Traditional Publication vs. Going It Alone

Last week’s RWA conference was a wonderful event, featuring workshops, panels, parties, pitches, meetings and more. There were writers at every stage of their career, from newbies working on their first novel to multi-published pros who have been in the business for decades. There were editors from the major New York publishing houses, as well as from small presses and electronic publishers. And most everyone was weighed down by this year’s red-and-white conference tote bag, loaded with books they had acquired at the literacy signing, in the goody room, from publisher giveaways, or at the conference bookstore. That’s right. Books. Actual paper books.

Yet the most common questions I received during the conference focused on digital publishing, and most specifically the rise in self-publication in that format. I had authors ask if I thought traditional publishing was on the way out, whether I feared for my career, and why anyone should bother following the standard route to publication. And I kept turning around in circles, looking at all the books piling up around me, most from major New York publishing houses, and wondered if I was the only one who saw the disconnect.

Digital publishing is here to stay. So is self-publishing. They are both viable aspects of the marketplace. However, the existence of e-books does not negate the importance or appeal of the more physical format. Plenty of people still want hard copies of their books. They love filling their bookcases with beautifully bound volumes, enjoy having matched sets of their favorite series, and want something they can read on an airplane while taking off or landing. After a day at the beach, it’s far easier to dust sand out of your paperback than out of your e-reader, and few people are brave enough to carry their Kindle into a bubble bath. E-books are portable, environmentally friendly, space savers, and a great way to try out new authors at lower price points. And for some readers, they are sufficient. But for others, they are merely an additional way to enjoy their preferred reading material, not a replacement.

Self-publication, likewise, is a positive addition to the publishing marketplace, but it is by no means poised to eliminate publishers as we know them. Not all writers wish to self-publish. Not all writers want to invest the time and energy self-publishing requires above and beyond the act of writing the book.

Imagine, if you will, that there are no more physical bookstores. That all the traditional publishers have vanished. You, as a writer, have self-published your book, in digital format, because that is now the only format. How do readers find you? How do they sort through the thousands of other writers who are also producing new digital books every day? It’s fine if you manage to hit the list of top-selling books on any given e-retailer’s site, or if you find a way to get a promotional slot on the front page, but what if you don’t? How does an unknown writer make themselves known in an entirely digital, self-published arena?

There are ways to break out of obscurity, of course. Writers have done it. They develop blogs of their own, with witty posts and high traffic, and visit the blogs of other writers and book reviewers. They host contests and drawings. They haunt social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter and put considerable thought into their marketing campaigns long before they release their books. But as the field grows more crowded, it will become harder and harder to get noticed.

Many of the most successful self-published authors are authors who started in traditional publishing, and who already have a ready-made audience. They are self-publishing backlist that has gone out of print, or writing new material to self-publish in addition to their traditionally published works. They frequently do so with the assistance of their agents or another entity in order to have a partner in the process, someone to arrange for formatting and cover art and to help with promotion. And a number of debut authors who gained a measure of fame and success in the self-publishing arena have signed on with agents and major publishing houses in order to take the burden of marketing partially off their shoulders. They would rather devote the bulk of their time to writing their books.

Publishing as an industry is going to continue to change and shift and morph, but at the end of the day, I believe we will settle on a system that offers writers a combination of formats and venues for getting their work in front of readers. Some authors will choose to work entirely with major publishers and some will self-publish, but the majority, I suspect, will fall somewhere in the middle, making the most of all their opportunities. And as always, success in publishing will come down to a combination of hard work, talent, timing, and luck.

9 thoughts on “Traditional Publication vs. Going It Alone

  1. Well said, and I agree. I don’t understand why most writers want to draw an invisible line in the sand and stand on one side. Isn’t there room for everyone? If you want to self-publish, go and do it. If you want to try the traditional route, go and do it. The sky isn’t falling. The landscape is merely changing. Sometimes change comes slowly. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the publishing industry can’t change in one either. Give it time.

    People will always want books. Period. Granted the amount of books may decline some, but there will still be books in some shape or form. The bottom line is good writing will stand out.

    “I believe we will settle on a system that offers writers a combination of formats and venues for getting their work in front of readers.” Couldn’t agree more. Great post Nephele. I love it when agents get candid!

  2. Your post is completely on target. I love the feel, the weight of a book in my hand. I love the crispness of each page, the way it smells. I still buy my favorites authors in print. I keep them and plan to keep them until it is time to pass them on to a family member who will cherish them as much as I do.

  3. Exactly my thoughts as well. Just like there are many ways to write a novel, there are many ways to get it in front of readers. The best way will be different for different authors!

    (and on a frivolous note, I do take my Kindle into the bath, sealed in a clear bag with an airtight clip. This is as nothing compared to my husband, who takes his Macbook Pro in with him. Admittedly he just puts it on top of the toilet lid so he can watch tv while he wallows, but it still gives me heart palpitations to see a very expensive laptop swathed in clouds of steam…)

  4. I’m done with paper books because I have no room for them in my house. Also, I can’t read them in the dark, like I can the books on my iPad. 🙂

    I like the fact that authors have more choices now. I’m still trying to get traditionally published, but there’s a part of me that wonders if I wouldn’t make more money going the self-publishing route.

    I’m wondering if we’ll see more publishers branch out and start selling books directly to consumers, the way the digital imprints are. No reason they shouldn’t take a bite out of Amazon’s pie.

  5. You showed such a fair balance between the blustery trend of e-publishing and the tactile, “pride of ownership” factor found in paper books. This line was especially gripping to me: “Many of the most successful self-published authors are authors who started in traditional publishing, and who already have a ready-made audience.” It’s certainly intriguing that authors would choose to do this. Yet there’s such an “all-in” approach to book digitization that it might prove a curiosity or a challenge to authors who’ve already established themselves in their respective media. Thanks for this post!

  6. I’m impressed with this calm, common sense perspective on the situation. I agree that most writers will find the best options for them individually. What will work for one won’t work so well for another.

    As a writer, I am grateful for the expansion of publishing. As a reader, though, I will always want a physical book to hug. 🙂

Comments are closed.