Déjà Vu All Over Again – Indie (AND) Traditional Publishing

The discussion of indie versus traditional publishing has been bothering me lately. I know it is still a relatively new issue that everyone involved in publishing needs to sort out, but what has been bothering me is that I know I have heard this kind of discussion before and could not think when.

After much brain-racking, it finally dawned on me.

It was in the 1980’s when personal computers were starting to make inroads to both homes and businesses. I worked for a small company and was asked to spearhead the “computerization” of the office.  With little direction and even less knowledge of computers, I set off on my quest to investigate the correct path for the company.

My first stop was to a store that specialized in Apple Macintosh computers. The conversation with the store associate went something like this:

Me: “I am looking for the right direction for computers at our company.”

Mac: “I would be happy to help you sir.” (It was cool to be called sir in the early 80’s)

Me: “Here is a list of applications we need, I would be happy to hear your recommendations.”

Mac: (without reading the list very carefully) “Oh, you have come to the right place. If you buy all Apple Macintosh products, it will meet all your needs and you don’t even need to consider those evil PC’s using that evil DOS operating system.” (OK, I added some interpretation to make this a good story)

Needless to say, the guy wasn’t very helpful. He was interested in selling his solution to anyone who had a need. Whatever the need, Apple had the solution, no questions asked. No need to look further. I actually would have liked him to ask questions to see if he understood anything about our business.

I thanked the Apple guy for his help and went to another computer store that sold PC’s, running the (evil) DOS operating system. That conversation sounded like this:

Me: “I am looking for the right direction for computers for our company”

DOS: “I would be happy to help you young man.” (The PC computer guys were older)

Me: “Here is a list of applications we need, I would be happy to hear your recommendations.”

DOS: (without reading the list very carefully) “Oh, you have come to the right place. If you buy all PC products running DOS, it will meet all your needs and you don’t even need to consider those silly playtime computers from Apple. You know, they build those things in garages from parts taken from household appliances like toasters.” (Again, my interpretation to make my point.)

Here’s what was happening: Neither side was entirely right or wrong.  In fact, anyone who had a perspective that didn’t include a healthy dose of balance was actually not helpful at all. They were not customer-focused. They were focused on what they were paid to sell.

There is a place for Indie publishing and there is a place for traditional publishing.  Anyone who tells you one or the other is the only way is really only saying, “This is what works better for me, right now.”  In reality, what works for one may not work for another and what works best might change a year from now.

What is the correct way to view the Indie vs. Traditional discussion?

It starts by removing the “vs.” from between the two terms and inserting he word “and”.  The only people who want to keep the “vs.” are those that are selling a certain approach or had a bad experience with one or the other. Everyone else must navigate a world that includes an appropriate mix of both.

What did I do 30 years ago with the computers? We bought some Macs for the creative people and PC’s for the accountants. Everyone was happy and filled with joy…until six months later when new upgrades of the computers came out and then the staff wanted the next thing.

I pretended I didn’t hear them talking.


32 Responses to Déjà Vu All Over Again – Indie (AND) Traditional Publishing

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    Kathy N. November 18, 2014 at 5:36 am #

    Thank you. This puts the entire issue into such clear perspective. I wonder what the publishing equivalent will be for the invention of Windows.

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    DIANA HARKNESS November 18, 2014 at 5:52 am #

    Good point. We do tend to criticize without examination. I can say that having read both traditionally published books and Indie books, both methods produce books that should not have hit the market in their unedited or lightly edited state. If an indie writer takes the time to refine, pays the money for independent editing, and produces something worth reading, then I would say that book could stand up to a traditional published book. But will it sell as well? Does it have clear distribution channels? An indie writer must take on the roles of editor, publisher, and distributor. Very few people can perform multiple disparate tasks well. Having read so many very bad indie books, I find myself avoiding them. However, I also avoid some traditional publishers, authors, and genres. I would advise myself and others to try to indie publish only if all of your readers have truthfully given you great reviews and you have been turned down by traditional publishers only because you were not a good fit. If you are not willing to do the work to convince an agent and publisher, why would you think that you successfully function in those capacities? That is what I tell my self and any other writer thinking of going the indie route.

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      Sally Bradley November 18, 2014 at 11:59 am #

      “But will it sell as well?” Diana, yes! Have you looked at the genre bestseller lists on Amazon? It’s not uncommon to find more than half of the top twenty are indie published. Indie books are selling extremely well!

      “I would advise myself and others to try to indie publish only if all of your readers have truthfully given you great reviews and you have been turned down by traditional publishers only because you were not a good fit. ”

      This is why I went indie; I received excellent feedback from pubbed writers and agents, but they felt in the current CBA market–which is very conservative right now–my book would be a hard sell. So I pubbed it myself and have sold lots in two months. It’s been on three bestseller lists almost the entire time. Readers are saying this is the kind of fiction they’ve been looking for but have had a hard time finding.

      “If you are not willing to do the work to convince an agent and publisher, why would you think that you successfully function in those capacities?”

      This is where we disagree. 🙂 I go back to what CBA houses seem to be buying right now. Add into that all the book slots that have been lost in the last year or two–even this month. There are fewer and fewer places for writers to place their books. Significantly fewer places. No one would argue with that.

      Does this mean that every book that gets rejected is bad? No. It just means a publisher didn’t want to take a risk or didn’t have money or space for it. There are lots of good books that never find a traditional home, and indie publishing is proving that. Some publishers–general market and Christian–have scooped up indie novelists because they’ve proven there was a market and that they had an audience. And I’ve heard firsthand from indie novelists who have turned down the publishers because they would take a major pay cut to work with a publisher.

      I think this is sometimes where the us versus them mentality or attitude comes in. One side gives incorrect or uninformed information, and the other side wants to enlighten the other. In this case, that’s all my comment is. This isn’t us vs. them. Do I think working with a traditional publisher is a mistake? No, but I will say as someone who has an open invitation from an editor at a major CBA house to submit something in the future, I don’t plan on following that lead.

      I’ve worked for a traditional publisher and a small press, and now I’m an indie novelist. Right now–as an indie novelist–I have amazing opportunities with a great reality and with huge potential. And as a writer who hates seeing talented writing friends unable to place a book and deal with frustration and self-doubt, I want them to know that there is another option.

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        Nancy Kimball November 18, 2014 at 12:30 pm #

        That was me, Sally. I had a collection of manuscripts and impressive author resume of contest finals from some of the most well known organizations in our industry but still no one wanted my books. I knew craft wasn’t the problem. I’d spent years developing that. But I needed readership. Readership became more important to me than money, validation, and accomplishment. It was the reason I started writing in the first place. So when I self-published, truthfully at the time thinking it was the sub-par choice of the fork in the road, I found for me it was the exact opposite. The other pieces came and through it all I found out other things that were really important to me–like controlling my cover design, and minimizing the things that affect my career that were beyond my control, was actually the superior option for me. I’m an author that now too would be hard pressed to accept a traditional deal if one is ever offered. So Indie is right for me, just as it is for you, and I hope that as more industry professionals like Dan, Chip, the ACFW Board, etc. continue to keep the dialogue open and Indies like us take these opportunities to engage in sharing our own experiences that the entire fiction community is better served with accurate information and individual perspective.

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        Jeanelle November 19, 2014 at 10:19 am #

        Thank you Sally. Excellent response.

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    Naomi Musch November 18, 2014 at 5:53 am #

    This sounds both wise and practical, and it is refreshing to hear an industry professional say it. Plus — great interpretations to make the story more interesting. 🙂

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    Robin November 18, 2014 at 6:38 am #

    Great comparison. Reminds me of the mid-90’s ebook vs. paper book debate.

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    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser November 18, 2014 at 7:05 am #

    Interesting post, and I remember those early PC vs. Apple days well. I wrote some heavy-duty structural analysis code on an Apple II. It took a day to run, so I could start it, spend the day hiking, and come back and see what happened. Fun!

    There’s an interesting sectarian angle to the tradition vs. indie debate. CBA publishers seemingly won’t touch Catholic-themed fiction, because their readers won’t accept it.

    There are certainly doctrinal issues at work, but part of this sees to be a traditional bias against Catholics – that they’re not readers, anmd not all that well-educated.

    And yet – there have been some very successful Catholic novelists, including John Buchan, William E. Barrett,and Andrew Greeley. Susan Howatch’s “Church of England” series also spends quite a bit of time on the “Roman” or High Church of the Anglican denomination.

    One could say that the current success of faith-based fiction owes a lot to Father Greeley’s books in the 80s and 90s.

    But today – it probably won’t be agented, let alone published. Too Catholic for CBA, too religious for ABA, and indie seems to be the only route (aside from the Catholic publishing houses, which tend to concentrate on devotionals).

    • Avatar
      Connie Rossini December 3, 2014 at 12:42 pm #

      Andrew, there is certainly a vibrant bunch of Catholic folks self-publishing these days. I run the Google+ group Indie Catholic Authors. We have writers who do historical fiction, thrillers, romance, memoir–and, yes, even spirituality. That’s my genre. Many of us have gone Indie because of the problems you highlighted. I could not find a home for my fiction with a Catholic worldview, so I put book writing aside for a while. When I took it back up I decided to write nonfiction. But I was eager to try self-publishing and skip the rejections, waiting, etc.

      I totally disagree with Diana’s contention that writers should only go indie if they have been rejected. With my latest book, I went straight to self-publishing and I’m happy I did. I have had 3 editors from Catholic publishing companies contact me in the last 6 months. What a switch! I turned them all down, by the way.

      Self-publishing is not for everyone, but I do think many writers would be better served by it.

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    Richard Mabry November 18, 2014 at 7:34 am #

    Dan–Preach on, brother. You’ve got it exactly right. It’s not “us vs. them,” unless there’s a financial stake or ego stroke in the choice others make.
    Authors now have many roads in front of them. Wise ones will consider all the pros and cons before choosing a road. Some of them (some of us) may even have to backtrack to the cross-roads and try another direction. Thanks for sharing.

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      Jeanelle November 19, 2014 at 10:23 am #

      Thank you Richard. I imagine that God can use many people to write, edit and publish redemptive stories that can reach the world. Even Acts 2 promises that God will pour out his spirit on all flesh in the later times; as a result, with the Holy Spirit’s guidance writers of all genres and publishing choices will reach many.

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    Jeanne Takenaka November 18, 2014 at 8:50 am #

    Great analogy, Dan. As a writer, I need to weigh the pros and cons of which route I choose. I like how you pointed out it’s wiser to replace “vs” with “and.” It’s important to have a strong understanding of the processes and necessities of both modes of bringing a book to print.

    Loved your illustration of Apple vs PC. In some ways, that hasn’t changed much. 🙂

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    Susan Mary Malone November 18, 2014 at 9:42 am #

    Exactly, Dan. What I try to teach my writers is to find their place within the industry. At this point, few right or wrongs exist as per book placement, and the focus is what works for this particular writer, and this particular book. Lots of variables play into that.
    Great post!

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    Connie Almony November 18, 2014 at 10:10 am #

    I agree the “us vs. them” mentality is not a good one, especially considering that we are called to work with each other within the Body of Christ, different parts and different functions. I have great concerns about this myself, and could write an entire blog post on it. In fact, my initial response numbered into the 700 words (and counting) … so I’ve decided to do just that . It will be up on my blog this coming Friday.
    I think one of the things that causes the “us vs. them” mentality is a lack of understanding of each group (as is usually the case in these things). Many assume authors choosing the indie route have chosen it only to circumvent the process of honing one’s craft and becoming a better writer. That is a false assumption. Many have chosen to go indie simply because the subject matter or setting of their novels is not the in-vogue of the day. And yet these authors are finding a vast readership as indie. There are many topics and settings, not touched by the traditional Christian publishing houses—medieval, Viking, pirate, college campuses. These niche-market stories now have an avenue in which to publish and their authors are finding a voice. It is the constant assumption that indie work is inferior or that indie authors are somehow taking the easy route that causes the “us vs. them” mentality. Indies tend to bristle against these comments and sometimes speak out. They have the right to defend themselves and their work when they are maligned as a group, though this is not the only reason they do so. Many indies speak out because they believe the indie route is a very viable alternative and want to make sure authors, who are watching the traditional publishing opportunities contract, know they have this alternative. It is not in the hopes of belittling the traditional, but opening up avenues for our fellow sojourners that we speak this way.
    More on this Friday …

    • Avatar
      Heather Day Gilbert November 18, 2014 at 10:28 am #

      I agree, Connie. I feel many are judging all indie books on some they’ve read years ago, when vanity presses were huge or selfpub was more casual in approach. Today’s Indies have made huge strides and are now very competitive.

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      Lynn November 18, 2014 at 10:53 am #

      Thank you, Connie! I have heard the “too impatient/arrogant to take the time to hone their craft” explanation and felt sure the speakers could not imagine how offensive their comments were. This is one of those situations where one size does NOT fit all. I write in a niche genre. I have studied my craft for over 15 years and received many requests for full manuscripts which finished in the top three choices with well-respected publishing houses…but those houses only publish ONE title a year in my genre. I felt like the crippled man waiting year after year by the Pool of Bethesda! I completely understand how a niche market would not yield enough sales to support the overhead of a publishing house, but it garners plenty of interest to make independent publishing well worth my while, with ROI growing every year.

      • Avatar
        Connie Almony November 18, 2014 at 11:23 am #

        Lynn, you bring up a good point about how niche reading does not support the overhead of the traditional publishing houses. That’s why indie authors also need to be careful about taking rejections personally, and being angry at publishers. They are making a business decision based on the best numbers. Indie authors are doing the same. And the ROI is working for them.

  10. Avatar
    Heather Day Gilbert November 18, 2014 at 10:26 am #

    I think there is SUCH a crossover among authors today, it doesn’t make sense to disparage one style of publishing or the other. So many of us have friends who are indie or at least hybrid.

    I do think the thing that is discouraging to indies is to see attitudes promoted that indie books are slipshod, even though many indies are producing competitive books that are selling as well as tradpub and garnering just as many (or more) enthusiastic reviews and readers.

    I appreciate agency blogs that present both sides of the equation and champion ALL their authors’ books, not just the tradpub ones. I appreciate that ACFW is allowing indies now in the Carols, Fiction Finder, and even the Christy awards are accepting indies (with minimum number of sales, etc).

    Every author has his/her own path to follow. For me, it was indie publishing. But indiepub is not for everyone and requires, above all, TIME and a willingness to learn hard things. Are there times I wish I didn’t have to handle all aspects of my book, from promotion to cover art? Yes. But in the end, this is the most rewarding path for me right now. And if God would’ve launched me on a tradpub path, THAT would’ve been the right path for me. In the end, we all follow God’s leading and we shouldn’t disparage anyone for doing that.

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      Connie Almony November 18, 2014 at 10:38 am #

      Yes, Heather, lots of kudos to ACFW for broadening their acceptance. I think sometimes we indies find ourselves constantly on the defensive we need to make sure we communicate our appreciation to those supporting us. ACFW has made many inroads in doing this and it is much appreciated. Dan, your blog posts are always fair to all in the industry and much appreciated as well. Sorry I forgot to mention those things above.

    • Avatar
      Jeanelle November 20, 2014 at 10:41 am #

      Heather, I like that you’re including what I call the “God Factor”. As a Christian author, I believe that God determines that path for my books and He’s done quite well in the process!

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    Jane November 18, 2014 at 10:41 am #

    Here’s an idea: ask a friend to tell you about the last book she read. She’ll probably tell you the title, the subject, the characters if it’s fiction and the conclusions if it’s nonfiction. She’ll tell you if she liked it or not. Then say to her, “Who published it?” She probably won’t know.

    The reason there’s ever been a trad-versus-indie divide is not because of the readers; most readers don’t care who publishes their favorite books. And yet we’re all in writing because of the readers, so maybe we need to think more about what best serves the reading public rather than what logo appears on the book’s spine.

  12. Dan Balow
    Dan Balow November 18, 2014 at 10:42 am #

    Great comments today.

    In 2013 alone, there were about 300,000 new books published in the US by traditional publishers and just over 450,000 titles published indie. Were some of the 450,000 indie books better than some of the 300,000 traditional? Absolutely.

    I think everyone involved in publishing should be concerned about too much of a good thing. Twenty years ago when there were only 200,000 new books published per year, no one complained there was not enough variety, except authors who had no alternative but to wait for a traditional publisher to give them a shot.

    Now we have 750,000 new books or more per year and I am not sure the increased title count is good for the overall good. But the neat thing about market-forces…they tend to sift out what works and what doesn’t.

    • Avatar
      Jane November 18, 2014 at 12:18 pm #

      Twenty years ago, though, publishers were more likely to retain midlist authors and to nurture an author through a couple of poor-selling books in order to build an audience. Naturally there was greater variety back then — because publishers weren’t so desperate to find only blockbuster bestsellers — and therefore fewer complaints about lack of variety. When you don’t feel you have the leeway to take chances, you’re going to only produce more of the same.

      • Dan Balow
        Dan Balow November 18, 2014 at 12:51 pm #

        I think we are taking about two different things. I have never heard readers (not authors) complain there is no variety of books to read. The issue is finding books they like.

        In the Christian market, we cannot disconnect this discussion from the fact that through mergers and acquisitions, today about 90% of the Christian publishing market is by larger companies, who have great resources and really professional people, but also the need to generate revenues to grow and profit.

        There are fewer companies today and those that remain are under tremendous pressure to make good decisions. Risk is balanced more than ever.

      • Avatar
        Jeanelle November 20, 2014 at 10:24 am #

        Thank you Jane. I agree with you, but what makes a blockbuster breakout novel—uniqueness, so how will publishers obtain the next breakout novel if they are too conservative in their choices.

  13. Avatar
    Vannetta Chapman November 18, 2014 at 11:18 am #

    As usual you are spot on, Steve. I do not like “either/or” conversations, and this one is no exception.

    Toaster parts in Apples?
    Really? 🙂


    • Dan Balow
      Dan Balow November 18, 2014 at 11:24 am #

      You should know this Vannetta, Steve is only goofy on Fridays. I am goofy the rest of the week.

      And yes, you can make toast in the floppy drive of a Mac II.


  14. Avatar
    Lisa Godfrees November 18, 2014 at 1:01 pm #

    YES YES YES! And thank you. Fantastic post. 🙂

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    Beverly Brooks November 19, 2014 at 6:50 am #

    A reasonable and respectful post – thank you. I enjoyed reading everyone’s comments also, from the reminder that we are one body in Christ to the reflections on different facets of each publishing choice. Thanks everyone for your time and thought.

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    Scott Spiewak November 20, 2014 at 8:44 am #

    We have enjoyed very nice success using hybrid models. It helps provide back end distribution with still giving the author high percentages of royalties. It is a ton of fun to work on with a team in place for support. Something to think about which scanning this I haven’t seen mentioned yet.

  17. Avatar
    Linda Rodante November 24, 2014 at 9:25 pm #

    First rational thing I’ve heard in a long time. 🙂


  1. What to Do about the “Us vs. Them” in Publishing! | Infinite Characters - November 21, 2014

    […] some are not) they are free to buy the other books. It’s like in Dan Barlow’s computer example (see blog article)—creatives got the Mac and accountants got the PC. I’ve tended toward indie reading myself only […]

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