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Traditional, Self-Publishing, and Hybrid – What Model is Best for You?

So, you’ve written a book. Congratulations! The hardest part is over… mostly. The next step is figuring out how to publish your book.

In this digital age, getting a book published is much easier than it was ten or fifteen years ago, as many authors are choosing to forgo traditional publishing routes and try self-publishing. It is important to note that both publishing avenues have their unique benefits and drawbacks, and deciding how to proceed is an individual decision with many factors to consider. Additionally, in the last few years, we’ve seen growth in “hybrid publishing” arrangements, which feature components of traditional publishing and self-publishing.

Which option is right for you? We’ve provided an overview of the different options to help you make this important decision.

Traditional Publishing

This model is what comes to mind when most people think of publishing. Usually an author, or his/her agent, will formally pitch a book (the manuscript itself or the book’s concept) to a publishing house. If the pitch is accepted, the publishing company purchases the rights to publish the book and enters into a contract with the author, which includes a royalty arrangement and, often, an advance, among other fine points.  The publishing house then essentially “owns” the book and is responsible for the actual publishing (hard copy, e-book, etc.) and distribution.

Pros:

  • There are no up-front costs, and authors usually receive an advance against royalties, which does not have to be paid back regardless of the book’s success.
  • Among the other types of publishing options, traditional publishing is still viewed as “real” publishing, a bit more legitimate than self-publishing. Some authors feel this gives them the most “street cred.”
  • Traditional publishers make it easier to get a book into a bookstore (though it’s never a guarantee).
  • Traditional publishing houses can offer authors an established, professional team to work with. Most authors just want to write, which makes working with traditional publishers more appealing because they handle a lot of the leg work (but this leads us to the first “con,” below).
  • Authors signed by major publishers have more access to literary prizes and critical acclaim. Independent authors often cannot even enter literary contests.

Cons:

  • The author relinquishes creative control with the book’s development as well as marketing. Once an agreement is signed, the publisher owns the book and everything inside it, including the front cover design. Once a contract is signed, the publisher owns the book, and they often own it for the life of the copyright which extends beyond the author’s natural life!
  • There is a lot of competition out there, so it is hard to get noticed and land a deal. Ideally, an author has an agent working on his/her behalf, which is also a challenge to obtain, and paying an agent can cut into any profit. If you are a new author without an existing audience, it is even harder to land a deal.
  • The process working with the big guys is often quite slow, and can take up to three years from start to finish.
  • The author has to share the book’s profits with the publisher, which always lands in the publisher’s favor. For example, many authors make only 7-15% of profits, and the publisher keeps the rest. Royalty rates are often quite low.
  • Publishers are increasingly pushing authors to do their own marketing work and have preference for authors who have existing audiences. This can be a challenge for unestablished authors and leads many wondering why they should bother to do all of the marketing work for a fraction of the royalties.

Self-Publishing

This model is exactly what it sounds like. The author is responsible for – and in charge of – all facets of the publishing process, from writing, to editing, to book layout, to distribution. Now, this doesn’t mean that the author does all of this work him or herself. Generally, a self-publishing author may pay an editor for editing services, and may also hire out the graphic design for the book cover, for example. Such freelancers can be affordable and the author is in charge of their work, where in the traditional publishing model, the publisher has the final say in almost everything.

There are also quasi-publishing companies that will offer all of these services to the author for a fee, and then turn the final product back over to the author for him/her to distribute and market. In this arrangement, no profits need to be shared, and authors can expect royalties up to 100%, depending on distribution channel (most channels take a cut). Self-publishing has exploded in recent years as many writers realize the ease at which they can turn their manuscript into a published book that is widely available for purchase.

Pros:

  • Authors retain all rights to the book.
  • Self-publishers have complete autonomy over the process, allowing for creative freedom and little restriction. Authors answer to no one about the book’s development, design, distribution, or marketing.
  • It can be a quick process, with a book being finalized as fast as the author (and any contracted help) can move.
  • This model allows for the flexibility of niche books, which traditional publishers are generally not interested in carrying.

Cons:

  • There is a lingering perception associated with “self-publishing” that these books are of lower quality, not written by “real” writers, etc. This emphasizes the importance that authors need to put into ensuring their final product looks sharp and professional. This means no clip art covers or typos. Nothing about the book’s cover or writing should appear amateur!
  • Book distribution can be a challenge. It will be nearly impossible for a self-published author to get his or her book carried by a major channel that distributes to big brick and mortar stores. The author is responsible for finding and managing all distribution channels from print to e-book.
  • The author is responsible for all marketing and advertising. There is always paid help for this, of course, but the work generally lands with the author who will quickly learn that successfully marketing a book can be a full-time job itself.
  • There are often out-of-pocket costs associated with hiring professionals to help with aspects of publishing that are not in the author’s scope of expertise. The better the professional, the higher the expense.
  • It can be time consuming to learn and manage the process from soup-to-nuts.
  • Often, it costs money to buy book reviews, ads, and other activities that will get a book noticed. Since a book can’t sell itself, an author should be prepared to fork over some cash, especially if he or she doesn’t have an existing audience.

Hybrid Publishing

This model is gaining in popularity as it is a balanced mix of self-publishing and traditional publishing. Not all hybrid publishing arrangements are the same and decisions are often made on a book-to-book basis. Generally, these publishers do not offer an advance, they get some percent of the royalties (often less than traditional publishers), they will help with editing and marketing, but often to a lesser degree than a traditional publisher. Depending on the company, some hybrid publishers can feel like a professional partnership, while others are just another iteration of a vanity press.

Pros:

  • Working with a hybrid publisher can create the image that an author has been “picked” by a publisher, thus giving him or her a bit more credit than self-publishing may.
  • Hybrid publishers are generally easier to land a deal with than traditional publishers.
  • Hybrid publishers can offer more flexibility than traditional publishers when developing a contract.
  • Hybrid publishers will help with book distribution.
  • Hybrid publishers often work faster than traditional publishers, and can have a book to market in less than a year.
  • Working with a hybrid publisher can feel more like a partnership than working with a traditional publisher. This is because authors are usually given more creative freedom and are more involved in the entire process than they are when they sign with a big publisher.
  • Hybrid publishers offer support and expertise that isn’t always available to self-publishers. This can make the entire process less daunting.

Cons:

  • Some hybrid publishers charge an up-front fee, though authors often receive a higher royalty split than they do with traditional publishers.
  • Some hybrid publishers will try to retain copyright or other rights to the book.
  • Authors are often expected to do a lot of the legwork, including marketing.
  • Authors often do not get an advance, or if they do, it is small.
  • It can be challenging getting a book into bookstores through a hybrid publisher.

It never hurts to talk to fellow authors and learn from their experiences. You will see that one arrangement is not necessarily better than another, and a lot depends on what you hope to achieve when your book is published and how much time, energy, and money you have to put into the process and the book’s success. Happy publishing!

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