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.
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.
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.
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.