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Traditional Publishing and Self Publishing

Updated on May 1, 2013

Book publishing is in the throes of a revolution. But you already knew that. What you may not know is that the revolution has intensified, and it's getting weird.

This article is about the bazillionth, give or take, on the question whether to seek a traditional publisher or to self publish. But I write it because I am on the fence, and, if I fall off, I want to land on the good side, not in the sticker bushes. So do you.

I shall now violate a cardinal rule of online writing, the rule that your post should be evergreen, of timeless interest. But to let me know where my head's at on the subject, I have to give you a date. It is April, 2013. I have tickled this article for revision every six months to satisfy the evergreen monster.

So here, in my humble opinion, is where the world stands on the great divide between traditional and self publishing


Traditional Publishing

It's easy to knock traditional publishing, too easy. The traditional way to publish your book means you have to first find an agent, who will then try to sell your idea to a publisher. It can take over a year from the time your agent sells your book to a publisher, and the time it shows up on bookshelves. Add to the front end of that timeline the amount of time you invest in finding the agent in the first place. You send query letters, wade through rejections, and read articles in Writer's Digest about rejection being a positive thing. No it isn't. It sucks.

If you do manage to find a publisher, you still have to do the marketing and promotional leg work yourself. The good thing about a traditional publisher, maybe even a great thing, is that your book winds up in bookstores and libraries, places where people may pick it up, buy it and read it. It's all about distribution, and traditional publishing trumps self publishing in this department.

An interesting article states that the year 2012 saw over 15,000,000 books published in the United States, a 500 percent increase in the number of books published over the prior year. Books are starting to outstrip shelf space. Stores and libraries take on books by the big publishers because they know one thing: the book has gone through a ringer of a vetting process to give it that magical element of quality. The author first had to convince an agent, who then had to convince an acquisitions editor. Then the book goes through rounds of proof reading, fact checking and overall editorial muscle work.

Bookstores and libraries are picky about what books they carry. They have to be.

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Self Publishing

In 2008, more books were self published then they were traditionally. Wow. Is it any wonder why bookstores and libraries are selective?

Print on Demand, or POD, is the technology that hung a rocket engine on the ship of publishing. Vanity publishing, where a company puts out your book in exchange for your ordering a few thousand copies, has been around for a long time. But POD means that a writer can get a book printed for a few hundred bucks, and writers have been taking these companies up on it in droves. You only need to stock enough books for speaking engagements and book signings. Your royalties, compared to the traditional publishing contracts, are excellent. Create Space, for example, pays as much as 70 percent. Compare that to the 10 or 15 percent you get from the biggies.

POD has removed the friction between the written word and the published book. This means that a writer, or someone who thinks he's a writer, can publish any old piece of crap that strikes his fancy. And there's a lot of crap out there. Lots. I went to a luncheon book signing recently. The book was about one aspect of the Battle of Gettysburg, the engagement at Little Round Top. The book was 95 pages long. 95! It wasn't a book, it was a pamphlet. It was poorly written and never faced the gaze of an editor. The author never met an adverb he didn't like. If you deleted half the adverbs the book length would have dropped by 25 percent. Of course, it was self published.

Does this mean that all self published books are bad? Of course not. Some are good, even excellent. The trouble is that the book buyer doesn't know, unless the self published author had the savvy to garner some reviews to put on the back cover. I have self published two nonfiction books, and I think they're excellent. So have a lot of reviewers. Are they selling like hot cakes? No. Remember what I said about distribution. The traditionals have it all over the selfs in that regard.

There have been self published best sellers. Here are just a few: In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters; Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield; What Color is Your Parachute by Richard Boles (later picked up by a big publisher); The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield. The list goes on. But these are the exceptions, the rule being that self published books are likely to struggle for attention.

An E-book Phenomenon

Hugh Howie. Jot his name down. The guy is making history, and perhaps mincemeat of the traditional publishing contract. Howie self published an e-book entitled Wool, a post apocalyptic science fiction novella about people living in giant underground silos. He published it on Kindle Direct Publishing for $0.99. That was in July, 2011. He had already published a few e-books, when he noticed that Wool was starting to take off. Big time. He decided to make it a series, and published the Wool omnibus in five parts. By the summer of 2012, he had already been on the New York Times e-book best seller list for two weeks, and he was earning $150,000 a month. That's a MONTH. Big publishers sat up and noticed. And here's the history-making part of the story. He turned down a few six-figure advances and two seven-figure offers. He and his agent finally cut a deal with Simon & Schuster for print only rights. He got to keep all his e-book sales money. This was ground breaking. For a great interview with Hugh Howie, see the May/June issue of Writer's Digest. Oh, yes, I read the Wool series on my Kindle, and I discovered the main reason for his success. He is an excellent writer.

What's Needed?

Here is where I turn this article into a forum post. Please chime in, tell me if I'm wrong, and straighten me out.

Here's what the world of book publishing needs: a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for self published books. We need an independent company that's willing to read your book and weigh it according to strict criteria, such as vocabulary, grammar, pace, plot and character (if it's fiction) and overall quality. The company would charge the author a fee, with no guarantee that the seal would be awarded.

Kirkus Reviews, the venerable book review company, charges a fee to review your book, with no promise that the review will be good. If the review is bad, you, the author, can tell them not to publish it. Fair deal. You put a few hundred bucks at risk, and you may get a good review. I paid the money and one of my books got a great review from Kirkus.

But I'm not talking about a full review, just a seal of approval, or maybe for an extra charge, the company will review it as well.

A seal of approval by a recognized company can weed out the crap from the world of self publishing.

So right now, I'm on the fence. I've just completed my first novel. I've had four agents request a partial manuscript, a good sign. But soon I may have to make the big decision. Wait for as long as two years to see my book in print, or self publish and have it out in a couple of months, not years.

There I sit. And I'm not alone.

Copyright © 2013 by Russell F. Moran

Author of Justice in America: How it Works; How it Fails, and The APT Principle: The Business Plan that You Carry in Your Head. He is working on his first novel. It will be self published. Maybe.


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    • rfmoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Shining. Glad you found this helpful

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 

      5 years ago from Upstate, New York

      Excellent and informative hub for those seeking to publish! This is one of those times when I believe advancements in technology do make what used to be close to impossible possible. Great write.

    • rfmoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      I agree Dennis. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Dennis AuBuchon profile image

      Dennis AuBuchon 

      5 years ago

      Thanks for sharing this important comparison between traditional publishing and self-publishing. My books are self-published. There are many great free book review sources two of which I have used and they are posted on Amazon. I like the self-publishing option as your book never goes out of availability like in traditional publishing. Self-publishing also gives youcomplete control.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      i agree

    • rfmoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Go for it Sis. You'll be surprised at how cheap publishing a paperback is. I was pleased with createspace.

    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 

      5 years ago from Central Texas

      Excellent piece on a dicey subject. I've been sitting on my book for over five years -- it's far too long (in my estimation) for an e-book and the publishers who are interested come with contracts that are so ridiculous and self-serving I might as well just give the book to them -- so, here I sit getting nothing done. I have self-published one little book and was very pleased with the results. Thanks for all the excellent info. Best/Sis

    • rfmoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Lisa. If you're looking for a good book on the craft of novel writing I suggest Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.

      I'm leaning heavily toward self publishing. I'll wait a few weeks to see what a few agents think of my manuscript.

    • rfmoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Lisa. If you're looking for a good book on the craft of novel writing I suggest Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.

      I'm leaning heavily toward self publishing. I'll wait a few weeks to see what a few agents think of my manuscript.

    • LisaKoski profile image


      5 years ago from WA

      As I've really begun researching how to write a novel, deciding on how to publish one has become a real big question for me, even though I haven't even gotten a single word written for my book. I actually studied publishing arts as a minor in college and self publishing, surprisingly, never came up in class discussions, even though the real books versus e-books arguments always seemed to come up.

      The story you share about Hugh Howie makes me take the idea of self-publishing a little more seriously than I originally have. I have always had doubts just because of how easy it is for the not-so-good writers out there to publish alongside those few greats that are sure to be in the mix as well. I would guess that whether or not to publish traditionally is all about your own abilities to promote yourself since those who are capable of doing so would benefit from self publishing much more than those who are not.

      I think your idea of some kind of seal of approval would be great. Personally, I make sure to check through reviews before purchasing a book and having a seal right there to tell you it passed at least some basic quality requirements might help me, as a reader, want to actually take a closer look.


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