Indie Versus Traditional Publishing


This is a condensed version of my quite-long (35-page) advertising plan which I submitted for BUS 345: Advertising, in the Spring 2010 semester. The paper was written with regards to “establishing my brand identity as an author.” I scored full marks for the paper (yay).

* This post was featured on Publetariat (which publishes the most valuable content from the web for indie authors and small imprints).

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Industry Analysis of Traditional Publishers


2.0 Historical Context

According to Doug Grad Literary Agency, whose founder spent twenty-two years as a senior editor at four major New York publishing houses:

Publishers, unfortunately, have a copycat mentality, so once a genre gets hot, they quickly overbuy and over-publish until the marketplace is saturated and the public gets sick of the rotten imitations on the shelves. Look at what happened to the Chick Lit genre, and is happening to the Young Adult Vampire genre right now. (Grad, 2010)

2.1 Industry Analysis

2.1.1 Current Industry Climate

George Bernard Shaw, a famous and controversial 20th century English dramatist (whose first book was published fifty years overdue—when publishers would publish anything that had his name on it), had this to say about publishers:

I object to publishers: the one service they have done me is to teach me to do without them. They combine commercial rascality with artistic touchiness and pettishness, without being either good business men or fine judges of literature. All that is necessary in the production of a book is an author and a bookseller, without the intermediate parasite. (Bernard, 1990)

Independent publishing in the digital era offers what George Bernard Shaw dreamed of. Anyone can write a book, and get it in the hands of potential readers, without having to wade through a sea of literary agents and editors. The entire traditional publishing industry is made up of a series of costs, overheads, and ways of using up incredible amounts of time which might be used doing something productive. Big publishers will not look at unsolicited manuscripts from un-agented writers, and taking 6-12 months to respond to the submission of a full manuscript is considered an industry standard for “working in a timely manner.” The endless series of procedures for simply getting a book considered by a literary agent, are obstructive. Literature is competing with powerful media for space in people’s lives, and inefficiency doesn’t help (Wallis, 2009).

Authors also often have no say and/or control in the traditional publishing process. According to established author, critically acclaimed novelist, and National Book Award finalist John Edgar Wideman:

I’ve been thinking about alternatives for a long time. I like the idea of being in charge. I have more control over what happens to my book. And I have more control over whom I reach. (Reid, 2010)

Wideman notes his “distaste” for what he calls mainstream publishing’s “blockbuster syndrome”—the tendency for large trade publishing houses to focus the bulk of their resources on only the books deemed to have bestseller potential (Reid, 2010).

2.1.2 Self-publishing is no longer a “last resort”

Independent authors have been quick to adopt e-books as a format for rapid publishing. Whereas traditionally published print books require months or years to sell to a publisher (if ever), and then 12-18 months more before the books appear in bookstores, e-books offer instant publishing. The tools to publish and distribute e-books are available to any writer at little to no cost. Free e-book self-publishing platforms, such as Amazon Digital Text Platform, Smashwords, and Sony’s recently announced Publisher Portal, allow writers to upload their manuscript as a Microsoft Word document, and start selling it online to a worldwide audience within minutes or days. Major e-book retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon have opened up their stores to independently published e-books, allowing authors to bypass publishers altogether (Coker, 2009).

As an indie author, the author has full control over both the creative and business aspects of the publishing process. Publishing-on-demand (POD) is also an attractive feature of self-publishing, where hardcopies are only printed when a purchase is made. This saves resources such as trees and warehousing space. Through accelerated self-publishing techniques, it is now possible to go from concept and idea to finished product to retail distribution within 45 days, versus 12-18 months with most traditional publishers.

2.2.3 Concentration: E-books over Print

Mark Coker, founder of the e-publishing platform Smashwords, made the following predictions for Book Publishing in the year 2020:

  1. 95% of all reading will be on screens.
  2. There will be fewer bookstores, though books will be more plentiful than ever before. We will all be authors, publishers and booksellers.
  3. The entire book supply chain from author to customer will become atomized into its component bits. Value-adders will continue to find great success in publishing. Dinosaurs, leeches and parasites will be flushed out of new publishing ecosystems faster than ever before.
  4. There will be more published authors than ever before, and collectively they will earn record revenues, yet individually the average “published” author 10 ears from now will earn less than the average “commercially published” author today. Advantage will go to those with best ability to reach their audience.
  5. Authors will write for a global market. (Rivera, 2010)

2.3 Competitor Analysis

2.3.1 Main Competitors

Figure 2.5: SWOT Analysis

(to analyze market position of commercially published authors + traditional publishing industry / presented in bullet form for online viewing)


  • Prestige
  • Presence in bookstores
  • Agents with good contacts, particularly in the film industry
  • Strong brand names; can charge higher prices


  • 12-18 month production time
  • Outdated business model; high cost structure; resistant to change such as increasing popularity of e-books
  • Bulk of royalties going to publisher (with 15% of author’s cut going to agent)
  • Unrealistic expectations (expecting a book to earn out the advance royalties in the span of two weeks; expecting customers to pay the same price for e-books as for print hardcopies)


  • Indie authors can take advantage of the speed and efficiency that indie publishing offers
  • Indie authors only share royalties with the respective publishing platform
  • Indie authors can set their own price, and create valuable material that is not pigeonholed and/or pre-determined by publishers to sink or swim


  • Perpetuating the notion that indie authors are of a lesser caliber than those “commercially published”
  • When major bookstores close, a big portion of the publishing industry’s model is removed. This is a threat to big publishers, not indie authors
  • Bestselling blockbuster books
  • Increasingly poor reputation among customers, for charging higher prices for and delaying the release of e-books. This is a threat to big publishers, not indie authors

2.3.3 Standing out as an indie author in the internet era

If indie authors want to stand out, they must invest the resources and effort necessary to produce and promote quality work that satisfies readers (Coker, 2010).

According to Nathan Bransford, a well-respected literary agent:

The traditional tools at publishers’ disposal aren’t as effective as they used to be: …bookstores are closing and taking with them the precious hit-making front-store real estate (which publishers pay dearly for), advertising is costly and sporadically effective…publishers have been slow to adapt to the potential of the Internet and especially social networking. (Bransford, 2009)


8.0 Conclusion

The indie author that will succeed in today’s marketplace has to be a boot-strapping solopreneur. The key recommendation for success lies in seizing the opportunities offered by indie publishing.

Maintaining a strong online presence, by exploiting the range of social media platforms online, is a key recommendation for success. The fact that an indie author does not have the overhead costs that the traditional publishing industry is saddled with allows one to work with speed and efficiency.

The following quote is a variation of the motto that indie author and MBA-holder, K.L. Brady, keeps to, for the best competitive edge over mainstream publishers who focus too much on money:

Keep it real…and keep it simple. (Brady, 2010)

# # #


Brady, Karla L. (2010, April 11). What Is Your Marketing Plan? Retrieved April 11, 2010, from:

Bransford, Nathan (2009, November 11). Moving the Needle. Huffington Post. Retrieved April 11, from:

Bernard, André. Rotten Rejections: a Literary Companion. Wainscott, N.Y.: Pushcart, 1990. Print.

Coker, Mark (2009, October 14). Why E-Books are Hot and Getting Hotter.Huffington Post. Retrieved April 11, 2010, from:

Coker, Mark (2010, March 22). E-book Market Exploding, Confirms New IDPF Survey. Huffington Post. Retrieved April 11, 2010, from:

Grad, Doug (2010). FAQs – Doug Grad Literary Agency, Inc. Retrieved March 7, 2010, from:

Reid, Calvin (2010, March 5). John Edgar Wideman to Self-Publish New Book via Publishers Weekly. Retrieved March 7, 2010, from:

Rivera, Jeff (2010, January 4). Smashwords: Book Publishing 10 Years in the Future. Media Bistro, WebMediaBrands Inc. Retrieved April 11, 2010, from:

Wallis, Paul (2009, April 16). Assessing self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. Retrieved March 19, 2010, from:


23 thoughts on “Indie Versus Traditional Publishing

    • Yeah, I wish I’d done it sooner — it kind of “brought together” the info I’d been reading up on for the past year or so =P

      Not looking forward to the finalizing of the next book…but I think I’ll manage to have 5 books by the end of this year. Half of 10.


  1. Hi Jess,

    Just wanted to offer my two-cents worth as I think there are some advantages to traditional publishing houses over self-publishing.

    Firstly, the publisher takes on the financial risk rather than the author. It’s going to cost the author/indie publisher money and/or time to make their book or e-book.

    Secondly, the publisher takes control of the ‘packaging’ so that the product looks great. Self-published books do look different and it’s fairly unusual to see one that looks as good as a book coming out of a publishing house that employs professional designers and typesetters.

    Thirdly, the publisher has to manage distribution – the crunch when it comes to print books, not so important with e-books.

    And lastly, what about editing? Surely it’s important to create the best possible story for readers? I consider myself a good editor of my own work, but there’s no way I would self-publish without first employing (at the very least), a proofreader.

    Re: the amount of time it takes to get anything done with a publishing house – it sounds like it’s pretty slow where you are. In Australia, slush pile responses are in general much faster. Authors here also don’t necessarily need an agent to submit their work.

    I’ve recently been interviewing authors for my blog. One thing I’ve discovered (though not explicitly stated), is that smaller publishing houses will do a lot of work to promote all of their authors in low-cost ways (such as arranging appearances and notifying them of interview opportunities). The authors also help each other out with promotional opportunities. So you’re not left on your own to do everything. I’d say that’s the downside of being a ‘solopreneur’.

    I do think, however, that there are books (and authors) who are better off self-publishing.

    A good blog post!

    Cheers, Cathryn

    PS, the George Bernard Shaw quote was hilarious!


    • Hi Cathryn,

      Thanks for your comment — there certainly are some advantages to traditional publishing, though I suppose it’s linked to the individual’s goals as a writer/author.

      Proper budgeting, packaging, distribution, and editing, are not impossible to do. The editing quality of mainstream NY-published books has slipped in recent years too (typing errors, “their” instead of “they’re”, name errors, etc). If the book contains a good storyline and good characters, I don’t think people will mind paying less to check out something new which may not look as “shiny” as a book coming out of a publishing house (with regards to books that are published independently).

      Now I know that the publishing scene in Australia is speedier/more efficient =P

      I suppose the factor of having to do everything oneself is both an upside and downside of being a solopreneur. It’s nice if you have a plan, and know you can handle both the creative/business aspects yourself. I was hesitant at first, but dived in after a while, because at least it beat sitting around waiting for someone else to do something to publish my book(s). If the business aspects are really too overwhelmingly much for a person to handle, then it’s probably best that s/he sticks to being traditionally published.

      P.S. Yeah, I’ve always remembered that Shaw quote!


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