There are good things and bad things about being a newbie author. The bad things may or may not include the crippling void of uncertainty—that is, you have nothing, are striving for everything, and can lose just as much with the click of a “send” button. However, in the vast array of “good things” comes a wide range of options. You ain’t signed to nobody and don’t owe nuthin’ to no man. Having nothing is truly the potential to have anything.
I’m trying to look at things that way. After losing my publishing deal, I’ve been left in a bit of a pickle. Patel Patterson and the Apocalypse Key is ready to go. It’s edited, will soon be formatted, and is dressed in a kickin’ cover… But those are just words on a page if I don’t decide where to print.
Fortunately (and terrifyingly), I’ve got options. This blog post is going to be a bit of a discussion about what’s running through my head as well as the pros and cons of each publishing method. If you missed my first post on the various types of publishers and the pros and cons of each, you should go back and read the posts. However, I thought it might also be beneficial to hash out my logic now that I’m dealing with a real-time situation—a voyage of discovery for you and a psychological brake check for me.
If you do read this post, please consider leaving a comment or sending me a message. I want to know what YOU think about this analysis and what YOU think would be the best choice for me given my current circumstances. If you were me, what would you do?
Here’s the situation:
I have an edited, formatted book that was supposed to come out in October. My publisher recently announced they are closing, leaving me with the manuscript, all my rights, a cover, and a marketing plan.
At this point in the juncture, I’ve got three options: traditional publishing, indie publishing with a small publisher, or indie publishing on my own (self-publishing). Let’s take a look at each of these in depth.
Traditional Publishing: Cons
Let’s start out talking about a timeline. Let’s say that I magically hook an agent in the next month. That agent will probably take me through at least six months of editing and preparing my manuscript. That puts us at January 2019. Let’s say the book rapidly sells to a big publisher within three months. (For the record, this hypothetical situation is completely ridiculous.) That publisher will spend about a year with edits, then perhaps another year with proofreading, marketing, and behind-the-scenes witchcraft. That puts us at 2020. If I happen to find a four-leafed clover and am kissed beneath a full moon by the seventh son of a seventh son.
That is, if I’m the luckiest girl alive.
In reality, authors spend years trying to find literary agents, and even when they do, that doesn’t guarantee that the book will sell. It takes some agents years to sell the book. Others can’t sell the book and try to sell the author’s next work. In this large span of time, the agent may retire, quit, or move to another agency. Your access to big publishers is completely dependent on another person. If your agent is suddenly run over by a tractor, where does that leave you?
I have a completed book that’s ready to go. Is trying to hook a big publisher worth the time and the tears?
The second big factor is control. You’re signing a way a big chunk of your profit to an agent as is (15-20%), then an even bigger chunk of it to a publisher. Odds are, unless your name is King, Rowling, or Gaiman, you won’t be getting a multi-million-dollar advance. In fact, most authors make less than $1,000 a year.
I’m also signing away my rights. I don’t get to control what gets put on the cover of my book, how the book is sold, where it is sold, and how it is marketed. I don’t control the blurb, the Amazon keywords, the taglines, or any other subtle factor that leads to stellar salesmanship. If I feel my publisher isn’t doing enough or isn’t doing the right thing, that’s really tough tooties for me. It’s not my book anymore. When the publisher says the book is finished, the effort is done.
Odds are, my book will flop. I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer here—I’m just being practical. Over one million books are published in the U.S. alone every single year. How many of those can you name? How many of them do you think make multi-million-dollar movie deals? If the book doesn’t sell well (“well” is considered to be 15,000 copies), it is doubtful that the publisher is going to take a chance at my already-written sequel.
Traditional Publishing: Pros
“Holy guacamole!” you say. “Hannah, that’s bleak. Why would anyone ever go traditional?”
Obviously, there’s a reason or people wouldn’t be slaving away for years trying to get it done. The greatest thing about traditional publishers is that they have branding security. We’re talking big names—Penguin. Random House. Disney. These guys have ruled the roost for quite some time, and it really doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere soon. They know what they’re doing, know how to market (they’ve been doing it for decades), and will use a multifaceted team of professionals with years of experience.
The other great thing about traditional publishing is the prestige. As egregiously erroneous as it is, there is still a stigma attached to indie authors and their “trashy self-published novels.” There is something to be said for the pomp and circumstance of having an agent, going through a traditional publisher, and doing things the traditional way. Legacy publishers already have methods and connections. They know how to get into books stores, reach libraries, sell in book orders, garner prestigious reviews, and all the other trappings of boosting a book into the public consciousness.
Largely, it is traditional authors who score things like theatrical adaptations, movie deals, and action figures. Of course, there are exceptions (The Martian was self-published before it got picked up for the movie.), but those exceptions are few and far-in-between. Arguably, you access more than just a print factory with a big publisher. You also glean access to their access points.
But this is all delusions of grandeur, isn’t it? Let’s take a quick detour back to reality.
Let’s talk about the ease. So you’ve got an agent. The agent got the publisher. The publisher is publishing, and you….
Well, you’re working on your next book.
If you want to write and only write books, traditional publishing is the best option. You’re not worried about marketing, formatting, or any other aspect of the publishing process. All of your time can be devoted to the craft.
A bigger publisher is also likely to have oodles and oodles of money. It’s questionable whether or not they will be spending that money on a debut author, but having a sizable marketing budget and a professional cover is a happy little dream.
Small Publisher: Cons
I was signed to a small publisher for about a year, and a year was a good amount of time to assess their limitations. While smaller publishers do have many of the benefits of larger publishers, it’s important to keep in mind their pitfalls as well. The first of these (obviously) is security. With self-publishing on the rise and traditional publishers scrambling to keep up with an ever-changing industry, small publishers are slowly but steadily getting squeezed out of the picture. Blaze closing wasn’t an omen; it’s a reality. The game is changing so drastically, even some of the bigger publishers have been forced to merge. If you sign with a smaller publisher, you are lashing yourself to the fate of that publishing house. Are they managing their finances well? Will they exist in 5-10 years?
Can you really know for sure?
Hooking a smaller publisher may also take time. While many of these indie houses do take unagented queries, you still must query and be accepted. I have two small publishers interested in Patel at the moment, but even if I signed with the most promising one, the earliest I would be debuting Patel would be April 2019—after more edits, more revisions, and no guarantee that I could keep my cover, my tag lines, or any of the work I’ve already done.
Even though a smaller publisher is a publisher, there can be a bit of money involved. Of course, this absolutely depends on the publisher. If you’re thinking about signing with a smaller house, be sure that you discuss whether or not there will be any cost to you, whether that be marketing ads, conferences, a release party, etc.
By signing your book to a small publisher, you are also signing away your rights. Blaze was extremely gracious to return everything to me, but while I was signed to them, they did have the right to make any edits they thought necessary, reject my suggestions, use any cover they wished, and sell my book with any strategy they saw fit. Of course, working with a smaller publisher did mean that I had better access to the publishing team (Blaze was wonderful about respecting my wishes and taking my suggestions to heart.), but at the end of the day, they still had the right to do whatever they pleased with Patel and take 50% of the profits.
This begs a very important question:
What can a smaller publisher do for me that I can’t do for myself, and are the benefits of the association worth that much of my profit?
Small Publisher: Pros
I’m very happy that I signed with Blaze, and knowing what I know now, I would do the same thing if given the chance. I learned more in a year than I ever would have on my own, and the support and friendship of my Blaze fam still lives on.
The greatest thing about a small publisher is that you get the best of both worlds: you have experts supporting you every step of the way, but you’re likely to get more time and attention if they’re not publishing 3,000 books a year. Now, a “small publisher” can be anything from Bloomsbury (the house that published Harry Potter) to a woman running things out of her basement, so it really pays to talk to other authors in the house and gauge the publisher’s expertise before signing.
If the house is good, they will have an enthusiastic and capable team with plenty of market and technical experience. You don’t need to worry about formatting, editing, and putting together a marketing strategy because your publishing house will be doing that for you. As a newbie author, it’s comforting to be able to fall back on a veteran’s experience.
If you are a considering a small publisher, I wouldn’t sign unless that house is offering to pay for editing, the cover, and part of the marketing budget. That way, if you do become strapped for cash, nothing is stopping the book’s release. If I were to sign with one of these guys, I wouldn’t be doing everything myself.
The second greatest thing about small publishers is that, for many of them, you don’t need an agent to query. This can save a lot of time and heartbreak. Getting an agent is a long, arduous process, and even thinking about going back to the query slush churns my stomach. (I’ve been slogging through slowly and painfully.) The idea of a more direct route is tempting.
The third greatest thing about small publishers is that you aren’t doing everything yourself. Sure, you’re going to share a big chunk of the marketing, editing, and overall showmanship of the book (This can be a good or a bad thing depending on your personality.), but you don’t have to learn how to format, don’t have to deal with printers, and avoid a lot of the time and backbreaking labor it takes to self-publish a book. This clears up more writing time and leaves the technical details to the experts who can (and will) do it way better than you can.
Even with a smaller name, a publisher (any publisher) does provide branding. “Self-publishing” is a dirty word in certain circles, and there are many reviewers, distributors, and industry professionals who will not touch a book unless it bears the insignia of a reputable house. No matter how small the house is, indie publishers still allow you to say, “I’m signed with a publisher,” and that in itself can open doors. There is an air of legitimacy to it, if only in kindling your own ego.
I really loved writing for Blaze because of the flexibility. They were working with many authors over a myriad of genres, but I could always email my editor/media manager/formatter/artist or hit anyone up on a Google Chat just about anytime I wished. When the marketing plan came out, we all had a meeting to discuss it, and I was able to provide feedback and suggestions to reform to a strategy that I found more feasible. Very few publishers allow you to give feedback on your cover, give your two cents on strategies, or even complain about something you think could be done better. Smaller publishers allow you to be much more involved in the publishing process.
Before we go spitting all over self-publishing as being “second-rate” and the “option when there are no options,” let’s just look at the pragmatic struggles that independent authors face. (Because, let’s be honest, there’s nothing “self” about self-publishing. If you’re doing it RIGHT, you’re outsourcing a lot.)
The biggest hesitation I have is that self-publishing lacks branding. Do you think your self-published book is going to be in a Scholastic book order? Willingly carried by bookstores or met with enthusiasm by literary gatekeepers? Think again.
There are many self-published books that are the picture of professionalism. They are professionally edited, formatted, free from airs, and wear kick-butt covers that could compete with any other tome in the industry. However, for as many stellar indie books that exist, there are probably twice as many crappy ones. This gives independent publishing a bad name—and why shouldn’t it? If the knockoff brand isn’t as good as the name brand, why shouldn’t it be labeled as cheap, shoddy, and poorly done?
The biggest challenge to self-published authors is self-publishing the right way. Meticulously. Professionally. In such a way that makes you nigh indistinguishable from your traditional competitors. If you’re going to survive as a small fish in a big pond, you’d better ensure that those who give your unknown brand a chance are rewarded for doing so.
With this being said, some genres work better than others. The “self-publishing boom” is centered primarily on adult thrillers, romance, nonfiction, and young adult novels. I can write an entirely separate blog post on why this is, but that’s for another day. Other genres such as picture books and children’s literature are much more difficult to crack.
I write middle grade fantasy-adventure—that is, Percy Jackson or Artemis Fowl-y books. Self-publishing would be tricky because I would not only be handling my own marketing, but marketing to two vastly different audiences: the children (of course) and the gatekeepers (teachers, librarians, and parents).
If I self-published, I wouldn’t be coming from a known brand. Why should teachers trust me in their schools? Librarians spend their money on my book? Why should parents give me a chance when books from Scholastic are coming from a household name and are much easier to access? Even if I do earn their trust, how are they going to hear about me at all?
Visibility, marketing, and competition are all sobering questions for the middle grade independent author. There’s a reason there are no six-figure-earning middle grade dynamos offering publishing classes like Mark Dawson and Joanna Penn: No independent author has cracked the middle grade code.
This is either the tip of the spear or the cusp of madness. I’m not quite sure which.
Self-publishing does come with an initial cost. That can vary according to the quality of services you hire (and EVERYONE suggests you make them QUALITY), but Mark Dawson estimated it to be about $1,200 per book. That includes editing, proofreading, cover, and formatting. And this is the skinny: If you’re going to do well, you’re also going to pay for marketing.
I don’t think I need to tell you that the workload spikes exponentially. You’re not just an author—you’re an entrepreneur running your own company. To do as well, if not better than a traditional publisher, you need to be doing most of the things traditional publishers do with a whole army of people. This excursion is not for the faint of heart. Of course, you can outsource some of these things (PA’s, marketing managers, blog tour hosts, etc.), but these services cost money, and money isn’t something I have a lot of.
We haven’t even addressed the learning curve. What do you know about keyword optimization? Copyediting? Landing pages? How books are published, what paper they should be published on (white for nonfiction, cream for fiction), and the ROI of NetGalley?
If you’re anything like me, you have no idea what I’m talking about. But if you’re going to self-publish, you need to learn. Fast.
The great thing about this is that all this information can be found online through classes, free materials, forums, and blogs.
The not-so-great thing is that once you learn something, seven more unknowns pop up on your research list. The information is out there, but what kind of treasure hunt does it take to find it?
This begs another question: How can I know what I don’t know I don’t know? The lack of experience is another harrowing factor. When you’re with a publisher, you have a team of experienced professionals behind you. I can read and research all I want, but I’ve never actually done the thing.
Big-name independent authors usually have 20+ books on their backlist. How long do you think it took them to learn the system? To gain marketing traction? To start making money? There are so many independent authors making out like bandits from the “self-publishing gold rush,” but we’re talking about years of trail, error, time, and temper.
Do I have the time to learn? The patience for an independent career to unfold? The results could be incredible, but do I have the faith and the stamina to make it to that point?
Enough doom and gloom. Independent publishing is a completely viable option, so let’s talk about the pros. The first of these is time. Arguably, I could still publish Patel in October if I chose to do so. I could publish it next year, the year after that, or any year I wished. Self-publishing would give me wiggle room to do my research and then debut my book when I feel ready. I wouldn’t have to depend on an agent or a publisher.
Control is another very lovely thing about self-publishing. I not only control the timeline, but every other aspect of the book as well. Sure, everything is on my shoulders, but that also means that I can do whatever I want. Arguably, I know my book better than anyone else, and my vision of its lifespan is the absolute purest. I’m not tied to anyone else’s fate. I own all my rights, keep all my profits, and can do anything I want shy of racketeering.
The military told me plain and simple: “Nobody cares about your career as much as you do.” The same thing applies to your book: Nobody will ever care as much as you do. Period. It is completely up to you to develop your own marketing strategy and push it as far as you want to go. Now, this takes a lot of time, dedicated study, and perhaps a bit of upfront investment, but no one on this earth can sell your book better than you can, and you have completely free reign to do that.
Additionally, you can learn and adapt faster than publishers can. The literary world is tumultuous right now because publishing has changed more in the past twenty years than it has in the past 200 years, and traditional publishers can’t keep up with that. Do you think they can overhaul millions of books into an online strategy? Do you think they’re frightened that 70% of book sales are made online? For the entrepreneur-author, this new world is bursting with opportunity—but only for those who have the courage and the fortitude to crack the code.
So let’s say I debut with a traditional publisher and sell 3,000 copies with my first run of Patel. Not bad, right?
It is doubtful that the publisher would be willing to take a chance on another one of my books after that, even if the sequel is already written. (And, for the record, it is.) Let’s look at the math: A publisher invests (on average) $10,000 on every book. That book sells 3,000 copies at $7.99 a piece and they’re making 50% of the profit. That puts them at $12,000—a $2,000 profit.
Not bad. Not good, either. If the publisher isn’t happy with those returns (and 3,000 copies sold is a pretty good for a newbie), that publisher has every right to shake my hand and send me on my way.
Contrarywise, if I self-publish, I can invest as much or as little as I want. The average “new release” is only on a bookstore display for three months. What if it takes Patel a bit longer to pick up steam? What if I’m getting better traction with a long-term marketing strategy? While a traditional publisher may give up when the numbers don’t add up, self-publishing gives me the freedom to play a longer, grander game—to see my career as a marathon rather than a series of rapid-fire sprints. Big self-publishing successes will tell you that it took them anywhere from four (Mark Dawson) to seven (Joanna Penn) years to find their feet. However, once they did, they were looking at millions of dollars in profits.
One mustn’t see self-publishing as a go-for-broke option. When done correctly, independent authorship is an entrepreneurial endeavor. You’re constantly learning, researching, testing, and marketing; your independence gives you freedom to make mistakes. So this bit of online advertising didn’t work for you. So what? You go out and try another—again and again until something sticks. If I self-publish, I don’t need to worry about Patel being a silver bullet. I’ll learn a lot, then I’ll learn even more from the next book. By the time I have 20-25 books on the shelf, I’ll be a guru.
I’d like to close this discussion by talking about who I am as a person. Some people just aren’t meant for self-publishing. They don’t like trying new things, don’t want to get into marketing, and have no interest in being a part of the process. I, however, am cut from a peculiar type of cloth. I love socializing, networking, and making connections in the literary world. I graduated in the top 3% of my class from the most prestigious military academy in the world, I finished my studies as an honors literary major, and commissioned as a nuclear engineer. I’m a furious researcher, an indefatigably diligent worker, and a go-getting doer.
However, I am also easily discouraged, pessimistic, and have a tendency to catastrophize. I fear the unknown, and I hate not having a checklist to success. I am prone to depression, ruminate over past mistakes, and agonize over everything that could possibly go wrong.
There are certain parts of my personality that are well-suited to independent publishing. There are other parts that could be lethally adverse. One of my colleges at Blaze gave me this piece of advice: “You can do very well at this (self-publishing) if you don’t let it get to your head.”
So there you go. This is the long and short version of everything capering through my brain, snickering and burbling in the wee hours of the morning.
What do YOU think is the best option?
What do YOU think I should do?
Please, please, please leave me a comment or a message. I absolutely love getting advice from friends.
 Yes, you MUST get professional editing!
 We’re talking 4-7 years, if not more. But this is for the big $$$.
 I write my 90,000-word books in about 6 weeks. This is feasible.
Photo credit to Taha Ajmi.