Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing…the pros and cons
This post is a result of typical responses from my clients. I’ll ask, 'How’s your book getting to market? Are you going to self-publish, or submit to agents and publishers?'
In reply, comes a blank look. Whilst a good number of my clients have some idea of the publishing industry and the options open to them, most of the people I help don’t have a clue. It’s not a surprise, really, given that I mainly work with new authors – writers looking to start their career, who haven’t had much experience of the industry. I’m their first port of call, and I spend a lot of my time, quite rightly, explaining things.
I don’t believe self-publishing is better than traditional publishing, or vice versa; they’re simply different ways to get your book out there. But an author can only make an informed choice if they understand the pros and cons of each option.
What follows is not an exhaustive list. There are many other pros and cons associated with self-publishing (SP) and traditional publishing (TP). I’m just sticking to the main aspects, as too much information at once can prove overwhelming. I’m also talking solely about print books (I’ll cover eBooks another time).
A good portion of authors who opt to self-publish do so because of the level of control they can exercise over their work, such as how it reads and looks, and concerning the way they want to promote it. When self-publishing, YOU are the publisher. This means you can realise your vision on the cover, or include a snippet of your next book with this one, for example – it’s your project and you have the freedom to do anything you want, without consulting anyone else.
In traditional publishing, once a manuscript has been accepted and a contract signed, essentially, you, as the author, gives up ‘control’ of all things relating to your book to the publishing company. That’s not to say the publishers won’t take into account your wishes or thoughts – they want to keep their authors on side and happy, after all. But the company will know the market and what a book has to be like; they’ll stick to certain aspects for a reason. They will have the last word on all content, on the book’s cover and layout, and where it will be on sale.
Self-publishing, with all the tools now available, has made getting your work to market practically instantaneous. In comparison, a traditionally-published book can often take a couple of years (sometimes longer) before it sees the light of day. It has to go through editing, revisions, design, and it needs to fit with the publisher’s schedule for release and marketing.
But, just because you CAN publish something immediately, doesn’t mean you should. To compete with TP titles, you should aim to make your SP book as attractive, compelling and as professional as possible, which means going through the same motions, i.e. submitting your draft to an editor, getting feedback from a professional/beta readers, taking time to study the market so that your cover design is appropriate and eye-catching, for example, and that your placement/categorisation is accurate.
If you self-publish, and self-publish properly, it’s you footing the bill for the experienced editor, the talented cover designer, and the professional typesetter…the list goes on. Though you can skip some of these steps, I wouldn’t recommend it. Many SP books nowadays can’t be distinguished from TP books; this is how it should be. It then allows the story to take precedence, not readers’ possible prejudice concerning which method was used to publish the book.
Though, as a self-publisher, you have these upfront costs to meet, they’re one-offs. That means, once you’ve recouped them, you get a much better margin from sales than a TP author. After printing costs, and after the initial one-off costs have been made back, SP authors get to keep the remaining revenue from the sale of each copy – which could represent up to 60% of the purchase price.
In comparison, once your manuscript has been accepted by a traditional publishing company, there are no costs to pay. The publisher pays for the editing, for the cover design, for everything. The flipside, however, is that you’re paid royalties for each copy sold; typically, this will be between 10% and 17.5% of the purchase price. This is unlikely to alter, unless you see such strong sales that you’re in a position to negotiate your royalty rate.
As with point one, if you decide to self-publish, there’s nothing stopping you. You don’t need anyone’s permission, you don’t need to have verification that it’s any good, and you certainly don’t need to ‘apply’. You create and polish, then upload/arrange and print.
The credibility associated with TP is higher than SP, simply because you’re asking for a publisher’s backing. You’re applying to their company, asking if they’ll produce your book because they think it will sell, and because they know readers will like it. Less than 5% of the manuscripts coming into a publishing house become books to purchase, which shows how exclusive this ‘club’ is. It’s hard, very hard, to have an agent take a punt on you, let alone a publisher, but if they do, think of the prestige that comes with that decision. Someone thinks enough of your book that they’re willing to put their own money into producing it. Someone thinks they can sell it to an audience big enough to make it worth their while. They believe in it almost as much as you do. This is even before it’s tangible.
When you’re a well-known author, it’s probably not an issue that your books are SP or TP – your adoring audience will buy them regardless. But, when starting out, in the saturated book market we have today, visibility is a HUGE issue. There are more free books available to readers than they can read in their lifetime, so getting them to part with their money to buy a title is no mean feat. They’re already spoilt for choice. And marketing takes time, effort and money. As a self-publishing author, everything comes down to you, or those you choose to employ with your funds. You have to get it to your audience; for example, you have to get it in bookshops. And because bookshops are already saturated with TP titles, it’s even harder to get them to look at an SP book. Not impossible, but you have to show there’s demand.
A TP book will already have a place in the market – the one the publisher saw when they offered you the contract. Publishers, more so the bigger companies, will have distribution routes already open, reps that will know exactly where to sell your book, and outlets lined up to carry your title, all of which will see your book sell in volume. But a publisher’s interest may lessen when their next release comes out; at least with your SP title, you can promote like a Duracell bunny for as long as you have the energy.
As I said in the opening, SP is not better than TP, nor is TP better than SP. There are many examples of authors, using either method, gaining notoriety and lucrative sales – some using both routes with success.
Taking into account all these pros and cons, I help my clients down the appropriate path that’s right for them. The one that’s best suited to their expectations and desired outcome, to the time they have available, to their ability and willingness to promote themselves, and the one that fits their budget. It’s different for everybody.
If I’m being truly honest, writing the book is the easy bit.