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Traditional v Indie Publishing: The Pros & Cons of Each

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So many Indie & self-published authors long for a traditional publishing contract that I thought I’d put some of the pro’s & con’s of each, having been in both worlds for the last 30+ years, with books of all genres (but still considered literary fiction: by different genres, I mean novels, short fiction, poetry, and non-fiction / creative writing).

Traditional Publishing

Pros

  • The author doesn’t pay for the cover, the design, the production costs, etc.
  • The agent does the work of finding the right editor for the work
  • The author gets a (usually modest) Advance
  • The author feels important and “validated” as a writer
  • The reason for most rejections is that the agent/editor doesn’t think the book is perfect the way it is, and, honestly, they have, literally, hundreds of millions of authors and manuscripts to choose from so they do not work on an imperfect manuscript, no matter how much promise it shows — so the author shouldn’t take rejections personally (which, unfortunately, doesn’t make them any easier to deal with, especially since editors’ reasons for rejection are usually something like “I just didn’t feel it” or “I’m not 200% in love with it” rather than something specific about the quality of the work or the writing).
  • Smaller niche or literary Houses are usually more welcoming and helpful (in the editing phase of the book) to new or relatively unknown authors than the larger traditional publishers are, so there’s always a chance you could get your book published with one of them

Cons

  • Being accepted by an agent is not validation that you are a good writer: rather it is an educated assumption that the agent thinks s/he can sell it
  • If the agent doesn’t sell it in what s/he considers a reasonable amount of time (which varies depending on the agent’s age, number of children, place in career, place in Agency, personal life, etc.), you will be unceremoniously dropped, despite any previous promises that he’s “committed to you for life and wants to represent your career, not just one book” (oy, vey, if I had a few dollars for every time I’ve heard that…)
  • If you do get a sale and you’re a relatively unknown author (which is most of us, no matter how many books we’ve already published), then your Agent gets 10-20% of the Advance — before it gets to you
  • Smaller niche or literary Houses are more likely to accept you but because of their size, they usually don’t have any money for Advances
  • The Advance gets paid in multiple installments: often two. The first 1/2 is usually paid 3-4 months after the sale (it takes time to gets those contracts through the appropriate channels), and the second 1/2 when the book is published (if you have a good agent, that will be paid no longer than 1 year after sale, whether or not book is published, which also gives publisher an incentive not to sit on your book for years)
  • I have heard of Advances being broken up into 4 or more payments, over a period of 2-3 years, at the minimum (If you’re Stephen King, getting $50M for your next three books, and the installments are divided into 6ths: 1st/6th when first manuscript delivered, 2nd/6th when first book published, 3rd/6th when 2nd manuscript delivered, 4th/6th when 2nd book published, etc., then this isn’t a bad deal, but not all of us are Stephen King, and even Stephen King complains that his NY publishers steal royalties from him…)
  • In addition to the 10-20% you have to pay to the Agent, you have to pay Federal, State, Local, and Social Security Self-Employment taxes on the total amount of the Advance, even though your Agent takes a significant percentage of it. (When my first novel was sold 20 years ago, I netted about 40¢ on every dollar I got in the Advance. I’m not saying I wasn’t happy, just extremely disappointed. I’d known about the Agent’s percentage of the Advance because that’s in the contract with the Agent, but I never even thought about the amount of taxes I’d have to pay, and, at that time, didn’t even know about Social Security Self-Employment taxes, which, like other taxes, are a percentage, not a fixed dollar amount.)
  • A sale to an editor at a publishing House is not validation that you have written a good book or that you are a good writer, no matter how many times you get told that — on the phone or in person
  • If an editor buys your book, it means the editor believes that the House can make enough money to “earn out” the Advance (i.e., make back the Advance money that it gives you, which is why most Advances are so small) and that the editor believes you will have enough sales to earn out that Advance
  • The editor decides, by contract, the title of your book (so don’t get too attached to it: titles are marketing tools), the cover, the back cover copy (marketing). The author gives up any and all control over all this — over the plot and characters, too, by the way — when he signs the coveted traditional publishing contract
  • The book better be perfect because most editors don’t do any actual work on the book: that’s not their job. Marketing is.
  • The author is responsible for the proofreading after every single version of the book that goes through at the publisher’s: House editing (to make sure they do things like spell “gray” with an a rather than “grey” with an e: don’t even try to argue with NY publishers on this one: they won’t give in), Design editing, Production editing, Foreign language editing (if you have any foreign words in your manuscript), Continuity editing (which ensures that if it’s snowing in the beginning of a scene, it’s not summer by the end of it; trust me: these editors miss a lot of that stuff, so you’ll have to do the final continuity pass yourself).
  • You’ll proofread your manuscript so many times that you’ll hate it by the time it’s ready to go to the printer, you’ll wonder why you ever wrote a book in the first place. Any and all mistakes found in the final book are there forever (the House will not go back to the Printers for typos or even serious mistakes, like their accidentally omitting a chapter or two)
  • The author has no say on the cover chosen. If you’re lucky, the editor will show it to you before the book is finished and ready to go to the printer. If not, you’ll be surprised (pleasantly, one hopes)
  • The author has absolutely no say over the title, though sometimes the editor will pretend to ask you if you “approve”. (If the author says “no”, the editor will call the agent, who’ll call the author, and tell him that it is a better title, so accept it. So don’t get too attached to your title: many famous authors report always having thought of their published books under the title they wrote it, rather than under the title it was eventually published, Erica Jong, among them.)
  • Once the author’s book goes to the printer, don’t expect the editor to remember your name. S/he has other authors/books to deal with.
  • If you’re lucky, the publisher will send out copies of your book to reviewers. You will not know whether this happens, or to which publications the book is sent. There is a reason for this: publicists handle it, and publicists cannot, under any circumstances, check to see if a book is going to be reviewed. To do so automatically and permanently pulls the book from the publication’s “To Be Reviewed” list, so publicists do not ask. If your book is reviewed, your editor will receive a copy of the completed review by fax or email about a week-10 days before the review is to be published. The editor will forward it to you if it’s good; to your agent if it’s bad, so the agent can break the bad news to you.
  • The agent acts as the buffer between an author and his editor, so you will rarely talk to your editor. You will never be able to complain about anything to your editor: you complain to your agent, who puts it in “politically acceptable traditional publishing language” before deciding to pass it on to the editor, if the agent deems it important enough to pass on. If not, at least you got to vent to your agent.
  • 99% of authors get no money or assistance from the publisher for promotion or publicity. If the House thinks your book might have a better than average chance of good sales, then you might be asked to pay for your own publicity or book tour if you live in a relatively big city. Most authors are not considered important enough to do book tours, and that’s why they don’t.
  • You will be responsible for all your own publicity and promotion, so you might as well get comfortable with Social Media, since that is where most authors connect with their readers and make sales.
  • Authors must usually have several titles in print before they show any significant sales. One book just won’t make you rich, so don’t expect it to. Once you’ve published your book, you have to work on its marketing & promotion while writing/editing/revising/publishing your next. (This is the same whether you are traditionally or Indie published.)
  • You have to make a website, do a blog, get on FaceBook, Twitter, Goodreads, etc since the publishing House doesn’t have time to do that for any author except the bestsellers, who usually have publicists or managers anyway.
  • As a traditionally published author, you lose control over every single aspect of your book, including plot, characters, title, cover, marketing. You cannot even reveal the cover of your book (on your blog or FaceBook page, for example) unless the publisher allows it (as Amanda Hocking discovered when her new series was accepted for publication for NY: Hocking was used to revealing her covers as soon as she got them done and liked them; her “chafing” under the publisher’s rules was obvious in her blog — but, hey, that’s part of why she got her $5M Advance)
  • If a book does not earn out its Advance, it could be taken out-of-print (OP) in as little as 6 months. If it looks like it may earn out, the book may stay in print a year or so. Even if it earns out its Advance early and substantially, the book could still be taken OP within a year or two, for no discernible reason whatsoever. Your editor will not have the decency to tell you this: s/he will tell your Agent, who will tell you. That’s how it works in this business.
  • Once a book is OP, the book is “dead” in NY jargon. Publishers don’t want it because they assume that it didn’t earn out its Advance, even if you have proof that it did. Agents don’t want to represent it because they know that the publishers won’t be interested in buying it. So the book is dead. In the past, the authors were just, frankly, screwed when this happened. Now they can put the OP books back into the market themselves thanks to ebooks and POD printing.

My first novel, The Kommandant’s Mistress, earned out its Advance 6 months before it was published. It got literally hundreds of good reviews — no bad or even mediocre ones except for the person who thought that novels about the Holocaust should not be written, only non-fiction, but that was his only complaint about that book — was shortlisted for several prestigious prizes, and then won several very prestigious national awards and prizes.

HarperCollins, who’d reserved the option to have the Trade Paper rights, put the book in its HarperPerennial line, which my agent happily assured me  meant that the book was now considered a back-list title — one that continues to sell slowly but steadily over the years and so always remains in print — and offered me her hearty congratulations. The book was taken OP less than a year and a half later. No reason was given. When I remarked, to my  agent, that Harper obviously didn’t know the definition of “perennial,” she laughed; I didn’t.

The only reason a new agent got the book back into print — without any Advance whatsoever — was because Patrick Stewart, of Star Trek: The Next Generation Captain Jean-Luc Picard fame, optioned it for film to play the male protagonist himself, and received funding for it. When my agent sold my second novel, she convinced the new publisher to put The Kommandant’s Mistress back into print by giving it to them for free: the publisher, of course, was hoping that the film would be made and that he would get rich from the associated movie-book tie-in sales (the cover would’ve then featured the stars of the film, including Patrick Stewart). As soon as the film was dropped (Hollywood politics) and the option released, the 2nd publisher took the novel OP.

  • An author earns anywhere from 3-10% of the cover price of each book sold. The bookstores earn 35-55%, the Distributors (like Ingram & Amazon) earn 15-20%, the printing costs are subtracted from any remaining monies, the publishing House gets the rest. Of the remainder, the House is supposed to send the author’s percentage to his Agent; if that happens, the Agent will take his 10-20% before forwarding any remaining monies to the Author. (Don’t expect any money beyond the Advance: even Stephen King claims he doesn’t earn any royalties & has threatened to audit his publishers, at the very least. Whether he actually did it, I don’t know: they may have just given him a larger Advance for his next books, to quiet him down.)
  • Neither the agent nor the author has any direct access to the sales records of his book, though NY contracts usually stipulate that the author may audit the publishers’ books. Agents discourage this, however, as authors who insist on doing it get blacklisted in the industry (no future sales), and the authors have to pay for the very expensive audit if the publisher’s sales figures are shown to be correct (you can guess how many times an author’s won an audit)

 

Indie Publishing

Cons

  • The author has to pay for everything: cover, editing, proofreading (if he’s not good enough to do it himself)
  • The author has to learn marketing books fast and well (faster than if accepted by a NY House, and as well as their professional publicists) if he expects any sales whatsoever, and marketing is where most authors fail miserably, with poor titles, worse covers, bad/boring book descriptions (which include the all important Pitch)
  • The author is solely responsible for the quality of the finished product, i.e., the book — an area where NY publishing Houses excel — and readers/reviewers are quick to complain if the product does not meet NY standards
  • The author must pay to produce a high quality product if he cannot put it out himself (NY Houses pay for this, so Indie authors must assume these costs)
  • The author gets no Advance monies
  • The author gets no validation (really, just an expectation) that his book will sell from someone experienced in the book business, i.e., an Agent or Editor at a traditional publishing House
  • Bookstores like Barnes & Noble do not recognize the term Indie Published Author. Anyone not traditionally published by a NY House is self-published, according to Barnes & Noble, and their stores do not order or stock books of self-published authors. Period.

Previously traditionally published authors who’ve put their OP books back in print through Ingram’s Lightning Source or Amazon’s Create Space may be considered for stocking at their local B&N, but must provide proof that the book will probably sell — e.g., good reviews, or royalty statements with sales figures — but even if the local Events Manager/Coordinator approves, B&N’s NY Corporate office has to approve, which is not likely to happen, not even for critically acclaimed, award-winning authors like me: I’ve already tried.

  • Libraries and Academic Institutions will not order books of self-published authors: they also do not recognize term Indie
  • Authors are unlikely to get any reviews from prestigious newspapers or publications like The New York Times Book Review because they don’t have access to the proper submission channels. In any event, these publications require 6-9 months lead time for considering books to review before the publication date, and most authors are not wiling to get their book into final form, then wait 6-9 months in the (mostly unrequited) hopes of a review, before releasing book to public
  • Authors must usually have several titles in print before they show any significant sales. One book just won’t make you rich, so don’t expect it to. Once you’ve published your book, you have to work on its marketing & promotion while writing/editing/revising/publishing your next. (This is the same whether you are traditionally or Indie published.)

Pros

  • You retain all control over all aspects of your book, from cover to title, from sales reports to amount of royalties earned
  • You determine the distribution markets, i.e., Amazon, Barnes & Noble ebooks, Smashwords, etc.
  • You determine your Royalty Percentage (35-70% for ebooks on Amazon, for example, and approximately 60% of the cover price for Trade Paper books
  • You determine the format: ebook, Trade Paper, Hardcover, audiobook
  • You decide when, if, and whether your book ever goes out of print (OP)
  • If you do take your book OP, you can always revise it, and put it back into print without hiring an agent to try to sell it to another publisher
  • Other Indie authors are usually relatively nice about helping each other out (though there are some pretty selfish ones who even join organizations designed to help out Indie authors, then do nothing but promote their own books)
  • It’s easier to make sales by connecting directly with your readers on Social Media
  • The piece-of-the-selling-pie is bigger than it is in NY with traditional publishing, though you probably have to work harder to get your piece
  • You have access to all your own sales reports, without auditing anybody or getting blacklisted in the industry for questioning/auditing your own royalty reports as you do in traditional publishing

Overall, having been in the traditional NY publishing arena for over 30 years, and in the Indie publishing market for the last 3, I would choose Indie publishing any day over traditional publishing. But then, I’m good with covers (I minored in Art History), titles, back cover copy, and other marketing, having taught creative writing on the University level for over 30 years, having been a visiting artist/author at writing conferences all over the country for the past 20 years, and having been a really quick study on the marketing aspect once my first novel got published.

(For example, my original title, The Kommandant, was changed to The Kommandant’s Mistress, after a “persistent rumor in the camps about the Jewish inmate with whom the Nazi Kommandant was obsessed” and modeled after John Fowle’s famous The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Even I knew that The Kommandant’s Mistress was a better title than my original, learned how to make titles with more Urgency & market appeal, and have never had a title changed since, on any of my traditionally published books).

Also, after retiring from University, I opened my own traditional publishing House to help other literary authors — the only market harder to break into than literary fiction is poetry, and no agents handle poetry collections — so I gained a lot of experience from the publishing & marketing side before the Indie/ebook markets were ever even available to previously traditionally published OP authors like me.

(In case you’re wondering, even my House’s contract gives the publisher all control over the title, cover, back cover description, etc., though I do help my authors with minor editing to improve the Urgency, Voice, POV, etc. It’s rare that an author has a marketable title from the beginning, though sometimes it takes only minor tweaking to make it work, and if it doesn’t work at all, I always get the new title from something inside the book itself. And as for covers, no author has ever come up with a good cover on his own, though a couple hired professional artists or photographers after I couldn’t find a cover and told them what I was looking for. Then I just tweaked the cover. But the author didn’t come up with the original concept, I can assure you. Most authors are just not experienced in the visual arts: they’re wordsmiths.)

And just to show you how my covers of my own Indie published OP books stack up to the covers done by NY Houses, here are the covers for the first and second editions of The Kommandant’s Mistress.

K USA HC 1993 HP 1994 web

(HarperCollins 1st edition cover, under the name “Sherri” because the editor said my real name wouldn’t fit on the cover of the book, 1993 & 1994)

K USA Arcade 2000 web

(Arcade’s cover for the 2nd edition, also under “Sherri” so they “wouldn’t lose the name recognition” of reviews/prizes, 2000)

And my own, Indie-published cover for the novel, now re-issued under my real name, in a Revised & Expanded, 20th Anniversary Edition (you can let me know, in Comments, which cover you like better: so far, the votes are all for my Indie cover). And yes, the license for that phot0graph cost me quite a bit of money: I had to save for months to get it. I do the design (title/author name placement over photograph or other cover art) for all my House’s covers myself.

The Kommandant's Mistress

The only reason I would ever return to traditional publishing would be if someone extremely famous and well-financed optioned one of my new books for film because that would give me a greater chance to get a large Advance — something I’ve never gotten. Even then, the Advance would have to be large enough for me to give up all control and access to my sales figures (again). Since I’ve already been down all those roads, I simply don’t see that happening.

Still, if a traditional publisher came to me with an offer of $5M, as they did with Amanda Hocking, I’m certain it wouldn’t take too much persuasion to give NY one book…

Otherwise, I’m now an Indie author. For life.

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