I've seen life from both sides now, to paraphrase the Joni Mitchell song. Actually, I'm about to see it (the writing life) from all three sides. The writing life is an amorphous thing lately. Confusing and exciting, causing fear and hope in writers. The changes happening in the publishing community are so rapid, this article might be out of date by the time you read it.
The three methods:
The old route for a successful writer was this, of course: you write a few things, you get an agent, that agent sells to a publisher, and you are a published author. The hard part is getting an agent. I've queried hundreds of them over a ten year period.
That route got harder and harder for everyone who was still unpublished, and small press publication became a viable, respectable alternative. The small presses could get you published without the agent, but they couldn't get you into bookstores across the country. Still, you were a publisher author. This field is getting more and more crowded as it gets harder for experienced writers to get a New York contract. Those writers are migrating to small presses and taking up the precious few slots each of them have available. That caused the next wave.
Suddenly, it became possible to self-publish, to bypass both the agent AND the editor. Many writers did this, so many that it's hard now to tell what's out there.
And writers who are published all three ways are now feeling the burden of promotion. Very, very few authors get publicity help from anywhere.
My history, just so you know where I'm coming from.
My first short stories were sold to magazines who edited them and paid me. Many, many more of my stories were "placed" in magazines for no pay, but still with skillful editing, when needed. My first novel was published by a small press, which made it eligible for the nomination it won (Agatha, Best First Novel of 2011). I am now self-publishing the second and third in the series (and republishing the first one). Until now, I've experienced everything but the agent.
That changed, however, a few days ago. I'm probably jumping the gun, but a contract with a literary agency is in the mail, on its way to me. When everything is signed and in place, I'll officially announce it with names!
What are the pros and cons of the three methods of publishing? Here's what I've found.
Self-publishing. Being able to freely publish anything you want, any way you want if freeing, but with freedom comes responsibility. I'm having my novels professionally edited, even though I'm self-publishing them. As a publisher, you have access to all the sales figures. It's a thrill to watch the numbers climb, and agony to watch them sink. But it's all in your own control.
Small Press. This carries the advantages and disadvantages of traditional publishing AND self-publishing. You don't have direct access to the numbers, but you're still responsible for every single sale you make. Because your royalty statements are for sales six months in the past (at least that's how mine worked), it's hard to tell what works and what doesn't. A small press bestows a widely-recognized legitimacy, and eligibility for certain prizes and memberships, that self-publishing doesn't, but less money for your sales.
Traditional agented publishing. This is the only way to get into the "big" New York publishing houses. Membership in that club gives you access to sales outlets that the other two methods don't, and books on shelves across the country. Promotion is still expected, but I'm expecting the results of that to pay off in a bigger way because of distribution (if I DO land a "big" contract) because the print books will be more widely available. This is a camp I don't really have both feet into yet, so I can't speak in an informed way, to be honest. But I'm holding high hopes.
Ebook. This is the other game changer. Most of the above was written with physical, paper books in mind. The ebook market has exploded beyond anyone's expectations. They're are easy to publish and, after initial outlay for covers and editing and possibly formatting, cost nothing to produce in quantity. The possibilities for profit to the author are better than they've ever been, especially with self-published books and stories. You can hire distributers too, I've hired Untreed Reads for distribution of a couple of my works (and I've had a couple others published there) because that outfit has amazing distribution capabilities and marketing savvy.
The future. Wide open and completely unknown!
Kaye has been a janitor in a tractor factory, a mental health center secretary, a bookkeeper and a short order cook. She's been a mainframe computer programmer and a nurse's aide along the way.
Kaye is also a violinist, an online mystery reviewer, an award-winning short story writer, and the author of several unpublished (so far) mystery series besides the one being published by Mainly Murder Press.
Kaye is serving a two-year term as president of Guppies, an online chapter of Sisters in Crime devoted to assisting and supporting unpublished and newly published mystery writers.