Ep 12: Self-Publishing vs Traditional Publishing

Join us as we discuss the differences between self-publishing vs traditional publishing.

In today’s publishing landscape, self-publishing is a viable option and even helps with landing traditional publishing deals. We discuss the differences between the two routes including how to go after a traditional publishing deal, control, financial expectations, typical sales, marketing support, formats, and determining whats right for you.


Robin Cutler [00:00:08] Hi, everyone. Welcome to Go Publish Yourself, an IngramSpark podcast. This episode is sponsored by the Independent Book Publisher Association, IBPA. It is the largest publishing trade association in the U.S., leading the indie publishing community through advocacy, education, and tools for success. IngramSpark publishers receive a free three-month trial membership as a special offer from IBPA. Hi everyone, I'm Robin Cutler, the Director of IngramSpark, and also a former independent publisher myself.

Justine Bylo [00:00:44] And I'm Justine Bylo, and I manage the Author Acquisitions Program here at Spark. How are you, Robin?

Robin Cutler [00:00:50] I'm good. I'm really excited about our episode today, Justine. This is something that we get asked about a lot, which is, what's the difference between self-publishing versus traditional publishing?

Justine Bylo [00:01:04] Oh, yeah, this is a really, really big question, and actually one that's really important to many of our authors and publishers.

Robin Cutler [00:01:14] We're really excited today to be joined by someone who knows both self-publishing and traditional publishing, really well, and someone that we know very well.

Justine Bylo [00:01:24] Oh, yes.

Robin Cutler [00:01:26] Kelly Gallagher, who's the Vice President of Content Acquisition for Ingram Content Group. Welcome, Kelly.

Kelly Gallagher [00:01:33] Hey, how you guys doing? Glad to be on your show.

Justine Bylo [00:01:36] Thanks for joining us today, Kelly. We're really excited to have you.

Robin Cutler [00:01:40] Kelly, give us the big picture, the high-level view of the difference, just basically, the difference between traditional and self-publishing.

Kelly Gallagher [00:01:54] Sure, what's really interesting is, at the end of the day, we're publishing books, and we're putting them out into the broader marketplace. In fact, the definition of publishing, if you look it up in the dictionary, it says, "to make words publicly known." Whether it's an author "DIYing" it themselves, or working through a traditional publisher, the concept around publishing is pretty much the same. As it relates to how we work with an actual publisher versus doing it yourself, there's all kinds of trade-offs. The whole idea around having a professional company publish a book, certainly has its benefits related to things like marketing and editorial. But in the end, if you've got connection to a reader, you really can look at this as one of two options, not the only option today.

Justine Bylo [00:02:55] That connection to the reader is so important. And as a writer myself, really why we do this, right?

Robin Cutler [00:03:02] You're closer to this, Justine, but don't most authors that you deal with, isn't traditional publishing still the holy grail where you have this team of professionals, like Kelly was just talking about, who actually bring your book to the market?

Justine Bylo [00:03:19] That is still very much the pinnacle for many, many authors. But that's also starting to change a little bit, in my opinion. I work with a lot of very talented authors who either do a mix of the two, or choose one path or the other that they feel is best for them. And that's what's kind of really cool about today's publishing landscape, is that we actually do have those choices.

Kelly Gallagher [00:03:48] I always think it's one of those things where you have to sit down and create the list of what your needs and expectations are. From a financial standpoint, if you have the wherewithal and can publish, and again, have that connectivity to readers, your profitability is always going to be better when you're self-publishing. If you have unlimited time and resources, and/or not necessarily a good friend to do the editing for you, but you've got a great story in concept, you may need a professional organization that can help with that. But again, it's just about the time, the resources, and what you're willing to put into it. But really, you can look at it as a both/and, or really not feel like you have to go one way or the other.

Justine Bylo [00:04:40] One of the things that I've been hearing a lot is that my authors who are what we call, hybrid authors, so they have both traditional publishing deals and then also self-publish. They really like the traditional publishing deals because it gives them really good marketing exposure and helps them build their reader platforms. But then to your point, Kelly, the self-publishing, they make a little bit more money, they say. And so, the traditional deals help them build their reader platforms, and then the self-publishing helps bolster their sales. And so, the two go hand-in-hand with each other, which is really kind of fascinating.

Kelly Gallagher [00:05:21] Right.

Robin Cutler [00:05:22] Okay, so let's just dig in to this, the bottom line for most authors making it. And to be honest with you, a lot of authors have difficulty getting traditional publishing deals, right? So, let's talk about how one goes about getting, or at least, looking at that as an option. Where would they start, Kelly?

Kelly Gallagher [00:05:48] The reality is, the first place that most authors think is that they need to acquire an agent. I would say that's true, but really only in some more limited cases that would be focused on the potential to publish with a large publishing house. And when I say large, one that's well-known and respected. The reality is that most publishing houses, from the mid-size publisher to the smallest publisher, they work, still today, on unsolicited manuscripts. I would dispel one of the myths that you have to work with an agent. I would say, perhaps on your second book, perhaps if you've achieved some level of success, or if you have a strong platform, you might look at going the agent route. But that's something you don't necessarily have to go with at first. But again, it's a lot of heavy lifting to promote your manuscript. There are some services that will help you with that, but by and large, it's still trying to get the attention of the editor in a traditional house with all that goes with it, both filling out, in many cases, their application, and sending samples of your work. It's still quite an effort. I heard a number quoted before that on average it costs about between $25 and $50 per submission.

Justine Bylo [00:07:20] Wow.

Robin Cutler [00:07:22] Yes.

Kelly Gallagher [00:07:23] For any author that's trying to get known in an unsolicited manuscript way. But I would say, for many of our authors listening out there today, the agent route is probably not going to be the route unless, again, you meet some of those early requirements.

Justine Bylo [00:07:40] And those mid-size houses that you were talking about, they're putting out really fantastic work, just so people are aware, really great books.

Robin Cutler [00:07:53] Yeah, and winning awards. And Justine, you know this very well, and you mentioned the hybrid authors. This is a very fluid space today with authors and their choices. We have a number of authors within IngramSpark, who have been traditionally published, that come to us now to help them self-publish. And then we've had a number of authors who have kind of risen up through IngramSpark and through their own self-publishing efforts,

Justine Bylo [00:08:29] Yeah.

Robin Cutler [00:08:30] Into a traditionally published deal.

Justine Bylo [00:08:31] Yeah, that happens all the time, actually.

Robin Cutler [00:08:34] Yeah.

Justine Bylo [00:08:36] It's a good way to get noticed. If you have really great sales through self-publishing, all of a sudden these agents and publishing houses kind of take notice, and they say, "Oh, we want that."

Robin Cutler [00:08:47] And we've had a number of authors who have been courted by the Big Five, and they've actually chosen to stay self-published because they do like the control over their own work.

Justine Bylo [00:09:00] Yeah, the control is probably what we hear most as the reason to stay. But then some of them do go, and that's a great choice for them. They have to make the choice that's best for them and their book.

Kelly Gallagher [00:09:12] I would say, again, a level setting expectations. When the book is done you feel like you have finally arrived. And in some cases, you're just at the forefront of starting. Which is why I think, with programs like IngramSpark and some of the other really good publishing services out there for authors, that give you immediate access into the global marketplace. It's a place worth starting because you can really understand what the viability is of your title. And then I would say, the next thing you really need to focus on is to do your homework. While we get a little starstruck, like Robin mentioned, the Big Five, there are probably, believe it or not, over 10,000 of these mid-size publishers that are doing multiple titles every year, that probably would be willing to take a look at a well-written book submitted by you. And so, there's a lot of homework you have to do to kind of mash yourself up, kind of like the dating apps, I suppose. Make sure that you're the right fit that they want to swipe right or left, or however that goes. But you got to do your homework, and make sure you're a really good fit for what that potential publisher's looking for.

Justine Bylo [00:10:31] Yeah, and also, I've been down this path personally as a writer, and so I kind of have a different perspective on it. But a lot of those mid-size houses too, give you a lot of really wonderful attention that a lot of the Big Five won't give you. And so, if you're looking for a very personal experience too, those houses can be a really great choice. Just because it doesn't have the right name brand recognition that an author might be looking for, doesn't mean that they're a really good option.

Kelly Gallagher [00:11:03] Yeah, absolutely. When I was at another mid-size independent Beacon Hill Press, we used to say we were kind of the farm club to the big guys, meaning we had a lot of- we did about 40 books a year, and probably about 35 of them were unsolicited manuscripts that we found. And we found many first-time authors. And once we got their careers up and going, we knew that the likelihood was that a bigger one would pick them up, but-

Justine Bylo [00:11:34] Yeah.

Kelly Gallagher [00:11:34] You really have to understand what that process looks like.

Robin Cutler [00:11:38] As you said, Kelly, do your homework, make sure when you're submitting your work to a mid-size, even a really small publisher, make sure that your work matches up to what they already published.

Justine Bylo [00:11:53] We've talked about the money thing. Kelly, can you give us a little bit of an idea about how royalties work with traditional publishing?

Kelly Gallagher [00:12:06] Sure, again, for most authors that are starting out, again, unless you have a strong platform, or you have an agent, or you're being directly courted by a publishing house to write a book, the idea of an advance is not likely going to be in the cards for you, or if it is, it would be probably a small four figure number. What many authors do, who are first time or second time publishers, they sign a basic royalty agreement. Royalties for most publishing houses can range, typically, anywhere from 8%-15%. I would say, on average, they're still in about the 12% range. Again, that's something you would need to negotiate. If there is a publisher that is on the fence about a book, it might be a way that you can bargain to take a lower royalty on the first book. But typically, what happens is, the books go into the market, with either some kind of advance or not an advance. And then, typically, either quarterly, or twice a year, or annually, again, depending on the size of the publishing house and the ability for them to manage their royalty process, they'll do an accounting for you, and say, we've sold X number of books with net sales of X, and therefore, we'll be cutting you a check for say, 10% of that amount. And so, that's pretty much how the royalty system works for a traditional house.

Justine Bylo [00:13:42] Got you.

Robin Cutler [00:13:43] What's the average sales on a traditionally published book? It's lower than most people would think. Isn't that true, Kelly?

Kelly Gallagher [00:13:51] Yeah, absolutely. At my medium sized press, if we ever hit 5,000 units sold, we were dancing in the streets. And most publishers, even the Big Five, any book that sells more than 5,000 units, people are shocked. I would say fewer than 10-15% of the books in the industry that are published today sell fewer than 5,000 units. And so, a realistic number, unless you've got a very big friends and family base that are going to buy the book for you, I would say, 1,000 to 2,000 sometimes is a pretty rational number. Again, depending on the topic, the uniqueness of the topic, and what you're able to do as far as positioning the book for discoverability.

Robin Cutler [00:14:44] That's really a respectable number, 1,000 to 2,000 copies sold.

Kelly Gallagher [00:14:49] Absolutely.

Robin Cutler [00:14:50] And the other thing to remember, and I want to get us back to self-publishing, because that's really where my heart is now, even though I used to be a publisher myself. The other thing to talk about a little bit here is the things that you have to do as a self-publisher. You have to do all the tasks that a traditional publisher would do to bring your book to market. That means having your book edited, having it designed, maybe engaging with a publicist to get information about your book out there. Isn't this true, Justine, that you still have to do all of this work that a traditional publisher would do?

Justine Bylo [00:15:33] You do, and that's kind of the beauty of self-publishing, is that a lot of people feel like it's a fun challenge for them to do all of those different aspects, because they don't have someone making those decisions for them. They can decide what their cover looks like. They can choose their editor. All those great things give them this autonomy to make the decisions. But I would say that the one piece of it, that I think that you have to do with both of them that they will not advertise to you, is marketing. I hear more and more from my traditionally published friends that these houses rely really heavily on their authors to market their books. And the same goes for self-publishing. You have to pound the pavement and get your book out there. No matter what route you go, you have to plan to market your book, and make sure that people hear about it.

Kelly Gallagher [00:16:29] That is so true. Really, it's the pre-publication work that is going to be the most beneficial to an author who's using a traditional house. Yes, you will get catalog listing, and yes, you may get some level of promotion. But again, our expectation of our authors, in fact, we had them sign, as part of their contract, a requirement for them to go out and promote their book. Because, again, as a small press, and even as a medium-sized press, you have very limited marketing dollars. I think that's absolutely essential. The one other comment I would make, Robin, related to the self-publishing component, is you really do need to emulate as much as you can, what the market looks like. So, related to how you set discount, how you set pricing. That is the one thing that a traditional publisher, they ensure that your book maintains a certain level of trade level discount, and returnability, and those kinds of things. And they do, they price into the market. And so again, another homework assignment for the self-publisher to do, but often that's a misguided step that self-publishers think that, "Well, I won't have it returnable," or "I'll do a very small discount, so I can make more." And in some ways they sabotage themselves.

Justine Bylo [00:17:52] Yeah, it's that level of professionalism.

Robin Cutler [00:17:56] We've had a couple of episodes that we've kind of drilled into making your book attractive to the book trade, and how you would do that. And I would also say, at the very basic thing, as far as becoming a self-publisher, is make sure your book, the actual packaging of your book, and the way your book is organized, looks like a traditionally published book. And there's no reason why it can't be. In fact, that's one of the first things that will label you as a self-publisher, is if your book doesn't follow the standard sort of traditionally published sort of model.

Kelly Gallagher [00:18:39] Go to the library. Go to your independent bookstore. Spend a day and look at books that are going to be similar to yours, and make lots of notes so that you know what it should look like.

Justine Bylo [00:18:50] Yeah, that's great advice. Nothing makes me sadder when someone says, "Oh, your book looks self-published." No, it doesn't have to be. It could look really beautiful.

Robin Cutler [00:18:59] And a lot of our authors in IngramSpark actually do a fantastic job with that.

Justine Bylo [00:19:04] They do, yeah.

Kelly Gallagher [00:19:05] One other thing is, there are some really great resources out there. Writer's Digest is a great magazine for people that are really focused on getting their works published in by main stream publishers, and some really good books out there, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. There's lots of good resources. So, make sure you do your homework by looking at what other professionals say, as well.

Robin Cutler [00:19:36] Yeah, and let me bring this back to how we started. So, I would also encourage you, if you're interested in self-publishing, or if you're interested in finding medium and small publishers, IBPA, the Independent Book Publisher Association, is a really good place to start. You can go to IngramSpark, we've got links over to IBPA, and I encourage you to really seriously think about joining that association.

Justine Bylo [00:20:07] Yeah, they're great. And they sponsored our episode.

Robin Cutler [00:20:11] Yes, they did. I'm going to bring this to a close, you guys. This has been a really great discussion, as always. It's nice, because we get to share our own internal sort of IngramSpark team to the world here, because we all work together on a daily basis. Kelly is a great mentor, both for self-publishing and traditional publishing in the Ingram world. And so, we really enjoyed talking to you today, Kelly.

Kelly Gallagher [00:20:39] Well, thanks a lot. It's really been a pleasure.

Robin Cutler [00:20:42] Thanks to everyone for joining us for our first season of Go Publish Yourself. We've been thrilled with the response, and are happy to announce, we'll have season two starting up this fall. Subscribe to our podcast, follow us on social media, and check out our website at IngramSpark.com. And in the meantime, we have an incredible blog you can follow to get weekly education on topics just like the ones we've covered here.

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