Self-Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing (Two Roads Diverged In a Wood)

At some point, the majority of writers find ourselves at this fork in the literary road. Some take one path, some the other, with regrets on both sides. However, before we get too deep into the “woods” as it were, let’s make sure we understand the terms we’re talking about.

Traditional Publishing:

This is when someone else (read, publisher) assumes all financial responsibility for publishing your book. This includes: all printing costs (cover design, page layout, attaining an ISBN number, distribution, etc), conversion to the various e-book formats and distribution in the major markets (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google, iTunes, etc), marketing, return insurance (book stores can return unsold copies and get their money back), and much, much more. For this, you give them the sole rights to publish said work for a specified period of time. You’re paid an advance and a percentage of sales for each book that’s sold (royalties). It should be noted that smaller, independent publishing houses don’t typically offer advances, but usually offer a higher percentage of sales as a counter, and the advance is just that. It’s an advanced payment, which means you aren’t paid royalties until your book has earned back to the publisher in profits the amount of your advance.

Self-Publishing/Vanity Press:

If you started writing before the e-book boom, the words “vanity press” might make you cringe. I use both terms there, though technically, self-publishing is different from vanity press and many of the places that offer “self-publishing” are actually just vanity presses, but that term has a stigma so it behooved them to find another name. For the sake of our discussion, I’m going to give my definition of each by describing their differences. I’m sure there are people who will disagree with me on this separation, but being specific is important when talking about publishing and I believe in calling something what it is, no matter what stigma it might carry. So, what’s the difference I see?

Self-publishing is when YOU assume ALL financial responsibility for the publication, distribution, and marketing of your work. In essence, you become an independent publishing house with a tiny library. Of course this doesn’t mean you, yourself, will be operating the printing presses, or driving the delivery trucks. You’ll hire people to do those things, but you’ll be the one doing the hiring. You get 100 percent of the money for all sales, 100 percent of the rights, and also 100 percent of the bills. You can do everything any publishing house will do. You can hire a printer, or use print-on-demand (which allows for smaller book runs but costs significantly more per book). You can hire a distributer who will even arrange for your books to be warehoused until they’re ordered. You can do your own marketing, even buy return insurance and thus allow brick and mortar bookstores to shelve your book without fear of losing money (assuming you can convince them that your book will sell), and all the rest. It’s not easy, it’s rarely cheap, but it can be done. Make no mistake though, the self in self-publishing is you and that, to me, is the key separation between it and vanity press.

Vanity press, on the other hand is really a hybrid of self-publishing and traditional publishing. With vanity press you assume some (typically most) of the financial burden, surrender some of your rights (though typically not as much as with traditional publishing), some of the profits (typically better than traditional publishing but not always) and essentially hire one company do all the heavy lifting of publication. It should be noted that with vanity press there is usually very little, if any, marketing done.

So now that we understand what we’re talking about, what are the pros and cons of each one? Well, let’s break it down by category, but understand I’m using generalizations here. As with anything that relates to you signing away rights of any kind, you should check with a lawyer to, at the very least, translate the legalese into plain English. Many a writer has found him/herself in a bad place because they let the excitement of publication blind them to a trap or unfair (to use a monstrous understatement) circumstances.

Recognition:

This isn’t even a contest, which is why I’m starting with it. Traditional publishing wins by forfeit, and that’s the very top benefit to traditional publishing. The reason for this is a harsh but immutable fact: self-publishing and vanity press publish a LOT of books that, for a variety of reasons, shouldn’t be. If you’re offended by this statement, I encourage you to peruse the e-book offerings at Amazon, or anywhere else that lets you “publish” anything you like. Often the e-books are plagued with spelling and grammar errors. That might sound elitist or snobbish, but give it a try. How many misuses of “they’re,” “their,” and “there” (as just an example), will it take before you can’t ignore them anymore and you stop reading? That’s assuming the book isn’t just badly written. There is a lingering notion in the world that writing a book is easy. If you can arrange words into a complete sentence, you can write a book. We all know funny stories, or have interesting anecdotes that people seem to enjoy. As anyone who’s ever finished a book knows, keeping a story going for 70,000-100,000 words plus is no easy feat, let alone keeping it interesting and on track. Of course, short stories are no simple task either. Keeping a coherent, engrossing story down to 5,000 words or less is impressive. If writing a novel is like building a house of bricks, writing a short story is like carving a doghouse from a single block of stone. Writing, like anything else, is a craft. Sure, some of us have more natural talent than others for one aspect or another (technical writing, storytelling, dialogue, etc) but writing is also a skill that should be honed and developed. Let’s apply the same thinking to other tasks that many people associate with writing:

  1. I can build a house, it’s just four walls and a roof.
  2. I can build a chest of drawers, I know how to cut wood and use sand paper.
  3. I can replace (insert part name here) in my car, it’s just bolts and wires.
  4. I can race that dragster, I’ve been driving for thirty years.

Okay, you get the idea. It’s not fair, but every one of us who wants to get published is lumped into the “I’ll just write a book” crowd until we prove we’re serious. Does that mean everything that is published through traditional means is quality stuff? I think we’ve all come across examples of that not being the case. But, I think we can agree you’re less likely find something like this in the traditional publishing world.

Getting Published:

This is goal, right? How many of us have dreamed of holding an actual, physical copy of our book in our hands? Like recognition, this is no contest. Non-traditional publishing wins hands down. The reason is just as simple; everyone is welcome! That’s great, right? Anyone can publish a book! Yeah, ANYONE can publish a book. But, there’s a cost to having an open door. There’s recognition of course (see above), but there is also the company you’ll be in (also see above), and that’s just the beginning. Despite these things though, I still see the allure of non-traditional publishing. Yes, it’s hard to break into traditional publishing. Okay, it’s a leg breaker. Even if you have a great book, you have to pitch it to the right person at the right time. Believe me, I understand the frustration. My rejection letters, or lack of any response at all, number well into the triple digit range for the two books I’ve tried to get published. The first, I admit, falls into the “not ready for publication” category. Frankly, I wrote it and “people” (friends, co-workers, casual acquaintances) liked it, so I thought it was ready to go. Ah, to be young and naïve again.

Compensation (Royalties and Sales):

Now we get into murkier waters. The simple solution to navigating this section is to order the options from best to worst:

  1. Self-publishing
  2. Vanity press
  3. Traditional publishing

The trouble is, like with many things, the context. With self-publishing (my definition), you get all the money! Woo hoo! The other two options give you varying degrees of less than that, with vanity press usually offering a higher percentage of sales. Keep in mind, though, this is where understanding your contract comes in. If you see the word “profits” instead of “book sales,” run, fast. Profits is a term so easily manipulated that I can almost promise you’re about to be taken in. Well, profit is anything after all the bills are paid, right?  You’d be amazed the number of “expenses” that take a bite out of the incoming money. Odds are, you’re lucky to see a stem when everyone has had their bite of the proverbial apple. Non-traditional royalty rates vary widely both in percentage and where in the financial chain they’re calculated. For traditional publication, average royalties for hardback books range from 10 percent to 15 percent, though only successful authors tend to see above 12 percent up front. There are typically breakpoints for more copies sold (higher percentage rates the more copies you sell). For paperbacks the range is 6 percent to 9 percent, of course authors with proven sales can see above 10 percent.*

The other catch to this is that you actually need to sell books to make money. Sure, you can put your book on Amazon and B&N (Barnes & Noble), but you’re just one of, literally, millions of books available. And I’m not even talking about e-book only titles. It’s like deciding you want to sell something and so you setup a webpage and stop. Sure, some people will invariably find you, but no business has 100 percent of the shoppers as buyers. Physical books still account for about 90 percent of all sales, and about 56 percent of sales happen in actual stores, not online.** That means that if you’re not on shelves, your market is already more than cut in half. Sure, online sales are increasing, but no matter how it’s spread, you still have a smaller group of people to sell to. So while you might make a larger percentage going non-traditional, you’re likely to see far less sales.

At this point, I feel I should mention that there have been a number of people who’ve been quite successful by going the non-traditional path. Yes, it happens, and with hard work and some luck, you could join those ranks. Of course, lots of people win the lottery too.

Rights:

Once more, this is tricky. Self-publishing lets you retain all the rights to your work. Traditional publishing and vanity press require you to sign over some of those rights for some amount of time. Each can vary widely, both in time and scope, so I can’t really speak to it. I’ll just say again that you need to consult with a lawyer who deals in intellectual property, if you aren’t working with a reputable literary agent. Yes, both will charge for their time (agents fees will come out of your advance and royalties), but they will also keep you from being taken advantage of, or at least unknowingly taken advantage of.

The Stigma:

This is such a powerful aspect that it needs to be taken into account. Although it’s true that with the rise of e-books, self-publishing (which is much easier with e-books) and even vanity press don’t quite have the full mark of Cain they once did, it’s still not looked upon favorably. At best, you can hope for indifference. Again, there are people who’ve achieved enough success on the non-traditional route that traditional doors have opened, but make no mistake, that’s not the norm. If you choose the non-traditional route, you need to understand that it means that nearly everyone in the publishing world will, at best, not recognize that you’re a published author, or at worst, categorize you in the literary equal of a leper colony. In fact, in most cases, if you decide to try going the traditional route after going the non-traditional one, you’re best never mentioning you went down that road at all.

Is it fair? Well, that’s a loaded question. Publishers are the ones putting the money up, so they get to decide who they’re going to invest it in. Most non-traditional publishers have no quality checks at all, so you get a lot out there that most of us would agree is less than stellar. If you want to walk through the doors that are always open, be prepared to accept the kind of company you’ll be seen as keeping. Likewise, if you want to get “inside,” be ready to knock on a lot of doors and have a great many of them slammed in your face.

Summary:

Like life, publishing choices come down to compromises. If you really just want to see your book in print, the good news is you can. If you want to see your book on the shelf in a store, it’s going to take more work. I can’t and won’t tell you which is right for you. I will however tell you where I am, and why.

I want to be a professional writer. My dream is to make my living writing books, to be able to walk through a bookstore and see my book on the shelf, or even see my book “in the wild” (find someone actually reading it). That means I’m taking the traditional route. I’m querying agents and the publishers who work directly with writers. It’s not easy, and as I said, I’ve gotten my share of rejections. As a genre (fantasy) writer, my options for publishers and agents are more limited, but I’m going to knock on every door available to me. That being said, if I get to the point that there aren’t any more doors left, I’m not going to just give up. I myself will choose to (truly) self-publish, and do all the hard work necessary to get my book out with the hope I can either build enough of a readership base that I can make a living, or enough that I can convince a traditional publisher to take me on. I can’t tell you which path you should take, that’s up to you. Me, I’ll take the path less travelled by, a long and hard path that might very well lead nowhere, but I hope it will make all the difference.

*Royalty statistics taken from PublishLawyer.com: http://www.publishlawyer.com. Accessed November 2013.

**Book sales statistics for 2012 as reported by Bowker market research: http://www.bowker.com/en-US/aboutus/press_room/2013/pr_08062013.shtml. Accessed November 2013.

5 thoughts on “Self-Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing (Two Roads Diverged In a Wood)

  1. Given the economic climate, more and more self-respecting writers may choose self publishing, even if they have earlier been published traditionally. (You didn’t go into the financial problems with the latter–plenty of respect, but often little money!)

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  2. Thanks for the comment.
    That’s a valid point, but the reason I didn’t address it is because I think you’re likely to have better sales with traditional publishing. There are more avenues open to you; reviews, getting into book stores, etc. You can make it self-publishing, but my point is that it’s a lot of work.

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