Q & A: Traditional Publishing, Self-Publishing, Both?


Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending Mountain of Authors, a wonderful annual event in Scale&BalanceColorado Springs. It featured the work of more than 30 Colorado authors and included advice from NYT bestseller Stephen Coonts, Colorado Book Award winner Nick Arvin, and Romantic Times Career Achievement Award winner Kathleen Morgan. I got to sit on a Q&A panel about publishing perspectives with Judith Briles, founder of Author U, and Marilyn Largent, VP of sales at David C. Cook. There were a lot of great questions—the kind I think many authors are asking about the changing world of publishing, so I thought I’d share some of them here.

What can writers learn from the phenomenal success of E. L. James’ originally self published book, Fifty Shades of Grey?

Creative ways to use handcuffs? (Sorry, who could resist?) The first lesson to take away is that it’s impossible to predict “the next big thing.” Nobody saw that one coming! People are always asking what the next trend will be, so they can get on it. Stop forecasting the weather and make your own—write the book that’s begging you to be written.

The second lesson is that there is no single path to success—writers are inventing new rules as they go (often to their own surprise!), whether they self-publish, traditional publish, or both.

Another lesson? Fans will drive your success—word-of-mouth (in both the physical and digital sense) sells books. But no matter how successful an indie author is, there’s no denying the power of a strong marketing team—the kind that propelled E.L. James to superstardom. Marilyn Largent pointed out that at big publishing houses, only the top handful of authors benefit fully from that kind of marketing clout; for midlist authors, the midsize or small publishers may be able to offer more attention.

Do authors today need to be concerned about a stigma surrounding self publishing? 

Not really. Authors like E.L. James, Amanda Hocking, and a number of others have shifted the tide for both agents and publishers. Five years ago (or even less time), the answer was somewhat different; publishing industry professionals were often skeptical when approached by authors with a self-published project. There is still a level of caution, largely because some self-published books continue to perpetuate the stigma; we’ve all seen those embarrassing covers, the formatting blunders, the widespread typos. That is why, if you self-publish, it is vital to hold yourself to the same level of professionalism and quality that readers expect from major publishing houses.

How do you define success for a writer? Is there a “secret formula” for success?


Could you repeat the question?

All of us on the panel agreed that success is a very personal concept based on the goals you set for yourself, and that it is vital for writers to define these goals from the beginning because it will shape the way you approach your career. Is your goal to sell a million copies? Is it to see your name on a book published by a major publishing house? To quit your day job? Is it simply to “get your story out there,” one way or another? Is it to share your story with your family and friends?

From an agency perspective, successful writers are those who continue to grow throughout their career, whether they started at the top with a six figure deal, or at midlist level, or with a very modest advance. This growth takes time and creativity on the part of both  author and agent. If you’re looking for an agent, be sure the ones you target are interested in your career on the long-term.

Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire secret formula for success, unless it’s to be tireless and persistent in both your writing and marketing. But that’s not really a secret!

Can self publishing and traditional publishing be mixed?

Absolutely. A number of agents are starting to help authors do both. Through our Digital Liaison Platform at NLA, our agents and  amazing tech guru, Lori Bennett, help our authors with cover art, formatting, and distribution to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all of the major e-retailers. Some authors are using this service for their back list, some for front list titles, and some for both. Most of these authors have continued to publish through traditional houses as well.

In another model, agent Kristin Nelson recently helped self-publishing sensation Hugh Howey (NYT bestselling author of Wool) land an exciting print-only deal with Simon & Schuster; he retains control of his e-books. There are a number of ways for authors to take a “hybrid” approach to publishing, and it’s likely that the opportunities will continue to increase. It’s an exciting time to be an author!

What sorts of goals should a writer set and do they differ for self publishing and traditional publishing?

WoolCoverWriters should always set a primary goal of writing a good book, regardless of how you’re going to publish it. It sounds elementary, but too often writers succumb to the pressure of building a platform and brand and figuring out how and where to sell books before they’ve truly mastered their craft. That’s putting the cart before the horse. Judith Briles suggested a way to effectively work on both at the same time—through blogging. This is perhaps easier for nonfiction writers to apply, but many fiction writers have done this as well by presenting pieces of their work for critique, or offering short stories as a way to build fans for novels in progress.

At an agency, would you prefer a fresh manuscript, or one that has been tested in self publishing?  Why?  What quantity of self published books need be sold to get your attention?

We don’t really have a preference. But we do look for authors who have realistic expectations and want to work as a team. If you self-pub and then get an agent and a traditional publishing deal, expect them to want some editing—that is, after all, your new editor’s job. Before you sign on for this, make sure your vision for the project aligns with that of your agent and editor, or you could set yourself up for disappointment.

As far as sales numbers, a book will need to sell several thousand before that particular piece of the query will impress agents. That doesn’t mean lower sales numbers equals a rejection letter; it then comes down to your idea and the strength of your writing.

Got more questions? I’m game! You can add them here as a comment, or send them to wordcafeblog(at)gmail.com .

9 responses »

  1. Great questions and answers. And one of the reasons I love your agency so much is that you’re all creating new ways to help authors as publishing changes like your digital services and helping Hugh Howey keep his e-book rights.

  2. This is a perfect outline of the discussion on Saturday. Thank you for re-posting it. The whole event was a blur for me, although it was mostly because I was so excited about new possibilities. Even though I’m published, everything you said about growing an author and having real expectations is what I long for. I want that kind of mentoring and to continue to grow in the craft. I’ve grown so much by having a critique group–I’m even having my own girls critique each other–but what I need is that professional type of critiquing/editing.

    Anyway, chasing rabbits is what home school moms do. My point was to thank you for opening my eyes to what route is best suited for me. Of course now, I have to write that killer query letter. 🙂

    • Thanks, Shelly! It was great meeting you and talking about your books. Yes, I can’t emphasize enough that an agent-author relationship should be about setting and reaching long-term goals, and being on the same page in terms of vision for each project. Best wishes to you!

  3. So good to find this! I have a book in self-publishing process (pre-printing at this point) that a traditional publisher has indicated they will publish. I wasn’t sure if there could be both in place at the same time. This article has given me encouragement to continue conversation with the traditional while continuing with the self-publish effort. Thanks again!

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