Independent or mainstream publishing? That isn’t the question.

A few years ago, as the e-book revolution was getting under way, there was a good deal of buzz about where it might lead. The death of the bookstore? The death of the big-brand publishers? Freedom from the tyranny of the agent-publisher system that – to aspiring writers outside the industry – seemed to offer nothing other than barrier and heartbreak?

Sam Gamgee's house on Bagshot Row - where the very last scenes of The Lord of The Rings were shot.
Sam Gamgee’s house on Bagshot Row, Hobbiton movie set.

None of this has come to pass as people supposed. Inevitably. Agent names have disappeared from aspiring author blogs – they’re no longer the badge of credibility for the unpublished writer. The big-name publishing houses have bent but are not broken. Amazon has opened a hard-copy retail bookstore – an experiment, but one that I expect will lead to a chain, certainly in the US and perhaps worldwide.

And the debate over ‘independent or mainstream’ has also, largely, gone away. That debate was dominating discussions just five years ago. When it became possible for anybody to publish, it seemed that the way ahead was to do just that.

What happened? In hindsight it’s obvious. Being able to publish independently didn’t solve the problem of marketing. The bigger challenge became that of discovery – a barrier just as high and impenetrable as the old publisher-agent system. That was compounded by the fact that a lot of people leaped on the band-wagon, whether their work was any good or not – saturating the system with what US author Chuck Wendig has called a ‘shit volcano’.

The fact is that self-pubbing – let’s call it ‘independent publication’ – still demands the same quality standards as big-name commercial industry. That lesson has, I think, been learned. The down side is that it also carries similar costs: there is little choice but to hire artists, designers, proof-readers and so on.

A savvy indie publisher will be nimbler than the big-name houses, purely by virtue of scale; but by the same token marketing budgets will be much lower – that challenge of discovery again – with the difficulty of trying to make ends meet and to get distribution.

For established authors the new ‘e-book/Amazon’ paradigm also offers opportunities for back-list reissue that wouldn’t be economic for a mainstream publisher to tackle. I had a brief exchange of letters about this, earlier this year, with Australian author Faye Weldon. Using Amazon to pump out the back-list is a good strategy that a lot of authors are following these days.

So the issue, really, isn’t ‘either trad OR indie’, but actually ‘both’ – taking a savvy approach that exploits the best strengths of each publishing mechanism. Just to nail that, these are:

  1. Traditional publishing.

Pros: established marketing budgets, professional editorial/design, big-name branding, production risk carried by publisher, potential for high returns.

Cons: industry currently risk-averse, some titles not economic to handle, relatively slow to manoeuvre/produce, entry barriers still high for incoming writers.

  1. Independent publishing

Pros: no entry barrier, quick to produce, economic for books that don’t suit the trad system.

Cons: discovery, distribution system needs work, lower returns (mostly), publisher (author) carries all financial risk and has to meet all costs.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


10 thoughts on “Independent or mainstream publishing? That isn’t the question.

  1. Here in my city though, small and large book stores alike have closed up. Barnes and Noble is the only one left. I like the store, but miss the smaller ones.

  2. The entire industry has become a muddled mess and often the perspective shared depends upon an individual’s experience. I’ve read self-pub books over the last several years that were like hot pokers in my eyes. Often people focus on the editing or covers, but I more often run into writers who had plenty of money for both those elements, but had NO idea how to craft a story. NONE. At the same time, I’ve read my share of published books that left me numb at the end because they felt like the publisher’s goal was nothing more than to fill a genre quota. Dull. Boring. Unoriginal.

    The self-pub industry has produced entire new industries and more than a few predators looking to take advantage. I often hear from life coaches, editors, artists, small publishers, marketers, and (the worst) people wanting me to hire them to tweet for me. I’ve also begun hearing horror stories about publishers increasingly passing off more and more costs to authors: demanding considerable editing beforehand while dumping more of the marketing in the author’s lap (more social media responsibility and having to schedule their own book signings, etc.). All that while the publisher spends less and less on cover art, for instance.

    I spoke with several authors 18 months ago who wrote for Tor. They had books they’d written two years before that STILL weren’t released. Too, they had no idea what the cover art would look like and dared not complain because they feared Tor would send them down the road. Tor’s owner (or a subsidiary) also made an appearance on two panels, one where she plugged her company’s books and another where she took questions from the audience and made a habit of belittling the person. Good thing she inherited the company from daddy.

    Always, it seems, it’s the authors who suffer while business people take advantage.

  3. On the other hand, self-pubbing has saved many sincere writers from the joy-killing epithet of “failed.” Now we can make our creations available to the world, and if we fail at least it’s a better kind of failure than that of burial in the cardboard box.

  4. I have met some very talented indie authors, and the good ones, care about their craft. Sadly, there are a lot who don’t, and because of them, indie authors still get a bad name. I doubt we’ll every see that go away.

  5. More and more the hybrid author is becoming a thing, where the authors are both traditionally and self published. Self-published authors are increasingly seen on the best seller’s list. The transition to both is happening currently in publishing, and I’m quite excited for it. As for me, I’d consider myself a bit of both – I write fanfiction and original fiction, published online on the various sites, and I also have a book being traditionally published through Desert Palm Press. (If you like sci-fi, lesbians, and some kickass fights, check out Finding Hekate coming out in February 2016!)

    1. I think ‘both’ is the way ahead. If we conceptualise writers as running a small business, then the issue becomes one of finding ways by which income can be earned – of which both ‘self/indie pubbing’ and ‘traditional’ are complementary channels. Funnily enough, I’ve also just published a sci-fi story featuring lesbians! Must be the season.

  6. I self-published my first novel, but don’t want to go that route again. They gave me a huge discount to start with which made it affordable for me. Other charges were tacked on, but they were expected; so no problem. My biggest problem was that they published it in a 9 font. I’ve complained about before in a blog and various comments so I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say, I refused to pay for them to correct it. Once while I was talking to them a loud hoopla erupted in the background. A man yelled, “I just sold $5000…” The guy I was talking to snapped ‘Hold on’ and clicked me onto hold. The error in font size and that guy’s excitement gave me the impression that those self-publishers care only about the money and not my novel. They did a fantastic job on the cover and everyone comments about it. It got the book picked up, but it was put down fast because of font size. A friend of mine uses a small self-publishing press which I might go with if a brick and mortar publisher doesn’t work out.

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