When I was looking for a publisher in the olden days of 2008 (47 years ago in ebook time), it seemed clear that the way to make a living as a writer was to get an agent, find a publisher, sell your book in stores, and wait for the money truck to back into your driveway, even if didn't always work out that way. But now that Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and other ebook vendors let you self-publish your books electronically (also called indie publishing), many unpublished writers think it's a no-brainer to forgo traditional publishers.
As someone who has seen both sides, first as a self-published ebook author and now as traditionally published author with Simon & Schuster, I can tell you that each avenue has its pros and cons, all of which I can sum up by saying: if you think writing is hard, wait until you try publishing.
Bestselling author Seth Godin ditched his publisher to sell his books directly to readers because he feels that he no longer needs his publisher's support for packaging, marketing, and distribution. On the other hand, Philip Goldberg wrote his own post about why he thinks a traditional publisher is still both relevant and needed. I'm sure both of them thought a long time about why they write, who their readers are, how they'd find those readers, how they want to spend their time, and what resources they have.
I know I considered all of the same issues that Godin and Goldberg did. When I self-published my three books last year, it was extremely gratifying to post my novels to the Kindle store and see my sales progress on a daily basis. I had total control over my cover, the title, the release date, and the pricing of my books. When I received the offer of publication, it meant taking my books off the Kindle and having them unavailable to readers for another year or more, but I felt that what I gave up was more than compensated by what I was getting in return: editing help, bookstore distribution, credibility with foreign publishers, and an advance payment against future royalties.
My decision wouldn't have been right for everyone and for every situation. Electronic self-publishing knocks down huge barriers to entry and gives writers a choice they've never had before, which is fantastic and is energizing the writing industry in a new way. But when deciding whether to indie publish, don't overlook all the questions traditionally published authors have been dealing with for years...
- Who will translate my book into Chinese? If you want a world-wide presence, foreign language translations open you up to a much larger audience. Stieg Larsson has sold four million books in the US, but he's sold forty million worldwide. I know many writers whose foreign sales outpace their US sales.
The great thing about both self-publishing and traditional publishing is that writers can make money doing what they love. If you have a passion to write, there is no better time to be an author. But if you want to make writing your business, be sure you're asking all the right questions before you choose a path.