Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing–Either or Both?

Today’s guest post is by author and blogger Joanna Penn, whose terrific writing blog The Creative Penn provides great advice for writers on so many pertinent topics. With permission is reprinted her blog post of April 26, as she has some great insights that will help you sort through the traditional vs. indie publishing debate.

I’m getting a little weary of the hype that seems to suggest authors must either choose traditional or self-publishing, and that in no way could the two ever come together. I also don’t like the polemic that has set authors against each other depending on how they choose to publish. I know this is an emotional topic and people have many different experiences of publishing in its myriad forms, but I wanted to put my thoughts out there and also see what you are thinking on the topic.

The Choice of How to Publish Must Be Made per Book

I believe in the empowerment of the author to choose what is right for their book, and their business. I also believe in the empowerment of the publisher to choose what is right for their business.

Some books are commercial enough that a publisher will pick it up because they believe it can make money for them. Some publishers may publish books because of love, not money but the bills still have to be paid.

Of course there are lots of great books that didn’t get picked up by the industry and many authors who feel disempowered by this rejection. Some authors have had bad experiences and have a justified grudge. But some books are just not right for traditional publishers at the time they were queried. The brilliant thing these days is that those books can be independently published by the author and do fantastically well. The author is empowered to publish.

But that doesn’t mean people should stop querying or aiming for a traditional deal if they want to. I was on a panel on Radio Litopia the other night, discussing the London Book Fair and the launch of the Alliance of Independent Authors. In the chat room, it was suggested that all successful indies just wanted a book deal, and if they took it, they were somehow crossing a line. That they were betraying the indie ideal and proving that the establishment is all anybody wants.

But this clearly isn’t true either. There are successful indies accepting book deals, but they are plenty of authors leaving traditional to go indie, but who are not getting reported on.

Authors Need To Be Empowered to Consider Their Choices per Book

  • Is this book something a traditional publisher might be interested in?
  • Is this book something I want to relinquish control of?
  • Is this a project I prefer to have creative direction on?

Because most authors write more than one book.

Let’s face it. There’s so much creativity in all of us, and we have years of creation and publication ahead. I am currently writing my third novel in the Arkane series, Exodus, and I have ideas for several stand-alone as well as more in this series. My current fiction is probably commercial enough for the traditional market, so I may decide to query it, although I am very happy with my indie sales so far.

I am also working on a rerelease of my nonfiction book, How To Love Your Job . . . Or Get A New One (out in May). There is no way I would query that. Firstly because it is from my heart and the book I needed to write four years ago to change my life. The rewrite contains everything I have learned since then. Also, it’s not commercial enough for them and so wouldn’t be worth it. I believe in the book but I definitely want it to be published on my terms. Lots of books written means lots of choice.

There Are Authors Already Managing the Hybrid Model

Joe Konrath is always talked about as an example. He has books with Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer as well as his own indie books. Barry Eisler is another famous example, but I’d like to call out several other great authors who are rocking the hybrid model.

CJ Lyons has sixteen novels and over the years has been with four different publishers for various books, but after looking at her options, she decided to publish some books independently including some from her back-list that she had the rights back for. In September 2011 she hit the New York Times bestseller list with an indie book, Blind Faith, which was then sold to Minotaur. However, she continues to publish indie books, including recent success Bloodstained, currently rocking the Kindle charts at #60 overall as I write. [If you want to learn from CJ, check out these courses.]

Michael Wallace signed with Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint in a 5 book deal for his awesome suspense thrillers set in a polygamist enclave. But he also has eight more books that he has independently published. Michael writes about the importance of persistence in this article.

Recent news has Boyd Morrison dropped by his publisher in the US, but who still has traditional deals in other markets. So he will be in perhaps the unique position of publishing his next book independently in the US, but traditionally everywhere else. Now that is really the hybrid model!

As I was about to post this, uber-author Jackie Collins wrote a blog post about her decision to self-publish. Clearly she has a a lot of books with traditional publishing but in this case she says “You’ve always got to be thinking two steps ahead of the game.” There are a lot of great nuggets for authors in that post. Definitely go read it.

This is actually the model I would like to have. Some books with traditional publishers and others indie published. Isn’t that the best of both worlds?

Have some thoughts on the topic? Share them here and let’s see what direction readers are going in regarding publishing.

Joanna Penn is the author of the thriller Pentecost and the nonfiction books From Idea to Book and From Book to Market. Check out her blog The Creative Penn and follow her on Twitter.

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  1. I think people have this idea that if you publish with a traditional publisher, it’s somehow easier. I think some of the publicity is done by the publisher, but you’re always going to have to do a lot of legwork yourself. So then it comes down to…what is it that you hope to accomplish? I know PLENTY of people who have simply always wanted to write a book to share with friends and leave for their kids to have as a memento. So why not self-publish those? A co-worker’s sister wants to be published because she has issues with impressing her high school friends from 20 years ago. So self-publish and post news about it on Facebook…people don’t really know the difference and will probably be the same amount of impressed (which isn’t AS impressed as she thinks!) either way. But if you’re doing it for a career and having a big publisher behind you is a big deal, then hold out for the big deal and keep trying. That’s what I did…and finally it paid off.

    Stephanie Faris
    30 Days of No Gossip
    Release Date: Spring 2014 by Aladdin Mix

  2. I have been fortunate to have a small pub company publish my first book, but I have a bunch of others in different genres I’ve continually tried to query the traditional route. Some are more mainstream, others not. I keep pushing for this one book with the traditional publishers, but I think after a certain amount of time, I might just try and self publish it myself. A writing friend suggested I start with books that might be harder for a traditional publisher – like a very targeted fantasty cross genre series. I think that might be the way to go – self pub those that just might not get picked up and keep querying for the others. Thoughts?

  3. I like the idea of the Hybrid model too:) My 1st book I’m self-publishing…but we’ll see how it goes from there. Lots of great information here…thanks Suzanne for sharing:)

    1. You’re welcome. I have eight novels publishing through traditional publishers and have five eBooks, with plans for two nonfiction on the writing craft. My hope is to put all my eBooks into print within the year, and I”m starting with a Kickstarter funding project August 1 for Conundrum, to see how it goes raising money to do these. I want to put out high quality print books, as some readers still want a real copy. So far–I am leaning toward not doing any more traditional publishing. The main point being I like getting paid hiring profits and monthly. Unless a publisher gives me an outrageous advance to make me happy, I don’t see giving away the rights to my books. I like controlling the prices and marketing, and I think more and more authors are heading this way.

  4. I have been giving this topic a great deal of thought since publishing my debut novel back in March. Precisely: Now that I have one self-published book under my belt and have successfully dealt with the learning curve involved in that process, would it be silly not to do it again with the next book? Most of the time my thinking leans toward yes, that would be silly. After all, why would I surrender something (royalties) for what amounts to the same end product (a book).

    But then I find myself going back to why I chose to self-publish in the first place. It wasn’t because the book was rejected over and over. Honestly, I didn’t send a single draft of it to an agent or editor. It wasn’t because the book wasn’t good enough for traditional publishing. A stroll through a bookstore assured me—and probably most writers—that the work would stand up to many of those titles. It wasn’t because of money, everyone who has done it well knows self-publishing is far from free.

    Mostly, I think, I self-published because of time. Because I was tired of calling myself a novelist and having nothing to show for it but a stack of loose leaf papers. Because I couldn’t fathom spending months searching out and building partnerships in bringing the book to realty, not when I could do that myself. Because partnerships, like friendships, take more than just one page introductions.

    It might sound, as it does to me now as I read back over this, that I self-published because I lacked the necessary patience. Maybe so. I know though that I worked many years on writing the book (plus the next one)—in between work, family, sickness, life—so patience, I’d like to believe, was not a huge factor.

    What was a factor, as Joanna points out in her post, was the creative input/output. I knew this first book inside and out. I knew the message I wanted the cover to convey. I knew the story behind the story, what market I hoped to reach and what message I hoped to deliver with it. In this regard, I wasn’t looking for more creative input (or to relinquish any of my own, more likely).

    That’s not to say the book would not have benefited from an editor’s close scrutiny. I see that now in some of the reviews I’ve read. I see that in the issues I ran into by not vetting my proofreader. I see it as I struggle to figure out how to market the novel. Partnerships, in my opinion, beat solo anytime, if only in pointing the focus on the right thing at the right time and in the right direction. That’s what I think traditional publishing has that I don’t. That knowledge. That experience. Those tools.

    To be sure, it is a valid part of the machine, if done well and fairly, and depending on the circumstances is absolutely worth giving up something (royalties) in order to get the best product (a book).

    Wonderful, insightful post. Thanks!

  5. interesting. I get authors who are overjoyed to find me as it’s a daunting task to find those to design and edit your book that they say are of quality.

    where’s Joan’s article/post? i have heard of many coming out of traditional publishing, angry at what they see happening to new authors there but not heard of many successful authors coming out.

    1. This is Joanne’s post. I reprinted it here and the post shows the link to the original post on her site. And there are loads of authors finding success and enjoying their growing readership in indie publishing–me included! I will be having a number of guest posts over the next months from authors who’ve had success sharing their insights. Stay tuned.

  6. Great post! Have you considered a hybrid involving one book? I signed with MuseItUp Publishing, a fabulous small Canadian press. After the traditional content and line editing, they’ll be releasing an e-book edition of my novel. They’re progressive enough that they allow their authors to opt out of print and produce their own paperback edition. So I set up a micro-publisher to format, print, and distribute mine. Working with professional editors definitely improved my book. Cooperating on marketing has been great. All in all, MuseItUp has been awesome.

  7. Though I’m in love with indie models, I definitely agree with the idea that authors should leave themselves open to traditional deals… IF that is what is best and desired for their books. I do think though that the decision should be an informed one: what your rights are, how much cash you get per advance, per royalties, and what your marketing responsibilities are. Traditional publishing is awesome, as are book deals, but they are not an automatic golden ticket to fame (if that is the writer’s desire). As someone said earlier, an equal amount of leg work needs to go into networking, promotion, marketing. I don’t think one is “betraying” himself if he decides to go traditional though.

    In my field, scifi & fantasy, I think of the “traditional” path more in terms of writing across multimedia, i.e. writing sci fi & fantasy for video game development studios; writing SFF screenplays for film, writing for SFF television shows, publishing in short story anthologies, etc. While we can certainly also go with a traditional SFF book publisher, there are a ton of other options for writing SFF work that are considered “traditional” as well (simply because you don’t have sole ownership of the product… and who would want that? Producing a SFF film costs a LOT of money, lol!).

    In the end, using a hybrid model in my genre actually only helps to increase a writer’s visibility as well as his writing experience and clout, and it DEFINITELY helps line his pockets with more money. A famous screenwriter can use his clout to write a bunch of bestselling novels and vice versa. It can become circular income and clout if you play your cards right! So in terms of whether or not I’d ever go traditional? Absolutely. Not with my novels (most likely), but with my writing skills for sure! Nice post.

  8. I must agree with C.S. in that the thought of not controlling my rights and waiting for my work to be published would require a considerable advance. Is your average author getting offers of a considerable advance? The only people I see signing contracts with big advances these days are people who have already proven themselves by self-publishng and marketing their own work to a success level that gets noticed by agents that can connect them with a big six publisher.

    In my family we have a mix of traditionally published writers and self-published writers. If you define success solely from a monetary standpoint, the self-published writers are making more money than the traditionally published writers, even with advances. The traditionally published writers are selling more books and reaching more readers. As a writer, I want both. As a self-published writer, I’m content with making more money and working on future distribution. I think the distribution aspect of self-publishing will only get better over time and I’ll be able to accomplish my goals without seeking to be traditionally published.

    1. Connie, you make an interesting point. I am thinking at some point I will sell enough eBooks that I am reaching more readers than I am with my traditional publishers. Just having over 12,000 free downloads for one of my novels in May makes me think that some of those people will read and review, love the book and spread the word. being able to give away free content has been proven to be the best way to grow your fan base. Some famous authors are giving entire books away for free and it only increases their sales across the board. I don’t see how a traditionally published book will reach more people. The logistics of foreign rights is so prohibitive. One of my clients has a big book coming out and so far, in a year, her agents has had to negotiate contracts with thirteen individual countries. One at a time. So many countries won’t work out a deal. But with eBooks you can have your books distributed globally without these issues. My own agent has been working hard trying to get co-agents in other countries to take on my fantasy series and try to sell overseas. It’s a gruelingly slow process and not very successful. I want my books to reach people all over the world, so eBooks seems to be the best way to do it, which should translate into many more readers than I can reach through the very limited distribution of my publisher.

  9. And the debate of self- (indie) versus mainstream rages on with no definitive solution in sight.

    Thank you, C. S. and Johanna, for your very worthy contribution(s).


  10. With my first book (I am only now on number three) my publisher said he was taking a great risk with me, a new and niche writer-and he did! SO, I needed to guarantee purchasing several thousand books at cost; which I have used as promotional books and sold to give myself an advance. With book number two, I started to be less of a risk and now am speaking at conferences, etc which helps sales. Little by little, the publisher is investing more in my work and I am able to invest less…different? I love the team at my publishers (especially the editing and book designs etc)and their guidance as I continue to learn, so it works for me…neither self publishing or totally published in the traditional sense. Anyone else tried this?

  11. I’m just getting ready to publish my first book and really appreciated the above thoughts and comments. Weaving one’s way through this maze is cumbersome and your insight is thoroughly appreciated. This a very difficult subject!

    Dianne Harman
    Blue Coyote Motel
    Publishing: Fall 2012

  12. I had great success self-publishing, then later signed my Riyria Revelations books over to traditional and I’ve been happy with both. I too believe that hybrid is the way to go, but what I don’t hear people talking about is that this is not always easily done.

    What I mean is an author has to be very diligent about the various small print in their contracts or it is possible they won’t be able to “have it all.” For instance, I’m currently restricted (due to a non-compete clause) from publishing any other books, self or otherwise. That restriction will come off soon, but there were other aspects of the contract that if I hadn’t gotten adjusted would have made this very difficult.

    So, my point is if you want to be a hybrid author than keep that in mind when you do sign your traditional contract to make sure you are keeping that door open.

  13. Thankfully we are in a time when writers do not have to choose. We can do exactly what Joanna describes here, go with the hybrid model.

    One type of writer that many publishing discussions neglect is the entrepreneur, speaker, coach or business owner who wants to share her expertise to educate, inspire and attract more clients or gigs. This type of writer may have no aspirations to become a professional writer, a best seller or to even turn out more than one book. In this case the self-publishing road is ideal.

    Such authors may even give away their books to help promote their businesses. Later some of them may attract the attention of traditional publishers and find themselves in the position of having to decide if they want to turn into professional writers. No one is more surprised than they are at this turn of events.

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