Traditional Publishing vs. Self-publishing for Fiction Authors

by Ron Vitale

Susan Lohrer

Susan Lohrer

Today please welcome guest blogger Susan Lohrer. Susan is a contemporary romance author and in today's blog post she tackles the interesting (and sometimes controversial) subject of traditional versus self-publishing paths for fiction authors. Her latest novel is a romantic comedy entitled Over the Edge. Be sure to check it out and leave comments for Susan after the article below. Thanks!

With that all said, here is her article: 

For a novel to succeed in today’s market (whether traditionally published or self-published), four key elements have to be in place:

  • voice
  • cover
  • editing
  • marketing

First, what’s the definition of success for a novel? Let’s go with “earns money for the author.”

Your mind has probably gone straight to royalty payments, so let’s touch on that before we go further. In traditional publishing, an author typically earns a few percent of the publisher’s net profits from the book. Because net profit means publishing costs are subtracted before the author sees any payments, that can translate to a few pennies in the author’s pocket from the sale of each copy. In self-publishing, an author typically earns 60 or 70 percent of the sale price . . . which, since the author is responsible for all publishing costs (good cover artists and editors aren’t cheap), can amount to the same few pennies, at least until those initial costs are paid for; self-publishing, if you don’t recover that initial outlay, can actually end up costing the author money—something to keep in mind. I’m not saying that self-publishing a book is doomed to failure, because some people are earning a nice living through self-publishing; but there are certain elements common to a successful book, and usually those cost money. (Vanity publishing, in which an author pays many thousands of dollars to have a book published by a company that may be misrepresenting itself as a traditional publishing house, is another topic entirely, and we’re not covering that here.)

Now let’s compare how those four key elements of a successful book look depending on whether the book is published traditionally or by the author.

We’ll start with voice, not because it’s the first thing the reader sees, but because it’s the life blood of a book. The other elements can be changed at whim or contracted out, but voice is the only element completely dependent on the author regardless of publishing venue, and (to my way of thinking) it is the single most important aspect of any novel. Voice can grab the reader or it can turn the reader off. Voice is a culmination of word choices, the rhythm of each sentence, the unique way an idea is expressed; it’s the personality of the book. Whether it’s as generic as the voice of Nora Roberts or as unique as the voice of Stephen King, whether the book is published by one of the big traditional publishers or published by the author, a successful book has a voice that appeals to readers. That in itself sets a huge divide between traditionally published books and many self-published books, if only because a book with an unappealing voice usually won’t make it over the many hurdles on the way to being traditionally published.

Next is the cover. This isn’t a news flash, but people judge a book by its cover. A good cover draws a reader’s eye to one book in a sea of books vying for that reader’s attention. Here’s where we start to see the separation between self-publishing and traditional publishing. There are exceptions, of course, but typically a traditionally published book will have exactly the kind of cover that catches readers’ eyes. If the book is part of a particular subgenre, readers will know it at a glance (for example, Amish romance vs. teen paranormal romance); the cover will be attractive and well laid out, it’ll have appropriate typography, and it’ll look good at thumbnail size and in black-and-white. This is because traditional publishers use experienced cover artists. Big surprise, right?

Self-published books sometimes have fabulous covers. Usually these are covers that the authors have hired a professional cover artist to create. There are exceptions, of course; a few authors out there have mastered the skills needed to create a professional-quality book cover. And good for them. The problem for many self-publishing authors is that their perception of quality in their own cover design is a bit (or a mile) off the mark. And so readers never get the chance to see what’s inside because they see the cover and think, “Ugh, another one of those self-published disasters,” and they click instead on a professional-looking cover image. You can spot a bad book cover a mile away; it’s in the layout, the image choice, the typography, the level of skill with Photoshop. My advice for authors who want to design their own covers: ask several brutally honest people who read widely in your genre to critique your proposed cover before you publish the book—and listen to their suggestions.

And then there’s editing. Speaking as an editor (it’s been my day job for ten years), I promise you: every author needs an editor. There are no exceptions. Ever. When you read something you’ve written, your mind fills in what it expects to see, and so you don’t notice errors. Because of that, even editors need editors. If you’re self-publishing, you have to hire an editor. Oh, and your word processor’s spell checker can never take the place of an editor. Just try pasting this into Word and running your spell checker to see for yourself: “I halve sum stew dents knot inn to fining spelling and grandma miss takes cause there spell checkers did naught sea sum thing the madder with this send tense” (please forgive the deliberate lack of terminal punctuation in that sentence, by the way—spell checkers don’t notice missing periods, either).

Traditional publishers use several editors for each book: editors who help strengthen large- and small-scale story structure; editors who help tighten and polish each sentence; editors who know the difference between hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes. A big traditional publisher won’t blink twice at assigning five or six different editors to a book. How many errors have you ever found in a Dean Koontz novel? How many self-published novels have you read that had no errors? Think about that.

And so here we have editing as another divide between traditionally published books and many self-published books. Savvy self-publishing authors hire professional editors. Many self-publishing authors release books riddled with plot holes and peppered with spelling and grammar errors. You’ve probably seen one-star reviews complaining bitterly about typos and spelling and grammar errors; these are the books whose authors, for whatever reason, decided not to hire a professional editor. My advice for authors who are planning to self-publish: hire a professional editor who works in your genre and has impeccable recommendations (recommendations are important because anyone can say he/she is an editor regardless of skill or qualifications—and editing is a huge investment, so you want to be sure you get what you’re paying for).

Now for something that’s a little harder to quantify: marketing. Marketing used to be a tremendous bonus to being published by a traditional publisher. It still is, if your book is one of the lucky ones to receive those elusive extra marketing dollars that publishers spend to place the print edition of your book on a prominent end cap in every brick-and-mortar bookstore. The hard truth is that there are a handful of traditionally published authors who get that treatment.

For midlist authors and self-published authors alike, the bulk of the marketing falls directly in the author’s lap. Yes, traditional publishers will send out a few review copies and provide bookmarks for you to hand out, and they’ll push the book (along with their entire catalogue of books) to their list of booksellers and reviewers, so that’s a definite advantage over the author going it on his/her own. But a traditional publisher is all about its own bottom line (no surprise there, since it has to operate that way in order to stay in business), not about marketing your particular book. So when it comes right down to it, every author, whether traditionally published or self-published, is responsible for his/her own marketing. Nobody cares quite so much as you do about the success of your books—this makes you the perfect person to be in charge of marketing your book.

Marketing is much, much more than an advertising budget! Are you being positive and engaging with your readers when you’re online? Do you have a website dedicated to your books? Are you linking to your books/website in your e-mail signature? Do you write articles about writing or publishing? Every time you post on Facebook or Twitter, every time someone visits your website, every time you send an e-mail message, every time you write an article about anything related to publishing—every time any of those things happen, you’re marketing yourself and your books.

In a nutshell: The draw of traditional publishing in today’s world is mainly professional book covers and thorough editing, while the self-publishing author must pay for those things; and while traditional publishers do some marketing on the behalf of authors, it’s entirely possible (and advisable) to market your own books regardless of how they’re published. Your voice, however, is all yours, and if readers love your voice and you put the other elements in place, you’ll have fans for life.

Susan Lohrer is a contemporary romance author. Her latest release is a romantic comedy, Over the Edge. She believes life is always better with a healthy dose of humor.