Every day it seems another superstar self-publisher signs with one of the Big 6.
In April, Darcie Chan, author of the New York Times and USA Today bestselling novel The Mill River Recluse, signed a two-book deal with Ballantine Bantam Dell. In May, Sylvia Day inked a “major deal” (over $500K) with Berkley for Bared to You, and two more books in her Crossfire trilogy. And in June, Tracey Garvis Graves, author of the wildly popular novel On the Island, inked a seven-figure deal with Dutton/Plume.
And why not? For many indie authors, publishing with a big New York house is the ultimate coup. First (and second and third), there’s the prestige of being anointed by a legacy house. There’s also the fact that many houses offer indie authors an advance against royalties, which—even if an indie author is making more money by selling their book on their own—provides a certain level of long-term security.
Traditional publishing houses also take responsibility for editing, designing and producing books, and the larger houses have powerful marketing departments to garner traditional media attention. And then there’s the sales force to ensure widespread distribution (what writer doesn’t want to see his or her books on actual shelves?).
Like many of her peers, Darcie Chan always hoped to publish with a traditional house. “As a writer,” she says, “I’d love to get my work into the hands of as many readers as I can.” With their substantial resources, her publisher can help her reach more readers than she could on her own. And now, with a publishing team to provide editorial and other expertise and to handle the nuts and bolts of the process, she has more time to write. For Chan, these benefits outweigh the lower royalty rate.
Like Chan, Garvis Graves was “doing just fine” on her own. When three major publishers made offers for On the Island, she faced a decision. Her decision was not only about On the Island: she had the fate of her next book as well as her overall career objectives to consider. Ultimately, she signed the deal. “I’ve never been more certain about a decision in my life,” she says.
No question, stars like Chan and Garvis Graves can benefit from the muscle of a legacy house. For most lesser-known authors, the outlook isn’t as rosy. Advances are often meager and paid out over time—in some cases as long as five years, according to agent April Eberhardt, founder of April Eberhardt Literary, a self-described “literary change agent.” If a book doesn’t “earn out”—sales don’t cover the advance—the house may pass on the author’s next book or may offer a significantly lower advance.
For the lucky few, the publisher markets aggressively. The reality is, resources are limited and not all books get the royal treatment. If a book “fails”—i.e., doesn’t meet the publisher’s expectations—even if the failure resulted from a lackluster marketing effort—the book is often abandoned, leaving its author with little recourse except to watch her book die or attempt to negotiate a reassignment of rights.
Luckily, publishing with a legacy house is no longer the only—or for many authors even the best—way to publish. AsLibby Johnson McKee, Managing Director of CreateSpace, Amazon’s self-publishing arm, points out, “It’s about having the right tool for the right book at the right moment.”
“This is a frontier moment. Everything is changing.” – Daniel Slager, Publisher and CEO, Milkweed Editions
In 2002, when bestselling author Barry Eisler started out, legacy publishing was the only game in town. “I was thrilled just to have been anointed,” he says. Eisler published eight books with major houses, the last three hitting the NYT extended list; in 2011, frustrated by his publishers’ “incompetence . . . in even the most basic business decisions,” he turned to self-publishing, and quickly became an industry star.
Today, forward-thinking authors like Eisler evaluate individual books, specific objectives, and long-term career goals—and choose the publishing option that best suits their own needs and priorities. There is no one-size-fits-all publishing option, Eisler says. There is, however, “a proper framework by which all writers should approach the decision. That framework begins with asking, ‘What are my objectives?’”
For authors who wish to publish traditionally but don’t fit the big house profile, independent houses can be a great option. The NY Times calls acclaimed author Jessica Treadway, winner of the prestigious Flannery O’Conner Award for Short Fiction for her 2010 collection, Please Come Back to Me, “a writer with an unsparing bent for the truth.” Of her experiences with Graywolf and University of Georgia Press Treadway says: “I had the benefit of brilliant, learned editors—that is, editors with whom I literally sat down or exchanged detailed messages—who definitely helped my manuscripts be better books.”
While small houses have neither the resources to pay huge advances nor the marketing clout of a major publisher, they do enjoy a reputation for nurturing talent. Daniel Slager, Publisher and CEO of Milkweed Editions, worked with one author for ten years. A nonprofit, Milkweed isn’t subject to bean counters pressuring them to abandon books that don’t meet specific sales objectives. “We don’t give up on our authors,” Slager says. “We stand behind every author and book we publish. We keep our books in print.”
If control, time-to-market, and higher royalties are priorities, self-publishing may be the better choice. Like Eisler, Michael Prescott was a bestselling author with a traditional house. Since he turned indie, Prescott has sold over 1.1 million e-books on Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com. Among the advantages of self-publishing Prescott cites time to market and creative control: “You can put your book out a lot faster, according to your own schedule, with the cover and title you want. And you can write the book you want to write, not what your publisher tells you to write.” Self-publishers have more direct contact with readers, he says, and self-publishing offers the possibility—“though by no means the certainty”—of making a lot of money in a short period of time.
Today, there are three main self-publishing methods, each with hybrid options: full-service subsidy houses, which charge a (sometimes hefty) fee to publish books; inexpensive DIY platforms, such as CreateSpace; and assisted self-publishing models, or publishing partnerships, in which the author controls the publishing and distribution processes, usually with the help of contracted professionals.
In the old days, vanity houses were the only self-publishing option and most self-pubbed books were badly designed and poorly produced, Today authors can produce high quality books using any of these methods—and some authors combine methods, based on a specific project or need. An author may publish one or more books traditionally and work with a publishing partner—or use a DIY platform—to publish his backlist or bring a book with topical interest to the market faster than he otherwise could.
Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Vitez, a veteran staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer, published his new title, The Road Back, with CreateSpace. “I went with CreateSpace because my agent recommended it,” he says. “The print-on-demand options seemed fantastic and the quality seemed high.”
Like Darcie Chan, romance writer T.R. Ragan wanted her books to be available to as many readers as possible. With Createspace, the royalties are good, she says, “and my books are offered in Europe, too.”
Publishing partnerships, a hybrid option for serious authors who wish to maintain control without doing all the work, are gaining in popularity. Partnering with agents and other industry pros gives authors a way stand out from the crowd, while eliminating some of the time-draining aspects of self-publishing.
If Michael Prescott were starting out today, he’d be tempted to go the indie route from book one. Ideally, he’d hire an editor and copy-editor to make his work as professional as possible, he says. “By using skilled professionals, you get the best of both worlds—the freedom and maneuverability afforded by self-publishing, combined with the structured procedures and editorial feedback that are part of the traditional publishing experience.”
Because bookstore placement remains difficult for indie authors, some prefer to publish only in eBook format. Apple, Barnes and Noble’s Pubit, Smashwords, Amazon’s Kindle Direct Program, and others offer inexpensive, easy-to-use DIY platforms. The same services can be purchased through publishing partners, who will format and upload the book for you.
It’s hard to predict whether the trend of indie authors signing lucrative deals with Big 6 houses will continue. The likely answer is yes. Meanwhile, traditionally published authors will continue to go indie, whether to accomplish personal goals like earning higher royalties or publishing an out-of-print backlist or, as Jackie Collins recently did, to get in on the action, to see what self-publishing is all about.
As more authors evaluate their choices, the lines between “traditional” and “indie” will continue to blur, until, one day soon, the boundaries will disappear. “This is a frontier moment,” Slager says. “Everything is changing.” This means a lot of opportunity—for publishers, for all authors, and especially for readers.
Terri Giuliano Long is a frequent guest blogger, with appearances on dozens of blogs, as well as a contributing writer for IndieReader and Her Circle eZine. She lives with her family on the East Coast and teaches at Boston College. Her debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, a Global eBook Award finalist, received an Indie Discovery Award for Literary Fiction, 2012, and was a Kindle Bestseller for more than 6 months. For more information, please visit her website or blog. Or connect on Facebook or Twitter.