Publish traditionally, solo self-publish or something else? Advice for the 2015 writer

2015 writerLast year I wrote a post about whether I’d advise an author to publish or selfpublish. A year on, the landscape for authors is remarkably different – or perhaps not remarkable if you’ve been waiting for a bubble to burst.

Indie authors have seen sales plummet because of the sheer numbers of books available, and subscription schemes such as Kindle Unlimited have created a breed of readers who won’t shop outside a limited free list.

Might this mean it’s better to be traditionally published?

Not from what I’ve seen. My friends with trad deals aren’t having a good time either. Leaving aside royalties and advances (which seem to offer little financial reward for all the hard work writing), their books aren’t getting a decent chance for a long-term future.

A friend whose first novel won a major award in 2012 has just watched his fourth novel launch with no more fanfare than a tiny paragraph in a Sunday paper. His only other support was a training day on a social media course. And don’t even ask about rights grabs – where authors might wait years to reclaim a book to publish it themselves.

Tough times, my friends. So savvy writers will be looking for smarter ways to publish.

Since my last post about this we’ve seen a growing trend for indies to work in collaboration, teaming up with similar authors to release box-sets of ebooks, finding partners to exploit other rights such as translations or audio (either via ACX or other means – here are my posts on my own collaboration with my voice actor Sandy Spangler). Collaborators might be paid up front or in royalty splits. Further back, indies have collaborated by teaming up to create products (like my course with Joanna Penn, now unfortunately nuked by EU VAT rules) or forming long-term collectives (Triskele Books, itself a collective, has been running a series on various well-established collectives ). Joanna Penn has a mighty post about joint ventures with other creatives.

And that’s just the start. I think the authors of 2015 will be watching out for advantageous ways to partner up and we haven’t seen the half of them yet.

Better together
Indies who collaborate get
• shared marketing muscle, to connect with more readers
• shared expertise (editorial feedback, blurb and press release writing)
• shared contacts (editors, proof readers, designers)
• a shoulder to cry on, behind the scenes – and tough love when necessary too.

Does it sound familiar? Indie author collaborations are attempting to create the best of what a traditional publisher does. And this means we should…

View traditional publishing deals as collaborations
And so this means the smartest way to suss out deals from traditional publishers is to consider them as collaborations. What will they do for you that you could not do yourself? What are they asking from you in return? Is it reasonable?

No one I know writes a book to sacrifice it to a bad deal (see my remark about rights grabbing above). On the other hand, no one wants to turn down an opportunity that would be good, as far as can reasonably be forecast in a world of fickle readers and luck.

So this is what I’d say to the 2015 writer who’s asking my advice on whether to selfpublish or query traditional publishers.

1 Whether you intend to go indie or not, learn about selfpublishing

– then you’ll know how to weigh up the value of a publishing deal. As well as the advance (which usually won’t cover the time you spent writing), a publisher offers editorial guidance, copy editing and proof reading, cover design as appropriate for the audience, print book preparation, publicity using their contacts and reputation, print distribution.

Some (not all) are easy to source yourself or make good decisions about. Some can’t even be priced, like the publisher’s reputation – but see my remark above about the award-winning writer with his latest launch. Some of that value might be emotional – the confidence that everything has been done properly. This may not be as guaranteed as you think. There are traditionally published writers who sell enough to get meticulous attention from publishers, and others who get a tired, overworked editor who simply doesn’t have time to do the job as well as they’d like.

The more you know about selfpublishing, the more you can assess a publisher’s value as a partner. If you have tried to produce a quality book yourself, you’ll have a realistic idea of the value a publisher adds – or whether you can do well without them.

2 Be aware of the limits of traditional print and distribution

Distribution of print books is an area where traditional publishers have a clear advantage – (however, the Alliance of Independent Authors is working on a print sales project for indies ). Books in a publisher’s catalogue get promoted by a sales team. You get the heft of their mighty reputation! Result!

But let’s have a reality check. Go into Waterstones or another large book emporium. Look along the shelves where the books are spine-outwards. How many are there? Which ones catch your eye? Probably none of them. They’re the store’s wallpaper. You’re already cover-drunk by the time you’ve passed the books on the tables or in the window or in special display boxes.

Recording a radio show with independent bookseller Peter Snell, surrounded by lovely wallpaper

Recording a radio show, surrounded by lovely wallpaper

A book in a store needs more than a meek slot in the alphabetically-ordered shelves to be discovered by a casual browser, no matter how beautiful its title or cover. So even if your book is going into big stores, it’s unlikely to be found unless it gets special prominence – both in the store and in the wider world. For that, the publisher has to spend money. Independent bookstores are a different matter as the selection is smaller and more personalised, but you still have to hope your book gets emphasised by the sales reps or the store will never hear about it.

3 It isn’t either-or

Whether you start as indie or traditionally published, you won’t always stay that way. Traditionally published authors might leave their publishers (or be dropped) and go it alone. They might selfpublish their backlist. Indie authors might begin on their own, then strike a deal. Some do all of it concurrently (hybrid authors), choosing what’s best for each project.

Some publishers are experimenting with partnering deals, where an author who is experienced in production keeps control of some stages of the editorial process. I like this model very much – it seems a good way to use everyone’s strengths.

Publishing and selfpublishing is now a spectrum. Most writers will zip up and down it, according to where a project fits.

3 Selfpublishing your first book

Don’t be in a rush! Although modern selfpublishing tools let you revise and tweak a naive edition, you cannot edit your reputation. Take your time. Do it properly. You’ve got a lot to learn – about writing to a publishable standard and about publishing itself. The world will wait – but it won’t forget if you mess it up. See my post here about leaving enough time to use editorial feedback.

And finally…

The selfpublishing world is maturing. Suddenly I notice there are a lot of us who have been in this game a few years now, building solid reputations and devoted audiences. I think 2015 will be the year of the exciting collaboration – with other authors, with translators, with artistes from other media (such as voice actors). Perhaps with editors too.

We’ll choose what’s best for each book. We’ll also get more expert at putting a realistic value on contributions, including those of traditional players in publishing, both imprints and agents, and with luck this will lead to deals that are fair and fruitful.

Writing may be solitary. Publishing – and selfpublishing – doesn’t have to be.

Thanks for the dancer pic Lisa Campbell

plotglowThe ebook of Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel is now available on pre-order. It will go on live sale on Twelfth Night, 5th January, and if you order beforehand you can get a special pre-order price.

 

Have you collaborated on selfpublishing projects – or struck an unorthodox deal with a publisher? Are there any success stories or cautionary tales you’d like to share? How do you feel about the prospects of the solo selfpublisher for 2015? Optimistic? Pessimistic? How do you feel about traditional publishing? Let’s discuss!

AFTERWORD Since I first published this post, Peter Snell and I recorded an edition of the radio show in which we interviewed two founders of an authors’ collective, Triskele Books. They gave us the lowdown on how they formed, how the collective works and the pros and cons. Listen by clicking the clever thingy below.

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  1. #1 by johnnycrowman on January 4, 2015 - 1:00 pm

    Reblogged this on On Writing & Editing and commented:
    wise words…

  2. #3 by Viv on January 4, 2015 - 1:17 pm

    It’s comforting to know my experience of plummeting sales is not unique but I confess to being very, very tired (OK, Dead Poets’ Socety- exhausted) with the whole process of rolling this rotten rock uphill only to have it come crashing down just as I get within sight of the top. As you probably know, I’ve had manifold health issues in the last few years and I have run out of energy, oomph and mojo.

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 4, 2015 - 6:58 pm

      Hi Viv! There are a lot of us who share your weariness, even without the extra issues you’ve had to deal with. But there are fine writers out there with a lot to offer, so let’s hope we find a way to keep that rock going upwards.

  3. #5 by Crime Thriller Fella on January 4, 2015 - 1:31 pm

    What a great post, Roz. My resolution this year is to really consider all the publishing options this year. And to back it up with a bit of business research. It’s so easy to put a good writing shift in, yet hope for the best when you eventually want to get your work out there.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 4, 2015 - 7:02 pm

      Thanks, Mark! You’re right about the writing effort vs the marketing. I freely admit I’ve been guilty of that. But this year I’m going to be learning a lot more about how to make better luck. Watch this space.

  4. #7 by kinneret on January 4, 2015 - 1:48 pm

    Hi, Roz, thank you for writing this post, the burning question: how an author (especially a new or unknown one) could successfully self-publish when the market is inundated and so much self-promotion is required? But also, what are publishers doing to promote authors? (It reminds me in a way too of real estate since we’ve had to sell real estate in the crash. You always wonder if you could sell it yourself…not so easy.) I have a friend who who was writing a novel for 15 years (her first novel) and it is coming out with Harper Collins but one of their smaller imprints. It will be interesting to see how much they push it. I think of Gone Girl and how that title got such heavy promotion and when the movie deal was cut? I like your indie idea. Also, another idea could be a small new publisher who is eager to get their hands on good books and promote them as well as their own brand.

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 4, 2015 - 7:06 pm

      Hi Kimberly – thanks! I can only imagine how daunting it must look from your perspective – almost as if self-publishing requires as many hurdles as traditional publishing. But you’ll never go far wrong if you build slowly and think for the long term, and learn to write as well as you possibly can.
      I hope your friend gets a good launch with HarperCollins. BTW, if I can help with the offer of a post on The Undercover Soundtrack, send her my way. (What’s The Undercover Soundtrack? Scroll down the sidebar and look for the badge.)

      • #9 by kinneret on January 4, 2015 - 7:23 pm

        Thanks, Roz! What’s funny to me is that the world of publishing/editing has changed and collapsed so rapidly (where only IT skills are now valued) that I almost feel like I have a better chance of making a career writing books, making hats, or maybe being a hospital orderly as continuing as an editor.

  5. #10 by DRMarvello on January 4, 2015 - 2:01 pm

    I’ve collaborated on a few publishing projects. My first book got it’s initial visibility boost from a group promotion event where I joined several other fantasy authors in a short free run. I’ve also contributed a short work to an anthology. My biggest collaboration was publishing a series of non-fiction books that were written by other authors. My wife and I technically became indie publishers for that project.

    I don’t have any particular success stories or cautionary tales. My wife and I are happy with publishing our own books and handling as much of the production ourselves as possible. My trilogy has earned me the equivalent royalties of a traditionally published mid-list author, which is more than I had hoped when I got started with this. However, I don’t know if I could duplicate that success if I had to start over from scratch today, given how competitive things have become.

    I think 2015 will be the year we realize that the self publishing hype curve has peaked. With three million Kindle titles in Amazon already and only about 25,000 slots at the top that earn decent money, new authors are having a tougher time than ever gaining visibility, no matter how good their books are. Your book not only has to be good, but it has to be better than another book that already holds one of those top 25K slots. People who publish for the love of writing will always be satisfied, but many who hope to make good money from their writing will be disillusioned, and many who *need* to make money from their writing won’t be able to justify the time investment.

    Traditional publishing is just one alternative of many. The main thing to remember is that your book is your intellectual property and publishers are not doing you some big favor by publishing it. If a publisher thinks your book is worth publishing, it is certainly worth publishing yourself. That’s how you need to be thinking when you evaluate the horrible contracts that publishers are crafting these days. Get the deal you want or walk away. Don’t take a deal just because it appeals to your vanity. Publishers don’t help market newbie writers, so the only thing a traditional publisher can give you is print distribution, and that benefit comes with an extremely short expiration date unless your book turns into a bestseller. After a couple of months, most print books are remaindered and your book becomes a back-list title that the publisher can continue to sell in digital form for the life of the copyright, delivering miserable royalties to you should it ever earn out the pitiful advance (which it probably won’t).

    Good article, Roz. Sorry for the long response, but you asked.😉

    • #11 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 4, 2015 - 7:08 pm

      Hey Daniel! Wise words. And new books not only have to be good to succeed, they need ninja marketing too. These are not easy times.
      I’m glad you made that point about print sales and remainders. I was going to mention it myself but thought the post was already long enough. But it needed saying – so thank you. And thanks also for the rest!

  6. #12 by M.H. Vesseur on January 4, 2015 - 2:09 pm

    2014 was definitely a year of change, Roz. Before, authors and publishers were on opposite ends; the first enjoying a certain kind of freedom, the latter more and more trying to stay afloat. By the end of the year, authors and publishers were facing more or less the same problems: too many books flooding the readers. Too much to choose from. Overkill on social media and so forth. So 2015 will be a year to continue looking for other options and you’re kicking it off nicely. As you state it: “So savvy writers will be looking for smarter ways to publish.” I thoroughly agree with your three propositions, to study self-publishing regardless, be realistic about traditional publising and selfpublishing, and above all: look for ways to collaborate. People are sharing their experiences and combining their strengths. Some good will come of that, but it has its limits; authors need to be writing too, so the amount of time spending collaborating can’t expand indefinitely. In the end it is about reaching readers, and that basically hasn’t changed. Yes, there are huge numbers of people who read free ebooks only. Yes, there are people who stay within the Kindle Unlimited realm. The lesson here should be that these are the wrong (!) audiences. Authors must focus on a different audience, through different channels (like the amazing powerhouse called Twitter). I think the most important lesson from 2014 is that authors need to focus on change. In the end, the Kindle became huge because Amazon was a wave of change in itself. The whole tsunami in the book world proves that change is the key word (even if some of the change is bad for some). As a reader, I love the accessibility of books through technology. As an author, I see the chances, however difficult to grab. I wait optimistically for more change to take place, because through change the situation may improve for both publishing houses and authors.

    • #13 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 4, 2015 - 7:15 pm

      Hi Martin! Good thoughts here. And you raise an excellent point about time – when do we get time to do this extra due diligence etc if we are also writing? It’s hard, certainly.
      These days authors who want to ‘just write’ may well be the authors who are happy to accept traditional publishing deals. That may be because they have other jobs, or they’re completely disinclined to learn an entire business as well as an artistic craft. And fair enough. But writers who want to be hands-on about their entire career and publishing world now have better opportunities, if they know how to play them.
      Okay, I’m being optimistic, I know. I think I mentioned in a recent post that I don’t give up easily.🙂

  7. #14 by chrishillauthor on January 4, 2015 - 2:33 pm

    Interesting thoughts Roz – I agree with you that people are likely to move around the spectrum of available options. I had a small publisher for my first book and another for my second which will be out next month – but I certainly wouldn’t rule out self-publishing in the future, especially now I’ve learned more about the process from my experiences so far.

  8. #23 by Author Franny Marie on January 4, 2015 - 3:00 pm

    Reblogged this on Author Franny Marie and commented:
    I can’t tell you how much I loved this Blog Post🙂

  9. #25 by Author Unpublished on January 4, 2015 - 3:18 pm

    Reblogged this on Author Unpublished.

  10. #27 by Kylie Betzner on January 4, 2015 - 5:13 pm

    Interesting thoughts and insights. Both discouraging and uplifting. My problem is finding others who are as motivated as I am. Recently, I started an author’s team to help cross-promote our works and create a support network for authors in my genre. It has a slow start, but every member is enthusiastic. I look forward to seeing where this goes.

    It’s frustrating that e-publishing is hurting, just when I’m about to publish. haha. I feel like I’ve missed out on a great wave that several of my author friends got to take advantage of. But my book wasn’t ready. I agree with you. It’s better to consider your long term reputation over instant gratification.

    Great post! Sharing!

    • #28 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 4, 2015 - 7:22 pm

      Thank you, Kylie! And though you must be frustrated to feel you missed out on a boom period, I admire the fact that you’re able to see it long term. Start now and where will you be in a few years’ time? Best of luck with the author team.

      • #29 by Kylie Betzner on January 4, 2015 - 11:55 pm

        Thank you. I only hope it pays off. It seemed such a glorious time to have missed:)

  11. #30 by authorleannedyck on January 4, 2015 - 6:57 pm

    I began as an indie author. And I am very glad I did. I learned a lot. And I continue to learn a lot from indie authors. Once a publisher accepts my submission, I will put what I’ve learned into action. Working together with my publisher, I will market book after book after book after…

    • #31 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 5, 2015 - 7:56 am

      Great, Leanne – you’re an example of exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve found out what can be done outside a publisher, weighed up what’s right for you and are making informed choices. Good luck!

  12. #32 by Andy Killeen on January 4, 2015 - 7:50 pm

    Thanks for a timely and insightful post, Roz. Your readers might be interested to know about a collaborative publishing start-up we’re developing called Scrolla. We’re looking for manuscripts at the moment for beta testing.
    As we’re asking people to commit their work to the platform for a year, these are likely to be manuscripts which have been passed over by traditional publishers but which the writer doesn’t want to self-publish, perhaps because they know they need editorial input and other help. There are no charges or fees for writers using the platform, now or ever. Anybody interested can find out more here:
    http://www.scrolla.co.uk
    and apply to submit their manuscript here:
    http://pow-wow.org.uk/manuscripts-wanted-for-new-publishing-platform/

    • #33 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 4, 2015 - 10:38 pm

      Sounds like an interesting venture, Andy, and I’m sure you’ll have a lot of interest. I had a quick look at the site and it’s a neat design. It appears you’re going to be a one-stop shop window for creatives to meet editorial people, plus it looks like you help with the selling etc. Am I right?

    • #34 by suzannahkolbeck on January 6, 2015 - 12:12 am

      This does look interesting. If I was anywhere near ready I would be in touch!

  13. #35 by acflory on January 5, 2015 - 6:31 am

    I like the idea of partnering and collaboration, at least in principle, but I admit I’m leery of giving up any of my hard-earned freedom, and control. As with my editor, I think a lot of trust is involved. That said, I’m certainly open to some experimentation.🙂 Need another sci-fi writer?

    • #36 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 5, 2015 - 7:59 am

      Hi Andrea! I know exactly what you mean by ‘hard-earned freedom and control’. You don’t necessarily have to give anything up. Authors will be finding all kinds of ways to work together. Good luck!

      • #37 by acflory on January 7, 2015 - 3:57 am

        Thanks, I’ll keep my eyes open for opportunities this year.🙂

  14. #38 by Gargi Mehra on January 5, 2015 - 2:23 pm

    Great post! Very helpful for those of us wondering what exactly we should do with our writing this year.

  15. #40 by suzannahkolbeck on January 6, 2015 - 12:09 am

    Love this. I have two books that I am working on, and though they are a long way from publication, it is good to see this well in advance. It still sounds like you are hedging your bets a little, and I think the answer to this question will evolve even more by 2016.

    Thanks!

  16. #42 by herheadache on May 7, 2015 - 6:41 pm

    Reblogged this on Her Headache and commented:
    My blogging break continues a little while longer, but this is worth sharing, as I learn the writer ropes, a little bit more every day.

  17. #43 by Single Strides on May 7, 2015 - 6:45 pm

    Great and informative post. Very helpful for those of us wondering what the best route to take with our writing is. I have self published in the past so I’ve been on the edge.

  18. #45 by herheadache on May 7, 2015 - 6:46 pm

    Reblogged this. Thank you for the incredibly useful insights.

  19. #47 by The Story Reading Ape on May 7, 2015 - 7:01 pm

    Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    Read this and let Roz know what YOU think😀

  20. #53 by noelleg44 on May 7, 2015 - 8:08 pm

    An encouraging post in many aspects. Right now my critique group, which has five published books among us and another four in the wings, is thinking of forming our own publishing group. I think there is strength in numbers!

    • #54 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 7, 2015 - 8:50 pm

      Strength in numbers? I’d say so, Noelle! You might like one of the recent episodes of my radio show, in which we interview two founders of an authors’ collective. I’ll put the link in the main post. Best of luck!

  21. #55 by Author Massimo Marino on May 8, 2015 - 8:08 am

    Great post and thanks for sharing, Roz. I self-published a science fiction trilogy, writing my fourth novel at the moment, I have been in the top 100 Most Popular Science Fiction Author on Amazon multiple times.

    I’m now hybrid, with a re-editing contract for the first volume of my trilogy with Booktrope Publishing, LCC. It’s a traditional publisher with an innovative approach that is attractive for an independent author. They’re strength, and what I’m looking for, is their access to all the traditional channels for a book to be noticed, they *collaborate* with, not *fight* against Amazon, and they struck a deal with Hollywood to submit their authors to film contracts. (but this last was not the deal-breaker for me.)

    The deal-breaker was that I’m part of the decisional process in all phases for the re-edition of my novel(s), I have better royalties than the “lower level” in Amazon, thus greater than any other publisher around, and the team around the book has a stake on the royalties too, that is, if the book is a success, they individually earn more. Nothing like a direct financial interest for your publishing team as incentive and motivator.

    The agent who addressed me to Booktrope told me they reject more than 90% of the submissions (agented or not) and she has also a number of her authors in Booktrope, too. So she eats where she sends customers, too😉

    • #56 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 8, 2015 - 8:30 am

      Wow, Massimo, it sounds like you’ve got yourself well set up there. And thanks for describing your situation in such detail as that sounds like a new and intelligent deal that’s good for both author and publisher. Very best of luck to you.

      • #57 by Author Massimo Marino on May 8, 2015 - 4:31 pm

        Thanks a lot, Roz. So far so good. I’m trying to pave my way to a future Nebula nomination.🙂

  22. #58 by PHS on May 8, 2015 - 1:11 pm

    Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:
    Reblogging on Archer’s Aim – good insights on publishing which really have me thinking about my own approach.

  23. #59 by K'lee L. on May 8, 2015 - 2:06 pm

    Really want to thank you for this post and the advice given within! As I finish my first novel, the challenge is continuing on the path to publishing, either self-directed or traditional? I definitely look to ‘get it right’ in terms of knowing as much as I can first. Your article(s) are a blessing so thank you again!

    • #60 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 8, 2015 - 2:30 pm

      Thanks for leaving your pawprint, K’Lee – and good luck! These are exciting times.

      • #61 by K'lee L. on May 8, 2015 - 2:35 pm

        Thanks, Roz. I just listened to your podcast, part one on your site… fantastic advice and great conversation to start my day. Jumping back into the ‘editing pool’ suddenly feels a little less challenging this morning!

  24. #62 by barry1961 on May 8, 2015 - 8:36 pm

    Reblogged this on J Barron Owens and commented:
    A wonderful blog post on the topic of self publishing versus traditional publishing!

  25. #64 by michaelphelps1 on May 9, 2015 - 5:32 pm

    Reblogged this on Michaelphelps1's Blog and commented:
    Very savvy advice! However, I firmly believe in MARKETING your books any way and every where you can! Thank you, Roz.

  26. #65 by Jan Ruth on June 2, 2015 - 6:14 pm

    Reblogged this on janruthblog and commented:
    The many sided coin of publishing…

  27. #66 by serendipitydoit on June 5, 2015 - 10:42 pm

    Great, comprehensive post, Roz. I’ve already tweeted this and have had it shared several times. Look forward to the Venice Workshop.

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