What I’ve learned from being traditionally published

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To be clear: the point of this post is not to compare traditional publishing with self-publishing and declare one better than the other.

Traditional publishing covers a range of types of experience anyway, from Big Five to small press.

Likewise, self-publishing encompasses a wide and varied landscape which includes everything from independently putting out an ebook out via Amazon all the way through to ‘selective’ self-publishing, where the author works with a professional publishing house to edit, design, print and distribute their book, but underwrites part or all of the costs themselves.

And of course, there are a range of models and different options in between.

I haven’t ever self-published a book, so don’t have that experience to draw on. But I definitely wouldn’t rule it out for the future, and I hope my experiences in traditional publishing would be helpful if I decided to try it.

Meanwhile, having recently gone through editing and launching my first novel with a traditional publisher – albeit a small independent press – I wanted to take stock of what I’ve learned.

I hope some of these insights will be useful to other authors, regardless of where they currently are, and the route they take to reach their readers.


1. The book market is tough, so it could take a long time to get a traditional publishing contract

Before I found a traditional publisher for my book I spent years – literally years – making submissions to agents and rewriting the manuscript over and over again.

I might’ve stopped earlier, except that I kept getting these little crumbs of encouragement – agents wrote back saying ‘this could be good, write it again’, or asked to see the next thing I wrote. Of course there were times I wondered why I was putting myself through this, and if it was all worth it.

But I wasn’t sure how close I was, so I kept trying.

What all this taught me is that someone else has to believe it’s worth risking money – real money, theirs not yours – on your book being a success. That’s a lot to ask, even if your book is really great. Even great books lose their publishers money, after all.

How many books you’ve read this year would you be prepared to back to the tune of a few thousand pounds?

And if you’d seen these books in a rough, unfinished form, would you’ve had the vision to back them then?


2. Giving up (even some) creative control is harder than I anticipated

Leaving aside for a moment the difficulties of getting someone to invest money in publishing your book, there are other challenging things about the traditional route.

Once you sign the contract, the book isn’t yours anymore, or at least, not just yours.

You have to be prepared to collaborate with another person – possibly a whole team of people – on what your book will be, what it will look like, where it will fit into the market.

You have to be prepared to take into account someone else’s ideas and vision – they have a financial and artistic stake in the book after all.

Which leads me to…


3. You think you know what’s in your book’s best interests, but you may know less than you think

If you’ve been working on your manuscript for years – submitting, revising and resubmitting – you are pretty close to the material. Possibly too close. You might think you know what’s best for your book, but hard as it can be to admit this, it pays to have some humility.

An example: Most of the way through writing I’d been calling my book ‘Baby X’ but I always thought of that as a working title, not the ‘real’ title the book would have when it hit the shelves. Baby X was too obvious, too on the nose.

When I sent the book to my publisher it had the title ‘Not Yet Born’.  One of the conditions of publication was that we change it.

From the start my publisher wanted the book to be called ‘Baby X’, but for ages, I resisted.

I came up with a load of alternatives, none of which worked. And in the end I conceded that, since I couldn’t find an alternative title we both loved, I’d go with her gut instinct, rather than mine.

At the time, I wasn’t sure I’d made the right decision, but with hindsight I’m pleased I did.


4. There are a lot of different skills involved in producing a book – and I don’t have all of them

If it had been up to me I might have gone with a photographic image on the cover. I don’t think I’d have risked commissioning an original illustration – what bring yet another person’s artistic vision into the mix?

However, I’m incredibly grateful to my publisher for taking control of this aspect of the book design, because the results are stunning.

Same goes for lots of other areas – during the time we’ve worked on this, I’ve learned a little about typesetting (and the interesting world of ‘widows’ and ‘orphans’). I’ve learned that each platform – print, kindle, e-reader – requires a slightly different version of the book, and each of these takes professional skill – and time – to produce.

This is an area where what I’ve learned definitely applies to self-publishing.

If I was to self-publish a book in the future I’d want to pay professionals to do the bits of this I don’t have the skills for. Successful self-publishers certainly seem to have a skilled ‘team’ around them – professional editors, proof-readers, designers and typesetters.


5. Developmental editing is tough, but so, so worth it

Developmental editing is a rare thing these days. I’m not talking about someone line-editing or proof-reading your manuscript, that comes later. I’m talking about someone looking at your story on a global level, analysing what works and what doesn’t work, looking for places where the pace sags or the plot doesn’t hold up, or the characters’ motivation isn’t sufficiently plausible.

Subjecting your baby to this level of scrutiny is – there’s no point making any bones about it – painful.

There’s also the question of when to stop – if I didn’t have to satisfy someone else I’m sure I would have given up much earlier and considered the book finished.

But it works. Each successive draft was much, much better than the one before.

Most large publishing houses can no longer afford to work with authors this way, and would prefer to acquire a manuscript which is already finished, or at least only needs a few tweaks to get it past the finish line. Some agents will provide editorial support to writers, but fewer and fewer are prepared to take the financial risk.

So, having someone spend this time and attention on my writing has been an amazing opportunity, and I understand how lucky I’ve been.


6. Stress testing your book leads to greater confidence in the end product

Elements of Baby X are controversial, and a lot of research went into developing the material.

I spent a long time while I was writing this book, and in the run up to publishing it, worrying what people would think about the book. And what they would think of me as a result of reading it.

And yes, there were times when having another person insist I convince them was hard. But in the end, having to convince someone else – even if it meant another round of research, or another rewrite – meant that by the time the book was finished, I could be absolutely confident in the material and my response to it.

Some people still won’t like it. Some people might even take offence.

But I know I’ve been through a rigorous process of stress-testing my ideas, and I know I can stand by them.


7. It’s important to pick your battles

Something else I learned through this process: when you have a book traditionally published, you sign over the license to produce and sell the book. Copyright still rests with the author, and those words are still your words.

Still, it’s give and take – see the section above about someone else deciding to invest in you and your work.

I think the answer is to pick your battles: if you’ve taken on board the majority of suggestions your editor has made, it’s easier to stand your ground when you really feel you need to.


8. I’m starting to understand the business end of this business

One great thing about being published by a small press is that you get to learn about the business end of publishing, without having to everything yourself.

If I was published by a major house, I might not have found out so much about the margins the publisher gets when distributing books via shops or big online retailers, or see how my 10% royalty fits into a bigger picture of profit and loss.

All this has taught me a great deal about what’s involved in making a book. What it really costs, what the margins are, how the market works.


9. You’ll have to do a lot of your own marketing anyway

Sometimes authors want to be traditionally published because they ‘don’t want to do their own marketing’.

But small presses are chronically short of resources.

Meanwhile, at the larger houses there are a lot more books being published, and that means a lot more books and authors competing for marketing resources. Someone once explained to me that the authors right at the top of the list – those authors with the seven figure advances – get almost all the publicity budget, so there’s not much left for mid-list authors.

The conclusion here is obvious. Whether you are self-published, small press published or Big Five published, you’ll have to do a lot of your own marketing.


10. A traditional publishing contract opens some doors, and closes others

Some competitions – the Costa first book award, for example – are only open books which are traditionally published, and have never been previously self-published.
Some book reviewers only take submissions from publishers, and won’t look at self-published books.

Meanwhile, the Mslexia Children’s Novel competition is only open to ‘unpublished’ writers, but the rules allow entries by previously self-published authors, even self-published books.

A lot of people nowadays talk about a mixed economy of publishing, where you can self-publish first and then have the same book traditionally published later.
And of course, that does happen. But any decision you make can limit other choices further down the line.

Sometimes writers approach agents saying, ‘I’ve self-published my book, wanna sign me?’ and then are surprised when the agent isn’t interested.

Likewise, by signing over the rights to a traditional publisher, you limit some choices you might have around the production and distribution of the book.

I’m not making value judgements about any of this – only to say that the rational way to view this is as a series of ‘opportunity cost’ decisions.

Whatever route I decide to go with my next book, I’m going to take my time to make a decision, and consider everything I’ve learned from my experiences so far.


What do you think? I’d love to hear from other traditionally published and self-published authors about whether any of this chimes with your own experience?

What other lessons have you learned from the route you’ve taken?



Writing Bubble

20 thoughts on “What I’ve learned from being traditionally published

  1. Renee Davis (Mummy Tries Blog)

    Great post Becky, really insightful and interesting. Number 9 resonates best with me, which was a huge eye opening after being self-published then getting a trad publisher to republish my self-help book. Ultimately we can only hope that more doors open than close for you 🙂 I’m over half way through Baby X and am absolutely loving it. Hoping to finish it this weekend #whatimwriting

    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Renee, it’s a complicated market isn’t it, and there’s a lot to weigh up. Here’s to doors opening 🙂 (On that subject, did you see my tweet? She sounded perfect for you!)

  2. Antonia

    I’ve done both – most of my books have been published by publishers, a few I have self published. What have I learned? For both, you have to market the book yourself. Any author who thinks that a publisher will do this for you is looking at a bygone era. You may be fortunate and be this month’s ‘next big thing’, but by next month the PR department will have moved on. Self publishing is faster – if you choose! I published a couple of books myself for clients because I knew what I wanted to write, and who would by it. I wrote it, used the skilled team I had built for editing, proofing and design, and I planned the promotion. It worked, but it’s hard work. And I guess the final thing I’ve learned is that there is no right way to do things. We are in the privileged position of being able to choose. You may choose to persist in sending manuscripts to agents, you may choose to put the effort into learning the business and self publishing. Both ways are hard, but i think we are fortunate to be in this position.

    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Antonia, this is really helpful advice. I think you’re right, both routes are hard, in different ways. Less hand-holding in traditional publishing, less waiting for answers in self-publishing! It’s an interesting time when authors can mix and match, choosing the best approach for individual projects.

  3. Maddy@writingbubble

    This is a great post, Becky – you’ve clearly learnt masses throughout the publication process so thank you so much for sharing it! It sounds like there are huge benefits to being published by a small press that would actually put you in a better position to self-publish in the future (if you wanted) because you’ve been closer to the process than you would have been with the big five. A door-opener as well as a eye-opener hopefully! Thanks for linking to #WhatImWriting xx

    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Maddy. I’m very aware that it’s just one experience (and I’d like to have more) and I’m keen to learn everything I can from it. I hope it’ll be a door opener too! 🙂

  4. Marija Smits

    I’m glad that you’ve put your thoughts and learning experiences into this useful post – I think it’ll be very helpful for others considering being published by an indie press. Like all things, there are pros and cons to all the publishing options, but being well-informed is the best way to come at it.

    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Marija. I know it’s just one personal experience but I hope it’s helpful to authors considering their options.

  5. Sara | mumturnedmom

    This was so interesting to read, I know nothing about publishing, and really helpful too. I can’t imagine ever actually publishing anything, but never say never 🙂 Baby X is on my list of must-reads over the summer, from previous snippets I’ve read on your blog I’m intrigued xx #whatimwriting

    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Sara, I hope you like it. And like you regarding publishing something yourself – never say never!

  6. Tracey Bowden

    I know absolutely nothing about publishing book at all so this was really interesting to read. Baby X is on my to read list it sounds amazing (well done by the way on getting published) #whatimwriting

  7. Turning Up In Devon

    Brilliant, I’m going to bookmark this post so I can re read it and keep. It’s really interesting seeing it from your point of you. Posts like this are so helpful to writers and wannabe authors.

  8. suz

    Really interesting post.
    I started off doing the traditional submitting thing. I worked with an agent for over a year, rewriting, polishing, and then she decided not to take a chance on my manuscript. The trouble was, I didn’t really like the changes I’d made. So, I rewrote it … again … and self-published.
    I hired two editors – for a developmental and a final proofreading edit.
    Self-published books still have a stigma attached to them, many reviewers won’t touch them and it’s so much harder to do off-line advertising.
    However, as I fronted all the costs, I take all the profits. A trad publisher would have to work hard now to convince me to change now. But maybe that’s just my inner control freak talking.
    Good luck with Baby X btw. It looks great 🙂

    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Suz. Re-writing with the agent sounds like it was tough; glad to hear you turned it around. The stigma around self-publishing is decreasing, wouldn’t you say? Pretty sure lots of my readers don’t know (or care) how Baby X was published.

      1. suz

        The rewriting for the agent was a job but I learned a lot from her. It also gave me a lot of confidence in my writing that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
        I think the stigma around self-published books is sadly still alive and kicking but it is more evident in some genres than others.
        And, as you so rightly point out, whichever way you’re published, you are generally expected to take care of your own marketing – a task that one day I will master lol.


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