Self-published vs. traditional vs. hybrid vs. mutant ink scribbler

Traditionally published and coming May 6.

Traditionally published and coming May 6.

Can’t we all just get along?

The whole “self-publishing vs. traditional publishing” brouhaha got a shot of (unneeded) adrenaline over the past few weeks when Hugh Howey — a stand-up guy and my agency-mate — published his latest round of reports over on Author Earnings. Hugh’s obviously a huge proponent of self-publishing, and rightly so. He’s done quite all right by it, and that’s an epic understatement.

The gist of his report was that independent self-published authors, on average, can take home more money than traditionally published authors. I’m sure I’m oversimplifying matters, so you can see some of his work here and here.

This led to a lot of…stuff. Commentary and ideas that transmuted into sharpened words and the occasional bit of uninformed blathering levied by genuine insights.

You know, as the Internet does.

I’m not going to get into the whole who’s right and who’s wrong of it, nor do I plan on linking to every bit of commentary on the matter. I thought the best bit came from beer-kin Chuck Wendig, and it’s telling that even Chuck’s offering of wisdom and reason prompted some spirited back and forth.

In my eyes, Chuck’s right. I don’t think there’s a black-and-white better or worse to this. The decision on how you get your work out the door depends on you, the individual. It depends on whether you want to put in the work — the very real, very time-consuming, very hard work — to be as good a publisher as you are a writer.

So instead of entering that particular fray of which is better, I’ll just share my own experience and why I walked the path(s) I’m on now.

I very much wanted to be published traditionally, for a variety of reasons. I have a full-time job, for one, aside from my fiction writing. I’m able to carve out enough time to write said fiction, and do some of the social media and marketing stuff expected of writers these days. I didn’t want to spend even more time doing all the other stuff too.

And whether or not it’s justified, there’s a certain imprimatur that comes with having your work accepted by traditional publishers. We can argue quality of self-published vs. traditionally published works until we’re blue in the face, and there’s both good and bad books published either way. Whether or not you feel the industry “gatekeepers” are adept at their jobs, or make cogent choices as to what to publish, this is what they do for a living. Their livelihoods are dependent on making more good choices than bad. I rather like being considered a good choice in that regard.

Then there’s exposure. Let’s say I went ahead and self-published The Daedalus Incident, and even managed to hire as good an editor as Ross Lockhart (the very notion of which strains credulity). Even if the quality of the final work was just as high, would Daedalus have received a starred review from Library Journal if I had gone my own way? (And make no mistake, that review prompted some serious library sales. There are library systems that won’t touch a debut novel unless it gets a solid review from LJ.) The same goes for pretty much every other review or notice I received — I simply can’t say with any certainty that I would’ve landed them without having been traditionally published.

Note: I’m not claiming that the quality of my work is somehow better than self-published works. There are self-published books that are better than mine. There are worse, too. Being accepted by a traditional publisher was my personal quality-bar. Yours may be different. It’s all good.

Finally, there’s the money. I’ve been paid for my writing since before I was old enough to drink. The thought of me paying up front, and then hoping to recoup that investment, stresses me out. I write, I get paid. That’s my personal equation. Yours may be different. Again, it’s all good.

Now, I’ve actually done the self-publishing route with my novella The Gravity of the Affair. Well…kind of. My agency, the Nelson Literary Agency, has a great platform for self-publishing. They have networks of editors, designers and copyeditors, along with all the contacts needed to get the ebooks out there on Amazon, B&N, Kobo, etc. So maybe this isn’t, in fact, self-publishing in the strictest sense.

Nonetheless, I was involved in hiring an editor (the excellent Jeff Seymour) and cover artist (the excellent Arvin Concepcion), and I worked closely with the agency to get it out there just the way I wanted it. I’m pleased with the sales thus far, though they haven’t approached those of Daedalus. Audible picked up the audio rights to Gravity, which helped the financial equation immensely, though I’ll add that the success of Daedalus and my agent’s relationship with Audible helped secure that.

OK…maybe Gravity isn’t that great an example.

Going the traditional route for my novels was my personal choice, for my own reasons, and I’m very much pleased with the outcome. “But the money you’re leaving on the table!” you may say. Well, I’m not in this for the money, because I never wanted to quit my job and become a full-time novelist. Shocking, I know, but that’s the truth of it. That isn’t to say that I don’t treat my fiction with the same level of care and professionalism that I do with my day job, nor does that imply that I don’t care about the financial aspects. I just simply like my day job, and frankly, I’m 41 and don’t want to go back to eating ramen noodle bricks for the next decade while I write frantically and build my career.

Plus, I don’t see it as losing money to a publisher. I see it as entering into a business arrangement with a company which will take on the expense of editing, designing, printing, distributing and marketing my book so I don’t have to. I entered into that partnership willingly because I didn’t want to do those things.

I wanted to publish traditionally because I wanted to see if I was good enough to be accepted by folks whose livelihoods depend on choosing successful books. I wanted to see my work on bookstore shelves and libraries, archaic as that may be. And I wanted to spend my precious free time on my wife and kid, and on my writing, rather than trying to run my own mini-publishing house.

That’s me. Your situation, your ambitions, your goals and your skills…they could be completely and utterly different. And I respect the hell out of that. Go forth and publish, however you see fit, and respect the choices your fellow writers make with regard to their careers.



Filed under Publishing

46 responses to “Self-published vs. traditional vs. hybrid vs. mutant ink scribbler

  1. I’m a big proponent of self-publishing (I’m one of the writers for the blog Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors), and I believe that some people are better off self-publishing and others are better off with traditional publishing (though publishing has never been stable enough to have anything considered traditional, if you ask me). It just depends on circumstances and how the individual author feels.

  2. I prefer self-publishing. There’s really not much difference except you have to edit a little harder.

  3. You had me at “mutant ink scribbler.”

    So…any idea how to get ink off a computer screen?

  4. I tried the self-publishing route, but i think I went about it all the wrong way and with all the wrong reasons. I had finished my first novel,as tired of looking at it and didn’t want it just lingering on my computer any more. I was intimidated by the traditional publishing route because I was afraid of the rejection.
    I did not know the first thing about self publishing. I sold a few books at festivals and local book stores – some how one even made its way into the local library.
    I wish I hadn’t gone that route. That story wasn’t ready to be published, and had I gone and tried a traditional manner, it would have forced me to look at it differently, and I could have improved it.
    And for that day when I do go down the traditional route – there will be rejection, but eventually there will be acceptance, and when that happens, to know that it’s getting bound in cover because a company is willing to invest in it – then I know I have produced something of quality.

  5. Pingback: The Publishing War. Does It Exist? | Brennan Reid

  6. Liz Szalay

    Reblogged this on First Person Liz and commented:
    I think this pretty much answers my questions about publishing!

  7. Hi Michael! Besides your attention-grabbing title, I appreciated seeing your perspective on the traditional v. self-publishing route. You seem open minded about both but I think you back up your position well. The great thing about print books is that they become immortal: we can keep them as possessions, and they’ll never change. Can’t really say that about the Internet! Also, congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  8. Reblogged this on Avid Reader and commented:
    More for the writers….sheesh you guys are getting lucky……

  9. Thank you for this! I am almost finished with my first book (narrative nonfiction/memoir/self-help) and have been submitting to agents and publishers for about nine months. I see benefits of both traditional publishing and self publishing, although the self publishing completely overwhelms me, for many of the same reasons. Thanks again! Justine

  10. Katya Pavlopoulos

    Thank you for sharing your personal experience! I read that report just the other day and was wondering how long it would take before the Internet blows up over it. I wholeheartedly agree with you, either option has its perks and its drawbacks. And if one of them ever SHOULD emerge the victor, we will only know which one with time. There’s no way to know for sure which way the publishing revolution is going.

  11. I self-published my book with WestBow Press, and I enjoyed every aspect of the hands-on experience. The finished product was professional in every way, and I am proud of it.

  12. This post is the most cohesive bit of practical information for a wanna-be-published writer I’ve seen so far. Thank you for making both sides of the fence look palatable and for your candor.
    new blogger and ‘hopeful’ writer

  13. Michael, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I self-published my first book of poetry in July of 2013 after two bad experiences with two different publishing companies. I am a novice in this game of writing, so after receiving positive feedback from the two publishing companies it sparked my desire and passion for writing. Knowing that someone other than my family and friends actually liked my work ignited my desire and passion to get published. So the first deel with the first publishing company fell apart and I was diligent in finding another company to publish my work. Well I did find another company, but eventually this ended up falling apart as well. At this point I began my research on self-publishing and decided to go that route. I m glad I did. I learned so much about book writing and publishing throughout this process. I too work a full time job. I would love to write full time, but I know it’s going to take some time to get to that level. I will definitely self-published again, this just gave me a rich sense of accomplishment, even though my book didn’t sell as well as I anticipated. I will continue to write and improve my skills, and with much prayer maybe my dream of becoming a full time writer will one day manifest, so I thank you for your none judgemental outlook and for your encouragement. Blessings to you.

  14. Thank you for writing this. I’ve been debating both sides of publishing, as I don’t know much about it but have several novels that are begging to be published. I might have to go the “traditional” route for the same reason you did, I don’t have the time or means to do all the publishing myself. I live in Thailand and I’m also a mother with two kids and one on the way. It makes sense to have a publisher do the work for me. And no, I don’t intend to make that much money, but I like the idea of my books being in bookstores and libraries.

  15. Reblogged this on OneWaveConsulting and commented:
    Finding out what works best for you, but take a few pointers from those who are doing it.

  16. I found this take on the subject informative and I respect the decisions this author made.

  17. Thanks for this. I am new to the world and hope to learn as much as I can about self publishing my books. Meghan

  18. Great post! I have been debating on which route to take in publishing. I am glad to know that there is no right and wrong: it’s all about what you want!

  19. Reblogged this on GRAVITY OF GRACE and commented:
    Gravity of Grace Note: It is every bloggers dream to one day publish their work. I find it very interesting reading this post. I trust God that this bless you and help you navigate through the dark tunnel of publishing.

    Best Regards
    McDaniels Gyamfi

  20. KL Carter

    I have to agree with you. A publisher is a service and should be treated as such. It’s not a scary act, they aren’t trying to scam you, it’s just the business end of a creative machine.

  21. Thanks for a smart post. My two NF books have been published by major NYC houses and, despite some disappointments (esp. w the first), I still have no appetite for self-publishing, for a wide variety of reasons. Call it a learning curve.

    What frustrates me in the “debate” over self-publishing is the amount of wishful thinking and sheer fantasy attached to both sides of how to publish your book(s.) Too many would-be writers assume (please) that traditional publishers come to your home and make you breakfast and bring it to you in bed on a tray with a rose….when any author who’s gone that route knows they may choose to do a lot, but there is also a lot they will not do and anyone hoping for it is a naive fool. (Book tours? As if. For a very fortunate few, maybe.) There are enormous variations in what publishers — trade, academic, smaller/larger — will and can do, let alone in the size of their advances…

    Whatever route a writer chooses, they need to go in with a full bank account and a very savvy notion of the huge amount of marketing and promotion they are going to do after publication, whether from a traditional publisher or on their own.

  22. Reblogged this on The Words Make The Man and commented:
    This…. was a very interesting read.

  23. Excellent article. I feel much the same way about…well the whole thing. Some members of my writing group want to self-publish. Some want to go through a publishing house…and I want to get an agent and let him/her talk to any publisher for me since I don’t really know what I’m doing beyond writing the book. And there’s never an argument about who is choosing the right or wrong way.

    I’ve heard that one requirement to do well at self-publishing is to write a lot of books in a short time-frame. I won’t be able to do that. And I couldn’t figure out a decent price to charge for my books, anyway (hence, the agent). It’s nice to see an…well, not an argument, I suppose, but an article for traditional publishing with a happy wave and nod to self-publishers.

    Also, good on you for liking your day job. (I can’t wait to quit mine…but I’ll be quitting to become a mom, so I’m also with you on wanting extra time for family.)

  24. Tim

    First of all, Nice read, I liked your post 🙂
    As a startup writer it is good to see people like you are out there with their stories to tell about the world I’dd love to embark in.
    Still working on my first book I’ve found that blogging about it makes me more enthousiastic about writing the actual story.
    Thanks for sharing your input.

  25. helenjain21

    Good read, and as an aspiring author finishing up the rough draft of the first novel, I am glad to see your perspective. I plan to go the traditional route for the same reasons that you’ve outlined. I don’t want to do the work of a publisher, and I want to know that my book meets certain standards. Plus, it would probably be hard to get a great editor and all of those other little details done personally.

    I also think self-publishing would be most lucrative after having a few books out there so that people actually know your name and you have a little bit of a fan-base. A new author would probably find it hard to get noticed, especially if he or she doesn’t know the first thing about marketing.

  26. I loved reading your story about being published, and I feel you deserve a round of applause for finding the path that is best for you! Should I ever get published (aside from on a fan fiction website) I think I wouldn’t want to publish myself. I’m getting my MBA in Marketing, and although I know what goes into getting a product on shelves I know that it is an awful lot of work to get into that field and to make the contacts you need in order to make the book a success. I also notice that most of the books in hardcover at Barnes & Noble are from one of about a dozen publishers with very few independents. I feel that, for me, self-publishing would be a hard uphill battle with a limited potential for reward.

  27. Good perspective on both routes. I self published print and eBook and found the creative experience in bringing all of the pieces together to be quite fun. Thanks for this post.

  28. Jeremy

    Thanks for the great post. You are obviously attracting the attention of many would-be authors. For those of us interested in traditional publishing for many of the same reasons as you articulate: have the ways to contact traditional publishers/agents changed a lot due to the pressures from the self-publishers? Any great guidebooks out there I should be looking for?

    • You know, I didn’t really use a guidebook. Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents ( is a good place to start.

      I don’t think agents have changed much. Most won’t want to rep work that’s already self-published, though, so bear that in mind. Now, if you’ve managed to generate some success self-publishing, that’s a bonus, but agents and publishers likely will want to see fresh work, rather than offering to rep/publish your self-pubbed backlist.

  29. chloeroberts93

    I have tried self-publishing, it’s quite tough! I believe writing is all about being creative, so take a look at my blog!

  30. Reblogged this on Dee Van Dyk and commented:
    I very much enjoyed Michael’s perspective on traditional publishing vs indie publishing. Hope you will too!

  31. Nicely said! I would have preferred traditional publishing myself, but quite frankly, I got tired of waiting. I decided to go the self-publishing route and am a good ways down the road. I did time it backwards. If I had done it correctly, I would have sent my book to reviewers three months before the publication date. Instead, I (incorrectly) assumed that I just wanted to get the thing published and never mind the rest of it. But I have a reading set up and I have a bookstore that has agreed to take my book, and I couldn’t be happier. It has been a wild ride so far and an exciting learning experience. Advice for writers who are just starting to think about publication: 1) wait until you are CERTAIN that the book won’t embarrass you; 2) pay for a good editor and a good cover designer; 3) learn about marketing before you publish; and 4) if you’re not sure you’re ready, do some zines. Zines are a lovely way to share your work on a small scale, inexpensively. Bookstores will often take them.

  32. Interesting. Been curious about this exact issue

  33. gustyadek

    Reblogged this on gustyadek.

  34. Pingback: What Readers Want | Kevin Pajak

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