An editing client recently asked my opinion on whether to traditionally publish or self-publish. I thought it was a good question to answer on here. I hope it answers questions many others incoming writers may have. It's a bit long, but quite interesting, so here goes:
So far as publishing, I've been offered a book publishing deal through a small publisher before (as I mentioned in a previous post about My Publishing Experience), but that was after months of submitting, many rejection letters, and lucking out by attending a writer's conference. Even the best sellers are rejected a dozen times before they finally get a nibble. However, I turned down the offer. I had already edited my book, paid for additional editors, and had other authors edit my material. I had also researched and formatted my books, paid for cover-art, and self-published through Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace.com. So, my books were getting out to people, being reviewed, and were meeting with great approval overall. Being a small publisher, she had less money to risk on a new author and less clout when it came to marketing. She also wanted me to pay for the first print run while she would cover editing, type setting, cover-art, etc. So, the offer wasn't attractive enough.
Large publishers rarely pick up unknowns for the same reason in today's down market. There are some, but the number of new authors published by traditional publishers each year can normally be counted on your fingers. Plus large publishers still have more money and experience, but are going to put it into a book/author that is less risky. For example, now many large publishers peruse the Amazon best seller lists looking for top independent writers before they ever even look at the slush pile of manuscripts submitted to them directly. This is because if they can find an independent with a fan base that's already been built, there's little to no risk in publishing their books and less marketing for the publishing house to do. However, for the same reason, they will have to sweeten the deal to get that author to sign on with them and confince the author to lose a large chunk of his/her sales and income. But those are almost sure bets, and that is much more attractive. The publishing house will make the money back that they gave to that author and more.
There are some attractions to traditional publishing. One is that to some people, there is still a stigma about self publishing. Although it is no longer vanity publishing and no longer costs the same with Print on Demand, some people still equate self publishing with vanity publishing, but that is quickly changing. The second reason is that many unpublished authors would like to see their books in bookstores, although bookstores now account for less than half of the total book sales in the U.S. I believe it was in 2010 that ebook sales surpassed them and the percentage is still growing. In addition, traditional publishers have deep pockets, so every author hopes that the big publisher will use that money to market his/her book. If you can guarantee a good fan base and sales, then the traditional publisher will probably do so. But if you're a currently unpublished author trying to make a name for yourself, you're likely not going to get the upfront payment from them for the rights to publish your book, nor will they put much into marketing it. Traditionally published authors have said that basically, you can count on the amount of marketing you're going to get from a traditional publisher based on how much they are willing to invest in you at the start. This is called the advance on royalties. If they are willing to cut you a large check for the publishing rights to your book, then they are willing to risk money on it in marketing etc. If you are an expert in your field or have a name and reputation, you might very well be able to get someone to do this. There is no harm in trying. It just takes time to print off the manuscript, create summaries and query letters, and research the requirements for formatting your submission and who to send it to. They all have slightly different ones. Then, you will be in what they call the "slush pile," which an intern will normally go through and you might hear back from in three months to two years.
However, many traditional publishers now require that you have an agent before they'll even look at your book and only accept submissions from agents. In down economic times where print sales are dwindling in favor of ebooks and large and small book stores are closing, this adds a middleman to help weed out works where the author is unpublished or the books don't meet their standard after just looking at the first ten pages or so. Also, it requires them to spend no money. In fact, many have let editors and other people go because requiring an agent makes it less necessary to have editors on staff, paying them benefits etc. They can just hire freelance editors for each project they take on. Financially, it is a smart decision for publishers with firm foundations and a good reputation. However, this basically creates a catch-22 where the authors that are accepted for publication are the authors they or another big publisher have published before. Those looking for their first publication are left in the cold to try and build up their publishing portfolio through writing short stories and submitting to small magazines or small publishers like I mentioned above, even if their book is a wonderful book. But now, even small publishing houses are hard to get accepted into because with dwindling sales, small publishers are having to tighten their belts too. Because of this same reason, they have little ability to market your books well due to a lack of money.
From what I've seen, both small and large publishers are suffering from this because of a decision to maintain high sales prices of ebooks, only reducing them by a dollar or so, while independently published books, when done right, will be the same quality and priced at around $4.99 or less. In this situation, the savings are passed on to the customer, and independent authors actually make a much larger percentage. With the evolution of Amazon.com and ereaders, this competition has become the bane of traditional publishers and is part of the reason for the increase in digital sales over print sales. However, even though production costs are almost nil for these same books, traditional publishers have not been willing to reduce the costs of their ebooks. In fact, I walked into a book store the other day and bought the print edition of George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, a great book by the way, for $5.00. However, both the ebook and print edition on Amazon.com were listed at $8.99 equally. The reason for this is that the book store reduced their profit margin to sell the book for a lower amount. If book stores are able to do this and independent authors have the control to sell theirs for less, choosing to make their money in quantity of sales instead of more per sale, why doesn't traditional publishing in order to compete? This is an interesting question that I have not found a publisher willing to answer. However, the trend is changing. I've seen some interest by small publishers in lowering ebook prices and attempting to compete using this method.
So where does that leave new authors? I wouldn't say give up on traditional publishing or getting an agent, but you have to do the legwork for them and show them that your book has potential by self-publishing, all the while continuing to send submissions to agents and publishing houses. You can do this through online marketing, promotions, etc . . . by getting your book out to readers, getting reader reviews and feedback, and building up demand for your book. Then, if you're able to do this, one of the traditional publishing houses or agents may pick up your novel, or at least make you an offer based on one of your submissions. If your book goes viral, meaning people latch on, can't get enough, and your sales go through the roof like Amanda Hocking's did, then you won't have to submit manuscripts to the big publishers. They will come looking for you, and you will decide how much you are willing to lose in income and control (decision making regarding pricing of your book, choice of cover-art, and more) in order to turn over the marketing reins to a publisher and just write. This is a far-fetched notion, the idea of becoming the next J. K. Rowling overnight. The funny thing is that more authors have been able to successfully give up their day jobs and write full time as indie authors in the last few years than ever before with traditional publishing. This is because the overhead and costs in traditional publishing leave the author with such a small cut of the profits that they have no choice but to work whatever day jobs they can find.
The publishing world now is very different than even a dozen years ago and is changing daily. However, if you are willing to put in the time and effort, you can work your way up in sales, get more money, and make a name for yourself on your own. If writing full time isn't your goal, what I would advise is to hire a professional editor, a good cover artist, and then format or pay someone to format your books for ebook through Kindle Direct Publishing and print through CreateSpace.com, Lulu.com, or another POD service. Afterwards, your book will be up for sale digitally on Amazon and in print on Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com. People will even be able to walk into a Barnes and Noble and order your book. You might want to think about enrolling your book in Amazon's Kindle Select program because it allows you to do promotions by putting your ebook up for free or cheaper for five days out of every ninety. This will get your book out to 80-90% of the ebook market, because around 80-90% of ereader owners have Kindles. In addition, it makes your book free to borrow and puts you in the running for a percentage of a $500,000+ fund that Amazon pays to authors each month based on how many people borrow your book.
If you still want to be traditionally published, then after six months to a year, depending on how well your book is selling, I'd start submitting your manuscript and/or query letters to agents; around ten submissions a week. If you get a bite and an agent takes you on, they'll do a lot of the legwork from there for a cut of the pie. In the end though, publishers generally only give royalties of 6-12% of the profits (meaning whatever they make after their costs for manufacturing, sales, distribution, etc... are deducted). Then the agent would get around 15% off the top of that 6-12%.
A good estimate for an advance on sales for a first time author, if you get one at all, is $4,000.00 - $6,000.00 (which is deducted from your 6-12% of initial sales until they are paid back). Celebrities and people with a fan base can demand much higher advances. It has now become common practice for many publishers to forgo the advance or give a much smaller one to new authors in lieu of a larger percentage of the royalties, increasing the 6-12% to upwards of 25%, and with big name celebrities 50%. This way, they are not out as much money if the book doesn't sell. However, the adage I mentioned before about how much they are willing to spend in marketing being equivalent to how much they are willing to give as an advance still applies.
It has taken me years of research to discover most of these things and by tomorrow, some may have changed with the ever-changing publishing world we now have on our hands.
Weston Kincade ~ Author of Invisible Dawn, A Life of Death, and Strange Circumstances