Indie vs. Traditional Publishing

One of the nicest things to see on the internet is watching a pointless argument actually cool off instead of pouring on even more heat. It’s rare, but it does happen, just like it did for the ongoing argument between established authors who published through the traditional houses and the upstarts like me who went the indie or self-publishing route.

castleAt the start of 2012, about the time I made my own decision to go Indie, the two camps were digging trenches and sharpening spears. Those in the traditional camp stood high upon the walls of their New York castles, confident in their righteous gatekeepers, and looked out upon the raging barbarians and called them deluded fools. Meanwhile, the indie camp moved openly through the fields with confidence and shook their heads at the poor word-slaves held prisoner within those very same New York castles. Between them raged a war of words so vast and vehement that I can only imagine how many novels slipped off to next year because of the wasted effort.

But now things have cooled down. The two camps are hardly seeing eye to eye, but I’m seeing some grudging acceptance in both camps.

What happened to change their minds? Well, I’m sure that some of it was merely them running out of steam. Even the most strident partisans eventually wear themselves out. They might say there is no point in trying to educate their idiotic opposition or that they are merely taking a brief respite from the fight, but when you add it up across the ranks, the volume has been turned down from its once-epic volume.

nomoneyinhandBut there were also some reality checks on both sides. Thousands of indie authors tossed out their one and only book, pounded out the marketing, and inexplicably did NOT become millionaires. For that matter, most did not even make $1000. It became clear that we would not all be breakout successes like Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and E. L. James. Just like in traditional publishing, those were going to be the rare exception. Many realized that one book will not give them a living wage and that they did not have the patience and stamina to keep at it for ten or fifteen books before seeing much success.

Meanwhile, cracks spread through the New York castle walls. One of the best-selling SF books in 2012 was Wool, self-published by its author Hugh Howey. Another best-seller was the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, another self-publishing breakout. Also, major authors started pulling their electronic rights back from the traditional publishers. Specifically, J. K. Rowling decided to publish the e-book versions of the Harry Potter series herself, and I have personally heard a number of older authors talk about putting up some of the backlist for sale themselves and “making more on it now than I ever did before.” Throw in a price-fixing lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice, a merger or two, and those castle walls are starting to look a lot less stable.

We’re also seeing some crossover with indie authors grabbing traditional contracts and traditionally published authors walking away to go indie. Some of those moving into the New York castles talk about finally seeing their books on a bookstore shelf, while those moving out into the open fields talk about having the kind of control they always wanted but never had. And after years of everyone saying the only path to publishing was to get an agent, we’re seeing several examples of New York publishers looking at successful indie books as their new slush pile.

While both sides are starting to question the certainty of their righteous cause, it’s important to note what is really coming out of all this. It’s not that one side is right and the other side wrong. It’s that traditional publishing is right for some people and some situations while indie publishing is right for other people and other situations.

The bottom line is that we should all be trying to make the decision that is right for ourselves. These will vary according to our goals, our personalities, and where we are on this particular journey. Am I making the right decision for myself? I honestly don’t know, but I do know that I’m in a better position to know than anyone else, whether it’s some illiterate slob or the CEO of Random House.