Traditional Publishing vs. Indie Publishing: How Should I Sell My Book?

Traditional publishing vs. indie publishing is another “why are you asking me?” question. It’s also a question you’re going to have to answer for yourself; however, I can give you some information that may help inform your decision.

Answering this question generally comes down to a combination of 4 factors: prestige, control, money, and time/energy (they’re the same factor in this case – we’ll get to that).

Prestige

It used to be that self-publishing was a career-breaker for writers. Not only was it really hard to make a profit (most self-publishing companies were too expensive for that), but also once  you did it, you’d effectively have marked yourself with a scarlet letter so that regular publishers wouldn’t want you anymore (not without major incentives).

Well, ebook sales have completely changed that. Writers can now sell their books with little-to-no upfront costs, and any residual negative connotations with self-publishing are rapidly disappearing.

The prestige of going through a publisher, on the other hand, is not fading quite as quickly. In many circles, there is still thrill and acclaim associated with being picked up by a publisher. It’s like a stamp of approval saying that your book made the cut. Indie publishing has about the same prestige as having your own blog (Yeah, it’s nice, but anyone can do it.).

If your main goal in publishing is to get that recognition, you don’t need to read further. You want traditional publishing (although I will say # of sales and making the charts on Amazon is starting to be its own stamp of approval, so this may change over time).

Control

Ceding any control over your book can be hard. Scratch that. It can be insanely, drastically impossible (or it can seem that way). Changing your book simply because some editor (and what do they know?) said to? Excuse me?

I understand the emotion; however, I have mixed feelings about choosing self-publishing to get full control over your book. If you’re an experienced writer, and the book is still going through a thorough editing process, then I’m all for it. Sounds great. If you’re a first-time writer, you may or may not be doing yourself (and your book) a disservice.

Assuming that the editor is completely off base and that your book is perfect as it is… well, that’s problematic. While it’s possible, more often than not, the editor is right – if not about how to fix the problems, then at least about the fact that there are problems and what the problems are (alas, no book is perfect).

So getting full control is fine as long as that doesn’t become an excuse for ignoring major problems. Remember: making the book better means it will probably sell better (which means more money for you).

Money

As much as writers are artists, we are also adults who (generally) need to make money to pay for important things (like food, rent, books – you know, the essentials). I’m not enough of an expert to tell you exact price points. What I want to talk about is perspective and strategy.

Are you more concerned with long-term payoff or a fast, guaranteed return?

If you need money to spend now, you’re going to get more upfront from traditional publishing than from indie publishing. With an advance against royalties contract, you get a big fat check upfront followed by royalties after you sell enough (which can take a while). Most of the figures I’ve seen for advances are quoted in the thousands (for more information, here’s “11 Frequently Asked Questions About Book Royalties, Advances and Money” by Chuck Sambuchino), so it can take a while for ebook sales to match that.

For example, to match a $3,000 advance, you’d have to sell between 700 and 8,600 copies of your ebook, depending on how you decide to price it. And that was one of the lower advances I saw.

Can you make more than that? Absolutely. If your book is good (or simply popularly appealing), and you get it out where people can see it, you can definitely sell a lot more than that. And the plus of getting to set your price is that you determine how high your royalties are – and when you compare royalties, ebooks almost always win out. With higher royalties, you definitely have the opportunity to make that much and more in the long-term.

The odds of it happening overnight are not so good.

If you’re confident that you can market to sell, and you don’t need the extra influx of cash, indie publishing could be a bigger payoff in the long-term. If you need some money now, you have a better chance of getting more with traditional publishing.

Time/Energy

The last factor to consider is your time and energy. And I might add knowledge of marketing. Ideally, you’ll be doing some promoting either way; however, the amount is going to change based on whether you have help from a publisher or not.

Do you have the time, energy, and knowledge to do all your own marketing? More importantly, do you have the time, energy, and knowledge to do it well?

People can’t buy your book if they don’t know it’s there. That goes for printed books as well as ebooks. And that’s the point of marketing. The job of marketing is to make people know that the book is there and (we hope) make it sound worth buying. There’s a lot that goes into it – remember that businesses have a person or even a whole team of people whose full-time jobs are doing the marketing for that business.

If you go with indie publishing, you are responsible for your own marketing. Period. End of story. Unless your best friend is a marketing expert who’s willing to put in some hours as a gift, you are on your own. That means that all the time and energy spent researching, making marketing materials, and setting up ads or accounts are all coming from you (and the money that goes into  it does, too).

If you don’t think you can do that, indie publishing might not be the option for you.

With traditional publishing, at least some marketing is included. So while you should do some promotions yourself, you will not be completely on your own. The cover at least will be done for you, and most likely, there will be some deal to get the books printed and in stores. With copies of your books in bookstores, you also have the option of the impulse buy from browsing that is generally harder online.

Traditional Publishing vs. Indie Publishing

Prestige, control, money, time/energy – each of these factors can be huge, and they can vary dramatically from person to person. Or even from moment to moment and book to book. You can use traditional publishing for 1 book and indie publishing for another. People starting their careers might need a very different strategy from someone who’s well established.

So what’s your strategy? How will you sell your book?

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