Traditional Publishing is that world where a writer submits his book to a trade publishing house and gets a “book deal.” The book is revised, contracts signed, and then the publisher is responsible for all of the production costs, distribution, and sales. Based on their pay structure, they cut the author a royalty check based on the contract. Up until Indie publishing became a real thing, this was always known simply as “Publishing.”
Indie Publishing is a world that lets a person color outside of the lines. It usually refers to self-published writers who are effectively their own publisher doing all of the things a trade house would do, but with stylistic freedom to try new things. This may also include many smaller Indie Publishing Houses. We rarely use the word “self-publish” because of how stigmatized the word has become (usually reserved more for Vanity Press publishers.) Indies reserve complete creative and financial control of their books.
Vanity Publishing is the kind of press that sets up just to print a book that someone wants to see in print to make themselves feel good (vanity/self-validation), give as a gift or for something like a school or church fundraiser, etc. These places serve an actual purpose (making church cookbooks or printing school yearbooks) but often disguise themselves as traditional publishers, indie publishers, or “hybrid publishers” in order to prey upon Indie authors. Vanity Publishers make their money off of the author rather than off of the book (but still hope to skim a little off the top as well.) Avoid any “publisher” who wants to sell you a “publishing package” or makes their money off of author services. If you can’t outsource all of your needs where they have fees (editing, cover design, formatting, ebook conversion, promo materials, etc.) OR they apply intense pressure to sign their contract, then a publisher is likely a vanity publisher in disguise. We won’t dignify them with our comparison and they should be avoided.
The difference between Indie and Traditional might be something like being on a payroll versus being a private contractor. When you have a boss, manager, or foreman you have to do things his or her way. They may or may not like your own creative approach to the job. A private contractor can say, “This is how I’m doing it—if you don’t like it, don’t hire me for your next job.” They only get to eat when they work, so they have to stay hungry to make the house payment.
Here are some strengths and weaknesses of each:
Prestige and Validation
Store distribution is easy
Work with a professional team
No upfront fees/costs
Possible advance on royalties
Literary prize potential
Easier to become a “name brand” author
High royalty rates
Faster time to market
Control over format, rights, etc.
Very slow process
Loss of creative control
Low royalty rates
Lack of significant marketing help
Possible contract issues
Do everything yourself
Difficulty getting on store shelves
Assume all financial risk
Lack of any marketing
Every author has to decide what he or she really wants out of being an author. For many, the Indie route will be a stepping stone that helps build a platform for success, for others it is the only way they would ever want to go. Some are “traditional only.” All of those are personal choices and perfectly fine. Many well-known authors, choose a hybrid approach (no, not those fake vanity publishers). They will have some self-published books along with some traditional titles to maximize how much they make from their labors. Think about it, people don’t buy books based on the publishing house—they buy based on the author—his or her name is the brand. Some of these authors will even sign contracts for a book’s US rights and then use the indie route for all worldwide, overseas sales to maximize all marketing opportunities and capitalize on consumer interest. Indies have to stay smart.
At the end of the day it boils down to a few things: creative control and money. And at least at some level, money is always important… you can negotiate creative aspects or walk away based on your heart… but money is more set in stone. Printers and distributors must get paid.
I know a few Indies who sell about a hundred books a month with their online sales. They’ve created a demand and an audience is responding. That is a pretty high number, to be honest, but it is perfectly achievable with a lot of sweat and tears. Indies make about $4 per book (an average I’ve found to be about right) across the 3 major mediums. That’s $4,800 per year and 1,200 books sold. A big name in writing might make over a dollar per book with a traditional press, but the more unknown authors make more like 75 cents per book. Those same sales numbers net the writer less than a grand… one of my traditional publishers made some contract changes saying it would be more profitable. Should have had an agent take a look—my royalties on my last check were about a quarter per book. The above numbers would earn me just three hundred bucks. For a year.
Everyone needs to make those decisions sooner and rather than later.