These days, book publishing falls under two basic categories: traditional publishing and self-publishing; however, the options for how to publish (or get published) are not quite so succinct. And therefore, the options can be confusing and somewhat daunting. Below is a breakdown of four types of publishing.
Traditional Publishing—Trade Publishers and University Presses
We usually think of traditional publishing in terms of trade publishing, meaning books published for retail sale to the general public. Traditional publishers include the “Big 5” (soon, possibly, to be the “Big 4,” as Penguin Random House is currently in the process of acquiring Simon & Schuster) as well as thousands of small independent imprints operating all over the world.
Another type of traditional publisher is university presses, which specialize in academic and scholarly publications. Many also publish poetry and some literary fiction and nonfiction. Note that, generally speaking, it’s actually more difficult to get chosen for publication by university presses, which have a more involved and arduous selection process and are even more particular about what they will publish.
Advantages to Traditional Publishing:
Exposure: Even small imprints have reach to get their books into stores, both brick-and-mortar and online, and to promote the books on a national or even international scale.
Little to No Author Expense: Traditional publishers pay their authors, not the other way around.
Hands-Off Publishing: For authors who want someone else to take the reins and bring their book to fruition, traditional publishing is the way to go.
Prestige: Traditional publishing continues to carry with it a level of prestige that self-publishing has yet to achieve, perhaps simply because it’s so much harder to get published this way. Speaking of which, . . .
Disadvantages to Traditional Publishing:
Highly Selective: Traditional publishers are very picky about what they will publish. Even great books can get turned down if the publishing house is already saturated with that subject/genre.
Literary Agents: Ever heard of the slush pile? It’s where unsolicited, unrepresented submissions go, and those manuscripts almost never get published. You have to have an agent, and that’s a major challenge in itself.
Little to No Author Control: Authors give up almost all control, including design and editing changes, to traditional publishers. These publishers have even been known to change authors’ titles. And there isn’t much of anything the author can do about it.
Ownership: The publisher owns the copyright.
Marketing Burden: Traditional publishers increasingly insist that authors take on much of the marketing for their book. Authors are expected to have social media accounts/followers, mailing lists, and more. And sometimes these marketing requirements can cost the author money.
Self-publishing leaves all the control in the author’s hands, but that means the author also assumes all the expenses and all the risks. Plus, self-publishers rarely achieve the label of “best seller,” especially on the New York Times or USA Today lists. It can be done, but most indie authors never come close to that level of success.
Advantages to Self-Publishing:
Control: Authors control everything when they self-publish. This can also be a disadvantage, but for those control freaks out there, this aspect alone might be enough to make the decision.
Ownership: The author owns exclusive rights to their work.
Disadvantages to Self-Publishing:
Expenses: While the author does maintain full control, that also means they have to pay for absolutely everything. Some authors only self-publish if they can do it for free, but this is a mistake. See our article “Why Indie Authors Need Professional Help.”
Time Commitment: It takes a lot of time to oversee every single aspect of the publishing process. A few of the required tasks include hiring an editor and a designer and managing those processes, acquiring ISBNs and Library of Congress Control Numbers, publishing on the author’s chosen platforms, and marketing, which can be the most time-consuming of all.
Less Exposure: Some indie authors have perfected the art of marketing and self-promotion, and these are the exceptions who make it onto best seller lists. But for most self-publishers, exposure is difficult to come by because they either don’t know how to get it, don’t have time for it, or simply don’t want to do what it takes to get it.
Lack of Knowledge: Do you know how to design a cover? Do you know the requirements for a copyright page? Do you know how to write blurbs and ad content? Successful self-publishing (i.e., the creation of a professional publication that is marketed well) requires a massive amount of knowledge.
The good news for indie authors is that there are legitimate services out there to help take the burden off the author’s shoulders. Self-publishing services usually offer à la carte services to indie authors. These services include editing, cover design, interior layout design, and marketing/promotion, among others. Self-publishing services should be carefully vetted, however, to ensure that they are reputable and experienced.
Advantages to Self-Publishing Services
A La Carte Services: The author only pays for what they need, and the author is under no obligation to use all the available services.
Knowledge and Experience: A good self-publishing service knows the biz, the requirements for publishing under different platforms, and how to help authors get the word out.
Author Control: The author still maintains full control over the final product.
Ownership: The author still owns the copyright and all materials.
No Rejection Slips: These companies are simply service providers, not publishers. They provide whatever service the author hires them to do.
Disadvantages to Self-Publishing Services:
Vetting: It can be difficult to distinguish the good companies from the bad. Be sure to do plenty of research.
Expense: These services can be much more expensive than the DIY approach or using freelancers.
For those authors who want some of the advantages of both traditional publishing and self-publishing, hybrid publishing just might be the answer. Unlike self-publishing services, hybrid publishers are publishers who have struck a balance between traditional publishing and self-publishing.
Advantages to Hybrid Publishing:
Full In-House Services: Hybrid publishers generally provide all the same services as traditional publishers, including editing, cover and interior design, and promotion as well as actually publishing the book.
Professional Work: Hybrid publishers know the industry and how to create and market professional publications.
Marketing Services: Hybrids have a vested interest in the success of the books they publish, so they want the books to appear in stores and online and to sell. Therefore, they help make these things happen.
Disadvantages to Hybrid Publishing:
Out-of-Pocket Expenses: Authors pay a fee to hybrid publishers, which may or may not be less than they would spend on self-publishing or self-publishing services.
Shared Royalties: Although authors generally get a much greater percentage (average 50%) of the royalties than they do with traditional publishing (average 10%), they do still have to share the bounty.
Ownership: As the publisher, hybrids typically own the copyright.
Somewhat Selective: Although not as selective as traditional publishers, hybrids don’t publish every book that comes their way. They want to earn those royalties, so they are particular about the books they will publish.
So which publishing process is right for you? The main advantages to traditional publishing are the potential of making money instead of spending it and the possibility of prestige and a larger market. You just have to be OK with handing over all the control and ownership and going through the arduous processes of obtaining a literary agent and then getting accepted by a publisher.
If you don’t mind spending money that you may never get back and you want total control over and ownership of your work, then self-publishing is probably right for you, whether you DIY it or hire a self-publishing service. Just know that commercial success is very difficult for self-publishers to attain.
Or perhaps you’d rather have the best of both worlds: a publisher who allows you some control and greater royalties but still does most of the work for you (except write the book, of course). You will still have out-of-pocket expenses with a hybrid publisher, and you will still (more than likely) have to give up ownership, but if the positives outweigh the negatives in your mind, then this could be the right course for you.
As a final note, if you choose to work with a publisher (other than the Big 5) or a self-publishing service, please do your research and confirm that the company is reputable and experienced. Keep an eye out for vanity publishers (see our article “The Dangers of Vanity Publishers”), and ensure that you are working with a legitimate company that has your best interests at heart.
Best of luck!