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A Guide to Traditional Vs. Self Publishing

Shaunta Grimes

October 23, 2019

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I had a conversation in the Ninja Writer’s Facebook group the other day that made me realize that I’ve never really written about traditional vs. indie (or self) publishing.

I actually hate writing it that way — traditional vs. indie — because it seems like I’m pitting them against each other in some kind of mud wrestling match or something.

We’re all just authors trying to get our books in front of readers the best way we can. And there are pros and cons about both publishing models. There are also ways to combine the two, which are usually called hybrid publishing (I’ll discuss that some at the bottom of this post.)

Let’s start with some vocab.

Traditional publishing: In this model the author assigns the publishing rights to their book to a third party publisher who prints and sells the book through booksellers and other retailers and pays the author a royalty per book sold.

Indie publishing: In this model the author maintains the publishing rights and is responsible for every level of the publishing process, including printing and selling the book. They retain all of the income from the sales (minus fees to retailers, etc.)

My novels are published by traditional publishers. Two by Penguin and two by MacMillan.

I’ve dabbled in indie, but only a tiny bit and (full disclosure) not very successfully. Mostly because, as I’ll discuss below, there’s a massive learning curve and I haven’t gone through it. I also haven’t put the resources into it.

This isn’t a how to article. It’s more of a why to.

Which is Better?

This seems to be the ongoing and eternal debate — and I think it’s the wrong question. It isn’t about better. They’re different.

The question is which one is better for you.

There has never been a better time in history to be a writer. There have never been more opportunities. Writers have never been less dependent on gatekeepers or anyone for getting their work into the world. And that’s awesome.

The old traditional ways are still there. And there are new ways, too.

(For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that you’ve written a book that’s ready to be published. Because the one thing that indie publishing shouldn’t be is the thing you do with your book because it wasn’t good enough for a ‘real’ publisher. If it’s not ready to publish, it’s not ready. Keep practicing. You’ll get there.)

Here are some questions to consider.

Your personality.

When you’re an indie author, you’re also a publisher. Full stop. Your fingers have to be in every single pot. It’s a major juggling act that never stops if you’re going to be successful.

Conversely, traditionally-published authors sign away the rights to their work to their publisher. If your personality makes it difficult for you to turn over control, you might be happier as an indie author.

This is a little more hokey — but have you always wanted to see your book in a book store? If that matters to you, then traditional is probably something you want to pursue. If you’re impatient and you just want your book out there now, then indie might suit you better.

Your speed.

This is one area where the two models are widely divergent. Like two completely different animals.

Indie authors often turn out two or three books a year, minimum. Some of them write a book every month. Read that again. That’s NaNoWriMo every month of the year. Published. It’s common (and recommended) for authors to write an entire series in advance so that they can ‘rapid release’ them to appease readers who don’t want to wait months or years between installments.

If you’re a traditionally published author, a book a year is highly prolific. The idea of the pace of indie publishing might make you feel a little weak in the knees.

Your genre.

This matters more for indie than for traditional publishing, since traditioal publishers handle pretty much every genre.

Some genres are more well suited to indie publishing, especially, then others are. If you write romance, urban fantasy, science fiction, or any genre that lends itself to series, your books will translate to indie more easily than if you’re writing one-off literary novels or books for children. Non-fiction books also tend to do well with indie publishing if you’ve built a platform.

Your resources.

Indie authors can publish pretty much for free. They can make their own cover, do their own layout, upload their book to Amazon and voila. They’re published. The problem is that they’re unlikely to actually sell any books that way.

At the very least, indie authors increasingly need to have an Amazon ad budget to compete in an increasingly tight market. The hope is that they’ll earn more than they spend, but since Amazon pays 60 days after you make a sale, you’ll have to front the ad budget.

Traditionally published authors have sold the rights to their book, so the publisher pays for everything. In exchange, the author receives less than 10 percent of the cover price of a paperback book. I’ll talk more about this in a minute. But for now, if you don’t have the resources to front a tiny publishing company, know that you might have trouble getting traction for your indie books.

What it Means to be a Publisher

My most recent books are published by MacMillan, a Big 5 New York publisher. Here are the people involved with my book (that I know of, at least.)

  • A developmental editor
  • A copy editor
  • A cover designer
  • Someone who designed and laid out the book for printing (this might be more than one person)
  • Someone in the legal department who bought my ISBN number, etc.
  • A project manager for the audio book
  • A voice actor for the audio book
  • A producer for the audio book
  • A publicist
  • Someone in the mail room who shipped my book out to reviewers, etc.
  • An accountant/payroll person who manages the royalties, etc.
  • Everyone and all of the expense involved in printing the book.
  • The services of all of the people involved with distributing my book and getting it in bookstores, libraries, etc.

I also have a literary agent who helped me negotiate my contract and is my advocate.

I was paid an advance on my royalties. If I earn out, which means that my sales are sufficient that I’ve paid back the advance, then I’ll be paid royalty checks.

The split is complicated by the fact that there are lots of different formats of books and different ways to sell it, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s say that it’s in the neighborhood of 90/10 for hard books and 75/25 for ebooks — in favor of the publisher.

All of those jobs I listed above need to be done for every book, with the exception of the audio book stuff (unless you want an audio version of your book.) If you’re an indie author, you’re also the publisher. That means that all of that work is your responsibility.

Not only that, but you don’t have an agent to help you. You’re on your own.

And before you publish your first book (and let’s be very honest, probably after you publish your first book), you’re not actually making much money. So you either have to bankroll your fledgling publishing company yourself, or try to get by without putting any money into it.

Trying to self-publishing without putting money into it works about as well as starting any business without a budget does.

It’s easy to over-simplify things.

It’s not as easy as traditional publishers steal all your money, so indie is better. It’s also not as easy as indie books aren’t edited very well, so traditional is better.

There are things that every author is responsible for:

  • The writing (duh!)
  • Producing a best-possible final draft for the editors
  • Signing off on the final edits
  • Having some input on creative decisions (this varies for traditionally published authors.)
  • Marketing. This is your job, writer. Period. Occasionally, my publisher gives me a publishing task, but usually I have to come up with this on my own.

There are some things publishers are responsible for:

  • Editing
  • Design (including layout, cover, etc.)
  • Legal stuff
  • Distribution and printing
  • Marketing

If you’re a indie you’re an author and a publisher. So you can either try to do all the work yourself or you can hire some of it out. Hire an editor. Hire a cover designer. Hire someone to do your layout and upload your book to the distribution platforms. Hire someone to do your Amazon ads. Whatever.

Some of it should be hired out, in my opinion. If you wouldn’t be okay with Random House publishing your book with a cover you made yourself or without a professional copyedit, then you shouldn’t either.

I’m also aware that you might not take my advice. It’s easy and so tempting to publish without those things. And if you figure out Amazon ads, maybe you’ll make some money without a well-edited manuscript. Plenty of writers certainly have. I know that if you really want to, you’ll just do it.

I’m just here to tell you that a major difference between most traditionally published novels and most indie published novels is that the traditionally published books are professionally produced. And often the indie published books aren’t.

The Elephant in the Room

So let’s talk about this. It’s not like you can just decide to be traditionally published. You have to convince them to publish you. Go back up and read that list of people involved in publishing a book. All of them get a paycheck. Add in the cost of printing a few thousand copies and your advance — even a modest one. Publishing a book is expensive.

You’re going to have to write a book that convinces a publisher that they’ll sell enough copies to recoup their cost. The barrier for entry into traditional publishing is high. Usually you need help navigating it, which means hiring a literary agent.

Even though you’re the one hiring the agent, the competition is so high that the standard procedure is for the agent to choose the authors they want to represent. In other words, there are so few agents and so many writers who want to hire them that the agents get to be hyper picky.

All of that can lead writers to feel like this whole conversation is moot because traditional publishing is impossible anyway. And then this is the part where I assure that it’s not impossible, just difficult and very selective. And subjective. And frustrating enough to make you want to pull your hair out. Or just go be an indie author and skip the whole thing.

But the thing is that new authors sign with agents and sell books to publishers every year. It’s not impossible. And you’re not competing with every author who wants to do it. Just the ones who are writing at a professional level. You can learn how to do that if you want to. People do, all the time.

But in the meantime, there’s a lot of rejection and it’s frustrating AF. And sometimes you’ve written something really special and it just doesn’t fit the traditional market. And meanwhile indie authors are over there like hey, you can just self-publish and you don’t need a middle man. Plus I know this guy who makes a million dollars a year doing it. And it’s tempting.

That temptation — the call to indie publishing — is valid. But choosing that path because it’s easier or because you don’t have to be as good of a writer is maybe not the best reason, in my opinion.

There’s a barrier to entry for indie publishing, too. It’s just a different one. It involves having the resources to prepare your own manuscript for publishing. And also a learning curve. At the bare minimum, if you don’t hire someone to do these things for you, you’ll need to learn the technical aspects of creating a cover, lay out your novel, and upload it to your publishing platforms. If you want to offer print-on-demand, so readers can by a paperback copy, you’ll have to figure that out, too. And then you’ll need to navigate the whole Amazon ads thing.

When I talk to someone whose indie published book didn’t sell very well — like no copies or very few — if I dig a little deeper it almost always turns out that they did not have a professional edit or cover and that they did not understand how to work Amazon ads, so they just didn’t use them. Or they used them improperly. They also almost always didn’t release books quickly enough to make an impact. It’s very rare, for instance, for a single indie debut release to do well.

And to be very blunt, very often they’ve published something that wasn’t ready to be published. It wasn’t edited well enough. Or their writing wasn’t at a professional level yet.

So: Traditional isn’t as impossible to get into as it seems. Indie isn’t as easy to get into as it seems.

And Then There Are The Hybrids

There are other options, too.

There are small publishers you can hire that will perform all the duties of a publisher for an upfront fee, without taking any of your rights. You still on your work. They’ll publish your book with their imprint, plus a professional cover and edit and design.

You might publish some books with a traditional publisher and self publish other titles. This is an option for authors who want the freedom of indie publishing, but would also like the exposure of traditional publishing sometimes.

You might start out indie, have a book that does really well and wind up selling the rights to a traditional publisher. That’s what happened to some big name books like 50 Shades of Grey and The Martian.

You could also start out traditionally published and move to indie once you’ve built a following and have some money to fund your own publishing efforts. I’m use traditional publishers for my novels, but if I ever publish non-fiction writing books I may choose to self-publish them.

In The End, There Are No Wrong Choices

There’s no bad choice here. There are pros and cons for both models.

Evaluate the kind of writing career you want for yourself. Do you want to just be a writer or are you excited about the idea of being a publisher, too?

Ask yourself if you have the resources to put into starting a small publishing business.

You’re either going to need to overcome traditional publishing’s barrier to entry or indie publishing’s learning curve. Understand both and make sure you know what you’re getting into.

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