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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:
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