Monday, March 5, 2012

indie vs traditional publishing: notes from a Big 6 book deal

INTERN has been following the self-publishing versus so-called “legacy” publishing debate for some time now, and is fascinated by how emotional the conversation has been, and how full of colorful personalities.

On one hand, we have Team Indie, who argue that publishers are blundering, outdated, inefficient dinosaurs who make an increasingly poor value proposition to authors. Not only will traditional publishers make a mess out of editing, designing, and promoting your book, Team Indie claims, but they’ll squeeze you out of all but a measly royalty on what books they do manage to sell.

On the other side of the field, we have Team (airquotes) Legacy, who fire back that most self-published books are poorly written, poorly designed, couldn’t-pay-me-to-read-‘em buckets of word-vomit not worth their ever-so-clever $1.99 price point on Amazon.

As a person who recently signed a book deal with an old-skool publisher, INTERN is naturally quite curious to know who’s right. Would INTERN have been better off if, instead of querying agents and going on submission, she’d hired a cover artist and slapped that sucker on Amazon? What has she gained by signing with a publisher, and what has she given up? Are there subtle benefits and drawbacks the indie-vs-legacy debate has overlooked?

Keeping in mind the fact that INTERN’s first novel isn’t due to be published until summer 2013, here are the benefits and drawbacks INTERN has noted so far.

BENEFIT: Editing

Some proponents of indie publishing claim that Big 6 publishers hardly take the time to nurture new authors or edit their books. INTERN’s Big 6 editor has been unfailingly helpful, available, insightful and patient as INTERN has clawed her way towards a final draft (the fact that INTERN has a novel deal at all seems to indicate that Big 6 publishers are still willing to take on semi-feral young writers and nurture them into readability, which is another post entirely).

DRAWBACK: Requiring patience

Prior to this book deal, INTERN (like many young writers) was in the habit of spewing out a manuscript, tinkering with it a little, then ditching it for a brand new one. Being made to stay at the dinner table until every last pea is cleaned off her writerly plate has been a good thing—an initiation into the discipline of truly finishing something for public consumption—but some days INTERN wonders what it would be like to simply fire off a novel, e-book it warts and all, and move on to the next one. Maybe nobody would notice the missing subplot resolutions or the hokey ending! Maybe it would have sold just fine three drafts ago, and INTERN would be a Kindle Millionaire by now instead of slaving away on yet another one! It’s possible! (alright, INTERN—finish those peas!)


Book advance is putting tofu in INTERN’s fridge.


Book advance means that INTERN’s novel needs to sell an intimidating number of copies in order to earn out. Whereas if she self-published, INTERN would consider herself to be ballin’ out of control if she sold 50 copies, and she wouldn’t have to worry about anyone else’s money/career riding on her book.

BENEFIT: Social cred

Not gonna lie: having a Book Deal with a Big Fancy Publisher is a useful thing to have in your back pocket. Even though an alarmingly small percentage of the population actually buys novels, an alarmingly large percentage of the population seems to look favorably on novelists themselves, for reasons INTERN cannot fathom. It’s like being acquainted with an asthmatic baron or the heiress to the fortune of a vaguely recognizable brand of baking powder; people get some obscure pleasure out of the fact that a real, live baking powder heiress is renting their (moulding and uninhabitable) apartment.

All INTERN knows is that crotchety relatives, overworked librarians, and potential landlords have gone from regarding INTERN with suspicion (dirty hippie!) to friendly interest (Actual Writer!) if/when she mentions her publisher. God knows this shouldn’t be a factor in anyone’s self-publishing vs legacy publishing decision, but it’s not nothing either.

DRAWBACK: Wait times

As a zillion people have already pointed out in a zillion places, traditional publishers can take a really, really long time to publish a book. Does INTERN wish her novel could appear in bookstores this summer instead of next summer? Of course! She’s impatient! Hell, by next summer INTERN will be an old lady. If INTERN was self-publishing, she could publish her book as soon as the final copyedits were done. No struggling to explain to baffled relatives why the book’s not coming out for a whole other year after it’s finished. No thinking about how freaking OLD and, like, WIZENED she’s going to be when she can finally hold a copy in her hands.


INTERN’s first novel is still early in the publishing process, so she can’t speak to indie publishing’s claims about bungled copyediting, nonexistent promotion, etc. etc. What she CAN tell you is that she has a better novel now than she did when she went on submission (this doesn't mean one can't arrive at an equally strong draft strong through other means and self-publish; just that, in INTERN's case, going through the traditional route has been helpful.)

What do you think of the publisher-bashing going on at some of the indie blogs? Can we all just get along? Is either option inherently worse or better, or is it a matter of what's the best fit for each author? Have you ever wondered if your book would have done better or worse if you'd gone a different route? INTERN wants to know!


  1. I'm in the Big 6 boat, myself, and also currently in the editing-toward-acceptance-of-manuscript stage. There's definitely editing.

    Lots, and lots of editing.

    Next comes copyediting and cover, which is exciting. Cover is something that a lot of self-pubbed authors draw a line on. They want control of the cover because they want it representative of their novel, and that's a good thing to an extent, but it's only one element in the mix. When you've got a publisher who has an entire department dedicated to marketing, you're less likely to have a matching title or cover image (though, it does happen...) And I think most self-pubbed covers are obviously quick photoshop merges that don't take the extra steps necessary to polish the final product.

    Having said that, I am NOT anti-self-publishing. I have a few things that would work well in that market, I think. But, that brings me to another advantage of having a commercial publishing deal - name recognition. Selling a product is infinitely easier if people already know who you are.

    I don't think credibility's such a big deal (let's face it - sell 10K books on your own and that's all the cred you need), but recognition is. While the ease of self-pubbing an ebook is great for some writers, they still face the task of promotion and marketing (and despite clamoring claims to the contrary, big publishers DO market their books)

    Your average reader with a Kindle app on their iPhone might not care if an intriguing blurb belongs to an unknown who uploaded his book while he was supposed to be listening to a lecture on post-Romanticism in literature, but there are others who do -- librarians being key among them.

    Ebooks are great, and they do tend to spread by word of mouth, but so do library books. Librarians don't normally stock self-pubbed books; they stick to the publishing companies they know give them a reasonable assurance of quality in the editing and final product. (This is true of stores, too, where shelf-space is premium territory.)

    So the short version, at the end of this very long one, is there are advantages to both systems, but I think the advantage balance is still tipped in the favor of commercial publishing.

    1. It's good to hear from another Big 6er who is, indeed, getting lots and lots of editing!

      it's also important to note that self-publishing vs traditional isn't a one-time only decision for authors...some authors start as indies and cross over to traditional once they've achieved some measure of success, and some traditional authors jump ship and go indie once THEY'VE gained a following.

    2. Yep. And what's so sad is that so many are so busy screaming about "THIS IS THE ONLY WAY!!!" on both sides, they miss the opportunities they could find open if they'd stop to consider the value of other publishing venues.

    3. "And what's so sad is that so many are so busy screaming about "THIS IS THE ONLY WAY!!!" on both sides, they miss the opportunities they could find open if they'd stop to consider the value of other publishing venues."

      Yes. This. The end.

    4. I'm starting to wonder if the answer to "indie vs legacy?" isn't "both and neither". As Intern has demonstrated, there are pros and cons to both. Perhaps there's an opportunity to create something with all of the pros and none of the cons?

  2. Even though I'm self publishing, I do wish the bashing against both sides would stop. But I think it's inevitable. I don't wonder how it might've been different if I'd gone a different route b/c it's like comparing apples and oranges. Different routes. Different outcomes. Different ways to measure success.

    I do think a part of it is what's best for each writer. We all have to make our decision based on our research, not on our emotions.

    Congrats. And yes, summer 2013 seems pretty far away!

    1. right! it would be nice to run an experiment where you could simultaneously self-publish and trad-publish your book in alternate universes, and see which one sold better. as it is, it's hard to know which factors are responsible for good or poor book sales.

    2. Ha! I actually put a proposal to my agent with the idea of putting out the commercial book and simultaneously self-publishing something in the same genre (which is as close to a controlled experiment as you can get in this universe), but sadly non-compete clauses don't allow for it. :-(

  3. Personally, I'm 100% in the same camp as you. Between the money, the distribution, and the cred, going the traditional publishing route is the only one I'm considering. I think we're still years and years away from a point where the general public will blindly trust a self-published novel, even if it is $1.99.

    "What she CAN tell you is that she has a better novel now than she did when she went on submission"

    This is yet another reason why I believe traditional publishing makes for a better book. The book has to make it through two gatekeepers -- your agent and your editor. Both have their own vision of what the book should look like at the end of the process and their experience generally makes for a much better story. My book is still in the Revise and Resubmit process with an agent, but it is far, far better for the revision suggestions.

    "the fact that INTERN has a novel deal at all seems to indicate that Big 6 publishers are still willing to take on semi-feral young writers and nurture them into readability, which is another post entirely"

    I am very much looking forward to this other post entirely.

  4. I'm doing both, so I'm of the can't-we-all-get-along camp. The benefit of editing is a valid one, although I think it must be specified "free editing". Most of the self publishers I interact with consider copy-editing a necessity and many of them do developmental editing as well. The stigma of poor editing in self published books is strong, and will probably remain, since anyone can throw up an unedited book. However, I know of plenty self published books that are virtually error free, and have been plenty ticked off to purchase a $9.99 traditionally published ebook with a handful of typos. And though I am not gloom-and-doom about the editing powers of publishing houses, the reality is that they will only be reduced as sales decline. The disparity in editing qualities is on a long, slow trend of convergence. The responsibility is on the author now more than ever.

    And as you said, you earned an advance, but if you'd have self-published, you'd currently be earning royalties. It's almost impossible to say which would have worked out better in the long run, although I think that for most debut authors, the answer is traditional publishers.

    The big benefits to traditional publishing are distribution and marketing. Only traditional publishers have a good shot at getting your book into Barnes & Noble or other print locations. Even though you may sell a print copy of your novel, you're still dealing in the digital marketplace. A reader has to discover your book online and buy it there. And marketing, because yes they still do some of that. But also marketing because the name recognition of being published will get your book featured places it wouldn't have if you were self published. Self publishing is going to be hard pressed to beat traditional/legacy publishing on these fronts any time soon

  5. THE INTERN has again bashed a few nails on quite as many crumpets. She does indeed know my every squick and proves it. A famous spew and run artist, I, and a huge fan of the hokum ending, she makes me pine for an honest critique by a real novel doctor. Editing? Every time bar none (OK, bar some) that I've been edited, I've ended up with a better product. Why, I'll even throw myself of the literary cliff just let the editor catch me. As for copy editing, I'd rather scrub toilets. So, about all of that she's nailin' it. These services can be paid for. Add it to the cost of making a book. When determination gets into some of us, we'll try any route (Indy, Legacy, Little, Brown & Kindle) to get the words out.

    As for the bashing, I note one colorful personality grinding the axe. If THE INTERN knows of others, that's a deeper survey than this knuckle brain has taken. THE INTERN knows. It's all good. Even the basher once did a book tour. Way to know, INTERN!

    1. oh, those poor crumpets full of nails!

      working with a (good!) editor can be a real eye-opener, whether or not said editor is at a legacy house or lurking in the forests of freelance. in INTERN's case, having access to an editor for as many revisions as necessary has been worth more to her than the advance. it's like a free MFA program...well, sort of :)

  6. This is a terrific analysis of the pros and cons. For me, I really wanted that brand name "sticker" that a big 6 publisher can bestow. I'll admit it. It's just so much easier to write "dear bookstore" letters with that little logo on the spine. Likewise "dear newspaper editor," "dear book blogger," etc.

  7. It's like two warts fighting for space on a dragon's snout in preparation for a new blast of flame.

  8. I've taken the self-publishing route because I love the business of writing. As for editing: there surely is a lot of poorly-edited stuff out there (in both camps). I've taken ten years with my manuscript, so I'm not the write it, shoot it out there type. There is good and bad to everything--including publishing (on both sides). I'm with Laura: I think it's a very individual choice.
    Congrats to you on your upcoming release :-)

  9. I find it hard to believe that a dynamite book with excellent editing wouldn't sell. Legacy or Indie. Hate to sound like a rapper but...if the prose and story are cream of the crop, then the book will rise to the top. Or should, at least. The means by which a book gets published doesn't really matter to me, although I tend to side with Legacy for the sake of tradition.

    Excellent editors & publicists can be hunted down for those self-publishing. The issue with those that do, though, is that many simply fling spaghetti against the wall and wait to see it if sticks.

    This is a business. Not a food-fight. Just like any business, it needs a business plan and strategy.

    1. "Ballin' outta control..." HIGH-larious!

      Okay, from another indie perspective...

      I actually tried to go the traditional route and was once signed with two different agents for separate manuscripts (one from 2003 - 2006; the other from 2007 - 2009). Despite one of the agents being a mainstay in the industry for 20+ years--and number one on my agent list--I couldn't get a book deal for either manuscript. So two partners and I started our own thing called The Pantheon Collective in late 2009. I've been lovin' it ever since.

      I DO make sure I get a professional edit and quality book cover. Traditional publishing set a high standard, so if your book doesn't look like it can be on a bookstore shelf, it probably won't sell much. For me, I already had a pretty nice platform with a number of credits under my belt, so that definitely helped with sales. With four books, our LLC has sold close to 15,000 copies so far, mostly ebooks. Not too shabby for an indie.

      However, if a traditional publisher came calling, I definitely wouldn't turn them away IF the terms were right. But I'm definitely not gunning for agents and publishers with a billion query letters like I did in the past. I'm having a great time being indie.

    2. thanks for sharing your experience! it sounds like you've got a good thing going. more writers could probably benefit from teamwork, even if they don't go as far as starting their own publishing collective.

  10. I think the part about editing is especially important, because it's good to get feedback from people outside of our writing classes/groups or social circles. I think it'd be hard at first to accept constructive criticism, especially if there are certain aspects of our manuscripts that we're particularly attached to. But it'd be interesting to know what kinds of things the editors think would make the stories better.

  11. NPR had a discussion on this today re: Amazon's foray into paper publishing. Amazon hired a big gun from a traditional publisher (Crown? can't remember) at an attempt to answer the whole publishers-nurturing-authors idea.

    The fact Amazon controls so much of the distribution of novels from big publishers indicates that soon, indies and industry will be dwarfed by the publishers/ebook/distributor that is Amazon. Indie? Big Six? *shrugs* All roads may lead to Amazon eventually.

  12. Thank you for posting something based on your own experiences/from your own point of view! I've grown quite exhausted reading multiple posts written by "indie authors" (for the record, in my book an "indie author" is published by an independent publisher, and a "self-published author" is just that) SHOUTING about how unethical traditional publishers are...without having any personal experiences with publishers at all. They write big long pro/cons lists based upon their imagination of what the cons are with traditional publishing. [deep sigh]

    Personally, I wouldn't want to do all the work--cover design, editing, promotion--that self-publishing requires if your book is going to be a success. I'd want to spend that time writing. (On a side note, the aforementioned "indie authors" often list their sales for the past year. Usually it's a grand total profit of $50 or under and they're very happy. That's great, but a traditional publisher's advance is always more than $50. Just saying.)

  13. Any advice from someone completely new? Any agents you know of that take very young authors?