Traditional vs Self-Publishing: An Update (Part One)

This is an update of a presentation and blog I put together three years ago and have revised once since then.

But, as Bob Mayor says, we have cycled through the first three years in digital publishing, and lots of things have changed, so I think it’s time for a new update.

This is going to be long, so I’ll put it up in several parts. Welcome to Part One.

First off, here is part of a comparison chart I created 3 years ago —I’ll use it as a general outline.

Pros Cons







Ebook Rights and Pricing

Delay in reporting and payments

Smaller advance/print runs

Limited time/shelf space

Hinky contracts

Possible Bankrupty

Accounting irregularities


Publishing today is all about control. Increasingly, authors have it, chiefly those who have chosen to self-publish. But traditional publishing is trying to hold on to as much of it as possible, and it’s had a huge effect over the past three years.

For example. the support I mentioned three years ago, primarily in marketing, has all but disappeared. Authors understand that, with a few exceptions—those being best-selling authors—they are responsible for most of their promotion.


More important than support, however, is a new issue: visibility (sometimes called “Discoverability.”) And, with the glut of books on the market, it is the key issue today, for both traditional AND indie authors. How do authors reach readers and get a book in their hands? Traditional publishing is finding the old methods still work, up to a point—again for best-selling authors. But mid-list authors who are traditionally published have to slog through a difficult, time-consuming, social media black hole themselves. Traditional publishing doesn’t offer a lot of support for them. And the problem is that if you don’t make a splash in traditional publishing right out of the gate, you may not have another chance.

Recently, (over the past few months) traditional publishers have been using the same promotion sites that indie authors have used for years. I also see traditional publishers taking the co-op money that once went to the chain stores, and making deals with Amazon and the other e-tailers for pre-orders, online promotions, and discounts on sales. And, of course, because their coffers are deeper than indie authors’, they have a broader reach.

At the same time, though, the number of ARCs being distributed by traditional authors is down, and the number of traditional review sources dwindles daily. And indie authors are becoming more sophisticated at distributing ARCs and seeking reviews. So I think the jury is still out on Visibility/Discoverability. I’ll have more to say about this later.

Like Discoverability, other issues have emerged over the past three years that some feel are not in authors’ best interests. Interestingly, those issues weren’t even on the charts three years ago.


Bob Mayer (Cool Gus) says he is contacted by bestselling authors all the time. They pick his brain about self-publishing, but they can’t do much more than complain, because their digital rights are tethered to their publishers. Which means that, except for a couple of authors like Hugh Howey and John Locke who did manage to keep their digital rights, most authors are trapped.

It’s a huge issue, and Mayor theorizes it was the motivation behind Scott Turow’s, the Authors Guild President, defense of traditional publishing. And why James Patterson resorted to a full page ad in the New York Times Sunday book review to  “maintain the status quo!”  The “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” tactic. (Btw, make sure to read Kris Rusch’s blog on what Patterson got wrong. Apparently, a lot.)

Curiously, Patterson is essentially his own publisher anyway, and Scott Turow makes good money from his writing. Which makes me wonder what would happen if these two decided they didn’t want to be locked into past and future contracts, especially where their backlists are concerned. They certainly could make a lot of noise.  I‘m waiting.


We know advances have dropped, some by more than 50%. Part of this is due to belt-tightening by the big publishers. But print runs are down and ebook sales, which are capturing more of the market than ever before, aren’t compensating authors for the downswing.

Another problem, although it’s not a new one, is that ebook royalties are around 25% of the 70% publishers earn from most e-tailers. Smaller publishers (like mine) tend to give their authors a better deal—some actually split the royalties 50-50. But it’s got to be incredibly frustrating for authors whose work is published traditionally to see their self-publishing counterparts getting the entire 70% royalty.

There is an opportunity here, though. Seems to me an astute agent could make a difference by negotiating better a royalty rate for their clients’ ebooks. I hope they do.


It used to be that traditional publishing had it all over self-publishing when it came to distribution. Ingram, Baker and Taylor, and others made it possible for a book to be widely available in a variety of venues. That’s still the case, except that the pool of venues is shrinking. Borders is gone, B&N is a shadow of what they used to be, and indie bookstores are both closing and seeing a renaissance, depending on their niche.

This isn’t the case online, where everyone is on a level playing field, more or less, although the Big Six are now setting up book curating sites where readers can read or purchase books directly from them. Not to mention the self-publishing companies like Author Solutions, which Penguin gobbled up, and about which David Gaughran has some things to say.

But Jeremy Greenfield, who writes for Digital Book World, just recently conjured up a nightmare scenario that bears repeating.  After taking a tour of Ingram, with all its incredible facilities and equipment, he posed a question: What If Barnes & Noble stores disappeared tomorrow? Would Ingram and similar large publishers still need such high tech facilities to pack and distribute books? What if Books-a-Million went under? Or a few hundred indie bookstores bit the dust?

His point is this: if 5% of bookstore shelf space disappears next year, it will probably affect the bookselling business by around 5%. But if 50% of it goes and companies like Ingram and Baker & Taylor decide it doesn’t make commercial sense to offer the same level of distribution to the remaining 50%, what happens to retail shelf space?

On the bright side, forward-thinking publishers who have migrated to ebooks and digital publishing will be more insulated than those who have not.

Ok, folks. This is already too long… there’s a lot to say! So come back next week when I tackle more pros and cons of traditional publishing.