“Indie First?” What Is Best In Publishing?

A brief recent history:

Salon posted an article that said, “Hey, self-publishing is masturbation.”

I responded.

Salon posted a different article by Hugh Howey that said, “Nonsense to that other thing, self-publishing is full of success stories and it’s the better option going forward.”

I responded to that, too.

Then, another thing happened: I was getting a bucketload of views from Kindle Boards (kboards?), and so I popped over there to find out what was going on and saw that some people seemed to think I was bashing Howey (I wasn’t) or bashing self-publishing (I wasn’t), and I thought, okay, I’ll say hello, I’ll try to be forthright and clarify my position which is to say, “There’s no one path up the mountain, no one best way for everybody.”

A fairly uncontroversial opinion. Very moderate. So soft it might as well be marshmallow.

Some folks over there were very nice and well-reasoned and well-intentioned. Howey himself dropped in (as he did here at the blog) and made some polite comments of disagreement. The rest presented, to my mind, a hostile vibe that tells me I probably shouldn’t go to the Kindle Boards anymore because, really, what’s the value? That’s not the hill I want to defend.

What I want to do, however, is to talk a little more about this “indie first” path — the path that Howey and others feel is the best way forward for new authors. This was also echoed a number of times at the Writer’s Digest East Conference, where I spoke this past weekend. Lots of folks were suddenly presenting self-publishing less as a standalone option and more as the new gate (kept or unkept) leading to traditional publishing. Self-publish first, they say, and get attention and audience. You can even query the published story while it sells on the digital marketplace.

It’s an interesting shift. And not wrong or impossible.

But, is it “the best?”

Now, I’m going to quote Howey from the Kindle Boards, and in that I want to make clear that before any self-publishing acolytes get their genitals in a twirl over any of this, I am in no way bashing Howey. The guy should be celebrated. He did it his way. He tried new shit and embraced the options and powers available to the modern writer and it paid off in heaps and mounds, leaps and bounds. No one in their right mind should tell him he did anything wrong.

Hell, I did just as he did (though, erm, to far less success). My self-published writing advice? Coming to Writer’s Digest. Atlanta Burns? Coming to Skyscape Publishing.

The question for me is, does that make this approach automagically the best?

He certainly believes so. Which is not unreasonable given his success.

From kboards, Howey says:

It’s amazing that I’m being painted as an all-or-nothing Konrath disciple. Just because self-publishing is the best way to get started doesn’t mean it’s the only way. Signing away lifetime rights and control over works that could be available forever is always an option. Just an inferior one.

What I hope to see is that the changes hybrids are forcing on publishing houses will trickle down to the writers who despise us. They won’t even know it’s happening. Non-compete clauses will simply disappear. Finite terms of license will become the norm. Print and digital rights will be negotiated separately. And I won’t care one bit who causes this, only that it happens.

Some of this is pretty admirable stuff. Improving contract conditions for writers is a noble goal and — fuck yeah, let’s see that happen. Though, it should also be clear that some of this is already happening and a good agent will help ensure non-exploitative clauses. (I don’t think any agent worth the salt would allow the author to give over rights forever.) I’m also not sure what he means by “the writers who despise us” — I may be misreading but that seems to lend itself further to the Us Versus Them tribal problem in publishing. Regardless, what I want to talk about today are those two particular words above (italics his, not mine): best and inferior.

I have trouble with absolutes. They’re rarely true outside of, say, math and science. Calling something the best smacks of One True Wayism and does a good job at making authors feel stupid for choosing a path other than the superior one. It’s doubly troubling in the realm of publishing, where so many options exist right now. Which is awesome. Authors have a variety of ways to get their work “out there” — and I don’t just mean trad-pub versus self-pub. I mean, Kickstarter to query letters to slush pile to Amazon KDP to a recommendation from another author to… well, hell, my path began in freelancing pen-and-paper games and took a weird alleyway into screenwriting. Here I am now with over a dozen novels coming out.

My way was pretty rad. Totally worked for me.

Miiiight not work for you. For a whole lotta reasons.

“Worked for me” is not equivalent to “best way for all.”

So: just on the theoretical level, best and inferior sit unsettled in my tummy.

But I promised someone on Twitter that I’d write a blog post detailing specific situations where “indie first!” was not automagically going to be the best way forward — so, let’s detail it.

Here, then, are some reasons that going “indie first” is not necessarily the “best.”

First, genre can be a problem. Not every genre is doing fireworks in the self-publishing realm. Literary work? Crime? Books published in those realms sometimes go kerplunk. Consider, too, that age range is a consideration. YA (Young Adult) is not a “genre,” but studies show that while adults will read YA e-books, teens remain reluctant (though this may be changing as e-readers become cheaper or are passed along as hand-me-downs). Further, YA tends to offer larger advances than the adult market — so, going straight to traditional can pay off.

Second, not every agent or publisher is interested in your self-published book. You think you can just self-publish and start querying. And you can. But some agents and some publishers don’t want to see it. To their minds, you’ve already gone and published. This is doubly true if the self-publishing effort isn’t in some way a successful one: great cover, many good reviews, lots of sales. It looks like whatever audience you had, you burned through them already. If your book doesn’t land in the digital marketplace with energy behind it, with momentum, querying after that will not likely be successful. To clarify, it means you can self-publish a very good book that traditional publishing might have picked up had it not been for a less-than-stellar showing on, say, the Kindle marketplace.

Third, you don’t have the audience. That first Salon article was by a guy who basically tip-toed into a dark and empty room, left his book on the mantlepiece like some kind of Author Elf, and then wandered back out wondering why he didn’t become a millionaire. If you don’t have the audience and don’t have time to spend earning that audience, traditional publishing may be a smarter first step. By dint of being tradtionally published you tend to get a little energy and momentum and audience via the so-called “prestige” of that path.

Fourth, some authors have found success doing the reverse, which is to say, they use traditional publishing to build audience and then leap into that audience with self-published efforts. Not to say this is the “best” way either — but it’s one option, and for many, it’s worked.

Fifth, you’re not going to be a capable or interested self-publisher. Not everybody wants to self-publish. Not everybody is going to be good at it. Despite claims to the contrary, the skill-sets necessary to do traditional and to do DIY are not mirror images (I’ve done both, trust me, it ain’t the same enchilada). Self-publishing is equivalent to running a small business. You’re an entrepreneur as much as an author. Some authors are going to take to this like a monkey to a banana. Some authors won’t be good at it or just find the idea of hiring editors and designers abhorrent. Best for someone? Most definitely. Best for everyone? Most certainly not.

Sixth, you’re going to be a great self-publisher. Self-publishing can be its own reward. “Indie first” presupposes that now self-publishing is a gate into traditional, but some folks just want to do it all themselves. For them, “indie first” also means “indie last, too.”

Seventh, because you’re uncomfortable with the financial risk. Writing and publishing is always a risk, but self-pub and trad-pub offer different flavors of risk. Self-pub is largely financial: you might spend $500 on cover, editing, design, marketing. And it is possible you will never see that money back. Despite what some have suggested, the traditional path is more a risk to time than it is directly to money — there’s little to no money actually put out, and so the risk of losing that money is nil. The result of the traditional process is either “I spend no money and get no money,” or, “I spend no money and I get somewhere north of $5000.” This is not to say going traditional first is best, but it may be ideal for the risk averse.

Eighth, because you want to be traditionally-published first and only. Preference matters. The parameters of happiness and satisfaction are not universal across all of authordom. When you say something is best, you’re speaking in terms so simplistic they’re meaningless. Best how? Best for money? Readership? Respect? Happiness? Everybody has a different metric and so, if your goal is to get the agent, go to a publisher and get on some bookshelves, well, then go that way. Go that way first. Don’t dick around with self-publishing. Chase the dream you want to chase, not the dream other people tell you is best. It’s your life, not theirs. Really, at the end of the day, “because it’s what I fucking want, goddamnit,” is the best metric of them all.

We’re possibly on the cusp of a golden age for writers. We have so many paths up the mountain. Let’s celebrate that. Let’s cheerlead not one option but all the options — and let’s embrace the fact that each path has strengths and weaknesses that’ll suit some authors and repel others. We don’t need to shut down or shout down options. We don’t need to suggest one way is superior. Or that others should feel inferior for their choices.

We can walk the middle road on this. We can take the nuanced, moderate approach and reject solipsism and tribalism and realize that what works for one is not a guarantee for all and that anybody who digs their way into the industry and follows their goals using the tools that suit them should be celebrated. Are you writing? Are you telling the stories you want to tell? Have you studied your options and found the path that suits you? Then high-five yourself, go eat some ice cream, and don’t let anybody tell you that you’re doing it wrong.

As always:

Art harder, motherfuckers.

Play nice in the comments or I’ll bring out the orbital laser. This is not a Cheerocracy.

125 comments

  • Hundreds of hours emailing queries?

    ??

    Let’s see. About 5 hours drafting and refining query (which I would have to do if self pubbing, for the blurb).
    About same researching specific agents
    Emailing queries – about three minutes in total
    Waiting for agent to read full and offer – 2 weeks (during which I was writing my next book)

    Actually I do value my time highly, and I want to spend it *writing*. Not faffing with covers (I know nothing about which covers work and why anyway) or everything else. Also, I’m pretty crap at all that promoing myself stuff. I can do it, but…but where? How? And that’s just scratching the surface of my reasonings for going the way I did

    Now, there’s a good chance I may self pub something in the future. Just, well just because I can and I want to see how it would do.

    But I’m not an idiot savant (okay, *most* of the time!) because I went the trad route. I did it because *it was right for me*. It may not be right for someone else, and more power to anyone however they want to publish, but that doesn’t change the fact *it was right for me*

    Also – the point about books only being on the shelves for 3 months, whereas self pub will still be available in 100 years? Um, my ebook versions won’t get pulled from Amazon etc after 3 months any more than a self pubbed ebook will. They will be there exactly as long as anyone else’s (unless I get my rights reverted, in which case I can pop them back up myself, right?). So that’s a kinda bogus argument right there.

    TL;DR: No one should be making choices for anyone else (or insulting people for their choices). Handing out good solid data so that people can make up their own, informed, mind – good. Flaming people for not agreeing with you – not good.

    It’s not really that hard to get, surely?

  • Half of all self-published authors make less than $500. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/may/24/self-published-author-earnings Plus, you have to either know how to do everything (write, edit, design, format, promote—talk about time!) or be willing to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for help. If you have no following, you will most likely struggle to sell.

    I’ve self published, been with indie presses, and currently have an agent, am trying to sell to big/indie presses as we speak. I tend to agree with the Wendig here about trying out all paths, and doing what’s right for you. I like being a big fish in a small pond, and enjoy getting some attention at a small to medium sized independent press, but above and beyond book sales, will they sell your film rights, foreign sales, all of that? That’s part of what the big six, and the really strong indie presses will do for you. Again, if you’re self-publishing, do you understand contracts, have contacts in Hollywood, foreign representatives? Probably not. Can you do the research? Sure. But now we’re back to all of that time and energy vs. having an agent or press that will do that for you. I love the freedom of self-publishing, but for every Hocking, there are hundreds of John Does who will sell 50 copies and fail, never to write again—regardless of the quality of their writing.

    These are exciting days in publishing, I do feel that way, and I wish you all the best of luck.

  • I’m open to self publishing, but for right now, a decent indie publisher would be a gold-strike for me. They can offer things that I need, like an editor. See, I’d love to just hire a quality freelancer and keep more money for myself… but I don’t have the means. And I’m too busy writing to learn marketing, web design, how to format every damn thing for every damn e-format out there. I *could* learn to do all those things, but I’m concentrating on learning to write by writing. Lots and lots of writing. Takes time. Yeah, I could sell my stuff and probably turn a profit self-publishing… but a nice indie house with decent editing support can let me concentrate on being a better writer. And for me, that’s the biggest payoff I can imagine at this point. (That and avoiding the Suit Desk Things who would replace my noble and dignified hero with a contortionist bimbo in a Battle Thong on the cover.) Different writers have different needs.

  • What I rarely see in threads like this one is a hard-eyed look at the word ‘choice.’

    Authors are told they can choose to go indie (self-pub, DIY) or they can choose traditional publishing.

    Except wait up a minute. That second ‘choice’ isn’t a choice, not for most* authors. You see, they don’t get to choose a traditional publisher; the publisher chooses them. Big difference, and it’s one that perhaps noob authors don’t quite understand.

    Some people, new to publishing and who haven’t done much research, think that getting a literary agent is as simple as picking up the phone or sending an email, the way you secure a real estate agent or an insurance agent. Or they believe they’ll just waltz right into a mega-deal contract with the publisher of their dreams. Those of us who know better might cringe at this naivety, but you’d be surprised how little the general public knows about the publishing business.

    *please note I said most authors. Some actually do get to choose a publisher, but most don’t.

    • It’s a choice to walk either path (or both, or neither). At the end we never choose how successful we are, and that is, by and large, what this is about. We can influence things, however, and if self-publishing is how one hopes to influence one’s success, then hell yeah, do so and be awesome.

      — c.

    • But you also don’t get to choose whether anyone is going to buy your self-published book. Either way, you’re going to have to put in the legwork and just hope it pays off. Such is life.

  • Correct, and a fair point — I didn’t choose my publisher (bar choosing who to sub to), but I *did* choose to pursue a trade publishing deal as opposed to choosing self publishing.

  • I personally feel its an either or path, myself. I don’t get self publishing to try and get a publishing contract. I mean, it’s like being a garage band, playing bars, hoping to get found and signed to a label. And if there’s one industry we DON’T want publishers emulating, it’s the music industry, you know?

  • It seems like every time I’ve made up my mind to go one way or the other with publishing, something pops up to point out that the way I finally “stuck with” is the wrong way. I don’t know if I’ll ever come to a lasting conclusion on it.

  • (Seventh, because you’re uncomfortable with the financial risk.) Ok Chuck you will have to do a post on this one special on this part here (the traditional path is more a risk to time than it is directly to money — there’s little to no money actually put out, and so the risk of losing that money is nil)<——- i suppose $250 not bad, but they want it all up front the $250 that is out of up to $6000.

    Chuck how do you know if someone wants to read your book? Now I'm doing a kickstarter to raise the funs for editing and marketing $1500 for my fictional book. Besides it being a place where the money is, it is also a place where you can say hey if these people like this idea that much this we have something or I'm i wrong?

  • All I can say is this: I’ve done both and been pretty successful doing both and no matter how you slice it, self-publishing is better. I think Hugh is correct that 95% of the writers in the world would better benefit through self-publishing.

    I was one of those traditionally published authors who had to write one book under my own name and two more books under pen names every year in order to make a good living and pay my mortgage. Before that, I had a day job and wrote at night, using the meager advances and royalty checks to augment my income. Once I started self-publishing, however, I made my yearly salary in three months.

    I honestly don’t see the allure of traditional publishing anymore. Even for the big names. I don’t give a flying fig if my books wind up in bookstores. All I care is that they wind up in the readers hands, and ebooks are becoming the dominant preference in that regard. But I have paper books available, too, for those still in love with dead trees.

    Until traditional publishers can do what they have never done—offer the average midlist author terms that will allow him or her to make a living wage—then signing with one is completely pointless. You have a better chance of that happening in self-publishing these days. I see it all the time. I live it every day.

    And, believe me, I was once a skeptic. But I saw the light.

  • Thanks for the even-handed post, Chuck. Many good points have been made. Here are a couple more that I haven’t seen raised. I’m using myself as an example only of one experience.

    I’ve been writing novels for 20 years, and came close a number of times to landing what looked like big deals… the excitement from the agency that repped John Grisham, the friend-of-a-friend who heard about my first novel and wanted to make it into a movie for TV (as soon as I got a pub deal, which I never did), the big agent who LOVED my second book but then decided it was too politically sensitive…. As someone pointed out, for the majority of people fighting to get into the slush pile before getting out, trad pub is never an option. More than that, the trad pub route used to involve MAILING a letter (can you imagine?) to an agent, waiting for a response asking for 30 pages, MAILING those pages, etc. So copying hard pages and mailing them was not only an expense (not a big one) but a huge hassle. The picture was very different until recently when everything became a matter of shooting electrons back and forth. That’s when it took months or years of querying and quite a lot of effort. The up side of that journey was that you might actually learn to write a better book while you shlepped all that stuff to the post office and back home.

    It did keep more dreck out of print, for sure.

    Now I am happily self-published and making money. To me, the business part of it is fun. I also have a law degree, which helps me feel confident about contracts and sorting my own way through the thicket. Choosing my own titles, covers, pricing, blurbs, etc., does take time but lets me feel I am in charge of my own destiny.

    I’m not talking about those who are already traditionally published. Or published by small presses, or Amazon, or whatever. I’m talking about brand new writers trying to get started… who could be published in ebook form in a month or less. (Of course, maybe their writing is not ready… or will never be ready… which is a whole different issue. So let’s assume they have the level of work that COULD be accepted by a traditional publisher if they could get through the query process, find an agent, get considered by a publisher, and accepted. The quality of work is up to the writer. The hoops they have to jump through to get looked at are part of the roadblocks of the trad pub system.) In the same way that you, Chuck, think that indie writers are exaggerating the possibility of success as an indie because of their personal experiences, I think that you are WAY underestimating the difficulty of making it through to a trad publisher and getting accepted because of your personal experiences. These roadblocks are a part of the system that are built in, and don’t seem likely to change. In fact, it’s because of the volume of would-be writers that all these ways of winnowing down the applicant pool were devised. You know, of course, there are people out there who critique query letters. So find a query-writer to help you write your letter to get to your agent, to see if the agent will look at 30 pages, and then 50% of the ms, and then 100% of the ms, and then submit it to an editor, who will consider it and then bring it to his/her sales department and see if she/he can sell it to them, and if they accept it and publish it they then try to get orders from the book stores, who put them in the stores and then try to get the customer to buy your book at the end of one year of trying to get the book pubbed and two years of waiting for it to be prepared and printed and after your $3,000 advance, given out in 3 parts, is shared with your agent, you have those 3 months in which it might possibly sell. Of course, I have chosen to illustrate the old-fashioned way of print books and brick-and-mortar stores, which are getting rarer, but this is the model upon which trad publishing is built, and those long wait times are pretty common. This is versus the possibility of using that time and energy to publish NOW. So that three years can be spent learning what sells… or not.

    I don’t know the KForum people at all. Sounds like they were nasty.

    But I don’t think that Hugh Howey is calling anyone stupid for making another choice in the past. I think that he is trying hard to shine a spotlight on the current rapidly changing environment that is allowing more people to make a living writing if they self-publish. As Susan Kaye Quinn points out above, there are examples she (and I) can cite of many making a significant monthly income from self-publishing, but none of us has enough data to convince the other “side.” And I suspect we never will, because you won’t GET that data from those who are traditionally published… until they stop. And those are the voices worth listening to. Their stories are out there, and their experiences often involve years of writing more than one book a year and never making enough to come close to living on it. Then making that same amount in their first 6 months of self-pubbing.

    That said, I would never disparage anyone for making the choice they feel comfortable with. I just think they might as well jump in and test the waters while they’re waiting to be picked up traditionally, if that is their dream. And keep writing those new books while they do.

  • “I don’t think any agent worth the salt would allow the author to give over rights forever.”

    As far as I know, most (all) big-six contracts do exactly this…because of two things.

    1. The term is not limited in years it is “life of copy right” which is 70 years after the author’s death.

    2. Because of ebooks “out of print” no longer means when the warehouse is empty. Usually the way this has been addressed is by saying as long as you sell xx number of books or have yy revenue then they are still in print. But because the thresholds are so ridiculously low (mine are $9.63 a month) those out-of-print clauses will never kick-in.

  • It’s strange that there is such much debate about self and traditional especially considering that the number of the authors who are in a position of “deciding” which is so very small.

    First let’s consider the group of writers (the biggest group) that haven’t yet developed their skills to a level that would produce a book “good enough” that it would have any type of sales success. For this group…if they go self, they will fail…and lose some money in the process. If they go traditional they will be weeded out by the query-go-round and get nowhere. They will lose time and some minor money in postage but the bottom line is no one from this pile is going to be in the “win column”

    Next let’s look at those people who (for whatever reason) won’t think of themselves as a “real writer” unless they go traditional. This is a perfectly viable way to feel – and so for them – there is no choice – traditional it is.

    Next let’s look at the people who have no entrepreneur aspirations. These are people who if they were lawyers would work for a big firm rather than hanging out their own shingles and again a perfectly viable choice. – Again for these there is one choice – traditional.

    Now we are down to a group that a) can write a good book b) find validation without traditional, and c) have some entrepreneurial aspirations. Some of these people are going to “screw it up” the book may have a bad cover, marketing, or categories and as such no one gives it a try and it slips into obscurity. For these people…traditional would have been a better choice.

    But the same can go the other way. The publisher can “screw it up” and again the book is a failure – so in this case … self would have been a better choice. So these two cancel each other out.

    So now we are down to people who can a) write a good book b) are entrepreneurial c) will produce a quality product produced (either by themselves or the publisher). This is such as very small % of the writers as a whole – but in THIS very narrowly defined group. Now of this group there are three choices;

    1. Even despite the book being well written and professionally produced it just doesn’t find an audience. It happens…and often. For this group of people they would be better off traditional, because as least they have their advance and no out of pocket costs.

    2. They will have a “good strong” following a solid mid-list (as it were) for THIS group I think that self-publishing would be better. And here is why.

    * The average advance for a debut author is $5,000 – $10,000 and 80% don’t earn out. When priced at $3.99 a self-published author only has to sell 1800 – 3600 books over it’s entire lifespan and a book that has all those things going for it above – will (in my opinion) sell between 5,000 – 10,000 books over it’s lifespan at a minimum so it’s income potential is $13,965 – $27,930.

    * If the book does much better than this – say it sells 50,000 – 100,000 then you WILL be able to attract a traditional publisher and then you can go the hybrid route and tap both markets. They may not be able to “attract” you to the traditional model but it is an option you can weigh when the time comes.

    * You’ll get better contract terms because the publisher will be competing with your self-publishing sales and this provides you more leverage in the negotiations.

    3. Lastly there are those who have lightning in a bottle. They are going to be a block-buster – for these people they are better off with traditional because they have the infrastructure to make that work. E.L. James would not have made the kind of money she did if she didn’t have national distribution.

    So, that’s how I see it. I think my publishing career couldn’t have gone better. Like Hugh, I started with a small press, and realized that there was little chance of success there. Then I went self and fired well on all cylinders and made a success. I then parlayed that success to get traditional attention and the benefits that comes from that. Now I’m going to self-publish my next novel so that I can get an increased boost of income. What about the novel after that? I don’t know I’m a hybrid author I consider each project as it comes based on what traditional is offering, what the marketplace looks like, and what will be best (in my estimation for my career). For my second series, that meant traditional so I signed another contract for with them. But the bottom line is I’m going to keep my options open, evaluate the landscape and go from there.

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