One of the things new authors have to work out for themselves is which publishing route they want to take on their journey from manuscript to book. In some ways, you’re lucky to have to make this decision! Twenty years ago, self-publishing options like we have today just didn’t exist. Your options were to try the traditional route and hopefully land a book deal, win the lottery and “vanity publish,” or to give up on writing and go back to your day job.
In some ways, yes, these are still the options. The advent of the Internet and the era of the eBook have made the costs associated with self-publishing next to non-existent, depending on how you want to go about it. Whereas it once cost around $10,000 to $20,000 to self-publish, it can now be virtually free. Very few authors feel the need to “go back to their day job” and give up on their publishing dream (although you may not want to quit your day job just yet).
The question becomes how you want to go about publishing. Should you go the traditional route? Or should you self-publish? We’ll look at both self-publishing vs traditional publishing to help you decide which option is better for you.
The Traditional Publishing Route
We’ll start with the traditional publishing route, since it’s a little more complicated. To go this route, you’ll need to shop your manuscript around to publishers and/or agents.
Once you have a manuscript, you can pitch it to editors and agents. If they’re interested, they’ll ask to see the manuscript. If you don’t have a manuscript yet, just a pitch, they may ask you for a treatment, or they may sign you to a contract and ask you to produce the manuscript.
Many authors simply mail their finished manuscript in to publishers. Most publishers have a “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts. Even publishers who say they do not accept unsolicited manuscripts may keep a slush pile (although it’s equally likely they’ll send it back or destroy it). It’s often the job of an editorial intern or editorial assistant to pick through the slush pile, return rejection notes, and make judgments on manuscripts. Occasionally, a publisher finds a “hidden gem” this way, but that is rare.
Some publishers do take submissions this way. Those that are open to submission ask you to pitch or query their editors, and they sign many of their books this way. This is especially common for high-volume publishers or small operations. Don’t be surprised if you still get a rejection notice, however.
Your other option is to pitch or query an agent. An agent performs the same role as an editor. They evaluate your idea or manuscript, plus you as an author, and determine if they want to take you on as a client. Typically, agents can go directly to publishers and editors, so they’re more successful at getting eyes on your work. They may even be able to start a bidding war for you book.
Usually, an agent will want to see some previously published work. This is particularly true of literary fiction; they’ll want to see you’ve published in some literary journals and have some credibility in this circle. Basically, publishing is snobby.
The Self-Publishing Route
Self-publishing does away with all of the gatekeepers. You do some research on platforms. Once you have your manuscript, you can do as much or as little work as you’d like in editing and formatting it. Then you head over to your platform of choice and upload the file. The file is then prepared for publication. You hit a button, and presto! You’re done.
You may need to pay a fee for the self-publishing service. If you engage editorial services, typesetting, proofreading, or cover design services, you will likely have to pay a fee for those. Other than that, though, you’re done.
Yes, it really is that easy. You can become a published author today, so long as you have a Word document kicking around.
Self-Publishing vs Traditional Publishing: What Are the Pros?
Let’s stop right here. Authors often ask this, “Which is better?”
The answer is neither and both. These two routes to publishing both have their advantages and disadvantages. What’s really important is picking a path that suits you and your needs as an author.
Pros of Traditional Publishing
Let’s start with the advantages of traditional publishing. Some people say there aren’t any, but there are. One is the credibility of being published by a publishing house. There’s still some prestige with being published by Random House or HarperCollins, because it says someone else looked at your work and decided it was good enough to be in print. Editors and publishers decided your book has merit.
The other benefit of the traditional publishing route is primarily financial. If you go the whole nine yards and follow the traditional book production process, you’re going to spend around $10,000 on your book, easy. If you plan to print your book in any volume, you could easily be looking at $20,000.
The publisher pays for this when you go the traditional route. They pay for editing, marketing, cover design, printing, shipping, and warehousing. A publisher also has reach into bookstores and other markets. They may be able to sell translation rights or film rights.
Pros of Self-Publishing
The primary advantage of self-publishing, on the other hand, is speed. The traditional route can take years. You may not be able to find a willing buyer for your work. If you want to get your work out there, then self-publishing is for you.
Self-publishing has another major advantage, and that’s control. You are author, editor, and publisher, so what you say goes. People who have had run-ins with abusive publishers or editors may find comfort in self-publishing.
The Downsides to Either Route
All right, what are the downsides of each of these routes?
For traditional publishing, your first guess should be the amount of time and effort it can take to get a book published. Many authors spend years trying to find a buyer for their book. How many rejection notices did Dr. Seuss receive? There are many reasons a book may be rejected, but it’s still discouraging. It still feels like a judgment call on your work—and sometimes, it is!
The other thing that happens in traditional publishing is a loss of control. The publisher may ask for edits or revisions you’re not comfortable making. They may reject your manuscript and demand rewrites to suit their idea of a marketable book, not your idea. Raymond Carver worked with editor Gordon Lish early in his career and Lish was hugely influential in developing Carver’s signature style. Carver eventually broke with him because of how much Lish controlled the prose. Even famous authors can lose control of their work then.
Self-publishing isn’t exactly a bed of roses either. The biggest issue is the lack of reach. You’re a single person, in a crowded eBook market, shouting, “HEY! Buy my book!” There are numerous problems with this approach, but the biggest on is you’re being drowned out in a cacophony of voices saying the same thing.
The other issue is money. As author, publisher, and editor, you’re responsible for all of the finances on the project. Want to buy a cover design? Better make up a budget for that. Want to do some great marketing or buy ad space? That’s coming out of your pocket.
What Do You Want?
When considering self-publishing vs traditional publishing, it’s important to consider your own desires. Some authors welcome the prestige of having a publisher, along with the safety and security of having professionals handle and pay for the production of the book. They’ll gladly surrender their sole control of the final product if it means getting access to the resources they lack. Some authors are willing to wait for the right book deal to come along.
Other authors aren’t willing to wait. They want their book out there now. Money might still be a concern, but they’re willing to shoulder the burden. Or maybe you’ve already been waiting for a publisher to come around and recognize your work. If you’re tired of waiting, self-publishing could be the right option.
Self-Publishing vs Traditional Publishing: The Bottom Line
In the end, neither option in the self-publishing vs traditional publishing battle is inherently better than the other. They both provide different experiences and different advantages. Your choice will depend on what you as the author need and want. Whether that’s someone else footing the bill or full creative freedom, only you know.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is this. You can (almost) always self-publish your book, then sign a book deal for it. That’s pretty much what happened to Fifty Shades of Grey, after all. After it blew up, Random House snapped up the rights. Since you are the author and publisher of the self-published work, you control the rights. If you self-publish the book, then decide to sell them to a publishing house, you can do that!
Not every publishing house will be open to this route. Remember: Publishing is snobby. Many publishing professionals still look down on self-published authors as “vanity publishers” or hacks. They may not want to pick up the rights to something that’s been previously published, unless it was a huge hit.
Self-publishing might not be the right choice for that reason. At the same point in time, it’s a way to get your work out there now and to start growing an audience. In turn, you may eventually catch a publisher’s notice.
Get Your Book Ready for the Next Steps
No matter what you decide is right for your book, working with a great editor could be a smart move. If you’re ready to take the next step with your manuscript, get in touch with us. We’d love to hear from you about your book.