Decisions, Decisions: Self-Published or Hybrid Author?

(Photo credit: Laenulfean)

It’s a great time to be a writer, because we have more choices in how we conduct our careers: traditionally-published, self-published, or a hybridization of both? But with the freedom of choice comes the weight of having to choose.

Self-Publishing, Traditional Publishing, and the Hybrid Author

I’ve self-published two books, with a third in progress and a fourth planned and a fifth on the drawing board, so I’ve already skipped the traditional career. I’m fine with that; while I was initially resistant to the idea of self-publishing (I first encountered the concept when it was just “vanity publishing,” and I’m one of those who would really appreciate the validation of being personally selected by agent and editor), I’ve since discovered that it really can be a great option for some books. No traditional house would be likely to risk resources on niche works like Kitsune-Tsuki and Kitsune-Mochi, and Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out hasn’t suffered much for being self-published (1300 copies sold in its first month!), while I got to handcraft content and title in the nit-picking manner a control freak trainer enjoys.

But is self-publishing best for all books? Here I face the crossroads, as I consider the fantasy work I have stockpiled. While it appears genre fiction fares well in self-publishing, I also know there’s a better chance of reaching a broader market with traditional publishing, especially if some editor or marketing honcho really believes in my work and gives it particular attention. It would be really nice to see my books displayed prominently on a Barnes & Noble feature shelf or an airport end cap.

Winning Lottery Ticket
Winning Lottery Ticket (Photo credit: sameold2010)

Right. Or I could keep my eyes on the sidewalk, watching for that winning lottery ticket someone dropped. Odds are about even for both scenarios, I suspect.

A traditional publishing contract, however, means more time to actually write, instead of spending hours in layout, marketing, writing media kits to try to catch a national chain’s buyer’s eye, etc.

On the other hand, marketing still falls to the author, whether self-published or traditionally-published, so that might be a net wash.

The Validation

Still, it’d be nice to have a chance with traditional publishing. While self-publishing has lost much of its stigma, there are still some who consider it second-rate and unfiltered, a sea of unpolished wannabes (and really, a labeled NaNoWriMo novel shouldn’t be available for download on November 29; you’re making us look bad). A traditional contract indicates a writer has been weighed and found worthy.

When I could say, “My third novel is being published by Penguin,” I was not just a wanna-be hopeful novelist. I was legit! I was chosen! Pitching book reviewers was a breeze. Attending high school reunions was a delight. When I ran into more famous writers we met as colleagues, exchanging e-mails, making dates for lunch. Now that I am self publishing, I am no different than the crazy cat lady down the block who has been working on her memoir for 17 years or the guy at the street fair hawking Xeroxed pamphlets of his poetry about fruit. People smile indulgently when I tell them what I’m doing. Book reviewers politely decline. My doubts about writing, which I’ve spent a lifetime overcoming, have blossomed like a drug-resistant virus. — Jennie Nash

Gardner, Rachelle (2013-01-22). How Do I Decide? Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing (A Field Guide for Authors) (Kindle Locations 850-855). RL Gardner Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Pregnant Snooki
(Photo credit: San Diego Shooter)

On the other hand, the Kardashians and Snooki got traditional publishing contracts. Might not be such a seal of literary quality, after all.

The Timeline

Self-publishing is fast; once a book is ready (really ready), it can go on the market. None of this shopping to agents for months or years and then agents shopping to editors for months or years and then a year or two or even more to finally hit the shelves. Self-publishing can be achieved in months or less; when I finally decided to self-publish Kitsune-Tsuki, I wanted it available for a particular event, and it was out in days.

On the other hand, I’ve invested years already in writing this material, and it should be easy to justify a little more time to give it the best chance of success. And also there are more eyes to help determine “really ready.”

The Money

No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.

— Dr. Samuel Johnson

Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.

— Jules Renard

Most writers can write books faster than publishers can write checks.

— Literary agent Richard Curtis

I should think it extremely improbable that anyone ever wrote simply for money. What makes a writer is that he likes writing. Naturally, when he has written something, he wants to get as much for it as he can, but that is a very different thing from writing for money.

— P G Wodehouse

Traditional publishing and self-publishing have completely different financial ramifications. Traditional publishing is risk-free to the author, as the publisher pays all costs and an advance (over two years). Even though 80% of published books don’t earn enough to produce future royalties, the author at least has that advance, and there’s always the possibility of royalties.

Self-publishing, on the other hand, requires upfront investment by the author, and that money could be lost forever if the book doesn’t do well. (At its current rate, Kitsune-Tsuki will take about five years* to earn back its costs — but I was prepared for that from the start.) But royalties are typically much greater and much faster to arrive, and the book has all the market time you want to give it.

This point is honestly less of a concern for me personally, as I disagree with Dr. Johnson (and I suspect he might have disagreed with himself, too) regarding the primary motivation of writing, and I know darned well I’m not doing this to get rich. Don’t get me wrong, I really like the idea of bigger royalties! but that’s not enough to sway me on its own, especially if I can get more market traditionally. Others’ mileage may vary.

The Gamble

Wheel of fortune. Shot wide open using 50mm/f1...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But honestly, one of the biggest factors I worry about in traditional publishing is its very high stakes. It’s terrifying to think that after a decade or so of writing, a year or two of agent reviews, another year or more of shopping to publishers, and then a year and a half or two of publishing preparation, my book would launch and then have just a few weeks — as little as just 14 days, I’ve read — to prove its success before retailers start returning it for cash back.

My control freak tendencies savvy business acumen doesn’t like those odds. What if there’s a major news event that week which distracts the book-buying public? What if a typo in a book catalog slows fulfillment for a few days, or who knows what, and that brief window is lost and my book is labeled one of the 80% which won’t make profit, and it’s dropped? Years of work, exhausted in days. And once it’s dropped, there’s nothing to do but wait until rights expire and then decide — again — if I want to self-publish.

And so back and forth I sway, not sure if I want validation and brick-and-mortar or gratification and control.

I know I’m going to be self-publishing a few more titles, anyway, and I suppose I have some time yet to decide on the others.

Got any comments for me?



I published this post in February 2013. As of July 2014, Kitsune-Tsuki has made back its costs nearly four times over. Sales can build with time! (which is another reason that two-week window is less attractive).

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *