Congratulations! You’ve written your first book.
Now you want to get it published. But how?
Should you seek a publishing contract with a traditional commercial publisher such as Random House or St. Martin’s Press? Or should you go right to self-publishing?
In a nutshell, here are the main differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing:
- If you sign up with a major traditional publisher, the publisher will pay all the costs of cover art, internal layout, external layout, and printing, and they’ll take care of book promotion and distribution. They’ll pay you royalties on copies sold and keep the rest as profit.
- If you self-publish your book, you will pay the publisher for the costs of cover art, internal layout, external layout, and printing. You will pay for any book promotion, and it will be mainly up to you to generate book sales. Because you’ve paid for the publishing costs, you will likely receive a higher royalty percentage from the publisher as compared to traditional publishing royalties.
When my first novel was published more than thirty years ago, self-publishing wasn’t a viable option. There were a few “vanity” publishers (as we called them back then) such as Vantage Press and Dorrance Publishing, but the publishing costs were prohibitive for most authors. It could cost $10,000 or more to have a couple thousand copies of a book printed, and then it was up to the author to figure out a way to sell those books. Most ended up gathering dust in the author’s closet or garage until they were eventually tossed out during a spring cleaning years later.
Then print-on-demand (POD) technology came along and turned the book publishing business upside down.
Nowadays, instead of paying for several thousand books to be printed, the self-publishing author has to pay for only the initial setup costs and cover art. With print-on-demand technology, the actual books are printed only as orders are received. No more book inventories. No more books gathering dust in closets and garages.
With the advent of print-on-demand technology, self-publishing a book has become faster, easier, and cheaper.
Now let’s get back to the book you’ve just completed, and the decision you’re facing. Should you self-publish your book, or should you seek a publishing contract with a traditional publisher? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of both.
- It’s quick. A traditional publisher can take a year or more to publish your book even after you’ve signed the publishing contract and delivered the manuscript. With self-publishing, you can hold your book in your hand within a few weeks of the date you send your manuscript to the publisher. More importantly, it will be available for purchase at online booksellers. If patience is not a virtue you embrace, then you’ll probably prefer the faster pace of the self-publishing process.
- It’s cheap. Unless you get sucked into buying one of the costly editorial or book promotion packages offered by the big POD publishers (my advice: don’t waste your money), you can have the cover art and interior layout done for a few hundred dollars—a thousand at most. Some online publishing services even allow the author to do the setup and provide the cover art, so technically savvy authors can publish their books without any up-front costs at all.
- Self-publishing is available to everyone. If you’ve tried to snag a publishing contract with a traditional publisher, then you already know how daunting that can be. Most of the print-on-demand self-publishing firms will publish books that traditional publishers won’t touch. As long as your check clears the bank, they’ll publish your book. If you’ve struck out in your efforts to place your book with a traditional publisher, or if it’s clear that your book doesn’t have sufficient commercial potential to meet that high threshold, then self-publishing is a viable option.
- The author retains literary control. Most traditional publishing contracts give the publisher the right to make decisions about book content, promotion, and distribution. Some authors don’t like giving up those rights, especially for nonfiction books that may carry religious, political, or other themes that are important to the author. Generally speaking, traditional publishers don’t like to get into squabbles with authors about content, but the fact is, they typically have the right to make whatever changes they feel are necessary in order to help them sell more copies of the book.
- The author usually retains publishing rights. Though this isn’t true of all self-publishing contracts, many of these firms are fairly liberal about the author’s rights. In some cases, canceling a contract is as easy as sending a registered letter to the publisher. In other cases, the publishing contract may cover only a year or two. This means that the author still has the option of placing the book with a traditional publisher once the self-publishing contract has expired.
- The author’s per-copy profit is higher. Self-publishing firms typically pay a higher royalty than traditional publishers. The publishing contract sometimes stipulates a specific cost per book. If the author pays $5 per copy for a book that sells online for $12, it’s easy enough to see that the author’s profit per copy sold is much higher than a 10 percent traditional publishing royalty would be.
- Low book sales.The main disadvantage of self-publishing – and it’s a big one – is that it’s hard to sell self-published books, especially novels and narrative nonfiction such as memoirs and autobiographies. Most self-published books sell fewer than 200 copies. Many sell only a couple dozen copies and never get noticed beyond the author’s friends and family. Here’s why:
- Poor quality. Thousands of books are self-published each month, and most suffer from poor writing, poor editing, and lack of focus. Because of all this clutter, it’s hard to get even well-written self-published books noticed by readers looking for good books to buy.
- Poor distribution. Believe it or not, a lot of people are still buying books in supermarkets, drugstores, discount stores, airports, and bookstores. Self-published books rarely get stocked in any of these places. Booksellers just don’t have the time to paw through all those thousands of self-published books looking for the few that might be worthy of shelf space.
- Poor book promotion. Book-promotion packages offered by large print-on-demand publishers rarely generate high sales numbers, despite their promises. Self-published books are rarely reviewed by legitimate and influential book reviewers. No influential book reviewer cares what POD publishers iUniverse or xLibris will be publishing next month. Lots of people care what major publishers like Random House or St. Martin’s Press will be publishing. For the most part, people who buy self-published books are friends and relatives of the author. When self-published books do get noticed and generate sales of thousands or tens of thousands of copies, that’s almost always due to the author’s promotion of the book via online sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.
Traditional Publishing Advantages
- High visibility. If you place your book with a major commercial publisher, it will get noticed by influential book reviewers and booksellers, and this will almost certainly generate healthy sales numbers.
- More readers. If you hope to get a writing career off the ground, a growing audience of readers is essential. To build that audience, you’ll have to place your book with a traditional publisher. Then you’ll have to build on that momentum with another book that also appeals to a wide audience of readers. Over the course of your first few books, you’ll build a reader base that won’t let you down. A few lucky writers have been able to launch careers with self-published books, but it’s extremely rare.
Traditional Publishing Disadvantages
- Traditional publishers are picky. They want to publish books that will appeal to a large audience of readers. Unfortunately, that sometimes takes precedence over literary merit.
- They won’t accept manuscripts directly from authors. Before you can get your foot in the door of a traditional publisher, you’ll first have to convince a literary agent to represent your book. That task alone can take months and often ends in failure for newer writers. Literary agents work on commission. They don’t get paid unless the author does. So before an agent will agree to represent a book, the agent has to be convinced that the book will appeal to a traditional publisher that will give the author an advance and decent royalties.
- Querying literary agents and traditional publishers isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s hard to endure one rejection after another, but there seems to be a cosmic law that writers must be willing to accept many discouraging rejection notes from literary agents and publishers before they’ll be allowed to find success in this business. Stephen King’s first four novels were rejected before he broke into print with Carrie. James Lee Burke’s first novel was rejected by 150 literary agents before one finally agreed to act as his representative. Since then, he has published many bestsellers. Most new writers wilt under the onslaught of rejection letters and emails long before they reach 150.
- The competition is fierce. A lot of people are writing books nowadays, and most of them are hoping to land a publishing contract with a traditional publisher. Your book proposal and manuscript will have to stand head and shoulders above all those others if you hope to snag the attention of a busy literary agent.
- The publisher’s schedule may not fit the author’s. The publishing process can drag out for a year or more, even after you’ve signed the publishing contract. A traditional publisher may have a publishing schedule for as long as the next two years. When they agree to publish a book, they’ll check that schedule and see where the particular book will fit. If you’ve written a suspense thriller, for example, and the publisher sees that they could use a suspense thriller in the catalog for next June, then that’s when your book will be published.
The Bottom Line
Here’s the advice I give to writers who are trying to decide which publishing option will work best for them:
- If your manuscript has a decent chance (i.e. at least a fifty-fifty chance) of snagging a traditional publishing contract, and if you hope to start a new career as a writer, then you definitely should go for the big prize of a traditional publishing contract.
- If it seems unlikely that your manuscript will appeal to literary agents and traditional publishers, and if you have no desire to launch a writing career, then you should not put yourself through the hassle of looking for a literary agent and traditional publisher. Go straight to self-publishing. Then, at least, your book will be available for friends and family members—and maybe it will attract a wider audience if you put some time into book promotion via online social media.
- If you want to launch a writing career, but your current manuscript does not have the commercial viability required by traditional publishers, then you should shelve the current manuscript, do what you can to learn from your mistakes, and start writing another book that will have stronger commercial potential.
By now I hope you understand that before deciding whether to go the self-publishing route or seeking a traditional publishing contract, you need to know where your book stands in terms of commercial viability. If you’re new to this business, you probably need some help with that.
That’s where I come in. For more than twenty years I’ve been helping writers get their first books published. Give me a call and let’s talk: 505-401-1021. Or send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. If I miss your call, just leave a message and I’ll call you back.