Why Traditional Publishing is Still Worth It

I've been playing the indie publishing game for a few years now and if I've found one thing that seems to ring pretty consistently throughout the indie community, it's this cocky proclamation that traditional publishing is dead now that people can assemble and release books on their own. The number of self-published books up for sale outstripped traditionally published books this year, according to Bowker, the company that assigns ISBNs to books. Many in the indie community are proclaiming this as a victory against the gatekeeper forces of traditional publishing that have held the tsunami of wannabe authors at bay for far too long.

Wonder what its sales rank is?
It's bullshit, of course. Chevrolet will make more cars than Ferrari this year, but that doesn't necessarily mean Chevrolet makes a better car. Okay, maybe not the best analogy for a few reasons, but it holds up well enough for my point. First off, like Chevys, there are a LOT of self-published books out there. Like Chevys, most of them are unremarkable (Cavalier) or downright terrible (Lumina) and people will never notice most of them unless they're shiny Corvettes. But unlike Chevy who sells in the millions, the vast majority of self-published books will not sell more than a few copies. And by "a few" I mean probably no more than a hundred. In many other cases, it won't be more than a couple dozen. Or even, like, ten. Self-publish a book tomorrow (all on your own and without any major investment in a book packaging service, like most people who self-publish) and see for yourself. Once you run through all the family and friends who will kick in a buck toward your authorly dreams, it's pretty much done selling in any significant quantity unless you put in a LOT of work and money toward promoting and packaging...all things a traditional publisher was designed to do.

I know a lot of people have complaints about the publishing industry and I do not mean to say that it's without flaws. But cutting through a lot of needless rehashing about the pros and cons of either system, I can say this: there is no way I could have done all the work that's been put into gearing up for the release of STRINGS on my own. The first week of promoting that Hobbes End has done dwarfs pretty much everything I have done for myself (or have been able to do for myself) in the three years I've been self-publishing. All I have been able to do, for the most part, is give my work away in order to gain some attention in the marketplace, just so I can then cash in that validation for credits at the big kids table. That's all I ever hoped to accomplish with an indie career, and I guess that's worked.

But now I'm getting actual interviews and publicity with a huge range of websites that the publisher has arranged for me. They have bought ads (print and web) and started two giveaways (first one had over 600 entries and we're shooting for 1000 with this current one here). Many dozens of reviewers right now have ARCs of my book in their hands. Media spots are currently being booked. SEO is happening! So much more is coming down the pipeline over the next couple weeks too. And if I have an idea for my own promotional stuff, I have the full support and backing of a business that has made its number one job selling books. And they understand that to sell books, they have to make an investment and take risks, and their promotions all go toward making sure that risk pays off. They have sales goals and projections and figures and all sorts of thinky-planny things I have never even considered before doing this myself. 

As of this writing, after two weeks since the announcement, there have probably been more print books of STRINGS pre-ordered than I have sold of my short stories over the course of an entire month, likely even two. I didn't anticipate selling a ton of print copies, so this just thrills me to no end. On several days, it has been my highest ranking title on Amazon. And this is just the beginning. I'm finding that with a publisher behind me, I feel a lot more motivated to find new ways to sell my book that I haven't considered before. It's energizing me in a whole other way. I look forward to traveling around to various events to sell this thing to death.

All of this has SO been worth a cut of my royalties. I've been a small fish toiling for three years in a very small pond, and while my work on the indie side of things has greatly prepared me for a lot of what's happening now, and it has given me an industriousness and knowledge about selling books that I think my publisher appreciates, it's ultimately the traditional side of things that is bringing my book to a MUCH wider audience of readers. That is what it's designed to do.

I wouldn't have the money or the time to do all of this on my own while still trying to write books. I just wouldn't, and few people do. This is why, again and again, I have said that it's best not to shun one side of the industry for the other. Publish and produce your own work, yes. It's great for cultivating an audience. It prepares you, at least a little bit, for the rigors of dealing with the public and how they might accept your work. But let's stop lying to ourselves that traditional publishing is irrelevant. Weed out the bad publishers who don't invest in their authors or treat them right, absolutely. But as a principle, if you want to REALLY sell books to a lot of people, it's a team effort. Play both sides of the field and reap the benefits.