In 2021, I quit trying to get my books traditionally published. Why? My top three reasons are lack of control, anxiety, and loss of self.
Disclaimer: I’m not saying that traditional publishing is bad, or that I wouldn’t recommend it for any book out there, or that I regret every minute, because that is untrue. I have no regrets about building up my collaboration skills and getting my books published. There are books that belong in the traditional publishing space and benefit from reaching different markets and more readers.
Lack of control
Starting in 2013, I was one of the first authors of a new digital first imprint with Carina UK, which was under the umbrella of Harlequin. Digital-first meant that my books would publish first as eBooks. Any other format, such as paperback, hardback, or audiobook, had the potential to come later. The ability to get my book into other formats would depend on my sales record for that ebook.
Whatever magic number needed to be reached for me to get a paperback or an audiobook was never really disclosed to me…ever.
My dream was to hold my book in my hands. eBooks are fantastic. And they sell well in the fiction space. But I wanted to have as many formats for my books as possible and reach the most readers I could.
But, instead of promoting my back list, they encouraged me to always focus on the next book.
Most of the time, the traditional publishing model really focuses on the next new thing, the front list. That means that the books that are forthcoming for their particular imprints.
This seemed normal, and what I should expect.
But as writers, we have attachments to our books.
However, once you get that publishing deal, you’re on the rollercoaster ride of traditional publishing, where you are out of control when it comes to when they need your next book. Once you’re on that treadmill of publishing, and writing, and then publishing some more and then writing some more, you have to perform or else they may consider you a failure. At that point, there’s no guarantee of another contract.
Once you have a contract, you no longer have years to toil over your book. The window of time to write and edit your book is narrower than before.
Sure, you can ask for extensions. This has been done before by many authors.
I never asked for an extension, even though I should have. I was terrified that they would consider me “not a writer” or a “failure”, according to my publishing house, because I couldn’t perform.
**If you are currently feeling burned out and in a traditional contract, please, please, I recommend asking for an extension. That time difference is worth its weight in gold for your mental health and for your physical health.**
Regretfully, I wish I would’ve made a better schedule with my editors upfront and not just went for the schedule that they had for me, but that also led to my lack of control.
Speaking of editors, in the time that I was with Carina (which ultimately turned into HQ Digital after HarperCollins Publishers purchased Harlequin) I had about five or six editors in seven years.
When the person who acquires your book leaves, no fault to them, but it can feel like you are breaking up with a business partner or someone who can literally see into your soul, because they are the one that championed for your book.
Then the publishing house throws you to the wolves of editors. Someone is assigned to your book or they choose you. From my experience, seasoned editors felt a bit lukewarm towards your book because they hadn’t purchased it and they weren’t your champion in the first place.
I’m not at all bashing editors, but it’s just an unfortunate thing that happens. I’m sure if you spoke to many editors from traditional publishing houses, they probably have a lot of stories to tell, but I’m here to give you on author’s perspective.
With marketing the traditional publishing houses, a lot of authors, the mid-list authors, especially get a small promotional budget. Sure, all my books were on Netgalley, which is a fantastic website for getting early buzz for your book. My publisher tweeted about my book pre- and post-launch. But I never really had a big push for any of my books that I didn’t research and pay for myself.
Fast forward to 2019, when I was going to publish ‘Wrapped up for Christmas‘, I finally got my book in paperback and audiobook. And I have to say I was thrilled. But I also know that Christmas books or holiday books usually only sell three to four months a year around the holiday season.
Knowing that I had a brief window, I dove into Facebook ads. I hired a fantastic author and marketer who was proficient at Facebook ads.
Every single month that I kept her on, my sales covered her fee, my budget for the ads and then some! That book sold incredibly well for an entire year. Yes. You heard me. People in April and May the next year, we’re still buying a Christmas book. I couldn’t believe it.
For the first time, I felt a smidgen of control.
At the end of 2020, my published reverted the rights of my debut young adult paranormal trilogy. I wanted to see those books out there again, so I decided to self-publish. With self-publishing comes a lot of editing and marketing costs, including covers.
Unfortunately, I unfortunately parted ways with that author who is helping me with my ads, because I had to pay for the offset costs of republishing my books.
I already knew what was going to happen, but I had all the hopes that it wouldn’t.
The week that I turned off the ads to my women’s fiction books, my sales tanked.
After that, I realized I didn’t want to make money for a publisher anymore. While using my money for my ads, they were still taking a percentage of the book sales for themselves. Sure, I saw a lot of profit. But I was no longer interested in making them money from my hard-earned cash.
That was the first step for me to find my independence as an author and taking back my control.
When it comes to anxiety around my author career, I honestly didn’t even know it had to do with publishing until I took a step back.
For me, it manifested with that lack of control, but a lot of it had to do with lack of communication. As I’d never had an agent, I had direct contact with my editor and that was the only way that I could figure out what was happening at the publishing house.
If I had questions, I had to wait for answers.
I waited weeks, sometimes months, for a simple answer to my questions.
I know that I am not the only author that any of these editors were working with. So, I was okay with the lack of communication…until I wasn’t.
This was not an isolated incident. I spoke with a lot of authors at my imprint and beyond, and the waiting for simple answers is a thing that happens. From what I know about the traditional publishing industry, I’m sure those editors were extremely overworked, so I’m not blaming the specific people, but the structure of the business in general.
The anxiety would get so bad sometimes that I would refresh my inbox more often than anyone should…ever.
It would get worse each time a new editor came to me. I had so many questions: Will this editor even like my book? Will they champion for my book? Will they buy my next one in my option clause? Would they leave? And did I need to stick to the same deadlines? Were they going to be faster? Slower?
I had no idea.
I allowed myself to think that this was normal. The bunched up feeling in my chest lived with me because I was terrified of the alternative.
How did I figure out this was far from normal?
In late 2020, I queried an adult thriller. I wanted an agent to represent my books, mostly because I wanted to level up with a business partner.
I had already turned down a contract with my current publisher for two more women’s fiction books, because I really wanted to focus on getting an agent and work myself into the adult thriller genre.
Querying was another huge point of anxiety for me. The waiting game started again, and while some agents were quick to respond, others took months, and some I’ve never heard from!
In the four-ish months between turning down the contract and querying my book, anxiety returned the moment I pressed SEND on the first query request.
Now, I had a connection point for my anxiety. I’d been living in it for seven years and the moment I came back to it after a small break, I realized it was directly tied to my career and the lack of control over it.
While I was querying, I was preparing my reverted books for publication. When I started working on those, the anxiety was nowhere to be found.
I felt that independence with self-publishing, as there was no one I had to answer to, and I was making all the decisions. I didn’t have to wait for anything!
I loved it! I still do.
Which is why I decided to pull my adult thriller from the query trenches. I even requested an agent who had the full (for over 6 months) to rescind my request. It was the biggest move I’ve made in my career in a long time.
Loss of self
This is something I’ve experienced a lot more recently as I’ve gone through edits with a freelance editor versus an editor at a traditional publishing house.
In addition to agents, I queried my adult thriller to publishing imprints that were open to un-agented authors.
I received an email from the head of the publishing house. She wrote me a phenomenal email outlining what she loved about the book, but the things that would need to change if they would purchase it. Some of the feedback I received from agents supported this as well.
Most of the notes revolved around a character trait. It wasn’t a very “commercial” trait for a main character, and they hoped that she could be more likable and relatable for the book to sell.
During this time, I was working with a freelance editor to help me with my reverted book (as it had been years since publication) and that’s what I realized the different editing styles between freelance editors and editors at traditional publishing houses.
Over the years, the feedback I’ve received at the traditional publishing houses was very much developmental in style, gearing my story more toward a clear genre, making it more commercial for a broader audience. Which is essentially their type of publishing.
Again, there’s no issue with that. Traditional publishing is in the business of profiting from its authors, and commercial books sell better.
Now that I’ve worked with different freelance editors, more independently, I found the process to be much more freeing. The feedback from them have been geared more toward clarity than commercial. I’m the one given the opportunity to turn my book one direction or another. They take the book that I created, and they help make it shine. Not specifically change it.
With my publisher, they didn’t force me to make these changes, but I took their suggestions and made those decisions myself based on their feedback.
Over the years, that sort of led to this loss of self. I felt like I got to a point where I was programmed in a sense to edit my books this way, looking at them through a commercial lens.
Looking back at some of my books, I felt like I lost my passion in the middle of the process of either writing or editing these books, because I had that specific lens.
Some authors may say that’s part of the process, but I certainly have not felt that way with any of my independent books. I feel freer to write the books I’m passionate about and will work to find the market for them instead of the other way around.
For all these reasons, I quit traditional publishing. With independent publishing. I have gained my control back, I have so much less anxiety, and I’ve maintained my sense of self with self-publishing.
Sure, my books may not be commercial successes with movie deals right out the gate. But when you’re passionate about your books and the process, there’s really nothing better.
Now I make my own production schedules, I’m driven by my deadlines, I answer to no one, and I can create something that is unique, and it fits my brand and my passion.
One of the most important aspects for me is that my books don’t look like every other book on the shelves.
Before I made my decision to leave, I struggled with a lot of feelings about me being ungrateful for the opportunities given to me, but not every opportunity is the best one.
Of course, there are sacrifices you must make in either publishing path. When you choose traditional publishing, many people feel like they’re getting free editing and free cover design and free marketing, but you are paying in that percentage that they are taking out of your book sales. You’re paying with every single book you sell.
With self-publishing, an author pays a lot of money upfront for the production and marketing of a book. But once you make that money back, you get higher royalties and all the control in marketing, such as sales, bundles, etc.
I’m happy with the decision I’ve made, but I’ve left myself open to the opportunity if it ever presents itself. Though, it’s going to have to be a good opportunity for me to go back.
If you are an author who has found themselves in this position with a publishing house, or if you want to know about the traditional publishing industry, especially with your out clause, which is the reversion clause. I suggest checking out my book, ‘Take Back Your Book: An Author’s Guide to Rights Reversion and Publishing on Your Terms‘. It is available in ebook, paperback, and hardback at all retailers.
If you have questions or want to continue the conversation on this topic, please leave a comment below.