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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Self-Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing

Now that direct on-line sales, eBooks, and publishing on demand have opened up new distribution channels for self-publishing, many aspiring authors are wondering if it’s still worth the effort to pursue publishing in the traditional way or if they should go with self-publishing. There’s a lot to consider in making that decision.

Traditional publishing used to offer a very attractive package to authors: a cash advance, professional editing, professional cover design, professional marketing, sales via longstanding relationships with bookstore chain buyers, distribution (warehousing, order fulfillment and management of returns), and accounting, plus royalties should the author’s share of sales exceed the advance. Plus publishers offered the full acceptance of the business risk. If the book didn’t sell, the author still kept the advance. Only the publisher stood to actually lose money.

Note however that I wrote “traditional publishing used to offer a lot . . .” at the top of that last paragraph. That’s because almost everything about the package has changed.

Due to the economic pressures of a major recession plus intense competition from the above mentioned new distribution channels, traditional publishers have been forced to adopt drastic measures. Advances are shrinking. Editing has been outsourced to freelancers. Cover design and marketing have also been outsourced. Longstanding relationships with bookstore chain buyers account for a much smaller percentage of total sales and distribution is much less important because these things are now handled via the Internet in one way or another.

In short: much of what traditional publishers once offered to authors either no longer matters, or else it’s now available to authors directly at identical levels of professionalism and effectiveness.

Take editing for example. The one thing a self-published writer must not do is bypass the editorial process. Input from friends, family, and other authors is sometimes helpful, but without the complete services of professional and experienced fiction editors, virtually no manuscript is fit to print (including mine).

Until just a couple of years ago, almost all the best editors were salaried employees at publishing houses, so it was nearly impossible to deliver a top quality novel to the reading public without getting on board with a publisher. No longer. Most major publishing houses have laid off the majority of their editorial staffs, and those editors have been forced to go into business for themselves. Now authors can shop for editorial assistance directly from a huge pool of highly experienced and professional freelance editors.

One can even make the case that better editing is now available via self-publishing, if the author is willing to pay for it. Traditionally, novels have passed through at least three levels of editing at a publishing house: developmental or conceptual editing, line editing, and copy-editing. All three levels existed for different reasons, and all three are absolutely essential. But in yet another effort to cut costs, many traditional publishers are now omitting at least one of those levels. The author can complain, but the final decision is the publisher’s. In comparison to that, self-publishing with freelance editors may actually produce a better novel.

Almost exactly the same situation exists for cover design and publicity. In the olden days (say, four or five years ago) publishers handled almost all the design and public relations for a novel. Marketing staffs at major houses were as large as editorial staffs. Nowadays however, most marketing is outsourced, often to the same people who once worked in-house. And authors are free to hire those same cover designers and publicity specialist directly.

What’s more, most traditional publishers now require authors to shoulder a major portion of the promotional burden. We are told we must have a “platform.” We must produce and manage our own a website, and a blog, and actively promote our own work in the social media, and we should get out there and set up our own book signings. In many cases, the publisher’s in-house involvement with promotion has been reduced to hiring an outside PR firm and giving them their marching orders. Period. Everything else depends on the freelance PR firm and the author herself, which is exactly the situation faced by self-published authors.

As for sales and distribution, once upon a time every traditional publisher relied on a jealously guarded Rolodex full on longstanding relationships with bookstore buyers. Now however, those relationships are becoming less important every day.

Did you notice the news about Borders bookstores? They’re closed. A few regional bookstore chains remain, especially in the Christian market, but Barnes & Nobel is now the only truly national bricks and mortar bookstore outlet for hard copy sales. And the main reason Barnes & Noble has survived is their own shift to direct Internet and eBook sales as a competitor with Amazon. In other words, authors now have direct access to Barnes & Noble, just like the major houses.

(There is one last major opportunity for bricks and mortar sales which most authors can’t access directly: the so-called “big box” retailers like WalMart and Target. Shelf space is so limited there that only A-list authors make it in, and most of them still write for traditional houses . . . for now.)

What all of this means for the aspiring author is pretty simple: there are only two reasons left to pursue traditional publishing.

First, there is your ego. It feels great for a little while to be able to tell your friends you sold your novel to a major house. It really does. For a little while.

And second, there is the advance and the payments to the freelance editors and cover designer and a PR firm. The essential three full rounds of editing and a good cover (even for an eBook) and a serious publicity campaign can easily run $6,000-$7,000 or more, so an author who wants to take a stab at self-publishing a quality novel should be ready for that kind of up-front investment. Many of us can’t afford to spend that much money on a book that might only sell a thousand copies, which is where traditional publishing can help.

They’ll accept that risk by covering those costs, plus give you an advance, in return for at least 75% of your electronic sales, and 85% of your hard copy sales. You’ll probably get even less if you don’t have an agent, but then if you do have an agent he'll take 15%. And remember: many houses are cutting back on the editing they’ll pay for, so if you want to be certain your novel will get all three levels of editing it requires, write that into the contract.

If you have the money to invest, and if you have the discipline to actually invest it with good editors and then do what they tell you, and if you don’t care about a famous imprint on the spine of your novel, you might want to seriously consider hiring your own team of editors, a designer, and a publicity professional. You’ll have to do the extra work of managing the business aspects of those relationships, plus setting up your own distribution channels via Barnes & Noble and Amazon and so forth, but all else being equal, you stand to make more money in return for the extra work and risk.

Athol Dickson is a novelist, teacher, and publisher of the DailyCristo website. His novels transcend description with a literary style that blends magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have favorably compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher's Weekly) and Flannery O'Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. His next story, The Opposite Of Art, is about pride, passion, and death as a spiritual pursuit. Look for it in September, 2011. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.


  1. This encapsulates the situation very well. I loathe the idea of marketing and self promotion, but between chasing my writing career on the side, and my desperate need to switch from my end-of-my-rope day job to something most likely of a self-employed nature (in addition to the writing), I'm going to have to learn to like marketing and self-promotion whether I want to or not. It's no longer a question of "if" I will, but "when."

    Given that, I'd have to have a doggone good reason to want to go the traditional route. Either way, the burden is on the writer--and not just for a good book.

    BK Jackson

  2. I've been pursuing the independently published route for quite a few years now. The one thing authors coming into the market today need to understand is that eBooks through traditional houses come at a stiff premium to those independently published.

    For example, right now I have two quality books on sale at Kindle and Nook for 99 cents. The rest of my offerings are $3.99. Many traditional houses are stuck selling their products at around $10 because they have to pay so many "other" people in the process.

    Which would you rather pay to try out a new author? 99 cents or $10? That ratio used to work the other way with the traditionals being able to print large quantities thus keeping their price much lower than the independents.

    In the eBook market, that is simply not the case anymore.

  3. I can't imagine I'd make even a small fraction of what I'm making as a traditionally published novelist being self-pubbed. I'm blessed in that I've got top notch covers, marketing, PR. I do a lot and I mean a LOT of self promotion in addition to what my publisher does and I can't imagine how in the world I would do it all if I had to. They get me in PW, LJ, RT, etc.

    Not to say that I wouldn't ever self-pub the right idea but as far as the stuff I CAN get in with my traditional publisher, I will.

    It's also important to note that when we self-pub it closes off a lot, if not most, PR outlets. Even here on NJ we don't have time to go through the majority of poorly written, edited etc self-pubbed stuff so we generally only accept interviews from traditionally published folks unless we're doing something specifically on self-pubbed authors, which is rare.

  4. My experience differs considerably from Athol's. I have received thorough editing from in-house editors and great cover design. My publisher still uses long-term relationships with bookstores and distributors all around the world. I don't have an agent, and I get better percentages than those he quoted.

    There are other national brick-and-mortar chains besides Barnes & Noble. Books-a-Million comes to mind immediately. Yes, Borders closed, but more due to bad business practices than other factors.

    The fact is that the vast majority of self-published novels are of very poor quality. I would rather pay more to take a chance on a new author if I knew the book was put out by a traditional publisher, because my experience is that most self-pubbed stuff isn't worth even the 99 cents to 3.99 they charge.

    Most bookstores still won't carry self-pubbed books, and most book journals won't review them. They know that the stigma the books still carry is for a reason. They are almost always of very poor quality.

    I do a lot of promotion, but I also did it in the "old days," because no one can promote my own book better than I do. If an author isn't willing to work hard to promote, then maybe he or she should pursue another profession.

    The self-pub revolution is way over-hyped. Readers will quickly learn that they have no way to wade through the flood of self-pubbed books, spending their 99 cents fifty times to find one decent read.

    Gatekeepers are still needed, and traditional publishers will continue to fill that role, perhaps in an altered state that will be necessary to compete in a changing environment, but they will continue.

  5. This is an excellent examination of the situation. There are always going to be exceptions to the rules. However, in today's market, an author needs to look at his writing as a business, whether he is traditionally published or not.

    A major reason why I went independent was differing core values and worldviews. Traditional publishers, even CBA publishers, have been walking on the edge of fundamental Biblical truths and even stepping off the edge at times. In recent fiction works, I have seen a shift from fundamental beliefs to embrace worldly philosophies and approaches--in essence a desire to appeal to the world. By the example of some books, a Christian worldview does not consistently match that of a Biblical worldview.

    I had to ask myself, do I want to be subjected to an editor/publisher who will take my story away from my fundamental beliefs to be more ecumenical? No, I do not.

    From a business perspective, a CBA publisher needs to be ecumenical, to appeal to a larger body of readers in Christendom. That's fine. I accept that they need to do this.

    That is not my niche market.

    In my opinion the gatekeepers are not meeting my standards, my core values, my worldview. Traditional publishers, for the most part, have made a shift and I have determined to not move with them. I want to remain conservative in my work.

    My writing is under the authority of my church. From that position, my pastor and key people become the gatekeepers for my work. I hire editors, and fellow church members assist me in my marketing. Praise the Lord, He has enabled and provided. For me, it is not about money. It is not about popularity. It is about glorifying God and presenting Biblical truths.

    P.S. I do not look down on traditionally published authors. They've earned their position, and they've taken the path they feel led to take.

  6. Good presentation, Athol. Fair and balanced. ;)

    Honestly, I don't know why authors such as yourself with a solid fan base, others like Ted Dekker, Karen Kingsbury, etc., don't go the self-publishing route. You, they have the built-in audience factor with people waiting for the next book. The expense can be daunting but those who already have the audience will make far more when the dust settles. It's a pain to do the marketing, but with those secure audiences, not a lot would be required. A few announcements on their blogs, FB, Twitter, and the advance purchases start rolling in.

    I do have to say I somewhat resent Bryan Davis's assessment of "very poor quality" for self-published novels. How many has he read to make that assumption? This is an old assumption which carried weight at one time, not so much now. And as far as the basic production quality, I'd match the output of WinePress Publishers (for example) with ANY traditional publisher's books. How about last year's Vince Flynn's American Assassin? More than 20 editing errors of EVERY kind beginning on page 3 and carrying on to the end of the novel. As usual, the story was great, but the lack of editing was atrocious and inexcusable. And this from New York's finest?

    I've read too much Christian fiction to be assured of the mantra of "only the best" get through the so-called Gatekeepers. It's simply not true. There's some astounding talent making it via the traditional way, but there's also some very mediocre at best getting through their so-called seeking the best process. Obviously this applies to the ABA as well.

    So . . . there.

  7. I'm not opposed to traditional publishing. On the contrary, I've been doing it since 1996 and I have another novel coming next month with Howard, a division of Simon & Schuster. I’m just looking at realities: the care and feeding of a novel takes time, and time costs money in business, and publishers have much less money these days. So they bet on sure things first, their A-list authors almost guaranteed to sell X number of copies. A tighter budget means less time to nurture new careers, and a lower tolerance for risk. This is not a matter of personal opinion, or my own experience. It’s cause and effect.

    Lest aspiring authors be misled: the only way most "A-list" traditional publishers will offer a higher percentage than I mentioned is to attract or retain an "A-list" author. Every traditionally published mid-list author I've asked is working in the 15%-25% print/eBook range, except for some who are with smaller "boutique" houses (a situations which has trade-offs in return for the higher percentages).

    The "gatekeeper" argument is a good one from a reader's point of view, but I think it's irrelevant for authors unless it connects with higher sales, and the trends are in the other direction.

    It's true a traditional publisher can get you a review in Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus. But do such reviews sell enough additional books to make up for the 75%-85% cost of the traditional publisher? I think it depends on how hard the author will work to promote and sell on her own through other channels, and on the quality of the review, and so forth. Those reviews are certainly no guarantee of added sales.

    It's also true that most stores won’t stock a self-published novel, but that's not much of an argument for traditional publishing. Chances are a traditional publisher won't get it into Barnes & Noble for you, either. (Books-A-Million is not a national chain, BTW. They only have stores in about 23 states. As far as I know, Barnes & Noble is the only chain left that's truly national in all 50 states.)

    I've published seven novels and one non-fiction title, and I hardly ever see them in stores. That’s because not counting vanity press books, publishers put out around 175,000 NEW TITLES EVERY YEAR, on top of the 175,000 new ones they published last year, and the 175,000 the year before that, etc.. Meanwhile, even the largest Barnes & Noble stores can stock only about 200,000 titles.

    (See and )

    Of those 200,000 titles, the majority will be proven performers carried over from prior years. Their stock of untried fiction titles by new or mid-list authors is a mere fraction of the new novels published annually.

    Bottom line: most novels published traditionally never see the inside of a Barnes & Noble. But with the Internet we can sell print-on-demand copies directly. And consider this: business analysts are predicting that Amazon will sell HALF OF ALL BOOKS SOLD IN EVERY FORMAT by the end of 2012. So the inability to sell your novel inside a B&N isn’t a huge compromise.

    (See )

    Still, if an author is working at it in her spare time, that's a good reason to pursue traditional publishing, as someone mentioned. In that case, once you have a publisher on board, you basically have a partner who will handle many of the details while you work your day job (or care for the kids as the case may be). It's one of the few remaining arguments for a new author to pursue traditional publishing, in my opinion. That, and it forces you to work with professional editors.

  8. Staci, you bring up an excellent point--and a frustrating one. One of the reasons I am so thrilled with the advent of e-readers and e-books is it allows me, a person with an extremely tight budget who could rarely afford to purchase fiction in print books (what little funds I had went to buying books for my own research, not fiction) was that e-books allow me more purchasing power.

    And with that newfound power, there is simply no way I'm going to shell out $10+ for an ebook fiction (I probably would for non-fic). There is plenty of great fiction to be had for $5 and under, and that's where I'll shop unless I've become so loyal to an author that I'm willing to spend 3 gallons of gas on their e-books.

    RE: The comment by anothe reader about poor quality self-pubbed--this would be a lot more valid if every book traditionally published was stellar but it's not so. I think of all the discussion about traditional vs. self-pubbed, I find the whole notion of needing gatekeepers to be the most annoying. If the writer does their work and promotes their book, I'll find them and make my own assessment, thanks very much.

    BK Jackson

  9. Thanks for sharing, Athol. Your nonfiction writing is as strong and convincing as your fiction writing. :)

    Sarah Joy, an associate agent-in-training


    Literary agent Chip MacGregor wrote a great post above on this very subject. It's worth your while to read.

  11. Great discussion on this. I've done both, with one novel published by a royalty house, two non-fiction self-pubbed and two others as ebooks.

    All have advantages/disadvantages as outlined well above.

    But when the dust settles I think I still prefer the traditional route, mostly because of the stigma of self publishing which just doesn't want to go away. That said I don't intend to stop self- publishing my non-fiction. I have an audience and the books get great reviews and sell well within my context and locality. So I'll keep doing it.

    But I'll also be looking for a royalty paying publisher for my next novel.

    Everyone has to make their own choices and this kind of discussion helps those who are trying to swim through all the hype and false info.
    Thanks for doing it.

    Marcia Laycock

  12. To Nicole, there is no need to resent my evaluation of most self-published books. I didn't say your work is of poor quality, and I didn't say that all self-published books were of poor quality. It's great that you work so hard to make sure yours are good. I don't mind when people take shots at traditionally published books. I know there are bad ones out there.

    Writers send me their self-published work quite frequently, asking for an endorsement, so I read a lot of it, including books from WinePress. Since I haven't seen a high-quality one yet, I stand by my statement that the majority of it is poor. Again, there is no need to be resentful of my assessment, since you are rising above the masses.

    Even thous some traditionally published books are of poor quality, in general, the quality of traditionally published books is much higher than that of self-published books. It doesn't prove anything to display an exception to either rule. Finding a truly bad traditionally published book and a truly good self-published book merely shows that there are exceptions.

    Regarding points that have been made by others, just because some traditionally published authors aren't in Barnes & Noble doesn't mean that you won't get into the store if you are traditionally published. Books fill their shelves from one end of the store to the other, so they have to come from somewhere, but they aren't coming from the self-publishing world.

    My books are in Barnes & Noble, Books-a-million, Borders (before they closed), and other big chains, and many of my sales have come from these stores. So this is a good argument for traditional publishing.

    Also, I consider Books-a-million to be a national chain. It isn't necessary to be in all 50 states to be considered national.

    Although my comments have annoyed some people, the fact remains that a flood of self-published books is surging into the market. Even if you don't need a gatekeeper yourself, many readers will look for ways to know what is good and what is not before making a purchase. With thousands upon thousands of self-pubbed authors out there promoting themselves, readers will have a hard time sorting through it all. They will search for easier answers.

    I hope people won't continue to resent what I'm saying or become further annoyed. I'm just laying out the case that the self-pub revolution won't live up to the hype. I am just trying to provide counsel. I'm not trying to insult any author. Again, if your writing is better than what I have seen, then more power to you. I hope you can destroy the stigma.

    I'm also not saying that I won't ever self publish a novel. Since I have a following already, I might give it a try, but I wouldn't do it if I were trying to break into the market for the first time.

  13. Thank you for your explanation, Bryan. And just so you know, I'm not suggesting my novels are better than what you've been subjected to. Production-wise, and by that I mean cover design, format, font, paper quality, etc., WinePress (again as an example) is on a par with any traditional publisher. (Their new packages, redone early 2011, all require editing where there used to be packages you could purchase that didn't. They use their lists of professional editors for submitted material.)

    The horrendous amount of writers make it impossible for all good writers to be traditionally published, and it has been said by some traditionally published authors that it takes more perseverance than talent to get royalty published.

    I realize that anyone with enough dollars and cents can get a novel self-published and/or e-published. And having the money doesn't necessitate quality writing.

    It just gets tiresome to hear the stigma over and over again when there is so much in the royalty publishing arena that doesn't warrant being assigned the label of "quality" writing.

    I understand the criticism of many of the self-published offerings, but I think it's only fair to come clean about that lack of quality in all areas of publishing.

  14. Nicole, you're right about Winepress's look and feel. They do a superb job with cover, design, etc. I know several people in their organization, and they are top-notch in professionalism and spiritual character.


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