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Self-Publishing vs Traditional-Publishing

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Sat Feb 11, 2017 5:50 pm
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Megrim says...

You've finally written "the end" on your novel, and you're over the moon. Hooray! Only, now what? You've been dreaming of the day you can hold the hard copy in your hand, show it to someone, and say, "Look! I wrote this!" But how to get there from there?!

This article is a basic explanation for people who are just starting out and want to know more about the major options in publishing. There are many resources out there if you want to start really researching this stuff, so consider this article as a starting point.

Traditional Publishing
The age-old way of getting your book out into the world is to go through a publisher. A publishing house is a company completely dedicated to taking manuscripts and turning them into proper books. They select a novel out of the many hopeful submissions, go through rounds of editing to take it from "finished" to "polished" to "even better," design a cover, plan marketing and advertizing, set up contracts with bookstores, and on that fateful day, release physical copies out into the world.

Your Responsibilities
The nice thing about publishers is they do most of the grunt work while you focus on the writing. The biggest thing you have to worry about is making your novel as great as it can be, and then writing a snazzy pitch to catch their interest. If they decide to publish your book, you'll have to make sure you get a good contract, go through edits, and work with a team. Unfortunately, you don't get the final say on your cover or even your book's title, and the publisher will also take a large portion of the profits. They'll be able to distribute more copies to bookstores that way, but they need to cover those costs.

One important consideration is which rights you sell to the publisher vs which ones you retain. The legal nuances of contracts involved is why an agent or contract lawyer is a must, so that you don't accidentally give away more rights to your work than you intended.

What's the difference between an agent and a publisher?
An agent is attached to you, the author. They're your partner-in-writing. The best description is that they're your advocate. You can do all the things an agent does, but an agent is going to be better at it. They'll pitch your book to publishers (most agents know the acquiring editors personally, and know which individuals are most likely to be interested in which book), they'll negotiate your contract, fight on your behalf if you don't like the cover or the edits that the publisher wants, and they'll manage your finances. Agents typically get paid by taking a 15% cut of your book's profits. Having one gives you a lot more weight to throw around, and also allows you to focus more on the writing, while your agent heckles people over contracts and what have you.

- Professional editing and cover design are provided for you.
- You have a team of people working with you on the book.
- Help with marketing and advertizing, placement in bookstores, etc.
- Readers recognize publishers and trust them.
- No or low costs to you.
- Validation and prestige, easier to get recognized for awards, etc.

- Only a small percent of submissions are accepted.
- You lose control over cover, title, and presentation.
- It's an extremely slow, lengthy process.
- The publisher (and agent) take a big portion of the profits.

Self Publishing
In self publishing, you are your own publisher. You cut out the middle-man and directly put your work out there on places like Amazon or CreateSpace. You have final say on everything, but also have to do all the work yourself. This is a mixed blessing, with potentially greater benefits but also greater risks and costs.

Your Responsibilities
In addition to the actual writing, you also have to become a businessman, a marketer, and a publicist. You need to make sure your novel is well edited and has a quality cover and presentation, and you need to identify your audience and figure out how to get their attention. You need to pay close attention to the fine print in everything you do, and carefully manage your finances.

- Anyone can do it.
- Complete creative control.
- Much faster process--you can release as soon as you think you're ready.
- You keep all or most of the profits.
- You keep all the rights to your book/series and have no legal obligations.
- You're less constricted by mainstream genres and "what publishers want." If you want to publish something really wacky and out there, you can.

- It requires an upfront investment, in the several hundreds to thousands of dollars, for professional editing, cover design, and advertizing.
- You have fewer eyes/gatekeeping to stop you from doing something stupid.
- It's easy to get buried in the slew of other self-published works. Many readers don't trust self-pubbed novels, so you have to work REALLY hard to gain their attention and trust.
- There's a lot of non-writing work involved to take up your time.
- If you don't know what you're doing, it's surprisingly easy to shoot yourself in the foot.

Indie Publishers
Some small publishers provide a half-way between the two, where they help with some aspects of publishing but leave the majority to you. For example they might provide an editing or marketing service, but keep relatively hands-off on the creative design. Some are trustworthy, some are a waste of time or money. This is a huge topic, so I'll simply say: make sure you do your research. There are websites like Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors that list known untrustworthy publishers. The legalalities and contracts involved can get hairy, and there's a huge range of how much or how little a small publisher will do for you. Make sure you know exactly what you're getting from them, and exactly what they expect you to do for your own book.

Vanity Press
Pay-to-print. These are good for when you just want that hard copy in your hands. Not meant for professional writers, but they have their niche. You give them the book and they print it for a price.

Opinion Time
In my opinion, the choice to go for self publishing is good for two, completely opposite people/situations. Either you don't care how much you sell, or you really, REALLY care.

Self publishing allows anyone and everyone to let their baby loose into the world and get a few hard copies to hold in your hand. If you're not concerned about making a living or becoming well-known, you don't have to put more work into it than you want to. There's a direct relationship between how much you invest (effort, time, money), and how much readers notice you. If it's a personal dream or milestone to simply have it out there, and you only care to share with friends and family, that's fine. Why go through all the headache of finding an agent and/or publisher in that case?

However, to be successful at self publishing, that takes the complete opposite personality. People who do well with it have to be crazy committed. You can't be impatient, cheap, or too busy. Preparing the book for publication, at a professional level, means a high upfront cost and the self-control to not release it too soon. Once the book is out there, it requires constant vigiliance, with social media activity, real life appearances at conferences and signings, networking, and finding advertizing opportunities. It WILL take time away from writing. Often the people who are best at it have degrees in marketing, communication, or media.

The worst thing you can do is go halfway. Too many self-published authors go through the trouble of getting lots of critique and editing, then get impatient and decide the book is "good enough." They might spend so much on an editor that there's none left for a good cover, or vice versa. And sharing with your facebook friends doesn't really count as advertizing or a social media presence.

If you go the route of self-publishing, I think it's best suited for people who either don't have high expectations, or who are gung-ho about really committing. I've seen several friends start out really hopeful about self publishing, then fizzle out and fall into obscurity a few weeks after release, having sold copies in the single digits. It's heartbreaking. Don't do it. And in my opinion, the biggest problem? Even good authors can be guilty of getting impatient. The vast majority of self-published books I've sampled were released too soon. Take your TIME. Get several rounds of editing. Get quality artwork. The big "Publish" button is so juicy and tempting, but once you click it, there's no going back.

Traditional publishing is, well, the traditional way. It's a well-traveled path and it has many ups and downs. You'll be in good company, but it's not any easier than self-publishing. You have to be committed--want to be published, do the research on how to go about it, put the time in for your writing. No one says you have to be a published author--you can write just for fun. Also, no one says you can't write for fun and then submit it to a publisher to see if you get lucky. However, to really get results, it takes effort.

Remember this is a business, an industry. Money and contracts and livelihoods are involved. Any path, whether traditional or indie, requires dedication and hard work. The path that works for you will depend on your personality, lifestyle, and needs.

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