Author’s Note: I am not an expert. I did my research and also interviewed indie, Self-Pub, and Traditional authors. Do your own research before you make a decision. Also, keep in mind that every article I read on the subject contained clear bias toward their own particular publishing method. This post is no different. I am pursuing the Traditional Publishing route, and though I tried to be neutral, it’s likely my writing will be colored by my preference as well.
2nd Author’s Note: This is a loooong post, so buckle up! I wanted to cover all my bases on this one. Also, I capitalized Traditional, Indie, and Self-Publication to highlight the terms I am talking about. In most cases these would not be capitalized.
There are as many paths to publications as there are authors. Everyone has an opinion about what is the best way to go, and that is usually reflective of which path worked for them. But it takes a fair amount of research, experimentation, and assessing goals to find the path that works for you.
Before you start your research—and this blog post should only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning about publishing—you need to understand some basic terms. Most of these are well-known in the industry, and many of you reading may already know them, but in case you don’t these will give you tools to start your search.
Remember though, terms are fluid. And we select for ourselves what fits our style in the industry. Sometimes Indie and Self-Publication are used interchangeably. Sometimes going with a small press can be done without the literary agent usually required with Traditional Publication, but it’s still not Self-Publication and might be considered Indie or Traditional. These are just starting points to help you understand some basic jargon.
Traditional Publication – Publication through a publishing house that involves leasing the rights to your work. This is usually—but not always—done through the “traditional” path of writing the manuscript, querying and securing an agent, then seeking publication through that agent to a publishing house. The author is not responsible for any money up front, but receives an advance, or a pre-payment against what their book will earn. When the book begins to sell and if they earn out that advance, they will then begin to receive royalties of 8-25%. Don’t forget the agent gets a cut of 10-20% depending on the agent and what rights are being sold. (Examples of Traditional Publishing houses: Harper Collins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House)
Self-Publication – Publication through a publishing house in which the author is financially responsible for everything and pays up front. Editing, cover art, format, printing, marketing, distribution may or may not be provided, but it all comes at a cost and this can be in the thousands of dollars. Authors then earn royalties on their sold books. I read so many disparaging assessments on those royalty percentage rates that I hesitate to give a solid figure, but it appears to be a higher percentage rate than Traditional Publishing. (Examples of Self-Publishing houses: AuthorHouse, Frieman Press, Trafford)
Independent Publication – While very similar to Self-Publication, the definitions I’m finding for Indie Publication deal with the amount of control an Indie author has over their book. Indie Publication seems to retain a much larger amount of involvement for the author. They select everything from editing, formatting, marketing, distribution, etc. The author chooses whether they want to pay for these services and who they want to pay. Some work within the barter system, trading manuscripts for editing, trading cover art and illustration services for help with marketing. It’s all up to the individual author, and as far as I can tell, there is no upfront money required beyond what you choose to do. You can pay an editor or a cover artist or a marketer, but to upload your manuscript doesn’t cost the author. The Independent Publisher makes its money as the book sells, and the author receives a higher royalty percentage, some examples claiming as much as 70%. (Examples of Indie Publishing houses: CreateSpace, Smashwords, IngramSpark)
Small Press – A publishing house that operates much like a major publisher, but is smaller in size. They don’t always have the clout or reach of a major publisher, but they will often take submissions without an agent (major publishers rarely do) and though small, many have excellent reputations with some spectacular books. (Example of small presses: Book Fish Books, Entangled, Melville House)
POD – (Print on Demand) This is a service offered by some Indie and Self-Pub houses that allows physical books to be printed when they are ordered. In this way, authors can print the number of books they want to sell, or a reader can order them, and the author isn’t stuck with large quantities of stock they can’t sell. I have heard mixed reviews on this system, so do your research.
Now that that’s clear as mud, let’s talk about pros and cons.
Traditional Publishing Pros:
- No money needed up front
- More exposure through marketing/networking
- Physical placement in bookstores
- Potential to sell larger number of books
- Advances belong to the author; not required to pay back if the book does not earn out
- Offers perceived legitimacy within the industry
- Traditionally published books may be considered for literary awards
- Team of professionals (agent, editor, artist, marketer, etc.) to assist you in making your book the best it can be
- YA, MG, and picture books have better success through Traditional
Traditional Publishing Cons:
- Almost always requires the assistance of a professional agent (this is also a pro, because agents are awesome, but if you don’t want/can’t secure an agent it is almost impossible to get a contract with a large publisher)
- Royalty rates are a lower percentage
- Agent’s cut (10-20%) reduces profit further
- Less control over final product, marketing, and book placement in stores
- Marketing is not always included and even Traditionally Published authors will sometimes have to create and pay for their own marketing
- Time frame from writing the book to publication is slower: two years from idea to publication is the supposed rule of thumb, but I’ve seen much, much longer
- Harder to attract an agent and a publishing contract when you are a marginalized individual, especially when writing stories about marginalized characters
- Mental and emotional stress of rejections, wait times, and disappointment can be difficult
Working with a Traditional Publisher offers many advantages. As Martha Brockenbrough, (author of Alexander Hamilton:Revolutionary) said:
“I like being surrounded by a team of people who are really good at their jobs: editing, marketing and publicity, design, and more. This means I don’t have to find people with these skills, and it means that my work will be as good as it can possibly be.”
It also means exposure that Self-Pub and Indie generally don’t have: physical placement in stores, national marketing campaigns, connections with authors on the same imprint. This can make a huge difference in how the book sells. Though you are getting a smaller percentage of the profits, if you sell a greater number of books you have the potential to make a larger profit than if you sold your books in other ways with less exposure. And you didn’t risk any of your own money up front.
Of course this is not a hard and fast truth. Your book has to sell, you can’t always rely on a publisher to provide marketing, or even if they do, the budget and scope might be small. You may want to invest your own money into promoting your book, which is what Self-Pub and Indie authors have to do anyway. And there’s no way to know as you query agents whether you will end up with a contract that offers these services. For that matter, there’s no way to know if you’ll ever receive a contract at all. Authors (in all forms of publication) are banking on themselves and their talent. It’s a risk, but as an author you are going to have to take risks. It’s up to you to decided which ones are appropriate for you.
One of the drawbacks of Traditional Publishing is the lack of control. An author who wished to remain anonymous but has experienced both Traditional and Self-Publication told me her least favorite things about Traditional Publication:
“Being forced into covers and back-cover copy I don’t love. No control over pricing and sales. Losing a huge percentage of my royalties.”
And Kaelan Rhywiol (author of Ilavani: Volume 1) stated:
“The number of times I’ve talked newbie authors out of a tree because they hate their covers and have no recourse is astounding. So, knowing what they are willing to give up and letting it go the second you sign a contract has to be important.”
Conceivably, working with a Traditional Publisher should offer a higher level of quality. There are experts at every point in the process: agents decide which books they want to represent, editors select the manuscripts they want to pursue for publication, copyeditor, designer, marketing manager, sales reps, and publicists all create a long list of eyes and minds to make the book better and better with every pass, develop the best marketing strategy, find the right market, etc. But I still see Traditionally Published books with typos. I still find books I wish I hadn’t wasted my money on because they are poorly written or trite or sometimes even harmful. Traditional Publication can act as a filter through which a reader can generally be assured they aren’t buying garbage, but they are not infallible!
Another benefit of Traditional Publication is the perceived legitimacy and the potential to be nominated for awards. I say perceived because of the paragraph above, and also because they are being compared to Self-Pub and Indie books which are often give an unfair taint of being vanity published because they didn’t go through the Traditional route. If a Traditional Publisher selects your book to publish, you won’t have to fight to convince people of your legitimacy because you’re a “chosen one” more or less. After your book is published your status may change according to how your book is received, but that’s a trial and tribulation of all writers in the end.
Though I listed securing an agent as a Con, I personally don’t see it that way. Yes, it is a long and arduous process. And even after all the hard work of querying you may still not find an agent who is interested in representing you. But if you do, they are an invaluable resource (and hopefully a friend!) who is looking out for your career at every stage. Ave Jae (author of Beyond the Red series) told me this when speaking of her agent:
“Knowing I always have someone to turn to who understands the business side of things, who wants to help me grow my career, and who can facilitate making all my career goals a reality is so incredibly motivating and relieving. I know my agent has my back as I try to navigate this unpredictable writing career, and that really means a lot to me.”
I also want to talk about wait times and emotional stress. Just to give you an idea I began to write They Chose the Stars in February of 2015. I secured an agent with that manuscript in May of 2016. It is currently on submission. If you count research time which I started in December of 2014, it has been almost three years that I’ve worked on that book. And the wait isn’t over. Traditional Publishing can be very, very slow.
And the emotional stress is not for everyone. You have to get thick skin in this business. Rejections will come, over and over again: from your beta readers, from your sensitivity readers, from agents, from editors, and eventually from readers. It’s part of the process and you can’t escape that in publishing, no matter how you decide to publish. But Traditional—having more gate keepers (agents, editors, etc.)—will offer many more times to be told your work isn’t good enough. It’s always polite (in my experience) and not intentionally soul-crushing (though somehow achieves it anyway), but it’s rejection all the same. And the personal nature of the job means that though they are rejecting this particular material you have offered them, it feels more like a rejection of you. You put your heart and soul into this, and they don’t want it. They don’t want your heart and soul. It can be devastating and takes work to create the mental space to deal with that in a constructive way. It can be done, but it is another part of the job.
The last thing I want to mention in this section—and this applies no matter which publication path you choose—few writers make a living wage at writing. Most of the writers I know have day jobs. Sometimes they keep the day job because they love it, but most keep it also because they need it. Whether it’s the money or insurance and benefits, most writers find it a necessity.
Since the pros and cons of Indie and Self-Pub are almost identical, I’m going to talk about both in this section, but will highlight when there is a difference between the two. And I won’t reiterate information included above. For example, I talked about royalties above, so I won’t go over it again in this section.
- Higher royalty percentages
- Some control (Self-Pub)/complete control (Indie)
- Cover Art
- Release Date
- Sale Price
- Faster timeline that is under the author’s control
- Romance and Romance-centric SFF stories have higher success rate in Indie/Self-Pub compared to YA, MG in Indie/Self-Pub
- Investing the author’s own money
- Less exposure than Traditionally Published books with marketing plans
- Difficult to get physical copies placed in stores
- Often fewer books sold than Trad Pub
- Investing time: Author responsible for most (Self-Pub) or everything (Indie)
- Cover Art
- Learning curve because author is responsible for most (Self-Pub) or everything (Indie)
- Cover Art
- Mostly e-book sales as hardcovers and paperbacks can be expensive to produce
- Stigma of illegitimacy
- Not eligible for most literary awards
I knew a lot less about Indie/Self-Pub when I started writing this post, so everything I’ve listed here is through research and talking to other authors. It is by no means comprehensive, so as I said before DO YOUR RESEARCH! Do not rely on this one article (or any one article) to make such an important decision.
The biggest thing I keep hearing from Indie/Self-Pub authors is that they relish the control they get with this path. An anonymous author of both Trad and Self-Pub said this about her favorite part of Indie/Self-Pub:
“Control. I dictate my cover, my blurb, my final edits. I can put my book on sale and choose my release date. The final book reflects my vision for the project.”
Kaelan Rhywiol, who has had experience with both Trad and Indie/Self-Pub shared this:
“I’ve always loved [Self-Pub] because it relies on me, and me alone to decide everything from cover art to price point to when/if I will have a sale, I have trust issues, so it’s hard for me to entrust my brain baby (any of my books) to someone else. On the flip side of that, it IS on me to get it all done well. If the cover is shite, it’s on me, if I goof up the editing, also on me. So there’s a feeling of relief to signing a contract and giving up control of those things to the publisher. It’s all about knowing what you want to do.”
Imani Josey (author of The Blazing Star) had this to say:
“My favorite part about the Indie route is having the freedom to produce my book exactly how I wanted. The Blazing Star took two years to write, one year to edit, one to query agents Traditionally, and then one year of production with Wise Ink to go Independently. The decision to go Indie wasn’t a quick or easy decision to make, but I went with my gut and stepped out on faith. I had a lot of agent interest in the book that didn’t materialize, but I still believed in the story. It wasn’t (and still isn’t!) easy, but I’m proud of what we’ve created (my family, team, and myself). I love being involved in every step. Going Indie is amazing because it allows a direct-to-consumer advantage, providing an avenue for unique stories to find their audience.”
Imani chose to try Traditional Publication first, which is often a good way to approach the issue. If Trad Pub doesn’t work out, Indie/Self-Pub is always available. But starting with Trad Pub will increase the timeline to publication. If you remove the year she spent seeking Trad Publication, it took Imani essentially 3 years from idea to publication. Everyone’s timeline will be different of course. Some people can have a finished book to publish in a matter of months and then move through the Indie/Self-Pub process in a few months as well, especially once you’ve learned the process. It all depends on your personal schedule, the book you’re writing, and what method you choose to pursue.
Marketing is a challenge in all forms of publishing. If you are lucky enough to get a Traditional contract with marketing included, you are ten steps ahead. But for many Trad Pub—and all Indie/Self-Pub—marketing is a huge consideration. Swag materials, spreading the word through advertising, book signings and travel, cons, vlog and blog tours are all effective parts of a good marketing campaign, but they take time, money, and planning. Some authors are exceptional at this sort of thing, but some loathe it. So consider what you’ll need to do to promote your book—and what you’re willing to do and pay for—when you decide on your publication method.
You can also rely on friends to help spread the word about your book, but be careful. Most authors have a wide network of friends, whether on-line or in the real world, and through this network we share information, learn, critique, and laugh a lot too. We are friends and colleagues first, marketing fodder last. If an author follows me on Twitter and I can see from their profile that they only tweet advertisements for their books, that’s an easy no for me. At the same time, I gush over and share news about the books of my friends I have made along the way. Social media is a marketing tool, yes, but for me it’s a way to connect with other writers, not a way to sell them my book.
Determining what method you would like to pursue also depends on the type of book you are producing. I have been told by a number of people that Children’s Literature generally does better through Trad Publication, while Romance and Romance-Centric SFF has a better chance than Children’s through Indie/Self-Pub. I don’t have any statistics to share on that, it’s just a word of mouth opinion from people in the industry. It doesn’t mean you can’t publish Children’s Lit through Indie/Self-Pub or Romance through Trad. Both have had successes through each method.
Another consideration for Indie/Self-Publication is the subject matter of your book. Agents and publishers will be looking at the marketability of your story. If they determine it can’t reach a wider market (though this assumption is being challenged by the success of books like T.H.U.G. and other Own Voices stories) they will pass on it for something they believe will sell better. Indie/Self-Pub creates a way for authors with unique or unconventional stories to still get their work before an audience that needs their books.
One of the biggest obstacles for Indie/Self-Pub is money. In Self-Pub you’re going to have to have capital upfront to pay the publisher to produce your book. This may include money for editing, marketing, and cover design, though if it’s an optional system you may just front the cash to publish the book while figuring out the rest on your own. In Indie Publication, there is no money up front to publish the book (you upload it for e-book sales through the Indie Publication house), but you are still responsible for all the rest. Cover art, marketing, editing and more. This can be done through a barter system as I talked about before, or you may pay professionals to do the work for you. Either way, it’s all up to you. And no matter what publishing method you choose, it’s going to cost you in time, tears, stress, and dollar signs. As Imani Josey told me:
“I sold my car to help finance The Blazing Star.”
Another obstacle for Indie/Self-Pub authors is book distribution. Books from Trad Publishers are placed on a list from which booksellers can choose to stock in their stores. Often times Indie/Self-Pub are not placed on those lists. And even if they are, booksellers are going to stock that which they have more confidence in selling: Trad Pub books, especially those with buzz around them. Imani Josey on choosing Indie Publication:
“My least favorite part of the Indie route is that I don’t have access to large scale distribution of my book. Reviewers request ARCs, but outside of Netgalley, I don’t have them. Every physical copy of The Blazing Star that winds up in reader’s hands, I’ve purchased. It puts extra pressure on me and my bank account, but I’m still so proud of this project. I’ve also felt like being taken seriously by outlets that tend to only support Traditional authors has been a challenge. There’s a stigma attached to producing a book independently that I’m challenging.”
We talked about that stigma before: Trad Pubbed authors have an aura of “legitimacy” around them, while Indie/Self-Pubbed authors are sometimes derided as having published for vanity’s sake. Of course, there are people out there who publish a book before it is ready to be published through Indie/Self-Pub, either because they don’t want to do the work, don’t know how to do the work, don’t recognize that it needs work, and/or just want to see their name in print. This gives the legitimately hardworking Indie/Self-Pub authors a bad name.
It is on the author to go through the process to create the best book they can. Traditionally Published authors will have some of this ‘built-in’ to the system of publication, while Indie/Self-Pub must ensure that they do it themselves. Beta readers, sensitivity readers, critique partners, professional editing are all part of a process that ensures a book is good enough to be put on the shelf. And most Indie/Self-Pub authors do this. Unfortunately they still receive the scorn of some for not being Trad Published.
I’d like to leave you with the advice my interviewed authors gave for authors contemplating Traditional Publication or Indie/Self-Publication:
“For a new author I think attempting Traditional Publishing is smart—unless you have a huge platform. Otherwise, you are taking on a whole lot of additional work, and this will impede your ability to become a better writer. But it really depends on what your goals are. If you love writing books and love publishing quickly, and love finding readers and thrive on quick turnaround, then by all means—publish Independently. This is a great choice.” —Martha Brockenbrough
“You do gain a lot by signing with an agent/publisher, but we are no longer in the same place we were even ten years ago when it comes to publishing. The first time I tried the query trenches was before the advent of Createspace and Ingram Spark, so the ONLY way you got published was through Traditional paths. I’m so grateful, for myself and others who write ‘different stories’ that Self-Pub exists. We’re no longer bound by the dictates of Trad.” —Kaelan Rhywiol
“Research. Know yourself. Indie is a lot of work. Also understand that Traditional Publishing will need to evolve to keep up with the market where artists can directly connect with consumers, and many editors and graphic designers that would once be in-house can freelance at very cost-effective pricing. Wide-scale distribution and printing costs are still two of the largest challenges that Indie authors face.” —Imani Josey
I always tell writers to figure out what they want out of publication. Do they want a lot of control over the process and to work independently? Do they just want their work to be read, regardless of the medium? Then Self-Publishing may be a good choice for them. Do they want a team to work on their book with them? Do they want career guidance? Do they want their book on the shelves of brick-and-mortar bookstores? Then Traditional Publishing may be the way to go. It really just comes down to being honest with yourself about what exactly you want to get out of publishing.” —Ava Jae
For further reading, check out my Pinterest board Traditional vs Indie Publication.
Check out books by my interviewed authors!