In the age of self-publishing, the advantages still lies with the book trade
“To write is human, to edit is divine.” –Stephen King
The advent of digital technology and e-commerce has affected virtually all walks of life, but it’s easy to make a case that the world of publishing was one of the first to feel the concept of ‘digital disruption’. After all, it was predicted that the launch of Amazon (in 1995) would herald the total transformation of the retail supply and distribution of publications, and furthermore, maybe even the demise of printed books themselves, especially given the company’s launch of eBooks a decade later.
It would appear that, in fact, human tastes are much more diverse and complex, evidenced by the plateauing of demand for electronic reading, as reported by the BBC last year.
One element that does appear here to stay is the phenomenon of self-publishing. Fuelled by reducing print costs, desktop publishing software, more agile production and most notably internet retail, self-publishing has grown from nothing to the point that, according to The Bookseller, sales of self-published e-books accounted for 22% of the digital book market in the UK last year.
It must be noted that the vast majority of this activity has centred around commercial writing, most notably fiction, with more and more people keen to write a ‘blockbuster’.
For those interested in sharing professional knowledge, as opposed to creating a chart-topping novel, it is worth examining the two main options that are open, the pros and con’s between using a professional publisher and making one’s own imprint by self-publishing.
Why use a professional publisher?
Stepping away from the ‘do-it-yourself’ ethos of self-publishing, lets quickly remind ourselves about the basic concept of publishing houses. These are many organisations that focus themselves on the production of all types of literature, prose and texts for sale in every sector, from retail fiction to academic works to business guides. The largest organisations (such as Penguin or Hachette) are known collectively as the ‘Trade Houses’ and are the source of more than half of the books published in the English language. Alongside these organisations are many hundreds of specialist trade and academic publishers, the majority of whom are looking for new authors and ideas. On place to find them is the Publisher’s Association website: https://www.publishers.org.uk/
It shouldn’t be a surprise that large publishing houses are successful at what they do, but it’s perhaps interesting to note that, when it comes to the chances of receiving a return for the time investment, only about 5 percent of all self-published books transition to commercial book publication. Of course, many authors don’t want to make that transition at all, but this is a timely reminder that there is a high supply of information in the crowded environment of the web and no automatic formula for recognition or sales. Indeed it seems likely that, once you persuade a publisher that your concept is sound, they offer a greater chance of seeing your concept come to fruition.
If you are to deciding how to realise your ambition of seeing your work in print, here are some key areas of help that can be offered by a publisher:
- Author support, technical and content advice
- Marketing reach
- Rights and protection
- Financial return
Let’s examine these in turn.
Writing a significant piece of work is a major undertaking. Self-publishing allows the freedom to control one’s own destiny, but the most significant part of the core appeal of any book is the value and assessment of quality that the potential reader or purchaser attributes to it. Publishing houses provide ‘second head’ guidance with their knowledge of what sells and how it could be presented.
Content advice and guidance
You may be sure your work has all the right information in it, but if, for example, you are writing a book on copyright law, a publishing editor can advise on books already available and what is not covered as well as providing useful contacts and sources to help with the writing.
Editorial checking and proofing
Sometimes it can be hard to stand back objectively and look at the fruits of your labour. Publishers offer impartial feedback on author’s drafts. Certainly writing something on your own can be a hard furrow and most self-publishers still have to seek a second opinion. In this respect publishers offer distinct advantages in that their advice comes from experienced staff. They won’t necessarily proof read every word but will bring the professional element to a manuscript that is so important for credibility and they will certainly provide overall editing, making sure the work is both well sequenced and optimised for the benefit of the reader.
Print and production management
Self-publishing has been driven by the new revolution in digital short run printing. This means, in general, the entry level costs to produce low volume of paper (not to mention digital works) has reduced. That doesn’t mean there isn’t production work still required (covers, page numbering etc.) to make the final version perfect. Professional publishers have bulk arrangements with printers in the same way and also can provide a wealth of production experience.
As the amount of both paid for and free information available online multiplies, making sure your work reaches the right target audience and is identified as a credible source is ever more important. By choosing to work with a publishing house you gain the instant advantage of the brand reputation of the publisher. Along with this, most publishers have extended networks enabling bookshop distribution – retail book sales in the UK alone are still worth around £1bn per year with steady growth projected for 2017 – marketing lists of interested customers (especially in identifiable professions such as tax and accountancy) to sell direct to well optimised websites. Most will also have good contacts with relevant press to try and obtain that all important review.
Rights and protection
With a truly global market for information today and technology allowing for all kinds of citation and duplication, so the protection of the integrity of the work of writers has become more complex. Publishers, such as Bloomsbury, are actively engaged in digital distribution, in a way which maximizes dissemination and protects rights holders. Here is what they do for their content and authors.
The publication Book Designer put it nicely:
‘Without a big publisher behind you, policing your copyright adds to your post-publication duties. If you’ve taken the steps to register your work, enforcing your copyright through the court system is a little easier. Often the difficulty comes in identifying that your work has been copied, but with a well-established community it’s likely one of your readers or supporters will spot the infringement and bring it to your attention. Then what?’ https://www.thebookdesigner.com/2013/03/5-top-legal-issues/
Making a return for your efforts
There are many reasons to write a text that passes on expertise to others. The joy of sharing that knowledge, the enhancement of professional reputation, or maybe the sheer personal challenge. However, realistically, most people harbour hopes of earning some financial reward for themselves or their organisation.
The world of high street fiction is highly volatile, many authors enter with the ‘get rich quick’ mentality, but the reality is that this is rare.
According to Forbes, the median income range for self-published authors is under $5,000 and nearly 20% of self-published authors report deriving no income from their writing. There is a contrast here with books marketed by traditional publishers which provided a median income range of $5,000 to $9,999.
Professional publishing is quite different, with a variety of different motives for producing the information. The payment models provided by professional publishers are varied, so it’s hard to draw direct comparisons. The principle to focus on here is if you think the publisher can increase your chances of first reaching published status and then receiving a respectable level of sales and awareness. If they say they can, this is likely to mean a greater level of success for all involved, based on a number of criteria that go beyond the financial.
The value of relationships
The joint goal of commercial success creates a win-win relationship between the author and publisher to ensure the book is of the highest quality and to promote it together.
For first time authors, the creation of a relationship with a publishing house also opens up the possibility of further releases. If your work proves to be popular and is about a topic where the environment is fast moving (such as legal or technical developments), there may be the opportunity to produce updated editions of the original text.
Perhaps this is the key to why, while self-publishing is here to stay, so many authors still choose to work with publishers, benefitting from the joint working partnership element, the sharing of experience and knowledge that ‘going it alone’ can’t provide.
Here’s more about what Bloomsbury offer:
We enjoy the business of publishing, and thrive on working with authors and publishing partners to devise a successful approach for each title we publish. Academic proposals are peer-reviewed before we commit to publication, to help ensure quality and to support the career progression of our authors. Our expertise and experience allow us to make quick decisions, and, when needed, to bring important ideas rapidly to a global readership. New technology provides many new paths to market.