At a time when anyone can easily self-publish anything they want, many aspiring writers steer clear of the traditional publishing route, seeing it as somewhat of an unnecessary, even obstructive ogre blocking the way to a prospective career. In my observation and discussion with new and up-and-coming writers there seems to be two main reasons for this: first, that getting published through traditional means is much more difficult than self-publishing, and second, the return on investment is (at least initially) often very low (ie: the time and effort spent creating the work is far greater – perceived or otherwise – than the compensation it returns). Why then would someone bother pursuing traditional publishing when they can easily publish themselves?
Before giving my reasons why new writers should try traditional publishing, let me explain the difference.
Traditional publishing involves submitting a manuscript to a publisher for them to consider publishing. I’m not going to lie – it is a challenging world to break into, and not everyone succeeds. Though the degree of difficulty changes with the size and reputation of the publishing house you’re trying to convince to pick up your work, you’re often competing with hundreds, perhaps thousands of other writers at any given time. Even if you use an agent to represent you and your work, finding one that believes they can sell your story to a publisher is also a challenge as they are also receiving hundreds or thousands of submissions at any given time. Publishers and agents only work with writers who they believe can make them money, so not only does your writing have to be of a certain quality, your story has to be something they believe people are going to want to read. This is because when a publisher agrees to take on your work, they also take on the risk that people are going to pay for your work after they’ve paid for editing, proofing, cover design, marketing, printing and distribution, not to mention paying you for the right to publish your work. If people love your work and buy it, everyone wins. If they don’t, the writer still usually comes out somewhat ahead because chances are they’ve already received at least some form of compensation for their efforts.
Self-publishing, on the other hand, means that you can make your work instantly accessible without having any third party judge the quality of your work. You don’t have to worry about having to find someone who’ll accept it; you can just put it out there for the world to embrace. To get the world to find it though, you need to do the legwork: your need to edit it, format it, design how it looks, market it, and in some cases print and distribute it. You can pay other people to do some, if not most of this for you, and in some cases (like editing) it is wise to have a third party get involved, however the risk is ultimately all yours. Some writers have done extremely well through self-publishing. Many, many others, have not.
For my writing, I have to date only ever pursued the traditional publishing path. This has been a deliberate decision; though I have (and still am) considering options for self-publication, this far into my writing career I have stuck with traditional publishing for the reasons that I believe all new and aspiring writers should do so:
It can make you a better writer.
One of the best opportunities that pursing traditional publishing has created for me is having the opportunity to work with some really great editors. I don’t mean people who are very good at picking out spelling, grammatical, and style errors (though they are), but people who have an insight into how to tell a good story, how to get across to readers, and what people are looking for in the current market. Much of this is simply based on experience working with the market; they know what works (or what they can make work) because they’ve got a trial-and-error history behind them. Contrary to popular belief editors are not in the business of trying to shoehorn you into a mass-market mold (at least not all of them). A good editor will appreciate the things that make your storytelling unique, yet be able to work with you to show you how best to get your story into readers hands. It means you have to be open to having your work critiqued, and sometimes that isn’t pretty. Yet if you’re willing to do it, you can learn many lessons about writing that make it easier with every attempt you make.
When I landed my first professional-level paid contract, it was because I was lucky enough to have an editor that believed in my storytelling capacity, however recognised that my writing needed a lot of work in order to get it to the level that I wanted it to be at. They agreed to work with me if I agreed to accept their critiques. It was a challenge: when I got the first edit of my work back there was more red on the page than black! But it was worth it, and I like to believe it has made me a better writer going forward.
It’s a good way to establish yourself.
There’s a writing paradox that goes something like this: if you want an editor to notice your work, refer to other successful publications you’ve had. It’s a paradox because no one explains to you how you’re supposed to demonstrate successful publications if you haven’t been published. Even self published work won’t be ‘counted’ as successful publication unless you can demonstrate a large volume of sales.
Traditional markets can help with this. By having your work published by a traditional publisher, you’re establishing a credential; someone else has read your work and believed that it (and you) are marketable, that is, that there are readers out there that would be interested in your work. That can be the difference between having an editor/agent actually read your manuscript, assigning it to the ever growing slush pile, or simply rejecting it out of hand. Yes I know that sounds harsh, but it’s reality: again you have to understand that editors/agents are inundated with new manuscripts daily from people who believe they’ve got the next worldwide bestseller, and they just can read them all. You have a much better chance if you can demonstrate existing credibility (ie: that you’re publishable) than someone who is new, or self published without the sales to back it up.
What worked for me was finding a way in, then building myself up from there. I found my in through what’s called ‘vanity markets’ – markets that don’t actually pay the author but are willing to take limited rights to the work in order to publish it. A lot of people would straight away think, “no payment? what’s the point?” The point was after a couple of publications that I could refer back to when making submissions, my work started getting read by the editors of paying markets. As my writing ‘credentials’ built, so did my ability to get my work in front of editors of higher paying markets, until I finally broke into the professional rates market.
It gives you insight into the industry.
Writing may be a passion, a work of love, the way you connect to your real self, but publishing is and always will be a business. Like any business, there are many intersecting and collaborative parts which make up the whole, and for someone trying to break in to the writing world this can be a lot to figure out, much less get right.
Getting published through a traditional market gives you some insight into the writing industry. At a minimum you’ll get to work with an editor, which is a crucial part of the process no matter how you plan to get your work out into the world. However, you’ve also got the opportunity to learn about things like publishing schedules, target audiences, design and marketing, contracts, rights, and payments and much more. This can be an invaluable learning curve especially if at some future point you are determined to self publish your work; the knowledge and insight you’ll gain can be directly applied to your self publishing goals. Even if you don’t want to self publish at some point, knowing these things can help guide you in selecting which markets to submit to, what your work is worth, and how to reach the audiences you want to reach.
It lets you focus on writing.
When you work with a traditional publisher, the main thing you have to focus on is the writing. Whether it’s putting together the initial draft or working on edits and reviews, your job (with some assistance) is to get your story to the point where it’s publishable. After that, the publisher takes care of the rest (to be fair, you will probably be encouraged, if not expected, to participate in marketing your work, which is in your own best interest anyway) and you can concentrate on writing the next story. When you self publish, the writing is only one part – and perhaps not even the most significant part – of what you’ll need to do to get your work into readers hands. YOU are responsible for everything: the format, the layout, the edits, the proofreading, the cover design, the price setting, the marketing and the distribution are the minimum requirements to get your work out into the world. Even if you get assistance with some or all of these things, it still ultimately falls to you to make sure they happen. Suddenly, you’re not writing so much anymore because you’ve got all these other things to take care of.
For some people, that’s actually a perfect scenario because it does give you complete control over what you’re doing. However, for someone trying to break into the writing world in particular, that’s not necessarily a good thing. While many writers will maintain the importance of keeping “creative control” and not “selling out” – two commonly cited cons to working with traditional publishers – the fact is that having to do everything and be responsible for everything yourself is very daunting for the new writer, and even harder to get right. In the early stages of your career the main thing you want to focus on is your writing because that’s what makes you a better writer. The better a writer you become, the more in demand your work becomes, and that’s where you can start to exert more control over your work, either with a traditional publisher or by self publishing.
Understand I’m not saying self publishing is bad or less favourable than traditional publishing. The fact is it’s a challenging process, and not everyone will succeed at it. However, it’s my belief that for a new writer looking to get their work into readers hands (and surely, that’s why we want to be published in the first place) that pursuing the traditional publishing path offers far more benefits and more opportunity for growth as a writer, at least in the early stages of your career.