As you know, I’ve self-published some of my books, and published traditionally others. When I posted a (somewhat cheeky) infographic about Self-publishing vs. Traditional Publishing, my friend Alex Hurst pointed out that there’s lot more to be gained from following the traditional path than suggested by the post.
After she had made a few great arguments in the comments, I asked her to write up a guest post on the subject, as she had obviously put a lot of thought into the subject. She came up with the great post below. Enjoy!
3 Reasons to Go Traditional
These days, self-publishing is all the rage, and with the prominence of DIY publishers like Amazon, Smashwords, and Draft-2-Digital, it’s not hard to see why. Authors can take full control of the creative process, editing only what they want to, choosing (or making) a cover they feel presents their book faithfully, and distributing to whatever marketplaces they want. There are no gatekeepers and no agents to query to. Self-published authors also have a direct line to their reader base, and retain all rights to their work (usually.)
Even using indie or cooperative publishers seems to have an advantage over the trade industry. Rarely do you need to have an agent to get a deal with these sorts of publishers, and publishing contracts tend to have a little bit more wiggle room during negotiations than what you could expect from a larger publisher. Vanity presses, which have earned a sordid reputation for being predatory and disingenuous, can be a more viable option for some authors than the arduous path to a traditional publishing contract.
For many self-publishing, indie, or upcoming authors, traditional publishing seems to offer little that another avenue can’t meet or exceed. It is being said more and more that the only reason any author would choose to be traditionally published these days is for the “bragging rights” of being behind a brand like Tor, Simon & Schuster, or Penguin Random House.
But is that really all traditional publishing can offer?
Despite popular opinion, there are a lot of things that a trade publisher can do that many of the other publishing channels can’t really offer without a serious time or money commitment from the author. These are the big three.
1. Traditional Publishers Have the Tools
Publishing a book by yourself from start to finish can be one of the most gratifying and alluring options of self-publishing, but for many, it’s not all its cracked up to be. Writing a novel is hard enough, but imagine editing your own work, designing a marketable cover, and formatting an attractive interior on top of it. This, while needing to continue writing to keep pace with any edge your current title might have in the rankings.
Putting on the hat of author, editor, formatter, graphic designer, marketing specialist, and distributor is a tall order, and not one many can reasonably fill for more than one title at a time. Yet indie authors are encouraged to keep their lists fresh, publishing at least 2-3 new novel-length titles a year to build their brand and not get lost in the thousands of other novels being published alongside their own.
Editing your own work can be difficult, and getting a professional editor (on par with traditional publishing) can be costly. Right now, the industry rate for editors is $0.05/word. Do the math on your current WIP. Can you afford it? While there are some authors who can remain objective over their work in the editing stage, most cannot, and many authors are aware enough to know that an eye accustomed to the text on the page naturally misses many mistakes.
Once your work is edited, it still needs to be formatted. The go-to for indie authors is Word, Scrivener, or Pages, but all of these programs fall short of the industry-standard InDesign by Adobe Suite. InDesign allows authors to have full control over margins, bleed, gutter, fonts, and even more recently, fixed ebook formats. The software is powerful, and can be learned, but that learning curve is high. Authors who do not plan on releasing more than three to four books a year might find the monthly subscription to the app ($20/month) costly. The other option is to hire a book formatter, and they’re not cheap either.
After formatting and editing, there is still cover design, another important element of book production that is often not stressed enough. Cover design causes many problems for self-published authors who either cannot afford higher-quality, non-stock image covers ($45 and up) or attempt to create the cover themselves without taking into account readability, color schemes, font choice, or (a big no) licensing rights.
Marketing, which I will cover in a later point, can also be a huge time sink for an author who needs to be writing, but spends whatever free time they have outside of their day job tinkering with social media, soliciting book bloggers, and writing content for their website. Many houses have been in business for decades, and have all of these tools at the ready for the engaged author to take advantage of.
All of these things are taken care of, in-house, at a traditional publisher. Of course, I am talking about the big trade publishers, their imprints, and well-managed indie presses. When querying to any house, you should make sure that these four elements of book design are covered by the press, and at no cost to the author (excluding marketing undertaken by the author personally).
2. Patience Pays Off with Traditional
Traditional publishers have the expertise and manpower to get your book in tip-top shape, and also give it a fighting chance upon release. Though one of self-published authors’ most frequent complaints is the year or more wait time to see their book on the shelf after sending in their final draft, the reasons for the delay are valid. Traditional publishing houses have entire departments (with staff!) dedicated to market testing your book: checking the book’s title, blurb, cover, and author name with focus groups; sending out ARCs to prominent newspapers, blogs, and readers; preparing large distribution channels to major bookstores and online sellers; setting up interviews to coincide with your release in market-tested locations.
All of this prep work requires lead time, something many self-publishers don’t take advantage of when preparing a book for release. In a world where the half-life of a book is decreasing by the day, these services, a standard service behind traditional publishing, helps boost a book’s visibility in ways a self-publisher might not be able to take advantage of.
3. Traditional Publishers Have the Respect
If you are an indie or self-published author and have tried to solicit your work to book bloggers in the past, you may have come across the phrase, “We’re sorry, this blog does not accept self-published works at this time.”
Say what you will, brands matter, and for many sought-after marketing spaces, having the backing of a known-publisher can open doors that would otherwise be blocked to you as an indie publisher. Many of the most prominent book bloggers receive their ARCs through NetGalley ($400 per title for six months) or similar distribution services. For the average self-publisher, these sorts of fees are too high. Traditional publishers have that budget.
Having access to these ARC channels, however, open up many opportunities, where readers come to you, rather than the other way around.
In addition, traditional houses have access to many more distribution channels (at home and abroad). Many bookstores will still not accept most self-published titles, and then Costco and Walmart are closed to the indie community. Translation options are much higher with traditional, as is the possibility of selling other rights, such as audiobook and film options. Their ability to saturate the market with your title in turn creates more buzz, which media channels (like USA Today, NPR, and The Daily Show) then take notice of. They can even send your book to well-known authors like Stephen King or Neil Gaiman to get blurbs for your cover. The traditional publishing house is a well-oiled machine: always in motion, and the push of one title helps every other title in the list.
Another element of being traditionally published that is often overlooked when comparing bottom lines is that as a traditionally published author, your income is not limited to royalty and advance. Traditionally published authors also have more opportunities for paid speaking at places like conventions, or writing commissions for magazines, newspapers, or blogs. Known-authors also tend to have an easier time the second time they go through the submission stage of a project, whereas a self-published author may have to keep starting from scratch for each title.
As well, book prizes and awards are generally only available to traditionally published books or pro-market short fiction.
Some More Reasons
So there are three reasons traditional publishing may still be the best option for you and your book. But let’s also talk about bragging rights. While the term itself is pretty derogatory, it has some validity. When I asked members of Fiction Writers Group what they believed traditional publishing could offer them, I received some interesting answers that back up that claim. Mostly, people felt that traditional publishing still offered “validity” behind calling yourself an author. Public perception is a powerful thing, and whether your book is successful or not, the traditional house brand stays with you forever. There’s still a big difference between saying “I was in the Amazon Top 100 in 2014” and “My book was picked up by HarperCollins,” or “I was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2015.” Of course, if you can manage the sales, as some self-publishers can, you could end up in the New York Times Bestseller List, and then this element of my argument would be invalid.
Finally, there are simply some genres that cannot do well without a traditional or high-end indie press’s backing, such as children’s books and nonfiction. The need for illustration and professional endorsement (respectively) are hard-gained for the self-publisher.
What are your thoughts on traditional publishing? Will you attempt it? Have you already tried? Let me know in the comments below.
Who is Alex Hurst?
Alex Hurst is a fantasy author, currently living in Kyoto with her long-time partner, N J Magas. She freelances as an editor for the Writers’ Anarchy anthology series, designs book interiors at Country Mouse Design, and admins on the Fiction Writers community on Facebook, assisting a community of over 6,000 emerging and established writers. She writes primarily character-driven fantasy, speculative fiction, and LGBT+ literature.
Darkly Never After
Alex has participated in Darkly Never After, a charity anthology (she also did the cover and interior design).
Darkness. The absence of light, hope, and direction. It is a word that is as pervasive in our language as its consequence is on society. A shot in the dark. To be in the dark. The darkest hour is before dawn. Darkness is the foil for all we consider good in the world––the natural enemy of good, and the virtues of the human spirit. Peter Benenson once said that it was better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
Darkly Never After, a diverse collection of dark fairy tales and fiction, chooses to light the world with its very mission statement. All proceeds from this international volume will benefit children in need. From classical re-imaginings of old classics, to brand new tales of adventure and deceit, Darkly Never After has fairy tales for the sophisticated and worldly mind. Visit the fantastical worlds your childhood books introduced you to, with a touch of maturity for the older reader. Light a path in the darkness. Become the candle for the lost.
You can read more about her contribution, “The Lady Koi”, on this blog post.
My personal comment: Alex has made some excellent points on her wonderful post. Indeed, I have made some of them myself on my recent The Ups and Downs of Indie Life post. Of course, the real question is, “that’s all good a great, but how many of us can realistically expect to be picked up by a traditional publisher?” This is the main subject of my post, Should I Publish Traditionally or Go Indie, if you wish to keep reading. You may also want to read three interesting counter-points by Steven Spatz on Bookbaby – while keeping in mind that Bookbaby makes its living by offering publishing services to Indie authors – and a great post by Christina Larmer on the subject.
Both Alex and I are eagerly awaiting your comments below 🙂