The Write Stuff: Traditional Vs. Self-Publishing

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

We are kicking off the Write Stuff: Self-Publishing Tools series with content about the choice of traditional versus self-publishing. As an avid reader, I know the Big 5 publishing houses – recognize their logo, follow their social media platforms, and peruse their job postings on the regular. There is a certain reputation and sophistication with being branded under the their name or imprint. However, getting into the door or even in front of an editor’s desk is harder than it sounds. Because this series is surrounding the world of self-publishing, most of the content I am sharing will be in its favor, BUT also provide critiques and challenges.

For those ready to take the leap of publishing their work, it is the next step, the making the book ‘official’, like a social media relationship status. In order for this to happen it “needs to be accessible to a broader audience, becoming part of a shared discourse – the public record. A published work is put out into the world where anyone might see it. Publishing involves bravery and risk: it is entrepreneurial in an intellectual as well as a financial sense. To publish is to put yourself out there and proclaim that you have content worth sharing” (Lupton 11). Whatever your motivation is to share your story and words, you have something that matters to you and want others to know it. I sometimes get stuck in the rut of knowing what that message is and will people want to pick up what I am putting down? Seeing where the state of leisure reading is right now, gives me pause in general. There is a record low 19% of Americans age 15+ who report they read for pleasure – the largest decline among that statistic is the 35-44 age group (Herther). What does that mean for all of us aspiring writers? Is it content related? Too many options? The nature of where we are as a country? Within those questions is another around how self-publishing affects that:

there have been two dominant ways of understanding self-publishing…The first position celebrates the freedom of digital publishing and the fall of the New York gatekeepers who suppressed different kinds of writing because they were conservative by nature and had been corrupted by the market. The second position laments the fall of gatekeepers because accessible publishing presents an existential threat to the culture of the book. It has created a flood of amateurish books that should be ignored or dismissed because they do not adhere to professional standards. The first position presumes a weakening of the publisher, the second a weakening of the professional author, whose work is likely to be lost in the flood (Laquintano 4)

It is like we are stuck between a rock and a hard place! Which avenue is in our best interest? Let’s take a deeper look into these two options of publishing.

Traditional Publishing

I feel that being a part of a publishing house has been a dream of bookish people since they have been around – the prestige, the support, the offers. Even if bookworms are not writers, aspiring to even work in a publishing house is highly attractive. Because of their notoriety, submitting manuscripts this route is sometimes looking for a needle in a haystack for the initial editor/reader, if it even makes it to their desks. Several publishing houses have stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts (mostly from authors lacking a literary agent) because of the low chance that they will sign those offers. They are a low priority in the grand scheme of things (Curtis 169). It is a risk, but you never know what can happen, especially if you nail the marketing and exposure aspects in your book plan.

If you are not pressed for time, publishing houses typically take about a year to put the book out on shelves and in readers’ hands. The process is laborious and has several hoops to jump through – probably taking longer than writing your book OR just as challenging, as you navigate each phase. Dan Millman outlines the procedure into what is called “The Nine-Sale Gauntlet”. Here is a general idea of each of the nine stages in publishing through a house:

  1. Selling it to yourself – you’ve got to believe in it!
  2. Early readers – those that give comments and advice (hello friends and family!)
  3. Literary agent – submitting materials including query letter and other requirements
  4. Bridge of agent to editor – getting it in front of the professional eyes
  5. Editor champions the work with other editors and marketing staff
  6. Presenting the book to in-house or distributor’s sales reps
  7. Pitching the book to online outlets and book chains
  8. Connecting book with readers with displays and marketing efforts
  9. Testimonials and word-of-mouth to boost or maintain sales

Whew! Not too bad, but these steps do not have a shelf life so to speak. Sometimes it is the luck of the draw or in comparison to other works that are also competing in the same gauntlet.

On the flip side, with the decline in book sales and readership, the traditional publishing companies may need to look at other avenues to bring in revenue and authors. If these trends keep occurring, “(p)ublishers will only be relevant if they can give authors evidence that they can connect their works to more readers than anybody else” (Sargent). The house needs to have an identity – one that is known and recognized by readers. Another avenue traditional publishers can take is offering services to assist in self-publishing. Since some self-published works garner impressive sales, authors have the option to sell the rights to the publishing houses if they are interested. To stay ahead of this, publishers can work with the authors initially and “publish more authors’ works exclusively as electronic books to test the market and reduce their risk” (Millman 231). The power may be shifting to the authors in this case. In the future, authors may be able to be more optimistic about their options and have the final say in which one to go with.


Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash
Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

On the other hand, we have self-publishing. These individuals are not on their own however, despite the nomenclature. There are opportunities for collaboration – both volunteer and paid – that can make the process less daunting including copyeditors, designers, and bloggers. What is most attractive in this avenue is that “authors also have decision-making power over cover art, text design, and title” (Millman 230). With this control, though, you are wearing multiple hats and are managing multiple aspects of the process. Today, independent authors are dealing with selecting a platform, organizing book/blog tours, getting reviews and setting prices – as opposed to the simplicity of publishing before modern technology (McCartney). All of this as well as being lumped in to a global marketplace that sees more and more books published every year. With publishing your own book, to actually see it out in places where readers can buy/borrow, you need to request an ISBN – that way people can find it. We are seeing “ISBN registrations jumping 21% from 2014-2015…and as the landscape gets more crowded, it becomes more difficult for authors to stand out and make a profit” (Daniel). I can only assume it has increased the last 3 years.

Another aspect of self-publishing is the medium. E-readers have seen a boost in sales because of the convenience and ease of downloading a book with little wait time. It is not a question of whether you as a reader prefer print, electronic, or audio. It is about what medium can place your book in the hands of readers.  “The e-reader eliminated both book and bookstore alike, and may even wipe out publishers, too. Who needs a publisher when you can just market your own book directly on the Internet to the public for a small fee to download it onto your gadget, while you, the author, pocket most of the money, which reverses the normal situation in publishing?” (Ebert 38-39). This could be a game-changer with increasing your success within self-publishing. Compared to what it could look like for sending print materials to an editor, e-books could yield more positively. That risk also points to self-publishing as a favorable option since “(u)nsolicited manuscripts are sent to the ‘slush pile,’ a dumping ground periodically sifted through by low-level editorial staff. If you don’t want the slush pile to be the final resting place for your novel, consider publishing it yourself” (Lupton 49). It is a brutal world out there in traditional publishing especially with terms like ‘slush pile’ and ‘dumping ground’ being thrown around.

What I can gather from these comparisons is that is ultimately up to the author. Fortunately, from what I have read, both publishing options can be done if the time and investment are there. You are the one to make the decision since you can still self-publish after submitting to agents and houses and vice versa (Millman 232). Although that does give some creative freedom, I alo understand that it can be overwhelming since there are pros and cons to both. Rest assured that the:

(f)uture of self-publishing is that it will always be a viable and sometimes better method of launching a career than partnering with a traditional publishing house…It’s not going to put all the traditional publishers out of business, although they – along with agents – will change their business strategy and services as a result (Sargent).

Publishing can look quite different in the next few years and decades. With technological advances, ability to be entrepreneurs, and the speed of which we acquire information and goods, we could see an even bigger shift to self-publishing.

What is your take on traditional vs. self-publishing? 

Next Up: What Readers Want

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.