Decades ago, the only type of publishing that was reputable and viable was traditional publishing – to submit a book to a publisher, who then handles production costs and pays an author an advance sum of money with royalties to follow. The publisher would market and promote the book, getting copies into all major bookstores and the author would be free to write books.
The option to self-publish in yesteryear existed alongside this and namely involved sourcing a printer to produce X-amount of copies of one’s own book, before selling them, usually at a car-boot sale or local fair. Then, about a decade ago (maybe two), online printer-publisher companies such as Lulu and Createspace, among others, appeared allowing authors to self-publish their work with ease and for free. Suddenly everyone and their neighbour became a writer. Yet the process was still straightforward: you either go with a royalty-paying traditional publisher, or you go-it-alone.
More recently a third option has been thrown into the mix: hybrid publishing. This is where an author submits work to the hybrid publisher and if accepted, the author pays a contribution towards publishing costs. The hybrid publisher then pays the remainder of costs to have the book produced. This type of publishing is often known as partnership publishing. It’s relatively new; as far as I’m aware, it has only been around in the last few years.
For an author at the start of their career, which option is best? Ultimately that decision comes down to the individual. However, I can certainly share my experience and the costs involved, to help others make informed choices. With that in mind, here is my experience of being published traditionally, with a hybrid publisher and through self-publishing.
I have been traditionally published 3 times, each time by a different publisher. I define ‘traditional’ here in the sense that I didn’t pay any money to have my work published; some also include receiving an advance as indicative of traditional, though in this post, my definition is inclusive of only the former, rather than latter.
COSTS: None. The publishers paid for production costs of typesetting, cover art, ISBN, editing, etc.
CREATIVE CONTROL: I had no say in the cover artwork. My opinion was solicited for the final read of proof copies before publication, but ultimately the editor of each book had full control. Regarding the manuscript, I have had to omit some content, as per each respective publisher’s wishes, that I would rather have included for completeness sake.
ADVANCE: In all 3 times I have been traditionally published, I didn’t receive an author advance as the publishers were all small presses who couldn’t afford it. In one instance, I received 10 free copies of my book, and was able to buy more at a generous half-price discount then sell at full price, which in a monetary sense, is similar to a token advance – if you look at it through squinted eyes while wearing sunglasses.
ROYALTIES: 10% of the net costs, though in reality, nil. In one instance, the publisher sent me a royalty statement before explaining that they wouldn’t be paying my royalties as a way of recuperating production costs for having the book produced in the first place – as I hadn’t been offered a contract originally (my book had been accepted by email and phone – the takeaway here, writers, is always sign a contract!) legally I couldn’t challenge it, nor was I in an Author Union to have anyone challenge it for me. In retrospect, this experience was almost like reverse hybrid publishing, having costs recuperated at the end, not start of the process. In another instance, the publisher chose to offer my book simultaneously as a paperback and free ebook. As my followers chose to read the free ebook rather than buy the print version (let’s face it, if it’s there for free, why would people pay? Sad, but true, especially since authors really should be paid for their work) I haven’t had any royalties there either.
SALES: In all 3 instances, any profits I have made through traditional publishing have been from selling paperback copies that I bought at author discount rates for full retail price at literary events. Those profits have been modest at best. But hey, people are reading my work and I’m expanding my audience – isn’t that the ultimate goal of a writer, not the money? 😂
REACH: I gained new readers who I wouldn’t normally have reached if it weren’t for being published traditionally. This was through the respective publishers promoting my books on their websites, at events such as the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in London, book launch parties at pubs, book signing events and literary festivals. So even though traditional publishing can be a long wait for writers hoping for an acceptance (I’ve had an acceptance after 3 years, in one instance!) it’s worth it for your career if you want to expand your readership.
I have self-published my own books 4 times. Two of those were poetry pamphlets that I printed myself to read and sell at open mic poetry events. One was my self-published novella. Another was a collection of poetry and photography.
COSTS: For the photographic poetry book, I used a printer, which cost approximately £472 for 100 books. I sold them for £8.99 a copy and I made back my money in 6 months. But it was a lot of hard work, careful planning and promotion and losses along the way: I had to pay for posters to promote my events and one copy was stolen from a book cafe (an apologetic barrista informed me). At least there’s a thief out there who liked it! In terms of cover artwork for all 4 of my self-published books as I did it myself there was no cost. I published my novella through Lulu, which provided the ISBN (this usually costs in the region of £89 I believe, if an author wants to buy their own through Nielsen) so this was free too. My 2 poetry pamphlets don’t have ISBNs as I never intended to sell them through retail outlets. My fellow writer-poet husband Joseph Robert and I did all the editing and formatting ourselves, therefore this was also free (except for time). The 2 poetry pamphlets cost about £32 to print in total: £10 for a ream of A4 paper plus £22 for a new ink cartridge for my printer.
CREATIVE CONTROL: Complete control – I designed, formatted and planned everything.
ADVANCE: None as self-published.
ROYALTIES: None on the 2 poetry pamphlets and photographic poetry book as they had a set print run and aren’t available as ebooks or on Amazon, etc. Modest royalties for my novella as I didn’t pay for advertising – my reach is limited to what I’m promoting by myself. I’ve also listed it on Kindle Unlimited, which helps appeal.
SALES: Modest to decent, depending on how you quantify success! (Enough to cover one and a half month’s rent on my £675 flat at the time – I calculated it 😂). That might constitute decent sales if you are writing to get your books out there, but poor if you’re wanting a steady monthly income from your craft.
REACH: I sold quite a few books through book signing events at local bookstores, spoken word events, launch parties at local pubs, book signing events at bookstores and book fairs, and gave copies to local shops and literary cafes to stock. I reached new readers by doing radio interviews to discuss my work as well. I didn’t sell as many books as I sold through traditional publishing though I definitely expanded my readership – comparable to the distribution of a couple of small print magazines where I have been previously published, and knew the editorial print runs.
I have tried hybrid publishing for one book project.
COSTS: £385. This fee was described as a token contribution towards production costs. After doing research into what I would pay for cover art, ISBN, editing and typesetting if I had chosen to self-publish this book, I discovered that the price was actually a good deal for the money and was confident I wasn’t getting scammed by a vanity press in sheep’s clothing.
CREATIVE CONTROL: Unlike with my traditional publishing experience where I had no say in the cover art, I was asked to describe what I wanted and then shown 3 samples to choose from. However, I had to compromise on some internal content to fit with what the publisher wanted to print.
ADVANCE: None. I got 2 free author copies of my book.
ROYALTIES: Modest. Due to being a hybrid publisher, royalties were higher than traditional publishing – around 50% of the net costs for ebooks and 35% for paperback copies. However, my book sold decently within the first 6 months, so I got a token amount paid.
SALES: A comparable amount to my sales through traditional publishing. Similarly to traditional publishing, I also bought copies at an author discount and sold them at full retail price, making a modest profit.
REACH: The publisher promoted my book on their website and helped to organise an author radio interview, but I had to do most of the promotion and marketing myself: author signing events at local bookstores and libraries, advertising and networking through social media (my 600+ Twitter followers, low by normal standards, was 3 times as high as my publisher’s following 😂) and sending out my own review copies. But again, as with traditional and self-publishing, I’ve widened my audience ever further.
This really depends on what you want to get out of your writing career, or how much you can afford to pay. Having tried traditional, hybrid and self-publishing routes, I would be inclined to choose traditional publishing as my first choice for future projects, but mainly because I feel more skilled as a writer than a business person or marketing expert and would rather leave publishing to publishers. If I had a money tree in my garden and could hire an editing team, typesetter, freelance cover designer and a PR team to market my book and send out ARC copies, etc, I’d certainly choose the self-publishing route, purely to have more creative control and earn higher royalties.