When I speak with writers about their publishing dreams, inevitably the question of whether to self-publish or go with a traditional publishing house pops up. Sometimes, after a couple of rejections from publishers (or agents), writers get so frustrated with the waiting times involved that they want to self-publish just to get their work out there.
But if you self-publish a book without any marketing or social media understanding, you might get a rude awakening when you ‘launch’ your book only to sell a singular copy (or worse, none).
Similarly, writers who are thrilled to be picked up by a traditional publisher can get a rude awakening about the financial side of things when they learn how book advances work.
Here’s a very basic overview of the pros and cons of both options. I need to caveat both of these by saying that in 2018, both traditionally and self-published authors need to be active online. It’s just where we do things, now. You can’t just sit in your garret and write – you need to promote your writing, too.
1: The kudos of the publisher name, and learning from the best
Aside from the kudos of having a traditional publisher behind you, when you submit the completed manuscript, you get your very own editor (s), which is almost like getting your very own writing and editing teacher, devoted solely to bettering you and your work. Even though the manuscript may be in its second or tenth draft by the time it’s accepted, you will go through at least one structural edit, and then a copy-edit and a proofread before it’s published. Sometimes you’ll have more than one structural edit, depending on the state of the manuscript.
The editors who work in-house at traditional publishers know their stuff. They usually work on three or four manuscripts at a time, and their passion and profession is how to get a reader turning the pages and all the little details and discrepancies which may arise when someone reads your book.
I can’t express how much I learned from the editors I was given at Allen and Unwin and then Scribe, and this was my absolute favourite part of being traditionally published. I learnt so much about writing from being traditionally published.
I learnt about story structure, my own writing habits and unique nuances, I learnt how to reflect on my own versions of stories and events, and how to look at my own work with the objectivity of a reader.
2: You get to be a writer
Probably the biggest reason you’d choose to go with a traditional publisher over self-publishing your manuscript is that you get to just focus on writing the best book you can.
Aside from covering the editing, they’ll also be paying for the cover design, the marketing collateral (eg. Posters or book launch material), the distribution (into bookshops and online on kindle etc), the publicity, the foreign distribution, the printing costs and the typesetting. They have entire teams devoted to just one section of the publishing game – teams that can all teach you so much.
They have the infrastructure in place so that all you have to focus on is creating the best book you possibly can – and then, of course, to help with the publicity and marketing when it’s publication time (which is also part of being a writer).
3: Things bubble away without you
When you submit your book to a publisher, and you’ve gone through all the final proofs, sent out advance copies and done all your events and promotional activities, it’s wonderful to know that it’s all going to tick along without you. It may get picked up for translation or audio rights, or it may be shopped around at a book fair, or something else that your publisher will be doing without you, because they’ve invested in the book. It’s wonderful to check your emails and find that your book has been shortlisted in a competition, or won an award, or is being translated into another language – and these all come as delightful surprises because someone else is working on it without you having to do anything!
Like I said before – being published traditionally allows you to focus on being a writer.
1: Traditional Publishing is very old-fashioned
The traditional publishing model is so old-fashioned (ie. it hasn’t changed in over a hundred years!), and publishers are known for being risk averse. This means, unless you have an agent, or a really good sales hook (eg. a huge media interest or similar), it can be hard to get anyone to even look at your manuscript. We’ve all heard about treasures plucked from the slush-pile, but the truth is, it’s quite rare.
Once your manuscript has been signed on, you also have very little control over how much of a marketing budget they’ll give your book. If you’re lucky, you get an Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine-sized marketing budget (said to have been in the hundreds of thousands), but most authors get publicists who are working on five to twenty titles at a time, which means you’ll have to be very proactive with the marketing, and meet them half-way (by retweeting, regramming, putting yourself forward for festivals and events, etc etc).
2: Traditional Publishing is very slow
The time that passes as you wait for a response on your manuscript, to then getting an offer of publication, to a contract and the actual date of publication could be years, if not decades. Publishers decide their lists well in advance, so even if you get an offer of publication in October, for example, your book may not be ready for the shops until December of the following year, or the year after that. You also have no choice in the month or date of publication chosen by your publisher. Keep this in mind if your topic is timely.
So if your topic is really timely, (or, like the beautiful Eileen Kramer, who at 104 is crowd-funding her self-published memoir!) you might choose to self publish.
3: Traditional Publishing is financially strange
By this, I mean the book publishing model is stuck in the 1800s. An author will get an advance, based on a predicted print run (say, a $15 000 advance for 6000 copies), and it’s not until that first print run sells, that the author will see any royalties. Remember that the publisher is bearing all the printing and distribution costs, so you will only be getting 10% of each book sale.
In the US, advances are generally bigger (due to the population), but you need to remember that you only receive a third of the advance on signature of the contract, possibly another third on submission of the manuscript, and the final amount will come when your book hits the shops. So even if you’re getting a $100 000 advance (which is huge and rare in publishing circles), it may come spread over the course of three or four years.
The other reason traditional publishing is financially strange, is that bookshops operate on a sale-or-return policy. So, in effect, you may look at your book sales in the first month and be thrilled to discover that bookshops have ordered hundreds of copies of your book – but if they don’t sell in the allotted time (generally 3 months), the bookshop can then return them to the publisher and get a full refund.
No other business operates on such a strange full refund policy, and I remember discovering it when Love & Other U-Turns came out, and feeling quite shocked. It’s no risk to the bookshops, but huge risk to the publisher. This is why publishers want a safe bet, an author who will help to market and promote their book, and they’ll look to see if you’re active on social media and may even ask you about marketing angles when your manuscript is still at proposal stage.
1: Ease, speed and control
Amazon has made self-publishing via e-books and print-on-demand extraordinarily easy. Once you log onto the service you can see where to find a cover designer, an editor, a proofreader and even get a quote in a matter of minutes on exactly how much it will all cost.
Once you have the file in the correct format, you simply submit it to Amazon with all the right text, and bingo – you could be published within the hour.
The other thing is, if you engage a beautiful cover designer, and spend a bit more on the layout and look and feel of your book, you get to choose how the final product will look. If you love working on the design side of things, you might really enjoy self-publishing.
A lot of people don’t know that with traditional publishing, the author rarely gets a say in the cover design.
2: Better financial returns
Unlike the 15% you’ll get on each book sale (AFTER you’ve earned out your advance) from a traditional publisher, with self-publishing an e-book on Amazon, you get 70% of each sale.
The print-on-demand option they offer is also very lucrative – if a customer orders a paperback, you pay $5.63, Amazon takes 30%, and you get the rest, so you’re still making around 60% of the purchase price. This is also a great option if you want to purchase a heap of printed copies to take and sell at events, for example.
If you have the manuscript (and the cover design), you could have a book on Amazon by the afternoon. If someone purchases your book, Amazon transfers the money into your account within the week.
With traditional publishing, royalties generally come in six-monthly increments.
If you have a niche market, a large social media following, don’t mind the sounds of all the other little details you’ll need to cover and really enjoy marketing and promotion, you might be better off self-publishing.
1: You have to be a Jack/Jill-of-all-trades
From figuring out how to get the files ready, to understanding SEO keywords and the correct category files for the Amazon listing, to marketing the book, engaging a designer for the cover, even figuring out distribution and how to write a press release (if you want the media to review it), you don’t have a team of experts as invested in the final product as you.
You really need to think of everything – if you forget to do something (or do it terribly), it won’t look very good and it won’t sell. You need to be the marketing and sales department, the design department, and the tech whiz.
Also, if you want to be stocked in an actual physical bookshop, you will need to be your own distributor.
2: You cover all the costs
From cover design to editing and proofreading, even if you’ve written the book, you’ll be outlaying about $1000 minimum to get your book ready for Amazon. You’ll also be paying in advance for any printed copies – and having to keep them somewhere.
Amazon offers a free cover template you can choose, but these are so ugly you’d be mad to choose the free option. Likewise , don’t be tempted to cut costs by skipping an editor or proofreader.
3: You MUST be a marketing proBecause Amazon have made it so simple to self-publish on KDP, it’s likely your title will be in a group with about 1 600 000 others. How will you make sure it stands out? Unlike the immediate kudos you’d have from being traditionally published (ie. People know it will be of a certain quality), how will you show people that your book is beautiful, and they should invest in its purchase?
You need a clear marketing strategy, and you need to think about what would make you happiest – being published online (and getting your book out there, fast), or the learning curve of working with an editor and being stocked in a bookshop.
To Sum Up:
Are you patient and determined to learn from the best? Go for a traditional publisher.
Are you a marketing pro, with a captive audience already, not interested in getting backed by a publisher, and happy to outlay costs? Go the self-publishing route.