Monday Musings: Us or Them? Is That the Only Way?

There has been a lot of attention lately around the issues of traditional versus independent publishing. Between the Amazon-Hachette battle, and now Amazon’s announcement of their Unlimited service, which is essentially a subscription-based lending library for Amazon titles, the argument of which is the best way to go has been a hot topic on several writing sites I look at.

Traditional publishing, where an author (or more usually, the author’s agent) shops a book to mainstream publishing houses, trying to get them to pick up the title and publish it, has been around for a long time. And that is what some people consider the problem: the model is outdated, slow, and nearly impossible for a new author to crack. All of those are true, to some extent. A publishing house invests money in a book. From the advance to the author, the editing process, cover design, production, and marketing, the publisher has a real monetary investment in that one volume. I won’t get into the argument of how much (or little, depending on your point of view) the amount of money and time invested is these days. That’s a different topic. Whatever the amount, it is an investment, and, honestly, if they are a bit leary of putting that into someone with no audience and an unsure sales record, can you really blame them? These are for-profit companies, after all. They are in the business to make money.

Independent publishing, on first glance, seems a pretty good deal. Write the book, put it out there on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple’s iBooks, and any number of other e-book retailers, and sit back and wait for the money to start coming in. But, wait. There are other things to consider. Remember, that book still has to be edited, and edited by more than your work processor’s spell and grammar check. Content editing needs done, as well, and that needs more than your Mom and best friend telling you your story is the greatest thing they have ever read. Cover design? Unless you are or know a graphic artist willing to work for free, that’s another thing to consider. Formatting an e-book so that it looks good, and reads well on any number of different devices is not easy. It can be learned, but it still takes time to do it right. Marketing? Publicity? Say what you will about the major houses not doing the type of publicity they used to, they still know all the right channels and all the tricks, so they are going to do it right. If you independently publish, all of the above, and more, are dropped right on your doorstep. It is not a quick and dirty way to make money on your book. Not if you want to do it right.

So, which is the best way to go? Well, that depends. There isn’t a right answer that fits everyone. If you are up to the challenges, independent publishing can work quite well, especially if you are patient. It takes time and planned effort to build an audience. If you would rather concentrate on writing more, and not have to deal with a lot of the details (you will need to do some), then perhaps a traditional route is the way to go. Again, you will need patience. First, you will have to query and find an agent willing to work with you. Is an agent necessary? No, there are publishers who will accept unagented manuscripts, but they are usually relegated to a slush pile, and may not get read for a long time. You will get rejections. You will get discouraged. But it can, and does work.

Can you do both? Well, yes and no. If you independently publish, popular thought is that a mainstream publisher won’t even consider you unless you can demonstrate significant sales of your works. If you work with a mainstream publisher, that same thought is that they will look unkindly on anything you want to publish on your own, even if it is something they would not consider.

My feeling is that all of us, sold or not, published in any form or not, need to keep our options open. Don’t, as the old saying goes, put all of your eggs in one basket. You’ll hear that there aren’t all that many options for new authors. There are as many options for us as there are for anyone else. Decide what you want, and the best way to get to that goal. Stay flexible. Take the opportunities that come your way. As Jon Bon Jovi said, “Map out your future – but do it in pencil.”