It’s easier than ever to self-publish a book. You could stop reading this article right now and fire off the first chapter of your book in a series of Tweets if you wanted to. And more formal variations of self-publishing are readily available to the writer who intends to be more industrious in their foray into the world of bookselling.
Traditional publishing, on the other hand, is harder to crack into than ever before. It begs the question: is it even worthwhile to try and get your book picked up by a Big Five publishing house? The answer will depend on you, your book, and what your goals are.
In this article, we break down the pros and cons of the publishing industry.
Self Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing: Defining our Terms
In traditional publishing, the company that buys your book takes on the rights. They take on all the costs of publication and may handle the marketing efforts as well (though authors are now expected to brand themselves and handle some of their own marketing even in traditional publishing houses).
In self-publishing, the author handles all of it. They keep their rights and royalties, but in exchange, they have to handle the printing and/or ebook production costs.
In textbook terms, these are the only differences between the two publishing options. In terms of experience, however, they differ significantly.
Traditional Publishing Pro: Preexisting Infrastructure
As mentioned above publishing houses will have everything you need to bring your book to the market already on hand. In a world where people can publish virtually anything they want for little to no money online, this might not sound like much.
However, if you are hoping to hold a book in your hands that has the production quality of an item you will find at the bookstore, it’s going to take a lot of effort. Traditional publishers have:
- Line editors: The best writers in the world still work closely with editors and weave their feedback into the revision process. Not only do line editors perfect the grammar of a book and help ensure the quality of prose, but they may also look for logical inconsistencies within the text. Traditional publishing houses have line editors already on hand. They can be hired by the author that wants to self-publish but it’s not going to be cheap.
- Cover design: Even ebooks have covers that are designed to draw the eye. Publishing houses will have cover artists staffed full time. Artists can be hired for this as well, but it’s another expense you’ll have to factor in to bring your book to market.
- Formatters: The document you have saved on your computer probably is not formatted perfectly. Publishing houses have people on staff who will be able to format the book to make sure it looks natural on the page. They may also have a different person there for ebook formatting.
- Printing press: Finally, publishers are able to print in-house. For the self-published author, this is the most difficult and expensive part of the process. Traditionally published authors don’t have to worry about it.
All of these resources can be attained independently. Authors wishing to do so must factor in that it will be—expensive and time-consuming. Vanity presses are publishing houses that will accept any book. They cost money but will be less expensive than fielding the costs independently.
They may serve as a good alternative to handling everything yourself. However, vanity presses will take a large chunk of your royalties.
Traditional Publishing Con: Royalties
And that brings us to our next point. Royalties. Self-published authors get every penny their book produces minus the costs of production. All other things being equal, this means that they have the potential to make substantially more than traditionally published writers.
Publishing houses pay writers 10-15% of the revenue their books generate. If you’re Stephen King you can get a little bit more. You are not Stephen King.
Usually, this comes out to about $1-1.50 for every hardcover book you sell, and eighty cents for every paperback.
The average traditionally published book sells approximately 3000 copies. That comes out to $4500 for the writer at maximum. But wait….
In traditional publishing, writers aren’t the only ones who get paid royalties. To get a book deal, you need an agent. An agent who gets 15% of your royalties.
Naturally, if your book sells through the roof, you will be well paid. If it doesn’t, you’ve sunk a lot of time into something that won’t pay the bills.
There are other expenses to consider. For example, modern writers are expected to maintain a website. This is optional, but it is also an important part of the business. Guess who pays for it? Hint. Not the publisher.
Traditional Publishing Pro: Marketing
Marketing is a huge part of a successful book launch. Publishers can get your book reviewed, and set up tours and interviews for writers they believe in. This doesn’t happen. Some titles in traditional publishing are primarily marketed by the person who wrote them.
In self-publishing, however, this is always the case. There are cases where books have found significant success marketing on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. However, marketing is a difficult and expensive undertaking. If you don’t have the budget and the time, your self-published book is destined to fade into the obscurity of the internet.
Traditional Publishing Con: Time
Writing a novel can easily take a year. Once you finish it, you have to find an agent. Even if your manuscript turns out to be a slush pile darling—and don’t count on it—this is a lengthy process in its own right.
You have to write a query letter, several synopses, and other materials that the process required. Tack on another few weeks for this. Next, you have to find appropriate agents who are interested in the type of book you have written. Just developing a list of good finds can take a week in its own right.
Then, you have to follow their very particular submission policies and wait. The average response time is several months, and that’s just for the initial query. If they like the materials you sent them, they will read your book.
Add another several month. Assuming you get signed by an agent, you are now almost two years in. Then, the agent has to submit it to publishing houses. Add several more months.
If your book gets bought, you’re still far from the finishing line. Now, you have to wait for the editor to give you their notes. A few revision cycles later (add several more months) your book may finally be ready to…wait in line.
Publishing houses can only print so much at once. Your book is new, and not destined to skip to the front of the line.
All totaled, it can easily be 3-5 years before the book you wrote finds its way into stores. With self-publishing, the process is much faster. Even with careful attention to due diligence, you can expect a finished product in less than one year.
Traditional Publishing Pro: Prestige
Self-published books are often assumed to be not as good as those that have been traditionally published. It’s understood at least on some level that having a book purchased by a publisher is a difficult thing to do.
Because traditional publishing is recognized as an accomplishment, it typically carries a significant amount of prestige—a level of validation that self-publishing simply does not carry. If you want your book to be received with an enthusiastic response, traditional publishing will probably be the route to take.
Traditional Publishing Con: It’s Really Hard
It’s extremely difficult to get a book purchased by any publishing house, let alone a big one. Even very good manuscripts are rejected every day. Let’s break it down by the numbers.
- Agents: Agents receive at least 2000 queries a year. If it’s an agent with a bit of fame to their name, that number can increase radically. Of these thousands of queries, they sign roughly two writers a year.
- Editors: Editors are the people who buy books for publishing houses. They don’t get quite as many submissions as literary agents, but they will still get queried about 600 times a year. Of these, they sign 2-3 writers.
Can you get a book deal without an agent?
Probably not. The reason editors only get 600 submissions a year is that most will only consider submissions by agented writers. Some publishers will consider un-agented manuscripts but they are few and far between. And, if you do find one, you will be tasked with negotiating the terms of your book deal independently.
Of course, the odds listed above are stats that don’t necessarily apply to your manuscript. It’s not like agents have a rejection quota they have to reach every year. If your book and query materials are incredible, you will find representation. However, it’s a long, difficult road.
Traditional Publishing Pro: Bookstores
Self-published books can find their way onto bookstore shelves. They just usually don’t. If you have a relationship with a local independent bookstore, they might be willing to find a spot on their shelves for some of your books. However, you will have to secure that arrangement yourself.
The same goes for big stores. Barnes and Noble do occasionally make space for local authors. Again, however, it’s up to you to secure the arrangement.
Traditional publishers, on the other hand, will print 5000-10,000 copies of a new author’s manuscript, and they will find homes on store shelves for all of them.
Traditional Publishing Con: Less Control
Once an editor is introduced into the equation, the writer tends to lose some of their creative control. The editor will come in with “suggestions” most of which may be compulsory, for how the book needs to be changed before publication.
Granted, these changes are all recommended to improve the book. And they probably will, at least from the standpoint of marketability. However, for the writer who has worked for months or years on a manuscript, the editor’s notes can be a bitter pill to swallow.
Traditional Publishing Pro: The Book Advance
Book advances aren’t going to be a big pile of money. Usually, the author will get $5000 or less. The agent carves 15% right off the top, and the writer keeps the rest. Once the book sells $5000 worth of copies, you will be eligible for further royalties. If your book sells less than that, you keep the money, but you shouldn’t expect to get published again.
And this is a pro?
Well. Yes. Even though the book advance comes with its share of asterisks it has the benefit of, you know. Existing. Which is more than can be said of what self-published writers get. When you are handling the publication process yourself, you only get paid when the book sells.
Traditional Publishing Con: A Bad Payment Schedule
Publishing houses usually only pay their writers twice a year. The reason for this is mostly logistical. Can you imagine getting a check for one dollar every time a copy of your book sells? Logical or not, however, this payment schedule can be very difficult, even for writers whose books are selling relatively well.
With self-publishing the reverse is true. You are paid the moment a copy of your book sells.
The (Lack of a) Conclusion
Only you (and possibly a series of very particular gatekeepers) can decide what publishing route is right for your manuscript. For all the traditional publishing cons we have listed, the industry remains the best way to establish a career for yourself writing books.
People do find financial success with self-publishing. Amazon is a particularly fruitful resource for people that hope to sell many copies of their self-published work.
It mostly comes down to a question of what you hope to accomplish. Do you want a beautifully printed book in your hand as quickly as possible? Self-publishing will be the route for you.
Do you want to choose the path that will maximize the odds of becoming a career novelist? If so, traditional publishing remains the most promising avenue. For now.
Andrew Deen has been a consultant for startups in almost every industry from retail to medical devices and everything in between. He implements lean methodology and currently writing a book about scaling up business. Twitter @AndrewDeen14