March 29, 2011

Traditional vs. Self Publishing: How Much Does the Debate Matter?

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How many times in the past week have we heard “Traditional NY publishing is dead.  Barry Eisler has proved it.”  Or “NY publishing isn’t dead.  Amanda Hocking has proved it.”

So which is it?  Or does it not matter?

If you haven’t heard about the debate, the gist of it is that Barry Eisler turned down a half-million dollar contract with a NY publisher to pursue self-publishing (his reasoning here) while Amanda Hocking turned her self-publishing success into a two-million dollar contract (her announcement here).  One chose to leave NY and one chose to join it.

Interestingly, they’ve both been simultaneously supported and attacked for their choices.  Some think Barry is an idiot and some think Amanda sold out.

But I think it all comes down to the reader.  We all want to get our stories into the hands of the reader, so the smart thing to do is to choose whichever method we think will best accomplish that goal.

Traditional NY publishers aren’t soul-sucking bad guys and self-publishing isn’t a religion.  They are both just vehicles authors use to get their story out.

So there’s no right or wrong answer.  The method that works best for one story might not work for another.  The approach one author has won’t work for all authors.  Circumstances are always in flux and our answer might change.

Right now, NY publishers have the edge in print availability, as Nathan Bransford pointed out.   So authors who are more concerned about availability than money might choose that route.  Or authors who think most of their sales will be through print might go with the NY publishers.

But soon, as Mike Shatzkin mentioned, some bookseller or wholesaler will likely step into that opportunity and find a way to offer print books for wide distribution.  The pros and cons of this decision will change day-by-day, book-by-book, and author-by-author.

I read a self-published book by Susan Bischoff last week that could stand toe-to-toe with traditionally published books (and if you’ve read my blog before, you know I’m a nitpicky perfectionist, so that’s saying something about how professional her book is).  The vehicle she used to get that ebook into my hands wasn’t important.  Only the story and characters were important.  And I think most readers would say the same thing.

The one thing we should not do is attack each other for our choices.  Everyone must decide what makes the most sense for them.  Let’s celebrate that valid choices now exist and not deify or demonize people for whatever they decide.

As a reader, do you pay attention to the publisher before buying a book?  Or do you go off the cover, reviews, blurb, and recommendations?  How much do you think the vehicle for getting a book into a reader’s hands matters?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Laura Pauling

I think this matter is in the minds of writers right now. What amazed me about Nathan’s post was his conclusion. That if you’re writing a midlist book that you’ll do better profit wise by self publishing. That’s huge.

Patrick Ross

I support the idea of self-publishing. I recently had a guest post by a self-published author on my blog, and I conducted a video interview of a self-published author last year.

That said, as a reader I’ll confess a certain bias to works released by a publisher. It’s a gatekeeper, yes, but a gatekeeper whose reputation is on the line with every work it publishes. I suspect I’m not alone among lovers of books regarding that bias.

Susan Bischoff

Thanks, Jami!

I’m looking up at your tags and realizing that I forgot to tag the post I just wrote. Grrr.

I actually talked about some of the same stuff today, quite by coincidence, having come to it from something else entirely. Eventually, we’re just going to get tired of talking about it and find something else to fight out. As it stands now, I think the bulk of readers couldn’t care less who published the damn book.

The thing of it is, when you don’t care about something, you DON’T CARE enough to mention that you don’t care. So the only comments we see are from people who actually do. So they seem like a lot of people, squeaky wheel or some such metaphor, but they’re really not. (Which is what my post was sort of more about today, how skewed ways of seeing numbers make us crazy.)

Yeah, I get comments from aspiring authors who say: I loved your book and it’s so awesome that you’re indie! You totally inspire me as I’m working on releasing my first book. (And those are awesome, btw. :has dorky grin:) But I also get a lot of comments from people who don’t mention my means of publication, because…wait for it…they don’t care!

If it matters, it’s because we’re continuing to make it matter every time we choose to engage.

Nice post, Jami. I like the comparison of Hocking with Eisler.

Shellie Sakai

I agree. I look for books because I like what I read or the author not the publisher. I could care less how the book got published. And now that I have a choice of ebook or traditional, I care even less. And as a writer I want my book to reach as many people as possible. So it will come down to how I can get my book in the hands of more people. I understand Amanda’s decision and also Barry’s. It was a hard one for both of them to make, but, they are thinking of the readers first.

Thanks Jami for another great blog! Susan, off to buy your book now. Can’t wait to read it! 😀


Hi Jami!

Great comparisons. I happen to agree with you. It does come down to what makes sense to the individual writer and what works best for them.


Imani Wisdom
Imani Wisdom

Great comparison! I’m a new to the literary world and your piece has helped shed light on the two.

Lili Tufel

Hi Jami,
I love your blog 🙂
My brother in-law is a Grammy nominated music engineer and my sister was actually one of the people who talked me into going Indie. My sister has compared the music industry to the publishing industry many times. I’m not going to tell anyone which side to take but we can definitely learn from many examples in the music industry.

Sonia M.

I still lean towards traditional publishing as my first choice but I love that self-publishing is becoming a viable option. There are definite benefits to both models.

Lisa Gail Green

I really enjoyed this post because you hit the nail on the head. Both sides have valid points and we shouldn’t demonize each other for our choices, but be supportive instead. Well done!

M.E. Anders
M.E. Anders

As a reader, I could care less about the publisher. I read the blurbs, comments, and reviews to weigh the benefit of both buying and reading the book.

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

We would all like 6-7 figure contracts, but the chances of that happening are about as likely as being struck by lightning or winning the lottery. Oh, that reminds me I need to buy one for tomorrow night’s Powerball. I digress. However, it’s the dream and will continue to be until there are enough examples of megastars going self pub.

Orlando Ramos

I am new to your blog, just found it today. I love the review you have posted. I agree with your view, that it is only a matter of choice. When I go to the supermarket, I see the name brands selling for ridiculous prices, and the no name products for much less. What I don’t see are the name brands going out of business. I only see more options for the consumer. I feel it’s the same with the self publishing and traditional publisher; more options. Options, is what makes our country great.

Jill Kemerer

You and I have the same thing on our mind today. I agree with your assessment. I’m tired of people bashing traditional publishing, but I’m thrilled to see everyday writers find success with self-publishing. I just want a good book!

Andrew Mocete

I wrote a post about this a couple weeks ago called The Battle of Who Could Care less because really, unless you’re in the writing/publishing community, you don’t even know this battle is going on.

Sure, it’s interesting for us, but readers want entertainment at a reasonable price. How it got to them is not even on their mind. Eventually there will be so much good coming from both spectrums, the distinction will be totally gone.

Kait Nolan

Yes absolutely! I really think the best part of self publishing is that, on many levels, it puts power back into the authors’ hands. A power that they never really had before, actually, since publishers held the keys to distribution. With that no longer an issue, and with the ability of ALL stories to get into the hands of the public, I think we stand to wind up with a richer pool of available work (even as the dregs increase and sink to the bottom) as the readers get a bigger say in what becomes popular and gets the bigger push.

Jamie DeBree

Great post, Jami. Enough with the attacks indeed – this is a great time to be a writer, and there’s just no need for all the conflict (off the page, anyway). 😉

Gene Lempp
Gene Lempp

Insightful post Jami 🙂

I think this matters far more to a writer than to a reader. I know I’ve never bought a book based on the publisher medium. I’ve bought them based on the title, subject matter, author name, friend recommendation and blurb/page one scan, but never notice the publisher, in general, until halfway through the book (if ever).

One advantage NY Trads have appears to be in the editing process (and of course print distribution), however with POD services the print distribution for a book can be as broad as ebook distribution. Really it comes down to editing. If you self publish you will have to go it on your own or hire a review editor.

Hot topic in our world right now, but you are so right that the “new way” is not a religion, makes me think of Saturn cars for some reason, and that writing, in the end, is a business and these choices should be approached by careful choice to attain what is best for both the writer and the need of the readers that support them.

Great topic choice, thanks Jami!

Suzanne Johnson

Great topic, Jami! I’ll add one thing to your statement “Right now, NY publishers have the edge in print availability, as Nathan Bransford pointed out. So authors who are more concerned about availability than money might choose that route. ”

Unless your self-pub work sells very, very well, you will likely get more in advance from a NY publisher than you’ll ever make from your self-pub book, even if your NY book doesn’t sell through and start earning extra royalties. The Big Six publishers still offer decent advances. To me, along with the distribution issue, that gives them an edge. Of course you give up a lot of control and things move at a snail’s pace so there’s a big tradeoff.

Jami's Tech Guy

Great post Jami!

I see the great Self vs. Traditional publishing debate as one of those oft frustrating intra-profession arguments / holy wars.

Being in tech, I hear them all the time. People always ask me which Operation System I prefer, hoping that I’ll choose the one that they like best and justify their own preference. My answer usually blows their mind.

When it comes to Windows, Mac, or Linux I answer “None, they all stink but in different ways.” Because it is true, each has it’s own advantages and disadvantages. Operating systems are tools. The real goal is to accomplish the task that one sets out to do. Choose the tool that will help you perform the task or in the worst case, the one that will least impede your progress.

Self-publishing vs Traditional is similar. Pick the method that will help you accomplish your goals. Yes, your heart may tug in one direction or the other but your goals require you to sometimes be an agnostic in those religious wars.


Terry Odell

Until I was published, I never noticed (or cared) who published a book. I’ve been with both digital and print publishers, and have seen phenomenal changes in the past few years. I’ve always said it’s about choices. I’ve gone indie with my backlist, and am seriously considering putting up a few original works as well, for many of the reasons mentioned by others — timing, doesn’t fit a print publisher’s mold. I recently returned from Left Coast Crime, and there were 2 panels on publishing: one filled with the industry professionals, and another made up of authors who’ve gone the indie route. Both had very interesting things to say.

Terry’s Place
Romance with a Twist–of Mystery


This is an important topic right now, especially with Eisler and Konrath telling us we’d all be a lot better off if traditional publishing just accepted its fate, blackened its windows and went into early retirement. I wrote about this very topic the other day on my blog, For the Love of Bookshops. While I think self-publishing is a perfectly viable (and often lucrative) option for some authors (especially those writing for genres like thriller, romance and YA), it disturbs me to think that some people would be happy to see traditional publishing done away with since literary fiction and literary criticism still depend on traditional it. Without traditional publishing, I worry that high-quality writers of literature would have few outlets for getting their work into readers hand. Perhaps this should change and will change in the near future. But for now, authors of literary fiction can’t rely on self-publishing, not like authors of other genres. We need our literary fiction, folks, and so, for now, we need traditional publishing.

Tom Honea

jami … i can’t imagine that a writer who has the choice will go the self-publication route. … we are writers: not publicist or distributors or bankers. we want to do what we do best and what we enjoy. however … some of us, new writers especially, have to look at this choice from an “almost no option” point of view. . i have come to put (most) agents into two catagories: those who are young, who are still building a solid client base. they don’t relate to my writing: literary fiction. … and … those agents who understand what i write. they are older, established. they don’t need another new client, especially a rookie. most of the writers who self-publish are not turning out quality stuff. they are never going to get an agent or publisher. … then, there are new writers who have really good stuff, but who haven’t gotten that magic phone call yet. they … we, i put myself in that group … at some point are going to have to make the decision: am i going to continue pushing against that 900 pound marshmellow ( traditional publishing ) , or am i going to self-publish; hit the road … become my own banker and distributor and salesman. wish us luck, either way.

PW Creighton

That is the best post I’ve seen yet on the subject. I think the problem lies in the how each have been portrayed for years. Unpublished authors see traditional publishing as almost unattainable and publishers/published authors have always looked down on self-publishing. It’s difficult to change perceptions that have been ingrained for what seems like forever. I do think Bob Mayer is right based on what happened with Amanda Hocking. The future filter for publishers will be self-publishing. If you’re a success then you already pass muster.

Carla Krae
Carla Krae

This exactly. I’m tired of us-vs-them talk. It’s about what’s best for *this* book and *this* author. I see the options as diversification, just like I’d do for an investment portfolio. If a book can get an agent, great. If another would be hot at an e-pub, fabulous. Self-publishing electronically opened up a whole new option for books that don’t fit – the author no longer has to spend thousands to create copies of it. I’ll be the first to say format and edit and package the absolute best you can, but the control can be comforting…..and you’ve lost nothing but time by letting the e-book be on Amazon or PubIt or Smashwords.

So yeah, I wish name-calling didn’t come into these discussions.


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