Traditional publishing or self-publishing?

by Deborah Jay

How should you decide whether to seek a traditional publishing contract or self-publish your book? Only you can answer this question, but knowing what each involves is essential before you take the plunge either way.

I began writing back in the days when the only alternative to a traditional publishing contract was vanity publishing – an expensive, and most often, disappointing venture. My campaign began well, acquiring an agent at first attempt, but although all the publishers she submitted my novel to (in those days, the ‘Big Six’), replied favourably regarding my style, I had made the mistake of writing what was popular at the time, and not what they wanted – that much sought-after ‘next hot potato’.

Discouraged only a little, I gained a two-book contract for non-fiction titles (on horse training – my day job), in the hopes that publication of some sort would make placing the next novel easier.

How wrong was I? I’ve since learned about such things, realising that even a well-known novelist may struggle to break into a different genre, where they will be considered a debut author all over again.

I did, however, gain plenty of experience of traditional publishing. My books have been well received, both have earned out (recouped their advances) and the first is now in reprint, so all in all, they are considered successful. Most of that, however, has been down to my own marketing efforts, because unless you are one of the biggest names, publishers allocate little or no finance for marketing.
Enter self-publishing. Still enamoured of the idea of a publishing deal for my novels, I was somewhat late to the party. Annoyingly so, as I had novels ready to go, and those earliest independent authors made names for themselves with far greater ease than we do today, because there was so little competition. However, when I self-published my first novel, (the one that had gained me the agent), I was ready to do the hard marketing, and was rewarded with an Amazon Hot 100 New Release in my genre (epic fantasy – a large and tough category to figure in). Whilst not stellar, the book gained a solid number of sales and reviews.

Rustam Chalice, gigolo and spy, loves his lifestyle just the way it is, so when the kingdom he serves is threatened from within, he leaps into action. Only trouble is, his spy master teams him up with an untouchable, beautiful, aristocratic assassin who despises him.

Plunged into a desperate journey over the mountains, the mismatched pair struggle to survive deadly wildlife, the machinations of a spiteful god – and each other.

Think James Bond meets Lord of the Rings – a sweeping tale of spies and deadly politics, inter-species mistrust and magic phobia, with a pinch of romance.
Before I released it, I’d spent an entire year researching such topics as formatting, covers, blurbs, editors, outlets, pricing, and the ever-increasing intricacies of marketing. I’d already put in place the start of my author platform – a blog, a Facebook page, and a Twitter profile.

Things have changed a lot since I published my first novel in 2013. It takes continual effort to keep up with all the latest trends and sophistications in platform and marketing, but although I don’t personally earn a huge sum (by today’s standards, I’m a slow writer, taking upwards of a year to produce a new book), I’m happy to build my readership gradually.

One of the beauties of self-publishing e-books is that they never go out of print, so your catalogue only ever increases.

Another is the difference in royalties, and the level of control I have over my own career. I don’t have my books in bookstores (although I do sell paperbacks online, and in the flesh at events), but where my traditionally published books earn me 10% (and I’m lucky that my equestrian books are relatively highly-priced, bringing me £2.50 per sale, or £7.50, if I sell hardcopies, face to face, bought with my author discount), my self-published e-books earn me between 60-70%, (depending on sales platform) with no upfront costs other than what I choose to spend to produce a professional product.

So, what are the costs of self-publishing? This depends upon what you are prepared to spend your time learning, or sourcing, which in turn depends on how much time you want to devote, what skills you may have in design or tech use, and how much control you want over your project.

  • An excellent, genre-specific, cover is essential, and for me, buying professionally designed covers is the only money I willingly spend.
  • Formatting can be learned, or paid for, or you can buy formatting programmes.
  • Editing and proofreading are also essential, but if you are willing to work with other authors, you can frequently swap these services (assuming you find highly professional partners).
  • You can learn to write your own blurbs, or you can outsource to those who specialise in this tricky area.

Regarding outlets for e-books, you may choose to go exclusive with Amazon and join KU (Kindle Unlimited), which offers advertising advantages, or you may decide to ‘go wide’, and place your book with as many outlets (including Amazon) as there are out there. Even within this, you have the choice to learn how to upload to each individual platform (oh yes, everyone is different), or you might go with an aggregator, who takes a small percentage of each sale for the service but removes the bother of learning so many sites’ requirements.

And then, there is marketing. You can pay someone else to do this, but realistically, unless you are earning bucket-loads of cash, this option isn’t really viable. So that means taking the time to learn, experiment, and keep up to date with the various options, alongside keeping your social media platform up to date. Oh, and writing the next book!

This may all sound overwhelming, and for most of us, we’d rather be writing than marketing, but personally, I’ve found the effort worth it. I own my own words, my books are as I want them, not as a publisher instructs, I can change them even after publication, I set my own deadlines, and I can get them made into other formats, such as paperbacks, hardcovers or audiobooks, as I choose.

I am in control of my marketing – I can run promotions when I like, and how I like. And at the end of it all, I reap a far larger reward than the pittance paid by traditional publishers.

Don’t forget, even if you get a traditional deal, you’ll still need to keep up your author platform, and do your own marketing – unless you are the next Stephen King, or JK Rowling, they won’t do it for you – fact.

As I said at the start, only you can make this choice for yourself; both options are available to you. With traditional publishing, the reward of seeing your book in bookstores and not having to deal with the physical requirements of producing the book may still appeal, assuming you are willing to try surviving the submission and rejection process, and actually secure a book deal, then continue to sell well enough they don’t cancel your contract. Or you may decide to embrace the brave new world of self-publishing, with the challenges it brings in terms of time and learning required to succeed.

Either way, you have a chance for success or failure, but only in self-publishing are you in total control, and the independent (indie) author community is hugely supportive and generous, because success breeds success, and we’ve recognised that we are not in competition with each other – the more people we encourage to read, the more readers there are for all of our books.

I think you can tell which choice I made!

Deborah Jay writes fantasy and urban fantasy featuring complex, quirky characters and multi-layered plots – just what she likes to read.
Living mostly on the UK South coast, she has already invested in her ultimate retirement plan – a farmhouse in the majestic, mystery-filled Scottish Highlands where she retreats to write when she has time. Her taste for the good things in life is kept in check by the expense of keeping too many horses, and her complete inability to cook.She has a dream day job riding, training and judging competition dressage horses and riders, and also writes books and magazine features on the subject under her professional name of Debby Lush.

A lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, she started writing her first novel aged eight, and has never stopped. Her first published novel is epic fantasy, THE PRINCE’S MAN, #1 in the Five Kingdoms series, and winner of a UK Arts Council award. #2, THE PRINCE’S SON and #3 THE PRINCE’S PROTEGE are both available.
Her first urban fantasy, DESPRITE MEASURES, about a Scottish water sprite, is the opening novel of the CALEDONIAN SPRITE SERIES. The companion Short story, SPRITE NIGHT is available FREE on most ebook retailers.

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