I took three months off over Christmas with the intention of completing my third historical novel. No more suspense - it is done. Julien's Terror is a psychological thriller/mystery set over three dramatic and well known periods in France's history - the Terror, the Directory and Napoleon's rule.
The completed draft of Julien's Terror leaves me with a perplexing dilemma - should I follow my initial plan for novel number three and aim high for traditional publishing, or should I continue on the path I have so far taken and remain indie?
Traditional publishing was my original plan for this book because I wanted to discover what it could do for me as an author. I still have the confidence that I could successfully vaunt the sale prospects of this book to an agent and to traditional publishers. Firstly because wider masses will more easily relate to the characters (by contrast, the male character in my first novel, The Ming Storytellers, was a Muslim Chinese eunuch), and secondly because this subject matter is known and more popular than, say, 15th century China (The Ming Storytellers) and 15th century Venice (The Mascherari). This last point means that historical readers, many of whom love reading variations of what they already know, would be more compelled to read Julien's Terror than my other books.
In my best case scenario, which looks a little like fantasy, Julien's Terror would find a spot on a shelf in bookstores, rather than be available only through online orders, and be translated at no cost to me for distribution to French and Spanish markets. That was a fine dream!
The more realistic version of my dream saw the book's sales benefit from the traditional publisher's galley contacts - via more reviews, or through features in Australian newspapers, both of which would boost audience confidence in the product and potential sales. These sort of promotions happen frequently either through the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian or other local newspapers.
And there was even the more modest scenario - that of a traditionally published ebook, with no bookstore presence, no paperback, with minimum marketing support from the publisher but at least - and here it is, the golden ticket - acquiring a respectful published-by-'insert name of some Big 5 imprint here' label. Such a publisher endorsement still exerts a strong pull for many readers.
So that was the plan.
This most realistic plan is attainable. I would in no way expect the freak phenomenon that the likes of G.R. Martin, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and other 'celebrity' authors have experienced in their publishing life.
Aside: only non-writers make an allusion to these type of authors time and time again whenever you mention that you are an author. I find this odd. It is the equivalent of mentioning the billionaire Bill Gates to a computer salesman who has just announced their new business; or telling someone who has just had their first child, that Josephine Baker adopted 12 children... end of rant.
So the reality is that MOST authors who are traditionally published:
1. do NOT earn much
2. are NOT celebrities and,
3. are NOT in any way overnight successes
I can handle reality but would I gain anything from being traditionally published?
That's the question I have been asking myself since completing Julien's Terror. Recently I have debunked a few myths for myself by observing/researching other modest non-celebrity authors I know, and who are published through traditional means. My learning examples may come from any of the Big 5. These observations are in no way about the author or the agent, both of which I know have stood by a good product - they are a reflection on the publisher.
Myth One: Traditionally published books garner more reviews through the galley network
Having observed the experience of fellow non-celebrity authors who are traditionally published by Big 5 publishers, I am not convinced that their books' success and improved audience reach is necessarily tied to any effort on the part of the publisher to organise reviews/articles through the galleys.
In addition, the number of reviews accumulated are not necessarily higher than those received by some good indie authors.
Myth Two: Traditional publishers lend added professionalism to books
Naming no names, I know a couple of authors who have been appalled at the quality of their ebook cover as suggested by the traditional publisher. They ended up sourcing their own cover (at their own cost) and supplying the traditional publisher with this alternative cover. The original covers were deemed to look unprofessional, and in some cases actually fulfilled the "self-published cover" cliche.
This also reminds me that I read a shockingly edited book by Thomas Harris a few years back with grammar and spelling mistakes that were unbelievably frequent.
Myth Three: Traditional publishers will help promote your book
You have heard it elsewhere and I am only repeating it, but support from a traditional publisher is minimum. To market my book, I would still need to do exactly what I do now as an indie author - that is, be active (and annoying) on social media platforms, promote the book left right and center, setup my own website, post relevant articles on my blog, contribute to blog articles and setup promotions on Goodreads. On the other hand, having no control over the publishing price and other selling outlets, I could not run my own Kindle countdown or sell my books for free whenever I wanted on Amazon.
It goes without saying that unless the author is already a rising prominent figure - filmmaker, screenwriter, model, singer, actress - or has published many books already, or else won a few literary awards, the publisher will remain minimally involved in marketing.
Myth Four: Traditionally published books demand less effort from the author
An advantage of being traditionally published presumably is that someone else edits my book for free and someone else formats it and takes care of everything before the release. Time saving? Hmm...No. Based on what I have observed, I would still need to contribute to the editing effort. Not only that, but there is also the initial effort of actually getting published which demands that I contact up to 100+ agents, up to 20+ publishers, write a synopsis in various formats, write letters and hell - that I spend at least 6 months of my time, which I do not have, trying to acquire a published-by-"insert name of some Big 5 imprint here" endorsement.
Hold that thought.
We are in late February 2016. Those 6 months would not include the time I would need to also refine the draft of Julien's Terror before it is ready to be read by agents. With a full-time job, I would need at least a year (assuming I edit during weekends only and take no time off) to be happy with Julien's Terror before contacting agents. Assuming I hook someone early, I would still need to cater for at least a year before a traditional publisher actually takes on and releases Julien's Terror - it would be available for sale in 2018 at the earliest!! My belief is that it is more likely to be 2019.
What a ride. Do I want to wait that long? I would... if and only if there were clear benefits to waiting that long. You can see where I am going here.
Aside, I like how indie authors are often accused of laziness and 'taking shortcuts'. I want to remind those who think this way that I just took three months off - without pay - from a highly paid job, in order to write a book. And here I am trying to make a sound decision which is all based on better ROI. The faster I get this book to market, the faster I get paid, right?
Here is a table summarising pros and cons of indie vs traditional publishing for each of the core steps in publishing. You can gauge my dilemma.
The analysis above seems to indicate that I would be better off pursuing my indie course.
The one item I overlooked is that authors who are traditionally published can be nominated in a large number of writing awards not open to indie authors. This is attractive, but for this particular book - not relevant. With Julien's Terror, I cannot claim to have written anything other than a psychological thriller.
I am not ruling out the traditional course but I can only see true benefits if this path guarantees my book:
* a bookstore presence
* translation to French and distribution to French territories (i.e. a reach beyond Australia, US, UK)
* strong support from the galley network in the form of newspaper articles and reviews both nationally and internationally - dealbreaker!
Without the above, I see no advantage for me in traditional publishing. Thoughts?