Self-PublishingTraditional publishing

Traditional publishing vs. self-publishing revisited (PART 2)

From Rick:

Last time, I tried to give the definitions and explanation of the various publishing outlets available today. In this part I want to look at some of the reasons new authors believe that traditional publishing is the only way to go.

All the time I hear the same reasons why authors want to seek out traditional publishers. All of these are myths, and I’ll explain why they are point by point.

(POINT 1) The author doesn’t know how to market and doesn’t want to be involved in marketing.

(RESPONSE-1) Writers have always had to be involved in marketing. The general philosophy of the large publishers is to give a book a reasonable nudge, but sometimes this amounts to little more than announcing the release in the information they send out to bookstores and maybe an ad in a trade magazine if it’s something they really want to push. I know this seems to make little sense, but it’s pretty much how things are. If you don’t believe me, do the research yourself. And the smaller the publisher, the less money they have to spend on advertising. Most books are given a few months at most to prove themselves. Those that take off may get more publicity. Otherwise, it’s on to the next set of releases.

(POINT 2) Authors want their book to be in bookstores, which they see as a huge advantage.

(RESPONSE-2) Just because a book is released by a traditional publisher in no way guarantees it will appear in bookstores. The choice is up to the stores, based on whether management thinks it will sell in their stores. Is having your book in stores really an advantage? Before online buying (Amazon in particular), books had to be in stores to be seen and possibly purchased. However, bookstores have far more shelf space than table space and open display space. Only those books deemed popular and potential hot sellers (and those which publishers pay extra to stores to display prominently) will get visibility. The rest will be displayed spine out on shelves with similar books, where yours may or may not be noticed.

Here’s a personal example. My first novel came out as a paperback in 2004 from a new publisher and was available to bookstores across the country. At the time there were over 2000 Barnes & Noble stores. I figured that if each one, on average, sold just two copies (not an unreasonable expectation for a new author, was it?), then I’d be doing okay. Some stores might not sell any, but others would sell more. With the royalties I was receiving, I should see a few thousand dollars from that many sales just from B&N alone, not counting online sales from Amazon. This isn’t life-changing money, but after all, I was a published author.

Well, sales did not average even one per B&N store. I’m certain that some stores never ordered any copies at all. While I don’t have the breakdown numbers (the publisher never gives you those), I suspect that more sales came through Amazon. Did having my book in bookstores make a difference? It seems not. Actually, quite a few libraries purchased copies (you can look those up), many even more than sold in B&N. I have no idea how many or if any smaller bookstores stocked my novel.

The point: Just because you novel can appear in bookstores is no guarantee it will make it into any of them.

(POINT 3) Being traditionally published guarantees they will make money from it.

Further, I often hear this statement:

(RESPONSE-3) The only one guaranteed to make any money from your published book is the publisher because they’re not going to accept anything they have even an inkling that it might flop. The most (or least) you will make will be a small advance, assuming you’re dealing with a large enough publisher that pays advances at all. Here’s an article to consider, and remember that this is from major publishers only.


(POINT 4) If a book is good, an agent and traditional publisher will pick it up for sure.

(RESPONSE-4) The short answer is that major publishers don’t care whether a book is good from a literary standpoint (unless it won a major award that will guarantee significant sales). They only care whether it will generate revenue. Far too many good books languished until the advent of inexpensive and respectable self-publishing.

I make no apologies for being a strong advocate of self-publishing because of these reasons. The larger traditional publishers have something to offer only for a miniscule number of authors. Unless you have a truly sensational novel (to their way of thinking), your chance of landing a traditional publishing contract today from one of the major publishers is effectively zero.

But I hear your objection: “Publishers have to publish books to make money, so someone has to get contracts.” True, but don’t get your hopes up. Smaller presses, while sometimes easier to break into, do not have the resources to do much major marketing. The better ones will work with you on marketing, but only a handful will go out of their way. Much of the promotion still falls upon the author no matter the size of the publisher.

Check out this interesting article:


Here’s another revelation. When you speak to agents and editors at conferences and conventions, one of the questions they ask is how will YOU help with your book’s promotion: What is your platform? Do yu have a web presence? What plans do you have for marketing your book?

Whoa! Really? Yes, really. This comes as a shock to authors hearing this for the first time. They assumed the publisher would handle all those details so they wouldn’t have to. After all, that’s why they want to go with a traditional publisher.

Now, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of the various publishing venues.

TRADITIONAL–PROS: The publisher handles all aspects and pays all the costs in the publication process from editing, cover design, formatting, printing, distribution, and (some) marketing.

TRADITIONAL–CONS: The author signs over the some or all of the copyright rights for the book to the publisher, often for the term of the contract, which is frequently the term of the copyright (author’s life+70 years). The author loses control of the rights until the contract is terminated or the rights revert. Some contracts with smaller presses may limit the contract term to several years. Do not expect this in all cases and certainly not from the larger publishers.

The author frequently has little or no say in the look of finished product other than to approve editing changes. Contracts can be onerous. If the author is not careful with negotiations, the publisher may have the power to make whatever changes to the manuscript it deems necessary without the author’s consent.

Royalty percentages for printed paperback books average 8-10% of the cover price (a little more for hardbacks) and typically 25% of net for e-books. Some smaller presses may go as high as 50% of net on e-book royalties. Note that these are based on NET price. Amazon and other e-book retailers typically pay 50%-80% of the selling price, and the NET percentage comes off that. The publisher of a $5.00 e-book might receive $3.50, while the author gets 25% of that (about $.90), assuming there are no other “costs” the publisher invokes to lower the net cost (and yes, this happens as well).

Traditional publishers do not market continuously. They do not pay authors for “book tours” or set up book signings. They don’t guarantee that your books will appear in physical bookstores. Many smaller publishers will advertise the books on their website, but these get little traffic except in very rare cases (e.g. erotica publishers).

Therefore, going with a traditional publisher yields no guarantee of anything (except a possible small advance on royalties), and if the book fails to sell, the author may or may not be able to get his rights back (unless he pays dearly for them) so he can try on his own. In other words, once you go “traditional” your book may be lost to you.

SELF-PUBLISHING–PROS: The author has total control of his book every step of the way. He retains all rights and royalties. He can make changes in price and run sales. He can create a new or make revisions, if warranted, to help sales, all of this at little or no cost since self-publishing platforms charge nothing to put up a book for sale or to post revised versions.

SELF-PUBLISHING–CONS: The author must foot the bill for any costs involved with publishing. While the self-publishing platforms charge nothing (they get their money as a percentage of sales), the author may have to pay for services he can’t or doesn’t want to do himself: editing, cover design, formatting. The author must handle all of the marketing himself, which means spending time that he could use writing. Marketing services tend to be extremely expensive, they rarely pay for themselves, and they do not guarantee results. Many authors find that at best you break even with such services.

Self-publishing is a business, and you must treat it as such if you expect meaningful results. You have a product to sell. Make the product as attractive and as high quality as possible and you stand a chance.


Traditional publishers are in business to make money. If they think they can make enough money from your book, they’ll offer you a contract. If the book doesn’t sell, it may be out of your control to do anything else with it. With self-publishing, there’s more work involved on your part, but you have options and second and third (and more) chances to fix it.

NOTE: Traditional publishers allow booksellers to return unsold books, and this is one of the primary reasons bookstores may carry your books: they can’t lose. However, unsold copies are considered a loss on your end, and publishers deduct returns from any royalties due to account for returns. With print-on-demand, bookstore can at least order your book, and if enough customers ask for it, they may decide to order extra copies to sell. So, just because you self-publish does not mean you books cannot be in bookstores. But as I said, since so much takes place online today, having your book in stores is nowhere near the advantage it once was.

Here’s a discussion on Kindle Boards well worth reading. Yes, it’s several hundred comments long. Even if you don’t read all of them, start at the beginning and read some of them. Although it’s on a forum about self-publishing, this discussion thread deals with publishing in general and has much to say about income from self-publishing. The main theme running through it, reinforced by dozens of people is that very few will get rich from publishing, but many can and have made several thousands of dollars from self-publishing. You may not get rich, but this is extra income you would not have had before and income you would never be able to get from traditional publishing. I don’t know about you, but I have a regular job, and I’d be content just having extra income sufficient to pay my mortgage or several of my bills each month.


Well, I think I’ve covered about as much as I can on this subject. I’ve given hopefully enough information so that you can make an informed decision about how go about selling your book. Do your research. There’s a lot more information out there and you should avail yourself of as much as you can.

Here’s one last point on traditional publishing: From the time you finally sign a contract with a major publisher until your book appears is generally 1-2 years. At least that’s what it used to be, and I doubt it’s changed. Smaller publishers may have a smaller window. Ask questions and do your research BEFORE you sign any contract.

And best of luck whichever way you choose to go.


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