The Crossroads: Indie or Trad Publishing?

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Emerging writers.  Perhaps you’re on the brink of showing your work to the world.  If so, you might have been asking yourself the following questions recently:

How do I want to be published?  Do I want to pursue the traditional route?  Do I want to submit my work to literary agents and publishers in the hope of landing an elusive publishing deal – for so long the holy grail for aspiring writers?  OR – do I want to try that new indie thing that people are talking about?  In which case I won’t just be writing stories and passing them on – I’ll be a businessman/woman and I’ll have to oversee all the other aspects of making a book – the editorial requirements, the cover design, the marketing – and then there’s the making a career out of it, maintaining an author platform, website upkeep, social media and so on?

Let there be no doubt – the decision you’re about to make is an important one.  The brief paragraph above only hints at how different the indie and traditional paths are.

So I’ve written a post with you in mind – the new writer who’s standing at the twenty-first century author’s equivalent of the crossroads.  It might help, it might not.  Who am I to talk anyway?  I’m not a bestselling author or anything like that.  In fact, I’m barely out of the starting blocks with my own writing career and you have no reason to listen to me whatsoever (bye then!)  But what I do have is some genuine experience in wrestling with this particular question – whether to go indie or trad.  And I did wrestle with this question for quite some time.

To be offered a traditional publishing deal!  Wow.  Well that’s the dream right there, isn’t it?  Writers submit to publishers and agents because – well – that’s just what they do.  For so many years, a yes from the gatekeepers was our equivalent of the official stamp of approval from the gods.  When you tell people that you’re a writer, the first question on everybody’s lips is – have you been published?  Has somebody said YES?

Yes, being traditionally published was a goal of mine.  But as I was learning the craft, I was well aware too, of the growth of indie publishing and the evolution of DIY author style.  There was a tremendous amount of innovation taking place and notably, it was coming from outside the publishing industry.  It was the retailers who were moving the goalposts and doing extraordinary things that would have tremendous implications.  Amazon KDP came along in 2007 and kicked the doors open.  I read the subsequent success stories – the Hugh Howeys and Angela Hockings.  It was hard not to get excited by such things.  The possibilities at last seemed to be within the writer’s own grasp.  Imagine that.  But even more important than the Howeys and the Hockings were the people who weren’t making millions from their writing.  The real story was the people who were simply making a good living from writing and publishing their work independently.  Writers who were supplying readers directly and getting paid for it.  No agents.  No publishers.

I’m going to tell you what happened to me in September 2015.  I’ll keep this as brief as possible and new writers – I hope it helps you somehow.  It’s my own opinion and it’s biased – I’ll say that now.  Take it on board if you like or throw it away with the rest of the Internet garbage.

September 2015.

I had just moved to Australia from Scotland.  On the second or third day after arriving in the land down under, I joined Writers Victoria, a very reputable organisation located in the heart of Melbourne.  Being a new writer in town, I was keen to attend some of the WV workshops, of which I’d heard good things about.  So I looked online to see what was coming up in August/September 2015.  Nothing particularly grabbed me until I saw this baby listed in the brochure: Behind The Scenes –  Intensive Two Day Publishing Workshop.  This event would feature four speakers, each one delivering a three-hour workshop.  The course was to be spread out over two days and the speakers themselves represented different facets of the publishing world.  We had:

1- A traditional publisher.

2 – A literary agent,

3 – An indie publishing expert.

4 – A media/publicity advisor.

Basically, like Robert Johnson at his crossroads, my soul was up for grabs.  I just needed to be convinced.  One thing I was already sure of however – by the time these ‘intense’ workshops were over, I would have chosen either the indie or traditional route.

Day One.

Traditional Publisher.  This first workshop was taken by a very nice lady who ran her own publishing company in Australia and who’d also worked with some of the big boys of trade publishing.  For three hours, we gathered around and talked about the ways and means in which a new writer should and would approach a traditional publisher.  To be honest, it was pretty standard stuff that went along the lines of how to promote your work – how to promote yourself, that kind of thing.  It wasn’t useless – definitely not – but it was certainly nothing new.  Truth be told, you could get most of it on the Internet probably.  But anyway, this is what I took from that particular workshop.

  • Writers beg the gatekeepers.
  • They beg a lot.
  • Your story  – it’s good, but that doesn’t matter.  It’s all about business and how to sell things.

 

Day One – Part 2.

Literary Agent.  Now I’m not going to name the literary agent who pissed me off.  And yes, she really pissed me off that day.  Don’t get me wrong, she was actually a nice lady.  There was nothing wrong with her as a human being as far as I could tell.  But it was her approach to us writers that pissed me off – it was what she was saying without actually saying it to the group (hidden truths galore!)  How to explain?  Well, this was the overall message that I took away from the literary agent’s workshop: you know, well really, you should submit to us and well really…hope for the best, but it’s well really…really unlikely that we’ll take you on…

Really?

Literary Agent proceeded to show us a collection of books from the authors she’d worked with.  Yawn.  In the end, this workshop felt like one big advert for her authors and her literary agency.  It was most certainly not about us – the writers who had paid (a fair chunk of change by the way) to come and learn about the industry.  About our way into the industry and hey, maybe even a little encouragement to boot.  What’d ya say?  And boy did she struggle to fill in the allotted three hour time slot that day.  I mean, how many ways can one person say: you know, well really, you should submit to us and well really…hope for the best, but it’s well really…really unlikely that we’ll take you on…

Taxi!

She also said something else that pissed me off.  It pissed me off because it wasn’t true and even then I knew it.  This is what she said: ‘You need to go traditional in order to make it‘.  Eh?  Need to?  What was that?  Now that was a BIG FAT lie.  Maybe it was a lie she needed to tell herself over and over in order to believe it.  But it was a desperate move and man it really, really turned me off.

END OF PART ONE!

Day Two.

Indie Publishing expert. (NOTE: The Media session was also held that day – I won’t go into this; it was okay – but mostly geared towards selling yourself to agents and publishers).

The indie publishing workshop was given by Euan Mitchell, a local writer and speaker.   And what a contrast it was from the events of the day before.  This workshop was crammed with information; literally jam-packed full of tips, hints and sources about the possibilities of independent publishing.

Euan’s message was simple.  Here’s what YOU can do to put your work in front of readers.  And to hell with the middlemen – yes really, to hell with them or at least to hell with the writers always having to beg part.  Indie publishing looked exciting, but it also looked like hard fucking work.  But at least it wasn’t the traditional line – submit – hope for the best – maybe you’ll get lucky – you probably won’t get lucky – don’t give up the day job (All this sounds a lot like the lottery)

The technology is here.  The options are available.  Here’s what you can do.  It was the positivity, not to mention Euan’s energy, that stood out in contrast to the sheer hopelessness offered by the representatives of traditional publishing – the literary agent in particular.  It was the realisation that the writer’s life didn’t have to be so negative and passive.  Things are changing and new doors have opened up to us.  We don’t have to go cap in hand for the rest of our lives, just to get our work tossed onto a sky-high slushpile and then face probable rejection and if not, get shafted on the percentages.  At last, it’s all about the readers and writers and if that sounds like it’s too good to be true, then it just goes to show you how fucked up things have been for so long.

So what did I learn that day?

  • The times are changing.
  • Not to mention that the entertainment industry is changing – that is, the way people consume books, music, and TV (I strongly urge you to read Kristine Kathyrn Rusch’s outstanding blog on this – click here)
  • Innovation and experimentation are wonderful things

Oh yeah, and….

  • I was going to be an indie author.

 

FIVE MONTHS LATER:

Mark is now residing in an institution for the mentally insane…

NO.  I’m not.

I’ve embraced my business side.  I didn’t even know I had a business side.  I’ve had to engage with graphic designers, formatters, and editors.  And then there’s marketing…sweet Mary mother of God.

You’ll have to do it too – if you choose indie!

Indie publishing is a hard, hard road, but it’s a road in which you – the writer – have control of the wheel.  That’s a big draw and if creative control is important to you, you may want to go indie.

Traditional publishing.  It’s up to you and if that’s the way you want to go then all the very best.  I mean it.  And for some, the traditional route remains the truly credible choice.

Personally, I think it’s a relic.  Publishers and agents, I hope they keep their jobs by all means, but they have to adapt to the changes in the industry.  Let them come to the writers for a change.  Accept the fact that writers simply don’t need you like they once did.

You need to go traditional in order to make it‘.

Bullshit.

The Society of Authors recently sent an open letter to publishers asking them to address the issue of falling author earnings.  The SoA point at a drop in the percentage of writers in the UK making a living solely from writing from 40 per cent in 2005 to 11.5 per cent today.  They’re also asking publishing companies to increase writer royalties on ebooks – to raise them from the standard 25 per cent to 50 per cent, and for writers to be freed from contracts once their books are no longer being marketed.

Remember, traditional publishers have a business to run.  They have expenses to cover and the author’s income is not their priority.  It never has been.

Elsewhere, September Publishing founder Hannah MacDonald has called for publishers to offer constructive criticism along with the scores of rejection letters they send out to aspiring authors.  MacDonald did this because she understood that publishers can’t just treat writers like the shit they find on their shoes anymore.  Think that’s extreme?  I’m not so sure.  Anyway, writers looking to get published have other options thanks to the likes of KDP, CreateSpace, iBooks, Kobo and so on.  MacDonald – and fair play to her for trying – recognises the need for agents and editors to “communicate with the authors of the future”.  They need to catch up.  Otherwise as she puts it, these authors will “abandon the industry and become self-publishing authors.”

Yes, I’m biased.  You’ve probably guessed that.  But I’ve done my research too.  And to me, the old ways have become increasingly obsolete.  Think about those adverts you see in writing magazines and websites about how to submit the perfect query letter to agents and so on…I mean, why waste the time and energy on something like that?  You have the tools to publish directly to readers.  Instead of spending so long learning how to communicate with the gatekeepers, take that time and energy and spend it on building your author platform and finding your readers one at a time.  It’ll take a long time and you’ll face bad breaks and setbacks, but do you want to be a writer or not?

And exhale!

This is just my tuppence worth by the way.  Feel free to agree or disagree.

Now it’s back to you new writer – you standing there on the crossroads.  It’s your move.

 

 

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