Self-Publishing Vs. Traditional Publishing: The Showdown
Self-Publishing doesn’t have the stigma it once had. In fact, the sales figures for self-published books is making the big publishers pull their hair out as they struggle to remain relevant. Authors today have more options for publishing their novel than ever before, so I wanted to break down what it means to pursue self-publishing vs a traditional publisher.
Let’s start with Traditional Publishing. First, you’ll probably need to find a literary agent, which will involve countless queries to literary agencies and some upfront costs. Some literary agents still require a physical copy of the manuscript (in 2015!). The proprietors of those agencies are stuck in the past. If you do get picked up by an agent, they will shop your manuscript around to the big publishers. If none of them bite, the agent may shop around to a lower tier publisher (a small-medium sized press). Getting an agent in no way guarantees your book will be published. Heck, even getting a contract with a large publisher is no guarantee that your book will be published. Since the largest publishers don’t really give advances anymore, they can pick up more novels and then pick and choose later where to foot the bill. Meanwhile, you’ve sold your rights and may not make any money off the book or see it in print for a long time.
Next, unless you’re Stephen King or another big name author, the big publishers won’t risk spending money to market your book. They just won’t. The best you can hope for is a few submissions to newspapers for reviews. (Again, stuck in the past). What’s been happening in recent years is Traditional Publishers are looking to see if you have a social media following even before they will sign a contract with you. The more of a following you have, the less effort they have to exert on your behalf. In the end, you will end up doing the lion’s share of your own marketing regardless of which route you take to publishing.
About the only decent thing you’ll get out of one of these deals (barring a lucky break) is a fairly good cover for your book. However, because of the way brick-and-mortar bookstores are going, if your book is placed in a bookstore it has a limited amount of time to prove itself before it gets the ax. When I worked for a large national chain of bookstores, we pulled books if they didn’t sell a certain quota after 3-6 months. This is why it’s critical to have a large social media following. Traditional Publishers are going to put their money on proven sources of book sales rather than an unknown who may or may not do well. If you make it past that initial period, you could end up doing well with Traditional Publishing. Or, statistically speaking, you may just make it to the next sales period only to be cut then.
If you are cut by a Traditional Publisher, your rights will probably revert to you after a time. For more on rights reversion, here’s a great source.
If you choose Self-Publishing, you will be responsible for every aspect of your novel. There is a great deal of freedom in this, but it can be scary for those who are just starting out. Self-Publishing your first novel, if nothing else, will surely net you some great skills. There are a lot of companies out there that prey on unsuspecting authors, selling them overpriced packages that include editing services, cover design, and more. I’ve personally never dealt with those services because I think they’re a ripoff. There are a few things you can do to save money and turn out a great book.
1. Cover Design. If you can’t afford photoshop, I suggest Photoshop Elements, which is a stripped-down version that sells for $76.67 on Amazon (As of this writing). To put it in perspective, most businesses will charge $400-$500 for a single cover. Next, head over to IStock Photo and find a good image. I plan to go in depth into this process in a later post, but for now, you’ll want something that is 6″ x 9″ or larger at 300 dpi. IStock has changed their pricing scheme so every size of the image is the same price. As a rule of thumb, download the best quality you can. When you’re looking for an image, don’t just pick the first one that looks nice. Spend some quality time looking around. I looked for days for my last cover and it definitely paid off. I also tend to look for images that are already vertical rather than horizontal, as it makes it easier. Otherwise you might find a large image that’s horizontal and end up cutting out something you wanted. Before you download anything for real, download a comp version (very low quality that’s free) and see what it looks like in photoshop with words overlaid. Again, I will go into this more deeply in a later post.
2. Editing. This will vary depending on the writer. Some people really need editing services and others don’t need it as much. Everyone, however, needs another pair of eyes. I have three alpha-readers that read every book I publish, searching specifically for errors. One is a reader who focuses more on the flow of the story. One is highly critical (in a nice way) and tends to find problems in story structure and the littlest of details gone awry. The last one is another author who’s written more than 25 books and has a Master’s in Creative Writing. Luckily for me, I don’t have to pay them anything because they’re related to me and they’re nice like that. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have this situation, but most people have a friend or three who can look over their work for free. I would suggest doing this first.
If there are still prevalent errors after multiple people have looked at it, then I would say you need to send it off to a line editor to make sure your book is as near to error-free as possible. However, something that’s great about Self-Publishing is if you or a reader does find another error after publishing, it’s very easy to change. In fact, you can even fix an error in the print version (through Createspace) in about 24 hours or less. In this way, a lot of books have become like versions of software. You put out the best book you can, and then adjust if any errors are found. Still, don’t half-ass this step.
3. Control. One great thing for us OCD writers is the immeasurable amount of control we have over our work. Self-Publishing allows us to make sure we tell the story that WE want to tell, that our cover is up to OUR standards, and that marketing is truly up to US. Story time. I spend about one hour every day learning something new that will advance my writing career. One day it could be perfecting my photoshop skills, another it could be drilling down into SEO (Search Engine Optimization). If you were to spend one hour every day for a year learning the ins and outs of Self-Publishing, promotion, book formatting, photo/video editing, and more, you would make so much progress you’d hardly recognize where you came from. Eventually, you will become a rock star at all of these skills and more.
4. Marketing. I’m going to include social media under this umbrella to keep things simple. Since most people don’t really start out with a marketing budget when they’re Self-Publishing, I suggest you start with social media. Build up a following on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and other sites to get your name out there. While there are ad services on just about every social media site that you can pay for, you can do a lot for free. In fact, I haven’t paid for anything on a social media site yet. I’ve looked into it and may start using those options in the future, but for right now free works fine. In addition to social media sites, I would suggest a blog and/or website that can act as a landing zone for readers. Social media can help get your name out there, but if someone Googles your name and comes up blank, that says something about you. (To be fair, if you Google “Trevor Schmidt” you might find a fair number of articles about Liposuction and a ripoff report for said surgeon. That is NOT the same Trevor Schmidt). Blogging is also a good way to practice writing and get in the habit of writing more words in a sitting.
If you’ve made it this far, then it’s probably pretty obvious where I stand on Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing. There are merits to both, but for the vast majority of people, self-publishing may be the way to go. For more insight on this, watch my video. There’s certainly a lot more to Self-Publishing that I couldn’t cover in today’s post, but stay tuned for more posts and videos every Tuesday to learn more!