Self publishing versus traditional publishing

I spent most of yesterday afternoon with two new friends, Irene and Caroline – who are planning a literary festival in Chichester, because as Irene said ‘there are so many writers in our area.’ 

They’d come to see me to ask if I would take part in the festival which of course I will. And Irene showed me a list of local writers so that I could see who they were. One was Rosaline Laker who was a very old friend of mine and a very good writer, now sadly dead. Others ranged from published writers to self-published and that set me thinking.

For so much has changed since 1980 when my first book appeared in the shops, that I now feel I’m living in a completely different world. In those days, self-publishing was rarely heard of. It didn’t come in, in a big way until 2009 when Amazon Publishing was launched. There had been vanity publishers of course, which published books at a price and couldn’t get them in the shops and established writers like Virginia Woolf who were able to set up their own publishing houses. But the majority of writers had to jump through the established publishing hoops.

But then, for the thousands and thousands of people who want to write and be published, Amazon was suddenly the obvious outlet and it was free. Now all a wannabe writer has to do is write the book, count the words, write the end and put it up. As Wikipedia puts it ‘the publishing industry as a whole is in a great deal of flux, in a sort of “Wild Wild West” state’. 

So is there any difference between being published by a reputable publishing house and self-publishing your book? Yes, I’m afraid there are a lot of differences and some of them are formidable.

The ‘big’ publishers pay a great deal of money (and we’re talking thousands or even millions) to get their books on the shelves of the big bookshops. They also spend thousands of pounds on very visible and public advertising like posters in railway stations and magazines and ad-shell sites, so that the public will know that the books are there. Spending like this is totally beyond pretty well every self-published writer there is. They can’t compete and have to get used to the fact that book shops will not stock their books, which means that the income from their writing is very small, even though they go to as many book fairs as they can and pay a fee for a stall where they can display their stories and shout their praises very loudly ‘read my book, it’s great, etc’. You need considerable stamina to cope with it.

But there is another and more subtle difference between self-published and being published the old fashioned way and that is the fact that in addition to a publicity team, the publishers provide editors to support their writers. And editors are very useful people, for they will point out, kindly and subtly, all the most obvious faults they find in your manuscript and expect you to correct them. It is a salutary experience because you are up against somebody else’s knowledgeable opinion, which will certainly not be as glowing as your own, unless you are a modest writer. It is good for the soul and very necessary. It’s a great handicap not to have a reputable opinion of your work to back it up.

I’m quite sure that all writers need to be self-critical and to aim at the best possible writing that they can and it’s sad to say that that is not always the case with those who are self-published. I admire the time and energy they put into self-publicising their books but I often wish they could have had attention of a full paid editor in a publishing house. They’re the guys who hold the mirror up to your work and make you see it as it really is.

In our wild, wild west state, I don’t know what the answer to it is.

12 thoughts on “Self publishing versus traditional publishing

  1. Delighted to hear about a Chichester Litfest! Hope it takes off. I used to live in the city – and was born & bred near Petworth, so maybe that would count in my favour… Would love to take part.
    On the self-v-trad question… I’ve just decided that a) self-pubishing is the better choice for me as I’ve been stuffed by two trad publishers, and b) I’m not planning to sell through bookshops unless they will take books direct from me (rather from wholesalers). There is so much cost and hassle in distribution, logistics, accounting etc that the revenue is barely worth it. As you say, there’s no point in thinking about the kind of expenditure on marketing, PR etc that a trad publisher will (or might) do. But it gives me control over the cover, layout, typestyle, etc and it’s all transparent – I can see exactly where the money goes, and where it comes from. the trick, as you say, is to be utterly professional in getting a good, kick-ass editor and cover designer. You don’t have to stick to the UK – you can source people far cheaper around the world and get good quality. The big issue for less experienced self-publishers is being able to take the constructive criticism – can be very hard. But it’s essential.

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  2. As a director of Chindi author network, which supports both indie authors and those who have gone on to gaining publishing contracts, I would like to make the following points.

    Chindi does not accept writers that we don’t think good enough to publish and we read manuscripts before accepting authors as members.
    Many of our authors’ books are edited by a professional editor and we encourage extensive beta reading and proofing so the finished book is as good as it can be.
    We are working on producing a directory of recommended editors, proof readers, cover designers etc. to help our authors produce a quality book.
    Some of our authors have gone on to gain publishing contracts by producing a book gaining enough traction from self-publishing.
    Some of our authors have their books in bookshops, either stocked or available to order.
    Yes, some could write a more marketable book if they had a publishing contract and a professional editor aimed at achieving a best seller – with that, I agree. However, many of us get very good reviews from readers despite this.
    We know that publishers are only interested in a book which hits the current market and to my mind that can lead to derivative books. Self-publishing allows an author to produce something different, something innovative.

    Generally speaking, there are indie authors who become Amazon best sellers. However, there are others who will sell few because there books aren’t good enough or are not hitting a market. People will not buy them. It is not helpful to generalise.

    Amazon is sometimes considered overly harsh in removing reviews for books if it feels they have been written by friends or relatives. Honest reviews often get removed in this way much to indie authors’ disgust who work hard for reviews.

    There are also established authors with publishers who produce occasionally poor books or ones with mistakes, factual or grammatical. Some write brilliant books but then write ones which needs a red pen write through them. Are their editors too cowed by their big names, I sometimes wonder?

    My view is that your blog, while I think you are trying to be honest, suffers from tarring all indie authors with the same brush. It is far more nuanced than the simple argument that published authors are successful because they have all the benefits of marketing, publicity and professional editing and that indie authors must necessarily produce an inferior product. I think indie authors see this as an old argument, one played out time and again, but not where we are. Indie sales have risen exponentially. We don’t all get thousands of pounds worth of income, but we don’t compare badly with many traditional authors, if truth be told. Few will earn a living, both traditionally published or indie. The difference is we got to be in full control and we can earn 70% of our sales income rather than 12%.

    This is a worthwhile discussion. It would be interesting to hear other comments.

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  3. Can I respectfully suggest you could learn more about Indie writing?
    It has been reported that 1,000 traditionally published writers made $100,000 or more in 2018. But it was also reported that 1,000 Indie writers made $100,000 or more. I know of at least one Indie writer in the UK who made over $1,000,000 in 2019 and I think he also made it in 2018. I suspect there are more. Indie earnings are rising every year.
    At the moment the media ignore Indie numbers. Trad publishers report sales every year and suggest ebook sales are going down but that is not the full story. Trad ebook sales are going down but not Indie ebook sales. Trad ebook sales are reducing because trad publishers charge too much for ebooks, in same cases more than the price of a paperback which is ludicrous because once a publisher has the paperback it costs them nothing, zero, zilch to publish an ebook version. They are profiteering in a huge way on ebooks and worse, they are not paying their authors fairly.
    An Indie writer can decide, within limits what price to charge for their ebook from free to $9.99 on Amazon. A common price for an Indie ebook is $2.99 for which the Indie writer gets 70% of price = $2.10. A trad book earns the writer from 5% to 10%, which on a book priced $9.99 is $0.05 to $0.10; a pittance of a percentage.
    Many Indie writers are making a full time living from writing; which they would never be able to do from trad publishers.
    Yes trad publishers spend a lot of money on advertising but they are wasting that money because it is not targeted. A poster on the underground might be seen by thousands every day but will only be noticed by the small % interested in that writer or that genre. All the other viewers of the ad is wasted money. Many Indie writers do targeted advertising on Social Media because it works much better than expensive random posters in public. There is evidence trad publishers are following Indie writers in targeted marketing.
    The point is Indie writers are making a lot of money and trad publishers are struggling so they are looking at the Indie world. Those that adapt, may survive but one thing is certain the cosy world of trad publishing is changing.
    I have not mentioned quality but top Indie writing is just as high quality as the best trad publishing. And everybody knows of bestseller trad books with huge errors that even a beginner Indie would be embarrassed by. Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series has a daughter age from young child to 30 year old in the FBI whilst her mother, Kay Scarpetta, remains the same age over 6 books or so.
    Indie writers pay for the same same editors, printing companies etc. The difference is trad publishers must finance their huge central London and New York offices, and guess who pays for that? Yes, their authors.
    In the future I suspect the big six trad publishers will only publish bestselling authors and celebrities and I suggest they will get most of their bestselling authors from the Indie world.
    Hope the literary festival goes well.

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    • Correction to my numbers.
      A trad published book writer earns from 5% to 10% but… on a book priced at $9.99 it means the writer gets $0.49 to $0.99 which is still a paltry sum given an Indie gets 7+ times that for a book only priced at one third of the price of a trad book. Makes one think.

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    • Thank you for that CRW. Very interesting. I assume you are writing from the USA as you quote prices and earnings in dollars. (?) What you say is encouraging for it seems that in your part of the world Indie writers can made a good living. That can only be good. There are writers here who tell me they are tired of sending their mss to publishers and being rejected over and over again. Incidentally, I do have a fair idea about how publishing works. I’ve been a published author since 1980 and am currently writing my 31st novel.

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    • An excellent conversation. There was a sentence in your post about authors’ royalties. It sounds as if you get paid a % based on the retail price of the book: “A trad book earns the writer from 5% to 10%, which on a book priced $9.99 is $0.05 to $0.10; a pittance of a percentage.” I don’t know what the norm is in the UK now, as I’ve been out of it for 10 years, but in Romania, publishers pay on revenue less costs, ie between 7% and 13% of pre-tax profit. A somewhat more miserly amount, and hard to police one’s royalty statements as there is no way you can make them justify their costs.

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  4. A very helpful and honest answer Rosemary. I didn’t intend to stir up a hornet’s nest with this blog. I had hoped that what I was saying was what a hard job self-publishers have, given the power and money the big publishers have at their disposal and how small their own budgets are by comparison, and suggesting that a good editor might be helpful to them if they would prefer to be traditionally published in the old way.

    It is now, as you say, an old debate. And as you also rightly say the quality of writing, both Indie and Trad, varies in both categories. It seems very good to me that you are using editors to help and advise your authors. That is exactly what I was advocating. A fresh look is often a great help.

    But I don’t know the answers to the ‘wild, wild west state’ as Wikipedia put it, as I admitted in the blog. Or even if there are answers to a debate.

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  5. I respectfully disagree with your statement about a publisher making sure you have the benefit of an editor. If that were so in all cases please tell me How fifty Shades of Gray ever made it through trad publishing. If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you do. It may make you ask “How in the world did the publisher let this hit the shelves with so many mistakes in it?” Having a publisher does not always mean you get a stellar editor. That book went to press simply because the publisher knew the titillating nature of the book would make them millions, And shame on them for that. As an Indie writer I pay for editing at several stages on my books, and feel that the attention they give my manuscripts is just as professional or more than any I would get with Trad publishing. We Indie’s are just as interested in putting out good literature, and in the case of Fifty Shade, more so than the publisher who schlepped that into the bookstores.

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    • You are quite right, Ellen. I was speaking generally.As far as I’ve been able to see, most editors do a very good job and are helpful to their authors. But of course they have to do what their bosses tell them. That’s usual in most jobs. The advice in my blog was for Indy writers who had got sick of sending their Mss to publishers and being rejected.

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