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New Authors, Should You Self Publish or Seek a Traditional Publishing Deal?

| Posted in Writing |

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Since I’ve been self-publishing for three and a half years now, and it’s all I ever did, it’s hard for me to imagine what things would have been like if I’d been dead-set on finding an agent and publishing traditionally. I know I wouldn’t have quit the day job after the first year and sincerely doubt I’d be making six figures a year now. But it turns out that I write fairly quickly and publish often, so I’m not necessarily representative of the typical indie author experience (of course, some people who write in more popular genres, and/or are just better at writing/marketing than I am, have a lot fewer books out than I do and make a lot more, too).

I thought I’d do a bit of a comparison (as much as I’m able from my side of the fence) for those who are wondering which route is best for them. Before I jump into that, I want to make one point that often gets forgotten in these discussions:

Most people will never be offered a traditional publishing deal.

Not with a big house anyway (and I’m not a big fan of signing with small publishers, just because I don’t feel most of them bring much to the table that a moderately savvy indie can’t accomplish him or herself). It’s not as if you get to just decide that you’ll traditionally publish, remember. You can try to find an agent and try to find a deal, but there aren’t any guarantees.

Of the couple dozen people who I kept track of who were in the same SF/F online writing workshop as I was back in 2008-2010 or so, I only know of two who got agents and traditional deals (one is now a hybrid author, self-publishing in between her regular releases). Both worked very hard to get those deals, one by writing tons and tons of short stories and racking up some pro magazine sales before having her third or fourth book picked up. The other really worked the RWA route, entering all the contests and going to the conventions to meet agents and such. (Note to other science fiction and fantasy authors, if you have romantic elements of any sort in your novels, that organization seems to be a lot more helpful for new authors than the SFWA.)

So, just to be clear, what we’re talking about here is whether you should self-publish from the start or try to find a traditional publishing deal.

Advantages of Self Publishing

  • Speed — I finished a manuscript last week and sent it to beta readers, who should get it back to me this week sometime. I’ll spend a couple of days editing it, based on their feedback, then send it off to my editor, who should get it back to me a week or two after that. I have someone working on the cover art right now. I expect to publish this book in mid- to late-July. I started writing it in mid-May (and wrote some other stuff in between the first and second draft).
  • Calling all the shots — I can pick the cover I want, write the story I want, and choose whether to make changes an editor suggests… or not. I don’t have to worry about someone not publishing my story if I’m not willing to make changes that may or may not be in line with my vision.
  • Control over pricing — I suppose this falls under calling the shots, but it’s such an important part of the equation that I think it deserves special emphasis. It’s one of the main reasons self-published authors have been finding so much success over the last few years: news flash, nobody really wants to pay $14.99 for an ebook. Even $9.99 is a lot for an author you’re not already a fan of. At $4.99 or $2.99, your books will look like a deal. Of course, you can try higher prices if you want. You can change the price every week if you want to, until you find that sweet spot.
  • The ability to take advantage of opportunities — As the publisher of my own novels, I can change the price anytime I want to take advantage of promotional opportunities. I can go in with other authors to bundle my books for a chance to reach tons of new readers. I can say, yes, absolutely if Amazon emails and asks to make one of my books a daily deal. I can see, within days of release, if a new book is going to be a winner and, if it is, start writing a second in the series right away. Or, if it’s not looking like a winner, maybe I’ll shift focus to another project.
  • The ability to track sales hourly and adjust marketing tactics — I don’t think this gets mentioned enough. You are so in the dark if all you’re able to do is look at an Amazon sales ranking and get twice yearly royalty checks. I can only imagine how tough it must be to stay enthused about promoting a book when you’re not actually able to go in and see if your efforts are making a difference.
  • The potential to earn more money and sooner — It’s not easy to get the ball rolling as an indie (advice you’ll see over and over is to write the next book and the next book because there are marketing opportunities that come to those with series that just aren’t there with stand-alone books), but if you’re prolific, you have the potential to turn this into a career much more quickly than you can with traditional publishing. Sure, there are exceptions (every now and then you hear of someone getting a huge advance or becoming a best seller with her first book, but I can point out indies who have had freakish success too), but you don’t have to be an exception to start making a regular income. Note all the comments/success stories on this post about Indie Authors Quitting Their Day Jobs.

Advantages of Traditional Publishing

  • Someone else foots the bill — I put together my first novel, The Emperor’s Edge, as inexpensively as I could at the time, without sacrificing what I believed were necessities (professional editing and cover art), paying around $800 total back then (I’ve since redone the cover once and am planning to again). I threw away $200 on someone who was utterly worthless as an editor and learned a lesson about people who claim that they’re good editors because they’re teachers, ahem. These days, I have my people lined up, and it costs me $1,000-$1,500 to get a novel out there, depending on length. That’s for an ebook and paperback. Brian McClellan recently did a post on how much his publisher had invested in his book to get it out there. I don’t believe for a second that every publisher is putting that much money into their authors (there are too many really bad or really simple covers out there for me to believe every publisher is coughing up $4-$6K for cover art!), but the point is that he didn’t have to pay any of the costs to publish ebook/hardback/audio for his book. The publisher covered it.
  • You’re in more stores and get more exposure — Even if I buy all of my books from Amazon, that doesn’t mean everybody does. A traditional deal should get you in all the brick-and-mortar stores. I imagine there must be something cool about seeing your book on a shelf at Barnes & Noble or in the airport bookstore.
  • Extra income from foreign rights sales — I’ve priced the cost of book translations, and it just doesn’t seem like it would be worth it to me, not when I’m looking at doing it for a seven-book series. At the same time, I’ve had inquiries from publishing houses in different countries, asking about the rights to my books. I keep meaning to look into that (or find an agent who might be willing to work on it), but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. From what I’ve heard from other authors, you don’t usually make a lot in each country, but if you sold the rights to a whole series in ten different countries, I’m sure it would add up. (Note: savvy indies can negotiate their own foreign rights sales; I’m just someone who prefers focusing on the marketing and on writing the next book, so I’ve definitely lagged behind here, and with audiobooks too.)
  • More review copies sent out and more sites/blogs willing to review trad published books — I’m a little dubious about how much this actually helps, especially after you have a mailing list of fans built up, but it can certainly be tough getting the first 10-20 reviews as a new author.

One thing I didn’t mention up there, and it’s one of the big myths, is that you won’t have to worry about marketing if you sign with a traditional publisher. The only time that seems to be true is if you get a big advance and they’ve got an investment they have to make sure earns out. If you got a 5k advance, and twenty other authors in your genre got that same deal this month, they’re probably just throwing darts at a board and hoping one lucks into hitting the bulls-eye, not even particularly caring which one it is. Most authors have to market, and I’ve heard that most agents look at a new author’s “platform” before thinking of signing them.

I’m sure this isn’t a complete list (if you have anything you’d like to add, please leave a comment), but I hope it’s enough to help those of you who are on the fence. There are pros and cons whichever way you go. Some people are just cut out for one path, more than the other.

For myself, I was determined to make a living at this, and that’s something I sensed I could do much more quickly as an independent author, because I was willing to write and publish a lot and to figure out enough of the marketing stuff to have a chance. I also have the patience of a toddler on a sugar high. It would drive me nuts sending off a manuscript, then having to wait two years to see it in print.

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Comments (23)

Thank you for putting this post together! I shall share it widely.

Great post (as usual). I only have one thing I disagree with you about. I’d put the idea that traditional publishing foots your production costs into the myth category too. You ARE footing the bill for those things under a traditional deal. But instead of paying with dollars, you’re paying with intellectual property i.e. the rights to your book. If your book takes off in a big way, those services could end up costing you vastly more than if you’d paid them up-front and out-of-pocket.

First, I have to agree with Laura Kirwan; a writer pays for the traditional deal in both rights and, I would add, with the lock-in that most modern contracts require. Don’t ignore or dismiss the contract you are signing. Some productive authors have found that the non-compete clause in their traditional contract bars them from writing another book that might compete with the contracted book. That can put the brakes on a break-out writer that wants to move quickly to exploit a success.

Second, with all the advantages that you list for self-publishing, they carry with them their own negatives. Though you can select or create your own cover, that means that you are responsible for that selection/creation and you will probably face worry and doubt no matter what selection you make.

And that goes with pricing decisions. And promotions. One fault that many new self-publishers make is that they are making changes to their presentation and price too often. There isn’t enough time to evaluate the success or failure of any given change made to their book’s presentation. Give any changes you make time to show results that can be studied and compared against what they replaced.

Nice post, Lindsay. The key point here is what you said: “Most people will never be offered a traditional publishing deal.” This gets overlooked so often and it really skews the reality.

I’ve been lucky enough to have seen the “business” from all sides. While I was growing up my father had a successful career as a novelist…for a while. Of course, back then traditional publishing, as we refer to it today, was the only viable option. All self-publishing was through vanity presses and was not the way to go. I witnessed firsthand the frustration he felt from dealing with his agent, editors, and publishers.

Then I worked for 8 years for one of the largest bookstore chains in the nation. I worked as a store manager, a regional manager, and at the corporate office. So I learned the ins-and-outs of that side of the business. During that time I also queried agents and publishers and pushed a couple of my novels. From that experience I got so discouraged about the writing side of things that I quit.

Then opportunities suddenly opened up for self-publishing and I jumped back in with both feet. I’ve published two novels, an anthology of short stories, and later this month I’ll publish the final episode in a serial novel I’ve been working on since the first of the year. I’m also publishing all of my father’s books that are now out of print as ebooks. And I have ideas for many, many more novels.

I think all that gives me a fairly unique perspective on the business of writing and publishing. What many people don’t seem to realize is that this is the best time for writers in a long, long time.

It’s a shame to see authors and publishers fighting with one another when we should be embracing the opportunities and supporting each other…regardless of the path we take to publication.

Another pro point to the self-publishers from a readers perspective – accessibility!
As an English speaking reader who does not live in the US (Australia) some publishing houses automatically do not have publishing rights i.e. have not sold ‘foreign’ versions -which in practical terms means some traditional ebooks are completely unavailable in this part of the world.

Yeah, I’ve run into that problem even in Australia. A friend tried to send me a book on Amazon (Kindle version) as a gift and I couldn’t even download it because it wasn’t available in my country. Really? A digital version of a book?

I’ve had 8 books published via the agent/trad publishing route but when the Net “took out” the publishing industry back in 2002, I went online. I have over 20 ebooks published now. All I note in a non-fiction genre (gardening) where I’ve worked for much of my life. But having had yet-another mid-life crisis (I try to have them regularly) I decided to switch to fiction and my first love – sci-fi and fantasy.

My experience with trad-pub when I published there was that it offered no serious help with marketing. After I’d won a major award in 2002, the publisher didn’t do anything – they’d already back-listed it – and my agent told me, “New contracts are going to go to those with bigger and bigger platforms. Get yours bigger.” I did and it became a priority, a must-have to sell those next few books. If I have to do this work anyway – why not take the rewards?

When I finally decide to push the fiction-publishing button, I won’t bother with the traditional route, I’ll go directly to e-publishing. If a hybrid deal comes along, I’ll get legal advice at that time. But by going directly to readers and the marketplace, I haven’t waited and waited for feedback but get it, for better or worse, instantly.

But I’m an entrepreneur as well and I don’t mind striking out to try something new and different. I believe that entrepreneurial mindset makes a difference in how a writer approaches the process. Whether you learn it or have it, it’s critical to bob and weave your way forward in the changing tech environment.

And finally, I’m not interested in giving away my rights to get a contract. I’m thinking long-term success and not just in the short haul of having seen my name in print. Been there, done that and it’s only good for a momentary buzz. That buzz and a few bucks will get you a coffee.

I’ve done tradpub and I’ve done indie and indie is way better. No one I dealt with in tradpub was malicious or incompetent or slothful – far from it. But the entire system of indie is better. It’s like the difference between feudalism and capitalism. A serf might have the kindliest boyar in the kingdom as his overlord, but it’s still better to be working for yourself than to be a serf.

Hi Lindsay,

These are many of the reasons I want to self-publish as well. It’s great to know that there are indie authors out there who are successful. I run into too many people who try to convince me that I’m making a mistake by self-publishing. I’ve even been told that if I self-publish I don’t really have a right to call myself a published author. It’s sad that so many people still have that mentality, but this was a great post…great info. Thanks!

Renee

A really nice post and the comments here are great. One thing I’d like to emphasize that was under your pro point 2 (that was the huge push for me to go indie) is that you can decide what you write – especially if it’s cross-genre that’s often a hard sell to trad pub.

You may not sell as much as those who publish in a popular genre (at least at first – I’ve only got three books out and am looking at the long-term), but the satisfaction of being able to write – and publish – what you love is tremendous. For me, it’s the most important aspect.

Sharon,

Your covers for the The Schattenreich series are gorgeous!

Nice post, Lindsay.
I wanted to let you know that there’s a new website that brings writers and translators together on a shared-royalty basis. So the cost to translate is free. This is a new business and I’ve only just perused their site. Haven’t had a chance to give it a try yet.. Anyway, I think it’s worth checking them out. Here’s the link:

http://www.babelcube.com

Great post, Lidsay. Very timely, too, at least in my case. I finished my first book and am trying to figure out where to go with it. I’m currently submitting to trad pub but will likely end up going the indie route as it appears my sub-genre (paranormal romance) has been declared ‘dead’ by the powers that be. Also, although my trad pub experiences have all been pleasant and professional, I think I’m more of an ‘indie’ type. 🙂

But I don’t think newbie writers need to make a choice between ‘trying to find a pub deal’ and ‘self-publishing from the start.’ I think it’s okay to pursue both paths at the same time, as there’s a lot of overlap.

The stuff I’ve done to pursue a pub deal (research the market, edit the book, create a great hook, polish the first chapter, write a killer query/blurb) are things I need to do for self-pub. In many ways the pub trad route (contests, queries, etc…) is a big marketing test ground. And you’re absolutely right, RWA is fabulous. They really know their audience.

Likewise, the stuff I need to do for self-pub (build platform, learn direct marketing, reach out to readers) is stuff I also need to do for trad pub.

I was skeptical as to whether the trad pub hoop-jumping would be worth it, but now I have to admit that my book/series is stronger *because* I jumped through all hoops. So I think it’s worthwhile to pursue both paths simultaneously, at least in the romance genre.

I’d like to emphasize the point that Sharon Reamer said, about cross-genre being hard to sell to traditional publishers.

In the next couple of months (god willin’ and the creeks don’t rise), I’ll be independently publishing a science fiction-action-romance novel, the first in a new series. They also have fantasy and mystery elements. I’ve had informal conversations with agents at writer’s conferences, and they all have said pretty much what Sharon said. Even if an editor likes your book, they have a hard time selling it to the acquisition committee because publishers don’t want books they can’t plug into their standard marketing/distribution formulas.

Even if it takes living on macaroni and cheese for awhile, I’d rather invest in my career and reap the rewards, even if it takes a few painful or costly lessons along the way, instead of hoping the publisher can figure out what to do with my books (not to mention, tie them up for years in a backlist).

Great post Lindsay! The points you list in the self-publishing column are all the reasons I went indie.

Retaining rights and being able to keep my work “in-print” for perpetuity was a huge issue for me. I’d heard too many horror stories from traditionally published authors about their work going out of print, or the publishing house closing up entirely, and being unable to get their rights back.

I also wanted to get my book out there ASAP. My novel placed as a quarter-finalist in last year’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, got a glowing review from Publisher’s Weekly, and yet I spent a long time before and after trying to get traditional representation (between 2012 to the early months of 2014). I also hung in with Harper Voyager during their digital submissions contest for more than a year (Oct. 2012 – Feb. 2014).

My book made zero money in this time. Since I withdrew my manuscript from HV and self-published in Februrary, I’ve been drawing an income from my release, and even attracted a few readers from outside the USA. I often wonder how much better I’d be if I had jumped into the indie pool sooner, rather than waiting on a trad house, or spending several years querying agents and hearing absolutely nothing back from them.

I was able to produce a finished product and get it on sale myself fairly cheaply, all things considered. For professional editing, cover design and formatting, the cost was under 2K, and certainly a far cry from McCllelan’s $7800 – 60K range. I’m producing a short story now and the cost to get it to market is going to be significantly cheaper than my novel-length work (and shouldn’t bump me too far over 2K TOTAL between these two works for this year when all is said and done).

Most importantly, I’m happy with my choice. I really do think self-publishing was one of the smarter decisions I’ve made, and I love being in full control of my work. I understand that it’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly a comfortable fit for me.

Good post, Lindsay. I would only say that one thing you mentioned as a benefit to self-publishers is overstated:
“The ability to track sales hourly and adjust marketing tactics”. Yeah, maybe for someone who’s quit their day job and makes six figures. But for a self-published author who struggles to sell 100 books a year—which is he vast majority of us, hourly sales are meaningless. Daily sales are meaningless.

Thanks for commenting, David.

There’s a popular saying you’ve probably heard along the lines of that which gets measured gets improved upon. If I run an advertisement on one site one day, another site the next day, and another site the following day, it’s super useful to be able to see what the sales are like as a result. Then I can see where it’s worth advertising again and where it isn’t. Otherwise I’d just be guessing and probably throwing money away. I tried Goodreads back when I was selling a copy a day, if that, and it was definitely useful to see that the GR ads were actually helping. Here’s that old post in case you’re interested (it is three years old though so maybe not as relevant for today):

http://www.lindsayburoker.com/book-marketing/goodreads-advertising-results-and-tips-on-creating-campaigns/

Of course, your mileage may vary. Good luck!

I… I remember that goodreads article.. have I really been following you for 3 years already?

Anyway, great post as usual Lindsay. Ive been thinking of writing my own book for a while now, the only problem is the first page 🙂 and if I ever get past that point this will certainly help me.

Also, I can’t wait for the next Rust and Relics book!

Whew, that post was an early one here. I’d only been publishing about a month then. :O

The first page is the hardest! Good luck!

This post was really encouraging to me, because I recently quit my day job in order to focus on my writing. I’m new to the indie world, so it’s great reading the thoughts and opinions of those who are succeeding in it.

I think one thing people often overlook is how much work it takes to be successful, whether indie or trad. Lindsay, a lot of people (especially non-writers) would see the “six-figures” comment and the stars in their eyes then blind them to how HARD you work to earn that money. It’s not just writing prolifically (and marvelously). It’s all the other things you do–including the tracking and research to make sure your marketing budget is being spent wisely.

No doubt most readers of this blog are truly dedicated writers with stories to tell. They may have dreams of supporting themselves with their writing, but mostly they just want to share their stories. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that.

But I’m sure anyone who’s participated in any sort of writing group (which is nearly everyone who’s put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard) has run into at least one “Dire Straits” writer (money for nothing, chicks for free). There seems to be a large portion of the general public who believe writing is both easy and lucrative.

These are the people who decide they should write a book and become the next (insert famous author name) so they can quit their day job. They’re the ones who think the publisher is going to take care of all the “little things” and they can just sip margaritas by the pool.

Sometimes they even actually finish their manuscripts. And sometimes, when the traditional publishers fail to see their genius, they turn to indie-publishing because, if Lindsay Buroker can make six-figures, by Jupiter, so can they.

My point is, you can be a genius. You can be the best writer on the planet. BUT if you think all you have to do to be a success is write, you might need to wake up from the day dream, look reality in the eye, and decide if publishing (either indie or trad) is really for you.

Thank you, Elissa. I do think a lot of authors start out with stars in their eyes, thinking *they’ll* be one of the oh-so-rare people to hit it big right off (ahem, *I* thought this too). The ones who can find the enthusiasm to keep going, writing and publishing and marketing, when their first few books don’t become blockbuster bestsellers are the ones who might just make a career of this. 🙂

That part you included at the end about marketing is so important to understand. No matter what route you take you’re going to need to work just as hard at marketing it. If you think you can just sit back and watch the sales come in you will be in trouble!

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