Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 5, 2023

The Varied Paths of Traditional vs Self-Publishing

by Laura Vanarendonk Baugh

Two publishing roads diverge in an industry wood and…you can take either one. Or both. Or a third road that circles around and intersects repeatedly.

So often people worry about which way to publish, whether traditionally (submit to a publishing house which first pays you for your work and then pays to publish it for a greater share of the profits), or independently (publish at your own effort and expense, and reap the whole profit). Here’s the thing: You don’t need to stress so hard about this Life And Career Decision, because it’s not a Life And Career Decision. You do not make a single choice and then get locked into it. You can change your mind. Or do many things at once.

I thought today I’d walk through some of the many ways these separate paths intersect for me, to illustrate how you too can move between them.

side note:

Writers usually won't switch publishing methods for a single title. Despite common misconception, once you’ve self-published a book, you’re probably not able to sell that same book to a traditional publisher. Exceptions exist, but they are outliers with exceptional situations. But you might sell your next book to a traditional publisher.

Example One: Short Stories

Very generally, I sell short stories traditionally and publish novels independently. The short stories help new readers to discover me, and then they—or publishers—can follow my name back to other work. Readers who like my work will also buy anthologies I’m in, benefiting those publishers and helping other writers to be discovered.

Everybody wins.

Currently, I am simultaneously walking both the traditional and independent paths.

Example Two: Publishing Various Book Editions

I self-published a book which did quite well. I knew I needed an audio edition, but I had not allotted the time to organize that project and get it done. A publisher contacted me to ask about purchasing audio rights, which I decided to sell.

Now I publish the paperback and ebook editions, and the publisher publishes the audio edition. I have earned out my advance and am now earning royalties on audio sales.

The downside is, I could have earned more in total if I had self-published the audiobook as well. The upside is, I didn’t have to put time, money, and other resources into publishing the audiobook, and I got an advance—and sometimes, or for some people, money up front is more valuable than royalties in the future.

Example Three: Diversifying Your Selling Platforms

I sell some work traditionally. I self-publish some work to retailer platforms. Some work I self-publish only directly to readers.

At this time, I am experimenting with selling exclusive content directly to readers. I do this on my website and on Patreon. The disadvantage is increased difficulty for discoverability; the advantage is profit with no middleman taking a cut.

Is this a viable option long term? I don’t know! And I’m certainly not going 100% that route. But walking many publishing paths, I have the freedom to experiment and find out how it might be useful.

Example Four:

My self-published work has led to inquiries and invitations from traditional publishers. Getting more work out into the market lets them see the quality of my work better than a query, and they contacted me, not the other way around. Some of these went nowhere, some are still in progress, and some have already resulted in payments, token rates to pro rates. Self-publishing does not inherently reduce your chances of selling traditionally.

Side Note:

Beware of “we saw your work and we’re interested” scams and vanity press sweeps, both of which are unfortunately common. Legitimate publishers offer money before publication, full stop. And no legitimate publishers make offers to authors who don’t yet have a verifiable track record, but scammers and vanity presses love to prey on aspiring authors too eager to be cautious. Be cautious.

The Benefits of Blending Your Publishing Platforms

Because I have experience in multiple publishing areas, I have some additional advantages as a career writer.

The first is knowing what I am capable of, business-wise. Once, a traditional publishing house showed interest in my work, but when I checked out the house and their other projects, I saw that I could do better with covers and marketing. I will not sign away profit unless they’re going to do more for my book’s success than I can (that is the publisher’s whole job, to publish and sell).

Another time, my research and questions indicated that a small publisher’s sales goals were about 300 copies. I know that on my own I can sell more than 300 copies, so again, I knew to decline this offer.

Side note:

To be clear, a small press might be a great option for a writer with less publishing skill or interest, or with more modest sales goals, and both of those situations are fine. This post is all about finding the right options for you.

Self-publishing experience gives me better business savvy when working with traditional publishers. I now have experience with rights, periods of exclusivity, etc., plus editors like me because I turn in clean manuscripts ready for easy layout! Traditional publishing experience gives me street cred (“oh, she’s REALLY published” /eye roll/) in places where that matters. Traditionally published work may be eligible for more awards or other recognition.

I have an informal offer from a publisher for a story I have not yet written, based on other work I have written. If I write that (not yet committed!), I will be in a better place for negotiations, because the acquiring editor who asked knows I am successfully self-publishing and I won’t be desperate for just any old contract.

The more you do, the more you know, and the more options you have.

Disadvantages and Warnings

The only path that merits a warning sign is vanity publishing. In vanity publishing, the writer pays a company to publish a book, sometimes after a nominal “submission” process. The company profits off the writer, not off book sales, so the product is often subpar and is rarely, despite gilded promises, marketed outside of “will appear in our exclusive listings available to thousands online!!!”

This path rarely intersects with another path. This path has an expensive toll gate at the trailhead and runs only uphill. At the end, there’s no scenic vista, no connections to other paths, and frequently another toll gate to get out.

Outside of vanity publishing, you have a lot of options and flexibility. However, be aware that success is more beneficial than failure. Sounds obvious, right? but it merits repeating.

Professionalism

Professional work and professional effort are required on all professional paths. A writer who has successfully self-published and sold well will have an advantage when approaching a traditional publisher, but one who sold poorly will have no advantage or may even have a disadvantage. It may be better not to self-publish than to do it sloppily if you intend to approach traditional publishing houses in the future.

Quality Work

The attractive danger lies in self-publishing work that cannot sell. Self-publishing is not for dumping material that couldn’t make it elsewhere. Obviously there are exceptions, such as highly niche projects—I help to publish local histories that would never be sustainable on the general market but make sense for a small local audience. Don’t nitpick at exceptions; you know what I mean here! Be cautious and assess your reasons for self-publishing which should be related to business preferences, not rejection letters, so that your best work is out there representing you.

Find Your Path

Know yourself! If you are a driven go-getter who loves handling details and crunching numbers, and you also know your weaknesses and how to get skilled professional help to cover them, then go hit self-publishing hard. If you cringe at the idea of organizing many moving parts (and paying for the privilege), then good news, a traditional publisher will do that for you! The payment for their professional work comes out of the profits.

Final Thoughts

Both traditional and self-publishing are valid choices, and you can change your mind as you gain experience and perspective. I spoke with a writer who had previously self-published and realized she loved the final product but absolutely hated the process of contracting and organizing and paying, so we talked about how she can best bring her next project to a traditional house for consideration. Make the business decision that will give you the best business success, even if that is knowing you personally want someone else to handle a lot of the business!

The question is not whether you want to be a self-published author or a traditionally published author. The question is which is the more practical and beneficial route for this particular project, with an eye on your long-term goals as well.

Happy writing!

Discussion: Does the thought of business tasks for your writing excite you or fill you with dread? Have you considered which venue of publishing might be better for reaching your target audience?

* * * * * *

About Laura

Laura VanArendonk Baugh

Laura VanArendonk Baugh writes fantasy of many flavors as well as non-fiction. She has summited extinct, dormant, and active volcanoes, but none has yet accepted her sacrifice. She lives in Indiana where she enjoys Dobermans, travel, fair-trade chocolate, and making her imaginary friends fight one another for her own amusement. Find her award-winning work at http://LauraVAB.com.

13 comments on “The Varied Paths of Traditional vs Self-Publishing”

  1. Laura, thanks for an excellent post. I've done both, self-publishing and traditional. You are so right about vanity publishers. I did a lot of research before I self-published and that became really clear. Now I'm with a traditional publisher, but the first self-published book helped me get a contract.
    The roads to getting your work out there are more varied than in the past, and that's a good thing, but the theme that echoes through your essay is a good one -- do your homework whatever path you choose.
    Thanks again!

    1. Your self-published book helped you find your traditional publisher -- that's fantastic! Great work. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Hi Laura,
    Thank you for your insights on publishing routes. It looks like you've had interesting experiences with various ways to get your work into the hands of readers.

    I'm wondering what your thoughts on how different genres do in traditional versus indie publishing. I see you have published nonfiction and various genre fiction from your post. What has your experience been like?

    1. Great question! I can speak only from my own experience, which may not match others'. I had already established something of a name and reputation in my non-fiction field, and I think that really helped at first. That first book was shared on its own merit, but it was initially noticed by those who already read my blog, etc. So for me, self-publishing my non-fiction made great sense because I already had a platform.

      That said, it can often be hard to land a traditional non-fiction spot without a platform, so then it really comes down to your personal business responsibility preferences.

      I've heard it said that some fiction genres do better in indie or in traditional publishing, but if that was true in the past, I feel it's less true today. A well-done self-published book should look indistinguishable from a traditionally-published book, and most of the time a reader doesn't know (or much care) whether it's an indie or trad book. They do care about whether that book scratches their itch. 🙂 Today you can find indie books doing well in every genre, so I think genre is less a consideration than it may have been at one time.

  3. Hi Laura,

    It's helpful to be open-minded. There is really no best way to publish, only what works for the writer.

    There are altogether too many rascals out there trying to separate authors from their hard earned funds.

    I recently spoke with a writer who is most unhappy, having published with a company that advertises on TV.

    Great post. Thank you!

    1. Oh, it's so frustrating when you see someone's enthusiasm and hopes taken advantage of. Legitimate publishers do not need to advertise for authors!

      Best wishes to you!

      1. THIS! Publishers who need to advertise for authors... are not legit. Speaking as someone who runs a TINY indie publishing firm. I hate seeing how many bad actors there are in this space.

  4. Great advice, Laura. I'm not sure why so many people think that once you start down one path all others are closed to you. I personally know people who have changed course many times, including one who traditionally published, then managed to get the rights back and go self-published with the same books.

    I've traditionally published short stories and sold articles to magazines, but chose to create my own imprint for my series. I plan to query agents with my current WIP and test those waters as well.

    1. Bravo to your colleagues navigating their best careers! Some people ultimately find they prefer one path over another, while others are happy varying according to the project. If it's working for you, then it's working. 🙂

      Good luck in your queries!

  5. This is a great post, Laura! My only comment would be that there are a few - caution required - legitimate hybrid publishers that are not vanity presses. These offer a viable alternative for self-publishing authors who may not want to take on all of the headaches. (Research hybrid publishers carefully and look at the IBPA criteria... because like every other path, there are good and bad actors in the space.)

    I love that you've explained well that these choices can change over time and intersect!

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