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Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing Part 2: Traditional Publishing

Last week, I discussed some direct comparisons between traditional publishers and the self-publishing method, so be sure to read that post (here) if you're interested in a comparison.

Today, we'll continue that discussion by focusing on traditional publishing, discussing the evolving book market, and the different types of publishers out there.

As a fair warning, I have a tendency to see traditional publishers as big bad wolf characters trying to take advantage of hard-working writers while simultaneously feeding readers a mix of sometimes brilliant but mostly generic content.

Despite my personal feelings, I also realize that some author's have certain goals that are more realistically reached with a traditional publisher when this route is possible for them. I will attempt to explain some facets of traditional publishing without being hypercritical, but take any of my judgments with a grain of salt.

The Book Market Is Evolving

In the past, traditional publishers basically held the market thanks to having the funds and connections available to reach an audience. While some people self-published in various forms, there was little way to really create a national or international market for such "homegrown" products. A lucky few may have been later picked up by traditional publishers, but most were just passion projects.

I am a huge fan of passion projects, so I don’t see these types of endeavors as futile attempts. There is more to publishing than money. As much as I believe in the business of publishing, I certainly believe in the art element as well. Even within that sector, we have previously self-published books throughout history that are extremely relevant today, especially in literature and early sciences. Walt Whitman's poetry collection Leaves of Grass was originally self-published, and while he never saw any major financial success, there's no denying his impact on poetry, literature, and pop culture.

Back to the point, it suffices to say that traditional publishers are starting to lose a large portion of the market. This isn’t to say that large companies aren’t still reaping the benefits of all the hard work put in by authors. Amazon’s Kindle eBook market alone makes up a huge portion of books sold today, and they are receiving anywhere from 30-65% of the profit from each sale. With their print platform CreateSpace, they are charging you for the cost of printing and the cost of distribution, and you typically take away 40% of the sale.

However, larger traditional publishers still have the benefit of funding and networks of connections. Having the ability to buy advertisements, put up posters in brick-and-mortar locations, and simply place books in actual bookstores can have a huge impact on sales. This sounds like a no-brainer, but as bookstores decline in numbers and eBook downloads rise, so does the usefulness of this traditional methodology for many authors. Many traditional publishers are watching as the book market begins to shift. Of course, major publishers are also working the online markets with the same funding benefits. Their books may be a little harder to find than when they had posters up, but they still have the funds to advertise aggressively if they have reason to believe a book will be successful.

Simultaneously, books are forced to compete with many different forms of media that are available for instant gratification. I can literally watch movies on my cell phone all day instead of reading a book. Even if I do want to read a book, I have the option of listening to audio books. Guess who controls that market right now? Amazon with their Audible company.

In the changing book market, traditional publishers are forced to play along or disappear, and now the profit margins are getting slimmer for many authors and big publishers as a result. While the big publishers are still generally taking more of the profits than smaller publishers and self-publishers, this can directly affect authors seeking to break into the market through traditional publishers.

As the indie market grows and the market continues to change, traditional publishers are less likely to take risks. They are not quite as interested in budding authors without a following, a fan base, already in place. While they may rarely pick up a book that is already self-published (it has happened), they will sometimes gladly invite self-published authors that have seen success to submit something their way, or sometimes even sign an agreement for X amount of books. Plus, there are plenty of renowned authors already, and why would Penguin Random House work with a no-name author when they have the likes of Danielle Steel to pen several books per year?

So do new authors ever break through these obstacles? Yes, but it is a difficult road and not possible without a bit of random luck. The right person has to see your manuscript at the right time.

So the major players may be a bit of stretch for your first novel or your great non-fiction book. It isn’t impossible, and if that is your goal for the book, then by all means chase that dragon. However, if being “traditionally published” is the only goal, understand that not all publishers are equal.

The Big 5

When someone says, "The Big 5," in relation to publishing, they are talking about the major publishers. This includes Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan. These major players also have a large number of smaller imprints, so while it may seem like there are many more major players than these five, the truth of the matter is that they control the market. As we discussed already, this is slowly changing.

Pop-up or Start-up Publishers

There exists in the market a large amount of small publishers that seem to pop-up and disappear before making much of a significant splash at all. These smaller publishers are often just handling the publishing process the exact same way a motivated self-published author may handle it themselves. They leverage platforms like Amazon’s CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing, and as an author, your books are simply printed or transferred as orders are placed. Essentially, it's exactly the process we see with a typical self-published book. These small publishers work on minimal budgets, sometimes with a single person wearing many hats. There’s nothing wrong with this, and some of these grow into great businesses.

However, it is important to understand what you are signing up for, how promises and guarantees are not always the same thing, and that you really shouldn’t sign away your rights for long periods of time with budding publishers. Don’t get me wrong, working with new publishers can be very exciting, and you may get a large amount of personal attention and make friends along the way. For poetry, literary fiction, and outside-the-box authors, these are sometimes the proper home for your work. Just understand that disappointment is a real possibility and understand that good intentions are not always followed up with great execution.

Independent Publishers

There is definitely a place in the industry for these types of small independent publishers. Not all of them are empty promises and short-lived pipe dreams. This is especially true for many would-be self-publishers whose goals are not promoting their business, making large sums of money, or becoming famous. The right small publisher may very well allow them to be the artist they wish to be by taking away the time spent perpetually scratching their heads about how to really put these things into a proper format even though they don’t expect a large payout in return.

And yes, sometimes, a small publisher is surprisingly effective, books do well, and people make a decent amount of money for all their effort.

As a long side note, perhaps I should stress that I’m actually very fond of this type of publisher. I run a small press that fits into this category and only publishes a small number of titles per year. (You might call it a “boutique publisher,” though that may sound a bit pretentious.)

Leaf Garden Press was established in 2009 as the home of a small literary journal (no longer published due to time restraints) and poetry books, and it is where I began to learn the skills of print layout and realized that helping people put together their books is something I really enjoy. It began as an experiment in the concept of free or priced at minimal cost poetry and prose, and it retains those original efforts to this day. The “not-for-profit” designation is not backed up by any government, and the only funding is the minimal royalties that MUST be collected due to pricing restraints on Amazon or small generous donations given in the way of “name-your-price” editions. Past that, it's funded out my pocket. It is understood that nobody makes any money, and it has technically been in the fiscal red since conception. However, creative freedom is guaranteed, and I never take any rights away from the authors. As such, it tends to be home to personal passion projects that may only sell a small number of copies per year, yet are very much worthy of existing within the physical and digital world of literature. The website may be dated in design, but hopefully that’s part of its charm.

Vanity Presses

Then there are the “vanity presses.” The common example is PublishAmerica, who has a long history of doing very little to help their authors without trying to charge them a fee. They scream at the top of the rooftops that they are “traditional publishers” and “do it all for free unlike anyone else!” Funny enough, they go on to compare themselves to self-publishing platforms instead of other traditional publishers… who do the exact same thing without all the hoops.

After publication and signing away your rights for 7 years or more, you come to find out that your book is way overpriced, and that if you want any marketing from them, you’ll have to pay for it out of pocket during all their great "deals." These deals end up being an endless cycle of email spam aimed at taking your money. Could you technically be published by them and make some money? Probably, but they will do their best to bleed you dry, almost always overprice books, and aren't very professional in demeanor. At least that's the general consensus of authors they've managed to piss off.

Other vanity presses operate with much less trickery, but they are still somewhat dishonest about exactly what is going on. They blatantly explain that you are going to be paying large fees upfront, but they still like to tout that you will be “traditionally published.” Over the years, many of these services have realized that people are willing to pay for services and do not need to be tricked, but they are still prone to inflated prices and lackluster promise keeping.

The easiest way to avoid these types of problems is to go to Google, type in the name of any prospective publisher, and then type the words “review” or “is it legit” or “scam” and see what comes up. If more often than not there are people complaining, then it’s a safe bet it’s time to run as far away as possible. You may as well self-publish, and if you can't handle everything yourself, there are plenty of contractors/companies that will be honest with you throughout the process. Right Hand Publishing comes to mind.

The Process Can Be EXHAUSTING

I am going to greatly simplify the traditional publishing process here, but it should help you understand that you’re in for a long game approach. The very general process looks like this:

  • Write the book, edit it yourself.

  • Submit the book to publishers that allow unsolicited submissions (i.e. don’t require an agent).

  • Wait anywhere from 3 months to over a year to hear back from publishers, often only to receive a rejection in the form of an impersonal form letter.

  • Repeat this process over and over until you find a publisher or decide to get an agent.

  • Agent may charge you upfront, though this isn't always the case.

  • Agent may suggest working with an editor to improve the book.

  • You may work on the book some more for quite a while.

  • Your agent may submit to larger publishers only to go through the same long waiting times and rejection cycle again.

  • Finally, someone wants your book. They also want to pay 10% royalties, no advance, keep the rights for 7+ years, and once again wants to make major changes to the text (not always a bad thing).

  • The book goes through a huge process of design and publication.

  • The book goes for sale, and there’s a chance that it will become a bestseller or you could receive very little attention and make very little money. Nothing is really guaranteed, but larger publishers will have plenty of resources.

  • You are finally a published author!

This is a terribly generic explanation of the process, but talk to an author that has attempted traditional publishing with the goal of only focusing on large publishers, and very often you will hear about just how terrible and long the process can truly be. This is especially true for a work of fiction that doesn’t neatly fit into trending genres or comes from an author without an existing readership to prove their worth.

It is, in my opinion, a huge and horrible waste of time that feels a lot like playing the lottery. Often regardless of quality, innovation, or creativity, a book may get picked up quickly or passed over repeatedly! A small number of people will decide your book’s fate, and you’ll have to deal with the crushing reality of rejections even though you know very well these are only a small number of (sometimes snobby) individuals. At some point, you may have to consider working with smaller publishers or going the route of self-publishing.

Remember, self-publishing and smaller publishers CAN eventually lead to bigger publishing contracts. So if your ultimate goal is being available in big bookstores, allowing your first few books to be published elsewhere doesn’t mean all hope is lost. There is still something to say about becoming a bestseller, working with a large publisher, having that “rock star” status, and for some writers, this is part of “the dream.” It is possible. It isn’t guaranteed even if you're a great writer.

Next week, we'll focus on self-publishing and the many challenges that come with going down the publishing rabbit hole on your own. In the meantime, feel free to ask questions here or by emailing me at

Robert Louis Henry,

Right Hand Publishing

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