Image: Matthew Loffhagen
The meaning of ‘publishing’ has undergone a tectonic shift in the last decade.
Once upon a time, publishing was almost entirely dependent on the support of a publisher, a larger entity which would pick and choose which works would ever see the light of day. Now you can publish your work electronically in a matter of hours.
To bring these processes under the single banner of ‘publishing’ is possible only in the sense that they end with a written product being available for sale. In reality they are very different, both in what they ask of you, the author, and what they offer in return.
With all of that in mind, let’s explore the three main types of publishing – traditional publishing, vanity publishing, and self-publishing. I’ll explain the benefits of each as I go along and will share what you need to know before choosing between them.
What is traditional publishing?
Traditional publishing is when an author, usually in conjunction with their agent, secures publication under the aegis of an organization providing that service professionally.
Working through a publisher means securing the creation of physical copies, and that those physical copies will appear in bookstores, all taken care of by the publisher’s employees and contacts. Publishers will also pay in advance for your work, on the understanding that they will receive a percentage of future profits.
The cost of these benefits is that much of your success will depend on someone else’s work, and you will be beholden to many of their choices. It is the publisher’s decision whether or not to publish you, and this power imbalance will be present throughout the decision-making process. How many stores will you appear in, what will your book look like, what form will advertising take (if any)? You’ll have input into all these decisions, but you are in control only to the point that you can withdraw permission to publish your work.
Likewise, publishing is a very competitive field. It can take years for even the most tenacious authors to be chosen for publication, if at all, and even more time to actually see your book reach the market.
The key to understanding traditional publishing is appreciating that when you submit your work to a publisher you are asking to form a team, the goal of which is getting people to read your story. You’re not asking them to just print your story in exchange for a cut of the profits, but recruiting people with valuable skills to a cause that will benefit you all.
Many authors struggle with this idea – their work starts as their baby, and it’s hard to think that the finished product will actually be a collaboration. Publishers take on projects they believe people want to read and which will be profitable for them. If they think a book needs sweeping changes, they’re unlikely to invest their time when a more fully formed work is right around the corner.
How vanity publishing works
Vanity publishing involves paying a fee for the publication of your book. Generally this takes the form of paying a vanity publisher for a prearranged number of physical, high-quality copies, but it can take other forms such as paying to have your work included in an anthology.
Vanity publishing allows authors the respectability of having professional-quality, physical copies of their work while also giving them complete control over the finished product. Authors can then go on to sell their own work with no financial commitments to the vanity publisher.
For a multitude of reasons, vanity publishing has something of a bad reputation. Schemes such as the anthologies mentioned earlier often leave the author with very little to show for their money, and can often be outright scams.
Similarly, having physical copies often feeds an author’s ego but doesn’t lead them any closer to success. Sales of physical copies come from the work of publishers and bookstores to legitimize the product, and so a vanity-published author will often find they have trouble selling the copies they’ve paid for.
Finally, the cost of producing books is very rarely in the author’s interests. High costs mean it’s impractical to buy a small number of copies, but difficulty in selling on the product means buying in bulk will often leave the author with a surplus.
Vanity publishing is seldom the right fit for authors, but there are circumstances where it can be beneficial. If an author knows of a sales avenue or existing market which will support a small number of books, then they may make money on the transaction. Many travelling performers, be they comedians, poets, or other forms of writer, find that they can sell copies of their work at shows or readings.
The key to vanity publishing is to accept that any money put into obtaining physical copies is spent rather than invested. Like any product, ‘worth’ is determined by how much you’re willing to spend; it may be that having a copy of your work for your bookshelf is worth the price, but the majority of the people who make significant money through vanity publishing are the ones offering the service.
Should I choose self-publishing?
Self-publishing is available through many routes, and usually involves making your work available in a digital format. Authors retain complete creative control from content to cover, and are responsible for quality control and marketing. Online stores usually take a percentage of profits, though these are generally far less than a traditional publisher would require.
The benefits of self-publishing are in the freedom of the author to bring their work to potential readers. There is no lengthy publishing process – an author could (but shouldn’t) make their work available on the same day they finish it. Authors are free to invest in making the best product possible, but the process is very cheap and can be done for almost nothing.
Online ebook stores require very little remuneration – their costs are minimal, so they’re happy to offer thousands of low-sellers on the off chance that this ‘all welcome’ attitude will net them something more profitable.
The downside to this approach is that self-published works still have a long way to go in terms of prestige. Readers are not as trusting as they would be of traditionally published works, and there is no mechanism outside the author for differentiating high-quality work from the glut of much poorer work.
Those who do wish to self-publish need to keep in mind that processes such as copyediting and book cover design are genuinely difficult, and errors in these areas can easily lead readers to decide that an otherwise excellent book belongs in the lower end of the self-published market. These services can be easily sought out, but will cost money in their own right.
It’s also worth noting that while the ebook market is constantly growing, it’s still a much smaller share of the literary marketplace than physical media. Publishing in a digital format means limiting the number of people who will encounter your work, although that limited number is still a huge potential readership.
Finally, authors looking to self-publish have to accept that getting their work read will be their own responsibility. This means networking, using social media to build their brand, and engaging in activities such as book giveaways and interviews, and submitting to marketing services. Self-publishing guarantees your work will be available for purchase, but success requires a great deal of personal effort and invested time.
Traditional vs self-publishing vs vanity publishing – considering your options
While vanity publishing is usually the preserve of those with a specific use for a set number of physical copies, traditional and self-publishing offer competing benefits that may attract authors to one or the other as their preference.
Keep in mind that choosing one path doesn’t close off the other. Many authors began as self-published writers before gaining the attention of a publishing company, and many successful authors spent years pursuing a publisher before shifting their sights to the self-publishing market.
In the end, the only right choice is the one that suits your current goals. As those goals shift, make sure to reconsider your options and make sure that the type of publication you’re considering is the one that does the most for you. Above all, remember that success doesn’t hinge on the publishing route you choose, but on the effort you put into marketing your book to readers. Work hard, and work consistently, and you can find success through any avenue.
If you’re considering self-publishing, click here and give us your details, and we’ll get right back to you with some more useful information about your options.
For more on the publishing process, check out our other articles What literary agents do (and don’t do) for authors, and 12 steps to getting your book published.
Do you long for traditional publication or do you think self-publishing is the future? Let me know in the comments.