Self-Publishing Primer: Part 2 – What is traditional publishing?

This is the second in a series on self-publishing. You will find links to the other posts in the series at Self-Publishing Primer.

Before you can decide if self-publishing is appropriate for you, you have to understand what it is and how it compares to other forms of publishing. This is not designed to be a glossary of publishing terms, and others may disagree with my terminology. But the descriptions that follow make it easy for my clients to understand the different types of publishing.

Most people understand what is often called traditional, trade, or commercial publishing:

  • A company – a mega-conglomerate in New York or a small regional press anywhere – contracts to publish your book.
  • The company pays all the costs of production and does all the work to publish the book.
  • You as the author are paid a royalty (which can be as small as 6% on gross sales and can vary considerably depending on the publisher, the author’s previous publishing experience, whether the author or an agent/attorney negotiates the contract, whether the royalty is calculated on gross or net sales …).
  • Since books are returnable to the publisher if not sold by the bookstore, a certain percentage of the royalty payments will be held in reserve to cover returns.
  • A publisher usually specializes in particular genres and requires a query letter first; if the query letter captures the editor’s interest and the subject of the book fits what the company is seeking, you may be asked for a proposal (a synopsis or outline and sample chapters). If the editor likes the proposal, you may be asked for a complete manuscript. A manuscript under serious consideration may be reviewed by several different people. The process may take months (even years).
  • Only a small fraction of the books submitted to traditional publishers are accepted for publication. Many are rejected because they are bad, but many others are rejected because they don’t fit what the publisher needs at that time. Writers hate to get that standard rejection form letter: “Your manuscript does not meet our publishing needs at this time.” But it doesn’t mean you don’t have a great book – it just means that your book didn’t make the cut of the relatively small number of books the publisher considered the best fit to what the marketing department expects to be able to sell in large numbers.
  • Some publishers will consider manuscripts only from literary agents, so the writer may have to go through the process of finding an agent before finding a publisher.
  • Most writers who choose this publishing route spend several years writing and querying publishers and receive many rejections before their first manuscript is accepted.
  • Publication can take a year or two … or more … from the time the contract is signed until the book is available in bookstores.
    The writer has little control over the process – a publisher may change the title, require extensive edits in the manuscript, and choose a book cover that the writer doesn’t think is appropriate for the story.
  • Except in rare cases, the publisher devotes very little promotion to a first-time author’s book.
  • The publisher is responsible for distributing the books to bookstores and other retail outlets, so your book will generally be widely available (at least from the large companies; distribution is more limited from small presses).
  • Books published by trade publishers have credibility with reviewers, booksellers, and the public because they have been through an extensive vetting process before being published.
  • Authors must promote their book to some extent for the book to sell well, but the distribution in bookstores and the credibility of the publisher makes it easier to sell large quantities of books.

Next, we’ll talk about the other end of the publishing spectrum.

[tags]publishing, self-publishing, writing[/tags]

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