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.
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?