Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Self publishing vs. traditional - why I chose traditional

This is a topic that has cropped up quite a bit over the last year or two. There are those who laud digital self-publishing as the future of books, while others vehemently defend traditional channels, citing quality control and the necessity of gatekeepers. Now, let me be clear: I have talented writer friends who chose to self-publish. Different paths work for different people; this post is merely to illustrate why I, as a writer, have chosen to pursue traditional publishing.

1. Objectivity. When editors at major houses acquire a manuscript, they do so with no preconceived notions about the author. They select those manuscripts that are good enough to sell. Without this completely objective, highly trained line of defense, how will I know if my manuscript is good enough? Let's face it: we're not objective judges of our own work, nor are our friends, family, even critique partners. My critique partners are wonderful, but our perspective on each other's work is inevitably swayed by personal connection. Personally, I could never bring myself to self-publish, because I don't trust myself or anyone with whom I'm acquainted (even a freelance editor) to proclaim my book "good enough."

2. Editing. I've heard a lot of self-published authors talk about creative control, and how they wish to make their own decisions about their work. That's all well and good, but in my experience, as well as my traditionally published friends' experiences, editing is a very rewarding and collaborative process. When I get an editorial letter, it doesn't say "change this and this to this and this." My agent points out problem areas in the manuscript and suggests ways to fix them. However, I usually end up creating my own solutions for the problems my agent identifies. He doesn't expect me to blindly follow all his notes. It's perfectly possible to work with a good agent/editor while maintaining your own creative vision, provided you're open to criticism. And, in my experience, agents and editors are usually right. They know what they're doing, and odds are their comments will be spot-on. Again, this is a generalization. I'm sure not all editors are created equal. But I think there are far more authors who worship their editors and the help they provide than authors who complain about editors wresting their creative freedom.

3. Marketing. Yes, traditionally published authors are still expected to do much of their own marketing. But even with the expanding digital marketplace, hard copies still constitute the majority of book sales. People who recognize your book from Barnes and Noble will be more likely to buy it online later. Traditional publishers can get you into bookstores, which remains a huge advantage over self-publishing.

4. Stigma. Despite expanding digital options, there's still a huge stigma against self-published books. Why? To be quite frank, 99% of them aren't ready for the public eye. Many authors choose to self-publish because they're impatient. They don't want to spend years honing their craft until they're good enough for traditional publishing. They believe, as many new authors do (hell, I know I did), that their first book will be brilliant. They're the exception. They don't have to write four, five, six manuscripts before they stop sucking.

Once again, I'd like to reiterate that this isn't the case for all self-published books. Some are quite well-written and well-edited. But those books are easily lost amid the deluge of badly-edited, badly-written, and at times laughably awful books that flood Amazon's kindle store. No, not all traditionally published books are great literature, but there's still a certain standard set by publishing companies that most self-published books don't meet.

5. Experience. Publishers are experienced in everything, from marketing to design to editing to distribution. As a college student, I can't afford to hire professionals in order to address each of these issues.

6. National media attention. Traditional authors stand a better chance of booking radio shows, TV interviews, and reviews in national publications.

7. Sense of accomplishment. Of course, anybody who finishes a novel should feel accomplished. It's a huge achievement! But for me, getting accepted by a traditional publisher will bring a sense of accomplishment that simply doesn't exist in self-publishing. I made it. I am validated. There are writers out there who don't need to feel validated, but I personally require that extra confidence boost that comes with approval from a traditional publisher.

8. Your editor and agent push you. They push you far harder than a freelance editor would, because their paychecks depend upon the quality of the product in question. If my book isn't any good, my agent won't earn money. He makes me do revisions even when I don't want to, and now, eight months later, AILLEA'S CARDS is better than I ever would've thought possible.

These are the reasons I chose to pursue traditional publishing. But of course, I am just one person, and I am educated enough to know that not all worthy books will sell to major publishers. There are too many good writers and not enough contracts. So for those writers who elect to self-publish, perhaps that's the best path. Some people have great books that, for one reason or another, get passed over by traditional houses. This is particularly true of business-minded writers with prior experience in marketing/platform building. If you already have access to a large audience, as well as the money to pay for professional design and editing, then self-publishing may work out just dandy.

So what about you guys? Are you pushing for traditional publication, or leaning towards self-publishing?


  1. I pretty much just want to say "ditto" to all of this.

  2. These are great reasons, detailed wonderfully, for your choice to go the traditional publishing route.

    I'm personally looking at the traditional route first for my current WiP. I may or may not get an agent. I may or may not get published traditionally. But I want to give it a shot.

    Also, like you, I've had a chance to encounter some great authors who self-published their work. And I've read some traditionally published novels that seemed to be contract fillers and nothing more. But it's nice to have both options available.

  3. You stated this so professionally Kate. I agree with everything you have listed above. I'm fairly certain I could never self-publish. I figure that if I am any good at this craft I will just keep writing and eventually an idea will peak the interest of an agent.

  4. Hi--I'm in your campaign group, and also a fellow Utahn.

    I have to say, I agree with what you've stated, and for those same reasons, I went the traditional route.

  5. As I teen, I've found a lot of people rolling their eyes behind my back when I say I'd like to be published. Then they suggest I look into self-publishing and they know this person or that person who have self-published their books. So far, I haven't heard of any of these self-published authors.
    I think some people who don't know very much about publishing look on self-publishing as a more realistic goal. They're right. With self-publishing I am guaranteed a bound copy of my book. I'm not guaranteed that people will read it which is my goal for publishing.
    Thanks for this post. It really says a lot of my own designation for traditional publishing, which is something I've been questioned about a lot.
    ~Sarah F.

  6. Agreed, and well stated too. I'm holding out for the traditional publishing method and am honing my craft in the meantime.

  7. I just had a semi-heated discussion with a friend about this, and I think you're spot on in saying that it comes down to preference. The reasons on either side of the debate are so personal and subjective that there's no final way to decide it--and that's the way it ought to be.

  8. Exactly what I think!

    I think it's also worth noting that many of the successful self-published authors did try the traditional route and usually came really close to a deal, and also got valuable feedback from experienced agents and/or editors. I think they self-published believing that their work wasn't being rejected because it was crap, but because traditional editors couldn't see a place for it in their market. But that may not be the case with the digital market. It's kind of building its own following.

    I can't say I would have gone that route (for all the reasons you stated) but I have definitely gained some respect for some self-published authors.

  9. This is why I wish I were a teen so I can speak my mind - it's a privilege of the youth, trust me :)

    Kate more and more I feel like we have a lot of viewpoints in common and I love it!

    I'd also love to feature you for my new series called A Day in the Life. Come check it out and let me know if you're interested - really would like to have you!

  10. Whenever I talk to someone who discovers I'm a writer, they immediately tell me I should self-publish. These people are non-writers and they just want to be helpful and encouraging, so I don't launch into my sermon about why traditional publishing is the route I'd like to pursue. I just smile and thank them for their suggestions, but I do agree with the points you made here about benefitting from the experience of publishing professionals. Self-published authors whose books do well deserve every praise, for they've had to learn so much more than simply writing well.

  11. I have chosen the traditional publishing route because as a parent, I have yet to find a self published book to purchase for my children. It's not for lack of effort. E-publishing intrigues me. I have spent hours combing Amazon looking for something self published to load on the kindle for the kids. Most parents probably don't spend that much time cruising for kids books. This makes me lean towards traditional publishing.