Self-publishing has been an incredible path to success for a lot of authors. It seems like we’re always hearing about someone “going full time,” or pulling in six- or seven-figure income. There are some amazingly prolific authors out there and some incredible marketers, and sometimes the Venn diagram reveals the geniuses and polymaths among us.
So self-publishing can look very attractive all around. It can seem like a gold rush, or a valley of low-hanging fruit, or an escalator to fame and wealth and freedom.
For sure, self-publishing can result in success like this. It’s just that we sometimes (often, almost always) forget that there’s a lot of work and maybe, sometimes, just as much luck involved. For a few of us, that’s fine. For others, it’s a nightmare we never expected.
So, like any other career leap, we need to consider if self-publishing really is for us before we commit to it.
IT’S OK TO WANT A TRADITIONAL CAREER
First, we need to consider a cold hard truth. We need to bear in mind a fact that might be repugnant to some of us, might be a complete contradiction to our values. We need to consider a truth that causes a bit of cognitive dissonance in our well-honed, indie-focused minds: Traditional publishing isn’t evil.
Sure, we can make a case for some of the folks who work in the industry, and maybe even some of the industry practices in general. But really, it’s no more “evil” than any other business. There are people raising families and aiding charities and helping people build careers and realize their dreams in the traditional world. It can’t be all bad if it can be all that.
The truth is, traditional publishing has its place and its role in the world. Think of all the amazing books you’ve read in your life, and there’s a fair chance, a really good chance, those books came out of the traditional machine works, forged through the efforts of gaggles of publishing professionals who have invested their time and money into working out all the kinks, so you don’t have to.
Though there is a truth settling on the valley of traditional publishing, like a fog rolling in from the mountains. The chasm of advantages that separates successful trad authors from successful indie authors is starting to narrow, to become less prominent. Resources are starting to become more accessible to the individual, no longer the exclusive domain of the gatekeepers. Despite this narrowing gap and growing accessibility, however, there are still plenty of legitimate and compelling reasons why people might want to stick with a traditional contract.
Even as self-publishing grows in public acceptance, there are plenty of people who still believe a traditional contract provides greater credibility for the work and for the author. It’s an unfortunate attitude, and one that’s slowly fading, but you’ll often hear it expressed: “The industry needs gatekeepers.”
It’s the notion that an author needs to pass through a crucible of criticism and editorial development for their ideas and their work to have validity.
While that isn’t necessarily a truth carved in stone—a vast and growing number of indie authors are considered every bit as credible and entertaining and insightful as their traditional counterparts—there are enough people who feel that way that you might take it into consideration. If public validation and credibility are high on your list of must-haves, then traditional may be the right choice.
Of course, you may want a traditional contract for no better reason than it’s just what you’ve always associated with a successful writing career.
Amanda Hocking, one of the earliest and most prominent success stories to come out of Kindle Direct Publishing, eventually traded self-publishing for a traditional book deal. When asked why, she said she’d always intended to have a traditional deal. Self-publishing had been a gateway to the career she really wanted, not the destination itself.
And that’s perfectly ok.
The key is to remember there’s no shame in this game. It’s ok to want a traditional contract, for whatever your reasons may be. Self-publishing success stories are amazing and fun and inspiring, but they aren’t establishing an unbreakable paradigm. Self-publishing is an option, often the best option. Not taking that option, however, is not the equivalent of being weak or being a failure or turning your back on a movement. You have to take the path that leads to your mountain, and sometimes that path involves an agent and a contract.
IT’S OK TO WANT A SELF-PUBLISHING CAREER, TOO
Of course, it’s ok to want a little more control over your career as well.
There are several advantages to self-publishing that make it very attractive. There’s the higher royalty—typically 60-80% on ebooks, and around 40% on paperbacks and audiobooks, on average. Compare that to 5-7% on a typical traditional contract and … well, you get it.
As an indie publisher, you can control your topic, your style, your page count, and a lot of other aspects of your book. That’s a kind of freedom you’re rarely going to get in the traditional world. It means you can be experimental, trying things that no publisher is ever going to roll with. Things that might result in a mega-success.
Think about E.L. James and her breakout success, Fifty Shades of Grey. Long before a movie deal and a bestselling book series, there was fan fiction. Her readers loved it so much they urged her to turn it into a book, and that meant rewriting it with original characters. When that book was done, it already had a fan base (a platform, if you will), and so it rose in Amazon’s ranks until it started getting attention from more readers, and finally from the traditional publishing industry itself.
Try that at Random House.
The downside, which you’ve no doubt heard, is that with all this freedom comes responsibility. Or, in business terms, overhead.
You can write about anything you want, but that doesn’t mean anyone will read it. So it’s on you to find your audience. Ideally, you’ll want to find that audience before actually writing the book, but we all know some books demand to be written, audience or no.
Then it’s up to you to find a way to market that book to readers who may or may not be looking for it. That’s a stressful game to play—finding your audience. It’s the source of most indie-author angst, honestly. Let’s call it 95% of the burden on an author’s heart. The other 5% mostly falls under “imposter syndrome.”
Marketing, though. Shiver.
Finding an audience, improving your discoverability, carving out a new market or integrating into an existing one—these are the days of our writing lives. Challenging, painful, sometimes nauseating.
That’s ok, isn’t it? You may be writing a book that never gets read, for sure, but you may also discover an underserved pocket of readers who love and appreciate your work. They may never buy enough copies to put you in a custom-built catamaran or a private villa in Spain, but they could be contributors to your daily Starbucks fund and your kid’s college tuition.
Then, of course, there’s always the chance that you’ll hit.
You’ll write the next Wool, or the next Martian, and soon have Ridley Scott or Joss Whedon on speed dial. You’ll find yourself nude sunbathing on that catamaran of yours, you Adonis you.
God Hugh Howey is a hunk, isn’t he?
Barbed wire. Power tools. Sports metaphors.
So unlike traditional publishing, the onus of creating a viable product and introducing it to the world is all on you. Nurturing a brand, improving your margins, lowering your overhead and increasing your ROI—all you. That’s the business. That’s the dream of a writing career, waking up with no makeup and needing a shower before getting back to the party scene.
That can be a lot of weight and responsibility to bear. It can stress an author out, to the point of throwing up his or her hands and taking up stamp collecting. The weight of an indie career and all that goes with it has ended more indie careers than we can count. So it’s wise to consider whether it’s the kind of thing you really want to commit to.
TWO SIDES, ONE COIN
The flip side is that, unlike a traditional publishing contract, you’ll be the one who makes all the fateful decisions that could propel you and your book to success. You decide on the target audience, you decide on how best to market to that group, you decide on all the strategies that make your author career a business.
The only thing that changes is who pays for the overhead.
Traditional publishers will cover you on some of that. They’ll pay for editing and cover design. They’ll even chip in a little (very little) for marketing costs, at the start. Plus they have the reach to get your book into brick and mortar stores without a lot of begging and bargaining, leveraging relationships and contracts they already have in place.
On the other hand, it’s getting less and less expensive to pay for editing and cover design out of your own pocket. Marketing can be cheap or even free if you do it right, concentrating more on getting exposure and improving organic discoverability than on paying for extensive and expensive ad campaigns. And who buys their books from brick and mortar stores these days anyway? Aren’t those just becoming showroom floors for Amazon and Walmart.com?
Ok, so quite a few people still buy books through physical storefronts. But if the indie publishing movement has taught us anything, it’s that there is definitely a market out there for authors who only produce ebooks, and that some of those authors are making catamaran money.
Really, when it comes down to it, these two silos of the publishing world are really just that—two silos of the same industry. Two sides of the same coin. To paths up the same mountain.
SHOULD YOU SELF-PUBLISH?
One of those.
To decide which, you have to ask yourself a few more questions:
- How much control do I want or need over the content, tone, style, and audience of my book?
- Can I afford the initial and ongoing overhead for editing, cover design, and marketing?
- Do I have the patience and trust to allow someone else to shape my book over a long period, or do I want to release right away?
- Do I need a traditional contract to validate my work, or can I find validation on my own?
- Am I willing to write to market, or do I want to be experimental with my work?
- When I imagine my life as an author, what do I picture? Who am I? What does my life actually need to look like for me to consider myself a success?
That last one may be the most important. Because if you’ve always thought of your writing career as being something empowered by a publishing house, or if you’ve always wanted to be able to tell your friends and family and colleagues that you were picked up by a publisher, then self-publishing isn’t for you.
If, on the other hand, you’re more excited by the idea of having your book available for sale, and you really don’t care about the logo on the spine, then maybe self-publishing is the path.
It’s all down to you.
That’s both the curse and the beauty of it. You can decide. Your goals matter. Your work matter, regardless of your path to publishing.
The sad truth is that the odds aren’t in your favor if you traditionally publish. Even if you land an agent, you may not land a publisher. Even if you land a publisher, you may not get a wide release. Even if you get a wide release, you may not make back your Advance. Even if you make back your advance. Even if you make back your advance, your sales may be too low for the publisher to consider another contract with you.
That’s a lot of even-ifs. Here are some more.
If you self-publish, you may no get a sale. Even if you get a sale, it may not lead to more sales. Even if you market and push and work your tail off, you may not break past two-digit royalties. Even if you start making headway on royalties, it might take years, even decades before you hit “make a living” levels of income. Even if you start making a living from your book income, you may never be able to fully rely on it, as the game changes often, rules change, things shift in the industry and derail all your plans.
There are risks and advantages regardless of the path you choose, it turns out. Your tolerance for risk needs to come into play, and you need to decide in advance what flavor of risk is most palatable to you.
It may help to consider the following when deciding between traditional and self-publishing:
- You’re not going to avoid marketing. Traditional publishers are looking for authors who “have a platform,” meaning they’ve already put in the work of developing an audience, or at least the resources to reach an audience, to make it easier to launch successfully. If you’re thinking you’d like to get into a trad deal so you can skip all the marketing, forget it. You’ll be lucky to be a one-hit wonder. Publishing means marketing. It’s unavoidable, and anyone who tells you otherwise is someone you’ve probably never heard of. Because they aren’t marketing their work.
CAVEAT: There are assuredly those traditional authors who achieve stunning levels of success and who have never done anything they’d consider “marketing.” No ads, no mailing lists, no guest posting on blogs. They may not realize that going on press junkets and appearing on television and radio programs and speaking on college campuses and doing signings in bookstores is all part of marketing. There really is no author career devoid of marketing. Except maybe J.D. Salinger. (There’s always an outlier)
- You may have to surrender some rights. That’s what traditional publishing comes down to. You’re effectively trading some of your ownership over your intellectual property in exchange for some help in bringing that property to market. Trad contracts will require you to give over some of those rights, in exchange for (on average) 5-7% of the royalties from sales. Self-publishing allows you to keep all the rights, and to receive anywhere from 35% to 80% of your royalties when selling through online retailers. Or 100% if you sell directly to your readers—something you’ll never be able to do while under contract.
- You’re going to work for it. It doesn’t matter which path you choose, there’s work to be done. Trad contracts will require you to endure a year of editing and rewrites, usually with impromptu deadlines and sometimes with tight turnarounds. Indie publishing will require you to do all the legwork of identifying and testing your target market, finding editors and designers, working out the best strategy for a launch, and a whole lot more.
- What isn’t going to happen: Regardless of which silo you gravitate toward, no one is waiting to hand you a Perrier with lime and whisk you away to a chateau where you’ll be pampered during the publishing process. You’re going to put in some work. And you want that to be the case. Sweat equity pays dividends in the end, and it cements your ownership in the product (even if that ownership only amounts to 5%).
- If money is your measure, there’s good news and bad news. We’ve mentioned it before, but you’re going to get your highest return on self-publishing. That’s also where you’re going to encounter the highest overhead. All costs are out of pocket costs, in self-publishing. You are the publisher. Your financial success rests in your hands (and wallet). Trad contracts can help mitigate some of that cost but with a much (much, much) lower return. You’ll invest less out of pocket (maybe zero out of pocket) financially, but you’ll make a smaller return on your investment of time and effort. So you’ll need to decide whether that return is worth it to you.
Time is a non-renewable resource, so it’s up to you to decide on what return works best for your investment.
THE FINAL DECISION
“It’s up to you” isn’t a very satisfying answer to our initial question, but it’s the only answer that matters.
What do you want out of this? What is your goal? How do you picture life as an author?
What you should not do is decide to go with self-publishing simply because you don’t think you have what it takes to go another route. Don’t come into this thinking it’s the easier path or that you’re not good enough to go with a traditional contract, or that there’s some limitation placed on you and your work. Don’t think about the odds of getting that contract, either.
If traditional fits better into your plans, then that’s where you need to put all of your energy. Go learn as much as you can, make as many contacts as you can, and generally put everything you can into achieving your goal.
For a lot of authors, however, self-publishing offers something pretty amazing: The chance to build a career from the ground up, with no greater investment than the time it takes to write the book.
Self-publishing is one of the few, true “great equalizers” in the world. Anyone with so much as a pencil and a napkin can start writing. Anyone with an internet connection can publish. The barrier to entry isn’t anything higher than your personal commitment. And you can own your career, the direction and growth of it, and take it to any level of success you’re committed to reaching.
If you’re dreaming of being an author, this is your time my friend. This, and no better time in history. All it takes to get started, regardless of the path you choose, is for you to sit down and commit to putting your idea on the page. Do that, and you’re already miles ahead of billions of souls throughout history, who never mustered even the personal power to write the words in the first place.
But not you. You, glorious and wondrous will-be author, have everything it takes. The path to get from A to Z is irrelevant in comparison to the self-discipline and bravery you’ve exhibited in just getting into this business in the first place. You deserve applause, cheering, and all the support you can get. That, by the way, is where Draft2Digtial comes in. Just sayin’.
Pick your path, dedicate yourself to doing everything it takes, and you’ll achieve amazing things. We believe that about you.
See you on the bookshelves.