Posted in Writing | Posted on 07-07-2014|
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.