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.