By Michael Edelson
I’m old enough to remember widespread use of the term “vanity press,” and although that is thankfully a thing of the past, the stigma attached to self-publishing still persists. But the reality is that the publishing industry is changing, and independent publishing is gaining an ever-increasing market share. [1–3]
As early as 2014, according to a Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey , the difference between highly successful independent authors and their traditionally published counterparts was not as significant as most would imagine. While only 0.7% of self-published authors earned more than $100,000 a year, that number only rose to 1.3% with traditionally published writers. Although I could not find a more recent survey, that gap has no doubt shrunk considerably in the last several years.
Independent publishing can be difficult, discouraging, and sometimes depressing, but it can also be liberating, fulfilling, and, best of all, extremely lucrative. Independent publishing also offers significant advantages over traditional publishing.
When you publish with a traditional publisher, you have very little ability to change the cover they produce for you. As an independent author, however, you hire the cover artist and you work with them to get exactly what you want. You retain control over the contents of your novel or nonfiction book as well. Editorial changes are negotiated before a sale to a publisher is finalized, so parts of your book that you are fond of may need to be cut or dramatically altered. This is not something you need to deal with if you are independent, though a good editor is an expense worth considering.
Aside from the book itself, you also have full control over its online store detail page, which includes the description and other information you may want to include. This means that you can edit or completely change your pitch as often as you wish to accommodate advertising campaigns, changes in reader preferences, and so on.
From the time you sell a manuscript to a traditional publisher, you can expect to wait at least a year, usually more, until your book is released. And while you do receive your advance very quickly, there can be a lot of frustrating anticipation and even anxiety in the long wait. Will your book sell well? Will you be as successful as you feel, or is this both the start and end of your writing career? With independent publishing, you can have your book released in a manner of days or even hours, assuming your manuscript and cover are ready to go. If you publish through Amazon, your books will be live in minutes.
Imagine the excitement of running to the bookstore to see the first copies of your novel hit store shelves. And then imagine that excitement turning to horror when you notice that your publisher has left a jarring typo on the first few pages, perhaps even page one. With independent publishing, the horror need not be more than mild embarrassment. Go home, fix it, upload the updates, and relax. Whoever bought the print book before you fixed it will be stuck with the typo, but everyone who buys it after will have the corrected version. Amazon will even push your updates to existing Kindle books if the purchasers have automatic book updates enabled on their devices.
You can even change your cover, though you may need to manage editions, since some sites (e.g., Goodreads) will never let go of an old cover. But as far as Amazon (and most other indie publishers) are concerned, changing covers is as easy as changing pants. You cannot easily change your title, but if your book has a subtitle, or is part of a series, you can make changes there as well.
These post-publication changes do take some of the stress and anxiety out of hitting that Publish button.
Distribution and Sales Flexibility
When you publish independently, you have complete control over your sales channels. While you cannot decide whether brick and mortar stores will carry your books, you can decide whether your books are available to them.
This flexibility may or may not apply to e-books, but that is completely up to you. Amazon has some tempting benefits for Kindle Unlimited (KU) exclusives, such as 70% royalties vs. 35% when not in the program. One of the primary benefits of being in KU is inclusion in the Kindle Lending Library (KLL), where members of KU can read your book for free for their monthly membership fee. You still get paid, and in my experience, more than half of my earnings were from the KLL.
You can also decide which countries/markets your books will be available in, so if you choose to hire translators, you can sell your books all over the world.
Real-Time Sale Metrics
Traditionally published authors sometimes have access to sales data, but that data is rarely timely. For example, publishers can know how many copies a bookstore ordered, but they do not know how many the store sold, or how many are going to be returned, until a substantial period of time has passed. Independent authors usually have access to real-time sales metrics, and that data is essential for executing effective and efficient marketing campaigns.
All of these advantages boil down to freedom, control, and information, but these things come at a price. Assuming you have the choice, traditional publishing is a lot easier, if you can get a good contract. You do still have to promote yourself to a certain extent, but not nearly as much as an independent author. Most of the work of publishing is done for you, and the process is, for better or worse, out of your hands. Traditional publishing also offers a greater probability of tremendous success, including New York Times bestseller status, movie deals, and all of the other hallmarks of becoming a household name. But these things are possible with independent publishing as well. The major difference is that you alone determine whether you succeed beyond your wildest dreams or end up selling fewer than one hundred copies.
 Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) AskALLi Team. “Facts and Figures about Self Publishing: The Impact and Influence of Indie Authors. ALLi website, 22 June 2020.
 Jentetics, Kinga. “Self-Publishing Market Review 2019.” PublishDrive website. 17 December 2019.
 Abrams, Dennis. “How Much Do Writers Earn? Less Than You Think.” Publishing Perspectives website. 20 January 2014.
Michael Edelson lives in upstate New York with his wife, two kids, and too many pets. He is a firefighter with the Andes Fire Department, works as a martial arts instructor, and when he has the time, writes books.