I am finally (finally!) compiling my “Starting Out as an Indie Author” series into a book, and since I started this weekend, I’ve noticed a couple of things I still need to add. Since the first part of the book revolves around the question, “Is Self-Publishing For You?” I realized I had to write my own version of the consideration of the pros and cons of indie and traditional publishing. (I have a few more things up my sleeve that I will probably blog about in the next week or two.)
So with no further ado, here’s my take on the debate:
Advantages of Self Publishing
A traditionally published novel can easily take up to two years from the time it is accepted to the time it actually comes out. And that isn’t even counting the years of sending the manuscript out to agents and editors.
By comparison, self-publishing is almost instant. E-publishing may take a day or two from the time you hit the publish button until the time your book is available, but rarely more. Print on Demand (PoD) takes a little longer, but in my experience, the physical copy of your book is available in less than a week. Of course, that doesn’t include editing and cover design, but a self-publisher can probably have that completed in weeks rather than years.
– Rights Retention
Many publishing contracts are not designed to benefit the author, they are designed to benefit the publisher, as numerous legal battles in recent years have shown. All rights to self-published books belong to the author. She can do whatever she wants with the book and does not have to consult a publisher about it.
This is probably the advantage most frequently cited by indie authors. As an indie author, you have complete control of deadlines, editing, formatting and cover design. You control the price and can adjust it up or down in reaction to sales numbers. It is easy to implement changes, including changes to the text. You could even pull the book for a rewrite if you so choose. Or if the cover doesn’t seem to be working, replace it.
In traditional publishing, an author usually has very little say in cover, design, or marketing strategies. A case in point: my novel Yseult, a retelling of the legend of Tristan and Iseult, was originally published in translation with Random House Germany. They provided stunning cover art, which is now being shared all over Pinterest:
The problem? It looks like the Lady of the Lake, not the tragic love story of Tristan and Iseult. Not only that, the book came out in a fantasy imprint for mostly YA readers, because the publisher wanted to cash in on the popularity of Harry Potter. But — the book has a number of graphic sex scenes. Publishers sometimes make strange marketing decisions which are more concerned with where they think the money is than what would be best for the book.
– Your book has all the time in the world to catch on
Traditional publishing houses will give a book around half a year to see whether it’s going to become a bestseller or not. If it doesn’t, it will soon be remaindered. Your book had its chance, and now it’s dead.
With self-publishing, the “shelf-life” of your book is as long as you care to keep trying to put effort into marketing it. Even if it has dropped into oblivion, you can always try some new marketing strategies to bring it back to life. As long as you want to keep it alive, it never has to go “out of print.”
– Larger percentage of the profits
In traditional publishing, the royalty rates tend to be between 6% (for audio) and 25% (for e-books). As an example, for the hardcover of Yseult in German translation, which sold for 19.95 €, I earned under 2 € per copy. (OTOH, I did get a big advance, the most money I’ve ever seen for my writing.)
By contrast, Amazon pays Kindle authors 35% (for books under $2.99 or over $9.99) or 70% for everything in between. Most other ebook vendors have similar rate structures. Selling Yseult for $3.99 for the e-book, I am earning a little bit more per book than I did with the 19.95 € hardcover of the German translation.
– More frequent payments
Most traditional publishing houses (like Random House) send out account statements twice a year and the payment shortly thereafter.
All the digital distributors I have dealt with until now send payments monthly, with a delay of about a month after sales were made — assuming sales have surpassed a certain payment threshold, which in my experience is between $10 and $50.
– Getting around the blockbuster mentality
One of the difficulties in getting a book published in traditional markets these days is the perceived need on the part of many publishing houses that a book has to have the potential to be a bestseller. This is often referred to as the death of the midlist — those books that sold regularly, but were never expected to produce runaway sales.
If your book is in some kind of niche category, sometimes your only chance is either self-publishing or publishing with a small press specializing in the kind of fiction you write.
– More Work
Let’s face it, finding editors and cover designers, writing the book description, formatting your book, and uploading it to retailers are all tasks that a publisher does for the writer. But if you decide to go the traditional publishing route, don’t assume the publisher will also do advertising for you. The amount of marketing your book will get tends to correlate to the size of the advance an author is paid for her book: the smaller the advance, the less likely the publisher is going to do anything for your book other than announce it in their catalog.
– No Advance Against Royalties
While in recent years advances have been dwindling, most traditional publishers still pay authors an advance against royalties up front, based on how many copies the book is expected to sell. This can be several thousand dollars at once, something it might take a beginning indie author a long time to see. On the other hand, a traditionally published writer will not get any more payments on her book until it has “earned out,” or in other words, made the equivalent in royalties that the author received as an advance. Still, many authors see it as an advantage to receive a lump sum rather than small checks and money transfers here and there.
– Perceived Stigma of Self-Publishing
This one can get indie authors very up-in-arms, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Despite the fact that a number of hugely successful bestsellers were originally self-published, (for example, Hugh Howey, Wool, Andy Weir, The Martian, E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Lisa Genova, Still Alice) many readers still cling to the received notion that anything self-published is bound to be crap. If you go the route of an indie author, you are bound to be confronted with this at some point — and it would be best to remain graceful and not lash out if you do.
By the same token, many writers still long for the legitimacy of a traditional publishing contract. I know several writers in the SFF community who have no interest in self-publishing, even after shopping a novel around for years without success, and despite enthusiastic feedback from other writers. The legitimacy of a traditional publishing contract is more important to them than any income they might make self-publishing.
– Wider Distribution
It is still harder for self-published books to get into physical bookstores and libraries. If this is where you want your books to be, you might have to try the rounds of traditional publishing, and start submitting your manuscript to agents.
Each writer has to decide for herself whether she wants to pursue the traditional publishing path, or whether she wants to go it on her own. Self-publishing is definitely more work, but it can also mean more freedom and more profit in the long run. But it can also mean nasty comments from readers who won’t even bother to look at your book. Just remember what they say about success — it’s the best revenge.
So weigh the pros and cons before you take the first step in either direction, and remember, neither path is exclusive. I still publish short fiction traditionally: submitting to an editor, being rejected or accepted, being paid up front. My novels are all now self-published, however, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. But for all I know, somewhere down the road, something in my situation will change and I will publish a novel traditionally again. Authors should do what they are most comfortable with, or what promises the most advantages at any given time.