Independent Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: Pros and Cons

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After months or years of writing and rewriting, editing and revising, reworking and polishing, you've finally done it—you've completed your novel! You have your manuscript in hand, substantial in heft, ready for the next step.

Now what?

What is an author to do with a completed novel manuscript? These are the pros and cons I can think of.

The Options

Independent (or "Self-") Publishing

Pros

  1. I keep my rights.
  2. The burden of having a hit from the start is reduced, because the book can continue to earn income for the rest of my life.
  3. The book is faster to market.
  4. I decide what the book is and when the book is ready. (Admittedly, this may be viewed as a con as well.)
  5. I choose my own editor(s) and proofreaders.
  6. I choose my own designers.
  7. I control the book's print layout.
  8. I have a say (or even control) in how the book is marketed, and how I am marketed.
  9. I'm free of the imperatives of hit-driven economics, which seem to be a growing force in traditional publishing, where huge bestsellers are their main priority to cover their overheads.

Cons

  1. Limited marketing resources. While it's possible to have serious money promoting your traditionally published novel, in going indie there's pretty much no chance at all. And there's lots of noise in the market—lots of competition. It's very very hard to be discovered by readers.
  2. The book may not sell well.
  3. By self-publishing, I earn the often vehement disrespect of the highbrows.
  4. I risk being blacklisted by some editors and publishers in traditional publishing. (Some people claim I will be closing the doors forever.)
  5. I can expect to receive the cold shoulder from many reviewers, especially those in old media (newspapers, magazines).
  6. I have to find my own editors and proofreaders.
  7. I have to find my own designers or do it myself.
  8. I have to lay out the book myself (though I've done lots of layout, and enjoy the work, so this isn't much of a con).
  9. I have to work very hard to get my book into bookstores. Some say it's impossible. Others say it's not only possible, but they are doing it, though it’s hard.
  10. I'm mostly dependent upon Amazon for sales. Can Amazon be trusted?

Traditional Publishing

Pros

  1. If I have the skill and luck to (a) get an agent and (b) get a book deal, I can say I'm published by a traditional New York publishing house. That appeals to my vanity.
  2. If the publisher believes they can sell this book, it may get into a lot of bookstores.
  3. Old media book reviewers may pay attention.
  4. I may receive more than a token advance (i.e., money I actually can live on). It's a long shot, but hey, someone has to win the Powerball eventually.
  5. The Big 5 have some talented and experienced editors and marketers. (This pro is attenuated by the fact that there are talented and experienced editors and marketers outside of the Big 5.)
  6. I would not have to pay out of pocket for editing and proofreading. (TANSTAAFL—I'll be paying in the overall deal. This isn't charity.)

Cons

  1. All the pros listed above require a lot of luck. I believe in my own writing. However, even assuming I write a very good book, the odds of getting any kind of book deal with the Big 5 are against me. So the most likely outcome is that there is nothing in the "pros" column. The myth of meritocracy says that all the cream rises to the top, but life tells us that this is not true. When the "slush pile" — and how's that for an indication of how publishers view writers? — is filtered first by entry-level readers with no experience and questionable ability, you can get shut out before you even get started.
  2. Not only that, if I am not lucky enough to get an agent who believes in my work and whom I believe can do right by me, my odds at getting a deal with the Big 5, which already are long, become longer. I have to win the lottery twice to win anything at all.
  3. I may be asked to change my novel to make it into something the agent thinks she can sell to the publishers. This constitutes altering my work to someone else's vision, and doing it on spec—after writing my vision on spec.
  4. I may be asked to change my novel to make it into something the publisher wants to sell. Even if I'm writing genre, this sounds like a painful thing.
  5. Publishers seem to be investing real marketing resources only in their bestsellers. The rest of the authors get some tacit marketing support for a few months, and if the book doesn't sell, it gets remaindered, returned, and disappears from bookstores. So once my book is no longer "new," what happens to it then?
  6. Assuming the long shot happens and I actually have the opportunity to sign a book deal, I will be selling away all my rights for life plus 70 years, so whatever the advance might be, odds are that is all I will ever see out of the book.
  7. The advances publishers are offering on average aren't enough to live on, and they're spread out.
  8. The process of seeking an agent and a book deal is slow. It might take a couple of years to get anywhere.
  9. I have no real influence on how the book is marketed.

Am I leaving anything out?

Tipping the Scales

Everyone's situation is different. Everyone will weigh these factors differently. Here's where I'm coming from:

  • I am in my 50s. Everything I do that affects finances I have to look at in terms of an investment. One-off deals have to be pretty darned big to entice me away from long-term results. In this regard, if I just look at the numbers, a one-time sale must come with a significant advance to outweigh the prospect of earning smaller amounts continuously; and realistically, as an unknown author, I cannot reasonably expect an advance larger than the median of $10,000-$15,000—and that's if I can interest one of the Big 5 at all. Even a possible one-time advance of $50,000 doesn't sound like much. (See my thoughts on this.)
  • I'm old and cranky enough to know that traditional publishers don't have a crystal ball, and don't have perfect taste. I don't either, but if it's my taste and my decision, I can at least adapt and change.
  • I'm compulsively entrepreneurial.
  • I like the idea of wading into the future instead of gambling on the past.
  • It's not like the New York publishers are even the publishers we think they are, not when they're appendices of global conglomerates who don't give two hoots about books.

What do you think? What tips the scales for you?