Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing: Enjoy the Best of Both Worlds

CJ Lyons

CJ Lyons (@cjlyonswriter) is an award-winning, critically acclaimed New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. She practiced pediatrics and pediatric emergency medicine for 17 years before scoring her first big book deal, after which she quit her job and decided to become a full-time author. However, a few weeks before her first book was to be published, it was pulled for reasons beyond her control.

What happened next? She went on to have a very successful publishing career despite that initial bump in the road, in both traditional publishing and self-publishing. Her independently published novels have sold a million copies in less than a year, and at one time, her books held five of the top ten slots on Amazon.

Because CJ represents an emerging model of hybrid author, I asked for her perspective on questions of both traditional publishing and self-publishing. I am very grateful to her for spending some of her precious writing time to offer such insightful information.

Your career started off in traditional publishing with a dream deal, but as you’ve often spoken and written about, that first deal didn’t have a fairytale ending. How do you think that traditional publishing launchpad has impacted your career arc—positively and/or negatively? 

Even though my dream debut didn’t turn out as planned, overall, I think I’m enjoying a fairytale ending—living the best of all worlds. My traditional publishing helped me to gain critical acclaim, win awards, gave me my first bestseller, and is still a wonderful way to reach my readers who enjoy finding my print books in stores.

The downside of traditional publishing and the reason why I first began self-publishing is that it’s impossible to get books out as fast as readers want them. That’s where taking advantage of alternative publishing paradigms such as self-publishing can serve the reader, the author, the agent (via subright sales), and yes, even the traditional publisher. I proved this to my current publisher when I used an ad in the back of my self-published e-books to drive pre-sales of a traditionally published novel.

There’s no reason why authors should limit themselves to an either/or mindset—not when you can have it all, while also pleasing and delighting your readers.

Currently you have a hybrid publishing approach—traditionally publishing some titles and self-publishing others. How do you decide which path to take with each book?

My agent and I make this decision together. When I began self-publishing, I began with titles that we approached NYC publishing with but haven’t gotten the offers we wanted, so went ahead and self-published. Since my success with self-published e-books has increased my profile with publishers and given me a well-documented track record of sales, they now come to us and invite us to partner with them on projects, which is refreshing.

Given that one person can only write so fast, we’ve turned down several offers, but are always eager to discuss mutually beneficial partnerships with publishers of any size. In fact, my new YA thrillers are being published via Sourcebooks because their marketing plan to reach this new-to-me audience was so outstanding.

When I heard you speak last fall at Pennwriters, you went through the math of why it was a smarter decision to self-publish some of your work. Would you share that math here?

Instead of using any of my own offers as examples, let’s use a hypothetical where the math will be easy to do. Caveats to remember are:

  • advances are usually paid out in three installments over at least two years 
  • advances must be earned out before any additional money is paid to the author
  • the majority of traditional contracts signed now will tie up your rights for decades to perhaps the lifetime of the book, which is why it is essential that you partner with an agent and/or literary attorney before signing anything!

Oh, people should also know another reality of traditional publishing: over 80% of books do not earn back their initial advance. Not earning out = no royalties.

Okay, taking those caveats, let’s say you received an offer of $50,000 for your novel. Remember that the average advance is around $5,000 to $10,000 depending on your genre. Should you take it?

On the surface, it looks like a fantastic deal, right? BUT that advance will be paid over two years, so that gives you $25,000 a year. The odds of earning more are very little after that, at least not until you sell at least 100,000 books (combining 8% mass market and 25% net e-book royalties for ease of calculation)

And that’s it. One book, $25,000/year x 2 years, minus taxes and agent fees (typically 15%).

What if you self-published that same book? If you priced it at $4.99, you’d make $3 per book (at 70% royalty rate), so to make that $25,000/year you’ll need to sell 8,333 books per year or 700 books per month—OR to make the total $50,000, you’ll need to sell 16,666 books, about 83,000 less than with a traditional publisher.

BUT you get to keep earning money with every book sold forever. So even if it takes you a year or two to earn back the equivalent of the NYC offer, you get to keep building your profits. And with each new book you release, sales of the first will increase.

Now that I’ve totally reversed your thinking about that “very nice” $50,000 advance, remember there are still benefits to publishing with a traditional publisher. You need to look at more than just the money; focus on where partnering with this publisher on this project fits your overall business plan.

A traditional publisher can help to build your platform, grow your readership, and gain you attention that you might not be able to gain yourself. It’s important to weigh all the factors: who your audience is, how difficult are they for you to reach on your own, what your financial situation is, how fast you write, and so on.

What’s your agent’s role in regards to your self-pub work?

We’re a team. She takes her money from the deals she negotiates: foreign rights, audio, TV/film, other subrights. And thanks to her, my self-published books have earned far more from those subrights deals than they would have if we had taken any of those earlier traditional offers.

What’s your quality-control process for your self-pub titles?

I work with several professional editors, have a group of critique partners who are all multi-published, award-winning authors who are ruthlessly honest with their feedback (our motto when it comes to critiques is: if there isn’t blood on the page, we took it too easy on each other), a cadre of beta readers from my Street Team, and of course my agent weighs in on each title.

How do you recommend self-pub authors find quality editors for their work? What can they expect to pay?

This is the toughest decision an author faces! And it’s just as true for authors seeking traditional publishers—my agent and I would spend hours deciding on which editor we submitted to, and we’d do tons of research on their editorial style and how it would fit my needs.

When you’re going it alone, it’s much harder. First, I’d ask fellow writers (traditionally published or not—many NYC editors freelance) writing in the same genre for recommendations. Genre is important—you want an editor who understands readers’ expectations as far as pacing, character development, etc. Most freelance editors will do a few pages for free so you can see if their style resonates with you.

For developmental editing you’ll pay more, often $5–$10 a page or a flat fee of a few thousand dollars. For copyediting, rates vary from a flat fee to per word or per page, but in my experience it’s usually averaged out to around $1 a page. Proofreading is a little less, as they’re only looking for errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation, not the continuity and line-editing that copy editors provide.

Bartering with friends who have experience is a great way to start if you don’t have the money. Just make sure they know what they’re talking about. I’d still pay a professional copyeditor for one final look before publishing.

I use at least two to three editors per novel—usually two copyeditors and one proofreader. I’ve had NYC-published books that have had seven or more editors and readers still find mistakes, so don’t get caught in the trap of endless editing, as no book is perfect. But do strive to publish a professional product. Remember your competition: NYT bestsellers. Never give readers a reason to think you’re second-class.

You can also check out this freelance editor association that has prices and lists of editors.

I think you’re one of the best author-marketers I’ve ever seen (as I’ve said before!), but I know you shy away from being called a marketing genius. 🙂 Still, I believe you took concrete steps to learn how to be an authentic and meaningful marketer—partly by being a student of Copyblogger. Could you describe your growth in this area, as well as one or two strategies or tools that have been most effective for you? I know many novelists struggle with how to market their work—particularly through social media—without constantly feeling like a shill.

Thanks! After my dream debut fiasco, I realized that I needed to learn and understand the business—if only so I could choose my partners more wisely after having a major NYC publisher and my first agent abandon me so completely. I began to immerse myself in not just publishing but marketing and business, subscribing to Copyblogger, Lateral Action, Seth Godin, Simon Sinek, and even the free Harvard Business Review newsletter.

(BTW, you can pretty much create your own MBA curriculum via free blogs and newsletters! I share all these resources on my NoRulesJustWRITE.com site if you need a jumpstart.)

What was most enlightening and changed my approach to marketing was the realization that the professional marketers were talking about the power of story and how important it was to sell their products to their target audiences. I realized I already had the skill set they were trying to learn: storytelling.

Then I discovered Seth Godin’s theory of Tribes and how building the right community of a hundred connected, engaged, and excited audience members was more important than reaching an apathetic audience of millions.

When I combined the two and realized that marketing was really just telling the right story to the right people, everything clicked. I stopped trying to blog (never my strong suit and it sapped my creative energy), stopped jumping on every social media bandwagon, and gave myself permission to play to my strengths: writing books and chatting with my fans via e-mail.

I did tweak my e-mail newsletter last year, so now it’s once a month but not always about me. Instead I feature other authors my readers will enjoy—after all, I can’t write fast enough to keep up with the way they devour my books, so why not introduce them to others who write Thrillers with Heart? My mailing list went up about 10% since that change.

People always ask what I “do” for marketing. I enjoy learning about new things and trying them out, so I sometimes experiment with advertising (I’m doing a major campaign with the help of a few professionals in February and March), and I still do guest blogs when invited, but mostly it’s writing more books, sending my monthly e-mail to my newsletter group, and once or twice a week stopping by Facebook.

One new thing that I’m working on is a Goodreads community devoted to Thrillers with Heart (not just my books) and that’s growing nicely. My hope is to get one of the readers to take over as moderator and keep the discussion lively, as that’s simply not my strong suit. In fact, that’s the best advice I can give authors: play to your own passions.

If you love Tweeting and Facebooking, then chat away! If you’re an introvert (or a hermit like me), then maybe blogging or writing flash fiction will engage your readers without sapping your energy.

Do build a mailing list—don’t let Facebook or a social media site control your access to your readers. And always stay true to your brand: the emotional promise you make your readers with your books. So, for example, if you write Shaker Inspirational novels and your brand is: It’s a Gift to Be Simple, then your readers probably aren’t going to be interested in or connect with content that’s about how to find the best sex toys for your BDSM fantasy roleplaying.

Stay true to yourself and what you’ve promised your readers and they’ll stay true to you.

Do you have a specific strategy for balancing your writing time with your marketing/promotion time? 

I wish … after seventeen years as a doctor tied to a beeper and other people’s schedules, I have given myself permission with my new career to do what I want, when I want. Which 99% of the time means writing the next book. But, since I’ve found that’s my best marketing tool, it becomes time well-spent.

Many aspiring writers ask me if I recommend self-publishing first or traditional publishing first. I find that the answer is different for just about every writer. If you believe that’s the case too, then what questions should writers ask themselves to figure out which path is right for them?

I’m a firm believer in having it all! Why not pursue both? Finish your first novel, revise, revise, revise until it rivals New York Times bestsellers (your true competition in getting the attention of agents, publishers, and readers) then start the query process while you write the next.

Odds are by the time you have the second book polished you’ll know whether traditional publishing is right for you, then you can make a clear decision whether it’s worth pursuing or if you’d be better off self-publishing and building an audience as you continue to hone your craft (which never, ever stops, by the way!).

Oh, and don’t forget the power of small presses! There are some excellent ones that really know their audience and how to connect with them. Just because they may not be located in NYC doesn’t mean they aren’t excellent partners. That’s what agents and publishers are: strategic partners who help you get your book into the hands of YOUR readers.

Readers don’t care how the book gets to them—but be warned, once they read one and love it they want more, right here, right now! So I don’t advise publishing your first novel until you have another ready to go.

More about CJ
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of eighteen novels, former pediatric ER doctor CJ Lyons (@cjlyonswriter) has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge Thrillers with Heart. CJ has been called a “master within the genre” (Pittsburgh Magazine) and her work has been praised as “breathtakingly fast-paced” and “riveting” (Publishers Weekly) with “characters with beating hearts and three dimensions” (Newsday). Learn more about CJ’s Thrillers with Heart at www.CJLyons.net and everything she knows about being a bestseller and selling a million books at www.NoRulesJustWRITE.com.

CJ Lyons Thrillers with Heart

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Posted in Author Q&A, Marketing & Promotion, Publishing Industry, Self-Publishing.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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