Lynn Viehl is a New York Times bestselling author, who last wrote for us about how committing to your craziest ideas can lead to rediscovering the joy of writing. For the “Now What?” Months, she walks us through the biggest choice in publishing:
Once you’ve written a book there are many things to consider, including how to pursue publication for it. The two primary choices are
- traditional via a publisher, or
- independent via self-publishing
You’ve probably heard the slurs slung at both options (Legacy! Vanity! House Slaves! Wannabes!) but I’m not here to sneer. As a professional writer I’ve published both ways, so I know the merits and the drawbacks of each option. Also, my mama taught me never to name-call.
Traditional publishing means acquiring a publisher through the submission process. You query a publisher, tell them about your book, and wait for a response. While you’re doing this, a couple hundred thousand other writers—including me—are doing the exact same thing. A very few writers will receive a contract offer, and a few more with promising submissions will be asked to revise their books. Everyone else? Gets rejected. You may be one of the lucky few who get an offer on the first book you write and submit. I wasn’t; I wrote twenty-eight novels and racked up more than eleven hundred rejections in the ten years I spent pursuing publication before I received my first contract offer. Fortunately when it comes to writing I’m pretty tenacious—rather like a pit bull, in cleats.
Independent publishing allows a writer to sell their book on the market as soon as they decide to publish it. If the writer elects to use one of the digital self-publishing platforms, this can happen in the few minutes it takes to create an account and upload an e-book file. You don’t have to wait for an offer, or compete for a few slots with hundreds of thousands of other writers. Of course that means anyone else who wants to self-publish can and will, and that’s where your competition comes in.
There were 133,036 self-published books released in 2010, and 211,269 released in 2011. We don’t yet have the figures for 2012, but my guess is that it will be close to half a million.
Both publishing options offer some serious challenges. Most major traditional publishing houses accept only agented submissions, which means acquiring an agent to represent you, then paying your agent 15% of whatever you earn from any offer you accept. Once a publisher acquires your work they make the lion’s share of the decisions about it (and they will put that in the contract you have to sign.) Because the traditional publisher has all the expense involved with producing the work, they take the lion’s share of any sales, which for a typical mass-market novel is 92-94% of whatever it earns.
Independent publishing, on the other hand, demands a writer also serve as their own editor, cover artist, e-book production manager and publicist (or hire the freelance equivalent thereof, which is where the “free” option of self-publishing can become costly.) Writers who publish independently often can’t afford the hefty price of producing print editions, which most bookstores are unwilling to sell anyway. Most self-published titles are not given the same respect or consideration, so that’s another battle for the independent writer.
Depressed yet? Don’t be. Both options also offer excellent advantages. With a traditional publisher you’ll be provided with an editor, cover art, and a professional production that includes excellent distribution. With independent publishing you’ll have complete control over your product, the ability to publish whatever you like whenever you like, and a higher percentage of the royalties. We’ve all heard about writers who start out as independents, sell very well and transition to traditional publishing. There are also writers who pursue both traditional and independent publishing at the same time and make it work.
How you pick your pub is a business decision, not an illustration of your character, a demonstration of your ego, or a yardstick to size your IQ. If you view publication as an industry (which it is) you’re basically opting to either work with an established company (traditional) or set up your own business (independent.) My advice is to set your priorities, educate yourself, choose what’s right for you and stick with it—like a pit bull, in cleats.
Since her debut in 2000, New York Times bestselling author Lynn Viehl has published 47 novels in 8 genres, and is the host of Paperback Writer, a popular publishing industry weblog featuring writing advice, market info and free resources for writers.
Photo by Flickr user Jano de Cesare.