Given the choice, which way would you go—traditional publishing or self-publishing? Each approach has its upside and downside. So, let’s take a look at each option.
Traditional or trade publishing is the long-established way to get a book in print (mostly). The first step is to submit a manuscript to one or more agents over some period of time, often getting rejections, until you, hopefully, get an acceptance by an agent.
In the second step, your agent will submit the manuscript to, again, one or more publishers, and again, getting rejections, until you, again hopefully, are offered a deal. If all goes well, you’ll be offered a contract, which may be negotiated through your agent. If you sign off on the deal, your manuscript will go through professional editing and will be published.
- Established professional team—From beginning to end, you get to work with an experience group of people, including your agent and the publishing company’s editors, designers, and maybe marketing & sales people.
- Distribution of a printed book—Getting your book in bookstores has been and continues to be the driving force of traditional publishing. How long your book stays on the bookstore shelf depends on its sales.
- Recognition & respect—If you can and do get an agent and get published through the traditional route, it means that your work has been validated by publishing “experts”. This is true regardless of how many books you actually sell. If this was you goal, congratulate yourself.
- Money—There are usually no up-front costs to you, and you may even be able to work out some kind of advance against future royalties (amount of both to be negotiated). If you’re asked for money up front, you’re probably not dealing with a traditional publisher but with some kind of vanity press.
- Time—The time from beginning to end of the traditional publishing process is often very long. The time to get and agent, then submit your manuscript to whatever number of publishers, to getting it edited and printed can take one to three years, depending on your diligence and luck. (Compare this to a well-prepared and edited electronic book, which on Amazon CreateSpace, for example, can take as little as half a day.)
- Control—When you go through the traditional route, you likely give up much of your creative control (e.g., title, cover and book design, marketing & sales plans, pricing). You also may find yourself in “discussions” with the editor assigned to your book.
- Money—Perhaps the most glaring difference between traditional- and self-publishing is the royalty. Your royalty percentage is determined after the publisher’s discounts, returns, marketing & sales expenses, and overhead are deducted from the total sales revenue. The net royalty rate for traditional publishing is usually somewhere between 7 and 10 percent (sometimes higher), depending on book format (e.g., hardback, paperback, e-book, audio).
- Marketing & sales support—Years ago, the publisher used to take on a significant amount of work in getting a book publicized (note the similarity of words). However, in today’s world, publishers expect an author to have (or create) a “platform”, through which they tell the world about their book. This platform may be an accumulated email list, regular speaking engagements, professional or collegial contacts, etc. That really increases the challenge.
Self-publishing may imply an amateurish approach or a hobby. For some people, that may be true. But for serious writers often self-identify as independent or indie authors. These people usually work with the best freelance team they can assemble, and they treat what they do as a serious business.
- Control—Indie authors retain complete control over most aspects of the publishing process, including content, editing, design, and marketing/selling. In other words, you get to choose the look and feel of your book, not someone else. You get to pick your teammates—people who will ask what you want, provide professional feedback, and abide by your joint decisions. And if you don’t like some aspect of the end result, you can easily make appropriate changes without jumping through hoops or going through a lot of red tape.
- Who drives the train?—One of the things that bothers many authors is the fact they do all the creative work, including coming up with the idea, the organization or plot, the research and development, and the writing. For that, they’re rewarded by losing creative control and being paid a small percentage of their book’s selling price. It’s not surprising that more and more authors have chosen to take charge of the project management.
- Learning—Some authors bail out after one book (or even sooner). However, the majority find the process of learning and improving their self-publishing skill and some tricks or the trade are addictive. Each book becomes easier and better than the previous one. And in spite of the often hard work, it actually becomes fun. Maybe equally important is the more direct contact they may have with their customers. Their feedback can help affect changes, or it may even suggest the content of another book.
- Time–to-market—As mentioned above, the process time of self-publishing either a printed or electronic book is hugely shorter than for traditional publishing. With a finished manuscript in hand (which, of course, has been professionally edited), it’s almost a simple as uploading your content and cover files, making any changes (often 1-5 rounds), determining all the book’s parameters (size, color or B&W, price, distribution, etc.), and hitting the publish button. The first time is a steep, but not difficult, learning curve. After that each book becomes easier, to the point that an e-book may take as little as a few hours to be ready to sell. Not only is this much more satisfying, but if your topic is “hot”, who wants to wait one or two years to get to market, when a one or two day process is now available.
- Money—For many authors, this is the clincher. Instead of getting as little as a 7 percent royalty, you can get up to 70 percent on Amazon, depending on the conditions you agree to. Selling books is still a hard way to make a living, but it can be a much larger subsidy to your other job(s).
- Rights—When you self-publish, you retain selling right in all chosen markets, and all publication rights in all chosen media (e.g., audio, movie).
- Niche market—Many self-publishing authors write for a specific and narrow audience. Most large publishing houses will usually not accept this type of book. However, by self-publishing, knowing how to approach your target market, and setting pricing commensurate with that market, you can be very successful.
- Getting into the water—If you do most everything right and have a little bit of luck on your side, you may be approached by agents and publishers. It’s also possible that if you approach them, your position in the marketplace will open more doors than otherwise.
- You’re the boss and sole employee—This often puts off people with low self-esteem or low self-starting ability. There really is a lot to learn and lots of hours to put in to get your first book self-published. Of course, there is help to be had. If you’re lucky someone with experience will offer to work with you for free or for a deep discount. On the other hand, it may be smarter to start by creating a potential to hire good freelancers for editing and design. In the long haul, you’ll get a significant return on your investment. That means that you may have to spend some time putting money aside, or else finding someone with deep pockets who’s willing to sponsor your writing effort (e.g., spouse, other family member, friend, community organization). Once you start looking around to find team members, you’ll find that there are lots of resources available. It can be fun being an entrepreneur.
- Recognition—The world still tends to recognize traditionally published authors more then indies. But more and more, self-publishing an e-book is gaining traction. Every year, the percentage of indie-published books goes up, even if they’re not sold off of bookstore shelves. They may never overtake traditionally published printed books, but they’ve certainly created a separate class of publishing.
These are two clear choices for publishing. If you publish several books, you may choose traditional publishing one time and self- publishing another time. What’s great these days it that you actually do have a choice.
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