A Hybrid Author Busts the Myths: Should You Self Publish?

I'm a hybrid author who has jumped from a traditional publisher to indie publishing and back to a traditional house again. As I start my fourth novel, I have no contract for the next one. Do I want to go solo when I publish my next book, or stay where I am?
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Yesterday, I gathered with a group of diverse writers for the Haverhill Public Library Authors Fair. My table was situated between Kristin Bair O'Keeffe, an author who publishes traditionally, and Connie Johnson Hambley, a self-published mystery writer.

This was the perfect place for me: I'm a hybrid author who has jumped from a traditional publisher (Random House) to indie publishing and back to a traditional house again. As I start my fourth novel to be published by New American Library/Penguin Random House, I have no contract for the next one. This means that I'm revisiting the all-important question for many writers: do I want to go solo when I publish my next book, or stay where I am?

This is a good time to roundup what I've learned about publishing. In the process, I want to dismantle four common myths:

1. Publishers are Out to Screw Authors
MYTH. Publishing companies are businesses that compete in a global marketplace. Their job is to make money--and, in so doing, they will make money for you.

With a traditional publisher, you will get royalties from your books--typically about 25 percent of ebook sales. This is much less than the percentage of royalties you'll get if you self publish. Rates vary, but with self publishing, you'll reap about 65 percent of a book sale as your royalty rate.

However, with a traditional publisher, you receive an advance against royalties--anywhere from $5K to $45K for most first-time novelists, though of course there are some pie-in-the-sky whopper deals. You will also get--for free!--an editor, publicist, marketing team, designers, sales people, etc. Your team at a traditional publisher will help you whip your book into shape and get it into the hands of readers.

People who self publish don't get advances, obviously. In addition, they must shell out money in advance to designers, editors, copy editors, publicists, advertising venues, reviewers, etc.

Bottom line: Yes, I have friends who self publish and make buckets of money. However, the only self-published authors who really make a solid profit are those who are willing to write several books a year; have deep pockets to get the whole business of branding started; and most likely write romances, mysteries, or fantasy novels in series. Most say it takes them four or five books before they start seeing a solid, reliable annual profit.

2. You Have More Control as an Indie Author
SOMEWHAT TRUE. Everything--and I mean everything--is up to you as an indie author: writing, editing (or hiring editors), design, marketing, promotions, etc. You can decide everything from what kind of brand you want to create to how you want to promote that brand. Nobody can tell you, for instance, that you can't write a paranormal book because your last book was a romance. You call the shots, and it's a great feeling.

There is also a great deal of transparency. Your sales are visible nearly to the minute, and you can tell with some degree of accuracy whether certain ads or blog posts have caused upward tics in sales. If you're with a traditional publisher, you probably won't have any clear idea as to how many books you've sold until you get your royalty statement six months after your book is published, because traditional publishers have agreements with bookstores about returns--i.e., the books you "think" you've sold might actually be returned, so the publishers don't want to tell you how many have gone out until they're sure the books won't be returned.

The flip side? Publishers are starting to listen to writers clamoring for more transparency. For example, Penguin is now adopting Random House's "author portal," which allows writers to see their royalties any time they wish, along with other info about sales, and of course we can also do that through BookScan on Amazon.

Bottom Line: Indie authors have more control both in writing and in the publishing process than traditional authors.

3. Indie Authors Spend More Time Marketing
SOMEWHAT TRUE. With marketing, Indie authors shoulder a lot of responsibility. They tend to be fiercely proactive with social media, and are paying up front for their own ads, Kirkus reviews, and publicists.

Today's traditionally-published authors should also be building their platforms through social media, as well as meeting booksellers and librarians and participating in conferences and literary festivals.

Bottom line: The only marketing advantage traditionally-published writers have over our indie colleagues is that we have access to wider distribution through bookstores and international sales.

4. It's Faster to Self-Publish
TRUE. To land a deal with a traditional house, you need an agent, and finding one takes time and a lot of networking. The agent might then ask you to revise the book before she shops it around to editors. This can take months.

Once an editor buys your book, you're in for another round of revisions, first with the editor, and then with a copy editor, before the book goes into production. This process can take another year or more.
Seems like forever, right? However, if you're going to write the best book possible, you don't want to rush it. You're going to want to show your book to beta readers and hire an editor and copy editor if you can swing it. I've seen too many talented self-published authors make the mistake of releasing their books too soon, simply because they've self-imposed some arbitrary deadline and don't want to take the time to revise their books again.

Bottom line: it's faster to publish your own books, but you never sacrifice quality for quantity when your name is on the cover.

As you're polishing up that manuscript, consider these two key questions: Do you want to invest money up front and build your brand as an indie author, basically running your own business as you go? Or would you rather take more time and try the traditional route first?

For me, traditional publishing is still the place I want to be. But your situation is unique. Weigh your pro's and con's carefully, and don't rush into anything. This is your book--you want it to be the best one possible.

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