Traditional- vs. Self-publishing

A major decision for anyone who decides to write today is whether to take the traditional route or to self-publish. There are many fact-based pros and cons to both, as well as many aspects that can be a pro or a con based on personal priorities.

Traditional publishing

Overview

Traditional publishing is the ‘old school’ route that works pretty much the same for decades. In this route, the publisher bears most of the cost-heavy parts of the process but also takes a major cut of the profits. This way also stretches the pre-publishing ‘phase’ by having to look for agents or publishers in your genre and often having to build a social network presence beforehand to increase your chancess of success.

Advantages:

  • Bookstore and library reach
  • Major expenses (editing, cover, ISBN,…) covered by the publisher
  • Possibility of a major launch promo
  • Reviews by professional critics or journals
  • Global reach (translations, possibly movies) in case of major success
  • Possibly better chances to appear in contests/prizes
  • Still seen as a ‘quality check’ by some

Some, though, are a bit muddy. After all, what do you as an author care for more? A critic’s opinion or the opinion of readers?

As for translations and movies – that’s still the stuff for the few best of the best – but should you get there, a publishing company will have more contacts than a self-published author.

Disadvantages:

  • Lower royalties (~10% for print, ‘up’ to 20-25% for e-books)
  • Giving up the rights, loss of creative freedom (may be forced to change the story to better fit the market)
  • Overpriced e-books ($10+, sometimes even around $20 – a rip-off, if you ask me)
  • Querying is a major time sink and possibly frustrating
  • Poor use of modern technologies (metadata, search optimalization, categories,…)
  • Social networking demands
  • Only one chance (weak post-launch)

As for giving up the copyright (even if temporarily) – this is a danger in case of poor sales as the publisher might not be willing to give up the rights (and thus allow the writer to go to the next ‘door’). Overpricing e-books is also an issue that might antagonize some readers – e-books have (almost) no production costs so why should they cost as much as print books? To fill someone else’s pockets?

Traditional publishers may also demand having some degree of following already – which further shuffles more of their work (marketing) to the author. And those may get quite specific (another thing to research).

As for post-launch… traditional publishers are on schedules and thus once a book leave the spotlight, their focus is on pushing the next one. Thus, if you don’t break the bank during the launch month, there might be little will for the publisher to push your book.

Subject to opinion:

  • Still a lot to do yourself
  • Deadlines
  • Focus on print books
  • Covers

Starting with the first… internet had made writing more accessible, which increases the amount of stories heading either way. Thus, even authors striving for traditional publishing have to put (almost) as much work as self-published authors when it comes to editing (and betas). That, coupled with the possible demands on specific social media presence, may deter some people from the traditional route (additional aspect where their choice is suppressed).

Deadlines may help some stay on track but can be stressfull once you hit a rock wall solving some issue with your story.
Focusing on pront books is also a personal preference – some readers are collectors and the sight of a full shelf is something they won’t give up. Others may see e-books as the evolution and future – or an eco-friendly way (as printing, transporting, and storing print books is energy- and resource-demanding).

Finally, trad-publisher covers seem to be quite bland compared to the images on self-published books (though this is, again, down to personal taste).

Self-publishing

Overview

In the 20th century, self-publishing existed mostly as a way for political dissidents to spread books that’ve fallen out of favor with the ruling parties.
With the growing spread of e-books, digital self-publishing became a viable route for authors from all around the world to share their stories directly with the readers.

Due to the ‘do it yourself’, there’s much beyond writing itself the authors have to learn (and master) and difficult decisions to make about… pretty much every single part of the process.

Advantages:

  • Full creative control
  • High control in the ‘business side’
  • Higher % royalties (up to 70-80% on e-books)
  • (Usually) cheaper books = happier readers
  • Strong sense of community (many self-published authors are willing to share their experience)
  • Not reliant on launch

Self-publishing allows you to control your business down to every detail, though this presents many tough questions. It also allows you to experiment and adjust on the go – a flexibility trad-published authors can only dream of. Keywords, categories, price, even cover can be changed on the go. You decide when to release the book, not a publisher’s schedule. And if the launch is weak… you can give the book a push whenever you like – whether you invest $0 or $1000 into marketing is your choice.

Disadvantages:

  • Major starting expenses
  • Visibility is a tough uphill climb
  • A lot of very diverse research is almost necessary
  • Quality stigma

In traditional publishing, the publisher bears the cost of the major expenses – cover art, editing, formatting, and launch promo – as well as copyright registration and ISBN (though you don’t need that on Amazon). Self-published authors will need to bear those expenses unless they can do all the tasks themselves and while you can cut corners here and there, it’s likely to be at least a few hundred $.

For all the tasks you’re to do yourself – or even outsource – you’ll need to do a lot of research to make sure they’re done well. Otherwise, you’re risking hurting yourself even before making it to the start line.

And there still are people who believe self-published books are lower in quality. While there are many people who publish stuff not really ready, the best books can easily match (or even outmatch) traditionally-published books.

Subject to opinion:

  • No deadlines
  • Multi-pronged learning curve
  • Full responsibility (no one to blame)
  • Focus on e-books

Deadlines and print/e-book focus were touched above when talking about trad-pub, this is just from the other side. A self-published author needs to learn much but those skills may come handy (and those who learn formatting e-books the hard way can then make a side money by selling those services). And the more you learn, the more flexible you’ll be.

However, there will be no escape from the bad parts: there’s no one to blame for shortcomings but you: if the cover doesn’t attract readers, it’s your fault. Even if you outsource some tasks, it’s your job to describe your vision as best as possible, and to check whether your vision matches your target audience. The cover designer can only work with what you tell them.

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