out there as fast as pos­si­ble? You might want to recon­sid­er. Slow down, shelf your book, let it mari­nade for a while. Intro­duce to the world not your pro­duct, but the best pos­si­ble ver­sion of your pro­duct. I made the mis­take of pub­lish­ing Bur­row before my wife went through it with a fine-toothed comb (a mis­take I will nev­er make again), and had to make two post-debut updates to the dig­i­tal file. This caused some ear­ly read­ers to get a ver­sion with about five typos in the whole book, which are enough to put me off. Thank­ful­ly, they admit­ted that while the typos were dis­tract­ing, the sto­ry was still worth the read.

So my goals before pitch­ing a pro­fes­sion­al like Kristin (who does accept queries for sci­ence fic­tion, so I do have her on the top of my list for my cur­rent work-in-pro­gress) were achieved: dis­cov­er if my work was real­ly worth tak­ing a risk on. Do I have to explain all this to a lit­er­ary agent in a query let­ter? Of course not (unless they ask), but what I have done is elim­i­nat­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty that an agent is wast­ing 100% of their time con­sid­er­ing me or my sto­ries. Now, does that mean they’ll accept my book? absolute­ly not–but that does mean I can be con­fi­dent that the rejec­tions are a business–and not a personal–decision.

For writ­ers look­ing to self-pub­lish fic­tion, here are my rec­om­men­da­tions:

  • Iden­ti­fy agents who rep­re­sent sto­ries like yours, and draft to your­self some query let­ters using their sub­mis­sion guide­li­nes as a ref­er­ence. This will help you frame your sto­ry in a way it needs to be framed: as a com­mod­i­ty of enter­tain­ment in a vast mar­ket­place of sto­ries.
  • Iden­ti­fy what you want to have hap­pen, and what you expect to hap­pen, once your book is on the mar­ket. Are you test­ing the waters? Are you look­ing for overnight suc­cess? Be real­is­tic with your­self, and about why you aren’t seek­ing a more tra­di­tion­al route.
  • Ground your deci­sion to self-pub­lish in a deep respect for what lit­er­ary agents and the whole pub­lish­ing team does. If you’re self-pub­lish­ing because you think you don’t need an agent and/or the resources and tools they provide, you will like­ly fail. If, how­ev­er, you are self-pub­lish­ing for a speci­fic reason–and that rea­son is close­ly tied to your under­stand­ing of the com­plex­i­ties of the pub­lish­ing indus­try and the val­ue of agents–then you’re head­ed in the right direc­tion.

Self-pub­lish because you respect an agent and val­ue their work so much that you don’t want to waste their time.

Self-pub­lish because you want to be con­fi­dent that you are head­ed in the right direc­tion craft-wise.

Don’t self-pub­lish because you think a lit­er­ary agent pro­vides no val­ue.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Kristin’s arti­cle here on the “Mag­ic Num­ber [of books before you are a suc­cess­ful, pro­fes­sion­al writer]”:

One of the truths I high­light at writ­ers con­fer­ences is that for more than half of my clients, I passed on the first project they sent me. It wasn’t until they sent me a lat­er, more mature work that our agent-author love match bloomed.

Why do I tell you all this? If you’ve just com­plet­ed your first nov­el, awe­some. Cel­e­brate this huge achieve­ment. But it doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t sell, or if you inde­pen­dent­ly pub­lish it and it doesn’t get much trac­tion.

Now get out there and go work on that plot hook!

P.S. I am plan­ning on query­ing an agent for my cur­rent work-in-pro­gress (a sci-fi thriller), not for BURROW. When Burrow’s sequel is pol­ished, (it’s cur­rent­ly mar­i­nat­ing in my “don’t look at this for six months” fold­er) I do intend to find a way to release it, and am look­ing for­ward to the rejec­tion let­ters due to the fact that it’s a sequel to a pre­vi­ous­ly self-pub­lished book. Who knows how that will all work out.

P.S.S. This post is about fic­tion, and I’m not sure how much of it applies to non-fic­tion. I have a very suc­cess­ful non-fic­tion book self-pub­lished in a niche mar­ket for a niche audi­ence. I nev­er con­sid­ered tra­di­tion­al pub­lish­ing for this book because I had some very strong opin­ions on the mis­use of tech­nol­o­gy in high­er edu­ca­tion and want­ed that voice to be 100% authen­tic. Is this pos­si­ble in fic­tion? I don’t think so. Mass-mar­ket paper­back is a busi­ness that needs to gen­er­ate rev­enue, and if you need to move things around or change things in your sto­ry to make it more sell­able, then damnit, you bet­ter lis­ten to your agent/editor. If you’re sto­ry­telling for your­self that’s one thing, but if you want to be a sto­ry­teller for the mass­es then you need to know what enter­tains the mass­es. Be smart, lis­ten, and know that oth­ers work just as hard as you do. 

Sh***y First Drafts is Bad Advice


By far the worst piece of writ­ing advice I see from blogs and inter­net per­son­al­i­ties is to “just write a shit­ty first draft.” This goes close­ly with all the advice online about writ­ing quick­ly, get­ting your nov­el done in 10 days (or what­ev­er arbi­trary time frame sells at the time), or writ­ing 1,000,000 words per year. When we give peo­ple this advice and they roll with it, their word counts may increase day-to-day but I often fear that the sum total qual­i­ty of their sto­ry­telling is suf­fer­ing. It’s not that “shut up and write” is bad advice, it’s that when we fail to empha­size how impor­tant prac­tice is in get­ting bet­ter, we pro­mote a cul­ture of “get it done quick”—which kills the sto­ry. 

Stop Killing the Story

Shit­ty first drafts kill the sto­ry. I’m sor­ry, but if your solu­tion to being unable to “flesh out” a “sog­gy mid­dle” is to just add crap until you’re done, you’re not being a very good sto­ry­teller. Instead of writ­ing crap, why not take the time to write some­thing good?

What would have a greater impact in a sto­ry: one well writ­ten sen­tence that took eight min­utes to write, or eight sen­tences that took one min­ute to write? Think about that for a moment. Writ­ing is like sculpt­ing: chis­el away at the page until the shapes and sounds and mean­ing of the let­ters come togeth­er to tell that sto­ry. Tell the sto­ry; stop killing the sto­ry!

Sculpt with a Chisel, not More Rock

Writ­ing a good sto­ry is like chis­el­ing the emp­ty pages away with let­ters. It’s an artis­tic process of expres­sion, so treat it like one. Don’t vom­it words onto paper to fill the gaps between the begin­ning and the end; sculpt your sto­ry out of the blank page, piece by piece, care­ful­ly shap­ing the stone until you can go over it with a small­er chis­el and carve out the fin­er details. If one part of it takes a long time, then so be it.

Have you head that sto­ry about James Joyce?

A friend came to vis­it James Joyce one day and found the great man sprawled across his writ­ing desk in a pos­ture of utter despair.
‘James, what’s wrong?’ the friend asked. ‘Is it the work?’
Joyce indi­cat­ed assent with­out even rais­ing his head to look at his friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?
How many words did you get today?’ the friend pur­sued.
Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled face­down on his desk): ‘Sev­en.’
Sev­en? But James… that’s good, at least for you.’
Yes,’ Joyce said, final­ly look­ing up. ‘I sup­pose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!”

Chas­ing a word count is only going to lead you to mad­ness. Give your­self per­mis­sion to treat the pages like stone, and the words like the result of fine taps on the chis­el.

In George Dila’s Rethink­ing the Shit­ty First Draft, we’re remind­ed that the often-cit­ed Hem­ing­way quote–“The first draft of any­thing is shit”–may have been mis­con­strued by the gen­er­al pub­lic as being per­mis­sion to for­go pride in one’s work and just write garbage.

Imag­ine paint­ing a pic­ture, and instead of think­ing delib­er­ate­ly about what the final result is going to be, you just apply strokes here and there with­out any real regard to how those strokes are going to affect the final pro­duct. One thing I’ve learned from watch­ing Bob Ross on Net­flix is that you always start with the foun­da­tion of bright­ness and col­or. With­out that, you end up wast­ing time lat­er as you try to make up for past mis­takes.

It’s an easy thing to fix; stop telling your­self that it’s okay to write shit­ty first drafts. Your sto­ry is sculpt­ed on the page, and by giv­ing your­self per­mis­sion to just write what­ev­er with­out any regard to the final pro­duct, you’re essen­tial­ly mak­ing your­self have to carve this sculp­ture more than once.

Can we ever get an amaz­ing first draft? I doubt it. Hem­ing­way wasn’t wrong in that regard. But what we can do is get rid of the notion that it’s okay to just write garbage.

Absolute Advice is Not Real

The whole “write shit­ty first drafts” thing may work for some peo­ple, but for new writ­ers I think we’re putting it into their heads that it’s okay to treat writ­ing as a process of achiev­ing a word count instead of a process of self-expres­sion. May­be I’m biased from the peo­ple I have worked with, or may­be I have just seen too many peo­ple dis­miss their lack of com­mit­ment and desire to real­ly engross them­selves into their work by chalk­ing it up to the “nec­es­sary” shit­ty first draft.

The first draft of any­thing is shit, but that doesn’t mean we should strive for shit when we write.