Thankfully, there isn’t as much animosity between the self-publishing and traditional publishing worlds as there used to be — but it’s still an immense question as to whether whether self-published authors should, at some point, turn to traditional publishing.
Self-Pubbers Going Traditional
There have been numerous examples of highly successful self-published authors turning to traditional mainstream publishers for the next stage of their careers. Here are a few you might’ve heard about over the last several years:
James Oswald offered his first book free on Amazon, by way of a taster for his second book which was priced at £2.99. He sold 50,000 copies in a month and was snapped up in a three-book, £150,000 deal by Penguin – and I strongly suspect that, given Oswald’s subsequent and continuing success, Penguin would feel that they got a very good deal.
Kerry Wilkinson sold his first books at £0.99 on Amazon and shifted 250,000 copies in six months. He was offered a (remarkable) six-book deal by Macmillan that took his self-published work into print and extended the series to a minimum of six books.
And then there’s E.L. James. In terms of sales, James dwarfs pretty every other author who started out with non-traditional publishing contracts. She’s a bit of an odd case though because she never really self-published — instead, she took a kind of hybrid e-book/POD deal that wouldn’t have been offered by a more conventional publisher. Her subsequent sales, via Random House, were simply vast, breaking most international sales records and spawning a new ‘mommy porn’ genre.
The Cons of Going Traditional
Given that there are plenty of intelligent voices suggesting that conventional publishers have relatively little to offer self-published authors (examples here, here and here), there’s a real question about why anyone would want to shift from a self-published status to a more traditional one.
And that’s not a silly question.
To be clear about it, self-published authors have the following massive assets on their side:
They earn 100% of the net receipts from e-books.
That’s about 70% of the cover price. A regularly published author will not be entitled to more than a 25% share.
They have total control over every aspect of publication.
Self-published authors pick their covers, pick their editors, pick their page-designers, pick their marketing strategies. If they don’t like something, they change it.
They retain total control over copyright.
When a traditionally published authors sells his or her book, they are selling it. The publisher may well retain control over that book until the author is dead and his or her children too. (The exact arrangement will depend on the nature of any reversion clause, but historically those clauses have been written sharply in publishers’ favour.)
There’s nothing to stop self-pub authors selling subsidiary rights as they want to.
If you are self-published in the UK and want to sell your US rights to a big 5 publisher there, you can. If you want to sell audio rights, you can. If you want to sell foreign or TV rights, you can. You can do those things if you have a traditional deal too, but the point here is that you can be self-pub in one arena and still work with huge media conglomerates in any area where you feel your own reach would be insufficient.
The Pros of Going Traditional
Since those are rather significant advantages, and since the likes of Oswald, Wilkinson and James are hardly idiots, there must be some quite substantial advantages of the conventional route, too.
And there are, such as:
Access to print distribution
Even now, it remains the case that if you want your book to appear in bookstores – and to pick up the revenues that result – you will need a publisher on your side. Yes, you can achieve some kind of hyper-local distribution by working very hard yourself, but to get properly promoted in bookshops across the nation, you will still need a publisher.
Access to traditional channels of acclaim
This one is a little more in flux, but it remains the case in the UK that it is rare for self-published books to be taken seriously by reviewers. And more broadly: the kind of books that the chattering classes talk about are nearly always traditionally published ones – as though print still sheds a kind of glamour on the author. We don’t particularly welcome that fact – our view is that books should be judged on their merits, and that’s it – but we don’t get to set the rules. (Alas.)
Better access to foreign markets
As a self-published author, you can sell your work overseas without having a domestic publisher – but it’s a hell of a lot easier if you do have one. Partly that’s because you’ve already proved that one corporation has loved you enough to lay out a significant amout of cash for what you have to offer. And partly it’s because publishers are deeply nested in the whole foreign rights market. They, and agents, just have a depth of contacts that you can never acquire on your own.
Better access to film and TV markets
Listen: it’s actually relatively rare for fiction to get made into film, whether for the large screen or small. But when those things do happen, it’s much commoner for regularly published work get taken on. There’s just a halo of approval you get from a regular deal which just helps those film and TV deals happen.
An easy life
Yes, as a self-publisher you have total control … but you also have a hell of a workload, and that load gets bigger the more successful you become. Publishers do know how to market books and they will simply, at a stroke, relieve you of much of the burden. In effect, you acquire a professional and experienced support team with a few strokes of the pen on that contract.
Better financial outcomes than royalty figures suggest
It’s true that publishers pay authors only 25% of net receipts from Amazon and other e-sellers. It’ s also true that print royalties are pretty small (think about 7-10% on paperbacks). But remember that authors get advances, not just royalties, and – without getting too technical about it – if your book doesn’t earn out, then your de facto royalty per book will be far higher than those relatively modest amounts. And since most books don’t earn out their royalties, authors can do very well, even in comparison with the riches of successful self-pub.
The Future is Flexible!
You’d expect a site that helps writers find agents to argue that self-publishing was only ever a stepping stone to the real thing. We don’t actually believe that, however – and think that the future is likely to see many more hybrid authors emerging: authors who self-publish in one corner of their activities, and who publish conventionally in others. We also think that the relatively standard boilerplate of the average publishing contract is likely to become more flexible over time, so if there are elements of a regular deal you don’t like, there will at least be a sensible discussion over how to accommodate your preferences.
And we think the emerging world will be a better one for authors.
The ease with which any author can simply self-publish on Amazon will keep publishers honest. That’s great. The availability of other means of distribution will make publishers more humble and more flexible in their terms. That’s also great.
The ability for an author to choose how to publish is also wonderful. You want total control? Then have it. You want dedicated corporate support? Then that’s fine. You want one thing in one market, and another in another – then, fine, let’s talk about it.
And one simple and everlasting truth is this. If you can demonstrate, through successful self-publishing or simply a remarkably good manuscript, that your work can move readers, there are agents who want you.
And (of course) you can find all those agent profiles in our database here.
Whichever route you chose, whether that be self-publishing or traditional publishing: good luck!
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