Traditional vs self-publishing

Traditional vs self-publishing

By Kirsty Logan 22/08/12

There's been much recent debate about self-publishing in the literary world, with some established authors choosing to sell their own work as e-books without the help of a publisher. Self-publishing has existed for decades, but has experienced a recent boom due to new print-on-demand and ebook technology. But what does it all mean? Kirsty Logan finds out...

Traditional publishing is publishing as we know it: books on shelves in a bookshop.

The author writes a novel or non-fiction manuscript and then queries an agent. The agent then sells the book to an editor at an established publishing house like Penguin or Random House, or a smaller publisher like To Hell With Publishing or Sandstone Press. The writer receives an advance against future sales, which does not have to be returned no matter how many copies of the book are sold. The agent receives 10-20% of this advance (agents only get paid when the writer gets paid). The publisher’s staff edits, typesets, designs, prints, promotes and distributes the book, all of which takes one to two years. The publisher will also format and distribute any ebook or audio versions, and depending on the contract will also handle translations. 

“I fully appreciate how incredibly lucky I was to have a debut novel signed in the traditional way in the current climate,” says Kerry Hudson, author of Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (Chatto & Windus).

The upside of traditional publishing, says Kerry, is the security: “I feel in very safe hands. Chatto & Windus have brilliant, highly experienced people in place – that is incredibly reassuring when you are a debut author trying to reach an audience for the first time. Another pro is the recognition that comes with being with a big house. It is a very personal choice, but I needed that endorsement.”

The downside, similarly, is the lack of security: “Most big houses have so many people involved in the buy-in to an acquisition: PR & marketing, sales, other editors, the publishing director. I know plenty of people who’ve had really positive responses and then fell at the final ‘profit and loss sheet’ sales team hurdle.” 

Self-publishing means that the author not only writes the book, but also handles every part of the publishing process: proofreading, cover design, distribution etc. Many self-published writers hire freelance editors and artists, but this can be very expensive. In the past, the author had to estimate how many copies of the book to print, often resulting in expensive stacks of unsold books. But print-on-demand (or POD) means that the book is only printed when someone orders it, so the author does not have to pay hundreds or thousands of pounds upfront for printing. It is difficult, though not impossible, to get self-published or POD books into high-street bookshops like Waterstones.

Many self-published writers only produce ebooks. E-publishing means that there is no physical book, just an electronic version that can be read on a computer, phone or dedicated e-reader like a Kindle. The author sells the ebook through Amazon's Kindle store, dedicated ebook sites or their own website. With e-publishing, the author can have their finished book on sale to the public in weeks or even days. The author generally receives a higher royalty percentage (depending on where the ebook is sold), but for writers who do not already have a platform or a loyal fan-base, sales can be tiny. The author covers all costs associated with the publishing process.

“When I finished my third book I had no idea there was such a thing as self-publishing”, says Dan Holloway, author of several self-published books and member of writers' collective Year Zero. “The response from agents was basically that if I wanted a regular publisher I should write something that would make a ‘big splash’. I wasn't interested in doing that, so I got together with a group of people who also had no interest in changing what they write.”

The upside of self-publishing is that it’s fast, cheap and easy. The downside, says Dan, is the same as the upside: “Because it's fast, cheap and easy, it’s tempting to do it with the wrong book or when you're not ready, and if you do that you could alienate potential readers for good.”

Debate will continue to rage over self-publishing vs traditional publishing, and there will never be a choice which is better for everyone. It can take a year or more to complete a book, so it's worth taking the time to thoroughly research every option. There is no right answer, just the choice that best suits you and your writing career.


Image: Bookshelf by heipei under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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