After The Hype And Drama: Balancing Trad And Indie Interests


‘Under The Right Conditions’

In a report at The FutureBook from the author and journalist Matthias Matting in Munich, we learn that a new survey shows the German-language self-publishing community maturing. Three years of surveys reveal a steady decline in the number of respondents who have been self-publishing for less than six months. And that, in turn, likely contributes to the rising levels of professionalism Matting says he sees in German self-publishing.

Germany is recognized as the third self-publishing market in size and activity. The United States and the United Kingdom are the first and second, respectively. And when Matting’s study of 906 authors asked them, 80 percent said they’d be willing to consider traditional publishing “under the right conditions.” Those “right conditions” for German-language authors, Matting tells us, have to do with bookstore sales:

With roughly a 10-percent ebook market share, print obviously still has much more traction in Germany. If a publisher gets a book onto these shelves, as [publisher] Piper Verlag did in the spring with the self-published hit Honigtod by Hanni Münzer — which made it to the No. 10 spot on the SPIEGEL bestseller list — authors are more than happy to go with them.

What’s hopeful about this is that it suggests that writers are doing what works — at least giving themselves the option to experiment and to do what they think best. Self-publishing is one way, not the only way. And it’s a route to publication, not a cause or a religion.

Self-selling, after all, is the real challenge, not self-publishing.

In the first flush of excitement around self-publishing, our own market in the States has been wracked with partisanship for the independent path. In reality, an author’s biggest need is getting his or her work to market in the highest-quality, most sales-effective way possible. Unless writing as a hobbyist for one’s own satisfaction (which is fine), reaching readers, finding buyers is a prime consideration — and the toughest hurdle.

And on this side of the Atlantic, the latest story from the author James Scott Bell has a realistic, healthy perspective, similar to that reflected in Matting’s survey responses.

‘Indie Publishing…Will Grow And Diversify’

In Advice to Traditionally Published Authors, Bell writes:

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of traditional publishing are greatly exaggerated. Yes, trad pub is in the throes of reinvention due to digital disruption. That process is slow, as it is for any large industry facing a shifting infrastructure. Rapid innovation has never been the strength of large industry. But they’re trying.

Traditional companies are also the only way to distribute print books widely into physical stores, including big boxes and airports. If that’s where you want your books to be then traditional publishing is your best shot.

Bell is both traditionally published and actively self-publishing. He knows the pros and cons.

“Writers always operate with a certain degree of fear. The trick is to translate anxiety into action, with a rational plan for where you truly want to be.”
James Scott Bell

He discusses the tendency many writers have to look at a traditional house “as you nanny,” as a protectorate. “Trad pub is about the bottom line,” he writes, “because it has to be. You can’t stay in business unless you make a profit. Publishers have to stay in business, and they will treat you with that in mind.”

What’s more, Bell’s willingness to say that traditional publication is the right mode for some authors doesn’t preclude him issuing some serious warnings, among them:

  • Print sales are getting harder to come by because “big bookstores are closing…big boxes and airports are ordering fewer books…While there has been a nice resurgence in independent bookstores, they can’t replace what’s being lost when a major chain store closes.”
  • Traditional publishers “are taking fewer risks these days. This is reflected in contracts many writers and agents find particularly onerous. Which is why the Authors Guild is calling for fairer terms,” as we’ve been covering here and here and here at Thought Catalog.
  • Traditional publishing “will stick around and try to find its way forward. Indie publishing will continue to grow and diversify, and new options for writers who own their rights will appear.”

Each time one of the crusader-bullies gets at you, it’s easy to see the fear that underlies their rudeness. Bell addresses that, too:

Writers always operate with a certain degree of fear. The trick is to translate anxiety into action, with a rational plan for where you truly want to be.

In the course of this even-handed assessment, Bell mentions an essay by  the author Deborah Cooke, who writes both under her own name and as Claire Delacroix.

And in that piece by Cooke, we begin to hear the voice that’s been missing for a long time in the paths-to-publishing debate.

‘What I Miss About Traditional Publishing’

As Matting and Bell are balanced and fair in their assessments, so is Cooke.

After 20 years a traditionally published author, she moved to self-publishing in 2012, she writes. She clearly is pleased to be creating series now that she says she’s “pretty sure” could not have been “placed with a traditional publisher with favorable terms.”

Indie publishing has helped me to rediscover the joy of writing and storytelling.

And yet, Cooke also has the grace to talk about things she doesn’t find in independent publishing. This actually takes a lot of nerve and I commend her for it. Ironically, we long have needed authors in traditional publishing to speak freely about what they like in the established experience.

Too many in self-publishing are openly critical of their colleagues who want to speak out in favor of traditional work. I’m afraid that’s why we don’t hear from authors like Cooke more frequently. I’ve interviewed a National Book Award shortlisted author who talked of being scolded by indies who insisted that she should have self-published. It’s long past time for such overbearing censure to end.

“The multi-national release of a blockbuster book, for example, requires skill and timing, as well as a kind of synchronization that is pretty much impossible for indie authors to manage alone.”
Deborah Cooke

Cooke’s essay is generous and thoughtful. From the very outset, you realize how earnest she is when she names conversation — yes, conversation, of all the great things — as the very first item among factors she misses from publishing traditionally:

Most of the people I worked with in publishing were very clever and well-educated. They were interesting, whether talking about books or not. Although going to New York to meet with industry partners could be stressful, it was also often fascinating. I particularly miss talking to my agent, who had seen much and understood more. His insight was invaluable. I also miss the great gossipy chats I would have with some editors when we met in person, catching up on who was doing what and all the news in the tiny pond of romance publishing.

Look, you don’t have to even nod your head. No one here is taking names. But you know what Cooke is saying, and it has something to do with what draws many people into the writing profession in the first place.

The idea of articulate colleagues, animated by the eloquence of literature, is attractive to anyone of intelligence near publishing. And while many extremely smart and talented people — including Cooke, herself, after all — are working in the fields of independence today, their conversation is frequently about algorithms, sales ploys, craft…the biz. Nobody’s fault. It’s likely what has to be the case in a sector of the industry so new on its feet. But can we understand what Cooke is saying? Of course we can.

That section of her piece alone is worth the time it takes you to look over what she has to say. If you’ll give her more attention, you’ll see other things well worth some quiet contemplation.

“Many indie authors have built communities of affirmation around themselves, so even when they ask for feedback, they might get only resounding approval.”
Deborah Cooke

Here’s one that needs more explication in writerly discussion: the expertise of the established industry. As quirky as it is, and as many elements of its business model now look absurd (don’t even bring up returns!), publishing is an industry with real capabilities that independent authors can’t hope to have the scale and infrastructure to match, at least in these early years of trial and error.

Cooke writes:

There are things that big publishing houses do well, and which they continue to do best. The multi-national release of a blockbuster book, for example, requires skill and timing, as well as a kind of synchronization that is pretty much impossible for indie authors to manage alone. Very few authors write international blockbuster hits, so this doesn’t have much to do with most of us…

Choosing which is the most marketable [story idea] or the most likely to succeed is a skill I don’t have, because I’m not sufficiently objective about my own work when it’s in sharp focus. In five years, I could choose, but it would be irrelevant by then…I miss being able to tap into that wealth of expertise in order to make the best decision.

Subtleties And Nuance

Cooke is hardly on a nostalgia kick here. Things go wrong, and Cooke names an interesting one:

One of the things that happens in traditional publishing is that authors who manage to perform a miracle and pull something together in a ridiculously tight time frame tend to be rewarded by being expected to perform miracles again. And again and again. It’s not pleasant to be taken for granted, or to know that your partner will always demand too much. I want to be kind to my partners and build even more time into my production cycle.

“Who will tell an indie author if he or she has it totally wrong?…There’s a balance to be struck.”
Deborah Cooke

On the other hand, for all the capability of updating, change, and correction that digital technology provides, Cooke points to an unfortunate loss of “finality” in the indie process.

The book is a fluid canvas and one that can always be revised. In a way, this is exciting. In another, it’s exhausting. As an author’s book list grows longer, the obligation of doing this upkeep can become quite burdensome. I miss the finality of a traditionally published book’s publication date, and the ability to move forward instead of constantly revisiting the past.

Missing Someone To Say ‘No’ To You

Cooke, near the end of her write, touches on one of the least discussed elements of the indie world: no one wants to tell you something is bad. As I’ve written before, when a writer mentions a slew of rejection notes, the last thing you’ll usually hear from her or his indie colleagues is, “Well, my friend, do you think those rejections might be correct?”

Instead, the mode is, for the most part, determinedly upbeat and defiant. The gatekeepers are just wrong, the indie community maintains. Even when they’re not. Which probably is quite frequent.

As Cooke puts this:

Many indie authors have built communities of affirmation around themselves, so even when they ask for feedback, they might get only resounding approval—regardless of whether they’re right.


Who will tell an indie author if he or she has it totally wrong? As tedious as it can be to build consensus, there is merit in listening to other voices. Where will I find that voice? Everyone I consult in this market is being paid by me. I’m the client of my freelance editor, which reverses the balance of power between us.

And in the end, we hear from Cooke what we’re hearing from Bell, from Matting, from others we need to support as they speak, rationally, compassionately, sensibly: Nothing is so clear cut as many of us might like it to be. No route suits all travelers and the voices of insistence for one mode or another are the ones we have to hope are subsiding.

“As the market matures and we all find our rhythm, the missing pieces become more clear.”
Deborah Cooke

Tolerance for the truth of mixed messages makes the authorial community stronger, not weaker. Honest comparative evaluation is far better than indie boosterism or traditionalist complacency.

Cooke has the word: balance.

There’s a balance to be struck. I don’t for a moment imagine that if I returned to traditional publishing, I’d find all of these things again. Publishing has changed and what I miss are older industry patterns…

At the same time, indie publishing isn’t perfect either. As the market matures and we all find our rhythm, the missing pieces become more clear.