Traditional vs self-publishing: advice for aspiring authors

publishing

Years ago, I had aspirations of writing a book but didn’t know what to pursue: should I attempt to figure out how to write a book proposal and pitch to “real” publishers, or should I go the self-publishing route with a service like Westbow or Amazon’s CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing?

Since I first expressed a desire to write one, I’ve released books through both traditional and self-publishing options. Two books were published by Cruciform Press, Awaiting a Savior and Contend, and am continuing to pursue opportunities with traditional publishers. I’ve published one book using Kindle Direct Publishing (so far), Everyday Theology, and will almost certainly do so again.

But when I started, I didn’t know what to pursue—or even how to do it. So today, I thought I’d share some advice for aspiring authors based entirely upon my experience with both. This should not be seen as definitive or authoritative, as I’ve no doubt I’ll probably change my mind about some of this in the next five years.

Cool? Cool.

My experiences with both forms of publishing

When it comes to self-publishing, the stigma, if it has not completely gone away, has certainly lessened. I’ve seen a number of people—including a number of friends—embrace it as their preferred publishing option. They love the freedom this approach offers, the ability to create what you want when you want. Because these friends understand that for too long self-published material has been pre-judged as poorly written, they’re determined to write, really, really well (and usually make sure their work is properly edited, too).

My experience with self-publishing has been quite good, overall, but to be fair, I’ve only done it once to date. Creating a book was easy with the tools out there. The content was already in existence, though in need of a few light edits. All I had to do was make it available. The one thing I’ll do differently with the next self-published book I release is make sure I invest a little more money into the project and pay for some additional outside editing (it’s worth it).

Then there’s traditional publishing, which I absolutely love. For me, what I love best about it is the collaborative side between me as the writer and my editor. Awaiting a Savior would have been a very different book had it not been for two people: my friend and co-worker, Amber Van Schooneveld, and my editor, Kevin Meath. Both challenged me to think through what I was writing in different ways, offered critique on the ideas I was presenting, and caught more than a few grammatical errors. Likewise, Kevin’s efforts on Contend were part of made that book worth reading (in my opinion, at the least), helping me keep the book focused when it was getting scattered in early iterations.

So, what, really, is the difference between the two—and is one really better than the other?  

As I see it, the difference between the two is control. With a traditional publisher, provided you can even get in the door (which is no easy feat these days), there is a degree to which you lose control over your ideas. Someone is working with you and helping you shape what you want to write into something that’s a. coherent, and b. marketable. There are some traditional books that are a scattered mess, but those tend to be the ones where the author is resistant to feedback or just shouldn’t be writing a book (despite having a massive platform). In self-publishing (CreateSpace, KDP) and partner publishing (Westbow, Lucid), you determine how much input someone else has on your material. Sometimes it’s none, other times, it’s almost to the degree that you’d have with a traditional publisher.

But is one better than the other? Not really. In a lot of ways, I prefer the experience working with a traditional publisher, simply because I appreciate and need feedback if I’m going to communicate well. But self-publishing is a lot of fun, too—and it can also be more lucrative for you as an author (at least in the short term).

Which option should you choose?

That’s up to you to some degree. Which do you want to do?

Choosing to pursue traditional publishing (in which there is no guarantee of having a book picked up, keep in mind) or self-publishing really comes down to what’s best for you and for the project. A book like Everyday Theology, which is a reworking of existing content from this blog, is best suited to self-publishing. Another small book I’m working on in my (barely existent) spare time is best suited for this option as well. But I have a number of ideas I’m in the process of pitching to traditional publishers, and these are books that I’d simply feel better about pursuing in partnership with another entity.

That’s what I mean when I say it’s up to you to some degree. There are other factors, of course. But in general, if an idea has grabbed us and won’t let go, we’re going to find a way to get it out into the public. Whether that’s through a traditional route or self-publishing doesn’t really matter so long as it sees the light of day.

So, aspiring author, that’s what I’ve got for you (at least for now). What options have you explored and which do you have an affinity for?

When I don’t know where I’m going with something…

stop-working

“I have no idea where I’m going with this,” I said.

I’d been working on an article—one of the many sitting in my “to-write” pile—and it wasn’t coming together. I had my thesis down (I think), but the rest of it wasn’t coming together. Emily, with her usual wisdom, simply responded, “Well, maybe you should stop working on it then.”

So I did.

I currently have somewhere around 25 different writing projects in various stages of development. Most of these are articles (though a couple are book proposals that I’m particularly excited about). Some will even turn into something. But a lot are just not coming together.

As you can imagine, this is incredibly frustrating. But it’s also part of the work of writing. And make no mistake, writing is work. There’s this notion out there of the inspired writer—the one who sits down to write and every word is breathtaking, a joy to read. And then when you actually start writing, you realize, this kind of stinks sometimes. Why? Because sometimes what you’re writing just doesn’t work.

I learned about this the hard way. When I was early in my writing career (not that I’m terribly far into it now, mind you), I would crank something out and be done with it. This was partly out of necessity, and partly because I didn’t really have people to bounce my work off of. And so when I look back on blog posts I wrote five or six years ago, ones I remember fondly, I cringe a little. Some actually do hold up, surprisingly, but most are pretty awful. Silly, sloppy, blech. They feel like novice writing because it is novice writing. There were posts that were really more or less about nothing at all, or had the start of a good idea that got lost along the way.

Bloggers fall into this trap pretty easily, of course. When we set our schedule, we expect ourselves to meet it (even if no one is reading). We do the daily blogging thing because it’s what someone we read does, but then run out of things to say, and so our blog dies. And while I’m a fan of daily blogging (otherwise I wouldn’t do it), it’s not for everyone. The schedule makes a terrible master and not everyone thrives under pressure.

And even if you do find pressure helpful, you’ve still got to deal with the fact that sometimes what you’re writing just isn’t going to come together the way you’d hoped. It’s not going to work. You’re going to have enough material to fill ten books, and none of it’s going to be useable.

If you’re an aspiring writer, you need to learn to be okay with this. It doesn’t matter if you’re working on a screenplay, a kid’s book, a novel, a blog post, or a theology book, you’re going to hit a point where you don’t know where to go with it. And sometimes the best thing to do is stop. Maybe not forever, but just go on to something else.

Put down the pen.

Step away from the keyboard.

Write something else.

Clear your head.

And then get back to it. The draft will still be waiting for you. Cool?

Links I like

Links

Kindle deals for Christian readers

Today is also $5 Friday at Ligonier, where you’ll find a number of great resources for sale, including:

  • Knowing God’s Will Teaching Series by R.C. Sproul (audio download)
  • Habakkuk: A Wrestler with God by Walter Chantry (Paperback)
  • God in Our Midst: The Tabernacle and Our Relationship with God by Daniel Hyde (Hardcover)
  • How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home by Derek Thomas (ePub)
  • Psalm 51 Teaching Series by R.C. Sproul (audio and video download)

$5 Friday ends at 11:59:59 tonight.

An Open Letter to Tom Brady

Jared Wilson gets his super-fan on, and I’m glad he did.

The Problem with Good Advice

Christina Fox:

The problem comes when our advice sounds no different from the advice a counselor from another religion or even no religion at all would give. If an atheist would suggest the same child-rearing techniques or a Buddhist the same stress-management strategies as we do, then there is something missing from our counsel. Even though truth is truth no matter who says it, the advice that followers of Christ give ought to point to the source of all truth.

Wanted: A Teaching Church

Daniel Hyde:

The Bible is the Word of God. All Bible-believing evangelical churches affirm this. In historic Protestantism, there is a theology of the Word that not only professes sola Scriptura but also professes the sufficiency of Scripture for all things concerning doctrine, worship, and godliness. What the church of the twenty-first century needs to be is a teaching church that plainly and powerfully proclaims the Word of God. Then the church will be equipped to fulfill its task in the world to worship and to witness to that world.

Beware the Idol of Self-Preservation

Michael Kelley:

Now let’s be clear, here – there are moments, many in fact, when you find yourself (as I do) in an over-committed situation, and for the health of your family and even your soul, you need to release some of those demands. But in those occasions, you are releasing some demands so you can fully give yourself to others. It’s not an escaping; it’s a re-aligning of yourself to make sure you are giving what limited resources you have to the most appropriate places.

Stating the Obvious in Worship

Dustin Rouse:

Pointing out what is plain to see is annoying, yet gospel truth and the worship it inspires is different. Gospel truth is only obvious to believers because the scales have been removed from our eyes. We see what once was obvious in the Garden of Eden – that our God is glorious.

Four pieces of leadership “wisdom” you should totally ignore

keyboard

Every leader, no matter if they’re leading one person or one thousand, wants to get better at what they do. Fortunately the leadership industrial complex has produced a number of really great books offering really sound advice.

Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of dreck out there, the kind of stuff that makes me want to start reading Jesus’ seven woes out loud as emphatically as possible. Here are a few pieces of worldly wisdom that Christian leaders should probably ignore:

1. Criticized? Take heart—it means you’re a great leader. The other day I saw the following quote by Edwin Friedman in my Twitter feed: “Criticism is, if anything, often a sign that the leader is functioning better.” While certainly criticism can be a sign you’re doing well, it can also be a sign you’re failing miserably. The type of criticism you receive and how you respond to it are far better indicators. Proud “leaders” quickly write off criticism as being the divisive words of “haters” (and nitwits make videos about it). While not every piece of criticism merits the same level of attention, humble leaders listen, process, and respond to what they receive accordingly.

2. Throw your peers under the bus. This nugget came from John Maxwell’s 360-Degree Leader, where he shares the story of “Fred,” a man with a moody boss. The moral of the story? If your boss is unstable, watch and see which way the wind is blowing as your peers bring up issues. If the boss is in a good mood, bring up your list. If not, slide it back into your pocket and let your coworkers get burned (see pages 76-77).

Never mind taking a risk and calmly saying, “I had some concerns I wanted to address, but I can see this probably isn’t the best time.” It’s dangerous to do this, but it’s better than silently letting everyone else get blasted. And besides, it’s not like your volatile boss can fire you for it (unless he wanted to face a wrongful dismissal suit, of course).

3. People complaining? Be even harder on them! This one’s a bit of a cheat, because it’s identified as being terrible advice. When Rehoboam was faced with rebellion and had to choose between easing the burdens of his people and increasing them, he ignored the counsel of the elders and went along with his stupid friends. The result? The nation was torn in two.

4. “It is much safer to be feared than loved…” This come from Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. Here it is with more context:

…it is much safer to be feared than loved because …love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

Much of Machiavelli’s writing deals with self-preservation as the highest virtue. Love is risky, he’s right. But good leadership is all about risk. Compliance via fear is “safer” only because it’s easier to intimidate than to actually show those you lead that you care. Threats work in the short term, but don’t think you’ll have anyone sticking their necks out for you when you really need it.

Those are just a few of the gems out there that you should almost certainly ignore. What are a few pieces of terrible leadership advice you’ve heard?

Help Me Reorganize!

So, after two years of (usually) weekly reviews, the Book Reviews page is beginning to get a bit out of control. And since it exists for your benefit, I’d like your input on how best to reorganize it!

What would be most helpful for you, readers?

Filing by author?

Publisher?

Subject matter?

Leave a comment and help me reorganize that page!