Monday, August 29, 2011

Self-Publishing vs Traditional Publishing

Agents wear all sorts of hats these days, but it's important to remember the first hat any agent wears (or should wear) and that's to sell books to publishers.

Which means self-publishing and traditional publishing diverge very fundamentally.

If you've published your book in any way, whether it's on your blog for free, as an ebook, or through a small press, you've essentially taken over the agent's job. Many do this to great satisfaction. Most, though, find themselves frustrated and feeling duped without representation.

Of course, some self-published authors get leveraged into traditional deals with publishers, but these are few and far between and the mechanics are complicated (more later this week). There is about a 1% chance that your self-publishing experience will look anything like John Locke's.

If you're hoping to be published traditionally, the best way to get there is traditionally. Query agents. Revise for agents. Attend conferences. Do research. Get an Agent. Get a Book Deal.

If you exhaust that avenue, and no one is smart enough to see you've written a bestseller, then self-publish (this is almost universally better than signing with a small press, believe it or not, because you keep ALL your rights--meaning you can sell them later if a big publisher is interested).

If you self-publish and then try to query agents, you will universally get "No" unless you've sold in excess of 5,000 copies. This is not an opinion of mine, it's the fact of the matter. An agent cannot leverage print rights on a self-published book without sales numbers to back it up. As a debut author, querying agents, you have no sales numbers and no one expects you to. You're a debut. But once you're published, even if you do it yourself, publishers need to see some $treet cred.


  1. Thanks for the advice--I feel that self publishing wouldn't be an option unless I've expended all my traditional routes. Though if that happens, one must ask, "Is this really ready for the world to see?"

  2. I must say, I've never really considered self-publishing. When you self-publish, all of a sudden, you have to wear every hat (to borrow your analogy) - editor, cover designer, marketer, cash flow supervisor, and probably a hundred more titles I don't even know about. When would I have time to write (let alone take care of a husband, two kids, a house, and everything else)?

  3. Good points, from both of you--although I'll be the first to say that self-publishing is a fantastic addition to the publishing landscape and, as long as one goes in with eyes open and research done, it can be very successful.

    But it's not going to get you a traditional deal.

  4. This is a hypothetical, but say an agent where to write a book and decide to self publish.Odd choice, whatever.

    Already being an agent with plenty of industry knowledge would they be ten times more prepared than the average writer? Or is self publishing so different that the agent wouldn't be starting off with much more knowledge then the average writer.

    In other words if you where to self publish your own book would you already know what to do?

    I'm curious how different the worlds are. Aside from the obvious that with self, you are doing everything.

  5. I agree that people going into self-publishing with the thought to be the next Hocking and others are looking at the venture with rose-colored glasses and no idea what's expected; however, there are those who simply self-publish because traditional has said no and no and no and no and you get the picture. And it isn't always about reading, polishing, sending, reading, polishing and again, so on. Because there are those who have done that and they STILL cannot catch an editor's eye, worse these days, an agent's eye.

    I'd love an agent but I'm close to writing the whole thing off. I just don't think agents get my voice. But the funny thing is, I have sold to Samhain and am doing well. So, readers get my voice. For this reason alone, I'm considering self-publishing. Because as much as I'd love an agent and really do recognize their value, I'm getting tired of the "not for me" or worse, the increasingly common response of no means no.

    This isn't as much sour grapes as it is the realization that with self-publishing, I don't HAVE to keep beating my head against the proverbial traditional publising world. A year and a half ago, I would never have considered e-publishing much less self-publishing.

    I keep hearing the industry is tougher for agents (yes, from repped friends). However, it sure hasn't seemed to make it any easier to break in.

    Oh, and last thing, if I self-publish, I don't HAVE to do everything. My husband and I work full time and make very good money - I could actually hire someone to do all the things an agent does so I'm blessed that isn't a factor for me (I realize it might be for others). Again, if I self-publish, it will be because I'm tired of playing the game.

  6. Alex, knowledge of the publishing wouldn't really help an agent...since you can put up whatever you want, whenever you want it really is a level playing field. But doing everything yourself can't be underestimated.

    @Cassielknight: if you've sold well through Samhain (or, as mentioned, through self-publishing) then you should mention that to agents! Sales speaks louder than personal taste. But "selling well" to the traditional publishing world means 5K+

  7. I have to disagree with your statement: "this is almost universally better than signing with a small press." I'd say this is a gross overstatement. Yes, there are new small, digital only presses that are worse than going it on your own, but there are plenty of wonders smaller publishers who do an excellent job with their books.

    I've worked as an editor at an indie nonfiction press, as well as a bookstore owner where I established excellent relationships with some of the publishers you discount. While they don't have huge pockets or the pull of the big six, they have the experience and expertise that self-publishers will probably never have.

    One final thought: Even the big 6 had to start somewhere. While it may have been decades or even centuries ago, they started out small but eventually made it work. Who knows which of the current small presses will become the giants of publishing, even within the next few years?

  8. @Michelle,

    My statement is not an indictment of a small press' abilities to publish and market a book well; it's a statement concerning contract terms: most small press contracts, negotiated directly between the publisher and an author, claim all rights to a book. Some don't even directly specify which rights are owned by the publisher (and these become the most hotly contested if something ever takes off, of course).

    Perhaps it's better to say that it's just never, ever a good idea to sign a publishing contract without representation of an agent or a PUBLISHING lawyer. But since most of the Big Six don't really deal directly with authors, it's just more of an issue with small publishers.