The Publishing War: Traditional Vs Self-Publishing

26 Jan 2013

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Until recently accomplished and respected authors were only those who had been published traditionally. Even with the dividing line thinning out, self-publishing still suffers stigmatisation.

In fact in some parts of the large global book industry, this has broken into open arguments or wars. My-book-is better-than-yours wars!
Sue Grafton, bestselling American crime novelist is reported to have described self-published authors as “too lazy to do the hard work”. (She later ate back her words after coming under heavy literary attack).

Speaking to a newspaper Grafton, the author advised young writers not to self-publish, because “that’s as good as admitting you’re too lazy to do the hard work”.

She said: “To me, it seems disrespectful … that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research.”

She explained: “Learning to construct a narrative and create character, learning to balance pace, description, exposition, and dialogue takes a long time. This is not a quick do-it-yourself home project. Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts.”

Self-publishing is the publication of any book or other media by the author of the work, without the involvement of an established third-party publisher. The author is responsible and in control of entire process including design (cover/interior), formats, price, distribution, marketing & public relations. The author can do it all themselves or outsource all or part of the process to companies that offer these services.

Currently, most books in Nigeria are self-published. Reason is simple. Dearth of publishers, but could that counter the case for credibility, which traditional publishing offers?

Under traditional publishing, a book publishing company buys the rights to an author’s manuscript. Usually an agent, representing the author, negotiates the deal with the book publisher and in return gets a percentage of any monies earned from the sale of the author’s book.

In the good old days, the arrangement included payment of an advance by the book publisher to the author to secure the book deal. In return, the author, working with an in-house editor, is expected to finish writing the book in an allotted time - which is often years away. Royalties are based on a mutually agreed upon percentage of sales. The book publisher budgets funds to promote and market the book - this amount varies greatly depending on the marketability of the book.

The author is often strongly encouraged to hire a book publicist and to work aggressively to promote their book. The book publisher has the final say on every aspect of the author’s book, from editorial content to cover design to the number of books in the first printing.
The sad news today is that less than one per cent of authors seeking to be published traditionally are successful. Thousands of authors and their books are rejected daily.

Yet, while traditional publishing carries a huge stamp of legitimacy and credibility, self-publishing offers considerably less prestige because anyone can self publish without having to be a good writer, or having expertise, or unique experience, or anything else that would make a book worth reading.

Under traditional publishing, the fact that a professional editor chooses a manuscript because it stands out from the thousands of others stacked in her office as being worthy of being published says something about the author’s skills as a writer.
Traditional publishing announces to the world that you can write a good book – and not just in your own opinion. Also the fact that a publisher is willing to take a financial risk to publish a book also says something about the marketability of the author’s ideas.

But recent developments in the publishing industry as well as the success stories of some self-published books are tilting the debate in favour of self-publishing. In fact, some people make bold statements about traditional publishing taking on the robes of stigma of self-publishing.

In a recent report by Bowker, America’s ISBN agency, he number of books and ebook self-published each year in the US has increased by 287 percent since 2006. Bowker counted over 235,000 titles self-published in print and digital compared to 148,424 titles in 2011, although it counts only those books with IISBNs.

Forbes Magazine has a beautiful piece on the trend. It reported that, “Self-publishing is now supported by a sophisticated and highly accessible support structure,” said Beat Barblan, Director of Identifier Services for Bowker, an affiliate of information powerhouse ProQuest. “It’s provided everyone who has a story to tell with a method for sharing it and leveled the playing field to an unprecedented degree. This is no longer just vanity presses at work – self-publishing is out of the dark corners and making its way into the mainstream. Notable success stories include a number of self-published authors landing their titles onto the prestigious New York Times bestseller list for ebook fiction.”

Ebooks experienced the greatest gains, up 129 percent since 2006 compared to 33 percent for print over the same period. Bowker also reiterated results from a 2011 study which revealed the four major players in the self-publishing services market. CreateSpace “dominated the print segment” with 58,412 titles or 39 percent of self-published print titles, whilst Smashwords took the largest part of the e-book pie with 40,608 titles, almost 47 percent of self-published e-books. Author Solutions (part of Penguin Group) racked up 47,094 titles and Lulu Enterprises 38,005 titles. No other company had more than 10 percent of the self-publishing market.

Bowker’s report lends more weight to the words of Smashwords’ Mark Coker, who said that “Four years ago self-publishing was viewed as the option of last resort for authors, where failed authors went, but this attitude is changing dramatically. For a lot of authors, self-publishing is going from the option of last resort to the option of first resort. There was a lot of stigma associated with self-publishing four years ago and very little stigma associated with traditional publishing. I think over next few years we’re going to see that reverse. The stigma associated with self-publishing is quickly disappearing as we see more and more indie authors becoming commercially successful on their own merits, and as some of the problems with traditional publishing become more apparent”.

The game is changing. And with increasing visibility of self-published authors on New York Times ebook bestseller list and others self-publishing has come to stay.

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