I'm in a semi-comatose state after crashing through the first draft of a novel in six months to meet my editor's deadline.
Not that I'm complaining. I've been struggling to get to this point in my career for over twenty-five years. After earning a degree in biology, I started writing fiction and went for an MFA. I wrote a novel as my thesis and found an agent. Surely, I thought, New York would find me now! Could Oprah be far behind?
Apparently, New York and Oprah had better things to do. My manuscript was rejected by a couple of dozen editors. So were the next five novels. Finally, I self-published my novel Sleeping Tigers through CreateSpace. Two weeks later, my agent sold the manuscript he'd been shopping around, The Wishing Hill, to New American Library/Penguin.
As a hybrid author, I straddle the worlds of Indie and traditional publishing, and this is the question I get asked most often: “Which did you like better?”
That, my friends, is a thorny question, but I've tried to describe the differences here so you can decide the best route for you.
THE ACTUAL WRITING AND EDITING PROCESS
Any way you want to publish, if you're a first-time novelist, you will have to write the whole book before you sell it. However, there are some significant differences in the writing and editing process.
Going Indie: In writing an Indie novel, you obviously have to finish the manuscript entirely before you can make any money. If you collaborate with an editor and copy editor along the way (and I hope you will), you call the shots. You can write as slowly or quickly as you choose, and you don't need an agent. Indie authors who make the most money are those who 1) typically write genre fiction, like romance or fantasy; and 2) write quickly and 3) usually in series.
The Flip Side: If you're going to publish with a traditional house, you need to first convince an agent that you're worthy, which can take months. Then, when the agent sells your book, the editor will probably send an editorial letter with holistic revisions, talking about things like character and structure. After, that you'll do a second round of pickier line edits. Finally, you'll get the copy editor's draft with dozens of queries that make you want to tear your eyes out with a fork. The bad news is that this process takes a year or more. The good news? Your book will ultimately be much better than you could make it on your own.
MARKETING YOUR BOOK
People naturally assume that, if you're with a big publisher, you'll have a publicist and everything will come up roses. You can simply hole up, focus on writing and forget about pimping your book. That's not exactly true.
The DIY World of Indie Book Marketing: With Indie novels, you are the only one steering the plane. If you want a Kirkus review, you pay for it. Ditto an ad on Goodreads. It's difficult to get Indie novels in bookstores. This all takes time, patience and creativity, but the good news is that you can build buzz yourself through online promotions, blog tours, Goodreads giveaways, etc.
The Flip Side: Once I was with Penguin, I was astonished to discover that, months before a novel comes out, it's appearing all over: Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, Powell's. I recently went on Goodreads and was shocked to discover there was a giveaway of Haven Lake, my newest novel—100 copies—five months before its April pub date! The weird part was that I didn't even know it was happening. Months before a book is released, I also start getting emails from the publicist describing which book bloggers she has contacted, where the book is out for reviews, etc. Bookstores order my books after visits by Penguin sales reps. However, traditionally published authors must still do their share of marketing, because publishers only devote about three months to pushing each book out the doors. In today's world, few writers can afford to closet themselves. Marketing happens 24/7.
The Bottom Line: Where's the Money?
Some Indie Authors Do Make Money: I know a lot of Indie authors who are disappointed when they publish books and sell only a handful of copies—certainly not enough to pay back their initial investments. I also know Indie authors who make bank. Most Indie authors keep a lion's share of their royalties—usually 70 percent—and they have no agents, so they don't pay commission. Other than the initial investment in cover design, copy editing, etc., most of the money goes to you—or to advertising.
The Flip Side: Traditional authors get a much smaller percentage of royalties—25 percent, if we're lucky—and we have to pay agents 20 percent of our earnings on top of that. We have no control over the prices of our books. Advances are paid on the basis of an entire manuscript first, and then on the basis of a synopsis and a few chapters for subsequent books. It's nice to get money up front, but those advances are divvied up in three parts—the first on signing, the second on delivery, and the fourth on publication—and have been waning in size over the past decade. An advance now can be as low as $3000 for a full-length novel. Traditional authors can, and are, dumped by their publishers if they don't make their advances. This all sounds terrible, I know, but remember that you're not pulling your wallet out of your pocket for anything, either. Whatever you make is profit, and it's great to have the wheels of marketing turning without you having to grease them.
Where's My Home?
I love self publishing. I love having control over everything from the cover to the marketing. I take huge satisfaction in watching sales grow, and enjoy those surprising “lottery win” moments, like when Audible recently bought the audio rights for Sleeping Tigers—which, right there, made up for my initial publishing investment. Most of all, I love the idea that I can write what I want, when I want.
However, immediately after Penguin published my first novel, they bought the next on the basis of a synopsis—and then two novels after that. I feel like I'm balancing on top of a speeding train and I love this, too. I adore working with this particular editor, whose sensibilities mirror mine. And, because I don't write genre fiction in series, but stand-alone novels, Penguin has sold many, many more of my books than I could have done on my own. For now, I am happily at home in the traditional publishing camp. But I'm glad I self-published first, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
What publishing camp are you in? Do you have questions, or observations to share?
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Her articles and essays appear frequently in The Huffington Post, More, Parents, Redbook and dozens of other publications. She and her husband have five children and a stubborn Pekingese.
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