Some Key Differences between Traditional and Indie Book Publishing


In some ways, being an indie author is harder than being a traditionally published author. And in some ways, it’s much easier. Sometimes, it’s less expensive to be an indie and sometimes it’s more expensive. The divide between the two is great though with traditionally published authors often looking down on indies and vice versa.

Editing is perhaps the biggest difference. In movies, you hear talk of turning books into their editors. This is true, but it’s not the copy editor. Every traditionally published book goes through a content editor first. The content editor makes sure there aren’t any plot holes, everything is consistent, and everything flows. In other words the snafu with Eric’s name in Tortured Dreams, should have been caught by a content editor. It wasn’t because because it was an editor that changed his name for Eric to Alex in Tortured Dreams. Then it goes through a barrage of copy editors. The average is 10 per book. For longer, more complicated books (such as The Stand), that number might be as high as 20 copy editors. All of these editors are provided by the publishing house. Most indies only use one or two copy editors and maybe a content or developmental editor. This means our books aren’t as perfect as one that is traditionally published, but freelance editing is a strange thing. Rates can vary widely and not actual reflect the quality of the editor. And if you write gory books like I do, most freelance editors won’t accept you as a client. If you look at my books or the Jack Kilborn novels written by Joe (JA Konrath), you’ll notice they both have editing issues. This is because Konrath, who didn’t pull any punches on the gore factor in the Kilborn novels, and I have the same problem. It is easier to find someone to edit dino-erotica than gory horror. I’ve sent samples to more than 30 freelance editors and have found a total of 4 willing to work on D&R… but remember what I said about Eric’s name in Tortured? When I finally figured it out, a couple of years after it was published, I asked them why it was changed… I was told it was changed because the editor didn’t like the name Eric. Well, okay then. Then there are freelance editors that are simply a scam. Turns out I’ve hired one of these, a husband and wife team for Elysium Dreams. Did they send me back a marked up document? Yes, they did. Was it really because there were problems? No. When I eventually compared their send back with my original I discovered they had intentionally changed words to make them misspelled, then turned on track changes and “fixed” them. And it still had quite a few errors in it as a result, real errors that were my fault. On average, copy editing runs from a half cent a word to a cent a word or between 10 cents a page to two dollars per page and most calculate a page as 200 words. Flawless Dreams therefore would have been 331 pages or $662 dollars. While most indie authors are willing to pay these prices, we still won’t get flawless books. For that, you need more than one or two copy editors. If I had used 10 copy editors at $600 an edit, I would have spent $6,000 on the editing alone. Why don’t we spend that? But like I said, I can’t find ten copy editors willing to work on D&R. Furthermore, spending $6,000 doesn’t guarantee it will be error free. I’ve found the more freelance editors a book has, the worse they tend to be. I know an indie that has had one of her books edited by 7 different copy editors and it is a bigger mess now than when she started. Why because not everyone agrees on which Manual of Style to use. I’m not just talking about the Oxford comma, I’m talking about the use of colons, the shift in the use of the ellipsis, and word choices.

Now for the big one, the one I get asked about most often; Money. A traditionally published author gets between 5% and 10% of their royalties. So if you pay $9.99 for a book, they make $.05 or if they’re Stephen King, they make 15% and get $1.50. Or the giant’s royalty percentage, James Patterson has the highest royalty percentage contract out there and he makes 22%. Or $2.22 per $10 book. I make 70% on Amazon, 65% on BN and iBooks, and 55% on Google Play. This means a $4.99 ebook on Amazon nets me $3.57 a book. On the others I make less, but still over $3 for them, one I only make 45%, but I don’t sell a lot through that one, and I don’t really care a whole lot about the fact that it’s lower. This means I keep more of my royalty, but I pay an editor and a cover artist. I won’t complain about either of those things, because it is rare for a traditionally published author to have any input into their cover and I love having control over mine. But there’s a huge expense, I don’t pay that traditionally published authors do. I don’t have to pay an agent. An agent is the person that sells your books to a publisher, unless you have an exclusivity agreement with said publisher… but then you still have to keep your agent, this is the person that will handle most of the stuff between you and your publisher. Most make a commission off your royalties and advances. So King’s agent gets a check from him every month for a portion of his sales and it comes out of his 15%. Meaning if he makes a $1.50 per book, he has to turn around and give his agent 20 – 45% of it. There again, traditionals have some advantage, they don’t have to pay for their own marketing whereas an indie does.

Another difference is length. I don’t have to meet a word count goal, unless I want to. I do have an aim for every book, but sometimes I hit it, sometimes I don’t. Traditionally published authors don’t have that luxury. If their publisher expects a book to be 300,000 words, by god it had better be 300,000 words. Keeping with King, I think this mandatory word count is part of the reason for the 25% of babble in every King novel (now I love King, don’t get me wrong), but about 25% of the front of each book is just background that doesn’t actually enhance the story). And I know he’s capable of not writing that 25%, because it’s missing in the Dark Tower series, Pet Semetery, Misery, and Rose Madder. The Shining is perhaps the worst offender, but a few others like Tommyknockers and Needful Things definitely come in as a close second (I once skipped the first 120 pages of a King novel and still followed The Dark Half just fine). Most traditional publishing houses won’t touch a novel of less than 150,000 words. But sometimes a story needs far fewer words than that. There are some exceptions, romantic comedies like the Stephanie Plum series are closer to 100,000 words and aren’t expected to be longer.

The final difference is expectations; agents, publishers, readers, etc. One of the more surprising things I found when shopping D&R for an agent in the early 2000s was how many told me it was unmarketable. I’ve done a full post about it. Essentially, sex sells, gore doesn’t. That is the opinion of editors and publishers alike. And to some degree, readers. I get comments on the fact that some readers appreciate the lack of sex and romance in my books and yet, I still get comments from some readers asking when Malachi and Ace are going to drive off into the sunset together… Never, if they drive off into a sunset together, it’s because they are going to kill each other. But readers have become conditioned to expect it in nearly every book. I recently listened to Dean Koontz’s book 77 Shadow Street. Great book. No sex. And yet, even I found that surprising. So I asked myself why I had expected it? Because even King, Koontz, and Patterson put romance and sex into their books. Even when it is not what we expect, it’s there. It would not be hard for me to put a sex scene or two into the Dysfunctional Chronicles, but it would be unexpected, not just because I don’t insert sex scenes into my books without reason, but because it would be between a husband and wife, not a woman and a random stranger or dinosaur.

Okay, back to my vacation.

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