Monday, August 5, 2013

Hybrid Author Holly Robinson Talks Traditional vs. Self-Publishing

Should You Self Publish?  From Traditional to Indie and Back Again:  
One Hybrid Author Tells All

By Holly Robinson, author of THE WISHING HILL

2013 Summer Author Program
I just saw my new novel in a bookstore for the first time and nearly cried.  Oh, all right, I'll come clean:  I did cry.  It isn't every day that your dreams come true, and this month, with the publication of my novel THE WISHING HILL by NAL/Penguin, mine did.

“I don't get it,” said a friend.  “I mean, it's great that you've published another book, but this isn't your first.  Why is it such a big deal?”

It is a little tough to explain what a huge deal this is for me, but let me try.  First, a brief history:  I never meant to be a writer.  I studied biology in college with the goal of going to medical school.  Then, my last semester of college, I signed up for a class in Creative Writing.

Boom!  “The scales fell from her eyes,” as Henry James would say.  I'd always been a voracious reader, but I'd never known any writers.  Now here I was, in a class with a real, honest-to-God novelist.  I started writing fiction, put my medical school applications on hold, and never looked back.  From that day on, every job I took was in support of my fiction addiction.

I did end up going to graduate school to earn a Master's in Fine Arts in creative writing, figuring I'd better get my feet wet in literary waters so that I could swim with the best of them.  During that time, I attended craft workshops, took literature classes, and wrote a book of short stories and a novel that everyone thought was sure to be published. 

It wasn't.  In fact, not one of my next five novels was published.  Meanwhile, I achieved success as a nonfiction writer, making my living writing articles and essays, and by ghostwriting celebrity memoirs and health books. In 2009, I even managed to publish a memoir of my own, THE GERBIL FARMER'S DAUGHTER, with Broadway Books, a division of Random House.

That was a great day—I still remember my father-in-law hollering down from the balcony of his Florida condo, saying, “Your agent's on the phone!  You have an offer!” as one of the brightest highlights of my career.  The memoir did reasonably well, yet still nobody wanted my novels.  The publishing industry was crashing down around our ears circa 2010, with Random House closing down the entire division of Broadway Books just as an editor there was poised to make an offer on another of my nonfiction books and on a novel, too. 

As self publishing rose from an activity people did in secret, in the dim recesses of their basements, to become an accepted, and even preferred, means of getting one's books into the hands of readers, I decided I had nothing more to lose.  I didn't want to go to my grave not having published a novel, so I took the novel I loved best—SLEEPING TIGERS, the one my agent had just given up on as he started sending out my newest novel—and self-published it through CreateSpace.  I chose the complete publishing package and putting the book out for under $800, both in paperback-on-demand and as an e-book.  Two weeks later, the unthinkable happened:  my agent (who has hung in there with me, bless his soul) called to say we had an offer, an actual offer, on my newest novel, THE WISHING HILL, from New American Library, a division of Penguin.
So, in 2012 I was an indie novelist with SLEEPING TIGERS, and in July 2013, I became a traditionally-published novelist with THE WISHING HILL. 

Now, for any writers out there wondering whether to go indie or traditional, I want to share my observations as a hybrid author.  Here are some of the key differences between the two:

As an indie author, you have complete control.  You decide when your book is ready for public consumption, and you decide what sort of indie publisher to take on as your partner.  Options now range from complete DIY services like CreateSpace—which I found to be extremely efficient, professional, and cheap—to independent publishers who offer a range of editorial services and will hold your hand through the process.  Traditionally-published authors have very little control over the publication timeline and don't even control things like what goes on your book's Amazon page. 

The timetable for self-publishing a book is fast.  From the time I handed my manuscript to CreateSpace to the time the book was published took a total of six weeks.  As a traditional author, it took me over a year to see my book in print, and that's actually considered speedy.  I have many friends whose books have taken two or three years from the time of acceptance to publication day with traditional publishers, and that's not even factoring in the time it took them to get agents first.

Few self-published writers bother with agents, though that's starting to change as some hybrid authors are keeping e-book rights to themselves and just signing deals for paperback rights, as in the case of certain bestselling fantasy and romance authors.  If you want a traditional deal, however, you will need an agent first.  Most big publishers won't look at books that haven't been vetted by a literary agent first. 

Indie authors must pay for all editing services.  Every writer needs an editor, so don't kid yourself that you can do this completely on your own.  At least hire a copy editor to catch your grammar boo-boos, and if you can swing it, hire a developmental editor as well.  This is costly but worth it for your reputation and growth as a writer.  The big difference with a traditional publisher is that you will have an editor who is your advocate, champion, and teacher all at once.  Your editor will go back and forth with you on your book at least twice, asking for revisions, and then the manuscript will be gone over carefully by a copy editor who fact checks and tightens the grammar.  I became a better novelist this past year simply by reworking THE WISHING HILL with the help of my astute editors, and I can definitely tell the difference in quality between this novel and the one I published on my own. 

One of the biggest complaints writers lob at big publishing houses is that those publishers not only take control of many of your rights, but also take the lion's share of royalties.  Instead of earning 75 percent of each e-book sold, for instance (as I do on SLEEPING TIGERS), traditionally-published authors might earn as little as 10 or 25 percent.  However, the cost of self-publishing your own book can also be, as one of my good friends puts it, “the cost of a small elephant,” so you have to remember that, if you're going to self-publish, you'd better have a few thousand dollars saved up, not only for editing and publication, but for the many marketing costs you'll face if you want to get your book out to readers.  Meanwhile, your traditionally-published pals will get advances split into three parts, to be paid on sale, acceptance, and publication of the manuscript.  They might not earn royalties, but they won't have to shell out any money in advance, either.  A typical advance for a first-time novelist ranges from $5,000 to $50,000, with most averaging around $10,000 to $25,000.

This is, perhaps, the biggest difference between indie and traditionally-published books:  how they are marketed.  With a traditional publisher like Penguin, I have a publicist and a marketing team.  Yes, you can pay for those things as an indie author, but they cost a bundle—sometimes several thousand dollars a month for a publicist.  While it's true that big publishers put little effort into marketing each book these days (unless it's a book by Stephen King or Jodi Picoult), it's also true that they have tremendously efficient machinery and can get your book onto actual bookstore shelves not only here, but internationally as well.  I learned firsthand with my self-published novel just how tricky it is, and how costly, to advertise a novel.

Books are increasingly reviewed online, typically by book bloggers or on sites like Goodreads and Fresh Fiction.  However, “big” print and online reviewers like The New York Times, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist will typically only review traditionally-published books, not indie books, unless you're prepared to pay for those reviews.  (And they're not cheap.)


Ask yourself these questions to decide whether you should go indie or try for a traditional deal:

If you want complete control over your work; write in a popular genre like fantasy or romance; write quickly; don't care about having your books in bookstores; and have the deep pockets to pay for your editorial, publication, and marketing expenses, go indie.

However, if you're more interested in growing as a writer, reaching bookstores and international markets, and don't have a steady income to support your writing as you launch your books, then I'd say keep knocking on doors and trying for an agent and a traditional deal.

I'm really glad that I self-published a novel.  I found the indie community to be warm and welcoming, and the process of getting a book to publication and then trying to market it myself was hugely instructive.  However, I have now signed a contract to have my next novel, BEACH PLUM ISLAND, published by New American Library/Penguin, too, because I adore my editor and feel like I have so much more to learn from her. 

Plus, seeing my book in an actual bookstore is a thrill unlike any other, and I can't wait to experience it again.
About Holly Robinson 
Holly Robinson has been writing feature articles, essays and advice columns on health, parenting and psychology topics for national magazines since 1995.  She has been a contributing editor at Ladies’ Home Journal and Parents magazines.  Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Family Circle, FamilyFun, Fitness, Good Housekeeping, More, Parenting, Parents Expecting, Shape, andWorkingMotherThe Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, (Harmony/Crown, May 2009) is her first book.
Prior to beginning her career as a freelance writer, Ms. Robinson worked as a science and health writer for the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and received the American Medical Association’s Will Solimene Award for Excellence.  She has taught creative writing and English courses as an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University and has lectured on writing at numerous other colleges in the Boston area.  Ms. Robinson holds a B.A. in biology from Clark University and is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  She lives in northern Massachusetts with her husband and their five children.


  1. Excellent post. Informative and not an angle left out.

    Never self-published myself (yet) but publishers are hardly making it easy for authors to remain loyal to them as I know to my cost - although I'm mentioning no names!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Anthony. Best of luck. And thank you again, Summer, for giving me the opportunity to share my experiences!

  3. Congrats, Holly--great essay! Which route do you find more satisfying?

    I also started out as a magazine writer/editor and found self-publishing relatively inexpensive since several friends are professional writers, editors and artists who volunteered their services (with gifts from me, of course).

    I never hired a publicist but I've found a few inexpensive blog tours that helped spread the word about my "Jazz Age mysteries" and made some new friends along the way. It helps that I used to work in PR so I know a little about marketing, etc.
    Unfortunately, the main problem I've experienced is from the general blogging community (unless they are indies like Summer). Apparently they are under pressure to promote traditionally-pubbed authors and books so it's not easy to get reviewed by the top bloggers. Luckily I've managed to break through bit by bit, and got some nice reviews from respected and reputable bloggers who seem surprised that I haven't been scooped up by an agent or trad pub. I do have mixed feelings about this subject and you spelled it out in a nutshell.
    Your essay is so helpful and thought-provoking--thanks and good luck to you! Ellen


Get fictional - it's fun! Thanks for stopping by, and I hope to see you again soon!