One of the biggest questions I hear from authors today:
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 outline four key publishing paths, their value to authors, and the variations therein. These four paths are:
- Traditional publishing: I define this as submitting your work to editors and agents (gatekeepers) and being selected for publication. Most traditional deals of the New York variety involve nationwide bookstore distribution, but one of the biggest growth areas you’ll find here is digital-only or digital-focused efforts that don’t involve print editions at all. Such opportunities may have little in common with Big Five arrangements—and that’s why I’ve intentionally put them at the bottom of the image, with a white background!—but they’re still selective. Traditional publishing authors can and should expect editorial, design, marketing, and publicity support from beginning to end.
- Fully assisted self-publishing: This is what most people mean when they talk about the “vanity” publishing model, where you write a check and get your book published without lifting a finger. There’s a high risk of paying too much money for basic services, and also for purchasing services you don’t need—but it’s still a significant part of the self-publishing market, now dominated by Author Solutions in the U.S. Caveat emptor: Author Solutions is currently fighting a class-action lawsuit; they’re not warmly embraced by the indie author community. If you want a fully assisted service, explore the highly ranked firms at the Independent Publishing Magazine.
- Do-it-yourself (DIY) self-publishing: This might involve either print book or e-books (or both), and I’ve been more expansive in this second version to include print-driven self-publishing options. Most authors reduce financial risk and investment involved with print by using print-on-demand technology; the most popular POD services are CreateSpace, Lightning Source, and Lulu.
- Community: A growing number of publishing success stories are coming out of Wattpad and fan-fiction communities—not to mention that an incredible amount of writing and reading gets done at these sites. (Wattpad alone is closing in on 20 million users. That’s about the same size as Goodreads.) It means giving away your work, but community authors are more focused on developing a fan base, and the social aspect of reading and writing, not earnings. I’ve also added crowdfunding here, as it involves rallying your community to buy your book before it’s available (and donate funds), a model that Wattpad is now melding into its platform.
For those who are familiar with the first version of this, here’s an explanation of why certain things were changed.
- Partnership publishing: This has moved under traditional publishing. I’ve decided partnership arrangements are not prevalent enough to deserve their own category. According to my definition of partnerships models, they mimic the fundamental qualities of a traditional deal—you don’t pay to publish and you seek acceptance—but there’s little or no advance and higher royalties. I do think more of this will be happening in the future. Or I hope.
- Do-it-yourself (DIY) with a distributor vs. DIY direct: I separated these out before, but have combined them because the end result and even the process can be about identical. When you deal directly with retailers (Amazon, Nook, iBookstore, etc), you will earn more on royalties (since there’s no middleman/distributor); when you use a distributor, you will earn less, but may also receive some level of marketing or production assistance, depending on the service. Most people combine their own direct-to-retailer efforts with distributor efforts (Amazon + Smashwords is popular). Since DIY services work primarily on a nonexclusive basis (unless you make it restrictive by signing up for something like Kindle Select), it is quite common to mix-and-match services.
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.
Feel free to download, print, and share this infographic wherever you like. (It’s formatted to print perfectly on 11″ x 17″ or tabloid-size paper.) 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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