Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: The Debate Continues

It's Monday, and Lou's brothers and sisters have all flown or driven back to their various homes around the country after a hilarious (pun intended, I suppose) and happy weekend celebrating Dad St. Hilaire's birthday. Lou and I have been off all usual radars since Thursday night—even Friday's blog had to be written early and scheduled—and I'm a bit disoriented upon this return to normal.

Of course, the word normal is kind of meaningless, especially when we're coming up on Holy Week. We have choir and/or quintet practice five out of the next seven days. Two of those are at my house. This is not going to be a quiet week.

Still, it's Monday, and Monday wants a post. Ergo, your writers' link of the week: Hugh Howey's advice to aspiring writers.

All right. For several years I've waffled inside between traditional and self-publishing. I've been working towards going indie with my fairy tale retelling, while reserving my NaNoWriMo novel and sequels for a serious attempt at the Big Five. I even wrote a brief manifesto titled "Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: Why I'm Trying Traditional" two years ago. And while I wouldn't say I haven't seriously considered self-publishing—I have—some part of me has always hung onto the plan.

Howey just shook that determination in serious ways. He's not focusing on worst case scenarios or calling people stupid for wanting to get in with a big publishing house (nor, thank goodness, is he denigrating people for making use of modern self-publishing tools, as some traditional-publishing loyalists are wont to do.) He's simply suggesting that, publishing contracts and the life of a shelved book being what they are*, a writer is better off starting on his own and building his career from the outside in. From the article:
This is going to sound strange, but you are MUCH better off with your 10th work exploding than your 1st work. You’ll never have quiet time to crank out quality material ever again. And when your backlist matches the growth of your first breakout, you’ll do very well for yourself. Be patient. It’s been said by many others, but I’ll repeat it here: self-publishing is a marathon.... Again, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t team up with a publisher if you choose. But do it from a position of power. Give your work a chance (years and decades) to be discovered.
He's the first person I've ever heard state so plainly that careers are best launched gradually, on a carefully-built body of work, not on a single polished and marketable manuscript that may or may not fly in its brief window of opportunity. That sounds like truth to me.

I question a handful of the absolutes in his piece. For instance, the stigma against self-publishing is not gone, it's merely diminished. Yes, a certain recent Big Five mermaid romance I read contained more copy editing mistakes than my average first draft (not exaggerating), and yes, my friend Annie's self-published Christmas children's book that she wrote for her nieces and nephews equals or supersedes much of what can be found in B&N during the holiday season. (It is beautiful. I wholeheartedly recommend it.)

But I generally read a self-published novel only after it's been strongly suggested to me—if only by its own excerpt—that it's more thoughtfully and empathetically written than its compatriots. Of course, there are so many novels in the world that this is more or less true all around.

Self-publishing is too immediate and too short on gatekeepers to offer readers the kind of confidence a publishing house can. An indie writer has to be able, not just to tell a good story, but to sit on that story till she's got her world and characters and prose developed at least to the point where it would satisfy a professional reader (and then to find and utilize a smart editor). It takes a level of self-control and objectivity fairly rare among humankind to be able to wait for and finally spot that moment in your own work, and I find it hard to imagine that anyone publishing more than about a novel a year—traditionally or independently—possesses that.**

But none of these debate points suggests to me that Howey is wrong in his general approach. For a quiet, deliberate, cautious mover like myself, he could be quite right.

I'm not committing either way just yet. Feel free to argue with me or Howey or both. I'm just looking for the way to give my books the very best chance at life I can give them.

* Regarding publishing contracts and the life of a shelved novel: industry contracts tend to contain things like non-compete clauses. And books that actually make it into bookstores, and they don't all, reportedly have an average shelf life of six months. The former difficulty you may escape, at least in part, with the help of a good agent or lawyer. The latter is simply an inherent risk. Is that risk better than self-publishing and never making it onto B&N shelves at all? That's a lot of question for a footnote; suffice it to say that the answer isn't clearly yes or no.

** The converse to that, of course, is that the book-a-year schedule of traditional publishing undermines story development, too. That's a difficult pace for most people to reach, and a nearly impossible one to maintain.


  1. wow..Lots of thoughts here, and I don't think that they're organized enough to comment. I have a fluctuating tendency to like the idea of self-publishing, while at the same time sort of dismissing self-published authors, but then, seeing what comes out of traditional publishing houses makes self-publishing look more and more respectable, or at least..comparable. I think I'd be open to it, over all..in part because I'm kind of disgusted with the 'book-a-year schedule" and in part because I like control ;)

    I'll try to respond more completely when I have my thoughts together. Or maybe Wednesday??

    1. I sympathize with all of that. Feel free to respond in whatever way suits you. :D

      And now I think I need to track down some self-published fantasy novels and read them.

  2. You echo my thoughts to a T, Jenna.

    Could it be that we are seeing a shift in the balance between traditional and self-publishing? There used to be a time when one could print anything if he had a patron or put out the money or even did it himself (William Blake), and that didn't reflect in any way on quality. But there is something comforting about so many built-in failsafes in the traditional publishing route.

    I've read this good book called "How to Write a Breakout Novel," and the author iterates and reiterates that what makes a breakout novel, at the root level, is reader appeal. That is the number one best marketing tool for authors: word-of-mouth. So given that, I can see that self-publishing would be a preferable route. Saves you money, keeps you in control, and gives you a volume of work to build sales off of when people do discover you. But that regards break-out novels, and I don't know if some "literary" stories and other genre books appeal to a big enough audience (I was gonna say "to make it on it's own merits," but I suppose if a book can't do that, it's not going to do well, period).

    1. Ooh, interesting history on publication. I knew Jane Austen put out the money for Sense & Sensibility, but I didn't know about William Blake. I do think the balance could be shifting back, and with less financial risk from the author.

      Breakout novels are weird and hard to predict. Thus far, self-publishing has provided the greatest success for people writing hard genre books, usually either crime fiction or romance, though Howey made it big with sci-fi. It's also been good, however, for people whose work really doesn't fit into a clear box. Non-celebrity memoirists, for instance, have a terrible time getting traditionally published nowadays. They self-publish, and at least their story gets out there and sometimes does something, even if it doesn't make millions.

      The question for me is whether it's a good idea for an old-fashioned literary middle grade high fantasy with an infusion of sci-fi and lots of vocabulary words. That's not an easy concept either to pitch or to market. ;) I think it could sell traditionally, but I have my doubts whether it would be a quick flier. Which pushes me even more toward going indie.


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