Traditional Or Indie? A Fundamental Question
Should I find a traditional publisher for my brand-new baby book, or self-publish? It’s perhaps the first fork on the twisty road from writer to author. In 2020, it is a more relevant question than ever. Here are some factors that led to my decision, in case it helps you with yours.
Some background: I completed my first novel in 2019, a massage therapy thriller called The Night Nurse. I was looking to publish a genre fiction book and market it to a very large audience.
Traditional Publishing Pros and Cons
Let’s be clear – there is A GREAT DEAL OF WORK to publishing a book. Traditional publishing houses have all the experts – editors, formatters, designers, marketers, and more – to transform your manuscript into a finished product. They deserve respect, and they have mine.
There are good reasons to go with traditional publishing. They include:
A recognized imprint gets your book some automatic respect. Readers and booksellers will know that your story and craft have already made the publisher’s grade. It will probably be good enough for them.
Big publishing houses have all the talent in place to create actual books. From cover to print interior to ebook formatting, your book will be professional to the last detail. These are hard-won skill sets, and hey! we’re working hard enough just becoming excellent writers.
Traditional publishers have contacts. They know the editorial calendars for major book publications, and precisely which desk will most likely review your book. They have other authors who can give you endorsements. They have Shelagh Rogers on speed dial.
Movie rights? Their people talk to film people. International distribution? They know how to make your book a hot ticket in Sweden. Translation? Bien sur, they can get it done.
Publishing companies have a robust administrative framework. They have systems for royalty collection and payment to get you your money with minimal fuss and headache.
Wonderful! Sounds like a done deal, right? Maybe. Here are some drawbacks to consider with traditional publishing:
Barriers to Entry
This might be the biggest hurdle for a newbie author. Agents and editors have always filtered manuscripts for consideration. In recent years this filter has turned into a fine-mesh sieve, with traditional publishers becoming very conservative in their choice of which books to champion. This may be the hardest time in history for a new writer to get noticed.
Publishing houses make big money on a few winning books, and minimal profit or even a loss on most of the others. So they follow good business sense and focus their marketing dollars on the winners. With the huge influx of stories onto the market each year, midlist books no longer float along in the wake of the big sellers. More likely they’ll disappear beneath the waves.
Loss of Control
Once you’re accepted into the established publishing system, you agree to follow that system. The publisher decides if your story needs more editing. They decide the book’s layout, cover design and marketing plan. Authors provide input, but do not have the final say. This can be a relief. It can also be an irritation. Occasionally (I’ve seen this) it can be a disaster.
Hidebound Publishing Ideas
The big publishing houses are large corporations with a very long history. They know how publishing is supposed to work. But, thanks to the Internet, publishing has changed. Books now have new audiences, new marketing channels, new sales tactics – and orders of magnitude more competition. Large, established organizations simply cannot be as nimble as an indie publisher when adjusting to this new and dynamic reality.
The machinery of publishing costs money. For all the wonderful work that publishers do, they are still a business and have to operate as one. The writer gets a standard royalty off the sale of each book, from 5% to 15% of the retail price. New authors should expect a cut on the low end of the scale.
Hard Times for Publishing
I hear more and more chatter about the painful state of the traditional publishing industry. Established midlist authors let go from their contracts. Publishers putting more of the marketing onus back on the writers. Established publishing houses, sometimes with multi-decade track records, going bankrupt.
Self Publishing Pros and Cons
Okay, you’re thinking, maybe this indie publishing thing is worth some attention. What’s the upside? Here are some:
I freely admit it, I am a hardcore do-it-yourselfer. Having the final say on all aspects of my book’s creation was important to me.
Since the entire publishing process involves only me and the printer/distributor, I keep more of the profits. I earn roughly 30% from every paperback sold.
All authors need to promote their work, regardless of which path they choose. Self-publishers have the freedom to laser-focus on their target markets and place their energy where they’ll get the most return.
We all know the story about the writer wallpapering his garret with rejection slips. With today’s tight publishing environment it is seriously difficult to get an agent’s or editor’s attention. Self-publishing removes this source of punishment.
Indie publishing is more established now than ever before. A world of articles, podcasts, Youtube videos and advice awaits. For starters, check out Joanna Penn’s website, the Alliance for Independent Authors, and the resources available on IngramSpark. Maybe this blog can help out, too.
All righty then, full steam ahead! Hang on for a minute. Indie publishing also comes with some important drawbacks:
Be Excellent! Or Please Don’t Bother
Independent publishing removes the agent/editor filter. This is not a source of freedom, but a shift of responsibility. Make sure your story is excellent in every way and fit for public consumption. The most reliable way to do this is by paying a professional editor to give you the straight goods. If you choose to forego this step, then please also choose another career.
Self-publishing still carries a whiff of the amateur about it – precisely because of how many writers ignore the previous point. Every poorly-edited, badly-written story pollutes the bookosphere and reinforces public opinion that a self-published book ‘just couldn’t make it in the real world.’ This bias is slowly changing. Make sure you do your part to speed it along.
Money or Time
Every facet of the publisher’s art falls in the indie author’s lap – formatting, design, placement, marketing, administration, and more. You can pay experts and freelancers for any or all of it, or you can take the time to learn these things for yourself. The experts are out there, and so is the how-to information. You decide if you can afford the money or the time.
Some marketing doors can only be opened by traditional publishers. Major review channels – national newspapers, bestseller lists, major media outlets – have little or no time for independent authors. This can be a roadblock when marketing genre fiction to a wide audience, but a limitation that can be overcome by focusing your efforts elsewhere.
Traditional publishing vs self-publishing? I chose to self-publish, and to do it as professionally as possible. Three main factors went into my decision. First was that whole rejection thing, which I would rather avoid. Second was the timeline involved in trad publishing – up to two years from acceptance to book on shelf – another drawback. Third was a curiosity to see if I could actually turn my story into a professional publication. I love the learning curve. This one gave me a pretty tough workout! But I pulled it off.
I paid for some professional editing. I paid for a professional cover. Most of the rest, I learned. I’ll lay out some details on what that looked like in future posts.
Has this helped? Are there more benefits or shortcomings that I’ve missed? Drop in a comment, I’d love to hear what you think.
Nice write-up, Tony. Given the state of the publishing industry, I think you made a wise choice. Your book cover looks great!
Thanks Johnny! I’m happy with the way the whole project has turned out. The publishing landscape is changing almost daily – it’ll be interesting to see how I have to revise this post in a year or two.
Thanks for the comparison between traditional and indie publishing. As a creative writer, I appreciate the detailed breakdown and your explanation of why you made the decision that you did. As an editor, I appreciate how you urged writers to hire a professional editor. It makes a significant difference in the quality of my own work when I seek out the input of professional editors, from the development phase to the proofreading phase. I wouldn’t let my work “leave home without it”.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that there is a third class of publishing that I would classify as DIY+. A project manager will help you with the DIY process that you outlined here (either for a flat fee or a la carte) but you get to keep 100% of your rights, you have more control over the steps in the process, including edits, but you do have to do the marketing yourself. Many writers are choosing this path; and I know a few who’ve been very happy with it.
Thanks for the addition. I am hearing about more and more writers who do some version of DIY+. It seems like you can outsource almost any part of the publishing process, including, as you put it, getting a project manager.