James Creedon
Photo by  Patrick Tomasso

Photo by Patrick Tomasso

The publishing world has been rocked by the rapidly-evolving digital environment—marketing and business models have adapted to accommodate such changes, and authors are being afforded more efficient and cost-effective means of publishing their works than ever before. Major publishing houses like Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan (known in the industry as the “Big Five”) will undoubtedly have trouble keeping up with these changes, and authors have increasingly found that “self-publishing” is oftentimes more desirable and can afford many benefits that are not available with “trade publishing.”

First, some context: “trade” or “traditional” publishing refers to one of the oldest entertainment businesses in operation—the business of publishers producing, marketing, and distributing “trade books” (books stocked in brick-and-mortar retail bookstores, online bookstores, and libraries). “Self-publishing,” on the other hand, refers to a author’s publication of his or her own media without involving an established publisher. The digital age has given rise to many enticing and economical self-publishing opportunities to which authors may not have had access in the past, but authors should keep in mind that you get what you pay for. Given this, an author should consider the applicable benefits and obstacles when determining whether to employ a traditional publisher or go the self-publishing route.

Do You Care About Owning Rights In Your Work?

If so, self-publishing may be for you. Self-publishers own and control their own work, meaning they have the final say as to how the work is formatted, sold, marketed, and distributed. Self-publishers usually also bear the risk of liability, however, so it is important to ensure a self-publisher owns the rights to the material and content that he or she is publishing. Traditional publishing’s business model, on the other hand, usually requires the author to grant the publisher a broad range of rights, including the copyright to the work (to enable the publisher to register the copyright in its own name, create and authorize derivative works based off of the original, etc.), in exchange for the publisher’s agreement to take on the cost and responsibility of editing, producing, marketing, and distributing the work. This broad grant of rights means that the original author will have a serious lack of control over how the work appears as a finished product, but it also means that the traditional publisher will also likely bear most of the legal risk in case there are any rights issues associated with the publication.

How Soon Do You Need Your Work Published?

If the answer is “yesterday,” then you may want to give self-publishing a try. Self-publishers can now publish their work in less than a week through print-on-demand (“POD”) or e-book options offered by “independent” or “self-publishing entities.” There is often a year or two delay associated with traditional publishing, so if time is of the essence, do it yourself.

Do You Have a Plan for How You Will Distribute Your Work?

If your answer, like a lot of new authors, is “not really,” then traditional publishing is the more attractive option. Traditional publishers like the Big Five typically have a large distribution network with bookstores, access to booksellers who don’t take self-published work and, above all, a highly professional staff that knows the publishing process—most likely much better than you do. It is also important to keep in mind that traditional publishers are usually valuable brands that bring a measure of credibility to the works they publish. This means traditional publishers typically have a higher chance of getting a work to make a “best seller list,” so if it’s prestige you want, traditional publishing is likely the way to go. A self-publisher will typically need to negotiate their own deals, figure out their own distribution networks, and hit the pavement hard with regard to distribution and marketing.

How Much Can You Spend to Get Your Work Published?

If the answer is “not much,” then traditional publishing is the better option. Traditional publishers finance and take control of the publishing process, and in that sense act as a one-stop shop for an author who just wants the work to be made available to the public. It follows that self-publishing requires the author to front all of the initial marketing and production costs, which the self-publisher may not ever recoup if the work doesn’t sell. Publishing costs like editing, printing, design, and distribution can be very expensive, so traditional publishing can be a very attractive option for the thrifty author. 

Probably the Most Important Factor—Profits

Given the retainage of ownership rights and initial personal investment usually required for self-publishing, it follows that self-publishers will also recoup higher profits and royalties than authors who choose to employ traditional publishers. Authors who do the work themselves and pay their way may thank themselves when their payday arrives, but it is always possible that the work may never end up generating income. It’s a gamble. In the inverse, the traditional publisher bears the upfront costs (and therefore the potential for loss), so the traditional publisher will usually also reap the higher reward.

In addition to the above, there are likely many other financial and practical author-specific questions you should ask yourself before publishing your work, and you should always take the time to both ask and answer these questions before deciding how you will publish. Research the various traditional publishers, independent publishers, and self-publishing entities available to you before diving in, and make sure you understand each company’s publishing terms (and know their reputation) before making the big decision. You pour your heart and soul into your work—ensure that you are putting your best foot forward, and consider employing a legal team who understands and appreciates your needs and goals prior to publishing.

For more information on this article and this topic, contact Charles Wallace.

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