Many new authors write to me and ask about the virtues of self-publishing versus traditional publishing. They ask, which should I do?
The answer to that question is complicated. It depends upon several factors: what field are you going into? How old are you as a writer, and what are your expectations? What kind of person are you—someone who wants to write, or someone who is so devoted to a project that you can’t relinquish control to others?
Now, I’ve made a lot of money through traditional publishing, and I have to say that for certain fields, I still prefer it. But I suspect that I’m making most of my income this year through self-published works. So I’m not convinced that either approach is totally right.
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If you want to write a huge breakout novel in the young adult field, or in the thriller field, I’d probably go with traditional publishing. Why? Because sales in those fields are so robust, and competition is so tight, that having a good traditional publisher backing you is generally worth it.
I say that, knowing that a lot of authors in both of those fields are distraught by the “lack of support” that they get from their publishers. I hear it from thriller writers every day, and more and more from young adult writers. They may have a novel that comes out and sells very well, but by book three in their careers the sales drop so low that they feel that their career is over. And they may be right.
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What fields would I choose to go Indie for? Well, romance for one. A couple of years ago, I met a woman at a convention who told me that she had a romance novel that had won some writing contests, but the publishers felt that it couldn’t sell because it was set in the “wrong era.” I suggested that she self-publish, and she took it to heart. A year later she came and thanked me, saying, “I’ve made $5000 a month on that novel ever since it came out, and I’m getting ready to publish three more this year.”
Now, not everyone will have that experience, but advances for romance novels are often so low that she has probably made more money on that one book than she ever would have if she had gone with a traditional publisher. Over and over again, I see these kinds of results from self-published romance writers.
The same is true with self-help books. If you want to publish your book, “Divorce the Idiot in 5 Minutes,” you don’t need a publisher. You need some help creating a good online marketing scheme.
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It’s Not an Either-Or Decision
Many professional authors today have dual writing tracks. For example, my friends Kevin J. Anderson, Tracy Hickman, and Brandon Sanderson all started out with traditional publishing and still work in those careers, yet they also have some self-published works. These might include short stories or novellas, out-of-print works whose rights have reverted, or perhaps those old favorite “hard-to-sell” novels that they’ve always wanted to do.
And remember, even if you self-publish, you may find that your self-published works also attract traditional publishers. For example, my friend James Owen recently self-published “Drawing Out the Dragons: A Meditation on Art, Destiny, and the Power of Choice,” and soon found himself regaled by publishers who wanted to take it traditional. In the same way, Tracy Hickman created a new series about people living in a fantasy village—no earth-shattering wars, no high magic battles, just little personal tales. But as soon as he began to publish them, a major publisher begged for the rights, and the books appear to be doing well.