Are you hoping to traditionally publish your novel? If so, it probably feels like there are a thousand questions to answer…
Do you need an agent? How do you get an agent? What’s involved in the querying process? How much do traditionally published authors get paid in royalties?
Right? There are so many questions! Figuring out how to navigate the publishing universe can be a little overwhelming if you’ve never done it before. Especially when there’s more than one publishing path to choose from.
In this post, I’m going to walk you through the pros and cons of traditional publishing. My goal is to help you identify the best publishing path for you and your story, and to hopefully answer some questions you have about the publishing process, too. But before we dive in, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what it means to traditionally publish a novel.
Traditional publishing refers to the established system of submitting a finished manuscript to agents with the goal of getting a book deal with one of the Big Five publishers. If you do get an agent, and if you do get a book deal, you’ll be paid a certain amount of money up front, and then you’ll work with a team of people at the publishing house to edit, produce, and distribute your book.
Once that’s done, the publishing house will work with you to help you get your book in the hands of readers. But this does not mean they will take all of the marketing off your hands–we’re going to talk about that in a second. But once your book starts selling, you’ll get paid out only after you "earn out" your advance (or once the publisher makes back the money they paid you to acquire your manuscript in the first place).
So, that's the traditional publishing process at a glance, and of course, there are many micro-steps involved in this process, but this is a big-picture overview of how it works. Now, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of traditional publishing.
Bookstores have a limited amount of space, and there are hundreds of thousands of books being published every year. Because of their limited space, booksellers have to be selective with the books they choose to carry.
This is where traditional publishers come in. Sales reps (who work for the traditional publishers) go around to bookstores and make it very easy for their buyers to select the books they’d like to carry. The sales reps will even make recommendations based on trends they're seeing or any big marketing incentives they know their publisher is planning. Booksellers trust these sales reps for good reason–they have their pulse on the market, and they’re backed by a publishing house. This means that the book buyer is more likely to choose books that the sales reps are bringing to their door vs. books from individual authors who have self-published.
Another thing to consider is that bookstores have to compete with Amazon. Many indie authors use Amazon’s services to publish their books because Amazon makes it easy to do so. But because of this, bookstores are usually not eager to carry self-published books because that means giving business to (and competing with) Amazon for the same customers.
That being said, there is a small caveat here. There are ways around this if you’re going the indie publishing route. For example, you can find and work with vendors that help with print distribution like Ingram Spark or you can use the print on-demand feature from Createspace to make your print books available in online bookstores.
Many authors say they “only want to write,” which is why they want a publisher to handle the rest of it all. This is, in fact, a traditional publisher’s superpower. They employ the editors and the art directors, the proofreaders and the salespeople who can bring your book to life and bring it to market. They do this work all day long, and they do nothing but this work, so they are really good at it!
All of that being said, you probably won’t get as much marketing help as you’re hoping for. We’ll talk about this more later on, but basically, the marketing effort a publisher puts into a project depends on how much they’ve already invested.
And in most cases, the marketing efforts that a publisher makes is going to be focused on attracting booksellers rather than readers. That being said, you should at least get a sales team to take your book to bookstores.
This is another big selling point for traditional publishing. You don’t have to pay anyone to get a publishing deal–and if you are asked for money, then it’s NOT a traditional publishing deal. That’s usually a vanity publisher, and if you’re approached by one, you should be very, very careful.
But let’s say you do get a publishing deal… That means you’ll usually get some kind of advance against your future royalties. The average advance an author gets is around $5,000–$10,000 US dollars, but there are now deals where authors can take smaller advances to earn higher royalties or no advance at all. You’ll find all of these details out from your publisher.
But one thing to remember is that any advance you get is against royalties which are usually between 7% and 25% of the net sales price. So, if you do get an advance of let’s say $10,000, you will have to earn more than $10,000 out of your royalty rate on net sales before you get any more money. And in the age of Amazon, books often sell at a discounted price.
Many literary prizes aren’t open to indie authors, so if winning a literary prize or getting any kind of critical acclaim is on your wishlist, traditional publishing might be the better path for you to pursue.
However, just because you’re traditionally published, that doesn’t guarantee you will win a literary prize or get any kind of critical acclaim, so just keep that in mind.
That being said, there are exceptions to the rule, but it’s still rare for self-published authors even to be allowed to enter literary contests.
Many authors want the stamp of industry approval that comes with a traditional publishing deal–and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting this, for the record!
We all know that writing a book can be a struggle sometimes, and I’m sure we all suffer from self-doubt from time to time. If you make it through the process of getting an agent and then a publisher, approval by these “gatekeepers” usually feels like validation that your work is “good enough.”
Even if your book doesn’t sell very well, it's still published by TOR or whoever, I mean… you’ve still been published by TOR–you have that stamp of approval. So, if industry validation is important to you, then this might be the deciding factor in pursuing a traditional publishing deal.
On average, it takes 1-2 years for a traditionally published book to come to market. If you consider all the time it took to write and edit the book (1-2 years), plus the time it takes to get an agent (1-2 years), and go through the publishing process (1-2 years), it can start to feel like a very, very long time before getting your book to market!
Compare that to self-publishing on Amazon where your book can be on sale in a matter of hours–and then be paid 60 days later for any sales, it might seem like a no-brainer to go the self-publishing route if speed to market is important to you.
Royalty rates for a traditionally published book can range from anywhere between 7% and 25%, with the latter being on the extremely generous end.
On average, traditionally published writers get around 15% of the net sales price of a book. This means that all the discounts, returns, marketing costs, and overheads are taken out of the total before the profit percentage is calculated.
And then out of that profit, a traditionally published author must pay their agent 15%. The percentage that a traditionally published author gets paid is somewhere in the neighborhood of 10% to 15% of the price the book sells for (which in the age of Amazon is often at a discounted price).
This setup works well for the top 1% of writers–Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Colleen Hoover–but not so well for writers in the middle or bottom tier.
When you work with a traditional publisher, they will gather a team of professionals to edit and produce your novel. That means you will not have creative control over many aspects of the process including things like–what the cover of your book will look like, what price it will be sold for, when it will come out, and how it will be promoted.
This also means that you might not like the final title or cover they choose for your novel. You might also get an editor you don't agree with, or they might take a different marketing approach to your novel than you would.
A traditional publisher is not going to help you market your book in any kind of significant way unless you get a big advance–and by that I mean high five or six figures.
If a book gets a big advance, the publisher has a big stake in earning that money back and will put more into marketing. But for the vast majority of traditional publishing deals, a big marketing budget and plan is not going to be part of it.
This means that no matter how you decide to publish your book, you will have to be engaged in selling it and getting it in the hands of readers.
Readers want authors who are accessible; and agents want authors who are actively engaged with readers in an authentic way.
This is what agents and publishers mean when they ask writers about their “platform.” They’re basically asking, “Do you have people interested and waiting to buy this book?” Or, “Do you regularly communicate with your readers?” And if the answer is yes, that’s going to be very appealing to traditional publishers.
When it comes to signing contracts with agents or publishers, there are a few big (and possibly limiting) things to keep an eye out for. For example, a “do not compete” clause could stop you from publishing under the same author name, or in the same story world, or with the same characters during the term of your contract.
If you sign a three book deal with one new book coming out every year, this could mean 3-4 years in which you’re now allowed to publish anything else under that author name or in that story world or with those characters. How would you feel about that?
The other thing to keep an eye out for is the clause that states what happens if the relationship doesn’t work out or if you decide to move onto a different publishing path. Because once you sign a contract for your book, it essentially belongs to the publisher. So, for example, if you sign away your book for the life of the copyright, that’s the length of your life plus 70 years after you die–and that’s a really big deal!
The worst thing you can do is make decisions based on the logic that, “I should just take whatever contract I’m offered!” Many authors will sign deals because they're grateful that they have been offered anything, but this is not a good strategy! You need to value your work, and do what’s best for you in the long term.
So, now that you know the pros and cons of traditional publishing, what do you think? Is traditional publishing right for you?
If you’re having a hard time deciding, answer these questions:
Before you make your final decision, I want you to consider something really important.
Most readers aren’t going to care who your publisher is–that’s not how they shop for stories. In most cases, the publisher responsible for producing a book only means something to authors and those in the industry.
Also, many authors use both forms of publishing for different projects, so you aren’t limited to just traditional publishing or just indie publishing. If you’re curious about the pros and cons of indie publishing, check out this article.
You can also check out this downloadable chart by Jane Friedman that gives a wider sense of the publishing options available.
Regardless of which publishing path you choose, always do your due diligence and talk to other authors (or industry professionals) who are happy to recommend the service before you sign anything.
Writer Beware has a lot of information about scams against authors and companies to watch out for. You can also check out Preditors and Editors, which is a watchdog site for authors with listings of which publishers are recommended and which are scams.
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