The lines between traditional publishing and self‐publishing are becoming more blurred. It's no longer the case that professional authors can only be published by the big five publishing houses. In fact, more and more professional authors are turning to self-publishing as it can offer a number of benefits. Yet many authors still prefer to have the experience and guidance of a professional publisher behind them. In this article, we'll take a look at the differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing.
'To write what is worth publishing, to find honest people to publish it, and get sensible people to read it, are the three great difficulties in being an author.'
Charles Caleb Colton
The first step is proposing your manuscript to a publisher who will decide whether they want to endorse your work. At this point, it can be either accepted or rejected. If it's rejected, they'll send you a polite note thanking you for the offer, which they must respectfully decline. If it's accepted, on the other hand, they'll approach you about purchasing the rights to your work. They'll review the contents, design and package the book, before advertising it and printing and distributing it on your behalf.
In this respect, it seems as if most of the hard work is taken care of for you. This may have been true once, but the landscape has changed and authors are no longer just write. The publisher will expect you to promote your book and your personal brand just as much as they do. Some won't even consider working with an author unless they already have an established audience. So don't be fooled into thinking that the traditional route will mean less work for you.
So why would an author prefer a traditional publisher?
For a start, you'll be paid an advance on your work, meaning you're in profit before any actual sales take place. Books published through traditional means are more likely to sell more copies and usually make more profit than self‐published works. Traditional publishers have a motive to market and sell your book to the best of their ability because that's how they get their profit. With a pre‐existing string of trusted contacts and significant knowledge and resources, they're well placed to market your book in order to bring in the highest number of sales.
Traditional publishing also gives more opportunities for awards and acclaim. Due to the pure size and visible presence of publishing companies, it's likely you'll receive more recognition through traditional means. Reviews and awards are also more attainable. Being published can sometimes mean an automatic nomination into competitions, which can create more publicity for your work. More publicity means more sales.
'I'd had 12 different job titles in publishing before I typed "The End" at the bottom of a manuscript page. I thought the manuscript was in great shape; I was pretty proud of myself. Then I sent it to some publishing friends, and they tore it apart.'
There are also downsides to going down the traditional route, the most obvious being the challenge of getting past the dreaded slush pile. Traditional publishers receive thousands of manuscripts every year, many of which will never be read (let alone published). Some publishers won't even accept unsolicited manuscripts, meaning that you need to secure a literary agent before even submitting your book (and literary agents have their own slush piles too). There are plenty of tales about bestselling authors who've had trouble getting past the gatekeepers. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was rejected 12 times!
However, it can be a confidence booster if a literary agent or publisher takes an interest in your work. The idea that someone in the industry thinks that your book has potential is hugely gratifying after all.
Once chosen, the production process can be quite slow. Most books take at least a year to be released, although there are exceptions for topical books that require a quick launch. Some publishers also have a 'Do Not Complete' clause to take into account, meaning you're unable to publish anything under your name until the previous work is on the market. This long lead time is often one of the key factors for authors when choosing to self-publish. Some of the most prolific self-published authors will release a book every few months, while traditionally published authors can only hope to release a book every few years.
The other factor to consider is your creative freedom. Your book is your baby and it can be difficult to hand over control to someone else. However, the traditional publisher has a vested interest in making your book a success and although they will take your views into account, they are ultimately buying the rights to your work from you and the final decisions on the text, the design, and how the book is marketed will be theirs.
'I enjoy self‐publishing & sending publishers rejection letters. They're like, "Who is this guy?" And I'm like, 'the end of your industry.'
‐ Ryan Lilly, Write like no one is reading
One of the reasons self‐publishing is becoming increasingly popular is the pure, distilled convenience and adaptability of it all. You can start writing a novel and have that same novel in print within months. That's even before considering e‐books. Companies like Amazon can approve your book and have it on sale in a mere matter of days.
'Nowadays, the Internet decides if you're good, not the big man in the big office. No matter how important that man thinks he is, everyone else knows that he's not important anymore.
‐ Alexei Maxim Russell
Self‐publishing also removes some of the limitations proposed by traditional publishers. With nobody to stifle your creative freedom, you can dare to be a bit more controversial, which always gets people talking about your work. Cover art, title, marketed genre and advertisements can all be designed as originally envisaged, and last minute alterations can be made on your own terms.
This freedom also allows you to write content that fills an otherwise ignored niche. Publishing houses need to reach a specific number of sales and profits with every book they publish in order to consider it a success. If you want to write a book on a specific subject or for specific groups, self‐publishing allows you to.
Nevertheless, we should mention profits. Depending on your pricing, self-publishing your books can result in a much higher royalty percentage than the traditional route, although you will need to pay for the books to be printed and distributed yourself. A higher royalty percentage means that you won't need to sell as many copies to earn the same amount of money that you would with a traditional publisher, but the responsibility for gaining those sales and fulfilling the orders will be on you.
'To be a successful fiction writer you have to write well, write a lot... and let ’em know you’ve written it! Then rinse and repeat.'
‐ Gerard de Marigny, The Watchman of Ephraim
Self‐publishing follows a similar pattern to the traditional method except this time you're doing it by yourself. You'll still need to have your book edited and proofread, get a cover designed, arrange distribution, and come up with and execute a solid marketing plan. It is generally not a good idea to attempt to do everything completely by yourself, which means you may need to pay for the designing, editing, printing, and distribution unless you're willing and able to do all that yourself.
Despite the freedom you're afforded, even self‐publishing has limits. Shops or online marketplaces won't sell your book if it's deemed too unfinished or imperfect. If something's particularly 'out there' or niche, to the point where it appeals to a number countable on one hand, it may not be sold, especially not on the shelves. It's actually quite rare for self-published books to be sold in physical book shops.
If a self‐published book purports to be 'available' at a certain retailer, the likelihood is you'll have to ask about it directly and have it ordered in specially. Most of the time, self‐published books are sold through online retailers instead.
The chances for critical acclaim, prestige and validation from the industry are also decreased if you self-publish. Many competitions won't accept the works of indie writers, although this is starting to change. While kudos from higher‐ups isn't vital, it often opens up opportunities to climb for more prestigious positions in the literary world and gets your work more noticed.
'The good news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself. The bad news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself.'
‐ Lori Lesko
So... which publishing route is better for you?
There are significant positives and negatives to both traditional and self‐publishing methods, but ultimately it's about choosing the route that's right for you and your book. The good news is you can try both. Some authors will self-publish their work first to prove the concept and then get picked up by a traditional publisher (E.L. James originally self-published Fifty Shades before selling the publishing rights to Vintage Books).
And there's nothing to stop you self-publishing your work after sending it out to publishers, as long as you still retain the rights to the work (NY Times Bestselling author, Kylie Scott, started out publishing her romance novels the traditional way but discovered that self-publishing suited her YA books better, so she now does both).
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