Now, I know for the past two posts in this series I have heavily defended self publishing and criticized the shortcomings of traditional publishing. With (most) arguments though, it’s only fair to give the other side a chance to be examined. Self publishing, with all of its benefits and promises, still has some problems and traditional publishing is worth a post in its defense.
For those of you that don’t know, traditional publishing works like this: you write a manuscript, research literary agents and send it off to them in the hope they’ll pick it up and take it to publishing houses or you write a manuscript and send it off to publishers accepting submissions directly from writers. Either way, you sweat it out for a few days or a few weeks or a few months until they respond with a YES or NO. You either rejoice, or pick yourself up and move onto the next one. It’s a bit like trying to find a date at the bar, except instead of wanting to hook up you’re essentially asking the person to marry you. It takes a special kind of person to put up with this process, where publishing is not guaranteed, and success isn’t even guaranteed if your book is selected.
With the introduction of mainstream self publishing most people look to writers and say, “Why the hell would you put yourself through that process if you can just go it alone?” It’s not a bad question, and they do have a point: why the hell would any sane person do that to themselves? Some of it is about the prestige of being selected by a traditional publisher, but there are some practical reasons too.
1. Traditional Publishing Offers a Wider Reach
Let’s face it. Unless you are a celebrity, or have a huge online following, your reach is somewhat limited through self publishing. You can use social media and networking to its full advantage, but you could still come up short in comparison with the traditional publishers. They have connections with critics, advertisers, distributors, and that’s just for a regular publisher, much less one of the “Big Five.” For example, if you secured a deal with Penguin and they liked your book enough you could be looking at national and international distribution, translations, book tours, interviews, heavy advertising, etc. Now of course that’s not the case for every writer published by a major house, but it’s definitely a possibility. The one problem here is traditional publishers are expecting writers to do more of their own marketing and promotion. If traditional publishers continue to shirk that duty to writers, then self publishing will just have one more benefit.
2. Traditional Publishing Takes Care of the Costs & Work
Unless you have a friend that has a good command of editing, and another friend that is good at art, then chances are you’re going to have to pay for those services if you decide to self publish. Granted, you should probably pay your friends anyway, but it’s more of a nicety than a necessity. It doesn’t have to break the bank, but it’s still coming out of your pocket. (Side note: One option is to use crowd funding to make your book happen, but then you’re reliant on the generosity of strangers.) With a traditional publisher everything is taken care of, from editing and proofreading, to the cover art and font choice. All you have to do is sit back and let them take control. Let’s remove money from the equation. Even if cost isn’t a concern, self publishing still means you’re going to be the one responsible for all of the decisions regarding your book. You have to pick the cover, you have to find an editor, you have to orchestrate the marketing, you you you. Some might look at that and say it sounds fun, while others get chest pains just thinking about it. A publisher handles all of that for you.
3. Traditional Publishing Has Better Ties
Major publishing houses tend to work with other big league players. A major publisher either has or can establish ties with the film industry meaning, if your book is popular enough, you can see it adapted for the silver screen. A major publisher also has ties with reviewers. You can pay to have professionals review your self published book (Kirkus does it and so does blueink Review) and you can look for free reviewers as well on this site, but a traditional publisher does the legwork for you. Publishers also have other writers to call upon. “Hey so-and-so, wanna provide a blurb for the book cover?” You might not know Joe or Jane Blow, but people recognize a name like Stephen King, and if he says a book is good then it must be worth a try. Maybe you’re lucky and know a popular author, and maybe they could help you out with your book, but I’m willing to bet most of us don’t have those kind of connections.
4. Traditional Publishing Can Offer Secure Payment
Okay, okay, I know some of you are saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! You said in the self publishing post that self publishing offers better payment than traditional publishing, what gives?” Correction, I said it offers the chance for better payment. What I meant there is if you write a book, and nobody picks it up, then you can self publish and make more money than if it was just sitting in a drawer. And yes, in certain cases a self published book can outpace a traditionally published one, but it’s not a guarantee. For example, your manuscript is picked up by a publisher and they offer you a $10,000 advance. Maybe you could get that much via self publishing, but is that a guarantee? That $10,000 check is money in your pocket. Maybe you get a really good book deal and you’re offered $100,000. Sure, you could potentially make more with self publishing, but it’s not guaranteed. In all fairness, becoming rich and famous off your first book isn’t a given, but it’s a possibility.
5. Traditional Publishing and Quality
Whether you like it or not, people equate quality with outside approval. If a book is picked up by a publisher then it means someone besides your loved ones has decided your ideas are worth polishing, binding, and selling. It’s not a guarantee of quality, but it’s a slightly better chance of quality control. Readers have a limited amount of free time, and they want to make sure their investment in a book is worth their time and money. If I spend $15 on a 500 page novel, I want to know that my $15 and hours of time are going to be well spent. Let’s check out the math. The average reader can read a page of text in about one minute, so 500 pages of text will take 500 minutes (or 8 hours and 20 minutes) to read. People want to know their time isn’t wasted, and taking a gamble on a new author is already a risk. Now, thanks to book previews you can read the first few pages of a book and decide if it’s worth your time, and publishers can make a stronger pitch. Sure, a story might have a rocky start and get better after the first 20 pages, but wouldn’t you rather know from the start whether it’s even worth trying? Having a book in a bookstore means a publisher’s behind it, which means it must not be total crap. That’s not always a guarantee of course. I could name names, but I’m not that much of an ass.
6. Traditional Publishing Works Better for Literary Fiction
Literary fiction is kind of a vague, pretentious term, but in essence it means a story focuses on language, character development, and headier ideas. Obviously you can have horror, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and yes even romantic novels that have those traits, but for the sake of argument let’s say literary fiction puts a premium on those traits. This means a literary novel is going to be a little harder to read and require more attention from its audience. When I read speculative fiction/genre fiction I’m more willing to overlook flaws and forgive problems with the writing if the story is entertaining. Now, I think literary fiction has become a little too fixated on the language and commentary, and not the storytelling, but that’s best saved for another post. My point is, when people read literary fiction they really want to know it’s going to be worth it, and a publisher can offer a better guarantee that the novel isn’t going to suck. The only problem with traditionally published literary fiction is it can be too caught up with current social issues. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with that, but it can cause the market to become saturated.
7. Traditional Publishing Offers Prestige
It sounds egotistical, but one of the more “transcendental” perks to traditional publishing is the chance for your work to attain a level of prestige. What do I mean by prestige? I mean a better chance for your work to stick out and be remembered. I’m not saying that’s impossible with self publishing, but the competition is steeper. It sounds silly, but the arts are one of the ways humans can attain immortality. Shakespeare died in the 1600s, but his works are still read by bored students all over the world. Does that mean if you get a traditional publisher you will be the next Shakespeare? Of course not! It does mean you’ll have a greater chance of gaining attention and recognition though. I think a part of us wants to be remembered after we die and writing offers that chance at immortality. Traditional publishing isn’t the only way to attain that with writing, but it bolsters your chances a little better since you can stand out from the crowd. Some might say that’s the wrong reason for writing, and I’m inclined to agree, but I wouldn’t chastise anyone that is honest enough to say, “Yeah, I love writing, but I want recognition too.” Fair enough. It might seem immature to be concerned with the prestige of securing a book deal when you could self publish and make money, but it’s also tied to my fifth point. If you get a book deal then you’re part of the few, the proud, the published.
Are we all super confused and conflicted? I know I am!
Now onto what we all do best! Judge. Stay tuned for how self publishing and traditional publishing stack up against each other.
As per usual, I welcome comments here or on Twitter (@ahahnjones). Do you agree? Am I talking out of my ass? Let me know.
And as always, thanks for reading, and I hope you stick around.