Do You Need A Publisher, Part 4: Control

Skip this post if you don’t have any control issues.

Still here? Me too.

So let’s talk about control and the best way to publish your novel. So far, of the factors listed in Do You Need A Publisher (Part 1) that affect whether you pursue a traditional publishing deal or publish your fiction yourself, I’ve covered money and the desire for prestige or recognition.

Money is probably highest on my list right now because I’ve radically cut back my law practice, and my goal this year is to live on what I earn as a writer. (I have a long way to go, but that’s another post.)

If you’re planning to continue with your current career or profession, though, how much you earn from your writing might not be a driving force for you. As for recognition, for some writers, it's the whole point. Others who have a first profession prefer to keep it separate from writing, so they use a pen name, particularly if they perceive their colleagues or clients may see their writing as a distraction.

Control, though, that’s another thing.

Who Needs Control?

Odds are, if you’re successful at what you’re doing now, it’s because you were able to manage your career well. If you run–or are a partner in–a business or firm, at the very least, you probably prefer choosing for yourself what you do with your time and how best to pursue your professional goals.

Also, and perhaps more important, most artists and writers want control of how their work goes out into the world. I once attended a horror convention where four novelists whose books had been made into films spoke on a panel. They agreed that helped them earn money, gain name recognition, and sell more books. Those of us in the audience wanted to know how they got those film deals and whether we could ever hope to get one. But three of four panelists spent most of the hour complaining about the hatchet jobs the filmmakers had done on their stories.

(F. Paul Wilson, the fourth panelist, declined to join the complaints. He said he hadn’t loved the film made of The Keep, but it prompted a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise have found it to buy the novel, and that was all good. I really liked that about him.)

When it comes to control, traditional publishing is a bit like handing your fiction over to the film producer. I say “a bit” because you’ll have a say over revisions, unlike if your book were turned into a screenplay by someone else. The text of the novel is likely to be for the most part as you wrote it. You probably won't, though, be able to choose which specific editor you want. And, as with a movie, as a new writer, you’ll have no control over how the final product looks, how it’s priced, or how it’s marketed.

How much does this matter? It depends.


At a writing retreat I attended, New York Times Bestselling Author Susan Wiggs showed slides of different covers one publisher had used for one of her novels. She wrote women's and mainstream fiction. She had zero input into the first cover. It had a dark purple background, making the novel somewhat foreboding. It didn’t sell very well, despite her previous success and devoted audience. She pointed out over and over to the publisher that her readers reached for her books like they would reach for a box of candy.

Finally the book was re-released with an upbeat cover with pink edging that looked like ribbons. It did give the same impression as a beautiful box of Valentine’s candy. Her sales shot up accordingly.

As a self-published author, you choose your cover designer and your cover. Recently, despite that I loved the cover for my first thriller, The Awakening, I had it redesigned when a fellow author pointed out to me that it didn’t look good in the thumbnail size on Amazon. (I’ve pasted in both below—the original on the left, the new on the right.)

I also wanted the new cover to fit with the design for the fourth and final book in the series, which is coming out in May, 2017. Because I'm the one who chooses the design, I could make that switch without needing to convince anyone else.

Control has its downsides, though, because we don't always have the knowledge we need.

I’ve seen indie authors choose covers that don’t convey the type of book or that don’t look professional. It's also easy to get too wedded to your concept of the book without being a good judge of how that hits the reader. With traditional publishers, you’ll get a professionally-designed cover chosen by someone more objective who has more experience matching covers to genres.


Have you ever gone on Amazon to buy a book thinking you’ll buy it for Kindle and start reading that day, then changed your mind and ordered a paperback when you compared the prices? Take Louise Penny’s latest mystery, for example, because I love her books so much. A Great Reckoning as I write this lists at $14.99 for the hardback, $14.99 for the ebook, and $9.99 for the trade paperback.

If this seems crazy to you given that ebooks don’t require printing or paper, you’re not alone. What’s the deal? Traditional publishers a while back won a drawn-out fight with Amazon so that they can price their ebooks as high as they want. It’s one of the reasons a slightly higher percentage of print books v. ebooks were sold last year than the previous year. If the ebook costs the same or more to buy, a lot of readers would rather have paper.

If you’re Louise Penny, author of a popular, long-running series, this pricing is probably fine. Fans like me will run out and get the book as soon as it comes out no matter the price.

For most other authors, though, this type of pricing is not so great. If I don’t know who an author is, even a compelling cover and intriguing blurb won’t make me plunk down $14.99 or even $9.99. I’ll put the book on my Goodreads shelf if a friend highly recommends it. But I’ll probably buy it only if I come across it again somehow and the price has dropped, I find it in the library or at a used bookstore, or I happened to get a nice check in the mail and I feel like spending.

As a self-published author, most of my royalties come from ebook sales, then audiobook sales, then print. Because I get a larger share of the purchase price than do traditional authors, I can price my ebooks fairly low. In fact, right now, my first book in my series is free in all its ebook editions, then Books 2 and 3 are $3.99 and $4.99. At other times, I’ve priced The Awakening at anywhere from $4.99 down to $0.99—all much easier prices at which to entice a new reader.

Also, many of the email subscription newsletters that list bargain ebooks only list books at $4.99 or below. As a self-published author, I can choose to discount my book for the increase in sales or in the hope of selling later titles in my catalogue. Traditional publishers sometimes do the same, but the author has no say in when or how or why.

Marketing And Advertising

As an indie author, I pay for all advertising. Until this year, I wasn’t relying heavily on income from royalties, so I didn’t pay as much attention as I now wish I had to which ads result in the most sales. I know which ones were amazing—Bookbub and Ereadernews Today—and the ones that didn’t do much for sales, but for a lot in between I’m not sure. This year I’m experimenting cautiously and keeping better records.

Whether traditional publishers are better at knowing what works and doesn’t with advertising is an open question. But if you have a traditional publishing deal, the publisher is paying for the ads (and for premium placement in bookstores if you're really lucky), not you, so at least you’re not directly bearing the cost.

Also, with a traditional deal, you can and should engage in marketing and public relations on your own. You can maintain your own email list, be active on social media, and contact bookstores about speaking there if your publisher isn’t doing enough for you. From what I hear, most small and medium-sized publishers expect authors to do quite a bit of that if they expect to sell.

Another sales issue is the summary on the book jacket or on line. As an indie, you write that book description yourself or engage a copywriter to do it. If you have a publishing contract, you give up that control. As with the cover, that can be good or bad. You may be able to do a great job writing your summary, and as an indie, you'll be able to tweak the description to see what works. On the other hand, being a step removed, the traditonal publisher may do a better job targeting your market.

That latter point isn't always the case, though. I've known several traditionally-published authors who felt their publishers missed the mark in how they described their novels.


What formats you make your novel available in is up to you if you self-publish. As I talked about in a previous post, as an indie author, I can make my books available as audiobooks, paperbacks, ebooks, and in any other format that comes along. I retain all my rights.

With a traditional publishing deal, often the publisher has those rights but is not required to use them. So you may give up your right to produce an audiobook of your novel, but the publisher may opt not to produce one even if you request it.

Righting The Ship

As in most other industries, it’s much harder for a large company to shift a business model than it is for one person. That’s part of why it’s taken so long for traditional publishers to begin marketing backlist titles as ebooks and to start email lists of their own when indie authors have used these tactics successfully for years.

That’s the main thing I like about publishing my own work. The books I’ve mapped out to write and publish this year may or may not be bestsellers, may or may not be popular, and may or may not earn as much as I hope they will. But if I’m not happy with my results, I can take different approach next year without any major upheaval.

So What’s Better?

As the pluses and minuses above show, there's no one-size-fits-all answer here. Whether you’ll be happier having control over every aspect of your fiction or handing over much of it to a publisher depends on the pros and cons of the particular book, publisher, and deal. Also, it’s not an either/or situation. You can publish one novel or series yourself and seek a traditional publishing deal for another.

What will work best for you also depends upon who you are as a person. When I started my own law firm, despite that I had many of the same clients and did the same type of work as I had at a large firm, I enjoyed it much more because it was my firm. If I was working Sunday night, at least I was the one who’d chosen to take on that project or promised to meet that deadline. I also was the one who kept the profit. And, finally, down the road, I could adopt a different business model.

So far, I see writing similarly. If that changes as I move forward, I’ll let you know.

I hope this has helped you sort through your options.

Best wishes for a productive, not-too-stressful week.

L. M. Lilly


Money, Business, The Rich, And The Poor

This Friday I'm recommending a book that's not new, and it's not about writing. Telling you that up front probably is a bad idea, as everyone wants what's new, and this is a blog about writing. All the same, if you haven't yet read it (and even if you have, you might want to reread it), Richard Kiyosaki's Rich Dad Poor Dad: What The Rich Teach Their Kids About Money – That The Poor And Middle Class Do Not! is one of the best books you can read if you're pursuing writing.

Why? Because it causes you to think differently about your time and effort. I read it when I'd nearly finished law school. I had a high-paying job lined up at a large firm, and I actually wondered whether if I'd read this book first, I would have skipped law school and focused right off on how to generate income through creating assets rather than entering a profession where I would be selling my time. At a high price, yes, but my time is still a limited quantity. And because I'd been writing on the side since college, I wished I'd looked into ways to earn money that would free up hours rather than fill them.

The next time I read the book was on a long plane flight to a personal writing retreat I created for myself. For ten days in a warm climate, I focused on writing and where I wanted to be five years down the road. At that time, I was running my own law firm. It was going well–so well that I rarely had time to write. Rereading Rich Dad Poor Dad wasn't part of my retreat plan, but I had my Kindle and had finished the book I was reading on the plane. I downloaded Rich Dad because I remembered it being inspiring.

It was. During that retreat I started sketching out what I'd need to do to get  to where I could write full time. It was the first time I believed I could do it and seriously contemplated leaving a busy law practice behind.

Regardless whether you want to ultimately leave your current profession or career, Rich Dad Poor Dad can help you start thinking creatively about how to maximize your time. It also provides inspiration for those long hours when you'll be writing a novel, uncertain if you'll ever sell it.

What books have most inspired you over the years? Drop me a note at [email protected] or click on the Comment button in the upper left corner and share.

Until Sunday….


L. M. Lilly

P.S. If you'd like to see which articles, podcasts, and books I've suggested on previous Fridays, click Recommendations in the category list to the right.

When Your Job Is Not A Day Job

Ever since I published my first novel in 2011, business colleagues have asked if they could give my number to other professionals who are writing novels. Others have contacted me because they've recently started or finished a book and want to hear from someone like them about the writing and publishing process.

Having another career in addition to writing is wonderful in many ways. It can mean we're doing work that's mentally engaging where we meet interesting people and, hopefully, earn a fairly good living. But that same career can also make it a challenge to write, publish, and–if that's part of your goal–sell your work.

If you sometimes feel it will take forever to finish your novel or you can't imagine when you can squeeze in time to send out query letters or go through the self-publishing process once you do finish it, you're not alone. Advice to “write during your lunch hour” doesn’t help if your typical lunch is 10 minutes eating at your desk while reading trade publications or answering email.

So you know it's not just you, below are some of the downsides for writers who also have another career or profession. But I've also listed the upsides. Yes, there are upsides!

The Challenges

If you write as a second or additional career, you're more likely than other writers to:

  • Experience significant demands from your first profession, including ethical obligations. One advantage of a traditional day job, such as working as a data processor, telemarketer, or waiter, is that generally when you punch out for the day, you’re done. When I worked as a cashier, if I didn’t want overtime, usually someone else did. As a lawyer, if a client calls last minute or a court enters a ruling that requires a quick response, I need to take care of it. Any plans I had to spend that evening or weekend polishing my chapters for an editor, researching where to schedule ads for an upcoming promotion, or being with family or friends, need to be put aside.

While that’s part of what makes a career more interesting than a day job, it also makes it much harder to set a firm date by which to finish or publish a novel, to send out a certain number of query letters a week, or to regularly post on social media.

  • Have an unpredictable schedule from day to day, week to week, and month to month. This makes it harder to write at the same time each day or the same day or days each week, which in turn makes it harder to get into a writing habit or to make time for marketing or publishing. (In future posts, I'll address some ways to track your progress and establish a writing a habit, despite that writing every day at a certain time may not be possible.)
  • Think of “books” only as printed books and focus on bookstores as the best sales outlets. While a love for and familiarity with paper books can mean you’ll be more motivated to sell paperbacks when many other writers are ignoring them, it also means you may overlook the sales potential of ebooks and audiobooks, as well as overlook the necessity of an on-line presence. I sell the most novels in ebook format, then in Audiobook format, than in paperback. If I'd kept my view of books as paper books, I doubt I'd have sold 10,000 copies of The Awakening to date.
  • Have a limited view of what “professional” means and how it looks. Conforming with certain standards for appearing professional is great when it comes to presenting yourself. You know how to dress and behave in a professional way and you understand why you should have well-written marketing materials free of typographical errors.

As I talked about in Is This Blog For You?, though, unfortunately, this view also may cause you to dismiss advice from those who don’t fit your image of a successful business person. I almost skipped a free on-line seminar I’d signed up for when I saw the first two minutes of the initial video presentation. The presenter wore jeans and a wrinkled T-shirt, and he was sitting at a computer desk in his bedroom, his electric guitar leaned against the bed behind him. (The presentation was not about music.) The decor also suggested the bedroom was in his parents’ house. As someone who takes a lot of care in what I wear to court, to teach, or to meet with a client, my gut reaction was that this wasn’t someone who took himself or his presentation seriously, so why should I devote time to his talk or to any part of a seminar that would use him as the headliner?

To my surprise, I learned quite a bit from him about writing good advertising copy, and I learned from the other presenters, too. All of which I would have missed had I rejected him based on my view of how a professional looks and acts.

The Pluses

As a writer with another career, you're also more likely to:

  • Have a professional network from your first career or profession. Knowing about another career from first-hand experience and interacting with professionals in other careers gives you a wealth of plot material. It also gives you a lot of information about various types of jobs. Other writers can get that by researching or interviewing people, but you already have it in your head. Which means you won't ever need to be that writer whose main characters are always writers. (Something that always annoys me, unless it's Stephen Kind doing it. Somehow, he makes it work.) That network also expands the number of people who might help you spread the word when you publish.
  • Have extensive knowledge of your field and/or technical expertise. Knowledge gained through your first career can also provide a foundation for your novels. Readers love getting the inside view of a profession or industry. Authors like Scott Turow and John Grisham used their experiences as lawyers to create exciting novels and sparked a new genre, the legal thriller.

Even if you don't write about your profession, the skills you learn with it can be helpful. When I started writing The Awakening series, I was working so many hours as a lawyer that the last thing I wanted to was to write about law. But my research, writing, grammar, time-management, and client service skills aided me in plotting, finishing, and marketing the books. I also tapped into professional contacts who were medical doctors, probate lawyers, and former police detectives to flesh out details of the obstacles my main character faced.

  • Have more money than time. While not everyone with a first career or profession makes a lot of money, odds are you earn more than someone working retail or punching a clock. This can also be a challenge (see above), as you're probably working more than 40 hours a week. But it does give you a certain flexibility. You can buy time by paying others to do things that otherwise take up your writing time, such as housecleaning. You can also pay for a class run by a skilled, published author or pay a reputable story editor to go through your manuscript. If you choose to self-publish, you'll probably be able to afford a professionally-designed cover, which will increase the chances of readers buying your book.
 The Big Picture

Of course there are differences among those of us who juggle multiple careers, and no advice is one-size-fits-all. What worked for one author, regardless of her or his background or other career, to sell a thousand copies may do nothing for another writer, and may not even work for the same author a year later.

The publishing industry is changing rapidly, and it’s an exciting time to be part of it. You belong to a long tradition of writers with other careers that includes William Carlos Williams (doctor), Lewis Carrol (mathematician, photographer and teacher), and Virginia Woolf (publisher). Overall, in my view, your first career or profession on balance helps your writing, despite that you many not be able to maintain the same production schedule as someone who works a 9-5 job or writes full time.

As we go forward together, I hope some of what I’ve learned—and what I keep learning—as I juggle the roles of author, attorney, and adjunct professor will save you time and trouble and make your writing life happier and more successful.

Until Friday,

L. M. Lilly

Author Earnings On Amazon

Sunday's post (Do You Need A Publisher, Part 3: Money) addressed how the  publishing path you take might affect how much you earn. This week's recommendation is a report from tallying author earnings based on over one million titles available on Amazon.

The data is presented in income brackets, such as $10,000 in Amazon sales per year and seven figures in Amazon sales per year. The report includes graphs showing how many authors fit in each bracket by type of publication, so you can see the number of self-published authors versus Big 5 published authors who, for instance, earned six figures per year from Amazon sales.

The report also compares long-established authors with newbies. For example, the report shows “1,340 authors are earning $100,000/year or more from Amazon sales. But half of them are indies and Amazon-imprint authors. The majority of the remainder? They come from traditional publishing’s longest-tenured ‘old guard.'”

You can read the AuthorEarnings report here:

Have a great weekend!

L. M. Lilly

Do You Need A Publisher, Part 3: Money

Mary Higgins Clark was paid a $64 million advance for a five-book deal. The average advance for a first novel, however, is generally between $5,000 to $15,000. Most novelists, including published ones, don’t make a living writing. They supplement with other work, often as teachers of writing, speakers, editors, or non-fiction writers. Others write on the side and earn most of their money in another profession.

In Do You Need A Publisher (Part 1), I talked about the factors that might affect whether you pursue a traditional publishing deal or publish your work yourself. Those factors include:

  • a desire for prestige and recognition, which I talked about last week
  •  a desire to earn money
  • a desire for control over your work
  • a desire to run a business, and
  • what type of book you’re writing

You can make money no matter how you publish, but here are some differences in what you're likely to earn and how it may affect your career:

The Big 5 Publishers

The authors who make the most money up front are the household names, such as Mary Higgins Clark, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King. Most authors in this league have been writing and selling novels for decades, but sometimes a debut novel will be bought for a six or seven figure advance. The Big 5 are the publishers that can pay these types of advances. An advance means the author is paid before the book is published. If the book earns enough in royalties to repay the advance, the author is then paid royalties as well. The upsides of this type of deal are obvious. Before the book goes to press, you have a good chunk of money in your pocket.

On the downside, the need for the book to earn back the advance is a lot of pressure. If it doesn't happen, that may tank the chances of a contract for later books. More significant for most new writers is that the odds against landing a deal with a large publisher are near zero. First, you’ll need to spend time and effort trying to find a literary agent to represent you before the Big 5 will consider your work. Second, even through literary agents, the Big 5 most often enter contracts with established authors.

Given the potential large payoff, though, if you think your book will fit one of these publishers, don’t be dissuaded by the odds. Not only is there a shot at a large advance and the publicity and marketing that comes with it, much of what you do to pursue your goal will help you if you later decide to try another route. For instance, crafting a compelling query letter to agents can also help you write queries to publishers or write marketing copy if you self-publish.

Small and medium-sized publishers

Small to medium-sized publishers usually offer advances between a few thousand dollars and $45,000, though some very small presses may offer no advance. The financial upsides include possible up front money and the fact that the publisher pays the publishing costs, such as cover art and editing. The publisher also may help market and publicize the book, and most bookstores are more willing to carry a traditionally-published book than a self-published one.

The downsides include that the author has limited or no control over many factors that affect a book’s sales, such as the quality of cover art, editorial services, marketing copy, where and when the book is advertised, and the price. Also, the size of the advance usually matches the marketing budget. A $5,000 marketing budget won't go very far, and you'll likely have lost control of your work and rights that might help you earn more money.

One of my income streams is from the audiobook editions of the first three books in my Awakening series. I did a royalty-share deal with the producer/narrators, and the books were already written, so creating the audiobooks was a no brainer. If you sign a contract granting those rights to a publisher, though, you no longer have that option, and the publisher may not be obligated to produce audiobooks. Finally, royalties from a publisher range from 10-25% of the purchase price, while when you self-publish, your royalties range from 30-70% of the book's price.

Publishers that charge the author/vanity presses

If the fee is reasonable and you'd rather spend money than invest time in publishing your own work, you might be the lucky one-in-a-million author able to earn money by paying a company to publish. You need to consider, though, how much you're paying compared to how many books you're likely to sell, keeping in mind that these types of companies, no matter what they say about marketing or publicity, rarely do much to sell your book. Publishers that pay the author an advance and hope to earn it back and then some through book sales have an incentive to see that your book sells. Companies you pay do not. They are making money off of you.

For that reason, in my view, it's a very long shot that you'll make money paying a company to publish your work. You're also risking paying for services that will be inferior to what you could have contracted for yourself. The only time I suggest these types of companies is if:

(a) the fee is not that much more than you would spend if you found the services you need yourself;

(b) you get a referral from someone whose books are selling well and who is earning more than she or he spent;

(c) the person who referred you is selling the same type of book you wrote; and

(d) that author’s books are well-edited (no typos, good story arc) and have professional-looking covers that fit the books' genre.


Some authors earn an excellent living by publishing multiple books themselves, by self-publishing and later being picked up by traditional publishers (as happened with The Martian), or by some combination of the two. A few authors that appear to have done quite well self-publishing include Hugh Howey, J.F. Penn, and Melissa Foster. Others earn enough to write full-time or have a decent side stream of income. Others, usually those who publish only one or two books and devote little time or money to marketing, spend more on self-publishing than they earn.

On the upside, as noted, indies earn a much larger share of royalties, particularly on ebooks, than do traditionally-published authors. That means you can generally price your books lower to gain readers while earning the same amount in royalties or more per book than traditional authors do. Indies also retain all their rights and have control over the covers, marketing, editing, etc.

The downside of indie publishing is that the indie must pay the publication costs, which range anywhere from zero (as all aspects can be handled by the author) to a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. In addition, if you plan to market your book through paid advertising, you pay for that as well.

The Short Version

To pull this all together, the Big 5 offer the biggest potential for large advances and stellar advertising and marketing, indie/self-publishing offers great potential earnings if you’re in it for the long haul, and the likely financial rewards of publishing with small/medium publishers vary widely depending upon the advance offered and the publisher’s marketing budget. If you publish with a small or medium-sized publisher or you self-publish, a lot of your success will depend on how much time, effort, and sometimes money you are personally willing to invest. As for publishers who charge you, there may be some authors out there who made money that way, but in my opinion, it’s a buyer-beware proposition.

Stay tuned for posts on the other factors that go into choosing a publishing path.

Until then, best wishes for a productive, peaceful week.

L. M. Lilly

Buying The Job Of Writing

The first time I published a novel, I took part in an on-line book release promotion that included nine thrillers, each priced at 99 cents for the ebook edition. That was in 2011. The promotion brought me to my first 200 sales for The Awakening, which was very exciting at the time. Over the next few years thousands of copies sold but I was running a busy law practice and didn't release Book 2 in the series for another three years. Not the best marketing plan, but that's a topic for another day.

One of the other thriller writers who took part, Russell Blake, was writing full time. He published thriller after thriller, became a New York Times and USA Today best selling author, collaborated with Clive Cussler, and now has an Amazon world devoted to one of his series. (OK, I'll stop now because I'm getting depressed.)

In 2015, Blake wrote a great post about what he would have told himself as newbie author. It's a funny and informative article, the main thrust of which is that if you're successful as an author, you've bought yourself a job. You can check it out here. Please share your thoughts on it in the comments.

Have a great weekend.

L. M. Lilly

Do You Need A Publisher, Part 2: Prestige And Recognition

One factor, maybe the most important one, in deciding whether to seek a publisher or to self-publish is what you want out of writing. (For a discussion of types of publishers, see last week’s post.) If your goal is to make a living writing, how much money each method is likely to generate might matter most. But even if that is your goal, prestige or recognition is almost always part of the motivation.

Most of us who write, especially if we’re over forty, dreamed when we started out about book signings, being interviewed on Oprah or C-SPAN, or winning awards. It’s a great feeling to publish a book and be recognized for it or simply be able to see it on a bookshelf. So let’s start with talking about prestige and recognition. Don’t worry, I’ll get to money next week.

Prestige and Mahogany Desks

John Gardner once said, in his book On Becoming A Novelist, that there’s nothing less prestigious than being an unpublished novelist. Today he might substitute “self-published” or “independently-published.” While publishing your own work is becoming more accepted, if you opt to do so, you’ll still need to be prepared for the people—whether or not they’ve ever written a word of fiction—who will look down their noses at you.

Others simply won’t see you as a “real” writer. A colleague once told me how much she’d liked The Awakening, which she’d borrowed from a friend. When my second book in the series came out, she couldn’t make it to the book release party, but she asked me to bring a copy to her office. When I handed it to her, she said, “I don’t have to pay for this, do I?” Had I been published by Random House, my guess is she wouldn’t have asked that.

This view that a traditionally-published novel has more value or that it’s more impressive to be a traditionally-published author is known in the indie world as the Mahogany Desk Syndrome. Many see it as nothing more than a form of snobbishness. It also reflects the fact that when a company unrelated to you chooses to publish your work, it shows the world that someone other than you is willing to put money, time, and effort behind your writing.

My own mahogany desk and bulletin board–the old fashioned kind.

I understand those who feel that way, but I personally am more impressed by people who stand behind their own work. When I left a large law firm to start my own practice, people congratulated me on being an entrepreneur and having great confidence. I view publishing my own work the same way.

Awards and Best Seller Lists

Many literary awards, including some for genre fiction, are open only to novels published by traditional publishers. For instance, self-published books are not eligible for the Edgar Award, which recognizes mysteries. The Man Booker award, a literary fiction prize, also is not open to self-published books. This is starting to change, however. The Deep, a self-published novel by Michaelbrent Collings, was nominated for a Bram Stoker award in 2015. And in researching this article, I learned that self-published books, so long as they are available in print, can be nominated for Pulitzer Prizes.

Many awards exist that are specifically-targeted to indie/self-published authors. (A few are listed in this Publishers Weekly article. ) Being able to say your book is award-winning is a plus, but there is definitely a Buyer Beware factor, as some indie awards have hefty entry fees.

As to Best Seller lists, both the USA Today and New York Times best seller lists are open to both traditionally and independently published works. In addition, Amazon continuously lists the Top 100 books overall and in numerous categories regardless of publisher. The Top 100 lists update hourly. Getting your book into the Top 20 of any category helps sales because it means people see your book. Being in the Top 100 of all the books is a huge sales boost. As far as prestige, though, because the lists update hourly and it takes fewer sales to qualify, they don’t have the cache of the USA Today or New York Times list.

Speaking Engagements

One novelist I met at a conference, who was also a former attorney, said in-person events were the main plus of having had his novel published by a small publisher. While he didn’t have much of a marketing budget, his publicist got him onto panels of traditionally-published authors at fan and reader conferences.

Most speaking opportunities I’ve seen that are open to indie authors are limited to conferences specifically directed at writers interested in self-publishing, not at readers. Likewise, when I joined other self-published authors at a local book expo, the traditional publishers were on the first floor and the indie authors were relegated to the twelfth. There were no signs posted telling attendees that there were more books on the twelfth floor, so there was almost no foot traffic.

There are exceptions, of course. The Martian started as self-published, and I’m certain Andy Weir is welcome to speak anywhere he likes.

What Readers Think

Most readers don’t care how a book is published. Few people check the publisher when they buy a book on-line or in the bookstore. They look at the cover, the summary, and the first page or so. Also, the more books you publish, the less people scoff. Those indie authors who hit the USA Today or New York Times best seller lists also add a stamp of approval to their books and careers.

At the same time, if a book is free or 99 cents–both strategies indie authors employ to boost visibility and sales of other books in their catalogues–or the cover looks unprofessional, a reader may hesitate. A book from almost any traditional publisher has been edited and proofread by professionals, which is not true of all self-published books, so readers may have had a bad experience and be skeptical of indie publishing. I’m convinced that’s why one 5-star review of The Awakening after I started offering it free said, “I actually liked this book,” as if the reader were quite surprised. A professional cover and well written and edited book summaries and sample chapters will usually override any reader concern about your work, though.

In short, my view is that if what matters most to you is prestige and being recognized by peers as an author, some type of publisher, be it small, medium, or Big 5, is at least somewhat more likely to provide that. All the same, if you prefer to self-publish, fear not. The world is changing quickly, many awards are open to indie authors, and many people no longer make a distinction between one type of publishing and another. In fact, I predict that in another five years, how you publish will make no difference at all.

Best wishes for a productive and not-too-stressful week.

L. M. Lilly

P.S. Please share your views in the comments, as a reader or writer, of indie versus traditional publishing.

Why And How Self-Published Authors Offer Free Books

This Friday's recommendation is an episode from the website that I find most useful on writing and publishing, The Creative Penn. (The double-n comes from host Joanna Penn's last name.) Joanna interviews Damon Courtney, the founder of BookFunnel is one way authors can offer a free book for various purposes, such as providing review copies or giving readers a free book to sign up for an email list. He and Joanna also discuss the rise of indie publishing.

Joanna generally spends the first part of each show updating listeners on her publishing journey and commenting on tweets and emails. If you want to skip to the interview, click this link, hit play, and move to 19:30.

Have a good weekend! Stop back on Sunday for a new post.

L. M. Lilly

P.S. Joanna always includes bullet points from and a transcript of the interview on the page with the episode, so scroll down if you'd rather read it or prefer to skim the content before listening.

Do You Need A Publisher, Part 1: 5 Types Of Publishing

If you’re writing or have written a book, one of your first questions probably is whether you need to find a publisher to sell it. Fifteen or twenty years ago, most writers never asked this question. The only workable way to sell was if an established print publisher accepted your work.

That's because there were no ereaders or tablets, and a lot of people (including me) had a PC, not a laptop. No one wanted to curl up with a PC to read by the fire. While you could pay a printer to print your book, you usually had to buy hundreds or thousands of copies, which was expensive, and most of them sat in your basement and/or ended in a landfill.

Also, there simply was no good way to let people know your book was for sale. After you sold five copies to friends and family—or a hundred copies if you had a lot of friends and family—that was it. That’s why this type of publishing was often referred to as vanity publishing. You spent a lot of money so you could say you’d written and published a book, but you were lucky if a handful of people read it.

Now, with e-readers and print-on-demand paperbacks, there’s no need to order a thousand copies, or any copies, in advance. Once the initial costs, such as cover and editing, are paid for, an ebook costs you nothing to deliver. For print-on-demand, the book is printed when the reader buys it, and the author and printer share the dollars earned, so there’s no need spend a lot up front. More important, the Internet, social media, email, and other forms of communication allow authors to reach and sell to readers directly.

So the question is not so much Do you need a publisher—you don’t—but Are you better off with a publisher rather than publishing yourself? That depends on a lot of factors, including:

  • What you want out of writing (money? prestige?)
  • How much control you want over your work
  • Whether you like running a business
  • What type of book you're writing

I’ll talk about each of these points in future posts. First, a little about each path to publication.

  • Large Publishers: A year after college, I finished my first novel—a young adult novel at a time when young adult, due to demographics, wasn’t a big genre. Back then, there were a lot of different publishing companies of all sizes. Since then, the publishing industry, at least at the big money end, has contracted. By July, 2013, there were only six major trade publishers.

Now, there are only the Big 5:

(1) Hachette Book Group

(2) HarperCollins

(3) Macmillan Publishers

(4) Penguin Random House and

(5) Simon and Schuster

Each has imprints. For instance, HarperCollins includes Avon Books, William Morrow, Harper Business, HarperCollinsChildrens, and many others. Getting a publishing contract with one of the Big 5 almost always requires having literary agent. Most of the books the Big 5 publish are by authors who have previously been published, often by that particular publisher, whose books have sold well.

If you get a contract with one of these publishers, you will be paid an advance on royalties, and it will probably be significant. If your book earns back the advance through sales, you’ll then be paid additional amounts for most of your book sales. If your first book doesn’t earn back the advance, you’ll probably have a  hard time getting another publishing contract.

  • Small and medium-sized publishers:  These are publishing companies that are not gigantic but that publish print books and sometimes ebooks as well. They offer a better chance at publication for a new author or for an author who has loyal readers, but who hasn’t become a household name. Some have a substantial list of authors, others publish only a handful.

Like large publishers, medium-sized and small publishers pay you an advance, though it may be $1,000 or less for small publishers. I’ve been told that the size of the advance generally equals the size of the marketing budget. So if you get a $15,000 advance, the publisher will likely put $15,000 into a marketing and sales campaign. (This is supposedly true with large publishers as well, which is a good argument for trying to obtain an agent and a contract with a publisher who is willing to pay an advance of $100,000 or more.)

One element indie/self-published authors control and are responsible for is the book cover. To the left is an audiobook cover for The Conflagration, Book 3 in my Awakening series. I just had this cover redesigned after feedback that my first cover didn't look good in thumbnail size on Amazon. 



  • Publishing services: Some companies coordinate for an author the services needed to self-publish, such as cover design, editing, and marketing copy. The companies then charge the author a flat fee up front for the package.

There also are companies that provide those services and rather than charging, take a percentage of royalties. I distinguish both these types of companies from vanity publishers because while they presumably need to make a profit or they wouldn’t be in business, they are not significantly ratcheting up the pricing over what you would spend if you contracted these services yourself.

The best way to evaluate whether you are paying mainly for coordination of services as opposed to paying a premium to say you have a publisher is to compare the total fee to what the services would cost if you contracted directly with freelancers for the same work. Also, a good place to check out companies that want to charge you to publish your work are the Watchdog Reports from the Alliance of Independent Authors.  

  • Vanity presses: These are presses and publishers who charge you significantly more to publish your work than you would pay if you contracted the services yourself. Some people in the traditional literary world view any type of self-publishing or use of publishing services as “vanity.” I think that’s a mistake, but they have a right to their view that the only “real” publishing is traditional publishing where the author pays nothing and the control is in the hands of the publisher.

Often a vanity press will make a lot of claims about how much publicity they will provide for your work. This frequently amounts to little more than posting your book on their own websites and writing a press release that will blast out to various news outlets and websites that generally have no interest in your book. Tons of people are publishing books now, so the news about that is that it's not news. Don't pay someone to send press releases.

Remember, you can publish your own work through various ebook and print platforms with no up front cost to you at all if you are willing to put in the effort to learn how. Based on that, in my view, any charge to you for a publishing package that gets into thousands of dollars is far too much.

  • Independent/Self-Publishing: A self-published or independent author handles all publishing tasks and the business of publishing either by personally undertaking these efforts or finding and paying freelancers to do them. Platforms like Kindle Direct Publishing and Kobo Writing Life allow authors to post and sell their work and do not charge anything up front for doing so. The platform makes money by taking a cut of the sales price — generally far less than a traditional publisher takes. As an indie/self-published author, you make all the decisions. The title, the cover art, the editing, and where to sell are all up to you.

Now we have a common language when talking about publishing. In future posts, I’ll talk about the pluses and minuses of each of these approaches. In the meantime, please feel free to share your experiences with any of these types of publishing in the comments section.

Best wishes for a productive, not-too-stressful new year.

L. M. Lilly