Indie Publishing 101: Traditional vs. Independent Publishing

I said I was taking a blogging hiatus… but then I was talking in one of my writing groups about publishing and the pros and cons of traditional and independent publishing, and I realized I could write a whole blog series on publishing. And since a lot of people are going to be working on finishing first drafts this month, it seemed like a decent time. (Not that I’m saying people should publish their first drafts. Definitely edit your work. But the conclusion of a first draft is a good time to start thinking about your long-term plans for it.) Now, most of the posts in this series are going to be about indie/self-publishing, because that’s what I have the most experience with, but this post is all about the benefits and drawbacks of both publishing routes, as far as my knowledge goes.

So let’s get started!

Traditional Publishing

How it works

This is, of course, the most “expected” route, especially if you tell relatives you’re a writer, lol. I don’t know exactly how the process works, since I’ve never personally done it, but from what I understand you finish a draft, polish it as much as it can, and then write up a query letter and synopsis (a few-page summary of your book; not to be confused with a back-cover blurb/synopsis) and send those to agents (along with the first few pages of your manuscript, depending on an individual agent’s guidelines).

After you’ve gotten an agent, the agent will pitch your novel to editors at publishing houses, which will start the actual publishing process. Once they’ve found you an editor willing to take your book, you work with said editor to clean up your book even more. After that, the publishing house will take care of some of the promotional plans, cover design, etc. When the book is published, you’ll get a good chunk of the royalties and the publishing house will get another good chunk.

Cons of traditional publishing

You have less creative control over your story. Now, if you’re working with a good editor, they’ll make sure the story stays your own, but they will adjust your book so that it fits more traditional structure and what the market wants (to a degree). Sometimes this isn’t so big a deal, sometimes it’s more so (at least that’s what I’d guess). As far as cover design, the publisher has the final say. The author gives input, but the publisher gets to decide “Okay, that’s enough changes, this is the cover.” (For more on the cover design process in traditional publishing, check out this video by Nadine Brandes.)

It can take a LONG time to get an agent. How long this process takes really depends. Sometimes it’s months, sometimes it’s years. And after that it takes time for them to find an editor who wants to work on the book. So it’s just a long process, generally speaking.

Publishing houses only want novels. In a lot of cases this probably isn’t an issue, but if you write short stories or novellas then looking at anthologies to submit to or self-publishing is definitely a better bet.

You do still have to do marketing. Yes, working with a publishing house gives you access to professional marketing teams and some instant exposure, but you do have to put in your own work and promote your book on your social media, blog, what-have-you. And it’ll need to be an ongoing thing so people don’t forget your book exists.

There are vanity publishers out there posing as traditional publishers, so be sure to do your research. If a publishing house is going to charge you to publish your book, that’s a vanity publisher and you should stay away. I’m not well-versed in vanity publishing, so here’s a Wikipedia article that gives a run-down, but basically if they publish your book at all, they’re not going to treat it as well as a mainstream traditional publisher would; they won’t promote it nearly as much, and they won’t give as high-quality editing, cover design, etc. This is easily avoidable with knowledge and research, but it is a risk in traditional publishing.

You’re often writing under deadline. Depending on how you work, this can be a pro or a con. Traditionally publishers will often put you under deadline to complete your book, and if you’re a slow writer or you have a lot of other responsibilities, this is probably not the greatest thing.

Agents are often looking for books that fit into industry trends. If assassins and love triangles are all the rage in YA fantasy right now and your YA fantasy is about a tailor with no love interest… an agent is less likely to choose your book. That’s just how the industry works. Now, this isn’t to say that a publisher will never choose a book that’s outside of trends–trends have to change somehow–but from my understanding it is harder to get your book picked up if it’s completely outside of the current trends.

Pros to traditional publishing

Publishing houses can get your book a LOT more exposure. They have professional marketing teams, there are readers who follow publishing houses so they hear about their new releases, you’ll get more visibility on sites like Goodreads and Amazon… etc. It’s just way easier to get your book seen if you go through a publishing house.

You get paid upfront. You get your royalties when your book is published rather than as it sells. I’m not 100% sure how royalty payments work (if they’re ongoing, how frequently, etc. I just really don’t know), so I’ll just leave it at that.

Editing, cover design, and formatting are all covered by the publishing house. No paying out-of-pocket for freelancers. You work with the publishing house’s designers and editors, who you know are skilled and familiar with your type of book, and you don’t have to pay for those or try to hack things together yourself. (There are some indie authors who are good at, say, cover-design, but they’re very few and far between. And there are also a lot of “professional” cover designers who indie authors go to whose covers aren’t actually that great. But I’ll go more in-depth on that in a future post.)

With traditional publishing, you’ll be told whether or not your book is good enough by professionals who see both good and bad manuscripts all the time, and you’ll be able to make your book presentable before sending it out to the masses. You can absolutely have a publishing-worthy book if you go indie, as well, and there are ways to find “gatekeepers” even on the self-publishing route, but “gatekeepers” are automatic if you’re going through traditional publishing.

You’re often under deadline. If you’re someone who thrives under outside pressure and with outside accountability, and you have the time and speed to write, this is probably a great asset for you.

You should choose traditional publishing if you…

  • Want a lot of exposure
  • Want professionals to carry a lot of the work
  • Want “gatekeepers” to assess your work and confirm that it’s worth publishing
  • Work well under a deadline

Independent Publishing

How it works*

*Please keep in mind that this post is written with the assumption that the reader is interested in making a career of writing. If you’re just interested in publishing once or twice, the process doesn’t need to be quite as intense.

The process for independent publishing doesn’t always look exactly the same, but I’m going to outline my recommended process. (And in the spirit of full disclosure, I have yet to follow this outline in my own publishing efforts, but it’s something I plan to do with my self-published novels.)

If you’re going to pursue independent publishing (and want to do it really well), you’ll likely need to save up and/or crowdsource a lot of money. Probably around $1,000. Now, the exact price will vary depending on what exact editor and cover designer you get. There are definitely cheaper options out there. For the first novel I planned to publish, I spent $80 on the cover and $500 on an editor (but I also did everything wrong with that, so…), and for the second novel the editors I’d chosen would have cost $450 together and the custom art for the cover would have been $350. If you’re crowdsourcing with something like Kickstarter, you’ll need to factor in the fees for using the platform and the cost of whatever rewards you choose to offer. The fees on my second book would have been around $450 total. Good independent publishing is not often cheap, though it can be.

After that, you have to hire the editor(s) and cover designer/artist, and work with them. If you’ve found a good editor and cover designer, great! If not… well… this will take extra long and you’ll be out a lot of money. (So I recommend asking people who have already indie-published who they hired, or scouring the acknowledgements of the best indie-published books you can find.)

Ideally while you’re working on the editing and cover work, you’ll want to plan out your marketing strategy. I won’t go into all that needs to include until a later post, because that’s a whole topic in and of itself, but basically… it’s a lot of work. There are ARCs to be arranged, graphics to be designed (or commissioned), readers to be contacted… It’s a lot of work. And you don’t often have a marketing team to back you up, although you can hire help and/or assemble a street team to help you out.

Then there’s the actual launch, which you have to hype up and get on people’s radar, and getting people to review your book is a huge pain but reviews and direct recommendations are the main way that indie books get seen.

Anyway, now that I’ve totally poisoned you against independent publishing because “OH MY GOSH THAT SOUNDS LIKE SO MUCH WORK AND MONEY D: D: D:”… I’m going to basically outline the same things in a more streamlined way before I get into the pros. (Because, trust me, there are pros.)

Cons of independent publishing

First off, the cost. If you hire out a cover designer and an editor or two, your costs are already really high. But then there are also the optional costs of Kickstarter rewards, designers for your marketing graphics, marketing people, formatters, etc. It’s often expensive.

The work. Independent publishing takes a LOT of elbow grease. You have to be a marketing manager, author, extrovert, fangirl, and a million other things all at once.

It’s really easy to get bad “professionals” if you don’t know what you’re doing. Like I said earlier, I highly recommend reaching out to already-published indie authors and asking them who they hired and who they’d recommend.

It takes a while. You get to set your own timeline, yes. You’re not waiting on an agent or an editor or anything like that. But you do have to save up the money you need, hire and work with professionals, and then go through all the marketing and whatnot. Don’t expect that just because you set your own rules everything will go exactly as you plan, because there are always set-backs. It’s like remodeling a house. There are always surprises.

It’s hard to get exposure. You can start with your friends and family, fellow writers, etc., and that will be a great start, but most of us don’t have hundreds of people who will actually read their work and not put it off, so it’s likely to take a while to push your book up in the ranks. (There are people who have huge fan-bases before they publish, and they can get huge exposure early–earlier this year Abbie Emmons published her book 100 Days of Sunlight (highly recommend) and I didn’t even realize at first that it wasn’t a traditionally published book. There were SO MANY people fangirling about it prior to the release that I thought for sure it was from a publishing house. But nope! She just had that many fans already from her blog. But that’s not the norm. At all.)

There’s less accountability. There are no built-in “gatekeepers” in independent publishing. Beta-readers and editors should be a help in telling you when your book is or isn’t ready to publish, but they’re less likely to outright tell you “No, you should wait and work on this more.”

Pros to independent publishing

You have full creative liberty! This can be a blessing or a curse, and really only you know. If you’re too attached to your story just as it is, this is likely to shoot you in the foot. But assuming you have a healthy ability to accept constructive criticism, this is great because you can improve what needs to be improved while keeping the parts of your story that are really important to you. (Which, again, a good editor at a publishing house will also allow… You just have more freedom in independent publishing, especially with the look of your cover. Which, again, can be a blessing or a curse.)

You don’t have to wait for a middle-man. I mean… you do… sort of. You have to wait for your editor to edit your book, or for beta-readers, or whatever. But you don’t have to wait for someone to explicitly want your book before you can publish it. If you think it’s worth reading and you think people will enjoy it, you can just publish it! Which means no having to adhere to industry expectations and trends at any given time to catch an agent before getting your book in front of readers.

You set your own hours/deadlines/timeline. You don’t have to work under any deadlines other than your own, whereas with traditional publishing you’re generally tied to a deadline. I do recommend setting deadlines, but with indie-publishing these deadlines can be custom tailored to how you write and not the time a publishing house wants your book finished. And you don’t have to wait for an agent before jumping into the publishing process.

You should choose independent publishing if you…

  • Want creative freedom
  • Write outside of normal literary trends
  • Write novellas or short stories
  • Are willing/excited to do the work of marketing, formatting, editing, etc. for your book
  • Work better under self-imposed deadlines

Hopefully this gives you a decent overview of the benefits and drawbacks of each publishing route, and hopefully I haven’t chased you away from the idea of publishing forever. Publishing–through either route–is a long process that takes a lot of work, but it’s well worth it to put your words in front of readers, to impact their lives, to share lessons and emotions, and to simply share your story with other people who appreciate it.

The rest of this series will be focusing on independent publishing–things not to do, what is or isn’t vital in the publishing process, and what’s really involved in independent publishing–but if you’re interested in traditional publishing and it sounds like a better fit for you, I’d recommend Go Teen Writers’ posts on publishing as a start.

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