Thursday, September 16, 2010

Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing

Although writers have always outnumbered publishers, it seems like today the supply of writers has far surpassed the demand for books. As more and more writers get fed up with the state of the publishing industry, there's a growing trend toward self-publishing. Yes, self-publishing does let you get a book "printed" faster than going with a traditional publisher; however, this does not mean self-publishing is the answer to your publishing problems.

Self-publishing is not right for everyone (neither is traditional publishing). There are many cons associated with self-published books:
  1. No barrier to entry: Meaning anybody willing to pay can get published (whether the work is good or not). 
  2. Negative stigma: Because there is no barrier to entry often times the editorial, print, and design of self-published books are of poor quality. As such, many retailers won't shelve self-published books and many media outlets won't cover/review them.
  3. Poor distribution: A printed book is worthless if you can't get it out into the retail chain. Often self-publishers don't have the contacts, reputation, or resources to effectively distribute their books.
  4. Cost: No advances here, the author foots the bill on the entire project as well as serving as project manager and marketer
Of course, there are some positives, like:
  1. Creative control: You can say how it looks, what it says, and where it goes.
  2. Ownership: You're not selling your rights to a publisher, so you get to keep full ownership of your material.
  3. Time to market: traditional publishing can take years to get a book to market, whereas most self-published books can get to market in a matter of months.
  4. Higher returns: There is no one else to pay but you, so you get to keep the money you earn on the back end. 
Traditional publishing isn't good or bad either--it's just a different model. Some of the negatives of traditional publishing include:
  1. No ownership or creative control: You sell your rights to the work, and often times your rights to final say in cover design and other elements.
  2. Time to market: As stated earlier, it can take years to traditionally publish a work.
  3. Barrier to entry: You have to go through an agent, which also adds time to the publishing schedule (and another mouth to feed).
  4. Small royalties: Most authors never earn back their advances, much less start earning royalties (if you think you can get rich as an author, you're in the wrong industry).
On the other hand, traditional publishing provides:
  1. Credibility: Traditionally published books are thoroughly vetted, so retailers and media know they are good quality.
  2. Strong distribution: Traditional publishers have established national distribution to all the major outlets.
  3. Small up front costs: You're still responsible for your marketing, but here you're not expected to make any other investment and often times you do receive an advance (though those are shrinking).
So, before you take the plunge into self-publishing, do a little research and get serious about what your goals are as an author. If you have the ability to market and distribute your book and the funds to invest to produce a high quality work and to partner with a distributor, then maybe self-publishing is for you. If not, you may want to stick with the traditional route. Either way, be committed and educate yourself on the process. It will make everything easier on you and the publisher.

To learn more about your publishing options, read this white paper.


  1. I recently heard the term *independent* publishing, which I like very much to distinguish vanity press from actual do-it-yourself publishing.

    Thanks for the very organized, thoughtful discussion!

  2. Thanks Kaye!

    Indie publishers have a vetting process, whereas vanity/POD accept everything. Also, there are some indie publishers who don't ask for an author investment and instead they split profits on the backend or only do royalties. The key thing is there are more and more options available and its important to do the research and weight the costs and benefits against your goals as an author. Also, your genre can affect which options work best for you as well (e.g. indie/self-published fiction is harder to sell).

  3. I heard independent publishing used for people doing their own publishing. The gal I know who uses this term paid for editing and is putting the book up for sale herself. No press involved at all, small, large, vanity. She'll probably do at least fairly well, as she has a terrific platform.

    Also POD presses do NOT accept everything. Vanity presses use POD, but so do some fairly large publishing houses, and most small ones. POD just means the way the book is produced, nothing to do with the type of press.

    And yes, the key is definitely that there are more options opening up almost every week! It's so exciting right now!

  4. I can't agree that traditionally published means quality. There are PLENTY of awful books out there that just happen to be the fashion at the time. Credibility though, yes certainly that.

  5. Nicole,

    Thanks for commenting! In terms of quality, traditional publishers are not always the best and they are cutting back in areas to make up for poor sales and loss in others. However, compared to most self-published works they are considerably better and the big thing is they have distribution.


    Yes POD is a method of printing a book, but there are some POD publishers (not jut printers) who do promote themselves as a press and who operate just like a vanity but only print their books on demand through a POD printer (I believe we discuss this in the white paper, if not its in the info packet). Indie publishing is a blanket term covering pretty much anyone operating outside of the six sisters, just like Indie bookstores are not B&N or Borders, etc. Independent is awesome, and finally authors are getting back some creative control and ownership. Unfortunately there are too many people who consider themselves authors but who do not have the skills nor have they invested the time it takes to create a quality book. Hopefully that will even out soon so we can focus on the good stuff! :)

  6. I agree, Shennandoah, that there will be some dreck to wade through in the immediate future. I really believe, though, that in time, the cream will rise to the top and readers will be able to tell where to find good books. I have NO idea how this will happen, but it has to, I think. Maybe certain online sites? Maybe bookstores will wise up as to who is printing good stuff? But something.

  7. Not to be a pain or anything but I just read a great essay here that I wanted to link to called "Never Whistle While You're Pissing". Is it coming back or has it disappeared forever?

  8. The rumor is that the selection process will be very democratic--readers and online patrons will vote with their dollars/loyalty/following. Basically, crap doesn't sell no matter who publishes it or how it gets through. Eventually the crap will dwindle. J.A. Konrath, Scott Sigler, and other "indie" authors are proving this right by building large followings as indie authors, then being approached with a traditional deals. So the indie thing can also serve a stepping stone to traditional publishing if the author does well (and if they so choose).

    BTW-we missed you last night! Hope to get the gang all back together soon for a real meeting :)