Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: Which One Is for You?
I was chatting at a networking event with an author who is working on her first book. She mentioned that she had decided she was going to go the traditional publishing route. I then asked her this question: "Do you have any contacts in the traditional publishing industry?" Answer? "No." So I had to be the bearer of the bad news that it could take years to achieve that... if she would be able to achieve it at all.
Of course, we've all heard of success stories of authors whose first books have burst onto the publishing landscape, seemingly "overnight." But the hard truth is that "overnight" is more likely to be "over-years" since getting to that point may have taken thousands of rejection letters and heartache. And that's on top of the years it may have taken to write the thing.
Would I automatically recommend that all novice authors default to a self-publishing model for their first books? Absolutely not! And if having a book published by one of the traditional publishing houses is a goal, then stay true to your dream until you achieve it.
But here's a quick rundown of questions to ask yourself if you're weighing the benefits of self-publishing versus traditional publishing.
1. What contacts do you have that can introduce you to publishing houses?
In today's publishing world, publishers may have a team of acquisition (or development) editors who evaluate the potential for authors and books. If you don't have a networking contact who can introduce you to the acquisition personnel at publishers, then you may want to explore the possibility of hiring an agent to represent you. Agents will take a cut of your royalties for representing you. Be aware, too, that getting an agent might be as tough as getting the attention of a publishing house direct. Both agents and publishers can be ruthless in evaluating the market viability of authors and books (as they should be). So if you don't have the network, be prepared for what I'm going to ask in Question 2.
2. How equipped are you emotionally to handle rejection, possibly for an extended period of time?
If you're the sort of person who gets easily bummed out when someone rejects you or your work, pursuing a traditional publishing contract will be a very challenging endeavor. It could take hundreds, even thousands, of sales pitch letters to even get considered, much less get a contract. (I know some writers are already cringing at the word "sales.") But if you have the emotional fortitude to keep on keeping on when it comes to pitching publishers, then it might be worth considering the traditional publishing route if you desire it.
Note, though, that if you go the self-publishing route to avoid the rejection by a traditional publishing house, you also need to be ready for rejection by the ultimate critics: Your readers.
3. What are your expectations in terms of earnings per book?
If you're looking to get higher earnings per book, self-publishing can usually provide them. Why? Because after all the layers and players of the traditional publishing process get paid—editors, printers, warehouses, distributors, etc.—there is usually little left over to pay author royalties. Granted, traditionally published authors could make more per book than self-published authors if advances are considered.
Remember that an advance under a traditional contract is paid against future anticipated royalties. Keep in mind, too, that some contracts stipulate that the publisher could ask for an advance back if the book doesn't sell as expected. Whether a publisher exercises that right or not varies. But be aware that under some contracts it's a possibility.
4. How soon do you want to publish?
If your plan is to have your book in the marketplace within months, or even the coming year, self-publishing is usually the quickest route. Securing a traditional publishing contract could take years to accomplish... and it may never happen. So what opportunities for reaching your market, speaking engagements and more are you sacrificing to put a traditional publisher's badge of honor on your work?
Even if you do secure a lucrative traditional publishing contract in a reasonable amount of time, it can take quite a while to get your manuscript into the market due to the time it takes to put your manuscript through editing, layout, proofing, printing, shipping, and distribution.
5. Do you want to repurpose your work in the future?
This is a big issue! Some traditional publishing contracts may not allow authors to use or repurpose the material from their books. No grabbing a chapter to publish on a blog! No copying bits and pieces in another book! Authors with these restrictions in their contracts may not be able to republish or repurpose their manuscripts, reducing revenue opportunities. Some contracts may even prevent these authors from publishing future works elsewhere or self-publishing, except under certain conditions. Get legal help to review a publishing contract before signing! Know your rights!
Self-publishing can allow you greater freedom to repurpose and republish material. However, avoid using material you've created for others, such as guest blog posts or client work. In those cases, too, know what rights you're giving away when you collaborate with others. Again, an attorney familiar with publishing law can provide needed insight for your situation.
6. What amount of book marketing are you willing to do personally?
This is almost a trick question. When you self-publish your book, you are totally responsible for the marketing and promotion of your work. That's a given. But many traditionally published authors are surprised to discover that after a publisher puts their books on the market, there may be very little marketing support provided! So you will be doing your own book marketing either way. However, a traditional publisher may be able to offer your book in places where self-published works may rarely be considered.
7. What would you hope to accomplish by going with the traditional publishing route?
In a podcast I did with a good author friend of mine who was traditionally published, she chose the traditional route because of the prestige factor that it brought to her and to her business. That certainly would be a reason to explore the traditional route regardless of the uphill battle it might be.
8. What is the market value that you bring to a traditional publisher?
Books have been written about every imaginable topic on this planet. Check your ego at the door because there are probably hundreds or thousands of books just like yours out there. What unique market value do you and your book provide? If you don't have that story straight, expect quick rejection. Just because it's your personal goal to get your book done through a publishing house is irrelevant. Publishers want a book that will make sales... lots of sales. If you can't demonstrate the market value or potential sales, you're too high of a risk and could be added to a publisher's reject pile.
Realize, too, that many publishers may not be able to properly assess the market for your book, especially in some smaller niche markets. You may have more expert experience and knowledge of that market than some publishers do. Smaller niche markets also may not be able to produce the sales results a publisher may need or want.
It's a Catch-22. You need to be unique enough to provide value to a publisher, but if you're too unique, a publisher will have trouble assessing the marketability of your work. So if you're determined to get your niche market work published, self-publishing may ultimately be the best route.
For either route, know your market and the value you bring to it.
9. How do you hope your book will be sold?
Notice that I didn't ask if you were hoping to see your book in bookstores. Even if you go with the traditional publishing route, it is no guarantee that your book will be on the shelves in your local retail bookstore.
As well, if you plan to do back of the room sales at events, as a traditionally published author, you may have to purchase copies of your book at retail to resell to your audiences. Yes, at retail! Translation: You'll make little or no money.
With self-publishing you do have more control over when, where, how and for how much your book is sold.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2016 Heidi Thorne