Busting the myths: conventional publishing versus self-publishing

Helen Hart
19 October 2021
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Emily Ronan

Are you keen to get a conventional publishing deal? Or would you consider self-publishing to get your book out there faster? From royalties to rankings –SilverWood Books’ publishing expert, Helen Hart, explores what you need to know about publishing your book to bust some of the myths which surround the industry.

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There are over 2 million books published worldwide every year. It’s a fiercely competitive market and, it goes without saying, your book will need to stand out on shelves if you want to attract readers. Coming from a conventional publishing background, where every book I wrote was handed over at the editing stage, I soon learned that some authors prefer to retain control of the whole publishing process. That means they have more control over the cover, the quality and the overall appeal for their readers. So, if you’re just finishing your book, what choices do you have? There are three main routes to publish your book:

  1. Conventional publishing where you might be paid an advance, but you hand over complete creative control to the publishing house.
  2. Hybrid self-publishing where you pay for your work to be checked, developed, printed and distributed by a professional, independent publisher.
  3. Do-it-yourself publishing where you manage every step of the publishing process and design of the finished product.

However, it’s time to address some of the myths that pervade the industry – because a traditionally published book is not always best for you as an author.

 

Your book can hit the shelves in less than six months, if you self-publish

When working as an author, I didn’t notice how long it took the publishers to get my book to market, because I was busy starting the next one. I loved writing and I didn’t feel the need to query my publishing team. I trusted them to handle all the details, however long it took. But the traditional publishing process did take ages; between 12-18 months passed before my books appeared on sale.

Then a friend came to me because she hadn’t been able to secure an agent or a mainstream publishing deal. She had written a lovely novel and simply wanted to get it out there. These were the days when vanity publishing had sprung up, but the companies offering the service had no idea how to achieve the professional attention to detail which traditional publishers prided themselves on. To support her, I designed a hybrid self-publishing process for her, complete with cover design and printing, which now takes between 4 and 6 months provided the copyediting rounds are completed quickly.

Although DIY self-publishing seems like the cheapest option, you’ll be investing a lot more of your time and you’ll need to take full responsibility for the quality.

Helen Hart

Your book can be high-quality no matter which route you take

With conventional publishing, the quality is guaranteed by your publisher, even though you have less control to assert your personal preferences. If organising your own self-publishing, you ought to hire an editor and proofreader to make sure the writing is consistent, with correct spellings and good sentence structure. And unless you recruit a professional book cover designer, you’re going to be taking a chance on a front cover which doesn’t necessarily fit with the market. Although DIY self-publishing seems like the cheapest option, you’ll be investing a lot more of your time and you’ll need to take full responsibility for the quality.

Hybrid professional self-publishing is the halfway house: your publisher will organise professional cover design and editorial support if you haven’t done so already, with you investing in the service. Be aware: some less reputable assisted-publishing organisations rely on mistakes and editing to generate additional fees on top of their basic package. Authors can get caught out by these extras – make sure your publisher is clear about what is included before you sign up with them.

 

Your readers are the most powerful source of validation, not your publisher

Once you’ve finished editing your book, you’ve got to take the nerve-wracking step of sending it to someone to read. Whether that be to a friend or a professional editor or proofreader, it’s going to be hard waiting for their response. We’re human, programmed to respond to feedback. It’s only natural to want your readers to enjoy your work. Even if you write for a sense of your own fulfilment, as your work gets more well-known, your readers will become a source of validation. In contrast, conventional publishers previously had the power to make writers feel treasured or rejected. What I’m suggesting is that the publishing industry shouldn’t dictate an author’s sense of self-worth or belief in their creativity. Your readers’ opinions are the only ones who count! But do remember that people have wildly differing opinions and what one person loves, another may hate. So your job is to build resilience and keep going.

It’s a common myth that you can only reach bestseller status on Amazon if you have the backing of a conventional publisher and a ready-made set of willing readers.

Helen Hart

Your book can reach bestseller status, even if you self-publish

There’s no denying it, Amazon is the most influential sales platform for books, carrying over 33 million titles and shipping books all over the world. However, it’s a common myth that you can only reach bestseller status on Amazon if you have the backing of a conventional publisher and a ready-made set of willing readers. That’s simply not true, because the algorithm which calculates the rankings is more complex. There are services and useful software  which can help you find niche categories for your book and achieve bestseller status with a lower number of sales. And if you take time to build up your audience on social media by marketing your book before it’s published, those fans can also help you achieve bestseller status by leaving their reviews on or shortly after your publication day.

 

Your writing career can be profitable, if your books sell in large numbers

One of the questions I’m often asked at SilverWood Books is whether self-publishing is worth the investment compared with mainstream publishing. The choice to invest in yourself is extremely personal, a decision that can only be made by you.

You might be thinking you need an advance to fund the time it takes you to write your book. But the truth is, advances from conventional publishing houses have shrunk dramatically. Calculate the average advance into an hourly rate for the amount of time spent on your book and you’ll soon figure out that you’ll be earning far less than the minimum wage! If you have financial concerns, it’s best to keep writing as your secondary source of income.

The royalties from hybrid self-publishing are slightly higher, which means you make more per book sold. It’s true, the up-front investment is expensive (a couple of thousand pounds to self-publish at a professional quality) and then you’ll need a budget for book marketing. Once you reach a high enough volume of sales, you will start to recoup your initial investment – but remember, your royalties differ according to where the book is sold. So you’ll still get the best return attending events and selling a stock of your books directly to readers.

Yet the myth remains that the marketing will be covered by your publisher if you get a deal with a trade publisher. A traditional publisher will promote your book at launch and amplify your work on their social channels. Most authors will only get a pre-publishing cover reveal and some help with a launch plan, then you’re responsible for the rest of your marketing and the costs. However, if your book is conventionally published, you have no control over the pricing of the book or the amount of royalties you’re paid when the book is doing well.

Marketing may seem hard to start with, but there are plenty of resources available to help self-published authors succeed.  From branding yourself as an author to hosting a successful book launch, it’s important to know that help is out there and you are not alone in promoting your book. If you continue to market your books consistently, then sales will grow over time.

Helen Hart

As publishing director of SilverWood Books, Helen Hart oversees the production and publication of around 100 books per year. Before founding the company, she was a successful freelance author, writing novels under several different pen names and articles for magazines, like the hugely popular consumer magazine, FHM. Her books have been published by HarperCollins, Oxford University Press, Scholastic and she was one of the authors writing under a pseudonym for Working Partners, prolific in creating and commissioning books for children and teens. With translations into many different languages, including Swedish, Greek, and Japanese, her career as an author has given her a deep understanding of the writing process and how it feels for authors.

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