The Traditional vs. Self-Publish Debate (Part One)

Ah, yes. This is a subject that any potential writer must eventually face. As someone who has longed dreamed of publishing a novel, (not just a few short stories), and someone prone to finding ways to procrastinate that I can pass off as a justifiable use of my writing time, (*cough* researching publishing *cough*), I chose to start the process early, wasting countless hours perusing site after site over the past month. It became apparent within the first page of Google results that finding a clear cut answer was like swimming through a sea of information praying to find solid land before the sharks find you. And since that information is scattered all over the internet like Easter eggs of brightly colored advice from dubious sources and contradictory facts, I decided to try and spare a few others from enduring the hours and hours of research by summarizing what I’ve found and conveniently posting it here. Get ready for a parade of what-if’s and maybe’s, because even after a month of research, a plethora of blog posts arguing for or against each mode of distribution, and countless nights spinning my wheels trying to reach a decision, the sad truth is, I still don’t have the answer. Maybe that’s because there isn’t one. There really is no right or wrong strategy when it comes to publishing, and every writer has to make the decision for themselves.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to lay out the facts on each mode of publication in the hopes of helping you make an informed decision regarding your own work. And hopefully, decide on my own strategy in the process. Nothing makes you assimilate knowledge faster than having to explain it to someone else. At the end of this series, I’ll provide you with links to all the blogs, articles and websites I’ve found most helpful and a handy bullet list of the pros and cons for each method. So feel free to wait for Part Three if you’re not interested in the longer version of the details. I promise not to be offended. Much.

Traditional Publishing

Every writer, from the second they put fingers to keyboard, or pencil to paper, dreams of seeing their work on the shelves of their favorite bookstore, of being #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, of gaining instant recognition and fame that will make the likes of J.K Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins and E.L. James look like nobodies. And that dream subconsciously goes hand in hand with traditional publishing. It’s an ingrained assumption that when it comes time to release our masterpiece, we will automatically have to run the gambit of finding a publisher. Because that’s the way books have always been published. Until recently. True, there have always been self-published titles, but they were instantly given the stigma of being lesser quality, literary pariahs who couldn’t cut it the traditional way. And to be fair, most of them probably were/are.

Because of self-publishing’s tarnished reputation, traditional publishing earned the misguided designation of being glamorous by comparison. Writers everywhere, (myself included, until recently) naively believe that a writing career consists of writing a spectacular novel, submitting it to an editor, making a few revisions as needed, and then sitting back and waiting for success to rain down. They think that the publishing house takes care of the rest and they’ll get to spend the majority of their career holed up in an office somewhere writing while the royalty checks pour in. The reality couldn’t be further from this vision.

Let’s face it, we can’t all be the superstar authors listed above. If we were, then they wouldn’t be superstars, would they? So let’s be realistic for a moment and look at what publishing traditionally means for the rest of us. As a debut author (which I’m going to use as an example because I’m one and all my research has been with an eye for my own pending career, and, well, I’m just selfish like that) the numbers are especially bleak. From time to publication, to advances and royalty rates, to contractual obligations, the traditional publishing industry actually seems stacked against new authors.

The first hurdle is to get past the dreaded gatekeepers– the agents, editors, contract lawyers, etc., all blocking your path to success like bouncers at an elite nightclub. Once you’ve finished your novel, edited and revised the heck out of it, and generally polished it into the shining diamond you knew it would be, you basically get to play the waiting game. First, you need an agent. The larger publishing houses rarely accept unsolicited submissions, and once again, those are the people we’re all aiming for, whether we admit it or not. Some of the smaller publishing houses will accept manuscripts directly from the author, but we’re going to stick to the big boys for this discussion. So that means agents.

This is an unspoken requirement of going the traditional route, and the beginning of the submission process. You have to query them just like you would if you were magically granted access to the publishers themselves. Which means that it’s going to take time to get a response. Lots of time. Don’t be surprised if you spend a year or more in this stage of the game. If and when you’re lucky enough to land an agent, congratulations, you just signed over 15% of your profits. That’s fair, though, right? Agents are going to do the majority of the leg-work for you, and should be compensated for cashing in on their connections to the all important editors, otherwise known as Gatekeepers Round Two.

For that 15% commission, your agent will shop your manuscript around in the hopes of finding an interested editor. Sound familiar? Yep, you essentially pay someone else to do the exact same thing you did with the agent. Which means you’re waiting. Again. Let’s be optimistic and say that your fabulous agent (because I really do respect these lovely creatures advocating on behalf of their authors, despite my snide tone) manages to secure an editor’s interest within a year. It’s now two years after you actually finished the book and you haven’t seen a cent of profit yet.

But the waiting’s not over. Now you get to go through the round of revisions the editor will want, the contract negotiations, etc. (Make sure you scour that contract for any potential clauses that basically ask you to sign over your soul and grant the publisher exclusive rights to everything you ever write forevermore. I hear those are becoming quite popular and can be sneakily embedded in the fine print. Personally, I don’t want to have to ask permission to post a blog post. Do you?) All before you get paid. And it will likely be another year to year and a half before your book even hits shelves.

According to all the various sites I’ve visited, the average advance for a debut novel is in the neighborhood of $5000. Not too shabby, right? But the kicker is, it will be broken up into two, maybe three, chunks. One upon signing the contract, one upon acceptance of the final draft, and possibly one upon publication. Factor in that 15% commission you promised your agent and you’re looking at 3 payments of $1400 each, spread over the course of maybe 2 years. So you’re essentially making $175 a month. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t even cover my car payment.

And it gets worse. According to these same sites, which I’ll provide links to later, only about 10-15% of authors actually earn out their advances. The other 85-90% will never see another dime from their Great American Novel. Depressed yet? There’s one more thing– should you fail to earn out your advance, you’re basically done. It will be darn near impossible to publish anything else under your own name again.

Oh, and did I mention that as a debut author, the marketing budget allotted by the publishing house will be next to nothing? So the burden for ensuring you earn out that advance falls primarily on you. Can we say pressure much?

If you do succeed in the impossible and earn more than your advance, the royalty rates are incredibly small. This is a negotiable point, so I’ve seen various figures, but it’s usually in the 8-10% range depending on the method the book was published, i.e. Hardcover, Trade Paperback, Mass Market Paperback, etc. And, as if all this weren’t depressing enough, you essentially get to sign over complete control of your baby for the privilege. That vision of handing over a manuscript and sitting back while the publishing house takes care of everything pretty much only applies here. They will dictate everything from the cover design, which you may or may not have input on, down to the title. That perfect name you agonized over and have come to associate with as an integral part of your work’s identity? Yeah, it’s nothing more than a working title if you go the traditional publishing route.

Sounds like fun, no? But it’s not all bad. There is definitely something to be said for having a team of experts helping you get your work to the people who really matter– the readers. And while you do give up a lot of control, that’s not always a bad thing. The publishing houses are professionals with an awful lot of experience in producing, marketing and distributing books. Would having them on your side really be that bad? After all, they want you to succeed too. They’ve invested their time and money into your book, and would really prefer that investment turn into profit. Publishing and writing is a business despite what the illusion says. Can we really fault publishing houses for treating it as such? Does pursuing the highest profit margin really make them the villains here? Producing books is an expensive endeavor, and those costs have to be paid somehow. How better than through the book’s sales?

Publishers also hold the exclusive key to distribution via conventional means. Most booksellers are reluctant to stock self-published titles. So if you want to see your baby on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, traditional publishing’s the way to go. Ebooks are rapidly gaining popularity, but they’re still only about 25% of the market. The other 75% of sales are still readers who prefer actually holding a physical book to reading one on a screen. And that’s definitely something to keep in mind. Are you alright with limiting your potential sales to such a small portion of the market if you choose to self-publish?

And, of course, there’s also the prestige that comes with publishing traditionally. You get bragging rights; you made the cut when so many others don’t. Your book will automatically be deemed quality. Reviewers will be easier to find and you’ll get to experience your dream of walking into bookstores and seeing your name on their shelves, of being able to hold a physical, beautifully bound copy of your work in your hands, and of being able to do book signings for droves of adoring fans. In this way, the stigma of self-publishing works in your favor. But is that worth the cost of traditionally publishing? Only you can decide what’s important to your career, profit margins, or glory? Preferably both, but neither method of publication can ever guarantee that.

Next Week on Nightwolf’s Corner: The Traditional vs. Self-Publish Debate, Part Two: Self-Publishing

2 thoughts on “The Traditional vs. Self-Publish Debate (Part One)

    • Exactly. That’s the same conclusion I came to– that it’s fruitless to search for the “answer.” Ultimately, it’s about choosing the right path for your own career and the distribution method that fits your specific work the best. Which one did you end up choosing and how did it work out for you?

      Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

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