Revolutionised in recent years by the invention of eBooks, the publishing industry is completely different to what it was 10-15 years ago and is booming, despite the negative effect of the pandemic, the industry has a turnover of £6 billion. For writers, digital publishing and an increase in self-publishing services mean that there are more options than ever before for getting your work out there, and the increasing popularity of self-publishing (and writing communities on social media) means that getting published is much more accessible now.
So what exactly is the difference?
Traditional publishing refers to the long-standing method of getting a book deal. Simplified, an author goes through the process of acquiring an agent, submitting to many agents before they find the right one for them and get accepted by an agent, the agent will then, among other things, use their industry connections to submit the book to publishing houses and the publishers will then accept or deny. If the manuscript is accepted, a contract will be signed, the book will go through further edits and eventually be published.
Self-publishing often means undertaking all responsibilities of publishing the work yourself e.g. editing, designing, and formatting. This doesn’t mean that the author has to do all of these things themselves, they can hire freelance professionals. To publish and sell their books authors can use print-on-demand services and self-publishing platforms like Amazon KBD or Lulu.
Traditional vs Indie: Pros and Cons
So which is right for you?
It can be difficult to choose, however, which model to go for. Each has its own set of pros and cons, and the choice often depends on the individual author’s needs and circumstances; here are some comparisons to help you choose.
One of the biggest draws to traditional publishing houses over self-publishing is the validation they afford the author and literary prestige they can generate. For a long time, there was a stigma against self-publishing, which is lessening more and more but can still persist. Many literary prizes, for example, aren’t open to indie authors.
Distribution to bookstores is also a big draw to traditional publishing houses. Selling to bookstores is what they excel at and will have sales teams whose job it is to sell books to bookstores. Typically, this is done through pitches and meetings or at industry conventions but publishing houses will also have seasonal catalogues sent out to bookstores, which include information on what titles they will be publishing that season and an idea on how they will sell. Bookstores will then order titles they want to sell in bulk.
While bookstores like Waterstones and Barnes & Noble might stock self-published books, this is more likely if you are a local author and also dependent on what your sales are like. Your books must also have an ISBN, print copies and Book Placement Consideration forms must be filled out, even then, they may not carry your book in store – customers will have to have it ordered in. However, thanks to online shopping, having your book carried in a high street shop is no longer the only way to guarantee sales.
The amount of sales your book gets heavily depends on a good marketing strategy, whether traditionally published or self-published. To extent, publishing houses may grant the help of a professional marketing team and have the connections to reach a mainstream audience more quickly. Authors are still expected to do their own promotion and marketing to readers to drive sales; a publishing house will largely market to the industry e.g. bookstores. Self-published authors by default are responsible for their own marketing and promotion. It may take longer for self-published authors to gain a large readership, however they may be able to reach a target audience more directly, especially for niche books. Social media can also be a great tool to do this; promoting on Twitter and Instagram is an option if you already have a large following there, I’ve also seen several authors getting creative on TikTok to advertise their books.
Making money from your work is a concern for all writers; making a living from your art is the dream, right?
Authors make money from revenue on book sales and royalties or advances if you are traditionally published.
Traditional publishers will often give an advance against royalties which means that if, for example, an author receives a $5000 advance and a 7% royalty rate then royalty payments will be withheld until the $5000 already paid to the author is earned out of their royalty rate on book sales. Traditional publishers will also keep a large percentage of royalties – the average royalty rate for traditionally published authors is around 7%-25%.
Self-published authors don’t receive an advance and so don’t see any money until their book sells but depending on what printing/publishing service is used, the royalty rate for self-published authors can be between 60%-100% on average. However, self-published authors also have to take into consideration the cost of publishing and the possibility of ending up at a loss. For traditionally published authors there is no upfront cost and editing and designing is provided by the publishing house, but for indie authors the cost can be steep depending on your budget and the services used. A general estimate for self-publishing is between $700-$1600 including editing, proofreading, designing a book cover etc.
Creative Control & Copyrights
Another thing to consider is how much creative control you want to have over your book. As mentioned, editing and cover designing etc is largely controlled by the publishing house when getting traditionally published and some authors are left with book covers they don’t like and editors they disagree with. Self-published authors retain all creative control over their works.
And perhaps even a bigger thing to consider is the issue of ownership rights.
Once a contract is signed with a traditional publishing house, the book essentially belongs to them for the length of copyright (the life of the author plus 70 years). Translation and other publishing rights can also be affected. This all depends on what exactly your book deal is and what your contract stipulates; it’s extremely important to read contracts carefully before making a decision.
With self-publishing, the author typically retains all rights to their work but it’s still important to be careful and read the terms and conditions of whatever publishing or printing service you use.
A Hybrid Approach
With so many things to consider when choosing how to get your work out there and the industry going through such a change, many people decide to take a hybrid approach – using the traditional model for some projects and the indie model for others.
Whatever your decision, indie, traditional or hybrid, it’s important to stay empowered and to know your rights.