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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9 thoughts on “Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: Capital vs. Control

  1. Loved this article. Very informative. I’m still not sure whether I want to self-publish or go the traditional route. I have a lot of people urging me to go traditional, but I really like the control self-publishing offers… I guess I’ll do a little more research and see.

    • Having only self-published, I can’t really speak for traditional publishing. However, I can say that it was far more straight forward. Write a letter then wait for an answer. Write a letter then wait for an answer. And IF you feel like giving up, there’s always SP. I’m not sure the same can be said if you start SP first. But it all depends on what’s right for you. I can see if I can scrounge up an article for you that someone else gave me.

  2. Great, informative article! For some people, I don’t think it’s so much of a choice. Just about everyone wants to be traditionally published and many go the self-publishing route once they’ve been rejected enough by the traditional route.

    There’s also the hybrid way of publishing, which, from what I’ve read, is more popular (and more successful) with authors who have been traditionally published before. You can kind of mix and match your publishing, traditionally publishing new books while self-publishing your old books once the rights have expired or whatever the case may be, or negotiating a contract that gives you more control over e-book versions of your traditionally published books.

    Funny enough, I’ve actually never thought about going the traditional route first. I don’t think I’m good enough to go traditional and plus there’s so much craziness involved. And yes, I want the control.

    As far as quality control goes, there are tons of crappy books that have been published traditionally and I’ve read wonderful self-published books that belong on the shelves.

    • While I would say that many do choose traditional publishing first, but saying that it isn’t a choice and just about everyone wants that is a blanket statement that I’m not willing to abide. It makes self-publishing seem like a consolation prize. It all depends on what you want. It’s not one-size fits all.

      I have heard about the authors who go back and forth between the two, but it wasn’t what the article was about. Every time I felt like I could mention it, it felt out of place and disorganized. So, I left it out.

      Believe me, I know that there are both good and crappy books on both sides, but you even mention that you don’t think you’re “good enough” to go the traditional publishing route which would call your quality into question. Quality is just something that I felt I needed to address since I was coming at this partially from business standpoint, and it’s a major concern among readers, your would-be customers.

      • It wasn’t my intention to make a blanket statement or make it seem like self-publishing isn’t so much a choice as it is a “last resort” for some authors. I know for some people, it can be a choice. So I apologize if it came off that way.

        And also sorry for not staying on the topic of the article. I left a poorly formed reply.

    • You said it all with “I don’t think I’m good enough.” That’s sad. Nobody is “good enough” at first. Becoming a writer is a journey. Many of us are embarrassed about articles and stories that were finally traditionally published (after many rejections) when we were starting out. If you do not believe in your work enough to be sure that someone, somewhere will eventually like it, what makes you think a complete stranger (reader) should waste an hour, day, or week of their precious time plowing through the thing? Why not just save aggravation and publish your work as a serial on a blog for free? It’s easier, as many people (or more) will see it, and you don’t have to pay someone to edit, illustrate, or distribute it.

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