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Writing 101: Self-Publishing VS Small Press

Hi everyone!


It has been a little while! I was out with the plague, which unfortunately meant I wasn't able to be here giving you all questionable advice every Wednesday. But now I'm back!


Today we're going to be looking at some of the pros and cons of self-publishing, specifically how it compares to publishing your work with a small/indie press.


DISCLAIMER: Neither option is less valid than the other. There's not a "better" and "worse" option, they're just different.


Self-publishing and indie publishing are both great, but they have different strengths, and might not be equally aligned with your personal goals as an author.


Self-publishing Pros:


I want to start by saying I am NOT an expert. I have 3 books self-published at this point, and haven't even been at it for a full year. A lot of this data has been gathered from asking questions and relying on the experiences of my more prolific, self-publishing friends.


  • Speed One thing that's awesome about self-publishing is that it can move a lot faster/slower than other publishing, depending on your personal preference. If you write a book a month? You can publish a book a month! If you wrote a book and want a couple years to edit it? You've got it! Setting your own speed can alleviate a lot of the frustrations that come with other forms of publishing.

  • Flexibility Expanding on that a little further, it's nice to have freedom in determining what you work on and when. Self-publishing means working for yourself, and following projects you want to pursue. There are dangers to that when it comes to marketing and building an audience, but it's a dream I think we've all had as creatives.

  • Creative Control This is the big one, but if you struggle with the idea of sharing creative control over your projects, then self-publishing might be for you. Being successful at self-publishing will require you not to skimp on things like editing and art, but even when working with others, you'll be the one who has final say.

  • Passive* Income Stream *I want to start by debunking the idea that selling self-published books is in fact a passive income stream. You have to market and do sales and establish and maintain a platform and a reader base and it's constant work. If you see someone say that bookselling is a passive source of income they're either famous or an idiot. (Or both.) But. There is some truth to this. If you're publishing books for yourself, you only have to put in that work once per book and then that book is going to open up a tiny trickle of revenue for you. That stream can potentially widen as you work on more books. When you publish a second book, you're still going to have to market the hell out of it and promote it and get out there and sell it, but fans of that might be pushed toward that first book. The more you work in self-publishing, the more you can synergize those successes.



Self-publishing Cons:


  • Upfront Costs It is not cheap to publish a book. Your income for a book might roll in slowly for several years but you're going to have to shell out a lot upfront to get that started if you want to be proud of the final product. Artwork. Beta-readers. Proofreaders. Editors. Formatters. And that's assuming that you run through a third party site that isn't also going to charge you for things like an ISBN number. That's in an ideal world but I would say absolute bare minimum you need an artist and editor. If you're lucky you can do trades and get discounts and some of the work you can learn to do yourself, but otherwise you're looking at least a few hundred dollars to maintain quality. Not everybody has that.

  • Budgeting Scary numbers don't start once the book is out either. Writing is an art, but bookselling is a business. If you care more about the craft than you do about the numbers, you need to be prepared to think about a lot of numbers anyway when it's just you. You need to be aware of how much your books are making (or not) and how much you can afford to put into the next one. Can you order physical copies to sign? How much extra will that cost? Did you factor in shipping? It never ends.

  • Lack of Support We are so blessed to have an indie horror community that respects self-published authors. But self-published authors face a lack of personal and systematic support that can be alleviated easily by a press. When I send out promotional posts about one of my books that has been published by a press, I know that it will be shared and promoted by the press in question. I know that other authors at that press are more likely to share it as well, because they'll see it on the press page and we all look out for each other. I have a little bit of a network there that I don't always feel like I have on my own. Then there's the systematic support that presses have. Books I've published through a press are more likely to get into brick and mortar stores. They're more likely to be put up for awards and featured in events. I'm more likely to be invited to panels and podcasts and other projects because the framework is in place for a press to offer me that type of support. Self-published authors can find those opportunities and make them for themselves. The best ones do. But it's a big time commitment and a struggle, and some writers would rather spend that time elsewhere.

  • Time Consuming Speaking of time... it takes so many more active hours of working to self-publish than it does to publish through a press. People say that it's faster to self-pub, which can be true. But it's faster because you're the one doing all the work. Let's say you self-publish 5 books in the year it would have taken you to query. That's awesome, but you're spending that entire year editing and marketing and hiring freelancers and fighting for promotional opportunities, whereas that year querying would have been passive. If ALL of that had been writing time, that could have been another 10 books. (I'm being a little hyperbolic here, unless you're Brian G. Berry, in which case this is an undersell.)

  • Marketing Marketing is hard. It's not impossible but it's a talent. It requires a lot of active time, research, trial and error, and constant vigilance. It's not for everyone. I don't know of any small presses that are going to take over and do 100% of your marketing for you. (To be honest, we're well past the days where even the big presses do that.) But every single one I've worked with has helped at least a little. They've booked me podcast appearances or made me graphics and memes to share and promoted the hell out of my stuff on their socials. They've given me training and ideas and lifted a lot of the burden, even if I'm still expected to pitch in. The truth of it is that I'm better at marketing when I feel like I'm working on it as part of a team. My press publications sell a lot better than my self-publications and marketing motivation is a huge factor.

  • Rejection is Good Sometimes Actually Here's my hot take for the article: Rejection can be good. It seldom feels good, but it's an inevitable part of the process, and I genuinely believe it's better to get it out of the way as early as possible. Develop the thick skin that you're going to need. When you look at some of the writers who have had public meltdowns about one star reviews, you'll notice that a lot of them are self-published. I'm not saying that all self-published writers are immature or incapable of handling criticism. What I am saying is that these are two very human flaws that can be made worse when not addressed. (Or when combined with the pressure of a public stage.) I'm really grateful that I didn't self-publish my first book. The rejections I got for it toughened me up and made me a better writer. I'm still not always the best at handling bad reviews, but I'm eternally grateful that I had practice handling them because of all the rejections. Once your book is out in the world, feedback for it will largely be public. So, if your reason for self-publishing is that you dislike rejections... I would strongly reconsider that reasoning. Nobody likes rejections, but they prepare you for things like negative reviews and worst-of lists and lack of sales, and all those terrible things that can happen to published books.


Now let's take a look at some of the ups and downs of working with a small press instead.


Small Press Pros:


  • Experience If you don't know what you're doing, it can help to have someone in your corner who does. Or a team of people. Even if they don't have a ton of extra resources, their experience is going to help you learn in a supportive environment. There will be people there to stop you making mistakes they've already made, and get you through the new mistakes and hurdles.

  • Support Elaborating on that support just a little... the feeling of community and networking opportunities and the legwork on marketing can be all be huge morale boosts on days when you might really need it. I have a lot of those days, and I'm eternally grateful to my indie presses for pulling me through the hard times of publishing.

  • Finances I love it when I don't need to know anything about the numbers. I'm not a business person. I'm not a good accountant. If this also describes you, consider publishing through a press. Some of the best ones will break down sales figures and marketing costs for you, but even the average ones are going to take care of the difficult financial decisions.

  • Marketing Having a marketing team is the best thing ever. Even when that marketing team has no budget, it's great to have people to plan with and bounce ideas off of and show support for what you're doing. Plus also, sometimes indie teams do have budgets, and in the indie community a little can go a long way.

  • Networking Working with indie presses has been such a positive networking experience for me. I have been put in contact with some of the biggest names I know because we've appeared in an anthology together, or been on the same press promotion tour. And more importantly? I've met some of the most talented people I know that way. Small presses help put you in contact with connections that will last forever, and that's so important professionally and personally.

  • Passive* Quarterly Income *again, passive publishing income is sort of a lie. But. Again, there's it's sort of not, and I'd argue this is a stronger perk with a press than when you're going at it alone. You will be expected to help market and promote when working with a small press, but it's so helpful to have people that will help cover you when you're not available to do that. I recently have been very ill and haven't done any interviews or extra podcast appearances, and barely had the energy to re-share all my book promotion. Taking that sort of time away saw my self-publish titles plummet in sales, whereas the titles through presses continued chugging along.


Small Press Cons:


  • Research Let's get the big one out of the way: not all small presses were created equal. It can take a lot of energy to narrow down which presses you trust with your work and you might not be right 100% of the time. Choosing a press that doesn't have your best interest in mind can be a worse financial decision than self-publishing, and you always need to consider that before signing a contract.

  • Loss of creative control I'd say indie presses are better generally than traditional presses at making sure their writers are happy, but that's not universal. If you have a very specific vision or you don't trust the editors at a press, you might not feel comfortable letting others collaborate on your work.

  • Querying A lot of people hate querying. It's a slow process with a lot of rejection and can be incredibly demotivational to some authors. I've made my case already for why I think querying can be beneficial, but... only to a certain point, right? Once you have developed your voice, a thick skin, and your audience, querying is going to have less and less appeal.

  • Slow Moving Because of querying, marketing, collaborating, competition, and limited resources, small press publishing can move a lot slower than self-publishing. You could be waiting months to hear back about your manuscript, only to be put on a schedule further down the line, which may be subject to change pending so many extra factors now that there are other people involved in the process.

  • Uncertainty Small presses are usually just a core team. It only takes one person leaving or falling ill or having to take time off to throw an entire indie press into oblivion. That's bleak to say, but it's the reality of it. We've seen several small presses in the last year close, change schedules, or restructure in a major way that has left books suddenly without a publisher. It's not fun to think about, but nothing is set in stone and that's something to consider when submitting to a small press.




Conclusion:


Like with so many of these articles, there just isn't an easy answer. The only person who can decide what type of publishing meets your writing goals best is you. While we can outline some of the biggest pros and cons (which hopefully we did) you're going to need to take a look at your strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations to decide which path is best for you personally.





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