Trade Publishing vs Self Publishing: What’s the Conscensous?

Andrew brought this article on to my attention the other day.  It discusses the trend more and more authors are taking part in:  the self publishing or print-on-demand trend.

The article speaks highly of print-on-demand publishing, forgoing the traditional, trade publishing route (think Harper Collins…eh-hem…Harper…Penguin, Houghton Mifflin…).  It features a writer, Lisa Genova, who found herself on the New York times Best Sellers list after years of trying to find an agent who would represent her manuscript, Still Alice, and get it sold to a trade publisher.  After no success, and being told things like her book was one no one would want to read, Genova turned to print-on-demand publishing, got a great review in the Boston Globe, and her book was picked up by Simon Schuster promptly thereafter.

I’m so excited to hear of Genova’s success, as a fellow writer who also gave the self-publishing/print-on-demand gig a try.  But here are a couple things the article doesn’t expound upon:

Getting a newspaper review is tough stuff when you don’t have a trade publisher’s name behind your own.  When my book, A Dozen Invisible Pieces and Other Confessions of Motherhood hit the market last year, Andrew and I did a huge marketing and PR push.  I made media packs, complete with book, synopsis, summary, author bio, etc. to at least 30 different newspapers and magazines.  I didn’t hear back from a single one.

Much like Melinda Roberts, another author cited in the above-mentioned article, whose book is also apparently about the crazy experiences of motherhood, my book has gained its little bit of success mostly through word-of-mouth marketing.  Of the 230, or so, books I have sold, most of them have been through my own guttural efforts, and through the word-of-mouth efforts of the women who have read my book.  And, because women are chatty by nature, a word-of-mouth marketing campaign on a book about motherhood is only appropriate.

Here’s the rub:  as much as self publishers, print-on-demand publishers and vanity publishers want us writers to believe that theirs is an equally reputable option in the book publishing industry, there are still too many dinosaurs out there who hold tightly to the belief that a self-published book is probably crap, and not worth the time of looking over it.

When I was preparing my media kits, I found a HUGE number of newspapers and magazines that outright claimed they didn’t accept self published works for reviewing.  Period.  The message was loud and clear: if you’re self published, that means you weren’t good enough to get trade published and therefore, your work isn’t worth our time and attention.

What these attitudes are missing is that for some of us, self publishing is a conscious choice, not a resignation.  And self  and POD publishers are banking on this.  For $200 or $500 or $2,000, you too can be published and forgo the hoops that the traditional publishing world still wants us writers to jump through.

Based on the fact that I am attempting the trade route this time around (see previous post) I am obviously still on the fence about the whole thing…still willing to try the hoop-jumping approach.  The biggest decision-making factor for me?  I am still a stay-at-home mom to three kids.

While the PR and marketing work Andrew and I put into my last book was incredibly fun, a lot of hard work and a tremendous learning experience, it took a hell of a lot of time.  We created YouTube videos.  We did book events here and in San Diego.  We created and sent three different email campaigns.  I spent hours and hours on-line, late at night, interacting with the mommy social media networks.

But because I still have carpool duties, classroom volunteer commitments and a range of other extra curricular activities that I shepherd our kids to and from, I’m hoping that this time around I’ll get at least  a little help with the marketing stuff if I am so lucky as to entice an agent and publisher to find my work worthy of their attention.  And, from everything I’ve read, that’s really what it’s about:  luck.  You have to be lucky enough to get your query letter in front of an agent on just the right day, finding him or her in just the right mood, to give your piece of artwork a second glance.

I’ve heard and read it again and again:  when it comes to the trade publishing industry, there’s no guarantee.  There are plenty of amazing pieces of work that never get picked up, and there’s no good reason why.  At the same time, there are tons of crappy books out there that did get published by a large publishing house and, likewise, there’s not good reason why.  Meanwhile there are a whole host of other books out there–the self published books that may or may not be fantastic that still operate under the relatively same reputation they did ten years ago.  Yes, there are stories out there about books like the Celestine Prophecy, The Shack and Genova’s Still Alice that give us self published authors a little hope.  There’s the reality of the unsettling of the trade publishing industry right now that might, eventually work in the favor of writers every where.  But at the end of the day, it’s still a tough business to be in, no matter what end of the business you’re on.



Filed under Writing and Publishing

3 responses to “Trade Publishing vs Self Publishing: What’s the Conscensous?

  1. It seems like good, honest information about self-publishing is getting better to find. I haven’t considered it myself for one main reason- I write fiction. Because I’m in the most difficult selling genre as it is, I’m sticking to the traditional route. I have a friend who self-published three YA books. He’s invested $60K in them. He did TV, the big book fair in Austin, TX- you name it. He isn’t writing anymore.

    All that said, I think authors have more opportunities than ever to promote themselves via the internet and that not only helps you sell a self-published book, it also demonstrates to a traditional publisher your work ethic and professionalism.

    It’s like using both traditional and alternative Eastern medicine together. With all the changes in publishing going on, I can’t imagine that things won’t improve for self-publishing, but I think the changes will come slower now, after all the lay-offs. The big houses will need to make some traditional dollars first (talk about luck-Tina Fey!) before they embrace alternatives.

    I agree that luck plays a role Kimmelin, but you having one published book with a job and three young children isn’t lucky, it’s the result of hard work.

  2. Thank you so much for pointing out what so many are just now realizing – the false dichotomy of trad pub and self-pub, and the fact that there is crap and class in both categories.

    I say, if it sells, it sells, and that is its own justification. The only difference, if you really want to strip it down, is that the trad pub route involves actual people (agent, publisher) who stand to lose face in the book doesn’t sell. An author who self-pubs is happy to sell a few books; a publisher is shamed for not selling a quota. Ego and livelihood weighs heavily on the success of any book – and it’s not that of the author. In a way, self-pub is a purer way of gauging quality/appeal. Without the marketing and PR help, of course.

    Does anyone remember that Think and Grow Rich was originally self-published on

    In my own experience, releasing Mommy Confidential: Adventures from the Wonderbelly of Motherhood via POD was a good choice because I knew there was an audience (eight million visits since I started writing online), and I didn’t much care about getting rich. I know the realities of royalty income, and that I’m not going to send my children to college with the few dollars I get for each copy sold.

    Last word – I was surprised that the queries I received after the CNN article were for the book that was already published. I have a sequel and another humor book in the works, and each agent was adamant that we start with what has already been through the POD process. I’d think that if there were such a stigma to self-published books, that folks would be looking for the material that hasn’t yet been tainted!

  3. Melinda,

    I’m so glad to see you here, and am thankful for your extra thoughts on the whole self-pub vs trade publication biz.

    When I see where other folks’ self published books have gone…speaking of the writers who espoused a plan for their self pubished book that was much greater than just getting a few copies printed for family/friends…I think of how much more I might have done to promote my own book, given more time and money. Between social media networks, YouTube videos, local and distanced promo events, email campaigns and some direct mailings to inde book stores, I definitely tried a variety of things. But the reality for so many of us self-pub’d authors is this: there is only so much time in one day, and money does not grow on trees. As a full-time SAHM, my PR efforts mostly happened late at night…preparing media kits…writing press releases, dovetailing stock images with text and music for promotional videos. It was so much fun…and a hell of a lot of work (especially when our three early-rising-children were back up by 6am the next morning!)

    Anyone considering the two main publishing options really needs to consider how much time and money they have to devote to self promoting a self published book, while keeping in mind the PR and sales avenues already in place by the trade pub world. There is a lot of wonderful information to learn, when promoting a self published book and I’m ever so greatful to have acquired that knowledge. Now, trying the trade publishing route, I feel that much more savvy about the whole process…from manuscript submission all the way through seeing my book on the shelf in a bookstore!

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