How to write a book · self-publishing · The writing business

Traditional publishing & selfpublishing … not so different: Q&A from New Generation Publishing summit

yin-yang-14264436247ktSelf-publishing and traditional publishing. What are the differences? Today I’ve been on a panel at the New Generation Publishing summit, and it’s clear there is no longer an absolute divide between the publishing approaches. These days, we have a spectrum.

So that sounds abstract – let’s have concrete examples. This is how the discussion went at the event today – plus some more thoughts I wanted to elaborate on. (Yes, being a typical author, I muster my best lines several hours after the conversation.)

The question: What do you see as the main differences between self and traditional publishing?

My answer was :

  • The solo artist – and who’s in charge
  • Who pays
  • Speed

And here’s where we find ourselves in grey areas.

1 The solo artist – and who’s in charge

When you self-publish there are no gatekeepers. You don’t have to be accepted by anyone. Also, you have the final say about the text, the cover, the way the book looks. When you traditionally publish, you have to be chosen, and your book is filling a publisher’s need to fit a certain market. They will make many of the decisions – including the cover and the title. They might direct certain rewrites. They’re usually unwilling to let you lobby for changes; they don’t regard it as your territory. Some writers are happy with this; after all, they are writers, not publishers. Sometimes it turns out well for all. But plenty of authors end up feeling railroaded or compromised, or with covers that attract the wrong kind of reader (who then respond with negative reviews).

Indie authors shoulder all this responsibility themselves – but that doesn’t mean they’re one-man bands. Indeed, they shouldn’t be. Although they might know how to write, that doesn’t mean they also have the other skills needed to publish well. In the early days of indie, many had a go anyway, and the Kindle shelves were stuffed with unedited, unproofed horrors with unsuitable covers. But indies have wised up, and a well-turned indie book will have creative input from editors, cover designers – and even blurb writers. There’s no change in who the final boss is, but an indie book is now more of a team effort – and editors might even steer the book significantly.

2 Who pays for production!

Here’s where the boundaries start to blur. In traditional self-publishing, you pay all the editorial work, cover and launch. And in traditional traditional publishing, the imprint pays. Plus they pay you an advance or a fee to acquire the book.

Here’s how that’s changing.

Crowdfunding If you’re self-publishing you might be able to crowdfund. There are authors who use Kickstarter or Indigogo, to name just two. Ben Galley has a post about it here.

pub-unboundOn the trad side of the fence, there’s Unbound – an imprint with traditional gatekeeping and commissioning editors, who ask authors to raise the money for the first print run (here’s an interview with several successful Unbounders plus a Q&A with an Unbound editor). You might wonder what the upside is? Prestige – Unbound is developing a reputation for books that are more innovative than the safe-bet choices of purely traditional publishers.

So you might think that if you’re offered a traditional-traditional contract, you don’t pay any of the costs. But here are two ways that trad-trad authors might help fund their book’s journey.

Developmental editing The market is so competitive now that it’s not unusual for first-time authors to work with an editor to give their manuscript the wow factor. Sometimes literary agents will nudge a promising author to seek an editor to iron out some craft problems.

Promotion and marketing A lot of trad-trad releases have a limited budget for promotion and marketing. It’s not unusual now for authors to top up the launch package by hiring a book marketing company or funding a signing tour. (But beware of self-publishing services companies that upsell marketing packages of dubious value. You’re better going to a specialist consultancy that handles traditionally published authors as well as indie authors.)

Who pays? The authors in both camps are edging closer together.

pub-offerAnother ‘beware’. There are companies that contact authors, apparently offering a publishing contract, but really they’re just touting for business. See here for a post on how to spot them. If you get an approach like that, you’re often better shopping around properly. Check what value you’re getting.

By the same token, keep your head if you’re offered a traditional deal. A significant number of indie authors are turning these down because the offers aren’t worth their while – here’s a post that expands on that.

3 Speed

Speed is one of the great advantages of self-publishing. It’s as instant as you like. You can, if you like, pull a Word doc off your computer, whack it up on KDP and voila – instant ebook. An hour or so of tinkering and you can be making a print version on CreateSpace. You shouldn’t, of course, but there are no barriers to stop you. The tools are available.

Traditional publishing, on the other hand, means entering a slow-moving machine. Your contract might be inked in January but the book might not releases until October – or even later.

pub-schedSome of that delay is corporation inertia. But actually, indie publishing, if done properly, should also have a long gestation. It might take you many drafts to finalise your manuscript, and after that, you need other processes. The developmental edit (especially if you’re new to publishing). The copy edit. The proof-read. The cover design. The marketing plan (which shouldn’t be left until the book is about to hit the shelves). (Here’s a post on who to hire and when.)

Some of these checking and polishing stages take a necessary amount of time … And good editors and cover designers might need to be booked several months in advance. Many indies then go straight to press once the book is ready, but if you want to pitch to mainstream reviewers, they need bound copies several months before publication – because that’s when magazines prepare their books pages. And bookshops place their orders three to six months before publication – so if you’re selling into shops, you need finalised copies by that time.

All this means that more indies are setting long-term schedules for their publishing plans –in some cases, the same amount of time that a traditional imprint would take.

The artist working solo. Funding the production. Speed to market. These used to be the defining characteristics of indie versus traditional publishing. Now, we’re discovering how to get the best of both worlds – and I find that encouraging. Which other distinct divisions might disappear? What do you think? What have you noticed already? Let’s chat in the comments.

top-100-literary-badge-high-resForgot to add… This blog just got a rather nice honour, alongside The Paris Review and a number of other writerly boltholes.



23 thoughts on “Traditional publishing & selfpublishing … not so different: Q&A from New Generation Publishing summit

  1. Wonderful insightful information especially for a new author trying to muddle through this confusing literary world. I’m thrilled with self publishing choosing my own editor own all rights, chose my cover and didn’t have to w as it to for some young agent to decide if my work is,worthy. It’s so so subjective.
    I found a publicist and promoted my work through media television and radio and print.
    The process is,easy now. Contacts made and new marketing in place. The age of traditional publishing doesn’t guarantee more sales or book shelf presence.

  2. When I self-published my short story book this spring, I wasn’t aware of some of this. I hired editors and a cover artist, because I understood those were necessary. But what I didn’t realize was that it’s so important to set up the marketing piece beforehand, and not just a month or so before publication. I set up a little book launch team, but not much happened (and, truly, I figure this will eventually be a freebie as an ebook, in exchange for signing up for my newsletter, so I’m not worried). I realized pretty quickly after launch that I’d been way too unprepared for the marketing side of this endeavor, and way too eager to have a published book. Reading this confirms how truly important it is not to rush publication, even if you’re doing it yourself, and to set that up properly before pressing publish on Amazon and other retailers. It’s difficult on a shoestring budget, but this is your baby, which you have hopefully spent many months writing, rewriting, and editing until it shines and just needs a little help. Don’t be afraid to ask for that help, and to hold off a little until the marketing is ready.

    1. Hi Ann! I know what you mean. I’m very good at being patient about the production stages. I’d never rush any of those. But I’m guilty about not giving enough time to the marketing stages, and I’m beginning to learn a lot more about that. Hope your new release goes well. The important thing to remember is this: in the grand scheme of things, a few months’ delay doesn’t hurt. It might help you make a better start.

  3. Thanks for a great article! I would, however, suggest that one aspect of book publicity needs to change. That’s the “but if you want to pitch to mainstream reviewers, they need bound copies several months before publication – because that’s when magazines prepare their books pages.”

    Sorry, but this isn’t the 1960s, when typewriters ruled and long lead times dominated most periodicals. Technology that allows a book to go from a final draft to publication and worldwide sales in mere days means that magazine reviewers must offer a much quicker turn-around. If they don’t, they’ll lose readers to online reviewers who can get a just-published book on Monday and post an review that Wednesday. In the marketplace, all the advantage lies with the latter. As one Civil War general put it, it allows a reviewer to “get there firstest with the mostest.”

    Indeed, the hotter the topic, the worse the impact of delay. Look at current events. Two weeks ago, a triumphalist look at Hillary’s campaign would have seemed a guaranteed bestseller. Now the potential for any book that’s not a post-mortem of her failure will bomb—and even that market may be small.

    As a writer who sometimes strays into perfectionism, I dislike publishing workflows that require me to commit to a specific wording months in advance, even for books on topics that aren’t linked to current events.That’s because I enjoy refining and perfecting until the last moment. My latest was tweaked until only two days before it came on the market worldwide. Not bound to any corporate-dictated marketing schedule, I edit until I find my changes are trite, often little more than flipping back and forth between two minor options, both acceptable. Then I release with a clear conscience. In traditional publishing I might end up ticked off at editors who said “no” to changes I thought important. Life is too short for that.

    And yes, I know the ability to change a book up to mere minutes before release would give a traditional publisher fits. I believe, however, that readers benefit from my ability to tweak until I achieve what is, at least for me, the best I can do.

    Traditional publishers must offer authors similar benefits to remain competitive. More and more, submitting a final draft in January for publication in October won’t do.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

    1. Hi Michael! I can see why you might think the editorial delays are undesirable, but that’s the way magazines work. You’re right about current affairs books, but most books aren’t that topical. And when sales reps sell books into shops, one of the things they do is prove to the bookseller that the book will be featured in the press in x number of months’ time, which means readers will come in asking for it. So the long lead time makes sense.

  4. I began my writing career as an indie author this experience served as my introduction to publishing. Now I’m pursuing traditional publishing. I agree indie and traditional have a lot in common.

  5. I wonder if one future hallmark of indie publishing will be selling to a single market? My husband and I have both been published the traditional way, our books were technical, so not worth translating, but they were available in both the US and the UK and were successful in both. Now my children are self-publishing fiction and made the assumption that where kindle was concerned, one english language edition would be sufficient and since we now live in the USA, they chose to use US spelling throughout. My daughters book has been well received in the UK, but US readers have pointed out ‘strange’ construction – the tiny differences in language we were barely aware of – like ‘in school’ rather than ‘at school’. No one likes to have their writing appear substandard, and the only way to get round the problem is to produce two editions, or stick to a single market. These were issues I never had to deal with, but as a result I’m wondering whether when I self publish my own almost complete novel I should revise the spelling and stick to the UK since otherwise I’d have to have it edited all over again.

    1. HI Lesley! Wow, you are a multigenerational set of writers. I’m so glad you brought up the subject of English types. I was asked about this at the Writers & Artists Yearbook selfpublishing day, and my answer was the same as yours – that the difference goes way beyond spelling. Indeed, if you correct just the spelling and not the usage, it probably looks more strange. I wrote a post about it – in case you want to discuss it more

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