Traditional versus Self-Publishing

I really hate to wade into a debate that’s been argued from any number of perspectives.

But I read a blog entry that appealed to me, as it was well-reasoned and taking more of a middle-ground:

I posted my own comment to the entry, but I thought I would repeat it here:

I would say that traditionally published works will have fewer typos and grammar errors. That would be the main distinction. And I’ve encountered typos and grammar mistakes (albeit few in each work) in books that have been published at any time in the past century, including many bestsellers.

To be honest, a great amount of dreck has always been traditionally published. I’ve read and encountered cheesy novels dating to the early part of the 20th century and every decade in between then and now. Ditto for garish or eye-poppingly bad cover art, quickly dashed-off blurbs on the back, and overwrought language. We tend to look fondly at great bodies of works because we skim the cream off the top of a deep latte grande. The books that remain on shelves month in and month out and are restocked become familiar to us while the overwhelming majority of books follow a revolving door and are consigned ignominious fates in temporary bargain bins and then on to dog-eared used book stacks or garage sales.

Editing has always been hit or miss and unevenly applied – it’s subjective anyway, as is taste. Stephen King’s “The Stand” was edited for length by the Accounting group and didn’t suffer for sales and is still considered the consensus fan favorite of his books. Many bestsellers face little editing and sell regardless, even though editing would have made them even better. Some literary books face heavy and agonizing editing and sell few copies, gaining only a wide mix of critical reviews.

I’m seeing more midlisters – good, solid, experienced authors – turning toward self-publishing because the industry is undergoing another change just as it has done decade in and out for well over a century. There have been upheavals and changes before, and no decade in publishing can really compare to any other.

What I also see is that there are few outlets for visibility for new authors, or midlisters who sell modestly. With the demise of Borders – after two decades of massive consolidation from publishing houses on down to the few big retailers, as well as shifts toward trade paperbacks to reclaim profitability in a middle ground while eroding mass market paperbacks – the truth is that many authors will see their books appear for perhaps a couple months at Barnes & Noble before being relegated to online sales until they fall out of print. There aren’t enough indie stores with enough shelf space to take enough chances on the volume of work produced each year, let alone maintain what already is capable of sustaining sales and business.

Promotion falls to authors for the most part in traditional publishing – other than a slim group whose sales keep profitability going and subsidize the majority of other authors.

Given the current landscape and barring an extremely rare happenstance of being tapped as one of that year’s limited promotion slots, many traditionally published authors get to do their own promotion and most sales will probably happen online due to limited appearance for a couple months in physical stores.

Self-published authors get to do their own promotion and most sales will probably happen online due to limited appearance for a couple months on consignment in indie stores.

As you note, indie authors need to distinguish themselves from the greater likelihood of more typos and grammar issues. As far as story editing – a lot of work in both traditional and self-published has never been burdened by a great need for tightening stories, developing characters, eliminating deus ex machina author interventions, Mary Sue protagonists, cliches, and factual mistakes. I can name bestsellers going back decades that have glaring faults in all these categories. The reason any book sells is sometimes intangible because it strikes the right notes at the right time with the right confluence of audience. Sometimes promotion creates a bestseller (and just as often fails). Often success begets success as long as such authors maintain their connection to readers and tastes – but these can slip from the grasp of even very talented authors.

Snooki was “validated” by the publishing industry because she would sell books. A lot of churned out genre whose author names never reach public awareness in the way King or Patterson or Grafton or many others have done also receive validation, for whatever it ends up being worth (not much for many authors, whose later works end up in different publishing houses or follow the self-published route). This is all simply reality although the debate often triggers resentment from both sides and accusations and recriminations.

Publishing has to focus on profitability since that’s key to its existence. Ditto for booksellers like Barnes & Noble and especially the indies. So the shift like you noted is toward more the guaranteed moneymakers while even the steady-but-modest authors may be better served in self-publishing, particularly since it no longer holds the stigma it once did.

(Sorry for the long comment – the blog post touched on some good points and I wanted to share my perspective, which aligns with and supplements many of the ones mentioned).

2 thoughts on “Traditional versus Self-Publishing

  1. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog post. I’m glad you thought it made some good points. Why a book sells does seem to be a very complicated issue. For me it makes me wonder how publishers choose which books to back, when seemingly it is so hard to predict what will succeed. How often they get it wrong and reject a would be best seller? Thanks again.

  2. To be honest, they get it right and wrong as often as investment managers pick the right or wrong stocks. And both publishing and investing have a mystique that hides the fact that just like with anything – it’s only people and their individual tastes and opinions.

    Generally, they do okay. But the system isn’t perfect, and it isn’t a meritrocacy. But then, nothing is.

    Books get rejected for many more reasons than simply quality or selling potential. And some with selling potential don’t receive promotion efforts that are directed toward other works for various reasons. The truth is, with the volume of books out there, publishers and agents will make “mistakes” but they can afford to because there is a guarantee there will be enough successes across a spectrum to make the whole worthwhile.

    Time constraints mean most rejections happen on the basis of a query letter; less often even on a very small writing sample of a few pages. That’s no different than the reality that companies screen people based upon resumes, often giving cursory looks for key words or something that strikes the right person reading the right thing at the right time. It isn’t “fair” but it’s the way things have to work given the time and effort available.

    It’s also the reason that many successes happen on the basis of an extra push from a referral, and quite a few simply are based on luck.

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