Friday, November 14, 2014

How to Choose YOUR Path From the Countless Options Available: Big Five, Independent, or Self-Publishing?

You've written your novel. Now what? Choosing your publishing path is not as easy as it once was, and the traditional publishing deal that was so esteemed might not be the best option (anymore) for you today. Self-publishing might have moved from being a "second choice," seen as the ugly duckling amongst the options, to a very reputable first!

Of course, it all depends on your aims. Are you looking for a wide audience, lots of guidance, or a big paycheck? Take the following points into consideration and make your choice based on them. I did not have them laid out as nicely for myself, and I can tell you it's not at all easy and incredibly time-consuming to go from zero to expert.

On a similar note: I have just finished my novel and it is on its way to a publisher that I have developed a particular interest in. My personal second choice, however, is Amazon CreateSpace. More on that as it progresses!

Three Primary Publishing Routes

*Annual writing income for differently-published authors (in
percentages) from Digital Book World in 2013
Before going into the specifics of the different options available to authors, it is important to realize that there are three main paths to choose from:
  1. The Big Five
  2. Independent Presses
  3. Self-publishing
As you are most likely aware of, 'The Big Five' encompasses the giants like Penguin Random House, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster. Though it is an honor (as well as a very unlikely chance of) getting in here, it might or might not be the best option for you. Depending of course on what your aims are. Anyway, keep reading and you'll find out.

Independent presses include W. W. Norton and Publishing Genius Press, amongst others. They are the presses that are not part of large conglomerates, and they oftentimes specialise in specific areas. Independent presses are also known as "small presses" or "indie publishers."

Lastly, self-publishing is, well, publishing that you do... yourself. In other words, you have full control, but also full responsibility. Some well-known self-publishing platforms are Lightning Source and Amazon CreateSpace (click here to learn the specifics of both, and how to decide between them if these two both appear to be at the top of your list).

With all this choice, it's a great time to be a (publishing) author, don't you think? But, of course, how do you decide? If your aim of publishing has to do with the revenue you, as an author, will receive, check out the Author Earnings diagram below. If not, check out the rest of this report to find out all the pros and cons (including finances, sales, responsibilities, etc.) of each option!

1) The Big Five - Traditional Publishers

First of all, if you have not already done so, check out my previous blog post discussing the differences (pros and cons) of both traditional publishing and self-publishing. Keep those points in mind when deciding, and certainly have a look at the following additional ones as well:

  • You're more likely to find your books in libraries.
  • Traditional publishers do more than just dump content into an e-reader (depending, however, on your own reputation and prestige - see 'cons'). They take responsibility for publicity, cover art, editing, copy-editing, printing. When self-publishing, you do everything on your own, which takes time as well as money.
  • Though things are rapidly changing, it cannot be denied that publishing with "the Big Five" (there's a reason they're called 'Big,' with capital 'B') adds credibility to your work. Not only does this shine through to your audience, it will also give you a big confidence boost about your own abilities.

  • "Unless you are related to and/or sleeping with Mister Harper or Mister Collins, you will need to find an agent" (Huffington Post). This is not necessarily problematic, but realize that an agent does take some of the share and requires an extra deal of effort to get in contact with. 
  • Also, know you're in for rejection. You'll only come out alive if you can distance yourself from the criticism and harsh feedback (though, generally, none is even included with big and busy companies like these), which is bound to come.
  • Understand that you still have to do the lion's share of the marketing yourself. On Huffington Post I read - and was surprised to learn that - with a Big Five company, published authors Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry's ""marketing team" consisted of one guy who looked like he was 15 years old, and had 10 books coming out that week, and 10 books coming out the next week, and 10 books coming out the week after that. When [they] told him [their] grand and fabulous ideas he said in a cracking voice, "Well, good luck with that."" That's the reality: Unless you're Stephen King or J. K. Rowling, you'll receive several press releases and a few copies of your book, and for the rest you're disregarded. You'll get lost in the big names.
  • A manuscript can take years to become a book.
  • Tweet: Regarding e-books, 63% of Big Five revenue comes from "old" clients with Kindle debuts before 2009. This means that you have fairly little chance of getting in as a new author. Far more "new" indie authors are making a good living from their Kindle e-books than "new" Big Five ones, which is not necessarily to say that you will be able to rely solely on an author's income in either case. However...
  • In general, more people are earning a living wage with their writing than during any other time in history. According to Author Earnings, "you don't have to be in the top 200 or 300 of fiction writers to earn a living these days. You can be in the top 2,000 to 3,000."
Let's just summarise the above in a quote that I found on a GIGAOM article:
Legacy publishers pay authors only twice a year [and] they generally pay us only 12.5 percent in digital royalties, compared to the 70 percent we get from Amazon. They insist on taking control of our copyright not for a reasonable term, but forever. They’ve done all they can to try to keep the prices of books artificially high, which hurts consumers and costs authors money. They have a record of zero innovation. And they’ve run the industry for decades in a way that has benefited the few while stifling new opportunities for the many.
The following comment, found also on this same article (entitled "If you love books than you should be rooting for Amazon, not Hachette or the Big Five"), also proves this point and gives a concrete and mathematical example/explanation of what makes self-publishing "superior" to traditional publishing:
Sure, the self-publisher starts out in the hole, but he gets 70% of each sale to earn out of that hole. Say he spends $500 on his starting effort, prices his e-book at $4.99, and sells 200 copies earning $3.50 per copy. He’s already $200 ahead.   
Say that same author gets a $2,000 advance, his e-book is priced at $14.99, and he gets 25% of the 70% the publisher takes in, or 17.5% of $14.99. If he sells 200 copies, he’s earned about $525 of that advance and has to hope he sells another 600 or so before he even starts earning $2.62 per book over and above that advance. By which point he would have already made a total of $2,300 in profit selling the same quantity self-publishing. Fairly close to the $2,000 advance, of course, but the gap between $3.50 and $2.62 widens with every sale. 
How many paid book tours, appearances on talk shows, or other publicity budget does the average author get if he’s not Stephen King or James Patterson? NADA. These days they’re generally told, “There’s Facebook. There’s Twitter. There’s a blog. Have fun, don’t forget to write!” Which…a self-publishing writer can do just as well, with the exact same publicity budget. 
There are cases of self-publishing writers turning down seven-figure advances to continue self-publishing. Joe Konrath makes over a million a year these days. Not everyone is going to have that kind of success story, but then not everyone would even be accepted by a traditional publisher either. At least with self-publishing, you can have a chance someone will buy it. 

2) Independent ("Indie") Publishers

  • They are not owned by big celebrity-obsessed corporations, as is often an issue with the Big Five. 
  • They are well-respected. There are many stories of small presses with big successes.
  • It is better to be a "big" author in a small press than a "small" author in a big press.
  • You're not required to have an agent in order to query (most of the time).
  • There's a good chance you'll get to work with a decent or even great editor that will proofread and edit your work. Furthermore, all other tasks will be taken care of, like the cover design and formatting. And this will be done with more flexibility (and author input) than in the case of a Big Five publisher.

  • Unlike the Big Five, who (in theory) publish books for every audience and are therefore considered 'generalist,' indie publishers specialize in a specific genre or type of book.
  • They have only limited resources.
  • They oftentimes are unable to provide advances, or they only provide advances that are considerably lower than those of the Big Five.

3) Self-Publishing

  • James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe. That says more than words can express, doesn't it? Guess what - they were all self-published!
  • You have direct access to your audience (and can build up a list for future projects, if you so desire).
  • You get higher royalties. Amazon, for example, gives you 70% royalties when keeping your book price between $2.99 and $9.90, as compared to many traditional publisher's 5-20% and final control over price.
  • You can publish fast. You don't have to wait months and months for your work to be published (sending out work, receiving rejections, sending it out again, receiving yet more rejections, finally receiving an acceptance, waiting for edits, cover design, etc. and ultimately publishing), but can decide upon your own speed instead. You can publish in a matter of days!
  • You have full control over the entire process, including the price, cover, etc. You can also decide on your own giveaways and other promotions.
  • You don't have to suffer through painful rejections.
  • You don't have to make your unconventional work fit into any genre category.
  • You'll retain all rights to your work.
  • You'll have a longer shelf life.
  • Readers don't care how you publish your work.
  • Tweet: In absolute numbers, there are more self-published authors earning a living wage today as compared to Big Five authors.
  • The majority of authors in the Amazon bestseller charts consist of indie debut authors (from 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013) than Big Five debut authors.
  • Self-published authors are earning more money on fewer titles.
  • If you  want a traditional publishing deal but were unable to obtain it previously, self-publishing can provide the platform with which to catch the attention of those publishers.
To summarize: the good news about self-publishing is that you get to do everything you want with your book; you have control over everything. Conversely, the bad news is that you have to do everything. In other words, you'll probably need to hire professional proofreaders, graphic designers, layout experts, etc. if you don't want to overload yourself and have a proper and intriguing-looking novel.
Another quick summary: the good news is that anyone can get published. The bad news is that everyone can get published. Make sure you publish something good, and so add prestige to the art of self-publishing.

  • Limited distribution makes a library presence unlikely. Libraries and booksellers will never know your book even exists unless you tell them yourself. And even if you do go through all the trouble by getting in contact with them, they might not even want your book in the limited shelf-space they have (this of course depends on their size). By tradition, they’re accustomed to particular buying protocols associated with the traditional publishing routes (e.g.: discounts of 40% or more, 60- or 90-day billing, full returnability), and this is much more challenging to establish all by yourself. 
  • Self-publishing services can be deceptive by implying a greater potential for success, masking the challenges of self-publishing, etc. However, this point can apply to independent and traditional publishers as well. After all, it is a business and you are the customer purchasing a product. Investigate before you buy.
  • You'll need help, which, naturally, will cost you money. Research has shown that "self-published authors who received help (paid or unpaid) with story editing, copy-editing and proofreading made 13% more than the average; help with cover design upped earnings by a further 34%."
  • 25% of self-pubbed books are unlikely to cover the direct costs of production
  • The average author earned about $10,000 from self-publishing last year. According to the Guardian, however, half of the self-published authors earned less than $500. This is because the data is skewed by the 10% of the top-earning authors... that earn about 75% of the reported revenue.
  • According to Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest data, the median income for self-published authors is under $5,000, and nearly 20% of self-pubbed authors report deriving no income from their writing. In contrast, traditionally published authors had a median income between $5,000 and $9,999, and hybrid authors (those who self-publish and traditionally publish) had a median income range of $15,000 to $19,999.
  • 1.8% of self-published authors made over $100,000 in 2012, compared to 8.8% of traditionally published authors and 13.2% of hybrid authors.

Oh, and self-publishing does not merely include getting your book into the world through Amazon CreateSpace or Lulu. Self-publishing itself includes a variety of sub-options, as can be seen by the below diagram from Writer's Digest:

3) Still not sure? Check out some of the following links and judge from there!


  1. My guess is that more than 50% of self-publishing authors loose money on their first book. 25% of books failing to cover the cost of production seems low. I think that the big surveys miss the least-successful because those authors aren't hooked into all the online information about how to self-publish well. Among authors in my local community (I can find them online, too) I've seen a lot of poor publishing decisions. Not all of those authors go on to learn from their mistakes and publish better the next time, if there even is a next time.

    1. As stated in the post, I got this statistic from an article in the Guardian ( My guess is that the number is maybe so 'low' because of the innumerable books out there that are written and simply put online without much thought and without much professional input (and therefore also without upfront costs, meaning these authors have no cost of production to cover in the first place). However, your insights also seem a very feasible explanation. As it is difficult to really find the true reason behind it, it is all a lot of speculation, although I do my best to clarify as much as possible!

      Thank you for your comment!


Please share your thoughts and comments with me! I absolutely love to hear from you :-)