Friday, March 14, 2014

Success, Change, and Choice

Since I did IndieReCon last month and generally came out to the public about my self publishing intentions, (Nice Dragons come out in July!) I've been hearing from a lot of other writers asking for advice if they should try self publishing or start querying for traditional publishing. To these people, I always say the same thing: what's right for you depends on your definition of success.

Warning: lengthy discussion about the nuances of the self publishing/traditional publishing choice ahead! If that's your thing, then dive right in. If not, here's a picture of a baby turtle eating a strawberry as an apology for wasting your time.

Before we go any further, I'd like to make clear that I personally am neither pro-self publishing or pro-traditional publishing, I am pro-experimentation. I love trying new things in my writing and in my publishing, which is why I try to keep my options as open as possible. That said, you are not me. You may want different things, and that's perfectly fine. I think that every writer should look long and hard at their options and make an informed decision based on what's best for them, which, again, brings us back to the subjective nature of success.

Let's say your definition of success is to see your book on shelves in a bookstore. This is a classic author dream, and if this is your goal, then traditional publishing is the obvious choice. Now, let's say your dream is to quit your job and make a living off your books. This is also a very classic writing success story. Who doesn't want to quit the day job? For this person, I would suggest self publishing, because for a little bit up cash upfront, you can get up more books more quickly and earn a decent living on far fewer sales thanks to self publishing's elevated royalty rates.

Again, I'm not trying to make an argument one way or another. No one's dream of success is better or more valid than anyone else's, and there are horror stories and great ballads of triumph on both sides of the publishing fence. My concern is author happiness. Because just as everyone writes differently, everyone has different dreams for their careers. Telling the author whose great dream is to see her books on shelves that she can make more money per sale via Amazon isn't actually helping her get what she wants. Likewise, gushing that your publisher set up an interview for you with Elizabeth Moon (I DID THAT! COMING SOON OMG OMG OMG!) isn't going to mean as much to the author who's great dream is to make a living doing what she loves.

(And for the record, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this for the money. I would not write if I was not getting paid. Writers have families to support just like everyone else, and anyone who says we're greedy hacks for wanting to be paid fairly for our work doesn't understand how this whole selling books thing works.)

All of this is a very long winded way to say that the answer to the question of whether you should choose traditional or self publishing is one of personal preference. If your dreams of success involve widespread professional acknowledgement, calls from your editor, guest spots at conventions, and finding your book at the mall bookstore, then self publishing would probably be a very frustrating path. On the other hand, if you're someone who is entrepreneurial, has a firm idea how your book should be presented and marketed, cares very much about the difference between an ebook royalty that is 25% of net and one that's 70% of cover price, hates having other people make decisions for them, and is bothered by the idea of waiting upwards of a year and a half for your books to come out after you turn them in, then traditional publishing will probably drive you crazy. And if you're like me, and you care about all of these things, then you can always try being a hybrid who does some books traditionally and self publishes others (which is a whole other kettle of fish).

I've been a full time professional writer since 2009, and in that time, I've seen enormous change sweep through our industry. If I was a brand new author who'd just finished polishing her first book today, I don't actually know which path I'd choose, because while I love the modern idea of self publishing, the writer I am today was enormously and very positively shaped by the traditional publishing system. Specifically, I am a much better writer because my agent and editor had the leverage to demand changes that I did not want to make at the time, changes that ended up making my books, and me, fantastically better. Could I have achieved that sort of growth with an editor I'd hired? I honestly don't know.

What I do know, though, is that the question of whether an author should self publish or stick to the old ways  isn't a simple one. It's a complex business decision that requires a lot of research and personal thought and should be approached with maximum caution, because once you hit self publish on that sucker, it's very hard to impossible to change your mind, take it down, and try to resell it to a publisher. Similarly, if you sign a book deal and then decide you'd be better off on your own, tough luck. You're stuck now.

This sort of thing is why, when I see people like Joe Konrath saying "Write, Edit, Self Publish, Repeat," I get a little ticked off, because that sort of reductionist phrasing doesn't take into account differences in writer temperament. Similarly, I get pissed when I see people in traditional publishing openly bashing those who choose to self publish as losers who couldn't cut it in "real publishing," because it's not like that, and saying it is only reinforces the stereotype that people in traditional publishing are all entitled snobs who can't see the waves of change coming even when they're already washing the foundations out from under their feet.

So if you're a writer of any stripe and you're wondering which way to go, good for you. You should be wondering and asking and thinking and doing research on that question, because not only is it going to be one of the defining choices of your career, but the opportunity costs of going one way or the other are literally changing every day. Any way you decide--total self pub, total traditional, or trying to do both as a hybrid--will have frustrations and pitfalls and things you'll have to give up, and it's up to you to decide which of the upsides will make the downsides most bearable for you.

I know this post has been kind of a downer, but the point of this blog has always been to give you a look at what it's like to be a professional working writer, and these are the issues that I worry about on a daily basis. Ideally, the choice of what you do with your book shouldn't even be one of public notice, but with so much anger and investment currently surrounding the traditional vs. self pub debate (and let's be honest, there's a LOT of anger going on here on both sides), I feel that it's more important than ever to step back from the hype and really think about what you want out of your career Because it's your future, your money, and your happiness on the line here, and that, not what someone on the internet thinks you should have done, is what truly matters.


Kait Nolan said...

I don't see this as a downer at all. It's realism. I'm one of those authors who began self published, tried the hybrid path for a few years when my agent literally fell into my lap, and when the traditional method made me want to pull my hair out for all the reasons you listed above, have settled firmly back into self publishing for all the OTHER reasons you listed above. That's me. One of my best friends is hard core traditional because her dream is different from mine. We both want to make a living doing what we love, but she wants all the stuff that goes along with the traditional path. I don't give a hoot about that stuff. And I think that's a really important distinction you bring up. You have to clearly define what the dream IS. So I say bravo to you for keeping an open mind, and I look forward to checking out your self published efforts this summer :)

Meg said...

This is a really interesting post - not a downer at all but a balanced view, which is refreshing! You're the first author I've encountered who seems truly neutral/open to either path.

I always thought the only option was traditional publishing, but indie authors have really opened my eyes - for me, indie publishing seems much more beneficial.

I wonder what you think about traditional publishing in terms of contracts? This is what really puts me off going down that route - the image portrayed of publishers is one of take-take-take from what I have seen (royalties, rights, etc).

What's your view on/experiences of that? Have your publishers treat you fairly in terms of royalties and of which rights they've taken from you?

Rachel Aaron said...

Thank you, Kait! I'm so glad you think so :D And to answer your question, Meg, the rights issue is one of the thorniest when it comes to traditional publishers. I have never had my royalties withheld or monkeyed with in any way, but I do find it frustrating when, for example, I can't self-publish a completely unrelated book under a different name because I'm still under a non-compete clause for a series I finished a year ago. So that's frustrating, but it's also fair because the non-complete was clearly defined in the contract I signed, I just didn't care at the time b/c I didn't think I'd be self pubbing yet. Next time, I'll know to fight it.

Really, you just have to roll with things and have a lot more patience with the traditional publishing world, but the benefits are nothing to sneeze at. I love love love my editor at Orbit and think she really does the best work for me and my books, I also love the promotion they've done for me. So it's a balance in my opinion, and I'm glad I came off as neutral, because I really am. I want to keep going down both paths for as long as I can, because I feel both traditional and self have really great things to offer a writer with my ambitions.

Thanks for reading!

Tricia James said...

No way a downer...just real. BTW, so glad I discovered your blog, and your books...both writing fast and Eli.

For me, I believe the final decision will revolve around discoverability...can I make that happen on my own if I elect to go Indie from the beginning, rather than go for the traditional agent/publisher approach.

Finishing up a series and I still vacillate back and forth daily.

Marie Andreas said...

Thank you!!! I have recently decided to go for the self published path, and seeing all of the warfare between the two camps has just made me ill.

There's no reason we can't all (trad and indie) get along- each person's path is different. Thank you so much for reminding people of this. (and no, I don't think it's a downer at all ;))

Micheal Thompson said...

Interesting article. Agree on what you've said that we depend ourselves to what we believe and work on to. Looking forward for more tips and inspiring thoughts from you. Thanks

Jeremy WIlliams said...

I remember asking you about your opinions on self v.s. traditional publishing during NaNoWriMo 2012 and you gave me the same exact answer you put here. You seem to have had a good relationship with your publisher from what I have read so it is interesting you are looking to publish independently. I do agree with you! It is all about the individual writer's definition of success. For myself, I'm looking to go the hybrid route. I will query here and there while I submit smaller works to magazines, but after knocking out a few novels in a year (partially thanks to this little book about writing that you may know of "2k to 10k" you may have heard of it... or something... :) ) , I am thinking the traditional publishing timetables and my personal goals differ a bit!
Good luck in your endeavors!

Anonymous said...


I think this column absolutely nails a real truth -- there are MANY different paths in publishing these days and many definitions of success -- and the one that is best is the one that works for you as a writer. It doesn't matter what everyone else does -- what matters is what works for you.

For me, personally, I am self-pub all the way because I love having creative control and I love having the higher royalties and I am confident enough in my skills and the skills of the people I work with to be able to produce a professional quality story (or at least I hope I can...reality is very good at reminding us to be humble).

But the other paths provide things to authors that they want.

The "right" publishing method has become a lot like the "right" way to write a book -- you have to use a method and approach that works for you.

Frank Tallahassee said...

Hi Rachel, just finished reading '2k to 10k' and found it packed with practical tips and inspirational advice. It's one of the best books on writing that Ive ever read. I've paused mid-novel to go back and map out plot and structure more clearly. The book led me to your blog and this article. May I point out another possible reason for choosing self-publishing - the dreaded slush pile. The odds on an unsolicited manuscript getting more than a cursory glance from a harried reader at a major publishing house are slim to none. Collecting a stack of generic rejection slips is heart-breaking for any would-be author. Self-publishing enables you to distribute your work and see if there's an audience for it.
Even if your mum and your cat are the only ones who ever show an interest, at least you got it out there.

Bridget McKenna said...

Thanks for a reasoned and well-balanced approach to what's often a prickly subject. As someone who's done it both ways, I think it's important to distinguish this for new writers: Whether to publish traditionally or self-publish is not, in fact, a choice. Writers don't choose whether someone will offer them a contract. The choice is whether to publish your own books or try to be chosen by a traditional publisher.

Thanks also for 2k to 10k. I read Margaret Yang's review, and bought my copy about 10 seconds later. Real-world advice for real-world writers.

Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting post. I have yet to decide how to publish my book when I finish it, but I think I`ll try the hybrid style. Thanks!