For Writers: Traditional vs Indie-Publishing – Thoughts from a Hybrid
A hybrid? Did I just call myself a hybrid? Am I part animal, part plant? Or maybe seventy-five percent homo sapiens and twenty-five percent pure beer-induced fat? (That second one might be accurate, but the beer-induced fat percentage is a little low). Nah, I’m not talking about THAT kind of hybrid. I’m a hybrid AUTHOR, one who has experienced the joys and frustrations of both traditional publishing and indie publishing.
Wait, traditional publishing is ALL joy, isn’t it? Nope. Not even close.
And indie/self-publishing means you’re not good enough to go the traditional route, right? Nope. Wrong again.
If you’re a new writer, you might be struggling with that simple question—traditional, or indie? You can Google “Traditional vs Self-Publishing” and get hundreds of results. The main points are all similar (but sometimes slanted depending on the point of view of the writer & their personal biases…or their personal business). What I want to do is give you my view as one who has gone both routes—liked both routes, and hated both routes—and know that there are some people out there who are afraid to try one route or the other for various reasons. Maybe I can help you decide.
Let’s say you’ve written a book. First off, CONGRATS! If it’s a novel, I know it’s a huge undertaking. You’ve spent hours and hours investing your precious (and finite) time crafting a project that you want others to read and enjoy. So what the hell are you going to do with it? Sit in a corner with it clutched in your arms, slowly rocking back and forth, afraid to let it out into the big bad world? Or, are you going to pull up your big boy/big girl pants and get your story out there?
The choice is yours.
Before we get going, let me throw out a few caveats:
1) What I’m going to say has nothing to do with the quality of what you’ve written or your skills as a writer. If it’s not a good story, or you can’t write, you’ll probably find out soon enough. If it is a good story, and you’re an awesome writer…well, it still might not matter [insert a picture of Eeyore *here*]. Fact of life. Sometimes, bad writers get published, and good writers don’t.
Hey, don’t stare at me like that.
2) If you’re in it for the money, you might as well quit already…unless you’ve won the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes, the Mega-Lotto, and do well at the craps table every time you go to Vegas (which, even though it suggests you have enough money anyway, also says your timing is good and you’re damned lucky). Some people make a lot of money. Most don’t.
3) My personal journey as a writer has been long, sometimes eventful, and somewhat unconventional (especially when it comes to traditional publishing). I don’t write for a living. I have a mortgage. I have a day job that pays the bills. I write as a hobby, usually in the evenings. As a writer, I’ve had some amazing successes (see “damned lucky” above), and some gut-wrenching failures. When it comes right down to it, though, I enjoy telling a story, and I’m happy when someone reads it and enjoys it. Pretty simple, right? This leads to my next sentence…
What do you want out of being an author?
Here’s another one: What’s your definition of success?
Okay. Let’s get to the meat (and keep both of those questions in mind as we go along).
The Holy Grail. Write a book, hook an agent, get a publishing deal (maybe with one of the big houses) and away you go! Nirvana. It happens all the time. All you have to do is go to a literary agency’s website & look at their client lists—they did it. Maybe some big names, maybe some people you’ve never heard of, but each one of them landed that agent, and landed a deal.
Did I go that path? Nope. I won a contest—the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. With it came a publishing contract with Amazon Publishing’s 47North imprint and a $15K advance. It was my third year competing, and after my first novel didn’t make it very far in 2012 and 2013, I entered my second novel in 2014 and BADDA-BING, the rest is history. Was THE MENGELE EFFECT the best book in its category that year? I sincerely doubt it. Luck and timing were on my side, that’s all.
Wait, you ask. THE MENGELE EFFECT? Didn’t THE GEMINI EFFECT win? Ah, you noticed. We’ll talk more about that later.
So, winning a contest was the “unconventional” part of my journey I mentioned earlier. My blue folder with 170+ rejection letters in it from both of my novels at the time is still down in the basement. Never hooked an agent with any of the versions of my query letters I’d sent (all snail mail at the time). Never hooked a publisher, either. Got my foot in the door by winning a contest. Whatever…the door was open, and that’s all that mattered.
It was at this point I got my first taste of traditional publishing. The book—the story—wasn’t mine anymore. It belonged to a group of editors/staffers at 47North, and they wanted changes.
First, the title. I chose THE MENGELE EFFECT because the main premise of the book was based on something horrid evolving from the weird fascination Dr. (and I use that term loosely) Josef Mengele had with twins. To 47North, however, “Mengele” was difficult to pronounce, and they were worried that the Nazi connection might turn some people off.
We changed the title to THE GEMINI EFFECT.
Next, the genre. In my mind, THE MENGELE EFFECT (THE GEMINI EFFECT) was a horror book, plain and simple. If you’ve read it, you might agree. The eventual cover design, however, resembled something one might see gracing the cover of a Michael Crichton novel, which gave some readers an unrealistic expectation of what they were about to read.
With horror, as with fantasy, writers can play loose with the laws of science because it’s NOT pure sci fi. It’s a scary story, made-up. Make believe. But, when a book like that is marketed as what looks like hard sci fi, readers (some of them) will get pissed off. Some did. I had more than one reader say (to paraphrase) “It’s obvious this guy isn’t a geneticist.” No shit, Sherlock. Not even close. Homey don’t do hard sci fi. Homey writes stories that move fast and stretch the bounds of imagination (maybe a little too much with this particular book, but hey…it was my first novel so give me a break). I’m not Michael Crichton (bless his soul), nor do I want to be.
So, am I sniping at 47North? Nope. Not at all. 47North allowed this fat bald guy to reach over a quarter million readers (so far) with THE GEMINI EFFECT and THE PHOENIX DESCENT (my second book with 47North). Could I have done that on my own as an indie? Not this guy, no way. So, for that, I’m grateful. BUT, I would be a liar if I didn’t say that even though I learned a TON working with the great people at 47North (on 3 books, mind you), I honestly did not enjoy losing a big hunk of creative control over my stories. That’s the main point I want to drive home about traditional publishing. When going the traditional route, an author—that’s you—loses creative control. Your story ceases to be entirely yours at the moment you sign that contract. Period, dot.
Let’s talk marketing, too. Amazon, like it or not, is the king of books. Barnes and Noble, among others, can’t compare, or compete. Amazon can pull some big levers and push books way up the charts IF THEY WANT TO. It happened to me with THE GEMINI EFFECT. During its first month, the book reached over 175,000 readers and hit the #1 spot in the US Kindle store (for ~three hours, but hey, it was there). I was the #1 science fiction author in the US Kindle store for about a week, too. What an amazing ride that was. They didn’t push THE PHOENIX DESCENT as hard (unfortunate because it’s a better book to be honest), so sales were nowhere near as good. They barely pushed THE ARGUS DECEIT, even though it received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and got a great review from Booklist prior to publication. Why didn’t they push it? Who knows. I sure don’t.
What I’m getting at is this: How the traditional publisher treats your book after publication is out of your hands. If they want to push it, they will. If they don’t, they won’t. Not your call. Why? Because it’s not your story anymore.
Have you caught the theme yet? Traditional publishing can be an amazing experience IF you can handle losing creative control over what you’ve written.
Say the following in a Jan Brady voice, and it’s funnier: “Stigma, stigma, stigma!”
[Please return to the normal voice in your head now.]
Self-publishing. You do it, or pay someone to do it for you. Everything. Editing, formatting, covers, marketing. You’re on your own.
When I first started writing back in the early 2000’s, self-publishing was in its infancy. If I remember correctly, there were a ton of pop-up companies—called “vanity presses”—that would take your story and, for a sizeable lump of money, publish a book for you. Notice the word “vanity”? They were called vanity presses because if someone was VAIN enough to believe they could write a book OUTSIDE of the traditional agent/publisher route, then they MUST be oh so full of themselves.
Great…I just wrote that last paragraph and I’m going to have that damn Carly Simon song in my head all day. Hooray.
Back to the early 2000’s. Because of the stigma associated with self-publishing, I was determined not to go that route. I finished my first book in 2003, targeted some agents/publishers, crafted what I thought was a great query letter (it wasn’t) and sent off my first few queries. I was sure that in just a few weeks I’d be popping the cork off a bottle of champagne and celebrating my newfound status as a published writer.
Not so much.
Like I mentioned earlier, there’s a tattered blue folder in the basement with all 170-or-so paper rejection letters I received (one was even dated the day before I sent the query…that was sure special). So, after a while I stopped querying altogether. I finished another novel in the meantime (2005), but it got rejected, too (it was THE MENGELE EFFECT, so when it won the ABNA for sci f/fantasy/horror, I got to say “Nah ne nah ne nah nah,” but that came much later).
In 2012, I started going to a local writers workshop and heard of a website called Smashwords.com. It was there that I decided to take those first two novels and—gulp—self-publish them. Why? I didn’t care about the stigma anymore. I wanted to get my stories out there, and Smashwords allowed me to do it. Later, I used Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) as well…and still do. Over the next few years, I sold a couple hundred copies of each book, and you know what? It felt great. People read them, and liked them.
Was I successful as a writer? Well, if you remember those two questions I asked you to keep in mind—what do you want out of being a writer, and what’s your definition of success—I had positive answers for both. Would someone else say I was successful as a writer? I doubt it. Don’t care, either. I was having fun.
Wait, did I say fun? Writing is fun? You’re damned right it is. Writing a story—even a little 1,000-word flash fiction piece—and have it draw a reaction out of a reader is a kick in the ass (pardon my French). I loved it then with my first two clunky self-published novels, and I still do today after reaching over a quarter-million readers with my other books.
So, you might think that with the growth of self-publishing, and the amazing successes some self-published authors have enjoyed—the stigma would be gone, right? Nope. In my experience, there’s a clear stigma attached to self-publishing in the traditional publishing world…and that really shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. Think of it like this: You’re driving a Kia. They’re driving a Mercedes. That Kia might be a great car, but it’s not a Mercedes so you better not park next to it.
Whatever. Some people’s noses are used solely for the purpose of looking down at others. So be it.
I ran across a thread on a very successful military science fiction writer’s website (I won’t name the guy) where one of his readers said something like, “I know how you feel about self-published authors…” and went on to comment about poor story-telling, poor quality, wanna-be’s, yada-yada-yada, parroting what this particular author had said in some earlier post.
This author is good, but for God’s sake get over yourself, will ya? Success, for the most part, comes about through: 1) hard work 2) persistence 3) writing skill, and 4) a rather large dose of luck and timing. Sounds like Mr. Unnamed Author forgot about #4.
Even within the self-publishing world—and this truly blows my mind—there’s a self-inflicted stigma between those who say they’re “self-published” and those who say they’re “indie authors.” Wait…isn’t that the same thing?
Apparently not, at least to some people.
I tend to use both terms interchangeably because in my old guy mind they’re the same thing. To others, though, being an “independent author” means you’re a professional, you treat your writing like a business, you pay for professional services (editing, covers, etc.), and the only thing you’re missing is a contract from a publishing house.
Okay, I get it, I guess…but the bottom line is you did it yourSELF. S-E-L-F. There’s that word, half of SELF publishing. So…calling yourself a self-published author means you don’t approach things in the same way? You write with two left thumbs? You do your covers on MS Paint? You’re a hack?
Again, whatever. (Insert heavy sigh *here*)
One of my favorite authors when it comes to post-apocalyptic science fiction is Sam Sisavath (you can read about Sam on the “Shout Out” page on my website). This guy can pump out books like nobody’s business, and they’re good. Hardly any formatting/text mistakes. Ever. Do I care whether he refers to himself as an indie author or as a self-published author? Nope. Do I care if he does it all himself or pays someone to do it for him? Nope. He gives me a good story, and THAT’s all I care about.
That’s all you should care about, too. Give your reader a good story and don’t worry about how to characterize yourself. It’s silly.
Wow…I think this can officially be called a rambling rant now. I’m beginning to mind-puke, so it’s time to cut this off.
If you take a look at the picture I attached to this post, you’ll see all three of the publishing terms I’ve hit on—self-publishing, indie publishing (if you buy the definition some people have), and traditional publishing.
Both THE COMING and THE MENGELE EFFECT that I’m clutching in my paws were self-published through Smashwords and CreateSpace (which doesn’t exist anymore). Did everything myself. THE MENGELE EFFECT won the 2014 ABNA award for its category and was traditionally published as THE GEMINI EFFECT. THE COMING was completely rewritten, enough so that I considered it an entirely new book, and was published through a client-only service offered by the literary agency I was working with at the time. They would take back-titles and republish in Kindle format—they paid for the editing, the cover design, etc., and leveraged those costs against eventual royalties. So, if you buy the indie publishing definition, I guess THE WIDENING GYRE fits.
Here’s the bottom line:
If you want to pursue traditional publishing, GO FOR IT. It can be difficult to break in, but once you do, there’s good things and bad things waiting for you. Roll with both. I will say this, though…there’s no guarantee you’ll ever grab that ring, so if you chase it long enough, you might be wasting your chance to get your stories out there. That would be a shame.
If you want to pursue self-publishing, GO FOR IT. Don’t be afraid, just do it. Have there been authors who found traditional publishing success by self-publishing first? Of course there are…Marko Kloos and Hugh Howey are two that come to mind, but don’t count on it. Both hit the market at the perfect time with the perfect story, and were seen by the perfect set of eyes. Luck and timing were on their side.
Whatever you decide to do—traditional or indie, or both—good luck, and just DO IT. Get your stories out there. Somewhere there’s a reader who is waiting to read your words. Don’t cheat them—or yourself—out of that magical moment.
And that, my friends, is what success really is…a writer connecting with a reader, and both experiencing the timeless magic of storytelling.