Traditional Publishing Vs. Small/Indy Publishing


A couple of years ago, when I was still considering getting Torn Apart traditionally published, I submitted my manuscript to every agent and publishing house I could find that I thought would even remotely be interested in my book. To my surprise and delight, I was actually offered a publishing contract from a small publishing house. But after reviewing their contract, asking many questions, and some careful consideration on my part, I declined their offer. Why? Who would turn down an offer to be published?

Well, the thing is, Small/Indie Publishing isn’t quite the same as Traditional Publishing. Don’t get me wrong, many are great, and most can do a lot to help an author start their career, but they can’t do everything that traditional publishing houses can, and they’re not right for every author. So what are the differences, and is Indy publishing right for you?

What they can do Traditional Publishers Indy Publishers
Can they set you up with an ISBN and barcode? Yes Yes
Can they help you with your cover? Yes Yes
Can they help you with editing?* Somewhat Somewhat
Can they help you with formatting? Yes Yes
Can they list your book? Yes Yes
Can they distribute worldwide? Yes Yes
Can they help you with marketing?* Somewhat Somewhat
Do you maintain your publishing rights?* Somewhat Somewhat
Is there a contract? Yes Yes
Do they get a cut of sales? Yes Yes
Will they pay you an advance?* Yes Usually No
Can they publish your work digitally? Yes Yes
Can they publish your work in paperback? Yes Yes
Can they publish your work in hardcover?* Yes Usually No
Can they sell your book in brick and mortar stores?* Yes Usually No

Let’s discuss the *s.

Editing: Publishing houses do have editors, but their time is valuable. They will look at your work, but they’re mainly going to gauge the story and your book’s marketability. Many of the changes they suggest (and some may be major) are there to help make your book more marketable. You wrote an ending where everyone dies? Well, those don’t sell very well. Write a happy ending instead. While that’s horrifying to some writers, if you want to sell books, it is best to take advice from people who know what sells and how to sell it. They can help you with basic editing/proofreading, but most agents and publishing houses prefer your work to already be cleanly edited before submission.

Marketing: Traditional publishing houses not only have more money, they have more connections, bigger platforms, and access to resources like conventions, catalogs, top review sites, book signings, and tours, but they usually don’t invest that kind of effort or money into marketing unless you’re one of their elite best-sellers. Most small-time or first-time writers are expected to pay for and do most of their marketing themselves. Small publishers have less money and influence when it comes to marketing. They can promote your work on a few online platforms that you may not have access to, but marketing is still going to be almost entirely the writer’s responsibility.

Rights: Once you sign a contract, you’re signing away a temporary right to license and commercially sell your book under their publishing house. Most contracts agree to publish your work for a fixed amount of years (3-5) and claim first rights to publish any sequels if you’re writing a series. If sales are good, you can renew or renegotiate your contract when that term is over. You’re still the original copyright holder, but once you sign your contract, the publishing house will own your work until the contract is complete, meaning they can profit off your work, and you are only entitled to a certain percentage called your “royalties.” Your percentage of royalties depends on your contract. Be sure you read your contract thoroughly and research standard contract years and royalty rates. If you had an agent, they would handle this legal side of publishing for you, but let’s assume you’re working directly with the publishing house for the sake of this post.

Advance: Sweet! Someone’s going to publish your book! Roll out that big fat check! Oh, wait, you’re publishing house says there is no check? Yep, most Indy publishing houses do not pay you an advance. In fact, if you’re a new/first-time writer who gets lucky enough to be published by a traditional publishing house, if you get an advance at all, it’s probably going to be pretty small. An advance is when a publishing house gives you an “advance” on future sales, meaning they expect to sell enough of your book to cover the advance they gave you. If they don’t sell enough copies of your book to cover the advance, they lose money, and you probably won’t get offered a contract renewal. Most writers who get paid an advance won’t see a royalty check until after the advance money has been earned back for the publisher. But Indy publishing houses usually can’t pay an advance. They don’t earn enough revenue to take risks on book sales that may or may not happen, but if you do make any book sales, you can collect your royalties right away because you don’t have to wait for an advance to be repaid.

Hardcover?: A traditional publishing house usually operates (or outsources) their own printing presses. They can print your book in paperback or hardcover and wrap it in a lovely dust jacket. Most Indy publishers can’t do that for you because most Indy publishers rely on places like Amazon, Smashwords, Nook, Lulu, Kobo, etc., to make your digital and physical books, and those platforms are usually limited to paperback. There are some online print-on-demand publishers (like Lulu) that can print hardcover, but it’s far more expensive because print-on-demand sources will expect a cut of the sale. The result is a very expensive hardcover book, and most small-time authors can’t sell over-priced books.

Wait, hold up? Indy publishers use Amazon, Nook, Smashwords, Lulu, etc.? But, but those are free for anyone to use! I can publish my book on those platforms right now!

You’re damn right about that. Most Indy publishers don’t operate any real physical printing presses. They rely on the same online platforms that we all have free access to use. So why bother with an Indy publisher at all? There are reasons, and I will get to them below.

Can they sell your book in brick and mortar stores?: A traditional publishing house usually maintains a catalog from which retailers can order books based on sales records and reviews. Have you ever wanted to walk into a book store like Barns and Noble and see your book on a shelf? That’s something a traditional publishing house CAN do for you, and sadly Indy publishers usually can’t. Some retailers can order books from Amazon and small publishing houses if they know what they’re ordering has a proven track record of sales, but usually, they stick to working with long-standing established publishing houses that have decades of proven sales and an industry-wide reputation. Most Indy publishing houses simply can’t compete.

I’m going to touch briefly on Vanity Presses: A Vanity Press is a publishing house that operates by having the author PAY to get their work published. There’s usually little to no vetting process for what books they print or if they’re any good. If you pay them, they’ll publish it, regardless of quality or marketability. They generally have a poor reputation in the industry due to their lack of standards and the fact that many industry professionals, agents, and books written on how to get published warn people away from any publishing agent, press, or service demands upfront payment. They can do just about everything that a regular indy/small publishing house can, but it will cost you (sometimes thousands). If you pursue this publishing route, proceed with caution, and thoroughly read any contracts before signing.

So why did I turn down a contract to publish with a small publishing house? Simply put, they didn’t have anything to offer me that I couldn’t do for myself or that I hadn’t already done for myself.

I can buy my own ISBN and set up my own barcode. Cover? I already had one. Editing? That was mostly my responsibility anyway, but going it on my own allowed me to have the final say on how I creatively envisioned my story. Formatting? I learned to do it myself. It was hard, and I hated it, but I managed. Listing my book? Again, steep learning curve and obnoxious, but I learned how to do it, and I did it myself. Worldwide distribution? If you can list your book on any of the major online retailers, they’ll distribute it worldwide for you. Marketing? I’d be primarily responsible for that anyway. Rights? Going it on my own allowed me to keep all my rights. I even legally registered my own copyright. Contract? The contract I was offered wasn’t unfair by any means, and I am genuinely flattered and grateful that they sought to offer me a contract at all, but I like not being locked into a legal agreement. Advance? Not from a small publishing house. Royalties? Because I did it without a publisher, they’re all mine. I don’t have to share my meager sales with anyone but the publishing platforms. Digital publishing? I can do that. Check. Paperback? Check. Hardcover? An Indy publisher wouldn’t have printed my work in hardcover anyway. Brick and mortar stores? An Indy publisher wouldn’t have been able to sell my work in a brick and mortar store either.

Going it on your own requires you to be an entrepreneur. You have to do a lot of non-writing related work and foot a lot of up-front expenses on your own; buying an ISBN, a barcode, hiring a cover artist, etc. If you don’t know how to list or format your work, you can hire someone to do it for you, though I did it myself. A small publishing house can do a lot of that work for you and even help pay for some of those expenses (though they’ll usually take it out of your sales). The biggest perk to having a publisher, even a small one, is just the ability to say you’ve been published by “so-n-so,” but publishing it yourself is still being published, just without the added clout of a publisher’s name attached to your work. How much is that worth to you? To me, it wasn’t worth enough to make signing that contract worth it. I was willing to learn whatever it took to publish the work myself, and I was willing to foot the bill for any of the upfront expenses of self-publishing. So, ultimately, there was nothing a small publisher could offer me that I couldn’t do for myself, and so I declined.

It was a learning experience, though. Going forward, I’ve decided that if I can’t be published by a traditional publishing house (because at least they could get my work in brick and mortar stores), then I’d rather do it on my own than go through a small publisher because most of them don’t really have anything to offer me.

But that’s just me! Please don’t think I’m writing this post just to knock Indy/Small publishers. Far from it. Indy publishing houses are still a wonderful option for many small-time writers. Many writers don’t know how to format and list their work and don’t have time to learn, or can’t afford the up-front expense of cover art, ISBNs, etc. There is NOTHING wrong with wanting help to get your book published and to get it out to the world for people to buy it, and small publishing houses can help you, especially if you’re new to publishing and don’t know where or how to start. Going it all on your own is NOT easy, and it is NOT for every writer, and if a small publishing house is willing to offer you a service you need, then, by all means, sign that contract and do what works best for you. But for me, an Indy publishing house just wasn’t the way to go.

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