One of the biggest questions for authors today is:
Should I traditionally publish or self-publish?
It’s an important question—one that tends to result in heated debate—but it’s becoming an increasingly confusing and complicated question to answer because:
- There are now many varieties of traditional publishing and self-publishing—with evolving models and varying contracts.
- You won’t find a universal, agreed-upon definition of what it means to “traditionally publish” or “self-publish.”
- It’s not an either/or proposition. You can do both. (See this interview with CJ Lyons.)
I spend a lot of time at writers conferences trying to clarify the pros and cons among the different publishing paths and the growing number of services available to authors. There is no one path or service that’s right for everyone; you must understand and study the changing landscape and make a choice based on long-term career goals, as well as the unique qualities of your work—not to mention your own strengths and weaknesses.
With that in mind, I’ve developed an infographic (click to download as PDF) to describe what I see as the key 5 publishing paths, their value to authors, the potential pitfalls, and examples of each. These five paths are:
- Traditional publishing: where you query and submit to agents and editors in an effort to land a contract that pays an advance and royalties (and typically involves nationwide bookstore distribution).
- Partnership publishing: one might consider this the evolution of traditional publishing, where authors are positioned more as partners, receive higher royalties, but usually no advance.
- Fully-assisted publishing: the old “vanity” self-publishing model, where you write a check and get your book published without lifting a finger. I don’t recommend this, but it’s still a significant part of the self-publishing market, now dominated by Author Solutions.
- Do-it-yourself (DIY) publishing with a distributor: while this applies to either print or e-books, today this usually involves e-publishing your work (to reduce financial risk and investment involved with print), and using a service provider or distributor to reach all possible online retailers—and/or to provide some level of assistance.
- Do-it-yourself (DIY) direct publishing: when an author doesn’t put any middlemen between him and the retailer selling his books. Often, this option is combined with #4 above; for example, someone might sell direct through Amazon KDP, and complement it with distribution to all other retailers through Smashwords. This is possible because most distributors and online retailers of e-books work on a nonexclusive basis.
What about an agent’s role in these five models? Generally speaking, agents should serve as an author’s career manager and adviser, not as the author’s publisher. This is why I’ve included agent-assisted models in “special cases” below the chart. Still, though, when it comes to partnership publishing, agent-run outfits (e.g., Rogue Reader) are doing some of the most innovative work, and this only blurs the lines further.
You’ll notice I’ve indicated that, moving from left to right across the chart, an author gains more control over the process, undertakes more risk, and stands to earn more money. This is a generalization and may not hold true in every situation. For fully-assisted publishing in particular, one might argue this poses the highest risk and offers the least control. However, as a general rule, keep in mind that as one moves from the traditional models to DIY models, the author undertakes more risk, work, and responsibility, but stands to gain more financially if successful over the long term.
What is not really accounted for in this chart: Selling direct-to-consumer from your own website, or through other means (e.g., back-of-the-room sales). I’m also not addressing self-publishing that employs print runs (whether short digital runs or traditional print runs). While neither of these options is necessarily beyond the skill of a new author, it is a more advanced option that is beyond the scope of this chart.
Update (June 3): For some enlightened reaction to this chart, read Mick Rooney’s response, as well as my comments on it.
Feel free to download, print, and share this infograph wherever you like. I will keep developing it as the publishing landscape changes, so leave a comment if you have suggestions for how to make it more helpful.
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