Publishing: Indie or Traditional?

Photo Credit: Laenulfean on Flickr
We are now faced with a choice. A choice that, ten years ago, wasn’t even a consideration. To go indie? Or to go traditional?

What makes the decision so difficult is that there isn’t a wrong option, per say. Both routes have significant pros and cons and regardless of which option you choose, you take a risk.

A Look at Traditional

Let’s say you choose traditional publishing. If all goes well, you get an agent, who then brings your manuscript to a publisher, who then gets it published. What are the pros and cons?


  • Extra eyes on your work—you have an agent who looks at it first, who will likely help you edit it before you send it out to publishers. The publisher then has their own group of editors who go through it and help you improve it even further. It’s a team effort.

  • Don’t worry about covers, formatting or distribution—this one is pretty self-explanatory. If you publish traditionally, those things are out of your hands. You can focus on writing.

  • Career support—this is especially true if you have an agent (as opposed to submitting directly to publishers). I’ve never had an agent, but from what I’ve seen, agents are there to help you grow as a writer and develop your career. Many agents are in it for the long haul with their clients. They want to see you succeed.

  • Your work on the shelves—the bricks-and-mortar shelves, that is. For many writers, walking into a bookstore and seeing their book on the shelf is a dream come true.


  • Publishing takes time—a lot of time. The average I’ve seen about is around two years, but it depends. Regardless, these things don’t come quickly. You have to be patient.

  • Advances are dropping—I’m no expert in this field, nor do I claim to be, however, from what I’ve read, it seems the advances are dipping much lower than they used to be. Blame the e-books or Borders closing, but it is what it is.

  • Low royalties—this is nothing new. Royalties for the author have always been much lower than they should be (in my opinion, anyway). This is especially true for e-books—regardless of what publishers offer you, it’s not going to be the 70% (or 35%) you can get from Amazon.

  • Selling your rights—how important this one is really depends on the person. Some people don’t blink an eye at the thought of selling their rights, while others take it much more seriously. Regardless of where you stand, when you go traditional, many of your rights are sold. Period.

  • Little control—again, some people care about this, others don’t. But when you go traditional, things like book cover and formatting aren’t up to you. It can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you see it.

What about Indies?

Or maybe you go indie. But the DIY road isn’t all daisies and sunshine (or doom and gloom) either. Some pros and cons:


  • Full control—this is both a pro and a con really, because everything is your responsibility. You have full control over the cover, the formatting, the editing and marketing. If one of those things are lacking, that’s on you. On the other hand, if you do a fantastic job you can pat yourself on the back because you managed it alone. And you did it exactly the way you wanted to.

  • Faster publication—once you upload you can have your book up on the e-book market in a matter of days. Viola. You’ve been published.

  • Higher royalties—how much you get depends on how you price your e-book, but the way I understand it, if you price your book somewhere between $2.99-$9.99 you get 70% royalties. Anything lower and you get 35%. Either way, it’s more than you get from traditional.

  • Never go out of print—this is something not many people talk about, but it’s a pretty big plus to indie publishing. E-books don’t go out of print, so as long as you don’t take it down, you could hypothetically sell your e-books forever. That’s a long time.

  • Keep your rights—this is also self-explanatory. Indie publishing gives you the chance to sell your books without giving away your rights. Good deal if you care about that.


  • Full control—told you it’s also a con. Full control is great, but it can also be expensive. If you don’t have the skills, you’ll need to hire a cover designer. If you have trouble with formatting, you might need to hire outside help. Editing? Editors are insanely helpful, too—and not often free. Or you can do it completely yourself. It’s up to you.

  • No gatekeepersthis may not sound like a con, but it is. It’s hard for writers to look at their own work and decide if it’s ready. Sometimes it seems ready, but it’s not until much later that you realize it needed a lot more work, after all. And if you published prematurely, it might be a little late for that.

  • Stigma—it isn’t as bad as it used to be, but it’s still there. By going indie, you have to accept that not everyone will consider it a legitimate form of publishing. The fact is, there are a lot of self-published books that were uploaded way before they were ready. Your job is to prove that you’re different—and it’s not always easy.

  • Not in bookstores—this is a huge deal for some writers. Call it what you want, but many writers dream about the day they can walk into a bookstore and see their work on the shelves. Chances are this won’t happen if you go indie (unless you cross over, of course, but that’s another matter entirely).

Neutral Point: Marketing

Regardless of which option you choose, you’re going to have to learn how to market yourself. Publishers don’t put a huge amount of marketing into every single book they publish—let’s face it, they can’t. There are simply too many books. Some books will get more of a push than others, but either way some of it comes back down to you.

Do you have an online presence? It doesn’t matter which publishing road you choose—you’re going to need one. A blog, a Twitter, a Facebook page, whatever works for you, but you’re going to need a way to promote yourself and promote your book.

Not only that, but this starts before you get published. So if you’re planning on publishing any time soon and you haven’t started building a name for yourself online, you might want to think about getting started.

In Conclusion…

Both are great options—what you need to decide is what’s best for you. Only you can decide if you’re prepared to do everything yourself or if you need the extra help traditional publishing can give you. Only you know if you can live with the fact that your book may never sit on a physical bookshelf. Only you can answer those questions.

But don’t deliberate forever—in the end, you have to make a decision. You have to make something happen. Your career isn’t going to start itself.

What are your thoughts—indie or traditional? Have you tried either one? What has your experience been like? 


Susankayequinn said...

Great pro/con list! I would add that going traditional doesn't guarantee getting on the shelves either (I know trad published authors that couldn't get their books on the shelves). Also, things are in a big flux in trad publishing right now, meaning that contracts can be especially tricky. Author-friends: make sure you have some legal-beagle assistance to look at those contracts before you sign. For indie, I would say not only is it unlikely that you can get your book on the shelve, but I'm also finding it very risky to do so - meaning you're subject to the same returns policies that are killing the publishers. So Indie's need to be careful about trying to negotiate that step to make sure they can make money at it, or at least reduce their exposure to losing money.

Great post!

Ava Jae said...

You make some really good points that I didn't think of when making my list. The other thing I thought of now is that getting an agent doesn't necessarily equate to selling a book (although I suppose that's more on a level of whether or not to get an agent, not necessarily indie vs. traditional publishing). 

Samuel_MacDonald said...

Hey guys, just wanted to get some advice. I have currently written the first novel in a trilogy and I am following Jeff Herman's guide to Literary Agents and Publishers. My trilogy is historical fiction and set in Nazi Germany predominantly on the Eastern Front. I have been receiving good feedback (roughly 1 response per 4 queries) from the big conglomerates but as yet no offers of a contract. I have decided that going to Australian publishers is a waste of time because the market is so small but for every 4 queries sent to the US it cost me an arm and leg. I am under no illusions that rejection is the name of the game but I am considering a change of strategy i.e headhunting an Agent or maybe...and I stress maybe look down the e-book path. Any advice would be terrific, thanks :)

Ava Jae said...

Hi Sam, 

Quick clarification: Have you been querying publishers or agents? 

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