Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: Capital vs. Control

I have had quite a few ask me whether or not self-publishing would be right for them, and my answer is always the same: it depends on what you want. Each one has its pros and cons from both the business and creative standpoints. It’s important to find one that matches your personality, and this article seeks to help you out.

Traditional Publishing

In the traditional publishing world, it’s pretty simple. Get your work into the hands of the right people. It’s an old game and one of rules. Lots of rules. But there’s a definite positive to working within “the system”, which is that it’s really straight forward. You write a query letter, send it in, and you get a “yes” or “no” in response. In most cases, it’s a “no”. Lots and lots of “no’s”. It’s hard, and it’s soul-crushing, but the point is that, for the most part, you know what you’re getting into.

It might seem super rigid, and the idea that your fate is put into the hands of others based on a simple one-paged letter and synopsis or first 10 pages of your novel may rub you the wrong way; however, following the rules does get you benefits that self-publishing just can’t provide. The publisher takes on all the expense of producing your work. They’re the ones taking a gamble on you. So since we’re playing with the publisher’s money, you gain all the resources at their disposal. This includes teams of editors (copy editors, structural plot editors, proofreading), cover artists, and others that work on the publisher’s dime to make sure that your book is up to a high standard. (This is what makes finding errors in a “professional” novel just that much sweeter. Yeah, I’m vindictive, and I know it.) In addition to that, you also get paid up front. It’s an advance. It’s pretty and shiny guaranteed money that you get paid for writing your novel. You also get royalties on each book you sell averaging between 5-15% (but don’t forget to pay your literary agent).

On the other hand, by playing the traditional publishing game, you must realize what this means. A publisher is like any other business. Their job is to make money, and they’re going to do it off of you. If we’re looking at this in business terms, this is what you’re doing. You’re taking your novel or business plan to a publisher or bank/investor and saying, “This is so good that people will buy it. If you pay for my expenses, you’ll see your money back and then some.” And like any business, an investor is going to want a certain amount of control over your business (Haha, things I’ve learned from watching “Shark Tank”). The publisher has connections, and they’re going to want to use them. They will make changes. If you don’t believe me, just look into the myriad of problems that Tolkien had with his publisher. But remember: the fact is if you don’t perform, you lose nothing. The publisher does.

Self-Publishing

For some, the amount of control the publisher is asking for is too much give up. The beauty of self-publishing is the amount of control that the author has over their work. In this way, an author can be sure that what is out either on the shelves or internet retailers is exactly the kind of novel they meant to put out. (I’ve always been curious how Little Women/Good Wives would have ended if Louisa May Alcott’s publishers just kept their noses out of her business instead of forcing her to write about Jo getting married. I’m just sayin’.) You have complete control over the cover, content, novel length, and price. Everything.

However, what is one of self-publishing’s greatest selling points is often times its Achilles’ heel. Once again, we have to look at novel writing as a business.

When I started out trying to navigate the publishing world, the landscape looked really different. Self-publishing was the kiss of death. Nobody who was anybody was self-published. And when on-demand print companies started cropping up, it was called “vanity publishing” and was seen exactly as the name implied. It was for people with no talent who just wanted to see their work in print. These people were so vain that, to assuage their fragile egos, they could buy a perfectly bound copy of their books to show everyone. It paints an awful, insulting picture, and while attitudes toward self-publishing have become less harsh, I can’t really say that they’ve changed completely. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been asked when I’m going to get published “for real”. It’s not meant to be malicious, but it’s a reflection of how self-publishing remains to be seen.

This is in part due to the question of quality. Even when I think of those who have self-published, I’m pretty sure that most of them have tried traditional publishing first. It’s assumed that no one would choose self-publishing first. This assumption continues to play into the idea that self-published books aren’t worth reading. Like it or not, traditional publishing is still the authority on their business.

Here’s what they expect from you. According to an article by The Guardian in the UK, a 2011 survey found that, while the mean income of self-published authors was $10,000, the median author income was less than $500. For anyone who is horrible at math, (Yeah, I had to look it up.) that means the average of all self-published author incomes was $10,000 a year, but half of all self-published authors make less than $500 a year from their novels. And the most successful self-published novels were in the romance category. Fantasy authors only made 32% of the average.

That aside, what was most telling, for me, were the comments at the bottom of the article, most of which sounded like this little gem:

I’ve seen a few disturbing comments that say it’s a good thing that editors no longer have to to be involved in the publishing process, because now there is a larger market and the chance to self-publish. Which amounts to saying “Yay, I can publish my novel now that the bar has been sufficiently lowered”.
I’m sure there are e-books out there that are of great quality, but where?

Oh, and here’s another good one in response to a self-published author:

“Find us, read us!”
Not until you write more clearly.

Ooh, burn! The point is that with that control or freedom comes a great deal of responsibility. (Like Spiderman.) Think of this like a business. It’s self-publishing; you are the publisher. You’re the one taking the risk now. You’re playing with your own money now, and if you “fail”, it’s on you. So, if you’re going to invest in yourself, you should invest in yourself. If you’re expecting to compete with traditionally published novelists, you have to measure yourself like they would and use the same resources they would. This means editors, cover artists, blurb writers, and advertisers, etc. And while the old adage goes, “You have to have money to make money”, you don’t always have to hire someone for this. Local colleges are filled with great resources such as English teachers and art students. This allows you to maintain the control that you want, while putting out a quality product.

This will make the second benefit of self-publishing actually mean something. Self-publishing allows the author to maintain the majority of the royalties garnered from sales. Amazon.com offers two royalty packages for ebooks, 70% or 35% depending on where the author sets the price. CreateSpace takes about $1 per book and of course printing is subtracted from the sale, leaving the author with the rest. So, you get paid for all the extra work that you have put into producing your novel in addition to writing it.

It might be worth noting that in that same article, the survey found that only 5% of self-published felt that they had failed.

So, it’s really up to the author which to choose. Each one comes with its pros and cons, and it’s all about deciding which one fits you best. Hopefully, this helped.

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My Novel Soundtracks

This post doesn’t deal with a question, but I picked a subject I liked. I’m usually very private about what I listen to because I was bullied a lot over my music choices in school. Music has never been a passion of mine despite being surrounded by band geeks in high school. I can’t play an instrument to save my life (I suppose with the exception of rudimentary songs like “Hot Crossed Buns”), my rhythm leaves something to be desired (like actual rhythm), and I consider myself tone deaf. With this in mind, I’ll proceed.

For the most part, I use music either as inspiration or to block out the world to help me focus. The latter started when I used to ride BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to school for an hour and a half every day to school. When you’re an introvert surrounded by the angry, germ-riddled commuters in a confined space that smells like urine, a good pair of headphones and a window seat can work wonders. Once I learned to burn my own CDs, I made soundtracks to transport my mind while the train transported my body on my daily commute. So, here they are. I’ve highlighted my favorite songs.

Wingéd

Unbelievable – EMF
Trouble – P!nk
Sweet About Me – Gabriella Cilmi
Devils and Angels – Toby Lightman
Here You Me – Jimmy Eat World
Home – Phillip Phillips
How I Could Just Kill a Man – Charlotte Sometimes
All These Things That I’ve Done – The Killers
Iris – Goo Goo Dolls
You’re Beautiful – James Blunt
Losing Sleep – Charlotte Sometimes
Vindicated – Dashboard Confessional
Die Young – Ke$ha
Some Nights – Fun.
Set Fire to the Rain – Adele
Listen to Your Heart – D.H.T. Feat Edmée
You and Me – Lifehouse
Dog Days Are Over – Florence + The Machine

Foiche Dé

Other Side of the World – KT Tunstall
Life for Rent – Dido
Try – Nelly Furtado
Not Ready to Make Nice – Dixie Chicks
How to Save a Life – The Fray
First Time – Lifehouse
Fall to Pieces – Avril Lavigne
Hands – Jewel
He Lives in You – Lebo M
You Say – Saving Jane
Powerless – Nelly Furtado
Stupid – Sarah McLachlan
Reasons Why – Saving Jane
The Only Exception – Paramore
If God Made You (Remix) – Five For Fighting

Dragon Wingéd (This one isn’t as polished as my other two are so bear with me)

At the Beginning – Donna Lewis & Richard Marx
Dreamer – Elizaveta
These Old Wings – Anna Nalick
Somewhere Only We Know – Keane
Fall for You – Secondhand Serenade
Distance (feat. Jason Mraz) – Christina Perri
Fallen – Sarah McLachlan
Show Me What I’m Looking For – Carolina Liar
Over My Head (Cable Car) – The Fray
When I’m Alone – Lissie
Rolling in the Deep – Adele
Broken (feat. Amy Lee) – Seether
Broken (New/Radio Version) – Lifehouse
My Immortal – Evanescence
The Reason – Hoobastank
Bright Morning Stars – Abigail Washburn
A Thousand Years – Christina Perri

Wingless (I have a song that encompasses the personality of almost every Wingless. This one is a definite work in progress)

Broken (feat. Amy Lee) – Seether
Where I Stood – Missy Higgins
One Week – Barenaked Ladies
Radioactive – Pentatonix & Lindsey Stirling
Little Wonders – Rob Thomas
Little Lion Man – Mumford & Sons
Breaking the Habit – Linkin Park
Safe & Sound (feat. The Civil Wars) – Taylor Swift
Bury Me With My Guns On – Bobaflex
Paralyzer – Finger Eleven
It’s Not My Time – 3 Doors Down
How You Remind Me – Nickelback
Pain the Sky – Charlotte Sometimes

But no matter what I’m writing, I absolutely adore the song “Breath of Life” from Florence + the Machine. No matter what novel I’m thinking about, it’s an inspirational song for me.

I’ve heard conflicting reports on whether or not a person should listen to music while writing, and I apologize that I’m not going cite any of them. You’re just going to have to take my word on it. On the one hand, music has been shown to increase creativity and intelligence. My fifth grade teacher believed this so strongly that she played classical music whenever we took tests or took a break to read. On the other hand, music can be a distraction, making it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand. Other studies have shown that multitasking reduces productivity and the quality of one’s work. Further still, another author pointed out to me how difficult it is to maintain the flow of her own work whenever she listened to something with a different beat. Which one is right? I have no idea.

Sometimes if I’m too distracted by the words, I listen to instrumental music which drowns out the rest of the world without distracting me from the words I’m trying to put onto the page.

But the conflict in and of itself is interesting.

Colleen

Self-publishing: CreateSpace Book Creation Overview

After publishing Wingéd for the first time, I took a short hiatus from writing. I was burnt out. And it took four years for me to get back to writing and self-publishing again. When I finally got back, I found that the landscape had changed considerably. BookSurge was now CreateSpace, but the name change wasn’t the most notable. Instead of shelling out $600 for someone else to put together my brand new manuscript, I could do it myself. So of course, I thought, how hard could it be? Well, it might not be what I would consider to be $600 hard, but it’s a really large time commitment that I’m going to walk you through. It’s the unsexy side of self-publishing.

Before I start, I should probably mention that CreateSpace still offers a lot of great services. They all cost, but they are available if you aren’t comfortable doing certain things yourself. They have various editing services, cover art creation, and even the full service that my parents paid for back in 2006. They even offer to send your finished product to the Kirkus book review. They also have free tutorials. CreateSpace hasn’t paid me to say this, it’s just good to be aware of all the things that they do offer. Everything you can think of, they do. Except that they no longer offer hardbacks… I don’t know why.

Title Information

The first stop on the tour is title information. This is basically filling out everything about your book including: title, subtitle, primary author, contributors, if it’s part of a series, series title, edition number, language, and publication date.

Here it’s important to make sure that everything is spelled correctly and that your title and name matches where you’ve put it elsewhere. Once these things are locked in, you can’t change them, so be careful.

ISBN

You have the choice of either paying for your own ISBN that you own (I think it costs $5) or having CreateSpace assign you one for free. Be aware that once an ISBN has been used and your novel has been finalized and put into production, if you want to make any changes to the interior, you can’t keep the same number. You’ll have to make a “new title” and start from scratch.

Interior

This is where you choose the size of your book, the type and color of paper (this affects book thickness), and whether you want a full color interior or black and white. All of this will affect your price.

Based on these characteristics, you’ll want to download the corresponding template. You’ll need Microsoft Word or Open Office. There’s the option of doing this all by yourself too, but you’d have to be a Word whiz. Even to use the template, you’ll have to be more than a little familiar with Word. Be ready to yell, “Why is it doing that?! Stop that!” over and over again. The template has a lot of things programmed into it that if your not careful will mess up everything, but operating under it’s oppressive programming was easier for me than trying to figure it out from scratch. As long as you don’t touch the margin settings, it also guarantees that your interior will fit all of the CreateSpace guidelines.

What I have had the most trouble with was that the template only goes to chapter ten, and simply copy and pasting won’t work. When I’m formatting, I first have to copy and past the template pages, which doesn’t even guarantee that the formatting will stick. Then I go chapter by chapter, copy and pasting my manuscript text into the template. Please note some quirky things.

1) In order to get the proper first page of a chapter formatting, you might have to backspace and insert a new “next page”. Note: next page is different from a page break and will affect the formatting differently.

2) Sometimes, Word likes to suddenly make the last paragraph justified weird and will also screw up the paragraph spacing. Just pressing “Enter” afterward usually fixes the problem, but sometimes you might have to fix it manually.

3) Deleting pages from the template is tricky but doable. I delete the acknowledgements and about the author pages that are built in, but it always messes up my page numbers.

Once you’re done tearing your hair out, you’ll need to convert the document to a PDF file. I like using www.freepdfconvert.com. It’s fast, and it’s free. I tried using Primo before, and it was bad. The converter messed up the margins which is the most important part. After that, upload the file. CreateSpace has an interior checker that you can use. If you didn’t touch the margins, everything should line up alright. And in case I haven’t emphasized this enough, don’t touch the margins.

Now we wait. The CreateSpace team has to approve your interior files, which can take up to 24 hours. If you want to make any changes, you’ll have to upload it again, and the approval process starts over.

Cover

One of the great things about CreateSpace is that they have a lot of great cover templates, but if you want a little more control over the look of your cover, they also have the option to upload your own. You have to be sure to match the guidelines for your book size and that there’s nothing important in the last quarter inch around the edges. Your image needs to be 300 dpi (dots per inch). Anything less than that might not have the clarity you want. Having Photoshop comes in very handy at this point.

Finalizing

When all of your files are uploaded and approved, you can order your proof. Back in the days of BookSurge, proofs were free, and they sent you a free final copy of your book. Not anymore. You buy the proof for how much it costs to print plus shipping. This is where you get the chance to check everything over, but if you find anything you’re not happy about, you’ll have to go through the approval process again and order another proof. Recently, they’ve added the ability to approve a digital proof, but I don’t recommend this at all especially if you’ve created your own cover. The colors might come out different. They might center it differently. It’s just better for everyone if you order the proof so you can see it for yourself.

But when you’re done, you get to push the “approve” button.

I don’t know why pushing the final button is so hard for me. Maybe because it’s so final. Anyway, push the button; you’ll feel better.

Colleen

Self-Publishing: A Beginning, An Accident

The question that I get most, more than any other, has always been “Why did you choose self-publishing?” followed closely by “When are you going to get published for real?” or the much kinder, “Have you ever tried traditional publishing?” And actually, the answer might surprise you.

It was an accident.

At this point you might be wondering, how on Earth does one get into self-publishing by accident? But to answer that, I need to back track a little, set the stage and the characters, and do all those things that all good storytellers do.

I started writing at the age of six with my friend, Annie. She and I wrote thirteen chapters of a book called First Grade Killer Dinosaurs based on a dream that I had about a carnivorous triceratops trying to bite off my index finger. Why? I don’t know; I was six. But! Ever since then, writing is all that I ever wanted to do. It’s all that I did. At fourteen, I had written four novellas. By the time, I was nineteen, I had added five full length novels to the total, and I was the rave of an online writing club. So, full of youthful arrogance, I thought it was high time that I reached out and grasped my destiny to become the greatest author ever. There was just one problem: I had no idea what I was doing.

It took me a while to realize exactly what I had gotten myself into, but my eyes were opened when I bought the 2005 Writer’s Market book. I never knew that there were 1200 pages worth of ways to say, “You are in way over your head”, but apparently, there are. There were so many guidelines that it was hard to breathe. Electronic submissions only. Mail submissions only. No simultaneous submissions. Twelve point font. Double spaced. SASE (that’s self-addressed stamped envelope). No fantasy. No science fiction. Send a cover letter. Send a query. First 10 pages. Send a synopsis. Only accepts established authors. Only accepts referred authors. Only 5% of submissions chosen. Allow 6-8 weeks for a response. Allow 3-6 months for a response. My personal favorite? “If we haven’t responded after eight months, you can assume we aren’t interested.” And this wasn’t even for publishers! This was for literary agents, who were supposed to do all this shit for you for publishers. So, I thought that I’d just go straight to the publisher. Nope, the publishers wouldn’t accept anything that wasn’t sent to them by a literary agent.

But you know what? I did it. I did the leg work. I jumped through all the hoops, and I got rejected. I started hanging the rejection notices on my wall, not to highlight my failure, but to show that I had tried. You hear about these writers who have shoe boxes full of rejection notices. I had wallpaper.

The inevitable question is at what point did I give up?

Well, one day in 2005, I was in the shower and started screaming, “Oh my God!”
My sister opened the door thinking, y’know, a spider… and I yelled, “Get me a pen!”

I had gotten an idea for something else. Something bigger. This was Wingéd. That’s when I decided that I would no longer try to sell my previous work, and I’d concentrate on my new project instead. I started writing Wingéd in August, the same time that I started working at Sylvan Learning Center, which was fantastic, because I was surrounded by English teachers who helped me out. By December, I was finished. It was the fastest that I have ever written anything.

Shortly afterward, one of my co-workers came in with an illustrated children’s book written by her husband. He’d gotten it published by a company called BookSurge, a subsidiary of Amazon. She suggested that I look into it, because she knew how badly I wanted to be published. I believe that I was under the impression that it was a small press and was unaware of all of these things regarding “vanity presses” or all the stigma over self-publishing taking place at the time.

The process is a lot different now than it was back in 2006. I’ll get into how at a later date, but back then, I went to their website and followed the guidelines, which were a lot easier than any of the traditional publishing ones. After a couple of days, a representative called me to figure out the next steps, which included all sorts of plans available by this company to put my book into print. If you’re sensing red flags, you’d be correct. No one can deny that they’re there. The Writers’ Market book warns that no reputable literary agent or publisher will charge you money for services. I won’t say that I got taken for a ride, but… I’m sure that my exuberance made me an easy… let’s say sale.

My parents spent $600 to get my book into print. It seems steep, at least to me, but the old adage is true. You do get what you pay for. The company handled everything. The book was beautifully done, as professional as you’d expect any book to be (minus all the typos that books with no editor have). They also came up with a synopsis, back of the book, and other little bites to help me sell my book. The only thing that I provided was the front cover, which I took myself with my very first digital camera and edited in MS Paint. Other than the price tag, I have no complaints, and given the chance to do it over, I’d probably choose to do it again. Although I do have to tell you that I still haven’t been able to get my parents their money back and about half of those books are still in that box in my room.

So, that’s how it happened the first time around. I did kind of fall into it. I was excited, and I was stupid. But what’s important is that I learned, and it turned out okay. That’s not all of course. This would be a very short series if I didn’t make more mistakes. So, if you’d like to read more about my adventures fumbling around in the self-publishing dark, come back next Monday!

Colleen