Authors just starting out, either Indie or traditionally published, rarely earn enough royalties to support their families. Regardless of the path you choose, if your spouse makes enough to support you in your early days, you can devote more time to advancing your career.
But not every author has that option.
Before you embark on either path, consider this: publishers, large and small, don’t waste budgets promoting work by unknown authors the way they do the few who have risen to the ranks of their guaranteed bestseller lists.
You will do the work of getting your name out there regardless of whether you choose the traditional route or not.
So, what are the perks of going traditional if you’re an unknown? Why go to the trouble of wooing an agent and trying to court a publisher? Even today, an air of ‘respectability’ clings to those who are traditionally published.
The traditional publishing industry does offer incentives to those who get their foot in the door. Once you are in their flock, you have an editor who works with you personally. Most of the time, you can forge a good working relationship with this editor.
Conversely, Indies must find an independent editor and pay them out of their own pocket.
While the traditional publisher may not treat a new author the way they do their highest sellers, they may dedicate a small budget to marketing your work with newspaper ads, or swag posters for bookstores to place as decoration. That small amount will be more money than you might be able to pay as an Indie.
Traditional publishers have contracts with markets like Target, Walmart, Costco, airports, and grocery store chains. That is a huge thing, assuming your publisher considers your work worthy of such a commitment on their part.
However, your first book most likely won’t see the inside of a Walmart right away. The publisher’s confidence must be earned. You can expect to find your work on the slow track for a while as the publisher tests the water and sees how well your work sells through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
These are all valid reasons for attempting to go the traditional route.
However, there are equally valid reasons for going Indie. Your book will be published. If you seek a book contract, you must pass a gauntlet of gatekeepers: literary agents, acquisition editors, editorial committees, and publishing-house CEOs.
These people must answer to the international conglomerates that actually own most American publishing companies. This is why you are most likely to be stopped by a rejection letter.
It’s not the quality of your work. It’s the publishers’ perception of what the reading market will purchase and what it means to the accountants, who in turn must answer to their shareholders.
As an Indie, you may not be a bestseller, but you’ll make more money on what you do sell.
In most standard book contracts, royalty terms for authors are terrible, and this is especially true for eBook sales. Most eBooks are sold through online retailers like Amazon. If you’re a traditionally published author and your publisher priced your eBook at $9.99, this is how the Amazon numbers break out. No matter what you think of Amazon, it is still the Big Fish in the Publishing and Bookselling Pond:
- Amazon takes 30% of the list price, leaving about $7.00 for the publisher, agent, and you to split.
- The publisher will keep 75% of that $7.00, or $5.25.
- The publisher will pay you 25% of that $7.00—just $1.75.
- You then must pay your agent her 15% commission—or 26 cents.
- You net just $1.49 on each $9.99 eBook sale. This is assuming your publisher honestly reports your sales and royalties, and in my personal experience, a few small publishers do not.
Unfortunately, traditional publishers usually charge far more than $9.99 for eBooks, charging more than they do for paperbacks in their effort to keep eBook sales down and drive paper sales.
If you self-publish your eBook at that same price, for each sale of your $9.99 eBook, Amazon takes its 30%, leaving you $7.00. I don’t recommend such a high eBook price, but at $4.99 or even $2.99, you stand to sell books and make a decent profit.
You’ll receive royalties sooner. When a publisher accepts your book, he offers you an advance against sales. These are often paid in installments stretched out over long periods and are tied directly to how well or how poorly your book is doing in real market time. Publishers report sales and pay royalties slowly, as royalty statements are usually issued semiannually. Your royalty checks arrive later, so you can’t rely on this income until you have become an established author in their world.
Conversely, most eBook distributors like Draft2Digital, Barnes & Noble, and print-on-demand services such as Amazon KDP, report your sales virtually. Best of all, they pay your royalties monthly, with just a sixty-day lag from the day sales began.
Finally, and from my point of view, most importantly: You retain all rights to your work.
Legacy book contracts are a terrible danger zone for the author. The sheer complexity of negotiating a contract can be confusing and intimidating. I recommend you hire a lawyer specializing in literary contracts or risk unwittingly signing away secondary and subsidiary rights to your work forever.
Please, read this article, A Publishing Contract Should Not Be Forever, published on the Authors Guild website on July 28, 2015. It is an eye-opening look at the industry and its practices.
Now we arrive at marketing. As I said before, you must do the work of getting your name out there regardless of whether you choose the traditional route or not. You must still work your day job to feed your family.
Being an indie author or being published by a small press means you are on your own as far as getting the word out about your books. Even some traditionally published authors find that if they want their books seen at a convention, they must pay for the table, find their own hotel accommodations, and pay their own way there.
You pay upfront for your book stocks if you are an indie.
If you are traditionally published, the costs of your stock are deducted from future royalties. Publishing houses are not charities, so you will pay for stocking and restocking your inventory either way you choose.
If you choose the indie path, you pay for editing, beta reading, and proofreading. You will also need a graphic designer for book covers and should seek professional formatting services to create the files for your paperback book.
However, to be considered for a traditional contract, you should hire an editor, beta reader, and proofreader to ensure the manuscript you submit to an agent or editor demonstrates your ability to turn out a good, professional product.
Either way, it’s a business, and you must factor these costs into your budget.
Both paths are reasonable in today’s market. There are positive rationales for choosing either direction, as well as negatives. You will have to work hard no matter which path you choose.
The publishing path is a critical choice for an author to make and is one we shouldn’t make lightly. A decision that affects your career as strongly as this deserves deep consideration of the many pros and cons.