It's no secret that there are tons of options open to writers in today. There's no longer only one way to publish a book. Self-publishing, small press, Amazon...all these things give writers a lot more flexibility. A story which doesn't sell doesn't necessarily have to languish in a drawer forever. Backlist titles can have a new life. But within those options, choosing the right one for your particular story can be tricky. This is coming from someone who's spent a long time agonising over all the choices, and has come to the conclusion that the "right path" is different for everyone!
So: what are the considerations?
a frustrating fact of traditional publishing that some genres sell
really well for a time, and then the market gets over-saturated and publishers stop buying then. It
happened for YA paranormal romance, dystopian and post-apocalyptic
books, even most urban fantasy (some have gone as far as to say YA in general!). In adult books, urban fantasy that isn't
part of a series is near near-impossible to sell to publishers. That isn't to say it'll
never pick up again, but personally, I'd consider small press or
self-publishing for books in these genres. Why? Because while
traditional publishers are wary of these genres, it certainly doesn't
mean readers aren't looking for them! Writing in an already-popular
genre can be a great advantage in the self-pub world.
But what if you'd written a book which was selling well in both trad-pub and self-pub markets, like romance or thrillers? Then it's up to you. Some books have a natural market in the indie world (like New Adult contemporary romance) and others are more niche. Which brings me to...
Money (Updated post-indie publishing!).
Self-publishing can quickly get expensive, and without a guaranteed profit. In order to put out a professional-looking product, it's absolutely essential to hire an editor, a proofreader, a cover designer, and possibly a formatter. That's a big investment. It's a sad reality that the average self-published book sells only a few hundred copies - not enough to make back the initial investment. Some writers would be happy with that, but it's always worth having a strategy in place, even if it's as simple as "write in a series" or "publish books within the same sub-genre".
It's also worth drawing up a business plan and figuring out which costs are absolutely essential - in my case, editing and cover design. For instance, I taught myself formatting, and decided against paying for interior design. I also decided not to order print copies to mail to bloggers who prefer to review paperbacks, because I simply can't afford the shipping costs from the UK. After my first indie book, I know what's worth the cost and what isn't.
Of course, one of the advantages of self-publishing is the higher royalty
rate. The average traditional publishing advance for a new author isn't enough to sustain a living wage, and some writers have even turned down huge advances in favour of the higher royalties. Again, it comes down to personal circumstances. As I said, New Adult is doing very well right now, and as not all traditional publishers have caught onto it (and, of course, with the slow speed of traditional publishing), then I'd personally go down the indie path if I ever wrote a NA contemporary romance. Not that it's likely to happen, given that I seem to be incapable of writing anything without monsters in it, but you never know! Another possibility is that you've written a series, and want to see all of the books published (never a guarantee in traditional publishing). Series often do very well within self-publishing, and readers keep coming back for more. But the costs quickly add up.
With my Darkworld series, I'm in the neutral ground of having a small press publisher on my team. CQ shoulder the financial risk
for me, and I get professional-level editing, fantastic cover designs,
and marketing at no cost to me. On the other hand, some people have had nightmareish experiences with other small presses, so it's important to do your research! One of the great things about CQ is how open they are about everything - their website has all the information about royalties (50% net on ebooks, 30% on paperbacks, paid monthly), and their contracts are clear and fair. But not all publishers are created equally, and you still forfeit control over release dates and scheduling.
This is a tricky one. At the moment I
want my children's books, at least, to be published traditionally. Kids'
books aren't doing great in the self-published marketplace - at least,
not yet. Children still have gatekeepers - parents, teachers,
librarians - and are more likely to buy a print copy of the book than an
ebook. Without print distribution in bookshops and libraries, a large
portion of my readership is cut off. What's more, organising events as a
self-published or small-press author is difficult, especially here in the UK, where we
only have a handful of independent stores, and chains
have policies against stocking self-published books.
Some YA books are doing very well in the self-published world, but again, it depends on personal choice. In the US, there's a growing number of festivals which support indie authors, and the readership for YA is much larger than it is here in the UK. Even publishing with a small press, getting into bookshops is difficult. Here, opportunities for indie authors to interact with fans in the real world are, at the moment, virtually nonexistent. Of course, this is subject to change, and some authors have been successful through small, local events - it's a shame there are so few which cater to YA authors! With that having been said, recent surveys suggest at least 60% of YA readers are adults. So YA indie books can certainly do well.
How much control do you want? With self-publishing, everything falls on the author - cover design, editing, proofreading, formatting, and most importantly, marketing. On the other hand, if you hate the idea of handing every decision over to a publishing house, then self-publishing might just be the choice for you. Most self-published authors still work with critique partners and beta readers, and hire professional cover artists and editors. As for marketing... see the next section.
Another consideration is rights. An agent's job is to negotiate the best contract possible, which includes retaining foreign rights, movie/TV rights, etc. and selling them where possible. As I don't have an agent, I don't know a lot about this, but I know it can be quite lucrative. Every sale to a different country means more money, and a bigger audience! That's not to say that it's impossible for self-published authors to do this, but it's rare, and usually requires an agent. Having the rights and selling them are two completely different things!
Updated to include - Marketing.
Here's a not-so-secret fact: no matter how you publish, you'll be responsible for at least 90% of the marketing. Unless you're a big-name author and get a 6-figure advance, you'll get the bare minimum. Sometimes, the publisher will set up a launch party or signing(s) for you, but you'll be responsible for arranging things like school visits, etc. There'll be some press, but again, I've heard it's often left to the author to contact their local radio/newspaper. Of course, social media is also the author's responsibility. When it comes to things like blog tours, sometimes a publisher will set one up, and the name of a big publisher means the most popular bloggers are more likely to take notice. But most blog tour services are indie-friendly. Netgalley is used by most of the major publishers, but is also an option for independent authors, at a cost. I personally don't use the service because of issues with piracy, but it's definitely an option for beginners looking to build a list of reviewers and bloggers.
I've tried a lot of marketing ideas, and discovered through trial and error that most things, well, don't work. On the positive side, having a social media presence is definitely worthwhile, if just for sanity during the long waiting times between emails! I personally love blogging, though I can't say it has an impact on sales. Newsletters are a must, and since I independently published, I've discovered the real value in regular releases - something you only really have control over if you publish independently. If you publish a book a year, without a big marketing push, it's tough to get recognition by avid readers who move onto the next book as soon as they finish one. With regular new releases and discount sales, you'll be bringing in new readers - and it really works. Mostly, though, I love the direct connection with bloggers and readers (I now have a street team as well as a newsletter) that I probably wouldn't have with a big-name publisher.
Overall, of course, it's different for everyone. There are positives and negatives to both paths, and I'm inclined to agree with Chuck Wendig that diversifying might just be the best option. Many hybrid authors seem to do very well, especially authors with an established traditional platform who also self-publish on the side, or who decide to re-publish books which have gone out of print. That's one of the great things about the current publishing world - flexibility. With a ready fanbase eager to read your work, they won't care how it's published! The difficulty is building up that fanbase from scratch, a position which favours traditionally published authors and those with established connections. But if you write a great book and publish it in a professional way, there's no reason you can't compete with the best.
I started out with small presses and I'm glad I did, because it gave me the chance to learn about things like editorial processes, working with freelance cover designers, and marketing.But I've really come to appreciate being in control of my own schedule and I think the real value of self-publishing is seeing your efforts rewarded almost on a daily basis. I'm a big believer in keeping our options open as authors. We have the freedom to choose, so we might as well exploit it. After all, what doesn't work for one book might be perfect for another.