Monday, January 08, 2007

Self-Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing

I seem to be developing a theme here this week: talking about the pitfalls facing beginning writers.

Maybe it's the new year, but we've had an influx of newbies on the writers' groups to which I belong. The thing that caught my attention was their willingness (nay, their EAGERNESS) to jump in and spend thousands of dollars to self-publish their work the minute the manuscripts are complete.

Call me cautious, call me cheap, but that just wasn't an option for me when I started out. Then, as I learned more about publishing, it became even less of an option.

One of the newbies made the throw-away comment yesterday that traditional publishing wasn't all that different from self-publishing. Both kinds of writers had to start from scratch promoting their work so why not shortcut the process and avoid wasting time looking for an agent/publisher by simply self-pubbing?

This post will explain why.

I can list a bunch of reasons, but--in the interest of time--I'm only going to talk about four major ones.

Let's get our terms straight first. In this post, when I say "traditional," I'm talking about print publishing through a traditional royalty-paying press. When I say "self-publishing," I'm talking about any time an author PAYS for the service (whether ahead of the actual printing process or post-print to pay for the finished books). I don't care if the press claims to be "royalty paying." If the author pays a dime prior to receiving a royalty, it's self-publishing.

For the purposes of this discussion, I am leaving out electronic publishing, which is a legitimate and viable industry separate from either of these options.

1) Why go with a traditional publisher? Because of the direction the money flows. In traditional publishing, the money flows FROM the publisher TO the author. In self-publishing, the money flows FROM the author TO the printing press (please note: I deliberately said printing press, not publisher).

In traditional publishing, the publisher's client is the reader who will purchase the finished product. In self-publishing, the printing press' client is the author. That's a HUGE distinction. When the reader is your client, you're concerned about the quality of the writing and the quality of the physical product. If either is sub-standard, the books don't sell, you--the publisher--don't recoup your expenses and your publishing house eventually goes out of business.

When the author is your client, you're concerned only about how the product looks. You don't care if the writing is crap as long as your client--the author--is satisfied with it. Whether the book sells or not doesn't matter to you because you get paid either way. Your business is safe.

2) Remember that newbie's comment to the effect that authors under both business models need to promote their books? While that statement is true, the authors under both models aren't starting out from the same place.

This is because traditional publishers issue catalogs each season with their latest offerings. Those catalogs are essentially the ordering list from which the two biggest markets--bookstores and libraries--make their selections. Both markets trust traditional publishers to vet manuscripts for quality.

Self-pubbed authors start off far behind in this respect. The greed of so-called vanity presses that print any manuscript for which they are paid has poisoned the pool, leaving doubt as to the quality of the finished products. Many bookchains and libraries refuse to consider and/or accept self-pubbed books.

There are a couple of exceptions to this. A bookstore or library will often accommodate a local author. And, in recent months, presses specializing in self-pubbed manuscripts have begun signing agreements with bookstores to carry their books--for a price. Of course, the author must pay for this service.

3) Newbie authors are sometimes unaware that traditional publishers sell stock to bookstores at discount WITH a guarantee that the stores may return any unsold stock for credit. This means that bookstores can gamble on unknown authors--safe in the knowledge that they can return any books that don't sell. This advantage should not be underestimated.

4) Another weapon in the traditional publishers' promotional arsenal is the cooperative advertising allowance. In essence, this is a rebate offered to bookstores of between 1% and 4% of the NET purchases made by the store. These rebates are not offered in cash. Instead, they are used to promote the publisher's books in that store. Co-op money often pays for those tables or stand-alone displays you see at the front of a store. This is both a powerful incentive for bookstores as well as a promotional opportunity for authors. For more information on this subject, see my post of 11/7/06.

It is a mistake to underestimate the promotional advantages traditional publishers offer to their authors, or to underestimate the size of the task a self-pubbed author undertakes when s/he attempts to promote his/her work alone.

A often-repeated estimate is that the average self-published author sells 100 books--mostly to family and friends.

There are NO shortcuts. If your writing is good, you'll attract the attention of an agent or publisher based on its merits. Focus on the writing. Take workshops, join critique groups and keep querying. And don't give up. Don't ever give up.


Dorothy said...

Great, great points. There's an untapped market, though, and I don't think you mentioned it (sorry if you did and I didn't see it), but that's the self-published ebook author. All the money doesn't not go to the printer as the printer isn't even involved. With this class of publishing, all the money goes to the author. I believe it's the only method of publishing where this happens.

Maya Reynolds said...

Great point, Dorothy.

Because I didn't want to confuse the subject, I mentioned that I was not addressing electronic publishing because it is a very different animal. In my mind e-pubbing is an industry entire to itself with very different rules and concerns.

Thanks for writing.

Tory B. Hanlen said...

Great article! It gets right to the point. One thing newbies and others tend to overlook is that self-publishing is a business. I try to convey to everyone the importance of treating it like a business. Unfortunately, Vanity Press does sour the grapes a bit for those of us who do take our work "very" serious. What is more unfortunate is that people do not realize the cost involved in going from manuscript to market. If anyone is serious about being an author or writer, self-publishing is a great way to go. The advantages outweigh the disadvantages if you are willing to work hard at it. It should not be taken lightly. See my article on Self-Publishing: What it takes to go from Manuscript to Market.

Marie Tuhart said...


I've been thinking about this all day and I have to agree with you. You should be paid for your work to be published, not pay someone else.

While I've had some poetry published, where all the proceeds went to charity, that was my choice. I had a contract that stated my work was published, and that I chose to have the money from the sale go to a charity.

I have never considered self-publishing for some of the reasons you stated.

While some may consider self-publishing the way to go, I don't.