Friday, January 8, 2010

Into the Fray: Self-publishers vs. Traditionalists

When I decided to self-publish, I knew that I was travelling a foreign road without a guide and that there would be bumps along the way. But little did I know that I’d be jumping into what is beginning to feel like a holy war, with self-publishers on one side and traditionalists on the other. I’m hearing the most interesting opinions bandied about, including the assertion that self-publishing isn’t really publishing and is no different from vanity publishing. That self-publishing is going to flood the market with crap, and readers won’t be able to find good reads anymore. That being accepted by an agent and then by a publisher is the only true validation that you’re a real writer.

But these same people are making some bizarre arguments that a writer has some sort of divine entitlement to write and then pass their precious words off to a machine that will package, market, and sell their book. That writers should never have to promote their work or pay a single cent toward its publication. If you pay anything at all, they insist, you’ve been swindled, and you’re not really a published author.

This is, of course, completely ludicrous. Last time I checked, it takes a lot of query letters, excerpts, drafts, rewrites, lost manuscripts, phone calls, and travel to bring your book to market with a traditional publisher, and none of that is free. How much have you spent on printing and postage alone? Let alone on antacids to counter the effects of waiting for replies from agents and then again from publishers? How many hours have you spent trying to perfect your query letters, time that would have been better spent revising your manuscript? Every author spends money, so I fail to see how spending $39 on a premium account with CreateSpace counts as being swindled.

Here’s the deal: there is a place for traditional publishing, self-publishing, and vanity publishing. It all depends on what your goals are. And I think as writers, we should think very carefully and honestly about our goals and why we hold them.

Let’s start with vanity publishing. If your friend told you that her dream was to swim with dolphins, you would think nothing of her spending a few hundred dollars on travel and expenses to make that dream a reality. If your friend’s dream is to write a novel and just hold it in her hands, but she has no skills to design a cover or do the interior, then a vanity press is the equivalent of the service that takes her swimming with dolphins. Her sense of accomplishment when she holds her book in her hands is worth the price of admission. There’s absolutely no reason for her to query agents or try to get a traditional publisher. HOWEVER, if her goal is to make money off the book, vanity publishers become a problem, because they are in the business of making money off of authors, and they will be more than happy to sell you thousands of dollars in services with the false promise of making you a success. This is where I agree with the traditionalists who hate the vanity presses. It’s easy to fall prey to upsell along the way, and a writer must be aware that in almost all cases, this is not a viable way to get your book out there, in large part because the quality of their cover design and editing services is pretty lacking. As long as you recognize these presses for what they are and don’t think they’re some kind of shortcut for “being published,” they’re a perfectly fine service.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are those who insist that going the traditional publishing route is the only valid choice. For some, the reason is simply that they don’t believe they are a legitimate author until they are accepted by someone they’ve never met--be it an agent, publisher, or critic--whom they assume is smarter than them. (Note that simply getting their book into the hands of readers they’ve never met doesn’t count, for some reason.) If that kind of external validation is necessary for you, then traditional publishing is absolutely the way to go. HOWEVER, if you think traditional publishing means that you’re going to sit back and collect royalties while someone else does publicity for you, you’re sadly mistaken. Publishers have a limited amount of time and money to spend on publicity, and chances are excellent that they won’t spend it on you. Many authors are surprised to discover that they get very little support from their publisher and that they’re back at square one doing their own publicity. So they’re paying a percentage of their royalties to an agent who did nothing but get them a contract with a publisher who printed the book and then left them to sell it themselves. Putting “publisher will handle all publicity” in your marketing plan is like putting “win lottery” in your financial plan.

Speaking of your financial plan, if you think a traditional publisher is the only way to go because your primary goal is to be a rich and famous author, think again. Bestselling authors are starting to reveal just how little money they actually make, which is the best gift they could have given to aspiring writers. (Meghan Ward has written some excellent posts about this lately in her Writerland blog.) Say it with me right now: there will never be another J. K. Rowling. The money you make off writing supplements your income. It’s not going to be your bread and butter unless you’re a) a technical writer, journalist, or other non-creative writer (although I’d argue that much of the technical writing I do is highly creative), or b) extremely lucky. See above point about winning the lottery.

Lastly, some people complain that they’ll never get on the bookstore shelves if they self-publish. News flash: few authors with traditional publishers get on the bookstore shelves, either. There is a highly limited amount of space on those shelves, whereas online bookstores have unlimited catalog space. So you need to ask yourself why it’s so important to be on the shelves of Borders, especially since more and more people are doing their shopping online. Sure, it’s important for discoverability, and as one blogger put it very astutely, you’ll never be a best seller unless your book is in as many places as possible (and at a discount). But it’s still a long shot, and you risk paying back a lot of royalties when these stores return all your books in shabby condition so that you can’t resell them.

In between using a vanity press and trying to get a contract with a traditional publisher is the world of self-publishing. This can mean anything from creating your own publishing company to simply uploading your files to a print-on-demand (POD) service. Again, the route you choose depends on your goals. If you are going to publish multiple books and want to make a business out of it, it makes sense to create your own publishing company. But if you just want to publish one or more titles and get them into the hands of interested readers, you can go with a POD service like CreateSpace or Lulu, which costs nothing up front and makes your book available on Amazon. With CreateSpace, if you pay a one-time fee of $39 for the premium service, you get higher royalties and have access to the distribution program, which will make your book available via distributors such as Ingram and Baker and Taylor. (NB: I found that Lightning Source offers a better deal on distribution than CreateSpace and that CreateSpace gives a higher royalty on books sold via Amazon, so I use both.) If you need help designing the interior and cover of the book, most POD publishers offer additional services for a fee. But be careful: as soon as you start purchasing services from these places, you’re stepping into the vanity press arena where the business model is to make money off of you. I think it’s far better to find a professional editor, graphic artist, web designer, and any other professional service you need by getting recommendations and evaluating samples of their work before hiring them. You don’t have this option when purchasing services from POD publishers, so you have no idea what kind of quality you’ll be getting. Of course, the same can be said for using a traditional publisher: you don’t have much say over the editor and graphic artist they assign to you.

So in a nutshell, here are the strategies you might take depending on your goals:

Make millions of dollars.

1. Use any publishing model.
2. Have a damn good marketing plan and commit to spending lots of time on publicity.
3. Buy a winning lottery ticket.

Get on the bookstore shelves.

1. Try to go with a traditional publisher for best chances at distribution. If you self-publish, be sure to price your book high enough to cover costs and to give megastores the 55% discount they want.
2. Have a damn good marketing plan and commit to spending lots of time on publicity.
3. Work with local bookstores, who are more willing to stock local authors and will often sell books on consignment.
4. Publicize the hell out of your book so that the store will order more copies from you.

Write a great book and get it into the hands of interested readers.

1. Work with a great editor and spend a good deal of time editing and polishing your book.
2. For best results, work with a graphic designer to design a compelling cover that will also look good as a small image online.
3. Self-publish through a POD service.
4. Have a damn good marketing plan and commit to spending lots of time on publicity.
5. Send review copies to bloggers who write about your genre to help generate buzz directly with your audience.
6. Do a virtual book tour through blog sites that offer them.

Finish a novel and hold it in your hands.

1. Write a page a day. In a year, you’ll have your novel.
2. Use the templates on CreateSpace or Lulu to design your interior and cover.
3. Upload your files and order your proof copy.
4. Order additional copies as desired for family and friends.

In summary, the most important thing is to honestly assess your goals, be realistic about why you have them, and forget about winning the lottery. Through hard work both before and after publishing your book, you will get it into hands of people who want to read it, which is really what this whole writing thing is supposed to be about in the first place. No matter what approach you choose, enjoy the ride, because whether you write a best-seller or just print one copy, there really is nothing like holding your completed book in your hands.

But most important of all, forget about the money and fame and just write.


  1. This is the best-expressed analysis of options I've come across. Thank you. My first book is written and I'd pre-judged it as not appropriate for traditional publishing because of content (a prose/poetry hybrid called WORDS for Hard Times). My research convinced me that publishing hurdles increase exponentially for books involving poetry.

  2. Thanks, Jo. I'm sure there are some niche publishers out there who might be interested in your book (some people have reported having great experiences with smaller publishers), but otherwise WORDS is probably a candidate for using a POD service or creating it as an eBook. Enjoy whichever route you end up taking!

  3. Fabulous post! I think what's needed are more reviewers to recommend good self-published books (or to include them with reviews of traditionally published books) to the public. The fact that I can write a grocery list full of typos and self-publish it is what I think prevents some people from taking self-published books seriously. But that is going to change as publishing continues to change.

  4. Great point, Meghan! Bloggers are doing a good job of reviewing self-published books right along with traditionally published books, so it's only a matter of time before reviewers for periodicals catch up and do the same.