Us vs. Them – Traditional vs. Self Publishing

When it comes to the traditional vs. self publishing debate, I tend to keep my mouth shut. I’ll say up front that I haven’t self published anything and I’m not usually one to rock the boat by getting involved in such a hot topic. However, I do keep an eye on the trends, commentary, speculation, and news that floats around the internet about my industry, which self publishing is a part of.

Sometimes I come across stories that make me scratch my head or roll my eyes. If they’re interesting enough, I tend to share them privately with a few friends, but you won’t see me comment on them in public.

Well, today I have something to say.

I find people like Polly Courtney who post pictures of themselves pole dancing online who then go on to complain about how their employer and then their publisher treated them was sexist and condescending is just… ugh. Seriously? You’re not giving back your advance? I thought you believed they were treating you unfairly and that you don’t want to work with them. You must have known that the cover that you complained about on launch day was going to look like that for MONTHS in advance of publication. You’re only just now complaining about it—to the media rather than your publisher, no less—the day the book is released?

Fuck that. No, seriously. Fuck. That. Guess what? The big, bad pro-published guys are not out to get you. The Man isn’t here to keep you down. Editors and agents have not made it their mission in life to make you miserable.

Shocking, right?

When I see someone like Kiana Davenport go off about how their publisher has treated them and how awful things are because they have to pay back their $20,000 advance and oh, woe is me, I shall self publish and go indie because it’s the stylish and “right thing to do” and damn The Man, frankly, it boggles me. Who are you sticking it to? The people who worked hard to find a way to market and print your book and put it in stores and get it into as many hands as possible. The people who believed in your work enough to pay you money (a LOT of freaking money in this economy–the $20K wasn’t even the full amount of the advance) up front for it regardless of whether they would earn that money back and if you smack-talk them in public.

Sorry, chicky, but I have no sympathy for you. Whose fault is it if you didn’t read your contract? Take a look in the mirror. A few other people don’t think you handled this well, either, and they said why a lot more intelligently than I am at the moment.

Let’s look at some pros and cons.

Traditional Publishing Pros:

  • You get an advance (money given to you that the publisher is “guesstimating” you will earn back within a year or so of publication). Unless you make a fuck-up of epic proportions, that advance is yours. You don’t have to pay it back. Seriously, you have to work to piss off your publisher and have your book cancelled, especially after they have already paid you part of that advance. I’m looking at you, Kiana.
  • You don’t have to pay for editing, marketing, publicity, book cover design, printing, etc. Someone is double-checking your work every step of the way for continuity, spelling, and/or grammar errors, and your work is also checked for any potential legality issues. That’s all handled and paid for by your publisher.
  • Your editor bought your book because they believe it will sell. They fought to get you in over other books to sell you to their board, and they think you’ve got something worth putting into the hands of the reading public. That is a very powerful ally to have in your court.
  • Your publisher will handle most of the marketing, so your attention is freed up to do what you love most—writing books.
  • You have an entire company full of experienced people who are working hard to make sure YOUR work is a success—because if you succeed, so do they. They make money off of your book. That’s why this is a professional industry, and not just a “hey, this seems like a nice thing to do, let’s give it a whirl” hobby for most authors.

Traditional Publishing Cons:

  • Sometimes you have to change something you aren’t particularly happy about changing. If you fight against it, you might be considered “hard to work with” and not get another book deal.
  • Sometimes you have to keep something (*cough*fugly book covers*cough*) that you don’t want to. If you fight against it, you might be considered “hard to work with” and not get another book deal.
  • If you are one of those people who gets a tiny advance and your book is going straight to paperback, you might not get much attention from your publisher because you’re one of what in some cases can be literally hundreds of books on their list and they don’t have an equal amount of time to devote to everybody. That means you may have to do some of this marketing biz yourself. It’s not personal—it’s business.
  • There is a possibility you might not earn out your advance or even make the publisher enough money in sales to justify them signing you on for more books. You may never earn more money for your book(s) than what you received for your advance.
  • It can take a really damned long time to get your full advance, get your book on the shelves, get your royalty statements, etc.
  • Rejections hurt. No one likes to hear their stuff isn’t good enough. No one.

Self Publishing Pros:

  • Full control over the entire publishing process.
  • You don’t have to change a thing about your work if you don’t want to.
  • Instant gratification (most companies that offer this service from what I have heard will pay you immediately once you reach a certain amount of money, or pay you once a week/month/whatever, and will also let you see your sales figures right away).

Self Publishing Cons:

  • No advance.
  • No vetting process (there’s no one double-checking your work for errors or for potential legal issues).
  • You are one of so many, getting your voice heard in the market is incredibly difficult. Have you looked on Amazon lately? How many self published books are available there? How many of those books or authors have you heard of aside from Amanda Hocking or Barry Eisler or J.A. Konrath? Per an article on How Publishing Really Works, the average sales figure for a self published (POD or Print On Demand) novel in 2009 was less than 200 copies, and even then, most of the sales were to the author rather than to the reading public. I did a quick search for info on ebooks publishing figures, but I wasn’t able to find anything that answers the question of averages. To give you an idea, based on my royalty statements (and I’ve only seen the figures, both in the five digit range, for two books so far—HUNTED BY THE OTHERS and NOCTURNAL) my ebooks make up less than 10% of my sales. If all you’re publishing are ebooks, it looks like you’re missing out on an awful lot of potential sales. Are you starting to get the picture?
  • As Amanda Hocking herself once said, “The amount of time and energy I put into marketing is exhausting. I am continuously overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do that isn’t writing a book. I hardly have time to write anymore, which sucks and terrifies me…Just because I sell a million books self publishing, it doesn’t mean everybody will. In fact, more people will sell less than 100 copies of their books self publishing than will sell 10,000 books.”
  • You have to pay for everything yourself—editing, marketing, publicity, cover art—all of it, and you might never make enough sales to earn that money back.
  • Even though you haven’t been “traditionally published,” you can still be rejected—by readers and reviewers. Have you seen many (if any) self published books reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly, Locus, NY Times, etc?

Now, as a published author with a New York house (Kensington), you might think I’m anti-self publishing. That’s the farthest thing from the truth. I really could care less if you self publish. I’ve read some fantastic self published books by David McAfee, Jill Myles, Annie Nicholas, and others. One of my favorite short stories was self published. What do I care how you get your book out there? Honestly? As long as it’s well written and edited, I could not give less of a crap how your book was made available.

So, seriously. Where I’m going with this is for those of you who are pissed off at agents and publishers to just stop it with the finger pointing and the whining and making the traditionally published authors, the agents, and the publishers out to be the bad guys. Read your damned contracts and ask questions if you’re not sure where the line is in the sand. We’re not here to keep you down or hurt you or slam you or make you into a victim. Some of you are doing a fantastic job of that all by your lonesome.

Quite a lot of agents and editors have made a point of being helpful and trying to show you how to make it as a traditionally published author. Have you seen my blog roll? I’ve barely scratched the surface of the number of agents and editors out there who try to post helpful advice on the internet. Have you read the thousands of posts from Miss Snark, Evil Editor, Janet Reid / Query Shark, Bookends, Nathan Bransford (from when he was an agent)—need I go on—all trying to help you? Come on, people. Yeah, there are some “professionals” who are rude and cruel in this industry. It’s true. However, that doesn’t mean EVERYONE is out to get you, or that ALL traditional publishing is bad, or that you need to “stick it” to someone just because you don’t like how the game is played.

There are plenty of us who do. I want to thank all of the agents and editors out there who don’t tolerate this sort of behavior. I want to thank all of the people in the publishing industry who have made a point to help those of us who were at one time floundering newbies who didn’t know which way was up. I want to thank all of the people who took the time to educate themselves and worked out their differences quietly, in non-newsworthy fashion. I want to thank those of you who are self published who don’t make asses of yourselves in an effort to get attention.

Politeness and courtesy goes a lot farther than being a snot, I promise you. Biting the hand that feeds you and then blaming them for smacking you on the nose with a rolled up newspaper is in poor taste and will not garner you any sympathy. Being an internet phenomenon for five minutes thanks to having a public tantrum might get you a lot of attention, but it’s not the right kind, and the sales you get from it will peak—and then that beautiful rise will disappear within a few days or weeks as morbid curiosity/rubbernecking fades, and never return. The only way people will remember you is as “that person who exploded on the internet way back when“.

What I’m trying to say is, you don’t have to take an “Us vs. Them” view on this subject. You really don’t. As long as you understand what you’re getting into on both sides, there’s no reason to cop an attitude about who you read or who you work with or how you get your prose out there. There’s room enough in the pool for everyone to play, and most of the authors, agents, editors, and other publishing professionals I know are fantastically, genuinely nice people. Really, there are a lot of you who are true gems, a boon to this industry. Not the least of which being my own agent and editor.

I really do appreciate the people who take the time to educate themselves, understand this, and realize that there’s no reason we can’t all be in this together. You guys are awesome. And I’ll always have your back.

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13 Responses to Us vs. Them – Traditional vs. Self Publishing

  1. Sullivan McPig says:

    Hear, hear!

  2. C.D. Reimer says:

    Since I haven’t written a publishable novel yet, I’m still on the fence between traditional and indie publishing. Which is where I think most people should be until they fully educate themselves to make an informed decision. The days of tossing the manuscript over the transom to let someone else worry about it are long gone.

    As a short story writer, I love the indie publishing scene.

    The traditional reprint market for short stories no longer exist. Once a short story appears in print, it has a future. Most traditional publishers won’t consider a short story collection unless you’re Stephen King or a prize-winning literary writer, and even then reluctantly. People no longer read short stories and short story collections don’t sell well are the common excuses.

    Many of my short stories are finding new life as short story ebooks that sell for $0.99 each. The reprint ebooks (short stories previously published in print) sells much better than the original ebooks (short stories that were rejected 50 or 60 times). I’m on track to make another $35 USD this quarter. Not big money. But that is money I wouldn’t be earning if I did nothing.

    • Jess says:

      There’s nothing wrong with building an audience via short stories. And, hey, that’s $35 more than you had before. 🙂

      Write whatever makes you happy. I think that’s a point some people tend to forget. You might be able to make some money off of it later, but why bother working on it if it doesn’t bring you joy? That’s the important thing.


  3. KB/KT Grant says:

    marry me? We can have a special marriage with Ryan Reynolds as our husband.

    • Jess says:

      @KB — Only if I get to have him on nights and weekends. 😉

      @Marty — Thanks very much. Like I said to C.D., write what makes you happy. Do it for you, not for somebody else. If you sell it and make some money along the way, hey, more power to ya! That was what I did. HBTO was written for shits and giggles. It surprised the hell out of me when I got an agent, and again when it sold, frankly. Now I’m sticking with it because I’m doing what I love. If writing shorts is your thing, great, go for it. Ditto on novels. Both? Hey, knock yourself out. Just play nice, eh? 😉


  4. Marty Shaw says:

    Great post and I agree on all counts. There’s no doubt that sales of her book will spike for a little while, but it’s because people will want the book written by “that person who exploded on the internet way back when.” Longevity will depend on the book itself and her future success is all up to her now.

    And, I’d be really surprised to see a ‘traditional’ publisher ever try to work with her again. Why put in all that work just to get slammed during what’s supposed to be a high point? I hope, for her sake, that she’s really good at the self-publishing thing.

    Personally, I’m considering the self-pub route simply because I seem to be a short story type of writer, and the big guys aren’t too eager to take on short stories by noobs. However, I’d love to one day play in the major league of publishing and would never dream of embarrassing a publishing house the way she did. Never burn bridges that you someday hope to use… or use again.

  5. self pub is hard work. Doing it well is harder.

    Traditional publishing is hard work. Doing it and succeeding and keeping it up? Just as hard.

    I’ve done both.

    Ms. Courtney wants to knock it because things aren’t going her way? Let her. Life doesn’t always go our way.

    • Jess says:

      @Shiloh – I can only imagine. I’ve toyed with the idea of self pubbing a short story or something, but knowing how much time and effort would go into it in order to make it take off makes me cringe. Kudos to you for managing both!


  6. fantastic and well-written post. (I know I told you on the twittah, but I had to swing by and really comment).

    This whole thing infuriates me. Not because she’s going to self-pub, but more along the “poor me, woe is me” lines. I mean, really? Really?

    • Jess says:

      Thanks so much, Laura! And yes, I agree with you completely. The attitude these people take is unbelievable. Maybe there are additional circumstances we know nothing about that might–might–make some of their behavior justified, but I have a hard time thinking of any scenarios in which that might be the case, and they certainly didn’t give enough information to put their troubles or complaints in any kind of positive light on their end.


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