This is a question I hear surprisingly often, especially from new authors. I always tell people that both are valid ways, and advise them to pursue a traditional publishing contract first, if that’s what they want.
However, they should not stop at that. Instead, they should keep their options open, should they fail to get a contract.
Secretly, I know that 99% of them will end up Indie. Not because their books are no good, but because of a simple truth: what publisher will prefer an unknown author who’s only just starting out to a midlister Indie with thousands of fans and an established platform?
So, my advice would be to try both and see what works for you.
But don’t waste years waiting for an agent or a publisher to come back to you. It’s just not worth it anymore.
In fact, the other day I was reading this in an interview by the founder of Blurb (a self-publishing service):
“Traditional publishing is becoming a hits’ business like Hollywood. They want to bank on box office, so if you’re a mid-list author, God help you if your last book didn’t sell a bunch, because you’re not going to get a deal.”
“If you’ve never published before and are handsome or beautiful and 21 and have a big social network, they might take a flyer on you because your book could be the next Hunger Games.”
“And if you’re a bestselling author, they’ll take you, too, because you’re the Brad Pitt of the publishing industry and people will just buy your book because it’s by you. But for everyone in the middle, good luck.”
“That’s a huge population of people coming to Blurb now because they’ve had it up to here. They know they’re not going to get any marketing. There are no more advances so they’re not even making any money on the front end and they figure they’re going to have to do all the marketing anyway.”
As M. C. A. Hogarth points out in a recent post titled “The Uncomfortable Trail-Blazer“, this is no one’s fault; it’s simple math. She explains that a Traditional Genre Publisher with a (ridiculously) generous budget may be able to publish 100 books a year. Of those 100, 50 are coming from midlist authors they’ve bought before and are incrementing series, or serving existing fans. Another five may be bestselling authors, whose books cover their expenses for all the books this year that won’t earn back the money you bought them for.
That leaves them 45 slots to fill. They get 10,000 manuscripts.
Even if only 10% of these are worth publishing, that’s still 1000 books. To narrow it down further, they may decide only to receive manuscripts from agents, which leaves them with 100 manuscripts. They arbitrarily choose the ones they like among them, based on personal preference and, probably, the toss of a coin.
The key point here is that there was nothing the remaining 9,955 authors could have done to better their chances. “Write a better book”, someone might tell them, but the truth is that many better books still failed. “Write a more marketable book” is better advice, but they’d need to understand the market, be willing to write to it, and have the book ready before a new trend appears. Even so, the book still might fail.
Which is why people who tell you that you have a viable choice between traditional publishing and indie publishing are wrong. They think that if you fail, then it’s your fault. Wrong again. They’re assuming you have a choice, when sometimes you don’t. Or, rather, the choice is often to either to get self-published and get your books to readers yourself, or keep trying – and failing.
Hogarth’s point was hammered home, in my mind, when I read an interview by Jeremy Lazzlo, author of several best-selling zombie books:
Back in 2012, after speaking to literary agents and conducting research on the publishing industry, Laszlo submitted some of his manuscripts to several large book publishers. And then one day soon after, he received a reply in his email inbox:
“It was supposed to be an interoffice email from the publishing house I had submitted to” Laszlo told me in a phone interview. “And it was a couple of their interns joking back and forth. One of them said: ‘I just batch-rejected 600 authors.’ But they accidentally hit reply all and all the authors were included. They were joking about how they weren’t even reading any of the submissions. At that point, I was like, ‘You know what, I’m not going to bother with that anymore.’…
What struck me most about (Indie authors) success was that it was achieved so far outside of the traditional publishing apparatus that the New York publishers don’t even seem to know they exist.
Adair’s books regularly make it to the top 100 bestsellers list on Amazon – at one point he made it into the top 10 bestselling horror writers, his name right next to Stephen King and Dean Koontz – and he told me that he’s never been approached by a publisher or literary agent.
So, if you’ve been asking yourself this question or holding back because you don’t know which is the best way forward, here is my wish for the next year:
Whichever road you take, may it lead you to happiness – and a published book!