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:
- 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 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.
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