The question used to be: publish independently, or pursue traditional publishing?—but that question is so last year. In 2013, the new question is: work with a self-publishing company, or choose your own adventure?
From a-la-carte publishing to complete packages (including everything from distribution to author websites), there's a variety of models out there, and what it really means to publish independently is difficult to nail down.
But I see indie authors generally trending toward one end of the spectrum or the other, and I'd like to look closer at each extreme.
"Full-Service" Self-Publishing Companies
Not to be confused with vanity publishers—please, please stay away from vanity publishers—good self-pubs (and they are out there) will generally offer tiered packages at fixed costs so that authors can select the package that best fits their needs and budget.
Cons: Potential Hazards of "Full-Service" Companies
With new self-pub companies cropping up all the time, it's a jungle out there. Indie authors would do well to keep their eyes peeled and use careful judgement to avoid entanglements with vanity publishers in disguise.
1. Shadiness abounds in the world of self-publishing.
One reason self-pubs have such a bad rap is that there are companies out there who stack their contracts in their favor, giving authors virtually no chance to succeed in the marketplace and punishing them if they do manage to be successful, preying on authors who trust them and leveraging that trust into profit.
There are many publishers out there to avoid—even some that label themselves Christian. (True story.)
When selecting a full-service self-pub, buyer beware. Read your contract, understand it, and walk away from anything that can't be explained to your satisfaction.
2. Bookstores and literary agents prefer traditional publishers.
While this is changing—some literary agents are taking indie authors now, and organizations are cropping up to give self-published books physical retail opportunities—it's still darn near impossible to get an independently published book into bookstores.
(Then again, this may not matter all that much anymore; more on that in a moment.)
3. Self-publishers just can't shake the stigma.
Indie authors are now being acknowledged by venerable organizations such as The New YorkTimes, and that counts for something. But the basic model of self-publishing—that anyone can do it—has a not-altogether-unexpected byproduct: the quality of these books varies significantly.
Why is this excess of low-quality books by other authors a problem—or at least a concern—for a serious writer considering indie publishing? Terri Giuliano Long of IndieReader.com sums up the issue perfectly:
"In a rush to publish, some sloppy authors put out work with egregious editing errors and poorly designed covers. Unprofessional work reinforces old prejudices against indie authors, frustrates readers, and infuriates indies who produce quality work."
If the Times and others continue to recognize talented, independently successful authors, the stigma of independent publishing will continue to fade—but for the moment, it's still around.
Pros: Benefits of Full Service
Keeping the whole gamut of publication under one roof can have its advantages, and many authors prefer this one-stop-shopping approach to publishing.
(Again, this assumes that you've done your research and are confident that you've found a reputable company. If you haven't done that, you absolutely cannot count on my premises.)
1. Many authors are comfortable leaving it to professionals.
There are authors who don't have the time, energy, computer literacy, patience, or, frankly, interest to put it all together.
For those not-so-Internet-savvy authors who just want their book handled correctly so they can get on with the marketing, a one-stop shop might be exactly what they need: someone to coordinate all the important elements of book production—editing, formatting, cover design—so all they have to do is sign off on each step.
2. Publishers have connections new authors don't.
An individual author with a plan is a force to behold; even so, an established organization will be able to open doors that you may not be able to open yourself, regardless of how hard you network.
From book signings and media reviews to contests and promotions, a full-service company may be able to offer valuable connections with other organizations in the book industry. (Then again, they might not. Stay sharp and understand before you sign!)
3. Some offer great extra services.
There are some valuable packages out there, some of them including real marketing and promotion, opportunities for exposure, and continued support: website setup, distribution and returns, and the like.
While there may be more cost-effective ways to go about doing some of this on your own (web hosting, for instance), the "all under one roof" factor remains attractive to many.
Independent Publishing, Independently
Many authors reject full-service self-pub companies for the same reasons they reject the big traditional houses: they want full control and full financial benefit. Others reject them because they've had negative experiences in the past, either because they didn't understand what they were getting into, or because they ended up with a lemon of a company.
Whatever the reason, many authors have decided to play a more active role in production, publication, and marketing, coordinating all the individual pieces themselves.
Cons: The Dangers of Going It Alone
Book publishing has traditionally been the realm of professionals; now that everyone can do it, the industry is in a state of flux, and there are bound to be a few snags.
1. The choices are yours—all of them.
Have you ever noticed, when you're at a restaurant, how much more frustrating it is to decide what to eat from a five-page menu than, say, a half sheet of specials?
Tons of options can paralyze us, and constantly having to choose what to do, with every minute detail, at every step of the way, can be exhausting. What if we make the wrong decision? Not all of us are up to it.
2. Publishing a book is time-consuming.
Authors holding down full-time jobs may or may not have the time, patience, or interest for coordinating all of the various pieces: editing, formatting, cover design, printing, distribution, and so on.
While these individual steps—once necessarily handled by industry professionals—have been getting more and more user-friendly, the fact is, there's a lot going on to keep track of. If there's a problem with your Amazon listing, you deal with it. If you need a stack of books for a signing, you make sure it's there.
If you don't deal with it, it doesn't get dealt with—and some just don't have the time.
3. It's easy to get lost in the marketplace.
There are an astronomical amount of books out there: self-publishing has grown 287% since 2006, and it shows no sign of stopping.
Without a publishing house to keep publication efforts on track and to, hopefully, point authors in the direction of marketing services, a book without a plan can be swallowed up, never to be heard from again.
I'm a book editor, and I've seen it happen. And there are few sadder things than a well-written, intriguing book languishing in obscurity because the author never really figured out what to do with it.
Pros: The Benefits of Managing Your Own Publication
Many authors want to control the entire process because they suspect all companies of being vanity presses. Many want control because they trust no one but themselves with their life's work. Or because they simply want to understand the process. Or for myriad other reasons.
For the right kind of author, the benefits of independently publishing without a full-service company can outweigh the cons.
1. The choices are yours—all of them.
While some might be overwhelmed by all the moving pieces, other authors relish the chance to have such a hands-on role in bringing their book into the world and wouldn't have it any other way. Many of these authors wouldn't trade this creative control for anything—including a contract with a traditional pub.
And there's a lot of guidance and support out there for authors who make the effort to look for it. One excellent resource is The Creative Penn's "How to Publish a Book 101," which basically maps out your steps for you!
2. E-books are easy to do yourself—and wildly popular.
While traditional pubs have solid roots in physical book production, e-books are rapidly becoming the realm of the indie author. Thwarted by the traditional-authors-only-club vibe of physical bookstores and emboldened by record-breaking e-reader sales, indie writers have flocked to digital publishing (and are increasingly forgoing print publishing entirely.)
Digital reading was made popular with readers by Kindle and the like. But among authors, nothing has ignited digital publishing quite like Smashwords, a company that makes it brainlessly easy for any book to enter the digital marketplace.
With free format conversion, registration, distribution, sales reports, and unlimited updates, Smashwords is turning traditional book publishing on its head—all for a modest fee per sale that any author, regardless of how he or she is publishing, would be hard-pressed to beat.
Even Mark Coker, Smashwords founder and CEO, was taken by surprise by the e-book explosion. At the Miami Book Fair in December, he said:
I expected e-books would grow fast, but they have grown faster than almost anyone predicted, and it has been a boon to self-publishers.
This guy essentially bet his entire company on e-books—and it turned out to have been an excellent bet.
3. Need lightning-fast publication? No problem!
Traditional publishers are notorious for their glacial speed. But the problem is simply one of maximum production capacity: when your book is one of hundreds to coordinate, yours simply has to wait its turn.
But when you're publishing your own book, you have the ability to fly from step to step like a bee among flowers. You can publish your third book in the time it takes a traditional author to publish one, and since you're not tied up in any first-refusal obligations, you can keep cranking them out.
Note: rushing publication is not an excuse for poor quality. You may be the boss, but you are morally responsible for offering quality material: edited, formatted, and checked several times for accuracy. You owe it to yourself—and to your readers.
What's the best way to self-publish? It depends on you.
Every author will need to examine his or her own strengths, weaknesses, desires, expectations, and goals.
Whichever way you go, do your research. Know contract terms to avoid, and ask questions until you're satisfied you understand. Get everything in writing, and understand your contract.
The bottom line: an informed author dedicated to a book's success is always a prerequisite—no matter how you publish.