This is a question I head surprisingly often, especially from new authors. I always tell people that both are valid ways, and advise them to pursue a traditional publishing contract first, if that’s what they want. However, they should not stop at that. Instead, they should keep their options open, should they fail to get a contract.
Secretly, I know that 99% of them will end up Indie. Not because their books are no good, but because of a simple truth: what publisher will prefer an unknown author who’s only just starting out to a midlister Indie with thousands of fans and an established platform?
So, my advice would be to try both and see what works for you. But don’t waste years waiting for an agent or a publisher to come back to you. It’s just not worth it anymore. Besides, you have better chances at being picked by an agent or a publisher if you already have an established presence.
In Ursula K. Le Guin’s words, “the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.” Publishers don’t see it this way, though. In fact, the other day I was reading this in an interview by the founder of Blurb (a self-publishing service):
“Traditional publishing is becoming a hits’ business like Hollywood. They want to bank on box office, so if you’re a mid-list author, God help you if your last book didn’t sell a bunch, because you’re not going to get a deal.
“If you’ve never published before and are handsome or beautiful and 21 and have a big social network, they might take a flyer on you because your book could be the next Hunger Games.
“And if you’re a bestselling author, they’ll take you, too, because you’re the Brad Pitt of the publishing industry and people will just buy your book because it’s by you. But for everyone in the middle, good luck.
“That’s a huge population of people coming to Blurb now because they’ve had it up to here. They know they’re not going to get any marketing. There are no more advances so they’re not even making any money on the front end and they figure they’re going to have to do all the marketing anyway.”
I was going to expand on that, then I came across a great post by M. C. A. Hogarth, who explains it better than I possibly could, in her own inimitable style. I’m copying from her post titled, “The Uncomfortable Trail-Blazer“:
“Say you are a Traditional Genre Publisher with the budget to publish 100 books a year. (This is ridiculously high, but stay with me here). Of those 100, 50 are coming from midlist authors you’ve bought before and are incrementing series, or serving existing fans… so that’s half your line-up done already. Let’s say 5 are bestselling authors you’ve got in pocket to help pay your expenses for all the books this year that won’t earn back the money you bought them for.
That leaves you 45 slots to fill.
You get 10,000 manuscripts.
Let’s be harsh and say that of those 10,000, only 10% are worth publishing. That’s 1000 books, and you only have 45 slots. How on earth do you choose? Out of self-preservation, you decide only to receive manuscripts from agents, figuring they’ll comb through the top 10%. They do, and they present you with 100. You still only have 45 slots. Now how do you choose?
Obviously, you flip through them and choose the ones you like. Maybe you’re sick of vampires, so the brilliant vampire manuscript doesn’t do anything for you. Out it goes. You have a vague dislike of first person, and none of the first person manuscripts really scintillate enough to push past that vague dislike, so they’re out too. This book is superb, but it’s just so hard to describe you have no idea how you’re going to sell it to your boss, so you don’t.
At the end of the day, there were 1000 books worth publishing, and 45 got through the door. And there was nothing the remaining 955 authors could have done to better their chances. “Write a better book” is false advice, because many better books still failed. “Write a more marketable book” is better advice, but it requires you to understand the market, be willing to write to it, and get it to someone before the trends change… and the book still might fail.
And that leaves us at the very unpalatable truth about publishing, which is that in the absence of a way to guarantee that we’re going to win the lottery, we tell ourselves it’s possible. But there’s no way to guarantee a lottery win. None. People who tell you that you have a viable choice between traditional publishing and indie publishing are assuming that you can win the traditional game if you try hard enough, and if you fail, then it’s your fault. They’re assuming you always have the choice at all, when sometimes you don’t. Sometimes the only path to your readers is the path you have to hack out of the jungle yourself… and if you think I’m a jungle-hacking kind of girl at heart, you have no idea how much I long for a cup of hot chocolate, a civilized sofa with an afghan, and someone else to Take Care Of All Those Details For Me.
But I am not a princess willing to wait for rescue. If Prince Charming decides I’m not worth saving because my aliens are too strange and my gender presentation is too flip-floppy and I dress oddly and he isn’t sure he could sell our marriage to his parents, I’m not going to stay in the tower and cry about it. I’ll cut my own hair off for a rope and save myself.
All the things I’ve learned to do since embarking on my unplanned and uncomfortable journey as an indie, I’ve learned because I had to. Because the choice was either to learn or to give up and let my stories languish. And the only thing stronger than my desire for comfort, legitimacy, and Doing Things Properly is my anguish over having to sit forever on stories that people have been asking me to give them for fourteen years.
Believe me when I say that if I can do it, anyone can. I’m not special. The only things I’ve got going for me are my work ethic and the art. But if you’ve got that… well. These days, you can go pretty far.”
Her point was hammered home, in my mind, when I read an interview by Jeremy Lazzlo, author of several best-selling zombie books:
“Back in 2012, after speaking to literary agents and conducting research on the publishing industry, Laszlo submitted some of his manuscripts to several large book publishers. And then one day soon after, he received a reply in his email inbox.
“It was supposed to be an interoffice email from the publishing house I had submitted to,” Laszlo told me in a phone interview. “And it was a couple of their interns joking back and forth. One of them said, ‘I just batch-rejected 600 authors.’ But they accidentally hit reply all and all the authors were included. They were joking about how they weren’t even reading any of the submissions. At that point, I was like, ‘You know what, I’m not going to bother with that anymore.’…
What struck me most about [Indie authors’] success was that it was achieved so far outside of the traditional publishing apparatus that the New York publishers don’t even seem to know they exist. Adair’s books regularly make it to the top 100 bestsellers list on Amazon—at one point he made it into the top 10 bestselling horror writers, his name right next to Stephen King and Dean Koontz—and he told me that he’s never been approached by a publisher or literary agent. ”
So, if you’ve been asking yourself this question or holding back because you don’t know which is the best way forward, here is my wish for this year:
Whichever road you take, may it lead you to happiness – and a published book! 🙂
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out MCA Hogarth’s website and her awesome art!
Read my children’s book, Runaway Smile, online for free!