This post is part of my series on “Publishing a Cozy Mystery.” This series isn’t meant to tell you how you have to go about it and dictate what’s right or wrong. Instead, I’m sharing my personal journey from writing my initial draft to seeing my first book, Murder at the Marina, be released. I’ll talk about the good, bad, and the ugly. And trust me, there was plenty of ugly along the way.
Previously, I’ve talked to you about cover design, how long it took to get from Draft #1 to a final manuscript, and beta reading.
Today, it’s all about deciding whether to go down the traditional publishing route or try your hand at self-publishing (aka indie publishing). Let’s talk about what the differences between the two approaches are, the pros/cons of each, and why I chose to go indie.
What’s the Difference?
This is the process most people think of when they pick up a book in a store or purchase an ebook online. Once you have a completed, polished manuscript, you query agents, hoping to get representation. This is often a long, painful, and arduous process, littered with many rejections and can take ages before someone says, “Hey, let’s work together.”
Assuming you land an agent, you’ll probably end up doing more edits to your manuscript. Then your agent shops your manuscript around and hopefully you sign a contract. This step can also take ages. Then you do more edits and finally (maybe 2-3 years after you sent our your first query), you see your book in print.
This term makes many people think of vanity presses, and they’re definitely still out there. But nowadays, this is a legitimate and viable approach. Basically you’re responsible for developing your product (your book) and project managing its production (e.g., you have to hire and manage your support team such as book cover designer, editor, formatter), as well as doing some tasks a publisher would do yourself.
Although we’re talking about traditional vs. self-publishing, it’s not actually as simple as that. It’s more of a continuum, with many publishing paths available in between. For example, some authors choose to pay an up-front fee to a company who will take care of the nitty-gritty of publishing their book, others may manage the process themselves, but use a service to distribute their book to online and bricks and mortar sales channels. There are also smaller publishers who accept submissions directly from authors, rather than via an agent.
Pros & Cons of Each Approach
For me, one of the biggest pros of going down the traditional publishing route is validation. Like many writers, I have my moments of insecurity (usually cured by a generous helping of chocolate) worrying that my cozy mystery is absolute rubbish. Everyone is going to hate it, I’m going to get horrible reviews, no one will buy it etc. These are the types of things that go through my head.
But if you land an agent and a publishing deal, then other people are saying, “Hey, this is awesome! Let’s give you some money for it!” That kind of validation has got to be a great feeling. And readers are probably more likely to take a chance on your books.
Another huge pro is not having to manage the publishing process. Your publisher will provide a team of experts who will take care of formatting, cover design, editing, pricing, distribution etc. A publisher can also help get your books into brick and mortar stores, something which isn’t quite as easy as an indie.
The final pro comes down to money. The publisher typically pays you an advance and covers all of the publishing expenses. It’s not cheap to publish a book, so this is a definite plus for folks who don’t want to or can’t invest their own money.
Many of the cons of traditional publishing center on things you give up. You lose creative control of your work. You may have to make changes to the manuscript that don’t fit with your vision and you may not have input on cover design, book title, marketing approach, pricing, distribution etc.). You also give away some of your rights. You’re basically “selling” your product to a publisher. They own it and can do with it what they want. Want to make an audiobook version? Want to publish it in another language? Want to distribute to overseas markets? Those may be things you don’t have the rights to do.
There’s also the loss of potential income. Royalty rates are significantly higher if you self-publish. But, on the flip side, you may not sell as many books if you go indie, so it may just be theoretical earnings.
And one of the things that some people don’t realize is that although a publisher will take care of many things for you, marketing support is often very limited for new authors these days. That means, if you want to sell books, you’re going to have to get out there yourself and promote your books and your brand all on your lonesome.
The pros of self-publishing are pretty much the inverse of the cons of traditional publishing. There’s a faster time to market, you retain creative control, the royalty rates are higher, and you retain your rights.
If you’re going to self-publish, you have to wear two hats—you’re a writer and a business person. With traditional publishing, someone else manages the business side of things (for the most part), but with self-publishing you have to make all of the decisions, you have to invest your own money, and you have to project manage the entire publication process, assembling a team of experts and overseeing their work. Depending upon your own comfort level, you may even do certain tasks yourself, rather than outsource them.
No one is telling you that your manuscript is good. There’s no agent or publisher providing support and encouragement. It’s up to you so to say, “This is good enough to put out there for the world to see,” and then make that happen. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
My Choice: Going Indie
There are three major reasons why I decided to go indie:
1 – It would take way too long to get a book published traditionally.
I’m not a very patient person. I always assume a diet will work instantaneously and am surprised when I don’t drop five pounds in a week, hate waiting for the next book in a beloved series to be published, and struggle waiting for the timer to go off before I take a batch of cookies out of the oven.
Waiting a few years to (hopefully) land an agent and see my book finally published really wasn’t on the cards for me.
2 – It’s not easy to land a cozy mystery publishing deal if you’re a newbie.
When I first started looking into which publishing route was right for me, many established authors were losing their contracts with well-known publishers in the cozy mystery genre (like Kensington). If established authors were struggling, what chance did I have of landing an agent, let alone get a publishing deal?
3 – I don’t mind DIY and project management.
I’m one of those weird people who likes spreadsheets, project plans, and to-do lists. I also love learning about new things and trying my hand at some of the creative aspects of publishing (like cover design and marketing materials). That’s not to say that there hasn’t been a huge learning curve, things haven’t always gone to plan, and stuff has taken far longer than I thought. But, for the most part, I’ve been enjoying it and things should be simpler the second time around.
Want to know more?
There are tons of resources on traditional vs. self-publishing out there, but here are a few links to get you started:
Reedsy’s article, Self-publishing vs Traditional Publishing: Which One is Right for You?, looks at the pros and cons of each approach and has a quiz to help you decide.
Janice Hardy has tons of blog posts on a wide range of self-publishing topics.
Jane Friedman has an excellent infographic which lays out five book publishing paths—traditional, partnership, fully assisted, DIY + distributor, and DIY direct.
Ros Barber has a thought provoking article in The Guardian about why she would never consider self-publishing.
Patty Jansen, an Australian scifi/fantasy indie author, blogs about self-publishing, including posts about her income.
Elizabeth Spann Craig is a cozy mystery author who has been on both sides of the fence. She has some great insights into the pros and cons of traditional vs. self-publishing.
Many members of the 20Booksto50K Facebook group share their self-publishing success stories and offer tips and tricks. (Note: you have to be a member in order to see the discussion.)
The Alliance of Independent Authors has a self-publishing advice center.
Other posts in my “Publishing a Cozy Mystery” series:
What do you think of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing?
A dilapidated sailboat for your anniversary—not very romantic. A dead body on board—even worse.
If you’d like to pick up your own copy (ebook and paperback), you can do so at your favorite online retailer: