Traditional vs Indie Publishing: What’s the difference?

Darling reader, I shan’t waste your time with lengthy preamble. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume your name is Authorisus Novelard de Writersberg, you’ve just finished your first novel, and you’re wondering how to get it out into the world—preferably in exchange for some cold, hard cash.

Well, Mr de Writersberg, I’m pleased to tell you that you have two equally excellent choices: traditional publishing, or indie publishing. There are pros and cons to each but, before we get into that, you’ll probably want to know what each of those terms means.

Traditional Publishing

Also called “trade publishing”, and often shortened to “tradpub” either way.

the harpercollins stand at the london book fair

You’ve probably heard of at least a few traditional publishing houses. The biggest ones, known as the “Big 5”, are Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette and Macmillan, but there are plenty of others. These are companies that make their money, basically, by buying books from authors and selling them to readers. It’s as simple as that, except that it’s also much more complicated.

From an author’s perspective, the main thing to know about the tradpubs is that they all receive about eleventy squillion manuscripts every year, and they can only publish, you know, a normal number that actually exists. Now you and I, Mr de Writersberg, we are men (well, a woman and a rhetorical construct) of the world, so I’m sure you know as well as I do that writing is 1% inspiration and 99% weeping softly in a corner. However, I do occasionally encounter people who think tradpubs will publish anything an author deigns to send them, so, just to confirm:

You are going to get rejected. A lot.

I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m just saying, maybe pimp out the ol’ weeping corner a little in preparation. Add more pillows and fuzzy blankets. Perhaps a few stuffed animals, I’m not here to judge.

While you work on that, let’s talk about money, because that’s the biggest difference between trad and indie publishing. In traditional publishing, money should flow toward the author. This is called “Yog’s Law” and you’ll see it a lot if you make a habit of reading about publishing, so you might as well go ahead and get comfortable with it now. Embroider it on one of your new pillows or something. It’s a nice phrase, because it means you don’t pay for anything. Money makes its way into your pocket, not out.

Here’s how that breaks down. Readeria von Likesbooks goes to her local bookstore, which, for convenience, and because I’m a bit peckish, is in a country that has eschewed coins in favour of a currency system based on pizzas. She buys your book for the very reasonable sum of one pizza.

a whole pizza, cut into 8 slices

The bookshop has a lot of overheads to cover, and I really am quite hungry, so they take about half the pizza, and the rest makes its way to the publisher.

half of the pizza is now missing. the remaining half looks pretty good, though

The publisher, meanwhile, has paid for all the editing and cover design and marketing, and this is a really tasty pizza, so they’ll keep some too.

there is only one slice left.

The rest is for you, Authorisus—you don’t mind if I call you Authorisus, do you? Well, almost all of it. A little bit goes to your agent. See, because of the whole “eleventy squillion manuscripts” thing, a lot of publishers only accept submissions from agents. Literary agents sign up authors with promising manuscripts, then pitch them to editors who might be interested in them. Essentially, they’ll help you to get a publishing deal in return for a share of the money you make.

But the rest of that pizza is all yours. Or it would be, except that I ate it while I was writing the last paragraph, which is where this analogy falls apart.

And that, more or less, is traditional publishing. A publishing company takes responsibility for turning your work into a published book, sells that book to readers, and you collect your share of the proceeds (and try to stop me from eating it).

Indie Publishing

Also called “self-publishing” and frequently abbreviated, at least by me, to “selfpub”.

a kindle direct publishing stand in a conference hall

Independent publishing isn’t new. It’s always been theoretically possible—it’s just that, until recently, it was also a huge pain in the proverbial. Once upon a time, if you wanted to publish a novel without the help of a traditional publisher, all you could really do was order a bunch of copies from your local printer and sell them out of your handbag when you cornered people at parties.

This was, for most people, wildly impractical. For one thing, it was expensive—the per-copy cost of printing a small number of books was so high that it didn’t make sense, so the only thing to do was to order an eye-watering quantity of them and then convert your house into a sort of book warehouse with beds. For another, people who spend most of their time hunched over keyboards making things up just don’t get invited to that many parties.

That’s enough of the history lesson. If I know you, Authorisus, and I think I do, you’re not a chap who cares to dwell on the past. You want to know what selfpub is like today. Right now. This very second.

Well, for one thing, it’s much easier. The advent of print on demand (POD) means that it’s now possible to print books one at a time—and, crucially, only after someone has ordered one, which means you don’t have to fill your house with them. However, by far the biggest opportunity that’s opened up for indie authors is the ebook. Many major ebook retailers, including Amazon, Apple, Kobo and Barnes & Noble, offer tools that allow authors to make their ebooks available for sale through those stores, and this is how the vast majority of indie authors make most of their money.

With POD paperbacks printed within hours of ordering them and ebooks available to download instantly, self-published books are now almost as easy to get hold of as traditionally-published ones—at least online. In fact, a well-produced indie book is now indistinguishable, to the average reader, from a tradpubbed one.

That “well-produced” part is what brings us back to money. It is possible to self-publish without spending any money at all—and, in the early days, plenty of people did just that and sold a lot of books. But, as the market has matured, it has become much, much more competitive. I’m sure you, Authorisus, thought you knew what competitive was when you tried to race me to that last slice of pizza just now, but we’re talking more competitive even than that. As a result, most successful indie authors are now investing quite a lot of money in things like editing and cover design, to create a more professional product, as well as in marketing.

And that’s the big difference, from an author’s point of view. Under the traditional publishing model, all of that investment is done by a publisher. Indie authors are their own publishers, and have to pay for those services themselves—and they’ll generally set you back quite a few pizzas.

Of course, bearing more risk also means potentially reaping greater rewards, but we’ll come back to that when we talk about pros and cons. Until then, Authorisus, I bid you adieu. It’s been a blast, and I’m sorry I ate all your metaphorical royalties.

Photo credits: London Book Fair 2014 and Amazon by ActuaLitté on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0