One of the hardest choices for a writer to make is whether to traditionally or independently publish. Whether you are brand new to the industry, have been querying for years, or you no longer have an agent and you are seeking new representation, this question will arise.
My story is like lots of other writers. I’ve been writing for some time and I have been through rounds in the agent and editing process. Though I’ve continued to push forward, I have not been blessed by the agent fairy.
While I haven’t had an agent, I’ve experienced something just as unique. Having spent months working as a literary agent intern, I’ve had the chance to see the industry from the other side of the author’s contract.
I will be very honest with you. It was eye opening. The pros and cons of both independently and traditionally publishing stood out in blinding neon lights. I had a moment, or two, where I second guessed the whole writing gig. Then I thought about my WHY. You know that thing. The reason you laugh, write, query, and cry over your work.
I can’t say that it has made picking a publishing route any easier for me, but it clarified one thing. I must decide eventually. Because, whatever route you take, you will need to pursue it wholeheartedly. This business takes grit.
With that in mind I’m going to layout the pros and cons of Traditional, Indie, and Hybrid publishing. Let’s start by explaining what those terms mean:
Indie (Independent) – The course where an author takes full responsibility for publishing their work
Traditional – Usually with an agent’s help, an author signs a contract with a professional publishing house and the company takes actions to publish the author‘s work
Hybrid – A combination of the above options, which can vary in author’s responsibility, contracts, or access to intellectual rights
So, you know what the options are, now what are the pros and cons?
- VALIDATION – You get to say, “I’m agented by _______ and _______ published my book.” That’s not a small thing to overlook, and, for many, it’s their TRUE WHY to writing. The clout and charisma of being an agented and published author in a big 5 publishing house is special. For some that’s what it’s all about!
- RESOURCES – Also, because you’re a part of that giant publishing machine, you given people that can help you on your path to publishing. An Agent’s sole purpose it to foster that sales and success of your intellectual property. A publishing company brings you the brains and resources of their entire facility to put your book into print in (what they believe) is its most successful format.
- MORE TIME FOR YOUR WORK – Those same resources offer you the chance to take a more hands-off approach. They’ll let you know when something required and your creative endeavors prosper from your free emotional bandwidth (though it isn’t an entirely hands free process.) This is, by far, the path of least resistance.
- LOWER COST – Not only is it the “easiest” option (notice the quotes because nothing in this process comes easily), but it’s also the cheapest. Though many traditionally published authors will still hire for marketing and PR, there are fewer costs overall. Those wonderful publishing houses will provide you with their editors and resources. Any publisher trying to charge you, is probably not one you want to be working with. It’s not inappropriate to worry they are a vanity press or worse.
- YOUR BOOK WILL MAKE IT INTO MORE HANDS – These guys know their stuff. Publishing houses have an entire distribution network and their press releases get attention. When their authors have new books coming out, people will know. This means more attention on bookstore shelves, increased awards and recognition, and, ultimately, more sales.
Now that you’re foaming at the mouth for an agent and a contract from a publisher, let’s look at the cons.
- THE PROCESS IS SUPER SLOW – Like a turtle crossing the desert, you will not get through this quickly. Unless a publisher wants to rush a book to publication (and it happens), it could be years before your book hits the shelves. Even if you have a trilogy ready to print, they’re likely to hold off the process, maximize marketing and sale, and wait for print. Those aren’t bad things, but some authors feel held back by the giant churning cogs in the publishing machine.
- YOU HAVE LITTLE TO NO SAY – You’ll be contractually obligated to cooperate in the creative process. Sometimes, you’ll give up your right to an opinion entirely. Your agent will have an opinion. As will the junior editor, the editor, the marketing team, the legal team, the distribution team…keep going. Unless you have some serious creative backing (like your last name is King), you will have very limited say in how your book leaves the publishing house. Even when a house chooses your work because they loved the premise, your voice, the work’s potential, it will, inevitably, go through the publishing machine and be “improved” by the process. Without rough, up front, negotiations, you will not have a final say in that.
- LOWER ROYALTY RATES PER BOOK – It’s like Walmart – higher sales with a lower profit margin. You’ll likely sell more books with a publishing house, and you must if you want to turn a profit. Higher publication costs, means a lower return to the author. You might make a 7.5% to 15% in royalty returns. Any reimbursement of an advance on sales, commission payments to your agent, and any other expenses, such as PR and marketing, will reduce the check they write to you, the author. That being said, if you sell 300,000 copies, that small royalty percentage won’t look so small.
- SALES CAN BE AFFECTED BY REDUCES MARKETING – I have heard authors complain that they didn’t have the marketing help that they expected. Books contracted and advanced with a $300,000 check had almost no marketing, at all. Without negotiating expectations up front, this is an increased cost and major disappointment to an author counting on the publisher to promote their book to the max. Your agent can negotiate this, but it is another factor to getting that book deal with that big publishing house.
In a lot of ways, traditional publishing is the perceived ideal way to go about getting your book into print. Regardless of the cons, it’s been a successful way of bringing books into the hands of readers for a very long time. However, a lot of new authors will argue it’s an antiquated way of working and you can make more money (even if you have reduced fame) by going the independent publishing route.
- HIGHER ROYALTIES – It’s true. Independent publishing can lead to much larger returns on a per book price. Indie Publishing houses like Amazon’s KDP can return 30-70% royalties.
- THE AUTHOR KEEPS ALL RIGHTS – As the author, you also retain all primary and secondary rights to your work. Whether you sell/publish internationally, via an audiobook, or to market to the media for movie rights, you have the power to negotiate without paying fees to an agent or loosing rights to a publishing house.
- TOTAL CONTROL – Similar to retaining your rights, and maximizing your returns, you will also have maximum control over your intellectual property. Whether making a creative decision (do you really want that talking dog) to where you’re marketing. You maintain to rights to choose your own cover, speak with your own voice, or make changes – even after publication. ALL THE DECISIONS ARE YOURS. To many people, this is the #1 reason for independently publishing.
- YOU CONTROL YOUR SUCCESS OR FAILURE – Publishing takes grit. Whether you are pitching to agents, hitting one last deadline, submitting to a contest, or promoting to an unknown market, the only shared facet of success is the determination and drive to get the job done. Many independent authors thrive in a world where their efforts turn about their successes. The reward for their hard work is visible in increased sales numbers and new readers. Authors empowering themselves can bring about the greatest satisfaction and high levels of success. That success can even lead to publishing options with traditional publishers.
- MORE BOOKS ON THE MARKET FASTER – Because the author is in control, books are published as quickly, or slowly, as an author’s desire. I’ve seen indie authors publishing a book every 1-2 months! For many that is an impossible goal, but it is doable with independent publishing. In traditional publishing, this would be unheard of and inconceivable. More books = more money = more possibilities.
- WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU WANT – The options are limitless. There is no marketing or sales manager telling you that there isn’t a market for that. Indie authors find their own markets and shape their fame within them. Vampire, steam-punk, historical romance? Write it. Sci-Fi, military tech, dystopian novel? Write it. As an Indie Author, only your imagination and the amount of effort you want to put into your work limit your success.
Maybe you’re on the fence now? From what I’ve seen, many are…the decision is never a simple one because there are hard truths to independent publishing, as well.
- THE WORK LOAD IS ALL YOURS – Writing, editing, graphic design, marketing, publishing, brand placement, social media…it’s all on you. A savvy independent author will, sometimes, hire professionals to help with the work. It’s a great idea, but can cut into your overall profits. Sometimes it’s just hard to find the right person. Regardless, it’s got to get done and there isn’t anyone else to point the finger at when delegating. Many Indie Authors suffer discouragement or burnout until they can find a happy balance.
- THE COST IS ALL YOURS, TOO – There are lots of ways to reduce costs. That usually involves the author doing all the work (see above), but everything comes out of the author’s pocket and most expenses are upfront – before you’ve even seen the profit from one book sold.
- INDEPENDENT AUTHOR STIGMA – Not everyone sees the passion and drive that go into being an independent author. Many consider it another vanity press. It’s a way to share your book with the world, where you don’t have to do any of the hard work. That’s a messed-up way of looking at it, and that view is being blown out of the water by indie greats every day, but in the meantime it’s an ugly scarlet letter you’ll wear on your lapel. Many contests and awards won’t consider indie published works. This is being countered by awards designed only for independently published works. The numbers are rising in many genres. Romance has a vast number of Indie Authors and it’s growing every day.
- DISTRIBUTION ISSUES – Limitations by the publishing communities’ view of Indie Authors can also limit distribution. Booksellers feel better marketing and selling “tried and true” authors. Plus, you must setup your own distribution network. That is not always an easy thing to do. Good news, though. The resources for Indie Authors are expanding. Book distributors are now making themselves available as a middleman between authors and bookstores. That has a major impact on an author’s success.
Whether measured in hours worked or moments of failure, the path to publication is not an easy one. Regardless of your decision to independently or traditionally publish, there will be a gamut of decision and tasks to overcome.
For many this brings them to the Hybrid option. It is, unfortunately, not a keep your cake and eat it, too, option. Finding a balance between the old way of publishing and a newer, author empowered publishing option, many authors have made a great success of combining the two. Hybrid is usually the best option when:
- You traditionally published, but lose your agent.
- You have a pet project that you feel is not right for your agent, but you would like to pursue publication.
- You are un-agented, but looking, and you have projects you want to share with the world. Many authors that go this route want to make forward publishing progress, but they have a special book baby that they are saving for the big leagues.
- You have previously traditionally published and your rights to the publisher has returned your older books to you.
- You have only sold certain rights to your intellectual property and you want to take advantage of your subsidiary rights. An example of this would be independently publishing your book as an audio book, but allowing a publishing house to cover your book in print.
- You feel strongly about your work, but do not want to go through the querying process. You are comfortable with your work succeeding, or failing, and you just want to see it out in the world. Many authors expand their fame this way, too.
The pros and cons to hybrid publishing are the same as those above. Depending on how an author proceeds, they can put all positives and negatives into play. I have found that it is becoming more and more common for authors to find their balance in Hybrid publishing – even amongst the big-name authors.
Take a breath, look at the pros and cons, throw some options at the wall and see what sticks! There is no real right or wrong, maybe just a little more time working it all out. Avoid failures by doing your research and taking advantage of the resources provided by those that have gone before you.
Always ask for references, use the tools setup by your writing community, and get involved with groups that are doing what you’re doing. The Alliance of Independent Authors, the Romance/Fantasy/Murder Writers of America, SCWBI, and other groups in your country/state all offer resources to their members.
Empower yourself with knowledge and remember – the final decision will be whatever makes you the happiest.
“Just follow your joy. Always. I think that if you do that, life will take you on the course that it’s meant to take you.” — Jonathan Groff
Next up in the Author’s Learning Workshop series – #7 LOGLINES & PITCHES
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3 thoughts on “Author’s Learning Workshop – #6 PUBLISHING – The new debate: Traditional vs. Indie vs. Hybrid”
Interesting read! A much-needed article!
Thank you, Leif. I appreciate the feedback!