Okay, I’m quite excited about having this post to share with you today. The topic is a bit of an ongoing one, but I’ve always been interested in getting this particular author’s take on it as I work my mightily-pleased-with-the-results way through The Great Way. (Do read, if you haven’t. It’s epic. And Epic!)
So. Without (too much) further ado, my fine folks, I shall turn things over to Harry…
Tonight’s Headline Match: Self-publishing vs. Traditional publishing. FIGHT!
Actually, no fighting here today. Lisa asked me to talk about my experiences as an author who has has self-published and has been traditionally published by Random House and the gaming company Evil Hat. How were those experiences different?
This sort of blog post is practically its own genre now, but (as usual) I’m going to try to dodge the genre’s longstanding but pernicious tropes: I won’t be comparing the worst of one side with the best of the other. In fact, my experiences in both camps have been incredibly positive (as long as we politely pretend not to examine my sales figures).
So I want to talk about the good stuff from both paths; what does each offer and what do they take away? If you’re looking for boosterism for one side over the other, sorry, but I’m going to disappoint you.
Let’s talk money first. I’m not one of those authors who posts their royalty statements on their blog, but I’m comfortable talking generally about where thing stand and how they’re going. I can tell you straight up that I have made more money from my three Random House novels than all the other books combined, and all of that came from the advance (the first book was published in 2009 and still hasn’t earned out). It’s true that I earn more per book when I self-publish, but Del Rey has gotten me more sales.
What if I’d hadn’t gotten an advance at all, and was only paid straight royalties? Well, traditional publishing would still be more lucrative, even with their low per-sale payments. Even though the Kindle had done wonders to equalize distribution for individual authors, the publishers can still do things authors can’t.
What about creative control? This one is more complicated. A lot of self-published writers believe that editors make you write the story the way they think it should be written. In my experience, that’s just not true.
Not that they don’t try. I’ve written before about the conflict I had with my editor at Del Rey over the ending of my second book, Game of Cages. (Her take.) She thought I should change the ending to something less horrible. I didn’t. The book was published with my ending. Still, as you can see from the link to her take, she had input and I was lucky to receive it. Very lucky. All my books, especially the first one, were vastly improved because of her notes. What’s more, I believe there’s a non-trivial difference between working with an editor who is paid by the publisher and a freelance editor paid by the author. They have different clients to please, and the publisher has an ongoing interest in the success of the book.
What about typos? Typos! This is what every self-published book has to face: concern over the copy editing/proofreading (which is entirely different from the editing I was talking about above). In truth, if I were to self-publish a book that consisted only of the word, “the,” at the top of the only page, at least one in twenty reviews would start “I was distracted by the typos. This self-published book needed another pass with an editor.”
The epic fantasy trilogy I just released was funded by an amazingly successful Kickstarter, which allowed me to hire an excellent copy editor. He was thorough, detailed, and meticulous, and still some errors slipped through.
Errors always slip through. There’s just no catching them all.
Still, even with all that Kickstarter cash, I couldn’t afford to do what Del Rey did: after the story edits, there was a copy edit. After that, it went to the assistant copy chief who looked at it with two or three proofreaders. That’s a lot of eyes to search for misplaced commas. So, while I could hire a highly-skilled professional, I couldn’t afford five of them.
What about control over the rest, like cover art? It’s true that I have more control when I’m self-publishing, but I still have to out-source most of it. I could never have created the interior art for my epic fantasy trilogy, so I had to hire Claudia Cangini. Same for the map, the cover art, the cover design, etc etc. I mean, there’s a difference in the level of control you get when you have a skill instead of just a checkbook.
However, when it came time to put together the omnibus edition of those books, I decided I wanted to cover to be the fantasy map. That’s it. Just a map. No book title. No author’s name. No publisher logo. No bar code. And why not? I wasn’t planning to sell it; this was a Kickstarter reward. It didn’t need text on the spine if I didn’t want it there. No publisher would have signed on for that (not unless I was a big name prestige author, which I’m not and likely will never be). But it was my book and I could do what I liked. That’s control, and it feels nice.
That’s the first comparison that came out in favor of self-publishing. Yeah, I noticed that, too. I didn’t mean for things to start off so slanted, but the money part couldn’t be denied, and while there have been plenty of authors who were unhappy with the work publishers have done with their books, I’m not one of them.
But let’s talk about some positives from the other side.
When the books were done, they came out. Boom. No delay. What’s more, they came out on a schedule that I liked. My original plan was to release the entire epic fantasy trilogy on one day “like a Netflix TV show,” but I scotched that idea when I learned that Amazon gives a bump to authors who release works every thirty days or so. Still, that choice was mine, too.
And I think that’s why this post seems slanted away from self-publishing, because it’s so easy to understate the value of that kind of control over your own work. When I was with Del Rey, I floated along month after month, waiting for other people to get stuff done. When something happened, it was inevitably a surprise; the cover would appear on Amazon, or the copy edits would arrive in the mail (Del Rey still used paper), and I’d be: “Oh, guess I should drop everything and— Hey, this looks great!” In between those times, I would try to reduce the stress of waiting by not thinking about it.
Does that sound like a good thing? It’s my book, with my name on the spine, but I’m spending months trying not to think about it? Unfortunately, that’s how it had to be or I would fret for months without getting much done. When I self-publish, there’s much less waiting, and nothing is a surprise. I get to choose who I should ask to do the work, and if they agree, I know the cost and the deadlines. More importantly, if something seems off I can have it changed. There’s a tremendous satisfaction in that.
On the flip side, back in the Del Rey days guess what I was doing while I was trying not to think about the progress my book was making through the publishing system? Writing a new book.
If there’s one huge difference between self-publishing and other-publishing, it’s that publishing (whether it’s your own work, someone else’s, whatever) is a huge time sink, and for me that meant lost writing time. There are few things in life more precious than writing time.
In summary, traditional publishing earned me more money, although I’m well aware that’s not true for everyone. I had almost the same creative control over the book, although I also got excellent advice. My self-published work is more idiosyncratic, because I had more control over all aspects of the books and their release, and that control is incredibly satisfying. I also lost writing time; when I was with Del Rey, by the time a book came out, the next one was already finished. In contrast, I’ve just released book three of my trilogy—with another standalone coming out in two weeks—but I haven’t even started my next book yet.
What about the future?
Personally, I plan to keep publishing both ways. I’m hoping my next will be picked up by a NY publisher; a frontlist release always gives a little bump to the backlist, and having self-published work in my backlist when a publisher supports my frontlist is a very good thing.
And of course, whichever path I take, I have to do a great deal of my own marketing, which largely consists of writing blog posts like this one and saying ooooh! Look at this cover! (No, seriously, have a look.)
Have I mentioned that it received a starred review in Publishers Weekly?
Harry Connolly’s debut novel, Child Of Fire, was named to Publishers Weekly’s Best 100 Novels of 2009. For his epic fantasy series The Great Way, he turned to Kickstarter; at the time this was written, it’s the ninth-most-funded Fiction campaign ever. Book one of The Great Way, The Way Into Chaos was published in December, 2014. Book two, The Way Into Magic, was published in January, 2015. The third and final book, The Way Into Darkness, was released on February 3rd, 2015. Harry lives in Seattle with his beloved wife, beloved son, and beloved library system.