Monday, July 2, 2012

How Types of Publishing are Dividing Authors, and Why They Shouldn't

If you've been looking at getting published, you've probably seen the Great Debate of Publishing: Self-publishing or traditional publishing.

You've seen people put forth clearly drawn opinions that traditional publishing is better, or that self-publishing is the saving grace of writers. You've seen blogs that say that traditional publishing locks authors in and prevents them from earning what they should, and you've seen blogs that say that self-publishing tends to be poorly written crud.

But now people are beginning to draw a new line: stop insulting other authors! It's a breath of fresh reason, thank goodness.

More and more writers are becoming aware that the divide is helping no one, and that neither form of publishing is inherently better. Why? Because publishing isn't a one-size-fits-all industry. Sometimes, self-publishing really is the correct option. Other times, traditional publishing is.

It's not about how you publish; it's whether or not how you publish is right for you.

Personally, I see the decision analogous to deciding whether or not to hire a wedding planner: Do you have time to do this all yourself, and do you know where to go? How many people are likely to attend (niche audience=small wedding; genre/general audience=large wedding)?
Your agent, by the way, would probably be most comparable to a marriage counselor in this analogy.
Let's look at each with the assumption that this will be the only type of publishing you do:

  • You'll need to hire your own professional editor, and force yourself to follow the advice. This includes finding an excellent editor with whom you work well, but you also get to choose your editor.
  • You'll need to find an artist for your cover design, or design it yourself. Both options take time, and many authors have difficulty designing covers, which marketing has shown to be a major part of how customers decide which books to purchase. You'll probably have to pay the artist for professional-quality work, but yours will be the final say, so your cover will be exactly as you want it.
  • Marketing is entirely up to you. You must toot your own horn. Most likely, you are e-book only. This means intensive social networking, paying for advertisements, blogging, creating websites, and other forms of advertising; handing out free books and arguing with Amazon for the right to offer your book for free for a couple of weeks; analyzing your own sales, and knowing without anyone else to guide you what will work best as far as getting your book out there. If you attend a book signing, you can only offer your customers bookmarks, cover art, and other non-book goodies to be signed unless you purchase a quantity of your own book through a POD (print-on-demand) publisher, which is a significant investment. Bookmarks are lighter to carry than books, but more likely to be lost before the reader gets home.
  • If you have a niche market, you have a built-in audience, and as long as you provide high-quality work, your sales will probably be steady. Your e-book format is likely to appeal to your readers, who may appreciate the convenience and who are used to being able to find their niche market only through digital format anyway.
  • You will probably have much higher royalties per book sold. You will not get any large chunks of money in the form of advances, but then, you don't have to earn out your advance before getting royalties. This means a more continuous stream of income. 
  • As the market evolves, you will face more challenges gaining respect from critics, family, and professional organizations than through traditional publishing. The barriers are eroding, but they aren't gone.
  • You get your work out now. Self-publishing is much quicker than traditional, even with the same amount of editing.
  • Most self-published authors do not have as large an audience as most traditionally published authors. There are many exceptions, and you can become one. Some self-published authors earn much more than traditionally published authors, because the higher royalties add up. Selling even close to the same quantity as a traditionally published author will produce much higher income. Advertising and quality product are critical.

Traditional Publishing

  • Editing is one of the services your publisher provides. You don't get as much choice in who you work with, but you know your editor probably has experience and has already been vetted by the company, and if your book isn't quite up to standard, it won't go out. Not all publishers provide the same quality or quantity of editing services; which publisher you work with will determine how much editing is provided.
  • Cover art is one of the services your publisher provides. You may or may not have a say in what it looks like, but the product will most likely be professional and vetted by marketing experts.
  • You will have to do most of your own advertising. This includes intense social networking, paying for advertisements, blogging, creating websites, and other forms of advertising; handing out free books and arguing with Amazon for the right to offer your book for free for a couple of weeks. 
  • Your publisher will provide some advertising, and will help get your book out into the hands of critics and customers, providing wide-spread distribution.
  • You have the advantage of having a physical product. The 'browser effect,' where customers can actually pick your book up off of shelves, will improve your ability to attract new audiences. You can attend book signings and be able to sign your actual book. This does, however, mean having to haul heavy books around.
  • You may qualify for an advance to help defer the costs of advertising (or, you know, live off of if it's large, but those are becoming rarer and rarer.) 
  • You may be able to gain a contract for several books, meaning more-or-less ensured income, and an extra reason for the publisher to push your name.
  • You can hand your book to your family members and say, "here it is."
  • Most self-published authors do not have as large an audience as most traditionally published authors. If you fall into the middle of the bell curve, you will probably make more money via traditional publishing. This is, again, not always true.
Okay, now let's do something "innovative": Let's look at combining the two:

Say, as an author, you have a few books published traditionally. Four or five of your books have gone out of print, and the rights have reverted to you. Plus, you have a new series that doesn't really fit the typical scheme of your publisher. You decide to continue the series your publisher already has, and they're willing to take you. But you also decide to self-publish your out-of-print books online, and begin self-publishing your new series (after checking your contract and discovering that it does not, in fact, violate any clauses or such.)

Traditional and self-publishing:
  • You do most of your own advertising. But, your traditionally published books also gain advertising from your publisher, and it helps. The 'browser effect' on sales means that more people are able to pick your traditionally published books up in a bookstore. You have a wide distribution.
  • Your e-book sales are boosted by readers who research you online and discover that you have another series that they purchase. Thus, your self-publishing sales are boosted by your traditional sales.
  • Your e-book audience begins to branch out and purchase your traditionally published books, because although they may cost a little more, they really like your series. Thus, your traditional sales are boosted by your self-publishing sales.
  • Your advances from your traditional publishing may help cover the costs of your self-publishing covers  and editing (whether or not the publishers intend this to happen). You will earn higher royalties from your self-published books, and begin earning them immediately, giving you a steady income instead of having to wait much longer periods to receive money for your work.
  • You will still have to purchase your own cover art and editing services for the self-published works. However, you will have had exposure through traditional publishing to what goes into professional work. You may or may not be able to make independent connections through the agency, but you will at least know what to look for. Also, your publisher will handle your editor and your covers for the books you publish through them, giving you a little more time for writing.
  • You will have physical books to give your family, and the respect that traditionally published authors gain without having to work through the barriers self-published authors often face.

To me, the answer is clear: it's not an either-or industry. For me, I will want to publish traditionally first. Perhaps I will begin to self-publish as well, but I don't plan on giving up one for the other. I know highly successful authors in both fields, some who do both, and some who have become highly successful in one but find themselves eyeing the grass on the other side. 

Would you consider doing both? Why or why not?


  1. Nicely balanced views, and could to have a more author friendly rallying cry for both sides. I think the perception of self-publishing as a poor man's choice is diminishing, but still very much holds true. 'You're a published author? Wow!' 'Well, self-published.' 'Oh. Oh, so not really, then?' etc

    1. From what I've seen, you've got it in a nutshell! It'll be interesting to see how people look at self-publishing in five more years, and then again in twenty more years. Almost makes me want to archive all the posts and articles talking about it from the past few years, just to compare in the future...