As many of you probably know, I am considered a hybrid author, meaning I put out books through both traditional and independent (self) publishing. One of the more interesting misconceptions I sometimes run into, though, is folks who think all of my works after that first traditional publishing deal are also traditionally published, essentially assuming that I would stop going indie the moment I had the chance. In truth, I only do one traditionally published series because I genuinely love going indie, especially for projects where it’s a better fit. Today, I wanted to focus on some of the reasons why authors, both new and established, are taking on independent publishing.
Look, we’ve got to get this part out of the way, so we may as well knock it out first. And, to be frank, money is a big part of the writing world. Most authors are not Neil Gaiman or J.K. Rowling, living off (well-deserved) fame and movie deals. We’re working folks who keep a budget and watch our income just like everyone else. So being able to make more from a book matters, because it might be the difference between another year doing the job or having to update a resume.
Amazon pays out 70% of royalties to indie authors. There are actually a few exceptions and stipulations on that, but for now let’s stick to the general case which is a firm 70%. No traditional publisher will match that, they couldn’t afford it even if they really wanted to. From what I’ve read and heard, the average royalty rate for traditional authors is ~15%-40%, depending on clout, agent, negotiations, blah blah blah. For now, let’s be generous with an average and say the general traditional pub rate is 30%. On a $5 book, that means every buy from Amazon earns you $3.5, while one through a trad pub will pay out $1.5. Now $2 doesn’t seem like a lot, but multiply it over hundreds of copies, and that’s a lot of cash to miss out on, especially for those living on the budget bubble.
Of course, the trade-off for the royalty change is that a traditional publisher will invest in marketing and distribution, ideally making up for the rate difference by bringing in a greater volume of customers. However, no one knows for sure what books will hit, and some have a limited audience regardless of how much marketing goes out. As an author, there are times when the trade-off doesn’t make fiscal sense, especially for the bigger folks with their own followings. It’s on us to know which projects to take through which system to help stay afloat, and knowing both markets well helps immeasurably with those decisions.
Control of a novel is important to every author, but the amount of control and importance of retaining it will vary from project to project. Now I’m going to say off the bat that REUTS has always been great about this, I don’t want anyone to read this part as me secretly taking them to task. Not all publishers are so good, though, and that can be a real turn-off. Some books have riskier elements, things that the normal publishing world will reject. Cursing is a big one, depending on your target audience, as are violence, sex, etc.
If you write a normal novel that fits within expected content guidelines of the genre, then you don’t have a lot to fear from traditional publishing. There will be changes and tweaks, that’s what editing is for in the first place, but overall the story has a low chance of being significantly altered. If you’re trying something risky, however, then traditional publishing will probably push back on you. They are, after all, businesses that need to break even, so investing in something that breaks with the usual styles or expectations means putting their money at risk. In those cases they will often A) Reject a book outright or B) Try and edit it into compliance with the rest of their genre/catalogue.
Using some of my own stuff for quick examples: the variances can be content such as cursing and sex in a generally (pre-2010’s) kid-friendly genre like superheroes, style choices such as making a novel out of five novelettes, or even curious world-building choices like a character named Johnny Three Dicks. It’s worth noting that the middle example actually did go through a traditional publisher (REUTS), because not all of them will reject things that contain riskier elements. You don’t always have to take those projects indie, but if the odder aspects are really important to the author, then they’ll make sure to retain a necessary level of control with the publisher, or go indie. Like money before, the choice depends on the project and publisher in question.
This one is going to seem weird to a lot of y’all, but believe it or not scheduling is a big part of writing. There’s a thing called the cliff, and while no one seems to agree exactly how long it takes to hit or how steep the drop off is, every author I’ve spoken to agrees it exists. Because of course it does, that’s the nature of media consumption. Essentially, when you release a new book it will sell well for a while (often lifting other books as well, especially those in a series), then less well, then less, until eventually it kind of stabilizes out at the resting point that it more or less hovers around. The drop off from top sales to the stabilization point is known as the cliff, since sales slide generally downward from release.
How does that pertain to scheduling? Simple: knowing the cliff exists means authors have to plan for it. We don’t release two new books from different series in the same month because that’s a poor use of our limited release opportunities. Personally, I try to do three books a year spaced out semi-equidistantly, because that’s about the time my cliffs are hitting their bottoms. As soon as heat from one dies, ideally another will be swinging in to get folks excited. Other authors do their own schedules based on production, sales, and a myriad of other factors.
Traditional publishers have their own schedules they have to work within, a carefully crafted timetable to get each book the most exposure possible before moving on to the next. And that’s totally fair for them, but it means you’ll often have little to no say on when your book might come out. For some authors, that can be downright dangerous. In a worst case scenario, they might find themselves competing against their own books, splitting their audience’s interest and potentially wasting the hype of a release.
Like money and control before it, scheduling can be a big deal for authors, and going indie means ensuring we can set it all up exactly the way we need to in order to make sure things are flowing smoothly. Ultimately, the lesson I hope everyone takes from this isn’t that one form is inherently better than the other, only that both publishing models have risks and limitations that come with them. There is no right way to publish, only the method that best fits your particular project.