Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
February 9, 2015

Persistence Pays: For Indie or Traditional Publishing

Holly Robinson

Holly RobinsonI'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.


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.


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?

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Holly

Haven LakeBeach Plum IslandNovelist, journalist and celebrity ghost writer Holly Robinson is the author of several books, including The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter: A Memoir and the novels Beach Plum Island and Haven Lake.

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.


27 comments on “Persistence Pays: For Indie or Traditional Publishing”

  1. Holly, thanks so much for giving us a view from the inside.

    I think whichever camp you're currently in, you're looking at the fires on the other side, and they look warmer, more comforting, just . . . better.

    I think you've found the best place to be though. With a foot in each camp. That's a camp I aspire to!

  2. Holly I was a bio major too! This last was my first year writing on contract and it was INTENSE. I can see how self-pubbing first would make less daunting the transition onto the marketing superhighway that even traditionally published authors must learn to navigate. I love that cover to Haven Lake!

  3. Wonderful post, Holly. I am still in limbo ... you know ... no foot in any camp 🙂

    I have friends who are indie and those who are traditional. Personally, I want to stick it out and become a hybrid with traditional up-front.

  4. Thanks for an interesting post. It's a good analysis. And yes, your covers are lovely. (I was a little surprised to hear of an agent getting 20% -- I thought 15% was typical.)

  5. Thank you, all, for reading this post, and best of luck with your own paths to publication, whatever they may be. And, yes, in answer to the most recent comment: 15 percent is typical for an agent's cut. But I have heard of a few who take more. (I've never heard of one taking less, though. :))

  6. Terrific post, Holly. Like you, I started with indie publishing and have now taken my first step in the traditional world. I am still in the editing phase so I particularly appreciate getting a peek at what's coming down the pike. Thanks.

  7. Thanks for the informative post, Holly. I'm pursuing traditional publishing at the moment but have also partnered up with several other authors to self-pub several anthologies. For the indie stuff I'm grateful to be a part of a group so I don't feel like I'm out there all on my own.

    1. Good luck to both of you, Carol and Carrie! I think you make an especially good point, Carrie: it's imperative to have support from other authors no matter which path you choose.

  8. Great post, Holly! My dream is to be a hybrid author, and it was great to see a comparison of both sides. Very interesting and informative.

  9. Thank you Holly, for this very helpful post. My memoir manuscript is finished (from my perspective), and I am struggling through the daunting query process. I am glad to hear that Indie is a strong possibility if traditional, my first choice, doesn't work out for me.

    1. Hi Jean,
      First of all, congrats on finishing your memoir! That's a huge step. Indie is definitely a possibility. Good luck, whatever you do!

  10. Great post, thank you for that. I would disagree with one point, though--"Your book will ultimately be much better than you could make it on your own." Not necessarily. Indie authors can build a team around themselves (story editor, copy editor, proofreader, etc.) just as strong as that at any major publishing house. In fact you can use some of the same freelancers they use. It does take time, but I've managed do do it, and I would put my books up against any that come out of the Big 5 now in terms of quality on all levels. Anyway, very informative post -- I will share.

    1. Thanks, Mike, for reading and sharing. You are SO right that it's possible--and desirable--for indie authors to collect their own trusted people around them to help edit and design their work. The most successful self-pubbed people all do this. The only down side is that you really have to do your research to find people you can trust to do the job right, but once you've got them in place, in a way it's better, because they're "yours" and work closely to make your own vision of the book come true. Thanks for pointing that out.

  11. Thanks for this post, Holly! I'm in the midst of deciding whether to self-publish, or continue to wait it out with an interested publisher who first expressed interest well over a year and multiple revisions ago. It seems to me that self-publishing can be a great way to prove our audience capabilities--assuming we work smart and our books are well-received. Then, traditional publishers may want to leap on board, and we can decide whether to stay indie or not. Your insight is really helpful!

    Wishing you continued, ever-expanding success!

    1. Thanks to you both, August & Chris, for weighing in. You make great points here about self-publishing and traditional publishing. I think you're right that hybrid offers the best of both worlds right now. Best of luck in your writing.

  12. Good article. I think trad publishers can face a bad rep in certain circles, but they offer experience and expertise which many of us would struggle with alone. Hybrid authors seem to strike the right balance of being able to write commercial fiction with broad appeal, weed out the errors, and still find a platform to experiment with style and structure. Definitely the best of both worlds right now.

  13. Holly, Thank you for a wonderful article. I am sitting on the fence right now trying to make an informed decision. Traditional publishing scares me; the rejection, rewrites, time and losing control. I am gradually gathering a good team together as an indie writer and learning how to market a book. After reading your article I have a little niggle at the back of my mind that is suggesting that choosing indie, which I am leaning towards, could be an easy way out.

    1. Susan, pay attention to those niggles--but, at the same time, if you've got a good team around you, that will go a long way toward helping you succeed no matter what path you choose. Best of luck!

  14. I'm late to the party! Great seeing you on WITS, Holly!
    Definitely sounds like you've hit your stride as a hybrid author. Looking forward to getting my hands on your books!

  15. Thanks, Orly! I'm so honored to be part of your wonderful ongoing conversations on writing and publishing!

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts





Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved