The Great Debate

One of the tough decisions new writers face is whether or not to self-publish.

I can’t speak for others, but personally, I’ve kept hoping that at some point I’d be given some magical bit of insight which would make the decision easy. “David Farland has to know,” I thought, before I attended his workshop. I figured I’d know by the end of the week which route to go. On the last day, during the final moments of the workshop, Dave had us gather close, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “The secret,” he said, “is…”

Yeah, I know. In my dreams, etc.

In reality, Dave gave us a lot of information on the topic. So much, in fact, that I would say the decision is now considerably more difficult, not less. You’d think naïve-Tristan-of-last-month would have predicted that, but frankly he was a little slow. Brilliant-Tristan-of-today will never fall into that trap, I promise you that!

Honestly, I’ve been considering the problem for the last two years, devouring as many blog posts / forum threads / interviews on the topic as I can. Here’s where I stand on the two main options:

Traditional publishing

This means going to a publishing company and convincing them to buy my book. Of course, it’s not that simple. First, there’s the question of whether or not to get an agent. That’s hard too – there are arguments for and against agents. I’ve heard very intelligent people argue that you absolutely need to find an agent. Others vehemently believe you shouldn’t get one at all. I think dichotomies like that are a little absurd, as not all agents are created equal. I think if you can find the right agent, someone skilled who believes in your book and is aligned with your career goals, they’d be a big benefit. If you find the wrong agent, it could end up hurting you. How do you tell the difference? Heck if I know. Let’s table the agent discussion for now – I’ll likely continue it in a future post.

The benefits of traditional publishing as I see it is that you get the support of a company full of experts in the field. They’ll do your cover, your editing, your proof-reading. They’ll do some marketing (how much will vary considerably), and perhaps most importantly, they’ll use their existing network to distribute your book to bookstores.

In terms of money, although the royalty rates are low (about 10% on a hardcover, less on trade paperbacks), you get an advance, which means money up front. If you establish yourself with a few novels that sell well, you might get to the point where you get paid based on a proposal or outline rather than having to wait till after you’ve written the novel.

There are other drawbacks. Contracts for new authors are not friendly. You won’t be able to sign without giving up your e-rights, for one. Other unpleasant provisions you may run into have been covered in depth by Dean Wesley Smith – I’d refer you to his blog if you want to read more about such provisions.

You give up control on other things too, such as cover art. Dave told us some scary stories about covers and how damaging a bad cover can be. Brandon Sanderson’s first Mistborn book had a bad cover and underperformed for a while, till his agent forced the publisher to change it. Sales quadrupled.

Big publishing companies are big, slow corporations who have not reacted quickly (or, in my opinion, well) to the rapid changes in publishing brought on by e-books. By giving them your rights, in some sense you are beholden to their decisions, and if they make bad ones and go down, your books go down with them.

Self-Publishing

The clear benefit here (for me, anyway) is control. Without any big mean company telling you what to do, you get to make all the decisions yourself! Cover art, editing, proof-reading, formatting, marketing, even the decision as to when the novel is ready, all fall on your shoulders. Even better, if you publish through Amazon, you get a 70% royalty rate on everything you sell.

That sounds great – so great, in fact, that hundreds of thousands of novels will get self-published on Amazon this year.

Which means to succeed, you have to figure out how to make readers choose your novel out of that seemingly endless sea of books.

How do you do that? Some people think marketing is the key. Others argue that marketing isn’t nearly as useful as writing the next book. There is a lot of information, much of it contradictory. The only thing people can seem to agree on is that things are changing so quickly, that the situation may be completely different a year from now.

Another thing to consider is the lack of gate-keepers. On one hand, that means you don’t have to wait for an agent or editor to decide your book is ‘good enough’. On the other hand, this means a lot of self-published books aren’t very good. It’s created a stigma which hurts the self-published books which are as high quality as their traditional published counterparts. Breaking through that stigma is a challenge self-published authors have to face.

No Easy Answers

The real theme here is uncertainty, not just among newbies but among professionals. The authors at SuperStars all agreed that no one knew where publishing would be in five years. There’s a fear that print publishing may be going extinct, replaced almost entirely by e-publishing, but no one knows for certain, and print publishing has survived big changes in the past.

Now, with all this in mind, at the workshop Dave still recommended pursuing traditional publishing over self-publishing if you can get a sufficiently large advance (he threw out the number $40,000). Print sales are still going strong, and there’s still a lot of money to be made by getting your novel in book-stores all over the country. Not to say this is impossible via self-publishing, but you’ll have to figure out how to do it on your own.

As to my decision?

I’m leaning toward traditional publishing. With a full-time job, I’m not sure I want to commit the time to doing all the non-writing tasks self-publishing would demand.  Still, there’s a lot I like about the concept of self-publishing, so I’ll be keeping an open mind about it as the time to make my decision comes.

Either way, the decision isn’t clear cut, and that’s okay. There’s no easy paths in this industry, but the only true way to fail is to stop, and I’m determined to keep forging forth. Besides, if I stopped, Gare will be sad, and what type of horrible person would want a dog to cry?  🙂

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