2014 Author Survey: Indie Authors and Others Prefer Traditional Publishing…Slightly

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Related: Get the full Digital Book World Author Report here!

I have had a very positive experience in traditional publishing, but I know many authors who have not. In my research life, having a prestigious publication by a highly regarded academic publisher has made the difference between long-term career stability and unemployment. Moreover, I was lucky to work with wonderful editors who not only helped me make the book infinitely better but who also provided important guidance in building my career. Cornell University Press was committed to my book Code Green: Money-Driven Hospitals and the Dismantling of Nursing, provided a gorgeous cover, and they continue, even ten years after publication, to promote the book in their list. Should I publish another book based on my research (I’ve tended toward articles), I would be hard-pressed to consider self-publishing.

My newest fiction project is another matter entirely. Later this week, writing as D. B. Shuster, I will self-publish the first installment of my serial thriller The Kings of Brighton Beach, a Russian mafia saga set in Brooklyn, NY. This publishing experience has also been a positive one—no rejection, no wasted time in the slush pile. Since I had to pay an indexer for my traditional book, the amount of money I’ve spent so far in both ventures has been similar with my current outlays for cover art and editing. I am enjoying the creative freedom to do this project my way and to have the final say and the opportunities that digital publishing offers for serials. As soon as I finish publishing this first installment, I will prepare to self-publish the next. I’m hooked.

Few authors share my enthusiasm for indie publishing, according to the latest data.

I recently learned this while analyzing survey results for the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey. Among the authors surveyed who had completed manuscripts, surprisingly few expressed a preference to indie publish their latest ones. Among traditionally published authors in the survey sample, only 7.5% expressed a preference to self-publish rather than to traditionally publish, compared to 10.1% of aspiring, 35.1% of self-published, and 29.8% of hybrid authors. While interest in self-publishing was higher among those respondents who had tried it, few authors reported that they only wanted to self-publish their next book. (See chart below.)

In total, 9,210 writers (more than double last year) responded to the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey. The majority of respondents to the survey were aspiring authors who had not yet published a manuscript (n=5,972). Among these aspiring writers, a little more than a third (36.4%) reported that they had finished a manuscript. The numbers of self-published (n=1,636), traditionally published (n=774), and hybrid (n=598) authors are relatively small by comparison (and the remaining authors could not be classified due to missing information). The majority of authors responding to the survey reported that they write fiction (80.4%).

The survey sample is a non-scientific sample, since it is voluntary rather than a random sample. The authors, most of whom responded after receiving a notification from Writer’s Digest about the survey, may not be representative of the population of authors. However, the number of respondents is quite impressive and certainly represents many, many more sources than would ever be consulted even in the best investigative journalism.

Despite the rise of self-publishing and the enthusiasm with which self-published authors celebrate its ascendance, overall, the authors surveyed are more interested in traditionally publishing their next book. The greatest preference for traditionally publishing was reported by traditionally published authors (87.2%) followed by not-yet-published authors (76.8%). Among authors who have self-published, more than half hoped to publish with traditional publishers—53.5% of self-published authors and 57.8% of hybrid authors.

Despite the strong preference for traditional publishing, these numbers did not represent a clear win for traditional publishers. Relatively few authors indicated that self-publishing would be their first choice for how to publish their next book, but neither were most authors set exclusively on taking a traditional publishing route.

I will be discussing many more results from the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey at Digital Book World next week in New York. The survey will also be written up in an upcoming report to be released next week at Digital Book World. Stay tuned!

How authors would prefer to publish their next book: 


Source: Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey of 9,210 aspiring, self-published, traditionally published and hybrid authors. 

Related: Get the full Digital Book World Author Report here!


20 thoughts on “2014 Author Survey: Indie Authors and Others Prefer Traditional Publishing…Slightly

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  5. Scott Nicholson

    Or could the correct interpretation of the data be that writers who are self-publishing are not at all interested in Writer’s Digest, which is notoriously replete with ads for “author services” that self-publishers find either worthless or blatant ripoffs? The scams masquerading under false flags of legitimacy are truly horrifying, especially when a prominent Big Five CEO is crowing about record growth built on the backs of the indie authors for whom they are providing such “services”? Get away from the “writing and publishing industry” and I’d bet the survey would reveal the exact opposite.

  6. Michael W. Perry

    You’ve touched on the problem with this survey, most of those responding hadn’t been published and many hadn’t even finished their manuscript. It’d be better to call them would-be authors. Lacking experience, their views are mostly idle dreams.

    My experience has been mixed. Best of all has been the translations. Three of my books have been translated by traditional publishers or, in one case, an academic press. That was delightfully easy. Simply sign a contract that I’d submitted and cash their check. I did, however vet their competence as publishers before agreeing.

    Other than that, my experience with one large traditional publisher was highly negative. Once, they failed to pay me for three months past the time I completed some editorial work, citing the company takeover by a conglomerate. In another case, they had my manuscript for six weeks and then returned it to me on a Friday, demanding that I complete my revision based on three editor’s notes by Monday.

    Since then I’ve opted to publish independently, first mostly as a publisher of value-enhanced public domain texts from popular writers such as G. K. Chesterton via POD. The availability of many of such texts for free has weakened that business model. Matching competing prices for a trade paperback with a better book at the same price was an easy win. Beating a free ebook version, however badly OCRed, is much harder.

    So more recently, I’ve shifted from being an editor who publishes what I have edited to being an writer who publishes independently. I’ve even taken up a theme close to your Code Green, writing two insider looks at hospital care based on when I worked at one of the nation’s top children’s hospitals. I took themes no one else seems to have written on.

    Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassment probes one of medicine’s taboo areas, the role of embarrassment in hospital care. My Nights with Leukemia was about what it was like to care for children with cancer, knowing that a third of my young patients would die. Publishing independently, I needed no one’s permission for what I did. And when I liked having a picture, mostly of hospitalized children, open each chapter in My Nights, I simply revised Hospital Gowns to include that. There was no cadre of editors whose approval I needed to get.

    Being independent also means I can move quickly. The recent fuss over the botched tonsil surgery of a 13-year-old girl in California struck me as an illustration of a hospital administration incompetent at communicating with distraught parents. Rather than write for them, though, I’ve begun to explore one to be called The Scary Place: Caring for Your Child or Teen in a Hospital. It will explain how hospitals work, as well as how to get what you want for your child despite the system.

    And yes, there’s a lot I don’t like about independent publishing. Doing everything myself means doing EVERYTHING myself, include things I don’t enjoy. My ideal, best of all worlds system, would probably be a co-op, where members contribute skills for a share of the income. I’d mostly write, edit and layout, leaving the messy upload details and the marketing to someone else.

    –Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

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  8. Kjerstin

    Those are some valuable points. I’d like to see the results of a similar survey that included a random sample of only published authors. I have five fiction manuscripts completed, but haven’t published any (preferring to wait until I actually have something worth sending into the world) and would like to hear from people who are where I want to be rather than where I am.

    The data is still interesting, though. I imagine these numbers will change drastically over the next five years. I hope self-publishing will lose more of its stigma and the quality of self-published books will improve… but we shall see.

    Michael, your idea for a co-op is brilliant. I’d love to have a group of people who could help me content edit in exchange for formatting, proofing, and uploading.

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  11. Orna Ross

    At The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), we worked with Alison Baverstock of Kingston University and her research came to a different conclusion. That self-publishers emerge from the process both keen to do it again and likely to recommend it to others: http://selfpublishingadvice.org/blog/what-successful-self-publishers-do-well/ I guess it depends on which authors you ask … and also, how your research question is framed. At ALLi, we always say self-publishing is not right for every author — but every author should self-publish once to see. Thanks for a thought-provoking piece, Dana

  12. Maria (BearMountainBooks)

    I’m self-published and I enjoyed the experience. Would I benefit from also having a traditionally published book? I think so. But I’m not actively submitting because it takes too much time and there’s no guarantee it would actually be a great thing. I’m in a good routine now with good editors. While the benefits of traditionally publishing cannot be denied, there are also enough benefits to self-publishing to keep me here. I have one work translated–a short story. I have the option anytime of adding to that experience should I choose to do so.

    I admit that I no longer read Writer’s Digest at all, and didn’t read it all that often when I was studying and submitting to traditional publishers/agents. It’s simply outside any area of usefulness or interest for me right now.

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  16. Johnsmith

    James Joyce and Shakespeare could not get traditionally published in today’s market. Just too many writers and not enough competent scrutiny to the slush pile. Some may win the “lottery”, but for most, I think the self-publishing route is the most realistic path.

  17. Madison Johns

    I can’t image any aspiring writers not considering self publishing. You have the potential to learn so much. The main difference between the two is control. If you’re a control freak like me and don’t want your book dissected than self publishing is for you. The issue is always quality and you can find that if you hire good editors and proofreader. I have learned so much from them. There used to be the stigma that if you weren’t traditionally published you were somehow not considered a writer. I still think some narrow minded people think that. Okay so I’m an indie and I made it onto the USA Today Bestsellers list as an indie. It is very possible to consider the fact that you sometimes need to take the hard road. They are both hard, but only one of them gives you freedom to chose how you want your book presented. As a bestselling indie author I still have considered if I should give traditionally publishing a try, but it would have to be hell of a deal. I know indies who have turned down offers because it amounted to 30 k a book something you can do all by yourself. Then there is the speed factor. I have published two books this year already. I can’t do that as a traditionally published author. Most of them are lucky to have two books published a year. What happens to my fan base if I went away for six months? Many things to consider and none of them are an easy road.

    Madison Johns – author of the Agnes Barton Senior Sleuths Mystery Series

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