Most people start their own businesses because they want to be their own boss. We work more hours, take fewer breaks and usually fewer vacations, and are never truly off the clock. So why trade working 40 hours a week for someone else, and instead work 100 for yourself for exactly the same or sometimes less pay? Independence.
As an author, you are starting your own business, whether you like the idea or not, at least if you plan to sell your work. It does not matter your chosen path to publication. There are certain things no one will do for you. Since the Entrepreneurial Authors’ Un-conference last week in here in Boise I have fielded tons of questions about this, so let me (quickly) break down some differences for you.
Pay now, or Pay Later. The simplest explanation of self-publishing vs. submitting to a publisher is pay now (self) or pay later (publisher in royalties). You are not only paying in money, but in time to source editors, formatters, cover designers, and distribution aggregators, if you wish to use one. Most publishers become your aggregator, and source your cover, editors, and handle formatting for publication. You pay them in royalties down the road. Sounds simple enough, right?
Traditional Publishing. If you have attended even one of my workshops, you have already heard me say traditional publishing, the typical agent/editor/Big 5 path is fraught with danger, in fact is probably death for your book. Advances are disappearing, or in some cases even when promised not paid (see the recent Harlequin books scandal), and that part of the industry is in steady decline. Why do I say that?
- Low Royalties, especially on e-books. The percentages offered by the Big 5 on e-books reflects the percentage offered on paper books, but production costs for e-books are much lower. More on this another time.
- Non-compete clauses. What do these mean? You are locked in to submitting to one publisher and one publisher only. In theory, as self-publishing amounts to starting your own publishing company, so you cannot self-publish either while under contract.
- Marketing and brand building. Unless you are a huge success, or already have a name for yourself (and if you do, why do you need a big publishing house?), large publishers (or small, but we will get there) do not market for you, and while they offer some assistance, to not help you build your fan base. That is still your responsibility regardless of your path to publication.
Small Presses. Small presses, some digital first, some digital only, some digital and print offer advantages not found in traditional publishers. They offer higher royalties (usually, check this out before signing with anyone), have no non-compete clauses (see previous), so offer a better deal. They still source covers, editing, and formatting for you. (See the cover to the right, Tirgearr Publishing‘s cover for my novel Stray Ally)
You are still expected to do your own marketing and brand building. While having a publisher on your side can help, as they have their own brand, and a vested interest in seeing your book sell, they still cannot brand you and build your audience for you. Only you can do that, and you will be expected to.
True Independence. As soon as you sign a contract, even a good one, you lose some control of your work. You do not have the responsibility to find a cover designer, and although small presses often seek your input, you do not get final say over what your cover looks like. With a traditional press, you get even less.
Don’t like the way your book is formatted? You can protest to a certain level, but at the end of the day you have a contract and a deadline. And if you don’t like your editor, you may be able to switch (small press) but they likely have only a few choices (also on contract).
The only way to stay truly independent is to source everything yourself, and what you cannot do, such as edit your own work, pay someone to do. This is time consuming, costs money, and you will fail from time to time, relying on the wrong editor or the wrong formatter, or find the cover designer was not at all what you expected. Mistakes will happen. (My original cover for Redemption was a disaster. See the new one, designed by Natalie Mayfield Draney on the left)
But they will be yours. I both submit to small press, and self-publish, evaluating each project on its own goals, parameters, and my personal time and funding constraints.
Your path is yours to choose. Remember, once a contract is in place, you are no longer 100% independent. But neither are you 100% responsible for at least some of the outcomes. Weigh your options carefully, based on your goals and desires for your work.