Here's my take on that question.
1) Traditional Publishing Provides Agents and Editors to Act as Gatekeepers. On the plus side, they wade through all the piles of slush and pick out only manuscripts that shine. They insist on high quality and we all benefit from that. No doubt. No argument. No dispute.
It is absolutely true that there is a lot of … well … crap out in the self-published realm. We writers have a hard time knowing when our work is ready for prime time, and we need outside help to make sure we get it right. Traditional publishing houses do a pretty good job of that. Not that there aren’t some real duds out there birthed by the Big Six, but there are fewer. A lot fewer.
On the minus side publishing companies are looking for books that they think will sell – the bigger the better. By their own admission, however, they don’t have a crystal ball. They make educated guesses based on what sold well last season. Now, obviously that has to be based on what was available last season, which would be, you guessed it, what publishers thought would sell last season. So it’s a bit of a catch 22.
We writers thrive on tales of how many times J.K. Rowling and other bestselling authors were rejected before somebody recognized their genius. “Someday my prince/agent/editor will come and see my manuscript for the beauty it is,” we say. And maybe it’s true. But maybe we write something that doesn’t yet have a proven track record, and it will be very hard for a publisher to take a chance on. Maybe the public, or some subset of the public too small for publishers to cater to, would love our work, if only we could get past the gate keepers. Maybe. Maybe not. But how can we know if we don’t try?
2) Traditional publishing provides editing. Once you get your book into the system, with or without a contract initially, they begin to polish it even more. Great! Fantastic! I want my book to be the best it can be. It is, however, my understanding that this polishing phase has been cut shorter due to budgetary constraints. Agents and editors just don’t have the time and resources to do as much polishing as they used to. They expect things to come in much better to start with. Still, it’s better than nothing!
3) Traditional publishing gets you shelf space. For paper books the only way to get into brick and mortar stores is through a traditional publisher. And if you want that golden property right by the front door, your publisher had better think your book is worth the price they pay for that real estate.
But you may have noticed that brick and mortar stores are becoming rarer. First our cherished indie bookstores got squeezed out by the big guys. Then Waldenbooks was eaten up by Borders a few years back, and now Borders is gone. It seems like most books are being bought on line, though I have no statistics. So, shelf space is not the Holy Grail it used to be.
Many online bookstores offer self-published ebooks and POD (print on demand) books right alongside traditionally published ebooks and paper books. Often it’s difficult to tell by the listing if the book is self-published or traditionally published, perhaps by a small press. Of course, you can usually read a sample of the book there at your computer, and you can read customer reviews to get an idea of quality. If it turns out to be a good book, does it matter how it came to be?
4) Traditional publishers provide advances and royalties. Advances used to be very important to writers. That money up front was how they were able to eat while they wrote their next book. But advances have shrunk, and royalties come only after/if the advance has been earned out and everybody else has taken their chunk. Writers, like rock stars, come in two forms. There are the few rich and famous, and then there are the remaining strugglers with another job to pay the bills. It has always been that way, and probably always will be.
5) Traditional publishers retain your rights. Wait. Is that a good thing? I think not. Writers are always told to keep as many rights as they can when negotiating contracts. I suppose it’s a nice surprise if you one day get a check in the mail for the Greek translation of your book that you never knew existed, but overall this rights thing is something authors generally dislike about traditional publishing.
6) Traditional publishers buy advertisement for your book. Well, not so much anymore. They have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t pay off. People (in this case readers) trust social media more than formal ads these days. If your neighbor or someone on Facebook loves your book, it might be worth more than a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, especially if it propagates through a few more friends of friends.
7) Traditional publishers get your book into contests and book review lists. Yes, this is still true to a certain extent, but there are more and more options out there for self-published books to be reviewed and submitted for awards.
8) Traditional publishers nourish you as an author and help your career. Uh-hum! I think that was in a fairy tale I once read.
A few years ago, I never would have considered self-publishing. But things have changed a lot! It used to be, you had to make a big up-front investment to get your book printed. Then you had to store the copies somewhere safe from moisture and termites. Then you had to go out and hand sell them, because there was no distributer who would take your book.
And it used to be that self-publishing was the kiss of death for your writing career. Now respected agents like Jenny Bent say things like (Sept 7, 2011 blog post) :
“Unpublished authors, do you have a great book but can't find an agent? There's no excuse not to get that book out there independently and prove to yourself and to the world that there is an audience for your writing.”
Ebook authors like Amanda Hocking find publishers through their success in self-publishing. It’s a different world out there, and changing still.
Right now, with the ebook phenomenon, you can upload your work for free at places like smashwords.com. (If you choose to hire an editor, cover artist, and/or book formatter there will be some cost.) Your book will automatically show up at online book sellers’ websites, and you’re off!
With luck you can get good customer reviews placed right there beside your book offered for sale. With hard work and more luck you can have an online presence where readers will come to find you, and maybe you can get some book review bloggers to review your book, which will help promote it. Word of mouth is the best promotional tool, so they say these days.
Of course, it needs to be a good book, nay, a great book! And that’s where we have to really be careful. Your mother will always tell you your book is great. Your best friends probably will, too. You have to find honest and knowledgeable people willing to take the time to review your manuscript.
My book, SYNAPSE, has been a work in progress for more years than I care to think about. It’s been through two critique groups and several friends. It won an SCBWI Writers’ Day most promising YA award, and had three requests for the full manuscript from editors. They all ultimately rejected it, but with kind comments.
I still don’t know how I can know that it's ready for prime time. It would be tremendously comforting for me to have an expert polish it with me and declare it perfect before I send it out into the cold cruel world. But those experts are so busy these days, and picking so few books, and they don’t know me from Eve.
Neither way is easy. Neither way guarantees success. And it is entirely possible that one or both of these publishing processes will be completely changed or gone in a few years.
It’s a brave new world. So what are we going to do about it?
I would love your comments.