This blog was featured on 08/30/2016
Are There Still Pros to Traditional Publishing?

I get this question—are there still pros to traditional publishing?—fairly often. That writers even ask this question showcases just how far removed traditional publishers are from the sea change that's underway in the world beyond their walls, and that would-be authors feel there aren't many pros to traditional publishing has deeper ramifications for publishers than even the digital revolution. Publishers (along with agents and editors) have long sat in a high and mighty position as the gatekeepers of what deserves to be published. But this position is quickly eroding as writers (and by extension readers) lose faith in traditional publishing. The ramifications I reference are difficult to quantify because they won’t be seen for some years to come, but we can't underestimate what happens to a business model when it starts to become irrelevant to those people who might otherwise be poised to become their future bread and butter. This phenomenon is not so different from the way we treat our planet—ignoring what we do and how we treat our world because everything feels fine now. It’s self-destructive short-sightedness.

Everywhere I go I meet authors who’ve opted to self-publish as a first choice. Writers largely feel that agents don’t give them the time of day. Everyone is too busy to give thoughtful feedback. But agents don’t get paid unless authors get paid, so what incentive do they have to put in long hours (heck, even to read past a query letter) if they don’t get a gut reaction that a book is a “sure bet”? (Whatever they take that to mean.) Writers in the process of shopping their books, especially those who have the confidence that their books are good, start to distrust agents and editors. Publishing really has become the new Wild West. It’s everyone for themselves, and aspiring authors no longer have to—nor should they—take multiple rejections as a sign that anything is wrong with their book.

So what does traditional publishing still have to offer?

1. Partnership. With a traditional publishing deal comes a built-in team. To what extent they’ll go to bat to you is largely dependent on two factors—how important your book is to the list and how much they like you. But there’s no question that it’s an asset to have a group of people who are on top of your deadlines, shepherding your book through the publication process, and managing your publicity. A downside here is that, because the publisher retains more control than you do, you can sometimes get edged out of what’s going on with your own book if your publisher doesn’t want to share exactly what’s going on behind the scenes.   

2. Quality. Publishers stand behind the books they publish, and since that's the case, you can bet your book will be well-edited and thoroughly proofread, and that they’ll put a best effort toward making sure you have a great cover and interior design.

3. Legitimacy. This is still big. No matter how many successfully self-published or otherwise-published books are hitting the best-seller lists, traditional publishing has a legacy. This matters to the media. It matters where contests are concerned, and where some reviews are concerned. Traditional media and review outlets largely discriminates against any author who dares to put money behind their own book project, though strides are being made to level the playing field with every non-traditionally published book that breaks new barriers.

4. Distribution. Another biggie. Some alternative publishing solutions (including She Writes Press and other models like us) have traditional distribution, and no matter where you land, you want to ask about it. Traditional distribution, a big pro for traditional publishing, continues to be, hands-down, the biggest con of DIY self-publishing. Having traditional distribution means you benefit from preorders, management of your metadata on a big scale, and having a sales force that’s getting your book out to retailers on your behalf—among other benefits.

5. Advances. If you can still get an advance, this is a clear pro. And if you can earn it out. The truth of the advance is that it’s a mixed bag. If you get a largish advance and your book doesn’t perform well, then you could become a pariah in the industry and find it very difficult to sell future books. The best advance is a mid-range advance, and if you get one, you want to consider allocating some or all of it to fund your publicity.

It’s important to note that many hybrid presses have some but not all of these offerings. And that no matter what you’re going for, there are trade-offs. Traditional publishers keep 85% of net on print books and 75% on ebooks. There are many vocal authors out in the world who think these numbers are exploitative. And depending on who you are, you might fare better as a traditional published author, or better as a self-published or “third-way” author. In my opinion, the ideal candidate for a traditional publisher is someone who is either not particularly entrepreneurial, or who has their own other more lucrative business/es and doesn’t want to deal with the book world. They might value collaboration, but they trust the built-in team the publisher brings and don’t really want or need a lot of control over their project. Authors with huge platforms often prefer to go with a traditional publisher because the publisher has the existing outlets and the relationships to sell a lot of books. The author brings the name recognition or the brand, and the publisher goes to work on their behalf. These authors benefit the most because publishers are star-struck (for money reasons, yes, but also for the fame of being tied to someone with star power), and they want to be partnered with authors who have celebrity and who can push books.

My two cents is this: Be aware of the sea change we are in right now. Don’t assume anything. Do your homework and ask questions. If you get a traditional deal with no advance, I’d advise you to look elsewhere, or at least negotiate for much higher royalties. Save for publicity, no matter what path you choose. And if you have a publisher—whether it’s traditional or hybrid, be the squeaky wheel, though not to the point of becoming so annoying you start to alienate the team that’s working for you. You’re competing for attention at every turn on this journey, so don’t be afraid to make yourself noticed. To ask questions. To think creatively—and big. Work with your team to think outside the box about creative publicity and platform opportunities. Copy what’s been done well. Try to have some fun while you’re at it. Don’t ever ever give up on your publishing dream.

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  • Vanessa,

    I have a great Canadian cover artist to recommend: Dawne Dominique  [email protected]    Good luck.

  • Excellent post! As I complete my novel this has provided some good food for thought. I am wavering between traditional and self publishing, but have also read that its possible to have both at some point. As in you may self publish and then depending on the success of the book, traditional publish after that. I too believe that we need to adopt traditional publishing practices i.e. editors etc. If any of you have recommendations for editors, designers etc., I welcome them. Thanks!!

  • Yeah, Girl Friday and my fellow Seal sisters. They're awesome. Good for you. You're doing it the RIGHT way, Evette. Let us know when you're book is coming out. Happy for you.

  • Evette Davis

    Thanks for this very thoughtful post.  As a self-published writer my observation is that in order to be successful, we need to adopt some of the traditional publishing practices, such as having an editor. I'm working with Girl Friday Productions and while the investment I've had to make is significant, there is no question that working with a developmental editor has made my writing better. I've also got a top notch graphic designer and copy editors on my team. And I've created my own publishing imprint to avoid the Amazon stigma with Indi-book stores.

    I guess you could say I wrote myself an advance...but what we produce in the end will look and read very much like a  traditionally published book. - Evette 

  • Ha ha. Even with the typo, well said, sister!

  • I don't know how chair became long became knob! I meant nailing yourself to a chair long enough. . .

  • I haven't read books (yet) that you have published. I have read self-published books by friends. I have sometimes felt they would have benefited from an editor, but then, I think that sometimes about traditionally published books, probably because traditional editors aren't given time to edit any more. They mostly acquire and publicize, etc. Sometimes, I pick up some ordinary little novel or children's book from, say, pre-1970, and that thing is so. . .literate, so well written, clean, and deep and clear. Michael Korda wrote a book in 2000, tracing best sellers throughout the Twentieth a Century. When he came to Edna Ferber's Saratoga Trunk (a terrific read, by the way) he made that comment, too, that today, Saratoga Trunk would be considered lit fic with strong cross-over capabilities. Then, it was just good writing.

    The end of the road, we all care about writing, which means nailing ourselves to a chair knob enough to longhand or type something that someone somewhere will pick up and engage with deeply, whether it's to be scared, entertained, to laugh a lot, to gain wisdom, to learn something new, to re-connect with something old. On that front, I don't see a snoots difference between trad, non-trad or self publishing. It's all, on some level, sitting around the communal fire-pit telling life stories. And no matter what, we, as humans, need those stories. Let's hold together and keep telling them.

  • @Sara, Seal hasn't accepted fiction for more than a decade, so unfortunately that's not a new policy. But yes, there's a divide between the traditional world and the self-pub world that's really not good for anyone. Those literary authors seem to lose sight of what it felt like before they got their book deals, and I think a lot of trad pubbed authors do feel threatened by self-pubbed authors. There's room enough for everyone, but there is a scarcity mentality, like with a lot of things, I suppose.

  • @Terri. It's an interesting thing you bring up because it's very possible you have read self-pubbed authors and don't know it. And the borders are shifting all the time. She Writes Press, authors, for instance, are technically not traditionally published, but they benefit from many things that traditionally published authors get. There are examples of self-pubbed authors (galore) who get picked up by big houses once their books take off. This question you raise is one of discoverability. How do you find those great books? Reviews are definitely big—online and in print.

  • I take your point about wishing the door keepers would open them just a little wider. Until they do, though. . .I notice Seal Press isn't accepting Fiction at this time. t's just hard to navigate a changing world and make the best decisions--I almost wrote "right" decisions. Ha!

    But, The thing is, I'm writing lit fiction. I read so much self-publishing blogs etc that speak of the snobbishness of lit fiction writers and how they clam up and look like snooty (place perjorativd adjective here) when self-publishing is mentioned. But when it's literary anything, I think for that audience, you still have to aim for those reviews, etc.

    Give it five years, maybe, the dust will have settled and the battles will be over.

  • Good points, Sara, and yes, point #3 above (which you mention here regarding reviews and contests) is a VERY big deal. I think too few people are talking about it actually. Reviews and contests matter a lot for literary authors. Reviews actually can drive sales. So self-pubbed authors need to consider this when they're looking at the pros and cons of traditional versus self. A lot of outlets are opening up to provide self-published authors with opportunities for reviews, but it's still very segregated. This is something I would truly like to see change out there in the world of reviews as it is very unfair to authors who are barred from traditional presses for whatever reasons.

  • From friends who are doing it, it seems as if you're writing self-help, romance, cozy mysteries, thrillers, etc. and you have a ton of energy and great ideas for marketing--and as much time as you have for writing--then you should definitely self-publish now. I have a friend who is a rabidly brilliant marketer and researcher, retired, and a terrific resource to anybody out there self-publishing-she's M.L. Locke, writing cozy mysteries, and I recommend her blog to folks who want to learn about self-publishing. 

    On the other hand, with traditional publishing, it sounds like the two biggest risks are a) losing control of a book that publishers decide to dump with no support, and b) not earning out your advance, in which case, you are not likely to ever be published traditionally again. Boo hoo, since you can just turn around and self-publish, maybe under another name, if you have concerns. And is it possible, I wonder, to get a contract that makes certain if the publishers drop a book, you regain control of the title so you can market it yourself? 

    I think personally that literary fiction or memoir or non-fiction etc. is one realm, so far, where self-pub doesn't work. First of all, there is no access to the serious reviewers, which I think somebody mentioned, and secondly, well, the awards, too. In your experience, hat do you think about self-publishing literary anything? Memoir, fiction, etc. 

  • Jean Ellen, I'm really happy to hear about your experience, and yes, this is pretty typical for small presses. I think the good thing about small press authors is that they know it's more of a collaboration when they go into it, so they're better equipped to be out there hitting the pavement. Thanks for sharing!

  • Lynne, I don't think it's beside the point, but what happens in trad publishing is that some books cannot be saved. Over the course of my time acquiring books for Seal there were inevitably a handful of books that you acquire on good faith, especially with nonfiction because you are often buying on proposal. Editors can do a lot to make a book better, but unless a ghostwriter is hired on some, they're simply going to be what they are. I see a lot of blame placed on editors for these kinds of bad books, but the behind-the-scenes can get pretty complicated and messy at times.

  • Diane, thanks for sharing your story. It's a familiar path—and so great that this choice is an option for us!

    Terri, if and when you get to the point of disgust with the process, consider this post I wrote:

  • Arlo Hennings

    Key here is "publicity" - I think it quite difficult to get yourself booked for an interview with Bill Moyers. However, your team at Little Brown can get it done. Same goes for awards like the American Book Award. Even though they say, anyone can submit a book, I have never seen a DIY author win. I'd like to see a DIY on Oprah's list. And the whole distribution thing is mind boggling. Especially, if you're thinking about foreign markets. However, it depends on your market too.

  • Hi all,

    I'm new to She Writes, but not to writing. I've received awards for my articles and NPR commentaries and one story from Reader's Digest was voted their #1 'must read' for months on end.

    But when I approached agents for the memoir that was to come out of that story, I was told that it wasn't marketable and that I was an 'unknown'. So after five years of that, I self published it this May and people love the story and tell me how much it has meant to them to read it.

    So I'm happy to take the self-publishing route with this book and the future ones that I plan to write. My memoir is called "Reunion, La Réunion, Finding Gilbert" and tells how I went to look for the orphan Gilbert whom my father tried to adopt during World War II, but wasn't able to.

    Hurrah for self-publishing! But the marketing is a lot of work!

    Here's a link to the book on Amazon:

  • This is probably a mundane comment, but I'm reading a trad published debut novel right now that completely belies #2 above. The editor gave it very little effort. (A character's proper name repeated several times in one paragraph, and not for effect; failing to begin a new paragraph when, in dialogue, the speakers change; poorly developed characters...I feel bad for the author.) And as for #4, there aren't many bookstores left, unless you're counting supermarkets/WalMart/Costco, etc. Given the short shelf time, returns, and low royalties, plus loss of control, I just don't see the appeal. And that's sad, because it means letting go of a certain kind of dream.

    Good analysis.

  • Jean Ellen Whatley

    Hi Brooke,

    Great post today. I think you gave this topic very fair and thoughtful treatment. I went with a small, indy press in St. Louis for my memoir,Off the Leash, for the very reasons you set out - credibility, partnership, distribution. And while it has proven to open doors for me, (no doubt) the onus is still on the author to do the heavy lifting on promotion. I've seen numerous posts here on She Writes about marketing, platform, seizing every opportunity, constantly breathing new life into your book -- the hours invested there, in my experience, are at least equal to, if not greater than the time and energy spent on the creative process.  That said, I think your words of encouragement on not taking no for an answer are heartfelt and spot on. Don't let the gatekeepers tell you no. Many of them are out of touch, or simply not willing to take a risk -- when I get emails now from women who say, (seriously) that Off the Leash changed their life, it makes me know I have a story that resonates. If I had taken no for an answer from so many traditionalists (agents & publishers) it would never have been published. Thank God for small presses --another alternative.

    My best to you & She Writes sisters,

    Jean Ellen Whatley, Off the Leash, how my dog inspired me to quit my job, pack my car and take a road trip across America to reclaim my life.

  • I love to hear this, Kathryn. The reason I wrote this is because I call myself an equal advocate for traditional and self-publishing, and obviously this in-between thing we're doing at SWP. But in my opinion, traditional publishing is broken. And it's because of the publishers, and consolidation, and inaccessibility, and inability to take risks. But this doesn't mean they don't do things well. I see a lot of polarized writing out there about how awful traditional publishing is, but really they're not. They're just inflexible. They don't know another way, and so they hurt a lot of authors, and turn off even more. I'm with you on doing it yourself, being your own advocate, having control and not answering to anyone. Kudos to you!

  • Brooke,

    I've talked about this before. I'm one of those long-time authors who walked away from the traditional publishers a few years ago to self-publish after publishing with many of them for over 30 years...and never made a living from them no matter how many books I had out or how hard I worked. I spent so many years working a full time graphic artist job in the real world to support myself while I kept writing at night because I had to have money to live. How many more books could I have written if I would have been able to write full-time all those years?  I no longer trust editors, agents or publishers. Over the years they all let me down in so many ways. Nearly doomed my career. The last two years as I self-published my last 5 novels (of 20) I am finally making a living with my writing and I am so happy. I think traditional publishers will someday be the rare dinosaur and I will be smiling, riding the new creature of self-publishing.