Elizabeth Lacks (Editor, St. Martins Press), Laurie McLean (President, Fuse Literary) and Toby Neal (The Lei Crime series) discuss the benefits and difficulties of self-publishing and traditional publishing.
Associate Editor, St. Martin’s Press
What are the obstacles/drawbacks from going from self-publishing to “traditional” publishing?
Two big obstacles jump to mind. First, of course, it can be very difficult to find a way into the traditional publishing world. Self-publishing offers the opportunity for almost any writer to make his or her work available to the public. To be traditionally published, your manuscript has to find an editor (and probably an agent as well) who falls in love with it, a publisher who has the vision to publish it successfully, and a marketplace (as perceived by the publisher) that’s ready for the book. This can mean that even very good books don’t find a way into traditional publishing, simply because the right fit isn’t available at the right time.
Second, when you self-publish, you have complete control over every aspect of your book, from the editorial direction to the cover design, marketing efforts, even the genre you publish in (whether a book is classified as adult or young adult, general fiction or suspense, etc.) When you move to traditional publishing, you necessarily relinquish some of that control. Though most publishers will work with authors to make sure all parties are satisfied, ultimately many of these things are the publisher’s decision. You may not always be happy with all of your publisher’s decisions, especially if you’re used to making those decisions yourself. But there is a flip side to this too, of course—marketing a book requires an enormous amount of work, and with a traditional publisher you have a team doing it for you rather than having to do everything yourself.
Does self-publishing hurt your chances to eventually traditionally publish?
This is a difficult question to answer because it really depends on the book and the situation. On one hand, once you’ve self-published your book, traditional publishers may worry that you’ve already reached your audience, and that there’s no benefit to trying to sell the same work again. Or, if the self-published book does not sell well, publishers may take it as a sign that the market isn’t interested in that book, and it wouldn’t be successful as a traditionally published book.
On the other hand, self-publishing can be a great way to make your work visible to traditional publishers who might have overlooked it or never found it otherwise. With many trade magazines reviewing self-published books now, and agents paying attention for notable self-published authors, there are a lot of opportunities to attract a publisher’s attention by self-publishing. Especially if you do reach high sales levels while self-publishing, traditional publishers may also find an author with an already-established fan-base attractive. There are plenty of examples of self-published authors (with greatly varying sales levels) who have gone on to successful traditional publishing careers.
At the end of the day, though, I don’t think it’s possible to make a blanket statement that self-publishing helps or hurts your chances of finding a traditional publisher. Every situation is unique, and an author’s particular self-publishing history is only one in a huge variety of factors publishers take into account when they consider a manuscript.
Elizabeth Lacks is an Associate Editor at St. Martin’s Press, where she has worked for five years. She works primarily on crime fiction and narrative nonfiction, and some of her titles include Ausma Zehanat Khan’s provocative mystery THE UNQUIET DEAD and Eunsun Kim’s memoir of escape from North Korea, A THOUSAND MILES TO FREEDOM: MY ESCAPE FROM NORTH KOREA.
Partner, Fuse Literary
In what circumstances would you recommend a writer self-publish versus attempt the traditional publishing path?
Since I co-founded Fuse Literary specifically to energize the careers of hybrid authors, I’d like to answer this question by predicting that in five years or less all authors will do both depending on the project! But since you want a less flippant and more specific answer, here is a list of some of the situations I foresee where an author should self-publish instead of traditionally publish a work:
- A very short project, like flash fiction, a short story, a novelette or a novella.
- A project that is much longer than normal, say a 350,000-word epic fantasy or an anthology that is longer than 500 pages.
- A project that is family-based, as in a memoir, biography or family history that has little relevance outside your extended family.
- A regional or local project. For example a traditional western set in New Mexico, a hiking guide to the Pacific Northwest, a review of restaurants in Boston, etc. For this you might get a regional publisher, but you could also publish it yourself and seek alternative distribution in gift shops, hotels and resorts, restaurants, gas stations, etc.
- A charity project for a local or national organization. Books to raise money for a church, school, team, or other group are a great idea. But you would be hard pressed to find a publisher who would want to serve such a narrow niche.
- Time sensitive books. Some books need to come out to celebrate a certain historical event or contemporary occasion. You may not have enough time (2-3 years including writing) to get the book published traditionally. And if the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is next March, which it is, or the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death is next April, which it also is, you’ll have to self-publish your homage to make it in time.
- A book to sell in the back of the room following your talks or seminars. With nonfiction, you can make as much, if not more, money by self-publishing a book on the subject of your expertise. Do a small print run that costs on average a dollar a book and sell it for $10 or more after your talk to your eager fans.
- If you’re a control freak. I mean that in the nicest way. But some people have a very distinct notion of what their cover should look like, how the story is supposed to be told, they want to update content when it makes sense and be in charge of sales, promotions and messaging, and in other ways manage how the book looks and sells. These authors should self-publish. Because you lose a lot of control when you hand your baby over to a publisher who may not share your vision.
- If you cannot get an agent or publisher. I used to say that there were two paths to publishing and once you’d self-published a book you had irrevocably chosen that path. I recommended that authors try to get an agent and a publisher for either a certain length of time (six months) or by querying a certain number of these people (25-50). But now I see self-publishing and traditional publishing as two vertical bars of a ladder with a lot of rungs between them that represent crossovers. You can move from self-publishing to traditional publishing or the other way around, back and forth.
- And to give this list a nice round number…the final time you should self-publish is because you feel like it. You don’t have to have a reason at all other than the book is done and you want to go on to the next book or something else entirely. Nothing says you have to transition from creating a book to entering the brutal business of publishing. Self-publish and move on to whatever else makes you happy.
But the one point I’d like to make in closing is that we are in a chaos soup in publishing at the moment. We have been since 2008. The rules are being broken daily so ignore them. Go have some fun!
Laurie McLean was a journalist, a high tech public relations agency CEO, on the management team for the San Francisco Writers Conference, Dean of San Francisco Writers University, and a literary agent at the oldest agency in Northern California prior to co-founding Fuse Literary in 2013. Fuse Lit is carving out their claim to be the literary agency of the future, so follow them @FuseLiterary on Twitter and read their 7-agent blog posts at FuseLiterary.com.
Author, The Lei Crime Series
What obstacles have you faced in your career that you feel are unique to self-publishing? What have been some of the advantages?
I never set out to self-publish. I worked hard to get an agent and I got a great one, two years and 179 query letters later! However, we were selling my books as a series in 2010, the year the internet really began to upset the applecart of traditional publishing. My agent, who’d had a long and illustrious career, decided to retire after shopping my books for six months. I was devastated at the news. I felt after that much “lost time” I had to try self-publishing. I knew I had a good series if I could only get people to try it.
I thought of my books as a start-up business from the beginning. I made certain decisions that paid off, and one was investing in developing a top quality product. My goal was that my books would be indistinguishable from a book from a major house. I spent ten thousand dollars on BLOOD ORCHIDS, from hiring a top notch New York cover designer and book design team, to two rounds of pro editing, to hiring a PR agent to help me launch my book and the Toby Neal “brand” properly.
I have faced the obstacles every writer faces: rejection, time constraints, discouragement, being broke, not knowing the “right path” to go because there was none in 2010, and spending borrowed money I wasn’t sure I’d ever see again.
That said, it all paid off. My books hit in 2011, at a time when e-book publishing for indies was new, and they were a cut above the herd and sold like hotcakes to a “niche” market of Hawaii mystery lovers that publishers had overlooked. I had consistent branding and dynamic covers, and I was a prolific and competent writer. Every indie who’s making bank right now has those things going for them, and I was part of an initial wave of successful indies that have helped shape the landscape since. As of now, I’ve sold over a million copies of my books and their spinoffs.
Publishing your own books is a business, and while I’m passionate about my writing, I run the production end like a business. To make money as an author/publisher you have to be a good businessperson and a fast and prolific writer…or you can be a hobbyist, as many are. Nothing less will succeed in today’s super-competitive market.
Disadvantages to self-publishing continue to be daunting: difficulty breaking into the print market, invisibility, assuming all costs and risks, the nonstop demands to do everything and perhaps, on a shoestring. But I’d still say that, for me, the advantages were greater: total creative freedom to write anything I want; a responsive and interactive relationship with readers; the ability to be nimble and innovative with promotion; covers and pricing; and forming partnerships with other writers to all of our benefit, like with my innovative Lei Crime Kindle World on Amazon, where fans and writers develop stories using my characters and we all share the profits.
My initial “failure” to find a publisher has turned out to be the perfect fit for a writer of my creative output. I could never stand to just publish one book a year. I usually write four or five a year, and now I’m writing in multiple genres. My success attracted a wonderful new agent, Laurie McLean. Together, we’re pioneers in forging the path of “hybrid” publishing, which we believe will be the perfect marriage of self-publishing and traditional, all of it fueling the hunger for good stories that are at the heart of every reader.
Toby Neal grew up on the island of Kaua`i in Hawaii. After a few “stretches of exile” to pursue education, the islands have been home for the last fifteen years. Toby is a mental health therapist, a career that has informed the depth and complexity of the characters in her books. Outside of work and writing, Toby volunteers in a nonprofit for children and enjoys life in Hawaii through beach walking, body boarding, scuba diving, photography and hiking. Find her on Twitter at @tobywneal and Facebook.
Have a follow-up question for Elizabeth, Laurie, or Toby? A potential topic for future panels? Leave a comment below.