Traditional, Indie, and Self-Publishing: 15 Myths Debunked

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Writing is the best thing that ever happened to me. Writing is what keeps us alive. Writing is the best gig in the world. Writing is creation, imagination given life. Writing is not publishing. Writing is art; publishing is a business. I'm not here to talk to you about writing. If you're reading this, you already decided you want to be a writer...and you probably decided you want to publish your work. I'm here to talk to you about things like being a professional, money, marketing, presentation, and distribution. In fact, you already know what those things are, so what I'm actually here for is to discuss the misinformation surrounding traditional publishing, self-publishing, and indie publishing. Let's get to it.


Myth #1 - Indie and self-publishing are the same thing

Indie and self-publishing aren't the same thing. An indie press is a press with no ties to a Big Five publisher. They behave like a big publisher but often have less resources and less employees. They also tend to accept work from writers without the intervention of an agent. Getting published by a top indie press is as hard as getting published by one of the Big Five.

Everything in publishing falls somewhere on a spectrum, and indie presses are no different. Sometimes I hear about a small indie with two or three titles and I check it out only to find awful covers, shitty editing (sometimes it's not shitty; it's nonexistent), and crappy layout. They are at the bottom. On the other side of that spectrum are presses like Word Horde, Akashic, Coffee House Press, Future Tense Books, Catapult Books, New Directions Publishing, and many others that put out amazing work that is as good as, and often better than, most of the stuff coming out of the Big Five presses.

A lot of people who talk about keeping creative control are just lazy and don't want to deal with an editor.

Myth #2 - Self-publishing gives you more creative control

I see this one a lot and have the same thought every time: "Wow, they must have worked with some awful editors." Sure, there are cases where an editor or publisher will try to control or change something about your narrative, but most of the time what happens is that someone helps you make your work better without changing it in any meaningful way. I'm going to get a lot of shit for this, but what I've learned is that a lot of people who talk about keeping creative control are just lazy and don't want to deal with an editor.

Myth #3 - Traditional publishing is more respectable

Haha. Fuck this. Big Five publishers put out amazing literary gems...and a ton of garbage. In fact, for every "I never saw a cent of my royalties" drama we see in indie publishing, we have at least two instances of "damn, I can't believe they put out this garbage" in Big Five. Remember American Dirt? That's just the tip of the iceberg. When you add money to any equation, things become muddy, and there is more money at the top. 

Myth #4 - You get more money/royalties if you self-publish/publish traditionally

Listen, both are myths and both need to die. Can you make bank with your self-published book? Of course! Hell, some folks make a decent living at it and a few even hit it big, but for each one of those, there are at least three dozen self-published authors hustling to move five copies per month...and those are .99 cent ebooks. On the other hand, if you think everyone who's at a Big Five lands a superb agent and then a six-figure advance, you're misinformed. Also, some writers get a decent advance and they never earn out, which comes back to haunt them when they want to do it all over again. There is no surefire way to make money in this business, so stop thinking one of these options is the easy path to a million dollars.

Myth #5 - You can only choose one path

Lies! Some writers have a book or two out with a Big Five publisher, books with smaller presses, and occasionally put out a passion project via self-publishing. And then there are limited edition hardcovers and other things that are inviting regardless of how you normally publish. While I'm a fan of sticking to one thing (again, I said "I'm a fan," which means you can love whatever you want), you don't have to pick one and stick to it, especially when taking a hybrid approach can be beneficial to your career.

Myth #6 - Traditional publishers will take care of marketing

Hah! If I had a nickel for every traditionally published author I've heard complain about not getting any help with marketing, I'd probably start my own press. Sure, traditional publishers have more marketing power and have whole marketing departments. Sure, some Indies don't even have a website. Sure, self-publishing often means you have to do everything alone unless you hire a publicist. However, publishers will often pick a few titles to support because they think they are the ones that will make them a lot of money. They put everything behind those titles and the rest are often left to hustle for themselves.

Myth #7 - Self-publishing means I keep all my rights

All contracts are negotiable. I have published all my books with small presses and have always retained audio, translation, graphic, and TV/film rights. Also, most contracts have a shelf life. I don't know why folks are so obsessed with the rights thing...or why so many have no idea what they're talking about, but once you start thinking about publishing, you should work on developing a clear idea of how the law applies to it and how protected you are. Plus, you know, read every contract you get before you sign anything. I recently had to pass on a good contract for film rights because they were asking for the world.

There is no surefire way to make money in this business, so stop thinking one of these options is the easy path to a million dollars.

Myth #8 - Traditional/indie publishing requires an agent

Nope. Having an agent certainly helps, and some presses won't even look at your work without an agent talking to them, but you don't need an agent to pursue publication with traditional presses. A lot of them open for unagented submissions once or twice a year and some of the top indie presses out there work directly with writers in a large percentage of their projects.

Myth #9 - Self-publishing is easier

Nope; self-publishing can be faster and, in one way, less frustrating. That said, you have to get your work edited (no, I don't care how good of an editor you think you are, and if you are going to start telling my broke ass about money, I'll tell you I've worked for pay-what-you-can with many writers, and some folks will trade edits with you, which means you can get your book looked at by others for free if you do the same for them). Also, you need to have a pro do the layout and, for the love of everything that's holy, get a professional artist/graphic designer to do the cover. The "easier" thing to do is place blame for a lot of the hate self-publishing gets, because for every self-published writer putting in the work and releasing outstanding books, there are two throwing a story together in a week, not editing it, getting their 8-year-old cousin to do a cover on MS Paint, not bothering with layout, and then releasing it into the world. They're lazy and they make all self-published writers look bad. 

Myth #10 - If Big Five turns you down for a while, you can always go to a small press

If you believe this one I'm going to go ahead and guess you don't read a lot of indie press books. Indie presses are as picky, if not more so, than Big Five presses. Sometimes the right agent or the right idea will get you a deal with a press with Big Five affiliations, but that won't happen with top indie presses. They have limited resources and time, so quality is the first thing they will look at.

Myth #11 - I don't have time for social media/people will find my book/social media is just screaming into the void

HAHAHAHA. There are between 700,000 and 1 million new books published every year. Good luck staying away from social media, Pynchon. Writing is about writing; publishing is about selling books, and to do that you need to have a platform. Also, and this is a truth some people don't want to talk about, the folks who might want to buy your book also want to sell your book, so showing them you have a way to reach readers can help tip the scales when they're trying to decide if they want to invest in you or not.

Myth #12 - Local bookstores are dying to carry your book

Oh, lord, I'm so sorry you think this. The biggest difference between Big Five and other kinds of publishing is, in many cases, distribution. Local bookstores may or may not work with you, but a lot of them won't because they already have enough books and none of them have space to spare. Plus, they want to work with places where they can get their money back if your books don't sell. So yeah, you can work it out with indie bookstores because they are awesome and very supportive of indie writers, but thinking they will get in touch with you as soon as your book is out is just a beautiful dream.

Myth #13 - Publishing with a vanity press is self-publishing with some help

Three fucks here:

1. Fuck no.

2. Fuck vanity presses.

3. Vanity presses are horrendous, predatory places we should get rid of forever. Oh, the third fuck, right: fuck vanity presses.

Myth #14 - Big Five books are better written than indie and self-published books

Hell no. Some of the worst books out there are from Big Five presses. Go read Sean Penn or Morrissey or Stephenie Meyer or E.L. James or Rush Limbaugh or Nicholas Sparks or Paulo Coelho...the list goes on and on. No, books sold has nothing to do with quality, so save that argument for someone who cares.

Myth #15 - Once you get your foot in the door with a Big Five, you're set

Except you're not. If your book bombs, they'll drop you like a sack of hot garbage. In a way, once you get that contract, the real work begins.


No myth: hustle matters, so work like your career depends on it regardless of your path to publishing.

Gabino Iglesias

Column by Gabino Iglesias

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS, HUNGRY DARKNESS, and GUTMOUTH. His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, Marginalia, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, and many other print and online venues. 

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Comments

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies July 22, 2020 - 11:46am

This is great. 100% accurate.

EMErdelac's picture
EMErdelac July 22, 2020 - 1:14pm

Good stuff, Gabino. I would only add the difference between a Vanity Press and an Indie Press, because some people legit don't know.

If your press asks you to shell out money to publish your book, it's a vanity press.

TheScrivener's picture
TheScrivener from Seattle is reading short stories July 22, 2020 - 3:54pm

Dude, you mentioned Morrissey's book. I'd forgotten about it. I'm still dying. 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine July 23, 2020 - 6:03am

Morrissey, lol. 

helpfulsnowman's picture
Community Manager
helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman July 29, 2020 - 9:53am

The myth that is (very correctly) debunked here is “Indie or Big 5 publishing means I give up all my rights,” but I’m fairly certain it’s accurate that a truly self-published author retains their rights, so that's not so much a myth.

Although you do have to be careful. Signing with certain distributors of your self-pub book can create certain restrictions on selling on other platforms or distributing in other ways. You don't lose rights to your material, but you may lose access to those platforms.

I think the problem is that most authors feel out of their depth when signing a contract. They don't have expertise in this stuff, and it can be challenging to get a bead on whether a publisher is presenting you with a reasonable deal or something that's completely tilted in their favor.

These are two really good resources:

Here’s an FAQ on authors and ownership of rights.

Here’s a guide to Rights Reversion, the part of a contract that has to do with rights going back to the author.
 

Slaren's picture
Slaren November 26, 2020 - 11:58am

It is easy to build a good business on good writing skills. But of course, you should also know how to work with different business solutions. It is very difficult, but it is possible. But often they are very difficult to manage and this is understandable to me because it is a real problem, for example, to deal with the same business solution Salesforce. That's why you hire salesforce consultant and let it help you to solve these difficult tasks. For example, I did it and I am very happy about it. I hope that it will be just as useful for you. Good luck.