Publishing’s Artisan Era?

hand holding champagne glass in front of a book reading Your Artisan Novel and a pink floral background

I knew I was onto something.

Every so often I feel change in the air. Something shifts and, like a kaleidoscope, bits and pieces fall into a different configuration, a new pattern.

No, I’m not seeing the future. It’s not like I see the winning lottery numbers. The ability must be more along the lines of noticing patterns and of putting disparate pieces of information together to see what’s emerging up ahead, like getting closer to something while driving through the fog. Not that special. Kind of annoying in a way. But sometimes intriguing.

Unfortunately, I only figure this stuff out just a teeny-tiny bit ahead of the curve, so I can’t really do much with it other than yell, “See! I was right!”

Cupids, Everywhere!

The first time I noticed this was back in 1991 when I began to plan my wedding, I saw one cupid-themed cake in a magazine spread and decided this was going to be the motif for my wedding. I started looking for cupid-themed items, and much to my surprise, they were hard to find. I managed to ferret out invitations and a cake topper and some little pink soaps to wrap in tulle for the guests to take home, but I really had to search.

Not long after the wedding, cupids exploded everywhere. Figurines. Stationery. Tee-shirts. I’d spotted a trend just before it gained traction. Cool.

This has happened a few times. I see something is imminent, but I can’t or won’t do anything about it. Back in the 2000s I saw the signs that ebook-only publishing might become a popular option, and even though I seriously looked into submitting to the biggest indie ebook romance press at the time, I couldn’t quite take the leap. I still wanted to take the traditional print publication route. I didn’t trust my intuition and questioned whether readers would be into buying ebooks.

I also thought I had more to learn about storytelling. I didn’t want to put something out there that wasn’t quite good enough. I actually wanted those so-called gatekeepers to let me pass if and when I had reached a certain level of expertise.

Still, I watched with interest as ebooks took off and wondered if I’d made a mistake. Maybe I could have grown with the new ebook industry rather than growing outside the traditional one and having to break in.

But I’d made my choice.

For the past few years I’ve been hemming and hawing–as I’m wont to do–about the way some indie writers pumped many books a year into the marketplace in order to gain traction and market share and algorithmic dominance.

I even briefly considered trying it.

There were groups like 20 Books to 50K that I investigated, but ultimately I decided this practice was unsustainable, not only for me but also for publishing in general. In the rush for quantity, I thought, quality suffered.

Not unsurprising, these practices led to some successes for the earliest adopters and fastest writers and most savvy marketers, and it also led to a tsunami of simply terrible books on the market. Online retail offerings exploded, making it more difficult for authors who were concerned with craft (which takes time) to gain traction and visibility. It was all about feeding the algorithm what it wanted: more product, more, more, more . . .

Reading suffered. It was like a virus, replicating into a disease.

We’ve all experienced the disappointment of buying a book with a fancy cover and slick description copy and intriguing premise only to be totally disappointed with the actual writing. For some readers, true, the writing didn’t matter. It was only the story that counted. But for others, those of us who craved more depth and style, the flood of quick, cheap books into the marketplace made it so much harder to find the books we wanted to read.

What would be the antidote to this rapid-release publishing practice, I pondered? If the market tired–and how couldn’t it–of badly written, fast-release books, what would come next? How could savvy authors differentiate themselves from the crowd?

One word came to mind in recent years: Craftsmanship.

The Rise of Craftsmanship

We were already seeing it in other arenas. Slow food. Slow fashion.

People of means and more particular taste didn’t want cheap, abundant, bargain bin goods, services, or entertainment. The more rare something was, the more attractive. If everyone could afford it, they didn’t want it. Could that discernment translate to books?

I thought about printing presses. I thought about leather covers with gold accents. I thought about limited editions. I smelled ink.

And then I started seeing gorgeous editions offered via author patron subscription services and author-owned online shops. Authors published special hardbacks with gorgeous covers and painted or gold edging for premium prices. Fans and patrons scooped them up. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to put out beautiful, gorgeous editions of books, and readers wanted to collect them.

But what about the actual content?

It was only a matter of time, and now here it is. Things are changing. Rapidly.

Suddenly, I’m seeing lots of announcements that even traditional genre authors are discontinuing long-run series. Elin Hilderbrand, for example, has decided to wrap up her long-running series of beach read books set in Nantucket. “I have run out of really good ideas for Nantucket novels, and I don’t ever want to put out a product that is subpar,” the author told the Wall Street Journal. [see notes for links]

Did you notice the pertinent word? Subpar.

What’s happening, I believe, is spurred by the AI revolution. In the 1990s self-publishing print on demand (POD) came onto the scene and disrupted traditional publishing in ways that affect the industry to this day. Suddenly, authors who once couldn’t get past the so-called “gatekeepers” could go around the gates and reach audiences without interference by agents, editors, and marketing teams. Kindle Direct Publishing and others like it made selling ebooks cheap enough and visible enough to create a viable market for self-published (aka indie author) books.

POD flooded the market. This made traditionally-published books less visible, and traditional mid-list authorship suffered. Even top of list authors were nudged to put out more than one book a year as trad publishing tried to keep up, or at least hold on to their market share. We reached an apex, I believe, last year just as AI, or rather large language models like Chat GPT, arrived.

AI Will Out-Flood the Flooders

NOW machine learning threatens to out-flood the flooders.

Suddenly, indie authors–who were already burning out—saw the robots coming to get them the way they once came for traditional publishing. No way they’d be able keep pace with the machines. They saw the writing on the wall and it said, “You’re screwed.”

Authors once wedded to the crank-out-the-books model are suddenly changing tactics. To what, you ask?


It has been discussed in quiet pockets of the literary and publishing community for a few years now. For example, Derek Murphy of started talking more about craft several years ago. The change was subtle, but my ears twitched. Something was happening.

At first I squashed my hopeful feelings about this. Was I wishing for a return to craft and quality so badly, I was beginning to hallucinate? But no. Murphy said in a more recent video, “The book has to be good from the first page.” [See Notes]

He isn’t the only one. I kept seeing big names talking about craft, about writing good scenes, about style, not just book covers and heavy output. If you don’t know who Joanna Penn is, check The Creative She’s a force. She’s also calling herself “The AI Assisted Artisan Author.” [See Notes]

Even the go-hard-or-go-home groups are evolving. The 20 Books Vegas Conference (based on the 20 Books to 50K method) changed its name this year to the Author Nation Conference. According to one attendee, Kristin Oakley, “There will be less emphasis on cranking out books as quickly as possible and more emphasis on the different ways authors define their success.” [See Notes]

Today, I stumbled upon another video. Its title? “Building Your Author Brand in the Artisan Age of Publishing with Kevin Tumlinson.” [See Notes] It’s definitely happening.

The Artisan Age Moment

Here it is at last. The a-ha moment I’ve been waiting for. We are entering a new era of artisan authorship.

How do I feel about this? Vindicated in so many ways, yes, but also a bit salty.

Now that they are about to feel what it’s like to be drowned in a tsunami much like the one they themselves created, the crash-the-gates folks suddenly care about the craft? Now they are concerned about what they are offering their readers? Now they are worried about how a flood of books impacts how many writers will actually be able to make a living?

They didn’t care about how their practices affected the industry and writers and readers for the last twenty years, but now that they are threatened, suddenly “artisan” is the word they are all throwing around.

I can’t help but cackle a little bit. It’s fun to watch them scramble.

Better late than never I guess.

I realize not all indie authors pumped out crappy books month after month or week after week. Many indie authors, like trad authors, continued to be mindful of craft and truly cared about their readers’ experience. They, too, toiled away hoping against hope to find a niche, to reach readers, and perhaps to luck out and be discovered, somehow, in the overcrowded landscape of publishing.

So if the algorithm-players are seeking to convert themselves into artistes, what does this mean for those of us indie and small press and mid-list traditional press authors who have been concerned with craft all along?

Brag About Your MFA

Here’s what I think:

Use your years of toil to advantage. Talk about your always and continuing attention to craft. Tell your readership the story of your writer journey. If you have an MFA, brag about it. Talk about your understanding of storytelling and narrative and style. Talk about your influences both literary and commercial and why you admire their work. Tell everyone how many years you’ve been perfecting your craft as best you can with the resources you have. Explain why you only have one or two or five books out instead of 30.

Compare yourself to homemade artisan bread versus store brand at the local supermarket, handmade cable knit sweaters versus sweatshop fast fashion at a budget retailer, and farm-to-table fare versus limp, fast-food burgers and soggy fries.

Our era is coming. We have a head start. Embrace it.

I’d love to send you a chatty email once a month if you’d love to receive it.



Kristin Oakley on 20 Books Vegas Conference

Derek Murphy

Joanna Penn

Kevin Tumlinson interview


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