Two Roads, One Book: Traditional Publishing Versus Self-Publishing



It used to be that if an author wanted to fulfill their dream of publishing a book, he or she had to work through traditional publishing houses.   However, new publishing options, such as eBook publishing and Print on Demand (POD) services, have lowered the entry bar for those wishing to self-publish.  According to Publishers Weekly, in 2009 seventy-three percent of all books printed were by self-publishers and micro-niche publishers. With traditional publishing or self-publishing, there are associated benefits and disadvantages when it comes to time, money, control, distribution and marketing, ensuring that both approaches will continue to remain viable options for authors.

With traditional publishing, the road from the writer’s finished manuscript to the reader travels through a variety of professionals.   The process starts with a completed manuscript.   The author, or their literary agent, submits a query letter to a publishing house.   An editor at the publishing house reads the query letter to see if the work would be something they would be interested in publishing.  If the editor is interested the publishing house can ask to see the manuscript.  The publishing house believes that they can sell the book they will negotiate a publishing contract with the author and provide the author with an advance on royalties from expected future sales.   From there the publisher prepares the author’s manuscript to get it ready for publication, printing, and sale.   This includes multiple revisions, edits, proofreading, formatting, and design. Once the book is printed and distributed to public, the publisher provides marketing and advertising support.

In self-publishing the author takes on the role of the publisher and either self-performs or hires out the services traditionally provided by a publisher.  Authors looking to self-publish should weigh carefully his or her capacity to fulfill these roles as Adraian Zackheim of Portfolio, an imprint of Penquin Books, points out. “Freelance editors, publicists, and other service providers are available to provide such services, but few writers know how to choose and manage those hired guns. Even fewer possess the mix of discipline, public credibility, and book marketing savvy it takes to devise their own titles, cover art and marketing plans.”

In the past, self-publication required the author pay a professional printer to print a set amount of books, which the author would attempt to sell, often with cases of unsold books piling up in the garage.  Unlike traditional publishers who print a run of a book in the hundreds or thousands, new Print-On-Demand  (POD) services allow the author to print as many copies as he or she needs when they are needed.   With eBook publishing, the author simply uploads a formatted electronic copy of the book to an Internet distributor like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.

One of the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing is the time it takes from manuscript to market.  Finding a publishing house willing to publish a manuscript can be a time consuming process. This is especially true if the author first tries to find an agent to solicit their manuscript for them.  Because editors are inundated with queries, known as the “slush pile”, it can take months before a publishing house will even review a query.  If a publisher selects an author’s manuscript for publication, the process of preparing the manuscript for print is also time consuming.   The resources of the publishing house are divided among their authors and their current publishing schedule may extend over a year into the future and confined to two publishing seasons, spring and fall.

On the other hand, with self-publishing the author sets the publications schedule.  Editing, proofreading, and preparing a book for print still takes time, potentially more if they are unskilled these tasks, but once it is ready for print, a Print-On-Demand service can have the book to the author in about a week.   If the author publishes as an e-book, this time is further reduced.  Regarding this, self-publisher Helen Gallagher writes, “Print-on-demand fit my needs for my first book. It was time-sensitive, and as a first-time author, I knew I couldn’t afford the long search for an agent with [the time frame of] traditional publishing.”

Time is not the only consideration as money plays an important role.  With a traditional publisher, there are no up front costs associated with publishing.   The publishing house fronts the costs associated with editing, artwork preparation, printing, and marketing.  The publisher pays the author an advance on royalties and the author collects a percentage of sales thereafter as royalty.

In contrast the money burden falls to the author when he or she self-publishes.   If they hire out such things as editing and cover design, they must pay out of their own pocket, which can cost thousands of dollars.    They must also pay to have the book printed.  However, because the author assumes the burden for all costs associated with publication, they have the profits for every book sold. “In a traditional paperback publishing deal, the author keeps a mere 8 to 9 percent of royalties. Under most self-publishing agreements, authors keep 70 to 80 percent of their profits, with the remaining cut going to their distributor.”

When a traditional publisher house puts up the money to publish a novel, they are making an investment.  Such an investment requires that they exercise greater control over the finished product in order to be satisfied that they will make a return on it through sales.   With certain genres, their publishers can have rigid formulas that must be adhered to.   For example, Christian fiction publishers will typically not allow profanity and some even prohibit euphemisms.  When an author partners with a publisher, they are allowing another party to have a say into the finished product.    The publishing house editor may make several changes to the novel and draft revisions, sometimes altering the authors draft considerably.

Conversely self-publishing option offers greater control to the author.  Because the author is personally paying to publish the book they have a final say over the content of the book, the style, and the format.  If an author works in a non-standard genre or format this might be preferable. Richard Paul Evans describes his problems working through a traditional publisher, which lead to a successful self-publishing effort.  “When I first tried to publish The Christmas Box, publishers didn’t know what to do with it.  The manuscript was too long for a short story and too short for a novel – so they rejected it.”

When publishing, the end goal is to get a book into a reader hands and that is where distribution and marketing comes into play.  Marketing is making people aware of the books existence and distribution is providing an avenue for the reader to obtain it.  Distribution is one area where legacy publishers have an immediate advantage as they already have deals with distributors who ship to books stores and libraries.  Self-published books cannot be sold to bookstores or libraries.

While the self-publisher is limited to what books he or she can sell, either in person or over the Internet, he or she has an advantage in pricing flexibility.   Because the author does not have the overhead of running a publishing house, the book can be priced for a lower cost.  Regarding this, successful self-publishing thriller author J. A. Konrath points out, “Three dollars is a cup of coffee. Wouldn’t you rather have eight hours of entertainment from a book?”

Getting the novel into a book or an electronic retail website does little to help get the book to readers.   As Matthew Allard, writer of To Slow Down Time, puts it “You made a book! It’s real! Getting it into readers’ hands is a whole other ballgame.” The reader must be aware of the books existence and that is where marketing comes in.   With traditional publishing the publisher sends out advanced review copies of the book to distributors and media channels.   They may also place advertisements in the media and make deals with booksellers for promotion.   Having a traditional publisher also lends legitimacy to work, which makes the books easier to market.  “Books that traditional publishers put out offer a sense of built-in credibility that self-published books have a hard time earning.”

When it comes to marketing, a self-published author has some limitations, but also benefits.   In the past they would have to sell to family and friends.  The Internet has widened the scope, and social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and GoodReads can provide an author with a potential readership.  One popular approach is for an author to do blog tours, guest writing on other author’s websites and on literary blogs.  Now it is completely viable for the author to self-market with the reward of increased book sales.

When giving consideration to what route an author will choose they can evaluate the different roads to a published novel and make a choice of what works best for them.   If they have the time, resources, and market savvy they might choose to go the self-publishing route.  If they prefer the professional services and legitimacy of a traditional publishing house they can follow that road.  ­­

¶ Despatched on Thursday, July 19th, 2012 at 9:16 am and sorted in Writing. ¶ { ReTweet }

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