Self-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
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.
On 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.
Another ‘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.
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.
Some 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.
Forgot to add… This blog just got a rather nice honour, alongside The Paris Review and a number of other writerly boltholes.