That’s the first question indie authors have to answer, isn’t it? Most self-published authors have to ask themselves if they wish to seek a traditional publishing deal for their books (i.e. “trad pub”) if they want to take responsibility for everything and upload their manuscripts to distribution sites themselves (i.e. “self pub”).
I think my reasons for self-publishing are the same as many authors:
- A lack of patience (it can take years to find a literary agent, then years to find a publisher willing to take your book, then another 12-18 months until that book appears on shelves)
- An enjoyment of entrepreneurship (producing your own product, thinking through a business lens, learning new skills to serve your business such as cover design & marketing)
- A tolerance of risk
- An overwhelming urge for creative control.
I’ve enjoyed working on the Edinburgh Doctrines series knowing I’m setting the pace and deciding where to take the books (e.g. sub-genre, themes, plot beats).
Thanks to Publishing Paid Me and the Harper Collins strike, we know a lot about the inequities and challenges within traditional publishing: how modest the advances can be for authors, and how overworked/underpaid publishing professionals are. However, I’ve just started listening to the Publishing Rodeo podcast, which offers another kind of cautionary tale for aspiring authors.
When authors like myself imagine a trad pub career, we usually imagine ourselves as one of the industry success stories: books in stores around the world, reviews in the weekend newspapers, strong sales. What the Publishing Rodeo podcast does is shine a cold light on life as a mid-tier author: someone who the publishing company decides isn’t going to sell as many books, and then enacts business decisions that almost guarantee such an outcome. The mid-tier authors get smaller publicity/marketing budgets (if any) and may not receive audio versions or full international distribution of their releases. At times I feel embarrassed listening to co-presenter Scott Drakeford’s experiences with his epic fantasy debut (his publisher used the wrong author bio in their catalogue entry for his book!).
My takeaway from the Publishing Rodeo podcast is that unless you’re sure are on track to be a top-tier author at your trad pub company…you might be better self-publishing. Any book self-published via Amazon or Ingram Spark (the main distributors) gets into every country. As the self-publisher you make the decision on creating an audiobook. It’s shocking to me that a traditionally published author at a big publishing company may not even have that.
I suspect the secret to becoming a top-tier author (six figure advance, scheduled book tours, full weight of publicity/marketing budget, etc) is to have, like co-presenter Sunyi Dean, a high-concept novel. The title of Dean’s debut (The Book Eaters) is enough to arouse curiosity when you hear it, before knowing what the book is about. And having a book concept that’s (i) easy to explain (ii) sounds tasty (e.g. “it’s an African Games of Thrones“) makes it easier for in-house marketing teams to sell. But high-concept is subjective and anything Games of Thrones, for instance, may be less tasty now than it was in 2019.
That said, the decision to self vs trad pub depends on your personality (does the thought of marketing stress you out?), goals (if being an author is something you want to do full-time versus in addition to your main job), and the type of books you write (some genres like dark romance do well in self-publishing and are almost nonexistent in trad pub). But the more information you can gather before making your decision, the better.