Traditional Publishing VS Self-Publishing: Considerations for a First Novel

Publishing and Distribution

After getting blog comments from writers who believe traditional publishing is dead or dying, I thought it was a good time to reassess the pros and cons of traditional publishing and self-publishing. With my buddy Google, I examined at the opinions of a handful of folks (who have good SEO) and basically reaffirmed my desire to try for traditional publishing first.

Basic Differences

Traditional publishing is where a publishing company invests in your manuscript: they pay for printing, distribution, marketing, and give you an advance on royalties. In exchange, the publisher takes a hefty cut of the royalties on sales. The most common route to secure a publisher is through an agent who act as so-called gatekeepers of traditional publishing (generally requiring a highly polished manuscript and a good pitch in the form of a query letter).

Self-publishing is essentially where the writer funds everything herself.

Pros, Cons, and Other Considerations

1. Advances VS Out-of-pocket Costs

Oftentimes, when an author publishes traditionally, the publisher will pay him an advance on royalties. For self-publishing, the author has to pay upfront for a great many things (e.g., editing, cover design, printing, marketing). I’m pretty sure traditional publishing is superior in this respect.

2. Quality VS Speed

An oft-cited drawback for traditional publishing is that it takes so stinkin’ long to go from a finished manuscript to having the book available for sale. Traditional publishers take while to make it happen, whereas self-publishing allows nearly instantaneous satisfaction.

An important factor to consider, however, is the quality of your work. A traditional publisher generally supplies you with a team to edit the content, design the cover, and what-not. This helps ensure the book is as awesome as possible once it’s released. With self-publishing, in the rush to get the book out there, many authors forgo substantial editing and quality checks and end up releasing a product that could have been much better had they put a little more time (and money) into it.

Then there’s also an apparent issue as to whether freelance editors are as effective as editors working for for major publishers. According to Keith Martin-Smith, the editors available to self-publishing authors do not have “the breadth of experience traditional publishers’ editors have,” which results in self-published works being sub par. Martin-Smith goes on to say that freelance editors lack the motivation to say “this book stinks and won’t make a dime, and here’s why,” and are more likely to leave a lot of self-published books to go to press “poorly written.”

In contrast, James Altucher believes the best editors (and cover/book designers, and marketers) are “no longer [just] working at the big publishing houses,” but are available to self-publishing authors. Thus, according to Altucher, self-published books can be polished similarly to those published traditionally (note: Altucher estimates that for his bestselling self-published book, he spent $31,000 ensure it was “professional” quality, and that $31,000 doesn’t  include expenses to travel while marketing the book or expenses to develop his social media platform).

So, while it’s possible to have a high quality product with self-publishing, it is less often the case due to impatience or the lack of a budget.

3. The Right and Wrong Reasons to Self-Publish

Harold Underdown touches upon a few right and wrong reasons to self-publish. Underdown gives a few examples: self-publishing hurriedly is fine if the author does not consider writing a career, “but want[s] to create a book for a very specific or limited market”; self-publishing “out of frustration with the traditional route,” on the other hand, is wrong.

Underdown also notes an important fact: “The media publicizes self-publishing successes, but for every one of them, there are hundreds and hundreds of failures.” Thinking you can be successful just because a handful of other self-publishing writers were successful (absent other facts) is just a bit foolish.

Again, we come to the issue of time. Underdown suggests spending “at least a few years” honing your writing skills and learning about the publishing industry and to go after traditional publishing first. Then, “if you do decide to self-publish later you will be much better equipped to do so successfully.”

In the James Altucher article (linked to above), Altucher advocates low budget self-publishing as “the new business card” (low-budget self-publishing is appropriate “[i]f your goal is to have a published book and use it to get customers, consulting gigs, speaking gigs, etc., or a beginning set of readers for your next book”). However, he says that “if your goal is to put out the best possible product, maximize the money you make, and get the most readers,” you should go through “professional publishing”: either traditional publishing; or spending a good amount of money to ensure your product is of high quality (again, he spent $31,000 for his self-published bestseller).

Courtney Milan points out that if you really want your book to show up on library shelves and stay there for a long time, traditional publishing is probably the way to go. The reason being that libraries, like bookstores, are very reluctant to pick up print copies of self-published books.

4. Market Share and Visibility

Martin-Smith’s research also led him to find that “[a]s of late 2012, electronic books had [only] 22% of the total market,” which means “4 out of 5 books sold is still a print book.” Based on that information, one might point out that both traditionally published and self-published books can be in print. However, the reality of the situation is that traditionally published print books have way more visibility than self-published books.

As noted by Milan, Amazon search algorithms favor traditionally published works, so that when you search for XYZ, the relevant works that come up first are probably not self-published. On top of that, self-published books priced the same as traditionally published works tend to sell fewer copies (likely, whether it is an ebook or in print), which most self-publishing authors deal with by lowering the price.

Additionally, it’s simply more difficult to get a bookstore (particularly smaller, independent ones) to bear the risk of carrying a self-published book. Keith Martin-Smith notes as much, and Adam Poswolski admits the same.

5. Likelihood of Profit

I’ve recently come across blogs which wrote about how it’s very unlikely to get picked up by a traditional publisher, considering the statistics and the amount of competition. This was a pseudo-argument to just go ahead with self-publishing. However, that argument does not take into account the statistics concerning profits for self-published authors.

According to Martin-Smith, “50% of self-published authors make less than $500 on their book” and “10% of self-published authors earn 75% of the money [from all self-published books].” Only a small portion of people make substantial profits from self-published work.

So, if you think self-publishing will yield more profit in a shorter time span, you’re pretty much wrong. It takes a lot of time to get traditionally published and to receive whatever success you might have on that route. However, to be financially successful as a self-published author, it probably takes just as much time and work (only you have to be accountable for yourself and scrutinize your own work rather than rely on your publisher to do it for you).

On her post, Milan points out that you can make “good money” as a self-published author, but it takes a lot of time to climb that ladder.

6. Marketing

With traditional publishing, the publisher presumably will help you with marketing, which varies from situation to situation. With self-publishing, it’s fairly well understood that marketing and publicity is entirely up to the author.

Milan admittedly was not good with marketing, but says she addressed the problem with a skill she says all self-publishing writers need: “good judgment.” As a self-publishing author, you have to be able to recognize what you’re lacking (e.g., marketing, SEO, graphic design) and be smart about filling those gaps (i.e., find and pay for professional help).

7. Control of Content, and Book and Cover Design

One of the most touted benefit of self-publishing is the level of control the author has over everything: the content of the book itself, the design of the book and its cover, and licensing rights. With the chance that you might kind of suck at stuff (e.g., cover design), it might be good to have the publisher’s team handle these things for you; or, in the case of self-publishing, have your hand-picked team of freelancers take care of it. Natalie Whipple, somewhat of a self-publishing advocate, suggests to dish out at least $1500 for “an average quality” first novel, with most of the money going to a freelance editor.

Conclusion

All in all, I think it’s best for me to try traditional publishing first. I’m not entirely sure with my ability to market myself and my novel, and I do want my manuscript to go through the gauntlet so it comes out closer to perfect once all is said and done. Of course, if the gauntlet is too unforgiving for my current manuscript, I definitely won’t be ashamed to self-publish it (and try to traditionally publish another manuscript, which I’ve already started working on). If I self-publish, I’ll just have to make sure to find a good editor, cover designer, and what-not.

As I talked about in my last posts, I’ve only sent out a few agent queries (six, I think) two months ago while I had a fairly early draft of my manuscript and a poorly drafted query. I’ll be heading to my first writers’ conference soon and I hope to get some good feedback to work into my novel and help me find an agent and publisher.

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29 thoughts on “Traditional Publishing VS Self-Publishing: Considerations for a First Novel

  1. On the subject of book quality, I’ve also been wondering lately about the virtues of freelance editing. The main issue I have is similar to the second point from Martin-Smith that you bring up: in the world of self-publishing, the author is the editor’s boss rather than the other way around, which strikes me as being the wrong way around. Granted, I can’t back up said issue with any actual experience, but still.

    In any case, it’s clear from this post that you’ve spent a great deal of time thinking all this through, which is more than can be said for a lot of people. Best of luck getting your novel published, however you ultimately end up doing it.

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    • Thanks. I guess when you’re basically your own boss, as with self-publishing, it pays to be somewhat of a perfectionist. It’d be rather irksome to publish a book and spot a typo halfway into chapter one.

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  2. Great post! Thanks for marshaling the arguments for both sides. Self publishing is quick to announce its benefits, but rarely do we hear as much about the costs of what real authors pay to get a high quality product.

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    • Of the half dozen queries I sent two months ago, none were by snail mail. I just went after folks who accepted (or even preferred) email queries. I’ll probably have to cast a wider net when I begin querying in earnest.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. There is a new option as well (which they’ll probably discuss at your conference) called partner publishing, a bit of a hybrid of self and traditional publishing. I’m still researching it myself, but it looks interesting – essentially, you get a little of the handholding of traditional publishing (though you have to pay for it) and get to keep the rights to your book and have a little more control over things like title & cover – which you wouldn’t have in traditional publishing. Interesting concept, though potentially very pricey.

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    • I’ve seen the term hybrid publishing here and there, but I assumed it was an author who was traditionally published for some works, and self-published for others (contract with the publisher permitting, hopefully). And, yeah, I think the conference I’m attending is scheduled to have some workshops on the topic.

      I’m looking forward to all the learning and what-not to be had.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A.D., great contrast and lots of research. I’m impressed. Having a lot of writing friends and always wanting to see their works published, whether or not they sell a great deal, is one of my biggest happy things. Here on WP is a great way to start. Me, I started on Gather (now closed to us writers), asked and received great critics—a great way to improve. My self published book was taken off the shelves by myself. It really was horrible. That I owe and am grateful for writing sites such as these.

    I’ll be watching for more from you.

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  5. Very interesting and imformative. I have friends and family who have published tradtionally and, though they’ve had success going the traditional route they see some advantages to self-publishing. Some more so than others. Something I always found repugnant about traditional publishing is that all the books I will ever get access to is decided by a handful of people. Mostly twats in suits who I probably don’t like. It is a grotesque amount of power in very few hands. And traditional publishers have been gouging consumers for decades charging way too high a price for the product. But e-publishing is still the wild west. The shift from paper has been great for consumers but time will tell what the long term benifits to authors will be.

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    • You don’t like stuffy people in suits and you don’t like Jesse Pinkman, but you like criminal hybrids of the two: Mike, Saul, and Gus. You’re an interesting person, Callaghan.

      Anyway, we’ll see what happens to authors and consumers once the dust settles.

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      • I’m going to tell my wife you called me interesting. She has a very different mode of description for me. I say in the next ten years the literary landscape is going to look much different. And the only good excuse to wear a suit is if you’re a criminal mastermind or a dead eyed killer.

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  6. Although I’ve been writing my entire life, and I self published a cookbook, I’ve just begun writing my blog. As I return to writing, I’m finding I’m rediscovering a passion I put on the back burner long ago. Your message was very informative and useful to newbies like me. I guess everyone thinks they are unique and have a new story to tell! 🙂

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  7. Thank you for this well-reasoned assessment of this raging debate! And thank you for following WordBowlbyMsCharlieS.com (hope to see a word suggestion from you), which introduced me to your writing! Best wishes to you as you continue writing your novel, and I look forward to reading of your progress here!

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  8. Hey, A.D., our best to you, no kidding. We (Filmbell) attempt (often failing) to be unconcerned with anything that gets in the way of communication and/or achievement. We also apprehend that the cost-ratios of life aren’t always measured in dollars or readership, but via more personal areas of satisfaction. One’s vision of the world is among these. The investment in editorial and publishing expertise is worthwhile, for anyone, as such a viewpoint and expertise always require a pro. Try to make a cabinet, if one isn’t a cabinetmaker.

    But, if you wish to go it alone, just because you don’t or can’t spend the money, in order to get your message-words out there to be (maybe) hammered by those who would do so, that’s okay too. In fact, it’s more than okay, because some of the amateur cabinets turn out to be really something, whoo!

    Today’s inexpensive ability to self-publish–which has always been around, for the well-to-do–is nothing but a blessing to everyone who reads and/or writes. We, at Filmbell, do not currently “self-publish,” as such, but we maintain a pair of blogs, one of which is the length of an epic (nonfiction) book, which we do not believe to be rotten. But the possibility of publishing such a mammoth historical book–in its current, fully-fledged form, via traditional channels, between covers–is not sizable. But if a gratis blog-presentation, however inadequate, is swiftly available–as a living portfolio of the book’s commercial-editorial possibilities, as it were, complete with illustrations and all–we should compare this situation, and its potential, to the gridlocked-and-gatekeepered publishing universe of 1975.

    We haven’t made a nickel yet, on our titanic blog-book, but some 2014 people are aware of our book’s exciting subject, who in 2013 might not have been. That’s the name of the game, in nonfiction, and it’s beautiful. And incidentally, every lit agent (even publisher) in the world prospectively has our overgrown book, with its imperfections and implications, at their fingertips, and sans postage. So who knows? Having one’s recent book available (and completed!) breeds an inner positivity about one’s next book, if nothing else. Today’s world of self-publishing-and-blogging is uplifting for writers everywhere. For example, here we are, on YOUR blog, just typing away, taking up your blogspace…

    Parenthetically, who can gauge the historical value of these “first-draft” self-publications, especially regarding those books which have proceeded to be published (traditionally), but in some edited or streamlined form? What if we had such “self-published” versions by Tolstoy? Manuscript materials are vital records, from a Tolstoy, but there’s something different about the “self-published” statement of 2014, don’t you think?

    We reckon that self-publishing can be a satisfying road toward traditional publishing, where some money might eventually ensue, or one might even grab a substantial advance, making one’s publishing endeavor pay (if indirectly). Or self-pub can be (far more likely) an end in itself, you do what’s necessary to have the book exist somewhere, achievement is its own reward, a gift to the world.

    It’s great to find your book on Amazon, or in your local library, but it has always been the case, and is still, that nearly any other line of work should be considered, for pure moneymaking, rather than authorial. But, if it weren’t that way, everyone would be an author, everyone would then swiftly starve. Ergo, too-healthy paychecks, for writers as a whole, are socially undesirable. We jest, but not entirely.

    While we’ve glanced onto the subject, our small summertime praise to our world’s farmers and/or “agribusiness.” As songwriter John Fogerty wrote, “Who’ll take the leaf, and grow it to the tree?/Don’t look now, it ain’t you or me.”

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  9. Hi and first thank you for the follow!

    This post was good and useful, although a lot of the information wasn’t new to me. Still, it was interesting to hear some numbers on how much self-published writers have spent on their work. I’m currently just a few steps away from self-publishing (steps basically being the cover design and finishing touches) so I’ve made the choice between self/traditional a while back already, but these are good things to consider for future works. I like your writing style and I’ll definitely read more of your posts when I find the time, so keep up the good work!

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  10. I appreciate this post. I sent out MANY query letters-surprisingly all were very positive and suggested I try a different publisher saying the manuscript wasn’t right for them, but not to give up. Alas, it is time consuming, and in the factor of human age – I am not quite sure how long I have left – with luck a decade! So I chose to self-publish. At least I will leave a few books as a legacy to my grandchildren and children! My son designed fabulous covers, though finding someone GOOD to proof has been a challenge. Anyway, thanks for all the positives and negatives! Enjoyed reading.

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  11. Hi, A. D.! I love the blog and this post in particular, as I went through a very similar thought process. I pursued traditional publishing for three years with dozens of agent queries and submissions, as well as direct slush pile submissions. And though I received positive buzz and was kept in the maybe/maybe not pile for a long time with one major house, I was never picked up. Now, that could have been because my book, A SWORD INTO DARKNESS, was crop, but several beta readers and editors assured me it was not. I used that 3 years to polish the book, rewrite and edit, ostensibly to make it a better prospect for traditional publishing, but it also served to ready it for self/indie publishing (I prefer the term indie because of the negative connotations associated with old style self publishing before POD and ebooks). I was going to let the manuscript lie fallow, but a friend helped me go indie under his author-group label Stealth Books. Now, 35,000 copies later at a competitive price point and 70% royalties this year, 4.4 stars in 300+ reviews, I both wish I’d gone indie sooner and glad I waited because spending the time on crafting it after completion undoubtedly helped it find an audience. If I had been picked up, I would likely be mid-list, and might have sold more in print with their distribution channels, but I probably would not have earned as much, though I would have earned back my advance and thus been a good bet for another contract on my next work. As it is, my success as an indie could help me break in to traditional publishing as that success shows I have a market where they were unwilling to give me a chance before. Whether I go that way next or start with indie next time, some things you should be aware with traditional publishing if you do get picked up. Authors are expected to participate and drive marketing, especially social media, where they were not before. And everything about your future depends on earning out that advance within your first 6 months to a year. I know this from anecdotes relayed to me by another author who had been going Stealth but got picked up by Tor just before finalizing. He was also very frustrated by the editing process, lack of input on the cover and marketing plan, and by the fact that he has to sell 4 times as many books to do as well as I have done by myself. But, he maybe gets to be on the shelf at Barnes and Noble, where that is very unlikely to ever happen for me unless my current or next book gets picked up traditionally at some point. It bugs me, but paying off a number of bills and developing my own fan following has assuaged most of that. Best of luck with either route you choose, but please don’t deny yourself the indie route should your traditional efforts fail. Best of luck!

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  12. Pingback: Punching Self-Publishing Stigma in the Face | A.D. Martin

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