As you enter the publishing realm, you’ll encounter entirely new vocabulary, which can be very confusing. I’ll start by defining a few terms to clarify I mean below.
Traditional publishing means that an agent represents you and submits your book to a publisher. If accepted, they pay you an advance and take the rights to your book. An advance is pre-payment against the royalties they expect the book to earn. So you need to earn out that advance before you receive any more money. You typically split any royalties or advances with your agent. The barrier to entry here is very high, and the time frame for publication can take from nine to twenty-four months.
Vanity publishing is a predatory outfit that acts as your publisher at great expense to you. You pay them; they do not pay you, and they often also require you to sign over the rights to your book. They may also provide you with very expensive but poor-quality services, such as editing and cover design. You may also have to purchase large quantities of your book at exorbitant prices.
A Full service author services company will provide you with a variety of in-house services to prepare your manuscript for publication. Prices and quality of services vary. This type of publishing overlaps somewhat with vanity publishers, so buyer beware, but legitimate companies will do a good job for you and your book.
Indie or independent publishing is when you act as the general contractor for your book. You remain in full control of the process and hire people to do parts of the process that you can’t or don’t want to do for yourself.
Self-publishing has become nearly a meaningless term, as most of the above, except traditional publishers, will refer to themselves as self-publishers. I define self-publishing as someone who does every step themselves. Very few people can effectively handle all aspects of their publishing journey, but this can be a viable place to start. You can then hire professionals as you are able. Downsides exist for this, especially with covers and editing, but people have bootstrapped their books and then upgraded elements later when they could.
I am proudly indie, but I’m not here to dictate what you should do or how you should do it. The following are some factors to consider as you determined which path to choose.
With traditional publishing, you are at the mercy of finding an agent to read, accept, and sell your book. Not all publishers accept all genres. Publishing has traditionally been a tightly controlled industry with formidable gatekeepers.
Vanity publishers have been around for many years. They are so named because they appeal to your vanity—a published title regardless of merit in exchange for a large sum of money. Many have pivoted and call themselves self-publishers. And here is where the labels become very murky.
Some full-service companies offer an out-of-the-box publishing services and do a decent job for authors for a reasonable fee. But others charge exorbitant prices for inferior work.
Publishing is now accessible to all, and that is a fabulous opportunity, but it also creates a buyer-beware environment for those who want a quick fix.
A common misconception is that self-published books are inferior in quality to traditionally published titles. And that’s a fair assessment for many titles, to be sure.
However, when you are fully indie, you can have your book polished to the highest standard. You can also continuously improve the quality of your work. You can fix typos and upload revised files. And there will be typos, even in traditionally published books.
You can absolutely produce a product that meets or exceeds the quality of traditionally published titles.
Unquestionably, indie publishing is a much faster process than traditional publishing. The fastest you can hope to have a traditionally published title available for purchase by your readers is around nine to twelve months. Some indie-published authors manage to publish in that many days. Granted, that’s faster than most, and they may have streamlined their process over time, but it’s not unheard of. You can even publish that fast to a high standard if you plan ahead and write quickly.
Agility relates to and depends on speed. But aside from initial publishing, you can also change and revise parts of your book, such as your blurb and covers as trends change or as you learn more about what your readers want. Changes for most of these things are as simple as copying and pasting new text onto your dashboards. Test and measure what is more effective if you desire.
Also, when it comes to quality, you can correct typos as you find them or a few times a year, whatever you like. And soon, your book is perfect!
I’ve touched some on this above, but I feel that it warrants its own section. When you go indie, you are the contractor of the building that is your book. You are free to DIY or hire professionals, depending on your desires and capabilities. You are also free to decide where to publish and distribute your book (addressed further in the book*).
And if you make an error, you are free to readjust and continue on better than before.
Retention of Intellectual Property Rights
When you create something, you are the copyright owner of your creation with few exceptions, such as work for hire. Copyright, at least in the United States, lasts for seventy-five years after your death. When you publish, consider the long-term implications of what you’re doing, not just for yourself, but also for your heirs for a couple of generations.
Keeping the rights of your work also means that you can do many things with it. Depending on the type of book you’re producing, you can license the rights for audio, merchandise, and film. Or you can handle some of those things yourself.
Traditionally published authors receive around 10–15 percent of the purchase price in royalties, and they may have to split that with their agents. Depending on where you publish or distribute, you can earn as much as 85 percent in royalties as an indie author and 95-100 percent with direct sales depending on your payment processor or a cash sale.
For me, the major benefit of being a traditionally published author would have been someone to market for me. And while that does happen for a few big-name authors, for the vast majority, a traditional publisher won’t even consider someone without an existing platform or the capability to have a built-in market.
Your backlist is all your previously published titles. Traditional publishers mostly—if not entirely—ignore this mine of potential revenue. They promote new releases, but have you ever seen an ad for a book that’s been out for a couple of years? Probably not. Yet, if you’ve signed over your rights to your IP, then all of that work just sits. Whereas, if you still have the rights to your book, you can also encourage readers to find your backlist titles, and hopefully they will read everything you’ve written so far. If your profit from a book is five dollars and you only promote your most recent title, then you’ll earn five dollars for each reader who finds you. But if you have a backlist of ten titles and the reader goes back and reads them all, you’ve now earned an additional fifty dollars from that reader.
You also can promote books in your backlist that relate to current events. Imagine if you had published a book on surviving pandemics in 2015. When March 2020 hit, you ran a few ads to that book. It probably would have sold very well.*