On Quora, there are hundreds of questions about the difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing. There are also a lot of answers I sort of agree with, but not really. This has caused me to think about the question. Camille M asked about my take on that the other day, and I thought, you know what, I’m going to answer that.
My perspective is skewed because of course I had my first ten books come out from Big Five publishers, so I did have SOME readership and also a blog when I moved rather suddenly into self-publishing. I also had the rights for those ten books unfortunately locked up in ways that are not likely to actually be relevant to authors now.
First, I think that traditionally published authors on Quora such as Mercedes Lackey are largely missing the point when they declare that self-publishing is so much less likely to go anywhere, and I also think that self-published-only authors like Timothy Ellis are also missing something, though not as much. I mention those two by name because they each answer a lot of questions on this topic.
Mercedes Lackey says over and over that authors are likely to make between $0 and $100 per year, that most traditionally published authors make very little and self-published authors do even worse. Timothy Ellis says over and over that the way to succeed in self-publishing is to write fast and publish fast. I think they’re both right, but also both wrong in important ways.
Here’s what I think are actually the most essential differences in a nutshell:
A) Traditional publishing involves A LOT MORE LUCK. A LOT MORE.
B) Traditional publishing involves FAR more unpredictability in income from year to year, but can be significant right out of the gate.
C) Income, as well as everything else, is FAR more under the author’s control in self-publishing, but it’s a slow build.
D) The control over what you write may be EVEN MORE IMPORTANT than the control over income.
There is nothing you can do to make a good agent offer representation. I had that happen fast. There is nothing you can do to make a Big Five publisher offer a contract. I had that happen fast as well. I think this was partly because my debut novel was good, but also partly (a lot) due to luck.
Luck continues to be super important for traditionally published authors after their debut novel comes out. Sales of your debut novel are partly (a lot) dependent on luck, and sales of subsequent books are also dependent on luck. If you talk to authors, I think you will find that almost everybody has a point where their career came to a standstill. This is not exceptional at all. It’s the rule. Almost everybody has this story. All sorts of things can produce a stall and it takes significant luck to get moving again.
If Borders declares bankruptcy between Book One Of Your Great Trilogy and Book Two, and your sales absolutely tank for Book Two because of that, then you’re screwed. Book Two sales were horrible. Your publisher will hold that against you because that’s how publishers are.
If your book’s first print run is 2000 copies and it sells out in two weeks, but there’s a paper shortage, the publisher will not print more copies and they will then hold your poor sales against you because that’s how publishers are.
I don’t mean editors. My editors have been great. It wasn’t my editor who asked me to write a sequel to The Floating Islands and then, after I wrote it, said, oh no, they didn’t want a sequel, they wanted something else, a standalone. That was the acquisitions board following the merger of Random House and Penguin. In other words, it was bad luck. My editor couldn’t do anything. Neither could I.
This kind of thing happens all the time. Seriously. All the time. And this crushes authors’ careers. And there is nothing you can do.
Nothing is about luck in self-publishing and that is where Mercedes Lackey goes wrong when she cites average numbers (and a lot of other people also make this exact mistake, obviously).
A competent author is not competing with the forty million horrible, unreadable, vaguely book-shaped objects down in the bowels of Amazon’s ratings. At all. Those books might as well not exist. This means that a whoooooole lot of “authors” making $0 per year might as well not exist either, as far as figuring out average incomes. Those are not people publishing readable books. There is no point in saying that the average self-published book sells ten copies in its whole lifetime. You have to remove horrible, unreadable books before you take the average. (And it wouldn’t hurt to define “lifetime.”)
You also need to remove authors who might be writing decent books, but who don’t know the first thing about self publishing and plunk them into Amazon and there they go, whooosh, down into the abyss. Not quite as far down, but those books are all down there in the dark somewhere.
When I first self–published Pure Magic, it sold a decent handful of copies, and I went on with the series but did absolutely no marketing because I wasn’t taking self-publishing at all seriously. I just looked at KDP for this book while writing this post, and actually I’m surprised that it did kind of okay even at first, selling several hundred copies as soon as I self-published it. But certainly its sales were not exactly impressive, especially after the first few months. It didn’t disappear, but it was certainly at the edge of the abyss. That’s how it is with self-published books if the author does no marketing at all.
A Prime) How to make your own luck
A self-publishing author is in control of cover, description, keywords, categories, marketing, whether the book is a series novel or a standalone, and if it’s in a series, how long the series will be.
She is also in control of the book’s quality, including formatting, proofreading, and the quality of the actual story. I realize no one can just sit down and produce a masterpiece like, I don’t know, Piranesi, which I’m picking because I can’t imagine anybody just sitting down and writing something like that. Even though I guess Susannah Clarke did. But I mean, you can’t just choose to write something spectacularly beautiful and weird, or most people can’t. But you can choose to write something that’s pretty good. I think that’s where a lot of you-can’t-succeed-nobody-succeeds–it’s-like-playing-the-lottery advice goes wrong. There’s a huge amount of advice out there just like that. People say 95% of writers have day jobs or 99% of self-published books never sell more than ten copies as though numbers like that are relevant. Those numbers aren’t relevant.
You can’t make sales on Amazon with garbage. But you can make sales on Amazon with books that are pretty good. And a lot of people can write something pretty good, especially if they take their time and don’t try to write a novel per month or anything nutty. If someone turns out to be able to write fast later, fine, but it’s not sensible to aim for that right out of the starting gate, in my opinion, and it’s definitely not sensible to advise new authors that they should aim for that and they’ll fail if they can’t do that.
In my opinion, any decent writer can learn enough about how to handle writing and the associated tasks well enough to get their books out of the abyss. I don’t think that takes luck. Buying a lottery ticket is about luck. Writing and marketing involves learning how to do it and then doing it, which is not about luck at all, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to let yourself learn about all this over time, not try to figure everything out before you even start.
Personally, I think it’s crazy to try to learn everything all at once because you can’t and you’ll drive yourself around the bend. But you can learn enough to make a difference pretty quickly. That takes everything out of the realm of luck.
Obviously challenges like suddenly having premature triplets or whatever will make learning how to write and how to publish hard. But it is not that difficult as long as you have some time to put into writing and some time to put into formatting, proofreading, and the rest. Also, a lot of people are very happy to share what they know about keywords and categories and so forth, and they can point you to places where you can learn more. All that stuff changes. KDP recently made a huge change to how they do categories. Once you’re tied in to any network of people who talk about this stuff, you hear about that kind of change and that helps a lot. Anybody can get tied into that kind of network. Subscribe to David Gaughran’s newsletter and there you go, that’ll do it.
B) and C) Income
The year I signed a two-book contract with one publisher and a different two-book contract with another publisher, I had quite a respectable income from books. Three years later, I had no income from books. This was not a disaster for me because I have a day job. But this kind of variation is common and this is a big, big reason why writers need day jobs. I’m sure that for Mercedes Lackey, income from book contracts is fairly stable. But for most traditionally published authors, it is not.
For some other careers where incomes varies massively from year to year, you can do income averaging and lower your tax burden in a bad year. With writing, you can’t. For other jobs where you are employed, your employer takes out withholding. For writing, no one takes out withholding unless you do it yourself and you will be hit with a godawful tax burden in April. This is one reason I have a CPA. She tells me how much to send in for withholding every quarter, and that is a noticeable chunk that someone without a day job is going to have to budget for, by the way. But it’s better than getting whapped with an even bigger tax payment in April.
So traditional publishing is likely to produce very large variation in income from year to year, and if you get a good advance for your debut novel — I did — then you can get that kind of very large variation right from the beginning. In contrast, if you are self-publishing, your income will be small at first, but it will keep building as you (a) bring out more books, (b) learn more, and (c) are able to invest more. This is just going to be true for anyone who is writing decent, readable books. Any books on the spectrum from readable to excellent. Anywhere on there will do. I think this is obvious because we see successful self-published authors everywhere on that spectrum.
In 2020, I brought out TUYO and got suddenly much, much more interested in self-publishing. Prior to that, my income from self-publishing was less than $100 per month most of the time, and I never paid attention to it because I didn’t care. From the time TUYO came out and I started to take it seriously, my income from self-publishing began to climb. I broke $1000 for a single month later that year and for the first time, in 2020, self-publishing represented more than pocket change. In 2021, my income from self-publishing was half again what it was in 2020. In 2022, my income from self-publishing was double what it had been in 2021.
In 2023, my best guess is book income will be about half again as much as it was in 2022. This won’t equal what I make from my day job, but it will be getting pretty close. In 2024, it should be higher again, and so forth, every year until I quit writing new books and/or quit marketing at all. My goal is to get to the point where I would be comfortable quitting my day job. Whether I do in fact quit my day job is a different question, but I want book income to be high enough that I could. I think that should happen around 2025, barring very significant disasters such as the whole economy crashing. Barring that kind of disaster, my opinion right now is that getting to that point is basically under my control but it is not going to happen overnight. That is a very large difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing.
D) Control over what you write and over what gets published.
Because I do have a day job and do not depend on income from writing, I can relax. I mean, for values of relax that include “spend all my time writing.” But I’m choosing to do that. I like to do that, at least for now. I would literally rather write the next TUYO world novel than watch anything on TV — even though I hear there are lots of good shows on TV these days.
I’ve actually always been able to write what I want to write, more or less, because I’ve written most of my books “on spec” and then my agent placed them. But if I had placed TUYO with the best traditional publisher in the world, it would probably be a standalone today. If there were sequels, they would be different sequels. If the publisher had wanted a sequel, they wouldn’t have wanted a prequel like NIKOLES or an offset story like SUELEN. If I’d written TARASHANA, almost any publisher would have probably told me to cut the length by half and I would have been forced to remove Tano and everything to do with him, because that book was really long. I would not have been able to write the TUYO-TARASHANA-TASMAKAT story unless the publisher decided to let me write a six-book series and that would have been up to them. I couldn’t have made them agree to that.
Only self-publishing guarantees I can write absolutely anything I want. Anything.
It’s not just the TUYO world, though this series is very important to me. The freedom to write exactly what I want to write and know that it will get out in the world and be read by people who might love it and also by the way turn into income is huge. This freedom is ENORMOUS. There is absolutely no way to do that with traditional publishing unless you are Steven King or somebody like that because publishers can always turn down something you wrote. Which they do. All the time. Everybody has a novel or two or five that their agent couldn’t place. Everybody. It’s like a stall in your writing career. Everybody stalls and everybody writes books that publishers don’t want. Only truly famous authors don’t have those things happen.
I got a heck of a lot of rejections for Death’s Lady, and many were detailed rejections that included a line like this: “It’s beautifully written, but it’s too commercial/literary/young adult/adult/weird, and we don’t know that it’s right for our imprint, so we’re going to have to pass.” Some had more substantive comments, but fundamentally that was not a story anybody wanted. Now it’s out because I brought it out. It’s not a big income source for me, partly because it’s not in KU and I have never taken the time to look seriously about how to market a wide series. But, let me just look … if it’s true that current average advances are running $3000 to $5000, then it’s doing better than that, which is not hard.
E) What about rights?
Camille specifically asked about rights, and I will say that I HATE not having the rights to Islands and the others. I HATE it. But having a book locked up as badly as this is much less likely to happen today. I’m probably in the very last cohort of authors who got nailed because the rights reversion clauses did not adequately address ebooks. Nobody should sign a contract that doesn’t clearly specify how the rights revert, including a clause that ebook sales aren’t enough to prevent rights reversion. Given any sort of sensible rights reversion clause, I could have gotten the rights back to almost everything years ago.
However, possibly not Islands. I’m still getting (small) royalty checks for that one now and then. The year I don’t see any royalty checks coming in from that book, I will write to Random House and try to get them to revert the rights to me. If I don’t get a positive response, I will probably write every month and see if I can pester them into reverting the rights. If I write the third book in that series, I’ll probably try to do that regardless. However, if a traditionally published book is making sales, then it may be impossible to get the rights reverted.
BUT, and this is important to understand, if I hadn’t had my first novels come out from Big Five publishers, I most likely would not be writing at all today. There are two reasons traditional publication was important to me. It’s hard to overemphasize the validation, that’s one. The validation of having my first novels come out from Big Five publishers was important. Besides that kind of validation, in order to succeed as a novelist, you have to keep writing books, and making a tiny trickle of income is not very motivating, while making sudden windfalls is. Occasional fairly sizeable advances are really motivating. If you could write novels or do something else, then motivation to write novels is very important. Therefore, in the long run, it was worth it to me to lose the rights to my first novels in order to get to the point where I suddenly decided that self-publication was a direction I wanted to go. I do not regret going with traditional publication at all, even if I would now really like to have the rights back to all my books.
Would I in the future try traditional publishing again? Maybe. Will I keep going with self publishing? YES.
Today, with self-publication being shoved into your face as an option from the start, maybe the boost from traditional publishing is not as important. I’m not sure. The validation has got to be a major boost for a lot of writers. On the other hand, if it’s true that current advances are $3000 to $5000, that is not very motivating at all. It’s even the opposite of motivating. You could make that much doing lots of things easier and faster than writing a novel. An advance as low as that is honestly insulting. We love your novel, but we’re only willing to pay you $3000 for it? I would want a hell of a rights reversion clause, like automatic reversion after two years, something like that, or I would never agree to that kind of advance.
F) Which way should you go?
I don’t advise anybody to go one way or the other. If someone thinks traditional is the way to go, more power to them, and I will wish them all the luck in the world, which they will need. But many people do have enough luck that they can take off, and stall out, and then take off again. That’s obvious by looking at how many traditionally published authors have careers that span decades. Obviously most of them have had enough luck to keep flying.
Martha Wells stalled completely before Murderbot pulled her out of the stall and kicked her career into the fast track, and I will add that everyone cheered because she’s both a nice person and a great writer. She deserves every bit of her success. But look at her oeuvre. It took a lot of books and then a shift from fantasy to Murderbot. If she hadn’t written that first Murderbot novella, she might never have recovered from her stalled career. It took great writing and persistence and luck to get her up and flying again, and that’s how it happens. But it does happen.
If someone thinks self-publishing is the way to go, more power to them, and I will hope they figure out at least the bare minimum about marketing. I feel that’s about where I am, just at the bare minimum, and I’m pretty happy with how that’s working, though I know it could be better.
But I would suggest to anyone going that way that you should probably expect your self-publishing career to build kind of slowly. Let it build slowly. That’s fine. Don’t let yourself burn out. And then, if you do that and keep going, I think you can probably build a pretty decent career that is a lot less about luck and a lot more about writing books and learning at least the essentials of marketing.
Ask me in ten years, even five, and I might write something pretty different. But that’s my view right now.
Ask me any questions you like.