Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why I Chose Traditional Publication

A guest post by author Jaden Terrell 

When Peg invited me to submit this guest post, I had a moment of déjà vu. She had just read the first book in my Jared McKean series and said, “I don’t understand why you went with a traditional publisher. You’re good enough to make it on your own.”

Several years ago, an early version of the book was released (under a different title) through a self-publishing company. At the time, I kept hearing, “Why did you self-publish? You’re good enough to get a traditional publisher.” The paradigm has shifted that far and that fast.

The short answer to why I chose to go with a traditional publisher is that I’d tried self-publishing, and I didn’t like it much. I’m shy by nature, and being the sole person responsible for marketing my book was daunting. Successful self-publishing requires a thick skin and a skill set far outside my comfort zone. It requires the author to spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with things that have nothing to do with writing, which is why Amanda Hocking, who made more than a million dollars self-publishing, snapped up a traditional offer as soon as it was offered. If you don’t like or aren’t good at those tasks, or even if you just prefer to devote the bulk of your time to the actual writing, it’s a lot like being nibbled to death by geese.

Even if you take on the challenges, the odds of success are slim. According to Amazon, 30 self-published authors have sold more than 100,000 copies, 145 have sold more than 50,000, and “more than 1000” sell more than 1,000 copies a month. That sounds great until you realize that Lulu publishes 4,000 new titles a month and that there were more than 200,000 self-published titles last year. Bowker predicts as many as 600,000 self-published titles by 2015. So yes, there are more authors than ever making a living through self-publishing, but for every one of those, there are thousands more making little or nothing.

With traditional publishing, I have the support of my publisher, Marty Shepard of The Permanent Press. Although I still have to work at creating an online presence and building name recognition, Marty promotes his authors tirelessly. His company is well-known in the industry, and doors that were closed to me as a self-published author have opened because of his reputation. On my own, I was lucky to get a few reviews from bloggers I knew from DorothyL and other newslists. Since signing with The Permanent Press, I’ve received favorable reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus, and Booklist. I’ve been reviewed in and interviewed by Suspense Magazine and given an excellent review in Mystery Scene Magazine. Would these reviewers have liked the book as much in its earlier incarnation? I’ll never know because I could never have gotten in the door.

I have my doubts, though, because the main reason I chose to go traditional is that, as Dean Wesley Smith says, writers are terrible judges of their own work. For many authors, including Dean, that’s an argument for going ahead and putting the book out: let the readers decide. But for me, it’s the best argument in the world for holding off.

Let me back up a minute. When I started submitting the first Jared McKean book, I got an agent very quickly. We got a lot of “good” rejections from the big houses—the kind with complimentary comments and encouragement—but no takers. I knew there was something wrong with the book, but neither my agent nor I could put a finger on what it was. I did an extensive edit, and then a friend offered to publish it for me through iUniverse. “Worth a try,” my agent said, “since we’re not having much luck with it.”

So my friend and I published it, to little fanfare, and most people who read it seemed enthusiastic about it. Established mystery authors, like Kathryn Wall (who had also gotten her start by self-publishing), Sarah Shaber, and Patricia Sprinkle, treated me like one of the club. Despite the stigma attached to self-publishing, they never ostracized me. But I knew I hadn’t made the cut. And there was a reason for that. Looking back on that version of the book, it wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t ready. The book as it is now is so much richer and more polished. I learned a lot of valuable lessons from my self-publishing experience, but I do feel a pang every time a copy of that first version floats up on Google or Amazon, because it wasn’t the book it could have been. For me, that’s the peril of self-publishing. It’s so easy to “put it out there” before it’s ripe.

When I started getting rejections for the second book, A Cup Full of Midnight, I went to more workshops, read more books on craft, studied my favorite novels, revised, and rewrote. When my new agent, Jill Marr, sent me the contract from The Permanent Press, I felt like I had finally earned my place in the club. Most important, when I got Marty’s edits, his input made the book a thousand percent better than it would have been had I put it out myself. So those agents who rejected the book were right to reject it, and I’m grateful they did, because the result was a better book.

I don’t say I would never self-publish again; some of the most talented and successful authors I know, like Timothy Hallinan, have a foot in both worlds, publishing some titles through traditional means and others on their own. Once I have a few more books under my belt and know I’ve developed “the chops” for it, I’d like to do the same. But I will always be grateful for the chance to publish with Marty. As Spock might say, “May he live long and prosper.”

There are more options for writers than ever before. For those of you who write, are you choosing to self-publish or pursue a traditional contract (or both)? What led you to that decision? How will you meet the challenges of the option you chose? 

Jaden Terrell is the author of the Jared McKean mysteries and a contributor to Now Write! Mysteries, a collection of exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin for writers of crime fiction. Terrell is the executive director of the Killer Nashville Thriller, Mystery, and Crime Literature Conference and a recipient of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Learn more at


  1. Loved your take on traditional/self publishing and your advice/info about getting the novel right before publishing. Valuable info.


  2. Welcome to CFC, Jaden! Good to have you here!

    Unfortunately, not all writers who decide to go the publisher route have been lucky (or talented) enough to find a high-quality publisher with really good editors who will ensure a stellar final product.

    I know quite a few writers who've had their books published by small publishers who haven't had the funds or know-how to hire well-qualified, knowledgeable editors, resulting in poorly edited books that could have been so much more polished if a better publisher had taken it on, or if the writer had just sent it to a reputable, quality freelance editor instead - one who reads and edits in their genre, of course!

    So getting a publisher doesn't necessarily guarantee a quality editing and a polished final product. For authors who really want to go that route, they should check out the publishers carefully and not necessarily just go with the first one who accepts them. Of course, if it's a big-name publisher, grab it! (On the other hand, they aren't spending as much on editing as they used to, either, and the results are evident.)

    Also, it seems a lot of authors today don't want to give away the rights to their books, just in case they want to try the indie publishing route. Perhaps others can speak to this better...?

    It seems there are pros and cons to both choices for publishing. I'm so glad you found a great publisher and editor! Gives you the time to do what you do best - write! I look forward to reading your novels!

  3. There are many paths to publishing, and I've taken them all. :) But for most authors, traditional publishing is not a choice they're offered. Self-publishing is the only way to get their work into the hands of readers. And you really can't compare publishing with iUniverse to true self-publishing, especially with regard to ebooks. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

  4. I meant to add that I've seen novels published by small publishers that were riddled with mistakes - 5 or 6 per page! And that's just typos and grammar and punctuation mistakes. Doesn't count the discrepancies, inconsistencies, faulty logic and plot holes, etc. the publisher/editor didn't pick up on.

  5. I honestly don't know which way I'll go when the time comes (and I know it hasn't yet). But lately I've heard so many horror stories from friends who are on their third agent, or who've gotten a raw deal from the publisher, that I'm very wary. And look at the botched roll-out of JK Rowling's latest ebook. I just get the feeling that traditional publishers have such a tenuous grasp on the realities of the new marketplace - maybe even more tenuous than the rest of us.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  6. Thank you for the welcome, everyone, and thank you, Peg, for the invitation to post.

    Jodie, you're right that not every small publisher is able--or even willing--to do what Marty does for his authors. I do feel lucky to have had such a good experience with my agent an publisher, and I agree with you that before signing with any publisher or agent--assuming that's the path they choose to take, writers should do plenty of research to make sure the company they're considering is right for them.

    LJ, you're right. Publishing with iUniverse is not the same as what a good self-published author does, but when I went with them, it was being presented as something new and was getting a lot of great press, so that wasn't clear at the time. The big indie-author boom had not occurred yet. But I think they are the same in this way: there are many, many skills and traits necessary for being good at self-publishing--and especially for enjoying it.

    I don't think I would enjoy the experience any more if I were to embark on it today, with my own publishing company and taking responsibility for everything. I may feel differently about it one day, as my skills grow, but for now, I'm glad I have another option.

  7. The paradigm shift has indeed swung wide, leaving the bad taste that companies like iUniverse left in our mouths slowly clearing out.

    I love that there are options out there now for every serious writer who wants to continue to improve and get their books in the hands of readers.

    My decision to be independent (self-publish) was influenced in great part by the success of L.J. Sellers. She does things right and sets the bar high. And she in fact has been part of about every possible publication path there is.

  8. Peg, LJ is an inspiration to many writers, including me.

  9. Hey, thanks, Peg and Jaden! I'm honored to know that I've inspired people. I've also tried to empower other writers by sharing what I've learned.

    And Jaden, believe me, I know what you mean about feeling overwhelmed by the many roles and chores involved in being your own small press. Which is one of the reasons I signed with Thomas & Mercer this year. I wanted to let go of some of the responsibilities and write more. But I don't consider T&M (Amazon) to be a traditional publisher, and it's the only press I would have given up my indie status for.

  10. Great post! All we can do is keep doing what we love to do--write! I love the choices and I can't wait to see what's next in the publishing industry!

  11. I think I am likely to do a mix though I will probably start going the traditional publisher route. My nonfiction book may not be wanted by a traditional publisher (not because of interest or how it is written) in which case I will go independent on it and for that I already have my cover designer, etc. lined up just in case.

    I have been observing and listening online mostly and offline to published writers who have gone both ways. One I had encouraged to stick with a publisher (knowing said author to be very shy) now agrees in some ways due to the time being independent has taken away from writing. Still that one is enjoying seeing that the entirety of the work can be owned in a sense -- as even the mistakes -- aren't someone else's fault.

    I am fortunate to have a good first reader and editor and advisor who I will rely on very heavily to help me make the final decisions.

    My comments are just the words of an aspiring observer at this point.

  12. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences!!!!


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