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Traditional Publishing vs. Self Publishing: Which Is Best for You?

written by: •edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 9/12/2011

If you've written a book or short story and haven't decided how to put it out in the world, here are some things to consider.

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    Traditional publishing is where you get a book deal through a major publisher, they cut you a check, and hopefully the book sells well enough to go to a second printing so you can finally quit your day job. This doesn't happen very often. Self publishing is when you decide to do everything yourself, and bypass the publishing houses and literary agents. While the appeal of signing a multi-million dollar deal and becoming the next sparkly vampire novelist sensation is surely appealing, there are many things to consider when deciding between a book publisher and self publishing.

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    Publishing Catch-22

    It used to be that you could forget about landing an agent or a book deal unless you had been previously published, but you can't have been previously published unless you had an agent or a book deal.

    Why is it so hard to get a publisher's attention? The truth is that most printed books don't sell well. In fact, the publishers lose money on a large percentage of the books they print. It's the big names like James Patterson and Nicholas Sparks that carry the rest, so with the economy tightening it's no surprise that publishers are even more reluctant about taking a gamble on some unknown author.

    Finding an agent is also a crap shoot because there are so many out there, and unless you have a track record of some kind, they will just reject you with a nice form letter or email. Author Stephen King used to decorate his office with rejection letters, and many famous authors have had works rejected multiple times before they went on to become bestsellers. Nowadays, the alternative is to bypass all the middle men and publish yourself, but you'll have to do a lot of extra work.

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    Ebooks Changed Everything

    Thanks to ebooks, the traditional barriers to entry in the publishing world are all but torn down. You can spend years mailing out query letters and hoping for a response, or you can publish electronically and start making sales within a couple of days.

    Anyone can publish an ebook. This is both good and bad. All you have to do is sign up for an account on Amazon.com to sell Kindle books, or you could get an account with Smashwords to get listed on other services, including Apple's iBooks. Barnes & Noble has a service called PubIt! to get books out there for Nook owners. There are no sign-up fees for any of these services.

    You can also set your own price and keep most of the profits, which is a huge plus. On Amazon.com, for example, you keep 70% of all sales so long as your book is priced at least $2.99. Since the major publishers haven't gotten it out of their hard heads that ebook prices need to be less than printed book prices, this creates a huge advantage for independent publishers because you can undersell your competition.

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    Totally DIY

    Self publishing a book requires you to be somewhat proficient with word processors so that you can format your ebook just right, or you can pay someone to do it for you. Thankfully, there are programs available to help smooth over this process. Amazon's Kindle publishing service lets you upload, convert and review the book right on their site.

    If you are good with image editors like Adobe Photoshop, you can design your own cover or pay someone to do that, too. Just be careful about grabbing images online because you may not have permission to use them. Also make sure when designing the cover that it looks good in small size, because it's going to be miniaturized when displayed in online book stores. This is why you often see giant bold titles and large images on many book covers these days.

    Since anyone can publish anything, you've go to make sure the content you create is top notch. This means lots of proofreading and editing to make sure your book is as perfect as it can be, because competition is fierce and you don't need anything that will get negative attention. All it takes is one 1-star review complaining about grammar and misspelled words, and your credibility is shot.

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    Sink or Swim Marketing

    Vanity press publishers have been around for a while, and you still have the option of paying out thousands of dollars to get the printed copies of your self published book placed in stores. The problem with going that route is that unless you back up the printing with lots of marketing, then you're book ends up on a shelf or table along with all the authors that customers have actually heard of, and it's very likely that your investment will turn out to be a bad one. The same could be said for ebooks, but there is some advantage there since you can use social media sites to promote direct sales of your book more easily than trying to convince someone to go into a store and buy something.

    The main disadvantage to self publishing is that you have to do all the marketing yourself. You can spend a lot of money taking out ads in newspapers and magazines, or maybe you can get someone at those publications to write up a story about your new book. Local papers are often very supportive of authors in their community and would be glad to review your book. You could even work out a deal with them where you agree to buy some ad space in exchange for a review.

    How to market a self published book is a whole other discussion in itself. There are tons of books on the subject. Just keep in mind that no matter how well you write, nobody is going to find your book unless you make them take notice. Even traditionally published authors have to get out and do book signings and public readings, so don't think you can sit back and rake in tons of cash just because you wrote a book.

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    Bookstores Are Dying

    Borders recently went out of business and all across the United States, other bookstores are closing. Heavily discounted online prices are putting them out of business because nobody likes to pay full cover price. Even stores like Walmart and Target now have somewhat decent book sections where they carry some of the latest bestselling titles.

    I find that online book stores have much more appeal than traditional brick and mortar stores. Although I do like to visit my local Barnes & Noble and Books-a-million, I often consult their online sites for more information on books I find in the stores. User reviews are a big deal, and you can always learn more about a book from others than you will from reading the back cover.

    Although print isn't completely dead and probably won't be for a long time, you have to recognize that times are changing. These days, if you want to put out an independently published book, don't be too quick to dismiss the income potential of electronic publishing.

    By all means, try to get a publisher's attention and get a big business behind your book. You might get lucky and score a deal. If, however, your manuscript sits in a dust pile while your hopes and dreams diminish, it may be worth trying to self publish.

    Looking for more tips and advice? Check out the other articles in Bright Hub's guide, What You Need to Know About Self Publishing.

References

  • Lulu.com - Self publishing, book printing, and ebook publishing
  • Smashwords.com - Ebooks from independent authors and publishers
  • Information based on author's personal experience as a writer.
  • Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC3.0, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amazon_Kindle_3.JPG