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Traditional Publishing vs Self-Publishing

Today, I’m honored to welcome guest author/blogger Anne R. Allen, whose latest book (the sixth in nine months!) is out TODAY. It is a guide for writers written with Catherine Ryan Hyde (author of the iconic novel Pay it Forward), and it’s called HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE … AND KEEP YOUR E-SANITY. According to Anne: “It contains a lot more practical info about what you need to be a professional writer today, plus advice about how to take care of yourself as you navigate the wildly changing landscape that is today’s publishing world.” To win an e-copy of Anne and Catherine’s book, write “free copy” in the comments, and Anne will choose one random winner. And now, please welcome Anne R. Allen:

Are you a Traditionalist or a Trail Blazer? A Marathoner or a Sprinter? Choose the Publishing Route that’s Right for You

In a great post at Writer Unboxed on June 8, YA author Robin LaFevers said a number of wise things about leaving ourselves open to choices in deciding how to publish our books. She decried the “tunnel-vision” that says we must all become “platform building, paradigm shifting, self publishing, networking machines.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with shifting paradigms and daily networking if that’s what you’re good at. But some excellent writers aren’t.

LaFevers points out that Suzanne Collins is a “hermit” who has no presence on the Interwebz except a tired website. Yeah—it doesn’t seem to have hurt sales of THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy that much.

Everybody has a different tolerance for technology. Writers ought to be able to mix and match. I know successful Kindle authors who swear by their manual typewriters and I’ve heard Author/Twitter god Neil Gaiman writes his first drafts with a #2 pencil.

So what about these people who say 21st century writers must be able to social network 24/7 and self-publish our own books? Are they a bunch of liars?

Nope. Their way works for them. But it may not work for you. Many different paths can lead to success, but none is guaranteed.

Some people are sprinters. They blog 5-7 days a week, network daily in dozens of forums, learn to code and design their own covers and make a huge self-publishing splash in a short time. Some of the superstars like John Locke have done it this way and you’ve heard a lot about them.

But other success stories come from the slow and steady types who would rather pace themselves for a marathon. Because I’m more of a marathoner, I’m a fan of “Slow Blogging”—writing a thoughtful post once a week or less (the way Meghan does.) Plus I resist the pressure to join every social media platform that comes along. Am I missing out on possible sales? Giving away profits to my publishers?

But I’ve published six books in the last nine months. I simply couldn’t have done it if I’d been blogging every day. Or running constant promos on Goodreads and Facebook. Or if I had to do all the publishing work myself.

Bottom line: you have to choose the path that’s most comfortable for you.
“Comfort” might seem like a funny word to use. I know this can seem like a terrifying time to be launching a career. Everything in the industry is in upheaval. Bookstores are closing all around us. Publishers and online retailers are conducting high-profile battles in the legal system as well as the court of public opinion. The rules keep changing. Experts don’t agree on anything. The us/them, either/or arguments of self-publishers vs. traditional publishers can be toxic. (Especially annoying are the people who deny the conflict exists and then start bashing people on one side or the other.) Nathan Bransford wrote a powerful post on the subject of these false dichotomies in May.

If you regularly make the rounds of publishing blogs and writers’ forums, you may be feeling more and more confused—even bullied.

My advice is shut out the noise, refuse to take sides, tune in to your own comfort level and take your time.

The ebook revolution isn’t about battles between warring “sides”. It’s about the freedom to choose how we publish and what we read.

Relish that freedom.

But be aware both paths require a lot of patience. With traditional publishing, it can take years before you get an agent, go through the long editing process, and finally see your book in print. With indie publishing (self-pubbing or small press) you can get your book out there faster, but you need patience to build a readership, which can take years, too. Both ways mean a lot of investment of time and not much to show for it for a long while.

What writers are most likely to do well as self-publishers? You have a better chance if you write adult genre fiction—especially ones that have a strong online community like sci-fi, horror, fantasy, romance, chick lit, and thrillers.

Writing in a series is more likely to build up a readership.

Still doing better with traditional publishers: women’s, literary, memoirs, and children’s.

Mysteries seem to do OK either way.

But genre isn’t the only thing to consider when you’re choosing a path. It depends on your own personality.

If you’re a traditionalist who would rather work with a team than go off on your own, you should shut out the noise that says you must self-pub. (And remember there are lots of small and mid-sized presses that don’t require an agent. And many of them are much more savvy about the ebook world than the Big Six.)
Ditto if you’re an entrepreneur at heart and you hate having a boss. Even if you’ve written something very literary, you might succeed at self-pubbing with clever marketing and hard work. Nothing in this brave new publishing world is predictable.

Of course change can feel very scary. It’s like trying to go about normal business in the middle of an earthquake. There’s nothing solid to hang onto.
But you know what’s scarier than change?

No change.

Before the ebook, publishing was a calcifying industry. New writers were finding it tougher and tougher to break in. Successful career authors were dropped if they couldn’t produce annual blockbusters in spite of no marketing budget. The antiquated system of returns—in which every bookstore is a consignment shop—means publishers have been wasting a huge amount of money shipping books back and forth to warehouses and eventually pulping them.

The ebook is changing everything. Ditto social media.

Even if you’re a traditionalist, you don’t have to be afraid of the electronic revolution. It’s not killing literature. The truth is more people are reading now than ever before. They’re reading voraciously—on laptops, tablets and phones—and yes, on dead treeware, too. In fact, nearly 70% of books sold are still made of paper.

More power is now in the hands of readers and writers than any time in history. Thanks to ebooks and social media marketing, writers can now go directly to readers with fresh, innovative ideas and stories.

If we want to.

Here’s the thing: the revolution doesn’t mean everybody has to self-publish. But the fact of the self-publishing option alters the playing field for everybody.

Your life is being changed for the better by the electronic revolution right now—

• Even if you’ve never touched a Kindle—and you don’t intend to until they pry the world’s last moldering paperback from your cold, dead hands.

• Even if you’d rather endure waterboarding during a tax audit than try to make sense of a Twitter stream.

• Even if you stopped keeping up with technology when your last VCR went to that Great Techno-Dump in the Sky. (Which probably means you’re reading this on a hard copy your granddaughter printed out for you—and that’s fine too.)

You now have choices that never existed before. And new choices are opening up all the time as the industry processes new ideas. (Yes, some are slower to process than others, and may get trampled on the way to the tar pits of history, but I don’t think anybody should underestimate the power of multinational corporations to cover their own derrières.)

Whatever path you take right now, you’ll have the choice to turn around and try a different one.

• If you try traditional publishing and get offered a rotten contract—you can walk away.

• If you self-publish and St. Martin’s comes calling with a seven figure deal—you can jump on it.

• If you publish with a small press, you can still work at getting an agent who might make you a super author-friendly deal with one of the new Amazon imprints.

Plus a whole lot more things are sure to be possible in the near future. The next Jeff Bezos may be dreaming it up as you read this. Kobo has just started its self-publishing arm, and Microsoft’s deal with Barnes and Noble is sure to open new doors we’ve never even thought of.

And right now, many traditionally published authors are self-publishing as well. We can have the best of both worlds. Catherine Ryan Hyde, who wrote PAY IT FORWARD and 19 other books, has self-pubbed two of her titles and turned them into #1 Kindle bestsellers.

And don’t forget the small press option! Catherine and I have chosen a small publisher for our new book HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE…AND KEEP YOUR E-SANITY! which will be coming out at the end of June. We’ve written it to help people navigate the treacherous waters of this fast-changing business, and because of the rapid change, we chose a small, forward-looking publisher, MWiDP, who’s willing to publish free updates every six months.

Since the two of us have combined experience with the Big Six, small publishers, and self-publishing, we think we can help new authors see all the possibilities and make informed choices.

This is a great time to be a writer. A year from now may be even greater. Don’t let anybody pressure you to do anything but put in your 10,000 Malcolm Gladwell hours, and become the best writer you can be.

When you’re really ready to publish, the publishing world may be a very different place from what anybody envisions, especially the battling bullies.

* * *

Anne R. Allen is the author of five comic mysteries published by Mark Williams international Digital Publishing.: FOOD OF LOVE, THE GATSBY GAME, GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY , SHERWOOD, LTD, and THE BEST REVENGE. She blogs with NYT bestselling author Ruth Harris at Anne R. Allen’s Blog … with Ruth Harris . Visit Anne’s author page at

35 comments to Traditional Publishing vs Self-Publishing

  • Hi Anne,

    It's so refreshing, and encouraging, to read your post! I am just beginning my dream of writing for a living. I've been a writer most of my life, for self-reflection and growth, and am now ready to pursue a career as a writer.

    Much of what you share here resonates with where I am now: feeling confused (even bullied) by the publishing debate, loving to pen the old-fashioned way (with pencil and paper) in this "e-age", and waging my own battles with social media (which platforms should I choose) and how often do I blog (should I put out more posts of lesser quality or stick to fewer posts with substance?).

    It's a relief to read your sage advice about finding what works for me; and if it turns out it doesn't work, I can always make another choice!

    Thanks for the insights,

    "free copy", BTW 🙂

  • annerallen

    Sara–It's great to hear from you. You're just the kind of writer Catherine and I are speaking to in our book. There's way too much pressure on new writers to do a whole lot of stuff besides write. I hope you'll check out the Slow Blog Manifesto on my blog, too.

    Last week the "Blog Tyrant" said the same thing: the days of the every-day blog are over. That advice came in the days when Google was the main engine that drove people to blogs, but now it's social media. So it's more important to be known for innovative, thoughtful posts than lots of blather. So blog once a month if you like. And Twitter and FB can be handled in a few minutes a day if you don't take on more than you need to. We also offer lots of help in finding the right agent and instructions on how to write a great e-query for people going the traditional route. Good luck and you're on the list to win the free book!

    Meghan–Thanks so much for hosting me!

    • Thanks Anne!

      I signed up for your blog! And the "Blog Tyrant". I'm discovering the most joyful way to travel along this journey is by reading and learning from others!


      • annerallen

        Welcome, Sara. Thanks for connecting on LinkedIn, too. I should warn that the Blog Tyrant isn't a writer's blog, so some of his advice isn't useful to us. He's teaching people how to have a monetized blog, which is different from an author's blog that mostly exists to support our writing. My blogging guru is Kristen Lamb, although we disagree on slow blogging.

  • Kristan

    "My advice is shut out the noise, refuse to take sides, tune in to your own comfort level and take your time."

    Yes. Best advice. And a great post! Thanks for sharing your insights and giving such helpful perspective and reminders. 🙂

    • annerallen

      Why did I only just now see that I can reply to each comment separately? I have Blogger, and I have to answer comments in chunks. Kristan–Thanks. Shutting out the noise is the only way I can get anything done.

  • meghancward

    Am I allowed to enter my own giveaway? Free copy! 🙂

  • CoraJRamos

    I so appreciate your post today. I do love the interactions on social media, and I love to blog, but I'm not getting any writing done on my next novel. It is time for something to give. Since I am waiting (anxiously because it is on hold) for my first book to be published by an indie press, I feel the pressure to be working on my platform and marketing skills. I will take your sage advice (love that term Sara (above) used so appropriately), and consider taking it more slowly–to find my pace. Thanks.

    • meghancward

      I agree with Anne. The writing needs to come first, even though the marketing is important, too. I try to schedule hours during the day for writing and then squeeze the social media in at night, during lunch breaks, etc. It's important to block out that time (I use Mac Freedom), or the social media will take over.

    • annerallen

      Cora–Congrats on your upcoming book. It's a big event in your life. I'm with a small inde press myself, and I find it's the best of both worlds for me.

  • treacycolbert

    I love the combination of humor and sound advice in this post — thank you!

  • annerallen

    Kristan–There is so much noise, isn't there? Do this! Do that! Do these 1000 other things!!! I get it constantly.We need to filter it out.

    Meghan–You're on the list!

    Cora–I think a lot of writers find themselves in that dilemma. Nobody can do it all. And it can make you feel crazy. Mostly we need to keep focused on writing our books. But it sounds as if you are doing a lot to market your book before it comes out and that's very smart.

    Treacy–Thanks. Without humor, I don't know how I'd get through all this!

  • I can't imagine how new writers just starting to read blogs must feel. But in a sense we were all there. We all had to make sense of what is going on – at least sense in our world, our personality, our goals. Love the freedom and the many routes open! Great post, Anne!

    Free copy!

    congrats on the book release!

  • annerallen

    Laura–It's true that we've all been there. Everybody starts out as a clueless newbie. The problem now is there are so many more blogs than there used to be and a whole lot of them are spreading misinformation. It's hard to know who knows what they're talking about. The ones who are the most confident and strident are often the least informed.

    Thanks! You're in the running for the free book. Catherine just emailed me that we're in the top 20 in Kindle writing books and in the top 100 in all writing reference books this morning. And I've had some reviewers contact me. Very exciting!

  • brendatica

    Thanks for your article. I've been feeling overwhelmed trying to make sense of all the social media. It's comforting to know that I can pick and choose and also not have to go at breakneck speed. 🙂

    • annerallen

      Brenda–It's so easy to get overwhelmed. No matter what they say, if it's affecting your well-being, what's the point–right?

  • Shirley Rawson

    Hi, Anne,
    Congratulations on your 6 published books in less than a year! And I'm grateful you've taken time to share your perspective and approach in this post. I love what you said about ebooks changing up the publishing game: "Your life is being changed for the better by the electronic revolution right now—" And you give us all permission to build our platforms in whatever way and at whatever pace we choose! Thank you so much for a thoughtful and encouraging article, Shirley

    ~ free copy, please!

    • annerallen

      Shirley–Thanks! You're in the running for the free book. The great thing is the change is happening on its own, and you can participate at your own comfort level.

  • […] win a free copy of the ebook of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE if you comment on my post over at Meghan Ward’s blog, Writerland before 9 PM Pacific time on Monday July […]

  • Nancy

    I love this! It is a great time to be a writer, but adjustments are needed to navigate this new landscape.

    • annerallen

      It IS a great time to be a writer, because we have so many choices. That's why you should exercise yours and get all the information you need before you make a choice.

    • annerallen

      Thanks Nancy! Did you manage to copy that from my blog and bring it over here? WordPress has so many magic features Blogger doesn't have. Anyway, I'm going to assume since you came over that you want to be signed up for the drawing? I'll put you name on the list.

  • As someone just finishing his first fiction to self-pub, I find this extremely helpful. One statement in particular, I think, sums up where I am regarding so many of these issues: "The ebook revolution isn’t about battles between warring “sides”. It’s about the freedom to choose how we publish and what we read."

    I think I'll print that out and glue it onto my laptop somewhere very visible! Thanks!


    • annerallen

      Gary–Thanks. I wish some of the more strident people on both sides would get out some of that glue, too. Congrats on finishing your first novel, and best of luck on your publishing journey!

  • I wave my wand and utter the secret incantation: "free copy"

    • annerallen

      Liber liberi! (Sorry, my high school Latin is not doing Potterdom justice. That's supposed to say "free book.") You're on the list.

      • meghancward

        I love the phrase "liber liberi!" How wonderful that books and freedom are so closely related in Latin.

  • Free Copy please! 🙂

    I know that this book will not only be informative, but also a great read–I love your writing style! It’s pretty awesome of you two to put all this info together for those of us who are a bit intimidated by the ever-evolving world of publishing! Thanks! 🙂

    • annerallen

      Elaine–I sure hope the book will help clear things up for people. Most writers don't have time to go surfing all over the Internet for information, and often what you read is conflicting or out of date. And there are a lot of scammers out there. We want to help new writers stay safe. You're on the list!

  • annerallen

    OK, the contest is closed! I will assign you each a number, and go to to get the winning number.

  • annerallen

    The Great Randomness has spoken. And the winner is….Sara Renae! (No, I didn't even assign you #1) Sara, write me at annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com and give me the address you use for Amazon and I'll gift you the book tomorrow. Congrats, Sara!

    The book has got to #20 in paid Kindle writing books and #40 in all writing books, so I'm hoping this is going to reach a lot of readers. (Hey, we're up there with the Chicago Manual of Style!) Only $2.99 for a limited time (shameless plug.)

  • mainecharacter

    Congrats on those six books! Wow. And thanks for taking some of the pressure off of the need to blog.

    Now off to read your Slow Blogging Manifesto post.

    P.S. I know I've been to your site before 'cause I recognize the photo of those books – a writer never forgets a book!

  • First of all, let me congratulate you on your publishing fetes! I might have missed it in the reading, will "How to be a Writer in the eAge" be available as an eBook on the Nook? I whole-heartedly embrace social networking, various writer-centric word processors available for the Mac, and have been blogging since I was a young teen – with that said, my first book is being manifested on good old-fashioned #2 pencil and a notebook. Change is a good thing, it can often lead to creativity you didn't know was there!

  • Continuate così, bravi!