To Publish or to Self-Publish… That Is The Question

Here I am, another week on, not a single AZ-related blood clot in sight. All is well.

I’m no expert on the various paths to publication (of which, it’s worth noting, there are more than two), but given I’m hoping to talk a little more about my own publishing journey over the coming weeks and months, I thought this was worth a slightly deeper dive.

(And this does go quite deep, so apologies in advance. If it ain’t your thing, tune in again next week, where I’ll be back on my self-indulgent ramblings).

Being traditionally published and self-publishing are two very different beasts, and each one has its own selling points and pitfalls.

Even slapping them at either ends of a spectrum I feel is a bit misleading, as both of them are quite broad churches, and some routes into publishing occasionally blur the boundaries a bit (I’m thinking indie presses, mainly).

I thought I’d walk you all through the pros and cons of each as I’ve encountered them, and what’s different on each side of the fence.

Getting Your Break

Getting hitched with a publishing company isn’t a straightforward task. A couple of the big’uns accept submissions for completed manuscripts fairly painlessly – you just fill in an online form with your basic information and a couple of questions, and then attach the document. Easy peesy.

At the time of writing, the only major publishers I know of who do this are Pegasus and Austin McCauley.

For most others, though, you cannot go direct to a publisher and get them to pick you up.

What you need is a literary agent.

A literary agent works in the same way an actor’s or general showbiz agent does – indeed, many agents and agencies combine the two, representing authors as well as actors. An agent handles all your professional dealings as an author, saving you from having to do that stuff yourself and letting you carry on writing. But most importantly, once an agent has reviewed your work and agreed to rep you, they will attempt to hook you up with a publisher who’s interested in putting your work out there.

An agent isn’t involved in the process itself – it isn’t their job to edit, design or market your work – but they will handle the business side of getting in print. While you’re writing, they will negotiate contracts with the publishing house, arrange publicity, and in some cases, handle rights to adapt your work for the screen.

Getting repped by an agent, frustratingly, isn’t a simple job either. Most agents and literary agencies get inundated with thousands of submissions each year. Some agencies will have one address that all prospective work is sent to. Others have several agents working under their name, each with their own list of topics they want to represent, and it’s your call which you choose.

Numerically, the odds aren’t particularly in your favour. All you can really do is polish whatever work you submit to them, and make sure it’s the best it can be.

This is something that draws people to self-publishing in a big way. For self-publishers, this first hurdle, this gatekeeper, simply isn’t there. The consequence is that many readers turn their noses up at self-published work, believing it to be somehow of inferior quality.

This is complete crap, but it brings me neatly onto…

Editing

If you’re being traditionally published, you’ll work with an in-house editor (or editors) who will go through your manuscript with fine-tooth combs, pointing out what works, what doesn’t, and how the latter can be made into the former.

As any creative soul who’s ever put any work out there and received some honest feedback will tell you, this process is painful as hell. Some people literally never learn how to deal with it in their lives, which can be disastrous for a creative career.

But you’ll make the revisions as you’re directed, because the publisher holds itself to a certain standard. Because your final published project is a reflection of them, they don’t want to be associated with a sub-par piece of work.

For a self-publisher, there is no-one to crack this particular whip for you. This can be a good or bad thing, however, and it’s where people’s prejudice towards self-published work can come from. There is a lot of polished, well-written fiction on self-publishing platforms out there… and a lot of slapdash, unedited rubbish as well. One very easily tarnishes the other.

Most self-publishing authors – myself included – instead hire freelance editors and proofreaders to do this work for you. Editing can take the form of copyediting – digging down into sentence structure, readability and continuity errors – while a developmental edit actually analyses the content, seeing what works and doesn’t with your characters, plot or whatever.

A self-publisher can pay for these services, receive honest feedback, and then implement as much (or as little) of it as they want. Although the quality of the finished project may well affect sales, the ball is very much in their court.   

Publishing

And here, we come to the nitty-gritty part of the process. For a traditionally published author, you won’t have to sweat this stuff at all – you’re working with a publisher, after all. This is quite literally their job, and they’ll do it well. They’ll format and print your work in a professional, readable format, using appropriate and accessible fonts, and make sure that the end result looks something a reader could easily pick up.

For a self-publisher? Not quite. As the protagonist of Legion That Was is fond of remarking, all that shit will fall on your shovel.

…Well, not entirely. The exact process – and how much help you can get – will differ depending on the platform you’re using to self-publish. For Amazon, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) comes with a fairly comprehensive set of guides and videos, which can at times be unclear, but is generally quite comprehensive.

YouTube, in particular, can be your friend here, as several AuthorTube channels have video guides dedicated to this very topic – I found David Stewart’s guide to formatting a paperback for KDP incredibly useful, for instance, but nobody’s perfect, so don’t forget to always check against the platform’s own guidelines.

Generally, you’ll have to think about things like page size, font choice, setting up margins and gutter, as well as getting your headings and paragraphing right.

That list isn’t exhaustive, but I don’t want to cover everything. I just want to give you a broad overview of what you’d need to think about. This isn’t meant to sound alarming, either – once you get your head around the guidelines and watch a few tutorials, it’ll all seem a lot easier.

In short, it’s the difference between looking like this:

…And looking like this:

Some people may like having that bit more control over the process. Others may feel better leaving it to someone else. When you’re choosing how you want to publish, it’s all worth thinking about.

There are some freelancers online who can perform all these services for you, for a price. But given how many other charges are incurred through self-publishing (more on this later), I’d advise you to avoid the hassle if possible, especially when the skills involved aren’t particularly hard to master. If Vijay the luddite can teach himself to do it from the internet, then so can you.

Marketing

Whatever route you take into being published, marketing is fundamental. You could write the greatest story (n)ever known to man, but if you haven’t generated any interest in your work, no-one will even realise it’s there.

For self-publishers, if you want to make money, then knowing how to market can be the be-all and end-all for your writing career. On a site like Amazon, you cannot simply walk between shelves and browse (unless you’re looking at adverts or ‘recommended’ books, which require your work to have been reviewed enough times by other customers). You need to know what you are looking for.

An author that is traditionally published may get some help on the marketing from their publisher – it’s one of their products, after all, and they’ll make some effort to help sell copies. But don’t expect them to shoulder the lion’s share of the effort. They have thousands of other books they also need to shift, and especially if you’re a first timer, they won’t consider you a special case. Some companies may even want you to have a marketing plan already.

So, even before you’re in print, it’s important to build yourself a platform.

You can do this by setting up ‘official’ social media pages for your author’s persona (I’m thinking, pages rather than accounts on sites like Facebook), or even an author website, and talk a little about your work and what you’re doing.

I’m literally writing this blogpost as part of mine. Given I’m not going to be in print for a good few months, I need a way to keep people engaged – so I write a post every week, talking about the novel, me, or the process. With the odd joke or meme on social media in between.

Jury’s still out on how it’s going, but little by little, the hitcount rises. My Facebook and Twitter get gradually more likes/follows. And when the novel comes out, those are all potential customers.

There are several pros to all this. For one, writing is a fairly lonely activity, and creating and networking with your following can be a nice way to meet like-minded readers (or writers). Secondly, having a decent online following can make you seem more palatable as an author, either to a prospective buyer of your book or even to an agent or publisher thinking about working with you.

Again, you can pay people to help with this stuff. But fundamentally, the basics of it have to come from you. No-one else knows your work as well as you do.

Availability

Even with all the marketing in the world, you still have to think about how your work can be accessed.

For a traditionally published book, this won’t be a big deal. Your book can be stocked in multiple bookshops (and good publishers will have deals with several chains), although the number of copies stocked and their eminence in the shop displays is at the shop’s discretion, not yours. They may also have online retail, which is another avenue entirely.

Things are more complicated for self-published authors, and again, you’ll have to do some spadework yourself. Things can differ depending on the platform, but quite a few of them only sell online, some may only sell paperbacks/hardbacks/eBooks, etc.

Of course, you can put your novel on multiple platforms if you want, and each one makes your work more available. But each platform may well have its own rules around publishing, formatting and the like, and each time that’s a lot more work you’ll have to do.

After much deliberation, I chose to put Legion That Was on just one platform – KDP. I reasoned that if I was going to choose one, then I would choose the biggest and most available one there is. When it is published, anyone with an Amazon account or the Kindle app can purchase it, either in paperback or as an eBook.

And annoyingly, some platforms restrict where else work can be available. KDP, for instance, can let you publish on other platforms, but only if you pay to acquire your own ISBN number, rather than the free one Amazon gives you. I would have liked to go on others – in particular, Ingram Spark, as they have a very good track record on getting their work into bookshops – but I was deterred by the cost, so in the end I opted not to.   

In Conclusion

Wow, this blogpost got very formal, very quickly. I thought my days of writing essays were behind me. *shudder*

As I’ve shown across multiple different facets, on the whole, traditional publishing can allow you to focus more on just your writing, taking some of the worries off your plate (editing, actual design, the commercial side of things etc).

The downside to that is exclusivity – it’s harder to get into a traditionally published situation. You also lose a little freedom. While you get those positives, you may not necessarily get much say in them. It’s their way, essentially, or the highway. Unless you make serious money off your writing, and/or are a returning author who’s a proven and reliable commodity, that situation is unlikely to change.

While in the other corner, a self-publisher has no-one to answer to but themselves, and within the range of what’s allowable on their self-publishing platform, anything goes. Of course, they’re 100% responsible for their own content, and may have to cater to what will and won’t sell, but ultimately the level of editing, production design, cover art and simply content is all theirs to decide.

But then, as a self-publisher, you may well have to shell out money for lots of things a publishing company will throw at its author for free – access to good editing, cover art design, and various other professional services. As I’ve found over the last few months, good editors aren’t cheap, nor are good cover designers. And people always, always, judge a book by its cover.

What attracted me to self-publishing, more than anything, was the freedom. Beyond what I’ve talked about already, I liked the idea of being able to write whatever I wanted (albeit, with a little freelance help to polish it and make it sellable) and simply put it out into the world. I’m enjoying writing novels at the moment, but I hope to do other things too; short stories, for instance, that I can just release online as and when they’re done, or slap into an anthology for a physical copy.

I didn’t want to worry about whether some publisher would think my work could or couldn’t sell, or be worth investing their time or money into. I can do what I want, but the burden is all on me.

I also didn’t feel like being locked into a publishing contract, either, which is something I had to consider as the author of (what will hopefully be) a fairly long novel series. I didn’t want my editor to turn around at Book III or IV and say ‘sorry, old sport. The last few books haven’t sold enough copies. Maybe try writing something else, dear.’

But generally, there is no right or wrong answer in this debate. It all depends on the preferences, or circumstances, of the writer in question. Different strokes for different folks, as they say.

Although, as Peep Show taught us, if a publisher ever tries to take your money in return for printing your work…

Just run.

Run very far.

Don’t be Mark.

Until next week ❤

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