Traditional Publishing and Self-Publishing (and Authors) Are Crossing Paths More Often – One Writer’s Long, Rambling (No AI) Take on Opportunities, Barriers and the State of Play for Trad and Indie Authors

Traditional Publishing and Self-Publishing (and Authors) Are Crossing Paths More Often – One Writer’s Long, Rambling (No AI) Take on Opportunities, Barriers and the State of Play for Trad and Indie Authors

August 31, 2023

When I hear traditionally published authors disappointed with their publisher’s marketing efforts; the minimal royalties; or how hard it is to get their latest manuscript picked up, I commiserate. But I also encourage them to become more curious about the business of books and to be open to listening and learning from the indie community. It’s a lost opportunity to allow ignorance, intellectual snobbery or insecurity, or wishful thinking to get in the way of an author’s professional and creative development. And likewise for indie authors, there’s so much to learn and be inspired by from the best of trad published authors.

I’ve had one book traditionally published, four books indie-published and am open for my next to be either traditionally or indie-published. The combination of having some books traditionally published and others indie-published is known as being a ‘hybrid author’. I’m literally open, because how we writers publish books these days can depend on so, so many things including:

  • Why we’re writing.
  • The fiction/non-fiction/genre we’re driven to write.
  • What audience we want to reach (and how we want to reach them).
  • How much we want /need to earn – or not earn – depending on circumstances or if it’s more about what writing the book makes us feel or has the potential to lead to.
  • Our long-held dreams of being a ‘published’ author.
  • Our previous good and bad experience of traditional or indie publishing.
  • Who we are, what our skill sets are and how much time we have.
  • Our level or not of privilege, our background and current circumstances.
  • How long we’re willing to wait for our book to come out via the trad publishing route, or how long we’re prepared to spend learning the skills to self-publish at a professional level.
  • Our ability to access books on writing, online and in-person writing courses, manuscript assessments, writing memberships, networking events, writers groups etc.
  • How much control or lack of control we’re comfortable with.
  • Our aptitude (as writers, submitters, pitchers, literary speed daters, networkers, marketers, project managers, entrepreneurs).
  • Our ego. i.e.: some writers see a trad-publishing deal as the only kind of deal that will validate them, while other writers revel in being authorpreneurs.
  • What traditional publishers and booksellers think will sell.

Which leads us to the current state of publishing and the narrowing divide between the traditional and self-publishing routes to readers.

For example, established in 1921, Books + Publishing has been the go-to source for information on the Australian and international publishing, author, and bookselling scene. Last year, Books + Publishing launched its Independent Publishing Newsletter. I saw this as quite a step, one finally acknowledging and signposting the growing indie author publishing community, the alternative economy it’s created, the quality of many self-published authors and their titles, reader demand, and library and indie bookstore openness to quality indie-authored titles.

For me, it also highlighted what I’d learned from researching Look-It’s Your Book! and from continuing to speak with other authors (both indie and trad): Just because a traditional publisher ‘can’t see a market’ for a book – it doesn’t mean there isn’t one. And it doesn’t mean an indie author can’t serve it extraordinarily well.

Case in point – a few days ago in the latest email from the B+P Independent Publishing Newsletter, editor Brad Jefferies wrote:

‘It’s always pleasing to see independent authors recognised alongside their traditionally published peers. At the Romance Writer of Australia’s Romantic Book of the Year awards, known as the Ruby Awards, self-published authors took home four out of the six main categories.

Yes, four out of six! And guess what? In the ‘Long Contemporary Romance’ category, one of the authors, Annie Seaton, was not only up against other authors, but she was also up against herself.

How so? Well, Annie is as a ‘hybrid’ author, a writer who self-publishes some titles, while also having other titles scooped up and published by traditional publishers. Two of her books were entered in the award: a traditionally published one and her indie published one. It was her self-published book which became a finalist AND went on to take out the major award.

Sure, you think, ‘but that’s romance, that’s not real writing’. Ouch, might be time for you to buy some of these books and study these authors to see what they’re getting so right. Their readers are certainly convinced. They’re also leaving traditional publishers for dead in the way they market and sell books and encourage enthusiastic readers.

But yes, if you want to talk more ‘literary’ works, there’s the acknowledgement and success of Michael Winkler, the first self-published author ever shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award (2022). His book Grimmish was picked up by a traditional publisher during the process. I’m sure he will be just the first of many to shortlist. Why? Through no fault of their own, fewer first-time, unknown authors are being greenlighted by traditional publishers. And second-time authors, if they don’t earn out their first book’s advance, don’t often get another chance. That means if they want to keep writing to be read, they NEED to find an alternative path to publishing.

Other self-published authors have won big awards too, including Tim Heard of The Native Bee Book (on track to sell 50,000 copies in AU). He won ABIA Small Publisher Adult Book of the Year, the prestigious Whitley Award from the Royal Zoological Society, and gold at The International Beekeeping Awards.

The fact is, if these books had not been self-published, they would not exist.

Booksellers can benefit from indie authors too. Indie authors’ drive and passion for their books – and often the unique nature of the content – can generate publicity, word of mouth and drive people in store. Take for example the suburban bookstore that quickly sold 100+ copies of local author Sarah Martin’s self-published memoir, Dear Psychosis. Those customers likely bought other books when they went in to purchase that one too.

I’m not even sure which booksellers/organisations are buying my indie title Small Farm Success Australia through the print on demand service of IngramSpark (come on Ingram team – would be great to share that data with us!), but there has been a constant printing over the last few years as that book heads out across the nation too. While the memoir Honey Farm Dreaming continues to sell internationally in ebook, paperback and audiobook forms.

In his email, Brad from Books+Publishing also said about the RWA awards:

‘It shows the rising popularity of independent authors among readers—especially among certain genres of writing—and demonstrates that the best self-published books are fit to be compared directly with those from traditional publisherswhen the prize guidelines allow it.’

And here’s where things get controversial, because often, the ‘guidelines’ for opportunities – competitions, grants, scholarships and appearances at writers festivals – are only open to traditionally-published authors. It’s a barrier that the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) are lobbying to fix.

And it’s important to fix, because as the path to a traditional publishing deal becomes ever more difficult to navigate (just see the paltry number of Australian publishers actually open to submissions in this ArtsHub list by Thuy On), it means fewer and fewer ‘unknown’ writers will be ever traditionally-published.

That means the only way talented, passionate writers can hone their craft and try to earn a living from writing and being an author, is by writing and publishing in the indie or assisted publishing space.

In her recent blog, author Sylvia Dziuba said: “..apart from a few competitions, such as the Australian Business Book Awards  or Ruby Awards, self-published writers are vastly ignored by these institutions”.

So, here’s a fresh conundrum, why would the recently announced Blake Beckett Trust Scholarship via the Australian Society of Authors have the following rule:

To enter you must be a Full member of the ASA and have previously published a minimum of two books. These two books can be in any genre or category, but they must have been traditionally published.”

The 2023 entry requirements for The Stella Prize also state entries must be ‘professionally published’. As we know, when indie authors can employ the same editors as the big publishing houses, the same cover designers and proofreaders and even printers – their books actually ARE professionally published. But further down in their guidelines it actually precludes self-published books Hmm…

These rules deny fairness and opportunity to authors who have also worked tirelessly on their craft, often against all odds. It denies publishers unique voices and the extra chance to develop them. It denies booksellers the benefit of many indie author’s understanding of the market and marketing. It denies the reading public of the opportunity to hear alternative voices. It denies authors the chance to make a decent living from their craft. It’s discrimination against talent that could have huge potential…if just given a chance. And, is the ‘best’ chance actually via a traditional publishing route anyway?

Authors are at least now able to make choices. And more are. There’s an anecdotal rise in the number of authors choosing to buy back their rights from publishers and go indie. And authors who have not been able to get through the door of a traditional publisher, like Sarah Martin who was told she was a ‘nobody’, are finding they’re actually ‘somebody’ who can make things happen. In her case, it’s raising awareness and starting conversations around mental illness.

And here’s another example. I met the wonderful Hilton Koppe recently when he and other writers came to my Marketing for Authors workshop at the Byron Writers Festival. A few days later he thoroughly entertained and engaged audiences from the festival stage when talking about his book One Curious Doctor: A Memoir of Medicine, Migration and Mortality. In a bit of family history, Hilton’s mum, Ray Koppe, had worked for more than 30 years at the Australian Society of Authors. And yes, Hilton self-published. That was the start of his story though, because it was through self-publishing and by being up on a stage at a medical conference and talking about his book – that he then landed a traditional publishing deal for it with Wakefield Press. Not all authors would want to go with a traditional publisher after doing the numbers and seeing what they can actually keep earning as the publisher themselves (seeing they’ve already done all the work!), but for some like Hilton and for what he’s trying to achieve, it makes sense.

That’s what I’m seeing, an increasing flexibility, fluidity and experimentation by authors who are looking at their options. Whereas once traditional publishing was the first and only choice, more and more genre fiction authors and non-fiction authors such as Tess McCabe who self-published the thoroughly useful book Self Promotion Without Social Media – are deliberately choosing indie first, and are actively proud to be indie because they understand the market. They’ve made the choice rather than having had it made for them. They can control the content, the creativity, the commerce and timelines around their book.

But no bookseller or librarian wants to work with an indie author who doesn’t understand the business. That’s why I wrote Look-It’s Your Book! to elevate the level of understanding and professionalism of authors across the board. That’s why I was driven to create and collaborate with other authors on the online course platform Bold Authors, to fill in all the ‘secrets’ and the gaps in knowledge, from how to write a literary CV and apply for writing grants to how to market audiobooks globally to how to get your books into Australian libraries, so authors – trad and indie – can put themselves in the best position to find and nurture their craft, readers, book and author marketing, and the business side of being an author.

So, in a world where it’s become ever easier to write, publish, market and distribute books (as ebooks, hardcovers, paperbacks and audiobooks) – but harder than ever to get visibility with readers – where does this leave traditional publishers?

I think the big ones will continue as is, mostly off the back of backlist titles, celebrity names and new up and comers who have the marketing budget laid on for them. The smaller independent publishers will continue to sift the slush pile and find and bring readers gold in an ever tougher financial market where paper costs are up, distribution costs are up and distractions to reading (such as from streaming services) are up. And I think more publishers will set up arms of their business where they can use their talents and networks to derive income from indie authors who want to pay for top level services and perhaps a semi-prestigious offshoot imprint with distribution (though no guarantee of sales) built in.

And where does this leave us authors?

Authors, whether indie or trad, remain responsible: responsible for understanding the marketplace, responsible for marketing and developing an audience, responsible for being generous within the writing community, and ultimately, responsible for writing great books.