Sunday, June 24, 2012

Indie versus Traditional - Part One

First of all, this subject is far too involved to cover with a single post.  I'm hoping to cover the major points in two posts, and I'm not sure that even that will give the topic the justice it deserves.

I am leaning very heavily towards indie publishing, or what used to be(and still is by some) called self-publishing.  I'm leaning so heavily, in fact, that it will take a massive shift in my thinking to move me back to traditional publishing.  This is not a decision I've come to lightly, but it is a decision that I think should be explored in depth.
In the past - and by that, I mean barely three or four years ago - those who took the indie route were seen as inferior, a group of writers whose work wasn't up to the standards of the publishing world, so that person had no choice but to go the indie route.  Indie books were sneered at and thought of in the same way a lot of people look at hookers - sure, it technically meets the definition, but you only paid for it because no one with standards would give you the time of day.

However, the stigma associated with indie publishing is lessening as more authors move in this direction.  Before, no writer worth his or her salt would even give indie publishing the time of day.  Bigger name writers like JA Konrath, Terry Goodkind, Sarah Hoyt, and Kevin Anderson have chosen to publish through the indie route.  These aren't no-names who couldn't make it elsewhere; they're best-selling authors who either want to try something new or see benefit to indie publishing.

Traditional publishers offer three things as advantages.  The first is a brand name.  You can call your publishing company whatever you want, but chances are that it won't have the same cache as Random House or Simon & Schuster.  When a reader picks up a novel and sees it was published by HarperCollins, there's a certain sense of implied quality.  Most people feel that a publisher wouldn't waste time and resources on a novel that wasn't up to snuff, and they'd usually be right.  Getting published in the traditional way means that others have looked at your stuff and decided it was at least good enough, so there's less risk to picking up this book as opposed to something done on the indie circuit.

Second, traditional publishers have access to all the stores, so there's a decent chance your stuff will make it to the shelf of a bookstore near you.  You can go and see your work being sold by an honest to God bookseller, and isn't that the dream most of us share?  Of course, the problem with this is uncertainty about the future of the brick and mortar bookstore.  If these outlets aren't around in a few years, or are at least getting harder to find and make profitable, how much of an advantage is this?

The third benefit that traditional publishing gives a writer is distribution.  Traditional publishers will print and ship your books all over the world(assuming the demand is there).  You, as the writer, don't have to worry about inventory or the cost of printing.  Nope, you can focus on churning out that next great novel because somebody in the marketing department of Penguin will worry about getting your novel into stores.

However, there have been two big game changers in the past few years - Amazon and Print on Demand.

Amazon has really revolutionized the industry, especially when it comes to digital sales.  Traditional publishers are still trying to get their heads wrapped around the whole e-book phenomenon and they don't seem to understand that most folks aren't going to pay $12.99 for a digital book, no matter who wrote it.  Amazon, on the other hand, gets this and has set up itself as a "bargain basement" for digital books.  Further, since Amazon will publish anything a writer can slap together, those previously denied access to the market can e-publish and get their stuff out there without going through the gatekeepers in the publishing world.  That doesn't mean what they publish will be any good, but it opens things up in a way that was impossible a decade ago.
The other thing that has changed things is Print on Demand.  Actually creating a physical book has always been a barrier to entry.  Traditional publishers could churn out a quality product without batting an eye while those who self-published usually did so through cheap binding and a cover that looked like it had been produced by a third grader.

But in response to demand, graphic artists have risen up and are able to produce top quality covers for anyone willing to shell out the $500 or so required.  I challenge you to look at the cover for JA Conrath's The List and tell me it was anything but professionally produced.

As far as printing high quality books, Lightning Source and CreateSpace both produce high quality work for a reasonable price(and those prices get even more reasonable if you're willing to order in higher quantities).  It no longer takes a traditional publisher to make a good looking novel, and nowadays it's virtually impossible to tell the difference between the different routes, so long as the indie author takes the time required and lays out the necessary resources into putting forth a professional product.

As the indie route has become more viable, a very contentious debate has sprung up.  Traditional publishers and a lot of writers have long looked down their noses at the indie authors and are uncertain how to react to the trend.  Is this a fad, or is it something that will have a long term impact on the market?  At the same time, a lot of indie writers have reacted with a chip on their shoulder like the oppressed masses who have finally risen up against their overlords.  I'm not sure this spat is doing anyone any good and is making a lot of folks look petty.  However, as things continue along this line, the tone of the debate is likely to darken as more and more indie writers wag their fingers at traditional publishers for ever forsaking them, and the traditional elements jab back that they only accept quality so they wouldn't want such trash anyway.  There aren't a lot of folks undecided in this debate - at least of the ones commenting - and it's taking on the same kind of tone I spoke about in my last post about what happens when people discuss politics or religion.

I'd like to say that those who have no talent would never be picked up by a traditional publisher, but have you seen some of the stuff on shelves recently?  One of the discouraging things to non-published writers is picking up something that they know is crap, but it somehow made it through the gate.  With that in mind, however, indie writers would do well to remember that while there are a lot of good writers going the indie route, there are even more bad ones who are doing it too.  Slapping a book together is no indication of quality, as evidenced by some of the stuff in the traditional market, so indie writers should be careful about proclaiming victim status and how we just couldn't get through the process.  Yes, there are some unfair obstacles out there, but sometimes the writing just sucks.

I told you guys this was an involved topic.  Part Two will discuss my personal reasons for favoring the indie route.  Bottom line is that it boils down to control...


  1. Russ -- one thing, the marketing dept at Penguin won't do anything for you unless you got more than a 25k advance.

    Also, I had ... a dozen books published by Penguin that never made it to ANY shelves in a store.

    So, when you partner with a traditional publisher, keep that in mind. There are no guarantees.

    1. I have a Facebook friend named Joe Peacock who got picked up by Penguin and never got any of his books on shelves. It frustrated him so much he's going indie with his next one(the one with Penguin was #2...his first was indie and did quite well).

      Believe me, I plan to talk about publisher discretion in my next post as a reason I'm probably going indie.