Self-Publishing or Traditional Publishing? Which is the Right First Step for YOU? Win a Free Book to Help You Decide

The list of million-seller "indie" authors is growing every day. Self-publishing has not only become mainstream—it's edgy and cool. Persuasive blogs by self-publishing stars like Joe Konrath, Dean Wesley Smith, David Gaughran and Kris Rusch have inspired a staggering number of new writers to self-publish in the past two years.

Publishing your own work is a way to save yourself from the sometimes-horrific treatment of authors by "legacy" publishers (the indie term for the old guard) who have acted greedy and desperate as the e-publishing revolution shakes up their world.

Indie publishing has also become a successful road to traditional publishing superstardom and major Hollywood deals for authors like E.L. James and Hugh Howey.

And this week, an indie even made it into the august pages of the New York Times Book Review.

But self-publishing is not an easy road—and a number of factors are making it more difficult than it was a few years ago—as I wrote in last week's post—so I urge new writers to carefully weigh their options. There are alternatives that aren't making so many headlines, but may be better for you personally.

I often hear from new authors who are feeling pushed into self-publishing by "experts" who tell them they are being foolish to query agents and small publishers. Or even that all publishers "hate" writers.

Yes, some traditional publishers and agents have behaved very badly recently, especially ones who used to rely on the mass-market paperback and have seen their markets evaporate. The must-read Passive Voice blog is full of hair-raising stories about publisher/agent bad behavior.

Some self-publishers have behaved badly too. The review-buying scandal of last summer is still having repercussions.

But John Locke's scammy review schemes and Harlequin's rotten contracts shouldn't sour you on either route. Authors on both paths still have highly successful careers.

So you shouldn't be looking at the rotten apples when you make your publishing decisions. You should be looking at yourself. Your own personal goals--and skills--should matter more than following trends.

Some people dream of running a mom-and-pop business. Others thrive working at a big corporation. Still others prefer to work for a local small business with only a few employees. None of these paths is wrong. It's about what suits your personality, and only you know which path is right for you.

All publishing roads are going to take patience, hard work, and the ability to deal with setbacks.

In order to make an informed decision, it's important to educate yourself about all publishing routes. If you're a beginning writer, you should be reading Agent Rachelle Gardner and the Query Shark as well as Konrath and Dean Wesley Smith.  (And BTW, learning to write a great query and synopsis is just as important for indies, since you'll have to query reviewers and learn to write great blurbs)

Read The Passive Voice, but also subscribe to the free Publisher's Lunch newsletter. Another must-read is Being Human at Electric Speed, the blog of former Writers Digest publisher Jane Friedman (which includes a weekly state-of-the-industry post from Porter Anderson.)

Don't let fourth-hand information on writers' forums push you one way or another. Absolute Write tends to be the comfort zone for a lot of people going the trad. route and the Kindleboards are home to some enthusiastic self-publishers. They are both great resources, but take any advice from individuals there with several shakers of salt. (Especially if they're cranky. As a general rule, I think it's safe to assume people who are in a chronic state of rage probably don't have all the answers.)

When you publish a book, you're entering an industry, so you need to know all aspects of it. Whether you go the traditional or indie route, you're starting a business, and you need to be aware of the marketplace. Things have changed a lot since the Kindle was introduced five years ago and you don't want to make a decision based on out-of-date information.

As I said on the blog last week, new retailers like Kobo and the newly-improved Smashwords are opening up the market. It may be more difficult to get your book noticed than it was at the beginning of the indie revolution, but a lot of self-publishers are doing very well. Friend of the blog indie author Saffina Desforges recently had three of her books in the top three spots in thrillers in the UK, and Catherine Ryan Hyde, my collaborator on HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE…AND KEEP YOUR E-SANITY has seen her career soar since she started self-publishing the books she had previously only been able to traditionally-publish in England.

And I should point out that the decision isn't really "either/or." An increasing number of top-tier authors like Saffi and Catherine are moving to the "hybrid" model, with an equal number of self-and traditionally published titles and a career aided by an agent/manager. The two "roads" are merging.

Consider the following:

1) Most self-publishing successes like Konrath, Eisler and Locke have agents.

2) The majority of self-publishing superstars started out traditionally published—with a strong platform built in partnership with their Big Six publishers.

3)  A lot of the biggest names in "self-publishing" sign with traditional publishers as soon as they get a good offer.

4) Indie publishing (small press or self-publishing) can be a dead-end in the traditional world if you don't have spectacular sales, so be wary of using self-publishing as a way of "getting noticed" by the trads.

There's a reason I put "FIRST STEP" in the title. Going from trad. to self-publishing is easier than going from self-publishing to trad., unless you have big sales. Like 20,000-book sales. Agent Janet Reid wrote a must-read post on the subject in October. She points out, "Publishers love debut authors, cause they're easier to pitch to retail accounts. It's easier to launch a career than revitalize one."

5) Other more "traditional" alternatives to the old Big Six paradigm are appearing all the time.

So what does all this mean to the new writer?

It means the most important thing is to keep your options open, because what's true today may not be true tomorrow.

And how do you do that?

1) I urge new writers who aren't schooled in business to consider querying agents and smaller publishers before taking the self-publishing plunge.

I know—I can hear the groaning from everybody who's read the stories that all agents have horns. But the horror stories you've heard are about agents have been desperately clinging to the old paradigm. Most of those won't be around much longer. The agents who are succeeding in the new digital world are learning to be managers of the hybrid career. Having somebody on your side who knows the ropes can make or break a career, especially if you're not a born negotiator.

Here's what Porter Anderson had to say after attending London's FutureBook conference this week:

"If anything, the digitally enabled rise of self-publishing is emblematic of the transformation that agents, like publishers, are having to contemplate. And if there’s a single term for what agents do up ahead, “manager” seems to be part of it."

(But check them out at Writer Beware and don't sign away any rights or "in perpetuity" contracts.)

Yes, some books in some genres can't get an agent's interest no matter how well written, but everything's cyclical. A few years ago, chick lit was poison to agents, but recently I've seen a lot of them asking for it. And lots of small romance publishers were eager for it the whole time.

2) Take a good long look at your own goals and talents.

Self-publishing is about becoming a small business owner. Were you born with the entrepreneurial spirit? Do you love playing with numbers and marketing statistics? Are you a self-starter who prefers working alone? Then you're a born indie. (And you might be interested in the post today at the Writers Guide to E-Publishing about how to set up your publishing business as an LLC.)

But if the thought of balance sheets, market analysis and accounting fill you with loathing, opening your own publishing business could be a nightmare.

A huge amount of a self-publisher's time is spent in promotions and marketing. Yes, traditional publishing involves putting in a lot of marketing time, too, but you'll usually have some guidance and help. If you're indie, you're on your own.

As Self-Publishing advocate Ruth Ann Nordin said last week at the Self-Pub Authors blog

"If you don’t feel like doing all the work that self-publishing requires, then you probably should pick another business to go into because it’s harder to do this than a lot of authors will tell you." 

She also says in one of the comments: "I hate the blogs that preach overnight success. It’s doing so many authors a disservice. Those blogs make it sound like all you need to do is publish a book and watch the sales come in. If it was that easy, we’d all be hitting the bestselling charts."

But she also adds: "...if you don’t mind doing all the work, then I think it’s one of the most worthwhile professions a person can have.  If you love it, it’ll be worth it."

Running a small business can be bliss for people who are bottom-line-savvy self-starters with a lot of patience. It also helps to have some capital saved up.

But if you work better with enforced deadlines, moral support, and a team to urge you on, consider alternatives:

But before you join any small press or collective, make sure you read some of their titles and contact their writers in order to make sure they are 100% legit and professional. And always check with Writer Beware.

Finally take the current market into account. Does your genre sell better in ebook or pbook format? Indies depend on ebooks for most of their sales.

Whatever path you take as you start to publish, it's important to keep in mind that you'll have a much better chance of making a career out of your writing if you do two things first:

1) Establish a strong online platform in your genre

This doesn't mean making a lot of writer friends you chat with. You do want to network with other writers, but don't count on them as your core readership. Your fellow authors are not your audience unless you write how-to-write books or novels about writers. Network with people who read your genre. That means it's much better to blog about films or review books in your genre than it is to blog about fighting writers block and how to write a query letter.

2) Build inventory

It's hard to start a business. And it's very, very hard to start a business when you have only one product to sell. There's a classic Saturday Night Live skit from the late 1970s about a pathetic mall store that sells nothing but Scotch tape. It's hilarious. Fred Willard's clueless, doomed optimism is pure comic genius.

But do you want to be that guy?

If you're just finishing up your first or second book and all of this feels overwhelming, let me remind you that Catherine Ryan Hyde and I have written a handbook for beginning writers called HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE…AND KEEP YOUR E-SANITY.

Between us, we've got experience with Big Six publishers, small presses, boutique digital presses and self-publishing. We don't favor any one road and provide lots of advice for authors on all paths.

In honor of the holidays, Catherine and I are running a promotion this week of HOW TO BE A WRITER. We are giving away:



THREE FREE E-BOOKS OF HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE--for Kindle or Nook (and they come with free updates.)

Anybody who would like to be eligible for the free give-aways, just mention "free book" in the comments and your preference of pbook or ebook. If you go over to Catherine's blog and comment on the give-away post, you'll get your name in twice. The contest will go until 9 PM next Saturday, December 15th. Winners will be announced on this blog next Sunday.

Oh, yes, and I have a little bit of news of my own. NO PLACE LIKE HOME, the fourth Camilla Randall mystery, is now available for purchase ("Likes" always appreciated.) And the boxed set of the first three Camilla books is now at a special holiday reduced price of $2.99. (also available at the reduced price in the UK.)

It was suggested to me that I ask people to nominate this blog for WRITER'S DIGEST'S 101 BEST WEBSITES FOR WRITERS. If you felt like nominating us, Ruth and I would be ecstatic. Submit an email with the subject line "101 Websites" to to nominate .

So what say you, scriveners? Do you aspire to a hybrid career at some point, or are you aiming to be 100% indie or 100% traditional? Do you have an entrepreneurial spirit? Or would you rather work with a team? Don't forget to say "free book" in the comments if you don't have a copy yet and you'd like to win one.

NEXT WEEK: We'll have a guest post from romance novelist and uber-blogger Roni Loren with some solid advice on using social media to promote your work. 

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