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Jan
12
2015

Self-Publishing or Traditional Publishing? Which is the Best Fit for You? -- by John Berkowitz

Let me state two things up front: I have not published a book myself (although I am poised to do so), and I have definite opinions about which route is the best fit for me.  So that may color my analysis.  You have been warned.

For certain both ways of getting your book to the public have definite advantages:

Self-Publishing

  • Author Control – when you self-publish you retain control of practically everything, from contents and editing to format, cover design and marketing.
  • Speed of Publication – If you are going strictly e-book, you can have your book on Barnes & Noble or Amazon in mere weeks.  If you go through a print service, you can have hard copies in several months.  Whereas, through traditional publishing it may be as long as two years before your book hits the street.
  • Retention of Rights – When you self-publish you (usually) keep all rights, and can do whatever you want with the book at any time.  With traditional publishing you have to work within the rules set by the publisher that has retained the rights.
  • Inventory – Because you are controlling the printing process, you never have to face a warehouse full of unsold books.  Print-on-demand allows you to print only what books your customers order.

Traditional Publishing

  • Legitimacy – Many people consider (rightly or wrongly) traditionally-published books to be more “legitimate” than self-published books.  Books published by major publishing houses carry more weight – even if the author is unknown – than books published independently.  This carries over to brick-and-mortar bookstores, where you will rarely find self-published books for sale.
  • Editing – Publishers provide in-house editorial services that will save the author the expense of hiring a professional editor to catch all of the inconsistencies and correct all of the punctuation and spelling errors even the most thorough authors sometimes miss.  These in-house editors also have a very good idea what is selling right now and can help tune your manuscript to better fit your audience.
  • Publishing Cost – If a traditional publisher accepts your book, they will be covering all of the costs of printing and publishing, and assuming all of the risks therein.  This can save thousands of dollars over self-publishing book, where you have to pay up front for the books you print.
  • The Paycheck – Most traditional publishers pay the authors of the books they produce an advance on expected sales, then additional royalties based on actual sales.  Royalties range from 7.55 to 15% of total sales worldwide.

Simply comparing facts, however, is never enough.  You wouldn't do it when choosing a car or a home or a piece of furniture.  There are a lot of other factors at work here.  For example, the other day I ran across this post in one of the writing/publishing groups to which I belong: “Finally, my YA Romance is on Amazon, but now what? I don't have a clue as to how to sell this book!”  To me this is very odd, and at once I knew I would never read this book or seek out this author.  How do you get to this point in your writing career without ever having considered how to market your book?  This author went on to inquire about how much sex is acceptable in a YA novel.  Wouldn't you have asked this question before you wrote your novel?  I think this example illustrates precisely what is wrong with the self-published market.

The key thing about the traditional publishing route is that before your book will be accepted by a publishing house it has to be well-written, polished, marketable, and likely to appeal to a specific audience.  In other words, you have to know your craft and do your homework before you can get your foot in the door.

Not that some truly awful books have not slipped through — maybe because the author is already famous for something else, or because the topic is controversial or timely or is very similar to a recent book that was a huge success.  Because those things will sell books, too.  But probably none of those conditions apply to your book.

With self-publishing, none of the qualities of the publishing house gatekeepers are there, so anything — and everything — can get through.  And does.  The market is saturated.  There are tens of thousands of e-books out there, many of them by authors who have no idea how to write a good book.  Imagine if your local BevMo carried every beer brewed in the kitchen of a hobbiest, every bottle of bathtub gin, and every vintage of backwoods White Lightning?  Without tasting every one, how would you know which were any good?  By the label?  Because the really good ones can afford to hire a professional artist to design their label?  To some degree, yes.  Because you can effectively dismiss those with cheap, amateurish labels.  I know — “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”  But when seven-eighths of the books have covers that look like they were Photoshoped in an hour by someone who just bought the program yesterday, you can reasonably suspect that their lack of polish and attention to detail extends to their writing, as well.  

To miss-quote Anton Ego, “A great artist can come from anywhere, but not everyone can become a great artist.”  To be sure, there are a lot of truly wonderful self-published books.  But how do you know?  Well, word-of-mouth, good reviews, sales ranking, etc.  in other words, marketing.  A traditional publishing house is banking — literally — on the success of your book.  It is in their best interest, and within their considerable power, to market and promote your book.  They have publicists, contacts, and a well-earned reputation.  And the money to back it all up.  To be sure, even with traditional publishing, you are expected to pound the pavement and get the word out, go to signings, and meet with librarians and booksellers.  But with self-publishing you're on your own. 

In case you haven't paid attention, I lean toward traditional publishing. And I knew this when I started writing my current book.  So I did my research, learned everything I could about what sells and what doesn’t, and sought as much help as I could to learn my craft and perfect my story.  So that when I was ready to submit, it would be not only acceptable to a traditional publisher, but good enough to make them invest in it.

I’ll let you know if I succeed.

John has a personal blog at johnrberkowitz.wordpress.com

Posted by John Berkowitz 12 Jan 2015 at 02:47
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Responses to this blog

Ferris 12 Jan 2015 at 11:43  
Funny . . . self-pubbed author Hugh Howey just wrote a post addressing the "The market is saturated" criticism of self-publishing. I bring it here, not to argue with you, John, but just to show the opposing viewpoint. I don't know which is correct, and I also have published exactly zero books so I have a LOT to learn before I make any choices, but I have to admit: I lean towards self-pub at the moment.
www.hughhowey.com/the-glut-is-good/
Jberkowitz 12 Jan 2015 at 12:50  
Ferris,

Thanks for the alternative view. A very good read. However, Project Gutenberg is a drop in the bucket of the free e-book market. It is becoming more prevalent for mainstream publishers to offer free versions of first-in-series books or special 3-5 chapter editions of upcoming books. Also, many, many indie-published writers put up their early books fro free to build a base so they can charge for later work. However these kinds of things tend to drive sales of physical books, rather than detract from them. The other statistic Howey mentions is that $30 billion in yearly book sales. I was not able to locate a statistic to support my gut feeling, but I suspect that only a very tiny percentage of that number is from non-traditional publishing. The majority of it is from physical printed book sales, and you can't find vanity press or print-on-demand books at your local Barnes & Noble. You can find them on Amazon, but Amazon is getting an increasingly-negative reputation with serious authors, so that may change, too.

Also, Mark Coker's Publishing Predictions for 2015 suggests that there will be a decline in indie-published books starting in 2015, as enthusiastic writers attempting too late to jump on the bandwagon have failed to get traction and will drop out.

But I agree with much of what Howey says.
Rellrod 12 Jan 2015 at 20:18  
Jb — loved your beer analogy.

I'm inclined to try traditional publication too, if only because marketing and writing are two quite different skills. I may have the latter; I'm not great at the former, and I don't want to spend the time learning it. (I want to write!) That, and the curation factor, suggest traditional publication isn't dead yet — although self-publication has added alternate routes and fascinating complexity to the market.

Rick
Thewitt 12 Jan 2015 at 21:21  
One of my favorite authors has moved away from trade publishing and is now self-publishing after more than 60 books in print.

I still believe it's the wave of the future, and though the trade houses will never go away, they won't own the market forever.

My kids don't buy print books and they are avid readers. I'm betting this trend continues, which only empowers the self-publisher.

You still have to put out a quality product of course, but there is no need to fit into a "standard form" in a publishing house if you can capture the attention of your desired readers.

Marketing for the self-publisher will be an emerging business that should produce some interesting models in the next decade, competing with anything in the trade business today.
__________________
Author of The Triadine Saga - The Watcher's Keep, The Dragon Rises (winter 2014)

Ml2872 13 Jan 2015 at 01:06  
I'm not sure I agree with you about cover art statement. I know we keep mentioning Hugh Howey, but his original cover art for 'Wool' wasn't that spectacular, but his story was incredible. I don't want to name names, but there's a particular self-pub author out there who goes by the name of A.Rosaria who has incredible cover art, but seems to be habitually publishing his rough drafts. This is just one example. On the other hand, I've bought traditional paper backs with great cover art and the story was total crap. Your store front can be beautiful, but nobody wants to go in and find pure crap on your shelves.
Jberkowitz 13 Jan 2015 at 10:19  
For those of you following this discussion: Publishers Weekly just reported that print book sales rose 2.4% in 2014, the ending the decline that started in 2010 with the closure of Borders and the explosion of e-book sales. The article, For Books, Print Is Back, is full of statistics and details. Most exciting to me personally, juvenile fiction sales rose 12% over 2013.
Purplek 13 Jan 2015 at 12:39  
Agree with you on so much of this. Great post. It's traditional publishing for me too, all the way.
Novelcon 13 Jan 2015 at 13:24  
Quote by: Purplek
Agree with you on so much of this. Great post. It's traditional publishing for me too, all the way.


The thing I hate most about self-publishing is that it kills people's dreams. It doesn't matter if the book would have been great if they'd just rewritten it a couple more times or if the book was a total wash but the author's next one would have been brilliant. People seem to think that any drop has a shot of making it out of the ocean of other drops, and when it doesn't happen, a lot of people stop trying.

I met an old woman who was trying to get her book written about her husband's life published. She had to be over eighty years old. When she asked about publishing methods, I told her that her best bet was going to a print-shop and have it perfectly bound as a book to give to her grandparents. I had a friend who wrote poetry who was going to self-publish her manuscript, but she got it accepted by a micro-press instead, but only because she met the editor in a hot-tub during a conference. I have books whose rights have been returned to me that I have available through smashwords.

I was at a con in 2005 and watched my friends pitch their book to the visiting editors and agents. Every year there was a different editor or agent at the small local con, and every year the same three friends pitched the same three books. Two of them came up to me, at separate times during the 2014 con and said they were thinking about self-publishing. While trying to convince them to stay the course, some guy listening in told me I was a terrible person for discouraging writers to write. I'd just finished telling the second friend I wanted him to write three books back to back without even thinking about publication, and this moron eavesdropper dared to accuse me I was trying to discourage other writers? Self-publishing is a completely separate issue from writing.

Writers should concentrate on writing the very best book they can before even thinking about any kind of publication. Because if it's good enough to pull itself out of the ocean of self-publishing, it's good enough to pull itself out of a slushpile.
Jberkowitz 13 Jan 2015 at 13:52  
Novelcon: Brilliant. Spot-on.

Thank you.
Trevose 13 Jan 2015 at 18:43  
I've got mixed feelings on this because of my own experience with a traditional publishing house. Here is what happened: A few years back (okay, more like 20 years ago), I sent a novel I had written to a traditional publisher which had been focusing on non-fiction. The publisher wanted to try their luck with fiction. Without much thought or hope, I printed out my complete novel, put it in a box and shipped it to them. To my surprise, about six weeks later a fat envelop showed up with a contract for the novel I had sent and two sequels. The envelope included three separate checks, which were the advances for three novels. Life was good.

After eighteen months of delays, and line-editing, and the publishers declining fortunes in fiction, I got a letter telling me that they were not going to bring my novel to market. In a follow up conversation they told me they were getting out of the fiction business. They had come to the conclusion that they really did not know how to succeed with fiction. Life was not so good.

While editing the novel I had secured a professional agent (easy to do when you have a book under contract), and he did shop it around to some other publishers. Though there were some thoughtful responses, we never secured another publisher, and we gave up after a year.

I don't begrudge the publisher. At the end of the day it was their call. And I got an education along the way. My most lasting takeaway, though, was that I had damn little control over anything in the process other than writing. As such I'm reluctant to try the traditional publishing route again. I've got enough money to hire a professional editor, and outsource some of the other work that needs to be done (art work, etc.) to create a quality product. And I am in marketing by day, so I'm excited by the challenge of marketing my own book. Given my experiences, resources and marketing insight, my preference is to go the self-publishing route...which I will be doing next month. I may never sell a copy, which would be as disappointing, but in this case I won't be entirely dependent on forces over which I have zero control.

Thewitt 13 Jan 2015 at 19:20  
Quote by: Novelcon

The thing I hate most about self-publishing is that it kills people's dreams. It doesn't matter if the book would have been great if they'd just rewritten it a couple more times or if the book was a total wash but the author's next one would have been brilliant. People seem to think that any drop has a shot of making it out of the ocean of other drops, and when it doesn't happen, a lot of people stop trying.



I would think that a year or more of rejections at every trade house around would effectively kill someone's dream as well. Most people don't have the patience or stamina to go through the typical round of rejection after rejection because their book doesn't fit the mold that the publisher is willing to take a risk with at this time.

Some of the "yet another rejection" threads on writers forums are really very depressing.

I'll take my chances with what I consider to be a good story, well told and do my own marketing. If it doesn't work out for me, that is really no different from the extremely high rate of trade published novels that never sell either - except I have no one to blame but myself.
__________________
Author of The Triadine Saga - The Watcher's Keep, The Dragon Rises (winter 2014)

Jberkowitz 14 Jan 2015 at 01:14  
I've come to recognize a strong parallel between the current trends in book publishing and the music industry. Ever notice how there are a thousand sudden rap artists, and that from a strictly traditional music theory standpoint many or even most of them are undertrained? I don't happen to enjoy rap, so forgive my personal bias. But it seems that many of them became overnight successes because a new niche opened up, and that many or most of them could never have gotten signed on to a major "traditional" label if they had been required to perform a song other than rap — blues, jazz, rock, etc.

So it is with self-publishing. How many of those writers with self-published e-book and/or print-on-demand titles would ever have gotten to print if they had ben required to impress an agent or an editor? Some could have, surely. But the majority of them?

My belief is: the notion that self-publishing is superior to traditional publishing is mostly a conceit or an excuse. It may be true for some, inclding those who may have gone the traditional route and encountered problems with their publisher, but for the majority I suspect they simply don't have the chops to make it the traditional way. There are conspicuous exceptions, of course, but as a general rule I think I'm right. As snobby as that must sound. Fifty Shades of Gray is a huge success that started out as a self-publlished book and was snatched up by a traditional publisher. But I doubt any traditional publisher would have touched it before it became a hit.

I can say this, because I have not been rejected yet (becase I haven't queried yet) and firmly believe I can sell my book though traditional channels. In other words, I'm a snob. For those of you here on CC who have self-published your books, I admit I may be completely wrong, and if you feel insulted I certainly deserve your wrath. I may join you presently.
Gyoro 14 Jan 2015 at 04:18  
There are pros and cons to both; I mean, I've spotted errors in traditionally published books, and I've heard that a traditional-published author (one I really like too) had published her books as ebooks super quickly without proper editing, which makes me nervous to buy the paperback/hardback because I don't know whether she's slowed down and got it edited by then. I would hope so, but who knows?

What I don't like about traditional publishing is how little the writer, the creator, gets from the sales. I'm not saying I'm in it for the money; hell I don't know whether my books (which are all unfinished) would sell, but it's a little naff that the creator doesn't get much when it's their piece of art.

On the other hand, I imagine self-pub will be a lot more difficult to market and get out there, and from what I've read in here, and what I've been wondering about Amazon, it's not much better to self-pub either.

On the reader point of view, yeah I bought a self-pub book and yeah, it definitely needed more work, but it was a decent story. I would hope there are better ones out there and there most likely are. You find some crap whether it's self-or traditionally-published.
Thewitt 14 Jan 2015 at 04:41  
Quote by: Jberkowitz
My belief is: the notion that self-publishing is superior to traditional publishing is mostly a conceit or an excuse.


I'm not sure where you think this notion is coming from, but clearly the reverse is true on most writers forums - this one included.

The traditionally published author nearly always looks down on the self-published author and as you said, believes that they don't have the chops to go traditional.

I submitted my first 3 chapters to a trade publisher more than 20 years ago. They sent me a check and a contract and were very eager to get their hands on my book. They had rules and deadlines and assigned me an "editor" who spent all her time complaining about my run-on sentences.

I sent back the check and thanked them for their interest. It took me 20 years to finally get around to telling the story, finishing the first book and self-publishing.

I already know it's longer than trade houses want today, so I chose to skip the rejection train and simply self-publish. I already know I'm not willing to cut in in two or take out half the story.

My readers so far love it and I have no complaints about the length. I'm being hounded for the sequel, and am working toward a February publishing date. The second book will be shorter, but still longer than most trade publishers would even consider.

The length of the book means they will reject it without even reading it. Too long. Not interested. Come back when you fit into our predetermined cookie-cutter formula for reducing our publishing risk.

To me, the trend to 90k words or less is an abomination in publishing. I don't want a book I can read in 4 hours, thank you very much. I want more than that, with a good story and equally good writing. That doesn't mean I want 150k worth of filler. I still expect quality writing and an engaging story, however as a reader I want more than that 300 page novella.

Whether you go Trade or Self-publish, there is no guarantee of sales or success. Just because a publishing house agrees to take your book and run with it, doesn't guarantee sales. Authors still need to promote, promote, promote, and of course the story and writing need to be acceptable to your readers.

So good luck whichever path you chose, but don't believe that self-published authors don't have the chops to go the Trade path. It's a choice that is easier to make today than it was ten years ago, and will continue to evolve over time.
__________________
Author of The Triadine Saga - The Watcher's Keep, The Dragon Rises (winter 2014)

Novelcon 14 Jan 2015 at 13:52  
People do not say that self-published authors can't be successful and that it's impossible to be picked up out of the ocean. I've even stated that the most important part of writing process is to write a book people want to read.

People win the lottery all the time. That doesn't make playing the lottery good financial advice. It's great that you've found success, no one is angry, threatened or upset by it. It still doesn't change the fact that most people who turn to self-publishing really haven't assessed all their options and gone with the one they felt was best.

I argued with a guy who said there was a book that sold a million copies on Amazon for 99c. I was impressed by that until I looked it up. It turned out that a) the book was called something like "how to sell books on amazon" and b) the truth is if you price an item for less than 2.99, Amazon takes 70% of it. That's less than what my publisher takes as their share. So of his million dollars in sales, he made a small fraction of that, and only sold it because he was selling the dream to other people.

I think we need to change the way we talk about self-publishing, but it a way that stresses that authors who "fail" at the self-publishing game is the average outcome. Outliers are people who have written a book that would have sold anyways and chose to self publish. It's not a lottery system that any book has a chance to win. Most first books written outside of the teenager years don't have that truly dreadful, purple, over the top language like eye of argon. They're still learning their craft. Each book will get them closer to their dream of writing a story worth other people's time and money. Your story is a great one, but you know it needs a disclaimer at the bottom that reads *results not typical
Ferris 14 Jan 2015 at 17:53  
Aaaand right on cue: www.hughhowey.com/sky-gazing/#more-33395

It's as if Hugh Howey wanted to chime in on this conversation . . .
Rellrod 14 Jan 2015 at 20:08  
Yeah . . . I think a lot of his points are sound (I haven't the experience to evaluate the others). It's good to have both channels available for people like us to try.

Rick
Jberkowitz 15 Jan 2015 at 03:39  
I feel like Howey keeps making my point for me. The self-published world is made up almost entirely of that 95% who get rejected by traditional agents/publishers. Most of them get rejected for a reason. True, many rejections come not because a book is poorly-written, but only because it is not in sync with a given publisher's momentary needs. But in those cases a good book will eventually find a traditional home if the author perseveres.

What's left are the books that aren't good enough or aren't ready for publication and their authors who unable or unwilling to make them better. It's as if all of the rejected auditioners from American Idol got together and formed a record label so you could buy recordings of their not-good-enough-for-Simon performances. A few of them might appeal to some people, but how do you know which songs? A few others were great, but not great enough to earn one of the limited spots. But the rest are hideous. Because Simon wouldn't be where he is (rich) if he didn't know what he was talking about.
Scila 15 Jan 2015 at 10:16  
The only person who knows what's good for your career is yourself. If you want to keep trying traditional publisher, do it. If you want to risk self-publishing, do it. If you want to keep writing, editing, writing again ad nauseam and never bring yourself to publish, then do it. Just don't think your way is the only way.

The whole discussion of "X is better than Y" is pointless. For someone who needs the approval of a line of strangers before publishing, needs that safety net they bring, then trad is the way to go. If someone doesn't want to bother to wait until they win the agent/editor lottery (and it is a lottery, since there's so many variables out of the author's control) and just wants to risk failure and climb a huge wall (marketing, editing, proofreading, covers, publicity, reviews, judgment from peers, possibility of your own mediocre writing be revealed as such)... Well, then self-pub.

The idea that something is only valid/great if judged by the few successful just doesn't work. Yeah, Simon knows the business... But you know what is his business? Is it good songs? No. It's to please the average person who has no clue how to write lyrics or sing. Some people can judge that for themselves, if they wish. Researching the market isn't that complicated. And even the successful make mistakes. There's a lot of luck involved in traditional publishing anyway.

Besides, American Idol isn't the only way to make a career in singing, thank goodness. Just as authors shouldn't be limited to only one option.
__________________
Linnea 15 Jan 2015 at 10:34  
I don't believe self publishing is superior to traditional publishing, or vice versa. Both have their downfalls, and both have their benefits. However, to say that being traditionally published is a legitimization of your writing skills is false. I've read plenty of traditionally published books that are absolutely awful. The writing needed at least one or two more drafts (sometimes more than that) before they see an editor, much less be printed and sold for reader's consumption.

No. A true test of your writing ability is what your reader's say. Self publishing comes with many downfalls, and people do take advantage of the ease and don't produce quality work, but that doesn't mean it's any less than traditional publishing. It gives people like me, who don't write in the limits of what is popular, a chance to get my name out without having to deal with the same rejection letter over and over, telling me that I need to change the core of my story if I want to sell enough copies.
Ferris 15 Jan 2015 at 11:58  
"Because Simon wouldn't be where he is (rich) if he didn't know what he was talking about."

Maybe Simon doesn't know anything about what is or is not "good" music (because, after all, we are talking about art, here, and that's impossible to measure); maybe he just knows what he can and cannot sell. And maybe the market of readers/music buyers has grown so incredibly much with the advent of digital media, that even things that are not traditionally "sellable" in the establishment's view can still find a viable market if there was a place where readers/music fans knew to look for it.

Acceptance by the traditional publishing establishment is NOT the seal of approval that your work is, in fact, good. Traditional publishing is not the only way to become a "real" author. That viewpoint is antiquated and obsolete. Self-published authors are making real livings now. Not all of them ... but enough of them to take notice. I recommend visiting www.authorearnings.com, or visiting author J.A. Konrath's blog at: jakonrath.blogspot.com

I think about how I can market myself and my work to readers once I publish, but I don't worry that people will see my book as amateurish, poorly written or sloppy simply because it's self-published. If you don't like self-pubbed books, you're not buying, just like you're not buying if you're not into science fiction. Nothing I can do about that.

Ultimately, whether we are self-pub or trad, we want to be judged solely on the merits of our stories and writing, and we all start at the same place: zero. There are multiple ways to make that round number crooked. And honestly, John, I hope you kick the traditional publishing world's tongue right out of their mouth and go on to sell a trillion copies.

__________________
Seven novice authors. One blog. So many questions. Oh, and that sound you hear? That's us Crackin' the WIP. Yeah.

Katy 15 Jan 2015 at 12:35  
Quote by: Linnea
... I've read plenty of traditionally published books that are absolutely awful... No. A true test of your writing ability is what your reader's say.


These two statements contradict each other, don't they?

Yes, some traditionally published books are awful. Perhaps Fifty shades of Grey? And yet, tons of readers love it. So... it's not awful, because the readers say it's not?
I know of several self-pubbed books that I would consider awful. And yet, they sell a lot, and get lots of good reviews. Also lots of bad reviews. Are they "good" because some readers think they are? Or are they "awful" because some readers think they are?

I'm of the opinion that the percentage of trad-pubbed books that are "awful" is miniscule compared to the percentage of self-pubbed books that are "awful."

Which is slightly off topic, but I will throw in with the crowd that thinks that neither trad or self is "better." They are different paths. One has a lot of gates barring entry, the other does not.

Novelcon 15 Jan 2015 at 14:00  

Those are really good points. I think when you think a book is good or bad, you have to consider whether or not the book was written for you. I thought Angela's Ashes was like sitting in a cesspool of misery and winced every time the toilet above me flushed and the story got even more terrible. When I made a sound in protest, my roommate asked me what happened, I said the twin died. And she said, "the first one?" Yet Angela's Ashes is considered by many to be a very good book. I was not the target audience for it. When you say a book is awful, you're not saying anything about the quality of the book but rather what your reaction to the book is.

Most self-published books are not awful by the classical definition of good or bad. I've been critiquing for twenty years and most of the first (or second...third...sometimes even fourth) book I read from unpublished authors aren't terrible. They're not even bad. They're certainly not good by any stretch, even though you can see the gem or the heartbeat of the story that captivated the author long enough for them to sit down and write the 80-100k story, but it is the worst kind of writing there possibly is. They're simply not interesting enough to be worth the time it takes to read them.

When you sit down to write a book, you're making an implicit promise with the reader that you are not going to waste their time. They've paid money and time to read your stuff, and they could be spending that time and money on things that would be far more entertaining or enlightening. Whether the traditionally published book that you pick up is good or bad doesn't really matter. It's been vetted in a way that promises the reader that a lot of people in the process between writing the book and getting it on their shelves have staked their future earnings on the fact that the book is going to be worth the time and money so that when the next book comes up by the same author/editor/publishing house, the ideal reader isn't going to have that negative emotion surrounding it.

People say that they just want to get their stuff out there, and I remember vividly how that feels, but I have traditionally published authors that I used to absolutely love go from buy in hardcover to buy in paperback to borrow from the library to don't even read them just by delivering books that I didn't like as much as I had the first book. The idea that self-published authors just getting their stuff out there are going to find audiences willing to give their work the second (third fourth fifth) chance to get their writing to par simply doesn't happen. Writers either need to keep changing their names or find an all new group of people each sub-par book they write because readers are not all-forgiving and no one is owed an audience.

When a book makes it out of the self-published ocean, it's obviously a good book that would have made it through any publishing venue the author could have chosen. But that doesn't mean that there aren't very good books in the ocean of self-publishing that are just as good as the ones that made it out, only it didn't catch the same breaks as the first. That there are quality self-published book that fails to be noticed out in the ocean is one of the biggest reasons I have to be against self-published process.

Learning to write is easy, learning to write well enough to routinely turn out books that are engaging can take decades. Each book an author finishes is a giant milestone in their career. When people speak out against self-publishing, they're not trying to discourage the writing. Just like any skill, there's the apprentice/journeyman/master level process that almost everyone has to go through. Those books you put in at the beginning levels of your process are like a poet's first poem or a painter's first painting.

Having that gateway between you and your audience isn't always a bad thing. I would be mortified if my first half dozen books got published. They are terrible. But at the time I thought they were brilliant and anyone who thought differently was clearly a very stupid person. People who try to dissuade you from self-publishing aren't 'the man' trying to keep you down. They're trying to keep you writing until you write a book that delivers on the promise to not waste the reader's time. And the horrible thing about self-publishing is that you could have a fantastic book that is as good as anything produced by traditional publishers, and no one will ever know. James D. MacDonald says that rejection is nature's way of telling you to write a better book. There will always be success stories and we can celebrate them, but the stories where people fail despite their best efforts are worse then the cesspool of Angela's Ashes.
Katy 15 Jan 2015 at 14:55  
Quote by: Novelcon

When you say a book is awful, you're not saying anything about the quality of the book but rather what your reaction to the book is.


Nope, that's not how I use the term. I could point you to a self-published book with 15 grammatical errors in the first nine paragraphs. What does that say about the quality of the writing? That it's only awful if you are overly obsessed with grammar rules?
My reaction to Lord of the Rings is "boring," but I don't think it's an awful book. Obviously, millions love it.

Quote by: Novelcon
Most self-published books are not awful by the classical definition of good or bad. I've been critiquing for twenty years and most of the first (or second...third...sometimes even fourth) book I read from unpublished authors aren't terrible. They're not even bad. They're certainly not good by any stretch, even though you can see the gem or the heartbeat of the story that captivated the author long enough for them to sit down and write the 80-100k story, but it is the worst kind of writing there possibly is. They're simply not interesting enough to be worth the time it takes to read them.

You've been very lucky. I briefly worked for a site that reviewed self-pubbed books, and most of what was submitted was not ready for publication. In the classical sense of the word.

Quote by: Novelcon
When you sit down to write a book, you're making an implicit promise with the reader that you are not going to waste their time. They've paid money and time to read your stuff, and they could be spending that time and money on things that would be far more entertaining or enlightening. Whether the traditionally published book that you pick up is good or bad doesn't really matter. It's been vetted in a way that promises the reader that a lot of people in the process between writing the book and getting it on their shelves have staked their future earnings on the fact that the book is going to be worth the time and money so that when the next book comes up by the same author/editor/publishing house, the ideal reader isn't going to have that negative emotion surrounding it.

And yet, in spite of all that, you found Angela's Ashes to be offensive to your sensibilities.

Quote by: Novelcon
The idea that self-published authors just getting their stuff out there are going to find audiences willing to give their work the second (third fourth fifth) chance to get their writing to par simply doesn't happen.

Again, I could point you at reviews that say things like, "This book is better than her first book, which had some problems. I know the author will just keep getting better, and I can't wait for her next book!"

Quote by: Novelcon
When a book makes it out of the self-published ocean, it's obviously a good book that would have made it through any publishing venue the author could have chosen.

Gotta disagree. There are books making money that were rejected over and over, and the author finally self-pubbed, with great success.

Quote by: Novelcon
Learning to write is easy,

I disagree. Maybe for some people, but not for the majority.

Quote by: Novelcon
learning to write well enough to routinely turn out books that are engaging can take decades. Each book an author finishes is a giant milestone in their career. When people speak out against self-publishing, they're not trying to discourage the writing. Just like any skill, there's the apprentice/journeyman/master level process that almost everyone has to go through.

Again, gotta disagree. I know of an author who had a friend who self-pubbed. So this gal thought, "I can do that!" She sat down, wrote a book, self-pubbed it. It sold thousands of copies within a month. She wrote a second. Ditto. She churns out a book per month. They all keep selling. She never had a class, never cracked a "How to Write" book. Is she the exception? Sure.

Quote by: Novelcon
Those books you put in at the beginning levels of your process are like a poet's first poem or a painter's first painting.

Not always. I self-pubbed my first book. I was approached by an acquisitions editor for a publisher and an agent after they had read it. Publisher took my second book, too. They rejected my third, but it's on contract so I get to rewrite it until everyone is happy (which is taking a long time!). Am I an exception? Yes. My point is that everyone is different. Every reader, every writer.

Quote by: Novelcon
Having that gateway between you and your audience isn't always a bad thing.

With this I TOTALLY agree! There are millions of classically awful books self-pubbed that ARE. NOT. READY. And a LOT of the time, the author knows it but just doesn't care.

Novelcon 15 Jan 2015 at 16:01  
I private messaged you the line-by-line, but here's the general jist:

<<
Quote by: Novelcon
Having that gateway between you and your audience isn't always a bad thing.

With this I TOTALLY agree! There are millions of classically awful books self-pubbed that ARE. NOT. READY. And a LOT of the time, the author knows it but just doesn't care.

>>

It's funny that you totally agree with this one, because that's all I've been saying since the beginning. Self-publishing is like a game of Author the Role Playing Game. Editors and agents are not looking to kill the dream of young writers, they're trying to find a new, fresh, creative voice. They're not perfect and some books fall through the cracks. I've had friends have four different books get purchased only to have the company go out of business, declare bankrupt, editor quit and the new one didn't like the book and her editor die, but her fifth book sold. I've also had friends who started pitching their book in 2005 and are just now thinking about self publishing now that everyone has said no. The first friend never gave up and the second friend never wrote a new book.

Writers who are almost there but not quite look at all the lottery winners and think why not me? You don't have all the people who fail going on websites like this, we live in a society where everyone loves winners and losers fail because they didn't try hard enough when nothing could be farther from the truth in self-publishing. It's snake oil. You're selling writers on the sugar-coated idea that their story is good enough because the bitter truth that they are not ready yet is a hard swallow. People who speak out about self-publishing aren't doing it to discourage writers. Writing and publishing are two completely different hats, skills and talents. And when you are asking writers to stay the course and work on getting better, you're doing nothing but encouraging them. If you want to make writing your career, you need to take your lumps, and can be years of getting form rejections. But as long as you keep trying, you have a far better chance of making it than taking the easy way out. If your writing isn't strong enough to sell self-published or traditionally published, you're not gambling. You're writing a cheque to the house for all the effort you're putting into getting a book that's not ready at the expense of your next book, that might be.

Thewitt 15 Jan 2015 at 17:38  
This story will never end.

It's no different than the Macintosh vs Window, or iPhone vs Android debate, or any other forum debate on any other topic where people are opinionated and on either side of the issue.

Those who believe that self-published authors are second class citizens and not validated by the "real" publishing world, and do nothing but put out junk - with the rare exception - are never going to change their opinions.

Those who believe that the gateway of trade publishing where you need to first please an agent and please a publishing house before you even deserve to be read by a copy editor who just graduated from college will also never change their opinions.

I've read books from both camps that were, in my opinion, junk. I've read books from both that were outstanding.

I've made my publishing decision, and as I've said before I have no one to blame but myself should I fail. I'm OK with that.

I support your right to make your decision in any way that you wish.

Go Trade. Go self. Do nothing. Your choice.

The world of publishing is changing. The Trade houses don't like it, and anyone who is bought into that infrastructure doesn't like it. I say that's a good thing.

When Apple first opened up the iTunes store and programs for mobile devices were offered for as low as $0.99, everyone in the traditional software industry said it was the more ridiculous thing they had ever seen and it would never be successful. They all said that companies could not support their sales on $0.99 copies of their software. We all know how that turned out. Are there a bunch of bad apps in the iTunes store? Certainly. There are also a lot of outstanding programs with new business models that have changed the way we live our lives today.

Change is inevitable, whether or not you are ready or willing to embrace it.
__________________
Author of The Triadine Saga - The Watcher's Keep, The Dragon Rises (winter 2014)

Trevose 15 Jan 2015 at 19:43  
I'm not arguing that self-publishing or traditional publishing is better. It is worth noting, though, that in the world of traditional publishing, editors are good at spotting bad, but bad at spotting good.

That is, they can quickly spot and rightly reject a poorly written, poorly prepared manuscript. I'm talking about the basics here: grammar errors, typos, incorrectly formatted manuscript, and the like. I've heard different statistics, but there seems a consensus that ~90% of all submitted manuscripts fall into this category. These submission almost invariably get rejected by traditional outlets. And they should. But there is no such gate keeper for selfpublishing. The result is an amazing number of ebooks coming to market that are poorly prepared in every imaginable way, and will never gain a following.

The other aspect is that though editors are adept at spotting bad, of the ~10% of manuscripts that are well prepared, they will also reject most of them. Try as they might, their record of guessing what the public will buy is dismal at best. We have all heard the many stories about books that eventually became popular being rejected numerous times. And when they do publish a book, print runs are invariably small at first (except for established bestselling authors) because they know they may have guessed wrong, and the book might not sell well, so they want to limit their losses. If they were truly adept at spotting a book that would sell well, initial print runs would always be huge. Lastly, if editors really knew what made a book popular, they'd write it themselves.

Back to the problem of the huge number of dreadful ebooks: One of my favorite articles on the topic is here. I've read it several times as a reminder to be very demanding of myself in preparing my own work for publication. It is an article anyone who is thinking about selfpublishing ought to read.

__________________
Novelcon 16 Jan 2015 at 10:04  
The android to iphone is the absolute perfect self-publishing comparison I can see. The iphone is a known quantity where the harddrive an the software are made by the same company. Comparing an iphone to a Samsung galaxy (the self-published authors out there who have turned down contracts or whose books are competently written is a pretty fair analogy.)

But there are some pretty crappy android devices out there. You can pick up a no-name tablet off ebay while there are models of Androids that are actually more expensive than the Iphone and beat them in trials.

And I'm not saying that the no name brand you pick up on ebay won't be the best device you've ever used, but there's no quality control.
Jberkowitz 16 Jan 2015 at 17:07  
I just want to thank everybody for contributing to a lively, thought-provoking and informative debate. It has been a most gratifying experience.
Kam 17 Jan 2015 at 00:59  
Why are so many here arguing about what seems to be the prestige of buying (as a reader) traditional vs self-published, rather than finding out what's best for you as a person/author? Hugh Howey has actual DATA, not opinions. His conclusions come from numbers, and they clearly say self-publishing is a viable option. Self-publishing has nothing to do with whether a book has a good editor, cover, or marketing. The only thing it effects is the size for the marketing, but the gains for you there are just as likely to be eaten up by your publisher. If you can write a good book and are willing to learn what it takes to sell it, you can self-publish. If you have a demanding day job and can't afford to take the time/effort required, keep your manuscripts in a shoebox and send it to agents when you can (while writing sequels).

Blog post title should read 'Which is the best fit for ME?'

By the way: I still keep the book that inspired me to write nearby. It's trad pubbed, and I often look at it and think "If that guy can get paid to write that crap - that and its whole trilogy - then damn it so can I!"
Rl-kiser 18 Jan 2015 at 08:05  
Traditional brick and mortar publishing was a 500lb Gorilla I had to carry on my back. To get traditionally published you must have an agent or your manuscript usually ends up in a dead pile. I had better success winning the lotto without buying a ticket than I did finding an agent. I could fuel my virtual fireplace with e-mail rejections for the winter. After bouncing against that 500lb Gorilla a few times the only avenue left to me was self-publishing.

Fortunately Amazon and Smashwords made it a fairly painless process. Let's assume the usual amateur stuff in self-publishing (bad grammar, poor editing, poor proofing, lack-luster story, etc.) have been overcome. My stories are properly edited, proofed, and formatted for both e-books (Smashwords and Amazon, they are a little different) and POD (Createspace). The cost to me thus far are my time and whatever I spent on covers, let's say $250 per title. I published for practically nothing up front. And the royalty from Smashwords is 85%. From Createspace (paperback) about 15%.

All that creative effort, writing, editing, proofing, re-editing, re-proofing, cover design, revisions are just phase one. The sweat and blood from all your efforts lay there in a puddle waiting for you to become someone else. Several hats await, marketing engineer, web designer, salesman, researcher, advertising exec, the list goes on. The most difficult part of self-publishing has just begun, the dreaded "M" word (Marketing).

In my case I had an advertising budget of $1.27. I listed my 8 titles on every site I could find, including free advertising sites next to Grandmas' old magazines. For two titles (a fantasy and a western detective) I went the Free Kindle Promotion route. 751 downloads, not a single review. Nor did the freebies spark any sales. I'd not recommend it. Other giveaways such as Goodreads (paperback) were a bit costly (avg $8/title) but I consider that cheap advertising.

In summary, traditional publishing vs self-publishing, IF you can get in the brick and mortar door, go for it. Let the traditional pay for all those costs and promote your book. People cruise through book stores and read the covers of what they have in their hands. Big advantage that doesn't exist with POD. But that's a mighty big IF. Don't be afraid to fall back on self-publishing. The formatting guides are free and the royalties higher. If you have an advertising budget you can self-promote or engage an agency to promote. Either way, PUBLISH! Get it done.
Chrissygra 1 Feb 2015 at 05:38  
Awesome article! I do have to say one thing though. I've self published 30 books. You said it takes months to get your paperback out. Not true. I can have my paperback out in about 3 - 5 days if I use CreateSpace. It takes a hour or two to format it, then I hit publish. And in less than a week, my paperback is out on Amazon. E-books publish in eight hours or so.

www.createspace.com/

You should also add paycheck to self publishing. We get to keep 70% of our e-book sales. And all that money is ours.

Awesome blog!
Marisaw 4 Feb 2015 at 14:04  
"I feel like Howey keeps making my point for me. The self-published world is made up almost entirely of that 95% who get rejected by traditional agents/publishers. Most of them get rejected for a reason."

I'm not sure that's true. A lot of authors are going direct to self-publishing now, because they've been told it's impossible to get published without an agent, and they have no idea how to go about that. However the effect is the same: most of them have never had an editor or a critiquer, so their book sucks.

I don't know why amateur writers think they don't need an editor, when even famous authors like JK Rowling and Stephen King still work with one. Are they egotistical or just ignorant? I don't know, but I wish places like Smashwords would promote sites like Critique Circle and encourage their members to get feedback before they hit "publish".
Novelcon 4 Feb 2015 at 15:19  
Quote by: Marisaw
"I feel like Howey keeps making my point for me. The self-published world is made up almost entirely of that 95% who get rejected by traditional agents/publishers. Most of them get rejected for a reason."

I'm not sure that's true. A lot of authors are going direct to self-publishing now, because they've been told it's impossible to get published without an agent, and they have no idea how to go about that. However the effect is the same: most of them have never had an editor or a critiquer, so their book sucks.

I don't know why amateur writers think they don't need an editor, when even famous authors like JK Rowling and Stephen King still work with one. Are they egotistical or just ignorant? I don't know, but I wish places like Smashwords would promote sites like Critique Circle and encourage their members to get feedback before they hit "publish".



I think if history is written by the victors, then self-publishing is promoted by the winners. You never hear from people who self-published, sold abysmally and gave up, or, worse, went through a vanity publishing house, paid thousands of dollars and tied their books up for years in sadistic contracts. "Publishing" houses like Publishamerica in its hay days used to make millions of dollars off the backs of authors who didn't do their research but just wanted to get their stories out there. Publishamerica is still out there, but it's a shadow of its former self. I think in the mid 2000's, publishing scams was a 1.9 billion dollar industry. If self-publishing did one good thing, it was drying up some of that money flowing out of the wannabe writer's pocket.

If you write a book other people want to read, how you publish it is your business, but there's absolutely no skipping the learning to write process. Time, money and trust are limited, valuable resources. If you waste your reader's time and money, that costs trust. And trust is very expensive to buy back.

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