Let’s call things what they really are, shall we? No euphemisms or mislabeling, okay? What exactly is–and isn’t–traditional publishing?
I’ve noted an uptick in new publishing entities entering the market lately that describe themselves as “traditional publishers.” But when you read how they function, you learn that the customer (which is a more accurate label for those who choose to create a book through these companies than “author”) must buy a publishing package. It can consist of simply having a book produced from your manuscript; writing coaching and/or editing to ready your manuscript for prime time; and marketing/publicity packages of varying levels. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure sort of approach. But it’s not traditional publishing.
Discerning the Difference
These companies often present themselves as “traditional” because they pay royalties on copies that sell. But that doesn’t really translate to traditional.
A traditional publishing house PAYS YOU; other companies ask YOU TO PAY for their services.
It’s pretty straightforward: If you’re offered money (in the form of an advance and/or royalties) to have your book published, but you aren’t asked to pay for any services rendered, you’re working with a traditional publisher. If you’re being asked to pony up money for the services the publisher offers, that’s untraditional. Even if royalties are being proffered.
A traditional publishing house pays for ALL the costs of editing, marketing, publicizing, designing of the cover, placing of ads, etc. An untraditional publishing venue looks to you to fund the production and promotion of your book.
Is It Bad to Pay for Book Services?
Some writers would rather go this route than traditionally publish. The point is for you to understand what you’ll receive by choosing one path rather than the other.
Nontraditional publishing allows you to publish right away. No need for an agent; no need to go through the publishing committee to be offered a contract. It’s a direct path to holding a book in one’s hand.
Sometimes writers know they don’t want to self-publish. It’s a job! Especially if you don’t understand the process a manuscript goes through to end up as a book available to buyers. How is a novice writer to figure out what choices to make–all the way from hiring an editor to what kind of paper to select to how to get a cover completed.
Other writers are determined to find a traditional publisher; it’s the route they want to pursue. They’re willing to undertake what is often a years’ long process to hone a manuscript that a publisher wants in its lineup; to build their platform so they can lend significant help to the publisher in making the book a sales success; and to devote the time and energy necessary to publicize the book when it releases.
Sometimes a writer wants to traditionally publish but doesn’t have the wherewithal, for a variety of reasons, to land that contract. Then a nontraditional path becomes the option.
Why Does Labeling Matter?
Publishing is a business. Yes, books are art, but the industry that creates those books is not art. Every publisher needs to make a profit to continue producing books. That means every publishing house has a business plan for how to remain profitable.
Writers also run a business. Even if they’re reluctant business people. How can you make the best business decision for you if you don’t weigh the cost vs. the profit of that choice?
Nontraditional publishing, regardless what the business entity calls itself, views you as a customer. You step into their online store to “buy” the publishing of your book. Just as a furniture store will work with you to figure out what style of sofa you want, what fabric, and when you want it delivered, so this publishing approach doesn’t ask you what quality of writing is reflected in your manuscript, if it is a standard length, or whether it fits in a clearly defined book category. Instead, they show you options for you to build your publishing plan, with a price tag attached to each element. You get to choose, just as you would were you buying a couch.
If you can’t afford the plan of your dreams, some nontraditional publishing businesses offer you avenues through which to raise the funds for the desired plan. At that point, you turn to your family and friends and ask them to pitch in. Raising money to publish a book is a far cry from a publisher paying you for the privilege of publishing your book.
What Do You Hope to Gain?
How far can untraditional publishing take you to being a successful author? That depends on how you define success. For your sake, I hope the bar would be higher than ending up with a book in your hand to show your friends and family. Because you could easily invest thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, only to sell a few hundred copies. That becomes a good return-on-investment only if you don’t mind spending hundreds of dollars per copy of that book. Not taking a realistic look at how many copies you can sell will set you back financially in significant ways.
It’s the rare book published by going down this path that would fall into the money-making category. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen; it means it rarely happens. All of those reasons a traditional publisher doesn’t offer a contract are all the deficits that book must face anyway. If you don’t have a social media presence, untraditional publishing won’t make up for that lack of exposure to potential readers, regardless how much you spend on a marketing plan. If you never did quite figure out how to create all the complex layers a novel needs to be a satisfactory reading experience, no editor hired by you can make it the beautiful piece of fiction you had hoped for. You can’t buy success for your book, regardless how much you spend.
A Rose vs. a Tulip
Neither publishing path is all good or all bad. But, please, let’s call a tulip what it is and a rose what it is. A rose may smell as sweet by any other name, but writers need to understand the decision they are making when they choose traditional or nontraditional publishing can have significant implications for their writing future and for their financial future.
As you’ve set your sights on either traditional publishing or non-, what issues led to your decision? What elements of the process surprised you as you launched into getting your book published–both the sweet and unsavory surprises?
How does a writer know if a publishing house is traditional or nontraditional? And what’s the difference? Click to tweet.
Writers: Do you know if your publisher is traditional or nontraditional? Does it matter? Click to tweet.
I am still learning my craft, but I think a lot about what path to take. I become torn. Traditional publishing can take a long time and be very difficult, but I know if I accomplished this path my book would be of quality.
Self-publishing may be faster and more open, but quickly costs a lot of money that might not be returned. I also don’t know if it’d be edited well if there’s only one editor. Multiple editors would be a huge expense.
I don’t know the right answer. My hope has been traditional publishing to learn the ropes and build a foundation. In time, I’d look into self-publishing. The industry is changing so quickly I don’t know if that’ll be the same when I am ready to publish.
Those are important elements to weigh, Felicity. Added to that is the low number of books most self-publishing authors manage to sell. That pretty much locks the writer out of traditional publishing as a future option unless the writer backs up and works extremely hard to build a platform with potential readers. Self-publishing can cement you into that path, as many wannabe traditional writers have discovered.
Well said, Janet.
Been there, done that, and got the t-shirt on which my name was mis-spelled.
When a tulip is a rose,
cigarette is a cigar,
when two lips make up a nose,
when things are not what they are,
that is when it gets confusing
(it’s a bad trip, let me off it!),
for they’re really only using
all my brightest dreams for profit,
wanting my to pay their wages
so that I the dupe might stand
and bemused, riffle pages
of my book held in my hand,
feeling stained, with loss of dignity
hallmark of a moral penury.
What a powerful perspective, Andrew.
Wow! This one article has more information in it than I’ve gleaned from a hundred hours of study in various forums. Priceless!
I’m thankful I could shed some light for you, Laquita.
Janet Holm McHenry
Thank you, Janet. Could you share about how B&S partners with its authors for re-publishing books and producing audio books? Also, would B&S ever consider working with an author to publish nontraditionally (self-publish)?
Janet, as you know, I created a self-publishing outlet for our clients, especially those who have out-of-print books whose rights are returned to the author. No one wants to see their book die! So our self-pubbing division offers a project manager to help our authors walk through the maze of getting their books republished. The author pays for any incurred costs, which usually are only for a new cover since the copy has already been edited. The only payment the agency receives is a 15% commission on each copy sold, which covers the project manager’s salary and the cost incurred in sending out royalty statements each month. It was never in my mind for this to be for-profit venture; I don’t even keep track of how much money we make/lose each year. It’s all about providing a service for our clients. No one at the agency has any desire to change the foundational philosophy upon which this segment of Books & Such is built. It’s not about the money for us.
Nancy K Sullivan
I have self published book that is no longer available. I might like to contact you about this service.
Kristen Joy Wilks
I’ve set my sights on traditional publishing because I want to know whether my craft has reached industry standards or not. I want to create an amazing piece or writing to share and it is hard to know if I have without shooting for a traditional contract.
I agree, Kristen.
For me, I wanted to wait as long as necessary to be traditionally published, for three reasons. First, I needed to know my work was “good enough” for an agent and publisher to want to invest in; second, I had no money; and third, self-publishing just seemed too overwhelming. Although it was worth the wait and I had fantastic traditional publishing experiences with my first three books, I soon learned what a roller coaster ride this industry can be when that publisher discontinued its fiction line. I’ve since self-pubbed one book through KDP, another with a smaller traditional house (no advance), another in partnership with an agency, and another with a small partner publisher (free to me as a result of a contest win). I’ve appreciated the variety of experiences and all I’ve learned from each. But given the option, I’d choose traditional hands-down for the professional support received.
Terrie, I think the majority of authors would share your opinion. Given the options, there’s nothing like the support of a professional team when it comes to publishing. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.
Janet, as you know, I’ve had books published both ways, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Thanks for a lucid and easily understandable post.
You’re very welcome, Richard.