Indie versus Pro publishing

In reply to my “help, I can’t think of anything to blog about!” post recently, Wulfila asked my opinion on “the current development of the self-publishing vs. traditional publishing situation”.

I’ve been lucky enough to try all three types of publishing. Running Press, who published False Colors was a biggish traditional mainstream publisher. Most of my other novels have been published by Samhain Publishing, and my novellas by Carina, MLR Press and Riptide Publishing – all of whom I would call “small press publishers.” (I wouldn’t call them all ebook publishers, because all of them do print too, some as a matter of course and some as a factor of success.) Then there is The Witch’s Boy and the two anthologies of short stories which I have indie published, as a way of testing the indie waters and learning to format books for various different ebook formats.

My experiences go like this.

Mainstream traditional publishing.

Good editing. Excellent cover art. A bit of a problem with the back cover which says the book is set in 1662, when in fact it’s set in 1762. I did not see this until it was too late to correct. Amazing marketing which involved getting the books on the ‘new book’ tables in Barnes and Noble. Slightly less amazing marketing slogan which provoked controversy and bad feeling throughout the genre. The publication led to interviews in big mainstream magazines, including a very small piece in Rolling Stone magazine, though the interviews focussed more on the ‘gay romance? What are these crazy women up to now and why?‘ angle than on whether the book was any good or not. I don’t believe many of them actually read it.

Fame:

There’s no doubt that I am better known for this book than any other. People who have heard of me tend to have done so because they saw False Colors in a bookshop. Indeed many of the (usually men) who write to me are unaware that I’ve published any other books, because they do their book shopping in bookshops and not in the online romance community.

Money:

Even though the advance on False Colors was small as these things go,  it has still earned me more than any other single title to date.

Small Press Publishing

With one exception (the first cover of Captain’s Surrender), I’ve had good cover art and editing every bit as good as I got from Running Press. The speed with which small presses work is much faster than that of large presses and the accessibility to the author is much greater. (That is, if you’re worried about something you can email the cover artist or the finance person or whatever, whereas in the large press I got the feeling that that was frowned upon and I should direct everything through my editor. The good small presses I work with are nicer to work with than the big press was, (though they weren’t bad either, just slower and less responsive.)

Fame

Some small presses will arrange blog tours for you. Some have large communities of readers who wait eagerly for the next book from that publisher. In all cases, readers come to expect a certain level of house style, a typical type of story (ie you know that something from Ellora’s Cave is likely to be steamier than something from Samhain etc.) So by publishing with that publisher you come pre-recommended to that publisher’s readers. Also every small press I’ve worked with has a list of reviewers to whom they will send your book, hopefully garnering it more word of mouth recommendations.

Money

I’ve earned more than twice as much through small press publishing than through big press. However, that’s not the good thing it sounds, as I’ve published four novels and four novellas through small presses. Eight times as many stories and I’ve only earned twice the income.

The nice thing about the small presses and money is that they pay you monthly, so instead of getting one big lump, as with the advance for False Colors, you get a regular income. I like that. Another advantage of the small press is that their contracts tend to be better, in that you get your rights back within 5-7 years. I like that too.

Indie Publishing

You don’t get cover art or editing. You either have to pay for them or do them yourself (or swap edits with a friend.) Since I can make my own cover art, and my husband is a demon of a proof reader, this is not the disadvantage for me that it could be for others. You also have to format your work for the various sites you’re going to release it through, and this takes some learning and labour (or it’s yet another thing you have to pay for.)

Fame

You get no help with marketing. It’s up to you to get your name out there, which is why you see so many indie authors out there making pests of themselves with self-promotion. It’s also much more difficult to get review sites to look at your books, because most review sites have a policy of not taking requests from indies. There are just too many bad books out there to make it worth wading through to get to the good ones.

Money

I’ve published one novel, The Witch’s Boy and a couple of anthologies of short stories through Smashwords, Amazon KDP and Lulu. The Witch’s Boy came out just about at the same time as Captain’s Surrender, and two years before The Wages of Sin. The Witch’s Boy is a long novel, The Wages of Sin is a 30K novella. So far, the small press published novella has earned twice what the indie published novel has managed.

Conclusions

In my experience, indie publishing is the worst of all the options.

I have heard and believe that the way to succeed in indie publishing is to write fast, to write ongoing series with a hook at the end of each book, so you can build followers over time, and to make sure you launch the book with action, because people will buy based on the free-to-sample first 20% and that’s all you’ve got to make them want to buy. I write slow and prefer standalones, so maybe someone else would have better luck.

Except that all that advice is just as spot on for small presses. So if I could write quickly and in series, I would still submit them to small presses and get the benefit of editing, marketing, cover art and a dedicated readership.

But what I really should do, if I can only learn to write faster, is write four books for mainstream publishers a year. Because if I was getting four advances the size of the one for FC every year, I’d have a living wage straight away, as opposed to hoping that things will build as I build my backlist.

Of course, while mainstream publishers still don’t take m/m, it’s a moot point. And given that they’re off the table, I think my decision to stick with small presses rather than indie publish is still the best way to go.


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