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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