In the past, when dissecting publishing methods, I’ve focused largely on the benefits each system offers. There are some mentions of drawbacks, but it’s never been the central thesis to any of these blogs. I tend to keep a positive tone, so it’s not surprising my analysis usually puts the spotlights on each method’s upside. However, in answering the questions of newer writers, I’ve come to realize that might be doing a disservice. The drawbacks in each method are as important as the pluses, and deserve to be evaluated when considering what publishing path is right for your project. So lower your guitars an octave, push your hair down in front of your eyes, and break out the pitch-black nail polish. Today, we’re digging into the downsides of indie and traditional publishing.
If I’m going to talk shit, it’s only fair I start with the method I’ve used most frequently, championed publicly, and generally love doing: indie/self-publishing. And honestly, that “/” between “indie” and “self” is probably the best place to start. Going full-indie means accepting that to some people in this industry, you’ll never be a “real” writer. They’ll always see it as self-publishing, and nothing short of insane levels of success will convince them otherwise. Even if you pull that off, they’ll call you an exception, distinguishing you from the rest of the indie crowd. Are these people stupid assholes? Of course they are, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also be people you respected or hold positions of power. Being indie means you didn’t go through the proper vetting and submission process, you haven’t been blessed by the sacred gate-keepers, and you should be ready to deal with people who think that makes you lesser.
Another downside of indie: time and energy. As a friend once said: “What I wouldn’t give to go back to the days when all you had to do to be a writer was write books.” While I’m not sure I’d fully agree with that, the truth is that you will have a lot of drains on your time when going indie. Writing is on you. Editing is on you, to either do or outsource, and outsourcing still requires effort to find the right people, not to mention monetary costs. Same for covers, and formatting, and the big one: marketing. Social media, guest appearances, side-projects like podcasts or blogs, all of it takes time. Traditional publishers don’t really haul the marketing weight they used to, there’s still a large onus on the writer, however they’re at least somewhat helpful. Plus, they cover most of the other areas we discussed. Now if you like handling some of that (in my case I turned marketing into doing stuff I already enjoyed) then it’s not so bad, but you definitely need to understand that you’re biting off way more than just writing when you start an indie book.
Lastly on indie, at least for this blog, is the simple fact that you’ll be mostly on your own. Maybe you’ll be lucky and have some other writers to turn to, but that’s not quite the same as a built-in support structure like what traditional publishing offers. Going that route, you have experienced professionals you can talk to, dedicated channels of communication that make it simple to get answers or resolution to issues as they occur. If you’re indie, it’s all on you. Formatting fucks up? You have to figure out how to fix it. No sales? Guess you better find a new marketing method. Editor shit the bed and missed a ton of typos? Tough shit, the buck stops with you. I’m certainly not saying traditional publishing offers a concierge to solve every dilemma you encounter, but just having someone to get guidance from can make a big difference, especially in the early years, and unfortunately that’s an area where indie can’t really compete.
Okay, so after slamming on indie for a while, let’s talk about the old school version: traditional publishing. And if we’re talking drawbacks in that industry, we have to start with money. I’ll keep it brief since I know we’ve hit this before, but it’s a big one. Most authors are not rich; we live on a budget like everyone else. That means the margins we make on our books matter if we want to keep rent paid and the liquor/inspiration flowing. No publisher out there will, or could, match Amazon’s 70% royalty rate. It would be fiscally irresponsible of them to even try. So going traditional means betting that the publisher’s reach will be large enough to cover for the lesser royalty, making it up in volume. Make no mistake, however, that is a risk. Publishing in general is a bit chaotic right now, and no one can promise a hit book. If you go traditional, you roll the dice on selling to the same amount of people for less overall money, which could make or break your budget. While the lack of investment in covers and editing (every publisher should cover this stuff, if they don’t, run) does offset the risk somewhat, time still has a cost, and if you spent a year writing a book that only ends up making you a few hundred bucks, that’s not a great return on work hours.
The next big con that jumps to mind: control. Control is something you have to be willing to let go of when dealing with traditional publishing. Now obviously, that’s a blanket statement, some publishers will be more willing to let you have creative freedom than others, but the fact remains that you are no longer the final authority on your work. For some, that’s a trade worth making, for others, not so much. Just keep in mind, you don’t only lose control of what ends up in the books. Your publisher decides the marketing, the target audience, the categories, even the ability to continue. The first time I saw another writer post about hoping to be able to do a sequel, I was genuinely confused. Hoping to find the time or inspiration, sure those are hurdles we all have, but they were talking about actual permission. Because when you go traditional, you don’t necessarily decide whether or not a series runs the full length; that’s determined by sales. Sometimes, if you’re fortunate and have a good contract, the author can keep the series going as indie release, but even that depends on the publisher having limited rights. For me, this has always been the largest sticking point, hence why I work with publishers who offer a lot of creative freedom, but it can be worth the trade-off if you can find a publisher with a good balance.
For our final traditional downside today, let’s tackle timelines. Indie publishing tends to run on a rapid release schedule; hell, the reason my audiobooks are always months behind is that I’m putting out the ebooks as soon as physically possible. They’re only fully ready a week or two before the release. Traditional publishing is a whole other ballgame. To go that route, you need to have a finished book that you’re comfortable sitting on for up to several years. First, you’ll need to find an agent, which is a lengthy journey all on its own. Assuming that goes smoothly, you’ll then have to shop the book itself around. Let’s keep being optimists and say that your book finds a home (although it easily might not) with a solid publisher. Being responsible business people, they’ll of course want to do their own edit of your work to ensure quality, which is another process of indeterminate length based on how much revision is needed. And then, when it’s finally done, you’ll need to be slotted into the release schedule. If we’re really generous with the timetable, let’s say each aspect of this takes 6 months and you drop into the release schedule immediately after edits are wrapped. That’s still a year and a half to get out a book that could have been released and helping keep you fiscally above water all this time. If you’ve got the patience and income to take this one on, there are very real benefits to it, just don’t walk in expecting any kind of quick turnaround.
I hope this didn’t turn off any of you hoping to break into the publishing world, that’s not my aim today at all. Rather, I want everyone considering this career to go in with as much information as possible, the good and the bad, so that they can choose the right fit for their projects. Just remember, no matter what route you take, a good book is a good book in the eyes of the readers. Keep that at the forefront, and you can be successful using any publishing method.