Many authors are now hybrids, using both traditional and indie forms of publishing for different projects. Whether you go with traditional publishing or indie publishing or a combination of the two, you have more options than ever when it comes to publishing your novel.
Traditional publishing is the established system of getting
a book deal. This system requires that the writer submit their manuscripts through
their agent to publishers and receive numerous rejections and then if they are
lucky, are eventually accepted and a contract is signed. The book will then go
through more edits and is eventually be published.
Why Traditionally Publish?
Almost every author I ever met (including me!) suffer from self-doubt and wonder if their
work is any good. By making it through the process of getting an agent and then
a publisher, the approval of these gatekeepers validates your work as good
enough for publication. Even if the book doesn’t sell well, somebody thought it
had value. If your definition of success requires a traditional deal, Indie
publishing is not for you!
Print distribution in bookstores is easier. Traditional
publishing excels at this and their
model is primarily designed to facilitate print distribution to bookstores and
even libraries. Salespeople go around the stores and make it very easy for book
buyers to choose books and the publisher minus any returns. Books are usually
in the store for a month and only remain if they are perennial sellers. (Few
books reach this perennial status.)
Authors expect traditional publishing to include editors,
cover designers, formatters and marketing to help provide as part of the contract.
Marketing effort is usually related to how much is invested in the project, and
marketing for publishing companies is usually to booksellers rather than to
individual consumers. You should receive a sales team to take books to
bookstores. If you’re one of those authors who say you “only want to write,”
and let the publisher handle the rest, traditional publishing would be your
If you are asked for money, then it is NOT a traditional
publishing deal. It’s likely to be a vanity publisher and you should be very
careful. With traditional publishing, you have no upfront financial costs, and you’ll
usually get some kind of advance against royalties. The typical advance for a
first novel is $5000. The typical advance for later novels, after a typical
number of 5-7 years and 5-7 books is $12,500. Having an agent at any point
increases your advance. If you get an advance of $5,000, you then have to earn
more than $5,000 out of your royalty rate on book sales before you get any more
Literary prizes and critical acclaim are more likely through
traditional publishing, and many literary prizes aren’t even open to indie
You’re more likely to become a brand-name author if you go
with traditional publishing.
The Downside of Traditional Publishing
Writing and editing will be the same regardless of how you
want to publish. After that, you will need about a year or two to find your
agent. After that, it might take you another year or two to get a publishing deal.
Once you have a publishing deal it might take another two years or more to get
your book launched. (If you self-publish, once your book is edited, your book will
be up on Amazon within a few hours and you can get your first check 60 days
Once you sign a contract with your publisher, you’ll loss of
creative control. I have heard horror stories about authors whose books have
titles, covers and marketing angles that aren’t to their liking. You may disagree
with an editor, and not be able to do anything about those changes that you
You’ll find that you have low royalty rates. Royalty rates
are a percentage of the sale of the book. They’re likely to be net, so all the
discounts, returns, marketing costs and overheads are taken off the total
before your percentage can calculated. Royalty rates for traditional publishing
will usually range between 7% and 25%, with the latter on the unusually
generous end. The rates will also differ per format (e-book, hardcover,
paperback, audio). Royalty reports may come every six months for a specific
period of sales and many authors say those reports are difficult to understand.
What you get in your bank account may not agree with those reports, so you won’t
know until you see the money in your account what you’re actually getting.
More often than not, authors have to do their own marketing
and agents will often seek out authors who have a ‘platform’ or at least an
email list of readers. If you do want a traditional publishing deal, make sure
you ask them what is included for marketing and that your book is not just a
part of their bookstore catalog.
Potentially prohibitive contract clauses are also a problem.
You might find an agent who is willing to represent you, but their contract
might insist that they get a percentage of everything you write even if they
didn’t negotiate the contract (including self-published work). If you come
across that keep looking until you find an agency who really will help you
build your brand and not just skim off the top of your earnings.
Don’t agree to ever allow the publisher to take World
English rights in all formats. Your
agent’s job is to keep as many rights as possible when you’re doing a deal so
you can exploit them in other ways. For example, you could just sell the US and
Canada rights and then self-publish in the rest of the world. Be careful with
formats as well, especially audio books. Many publishers take audio rights as
part of a contract and then they don’t actually end up recording it. You don’t
want that to happen. Either keep audio rights or specify a length of time the
publisher can keep rights before they revert back to you.
Look at the term of the contract and the rights reversion
clause. It used to be that there was an out of print clause. However, because
of print on demand and e-books, a book never goes out of print. You have to
consider when you want to get your rights back.
Once you sign a contract for your book, the book may legally
belong to the publisher for the life of copyright which is the life of the
author plus 70 years after you die. You should also look at the do not compete
clause, because this may stop you publishing during the term of the contract
under the same name, in the same world, or with the same characters.
You have to really consider whether the money for the
contract is worth it. This is where many authors think, “Perhaps this will be the
only contract I’ll ever be offered and might just lose out.” These authors will
sign deals because they’re grateful to be offered anything. They don’t value
their own work. They don’t realize that publishers are there to make a profit.
They are not doing you a favor by publishing your book. They are businesses and
they want to make money. What they are offering you is simply that an offer.
You have to determine for yourself what you’re worth. Don’t under-value
yourself. If they don’t offer you a better contract, take your manuscript to
someone who will or go out on your own. Your
publishing choice is more a question of the outcome that you want to achieve
and your definition of success. Don’t let the publisher think they have the upper
hand. You have more control over the situation than you realize.
The difference Between a Self-publisher and an Indie Author
Some people like to differentiate between a self-publisher
and an Indie Author. They believe that self-publishing implies that you do
everything yourself and you do it as a hobby. On the other hand, they believe
that being an indie author or Independent author is a person who has decided
that he or she was in charge of the process and that the indie author is a
freelance professional who creates a quality product for their business.
I personally don’t create a distinction between
self-publishing and being an indie author. I see myself as a publisher who
determines how my book is published. I determine who edits, who designs the
cover, I determine my bio and my book description, I even determine how my book
will be formatted. However, that doesn’t mean that I do all of the work myself.
I didn’t become an Indie author or self-publisher as a last
resort because I couldn’t find a publisher either. I chose to be an Indie
author because I like the control that I have over my own creative process and
the end product.
Pros and Cons of Being an Indie Author
As I mentioned before, I personally am an Indie author
because I have complete creative control over content and design of my book.
Many authors who were in traditional publishing and are now in self-publishing
talk about how painful it was to have a cover or title they hated, or to have
editorial choices imposed on them whether they liked them or not. As an indie,
you can work with freelancers of your choice and you can choose the ultimate
look and feel of your product. If you don’t like a freelancer’s work, you can
choose to go with someone else. If you title a book or get a cover design that
you decide you don’t like, you can retitle or redesign the cover. Just upload
another file. The start-up mentality that mistakes are how we learn. Failure is
just a step along the way makes this easier for us indies. Print on demand and
e-books make it so we don’t even have to have a warehouse of books lying
Being an Indie Author gives us a sense of power that
traditionally published authors don’t have. Many traditionally published authors feel insecure
and downtrodden by the publishing process. They feel they can’t make a decision
alone or take action to improve their situation. It doesn’t matter that they
are the creative individuals who created the stories in the first place.
After signing a contract, traditionally published authors
have no control over anything about their books from the creative process to
how the book is marketed. Indies, on the other hand, have a locus of control
making them happier and empowered. The Indie Author can learn new skills, work
with other professionals, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. You don’t
have to ask for permission, you’re the one in charge.
As an Indie author you are able to get your book to market
much more quickly. Once the writing time
and editing are finished, you are ready to publish your novel to Amazon, Kobo, iBooks,
Draft2Digital, Smashwords and any other stores. Your e-book is usually for sale
within 4-72 hours. You’re paid 60 days after the end of the month of sale. If
you’re doing print on demand, you can get that up within 24 hours if you
approve the formatting online. Next you get a copy of it and look it over to be
sure that the book is as perfect as you think it is and then you can order
books to sell or give away to reviewers
Indie authors get higher royalties. If you price your book
between $2.99 and $9.99 (on Amazon), you can get a 70% royalty. Traditional
royalty rates usually fit in the 7-25% bracket, averaging 10%. It’s clear that
you need to sell far fewer books in order to make the same amount of money with
self-publishing. However, don’t think that you’ll get rich overnight. You can’t guarantee that you’re going to make
as many sales as you would’ve done with a traditional publisher, or indeed, any
sales. That is more to do with genre, investment in marketing and sometimes
pure luck. An author doesn’t build a business on luck. You have to learn about
marketing. However, you have to learn that anyway no matter if you do it
independently or if you’re working with a traditional publisher.
You can sell in any format, in any global market because you
own the rights. You could even sell movie rights. Many traditionally published
authors have sold World English rights for all formats and yet have barely sold
outside the usual country markets because their books aren’t even available in
most places in the world. Many have also sold audiobook rights. but the books
have not been produced. If you’re in this situation, revisit your contract.
What do you have the rights for? You can self-publish in countries where you
haven’t sold the rights.
Indie authors can reach significant audiences with their niche
books that traditional companies will never take. Publishing houses expect a
certain number of sales so if you’re writing a niche book on a particular style
of business, for example, then you might find the market is too small for a
major publisher. However, the market size may well be enough for you to satisfy
your own definition of success with smaller sales and lower income. You can
also price as you like because your book will appeal to a very particular
reader who might pay higher prices for this rare information.
You can use indie publishing to get you into publishing in
general. If you self-publish and do well, agents and publishers will come to
you. You don’t have to beg and plead for attention. The power balance is
reversed, and as an empowered indie you’ll get much better deals than a
first-time author with no book sales history.
Those the Positives, but What are the Negatives?
One problem is that you need to do it all yourself or find
suitable professionals to help. As with any new skill, it’s a steep learning
curve. You still obviously have to do the writing and marketing, but you also
have to do the publishing. You have to find an editor (or two would be better!
One for content and the other for proofreading) and a cover designer. Then you
need to work with them, determine the title, get your work formatted into e-book,
print and any other format you want. It does pay to find suitable professionals
to help. If being in control is your definition of success and you need to run
all aspects of the business isn’t something that you want to do, then going the
indie route might not be your best route. You have to love all aspects of the
writing business. You have to love everything from idea generation to creating
words on the page, to the technical side of things and everything in between.
You’ll get no prestige, kudos or validation by the industry.
Though the stigma lessens every day, success is still connected with
traditional publishing. If it hurts your feelings to be considered inferior,
then maybe you should not consider going indie.
For professional results, you’ll need to pay for supporting
services upfront. If you’re any kind of writer, you’ll need to spend some money
on professional money anyway before submitting to an agent and spend money on writing
books and courses. So even if you intend
to go with a traditional company, you will need a budget upfront.
It’s difficult for a self-published book to get print
distribution in bookstores. It’s certainly not impossible and if you care about
print distribution then take a look at Ingram Spark. However, you’re much more
likely to get bookstore distribution with a traditional publisher, as that’s
essentially their business model, has been, and probably will be for a long
time. They are the experts for printing and distributing physical products. My
personal choice is to use Print on Demand through Lulu.com so my print books
are available on most online bookstores.
Most literary prizes don’t accept indie books and most
literary critics for mainstream media won’t review them. If your definition of
success is literary acclaim, the traditional route is your best option.