Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: The Summary

Since May 2014, I’ve written 16 posts to help a writer with his first manuscript choose between traditional publishing and self-publishing. I’m bringing the blog series to a close with a summary of what I’ve considered.

A few initial thoughts.

The blog series and summary assume that a writer who chooses to self-publish will hire a qualified editor and cover designer. It’s hard to imagine a writer who is serious about building a readership not doing so. Also, the series and summary are for unpublished writers, not writers who’ve previously worked with traditional publishers. However, a previously published writer might find the summary useful in thinking about what to do with a dying back list or a new book the publisher isn’t interested in.

Of course, my evaluation of the criteria to choose between traditional publishing and self-publishing is, to a significant extent, personal and therefore subjective. Readers may have different assessments or think I’ve missed some criteria entirely. The main idea of the summary, though, is to give a first-time writer some guideposts when thinking about publishing options.

Finally, publishing is changing fast and parts of the summary could be out of date quickly. The summary will be most useful to writers who consider it in the context of the most recent trends in the publishing industry.

And here’s the summary. “Top income” is my speculation because there’s poor data and “Average income” is trends based on recent U.K. and Canadian writer surveys (see my blog here).

Criteria

Acceptance

Top income

Average income

Advances

Upfront costs

Quality of help

Distribution

Time to market

Promotional help

Press reviews

Control

Contract

Discoverability

Achievement

Traditional

⇑⇑⇑

⇑⇑⇑ ?

⇑⇑

Varies

⇑⇑⇑

⇑⇑⇑

Self

⇑⇑

⇑⇑ ?

?

Varies

⇑⇑

⇑⇑

⇑⇑

⇑⇑

Thanks!

I will be taking a few weeks off from blogging. Back again in late September!

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Promotion: Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing

Blog 72 ImageNearly a year and a half ago, I began a blog series comparing traditional publishing and self-publishing for a fiction writer who’s completed her first manuscript. Today’s post is about promotion.

It would be nice if a first-time writer could build readers and maybe even earn an income just by having her book published. However, today’s book market is oversupplied, so she must be sure her book is being promoted.

Before self-publishing, a traditionally published writer looked to her publisher to plan and execute promotion. In a broad sense, the promotion began when the publisher selected her manuscript, packaged it into an attractive book and made sure it was on bookstore shelves. Then there might be advertising, publicity, readings and so on. The writer showed up where and when she was asked.

Self-publishing turned the publishing world on its head, not just because writers could publish and distribute independently, but also because they could promote themselves online. This disrupted the marketing techniques of traditional publishers. Launch parties and book tours fell off. Reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads became as important as reviews in book sections of newspapers. At the same time, a writer was expected by her publisher to take a greater role in promotion. She had to work her own contacts, have a website and maybe a blog, and be on social media. And often at her cost.

Does this mean that, for a writer concerned about promoting her book today, there’s no difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing? In general, I think there still is, though how much will depend on the publisher.

This post from Jane Friedman’s blog illustrates how promotion works at one of the Big 5 publishers. While the writer takes the lead on social media, the publisher offers support. And the publisher arranges for excellent publicity. Both parties seem committed to promotion to get value from their investments. Even if a writer is published by a house that does less promotion, she at least benefits from the publisher’s public vote of confidence in giving her one of their coveted slots.

Whether traditionally published or self-published, though, the writer needs to be deeply involved in promoting her book.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Writer Advances

Blog 67 ImageI’m down to my last few posts about a first-time writer choosing between traditional publishing and self-publishing. Today I’m looking at advances.

Advances are a concept specific to traditional publishing. To learn about them, I’ve looked at standard form contracts, spoken to several writer friends including Melodie Campbell and done research.

What is an advance? An advance is a prepayment by a publisher to a writer of a portion of the royalties expected from early book sales. It’s paid in installments, as specified in the publishing contract, from the time the contract is signed to the time the manuscript is finalized. Advances generally are non-returnable, except if the manuscript is not published because the writer fails to complete and deliver on time.

Looking at advances from the writer’s and publisher’s perspective. For a writer, an advance is income to pay personal and book expenses that is received well before royalties on book sales are paid. The lucky and rare writer who gets a large, publicity-worthy advance also has a promotional tool because a publisher is making a big statement about her book.

An advance for a publisher represents economic risk because it’s usually non-returnable. The publisher believes the advance will be earned out by sales. If it’s wrong, it loses money. A publisher might protect against this risk by calculating the advance using low expected sales or offering the writer a higher royalty rate for waiving the advance.

A large advance can be a double-edged sword for a writer. If the publisher does lose money, it could slash advances on future books or not publish those books. A writer who can get by without an advance might be better off long-term if she can negotiate a higher royalty rate in return.

So how big are advances? Public information on the average advance for a first-time fiction writer is spotty and anecdotal. This post from Michael Kozlowski dealing with the U.S. market suggests that the average advance from major publishing houses is between $5,000 and $10,000. Individual advances will vary dramatically based on many factors like market conditions, genre and the publishing house. Now and then, a highly sought-after book earns the writer much more.

The market for book sales in Canada is relatively small, so first-time fiction writers should be prepared for a much lower average advance.

Compared to self-publishing. The idea of this blog series is to evaluate what a first-time writer should think about in choosing between traditional and self-publishing. Average advances by publishers may seem low, but there are no advances in self-publishing. The self-pub foots the costs of publishing her book upfront and bears all the risk of not recouping them.

So, the option of getting an advance, however modest, is an advantage of traditional publishing.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Publishing Contracts: Promises by the Writer

Blog 62 ImageIn my two most recent posts about a first-time writer choosing between traditional publishing and self-publishing, I looked at copyright and the promises made to a writer in a publishing contract.

This post gives an overview of the promises made by the writer in a publishing contract. In other words, it’s about the writer’s obligations, and since a contract can have a long term, a writer should fully understand her obligations before signing.

Once again, though, I need to give some important cautions.

  • My posts are not intended as legal advice and shouldn’t be relied on as such. They’re for general information.
  • Contract laws vary by jurisdiction.
  • Contract terms vary according to jurisdiction and negotiations.

So, if you’re a first-time writer considering signing a publisher’s contract, you must get advice from a lawyer qualified to review the contract.

I don’t have a traditional publishing contract but I reviewed some standard forms and looked at materials from The Writers’ Union of Canada. Here are some of the obligations a writer might see in a publishing contract.

Licence to Publish: In a traditional publishing contract, the most fundamental thing a writer gives to the publisher is the right, or the grant of a licence, to publish her book, in written and probably eBook format. A writer usually is advised to ensure that her contract says the copyright in her book remains her property.

The licence will state the territories it covers. Some publishers will seek broad territories, even the world. A writer should have an interest in licensing only for the territories where the publisher has a demonstrated sales ability.

Since eBooks are now a standard reading format, a writer will likely grant the publisher a licence of the electronic rights necessary to publish in that format. A writer should get proper advice on the exact rights to grant and likely will be advised to expressly retain all electronic rights not specifically granted.

Subsidiary Rights: There is a broad group of rights derivative to a book of fiction in its first language. These include foreign and translation rights, and film, multimedia and other non-book rights. All of these are possible sources of income for the writer. Again, the writer should have an interest in licensing only those rights for which the publisher has demonstrated expertise and sales. If the publisher proposes to use sub-licencing arrangements for some subsidiary rights, a writer should understand the royalty shares and, ideally, have the right to approve the arrangements.

Warranties/Indemnities: A publisher will expect basic warranties that the writer’s work is original, doesn’t infringe copyright and is not libelous. The publisher will also expect to be indemnified, that is, to be compensated, for costs from a writer’s breach of the warranties. Expert advice on the scope of the warranties and indemnities is important.

Delivery of the Manuscript: The writer will likely be obligated to deliver a manuscript to the publisher by a specified date. The publisher will then likely have the right to decide if the manuscript is acceptable and to terminate the agreement if it’s not. A writer should review with her adviser if the publisher’s scope to determine a manuscript’s acceptability is so broad, it amounts to an option on the book. She should also ask if the time to determine acceptability is fair.

Termination: Hopefully the contract creates a happy, long-standing commercial relationship. However, both parties will have rights to terminate the contract, in which case all rights should revert to the writer. A publisher may simply have the right to terminate with written notice after a specified time (e.g. two years). It is also common to see termination rights when a book is out of print. The writer should take advice whether the definition of out of print is reasonable.

Additional Works: A publisher may ask for the option to publish the writer’s next work(s). A writer shouldn’t mistake this for feeling wanted. It is a one-sided arrangement that should be carefully questioned. If the publisher asks the writer to deliver multiple manuscripts over specified time periods, the writer should consider if she can meet, and wishes to live with, that obligation.

The Governing Law: A contract usually says that it is governed by the laws of a specified jurisdiction. If the jurisdiction is not where the writer resides, a writer should consider with her adviser if a large barrier is created to pursuing or defending a claim, both in terms of costs and convenience.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Publishing Contracts: Promises to the Writer

Blog 57 ImageIn my last blog about a first-time writer choosing between traditional publishing and self-publishing, I had a look at copyright in a fiction manuscript. This has set me up for two blogs about traditional publishing contracts, which only writers working with publishing houses will have.

Today’s post is a broad overview of the promises made to a writer in a traditional publishing contract. The next post in this series will be about the promises a writer makes, that is, a writer’s obligations.

First, though, I need to give some important cautions.

  • My posts are not intended as legal advice and shouldn’t be relied on as such. They’re for general information.
  • Contract laws vary by jurisdiction.
  • Contract terms vary according to jurisdiction and negotiations.

So, if you’re a first-time writer considering signing a publisher’s contract, you must get advice from a lawyer qualified to review the contract.

I don’t have a traditional publishing contract but I reviewed some standard forms and looked at materials from The Writers’ Union of Canada. It reminded me that a contract can have a long life. So a writer needs to negotiate her best deal before signing, or at least fully understand what she’s getting and giving.

In a traditional publishing contract, the most fundamental thing a writer gives to the publisher is the right, or the grant of a licence, to publish her book, in written and probably eBook form. In Canada, The Copyright Act expressly gives the owner of copyright this ability. I’ll have more to say about the extent of the licence to publish in the next post but, likely, the publisher will want broad rights and the writer will want to retain as much as she can.

So what are the main promises a writer gets in return? Again, contract terms will vary but here are some of terms a writer might see.

Obligation to Publish: A publisher generally commits to publishing the writer’s book in a time period like twelve or eighteen months from delivery of the manuscript or signing of the contract. If the publisher doesn’t do this, the contract should end and the writer keep any advance. However, this promise of the publisher likely will be subject to warning periods and events beyond the publisher’s control. Also, if the publisher has broad rights to deem a manuscript unacceptable, a writer has really only optioned her book.

Royalties: These are calculated as a percentage of some measure of revenue from the book. The writer should get outside advice to determine whether the offered percentages and revenue measures for hardcover, trade paperback and eBooks are the standard ones.

Advances: A publishing contract often gives a writer an advance on royalties, paid in instalments at different stages before the writer completes her manuscript. This can be an important source of income for a writer. My general understanding is that advances for first-time writers occasionally are still sizable but that, more and more, they’re shrinking.

Termination Rights: Hopefully the writer’s book sells and the commercial relationship between the writer and publishing house continues for a while. However, circumstances can arise where either party wants to terminate the agreement, with the result that the rights the writer has granted the publisher revert to her.

The contract should give the writer the ability to demand the reversion of rights after warning periods if the publisher hasn’t met its obligation to publish or make royalty payments, or when the book is out of print. How “out of print” is defined can become very important. For example, is it loosely based on availability or something more specific like sales, and how is eBook availability taken into account?

A writer will also want rights to revert automatically if a publisher becomes bankrupt.

Approvals: The contract can give the writer the right to consent to changes in her manuscript and its title, and possibly also to consent to the publisher’s cover design and to grants of subsidiary rights in her book such as translations.

Marketing and Promotion: A writer is attracted to a traditional publisher for its promotional power. My review suggested that publishers avoid contractual promises about marketing and promotion.

No Assignment: The writer is expecting to work with the publisher she’s chosen. The contract should say the publisher cannot assign the contract without her consent.

To summarize, a traditional publishing contract is a potentially long-term arrangement with real, but fairly narrow, promises to the writer. So while that contract gives a writer key protections, ensuring she’s chosen a publishing house with the proper record of success for her type of manuscript is much more important.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Copyright

Blog 54 Image

 

I’m continuing my blogs about a first-time writer choosing between traditional publishing and self-publishing.

One key difference between those two routes is that a writer who chooses traditional publishing will have a contract with a publishing house. I thought I would write posts about copyright, promises of the publisher under a traditional publishing contract and promises of the writer.

Before continuing, I have these important cautions.

  • My posts are not intended as legal advice and shouldn’t be relied on as such. They’re for general information.
  • I’m going to focus on Canadian law to illustrate concepts. However, copyright and contract laws vary by jurisdiction. Typical contract terms do as well.

So, if you’re a first-time writer considering signing a contract with a publisher, you must get advice from a lawyer qualified to review the contract.

Here then is a very basic overview of some of the main aspects of Canadian copyright applied to a work of fiction created by a first-time writer.

Why is copyright important? For a writer interested in traditional publishing, copyright is essential because it’s the right the writer sells an interest in or licences to a publisher in exchange for royalties. If a jurisdiction’s laws didn’t say that a writer owns copyright in her book, it would be harder or impossible for her to realize value from the book.

What is copyright? Under the Copyright Act (Canada), “copyright” is defined in relation to a work. For a literary work, most fundamentally, copyright means the sole right:

  • to produce or reproduce the work or any substantial part of it in any material form, and
  • if the work is unpublished, to publish the work or any substantial part of it.

However, the basic copyright definition is extended in many ways. For example, for a novel, copyright includes, among other things, the sole right to publish any translation in the work, to convert it into a dramatic work and to convert it into a cinematographic work.

As a first-time Canadian writer, does my book automatically have copyright? The Copyright Act creates conditions that must be met before copyright subsists in a book. However, in many cases, they are easily met. For example, copyright subsists in an original literary work if the author, at the date of making the work, was a citizen of any of the countries, including Canada, that has signed specified treaties relating to copyright.

How long does copyright last? In Canada, copyright in a work generally subsists for the life of the author and fifty years after the end of the calendar year in which she dies. There are exceptions.

How does a writer come to own the copyright in her book? The Copyright Act says that, subject to other provisions, the author of a work is the first owner of copyright in the work. One exception is where a writer creates a book in the course of being employed by someone else. In that case, the employer will be the first owner of copyright unless the parties agree otherwise.

Infringement. If someone infringes a writer’s copyright, the Copyright Act provides for civil and criminal remedies. There are exceptions to infringement such as fair dealing.

Needless to say, piracy thrives because enforcing copyright is costly or difficult to pursue.

Assignment/Licence: An author of a work can assign or licence her copyright in whole or in part. In a traditional publishing contract, the assignment or licence is the main right the publisher is buying.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Trad vs. Self-Publishing: Periodical Reviews

Blog 51 ImageIn 2014, I began a series of blogs about a first-time writer who’s completed a fiction manuscript and is deciding whether to search for a traditional publishing contract or to self-publish. When I left off, I was writing about non-financial considerations like lifestyle and control.

This week I’m blogging about a writer’s access to media reviews, mainly from newspapers and magazines. I’m focused on the Canadian experience though all indications are it’s the same in many other places.

There’s no two ways about it. As a writer, it’s very hard to get discovered. It may not seem like it sometimes but the writing is the easy part.

So, devoting time to promotion is key. Even so, many writers do the same thing and the discoverability problem remains. One thing that can make a big difference, though, is strong reviews.

There are several sources of reviews: readers/customers, blog reviewers and review agencies, among others. However, many of us think first of the book or review sections in newspapers and magazines.

Here, though, there’s a real difference between being traditionally published and self-published. A traditionally published writer at least has a chance of getting reviewed in a newspaper or magazine. For self-published authors in Canada, it seems closed off. I haven’t found a newspaper or magazine here that consistently reviews self-published books. And if you know of one, let me know!

Presumably this is a function of too many traditionally published books for too few review spots; shrinking book sections; the gate-keeping function traditional publishers are seen to provide; and the sheer volume of self-published books.

Outside of Canada, I’m aware of one newspaper that isn’t foreclosed from reviewing self-published books: The New York Times. Good luck!

Copyright ©2015 Peter Fritze

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Self-Publishing Stigma

Blog 31 Raise the BarToday I’m posting a few thoughts about the stigma associated with self-publishing. I’m including the post in my series of blogs about what a first-time fiction writer should consider when choosing between traditional publishing and self-publishing.

Self-pub authors know the stigma I mean. It shows in many forms. Newspapers and many bloggers won’t review us. Many book stores won’t stock us. Occasionally, a traditionally published author looks at us askance. From behind our backs, we’re sure we hear, “Oh well, he had to self-publish because, you know, no publisher was interested.”

For this post, I’m not going to analyse the origins and current state of the self-pub stigma. Lots of others have done that; here’s a link to a good one. Instead, I want to make one of those points so simple and unoriginal, it’s almost embarrassing. A well-crafted story makes the stigma fade.

In the last few days, I saw this first-hand as it modestly applies to me. The father of a close friend whom I knew quite well sadly passed away earlier this week. I attended his visitation and service. In talking with others, the topic of my writing came up many times. My friend and his stepmother both read and liked The Case for Killing, and endorsed it to others. The result: not a whisper, to my face at least, of the stigma of being self-published.

I have no doubt that the varying quality of self-published books makes readers doubtful about investing the time and money to read them. However, knowing this, self-pubs should devote great attention to their story, and to the editing and design of their books. In fact, I’d say that they should set those bars higher than traditionally published authors in their genre do.

With really good work, self-pubs can clear those bars and leave the stigma behind.

Copyright © 2014 Peter Fritze

Buy The Case for Killing here (Canada) or here (U.S.).

Time to Market

Blog 28In my posts about a first-time writer deciding between traditional publishing and self-publishing, I’ve recently been discussing non-financial considerations. Today I’m writing about the time it takes for the writer’s book to come to market once the manuscript has been completed.

Since The Case for Killing was self-published, I’ve learned about “time to market” for traditionally published books through blogs and speaking with a few publishing industry veterans.

My conclusion is that, from the time a manuscript has been completed and accepted by a publishing house, a writer should plan for at least a year before his book comes to market. Obviously, though, this will vary between houses. This time arises from the many decisions a house makes about packaging and marketing a book, the demands of a full publication schedule, and staff being overburdened. And that one year can stretch if the house sees too much competition for a book or simply identifies other priorities.

Compare that conclusion to self-publishing. Once a manuscript is in final form, a self-pub can get a cover design in a month. Add another few weeks to learn the in-and-outs of preparing files for eBooks, and how to upload the manuscript and cover to the online distributor, and the writer can have his book available in five or six weeks.

Of course, a publishing house produces print books as well as eBooks. However, a self-pub can also handle this in a short time by using a print-on-demand service. So, all in all, the time to market for a self-published book seems much better.

So the question becomes, does faster time to market make any difference?

If the author has done all his other work right, it certainly can. The sooner a book is released, the sooner it can make it into the hands of readers, and hopefully generate word-of-mouth support and reviews. A writer who is traditionally published must hope that the cachet of his publishing house, and the house’s input into the publication of his book, compensate for the later release.

The phrase “has done all his other work right” is important. What it means—and I’m saying this as much for me as for you—is that the author’s research is complete, his book is properly edited, and his marketing plan is in place. And, even more importantly, the self-pub has to put in the work to execute that marketing plan.

Reducing the time to market for a first-time writer’s book is a plus, and self-publishing helps that. Rushing the time to market is not, and a focus on marketing is a must.

Copyright © 2014 Peter Fritze

Buy The Case for Killing here (Canada) or here (U.S.).

Lifestyles of Traditionally vs. Self-Published Authors

Blog 24 2In my last blogs about a first-time fiction writer choosing between traditional publishing and self-publishing, I looked at non-financial considerations that might make the writer lean one way or another. Today I’m posting about the career lifestyle associated with each.

If one looks at day-to-day career lifestyles, I think those of traditionally and self-published authors are bound to be very similar. In both circumstances, it’s about getting some writing done, and then getting some self-promotion done, too.

But if one examines the career lifestyles over a longer period, say a year, differences do emerge.

In general, the traditionally published author benefits from the help provided by her publishing house (and perhaps an agent), but must also deal with the constraints the house imposes. In contrast, the lifestyle of a self-pub provides more scope for control and even entrepreneurship, but it also requires a lot of self-discipline and may be (even) lonelier.

For example, a traditionally published author will receive editing and cover design assistance from her publishing house. In some arrangements, however, changes will be imposed on her. The self-pub has full control over editing and design, but must have the tenacity to ensure good relationships are developed and the right results are achieved.

Similarly, the traditionally published author will get at least some help promoting her book while the self-pub must lead and implement the entire effort on her own.

By many accounts, the help provided by publishing houses is declining while their expectations that authors self-promote are rising. So, it is easy to overstate the lifestyle benefits to authors from working with a traditional publisher. And one must remember that the traditionally published author lives under a contract that imposes considerable constraints like the obligation to produce a certain number of books in prescribed times.

A self-pub author, in contrast, really runs her own show. This can be appealing for those who like maximum control and scope for experimentation, and who are easily self-motivated. It may be less interesting for those who like or need a contract deadline to produce.

In the end, for each writer, the choice between the career lifestyles of traditional publishing and self-publishing will be a matter of individual preference.

I’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences.

Copyright © 2014 Peter Fritze

Buy The Case for Killing here (Canada) or here (U.S.).