Self Pubs and Trad Pubs: Couldn’t You At Least Talk To Each Other?

Venn diagramby Carla Douglas @CarlaJDouglas

Three things:

1. A conversation about self-publishing I had a year ago with a traditionally published author and poet who spoke of a colleague—an accomplished trad pub novelist.

Me: If she has rights to her backlist, she could self-publish.
Author: [Congenial but resolute. This goes without saying. It’s not a possibility. The very idea is absurd.] I don’t think she would ever consider self-publishing.

Takeaway: For some traditionally published authors, the self-pub door is shut tight. They don’t show even a glimmer of curiosity about the self-publishing process, which aspects of it might be worth learning, or what its rewards might be.

2. A second conversation about self-publishing a month ago, with the same author who is now, via a formal writing program, completing a novel under the guidance and mentorship of the same trad pubbed novelist.

Me: Is this work happening online?
Author: [tone is wry] No. I’d describe it more like “doorknob-to-doorknob.”
Me: Really?
Author: Yes. I leave a chapter hanging on her doorknob. She marks it up and comments, and leaves it at my house.
Me: [barely masked disbelief] On paper?
Author: [amused] Yes. A bit unconventional, maybe. But the work is getting done. I’m happy with the progress we’re making.
Me: Do you realize how funny that is?

Takeaway: Digital publishing and self-publishing naturally have a common trajectory. It’s easy sometimes to tie them too closely together, so that indie authors are associated with digital and traditionally published authors with print.

My experience demonstrates why this stereotype might persist. Doorknob-to-doorknob file transfer is maybe only a step or two ahead of carrier pigeon. Or owl. I’m curious about what kinds of digital writing and editing tools traditionally published authors are using, but there’s a dearth of available info on this. At the same time, digital production can’t guarantee quality writing.

3. Jane Friedman and Harry Bingham’s #AuthorSay survey for traditionally published authors. Its goal is “to see how traditionally published authors are feeling about the choices now available.” Some enlightening comments have already been published at The Bookseller in response, among them that just 25 percent are open to the possibility of self-publishing, and that “authors are more committed to their agent than to their publisher.”

Takeaway: Ah. So it’s not just local. Yes, my sample is minuscule, but look! It points to a wider trend. In a Venn diagram of traditional and self-publishing, there’s only a small region of overlap. I thought things might be farther along by now.


I live in a bubble. I’ve assumed all writers are exploring digital tools for writing, editing, collaboration and production. I’ve been wrong about this, but to what extent, I’m not sure. Because it looks like others are living in bubbles, too.

Trad pubs and self-pubs need to talk to each other. If they did, they’d realize they could benefit from knowledge the other side is hanging onto.

Just because you’re traditionally published doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from self-pubs. Marketing and promotion, for example. Social media. Digital tools like Scrivener for organizing a WIP.

Just because you’re digital doesn’t mean you’re efficient. Keying or dictating a book into a smartphone isn’t efficient. Neither is running spellcheck instead of hiring a copyeditor.

Just because you’re indie doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from traditionally published authors. The care they’ll take to produce a meticulous manuscript, for example. This may be because they have more years of writing behind them, or they’ve taken the time to internalize (and observe) the conventions of writing, or that their manuscripts have been through more drafts and are therefore more polished. Probably a combination of all three.

Self-publishing isn’t a dirty word. Just because you’re traditionally published doesn’t mean you can’t learn all there is to know about self-publishing, just in case. Being informed can be its own reward—doesn’t mean you have to do it.

What do you think? Is there any common ground between traditionally published and self-publishing authors? And what might they learn from each other?

Image by daveconrey

One thought on “Self Pubs and Trad Pubs: Couldn’t You At Least Talk To Each Other?

  1. Fear of the unknown.
    I think there’s plenty of common ground. The interesting thing, though, is that the most business savvy are those who come out of traditional publishing, go into indie publishing and understand the full spectrum. Those who’ve only been in trad publishing have blinders on.

    We also have to realize they have people advising them who have a stake in them continuing to trad publish: their agent, their editor, their publisher.

    The concept of taking on all the responsibilities from those other people is overwhelming to many trad authors and why they tend to stick their head in the sand and ignore the potentially much larger profits.

    Bottom line in the current market: with the content flood, most authors are selling less copies. Unless an author is a mega-seller, sales are flattening and going down. The key to survival is to make more per copy. Not likely to happen in trad publishing.

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