Pros and Cons of Self Publishing and Traditional Publishing


The prevalent (and narrow) thinking of “Self Publishing vs Traditional Publishing”

There is no hundred foot wall between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Choosing one does not preclude the other, even if you feel like you’re currently on the outs with traditional publishing.” -Nathan Bransford, Traditional vs Self Publishing is False

Do a Google search for information on Self Publishing and you’ll likely find a score of blog posts and articles championing the self publication while condemning the traditional method. An interesting thought process given the fact that only a year or two ago self publishing was widely dismissed as vanity publishing or the remnants of the literary slush pile.

This new, and very vocal movement of writers would love for you to believe the only correct path to publication in the digital age is self publication, and only a fool would succumb to the traditional method. They are sure to point out instances where well known authors leave their traditional publishers to take advantage of the DIY approach for the potential rewards it can yield.

Photo by joe.ross

Photo by joe.ross

But for each of these cases, the opposite case is also true, where self published writers happily get picked up traditional publishers to fame and fortune.

In all likelihood, neither of the scenarios will apply to you.  Self publishing isn’t the one size fits all solution to modern day publishing just as traditional publishers are no longer are the only road to success.

Instead these two options create a realm of choice for writers, enabling them to seek out the fit they want.  Consider carefully which path you take before you spend all your time on a method you wont be happy with.

The Benefits and Fallbacks of Traditional Publishing

Today, major publishers only have three distinct advantages over the self-published author: the ability to pay an advance, the ability to get your books onto store shelves, and the prestige afforded to authors talented, skilled, or lucky enough to enter the inner circle.” – Scott Nicholson, New Vanity Publishing

Quality – Because there are hoops to jump through, traditionally published books tend to be higher quality than the vast majority of self published books. These books have been filtered through agents, scrutinized by editors, and otherwise primed throughout the process. So if you make it through this process, your book is likely to be better for it.

On the flip side, it’s much more difficult to get traditionally published, especially if your work is seen as “risky”.  Publishers today are quick to avoid risk in favor of tried and true writers who almost guarantee profit.

Time – The above process can take years. From the time you finish your manuscript, pitch it to agents who then pitch it to publishers who in turn require time to edit, produce, distribute and otherwise administor your book, you may be waiting 1-3 years. Worse yet, you spend six months to a year finding an agent, but never find a publisher, thus your book sits in limbo. Many authors who write about timely material often express their frustration at the amount of time it takes before their book finally hits the shelves as their work becomes less relevant.

Money – This is a complicated issue. The publisher will often pay a writer an advance, and it’s nice to receive that money upfront.  What kind of advance can the average writer expect?

A New York Times essay by Michael Meyer explains:

Advances are seldom specified authoritatively. Amounts are coyly described like cigarette brands — the “mid-fives,” the “low sixes,” the “mild sevens.”

Take a reported six-figure advance, Roy Blount Jr., the president of the Authors Guild, said in an e-mail message. “That may mean $100,000, minus 15 percent agent’s commission and self-employment tax, and if we’re comparing it to a salary let us recall (a) that it does not include any fringes like a desk, let alone health insurance, and (b) that the book might take two years to write and three years to get published. . . . So a six-figure advance, while in my experience gratefully received, is not necessarily enough, in itself, for most adults to live on.” -Michael Meyer, About that Advance

When it comes to royalties, they are much lower than when self publishing, generally anywhere between 7-15% (compair to 30-90% for self published books & ebooks). But publishers also have the ability to get your book stocked in brick and mortar bookstores (which is very difficult to do when self publishing), market your book for you (which can range from stellar to lackluster depending on the perceived potential of your book), which can potentially increase your sales to make up for the difference.

Control – When you sell your book to a publisher, you may lose control of just about all aspects of how they handle your book. You will likely have little to no say in the cover design, style, marketing, and other aspect of how your book is handled.

Convenience – Many writers share the mindset that they don’t want to be in charge of all aspects of their book, they just want to write. Traditional publishing enables the writer to focus on writing while the publisher does all the heavy lifting.

The Death Clock – While a traditional publisher can get your book into brick and mortar stores, your book only has a few weeks to begin making sales before it is removed from the shelves and returned to the publisher for a full discount. EBooks are on the digital shelves for as long as the writer wants them to be, giving them much more time to be successful. A traditional house will likely publish you book in print and ebook formats, but “the death clock” is worth bearing in mind.

The Benefits and Fallbacks of Self Publishing

Joe: ‘You had six-figure and seven-figure deals. Logic dictates anyone offered a deal like that should leap at it.’

Barry: ‘You wouldn’t.’

Joe: ‘But I never had the treatment you had from legacy publishers. I would walk away from a big deal now, most certainly, because I have two years of data proving I can do better on my own.’

‘However, what if a NYT bestseller were offered, say, half a million dollars for two books?’

‘Or, more specifically, let’s say you were offered that.’

‘You’d take it. Right?’

Barry: ‘Well, I guess not… ;)’

Joe: ‘So… no BS… you were just offered half a mil, and you turned it down?’

Barry: ‘Yes.’

Joe: ‘Holy shit!’

-Ebooks and Self-Publishing – A Dialog Between Authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath

Quality – With self publishing there is no barrier for entry. It’s up to you do decide if your book is good enough for release or not. A self publishing company wont, because they don’t care.

If you pay for their editing service, don’t take their in house editors too seriously. They aren’t going to put up any walls to block your book from being published, even if its in your best interest, because they are in the business of selling a high volume of authors rather than a high volume of books per author. In fact, the average self published book sells around 100-150 copies.

Because of this, most self published books are poor quality, and poor quality books won’t sell.

Work/Marketing – There is a lot of work involved in releasing a successful self published book. Every aspect of the process rests upon your shoulders from editing, formatting, cover design, distribution and more. Of course you can pay for help, but the costs can add up, some people paying $7000+.

Then again, there are lots of services who can help along the way, many are inexpensive or free. If you are willing the embrace the DIY attitude, you can still release a high quality book for very little cost.

And then there’s the marketing, which can be a job in itself.  When the book is completed, how are you going to get it in front of your readers, strangers, and convince them to sell?

You have to be a relentless self-promoter. Unfortunately, a lot people just don’t have the stomach or time for it.” -David Carnoy, Self-Publishing a book: 25 things you need to know

Freedom/Control – You are in charge of every aspect of your book, so you can do whatever you want with it. Of course, this sort of freedom can be a double edged sword in the hands of an amateur.

Money – Royalties are very high in the self publishing arena where you can make anywhere between 30-90% of your total sales. This means you can sell many less copies to make more money than if you took the traditional route. But there is no advance, and often times it can take years before a self published book begins to pick up steam.

Decide which path is right for you

Before you jump head first into the realm of self publication, make sure you consider what you want out of your publishing career.  Weigh the pros and cons of what each method offers you against what you are looking for in a writing career.

If you want to be hands off with the production and marketing of your book, then the self publishing road is not for you. If, however, you have a bit of an entrepreneurial edge and are willing to embrace the DIY attitude, then self publishing may suite you well.

What are your thoughts?  Are you a die hard fan of traditional publishing, or do you think self publishing is the future?  Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments.

This post is part of a series of self publication.  Read the intro, or Self Publishing Begins with Great Writing

Soooo... What do you think?

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