Traditional Publishing: What’s It Good For?

traditional publishing

When I first started working in publishing, no one questioned the value of a publisher.

Now they do.

When I tell nonfiction writers they need to demonstrate to the agent/editor they have a big enough platform—enough visibility—to sell books without the help of a publisher, they’ll ask, “What’s the publisher for then?”

When I tell fiction writers that their work needs to be compelling, polished, and ready for publication before they query, they’ll ask, “What’s the publisher for then?”

For first-time authors who have no readership, the answer is easy. Quality considerations aside, a publisher raises your profile and makes you look bigger than you’ve ever looked before. Someone is taking a financial risk to launch your work into the world and make your name recognizable, and the risk can be taken only for a finite number of authors, so people make quite logical assumptions about quality that are in your favor.

Of course, publishers fail at launching authors every day. But authors promoting themselves tend to fail at it more dramatically. It’s not that publishing is hard. It’s the ability to spread the word about your work’s existence at the right time to the right people that’s crazy-difficult. So far, most publishers are still better at doing that.

So far.

If you’re an author who can make influencers jump when you ask, or have a siren call that lures readers to your door, then all bets are off on what the publisher is for. You’ll have to decide.


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Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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30 Comments on "Traditional Publishing: What’s It Good For?"

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michaelnmarcus
michaelnmarcus
8 months 22 days ago

I plan to publish three to five books this year and there’s no way I’d consider approaching a traditional publisher (unless I could get a stupidly high advance and promo budget).

I prefer the control, speed and income of operating my own publishing company. http://www.SilverSandsBooks.com

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[…] No one used to question the value of a publisher, but now everyone's wondering: What are they good for?  […]

S. J. Pajonas (spajonas)
S. J. Pajonas (spajonas)
8 months 22 days ago

Considering some of the lackluster launches of debut authors I’ve seen in the last two years (most of them from Big 5 publishers), I’m questioning (again) the efficacy of traditional publishing if you’re not a best seller already.

Marion Gropen
8 months 22 days ago
To your points (all good ones), I would add that publishers are good for: — Money: They invest in a very high-risk, low-reward venture: publishing a new book (yours). They put up all of the money, and you get more than half of the profit. That’s not a bad deal. — Experience: Even the wet-behind-the-ears young pups will have seen more books through their part of the process than it’s likely that any author ever will. They know what works for which type of book. And if they don’t, the more experienced person in the next office will. — Distribution:… Read more »
awriterofhistory
8 months 22 days ago

Sound and to-the-point as always, Jane. Wishing you a great 2016 and many thanks for all the great advice you offer.

Dianna M. Winget (@DiannaMWinget)
I realize for some, self publishing is working well, and I’m glad. But I write realistic middle grade, and traditional publishing has been very good to me so far. It wasn’t easy to reach that point. For years I struggled and received nothing but rejection, but am so glad I didn’t give up. Aside from the satisfaction/education that comes from working with a team of professionals who truly care about your work, I strongly believe if not for going the traditional route my books wouldn’t be in hundreds of libraries, schools, ect. Traditional publishing allows you to have a life… Read more »
madeleinedeste
8 months 22 days ago

Great blog and great points, Marion. As a first time author, promotion, distribution, experience, coaching etc are the reasons I’m looking at traditional publishing (first). But it’s great that I have other options available if I feel I can do it myself.

Jane, I’m part way through your How to Publish Your Book lecture series too. Brilliant info.

Lynn
8 months 22 days ago
I’m going the traditional route for the following reasons: 1. I have no experience writing a novel, until I wrote this one — my first. I need someone who knows more about publishing than I do to help me, because I don’t want to waste the years learning what they know. 2. Am I good enough? Sure, I can write a book. I could write a book in third grade, (who couldn’t?) but writing a book and writing a novel good enough for a publisher to take the risk on me are two different things. I want to know am… Read more »
jeffo
8 months 21 days ago

“What’s the publisher for?” Discoverability. Despite the gains made in self-publishing, I’m under the impression that the average reader is still far more likely to find YOUR book if it’s publisher published rather than self-published.

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[…] Traditional Publishing: What Is It Good for? (Jane Friedman) When I first started working in publishing, no one questioned the value of a publisher. Now they do. When I tell nonfiction writers they need to demonstrate to the agent/editor they have a big enough platform—enough visibility—to sell books without the help of a publisher, they’ll ask, “What’s the publisher for then?” When I tell fiction writers that their work needs to be compelling, polished and ready for publication before they query, they’ll ask, “What’s the publisher for then?” […]

Jackie Holness
8 months 21 days ago

Something to think about…

J.R. Roper
8 months 21 days ago

I think that traditional publishing can help build an author’s brand and expand their network. Both good things even if self-publishing is the preference. My goal is to produce quality work, attempt publish traditionally, and then seek an alternative after a reasonable amount of time and effort. Then on to the next project!

James Byrd
James Byrd
8 months 21 days ago
Publishers are good for print distribution. That’s about it. I don’t buy that publishers help much with discoverability. The author’s platform is what drives discoverability. Book store distribution is great for *availability* upon launch. You only get about six weeks of placement in the book stores, and something external has to drive those readers through the doors to buy your book, or it will be remaindered (i.e. gone). Sadly, even after all the work that the writer and the publisher has put into the book, *most* books end up that way. The main problem with shooting for a traditional publishing… Read more »
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Kathryn J. Bain
8 months 21 days ago

I’m a hybrid author, along with a lot of others out there. We do both traditional and self-publishing. A lot of hybrid authors are still with their large publisher, yet they can’t wait to tell you they are making six figures at self-publishing. The reason they stay: most of their readership came from their traditional publisher. I would suggest authors do both.

Allen F
Allen F
8 months 21 days ago

“… and you get more than half of the profit.”

If you don’t mind, what publisher have you seen giving 50% royalties to their writers?

Especially to new or low to mid-list writers. The world of writers would be beating a path to their door!

JZ Bingham (@JZBingham)
8 months 20 days ago
I would add that Jane’s words, “demonstrate you’ll be a proactive partner in the launch,” are absolutely key when working with your publisher, from the get-go. Each partner’s effort should complement and leverage the other and, importantly, remain true to the publisher’s intended branding and marketing of the author’s franchise (for that is the best part of what a professional publisher can offer a quality author). Aside from distribution and awareness throughout the industry (reviewers and librarians), a concerted effort at true partnership maximizes success and returns on everyone’s investment–ultimately building momentum for the next book. For success’s sake, please… Read more »
Helen J Rolfe
Helen J Rolfe
8 months 20 days ago
Thanks for another insightful post and Happy New Year to you! I think visibility is the main problem for indie authors, but I think what self publishing has allowed authors to do is build up a profile. I’m submitting book 4 to agents and it feels so different to when I submitted the first book which was rejected by so many. I see it as a job application and three books behind me feels like I have that all important experience! I’ve recently been approached by Gardners for a copy of one of my books and already I can see… Read more »
Palessa
8 months 18 days ago
I’m with them…Why? I won’t even kid myself that a traditional publisher would want me. I’m good with that. I have no desire to be built up so high just to drop like a stone because the launch didn’t go as planned and there’s a lot of money at stake etc. I know that traditional pubs have serious scope but I’ve known indies who have built up their own scopes and have done well without traditional. If I get my brand strong enough to where someone contacts me, then great. Otherwise, I’m just going to stick to my corner of… Read more »
Lynn
8 months 15 days ago

The word is “profit,” not “gross income.” They are paying for all that goes into printing a book. Their profit margin is only roughly 4%. And yet, they’re giving the author half. Good deal!

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[…] Friedman answers the burning question: What is traditional publishing good for? And if you want to be published, Writers’ Relief has 16 steps to making your publishing dream […]

Harald Johnson
Harald Johnson
8 months 11 days ago
Both of you (James Byrd and Jane) make good points here. For my best-selling NF (trad-published) books, *I* was the one driving buyers into the bookstores to buy my books. But the publisher got them into the stores. And the books kept selling, so the stores kept re-ordering. A win-win. But Fiction is a different ballgame, I’m finding. I agree with James that getting a traditional contract these days is getting increasingly difficult (for debut fiction authors), so I’m not even trying. I’d rather put the time into my own marketing and platform building. I see the discoverability challenges for… Read more »
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