Like most things in life, traditional publishing comes with its own list of pros and cons. For many of us, there is nothing more than being traditionally published that keeps us in our seats writing, and for a vast majority of people I know, they can’t decide.
Traditional publication is a long process. It takes time to master and it can be filled with a huge amount of rejections before finding a compatible publisher for your story.
Three Tiers of Publishers
The big 6 (1st tier) are the most renowned, the largest purse strings, and they have their fingers in EVERYTHING. They are the ones who sign authors like Patterson, King, Hamilton, Harrison, and thousands of others who you may know their name despite never reading their book.
Medium tier (2nd tier) publishers are comparable to the big 6. They have a well-established clientele, know their marketing, and have a staff. They also have a smaller purse to pay for marketing, advances, etc.
The bottom tier (3rd tier) of publishers are small operations. They may have a small staff—think Mom & Pop operations.
There are differences between all three that can cause the following pros and cons to shift on the spectrum, but these are the general reasons given for traditional publishers. A side note: If a publisher is asking for money, they are a vanity publisher. DO NOT PAY THEM.
A Vanity publisher holds the rights to your story, and their prices are well over-priced compared to going with freelancers. They accept every story without even looking at it—Red Flag. Vanity publishers get lumped in with hybrid publishers. They are NOT the same thing.
A hybrid publisher, you hold the copyright and only pay for the services you need. There is total transparency and they run their business closer to a traditional by reading and deciding if that book is a good investment. Some indies contract with them to handle specific tasks such as marketing or formatting/audio creation.
Pros of Traditional Publishing
Team of Dedicated Professionals
This varies by publisher size. The big 6 have specific people that are vetted in the areas they work. A 3rd tier may hire freelancers for things they can’t do.
Again, depends on the publisher. A small publisher has a limited budget and most that I’ve worked with spread the money between the ones making the money. In larger publishers, the books viewed as more likely to be a huge success get pushed more. No matter which way you go, marketing has fallen more on the author in later years than in previous decades.
This is true. Between authors who snub their nose and people who find “self-published” more like a DIY project, being able to say “My book was picked up by xyz” is viewed as a higher achievement despite what your royalty payments say.
You don’t pay a dime for any of the services.
Cons of Traditional Publishing
Hard to Land
1st tier publishers almost always require an agent who acts like the first gate keeper. Medium and bottom tier publishers may require an agent—especially if they are a niche market—but most take unsolicited manuscripts. That either makes it very long process in the incoming pile or tedious trying to find an agent to take your works on before even considering which publishers to go with.
Some contracts read like a 7th grade research paper while some take a lawyer to decipher. Be wary of clauses such as “Do Not Compete,” “First Rights of Refusal,” and “All Sales” which can limit your ability to publish under your own name, in the same universe, same characters, or take a percentage of all your royalties—regardless if that book was published through the publisher, with a different publisher, or you strike out on your own and go indie.
Specific Word Count Limits
For some companies, they only want books written within a certain word count. While the word counts can be within the general guidelines of a genre—therefore no issue for most writers—without an established record of success, most publishers won’t look at epics or novellas from unknown authors. If your book is already over 120k and counting, you might need to trim the fat to make those guidelines or write one hell of a query letter.
Smaller operations may take untraditional word counts and themes that bigger publishers won’t touch.
Once you iron out the contract, it can still take upwards of nearly 2 years before your book is published. This is because the company giving each author the same amount of attention and care between edits, covers, and creating a launch strategy. The bright side is, you don’t pay a dime.
Input On Your Books
The publisher is covering the fees for edits, cover designs, formatting, etc. In doing so, you lose most of your ability to have any say in the matter of how it looks.
Larger publishers “know” what sells, and that’s what they tend to do with your book. They have firmly implemented the “if it isn’t broken, don’t tweak it” system.
This is the one saving grace I love about Mom and Pop publishers. With a small staff, the smallest publishers are generally the most open about listening to what you’d like, but at the same time, these smaller publisher can be so understaffed that you don’t get any information about where your book is in the process until they send you an email saying “your book is available.”
They pay twice royalties a year. Few publishers will show you the reports for you to confirm your sales without you asking specifically for them.
Example—On Amazon, an eBook priced over $2.99 generate a 70% royalty. Now, the publisher/agents (agents get 15%) take their share, and your $2.09 profit from Amazon becomes less than a dollar if you get 50% of e-book royalties. Paperback royalty, you’re looking at less than 50¢ a book profit.
In actuality, you will only get about 30% of the profit your book makes.
With limited marketing, traditional publishers are looking more at authors who already have an established fan base on social media. That’s a double-edged sword because that’s time that you wanted to use for writing your next book. Why are you looking at traditional publishers for the same amount of work you’d be doing as an indie?
Marketing has another issue. As the industry shifts—which traditional publishers try to control to some degree—there are shifts in reader trends. And your book might have been a good fit when you signed the contract, but here it is 18 months later, and the reader boom has slowed to pre-boom levels.
Sometimes staffs change. People get promoted or leave the company. The consistency of your books shifts as your editors change. Creative differences can emerge between the new head of the department and you.
Sometimes the publisher folds. It’s a common occurrence in 3rd tier publishers. They struggle to last long enough to become well-established. Your book is now in the “reprint” category, and many publishers won’t touch it. Now what?
Traditional Publishing is a game of chance, no different from being indie. Is your book good enough to warrant a company’s full attention or is it just another publishing credit, earning the company money, you pennies, and still successful based on your marketing?
Is it worth it?
I can’t tell you which way to go. To me, each story has a path that varies from all my other works. For a first-time writer, traditional is a good route. It gives you a framework to build off without being thrown in the deep end.
If you’re willing to take it slow, learn a little at a time, and like a challenge, maybe going indie from the start is for you. The only advice I can give is consider what you want, how much time you want to invest, and if you are willing to take it slow or give up most control.
While we’re discussing traditional publishing. Here are the pros and cons of going through an agent.
They have relationships with publishers and usually know who is accepting your type of manuscript. Some publishers will only look at manuscripts submitted by agents—it’s a standards issue. If an agent says your story is good, then the publishers know it has promise and looks decent, cutting down on their slush pile.
Just because they know publishers, agents work for you. They will try to get you the best fit for your work because only when your book is published are they making money.
They make 15% of the profit from your book. It’s a flat fee that is universal between agents mostly. It’s always paid by the publisher around the same time they cut your royalty check.
Agents look for more than just book rights. Good agents option for foreign rights, audio, movie, etc. You want an agent for their connections.
Dispelling a myth. If you’re self-published, you can still have an agent going after other rights—like the ones mentioned above. A good agent knows that if you’re making it as an indie, then there’s a readership, and a well-established readership is marketable in other formats.
Decided to go Traditional?
If you go the traditional route, here are a few things you can do to find publishers and agents.
Participate in #PitMad on Twitter. https://pitchwars.org/pitmad/ This is a quarterly Twitter thing where writers pitch their manuscript in tweets and publishers/agents look through them and respond if they are interested. Look up past PitMads and see how those in your genre pitch and which ones get the most interactions.
There’s also the MS Wish List http://mswishlist.com/mswl It gathers tweets made by agents/publishers to help writers narrow down who to send a query to.
There’s also Query Tracker https://querytracker.net/ You can find information on agents and publishers. There is information on writing queries, a built-in tracking feature, and shows updated and new listings. It has rated high on Writer’s Digest 101 most useful sites for writers.
Other resources on Traditional Publishing views—