Thursday, May 08, 2014

Trad vs. Indie Publishing: A False Dichotomy

By Dario Ciriello

Part of the Indie Authors Series

Traditional or Indie/Self publishing1? I’m endlessly astonished at the bitterness of the debate—which often erupts into open war—between supporters of these two camps. Instead of delivering my boilerplate rant about tribalism, hardwired primate behavior, and why we’re all doomed (though some of us are clearly more doomed than others), I’ll take my meds and try to give you something useful.

I’d never intended to go indie with my own work. I’d already started my indie press, Panverse, to publish anthologies for other authors when I found an agent for my first book Aegean Dream. When, after a year of collecting nice rejection letters, we’d exhausted our options, I let go of my agent and published the book myself through Panverse. Although I got lucky and that first book did well, I often wonder what happened in that alternate universe where the book sold to a major house and I became a traditionally published author instead of an indie one.

Three years later, with another self-published title and a lot more industry experience under my belt, I think the dichotomy is a false one. Behind all the mud-slinging, cherry-picked statistics, questionable assumptions, and outright lies, it seems glaringly obvious to me that the choice between the indie and trad roads to publication is far more a question of disposition and temperament than one of empirical data: most people are more suited to one publishing model than the other, and a rare few may thrive in both. The old advice—said to come directly from the god Apollo via the Oracle at Delphi—to “know thyself”, was never more apt.

Now I think I may have done better financially and would certainly have had fewer headaches and more time to write (and that’s what we really want to do, isn’t it?) if I’d gone the traditional route. Because whatever Mark Coker, Joe Konrath, Hugh Howie, or any of the self-publishing gurus say, indie publishing is no bed of roses. Bookstores, reviewers, and even many people you think of as a friends will largely ignore you, and most traditionally published writers will see you as an inferior and contemptible wannabe who’s chosen self-publishing as a last resort. Beyond which, you’ll work your butt off, and I don’t mean writing. Indie is hard, people, trust me on this.

On the other hand, if, like me, you like to have control over your life and creativity, and hate doing things by committee and jumping through hoops, traditional publishing is probably not for you. With the industry becoming daily more like Hollywood with its quasi-autistic focus on categories, length, previous sales, and the bottom line, everyone from your agent and editor up to and including the publishers’ marketing people (who very probably won’t even read your book) are going to get input on everything from the title and cover to the ending. That’s not to say some of this input may not be good, but you’re likely to have very little control over a good deal of the process.

Let’s try to summarize some of the pros and cons of each model:



  • Advance
  • Bookstore presence (though see minuses, below)
  • Editing and proofreading
  • Cover art and layout
  • Likelihood of some mainstream review
  • Possibility of some marketing and promotional support
  • Market perception of quality
  • Greater personal sense of validation, legitimacy


  • Need to jump through hoops
  • Long road to publication (12 – 18-plus months from acceptance)
  • Possibility of friction and roadblocks at each of several stages
  • Obligations of contract (these can very substantial)
  • Lack of control over just about everything
  • Short shelf life/bookstore presence
  • Possible lack of transparency regarding royalties and sales figures



  • Complete control over just about everything
  • Short road to publication
  • Not beholden to anyone
  • Full access to sales data in near-real time
  • Regular, predictable payments from POD and digital sales channels
  • Typically much higher royalty from each sale, especially digital
  • Will not go out of print


  • No advance
  • No editing/proofreading help
  • No cover art and layout help
  • No help with marketing and promotion
  • Likely moderate to substantial out-of-pocket costs on above items
  • No (or extremely limited) bookstore presence
  • Difficulty in getting mainstream review and acceptance
  • Perception that book/author wasn’t good enough for traditional publisher

Now for those Dirty Little Secrets each side in this war would rather gloss over:


  • Editors (being human) make bad judgment calls all the time
  • A fine book that doesn’t pigeonhole easily is liable to be rejected, especially in today’s climate of fear
  • Many authors will get little or no developmental editing (double-edged sword)
  • Most authors will get near zero marketing and promotion
  • Most books don’t earn out advances
  • Contract clauses can and will tie an unwary author up in knots for years to come


  • Putting out a quality product takes a great deal of work, skill, and ingenuity
  • Most self-published books sink without a trace—and deserve to!
  • As well as having a strong book, authors had better be extremely good self-promoters to even stand a chance
  • Getting reviewed by mainstream reviewers is next to impossible
  • The vast majority of self-published books sell fewer than two hundred copies2

The bottom line? Take a good look at yourself, your temperament, your strengths and weaknesses, and your real-world constraints. In my own case, if I’d gotten a deal with one of the majors for Aegean Dream or my novel, Sutherland’s Rules, I may well have enjoyed wider exposure and made more money…but with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and the self-knowledge that comes with grey hair, I can see I’d have lost my mind and probably strangled someone in the process. The simple fact that I’ve been self-employed my entire working life is a big giveaway to my need for autonomy.

You, however, may be very different. For all the lack of control and other possible drawbacks, traditional publishing will undoubtedly leave you with more time to actually write and none of the frustration and roadblocks—and they are legion— as well as the costs, that come with trying to do everything on your own.

Whatever you do, don’t buy anyone’s propaganda or partisan line over this. Both models have merit and both have drawbacks. You should do what is right for you, and only you. Stay out of the fray, don’t waste time arguing with people whose minds are made up—you’ve got work to do. And above all, know thyself.

Looking at it from this perspective, serenely above the fray, why do you think one or the other model might suit you best?

1 For the purposes of this article, I’m using the term “indie” to mean self-published rather than in its original sense of “small independent press”.

2 See my March 6, 2014 Indie Authors post here, “Discoverability, or The Two Hundred Pocket”.

Further reading: “The Great Self-Publishing Debate”

Dario Ciriello

Dario Ciriello is the founder and editor of Panverse Publishing, a small press with a mission to break the rigid barriers of category and genre and put story first. His Panverse Anthology authors have been nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards, and the winner of the 2011 Sideways Award for Alternate History. On the novel front, his authors include T.L. Morganfield, Bonnie Randall, Doug Sharp, and Don D'Ammassa. His own work includes Sutherland's Rules, and the travel memoir Aegean Dream. Panverse is currently open for submissions.

Website | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound 


  1. One of the best summaries I've come across. Yea for conciseness.

    1. Thanks so much, R. Mac. There's so much hot air and blather on this particular topic that we on't need any more! :)

  2. i've got a feeling that indie publishing will be the way to go for me, as i demand to retain complete creative control over my work. while reading through this article, it became much clearer to me that this is the model i'll more than likely follow, as i'd rather set my own deadlines, not fight in committees about my projects, and retain complete creative control.

    Thank you for this post, invaluable to me...

    1. Thank you,Tzalaran, I'm glad you found it helpful. This is a critical decision for any writer, and with so much else in our information-saturated world, separating fact from partisan rhetoric and getting to the heart of the matter can be very hard indeed. And of course, luck is also a huge factor, whichever path one chooses. But I do very much believe that what suits *you* best is the best path to take, and the one that will make you happiest. Life is tough enough without adding to the stress. ;-)

      Good luck with your own publishing effort!

  3. I was directed here by my friend Griffin Barber, who thought you shared some of my opinions--he was right. Well said and an excellent counter to all the noise out there from both camps.

  4. Thanks, Kristene! And there certainly *is* a lot of noise! I'm not a fan of partisan rhetoric, it does nobody any good; glad to hear you feel the same :) Griffin, BTW, is a great guy, and one heck of a writer himself.

  5. Excellent post, Dario. Thank you. I'm looking seriously into partnership publishing (e.g. She Writes Press), which seems to balance the advantage of editing and distribution and limited marketing with indie control. I love seeing new models emerging and both writers and publishers becoming more creative with getting quality work to readers.
    Cheers, Julie Christine

    1. Thanks, Julie :) I too think that "third way" model is a really good way to go, and am excited to see more of it happening. Very good option indeed that strikes a nice balance and also provides support and synergy. Good luck with your efforts!

  6. Brilliant summary of the current situation, and I agree, either way there is hard work involved. Autonomy over the process is certainly an attractive feature of self-publishing - on the other hand there's the kudos acquired with having a known publisher. If you believe in your stories, you publish whichever way you can, and, ultimately, the readers decide.

  7. Thank you so much, Teagan! I agree: at the end of the day, it's the readers...and whatever choices we make, luck plays no no small part in it all.

    Must sacrifice to Cthulhu... ;-)

  8. Would you care to define what you mean by your first novel selling "well" as well as what you mean by "lucky" (which would suggest your experience isn't replicable)? Well for a traditional publisher for a sf/f book might be 8K copies in hardcover or 20K in mass/e. It'd be interesting to know your benchmarks, especially if you consider (justifiably) net income a better benchmark than sales.

    1. Hi Stephen, and thanks for the good and appropriate question :) Aegean Dream, which is actually nonfiction (a bittersweet travel/settling memoir) did over 5k copies and is still selling--not earthshaking, but good for a self-pubbed title with no marketing, no bookstore presence, and compares favourably to the 3k or so that many trad pubbed books do. At its height it sold 600k copies a month. I talk about the luck part at length in my March 6 post here, "Discoverability, or the Two Hundred Pocket"

      I do think luck always plays a part, though of course that doesn't let us off the hook as far as doing everything in our power. The luck factor in the success of any piece of art was the subject of a very interisting recent study:

      As to your last, I don't much buy into the notion of free and heavy discounting if you're putting out a product and building a good rep. A fair (to both author and readers) pricing should ensure that an author makes 3x by self-pubbing what they would they would through trad; print royalties will be less, but still better. That just *my* take, others may feel differently. :)

  9. Great post, Dario. I'm glad to see someone else (besides me!) pointing out the issues of dealing with a committee mentality when pursuing traditional publishing. You can't escape this--that's the way it's going to be. However, because most people have jobs and are not entrepreneurs this aspect probably is not that big an issue for many. Also, just want to point out that it seems you have a "grass is greener" feeling about what might have happened if your book had been traditionally published, that maybe it would have done better. It wouldn't have. There is either a virality about a book's style or subject matter, or there isn't. This is what people call "luck," and it IS a matter of luck. The virality stays with the book, has nothing to do with how the book was published.

    Anyway great article, very nicely organized, clear and succinct. Thanks for writing it.

    1. Thank you, Mike. Your point about virality is a great one, and very well-taken.. All thins being equal, the biggest difference may be the "velocity" as some people call it; in trad pub, it's all about getting that immediate sales spike on release, because in the vast majority of cases the book isn't going to be on bookstore shelves long (though online sales of midlist mean they'll continue to sell some copies at least); whereas with indie pub, sales growth curve is typically a slower one, at least initially. My own "Aegean Dream" sales grew very slowly, like a bunny ski slope, for a long eight months, and then suddenly spiked quite dramatically for a while as word-of-mouth and other factors kicked in. Thanks again for your thoughtful reply and good words :)

  10. I've noticed less angst over this in recent months. It seems that both sides are playing "nicer" and recognizing the pros and cons with both. Thanks for outlining it all so clearly for us.

    Janice, I'm sorry I've been MIA. For some reason, I'm not receiving any of the blogger feeds I subscribe to via email. I have to manually think about it, and boy, that's asking for trouble :)

    1. No worries, there's a problem with the subscription service and I'm trying to get it worked out.

    2. Thank you, Julie :) And I tend to agree, apart from one flareup with Hugh Howie, there does seem to be a bit less *sturm and drang* on this issue at the moment. As it should be, because there's no absolute right/wrong, only one relative to individuals. Some of the best and smartest writers are in fact adopting a hybrid approach, at the minimum publishing their own older works as rights revert.But I'll bet that before too long someone like James Patterson drops another major bomb. Although the breakneck pace of change in the industry seems to be slowing a bit, there's still a great deal of fear out there.

      My own take is that the trad pub business model and most especially the utterly bizarre and wasteful returns system and the patchy and often opaque royalty reporting/payments was overdue for demolition. I hope that in time the industry will evolve a better, more rational, less convoluted business model; but IMO the calm right now is just the eye of the hurricane.

  11. I agree, a writer has to find what works for them as an individual. I self publish, and I am happy with that at the moment. I like the control it brings me, I am not beholden to anyone or any deadlines but I agree it is hard work. Many indies don't have the money for editors or a lot of marketing and this affects their sales. The marketing is hard work and there is little to no support. There are pros and cons of both routes.

    1. Diidii, agreed on all counts. Professional editing and covers are always a challenge where money is tight for an indie author. In my experience, there are very few writers who can effectively edit their own material; in these cases, the best one can do is have a keen-eyed reader (or a few of them) at least proofread the book, paying special attention to catch those common spelling glitches that spellcheck *won't* catch (peaked/peeked; discrete/discreet; effect/affect; alright/all right; etc.) as well as looking for logical errors and consistency issues.

      As for affordable cover art, time spent on a site like Deviant Art and polite letters to artists one likes can sometimes get one a licence to use a piece of art for as little as $50-$100.

      Where there's a will...there's a way :)

  12. Excellent review and summary! This topic is on fire and as a "newbie" I need the information. My first book is a novella and is part of a series through TWRP came about through my writing group. My current WIP is on the do I or don't I line, I will probably try to have it traditionally published but my next project is a series and I am sure I will self-publish it. I am glad I've found you. May I add your blog to my list of favorites?

    1. Winona, thanks for the kind words, and I'd love you to add my blog :) A hybrid approach, as you're considering, can be a very successful strategy. One thing I';d say if you do get an agent and a trad publishing deal is to remember that most contract clauses are negotiable. This is especially important for someone who wants to retain the ability to self-publish some of their work, as many publishers has boilerplate that not only gives them first dibs on anything you write, but sometimes has *no time limit* on these clauses. So it's important to discuss this with an agent up front and make sure that they're aware of your hybrid strategy and also willing to negotiate clauses for you.

      Good luck!

  13. A very good post and what I've been saying for years. There is no universal right or wrong path, just one that is a better fit than another. Hybrids like myself, Hugh, and Joe can exist in either world, but there are many who don't have such a choice. There are those in traditional that are that way because they couldn't survive on their own...yes it's unfortunate, and yes they lose more money that could have been theirs if they had the skills / abilities to go on their own, but they don't so they have to take what is left available to them. Likewise, many self-published authors can't get a contract. It may be that their writing isn't up to a certain level, or they are writing "out of the box" works that don't easily pass the bean counters, or are the gatekeepers are just choosing poorly. But in any case, for them self is the only route and some will prosper and others will fail.

    I do think hybrid is the best way to go...but as the % that can do traditional well is slim...and the % that can do self well is slim. The intersection of those two groups is a really small subset. When all is said and done, writers should educate themselves on the alternatives, stay agile, and keep producing. These are the traits that will pay off in the long run.

    1. Michael, thanks so much for your comment and your kind words.

      You're right about a small subset: it seems to me that the majority of the "hybrid strategy" authors are trad published authors who are getting their rights back on older works and reissuing those, and sometimes new work, themselves (CJ Cherryh and Kris Rusch come immediately to mind).

      I also entirely agree on the need to stay educated and nimble--the publishing environment is so dynamic (has been for several years) that complacency is very dangerous. Unlike what happened to the recording industry, where there was a revolution and then things settled down, the revolution in publishing is ongoing and shows no sign of stopping or settling into a new status quo.

  14. Oh I just remembered another mentioned "Beyond which, you’ll work your butt off, and I don’t mean writing. Indie is hard, people, trust me on this." Again, having done both I actually find self much easier than traditional. Both require a lot of expenditure of energy ... just on different tasks. During contract negotiations I can't write, at all. When I and my editor disagree on something, it takes much more effort to keep the vision I wanted. When Hachette and Amazon fight - I'm drawn into a battle that I don't have when working directly with Amazon. These are just a few examples but I could go on and on and it's only people who have done both that can truly appreciate the color of the grass on both sides of the fence.

    1. Agreed, Michael, and point taken. Indie is very hard work, but I think I'd find some of the compromises required of authors in the trad pub stream more emotionally draining than the hard work required as an indie. Again, I think disposition plays into this so much.

      And the Hachette-Amazon debacle... ugh. Amazon have been very good to me, but I have no illusions about their power. If (when?) they start trying to flex their muscle with indies and self-publishers, that will present us all with some very interesting challenges.