Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Should Writers Query Publishers or Self-Publish?

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

I've gotten quite a few emails and direct messages on Twitter lately, asking whether I'd advise writers to query publishers or self-publish.

I've not offered much opinion on this question. For one thing, the issue has gotten (sadly) contentious and I'm cautious about entering online frays. For another, I don't like telling people what they should do. I can't possibly know what's going on in their lives, with their story, with their mindset, in order to give them good advice.

But I've noticed that my being wishy-washy and reluctant to comment hasn't won me any fans, either. One frustrated writer DMed me back on Twitter, asking me to just please give them an opinion. That's what I'll do--give an opinion. So here it is, with a proviso: this may not be the right thing for you to do. I'll tell you what I would do.

Although it’s hard to tell you what I'd do as a brand-new writer with my first manuscript in my hand facing this type of choice...because I'm just imagining that. I'm not in the same situation. Right now, I'm positioned pretty well--I'm not making gobs of cash, but I make a tidy monthly income with very little promotion. I have a fairly large online platform. I have a couple of different traditionally published series and a standalone with large publishers. This would not be the same situation for a new writer.

Knowing me, I would want to try being traditionally published with a book (not necessarily more books than that.) This may tie into my age and the fact that when I grew up, book choices were either hardback, paperback, or a book included with a vinyl record. I wanted to be an author who had a physical book on a physical shelf. If I were twenty years old instead of nearly forty-two and didn't have that much of a past with paper books...I might feel differently. In fact--I'm sure I'd feel differently.

Digital Book World recently published results of an author survey. They asked which factors influenced the writers' decisions to publish traditionally or to self-publish. Looking at the results, I disagree with the writers surveyed. They cited distribution as a major reason for choosing a traditional publisher. I think that distribution is quickly becoming unimportant, because of digital availability. It will become even less important as readers lose their local bookstores. Barnes and Noble, a major bookseller here in the States, recently stated they expected to close 200 stores in the next ten years. More on the issues that may cause in the post, "More thoughts about the future of bookstores, triggered by Barnes & Noble’s own predictions for itself" by industry expert Mike Shatzkin on his blog.

As far as the surveyed writers' other listed factors that would make them consider traditional publishing, I can agree with "editorial help" (which can be absolutely amazing and provide an incredible education...if you're hooked up with a good editor). I do think that you can find an absolutely fantastic freelance editor to work with and receive a similar this shouldn't be your primary reason to traditionally publish. I can also agree with "publisher prestige," except that I don't think of it that way--I think of it as giving the writer a boost of possibly greatly-needed confidence....if they need it.

If you choose that route, should you go through an agent or go on your own? My answer to that is changing. I don't think it's necessary to go through an agent. Be careful which agent you choose and what you agree to, if you choose to sign with an agent. If you do get an agent, you might want to get one to only help you with that one book, instead of getting signed on as a regular client. If you try to find an agent, don't spend too long looking. I spent far too long and it distracted me from my primary aim--finding a publisher. I'd consider querying publishers directly.  I do have an agent.  She's helped me find additional work via her contacts with editors.  But times are changing.  Publishers appear to be more open to working directly with unagented authors.  And, when you sign with an agent, you need to be sure that you know what you’re agreeing to.  There are times, for sure, when an agent can be useful, even for self-published authors: foreign rights, audio deals,  etc.

How long should you spend trying to get a traditional publisher, if you choose that route?  How many books do you have? If you only have the one book, work on another book as you query. And...if you're not getting any bites in six months, I'd consider assembling my team for self-publishing. Please--make sure the book is professionally edited. If you need help with your editor search, I do maintain a free database of freelance editors and other ebook professionals here.

I wouldn't put all my eggs in one basket. If my book were accepted by a publisher...great. But I'd be thinking ahead to my next project and seriously consider having that one be self-published.

The reason behind that is primarily financial. Advances from publishers are decreasing and I don't see them going up anytime soon. The production schedule takes about a year. Royalties are usually paid quarterly and are frequently not impressive. Your royalty percentage will obviously  be a lot lower than going directly through an online retailer like Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Smashwords.

I'm well-positioned to make decent income by self-publishing...and I do. But let's say you're a debut author and are selling a book that's not exactly a commercial product. Maybe you sell only a few books a month.

You might consider that book a flop. But the difference is that it will remain available to readers. If that book were traditionally published and was a flop (obviously, it would sell more copies than a few a month, even doing poorly), then that could effectively be the end of your traditionally published career. Your book would be sent back as returns from the bookstore, the publisher would eventually destroy the excess copies (likely after asking you if you wanted to buy them back at a discount), and no publisher upon looking up your Nielsen BookScan numbers would be thrilled at the prospect of taking on your next book.

But with your self-published book,  let's just call it a slow starter, not a flop. You write another book. And another book. You start developing a reader base (if you write well and have a professionally packaged product) and that base begins buying your earlier books--which are still available for sale and are not pulp in Manhattan somewhere.

Last year my traditionally published income included royalties on several older books, an advance payment-on-publication for one title, and acceptance advance income on two titles releasing this year. But I made more on my two self-published titles (much of the year it was only two, since my third was released in October) of which was intermittently free.

This advice also goes for traditionally published authors--increase revenue through self-publishing. Is there anything you've gotten your rights back to that you could self-publish? Do you have something you could write on the side...maybe an idea that had been rejected in the past? Could you write short stories just to at least experiment?

So there you two cents, today, on this subject. Not everyone will agree, and there may not be a standard right answer to this question...each writer is different. Ultimately, you're the one who knows what's right for you. My two cents on this subject might change as the industry changes (probably will). I'm a hybrid writer. I'm currently writing a book that I won't pitch, but will self-publish. Looking into the future, it will be very important to stay current with industry news and changes. It's a great time to be a writer because we have choices. And we have the opportunity to do well while doing something we love.

What are your thoughts on the benefits of traditional or self-publishing, or both? Has your opinion changed over the years?