A Discussion on Independent and Traditional Publishing

Written by Thiago Abdalla

December 1, 2021

If you’re an author or a reader who’s been around online, you’ve probably heard arguments around self-published vs traditionally published books. In this post, I’d like to highlight some of the differences, help clear up a few misconceptions for readers, and maybe give more information for writers who are considering which path to take.


The Discussion


Until e-readers were invented, there was only one real viable way of starting your publishing journey: You had to query an editor at a publisher or an agent and hope to get accepted. These “gatekeepers” were the ones responsible for getting only the highest quality writing published, and to ensure readers were getting what they wanted. Then the Kindle came along, and with it, a whole new “open” market for people to publish their works to their heart’s content. There were many tales of the doom of traditional publishing at the time, but both avenues have evolved and remain viable to authors.

So what are the differences?

Let’s start with traditional publishing. The market seems pretty simple from the outside. You’ve had the dream of writing for so long. You’ve studied technique, called up your English teachers, and you’re ready to jump in, write your masterpiece, then send it to an agent, be accepted and published within months. Easy right? No gatekeeper would dare turn you down. Those rejections are for the lesser writers who aren’t the next coming of Stephen King or George RR Martin!

Look, it’s okay. We’ve all had these kinds of thoughts when we were starting out at something. It comes with the lack of knowledge about how things really work. The truth can be hard, but you need it if you’re getting somewhere, so let’s sober up and dive in.

The first step in traditional publishing is getting an agent. These are the people who are going to sell your book to publishers, and from what I’ve gathered, most do a really good job at it. That’s why they need to be really picky about what they accept, and why they generally take 15% of whatever they sell and earned royalties after you’ve paid your advance (more on that to come). This is where the rejections you hear writers talk about so much happen, and it can be a long time before a manuscript gets accepted.

Once the writer has an agent, things should be smooth sailing, though, right?

Well, that is certainly a possibility, but for most first-time authors, you still have work to do. And did I mention how long it takes to get an agent? You can get more info about the scope of that from this post from Mark Lawrence’s blog here.

If a publisher likes what they’re shown, they’ll either ask for more or make you an offer, and then—

Hooray! Money for all my hard work!

Yes. You should be proud, but there is still a long way ahead, so bear with me here. The publisher’s offer is what is known as an ‘advance’. This is an amount of money they pay the author so that they don’t starve while all the details of getting the book to shelves are sorted out (there’s a lot).

Now, calling it an ‘advance’ might make you think this is something that needs to be paid back. Yes and no. The publisher won’t ask the author to give this money back as long as the author delivers the finished manuscript to be published, but it does need to be paid back in the sense that the author will only start to earn royalties once they’ve sold enough books to cover what the publisher has paid them. No problem, right? No one’s ever seen a story like the one you’ve written, and even the gatekeepers have opened up their gates. Okay, breathe. Remember when we talked about truth? Here it comes.

Most offers for first-time authors are around $10,000, and while that may seem like a lot, you have to ask yourself if you can live on that for close to two years (I’m assuming you don’t have a day job, which you probably do). You see, books take ages to get published. Over a year at the very least, and even then, publishers have release schedules. Your book may get pushed back even further, and the longer your book takes to hit shelves, the longer it takes to sell. The longer it takes to sell, the longer it takes to cover that 10k advance. So, yeah, those two years can become a lot longer if your book doesn’t sell as expected.

Decision making

Since we’ve touched on sales, let’s talk about royalties as well. Traditionally published authors get 25% or less from the sales price of their books, and that all depends on the sales split (eBook vs paperback vs hardcover). Normally this averages around 5-10%. You do the math on how many books you’d need to sell to reach that 10k and start earning money from your royalties. Oh, did I mention there’s limited shelf life? If your book doesn’t sell, it can be pulled after some time and there isn’t much you can do about it. 

Wait, why would anyone in their right mind choose the traditional path then? I’ve heard Amazon pays up to 70%!

Yes, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There is one very important thing publishers deal with that you, as a traditionally published author, are fairly protected from: risk. They pay for everything. They’ll get you an editor to work with, they’ll have a whole team working on your cover and they have fairly robust online presences to kickstart your marketing (notice I said ‘kickstart’ because even traditionally published authors are expected to do their own marketing). Publishing a book with the same quality as traditionally published ones is costly, and there is a standard of quality that readers have come to expect.

Am I saying self-published books have inferior quality? Hell no! But there is a much higher risk of getting inferior quality from a self-published author who hasn’t dealt with all the steps properly. The publishers have been doing this for a long, long time, and they certainly know what they’re doing. Many authors just prefer the security in that. And listen, if you do have an amazing story and you find your audience, you’ll break through eventually. The thing you need with traditional publishing is patience and consistency. Keep writing, keep selling, and you’ll eventually be seen as a known quantity. The publisher will recognize that as well.

Okay, you’ve scared me away from traditional publishing. What about indie? That 70% is looking pretty good right about now! And no gatekeepers, right?

Well, not officially. You can get self-published, and no one will stop you. But if you’re looking for success, you have one very demanding class of gatekeeper: the reader. You see, the gatekeepers in traditional publishing only exist because they’re looking for what will cater to the tastes of their customers. It’s like any other business. So when people tell you self-publishing doesn’t have gatekeepers, remember you have thousands, and they’re all gatekeeping their hard-earned dollars.

Well, at least I still get 70% royalties if I price it right!

You do! But… do you know how much you’ll spend to sell books?

Oh, come on!

Calm down. Breathe. I promise you it’s not that bad, but I did promise you the truth (according to myself, at least).

There are many benefits to self-publishing. You get to control when you publish your books, there’s no shelf life, the royalties are better and you keep your rights. Do not underestimate the risk factor, though. You have to pay for everything. Everything. Costs can pile up, especially if you’re trying to replicate the quality of traditional publishing.

But wait. I don’t have that kind of cash!

I get it. Well, there’s another option. If you don’t have money to invest, you need to invest time. You’ll have to learn cover design to direct your artist, marketing, book formatting, and even then, it isn’t completely free…

OK, maybe that traditional publishing deal wasn’t looking so bad after all.

Yeah… you see how this publishing stuff can get complicated. The thing you need to understand about being a debut author is that, like any career, you’ll probably start at the bottom and work your way up. I said it for trad publishing, but you need patience and consistency no matter what path you choose.

Well, so how do I choose?

That isn’t an easy question, but I can share what my process was like. I put the pros and cons into a table and went through it looking for dealbreakers. This was my personal list, based on my opinions, so don’t take this as an ultimate truth. Here’s what it looked like:

I chose the indie path because I have a business background and was confident I could find top notch professionals to aid my process. Build my own team, if you will. Also, time to market was a deal breaker for me. Having more published books raises your income as well as your chance for recognition, so I found having control of when I publish my books to be essential for the first step in my writing career.

There is the con of the stigma self-published novels have. Many people will refuse to read a self-published novel because there have been plenty of bad indie books in the past, but things have gotten better throughout the years, and there are things like Mark Lawrence’s SPFBO, and Rob J. Hayes’ self-published fantasy book releases of the month that go a long way in validating indie publications.

Does this mean indie is better? No. It means you have to weigh what is important to you and make your own decision. It also doesn’t mean I can’t pursue traditional publishing someday. I just found that starting with indie looked better for me.

Well, that’s what I had for you today! I’ll be back soon to dive into the points that make up the indie publishing journey like editing, cover design, marketing, etc., so be sure to sign up to my newsletter to get updates when a new post is released!

Thanks for reading!