Trad or Indie: Which is Better for You?
Self-publishing existed before Amazon launched the Kindle, but it wasn’t a viable option for most authors. At the time, the only real way to become a bestseller was to get a traditional contract. Then the internet changed everything and self-publishing hit a turning point. Fast forward a decade and the picture has flipped. A 2020 article on The Alliance of Independent Authors’ blog had this to say on the matter:
“In the US, fewer than 1,200 trade-published authors who debuted in the last ten years now earn $25,000 a year or more, compared to over 1,600 indie authors.”
Since then, the trend has only continued in the same direction.
Knowing that, you might believe that going indie is now the only viable option, but some authors still see significant success by getting a traditional publishing contract. For example, in 2020, the organisers of the #PublishingPaidMe movement collected data on the advances white, cis-gender authors got in traditional publishing compared to their minority counterparts. What became clear from the public spreadsheet was that a lot of minority authors were getting short-changed. To a lesser extent, though, the data also showed that some trad authors are still earning massive sums. Six authors reported receiving seven-figure debut deals between 2014 and 2020!
Clearly there are opportunities for authors on both sides of the divide, no matter your preferred publishing route. Yes, self-publishers get more agency, control and a higher royalty rate, but trad authors enjoy a simpler business model and get free access to editors, marketers and other publishing professionals who work on their behalf. Picking which option is best isn’t easy because what’s best for you might be different for someone else. As a result, today’s blog post won’t give you a prescriptive answer to that debate. What it will do is outline a few personality traits you need to succeed as an indie author to help you make up your mind.
Do You Value Control?
When you sign a traditional publishing contract, you also sign away control. How much depends on the contract terms but common things authors give up include:
- who has the final say on editorial changes
- who signs off on the cover
- the publishing timescale
- book pricing
- who owns the rights to different formats
If you only want to write for a hobby, are happy to go with editor recommendations and don’t mind when and how your words get packaged, this is not an issue.
Hands-on authors who want to launch or grow a writing career, in contrast, typically get frustrated by traditional contracts. Would you get annoyed if your editor changed your story against your will or if your publisher commissioned a cover that doesn’t match your genre? What about if they delayed your launch? Would you want to handle your own paid Amazon ads if they didn’t do it themselves? Under contract, your hands are tied. If you’re happy to stick to writing and trust someone else to do the rest then a trad contract might be your best answer. However, if sitting on the side-lines when you want input infuriates you, you’ll probably prefer the indie path.
Are You Tech Savvy?
Publishing has come a long way since the printing press. These days, most authors who successfully publish their own work understand ebook conversion, file types, graphic design, social media, paid online advertising, affiliate links, tracking pixels and HTML, among other things. Some more closely resemble internet marketers than the great novelists of the 20th Century. To stay ahead of the game, they’re constantly testing subscription services and learning new ways to reach readers. It’s possible to do well without being techy, but even indies who simply publish and hope for the best have to understand the basics.
As much as technology is learnable, you might not want to learn. Maybe you love writing but would rather eat a bag of nails than design an ad in Canva or fix a broken EPUB file. If you don’t understand these things and have no intention of learning them then that’s fine. You’d probably rather stick with traditional publishing. Going down that route, you will still need to have some tech knowledge, but it won’t go far beyond using Microsoft Word and your email provider. Sometimes giving someone else a cut of the profits is a small price to pay to avoid a steep learning curve and a lifetime of headaches.
Do You Have Business Skills?
According to movies, successful authors are disorganised artists. We sit behind messy desks typing manuscripts then smile for the cameras while publisher-appointed PR reps organise book tours around us. In reality, though, there’s a lot more to this job. For a start, even while working with traditional publishers, unless you’re a household name, you have to organise your own signing tours and drum up support on social media. You also need to order your own stock, keep organised records, pay for promotions, fill out paperwork and possibly set up a website to sell event tickets. You’re self-employed, so you have to spin just as many plates as any business owner.
With no publisher to shoulder responsibility, though, successful indies must also manage production schedules and freelancers, handle quality control, budget for business costs, optimise products for search engines, handle advertising, solve tech issues and organise distribution. Self-publishing requires you to understand a range of topics that update regularly and are traditionally handled by a diverse team of experts. If you want to run a slick self-publishing operation then doing so requires a business mindset and organisation. Both routes require business skills but a trad author’s role is streamlined whereas, as an indie, you have to do the work of several business departments while writing books.
Do You Like Marketing?
Many authors can tolerate a writing schedule and the odd bit of paperwork but loath marketing their books. After all, it not only costs time but money if you don’t know what you’re doing. And since a hefty portion of the book trade has gone digital, marketing no longer means paying for a billboard and getting interviewed on local radio. Nowadays, publishers spend most of their advertising dollars on pay-per-click advertising options like Facebook, Amazon and BookBub ads. Experts run their accounts, browsing analytics dashboards and processing spreadsheets to optimise their return.
Some authors find the ability to advertise their own work empowering, but not everyone likes to play the game. If you self-publish, you have little choice because most books don’t sell well without someone promoting them. You could hire an expert, but that cuts into profits and most who do typically end up taking on the task themselves anyway, realising that nobody cares about their money as much as them. A minority of authors see advertising as another creative outlet that gives them a break from writing while most claim it’s a necessary evil. What’s certain is that refusing to advertise means relying on luck alone to sell your books. If you do that then you might be better off working with a proactive publisher.
Do You Want a Writing Career?
It’s possible to spend an hour at an indie conference and not even realise that anyone in the room has written a book. This is because indies can talk passionately about craft but many tend to gravitate to more business-like conversation when in a networking event with knowledgeable peers. This phenomenon is in stark contrast to trad authors who tend to stick to writing topics. It doesn’t happen because indies prefer publishing to writing, though. On the contrary, it’s because fixating on marketing is what allows many of them to write full time at all. Writing feeds their soul, but publishing and marketing is what feeds their family.
Of course, not all writers have identical life circumstances. You may be retired or have a lucrative non-writing career that you never intend to leave to become a full-time author. Or you might like writing but would rather not do it for a living. Getting a traditional publishing deal isn’t necessarily a bad option for you if that’s the case. With a publisher, you can write in your free time and let someone else cover the side-tasks you would rather not handle. You’ll give away a lot of control and a large slice of your royalties but, if you don’t publish for the money and only write for fun, it makes sense. Becoming a full-time author is not everyone’s dream.
Overall, whether it’s best to self-publish or get a traditional contract depends on your personality and goals. Both approaches come with opportunities, dangers, advantages and downsides. A hybrid career – one in which you control your IP when it makes sense and license parts to publishers when they can add value – is often considered a wise approach because it gives you the best of both worlds.
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