Traditional versus self-publishing is an age-old battle in the writing community, with heated arguments backing up both sides. But with shifting public opinion on marketing through social media, book sales from online platforms have become something of a must-have for all writers. With the rapidly expanding online market and an ever-growing eBook readership, it is only natural that traditional publishers are having a hard time keeping up.
It is no secret that traditional publishing is becoming increasingly competitive due to excessive demand and a lack of resources. The biggest piece of advice to authors hoping to find even a literary agent to support them is that they need to send as many query letters as is humanly possible. Mark Malatesta, of Literary Agents Undercover, posted in his article that the likelihood of finding a literary agent is one in 6,000. This competition, paired with the ridiculous wait times for publishers to respond to author publication requests, lead many aspiring writers — especially young writers — to consider self-publishing as an alternative.
What are the differences between traditional and self-publishing?
Marketing is the biggest difference, especially in an industry that depends on generating content quickly and efficiently. Generally speaking, the marketing is done for the author with traditional publishing. The writer’s agent will connect their book to its target audience, which is essential in the highly competitive market. Self-publishing, however, requires the writer to do all their own marketing, which is one reason why so many writers are hesitant. Inexperience can lead to an author’s work not being read, as it becomes their responsibility to generate a big enough audience to support their novel.
Another big difference is book revenue, which is split up differently depending on where the book is being published. Agents generally take 10% to 20% of book sales. After all the other costs are met, most authors take home 7.5% to 10% of their royalties when publishing traditionally. With self-publishing, writers keep a significantly higher percentage; however, they still run the risk of not making any money due to a lack of visibility. Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), for example, is one of the largest platforms for self-publishing, and they give writers 60% of the royalties. This is a giant difference in pay, but it depends greatly on the book’s marketability, the writer’s connections and a number of other luck-based factors.
Another symptom of the highly competitive field is that many traditional publishers often have an incredibly long wait time. One writer, Molly Blaisdell, states that “some will be back to you in 24 hours, others a week, while some will take six weeks. A few will answer in the three-to-six-month range.” While some agents are good with turnaround time, it can be frustrating to wait several months only to get a simple “no thank-you.”
Finding an agent is only step one of finding a publisher, so it is no wonder that so many new authors want to self-publish. Because of this range in turnaround time, the common bit of advice given to aspiring authors is to send out query letters while working on the next project and to try not to get discouraged. After years of waiting, most authors just want to see their work being read. Self-publishing isn’t without its share of waiting, but the author is not waiting for anyone else’s approval to even begin.
How does this market change affect the way we interact in the community?
There are many reasons for the market change, and most of them have to do with Amazon’s influence and the accessibility of books on the internet. The Alliance of Independent Authors put out an article that details the market’s shift:
“According to Bowker records, Amazon’s market share of self-published print books in the US increased from 6 percent in 2007 to 92 percent as of 2018. During the same period, vanity press publishers dropped their share from 73 percent of all books published in 2007 to just 6 percent. Today, it is just 1 percent. The better options available to authors are making a difference. The turning point came between 2011 and 2012 when Amazon ‘absolutely crushed their competitors’ says self-publishing service Author Imprints.”
The publishing industry is changing mostly because the market is changing, but there are still stigmas surrounding self-published works. Many still hold on to the belief that self-published works are of lesser quality than traditionally published books. While this might be true in some cases, there is also something to be said for reading reviews before purchasing a product, which applies even to books. Because there are so many books in the market now, there will be good products and bad ones, just like everything else.
One should also consider that many traditional publishers only produce a select type of book, of which the agents believe will sell. This limits the range of content that traditional publishers will produce, whereas reading independent authors’ works will provide a broader selection of themes and ideas.
Another stigma is that authors only self-publish after they fail to publish the traditional way. Because of the changing market, this idea is more complicated. It is true that few self-published authors are offered book deals from traditional publishers after they put their book out on a different platform, and there are many angry articles from people who feel cheated because their projects did not earn them any money or gain any recognition.
But lamenting one’s inability to sell books or to be traditionally published can become a dangerous, unproductive spiral because there are many reasons an author’s book might not be selling — most of the reasons likely coming down to marketing, visibility or the book’s quality. While the frustration is understandable, publishing a book through traditional means is unlikely to fix the situation as Amazon and other companies continue to out-compete the traditional publishers.
In other words, the problems these authors are facing are likely not so much who has published their novel, but rather how their novel has been written or is being advertised. This issue leads back to the discussion surrounding competition. It’s no secret that authors don’t make a lot of money on average (and most of us just accept this and try to make the most of it), but something that many authors don’t consider is that there are multiple ways to boost visibility for a novel that don’t include relying on the grueling process of getting traditionally published.
What can a writer do to make their work visible?
For many authors, the option to market one’s own writing allows them to have more control over what goes into their pocket, but there is one giant obstacle: the competition. One article from Perspectives on Reading states that “while it is impossible to know the exact number of self-published books available on the market, all data points available indicate they continue to make a bigger dent in the market year over year. The reality is that readers just have more books to choose from on a daily basis and often turn to self-published titles rather than those coming from a Big 5 publisher.” This brings up the question of how to make one’s book stand out from the rest.
At the end of it all, the biggest obstacle for every writer — the one that has been around since books first started getting published — is to convince enough people that their book is worth reading. This is where so many authors, especially new ones, start to let their anxieties spiral out of control. So many writers have fears about not being good enough, not having the skills necessary to make it happen, not being able to reach out to people or not being able to take the first step. To this end, the best course of action is to first know the industry and to then create a marketing plan that will reach readers with similar interests and goals.
On the front of preparing a book for launch, there are resources and advice aplenty in online videos, articles and guides from other self-published authors that can help you navigate the market. One article published in the Entrepreneur’s Handbook Online Magazine outlines five simple steps. These include paying attention to the market, testing the audience, testing for a target audience, keeping track of one’s marketing methods and writing teasers. There are many articles similar to this one and lots of tips for success. In general, spending time advertising before launching the book and investing in quality cover and page designs are great places to start.
Another factor that evades many authors is that book competitions exist, and there are several that target new writers. Winning book prizes is a great way for authors to convince their target audience that their book is worth reading. Some of these competitions have prizes and even publication deals, but the main goal is to increase visibility and build a strong network of readers. Some authors even take this community-building effort further and sell their work at comic-cons and other conventions. The point is to always market and to always look for new opportunities.
The publishing industry is a giant maze of possibilities, dead ends and small successes. Most novels begin as an investment, and some can even turn into a viable side-hustle. Through all these uncertainties and possible opportunities, current writers should find peace in knowing that the game is changing and that they get to be a part of shaping the future of writing.