Self-publish vs trad – who works hardest?

American crime novellist Sue Grafton got indie and self-published authors’ blood boiling the other week by suggesting that they were too lazy to do the hard yards – they hadn’t paid their dues.

That copped a broadside from British indie writer Adam Croft, according to a report in The Guardian. Self-published authors, he was reported as arguing, aren’t lazy; they have to do everything themselves, including proofing, finding editors, getting covers designed and all the sales and marketing. But it seems to me they were debating different issues. One point is not the rebuttal of the other, and I think both of them are right and wrong, to some extent.

Grafton actually has a point about the quality of some self-published stuff. But it is also true that much self-published material is good – and the author has to work as publisher, promoter, writer and agent. Equally, while some mainstream publishers look for commercial returns – lowest common denominator tripe they can spit out in fifty different shades of grey – many also publish good material, and they don’t accept rubbish.

To some extent, Grafton’s point about dues being paid has merit. Being rejected by mainstream publishers forces authors to learn from mistakes. Experience counts. I’ve seen self-published material where the author is well aware of the theory of writing. But not to the point where it becomes unconscious – their material reads like a student exercise. Doing the publisher hard yards helps that transition from ‘conscious competence’ to ‘unconscious competence’. But self-publishers can do that, too. The trick is not to release early; and in this brave new world the single most important skill is self-critique.

Now, I’ve not just been a writer; I’ve also worked as a publisher. And I know what that involves. So in my experience of both sides of the coin, I think the self-publish road is the harder in terms of workload, because of all the things that go with publishing. There’s a lot of it. Authors with publishing contracts don’t have to do that. Self-published or indie authors do.

It is also the likely way that things are going to go, too – the difficulty now is not being published. It’s being discovered. And that’s true for established authors, too.

What are your thoughts on this one?

Copyright © Matthew Wright

13 thoughts on “Self-publish vs trad – who works hardest?

  1. Yes, I followed the vitriolic responses to Sue Grafton’s comments which raised hackles throughout the indie publishing world. It was unfortunate for Sue that her remarks, reasonably accurate when read in context, were bandied about in the headlines of numerous articles and provoked a wicked backlash from many hardworking self-pub authors who felt they were being unjustly criticised.

    Your article presents a calm and fair assessment (the trolls won’t flame you for this one!). The critical path to success for any author, either self- or trad- published, is discovery – and that takes HARD work, long hours, and great persistence. A bit of luck wouldn’t hurt either! The readers are the new gatekeepers and that is a much more democratic process than relying on the mainstream publishers’ guesses as to what will be successful.


    1. Thank you. I think you’re right, too, that e-publishing has effectively democratised the writing process. The onus, as never before, is on authors to produce quality – and that can only come from hard work!


  2. I think the publishing industry is being rattled by the same thing that faces many other mediums. “Weekend warriors” are undercutting wedding photographers, many magazines are shifting their content to an online world and will often license micro-stock imagery instead of hiring a professional like they would’ve done in the ’90s. Journalists are being sacked and user-generated content is appearing more often in their place. It is now possible for film makers to “self publish” through video sharing sites such as YouTube and some do very very well from it both directly and indirectly.

    Anyone who works in a creative medium needs to be willing to embrace change and use it to their advantage instead of fighting it. Resistance is futile!

    Grafton is already successful and I’m sure will continue to be so, but it seems to me that she sees self-publishing as a threat to her status. There has always been and will always be a difference between those who are successful enough to make a living out of their craft and those who do it on the side. The biggest change in my opinion is that the gap between the two is a lot more blurry than it used to be.


    1. I agree – we’ve got a sea-change in a lot of areas, all deriving from the same ‘information revolution’. And, as you say, it’s a matter of embracing it rather than fighting. To me, the answer is quality – the best writers (and photographers, and film-makers, artists and so on) will rise to the top irrespective of how they’re published. The challenge is finding the good stuff amid the dross; and the ways of doing that, I think, are still shaking down.


  3. Interesting discussion, there seem to be a number of provocative opinions and narrow quotes being bandied about from quarters that may perhaps be coming under some threat or at least a requirement to change if not to embrace the evolving new.

    Just yesterday Peter Stothard, chair of the Man Booker Prize judges, grabbed headlines with a warning that Book Bloggers are harming literature, although even from that line it could be inferred that The Guardian is using a little creative licence to provoke. It has sparked an interesting debate nevertheless.

    I think it is great that self publishing is experiencing a boom and that bloggers are there to sift and read and share to assist readers to find the gems, because yes indeed it has become very simple for almost anyone to publish; it’s opened the floodgates and traditional media are finding the old ways of connecting with what their public wish to read ever more difficult unless they themselves embrace change and open their doors to new ways of coping with it.

    This is also about a whole new generation rising up, who are already using different tools and who move quickly onto the next thing – so I guess if they’re not riding the wave, they’ll quickly get dumped in the sand.


    1. It’s the speed of change and the disposability of product that’s become the thing; one of my publishers was telling me, last time I met them, that trad print books no longer have much of a long sales tail. Typically, they last about twelve months. Another factor pushing people towards e-books (which, I suspect, will have a similar pattern). Sign of the times, I suspect.


  4. Being discovered. That is key. My book was published pseudo-traditionally. My publisher is Anaphora Literary Press. My publicist, me. My agent, me. My editor, me. I was an am proud to have been published, but how do I get the word out? My book has been well reviewed by many respected reviewers, but I ain’t been “discovered” yet. Therein lies the rub.

    S. Thomas Summers
    Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War


    1. Being discovered by the audience is one of the hardest aspects of writing, even for an author with a major publisher behind them. Those with a smaller publisher – and selling on the internet – face a task that is a whole order of magnitude more difficult. I am not sure of the answer, other than persistence – and never losing either hope or faith in oneself.


  5. I’ve been holed up for a bit, so hadn’t heard about Grafton’s comments until now. But I think she has a point, and the key sentence in your post (IMO) is “Being rejected by mainstream publishers forces authors to learn from mistakes.”

    Those who want to write a book and sell it quickly are rarely putting in the hours of practice and critiques needed to produce good writing. Those who write to sell it to a mainstream publisher, even if they choose to go Indie later, are inherently reaching for a higher bar. The knowledge that it has to pass a certain number of gatekeepers keeps a writer working for the best it can possibly be. I think the successful self-pubbed and Indie authors are the ones who aim for the quality, no matter how long it takes.


    1. There’s no question in my mind – rejection, providing it’s taken constructively and used positively, helps authors. It worked for me, which is why I wrote that sentence. The technique to advance from it is pretty much summed up by the Japanese concept of ‘kaisen’.

      A lot of the best indies are definitely trad-published authors first. One of the big issues we face, actually, is the fact that modern publishing tends to leave the back-list to languish; whereas it probably has a good if small life as an e-book, if only it could be published as such.


  6. I agree that there are two sides to the coin. However, it is very difficult to be separated from the ‘crowd’ of independent publishers who are producing poor quality stuff. There are also a lot of immoral tactics being undertaken to hoodwink potential readers into their stuff being good. For example, just yesterday I joined Authonomy – a social networking and review website. Within minutes I was inundated with questionable reviews about my work and advice on areas (both good and bad). Fair enough (if they were real) but what really made me feel uncomfortable was being virtually bullied into ‘you have space on your virtual bookshelf, please add my book on there, 5 star me and back my book’. There were also trolls on there that looked specifically for new people joining the site, ‘offering advice’ then hinting very strongly of the merits of ‘doing them a favour’. By the end of the day I’d turned the automatic ‘anybody can email me’ message off and am taking a break from the site. I still have books in my ‘virtual bookshelf’ of stuff that I didn’t want to add/hadn’t read. I felt bullied into adding it!
    My point is this – at the moment, it’s difficult for anybody to separate the wheat from the chaff.


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