Publishing: Traditional vs Indie -or- House of Cards

“If there’s sharks in the water,
Don’t swim where it’s deep,
For the taste of success
Can be bitter, and sweet.”

–House of Cards, Elton John & Bernie Taupin

Batten down the hatches, folks, this time I’m sticking a toe into water I have deliberately steered clear of for a long time.  There be sharks here, mateys.

I’m not even sure where to start.  I suppose everything started with an author interview I did recently.  One of the questions–a question I’m seeing more and more of–is, why did you choose to self-publish?

I don’t usually talk about that much.  It can be a contentious subject.  But I’ve read some rather alarming things on some very reliable blogs lately, and I don’t feel comfortable keeping silent any more.  I run a website for writers, and the people using my website are the very people who could easily run into trouble if I don’t help point out the rough waters ahead.

“Traditional publishing” is not a term used much outside the self-publishing (or indie publishing, as has become popular to call it) industry.  Once upon a time, the term was invented by vanity presses seeking to downplay the role of the dominant publishing model.  These days, the term has been adopted by those who choose to self-publish.  Traditional publishing merely refers to publishing as we all learned it–go out and land yourself an agent, who’ll represent your work to a publisher, who will polish it up, package it, and get it into bookstores, which until very recently was the only venue in which to make money selling your books.

If you’ve been around my website much, you’ll notice I don’t talk much about that side of writing.  There are no tips on how to land an agent, no articles on crafting compelling queries.  It’s a rather glaring omission.  It’s also deliberate.

I don’t have any experience with agents.  I query my magazine editors, but I have never worked with a big publishing house.  I made a decision not to move in that direction, and not to encourage others, by the content of my website, to move that direction either.

It seems to me that the writing has been on the wall for traditional publishing as we have known it for quite a few years now.  Big-box chain bookstores, Amazon, and the practice of “ordering to the net” have gutted the midlist, where it used to be possible to earn a comfortable living, even without ever breaking out into bestseller territory.  And this was before the rise of the eReaders, and the shift of the market towards eBooks that progressed–and is progressing–orders of magnitude faster than anybody expected.  Amazon tells us that Kindle books are outselling paperbacks and hardbacks combined–for every 100 paper books that are sold, 105 Kindle books are sold.

You may have noticed that big publishers can’t compete with independent authors in the eBook arena.  Independents can sell their books for $2.99, $1.99, or even $.99, and still make money.  A big publisher still has all of their usual overhead to make up–especially with big bookstores going bankrupt and paper copy sales dropping–and they can’t meet those expenses with that type of pricing.  Big publishers are fighting tooth and nail for higher prices, and for control of prices, and this is why, I think.  As more of the market shifts to eBooks, and market forces push towards the lower range prices, big publishers will have to make some pretty dramatic changes to remain profitable.

This is not to say that you can’t pitch a book to a big publisher through an agent right now, and close a deal.  Of course you can.

So, if I had the Music Mage series completely finished and edited and ready to go out tomorrow, what would I do?

Boy, that’s a tricky question.  But right at this very moment, I think I would self-publish it.  I would hire any work I needed done at a flat fee (not a percentage of my royalties!) and publish the finished product myself.


I’m hearing some scary things happening out there, folks.  Blatant rights-grabs in publishing contracts that used to be safe, agents setting themselves up as publishers (can you say conflict of interest?) and agency agreements with truly terrifying clauses in them.

There are sharks in the water, guys, water that used to be safe.  The industry is in flux, and everybody is searching for their place in it as the changes continue.  It’s a chain of people set up to make their living off of the content writers generate, and it’s feeling kind of unstable these days.  The house of cards analogy might not be far off.

Not to say there aren’t opportunities out there.  There are.  But you want to be careful.  Get yourself an IP attorney, and watch your step.  Content is king, as they say, and there will always be a place for a writer, because there will always be people who want to read.

Just make sure you know what place you’re being offered before you sign anything.  That advice was good twenty years ago, and ten years ago, and it’ll be good next year as well.  For almost all other advice about the business side of writing–I would be checking the expiration date.

One response to “Publishing: Traditional vs Indie -or- House of Cards

  1. Very interesting article.

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