Traditional Publishing or Self-Publishing? That is the Question

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So you’ve completed your first manuscript – or tenth. Now you need to get it in the hands of readers – but what’s the best way to do that?

I’ve reached out to several published author friends and wanted their take on self-publishing and traditional publishing. The tables have turned recently and I hear countless authors say there’s no point in traditional publishing. I wanted to put this debate to bed. (Hey, no one ever said I didn’t have lofty goals.) So which is best; self publishing or traditional publishing? The short and simple answer is it depends on the author.

Consider this more of a guide and before you knock traditional publishing completely off the table, take a look at what it can still do that no one else can.

I’ll be breaking down self publishing, small/medium press, and big 6. (or 5 or 4…) I’ll also touch lightly on agents.

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Self-Publishing

This is the easiest one to speak about since most people are familiar with it – so I’ll tackle this first. The benefits to self-publishing are pretty clear. You have almost full control and get to keep a higher chunk of the commissions. These are the benefits.

However, while you’re keeping a large chunk of the commissions – you’re also putting upfront money into the publishing. If you’re not? You’re doing yourself and your fellow self-published authors a huge disservice.

The costs of self-publishing will usually include Editing (Between $400 – $5000), proofreading ($400-$1000), Cover design ($100-$5,000), Formatting ($150-$400), Print Run ($100-$1500), and then marketing – which easily goes into the thousands. Are these numbers out of your budget? Don’t feel bad, they are for most people. There are ways to raise money for book publishing like crowdsourcing, fundraising events, pre-orders, etc – but that’s another topic for another day.

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However, the most difficult part of self-publishing is getting your book into the hands of readers. Along with all the cash you’re fronting you’ll also need to cough up a huge chunk of your time to self-promoting, begging (yes, you’ll probably need to beg a lot of book stores, libraries, bloggers, etc to give you the time of day, but I’ll explain why later)

I have a few self-published novels and my #1 reason for self-publishing these manuscripts was control and sellability (new word). I was writing something that wasn’t sellable to agents and publishers because it didn’t fit mainstream and I wanted to have control from beginning to end on these books. I did it realizing I was going to be investing a lot of money into it.

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Small & Medium Press

Are you really tight on budget but don’t want to spend months (even years) querying out agents and publishers? Don’t want to write several novels per year or deal with the commitment of working with a major publisher? Small & Medium press publishing houses are middle of the ground between big publisher and self-publishing.

The smaller houses won’t have the same pull as a big publisher but they have benefits that the big publishing houses necessarily won’t have. They’re more apt to taking a more risky genre or cross-genre, a unique style of writing, etc. They also will probably give you more control over the end product and more of a say in general.

They’re also hit and miss. I’ve worked with two small press publishers so far and the first was a disaster – but boy did I learn some lessons.

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Either way, when looking up publishers – do your research. One useful site is the Preditors and Editors site. Although they don’t seem to have updated their site in about a year, they do have some relevant information. Be weary of print on demand publishing houses (also called vanity press). This is glorified self-publishing and most vanity press houses tend to majorly overcharge. A traditional publisher won’t charge you anything and will only take a percentage of commissions, generally.

The Big Publishers (Also known as the Big 6, The Big 5, The Big 4, etc)

The so-called Big Five publishers — Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster.

I spoke to Jeff Mariotte about the benefits of being with one of the big 5 and this is what he said.

Back in 2004-05, Simon & Schuster published (under their Simon Pulse YA imprint) a 4-book YA/horror series called Witch Season. They published the books in mass market, and included the series in their YA print “magazine” that went out to their mailing list (now they just do an email list). A few years later–after things like Twilight came around and changed the landscape for supernatural/paranormal YA–they repackaged the whole series, retitled it (as Dark Vengeance), allowed me to do some updating of the text, and put it out in two trade paperbacks with new covers.

They placed 25K copies in Walmart first, then did an exclusive set for Borders, an exclusive set for B&N, and a non-exclusive set for everybody. They’re still in print, and still selling once in a while. Virtually none of that would have been possible for me on my own, or for a small press.

I know what it’s like to have reached a sort of cap as an author with a small press company and I can only imagine how much harder it would’ve been as a self-published author. I’ve had local book stores, the big Cons, and others turn me away simply because I’m not signed with one of the big 5. It means I haven’t proven myself as a writer to them and they don’t have the time to read my work (along with the thousands of other authors trying to get their foot in the door) to see if I’m worthy. Who can blame them?

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One of the best reasons to go traditional is because more and more authors are self-publishing crap and no matter how good you are, you’re still thrown into the mix. I see my friends who have fantastic contracts with big publishing houses and friends who are doing fantastic as self-published authors and then everything in between.

If you’re someone who only wants to write the one book and publish it then don’t stress yourself out over all the options. Self-publish your book and ride the wave. However, if you’re someone who wants to be a full-time author, then think seriously about traditional publishing. It’s much more difficult to get your foot in the door with them, but that door keeps a lot of other doors from slamming in your face.

Plus it’s hell of an awesome bragging right.

3 thoughts on “Traditional Publishing or Self-Publishing? That is the Question

  1. As an author who has attempted all three, and actually succeeded at two of these categories, I’d like to throw in my own two-cents worth on my choices. In 2010, when I had finished my first novel I felt was worth publishing, I was told all the Big 6 had closed their doors to new talent. So at that point, the Big 6 was out until I made a big enough name of myself to get their attention. So I self-published my first two novels. I was able to make back the money I put into them. They continue to sell, even today, without promotion on my part.
    When I started writing the Warriors & Watchmen series, I needed to get them professionally edited, because they are worth the extra effort. I know this series will go viral, so I needed some help. That’s why i went with a small publisher.
    I’m still waiting for evidence that one of the Big 6 will help me before I’m successful enough to help myself.

    Simon Driscoll

    1. You bring up a few good points and I think it’s important to remember that depending on circumstances can change things.
      I’m glad I started with small press because mistakes are more forgivable. Something that is important to remember.
      If an author does end up getting a solid contract with big 5 and then their sales plop, it’ll be much harder to come back from that than someone who starts off with small press and works their way into a big publishing house.
      As for them not taking new talent. They’re definitely taking on new talent, but not sure if they are in fantasy. Again, a circumstance thing. Sounds like you’re on the right and best path either way.

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