You’re Going to Write What? – Part 5 – Indie vs. Trad Publishing

scribbling-152216_640This is an ongoing series about BigAl’s first experience writing a book. Join him as he flies by the seat of his pants and figures things out as he goes. For a more complete explanation about the book and this series of posts, you can read the series introduction here.

In this installment I’m going to look at my publishing choices.

How to Publish

Indies Unlimited aims to help all authors, but the indies part of the name is a clue to our bias. All the minion authors are self-published or published by small presses. Some have been published by large publishers in the past while many (most?) haven’t. But the lure of the “bigtime” is still there for some. Around the gruel cauldron a few weeks ago one of the minions mentioned that he or she was considering taking a run at the big publishers with their next book. The looks of shock were over the top and I finally understood what the term deafening silence meant. I was the least qualified person there to comment, but finally, to break the tension, I responded.

In what promises to be a post a bit on the long side, here’s a slightly edited version of my response. For many of you none of this will be new, but since this series is aimed at novices, it will be for them.

A newbie writes a Book - Fake Cover thumbnail


My Decision

I’ll point out that most of the minions have points of view that are skewed one direction. In this discussion, self-publishing versus trad publishing through a large house, I think the right answer for an author depends on their goals. (A small “indie” publisher is in the middle and in many ways is the worst of both worlds, yet is sometimes the best choice, too.) Here comes a bunch of stuff to consider.

  • You can’t choose traditional publishing, they have to choose you.
  • The vast majority of authors who pursue the traditionally publishing path will never be published.
  • As I said, the right decision is going to be based on your goals. The main ones I see mentioned are: To be read by as many people as possible; To make money – hopefully oodles, and validation – to have people agree that you’re a good writer.

Odds are against you with either route. The average number of any particular book sold is in the hundreds, or possibly low thousands. The average is going to be higher for a trad pubbed book, but not that much higher. In my opinion, not high enough to make up for the chances of the book never making it to publication.

Odds are against making significant money with either route. Each way you have expenses to be recouped before you’re actually profitable. This is one area where self-publishing can be an issue, that even operating on a shoestring there are some things you can’t do yourself (depending on skills) and some things you shouldn’t. However, with self-publishing you’re seeing revenue much sooner whereas with traditional publishing, the odds of making it to publication are so slim that you can’t depend on ever seeing any money for your efforts. The amount received per book is much higher with self-publishing.

Which is more important, to be validated by an agent and publishing professionals (who I’ll point out are making their decisions based on marketability more than anything else, so Snooki has an advantage over you) or by readers?

  • Traditional publishing has a slightly better high side. Chances of becoming the next Nora Roberts or James Patterson are higher taking the traditional route. But the odds of that are extremely slim as are the odds of becoming the next Hugh Howey. There are a lot of authors who have been traditionally published and then gone indie. There are also lots of stories of those who have gone the other way. I can name several authors who started self publishing and then got a traditional contract. However, I can’t name any who think that was the right move *except* if they’re prolific and a hybrid author (one who publishes books both ways) where they consider the books they traditionally publish as loss leaders for the slight increase in discoverability their self-published books get due to their traditional books being more widely available.
  • The one thing traditional publishers excel in is the ability to get your book into brick and mortar bookstores. Many say as an indie you can’t. The reality is that you can to some extent, but the effort to do so might not be worth the return. However, odds of having your first trad pubbed book placed cover-out on the shelves or in stacks at the front door are slim. For that chance and the slimmer chance of getting more marketing push (most books don’t get much more than a page in that season’s catalog for bookstore buyers to glance at) you’re giving up a lot. Not only in terms of the percentage of the selling price, but in rights to the book which could be tied up long past your demise.
  • A traditionally published book has about six weeks to find its audience before it gets pulled from bookstores if the sales aren’t there. An indie published book has forever to find its audience. (To be fair, the trad pubbed book will be “in print” and available online, so it may be on an equal footing at Amazon and other online retailers, but with the financial disadvantage of making a lot less for each copy sold.) I also pointed out that the distribution where traditional publishing has an advantage is becoming less valuable as the available shelf space in physical stores decreases and that a large portion of the most avid readers have started reading eBooks as their preferred format.

Since this series is supposed to be about the book I’m writing, I’ll mention that I never considered anything other than self-publishing. Some of the reasons above apply, but in my case the bigger factors are the market for my book. Its audience is a small niche. As I mentioned in an earlier post in the series, that presents some marketing challenges. I think it would also limit me to smaller, specialty presses, unlike novels aimed at a broad audience. Plus, I don’t like to court rejection. If I self-publish, my publisher has already accepted the book on spec. Now I just need to deliver.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

12 thoughts on “You’re Going to Write What? – Part 5 – Indie vs. Trad Publishing”

  1. My first 2 books are trad published. I lucked out in selling an article to Horticulture magazine in the 80’s that attracted attention, including my editor there who was also a published author and host of a public tv gardening show. I prepared a proposal and after several years of effort managed to sell it with a cash advance to Stackpole Press. Because I had a nursery with hundreds of clients in 24 states, I was able to purchase and re-wholesale several thousand copies pushing that book to sales of over 10,000.
    Based on that success, I landed a prominent New York agent who sold my book, Bountiful Bonsai, that came out in January and I recently signed a contract for my next book. Both of my books have been placed in every Barnes & Noble and my recent one is also being marketed in Europe and Asia. While this doesn’t support me fulltime, I have made more than $30,000 as a writer.
    I have another book, a collection of philosophical essays that I consider my most important work. My agent doesn’t think she can sell it and has advised me to self publish. That book is currently being edited while I write the next book for that contract. I will soon join the ranks of authors who are both self and trad published. I thank everyone here for their imparted knowledge and support.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Richard. One of the claims I’ve seen is that an author who has a pre-existing platform stands a better chance at getting that trad pub contract. That *might* be even more important for non-fiction. It sounds like your trad pubbed books benefited from that kind of a situation. From a publisher point of view, it makes sense. You were positioned to market your book well. Snooki’s book a few years ago while much different from your situation is another example of that where her fame made getting attention for her book that much easier.

      As I’ve been kicking around marketing ideas for my book, whatever platform I have with the two websites I run and my association with IU are, I think, going to have to figure in to my approach. Really this series could be viewed as part of that marketing although I wasn’t thinking of it that way when I proposed it.

  2. You hit most of the salient points, Al, although you didn’t mention having (or not having) control over the way the book is packaged and promoted. I think the biggest issue with the trads, however is the fact that they are driven by the bottom line and not creative artistry. As you say, they are making their decisions based on marketability more than anything else, so Snooki has an advantage over you. Pretty scary thought for someone who actually feels that they have something worth writing.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Melissa. Control, period, I’d say. Whatever piece matters the most to an author. The bigger the publisher the bigger sales they need for a book to make sense for them which leaves a lot of niches under served or not served at all. The music business is the same, just a lot of years ahead of publishing. They’ve also historically aimed at what I call the lowest common denominator, both big record labels and in what gets radio play. With the changes that have happened in that industry, those niche artists and the fans of what they’re doing can find each other without having to dilute their artistic vision. Books are headed the same direction.

  3. An important post, Al, imo. Bottom line: since the advent of POD publishing, plus e-readers, whether you go trad or indie is a no-brainer because you’re going to have to do your own marketing, anyway. The big guys were victims of the merger mania and downsizing of the 80s, so no one has the time to take an author under their wing and nurture their career along like in the good old days. Now everyone is overworked and pressured to make money as quickly as possible, preferably within the first three to six weeks of the book’s appearance on the shelves. Popular established writers and celebrities can make that happen. Unknowns are a huge gamble in a pressure cooker situation.

    Going with a small indie publisher can be a nightmare or a joy, depending on their experience, expertise, and trustworthiness. If they meet all of these criteria, this might be the way to go if you don’t mind sharing your profits in exchange for any expertise they have. Just be sure they can do what they say they can. The reality is that a reasonably competent person can now find an extraordinary amount of information on how to do everything that’s required to publish a book themselves. Publishing has undergone such radical changes that authors need to be informed (or hit over the head, as the case may be) of today’s realities: it’s your book, and you’re responsible for doing almost everything yourself, anyway, so why share the profits with someone else?

    1. An excellent summary, Candace. There are definitely small publishers out there that can be a good fit. If that meets an author’s goals, I think it could be the best route. However, there are some that are nightmares. Telling them apart isn’t easy.

  4. As the “loser” stigma that’s long been attached to self-publishing starts to fade, the big publishing houses find themselves going the way of steam locomotives: relegated to museums and theme parks. At least those old locomotives are more fun. If traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores keep importing only books published by the big houses, they’ll find themselves in the same predicament. Online buying has already pushed many over that edge. As I’ve said before, writers are taking the power of publishing into their own hands – just where it was meant to be. Everybody has a story, and sometimes, they’re the best ones to tell it.

  5. Thanks, Al. You make me feel so good about making the decision to go Indie even though, as we all know, I didn’t really have any other option.
    I wrote a drama textbook for Dundurn Press (a Canadian outfit) ages ago. They gave me a great editor, who really helped me improve the book. We never made it to the bookstores, though, so the rights reverted to me and I went Indie and sold a lot of them. At a good price, and for a decent profit. So I got the best of both worlds. Yeah, Indies!

  6. I can hardly be called a hybrid author anymore, since I’ve published (and sold!) way more books as an indie than I ever did with my first novel. The business has changed so much in the years since that first book came out. You’ve done a great job explaining why indie is the way to go for so may authors these days, Al.

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