False Dichotomies of Publishing


I've touched on this subject in some of my prior posts, but after having yet another discussion on this general topic, I thought it might be worthwhile to visit this particular issue in a separate post.

Often, both those published in the traditional fashion and those who are self-published present their approaches as though they were equal choices which need simply be chosen between (and naturally extol the virtues of their chosen approach while pointing out all the deficiencies of the other method).

But this is, put simply, wrong. The two approaches are, first of all, not mutually exclusive, and there's considerable evidence that many of the most successful authors are those who take both routes. But more importantly there are areas of contrast and separation which are implied – by one side or the other – to be simple dichotomies when they are not.

The most important of these is the often-unspoken implication that you can choose either path. Well, no, you can't, not that simply. "In Soviet Union, publishing choose you!" You can choose to submit your manuscript to a traditional publisher, but that does not in any way obligate the publisher to accept and publish your work, and in fact they reject vastly more manuscripts than they will ever accept.

The acceptance of a manuscript also isn't just a matter of "this is a better story", although naturally that's going to be a large part of it. It's also "does this story fit with the kind of stories we publish". Certain types of stories, therefore, will have a much harder time making it past that kind of evaluation, because they don't fit well into any regular publishing category for one reason or another.

Thus, while there are indeed two divisions of publishing, it's not really a simple matter of choice in deciding which one you want. The only people for whom it is such a choice are those who are so successful that they know that anything they write can be sold to a traditional publisher – people like Stephen King, for example. Such people know that they can even write "niche" books and get them published by a big publishing house because their other, more popular books will pay for these occasional low-profit ventures. Most of us, however, are not and will never be in that category.

Another common false dichotomy is "have no control over your manuscript, or have complete freedom with self-publishing". While there have been, and probably still are, some publishers with really, really bad editors that will take apart manuscripts for their own entertainment, for the most part publishers aren't there to dictate how you should write your stuff; after all, if they dictate it all to you, why not just write it themselves? As I have discussed before, the purpose of having editors is to make your work better but still in essence yours.

This points to the falsity on the flip side as well. Sure, you can have complete control of your work, write it and throw it right up on Amazon without anyone saying a word against it. But that's almost certainly doing your work a terrible disservice. There may, possibly, be a few people who are so very good at separating themselves from their own work that they can honestly and dispassionately examine and edit that work. But I have never met someone like that. You need exterior views, and preferably a viewpoint that doesn't have a vested interest in agreeing with you that your work is perfect. You need people to tell you what needs to be improved, so that you can do so. So "having complete freedom" is not an unalloyed good, any more than giving up that control in traditional publishing is of necessity evil.

The third common dichotomy has to do directly with money. "Keep most of the money" versus "be paid a pittance by the publisher" is a common refrain – and one that's pretty much, not to put too fine a point on it, twaddle.

Yes, on pure percentage basis, it does look like the trad publishers give you a raw deal; on paperbacks, royalties are around 7%, sometimes a bit higher for good sellers, and they can go to 10 or 12%, sometimes a bit higher, for hardcovers, and up to 20-25% for eBooks. But that certainly sounds rather puny compared to Amazon's typical 70% cut.


Every expense of publishing in self-publishing rests squarely on the shoulders of the self-publishing author. Paying for the editors. Paying for the proofreaders. Paying for the cover artist and layout people. Paying for printing, if they're making a physical book. Paying for any advertising/marketing.

Sure, you can choose to publish without doing a lot of that – but your book will, in all likelihood, demonstrate why that's a really bad idea. There are a few polymaths who can do pretty much everything themselves, but even there, that's a cost: time, which is the one thing you'll never get paid back.

Even worse: all those expenses, time and money (and don't forget the effort expended in finding the right people to pay all that money to!) are fronted by the self-publisher. If you want to make a good self-published book, you will be spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars before a single book can be sold.

By contrast, a traditional publisher pays you. Up front, in the form of an advance. You don't pay the editors, the proofers, the artists. You may be encouraged to, but are not required to, do publicity, and whether you do or not, the traditional publisher will do some. (Yes, even for newbies. The marketing/advertising power of simply mentioning you in the trade journals and presenting your book to the buyers of the major chains is publicity you could not buy – and if you could it would cost thousands of dollars). The publisher distributes your book. You are never "out of pocket" with a traditional publisher.

**NOTE: If the above paragraph doesn't apply? You're not dealing with a traditional publisher, and you had better run away, fast. Yog's law: Money flows FROM the publisher TO the author, and NEVER the other way around.**

"But but but that percentage! Okay, yeah, the up-front bit's nice, but in the end that comes out of your earnings, which are low percentage, so it's a wash or a loss in the end for the trad guy, right?"

Not… exactly. In fact, not exactly in two different ways.

First, that advance. If you delivered the basic book you promised in your contract, that advance is yours forever. You got paid, and that's that. (part of what they are paying for is "first publication rights", and since you can't ever do "first" again, it makes sense that at least part of that payment must be non-negotiably yours). This applies even if the publisher fails to sell one single copy of your book. Mr. Self Publisher, by contrast, is utterly dependent on selling books to make up for all the effort and/or money they put into publishing the book in the first place.

In the second place, those percentages are not created equal. We'll consider the ebooks here because the issues with physical books are even more skewed, and not in self-publishing's favor. Assume the trad published guy is getting 20%, while the self-pubbed author gets 70%. We'll also assume that they're both selling their books for the same price, although actually trad publishers tend to sell their books for significantly more than self-publishers.

What that means is that for the traditional publishing guy to make as much as the self-pubber, Mr. Trad has to sell three and a half times as many books. That sounds pretty steep.

Except that it's not.

The average self-published book sells a few hundred copies. The average trad published book with any of the big publishers sells a few (or more than a few) thousand books.

Hundred versus thousand. That's a factor of ten. Which, adjusting for the percentage difference, means that overall Mr. Trad will earn about 2.8 times as much in royalties as Mr. Self Pub.

Naturally, there are exceptions. If you're a really good hustler with good marketing skills and a decent book to sell, you might sell thousands, tens of thousands, even a hundred thousand or more self-published books. These are the success stories that self-publishing likes to point to. But the fact is they're statistically no more common than the same superstars in trad publishing.

If you're betting on being one of those superstars – in either trad or self publishing – you're not really doing anything more than playing the lottery. Most of us will never achieve that. Most of us won't even get to the point that we can live on our writing.

So the real "choices" of publishing are more about what will work for me, personally? than they are about one approach or the other being inherently better.

For me, for example, traditional publishing is generally better. I've done a round of self-publishing, and may well do another, but it's a serious grind of effort, a time-consuming and expensive process that I couldn't even contemplate without the help of Kickstarter. I don't have much time or money to expend outside of my family – not with four kids and a full-time job. Traditional publishing hands me money as long as I produce what I promise, and doesn't expect me to front the costs for producing it – costs of either time or money. That's obviously far better for me.

But if I were single, making the same money I am today? Very different proposition. More time available, more money available, and suddenly self-publishing's advantages start to look a lot more appealing.

So look at the challenge of publishing your work, not from the point of view of "which approach is better", but from the point of view of "which approach is best for me".




Your comments or questions welcomed!