Independent vs Traditional Publishing: Kudos

(Part of the indie vs trad series.)

Don't we all want to get a thumbs-up for our work? (Picture by 88neal88)

Don’t we all want to get a thumbs-up for our work?
(Picture by 88neal88)

Kudos is like happiness: a slippery fish to catch. It’s a fluffy one to consider, but I’ll try to break it down here as best I can. Some time ago, I wrote a post that compared traditional and self-publishing, and their relative legitimacies, and I’ll be building on that here.

Common Attitudes

There’s no doubt that being traditionally published is a reliable way to prove to the world hey, I’ve made it as an author. You tell people you’re a published author and they’ll automatically think that you mean ‘in a traditional deal with a publishing house and now I have shiny books in every store you can shake a wallet at’.

There’s a level of respect that comes with it, because of all the gatekeepers you had to get past in order to get your precious manuscript out of your sticky hands, through a printing press, and onto a shop floor. As if writing the book in the first place wasn’t hard enough.

Meanwhile, self-publishing is still seen in many eyes as cheating, lazy, and the sign of a bad writer. It’s the last resort of writers who couldn’t get a publishing deal (that is, who weren’t good enough to get one). Self-published books are second-rate, bad quality, unedited wank someone decided to shove out into the world to make a few pennies and drag down the good name of literature everywhere.

True or not, this is what common opinion seems to be. If you tell someone you self-published a book, a little crack appears in their mental image of you. (If you tell them your novel is vampire romance with fairies and BDSM, that image will probably shatter entirely.)

However, this is changing. As self-published books become more common and more people read them, these attitudes are being worn away. Many readers state that they don’t look at the publisher when they’re browsing for books, so if a book looks professional, they may look at it without even realising it’s self-published.

Definition of Success

For a traditionally-published author, this is pretty simple: getting the publishing contract is a definition of success. If you tell people you’re a published author, there’s an immediate assumption of success; after all, your book was good enough to be accepted by a publishing house. That must mean something. (I’m not saying this is true; this is the common assumption and reaction.)

There are other ways for traditionally-published authors to succeed – for example, with bestseller status – but let’s focus on those initial assumptions for now.

For a self-published author, having a book out in the world doesn’t mean success. There are no gatekeepers to get past, so no yardstick to prove that your work is actually any good. There are also the assumptions I listed above about how terrible the book must be if you had to publish it yourself. For a self-published author, success is defined not by being published (because anyone can do that), but by sales. If you can say you’ve got respectable sales, or better yet a breakout, then you can rise out of the usual morass of self-published wannabes.

In a chat with a published author, I was asked what my sales were like. When I said that I was selling over 100 books a month (this was a little while ago before the drop-off), I was met with surprise and respect. It’s better than a lot of traditionally-published books sell in a month.

So you can be seen as successful as a self-published author, but the onus is on you to prove it. No-one’s giving respect away for free.

Literary Lists and Awards

Historically, this has been the sole domain of the ‘properly’ published author (by ‘properly’, I mean traditionally-published, of course). The occasional self-published book that poked its head above the parapet of bestseller lists was quickly snapped up by a traditional publisher and validated.

Now, self-published books are making their way into the bestseller rankings on respected literary lists all by themselves (and authors are willingly turning down traditional publishing deals). They’re hitting #1 on Amazon and the New York Times lists. Runaway ebook hits are not unheard-of. Self-published books are proving that they can hold their own among the readership with their traditionally-produced brethren.

More than that, they’re winning awards. Not many, but the pressure is rising and one day the tide might turn the other way. Self-published books are clawing their way up to an even footing with traditional books; it’s a way off yet but I believe things are moving in that direction.

No doubt, there will still be literary awards who will always refuse to look at anything but exceptions in the world of self-published books, if any at all. But how long can they hold back the tide? Only time will tell, and right now, the patterns tell us which way the wind is blowing.

What does this all mean? It means that things are not even yet. Self-publishing simply doesn’t have the kudos that being traditionally published does. One day it might, but you’ll have to be patient (or battleworthy or very lucky) to get there. You have to be a huge bestseller in the self-publishing realm to be able to sidle into anything like the same position in people’s heads.

The real questions: how important is kudos to you? How willing are you to demand respect as a published author?

There’s still a part of me that would like the kudos of being traditionally published. I think that’s my own prejudices speaking, and even I know they’re outdated. I’ve tried to make peace with it and I do enjoy being self-published, but in this literary journey of ours, it’s one of the trade-offs that I had to make. And it’s one I’d make again.

Next up: Not sure! What would you like me to cover?

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Independent vs Traditional Publishing: Big houses getting bigger

A house of cards being attacked by a pirate. Seems perfect, somehow. (Picture by furlined)

A house of cards being attacked by a pirate. Seems perfect, somehow.
(Picture by furlined)

(Part of the indie vs trad series.)

If you’ve looked around the internet on this subject, you’ll probably have heard of the Big 6. That is, the Big 6 publishing houses in the industry. You may also have heard that two of them are merging: Penguin and Random House.

Is this a good thing? From what I have seen, no. Not for the industry and not for authors. (See Smashwords’ blog post from back in December 2012 for the indie view on this (scroll down to #16), and the interview with published author Michael Levin on the BBC’s World Business Report on 5th April (start at 6:10).

A merger of this kind requires permission from organisations that ensure competition is preserved in the markets. The US was first to agree to the merger back in February; the EU followed suit more recently. No-one seems concerned that two such big movers in the industry combining into a publishing megalith will create a monopoly, and this fact in itself it very interesting to those of us looking into publishing.

Tellingly, the EU report had this statement: “…the new entity Penguin Random House will continue to face competition from several large and numerous small and medium sized publishers.” In the realm of third-party distribution and sale of books, it found “…the parties have low market shares and that many alternative suppliers for book production and third party book distribution services remain active….”

Nope, not concerned about a monopoly at all. And honestly, I’m not worried either. As Michael Levin so succinctly put it: “When you take one company with a failed publishing model and you take a second company with a failed publishing model and you merge them, you have a very big company with a failed publishing model.”

So it doesn’t sound good. They’re not doing anything new or different, despite the changes in the market around them, and this is the crux of my problem with traditional publishing. I see so much change in the publishing industry, all the time, so much that I have no chance of providing anything close to a decent commentary on this blog. I’m simply not equipped to keep up (this post is woefully late with this news). But I try to hit the highlights.

Worryingly, the actions of the big houses only seem to be heading in bad directions for both authors and the industry as a whole. Why? Well, settle in and I’ll attempt to explain my position.

For authors, it’s not a good move because the new Penguin Random House entity will continue to operate as it always has. I did a whole post on Marketing not so long ago, and what authors should be able to expect from a traditional contract. However, according to Levin (who has been published by all of the big houses), the Big 6 only give real marketing support to their top 1-2% of books. Each new book is a new brand, and a new cost for them.

Their top 1-2%. You fought to get a publishing contract with an awesome publisher, and your book might be in bookstores for 3-4 weeks before it gets pulled, because it’s not selling, because it wasn’t marketed. As a first-time author, you’re lucky if you get much of an advance as well, so your chances of making money from your work or becoming a known name are very slim.

I’m a pretty cynical person when it comes to politics and corporate activity, but this is worse than even I imagined.

So they’re not doing their authors any favours. But how does this impact on the industry as a whole, I hear you ask? Well, if books that are good enough to be published are being treated in this way – barely marketed, and pulled from shelves for poor sales, and generally not sold all that well – then those are good books that are being removed from the market and the kind of publishing where they might have thrived.

Here’s a radical (and rather scary thought) for you: the Big 6 could be reducing the overall quality of the books on the market.

Be careful, my friends. Be very careful. Penguin Random House is making a land grab on a sinking city, and it doesn’t seem that they realise it’s standing on quicksand. Its business plans look shaky at best; as Mark Coker sums up: “None of [their proposed] moves help authors at a time when authors want more support from their publishers, not less.”

The traditional publishers seem to be sandbagging their operations against the tide of small and independent publishing. Are they making the right moves? From what we can see so far, no. It’s more of the same stuff that’s driving authors into the wide-open arms of independence. Even the monopoly committees agree that the moves they’re making won’t give them a huge advantage in the marketplace.

These are all things to keep in mind if you’re considering a traditional publishing contract. It’s a warzone out there.

Next up: Kudos

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Independent vs Traditional Publishing: Availability

Your book could end up in a store like this! But for how long? (Blackwells boosktore, picture by noodlepie)

Your book could end up in a store like this! But for how long?
(Blackwells boosktore, picture by noodlepie)

(Part of the indie vs trad series.)

This isn’t about where your book is available: I’ve already talked about distribution. This post is about when your book is available: how long it takes to get it to market; how long it stays there; and when it goes out of print.

As with most of these discussions, control is pretty straightforward: indie authors maintain control and decision-making rights, while traditionally-published authors are slaves to the whims of their publishing house. But in order to get an idea of what it means and how important this is to consider, let’s break it down.

Time to Market

This is not something that a lot of people consider when thinking about publishing, but it’s an important element in the publishing journey. All the advice I’ve seen on this subject agrees that the shorter this time is, the better. Readers need to be fed early and often.

Time to market includes all the time you spend after finishing your book until the time it first appears on sale and people can buy it (or pick it up for free). This is important in the current reading climate because readers are hungry for books. If they read one of yours and like it, they’re likely to look for more. If they have to wait a long time for the next book, they might forget about it (and you!) and move on. Frequent releases also provide additional bumps in sales for your other books, so are a good way of keeping your name popping up in front of readers’ eyes.

In self-publishing, it’s possible to keep this time short. Editing and cover design tend to be the variables that push this time out the most (and you shouldn’t skimp on these), but with coordination and focus, this can be streamlined. Formatting (particularly for ebooks) can be a fairly quick job, and publishing on the major platforms is quick and easy. From there, they take a day or so to go live (maybe a week to reach every sales shelf, depending on the distribution network updates). This whole process can be anything from weeks to as short as a matter of days.

Self-publishing print books (excluding POD) takes a little longer, as you have to wait for proofs, approvals, and the actual printing to be done. POD (print on demand) incurs a delay for proofs to be sent to you and approved, though some stores may let you skip this step (however, it’s good practice to check your proofs, so it’s not advisable to skip it).

In traditional publishing, the story is very different. First of all, you have to find a publisher to take you on. This can mean months or years of writing letters and synopses, submitting, being rejected, submitting some more, and waiting for that delicious contract offer to appear. It can mean going through all of this to get an agent, and then waiting for the agent to secure a publishing contract on your behalf (a lot of advice will tell you that this is actually the best way to go, but I won’t go into the reasons here).

There is an indeterminable time here that is impossible to judge. One thing it is never is quick. Even authors who have already published under a traditional contract have to go through this process, though they may be able to short-cut the submissions and go straight to their publisher (it’s not unusual for different series to be published with different houses, though), and they should already have an agent.

But let’s assume that you get that contract offer, sign the d0tted line, and hand over your completed manuscript. From there, a year’s delay is normal. The editing process takes a long time and your book has to be scheduled to fit in with the publishing company’s printing press commitments. That means that everything else they are publishing is affecting your book’s fate. There are also market reasons that might delay your book: a publisher might hold your book back so they don’t release ten books about steam trains in the same season and glut their own market; or they might want to hit a particular school holiday with that new wizard series. You have no control over this.

It’s unusual for a book to be released within a year of being signed (and the completed manuscript submitted by you). It’s not unusual for it to stretch out longer than that. Series are a little different; sometimes, a publisher will release instalments in a series close together. However, they’re likely to want them completed and submitted from you well in advance. Months is the norm here.

The real questions: how important is speed to you? Are you willing to wait?

Withdrawal and Out of Print

What about the opposite end of your book’s life? What about that point when it is stripped off bookstore shelves (real or virtual) and consigned to literature history?

With ebooks and POD, this need never happen. There’s no physical stock taking up money or space anywhere, so your book can live on the virtual shelf for as long as you like (if you have self-published and retained control, of course).

Paper books, however, commonly go out of print. Whether self- or traditionally-published, at some point, someone is going to stop keeping that stockpile. Storefront space is a premium and costs money, and bookstores will only put out books they can sell.

In fact, bookstores will send surplus stock back to the traditional publisher if it isn’t selling well enough to justify the cost of the storeroom and shelf space it takes up. This is usually a matter of weeks after the book’s release; your book has a very small window (3-4 weeks) to grab sales before it is consigned to the ‘failure to be returned’ pile. If it sells in that time, the stores might retain a couple of copies for its shelves and only return the surplus bulk. Otherwise, it’s back to the source with all of it.

The publisher must then decide whether to try another big push with the book (this is rare); usually, they will slash the price and sell it off through clearing houses and discount stores. The next step in the process is to stop printing any more of the book and to let it fall out of print when the bookstores have run out of whatever stocks they decided to retain.

Traditional publishing contracts should all have a ‘return to author’ clause, which means the contract (specifically, the publisher’s license to your work) ends after the book has been out of print for several years (usually 3-5, I believe). For books published electronically under a traditional contract, ‘out of print’ is usually defined as sales below a certain threshold. It is important to understand what out of print means to you and your work, so you understand your rights.

Traditional publishing relies on big-bang sales at the beginning of a book’s life. Self-published authors can take more time about it. Some of the data being gathered on sites like Smashwords are showing that sales patterns for books are not driven by their release date. Some books have a slow boil and break out later; others have a big bang and then tail off; others still do a mix of these things, swinging up and down wildly. Even better, there are things that an author can do to help lift their sales (I’m in the middle of that process myself) and rejuvenate a book that has been out for a while. But this all means that the book has to still be out in the stores for readers to buy.

The real questions: do you care how long your books are available for? Do you have faith that a publisher will handle your book the way you want it to?

Personally, I like having a book with sales that are continually ticking over, and I like being able to release (and re-release) editions whenever I want to. I’m not waiting on anyone’s timetable except my own. This suits me and I have a few plans to use this to the fullest advantage.

Traditional publishing has its advantages, but I don’t think that availability is one of them.

Next up: Big houses getting bigger

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Independent vs Traditional Publishing: Contracts

(Part of the indie vs trad series.)

I’ve already written about creative control and services, and the trade-offs that are made when you choose a publishing route. But something came to my attention recently, so let’s talk about contracts and what you should expect from them.

This ‘something’ was a flurry of blog posts about the new scifi/fantasy e-publishing imprint of Random House publishers: Hydra (along with sister-imprint, Alibi). Particularly, their publishing contracts, and the blog posts in question were not enthusiastic or, in fact, positive in anyway. In John Scalzi’s words, “This is a horrendously bad deal and if you are ever offered something like it, you should run away as fast as your legs or other conveyances will carry you.”

Bold words. On reading the terms of the contract, however, I’m inclined to agree with him.

In short, the main points are:

  • No advance. The author is paid royalties only. This is very unusual for a publishing contract (and incredibly objectionable for most).
  • Author pays for all services. The ones I listed in the table on the services post? It’s the same – and possibly worse – than the self-publishing options; the author bears all the cost. If there’s a paper book edition, the author pays for the printing costs, too. The publishing house is simply providing all the services, and you are tied in to paying for their services. You don’t have any control over what services are done/used or how much they cost; you are, in effect, the publishing house’s customer. Which means they can make a profit from you. On the plus side, it comes out of your royalty, rather than being an up-front cost to you (this is an incredibly small plus).
  • Publisher retains all copyrights for the term of copyright. That’s longer than your life span (usually life +35 or 70 years). As Writer Beware points out, there’s no information about whether the rights might revert to you if the book goes out of print, but as this is primarily aimed at e-publishing and ebooks don’t tend to go out of print, this is a huge red flag. Very precise wording is required to give you any recourse to reclaim the rights to your work.

What does all this mean? It means that this is a vanity publishing contract, not a traditional one. It has all of (and possibly more than) the restrictions of a standard traditional contract but none of the benefits. The chances of an author actually making any money off the book are incredibly small, unless you’re lucky enough to have a runaway bestseller (and how often does that happen, really?).

In a traditional publishing contract, the publisher invests in your book. They put their money where their mouth is and take a risk on you and your work. This investment is part of why they’ll work so hard to sell your book; they have to recoup their costs before they make a profit. For Hydra (and contracts like theirs), there is no risk. All of the risk is taken by the author and it’s the publisher who is making money hand over fist before the creator sees a single cent.

In a deal like this, it is entirely possible for you to never get paid for your work. Meanwhile, the publisher is making money off every sale. This is known in the trade as ‘Hollywood accounting‘, and is a known way for publishing houses to basically scam creators.

Naturally, Random House has come back and refuted the negative vibe that these contract terms are generating. You can read the open letter from RH’s Publishing Director on Publishers Weekly and Writer Beware. They are pitching it as an awesome new style of partnership between an author and a publisher, in which everyone wins and fantastic new stories are released into the wild to skip through the literary daisies.

Bollocks. I know spin doctoring when I see it, and this is no partnership. The investment and risk is one-sided and I see no benefit for a writer to sign this contract.

To be fair (and I always try to be fair), apparently Hydra is willing to negotiate the terms of this contract. Better and more palatable deals can be made. However, as Scalzi and others point out, the fact that they’d try to offer a writer such a contract is appalling in itself. It preys on new and desperate writers, particularly those without agents (who would be all over a contract like that) or experience in the business.

What’s interesting is that Random House have realised that their spin doctoring isn’t working. They have taken the (very loud and nearly violent) criticism from various sources (including those I’ve linked to), and they have changed the contracts. There is now a (slightly-)revised ‘profit-sharing’ contract and a (more) ‘traditional’ contract on offer. Are the contracts better? Yes. Are they good enough?

Honestly, I don’t think so. There are still very tricky spots in those contracts and I’d be incredibly nervous about straying too close to them.

Kudos to Random House for listening to feedback. But they still have a long way to go before these contracts are anything approaching reasonable for an author to put their time and work into.

What does this mean in terms of traditional vs independent publishing? Well, whichever way you go, be very careful about what contracts you’re signing. Even as a self-publishing author, you have to sign deals with distributors and retail vendors.

Don’t know how to tell if a contract is reasonable or not? Any good writer’s organisation (SFWA, RWA, QWC, etc) will have facilities available to its members and they should help you to look over any publishing contract. For non-members, there’s often advice on their sites for free (but I’d highly recommend becoming a member, for this and other benefits). It’s really important to understand what you’re signing away and the long-term implications it might have for you.

Next up: Availability

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Independent vs Traditional Publishing: Royalty and Pricing

It's all about the money. (Picture by Truthout.org)

It’s all about the money.
(Picture by Truthout.org)

(Part of the indie vs trad series.)

Here’s the bit that everyone is interested in: the bottom line. What you get to take home from your book sales.

This is a two-fold subject: what price is set on your book, and what percentage of that price comes to you as the author. These together feed into the profit you are likely to make, and there are some trends that are worth keeping in mind.

Pricing

Price matters, for many reasons. Remember, as an author, what you get is a percentage of the book’s price, not a fixed return. The price tag can also influence reader expectations and perception of the story.

As with so many of these posts, control rests with the self-published author. Whether you’re going electronic or paper, you get the final say about what your book’s price is. You can offset your costs or not; it’s up to you. Print-on-demand (POD) publishers will usually restrict you to the cost as a bare minimum, and some stores won’t allow you to list books as free (Amazon, I’m looking at you), but for the most part, you’re free to manipulate it however you wish.

When going traditional, however, you have no input. Your book price is determined entirely by the publisher (and sometimes the store). You have no control over promotions or offers. When a paper book isn’t selling and it is returned by the bookstores, publishers usually mass-reduce the price to get rid of the stock.

On the other hand, traditional publishers should know where to pitch a book’s price in the market. They are, after all, in the business of making money from sales. So it seems like they know what they’re doing. Doesn’t it?

In the ebook realm, traditional publishing has come under fire because they tend to price their ebooks over the odds (and in some cases, above the paper book price). They consistently price above the ‘norm’ for ebooks, and Smashwords did an interesting analysis of the effect that this has on sales (and the knock-on to author profits). The analysis shows that lower ebook prices not only net increased sales, but significantly larger returns for the author.

The real questions: do you trust the traditional publishers to do what’s best for you and your book? Do you want to maintain a hand on the reins when it comes to price? Do you think you can manage your book well enough to do what’s best for it?

Royalties

Okay, so you have an idea about how much you care about controlling your book’s price. But what does that really mean when it comes to the money in your pocket?

With traditional publishing, you’re looking at 10-15% of the book price for paper and ebooks. Out of this percentage, you have to pay your agent, if you have one (usually 10-15% of whatever you get). The publisher’s portion of the book price goes to cover the costs associated with your book (check out the Services post for more on this), the publisher’s own costs and commission, distribution, and retailer commissions.

With self-publishing, royalties are usually 50-80% of the book price. The rest goes to distributors and retailers, who work on commission, and a publisher to cover the printing costs if you’re doing paper books. The norm is 60-70% for ebooks, though Amazon has a 35% royalty level (which they’re pushing authors towards, but that’s a rant for another post), and the highest I’ve seen is 85%. Self-publishing paper books is usually lower than this (I don’t have exact percentages, but the printing costs are a big chunk of the price and the profit is whatever you price above that cost).

As with all things in publishing, it’s not always as simple as it looks. When it comes to paper books, a traditional publisher’s distribution network and marketplace presence is likely to net you a lot more sales than self-publishing. I don’t have figures to compare average take-home rates – I’m not convinced they exist, because I don’t know what a ‘typical book’ would look like for realistic comparison – but chances are, traditional publishing is going to win out on the net profit here (for authors, that is).

For ebooks, it’s a different story. The distribution available to self-publishing authors means that the reach can, potentially, rival traditional publishers. Again, check out the post on the Smashwords blog about pricing and returns, and the effect on profitability. The disparity in the royalty rates means that self-publishing authors get a lot more than those signed with traditional publishers at the end of the day.

The real question: which royalty rate is going to get you the best returns?

Personally, I lean towards the self-publishing side in the ebook realm. Traditional publishing is still floundering in ebook stores and they have a lot of lessons to learn from before they’ll be as effective as they could be there. This is the area where an indie author can shine; and they do.

Next up: Contracts

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Independent vs Traditional Publishing: Services

(Part of the indie vs trad series.)

There are a lot of logistics and collateral to be sorted out before a book can be published. This is what I’m referring to as ‘services’: the items required for a book to get published. These usually require a time and money investment.

Here’s the breakdown of who is responsible for what:

Publishing MethodAuthor ResponsiblePublisher Responsible
TraditionalEditing reworksEditing
Proof approvalCover design
Artwork
Marketing collateral (usually)
Formatting/print-setting
Publishing/conversion to ebook formats
IndependentEditingPublishing/conversion to ebook formats
Editing reworks
Proof approval
Cover design
Artwork
Marketing collateral
Formatting/print-setting

(This is a generalisation; some contracts might have exceptions in the above.)

Ever feel like this is what you're doing? Photo by Images_of_Money

Ever feel like this is what you’re doing?
Photo by Images_of_Money

As you can see, for traditional publishing, an author should not be laying out any money in order for the book to be published. All you should be responsible for is writing a damned good book and helping the publisher hone it into the best book it can be. Some authors supplement their marketing collateral by having additional items made – like business cards or bookmarks – but this isn’t required.

When publishing independently, almost everything rests with you. You’re responsible for getting it done (and done well!), or not. You can find services you can pay to do these things for you or you can do it yourself for free; how much you spend is entirely your choice, though there are factors you should consider before making that decision. (For example, professional-level editing and cover design can have a big impact on sales.)

The effort and cost impacts are pretty obvious from the table above. The column on the right is entirely covered by the commission that the publisher takes from your sales revenue; your books are expected to pay for it in the long run.

The trade-offs I mentioned in earlier posts begin to come clear. Here is a list of tangible things that the publisher does for you. In some ways, you get what you pay for. (And you always pay in some way; nothing is for free.)

The real questions: can you shoulder the burden of all of those things? Would you prefer to have professionals handle it for you?

Next up: Royalties & Pricing

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Independent vs Traditional Publishing: Marketing

You could have your book wrapped entirely in plastic, too!  Photo by TheCreativePenn

You could have your book wrapped entirely in plastic, too!
Photo by TheCreativePenn

(Part of the indie vs trad series.)

When you publish a book, you have to tell people about it. Otherwise, how do they know it exists? That’s what marketing is for: getting the word out so people come and buy your stuff.

This one is slippery to consider in the indie vs traditional publishing debate, because there are so many possible mitigating factors. To make it simpler to assess, let’s assume that you haven’t had a bestseller yet (that tends to change all the rules). Let’s assume that you’re starting out, or you’ve got a few books out but none of them have ‘taken off’ in a big way yet. That way, we’re looking at a level playing field (and let’s face it, if you’ve got a bestseller and ‘made it’, you’ve probably already gone through this process and have an approach that works for you).

With self-publishing, it’s all up to you. You can hire someone to help you out, but that’s all on you as the author. There’s no-one that’s going to do that for you, and in many ways, you get out what you put in.

It is easy to assume that a traditional publisher will solve the marketing problem for you. Because these companies have resources and experience – and are, after all, in the business of selling books – it’s a safe assumption that they’ll do everything they can to sell your book. Right?

Every published author I’ve talked to says different. Yes, the publisher will spend some money to promote you, and of course they’ll want your book to be a success. They’ll design the cover, posters, adverts, and maybe a book trailer for you. They might even place some adverts in publications about your book.

But their willingness to go beyond that is variable and often non-existent. The likelihood of a publishing house to pay for you to go to book signings or conventions is dictated very much by the bottom line; most authors, particularly mid-list and those starting out, foot their own bills. It’s up to the author to travel around to the bookstores and do signings, to book themselves into conventions and conferences, and to sell their books to anyone who comes within shouting distance. Often, authors wind up creating their own promotional merchandise as well (pens, bookmarks, etc), which means paying for it to be made so they have stock on hand to give away.

Then there are the more ethereal aspects of book marketing. Building your author brand; connecting with your audience; getting involved in communities: all of these things take time and effort, and it doesn’t matter which way you get published. A traditional publisher isn’t going to do that for you. It’s a lot of time and, sometimes, money. From talking to traditionally- and self-published authors, the effort required seems to be about the same.

(If you want an idea about the kinds of things I’m talking about here, check out Mark Coker’s free ebook on this subject: Smashwords Book Marketing Guide.)

Whichever publishing route you go down, it’s a lot of work. It’s pounding pavement and pressing flesh. It’s creating an author brand and platform. It’s getting your presence ‘out there’. And it’s all down to you.

Going independent means paying all of your bills. It means designing your own marketing materials and campaign, and managing it from start to finish (or hiring someone to do it for you). You answer only to yourself, and there’s no-one to blame but yourself. With traditional publishing, you’ll get some cool posters and marketing materials to play with, the base collateral which should be targeted to your specific audience, but not a great deal beyond that.

It’s worth keeping the relative importance of marketing in mind, too. All of the advice I’ve seen on this subject says that the number one factor in sales is writing a good book. Second is word of mouth (which is dependent on the first). You can’t buy either of those things.

The real questions: do you have the marketing knowledge and experience to manage it yourself? How much money can you afford (or are willing to) put in? What is the best way to reach your audience? Do you know? What kind of weight are you willing to place on marketing?

I’m terrible at self-marketing and I freely admit that. It’s something I try to work on every day. It is definitely a lot of work, but here’s hoping that it’s worth it!

Next up: Services

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Independent vs Traditional Publishing: Distribution

This is probably not the most effective distribution method for your books.Picture by Corey Leopold.

This is probably not the most effective distribution method for your books.
Picture by Corey Leopold.

(Part of the indie vs trad series.)

The purpose of publishing your work is to reach an audience and have the best sales you can. That means you’ve got to get your published book out to as many people as possible, so it needs to get to as many stores as possible. For this, you need access to a distribution network.

This is the area where traditional publishing have traditionally held the high ground. The biggest advantage they have is their distribution network and marketplace presence. They will send your book to all corners of the region (whatever geographical region you have signed with them to be published in), and it will appear on bookshelves in front of bookstore browsers everywhere. Traditional publishers are in the business of selling books and getting them out to the customer is exactly something they’re set up to do.

For a self-publishing author, it is difficult to match this when it comes to paper books. It requires a lot of money, contacts, deals, and effort.

However, if you’ve been reading any of the publishing-related blogs or news out there, you’ll know that ebooks are on the rise in a big way. Predictions state that they’ll outstrip paper books in the next year or so, in sales volume if not in monetary worth (due to the disparity between paper and ebook prices).

So what about distribution of ebooks? How easy is that to achieve?

In the ebook realm, traditional publishers’ reach doesn’t outstrip the indie authors’ options. More and more retailers are adding self-publishing options to their services, allowing independent authors to publish directly to their store: over the last year, Barnes & Noble and Apple added their names to the list of venues for this, and Amazon’s KDP service has been going for some time now.

Even better, indie authors can use ebook distributors to reach even more stores. Smashwords is the biggest of these, and distributes books to retailers and libraries beyond what an author can reach alone. Check out Mark Coker’s The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success for more information on the advantages of self-published authors using a distributor.

Having publishing ebooks myself, I can attest that it’s very simple for authors to do themselves.

The real questions: what format do you want to be published in? How important is the format to you? Do you want to see your book on a real bookshelf or a virtual one? Where do you think your audience lives most?

As far as reaching readers and getting your book ‘out there’ goes, traditional publishers win hands-down for paper books, but the war is still raging in the electronic space. I’d say that the stakes are probably even there right now for sheer distribution power.

Next up: Marketing

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Independent vs Traditional Publishing: Creative Control

Do you like control?Photo by Stephen Bowler

Do you like control?
Photo by Stephen Bowler

(Part of the indie vs trad series.)

Control over your work is a big issue for many creators, including me. I’m not shy about being a bit of a control-freak and relinquishing grip on your creative baby is hard for most writers. When it comes to publishing, the control that you retain as an author varies depending on which way you go with it.

Creative control includes having the final say in many aspects of your project. Let’s break it down a bit.

Copyrights

The rights relating to your work include:

  • Translation
  • Audio
  • Movie
  • Merchandise
  • Various publishing rights (electronic, paper, geographic regions, etc).

When publishing independently, you retain control over all of these rights. You give retailers permission to sell your work but ultimate control usually remains with you.

There are exceptions. For example, some retailers can sign you into an exclusivity deal, such as Amazon’s KDP Select program. However, that’s completely up to you to sign or not (you do not have to be part of the Select program to sell on Amazon, and there are other retailers you can go with).

With traditional publishing, it’s normal to sign away most if not all of these rights. Some publishing contracts will be specific to paper and electronic publishing copyrights and leave the audio, movie and translation rights to you. Other contracts will option all of it, so the publishing house can sell certain rights on later if it chooses. They can also hold those rights and do nothing with them if they wish, which effectively wastes them for you and blocks you from seeking other avenues of selling or distributing your work. This is not unusual.

These contracts are usually time-limited and the rights return to you after a specified time period (usually a matter of years). Often this is dependent on the book going out of print; the rights won’t revert to you if your book is being actively published and sold.

The real questions: how important is keeping hold of copyrights to me? Who will make best use of them?

Presentation

This is referring to how your work is presented to the world. Genre, blurb, pitch, links to other works: all of these things can affect how your work is viewed and interpreted. Are there quotes from known authors on the cover? Is it being bundled into an omnibus with an author you despise? Is it being likened to a book you love or loathe?

This is straying into the ‘marketing’ discussion, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here. When it comes to making decisions about how your work is presented, the message is the same as above: indie authors retain control over this and can do as they wish, but in a traditional publishing deal, you sign all of this away. If they wish, they can represent your work as ‘dying of a broken heart’ when you were going for ‘die hard’.

However, publishing houses are in the business of selling books. They should be choosing the presentation that is most likely to grab the most sales for you. They should have the resources and skills to make the right decisions for your sales, even if you don’t agree with them. Relinquishing your death-grip isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The real questions: how important are sales to me? Can I make the right choices for my work? Do I know what they are? Can I trust the skills of a publishing house to make the right choices for me?

Artwork

You’ve written a story but when it comes to publication, you need to put that text into a visual context. You’re going to need a book cover, marketing materials, and merchandise. But who gets to decide what those images look like? Who determines the colour scheme, the fonts, the overall ‘feel’ of the visual impact of your book?

For indie authors, it’s all about you. (Starting to see a theme here?) It’s completely in your hands.

Traditionally-published authors seldom get the chance to offer input into the decision-making process. They seldom get to have a say in the cover art or any of the imagery produced for their work. Publishers may ask for the author’s opinion but they are not bound to listen or act on it. I’ve heard many authors complain about their cover art (mostly for getting something terribly wrong) and their lack of control pains them.

Other authors go out and get their cover before approaching a publisher, and secure the cover as part of the package. However, even this isn’t a guaranteed tactic; it wouldn’t be unusual for a publisher to retain the right to change the cover if they wish.

However, it’s not as simple as that. As with representation, it’s worth remembering that publishers want to sell your book and they should be pushing for the cover that will best do that.

There’s also the geographical issue. Should you be lucky enough to be published in multiple countries, your book will usually be given a different cover for each culture, because the imagery will impact those markets differently. Again, a publisher’s experience and resources will handle this for you. (This really only applies to paper books; as far as I know, it’s common for ebooks to have the same cover worldwide.)

The real questions: can you confidently choose the best images or artwork for your work? Will it meet market expectations and sell the work for you? Can you get a professional job done?

Story

Here we get to some of the more touchy subjects. Who gets to decide the plot of your story? Or the characters? Is it one book or three? Is it an ongoing series? Can you write and release that second trilogy as well? Can you write just standalone books?

Independent authors are exactly that: truly independent in this realm. (Yup, it’s definitely a pattern.)

Traditional publishing also sticks its oar into this area. Your publisher’s editor could ask you to change plot points, structure, character, wording, metaphors… anything. They may ask you to stretch it out into a series or compact it into a trilogy. They may refuse to publish subsequent books if the first one doesn’t sell well enough.

What happens if you say no? I’m honestly not sure. The way I understand it, you have to reach an agreement with your editor before they’ll pass it through to the printing presses, so you’ll have to compromise to make that agreement.

On the other hand, this editor should know what they’re doing. They should know what sells, what works. Even if you’re publishing independently, all the best advice out there says that you should get your work professionally edited before publishing (the only difference is in how you pay for it, but there’ll be more on the money side in a later post).

The real questions: how much do you trust your editor? How many compromises are you willing to make? If you have a series in mind, can you deal with being cut off and not finishing it? Do you want to retain the right to not apply edits?

Conclusions

This is a tough call to make. This is why I pose the questions above, because it really matters what’s important to you. Throughout this series, I’ll be saying this over and over again. I’m not aiming to tell you if you should go one way or the other; I’m just aiming to arm you with what you need to start making choices.

So which is it? Is control important to you? Do you think that you can do your story justice in the publishing world, or would a publishing house’s resources and skills make your success story?

Like all things with this debate, it’s a trade-off. To get published, we make choices, sacrifices, and compromises. But don’t make up your mind yet! There are more factors involved than have been described in this post; stick with me and I’ll take you through them.

Next up: Distribution

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Traditional publishing: why bother?

Which way to go? Picture by dumbledad

Which way to go?
Picture by dumbledad

I have been pondering this question for many months. As I grow closer to the end of Starwalker, what I do with it next nags at me more and more. Recent posts might give the impression that I have already made a choice (and I suspect that, in my heart, I have already decided to go indie again), but it’s still worth laying out the arguments: independent vs traditional publishing.

Starwalker is more marketable and, I believe, easier to sell to a publisher than The Apocalypse Blog would have been. Vampire Electric is similar; steampunk and paranormal romance are hot genres at the moment. I think I’d have a good chance at getting a traditional deal with either story (as much as you can ever know these things).

However, indie publishing isn’t the last resort of those who can’t get traditional deals any more. It’s on the rise, blazing right up next to the big publishing houses. The publishing world is changing.

But it’s also easy to get swept up in the hype and that’s not always a good choice. I won’t run with the crowd just because that’s the way the mob is going. I’d rather make my own choices.

The truth is there’s no simple way to go any more. What’s best for me, for my career, for my books and sales and readers? These are the real questions I’m asking and I’m struggling to find a definitive answer.

I started this post thinking it would be a simple job to lay it all out. But the more I got into it, the longer the post became until I had created a monstrosity. So I’m going to take a different approach. I’m making this a series of posts. I’ll be looking at the pros and cons of each approach, across as many areas as I can think of.

I’ll be discussing things like:

There might be more added to the list, depending on what crops up while I’m considering all of that. In the meantime, I aim to look at the publishing world with an open mind. I hope you’ll join me!

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