Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

Posted on August 28, 2008 (Subscribe to Blog)

In my last post I mentioned that I would self-publish my book, Island of Fog, when it's finished. My exact words were, "I've decided this is the way I'm going to go, for various good reasons." Well, I'm sort of like a pendulum when it comes to self-publishing. One minute I think, "Yes!" and the next I think, "Hmm, maybe not." So I thought I'd thrash it out here. Judging by feedback on my last post, I already know what y'all think!

Don't get me wrong on this. I'm not jumping willy-nilly into self-publishing because I'm lazy or because I think it's the best way to go. I've read a lot of stuff over the years about self-publishing versus "traditional" publishing and, depending on what I've read and where I've read it, I can see arguments for either route. I'd like to make one thing clear though: I'm not talking about "vanity press" here. Self-publishing does include vanity press, but I'm talking specifically about POD (print-on-demand or publish-on-demand). Vanity press is where you pay a company to print 500 or more copies, and then stock them in your house. The vanity press company cares not a jot about distribution and promotion; it makes its money from the up-front fees and then washes its hands of the author. That's a mug's game.

Now, print/publish-on-demand (POD) is typically where you upload your manuscript to one of many online companies and have it available for ordering – but copies are only printed when ordered. Many companies charge a setup fee for this service too, but some (like Lulu.com and CreateSpace.com) are free.

This is an over-simplified explanation, but good enough. As for the printing itself: Originally, before the days of the internet, books were printed using offset printing technology (the familiar printing press machines that have long belts and clatter away day and night churning out thousands of books). This is the "traditional" type of printing, still the cheapest way to print large quantities of books. This method of printing is expensive to set up, so long print runs are necessary to make it cost effective.

POD, on the other hand, is a digital printing process and is extremely cheap to set up. It's better for short runs; the price-per-book system and little or no up-front costs means that quantity is irrelevant. You can have one printed for $6 or a thousand for $6000. But you wouldn't print a thousand; the whole point is that you don't need to buy a stock of them. And from what I've seen, the quality is amazing. I have several POD books from both amateurs and professionals, and the print quality is excellent.

As I said earlier, self-publishing is not necessarily using POD's digital printing. It can include offset printing too. "Self-publishing" means being responsible for the entire production of the book including the layout of the pages and book cover to the actual printing process. POD takes care of the printing end and just happens to include a built-in online ordering system – but you could just easily use offset printing and have a stock of thousands of books and find yourself a distributor. This is all self-publishing. However, when I talk about self-publishing my own book, I specifically mean POD.

One big difference between a traditional publisher and POD is that the big guys take over all the nitty gritty. From what I've read, typically the publisher is not in the slightest bit interested in what you think the cover should look like. As the author, you write the story – that's all. Leave the rest to the experts. I wouldn't mind that if I were offered a three-book contract and a hefty sum of money, but I'd still feel a pang of regret at not having a say in the design. I believe publishers do send the author a proof to look at, but I doubt its negotiable! I was in the Barnes & Noble bookstore last night and, once again, picked up several children's books just to check things out. I cannot stand the way some publishers, particularly Scholastic, print their paperbacks on cheap, crinkly paper. Look at Harry Potter – the biggest seller you can imagine and it's printed on thin paper that crackles when you turn the page. It's just like when you drop a book in the bath and let it dry in the sun. Horrible! On the other hand I look at such publishers as Yearling and think, "Wow – now that's good quality!"

So the end result does matter to me, whether it's the paper quality or the cover art or even the typeface. As I said, I wouldn't complain too much if I was handed a big check and told to stop bothering about details and go and write the next two books, but...

POD, of course, allows me to have complete control. The paper is good quality. The cover is exactly as I upload it. The typeface is exactly as I've typed it (in my case, Century Schoolbook). Even those first few pages – the notes, the copyright information, the chapter index – are exactly as I've designed them. Every single detail from start to finish is mine. Being the kind of person I am, that sort of thing gives me a great deal of pleasure. It's worth ordering myself a POD book just to see how it could look in real life!

And there's another thing. After many, many on-screen edits, it's nice to finally pick up the book itself and read it that way. That's where you really get a feel for it. Plus, I find that more typos jump out at me when I read printed material compared to on screen.

But there's no point in having a book at all if it's not marketed. Here's the biggest dilemma. I've read many reports of a typical big-house publisher buying a manuscript and running off thousands of copies. The book is finally on the shelves! But that's all. There's no promotion, nothing. True, the book is on the shelves and it could be found by people having a browse. But there's no hype. It's not like you're Stephen King; you don't get to enjoy the kind of hype he gets, because publishers only have enough money and resources to market one or two books a year out of the handful they publish. If you're not The Chosen One, then you might as well do all your own marketing otherwise you're not going to get anywhere. And if you have to do your own marketing, then why not take a larger royalty check while you're at it, via self-publishing?

If you have to market your own book, it's almost like your big fancy publisher is nothing but a huge printing press – only they paid you and own the rights to your work. Oh, and they distributed the books to bookstores. Not a bad thing, I suppose. But I've heard horror stories of writers who actively promoted their own book leading up to the release date – only to find that the publisher screwed up and the release date was put back, and all the marketing efforts were wasted because the author couldn't drum up the same amount of interest the second time around. The moment was lost; the buzz had gone and the ship had sailed. I've also heard stories of authors pulling their hair out because their book had gone out of print and the publisher wasn't in a hurry to get another print run underway.

I think there are pros and cons whatever you do. But for the record, and despite what I said in my other post, I am going to try and find an agent before I do anything else. I won't approach a publisher directly; an agent is a far better bet. If I was ever lucky enough to get into print the traditional way, then of course I'd be over the moon!

But in the meantime, I might get myself a preview copy via POD, just because I can... :-)

Comment by RALPH CORDEROY on Friday, August 29, 2008...

Are you considering using a freelance editor? No, I'm not one and I'm not touting for work. :-) I was just curious as that's another stage in book production that can, given a good editor, add a lot. I've done some volunteer proof-reading in the past for books, just picking up on punctuation, that kind of thing, so I'm just interested in the self-publishing process.

What you could consider doing is making "finished" chapters available online, or even chapter one just to test the water, and look for comments. _The Django Book_ has a very nice way of getting per-paragraph comments and letting others see them. http://www.djangobook.com/about/comments/ You may be consider putting chapter one online anyway later, as a taster of the book for potential readers.

Comment by JULIE @ OWLSDENE on Friday, August 29, 2008...

Interesting reading all the options Keith. I don't know anything about this self publishing, the POD option, but it's certainly a way of getting your book in print, as you design it from beginning to the end, and that must be a considered option.

The saying goes 'Don't judge a book by its cover.' I'm afraid a lot of us do. I know I do. If I see a brilliant cover, nicely painted etc, I pick it up. I by pass the ones I don't like the look of. A few years back I picked up a book, with a lovely watercolour illustration on (only because I love watercolour) and I read it. It was brilliant, I immediately searched out the other books this author had written and bought them. She normally brings out a book a year, and I order it now even before I've seen the book cover. So if a publisher is willing to publish your book, and you have no say in the dust jacket/front cover, then you do risk the odd reader by-passing the book, unless the publisher really promotes a new author. So I understand your dilemma of which route to take. Also I think it can be a little disheartening, if the rejection notes fall on your door mat. (I'm not suggesting any will fall on yours.) As they do with all writers at some point. Even our own Enid, and J K Rowling had many of those.

Which ever path you take Keith, I'm sure you would have done your homework thoroughly first. Hope it all works out for you. I'm sure it will.

Comment by LIZ FILLEUL on Friday, August 29, 2008...

For me, there was never any contest between traditional and self-publishing, because I would not feel any sense of achievement if the only way I could get a book published was to do it myself. After all, the average nine-year-old could self-publish a book — doesn't mean it's worth reading!

An editor's input is vital. There is no writer in the world who can create a perfect final version without someone else casting fresh eyes over it. You're just too close to your material. I work as a book editor and pick up all sorts of stuff in their manuscripts. However, despite reading some of my stuff over and again countless times, I've still missed huge clangers. And having friends read is great, but you don't always get honest feedback. You might get "That's an interesting start", but you don't get "That's utter ****" (insert chosen expletive there). Which actually, you (I don't mean you personally, I mean all writers) need, because sometimes you do miss the mark, however well written the manuscript is.

There is a self-published author here who does very, very well. He sells better than many traditionally published authors and last year did some kind of workshop at my son's school (he writes children's books). I picked up one of the books to see if I thought my son would like it and was appalled at the punctuation. Every single page contained several instances of incorrect punctuation. I wouldn't buy it because I don't want my son learning incorrect punctuation from a published book. This author went out on his own and became very successful (note, he has a sales background, which helps), but won't work with a traditional publisher for 'control' reasons — a pity, because all an editor would have to do would be to punctuate it correctly. The stories are fine in themselves. Worrying about control, or the lack of it, isn't always a good thing.

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Saturday, August 30, 2008...

All very good points! Julie, I agree that covers DO mean something, if only for when you're having a browse. Naturally, when you've hit upon an author and want to collect his or her books, the cover isn't important anymore (in the sense that it won't affect your decision to buy). But for those having a look around to see what jumps off the shelf...

Oddly enough, I picked up the first City of Ember book the other day and decided I'd like to read those. But I wasn't impressed with the covers. They were glossy so showed every fingerprint and blemish. Plus, the paper was that awful crinkly stuff. I wouldn't buy them for that reason. I then picked up the hardbacks and thought, "This is MUCH better — same dodgy cover but decent paper." But they were priced at $16.99, exactly $10 more than the paperbacks. So I didn't buy them in the end. In this example, cover and paper quality made all the difference between my buying the entire series or not.

Liz and Ralph, in case I haven't mentioned it anywhere (I forget what I've said to whom!) I used to be a member of the OWW (Online Writers' Workshop — the sci-fi/fantasy branch). This was a quite few years ago now. I was a member for two years and that's when I started Island of Fog. I actually posted the first eight chapters there and received feedback (both good and bad); since then I've probably revamped everything. Anyway, the point is that I do know the importance of having feedback from fellow writers or, better still, an editor; frankly I wouldn't trust feedback from friends who don't write, as they don't understand the need for complete brutal honesty. I haven't quite finished the book yet, but when I do, I'll find an editor. As I said, I do know a guy who is an author of ten books, a co-founder of a small publishing company, and is heavily involved with literary development. But his specialty is non-fiction so I'm not sure how valuable he will be. Nevertheless, he might be able to recommend someone.

Liz, you said a self-published book is not necessarily worth reading. I agree! This is why self-publishing has a bad reputation. Your example of a book that's doing very well but is poor in grammar is important to note too. I do find it odd that people can read something and say it's great but not make any comment about errors. Errors stand out a mile; even the book I'm reading now (a "traditionally" published book by best-selling author Noel Hynd) is replete with errors. He needs to read Strunk and White's The Elements of Style too, because he frequently says the same thing twice or uses unnecessary words; Professor Strunk would turn in his grave! One sentence that stood out was, "Very slightly, he sat back in his chair." Very slightly!! How about, "He eased back in his chair." The word "slightly" crops up way too many times in Hynd's book, and "very" is often superfluous.

Anyway — it's true that some books may be popular but not necessarily well written. Unfortunately this is true in "traditional" publishing too, just not as often. Meanwhile there can be some REAL gems in self-publishing. By the way, did you know that Eragon was originally a self-published book? The author was only about fifteen when he wrote the thing. I personally have no interest in it myself, but clearly he's a talented kid! So self-publishing is not ALL bad. That's why I don't dismiss the idea out of hand; I've done a lot of research. There are a huge number of people who ONLY read self-published because they want to get away from "mainstream" writing. Hmm.

Still, I will go the traditional route first. :-)

Comment by VAL on Sunday, August 31, 2008...

of all the things i read about self publishing,i must say it is a waste of time and money.I rather give my time to a traditional pub.com. The trick is,write a story that fits their house. Before that , do your homework and added your ms. at least 10 times , and if the plot still exites YOU then you know you have something good there.They should like it too. Make sure your cover letter has a killer hook. Also the query must through the editor of his chair. Sorry for the misspell of added your ms.

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Monday, September 1, 2008...

Thanks for your post, Val. However, without wanting to criticize, I wanted to say that you gave a few tips which, in my opinion, is how NOT to go about getting a book published!

For instance, you suggested writing a story to fit a certain publishing house. It's fine to have a few "like-minded" publishers in mind when you submit your manuscript to an agent or editor, but I think it would be pretty silly to spend months, if not years, writing a novel specifically geared towards one or two publishers (if indeed that were even possible). Talk about limiting your options!

I agree about editing the manuscript a lot (I think the exact number of edits depends on the author though) but to say that "a publisher should like it" just because you do is nothing but wishful thinking.

The cover letter should be carefully written, for sure; the "killer hook" should be a well-worded summary or synopsis, depending on the publisher's specific requirements. But of course that's just to get them reading the manuscript instead of binning it.

Also, I can think of many reasons why self-publishing is not a complete waste of time and money — especially as certain self-publishing websites allow you to publish your book for free, and you can do it within half an hour if you've got everything ready! A waste of time and money? I think it depends on who you choose and your reasons for doing it. For instance, it's a well known fact that writers and editors alike can pick up more typographical errors when reading printed matter than on a screen. So, if for no other reason, I can see a self-published book being a valuable "tool" in the editing process. You could print it on standard printer paper, but for about the same cost you can print it as a fully bound paperback book and read it in bed! I feel sure that reading your own book in this way will give you a much better feel for how it really is compared to others — and you can pass it along to others for an overall assessment. It might become a dog-eared, scribbled-in copy, but that's okay.

Even if you go the traditional route, I think self-publishing your book via Print-on-Demand can be a very useful tool (as well as temporarily satisfying that itch to see it in print!).

Comment by VICTORIA on Sunday, September 7, 2008...

I've recently connected with a publishing company that falls betwixt the traditional and self publishing cites. They propose that I pay for the printing of my books- off shore quote of about $5000.00 for 1500 hardcover, fully illustrated, 40 pg 8x10 . They offer to do all of the isbn and barcode work set me up with a distributor who will get 65%, arrange book signing, radio interviews, press releases and more... all for 9% of the book for 10 years! I think... if I did the math correctly, I'd make about a half a cent per book... I'm rich!!!

Comment by LYNNE EPSTEIN on Friday, November 14, 2008...

My name is Lynne Epstein. I self published a book in 2007. It is a true story about a man I met on the Internet in 2000. The cover is great, and it did very well locally. You can view the book on www.lynneepstein.com

I believe it is a good story. Can I take a self published book and do it over as traditional?

I have tried to market it in NYC and nationally but I am discovering that many reviewers will not read a self published book.

Comment by LINDA R CATERINE on Sunday, November 30, 2008...

My name is Linda R Caterine. I recently self-published a children's chapter book with Authorhouse. I have been very pleased with them, although I recognize the limitations. They are basically just printing your book for you, as is. But with their publicity package, they get you on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Google Booksearch, etc. This has enabled me to get a few book signings at B & N and Borders. I haven't even begun to explore the online networking but I have lots of reviews on various Book Blogs, and did an online interview for "Book Bites For Kids." I designed my own cover and an artist friend of mine did the 38 line drawings that I had put on the pages that I designated. All in all, they did a great job and the quality is excellent. BUT.......Since publishing the book, (it's POD so, no inventory to worry about), I have decided to re-write the first 3 chapters, change the title, and try to submit it to a traditional publisher. Of course I would tell them about the other book and give them a copy. I will have a chance to pitch the book to some publishers next year. Right now the book has gotten a little play and was number 5 on Authorhouse's top ten best sellers for Sept., 2008, but it is still virtually unknown and any sales to date would be nothing compared to what a traditional publisher could do. My question is, do I have any chance here, or will I be wasting my time? Would a traditional publisher even consider something like that? I have heard that sometimes they do pick up self-published books. But in my case, I have seen, since my book has been out there for a few months, that I need to change the first 3 chapters. I know exactly what I need to do and it would make a huge difference in the appeal of the book. I am still glad I self-published because sometimes you have to just go for it and you really can't make an accurate assessment of your own work until it's been through a lot of stranger's hands. I don't think I would have ever written this book if I knew that I would have to spend months or even years searching for a publisher.

Comment by DIANE DETTMANN on Monday, November 7, 2011...

Recently released my self-published memoir, Twenty-Eight Snow Angels: A Widow's Story of Love, Loss and Renewal (Outskirts Press). I hired my own editor prior to submitting the manuscript. I've had a very positive experience with Outskirts. Just because a major publisher's name's attached to a book doesn't necessarily make it a great book. Ultimately the key is a well written book that the author is willing to actively promote. My book has international distribution through Ingram, Baker and Taylor and is available online at Barnes & Noble and Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

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