The advantages of traditional publishing over self-publishing

fame and fortune through traditional publishing
Will traditional publishing bring you
fame and fortune?

Last month, I posted a lengthy article on the advantages of self-publishing (also called indie publishing). It was easy to write; the ideas came almost faster than I could get them down. That post garnered some controversy—not surprising—and a request for a follow-up article. So, in the interest of fairness and objectivity, I promised to provide some balance with a look at the advantages of publishing through the traditional route—that of finding a publishing house to publish your book. But as I suspected, that task hasn’t been nearly as easy as the post on self-publishing advantages.

Why? Because there simply are not as many advantages with traditional publishing. However, although the quantity of benefits of self-publishing is greater (I numbered sixteen advantages on my blog post last month), the quality of the benefits of traditional publishing is often far greater than with self-publishing. But the issue is more complex than just the black-and-white, good versus bad, polarized, stereotyped ideas that many authors and others in the publishing world have adopted. Furthermore, the issue poses a great dichotomy that isn’t often addressed when lists like these are compiled.

So here, let’s take as objective a look as possible at traditional publishing. (It’s sometimes abbreviated to “trad publishing”; often you’ll also hear of “trade publishing,” which essentially means books sold in the commercial publishing trade, as opposed to textbooks or other noncommercial methods of publishing.)

First, let’s look at this dichotomy. It’s the reality of the great indie-versus-traditional-publishing debate, and it’s the fundamental, sometimes secret thinking of almost every aspiring author on the planet:

Given the choice between self-publishing and traditional publishing,
I would far prefer to be published by a big, brand-name publishing house.
Self-publishing is my second choice.

Yes, that’s the secret thinking—something that’s often overlooked in these discussions. The fact is, few authors would self-publish if given the right opportunity to publish with a traditional publisher. Most authors who decide to self-publish do so because they’ve considered their situation carefully, thoroughly, and realistically, and they’ve determined that they don’t stand even a remote chance of finding a traditional publisher. They’ve determined that their odds of success with their publishing experience are much greater than if they were to attempt to go the traditional route of agent and publishing house. And once they’ve made the decision to jump on the indie bandwagon, you’ll usually hear them touting the benefits of that choice to the exclusion of any advantages of the traditional route. They have to do this; it’s in their best interests to make their indie-publishing decision a success, and not to dwell on the negatives.

But therein lies the dichotomy and the secret that many authors are reluctant to discuss (or perhaps even admit to themselves)—that self-publishing is almost always a second-best choice. It’s a tough situation: resigning yourself to the fact that your second-best choice is actually going to give you the best chance of success.

Let’s face it—none of us wants to be second best. That idea that self-publishing is a second-best choice is why so many authors hold out for the narrow possibility that an agent will be enchanted enough with their manuscript to make the effort of finding them a publisher. It’s just about every author’s dream.

And there’s nothing wrong with having that dream and holding onto it, as long as you’ve done your due diligence and you’re aware of your odds. And you’re prepared to be tenacious, perseverant, and resilient for perhaps years and through any number of rejections and setbacks.

So do you and your manuscript have what it takes to make it to the big leagues of publishing? Are you determined to pursue your #1 choice, that dream of most authors—to find an agent who will find you a mid-sized or big traditional publisher and help pave your way to achieving fame, fortune, and a place on best-seller lists? If so, here’s what you can expect that you won’t necessarily get through the self-publishing route.

Advantages of publishing with a traditional publisher

1. Finances and cash flow. As some of you who are reading this article probably already know, it’s not cheap to self-publish, especially if you want to do it right. Several rounds of editing are needed, then cover and interior page design, then proofreading, printing (or uploading to e-book), marketing, and publicity. Each of these tasks requires knowledge and education on your part, if only enough to know you’re hiring the right experts and services. It can be daunting, and it is expensive.

On the other hand, if a publisher from a mid-sized or big house takes you on, you won’t have to absorb nearly as many of those costs as you otherwise would with self-publishing. However, be prepared to pay a freelance editor for at least one round of professional editing before you begin submitting your manuscript to agents. In addition, after your book is in print, you’ll be expected to do more of your own publicity and marketing than at any time in recent publishing history: publishing houses no longer have the huge budgets they used to for mega-promotion, book tours, and coddling and pampering of their authors through the promotions stage.

2. Advances. In general, trade publishers pay authors an advance against royalties. Although it’s no longer typically in the hundreds of thousands of dollars as it may have been in the past (unless you’re a really big name), this advance is yours to keep, even if your book doesn’t sell enough copies to cover the amount. Your advance can be used to cover your expenses while continuing to research, edit, and polish your manuscript and to begin writing your next book.

Bookstore bestsellers
Hope to see your book on a bookstore’s bestseller table?

3. Prestige and cachet for the author. Oh my—the respect! The admiration! The endless bragging rights! The chance of a movie deal! Translations in ten languages! Future book deals! Knowing you’re in the big leagues with other big-name authors you find in bookstores! Let’s be honest: if you’re asked who published your book, would you rather answer “me” or “Penguin Random House”? And do you think most people who ask you that question will be more likely to buy your book if it’s published by you or Penguin Random House? Intangible, and often tangible, benefits like these can make an author swoon with dizziness at the possibilities. The sky can seem the limit if only a traditional publisher might see the potential in your book and be willing to sign off on your first book deal.

4. Perception, credibility, and legitimacy among readers. Even in a publishing world that’s exploding with self-published books, the reading public’s perception is still largely skewed to name-brand-published books. Readers feel that books that have been approved by literary agencies, acquisitions editors, and big publishers are more likely to be a great read than indie books. This perception may even skew a reader’s thinking so much that she thinks she’s reading a great trade-published book when it actually may just be mediocre and not all that well written or, alas, well edited. Traditionally published books come with more legitimacy, and they give you, the author, more credibility. This perception exists, unfortunately, because there are still so many self-published books out there that have not had proper editing. It will take time for this perception to change, and meanwhile, that’s why freelance editors like me are always encouraging self-publishers to have your manuscript edited, no matter where else you may cut corners on your way to publication.

5. Quality control at each step of the publication process.

  • Experienced editors at every level. Your book will likely be scrutinized by an acquisitions editor, developmental editor, managing editor, substantive editor, copy editor, and proofreader. This team will usually include some of the editors best in the business.
  • Cover design, layout, and typesetting. High-quality cover and interior page design can be expensive, but your publisher will cover all design costs. Again, some of the best designers in the business work at this level.
  • Proofreading. The last stage in the publication process before printing, proofreading is an essential step that is still often skipped by self-publishers on a budget.
  • Printing and distribution costs and logistics are always handled by your publishing house.
  • Marketing, publicity, promotion, public relations (see #6, below).
  • Better management of subsidiary and international rights.

6. Marketing and mainstream exposure. If you sign on with a big or mid-sized publisher, while you  shouldn’t expect the high degree of marketing, publicity, and promotions commonly associated with the big publishers of the 20th century, you may expect to get far more exposure than you could ever get on your own without a Herculean effort. Publishers are well connected—and sometimes owned by—the big media conglomerates (Simon & Schuster is part of the CBS empire, for example). They can position you well to garner respected book reviews, media interviews, book signings, occasional tours, award nominations and wins, and other promotional opportunities. A big publisher can make sure your book is part of the library, bookstore, and general publishing infrastructure to place you in the most optimal position for public exposure. You will often be encouraged to have your own promotional website, to blog, and to do some of your own promotion using social media, but this may be restricted.

Having read lists of the benefits and disadvantages of both indie publishing and traditional publishing, many authors these days may be left wondering, are those my only two choices? Can’t some of the best features of both these avenues be pursued simultaneously? Of course they can be, and it’s happening with increasing frequency in today’s increasingly diverse book-publishing landscape.

More alternatives to the traditional route

Thanks to a recent comment from my astute colleague Adrienne Montgomerie, I was reminded that I’ve always advocated trying to both self-publish and traditional publish—her comment only reinforced my strong opinion. Indeed, why not do both? There is no argument I’m aware of that says you can’t both self-publish and at the same time be querying agents with the hope and intention of finding a traditional publisher. And if you’re successful at both, then the sky’s the proverbial limit in terms of how far your book can travel into the realm of publishing success.

And there are many other innovative ways to get published without resorting to the dreaded subsidy publishers like AuthorHouse, Xlibris, iUniverse, Trafford, Hay House, and others, many of which fall under the gigantic, scammy Author Solutions Inc. umbrella. (See more about this issue on my pages here and here. These are also called publishing services companies or fee-based publishers. Neither is true self-publishing.)

Aside from these scams, thousands of legitimate small publishers and small presses exist that come in all sorts of models and formats; with some financial assistance from you, sometimes along with creative ideas for crowd-funding, they have the editorial experience to help you on the road to publication. Many of these today call themselves hybrid publishers. While they can’t offer the prestige or advances of one of The Big Five publishing companies*, they try to combine some of the other best features of both indie and traditional publishing. For example, my colleague Greg Ioannou runs Iguana Books, a hybrid publisher that asks the author to pitch in with publishing costs—usually through crowd-funding—and in return pays royalties of up to 85%. Don’t discount these small presses and publishers, but as I’ve said in my other articles on this subject, always do your homework before spending money on anything related to your book’s publication.

And while you’re investigating all your possibilities, there’s no reason you can’t be writing some query letters and having your manuscript edited in preparation for submission to literary agents. There’s no reason you can’t cling also to the loftiest goal of almost every author who has ever written a book in recent history—to sign a book deal with a big or mid-sized publishing house.

* Note: The major trade publishing houses in the world are often called The Big Five. These were reduced from The Big Six in 2013 when Random House and Penguin merged. The Big Five are now 1) Penguin Random House, 2) Simon & Schuster, 3) Hachette Book Group, 4) MacMillan Publishers, and 5) HarperCollins. Though you may not be familiar with all these names, you’ll likely know some of their hundreds of divisions and imprints such as Little, Brown and Company, William Morrow, Henry Holt, St. Martin’s Press, Knopf, Doubleday, Ballantine, Scribner, Touchstone, Putnam, Viking, Signet, Thomas Nelson, and countless others. Separate from The Big Five is a host of mid-sized trade publishers including Hyperion (Disney), Perseus, John Wiley, Kensington, Harlequin, W.W. Norton, and many others, each of which has dozens of its own imprints.

Do you know of other advantages and benefits to publishing the traditional way that I’ve missed here? Please join discussion and add them in the comments below!

Picture of Arlene Prunkl

Arlene Prunkl

Arlene Prunkl is a freelance manuscript editor and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

I welcome all comments. Please note that Disqus is a secure commenting system requiring moderator approval, and it may be a short while before I receive notification of your comment, approve it, and reply. Thanks for your patience!

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12 Responses

  1. This is a wonderful article you have written and very true as well.Most indie authors would love to sign on with one of the big five publishing houses but can’t because of rejection letters. I will say this though Arlene, yes you may be doing some of the marketing yourself, but they can point you in the right direction and help with ideas of just how to market properly since the agents and companies DO have that experience. This way it cuts down the indie’s floundering around trying to find what works and usually only discovering what doesn’t work. The whole trial and error thing can be very taxing especially if you only seem to find errors. The one thing I heard about traditional though is you don’t put out books as often as you could doing self publishing. It can take a book a year, and some companies even longer to put out one book by the author.

    1. Thanks for that feedback, Wendy. Are you saying you may be doing some of the marketing yourself when indie publishing or traditional publishing? These days, I think it’s increasingly important to get involved in all levels of marketing (especially social media) no matter whether you’re an indie or a traditionally published author.

      And yes, it’s true that trad publishing takes much longer. I work on that side of the industry too, and it always interests me how slow it is compared with self-publishing. I’m doing a substantive edit right now for a big publisher, and the release date is targeted for early 2015!

      1. Hi Arlene, yes when you do marketing for the traditional at least your publisher or agent can give you ideas of where best to market your book, or how best to present your book. I agree on getting in on all the aspects but if you have never done any of it it can be a long session of trial and error vs. with traditional publishing they can guide you and let you know what has worked for them and where to best put your money and efforts.

        When I heard about how long it can take I was like, wow! but still that is always a goal most writers would give their first born for. (not really) figuratively speaking that is. There are good points to both and it would be nice if we could combine the best of both and have a third option that would be with the big five backing, but have some of the flexability of the indie publishing. I guess that would fall under the category of having your cake and eating it too. Have a great day Arlene!

        1. Thanks for clarifying, Wendy. And yes, it would be great to have the best of both worlds — that’s why hybrid publishing is beginning to evolve, I think. The changes in the publishing industry in the next few years are going to be nothing short of phenomenal, and I predict a big growth in various forms of hybrid publishing.

          1. agreed, thats why I’m taking courses for editing in college and going to also see if I can’t get some marketing classes too to help me bolster our editing and marketing plans. My son and I started a Siefken Publishing company simply because we are a writing team and for tax reasons it made the most sense. Do we publish others? No, but we do publish our own works. I wanted to get into editing, even the basic but found you need the education, even though there are some who say, no you don’t need it and some who do. Publishing was a very new area for us when we started in it several years ago. I still don’t know as much as I would like. Hopefully the college will help with that. I look forward to what the hybrid publishing companies will be able to offer and look like.

  2. I agree that a traditional publisher carries more prestige, but there are times when they should not. This came up last week when I was editing a bibliography and found CMOS wanted me to note “self-published” for one book, but made no distinction for the subsidy imprint of a major publisher or even for the author who set up his own “publishing house” to publish his works. This seemed to unfairly paint one title with lower expectations than the two other sources that have nearly the same quality control and distribution. Maybe the bias will diminish over time as the other ways of publishing take a firmer hold in the industry.

    Good food for thought you have given me. Thanks for addressing my question too (in the piece).

    1. Adrienne, that’s astounding. Tell me more about this. How exactly did CMOS want you to note “self-published” for one book but not for another with a major imprint? Did you read that somewhere in CMOS? I’m fascinated. I can hardly believe CMOS would insist on such a distinction.

      As for the bias for traditional publishing from everyone from writers to the publishers themselves (and now, it seems, from CMOS), there’s no doubt in my mind that it is diminishing and will continue to diminish as self- and hybrid publishing take a firmer hold. Now, if only all those scammy subsidy publishers would lose their iron grip over new authors who haven’t done enough research on various methods of self-publishing, but unfortunately, it seems for the time being that it’s only becoming stronger.

      1. CMOS calls it “privately published” in 14.143. And there is this:
        14.9: Authority and permanence… content presented without formal ties to a publisher or sponsoring body has the authority equivalent to that of unpublished or self-published material …

        APA says to cite self-published works as “Publisher: Author.” apparently. I don’t work with APA style.

        But as a colleague pointed out, there are several renowned authors who created their own publishing houses and would not be noted as “self-published.” Margaret Atwood and Virginia Woolf are the two she mentioned, I believe.

        1. This is interesting. I think the term “privately published” may refer to older books that may indeed have had little or no publishing information on the copyright page. I have a few of those on my bookshelf. I don’t necessarily think it’s a pejorative term.

          As for CMOS 14.9, I do read a subtly pejorative tone in the item, suggesting electronic materials have the fleeting temporariness and lack of authority of self-published works. But it doesn’t come right out and say that; I’m just making an inference. Still, it’s suggesting to me that self-publishing is “informal” publishing, without authority, which is really just wrong.

          On the other hand, CMOS seems to be giving a nod to the legitimacy of self-publishing when it goes on to state, “On the other hand, self-published material from an authority on a given subject . . . may have a great deal of validity.”

          All in all, CMOS seems to be a little behind the times when it comes to the rapid changes in self-publishing. Which is normal.

          1. Well put.
            Especially in a fast-evolving realm such as self-publishing and epubs, I do not expect traditional publishers (or printed resources) to keep up.

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