Traditional #publishing v Indie (Independent)

I know this is an old topic, but as the world changes, so too do these type of perennial discussions.

I joined (yet another) Facebook group a while ago – THE WRITER’S FORUM – and was gobsmacked to discover the level of ignorance about the publishing industry amongst new writers. I guess I’ve been at this so long I’d forgotten what it was like to come at it fresh, with no knowledge of how the industry has changed over the last few decades.

Many of the writers in this group talk about trying to decide which route to go: traditional or indie.

As if it’s their choice whether or not their precious manuscript will even be considered by a traditional publisher.

There’s also a massive amount of naivete about what a traditional publisher will offer, even if they do consider publishing a newbie. Or, for that matter, an established, best-selling author (more on that later). So many believe that if they can make that one sale, they are set for life as an author.

If only that were true.

Long gone are the days when a publisher’s editor nurtured new talent, mentoring them and building their audience over the course of several books. The brutal truth is that nowadays, it’s all about money. If that first book or two doesn’t make enough, that’s it. Out on their ear.

Even scarier are the hordes of wanna authors who are clueless about the new face of vanity publishing. They are excited when a publisher approaches them and offers a deal that involves both parties taking a monetary risk, and they call it ‘hybrid publishing’.

No, no, no! Any company that asks a writer to contribute financially is a vanity press. No legitimate publisher will ever ask a writer for money.

Not that traditional publishers pay well these days either. Not all of them even pay an advance. Gone are the days of huge advances, and even small ones are small. The technical equestrian book I was commissioned to write this year came with an advance of £1500. That’s the same as I got for each of the previous two books, fifteen and ten years ago.

In case you’re not aware, an advance is not paid as a lump sum. You get one third on signing the contract, one third on delivery of a satisfactory manuscript, and one third on publication, which may be a year or more after you deliver. And that advance means you don’t get any more money for the book until your sales have earned every penny back – with mine, priced at £25 a book, and a royalty of 10%, that gives me £2.50 per sale (and I don’t have an agent taking out a chunk of that). It takes a while to pay back my £1500 advance at that rate! The sad fact is, most books never ‘earn out’. Because mine are evergreen material and have stayed in print over the years, they have both earned out, but a book that doesn’t sell quickly, goes out of print quickly.

And that’s what prompted today’s ramblings, courtesy of a post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. As an author with a decades-long successful career as an author, editor, and a publisher, she has a really good handle on the trad v indie situation. If this topic interests you, I highly recommend you follow her blog.

So, the nub of this post is that I have now truly recognised the biggest reason I am happier with my indie published books, than my trad published ones. I have both, so I feel I am in a legitimate position to talk about this.

It isn’t just the terrible things that some trad publishers are doing to their authors these days, such as best-selling fantasy author, Stephen R. Donaldson experienced, when his editor recently demanded he cut 100K words from his latest book, sight unseen! Nor the lack of legality of the contracts may authors happily sign without realising what rights, exactly, they are signing away. Or even the lack of financial reporting from many agents, a number of whom have been found to be skimming their author’s incomes for decades.

No. It’s about the durability of an author’s career.

Yes, going indie takes more work. But, as experience has shown me, most recently with the Writer’s Digest (Penguin Random House) published ‘Putting the Fact in Fantasy’, which contains an essay by me, modern publishers rarely do any promotion aside from sending out the odd review copy. That’s been the story for both my equestrian books – I’ve done all my own marketing, even down to arranging signings – and I don’t expect it to be any different for the upcoming one.

So why did I accept the commission?

Well, aside from the fact it’s satisfying to see your books on the shelves in stores, I have an active audience ready and waiting for these technical books. I give in-person lectures on the subject, at which I always sell copies, and also clients who will buy them as soon as they are published. They are never going to earn me huge amounts of money, but the fact they keep on selling, and so stay in print, dovetails into the main reason I favour indie publishing for my fiction: longevity.

Again, the naïve writer usually has little knowledge of the brutal reality of the traditional publishing industry.

A newly published book is expected to sell quickly – as soon as it appears on the shelves. The whole trad pub world is built around this approach, because there will always be another new book next week, to take over the shelf space. If that debut book doesn’t fly off the shelves, the remainder of the stock is sent back to the publisher, and often pulped. Unless it is an instant success, the author can kiss goodbye to any contracts for further books, at least with that publisher. Once a book vanishes off the shelves, that’s it, life pretty much over.

Unlike indie publishing, which is built around the slow but steady build up of an author’s catalogue, in a marketplace where books never go out of print.

Yes, there is that lure from traditional publishing of the chance that a book might go nova, sell millions, and be made into a movie. But the odds are ridiculously small. Most authors these days no longer earn a living from writing alone, but supplement their income in other ways.

There is no question indie publishing is hard work, and not for everyone. A few of my friends have tried, and gone back to trad, working with small presses where they can still get a deal, if not a very lucrative one. But for me – a slow writer who produces one book every 18 months or so – the gradual build up suits me well, working alongside the day job I love and will never fully give up.

As your catalogue grows, and assuming you can be successful enough at marketing, one way or another, you gradually develop a fan base who will buy each new book as it releases. If you write good books, new readers will buy your entire catalogue, so every book is revenue, and all you need for a fair income is to sell a few copies of each book every month, which mounts up to provide your income. Forget feast and famine, look for a steady increase.

In ficion, THE PRINCE’S MAN is book #1 of my (currently) 4 book series, and I have 2 other full length novels plus 2 short stories and a boxset available, alongside my 2, soon to be 3, equestrian books.

I’ve seen it said you need around 10 books out before you can expect to start making a reasonable living, although I think that should be considered a minimum. I sell just a few copies of each book each month, but as my catalogue increases, that means that after a new release, each month brings a greater income than before. Unlike the trad situation where authors’ entire back catalogues languish in limbo, out of print and usually tied up by contracts that do not allow the rights to revert to the author (unless they were smart when they reviewed their contracts – I certainly won’t sign one that doesn’t allow for reversion).

You’ll see smart trad authors who were savvy about their contracts, indie publishing their back catalogues, and many of them no longer bother with trad publishing as their audience has become accustomed to buying on Amazon, Apple, Kobo, or similar outlet. But even if they still allow a trad publisher to release their latest books, these smart authors have a regular income from that back catalogue, and are also using it to build their fan bases.

This makes for a much sounder business basis than relying only on their most recent sale.

And my final point is another I’ve seen bandied around on the Facebook group – that of legitimacy.

Yes, there is no question there is now a huge pool of terrible, unedited drivel available on Amazon from indie publishers.

But I’ve read some awful books spewed out by trad pub as well, riddled with inconsistencies and typos.

So much for the supposed gatekeepers of quality.

Members of the group also argue that they believe readers will only buy ‘legitimately published’ books from ‘real’ publishers.

Hate to disappoint you, folks, but outside of the author community, I have yet to find a reader who is remotely interested in a book’s publisher. Most of them aren’t even aware of indie publishing – and the reviews back that up, with comments on (bad) indie books such as “I can’t believe a publisher would actually publish something so bad!”

Books sell for any number of reasons, but not because of who the publisher is!

Comments welcome, this is an emotive topic, but I know which side I come down on.

Next week, I’m going to talk about the reasons books sell, and for the less experienced, what you can do to improve the attractiveness of your book to readers.


  1. Indie publishing has come a long way, hasn’t it. I read at least half Indies, authors I’ve grown to respect and enjoy, and I hear the same numbers from other readers. Great post, Deborah. I really enjoyed it. Sharing…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing Jacqui. And yes, the publishing world has changed beyond recognition in the last 10 years or so, but not everyone seems to have noticed. I find that rather alarming in people who plan to enter this brave new world looking for a career.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I couldn’t agree more with everything you said, Deborah. I started out as a traditionally published author, disliked it, and after six books, canceled all my contracts and switched to indie. I never looked back. But I was a new author too, with stars in my eyes. It’s like parenting…no one can truly prepare you; you have to live it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Too true, Diana, I am just finding it astounding how much determinedly wilful ignorance there is out there, I guess it’s because it’s such a lofty dream to become a published author, and so many don’t want to accept the reality of the modern publishing world.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When I started, I was sooo clueless. Live and learn.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Deb, fantastic post. It’s astounding the amount of new writers I read on social media who are starstruck with trad publishing. I know my marketing has been limited this past few years, but I did spend a good year learning the Indie biz before I even finished a first draft. And there is always something to learn. I think the younger gen maybe looking for shortcuts. And forewarned is forearmed in this biz. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It most certainly is.
      For me, part of my dismay is that many of these writers, while being ‘younger gen’ in terms of writing time, include people of all ages, both older and younger than us!
      We both did our due diligence, and researched and learned the ropes before entering the indie world, this seemed the most obvious thing to both of us to do – so why are so many determined to stay wilfully blinkered?
      Just sayin…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I totally agree with this post, Deborah! One area where there is a difference between trad and indie is that only trad-pubbed books are considered for the major literary awards. But literary fiction is a minuscule slice of the publishing world, and there are now many awards available to indies.
    I gave a good try at getting trad-pubbed about 20 years ago. Since those days I have published 7 books and heartily dislike the word “submission.”


    1. You’re right, of course, there are still things indie authors aren’t eligible for, but the tide is changing, even if it is slow!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent post, and as someone who’s been both traditionally and self-published for 25 years now, I can safely say that when it comes to marketing, both choices take work, commitment, and dollars on the author’s part. It’s been about 6 years since I last signed a contract with a publisher (all of mine have been small publishers) but based on what I’ve read it’s becoming harder to get a fairer contract, especially without an agent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m hearing much the same from other hybrid authors, Debra. And what really alarms me is becoming aware of how many agents don’t do a good, or in some cases, a legal job of representing their authors’ interests. Obviously there are some good ones out there, but I’ve had two agents, and neither of them were very effective.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The same is true for me, Deborah. Although I’m known as a mystery author, I’m working on a 100,000+ word urban fantasy right now. Because of its length, I’m considering pursuing an agent, but will rely heavily on word of mouth from others about which agents to query. At least, that’s what I’m thinking now. A year from now, I might feel differently and go with self-publishing.

        Liked by 1 person

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