Pros and Cons of Independent Publishing in 2020

One of the hardest decisions many modern writers need to make involves the choice of whether to pursue traditional or independent publishing. This choice, often made very early in the book’s lifecycle, can have profound and lasting impacts on every aspect of the book’s existence. It’s very easy for authors to stumble into the choice due to outside pressures, charismatic influence, or simple impatience.

So, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a look at my decision-making process with regards to my upcoming novella Of a Strange World Made(affiliate link) in two weeks. My short stories go both an indie route and via more traditional paths, and I’ve spent some time with indie publishing of my Metal and Men novels, so at this point in my career I have a fairly broad understanding of several branches of this vast monstrosity that we call publishing.

As always, this is based on MY experiences. Your mileage may vary.

The Basics

Whoa, ok wait. Let’s back up and talk about some definitions first. I’m sure many of you here know perfectly well what the difference between indie publishing and traditional are. You can skip this, I SUPPOSE.

Traditional Publishing in 2020

Traditional Publishing is what everybody did twenty years ago (except for a VERY rare subset of those who filled their garages with books or fell for some kind of vanity publishing deal.) With traditional publishing, the author writes a book, shops it to an agent. In the rare instance that an agent is found, that agent shops the book around to publishers. In the (somewhat less rare) instance where a publisher is found, the publisher edits the book with input from the author and creates a cover for the book with little to no input from the author (usually). Then the publisher produces the book and sends it to distributors (or doesn’t, it’s up to them).

Basically, in traditional publishing the author FEEDS THE MACHINE of publishing. Becoming a part of this big machine is tough, and becoming an IMPORTANT part of the machine is even harder. There are plenty of small publishers (often called indie publishers) that will publish your book, letting you skip the agent. If the author gets a good book into good hands and it sells well, there’s lots of money to be made. Those are three separate things, though. Selling well does not mean the book is good, nor does a good book guarantee it will find its way into the right hands. Often, a great book gets into the right hands and it JUST DOESN’T SELL.

Independent Publishing in 2020

Independent Publishing is a publishing paradigm where the author owns and controls everything. The author writes the book, hires an editor to edit the book, formats the book, finds an artist to make the cover, and uploads the book to print-on-demand or digital distributors. The author is also in charge of absolutely all marketing and publicizing.

In independent publishing, the author IS THE MACHINE of publishing. The whole thing. They produce everything of value and take complete control of every other functioning part of the system. The author only outsources the tasks that they WANT to outsource. Personally, I love making covers. Some artists make better covers than me, but often I can do well enough. So, sometimes I hire an artist and sometimes I do my own work. I always hire out editing, because it always improves the final product, and that’s important to me.

Pros and Cons

Long ago in days of yore, the decision was easy. An author went with independent publishing, because big publishers didn’t exist. Then they did exist, and then the decision was pretty obvious for a while again. Now, both traditional and indie are valid paths with pros and cons on both sides. It’s really a matter of weighing what you want out of publishing and what you will give up to get it.

The Pros and Cons of Traditional Publishing

Traditional Publishing’s biggest pro, in my mind, is perceived legitimacy. That doesn’t mean that all traditionally published books are GOOD. It just means that every book to be published through the big publishing machine had at least one person look at it and say, “I like this.” Maybe they liked it from an artistic perspective. Maybe they just thought it was salable. Maybe they thought it would strike the right notes for where the world would be in a year or two when it would come out. Whatever the case, someone looked at that book. They liked it. They thought it was worth leveraging some amount of wealth to see it brought to the shelves in the best way possible.

The biggest con of traditional publishing, in my opinion, is the time to market. It’s a SLOW process, and those few authors who manage to get their books into the system will be writing new books for years before seeing that first one on the Barnes and Noble shelves. Money comes in the form of an advance once the publisher signs on, but that advance is an advance on royalties that may or may not be earned once the book comes out. Look, all I’m saying is that it’s a slow and weird process.

Other pros/cons of traditional publishing are:

  • Pros
    • Someone else worries about marketing, editing, formatting–you know, all that hard stuff that isn’t writing.
    • Award visibility–indie books are eligible for all the big awards, but people nominating books for those awards often can’t FIND them. Traditional publishers know how to get their books into the right hands.
    • Allies. The agent system gives the author an ally (usually). They’re someone vested in the success of the author’s career. Bounce ideas off them. Let them be your advocate. A good agent is worth a fortune.
    • No cost of entry–The author should pay NOTHING to get started in traditional publishing. Except their time. It takes time.
    • Bookstores. Publishers can get books into bookstores.
  • Cons
    • Less control–someone else runs all that stuff you didn’t want to be involved with, but if they want to give your book a crappy cover, they can do that, and you might just have to pretend like it’s great.
    • Business pressures of the corporate world–publishers vanish, are absorbed, or merge. What happens to books caught in the wheels of this big corporate machine?
    • Series decisions–The success of the first book determines whether or not it gets a whole trilogy. New authors often have to write ‘standalone with series potential’ books, which is a good way to run things, but in traditional publishing, the author is not in charge of the decision to move forward.
    • Deadlines. If that trilogy happens, it happens on a schedule. The author can maybe negotiate this, but they’re not the only person with input to the decision.

The Pros and Cons of Independent Publishing

Independent Publishing’s biggest pro is right there in the name. Independence. The author owns and controls the whole product from the very first word on the page to the final maintenance of the PDFs or ebook files. If, after the book has been out a year, the author wants a new cover, then the author GETS a new cover.

The biggest con, I think, is that it’s easy.

Wait, what? Yeah, easy. Independent publishing is SO easy that ANYONE can do it. There aren’t gatekeepers, which is fantastic and cool, but also results in a HUGE range of quality. Also, quality is measured on completely different scales by absolutely everyone who touches the book. That means a book that’s doing REALLY WELL might be absolutely horrid to my tastes. Lots of people don’t share my tastes. This is a documented fact.

And that’s really fine, but it makes a lot of the publishing business difficult. Don’t let people tell you there’s no rejection in independent publishing. Rejection is thorough and constant. It’s a daily experience and happens whenever someone clicks on an ad for your book but fails to buy it. Rejection lives in every day that passes with low or no sales. This is a different, constant kind of rejection that’s completely different from the rejection letter an author might get from an agent or publisher, but it is still rejection.

Wait, did I say this was easy?

Other pros/cons of indie publishing are:

  • Pros
    • Control–the author keeps all of it. What the final product looks like. Schedules. Everything.
    • Fast–It still takes time to write a book, but once the book is finished, publishing can go VERY fast. Days. Weeks. Whatever the author wants, really.
    • Adaptability–markets for books are growing and changing. Independent authors are able to quickly pivot to what readers want.
  • Cons
    • Responsibility–the author owns all of it.
    • Cost. Editing, covers, and formatting all cost money out of the author’s pocket.
    • The Team–assembling a set of good editors and artists takes work. It’s time out of the author’s day as well as money out of the author’s pocket.
    • Marketing–a book that isn’t pushed in some way won’t sell (usually). Whether that’s a nudge or an ad blitz, it’s probably going to cost time and money.
    • Business–Writing is always a business, but for independent authors it’s REALLY running a business.
    • The stigma–self-published books still have a stigma, and it’s not entirely undeserved. There are some GREAT books out there in the sea of fiction, but finding them can be extremely difficult.
    • Little access to bookstores. See that problem of there being SO MANY books and not enough great resources sorting them out. The author’s local bookstore might carry their book. Getting into Barnes and Noble means defeating one of their gatekeepers in hand to hand combat, and they’re TOUGH.
    • Amazon runs a near monopoly, and they aren’t afraid to use their influence to bump you around a little. A lot sometimes.

Notably absent from my pros and cons lists are the “whatever publishing will MAKE YOU RICH.” Sorry, neither is a fast track to buckets of cash. Traditional publishing might give an advance, but big advances are exceedingly rare. Indie publishing may start paying back fast, but markets are fickle and often a series doesn’t start earning its keep until the third book arrives with a big mega-sale. Plus, you’re paying money up front, so you kinda start in the hole.

What I’m saying is, there are people who make a fortune on both sides. There are more who make little to none. The real question here is WHAT GAME DO WE WANT TO PLAY?

Of a Strange World Made

Girl looking at a horizon with two moons

That brings me to my reasoning for Of a Strange World Made(affiliate link). I decided to go indie with this series, but I had to think A LOT about it first. Of a Strange World Made, the first of the Colony of Edge series, had a couple small publishers interested. It was on a couple of short lists, but no offers. It had been in the holding pattern for A WHILE. I should note, neither of them were tor.com, the ONLY big market for novellas. As a novella, it’s not really big enough to sign an agent, but it would have found a publisher. Eventually. In the traditional publishing world, my work with the book was pretty much finished. I would respond to edits, work on blitz of attention around the launch, and just generally be professional, but that was about it.

So, why did I decide to go indie?

Well, as with a lot of things these days, COVID happened. It slowed down those already slow markets by slowing down already slow book sales. Before my COVID layoff, I would have been very happy to wait years and years for a publisher to pick up the story. If they wanted to make a series of it, great! If not, well, that would have been fine, too. Losing my job didn’t put me in huge financial stress, but it DID give me a lot of time to work on publishing projects and some good motivation to make some of those projects pay up sooner rather than later.

It also helped that I was comfortable with the tools of independent publishing. The Metal and Men series hasn’t really ever earned tons of cash, but it has allowed me to learn the business. I knew how to format books, find cover art, and acquire editing services. It taught me how to target ads, run promotions, and just generally move books. Of a Strange World Made will likely have better general appeal, which should make earning back my investment a lot easier, especially once the whole series is available. For many in independent publishing, marketing is the hardest part, and I have a decent start on that.

By my best estimation, a deal with a traditional small publisher would get me NOT MUCH up front with a prospect of A LITTLE BIT MORE in the long run. More importantly, it very likely wouldn’t result in a series deal. Publishing independently means I can have the whole series in my readers’ hands by the middle of next year.

What made this decision HARDEST was knowing that the book’s likelihood of award recognition drops by going indie. I really love this story and in the right conditions I think it has a chance of getting recognized. Yes, there are indie awards that it’s now qualified for, but I’m not as familiar with those. Nor are MOST fans. I don’t necessarily need awards to feed my ego, but awards represent a NEXT BIG STEP in the teaching branch of my income. “Award nominated author” gets better enrollment than “just some guy”, and that’s not tied to author income or the number of books sold AT ALL.

It’s also something I don’t have any real control over. It helps that I’m getting my short stories into various published venues with lots of visibility. If any awards ever come my way, it’ll likely be for one of those.

So where does that put me?

I want to get Of a Strange World Made in readers’ hands as soon as possible. I’m not afraid of the technical hurdles of independent publishing. I’m capable of being realistic about award chances (I mean come on). The answer, to me, was pretty obvious. Independent publishing was a good fit for this whole series, and I’m happy I picked it.

One last note: I have two novels in the pipeline that could also go either way. When I’m done with the Colony of Edge novella series, there will be more decisions to make. Every project gets to move toward whichever publishing path best fits.

And that’s the coolest thing about this decision between traditional and independent publishing: You get to keep making it.

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