I was recently asked a question that I actually get asked often enough I decided that answering it as a post would be worthwhile. The question was this: You have self published and worked with a traditional publisher. Which is best? Why?
Okay, so that’s TWO questions.
The answer(s) is not all that complicated (to me): whatever works best for that particular project. Publishing through one’s own imprint, the first benefit is clear — complete creative control. This is not always an advantage, however, especially for a newer writer. I have a lot of experience writing and publishing books, but there is not a SINGLE ONE of my projects that did not benefit immensely from having a good editor to work with. A lot of backseat drivers love to talk about how the editing process damages or destroys creative work, but those of us in the trade have names for such people: “unpublished” and “unread” and “really really annoying.”
Editors — like my good friend Joshua Essoe — can be hired to work on independently produced books, but when your book is acquired by a traditional publisher, it’s part of the deal, and the cost is the publisher’s responsibility. And in terms of appearance, unless you ARE a graphic designer, or have training as such, you’re going to want to hire someone to lay out your book, design your book, design your cover, illustrate your cover, and do all three hundred things that have to be done to make your book look really good (and desirable to readers.) I LIKE doing all of that — but then again, I’m also an artist. Your mileage (and tolerance) may vary.
One of the reasons it takes so long for books to come out from traditional publishers is that ALL of the things I’ve noted above have to be done before the book can be put out for sale: editing, design, production, PLUS promotion, marketing, and distribution. All of that will be necessary regardless of the way the book is published, whether or you decide to do it independently or with a bigger publisher.
The apparent advantage of the second benefit of publishing independently — greater profitability — which a LOT of new writers love to parade around as the Holy Grail of publishing, swings widely in actual effectiveness due to an HUGE number of variables. Sure, as far as ebooks go, it appears that an independently published book might make more money (by percentage) than a traditionally published one. On the surface, as a thesis, that may be true. But in practice, that only works if you are either 1) someone who has a huge following of some kind which can be tapped to support your book; or 2) an outlier whose book suddenly — and with no discernible reason why — takes off and sells lots of copies.
Every other path to greater profitability will be a much harder row to hoe, because of one big difference, which is also the reason I will NEVER abandon traditional publishing (even though I have ALWAYS self-published and always shall): a bigger publisher will ALWAYS have better distribution.
Obviously, with ebooks there are some arguments to be made that the playing field is leveled — but I don’t want to simply publish ebooks. I still like traditional paper books, and so do the majority of readers. And while I can efficiently and profitably publish my own books in limited editions up to a couple of thousand copies, I don’t want to just sell a couple of thousand copies: I want to sell a couple of MILLION copies. And to do that, I need a bigger hammer. To do that, I needed more than Coppervale Press — I needed Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers. I need Shadow Mountain Publishing.
That’s the broad strokes: publishing independently allows complete creative control, but also complete responsibility. It offers the potential for greater profitability, but the workload will be greater, whether you do it all yourself or bring in Josh to make your words better and designers to make the book look great.
With traditional publishers you only seem to cede creative control — what you are actually doing is getting HELP to make your book as good as possible, by people who have a vested interest in making it sell. You get production that you don’t have to pay for. And you get distribution that you would NEVER be able to achieve on your own, unless you are strictly epublishing, in which case you still have the original problem as to how to market it and bring eyes to you and your work. That’s why I prefer the hybrid path: I’m still going to self-publish books like THE NEARLY-COMPLETE ESSENTIAL STARCHILD, but a company like Shadow Mountain will be putting FOOL’S HOLLOW on bookshelves I could never reach all over the country.
Whichever way you choose to go, one thing will never change: the only way to build a career, to build a business, to build a readership, to build a tribe, to build a Dragon Army, is ONE READER at a time. And that takes effort, persistence, and, well, time. Decide what you want to do, then pick your path, and get to work. That’s how it’s done.