Self v. Traditional Publishing: It’s Not a Rivalry


I saw this ^^ meme making the rounds on Twitter recently. It was being shared mostly by writers who are querying for traditional publishing deals or are working toward one.

The comments that went along with it were worse. And in the interest of honesty, because that’s what I do here, I’ll go ahead and tell y’all I cried.

I’m not usually a crier. It’s fine if you are, but I’m not. I was a bit surprised at my reaction, but I was having a particularly difficult day. My sales have been almost zero (I’ll be posting them in early April for those who may have wondered), I’d just returned from a workshop I was supposed to be leading that no one showed up to after putting in my fifth day in a row of working 17+ hours, and I was emotionally exhausted. So I cried. Then I wrote a blog post on failure (well into hour 21 of working) and put the puffin and Twitter out of my mind to get a few hours sleep and start again.

I really didn’t think I was going to come back to the puffin, but… well, here I am.

I know I talk about this sometimes ad nauseum, but I have a traditional publishing education. If you were to look at my Twitter feed, you’d probably think I was a traditionally published author (or aspiring to be one). Most of the books I read are written by traditional authors as are most of the people I follow. The seminar I just attended in Tennessee was full of those on the traditional track (I actually think I was the only self-published author there). And yes, there were a few hurtful jokes made that I chuckled off because at the end of the day I get it.

In some ways, I used to be right there with the people sharing tongue-in-cheek jabs at self-published authors on Twitter. I came into this with bias, and I still have it (hence my TBR pile). But sharing memes like the one above on social media does literally nothing except hurt people who are chasing a dream exactly the same as yours.

Let me repeat that. Writers looking for traditional publishing deals want the same thing as writers considering self-publishing: to have their words read.

Some of us want to be able to make enough money to write full-time (I fall into this category), some of us want a movie deal, some of us want to see our books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, some of us just want to throw our heart onto the page and maybe have some friends and family read it. What we want changes in shade but not color because all of these things share the same base–people reading our books.

And just like in every career, there are multiple ways to achieve the same goal. 

Now, I don’t know of any self-published authors who have big movie deals (if you do, please do share!), so if the shade of your desire is Hollywood, yeah, you should probably query and get an agent and go the traditional route. But if you just want to throw a book out there to say you’ve done this thing, then there’s no reason you need to query for years and sit around waiting to see if a Big Five Press will take your book. And guess what? There are variations of all kinds in between. Maybe you want an indie press because you’re not interested in New York. Maybe you want to be one of the successful big name self-published authors. Maybe you want to be a hybrid author who does a little bit of Big Five and a little bit of self-publishing. Cool. Every single one of these is a legitimate path. But there is absolutely no reason to trash a path you chose against. That. Shit. Is. Personal.

There is garbage in the self-publishing world. I’ve read it. There is garbage in traditional publishing. I’ve read that too. There are gems in self-publishing (I happen to think I’ve created one, but judge for yourself). And there are gems in traditional. And there’s stuff that’s “meh” in both too. There’s stuff for me and stuff for you. There’s four stars and two.

Okay, now that I sound a little bit like Dr. Seuss, moving along.

This industry is hard. Traditional publishing has challenges self-publishing does not and vice versa. We all fail. I’m failing right now. The uncertainty is scary, and sometimes, when we’re uncertain, it helps us bolster our own decisions by tearing others down. It’s easy, I think, to say, “Well at least my work isn’t so bad that no publishing house would have me!” Ahahaha.

Fact: I did not query. Not one single time. I chose this. My decision to self-publish has literally nothing to do with the quality of my work and has everything to do with my desire to have complete creative control because I was sick of having mental illness and addiction and trauma take my voice away. I wasn’t about to hand it over to a Big Five press after I’d struggled to regain it. The fact that my book doesn’t have Penguin Random House on the inside cover doesn’t mean that Penguin Random House “wouldn’t have me” and to say so is to show your own ignorance about what goes on in the self-publishing world.

Don’t be ignorant. It’s okay to listen. It’s okay to come to a conclusion that traditional publishing has its flaws and self-publishing has its flaws and there are reasons to do or not to do either without having to de-legitimize the other. I know we live in a very “this side or that side” kind of time, but how someone chooses to go about getting his/her/their books into the hands of readers really doesn’t have to be that kind of issue. I promise.

So please, don’t let your fears trample my dream.

Why I Chose Indie

Before I started this journey, my publishing knowledge centered around traditional publishing (being published under the name of a publishing house). While I didn’t hear much about publishing during my studies at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, what little I did hear was all about traditional publishing. “When you’re ready and your craft is honed, write a query letter, find an agent, and he or she will find you your publisher. But you’re not ready yet.”

When I decided it was time to get serious about The Wheel Mages, I assumed I would be traditionally published. To my knowledge, it was simply the way things were done. So I did what I’d been taught to do, I prepared a query letter and hunkered down for the long process of first finding an agent, then waiting, hoping, praying, stressing, and worrying about whether or not my agent would be able to find me a publisher.

As I researched ways to polish my query letter, articles popped out of the rabbit hole that is the internet—articles about a different form of publishing—self-publishing. To be honest, I wasn’t sold. A bias I didn’t know I had surfaced. Self-publishing must be for people who can’t get a publishing house to take their work, I thought. Not for me.

I silenced the nagging voice telling me to give self-publishing a deeper look. I wanted the gatekeepers in the traditional publishing world to hand me the key. I was desperate for them to tell me I had the right to call myself an author. I believed that being an author was so sacred I couldn’t bestow the title upon myself. It had to come from them. Anything else would be too arrogant, too much like Napoleon crowning himself.

But the articles continued to appear, and to silence the nagging, I read them. And the more I read, the more I started to think: Huh. You know, this is something people do and do successfully. Maybe the game is changing, maybe I shouldn’t dismiss this.

I started to open the door to the self-publishing voice’s cage. “Okay,” I said to it. “Prove it to me.”

I was sure I would defeat this defector, but after a lot of research, it won out. And, in list form, here are the top three reasons why:

1. Self-Publishing is faster

Self-publishing isn’t a quick process by any means, and I’m still leery of those who say it is. It’s taken me about a year to publish The Wheel Mages, from writing the first words to e-book launch. I imagine that as I get more accustomed to the process, it will speed up, but I don’t see myself ever being able to write, edit and launch a book in 60 days. Still, self-publishing is a lot faster than traditional publishing which takes closer to 2 years (when all the stars align). And while faster isn’t always better (I won’t sacrifice quality for speed when it comes to my writing), it is a great boon to the most important people in an author’s life—her readers.

All authors are readers first, and we empathize with the struggle that is waiting for a new book to come out. And while that may not be as much of an issue with a debut novel or a standalone, I was aware of what the struggle could be with a series, and I wanted to start down a path that would get my second book into my readers’ hands as quickly as possible.

2. Collaboration is Awesome

It’s not that authors who are published traditionally don’t collaborate, they certainly do, but one thing about self-publishing that really appealed to me was the ability to choose who I collaborated with. That was exciting (also nerve-wracking). I got to choose the designer of my cover art (Fiona Jayde Media) and the host for my website (WordPress) and my content editor (Katie McCoach Editorial) and my copy editor (Nikki with Katie McCoach). My hands are all over this book, every facet of it is sealed with some part of my blood, sweat and tears. But the marks of those who have touched it are there too, making it a unique creation.

3. Self-Publishing Pays Better

I write because I love writing. If no one read The Wheel Mages, I would still write. No one has read many of the manuscripts sitting on my hard drive, but that never stopped me from creating, and it never will. I am the best version of myself when I’m writing.

I publish to make money. It sounds harsh and unromantic, but it’s authentic. I have to pay my bills, the same as anyone else, and if I can do it with writing, that means I have more time to do what I love, which is writing and connecting with my readers.

In traditional publishing, writers can expect to see about 15% royalties (with a good deal). That means that if your publisher sells your book for $10.00, you’re only going to see $1.50 of that. In reality, a $10.00 book is probably a paperback and royalties on paperbacks are more like 10%, so the author is only going to see $1.00 of that. To make $50,000 a year (a round number for illustration), an author needs to sell 50,000 copies of his/her book.

The royalty rates in self-publishing are much higher. If an author uses Smashwords, for example, he/she gets 60% royalties (4 times more than a traditional publisher, for those keeping track). That means he/she can sell his/her books cheaper. (Bonus: This is also awesome for the reader). If the author price points his/her book at $5, he/she gets $3 of every book he/she sells. That means he/she can sell under 17,000 copies and still arrive at the same $50,000 per year.

The difference is huge.

Now, none of this means that I wouldn’t consider accepting a traditional publishing deal in the future. I don’t want to burn any bridges, or close any doors, but for right now, self-publishing is what works for me! And I hope it’s what works for you too!