Indie-pub vs. Trad-pub

Many writers begin their writing journey with a dream. That big name publisher calls, excited by their book, and offers them a huge advance. The fans swarm their book signings. And then comes the movie deal, or the TV adaptation. And then they start hearing statistics about how many writers fail to ever get published at all and the starry eyes fade, the dream hides a little bit, and they buckle down to the work of writing. Or not. Let’s be honest, some people give up when they realize that dream is just wishful thinking. But for those of us who stick it out, we get to work. And at some point, that work leads us to this question: Is traditional publishing the right route for me?

Up until five or six months ago, I was convinced that traditional publishing was the best option for my work. I had been diligently editing based on beta reader feedback. I’d been through a few rounds of querying and felt confident with the process. I’d even received a few partial manuscript requests from cold queries, which anyone in the querying world knows is a pretty big step in the right direction. It’s not a full, and it’s not an R&R, but it means your query is likely doing its job. And then I pitched at a writer’s conference to an agent who was really, really excited about the concept I was pitching. I eagerly ran through a final polish of my query materials, sent the query through the form she’d told me to use, and waited to hear how much of the book she wanted to see.

I got my form rejection in six days.

Now everyone who has been very far into querying has had that one rejection that just crushes their hopes and this was it for me. Not just an agent I was interested in. Not an agent whose MSWL seemed to match my project perfectly. I’d seen those before. But this was the agent who seemed to really connect with my ideas when we spoke and she liked the story I was trying to bring to life. She knew the project. I personally know another of her clients who she picked up despite that client’s book having pacing issues she asked them to adjust after signing, so she’s not prone to rejecting a book because it might need some work. And she gave up on my book after the ten to fifteen pages included in the basic query.

To say I was demoralized is the wildest of understatements. I immediately quit querying (even though I had just restarted a query cycle), I sent my book back to a new round of betas, and I started questioning every sentence in the draft. Does this one really need to be here? Does that sound like telling instead of showing? Is this emotion overdone? Is my conclusion okay? Are my characters bad? I challenged things the agent hadn’t even known existed in the draft, because maybe that eventual turn destroyed the entire book and my knowledge of it caused me to write something earlier poorly.

After about a month and a half of this frantic scrambling to determine what I’d done wrong, I had to admit it. This rejection wasn’t about my book. It was about the agent’s expectations for how this sort of storyline might play out. She’d referenced Game of Thrones as a series she’d love to see something similar to, and I realized she’d meant the TV series and all its sensationalism, not the books with their painstaking (and therefore very slow) world building. She rejected me for writing epic fantasy, instead of just high fantasy. And that is when I started seriously considering self-publishing for the first time.

Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

I’ve assumed thus far that you know the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing. For the purpose of this post, I am using the term “self-publishing” to refer to all forms of “pay for your own services to release a book” publishing. However, there is a wide range of tactics used to publish outside traditional publishing, so this blanket category is somewhat misleading. It’s worth understanding the distinctions between the processes, but in many instances the points here apply similarly to all forms of self-publishing. If you need a refresher of the basics of each form, here’s the rough outline of each.

Traditional Publishing
  • Requires querying agents, who then query publishing houses, who ultimately decide who gets published
  • Requires a certain level of skill to get a foot in the door, followed by a decent chunk of luck to get noticed by the right agent, then more luck to get noticed by the right editor
  • Offers an up-front advance of money if you get selected for publication…but that’s not as good as it sounds (for a few reasons)
  • All costs of publishing are paid for by the publishing house (if you’re paying anything up front, you aren’t getting traditionally published)
  • Provides help in the form of a team of editors, artists, marketing professionals, and your own personal cheerleader (that agent you worked so hard to get)
  • Almost never does as much marketing as the author thinks they will, and generally not as much as the book needs
  • Control of cover, editing, marketing, and release details entirely in the hand of the publishing house
  • Very low royalties, and you get to share those with your agent, too (Plus, taxes! Don’t forget taxes)
Self-Publishing
  • Nothing barring entry for anyone willing to click a few buttons on some free publishing software (a point both good and bad)
  • No marketing done beyond what the author does, and marketing can be expensive
  • Author must pay for all cover work, editing, marketing materials, publication fees, and anything else that comes up (good editing and cover design are also expensive)
  • Offers very little visibility without a great deal of work, resulting in typically much lower sales numbers
  • Allows complete author control over editing, cover design, marketing, release details, price and price adjustments, etc. (not always as good as it sounds)
  • No built-in team to lean on when you have questions (all research and planning has to be done by the author)
  • Relies heavily on luck and author work to get noticed, but if you get noticed, you have just as good a chance of being successful as a traditionally published author (even getting on bookstore shelves, if you do it right)
  • Much, much higher royalty rates, and they’re all yours (except taxes. Don’t forget taxes)

The Catch

I said above that a few of the points weren’t as good as they sounded. These included author advances from traditional publishing, the easy availability of publishing under the self-publishing model, and the freedom of choice in self-publishing. Let’s take a look at an example.

Jane Trad and Amy Indie

For fairness, we’ll set the stage this way: Jane Trad has been working on her novel for years. She’s gone through betas, edits, querying, agent submissions, and she’s finally received an offer from a traditional publishing house. The contract says her release date is two years out (relatively standard, though some are longer and I’ve heard of one as short as 16 months) and her advance will be $8,000. On the same day, Amy Indie decides that her manuscript, which she has been working on for at least a year and has edited using critique partners and beta readers, is ready to self publish. Amy, being a responsible indie author, is ready to scope out professional editors and get this show on the road.

Now Jane is very excited. Her advance isn’t super high, but it’s decent and relatively common (she’s a fantasy author, so a publisher has to give her at least $3,000 or they can’t be a publisher under the SWFA, barring any grandfather clauses exempting long-established publishers). Right off the top of that advance comes 15% for Jane’s agent, so she’s really got a $6,800 advance. But that $6,800 is not a lump sum. She gets it in installments over the course of her publication process. Most publishing houses have three installments (or did before COVID hit) but it’s not entirely uncommon to see a four-installment contract. Let’s say Jane’s is three. The first installment comes when she signs the contract. $2,667 right out the gate (minus her agent’s 15%) gives her a take home of $2,267…from which she immediately sets aside taxes.

As Jane is doing her happy dance, Amy begins researching editors and cover designers. Amy falls down a black hole of Google searches, reading post after post about how much various services should cost. How is it possible there are so many different answers to this simple question? That guy says he’ll do a developmental edit for $250, but these three blogs say developmental editors cost $0.03/word at a minimum. Author A recommends his amazing editor, but when Amy looks at a sample of Author A’s book she cringes. The characters are absurd, the plot is random, women are “breasting boobily” places instead of just walking. Is this the author or the editor? How did this even get published?

Oh, right. Because self-publishing has no gatekeepers. And as a result, when Amy self-publishes, many potential readers will think her book has quality like this.

With a determined sigh, Amy begins making a list of every self-published author whose books she respects and tries to find any advice they have about finding editors and cover artists. Meanwhile, Jane has worked with her agent and sent in an initial version of her manuscript. She waits for her first round of edits, the developmental edit, so she can get started. Two years before release, she doesn’t have much to do for her book’s publication besides wait and try to write something new. Under some contracts she might need to supply marketing copy or discuss title adjustments, but let’s say the publisher liked her query blurb and title and are giving that to marketing as is. The marketing department will still make changes, but Jane doesn’t have to do anything about it right now.

So she stares at blank pages, wonders how many changes she’ll have to make, tries to think of a unique characteristic for a new protagonist. She has a great idea for the sequel to her first book, but she only got a one-book contract, so her agent told her to write something unconnected for now in case this doesn’t sell. Jane tries to blog and become engaged in social media, since she needs the connections to promote her book, but she doesn’t really know what to say. She’s not well-known and she can’t talk about her book yet. Finally, eight weeks after submission, Jane gets her edits. The editor said six weeks, but editors are always overworked, so it took a bit longer. Jane has a month to get her changes made and resubmitted.

By now, Amy has muddled through the confusion of Google and chosen an editor, proofreader, and cover designer. Her cover designer also does formatting for a small additional fee, so she’s done picking services. The editor is booking three months out, but her cover designer is busy and won’t have a spot for six months. She’s happy with him, though, so she’s willing to wait. Amy sets her release date for eight months out so she’ll have time to prep after getting everything done. Then, Amy announces on her social media and to her network that her book will be releasing later that year. She begins planning a marketing strategy, recruiting some of her beta readers to help her spread the word, and preparing to run a pre-order campaign. She also decides on a price for her book. She picks the relatively common price of $8.99 to be competitive.

After a grueling month of intensive editing, Jane finally finishes her edits and sends the completed draft back. While she doesn’t make every change, she feels like most of them are an improvement to the story and if she has any questions she can ask her agent. Now she has another wait, filled with any number of relatively minor obligations to her publisher and a growing need to build her market. In another month and a half the editor sends back a second round of changes, a few more developmental items but mostly line edits this time, which Jane has to finish in three weeks. By the time Amy’s editing appointment comes around, Jane is sending her second round of edits back to the editor.

Amy sends her book in to her editor and continues her marketing and social media campaigns. She gets the edits back in a month, pays her editor (typically around $2,500), and evaluates the recommendations. She makes the changes she agrees with and stares in crippling anxiety at the others, unsure if she is making a mistake by choosing not to implement those changes. But there’s no one for Amy to ask for advice, and she is the final arbiter of what changes get made in the book. If the editing sucks (if women start “breasting boobily” places) it’s all on her. Amy feels bad for rejecting Author A’s editor. He can’t control what Author A did with his recommendations. So, Amy signs up for a month of a writing aid software and looks at the recommendations it gives to evaluate why the editor’s changes might be good or bad.

As she begins that, Jane gets her manuscript accepted by the publisher. This is different from signing the contract to publish. It means that the publishing house thinks the book is now ready for the next step. Along with this comes Jane’s second installment of her advance, same numbers as before, and she’s done a lot of work I that time. Certainly more than her advance is worth in hourly wages. But Jane isn’t here for the advance money. She’s getting her book published! And they’re paying her for it! She can make money off the book after it releases.

While Jane waits for the next round of edits, or her cover, or whatever the next step is, Amy has decided on her final edits. She has a proofread-ready copy. Except for the formatting, which will happen during cover design. In the two months before that begins, Amy prepares a pre-order campaign. She announces, talks about her book’s upcoming release, and starts collecting some ARC readers to give initial reviews. When her cover appointment comes around, she has a stack of covers from similar books to discuss and she and her cover designer come up with a great idea. That plus the formatting is done within three weeks of beginning and Amy pays for that. Because she went with a photo-realistic cover from an experienced artist and formatting is included, she pays $600 to the cover designer. She announces a cover reveal and sends her formatted manuscript to her proofreader.

Jane’s activity at this point varies widely by publisher. Maybe she’s already received her cover, or maybe she’s in the middle of copy edits. Maybe she’s just blogging, talking on social media, and trying to find writer’s conferences to attend. What is guaranteed is she hasn’t received her third installment yet. That won’t come until publication day from most publishers. Some publishers define “accepted manuscript” differently and wouldn’t have even paid her second installment yet. But whatever Jane’s step in the process is, she isn’t in control of any of the decisions being made about her book. She might get consulted on the cover, or she might not, but at the end of the day the publisher decides what her book will look like.

When Amy gets her book back from the proofreader, about two to three weeks, and pays about $1,000 for that, she’s ready to publish. Ten months after beginning the publishing process, Jane is waiting for her next steps while Amy announces that her book is now available. She’s already received ten sales through pre-order, which all count as sales on day one.

Status Report

Let’s pause right here and evaluate the standing of these two stories. Amy and Jane have been through a lot of stress over these ten months. Jane oscillated through stretches of endless waiting followed by short bursts of frantic activity and she’s not even half done yet. Amy struggled through a far too massive amount of dubiously accurate information to make decisions, and she has no idea if she made good choices. In the process, Amy spent around $4,000, while Jane earned about $4,500 and saved the $4,000 that Amy spent. That’s an $8,500 financial difference between what Amy spent and what Jane made. To make that up with a typical self-publishing royalty rate of 35-70%, Amy is going to have to sell between 1,351 and 2,700 copies of her book, depending on what royalty structure she uses.

Surely Jane’s strategy is better, right? She’s even got another lump sum coming up…in fourteen months.

So is Jane doing better? Amy went through a lot with that process, but she has a book out now. And to “break even” by selling enough to cover her publishing costs, she needs half as many books as I’ve listed above. She can continue building her social media presence and network with references to that book, and she can write the sequel she has planned. Plus, Amy has already sold ten books (about $31.50-$63 of her money made back). How many more might she sell before Jane’s book even releases? The average book sells 3,000 copies in its entire lifetime. Amy makes money on that number—between 676 and 1,350 copies to recoup her costs, then she makes between $5,190 and $14,625 on the rest of her sales. A total of $9,190-$18,625 if she makes the average sales numbers.

On the other hand, Jane’s royalty rate means she earns very little…after she finally starts getting any royalties. That advance she was so excited about is taken out of her royalty payments. I’ll admit, not being traditionally published, that I’m not certain how the math works out here, but let’s assume the scenario best for the author. The advance was $8,000, so when the book earns $8,000 in gross sales Jane starts getting royalties. Another option (and the one I honestly think most likely) is that Jane starts getting royalties when the total amount of royalties she would have earned without the advance meets $8,000; by that math Jane has to almost double the sales average to get royalties at all. But assuming the better scenario, Jane meets that mark at 890 book sales. The rest of those average sales earn her an additional $2,845 (minus 15% for her agent), or $2,419 in additional income. So a total of $9,219 in the best possible scenario for average sales. That’s not much better than Amy’s low number, and to get it she waited an extra 14 months for publication and lost all of her creative decision-making power.

Now some people may point out that the 3,000 book average is based on traditional publishing and it may not be accurate for self-publishing. That’s true, primarily because the quality of self-published novels varies so widely. For the most part, traditionally published novels all meet a minimum quality standard, so you can compare their sales numbers and get reasonable predictions. But consider, also, that if Amy plans her book releases right and targets readers to her 70% royalty options, she needs just over 1/5th of that average to break even. If Amy sells 2,800 books doing this, she makes more money than Jane’s best case scenario for selling the 3,000 average. And if Amy’s first book never does more than earn her investment back, she can choose to publish a sequel, which makes more people willing to buy her first book. If Jane only sells 676 books, she’s not getting a sequel and she’s lost the right to publish one herself.

For Consideration

Jane’s strategy isn’t necessarily wrong. Some books need the power of a publishing house behind them, and some authors can’t afford the $4,000 that Amy spent on good publishing. But if you can afford to self-publish and have the time or network to get the word out yourself, self-publishing can offer so much more potential. And for those people who can afford good self-publishing, the only thing traditional publishing has to offer is a reputation.


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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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16 thoughts on “Indie-pub vs. Trad-pub

  1. I love how you played this all out. There is so much to consider. An amazing post! Thank you so much for taking the time to demonstrate the two different roads for writers.

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    1. Thanks! There’s definitely a lot that it’s hard to learn about both processes. When my friend was going through debuting her novel with a traditional publisher I learned so much about things I hadn’t realized authors have to do. Like recommend ARC readers. A lot of debut authors don’t even know what an ARC reader is when they sign a contract. How are they supposed to know who to recommend?

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  2. Like you mention in the post, it is unknown what the average self-published writer makes. Most of the data we have is based on surveys, and usually, surveys like that tend to be biased in their sampling. And even with the data we do have, we know that self-published authors make less.
    I highly doubt the average Amy will ever recoup the money she put into self publishing her book. The question then is, what happens to her sequel? Will she shell out another $4K?
    Nice post.

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    1. Yeah, publishing numbers are so hard to pin down, especially for self-published authors. The thing I didn’t really explain is that “Amy” from my example clearly has a pretty good network because she got ten preorders. That good network means she may well earn her publishing costs back, but as you said, the typical self-published author doesn’t have that network when they release and may well never earn anything.

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