Disadvantages of Traditional Publishing

Cons of the Traditional Publishing Model

Traditional publishing (or what many experienced industry folks like to call using a “real publisher”) is an entity that funds the printing and distribution of a book, with the primary goal of making a profit.  Whether it’s a multi-million-dollar global organization or a four-man garage-based operation, they incur the financial risk of putting a book out. While this may seem like a very simple distinction, it’s surprising how many authors are unaware of these defining elements.

Most people are also shocked to learn that out of the tens-of-thousands of publishers in the United States alone, there are only five remaining mega conglomerate houses (and several of those are owned by foreign entities).  There are somewhere between three and four-thousand midsize publishers, and all of the rest are small or self-publishers.

Traditional Publisher Exclusivity

The largest publishers are extremely picky about which projects they will accept since they have many employees to support and significant overheads.  Right from the start, they need to determine that they can sell thousands of any book projects they choose to take on just to break even. They look primarily for titles with significant predetermined market demand, authors with proven track records, and tend to focus the vast majority of their attention on their top sellers.  Large publishers usually offer smaller-than-expected royalties (often in the five to six percent range) and often insist on the right-of-first-refusal for any and all future books an author may choose to write. 

And here’s some more disheartening news:  in today’s market, large publishers serve two primary functions for their clients…printing and distribution.  While printing does include design, editing and actually rolling the presses (all provided at no direct cost to the author), more often than not gone are the days of publishers providing promotional services and publicity campaigns for their authors.  Of course, there are exceptions (particularly with celebrity authors and well-established names), but typically the vast majority of the heavy marketing lifting falls upon the author.

Author Advances – Don’t Hold Your Breath

Advances to authors have also taken a serious hit over the last ten years and future trends do not look promising.  While some people enjoy sensationalizing the overall concept of receiving an advance, the fact is that the average advance a publisher typically pays to a first-time author falls between $2000 and $20,000, often being meted out based on the author reaching various milestones during the process of their book’s development.

Indie vs Traditional Publishing

Not so long ago, self-published works were almost universally looked down upon as inherently inferior to their traditionally published equivalents.  You simply weren’t taken nearly as seriously by the literary (or any other) community if your book was self-published. Fortunately, the stigma attached to self-publishing has significantly diminished with the undeniable popularity of more and more self-published bestsellers hitting the marketplace.

The vast majority of authors who do manage to engage a large publishing house do so through the services of a literary agent (though there are certainly no promises of performance).  Like their publisher counterparts, most successful agents are very selective in their process of choosing clients to represent, typically favoring writers with proven track records, working in specific genres, with celebrity status, and a host of other advantages. 

Literary Agents Cut

In the relatively unlikely event that the agent could land you a deal with a mega publisher, you would expect to pay your agent anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of your proceedings for their guidance, negotiating skills with regard to contracts and financial matters, sales prowess, etc.  With the best of circumstances, an agent will shine as your greatest advocate and lead you to publishing greatness! In the worst situations, an agent will do little to nothing for you, all while being difficult to get ahold of.  

Your publisher would then edit, design, print, and distribute your book to the best of their abilities, once again, with no sales guarantees of any kind.  For all of these delightful reasons, and many others, first time authors can expect to have quite a challenging time when attempting to work with big publishing houses.  For the record, midsize and smaller publishers are generally somewhat easier to work with as you are more likely to establish a direct personal relationship with them, and they tend to be far more open to negotiating contract terms, royalties, etc.. There are also easier targets simply because there are so many more of them.  While they have less staff and lower overheads, they still face many of the same issues as their bigger competitors and must also be very careful to select projects they feel certain will turn a serious profit for them.

How I Found Self-Publishing

Many people are surprised to discover that an author may start out by self-publishing, only to be picked up by a traditional publisher.  As a bit of anecdotal proof that this does on occasion occur, I’ll share my personal experience with this phenomenon.  

My Traditional vs Self Publishing Journey

Skipping Traditional Publishing

Back in the early 90’s when I was working on my first book, The Maternal Journal, I absolutely sought to be published by one of the big houses. I employed every tactic conceivable to win the favor of whomever could help me achieve this goal, including attending several publishing conventions. 

At one of these events, I had the opportunity to pitch a number of large houses, but had a particularly long conversation with two Simon & Schuster reps. At this talk’s conclusion, and in a very polite and professional manner, both of them assured me that as a first-time author lacking any credentials on prenatal education, it would be highly unlikely (think of Hell freezing over) that any mega house would ever consider publishing my work.  After thanking them for their time, I decided that perhaps they were correct and focused all of my energy on getting The Maternal Journal in printed form, implementing my aggressive marketing strategy, and selling as many copies as humanly possible.

Well, the next eighteen months proved to be quite exciting and productive.  After appearing in a two-page spread in People Magazine, being featured on dozens of talk/news shows, and selling over thirty thousand books, one day my office phone rang and you’ll never guess who was calling…an executive (let’s call him John) from Simon & Schuster.  John was more than interested in publishing The Maternal Journal and made me offer that was well beyond what one would expect for a “first-time author with no credentials.”  I explained that our retail sales were trending nicely and, more importantly, there were some substantial premium deals in the pipeline, so I would have to decline his generous offer.  

But, this story still has a happy ending. Three short days later I received yet another call from John, asking what it would take to change my mind and close the deal.  Feeling I now had a degree of leverage, I laid out what any reasonable person would consider a seriously one-sided proposition. Basically, I asked for an advance that would cover all previous self-publishing expenses and requested fifty percent of the future retail profits.  To push the envelope even further, I offered exactly zero percent of any premium/promotional sales I had cooking, as well as any such sales that I might generate. It seemed John wasn’t too concerned about the sales my tiny company could generate, so we inked the deal.

The rest is, as they say, history.  While The Maternal Journal went on to have a successful retail run, selling over 50,000 copies, the real accomplishment came in the form of my “tiny company” selling over 3,000,000 copies through premium, gift-with-purchase, and incentive programs.  We also raised hundreds-of-thousands of dollars for the March of Dimes Campaign for Healthier Babies, as well as several other worthy causes.

Traditional To Self-Published Model

What many authors fail to realize is that their work can also transition from being traditionally published to self-published.  I have seen (and consulted for) many authors who became disenchanted with the arrangements they had with their publisher successfully extricate themselves from their contracts.  The potential reasons for taking such action are illustrated in this piece and include financial gain, control issues, distribution disagreements, among many others. Of course, it’s to an author’s advantage to make the right decision regarding their publishing avenues as early on as possible.

People might claim, and justifiably so, that I am particularly biased on this topic because of the models I’ve most commonly followed to sell my personal works.  I’ve mostly focused on premium deals (including gift-with-purchase, purchase-with-purchase, straight gift, and incentive programs) to move my projects. In fact, of the over 5,000,000 books I’ve sold, less than 200,000 have been through bookstores and only a percentage of those through traditional publishers.  

In order to be successful in the premium market, it is crucial that you can buy your own book in high volumes at a deep discount from your retail price.  Unfortunately, should an author desire to purchase their own books from their traditional publisher, the publishers are in habit of selling the requested books back to them at approximately 50% off of the listed retail price.  That’s fine if you just want to buy some books for a talk, or to give to friends and relatives, but what if you work out a premium deal with a company that wants 10,000 copies? Or, even 100,000? Then a 50% discount isn’t likely to get you the contract.  Allow me to explain why with this actual example:

How I Self-Published Through My Contract

Publishing Explained

In 1994, I wrote and self-published a nutrition and fitness guide titled, Lifestyles of the Trim & Healthy (Lifestyles). This short and simple paperback was illustrated by Cathy Guisewite (famous for creating the comic strip Cathy) and endorsed by the American Heart Association.  It retailed for $7.95 (remember, it was 1994!) and was an immediate hit.  After Lifestyles had been out for around a year, I was contacted by a Los Angeles based infomercial company that said the book would make a perfect gift-with-purchase item for their newest weight loss product.  They loved the notoriety that the Cathy character brought to the project, as well as the prestige of being tied in with the American Heart Association, and wanted 50,000 copies as quickly as I could get them delivered.  

There was only one problem:  infomercials need to make an extremely high multiplier (usually 7-to-10 times cost) on any item they include in a televised offering.  That translated to them being most comfortable buying an $8.00 book for somewhere between $1.14 and $0.80, respectively. Sounds like a nonstarter, right?  Well, here’s how it worked out.

Because of the extremely high volume involved, I was able to tweak a few nonessential elements of the book and bring my printer’s price down to $0.40 per copy.  I then negotiated with the infomercial company to buy Lifestyles for $1.00 each.  While a $0.60 profit may not sound like much, this transaction not only added $30,000.00 to the company coffers, it also got us free television exposure while raising money for the American Heart Association.  Now, I’m not saying that navigating a deal of this nature would be impossible if a traditional publisher was in the mix, but it most definitely would have made it much tougher to pull off (and far less profitable!).

One other significant advantage of self-publishing is that you can take control of your own destiny immediately.  Over the past thirty plus years, I’ve seen far too many authors use the process of obtaining an agent and a traditional publisher as an excuse to procrastinate on pressing their project forward…and sometimes this challenge can last for years, ending in bitter disappointment.

Why I Advise Self-Publishing Over Traditional Publishing

In conclusion, choosing between whether to go the traditional publishing route or self-publishing a book is an impactful decision authors must make based on their personal needs after carefully studying all of their options.  While for me, the advantages of self-publishing – increased profitability, greater control, the ability to make premium deals, etc. – far outweigh those of pursuing representation by a traditional publisher, I strongly encourage anyone planning to write and market their work to consult with an experienced expert in the field and rigorously explore all of their options.  


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