Play nice! Self-publishing versus traditional publishing in 2012


Most every author today will have heard recommendations for and against traditional and self-publishing. Some argue that one method is inherently better or worse than the other. Some say that one is destined for failure, that it serves the wrong people, or that it provides no long-term benefit to those involved.

In a more measured opinion, picking one over the other depends on what you’re trying to achieve: Your sales expectations, long-term plans, available time, audience and other factors can influence this decision. Both methods are here to stay for a while, though it’s also true that both are in a state of major flux. This is the reason I dated this post to 2012 – I’m eager to see what the publishing industry will look like in a few years, because it’s going to change. Significantly.

A non-comprehensive comparison between self-publishing and traditional publishing is below, and while there are always exceptions, and while the rise of self-publishing and ebooks are upending the publishing industry, this is a fairly accurate pros and cons comparison for most new and mid-list authors in 2012:

  Self-Publishing Traditional Publishing
 Prestige
Lowest Author Effort
Potential Distribution
Quality
Cost
Author Control
Royalties
Rights
Longevity
Publication Speed
Publication Ease

Prestige:

In 2012, it’s still a notable thing to be published by a traditional publisher. You get the (usually) extensive traditional vetting process and the (hopefully) greater number of talented people working to produce a single book. That’s not to say there are poorly-produced traditional books, or excellent self-pubbed books, because there are. I’m talking about overall trends and the public’s perception.

Lowest Author Effort:

This encompasses a lot, and is meant to represent the amount of work that a publication house can assist with. With things like proofreading, editing, cover art, physical design, publication processing, marketing, advertising and putting books on shelves, traditional publishing has the edge.

Self-publishing requires the author to do all of the above alone (or be willing to hire out the needed jobs), and in some cases, simply doesn’t have the contacts, money and methods available to a publishing house.

Potential Distribution:

It’s difficult or impossible to get books into high-volume venues like Walmart, Barnes & Noble physical stores, most libraries and your airport of choice. In order to “qualify” for these, it’s practically a requirement you publish traditionally. Or be really, really good friends with a store manager, librarian, or airline CEO.

Quality:

In order to be published, the editor must approve your manuscript. For the editor to approve your manuscript, she must approve the sample chapters you wrote. In order to write sample chapters, the editor must approve the synopsis and outline you sent. In order to have the synopsis and outline approved, you often have to have an agent submit them. In order to get an agent… Well, books have been written about that process alone. It’s time-consuming and difficult.

This typical scenario is not the same for all publishers. Some want a fully-completed manuscript as the first step, which puts more of the workload on the agent to help the author develop it. The point: While irritating and far from perfect, the traditional publishing vetting process does raise the bar for the quality of the finished product.

Cost:

Traditional publishing shouldn’t cost anything. If anyone’s charging you money for reading feeds, editing feeds, publication costs or similar items, you’re probably being scammed. All money should flow to the author.

With self-publishing, the costs can be cheap, but there are still costs. You may hire out for proofreaders and cover artists, for example, and the author does have to pay for the pre-publication proof costs and any actual printed books. Self-publishing can be cheap or expensive, but there are definitive costs.

Author Control:

With a traditionally-published book, you give up a lot of control over the work. If you don’t like the cover art, tough. If your editor doesn’t like parts of the story and insists you change them, do it. The publisher may listen to your concerns, but (as is specified in the contract you signed), they have no legal right to do so.

In a self-published environment, the author has 100% control of the material, the design, and is responsible for the end result. 

Royalties:

The graphic above is not weighted by importance. If it was, the Royalties section would be huge. Traditional publishing royalties are around 10% per sale, 15% if you’re very lucky. With self-publishing, the author sets the price on a fixed publication cost, and can therefore decide on the royalty. A common range for self-pubbed royalties is from 30% to 70%.

Rights:

Ebook rights, audiobook rights, movie rights, foreign printing rights and more: Today, all of these rights are contracted heavily in the traditional publisher’s favor, to a 50% royalty split or more. Many publishers refuse contracts that don’t give them some or the majority of the royalties for these additional sales. Some publishers require the extra rights, but never use them. In self-publishing, the author owns 100% of these rights.

Longevity:

Traditionally-published books have a print run. Hopefully more than one. But there will eventually come a time when the book isn’t profitable, and the publisher stops printing it. In a self-published world, the author controls when a book goes out of print. And with the inclusion of print-on-demand and ebooks, many books may literally never need to go out of print – readers will keep buying if books are available.

Publication Speed:

Self-publishing is exponentially faster than traditional publishing. In traditional publishing, a normal publication wait after a final manuscript is approved is often one to two years. Self-publication’s turnaround is as fast as you can upload a manuscript, cover design, specify book details, kick off a few proofs, make tweaks, and click the Approval button. In my experience, this is often two to three weeks.

Publication Ease

Along with the speed factor above, the ease of moving a book through the self-publishing process is pretty simple. Yes, self-publishing requires a learning curve to learn about the design and printing process, but the learning curve and time requirements for traditional publishing are far steeper (just start with getting an agent, and let me know how that went).

Self-publishing and traditional publishing: They CAN get along!

In my case, the comparatively-long traditional publication process was made significantly longer due to an unexpected crisis at my publisher. However, it’s been a mixed blessing, because it’s allowed me to focus on my own self-publishing efforts: I have two books available now, and by the time the traditionally-published book is on shelves, I should have yet another completed

My experiment is to see if my traditionally-published book can cross-promote my other self-published titles, and vice versa. Worst case is “no”. Best case is that sales of one type will increase sales of another type. Everyone wins – my readers, my publisher and me.

The self-publishing and traditional publishing industries can indeed play nice together. A first step for authors is to self-educate about these drastically-changing, increasingly-complex industries. Then they don’t need to bash, ostracize or worry about self-publishing or traditional publishing. They can take advantage of both.

3 comments

  1. A. M. Hudson says:

    I am totally ‘for’ self publishing. I sent 4 query letters to agents, all of them rejected based on word count, now my book is #3 on the Amazon free list. If I went the traditional route, I’d still have my MS in a drawer, just waiting.

  2. The only item I would disagree with is Quality. In recent times, many seasoned authors are turning to self-publishing their work. They hire editors to make sure the quality is up to par. So do some unpublished authors who belong to professional writing organizations and who get tired of waiting on publishing houses to respond. The problem is getting readers to distinguish these edited, polished books from the masses.

    • I STRONGLY urge people to buy a block of their own ISBNs from Bowker and then copyright their book and the epub version for Smashwords. Copyrights are really cheap.
      That way if a book “hits” and the authorr wants to go traditional printing (half the cost of POD, but you have to have room for inventory and relationships with wholesalers–1000 book print run minimum, cost/book goes down with the size of the print run.)
      Also, IF Hollywood likes it and wants to option/buy the book/series (as I know) the standard contract requires that you own ALL rights and require a copy of your copyright docs. 

      Finally, if one ever needs to trademark the series title (like I did with DAFFODILS®) or anything else, the copyrights will help the case.

      It costs a little more, but may pay off in the long run! I am not a mid-list author who is suddenly contract-less. I am a small pub who has been in business for 11 years. I have always hired editors as Nancy mentioned, have used traditional offset printing and have relationships with  the major wholesalers like Ingram.