Self-Publishing & Trade Publishing Are Not Mutually Exclusive Paths

There was one thing that stuck out like a sore thumb amidst all the huffing and puffing surrounding Barry Eisler’s decision to sign with Amazon’s new imprint, Thomas & Mercer.

Some people (both indie evangelists and arch-defenders of trade publishing), think that self-publishing and trade publishing are mutually exclusive paths.

This nonsense needs to be dealt with right away. First off, there are many, many people who have trade deals who are also self-publishing other titles.

There are lots of people who are self-publishing and are pursuing trade deals. There are some people with long careers in trade publishing (which they don’t intend abandoning) that are only self-publishing reverted backlist titles.

You can’t squeeze people into boxes. Life is often more complex than simple definitions allow. And life in the publishing industry is getting more complex every day.

If you haven’t yet read Eoin Purcell’s excellent article on how the publishing value chain has broken down, I recommend you do so now.

He points out, in a very clear manner, that the old linear publishing value chain has changed forever.

Before, everyone had their place. Content went from author to agent, to publisher, to distributor, to retailer, to reader. And money (more or less) went in the opposite direction.

Now, that has all changed. Publishers are cutting out agents and going to direct to authors to publish backlists. Agents are becoming publishers. Publishers are moving into retail.

Retailers are becoming distributors and publishers. Authors are publishing themselves, and some are selling direct to readers, becoming their own distributor and retailer as well.

People who see self-publishing and trade publishing as mutually exclusive paths are failing to grasp this new complexity.

Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler had another “summit” to discuss all of this, the particulars of their Amazon deals, and where they think the industry headed. Again, it’s well worth taking the time to read the whole thing.

They (rightly) make the point that self-publishing is not an either/or proposition. Eisler pointed out that he has self-published four titles, that his trade deal is for one book only, and that he plans to self-publish further titles.

Konrath has similar plans. He said that he would prefer to restrict his trade deals to one book per year, and then self-publish the rest (he writes several books a year).

Konrath said that, for him, this is the perfect mix. For one of his titles each year he will get a massive push from a trade publisher (in this case Amazon) that will raise the profile and sales of all of his other self-published work.

This is the right way to look at it. As Barry Eisler said, he is a businessman, not an idealogue.

In a world that is becoming more chaotic, where the prizes will go to those who are nimble, the last thing you should do weigh yourself down with unnecessary ideology.

You take the deal that will make you the most money, or that has the best terms, or that brings you closer to your goals. You don’t take or turn down a deal out of some misplaced loyalty to one creed or another.

You have to get the best deal possible for yourself, no-one else is going to do it for you.

I love the self-publishing community. I love the atmosphere, the way everybody helps each other, the way everyone has time to school a beginner. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t take a trade deal if the terms were right.

I would be foolish to close that door, and so would you.


Margo Lerwill has released her first e-book!

Margo is a friend of this blog. I first got to know her as a casual reader of her excellent blog on the craft of writing. Anyone who has read her blog will know that Margo knows her onions. Margo was also one of the (four) forces behind Wicked & Tricksy.

Dis is an Urban Fantasy with a Norse twist. It’s a short story, but at nearly 9,000 words, you get a lot of bang for your 99c.

She released it on Friday and it has been in the Kindle Fantasy charts since then. I bought it a few days ago and haven’t had the chance to read it yet, but the cover looks great, and I think Margo is on to a winner.

Go check it out on Amazon and Smashwords.


Tomorrow, I will be posting an interview with Cheryl Shireman. For those of you who are not familiar with her, she first self-published a few months ago, and is currently selling over 200 copies a day. Inspiring stuff.

Also, I will be interviewed over at Melissa Smith’s blog. It was lots of fun, and I will post the link tomorrow.


Finally, the good people at Sift Book Reviews have just given If You Go Into The Woods four stars! The reviewer said, “this is the most professional design – both inside and out – that I have seen since I started reviewing at Sift.”

She went on to say that, “the writing in this story is top-notch. Aside from being free of typos and grammatical mistakes, the writer has a strong, clean voice. He’s able to sustain an air of mystery and suspense without it feeling cheap.”

Thank you to Sarah at Sift for a great review! You can read the whole thing here.

13 Replies to “Self-Publishing & Trade Publishing Are Not Mutually Exclusive Paths”

  1. I prefer the non-ideological takes on these things — so thanks for providing those.

    And I second the recommendation of Dis. I’ve read it and it’s great!

  2. I think Konrath’s idea of having one trade release per year to raise his profile is a really interesting strategy. A couple of years ago, I doubt any of the Big 6 would have agreed to that — they might not even like the idea today, despite deals like the one with Amanda Hocking that supposedly also lets her continue self-publishing. Amazon entering the print arena as a publisher is a fascinating (somewhat foreboding) shake-up. It’s not that I want Amazon to fail, but I want to see a competitor who can at least come close to keeping pace with them.

    Options are good things.

    1. Options are very good things.

      I don’t want to see Amazon dominate, but I’m skeptical that’s going to happen. They are losing market share in the e-reader war, and if Apple and Google ever decide to get serious about actually selling e-books, and if Barnes & Noble ever decided to go international (why they haven’t is beyond me), then I could see them losing market share in e-books too.

      Maybe Amazon know this, but don’t care because the pie is getting that much bigger each year. Maybe that’s part of the motivation in diversifying into publishing too.

      But yes, competition is good for everyone. It was the rise of Apple and the entrance of Google that led to the increase of royalties that Amazon pays writers from 35% to 70%. Competition is good, and welcome.

      Barry Eisler made an interesting point about Amazon’s move into publishing. He saw the Big 6 as a quasi-monopoly and that Amazon would help break that up. It’s an interesting take, and I can see the argument for it, when you consider that most new writers were getting pretty standard terms for e-book royalties etc. This will shake that up.

      And self-publishing itself is causing changes. Joe Konrath has a great interview with James Rollins today. Rollins said that he threatened to self-publish a short story and his publisher agreed to “co-publish” it with him – splitting the royalties down the middle (after costs are covered).

      That’s pretty major, and hopefully a sign of things to come.

      Interview here:

      1. Agree on the value of competition.

        I could also see another unexpected player bringing innovations to the book industry, whether it be Netflix, Walmart, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads… or some start-up we’ve yet to hear of.

        The more the market shifts to e-books, the more room there is for unconventional players to bring something new.

        I’ve also been a bit disappointed at Apple and Google’s lackluster efforts so far.

        1. I think Kobo could be one to watch in international terms. They are making a big play in Europe this summer – they have launched or are launching local language e-book sites in France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, and Spain, to add to their operations in Hong Kong and Australia. I think there was talk of more in Asia too.

          Amazon have been very, very slow in Europe – they only just launched the German Kindle site and even now, when you order the Kindle the menus are all in English, as are the instructions.

          A company with a global focus could make some inroads. Google make it difficult for people to list books with them – they don’t allow writers from outside the US either, and there are lots of other things Google does which just make the process frustrating – many writers just don’t bother. Apple make it tricky to list direct too, and they put in a huge, pointless delay before your books are available in iTunes (which is used a lot more for book buying than the iBookstore). Apple, so far, don’t seem to care about selling books other than to poke Amazon in the eye. It’s a short-sighted strategy IMO.

          Goodreads are now letting me sell e-books direct through their site. I wonder if that will take off. But a challenge could come from anywhere.

  3. Great post on the subject — again, I agree with you. I think authors are choosing what works for them. There’s no one-size fits all, anymore. There’s doing what is the smartest thing, individually.

    Thanks for sharing this. Options ARE good.

  4. Self-publishing and trade publishing aren’t mutually exclusive paths for writers who can choose between the two. For many new writers who haven’t been offered agent representation or a book deal with one of the Big Six, this argument is moot. So it always amuses me just a little to participate in one of these discussions as though I, a total unknown, have an inordinate number of “options.” Sure, I might. But I might also have to “resort to …”

    I live in a large urban city that used to be fueled by the music industry up until … well, I don’t need to give anyone a recap. What a lot of “mid-listers” (read: one- and two-hit/c.d. wonders) who were signed with a major label discovered is that they can milk that reputation for a long, quiet eternity. My former S.O. was dropped more than a decade ago, and he’s still making serious bank on a couple of singles that barely received airplay. His reputation as an artist who used to be signed to a major label is the only reason he makes a living in music today.

    I do find the changes in publishing fascinating, and there’s no doubt that there is a shake-up going on. However, as a new writer, I need Big Six “juice.” I need a name that readers associate with a known quality. I can self-publish the most fabulous novel to grace Amazon, et. al, and I’d still languish way down in the 600,000s on the best-seller list unless I bust tail marketing myself, competing with the other 599,999 writers ahead of me. I don’t doubt that Mr. Konrath and Mr. Eisler are thinking about the writer’s best interests, hence why they natter on about this “not mutually exclusive” business, but I’m not downing the entire cup of Kool-Aid unless I know I do have a choice.

    1. Hi Lisa,

      I take your point.

      However, you can choose to pursue traditional publishing by querying agents, or you can self-publish it – those are distinctive paths whether you are successful in gaining representation or a publishing deal or not. Everyone has those choices. My point here was that it’s not a choice-for-life. It can be a decision on a per-project basis. Some projects might be better suited to trade deals (such as foreign print rights) some might be better suited to self-publishing (such as single short stories, or a mid-lister’s back-list).

      I had a similar choice with the short stories I published. I could submit to magazines, or I could self-publish. I can decide that on a per-story basis.

      I can understand that at this point in your career you feel a deal with the Big 6 would be best. In your case it may well be, depending on the deal. Before I decided to pull my novel from the four agents considering it, I did a simple sum. I wrote down the number of what advance I thought I could get, if I could get an agent, then I calculated whether I could sell that many books on my own. I estimated I could sell a lot more. There was nothing ideological in my decision, it was pure numbers. There are benefits to a trade deal beyond the advance, for sure. But that wasn’t enough to tilt the balance, not when I consider the benefits of self-publishing.

      But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t consider a trade deal with better terms, or one for another project. I think it would be smart to have a mix, especially when you are growing your career.

      There are choices. And the choice with one project doesn’t effect the choice you make with another. You can pursue representation with one book, and self-publish another, and you can do that in whatever order you like. And you can always pursue representation for a while, and if it doesn’t work out, or you are not enjoying the chase, then you can change your mind and self-publish.

  5. When talking about mutually exclusive – it should be pointed out that the Amazon contract allows for such an envirnoment. Many contracts have non-compete clauses and other restrictions that limit not only how often an author can release a title but if they can write similar works in the same genre that might compete with the works that the publisher put out. When trying to “do both” it is important that you read your contracts carefully and fully understand the implications of each clause.

    Robin Sullivan | Write2Publish | Ridan Publishing

    1. That’s a very good point Robin, I know a lot of writers are wrangling over this very issue right now. Some of those non-competes I’m hearing about are ridiculous – like preventing the writer from publishing anything else at all until the book under the contract is published – with no limits. So if the publisher decides to shelve your book, you could be prevented from writing again! People need to watch out now more than ever.

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