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TRADITIONAL vs. INDIE PUBLISHING Follow Your Dreams & Follow Your Path

The path to publishing that’s right for you should be a personal decision and not one made lightly or without a good bit of research. After all, you’ve put an unaccountable number of hours into writing that book, and let's not forget the hours spent studying, practicing and honing the art of writing. So, if you haven’t already begun studying up on everything else that goes with it, now’s the time. And as to your path to publishing, I suggest you start researching, if you haven't already, so you can make an informed decision as to which route is best for you.

Now, I’m no expert when it comes to the ins and outs of the publishing world, and I certainly don’t claim to be. My goal with this article is to give you a head start on that research, and I’m going to start by breaking down the pros and cons of both Traditional Publishing and Independent Publishing as best I can.

You can aspire to land a contract with one of the almighty “Big 5 Traditional” publishers or one of the smaller yet still prestigious and reputable publishing houses out there, (of which there are many) also considered to be traditional publishers.


You can choose to take the independent publishing route. Both those choices have advantages and disadvantages, and each comes with its own set of challenges and rewards.

Neither of those choices should be considered beneath the other, nor should any be thought of as settling. Each should be seriously considered, mulled over, and thoroughly researched before you decide which is right for you.

Now, of the Big-5, each has a vast number of imprints. For example, Penguin Random House has over 200, and Harper Collins over 120. However, very few of these imprints will accept unsolicited submittals, meaning submittals that do not come directly through a literary agent. This leaves you, the author, with a relatively tiny window of opportunity to garner a contract with a Big-5 publisher unless you can first secure a literary agent to represent you.

Of the smaller publishing houses, this still applies to the vast majority. However, a select few will accept both solicited and unsolicited works, which means you have a slightly bigger window of opportunity with those publishers as you can skip securing a literary agent if you choose to. And here’s where I want to caution you: BEWARE OF VANITY PRESSES!

A vanity press is basically a scam disguised as a publishing house because you pay them instead of them paying you. You pay them to do for you what you could have either done yourself or sub-contracted others to do for you and most likely for a substantially lower fee.

In exchange, what you get is the ability to say you were published through So-And-So Publishing House, so your vanity is appeased (that's where they get their name) and you can then proudly display their publishing house logo on your book. But let’s not forget that by going through a vanity press, you’ve also likely given up some royalties and much more for this minimal, and I must say inconsequential benefit.

So, if you are ever wondering if that publisher who just offered you a contract is a vanity press, the answer is right in front of you. Are they asking you for money for editing, art, a book cover, print copies, or anything at all? If so, there’s your answer.

What I’m saying here is if you’re thinking of even considering one of the vanity presses, be sure you understand what you’re getting for your money, and more importantly, what you are giving up.

Another thing to consider before going this route is that many authors today are creating their own publishing house with logo and all. And if they can do it, so can you. So if it’s solely your vanity that has you looking at one of the many vanity presses out there, you might want to reconsider.

Okay, so now that we have that out of the way, let’s start by discussing the pros and cons of choosing traditional publishing.

The most notable pro is, of course, the prestige. The visibility and reach that traditional publishers can provide may also help authors develop their careers quicker. Some perks of a traditional writing career include the opportunity to win world-renowned book awards, obtain starred reviews, and appear on many bestseller lists.

And speaking of visibility, there's marketing. In today’s publishing world, it’s rare (although no longer impossible) for indie authors to see their books shelved in chain brick-and-mortar bookstores or to negotiate international book deals. And while all authors must play an active role in marketing their books, those who publish traditionally may (but not always) have the benefit of working with their publisher’s marketing department to expand their book’s reach. And the better their book sells, the more ongoing marketing support they’ll receive.

Another pro is having a literary agent as part of your team to sell you and your book for you. Your literary agent assists you in getting your book into marketable condition, then does all of the leg work by soliciting your book to those many publishing houses. Your agent will also assist you in negotiating your contract and making sure you get paid. For all of this work, a literary agent typically gets a 15% commission on all of your profits.

And speaking of your team, depending on the size of the publishing house, the publisher typically assigns to you a team that consists of a line editor, proofreader, formatter, and cover designer, all paid for and employed by them. In addition, the publishing house takes on production costs, meaning printing, binding, distribution, etc.

Another pro is that most traditional publishers will give you a cash advance, although those aren’t as high as they used to be. Today’s average is typically between $5,000 and $15,000 U.S. dollars, which will then be paid out in installments over the course of a year, as the author fulfills contract requirements.

Now, all of this sounds pretty good, right? But let’s take a close look at some of the cons.

The first is securing that golden commodity known as a literary agent. According to the latest statistics, the odds of landing a literary agent is about 1 in 6000. If you’re thinking in terms of winning the lottery, that’s not too shabby. But keep in mind that securing that agent is much akin to playing the lottery as you’ll need a lot of luck on your side as well as savvy and a quality product. Not to mention a great query letter or book proposal.

A few years back, a well-known literary agent said she received an average of 100 queries a day! I would imagine that statistic has increased since then, but I could be wrong as the indie publishing market has also vastly increased over these past years.

That same agent said she took on an average of 1 (yes, that’s 1) new client a year. I will say, however, that the more recent statistics I found say that today’s literary agents are accepting somewhere between 3 to 10 new authors per year on average.

In any case, there’s your first hurdle or con. If your goal is garnering a contract with one of the Big-5, or even one of the many other traditional publishing houses, you’ll first have to land a literary agent.

The next con or statistic I want to mention is it’s said that today’s big publishing houses receive about 600 submittals a year from new authors through these literary agents, yet they only accept an average of 3 to 4 new authors a year.

The bottom line is, it takes equal parts time, luck and perseverance. And let's not forget what comes before all of this because before you can (or should) begin looking at agents and/or publishers, you first need to do the work, and I can't stress this enough.

What work am I referring to?

  1. Write an outstanding book;

  2. Write an awesome query letter or book proposal;

  3. Write a fabulous synopsis (both a short and full one so you'll be prepared);

  4. Make a list of literary agents accepting submittals and ones who specialize in your specific genre (along with their specific rules for submission); and

  5. Send your material out to 10 to 12 agents at a time.

The next con is what you give up. Most traditionally published authors have little to no say over how their book goes out to the world, and what I mean by that is in addition to the royalties you’ve already agreed to forgo, by signing that contract, you’re handing over or selling the rights to your hard work to the publisher, sometimes for a certain period of time and sometimes indefinitely.

In addition, you’ll have no say in where your book will be stocked in bookstores, meaning under what genre.

But most notably, you also give up creative control and have little to no say over your book’s title, your cover design, and your back cover blurb, as well as some of its content, as publishers often demand changes that could drastically alter your vision for the story.

The next con I want to mention is that traditionally published authors may take home as little as 12.5 cents for every dollar their book earns. Why? Because publishers take a large cut to cover all of those expenses I just mentioned. And don’t forget that you’ve already promised 15% of your earnings to your literary agent, and that includes the cash advance.

Royalty rates for traditionally published authors typically fall somewhere between 15% and 25% depending on format (e.g., paperback, hardback, e-book, audiobook).

It’s also important to note that authors only start receiving royalties after their book earns out (meaning, after sales exceed their initial advance), and that number factors in the publisher’s cut and your literary agent’s rate. In other words, if an author receives a $5,000 advance, their book might need to earn upwards of $40,000 before the author ever sees another penny.

Next con: while self-published authors receive monthly royalty payments, traditional publishers typically only pay out twice a year.

Another con is the time between when you sign that book deal, and the day your book actually hits the market. When you sign on the dotted line of that contract, your manuscript is added to the end of a long publishing timeline. Though 18 months is a common ETA, your book may take upwards of 3 years to finally appear on bookshelves. And keep in mind that's on top of the time it took you to land that literary agent, plus the time it took them to sell your book to a publisher.

And speaking of contracts, those book deals and subsisiary ontracts can get complicated. Although a good literary agent will help you navigate these contracts, all the legalese can still till result in less-than-ideal circumstances. especially if you don't fully comprehend your rights and obligations.

And let’s face it, the publishing world is constantly shifting with trends changing as quickly as clothing designs, but the traditional publishing industry can be even messier. Literary agents come and go, publishing houses fold and merge. Editors quit, switch publishers, get promoted... And along with these shake-ups and more, authors sometimes find themselves left in dire straights. For instance, you could find yourself without an agent, with a manuscript in limbo, or with a contract you can’t get out of.

Those are the most basic or profound pros and cons of traditional publishing, and as I’m sure you gathered, the definition between pro and con can be blurry. And the same goes for the pros and cons of indie publishing.

In today’s publishing world, an indie author is defined as an author who owns and controls everything. You, as the author, write the book and then have the choice of either doing all of the other tasks that go with publishing it yourself or hiring out.

In other words, to be an indie author, you are running a small business. And whether you run that business with a single employee, that being you, or with a handful of sub-contractors on your team, the choice is yours.

So, the first pro is: You’re the boss. You have control. However, I have to admit that could also be viewed as the first con because with all of that control comes responsibility.

That means you’ll need to give this business a large amount of your time and energy. And whatever your personal responsibilities entail, (kids, family, a full-time job...) that may be the determining factor in just how many of these tasks you hire out and how many you DIY.

You also have to ask yourself: do I have the time, qualifications and ability to do everything myself? And I’m not just talking about doing your own printing, your own cover, or even your own formatting. And let’s not even talk about marketing. Because as I said, you don’t have to do all of those things yourself. You could, but you don’t have to. And again, that can and should be looked at as a pro rather than a con.

You can hire someone to do your book covers, but you have to take the initiative to find the right graphic artist at a price you can afford. One who can see your vision and make it come to life. My advice is to do your research and don’t skimp. Don’t rush, either, and also keep an open mind and let the designer guide you. But whatever you decide, do your research.

Check out what’s on the bookshelves today and specifically see what the professional marketers at those big publishing houses are recommending for book covers in your same genre. Remember, the market is always changing, and what attracts readers today might not be what attracted them two years ago.

The biggest item next to your cover artist and just as important, if not more so, is an editor. No matter which route you chose for publishing, in the end, odds are you’ve had to hire an editor for, if nothing else, at least to proofread. And if you didn’t, you really should have. This is something not to be overlooked. And let’s talk facts here. Even if you go the route of traditional publishing, you’ll need that editor before submitting your work for consideration.

What you’ll pay will depend largely on the level of editing needed and desired, as well as the editor you choose. And just because the editor charges more than the next guy doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better qualified or better at what they do. Nor does it mean the cheapest editor is the right one for you.

Does the editor charge by the word, the page, or by the hour? And do they vary their price depending on the level of writing? Again, I caution you to do your research before you choose. Check references, and don’t be shy about contacting one or more of the editor’s clients directly. Always ask for a sample edit and complimentary consultation. You want to feel a connection with the editor, and you want to feel confident that the editor you choose understands and appreciates both your voice and your story.

You can learn to do your own formatting, or you can hire out. You can often format right from the software program you use to write the book, such as Microsoft Word, or you can find formatting software online both for free or for a fee. I’ve seen a number of free templates available and those are perfectly suitable for your typical fiction novel. Or you could, of course, hire a professional formatter.

Another pro and a big one to consider is because you have all of the control, you get to keep all of your royalties, minus those costs I just mentioned, in addition to the cost of an ISBN, copyright, printing and distribution. That means most indie authors are retaining 60% and sometimes up to 85% of their royalties. And that’s a big jump from the 15% to 25% for traditional publishing.

Another con is marketing. You can’t just hit that “publish” button and expect your book will sell itself. But even if you traditionally publish, as I said above, every author is still expected to do some of the marketing.

But with indie publishing, how much money and time you spend on marketing is totally up to you, and that’s a pro. I will point out that you can get a ton of marketing accomplished at zero cost through social media and Goodreads. There it’s time more than money.

But again, you’ve also got the option of hiring out. And this can be with a marketing expert and/or personal assistant. They’re out there, and again prices can vary. So check around, ask for recommendations and get references.

Another con is that an indie author doesn’t have as easy access to bookstores as a traditionally published author. But the pro is we still have access. Getting into Barnes and Noble used to be impossible for indie authors, but not today. Local bookstores often set up specific displays featuring local authors, and many readers love to support their local authors. It just takes the effort of contacting the store manager and selling yourself.

The last con I want to stress and leave you with is the stigma in some circles still attached to the word “self-published,” which is largely why we indie authors much prefer to use the title “indie author” or to say we are indie published.

So why are the opinions and prejudices that stain the idea of independent publishing so negative in some circles? Well, I have a theory. Jealousy. Envy. Spite. It could also be more simply a resistance to change, and probably is in many cases.

For others, it’s a show of anger for the way this 21st-century gift of print-on-demand is sometimes treated and taken advantage of by authors publishing mediocre and sometimes even poor quality work. And for that, I get it. I really do. Because the poor quality of work some authors consistently put out there is exactly what gives indie publishing such a bad rep.

But no matter the critics, no matter the controversy, the option of independent publishing isn’t going away. The world of technology is not going to reverse itself and travel backward. So for all of those who choose indie publishing, it’s up to us to help make this stigma go away.

How? Do your homework. I can’t stress this enough. And please, do the work. Learn and hone your craft. Before you put your book out there to the world, make sure it’s everything it’s meant to be; that it is of the same quality as any top publishing house would wish they could call their own.

Don’t choose indie publishing because it’s quick and easy. Choose it because, after all of the research and all of the hard work you’ve put into your project, indie-publishing is the path you truly believe is the right path for you.

And just as importantly, do it with pride. Pride in knowing you did your homework, you took the time to learn, to fine-tune your craft, and most of all, you took all of the necessary steps required to make sure your book, your baby, is of a quality equal to any book on any store self out there.

As always, I wish you the best of luck at reaching your publishing goals and realizing that dream.

Note: This article condenses some of what is contained in the prior 4-part series "What's the Right Publishing Path for You."

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