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Traditional Publishing vs. Indie Publishing

Let’s begin with a reality check. For most novelists, both paths to publication (traditional publishing and independent publishing) lead to failure…

  • 80% of traditionally-published novels flop. (Meaning the author doesn’t earn more than their small advance on royalties, and doesn’t get a second novel published).
  • Amazon is littered with self-published novels that sell just one or two copies a month, if any at all.

What separates those who succeed in publishing from those who don’t?

A deep understanding of the publishing industry and a solid plan. And, yes, that applies whether you go down the traditional publishing path or the independent one.

In either case, you’ll need to be “hands on” with the marketing of your novel.

For self-published novelists (“indie authors”), the need to market and promote your novel is a given. Hey, nobody else is going to do it for you!

Too many novelists believe that publishing your book on Amazon is enough. They think that buyers will magically discover it, just because it’s “live” on Amazon, and buy it in huge quantities. Believe that and you’ll almost certainly end up as one of those self-published authors who sell next to nothing.

But even traditionally-published authors are expected to be savvy in online marketing in the 21st century. Let’s look at that expectation in more detail as we explore the first path to publication…

1. Traditional Publishing

The easiest way to get published traditionally (but also the way that’s least likely to succeed) is to ignore pretty much everything in this definitive guide to publishing a novel…

  • Ignore the fact that the publishing industry has transformed fundamentally in the last decade.
  • Do not attempt to build any kind of online presence (the so-called author’s platform).
  • Simply send out your novel to an agent. Who in turn will send it out to a publisher. Who in turn will publish your novel and handle the marketing side of things.

Okay, so you may want to make some concessions to publishing in the Digital Age, such as submitting your manuscript electronically when requested. Other than that, do nothing that you wouldn’t have done 20 years ago.

And you know what? That could work!

Publishing houses are businesses, right? If they see a profit in you, they’re going to publish your novel, even if you lack any online marketing skills. But ask yourself this…

What are your chances of landing that golden traditional publishing deal?

Even before the Internet came along, the odds of getting published were steep (1 in 200). And even if you were one of the chosen ones, there was no guarantee that the publisher would put any significant marketing muscle behind your book. Meaning you’d be one of the 80% of published authors whose books didn’t sell many copies.

Today, the odds of success in traditional publishing are a lot steeper still.

Why? Because if you don’t have an online presence (like a large readership on your blog, for example), and if you aren’t willing to learn (to act as the publisher’s marketing partner, in effect), the publisher probably won’t want to know you.

Here’s literary agent Meredith Barnes on what she looks for when assessing an author…

I’m looking for a presence online. It lets me know that the author is engaged online and what kind of savvy they have. A publisher will really want the author to help (a lot) with promo.

Laurie Abkemeier, another agent, has a similar warning…

I always Google. Always. I’m looking for how that person presents him- or herself online. I’m also looking at whether I can find the person at all. Sometimes I can’t, and that’s almost always an instant pass.

If you think that traditional publishing may be for you and those quotes make your heart sink, you’re looking at them all wrong. The need for writers to be savvy in online marketing is not an additional barrier to entry. It’s a great opportunity for you to stand above your competitors and tilt the odds in your favor!

What about trying to get published traditionally, irrespective of the need for an online presence? What is there to lose?

Well, time for one thing. Waiting for replies from agents requires the patience of a saint.

Also, what if you’re taken on by an agent, who then sells your novel to a publisher, who then puts virtually zero marketing muscle behind it?

Publishers can’t put all their weight behind every book in their catalogue. Some novelists have to sink or swim on their own to start with.

If your novel doesn’t sink, great. You can expect them to put more weight behind your next novel. If it does sink, though, your dream of making a living from what you do is right back at square one.

Oh, and because you haven’t got an online platform of any sort, the odds of your novel sinking rather than swimming are much higher.

Here’s the point…

There’s nothing wrong with ignoring the way publishing works today and doing it the “old school” way. Just understand that the odds of success are long.

Yes, you may turn out to be a lightning-strike case (or so exceptionally talented that the publisher will bend over backwards to create lightning bolts). More likely, you either won’t get published at all, or you’ll end up as a struggling mid-list author who earns peanuts.

A better strategy, then, is to tilt the odds in your favor before submitting your manuscript to agents.

There are three ways to do that, each with varying degrees of effectiveness…

1. Build an Author’s Platform First

If a platform is what agents and publishers are looking for, give them one!

If you have many thousands of engaged Twitter followers, say, agents and publishers are going to sit up and take notice.

And why wouldn’t they? If a publisher is about to invest money in you, that investment becomes less risky the more potential buyers you can reach through a tweet.

Want to make them sit up straighter still?

2. Draw Up a Marketing Plan

In other words, spell out all the ways that you’re going to help them to market your novel once it’s published.

So in addition to drawing attention to that huge Twitter following you already have, tell them that you plan to…

  • Reach out to influential book bloggers in your niche and get them to interview you.
  • Start your own YouTube channel.
  • Build a list of email subscribers and keep them engaged with a free short story every month.

Now you’re a really hot prospect (assuming that the novel you want them to publish is up to scratch of course).

Not only have you got thousands of folks you can reach immediately with a single tweet. And not only have you got a credible plan to widen your net and get the word out to more people still. You’ve also demonstrated a professional, collaborative attitude.

Here come the downsides to the two strategies above…

First, building an online audience from scratch isn’t easy. And for fiction writers, it’s positively tough.

If you were writing a non-fiction book on home-schooling, say, you could start a blog on home-schooling. Folks who were interested in that topic would discover you through the search engines. And a small percentage would love your blog articles and head over to Amazon to purchase your book.

But if you’re writing a novel, what topic is there to blog about?

Okay, if your novel is about alcoholism, you could blog about that. Trouble is, few of your readers will want to read a novel on that topic. (They’re looking for information on the topic, not entertainment.) Plus, if your next novel is about depression, say, the blog is defunct.

Second, it takes a lot of work to build an online audience. And it takes a lot of time to reap the rewards of that work. (Trust me, I’ve done it with this website. Start blogging full time today and you won’t have a significant audience for years.)

Third, building an audience will leave you little time for the one thing that you really want to do – write novels!

Having said all that…

Some sort of author’s platform is better than no platform at all. So even if you just put together a decent author website and a Facebook page, it at least demonstrates willingness to a potential publisher, even if the number of people you can reach is still very small.

And if in addition to your fledgling writer’s platform, you have a marketing plan (i.e. stuff you haven’t done yet to spread the word about you and your books, but will do in the future), it demonstrates that professional, collaborative attitude I mentioned.

How do you build a writer’s platform? And what should you put into your marketing plan?

All will be revealed as we move forward through this guide!

For now, we’re sticking to the Big Picture. And we haven’t finished exploring how to tilt the odds of landing a traditional publishing deal in your favor.

This final method is arguably the most outlandish. It’s also the most effective.

3. Publish Independently First

No, I’m not kidding. The best way of making agents and publishers take notice of you (other than writing an excellent novel) is to demonstrate an ability to reach potential readers. And the best way of doing that, when you currently reach nobody, is through Amazon. (Or more specifically, Kindle Direct Publishing.)

Stick with me on this one…

We talked above about how you can make agents and publishers sit up straighter if you have…

  1. An author’s platform. You can reach potential book buyers via Twitter or Facebook or an email list (or whatever).
  2. A marketing plan. You have a strategy for growing and extending your platform once your novel is published.

Now imagine this scenario…

When you approach an agent, you’ve already successfully published a work of fiction on Amazon. You’ve made thousands of sales and garnered some great reviews. You’ve also managed to get many of your readers onto an email list (so they’re easy to reach when you publish your next work of fiction).

How interested do you think the agent is now?

Not only have you got a way to reach your newfound fans. You’ve already proved your ability as a storyteller in the real world. Suddenly the money the publisher will have to invest in you isn’t looking like so much of a gamble.

Heck, you may not even have to approach the publisher yourself. Achieve success as an indie author and they may approach you!

Can you self-publish and then secure a traditional publishing deal?

Good question. And the blunt answer is that there’s nothing set out in black and white about this.

Publishing, remember, is a business. So if a publisher sees a way for you both to make money together, do you think the fact that you’ve already enjoyed success as a self-publisher will stand in the way?

Here’s Kristen James, writing in Authorpreneur

Many authors want to know if it’s possible to self publish a book and then sell it to a traditional publisher. The old fear was that once you published it yourself, no one would touch it. That thinking is very outdated! If you can prove you can sell, you can write your own ticket.

And in Write, Publish, Repeat, Sean Platt says this…

If you publish Novel X yourself, and if Novel X is a big self-published success, then publishers will be much more interested in looking at Novel Y. Racking up a few self-publishing successes before pitching traditional publishing is like playing baseball in the minors: Publishers can look at your record and see you have the chops needed to sell in the majors.

What if you don’t want to publish a novel independently before you land your dream deal with a publisher?

Then you don’t have to. You could use this “self-publish first” strategy in a less labor-intensive, more lighthanded way.

How? Publish something smaller, like a short story (a prequel to your novel, perhaps).

Publish it on Amazon. Use the strategies in this definitive guide to make a significant number of sales. Get those readers onto your mailing list so you can keep in touch with them. Maybe repeat the process with another story or two. Or maybe not. Either way…

You’re building a readership and proving to a potential publisher that there’s demand for your fiction.

What makes this such a good strategy?

I said earlier that building an audience from scratch on Twitter or your blog (or wherever) is tough. And I wasn’t kidding. It took me years to start driving a decent amount of traffic from Google to Novel Writing Help. (And remember that building an audience for non-fiction is a lot easier than for fiction.)

But this strategy isn’t about search engine or social media traffic. It’s not about blogging or tweeting or spending half your working day on Facebook. It’s about publishing something on Amazon and benefitting from its huge in-built audience of readers.

Sure, it’s still possible to be invisible on Amazon (a ton of authors are). But if you understand how Amazon works and what you need to do to become visible (which you’ll learn from me), building an audience is suddenly not so tough.

Bottom Line?

The best way to increase your chances of succeeding in traditional publishing is to have an existing online presence. And the most effective way for a writer to build that is through Amazon. So…

Seriously consider independent publishing before you reach out to a traditional publisher, even if the thing you publish is as simple as a single short story or novella.

The readership that you build will be invaluable when the time comes to approach agents and publishers. Or you may find that you love the control of being an independent author so much that you decide to stick with it.

Which leads us neatly on to the second major path to publishing success…

2. Indie Publishing

I don’t want to talk about this in any depth here, because we’ll be covering independent self-publishing in great detail as we move forward through this guide.

For now, here are the bullet points…

  • As an indie author, you control everything – writing your novel, publishing your novel, marketing your novel. You cut agents and publishers out of the equation entirely.
  • The royalties you earn are much higher (70% vs. 10-15% with a traditional publisher).
  • There are no significant upfront costs. Digital books cost nothing to manufacture. And with print on demand technology, the cost of producing paper books is simply deducted from your royalties once a reader has purchased the book.
  • Your novels can keep selling indefinitely. (Unlike in book stores, where they are soon returned to the publisher if they don’t sell.)
  • There’s nothing difficult about being your own publisher. You don’t need to be a natural salesperson or highly technical. It really boils down to understanding how Amazon works and what you need to do to gain visibility on its platform. And you’ll learn all that in my definitive guide to publishing a novel.

Are there any downsides to independent publishing?

Well, there’s the issue surrounding the “respectability” of traditional publishing. And of self-publishing being seen as something people do when they can’t get published traditionally.

If that bothers you, it bothers you. Though I’m still going to try to change your mind as we progress!

For now, let me say this…

Respect, in my opinion, doesn’t come from having a book published. It comes from sales. So if you ask me which is more respectable – a traditionally-published novel that flops or a self-published novel that sells thousands of copies – the latter wins hands down.

So it’s not a question of one method of publication being “better” than the other. They’re simply different.

Yes, the traditionally-published novel has already had an agent and a publisher give it the thumbs up. And for that it deserves respect. But if the book-buying public gives it the thumbs down (by not buying it), the novel is ultimately a flop.

Sean Platt put it nicely in Write, Publish, Repeat

Accepting a traditional publishing deal is like taking a salary job with a secure company. By contrast, self-publishing is like striking out on your own as an entrepreneur.

So again, neither is inherently “better” than the other. They’re just different.

Does the word “entrepreneur” scare you?

It shouldn’t. Online entrepreneurship is very different to being an entrepreneur in the “real” world. You’ll never succeed in the real world if you’re shy or can’t sell or you generally find the whole thing uncomfortable or even a little sleazy.

There’s none of that online. And companies like Amazon have made doing what you need to do as simple as clicking buttons and filling in boxes.

So keep an open mind for now, even if the concept of “entrepreneurship” sounds like it’s definitely not your thing.

The opportunities offered by online self-publishing are massive – either as something to do for your whole career or merely as a springboard into traditional publishing.

Wrapping Up

I want to end how I started…

For most novelists, both paths to publication lead to failure. The way to succeed, whichever path you take, is to learn not just how to write fiction well, but how to sell it well.

That being the case, here’s the bottom line for now…

Pretty much everything in this definitive guide to publishing a novel is relevant, whichever path to publication you take. So don’t skip parts!

Even if an article or an entire section isn’t obviously relevant, read it anyway. The knowledge alone will make you savvier about the publishing industry. And knowledge, ultimately, is what separates those who succeed in selling lots of books from those who don’t.

Have you made a decision yet. Traditional publishing or indie publishing?

If you have, great. More likely, you need a lot more facts at your fingertips before deciding on which path is right for you.

In the next few articles (coming soon), we’ll cover everything you need to consider.

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