Traditional & Indie Publishing: A Symbiotic Relationship?

I’m borrowing the word ‘symbiotic’ from biology, which is used when two different types of organisms live together (rather intimately) to their mutual benefit.

For example, there is a rather brave bird (called a ‘plover’) which shares a symbiotic relationship with the crocodile. Incredibly, the crocodile opens its mouth and lets the plover pick meat out of its teeth, not harming the plover. The plover gains a meal, while the crocodile gets its teeth cleaned.

Perhaps this wasn’t the best example. I’m not implying that the traditional publisher is like a crocodile and indies are bravely picking its teeth. I am implying that the relationship may be symbiotic, but not quite that way. 🙂

In biology, the relationship may not always be mutually beneficial, but that’s what I have in mind by applying this concept to the publishing world. I believe the relationship between traditional and indie publishing to be mutually beneficial, not parasitic.

Here are some ways in which traditional and indie publishing are mutually beneficial:

  • Authors have the opportunity to avoid possible rejection letters by self-publishing. This benefits traditional publishing by reducing the number of proposals that need to be filtered.
  • Self-publishers provide ample business to print-on-demand publishers like CreateSpace and Ingram Spark. Traditional publishers benefit from this service, too, keeping titles ‘in stock’ which would otherwise be retired. The combined use of this service helps to keep the cost low for everybody.
  • Small publishers have increased their business by offering formatting, editing, and cover design services to self-publishers. This helps self-publishers improve their books.
  • The presence of indie authors significantly enhances the population of authors overall, which helps boost participation in author support groups – like writing groups, blogging communities, and social media sites. Many traditional authors in these communities have much experience to share.
  • The combined number of books – i.e. indie plus traditional – has led to an increased number of writing contests, review sites, magazines, etc. This increases the opportunities for all authors to improve their exposure and branding.
  • The combined number of e-books – i.e. indie plus traditional – impacts the price of e-readers in a positive way for consumers, and the availability of e-book publishing services for authors.
  • Both types of authors draw readers, especially when the books are very readable, enjoyable, or informative. I personally buy and read many more books now than when there only used to be traditionally published books available, and there are many others like me in this regard. Both types of books may generate sales for the other type through customers-also-bought lists.

Let me take the analogy a step farther.

The crocodiles could eat the plovers. They would gain some meals in the short run, but their teeth would be dirty in the long run. Even worse, the plovers could bite the crocodiles’ tongues.

Now imagine traditional publishers marketing negative things about indie books or vice-versa. If successful, this would be bad business for everybody. Many customers buy Kindles not just to read traditional e-books and not just to read indie e-books. If marketing efforts portray a lousy image for many e-books, it makes the e-reader itself less attractive.

If you could put a huge dent in either type of publishing, that would reduce the usage of print-on-demand services and e-readers both, which would impact pricing, competitiveness, and availability of services. It would also put a huge dent in readership.

The relationship between indie and traditional publishing may not be ‘obligate,’ meaning that survival of one entirely depends on the existence of the other. However, if either form were to vanish, it would have a major impact on the other.

From a marketing perspective, it makes sense to say good things about books, e-books, readers, authors, and publishers of all kinds. Putting time and effort into marketing your own book would be partially negated by also spreading a negative image for books at large. That negative image would decrease sales overall, which would come back to haunt you, statistically. Spreading a positive image of all kinds of books helps to reinforce your own marketing.

Similar books may also share a symbiotic relationship. Customers usually don’t buy one-or-the-other, but buy several similar books (if not all at once, spread over time – thinking, “Where can I get more like this?”).

Foolish authors who blast the competition shoot themselves in the foot. If successful at hurting the sales of similar books, they also hurt their own books.

When instead similar books are thriving, they all tend to thrive together – e.g. through customer-also-bought associations.

It’s not like there is only one book at the top and nothing else sells. There is plenty of room for readable, enjoyable, or informative books. Similar books can thrive together in symbiotic relationships.

It used to be that a paperback book selling about once a day had a sales rank around 50,000 at Amazon. Now it might sell once a day and have a sales rank well over 100,000. This shows that the total number of books selling frequently has increased. Much of this may be the result of symbiotic relationships among similar books, plus the increased number of good books to read and an increase in readership, as well as an increase in e-readers and e-books.

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

10 comments on “Traditional & Indie Publishing: A Symbiotic Relationship?

  1. That’s actually a really good analogy. I especially like how you point out that authors that make this a competition and sabotaged similar authors cause harm to themselves. I think fans of indie and traditional authors should realize this too.

  2. Your blogs are always so informative and helpful. I love reading them, but need to just print them out (if my printer worked) and save for later. 😀

  3. In any field there is a mix between indie and mainstream artists, and there is always a little rivalry between the two. Hang out with a local bar band for any length of time and you’ll hear plenty of rants about “sell-outs”. I’ve never been on the road with a national act, but I suspect they have some unkind things to say about the guys who are playing gigs for free soda and half the door.

    Traditional publishers have to cater to the lowest common denominator because they need big sales numbers to offset their large overhead. This doesn’t make the books that they publish bad, just safe.

    Self-publishers have the freedom to write for a smaller demographic.

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