Belinda Pollard, Alison Young and Donita Bundy discuss the benefits and disadvantages of both traditional publishing and self-publishing, how the industry has changed in recent years, and how our faith might influence our choices.
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In conversation in this episode:
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, writing coach, accredited editor with qualifications in theology, and Gracewriters founder
- Alison Joy, romance author, former early childhood teacher and mother of 4 adult children
- Donita Bundy, writing teacher, preacher and author of young adult urban fantasy
Topics covered in this episode:
- Benefits and disadvantages of traditional publishing
- Benefits and disadvantages of self-publishing
- How our faith might influence our choices.
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Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters Podcast – Christian Writers Changing Popular Culture. Find us on your favourite podcast player and at Gracewriters.com.
Today on the podcast, Self-publishing versus Traditional Publishing.
I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and writing coach with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. Find links to my blogs, books and online courses at belindapollard.com.
Alison Joy: Hi, I’m Alison Young. I live in Brisbane in Queensland. I’m a former early childhood educator. I have four adult kids and I write romance under the pen name Alison Joy. You can find all my information on my website alisonjoywriter.com.
Donita Bundy: Hello, I’m Donita Bundy and for the last 20 years I’ve been using my theology degree to inform my preaching and teaching and more recently my writing and blogging. You can find out more about me at donitabundy.com.
Belinda Pollard: So, our topic today, it’s the first in our new publishing series that we’re beginning and we’re looking at self-publishing versus traditional publishing. We’re going to divide that up into the benefits and disadvantages of traditional publishing, the benefits and disadvantages of self-publishing and how our faith might influence the choices that we make, both to which type of publishing we go for and also the individual choices within those bigger choices.
Alison, could you get us started, please, with what you’ve been discovering in your research about the benefits and the disadvantages of traditional publishing.
Alison Joy: Most of us might have a bit of an idea of what traditional publishing is like because maybe we’ve watched movies and we see the stories about a writer and they’re beavering away and they have all this stuff happening. What we perceive might be traditional publishing might actually be a little bit skewed from the truth. The authors that have had this many rejections before they were taken up and then all of a sudden their world just changes and they’re just well-known, but obviously it doesn’t quite work like that for everybody.
I guess the main thing with a publisher is that everything is done for you. Once you sign the contract, the publisher takes care of everything. So, you don’t have to worry. You can get back to your writing and they will do everything for you in terms of the layout of the book, editing, the layout of the book, the cover design and things like that.
You don’t pay anything up front. The publisher takes care of that because they make an assessment on your manuscript as to whether they’re going to get money back at the other end. So, if they deem it’s worthy, they might give you advance on future royalties and then you get a place in a physical store. It means you could go into a bookstore and you go, “Yay, there’s my book!” And it’s there and probably really exciting.
The disadvantages are obviously it’s hard to break into. As I said, a lot of authors get rejection after rejection. Some ace it the first time but many people get rejections and that can be hard to deal with when you’re getting knockback after knockback.
It’s also time consuming. If you do happen to get a contract, then it can take anywhere up to a couple of years from when you sign it to actually having your book in print. As I said before, the advantage is they’re doing everything for you but the disadvantage is they’re doing everything for you.
That means you’ve got less creative control. It means they choose the title or the sub-title. They choose the cover. You may be able to work a little bit around it and they market it the way they want to market it. So, if you don’t agree with what they’re doing…
The royalties for traditional publishing are a lot lower because obviously they have their costs and they have to take their cut out of it before you get what’s left over. So, I think it’s typically around 7 to 25%. And they don’t pay them all the time, they only pay a couple of times a year.
When you get a contract, it’s pretty complicated so you need somebody who has knowledge in that area to go through it for you.
Belinda Pollard: Like an IP lawyer – Intellectual Property Lawyer to go through it for you. I love the way you’ve said how popular culture presents the authoring and publishing process. And isn’t it true that they’re often sitting in a garret typing away and missing their publisher’s deadlines and they have no visible means of support. We don’t know how they’re eating!
Alison Joy: I know!
Belinda Pollard: But the reality is that all the traditionally published authors I know work very hard and they have to be professional or they won’t get another contract and they have to keep providing the work product at the time required.
That actually makes me think of one of the advantages to traditional publishing is that you’ve got a publisher setting deadlines.
Alison Joy: Yes.
Belinda Pollard: And deadlines can work quite well for some of us, depending on personality. Some of us find deadlines quite terrifying but some of us find them very motivating. So, if they’re coming in from outside, that can be helpful.
So, I guess deadline can come under both benefit and disadvantage depending on things might happen in your life. Your life might be quietly dissolving into chaos because of something that’s happened and yet you still have this deadline.
Although hopefully if your publishers are human beings, you might be able to talk to them and renegotiate on some of those.
Alison Joy: But by the same token I don’t think it’s like it is in the movies where they miss deadline after deadline and they’re still forgiven and everything’s all good with the world. But I really think, unless you’re really a top, top bestselling author I really don’t think you’d get away with that.
Belinda Pollard: I think, too, a lot of the things that when we think about ourselves being a traditionally published author we think about ourselves being J.K. Rowling and riding around in a limousine and having big book launches prepared for us and massive marketing campaigns. And we don’t think about ourselves possibly actually being one of the mid-list lower-level authors who only get a tiny amount of marketing budget and don’t get all those other things.
Donita Bundy: If I ever imagine myself as a published author, it’s the pre-public J.K. Rowling. It’s the one where she doesn’t actually make it! It’s the striving and the, “Oh my gosh, am I ever going to get there!”
Well, actually, just to be in a position that you’ve finished a manuscript and you’re looking to be published is an amazing place to be and I never really understood how true it was when people said, “You finish the manuscript and then the work begins.”
So, regardless of which way you go I just think it’s a long road. In my experience, which isn’t very full, of the traditional publishing process it’s quite complicated and there’s a lot of hoops to jump through. So, it’s not easy even if you are accepted. It’s such a learning curve whichever way we go. There’s so much that we don’t know until we’re in the process.
Alison Joy: The thing is everybody’s journey’s going to be different. What happens for one author that gets published is going to be totally different to another author who goes to another publishing house. So, okay, some of the process might be similar but it’s going to vary depending on where you end up.
Belinda Pollard: Yes. I’ve seen one particular author kind of diligently proclaiming that this stuff that the publishing house will take control of cover design and things like that is not true – and she got all of this interaction with her publishing house on those issues.
One of the books I was traditionally published for, many years ago, I really did not like the cover and I had no choice. I didn’t like the title. I had no choice. And they’re a nice publisher but it will vary from publisher to publisher what you get control over and what you don’t get control over.
It can also vary, too, in terms of the money aspect. I actually know an author who had to buy a chunk of the first print run for his book, and that would be a red flag most of the time but not now. Apparently, this is something that is coming in more and more. I actually, at the time, and this was probably seven or eight years ago that this happened and I chased up some of my publishing contacts in the U.K. where this publisher was and said, “Is this right? Should this be happening?” and they said, “Yes, this is happening a lot more now where they want more financial contribution from the author because of the pressures that publishing is under at the moment.”
And that particular book has gone on to be very successful. To multiple print runs, translations into other languages and all kinds of things. So, it was a genuine traditional publishing contract but it had this contribution from the author.
I also know lots of authors who had to do a lot of their own marketing even though they had a traditional contract. So, it’s important to know all the different possibilities and I love publishers and publishing but I think we need to go in with our eyes open and know what’s actually the situation. It’s always a good thing to do with anything that’s important to us.
What about the benefits and disadvantages of self-publishing, Alison? What did you find on that?
Alison Joy: Obviously the biggest thing for self-publishing or indie publishing as it’s sometimes called, independent publishing, is that you have greater control over the content and appearance.
Basically, everything’s up to you. So, you present it how you want to do it. And, obviously, if you have to make changes, then you can make the changes a lot more easily than you could have if you were with a traditional publisher and found something you needed to deal with.
Obviously, the royalties are better because there’s no middleman so it’s just you and you’re publishing it so there’s no editorial team to pay to get their cut first so you’ll get a bigger slice in the end.
It’s often faster exposure. You’re probably waiting less time between when you finish the manuscript until when you get published. Technically, you could probably have your manuscript finished one week and have it published the next week but obviously you’d want to go through an editorial process and other things before you do that but it is technically possible.
So, the other main thing is if you were doing it yourself, you’d have a longer shelf life. Now, what I mean by that is if you go into a regular bookstore, how many books are there in the world, and no bookstore in the world can have every single book in the world on its shelves so they’re going to have to make decisions on what they carry in their bookstore. Whereas, if it’s online or available, you have a better chance of people finding it over time.
And then the other side, obviously, there’s no support system. There’s no editorial team to walk you through it, so you’re on your own. So, you’re on your own for setting it up. You’re on your own for finding an editor. You’re on your own for finding a cover designer. On your own for marketing and advertising. So, obviously, you can build a network of people to help you but you’ve got to find them.
There’s upfront cost for everything. You have to pay for an editor. You have to pay for a proofreader. You have to pay for a cover design. So, you’ve got to put everything in upfront and that’s the same with every indie author, writer, songwriter, anyone in that field. You have to be able to put the money up front.
Of course, it’s going to be harder to get into a bookstore because you don’t have the power of a publishing house behind you.
Because you’re doing everything yourself that means you’re actually taking physical time away from your writing. What time you could be writing, you’re going to be advertising. Or time you should be writing, you should be doing other things to promote your book or get your other book set up and out into the world. So, that’s the other thing.
There’s also perception among some people that if you’re self-published, you obviously aren’t good enough or weren’t good enough for traditional or you weren’t chosen so therefore you aren’t good enough. But I think that there’s so many books out there and so many books now out there that have succeeded and have been independently published. And the same with music, independent music labels, that it is quite possible to be successful self-publishing.
Belinda Pollard: Yes. And it shows a misunderstanding about how publishers choose which books they’re going to publish. They don’t choose all of the good ones and reject all of the lousy ones. They have to choose which one they think they can sell and make money for their company and that’s got so many other factors involved in it.
So, they’re breaking their hearts every day having to reject manuscripts that they love because it won’t fit their list, or they published one a bit like it six months ago, or it’s not a topic that they can easily market.
There’s a whole bunch of different reasons why they’re rejected and it’s also not true that every self-published author has been applying to literary agents for the past 20 years and has finally given up and self-published! There’s a whole lot of different reasons now, isn’t there, for people to actively choose self-publishing.
Another thing I’d say about the marketing side of things is that, as I understand it, a new book by an unknown author is typically given about three months to sink or swim in the bookstore system. And that book might be only getting limited marketing because they might have their major titles for the year that they’re really pushing hard. The other less major titles are not getting so much attention. So, it’s wonderful to have that access to the bookstore distribution system through traditional publishing but it can also be a limitation in some ways.
Whereas with self-publishing, as you say, Alison, because we mostly use print on demand, our books are always in print. They’re always available. Any bookstore in the world can order our book in if they don’t have it in stock, if someone goes in and asks for it. So, there’s swings and roundabouts, isn’t there? There’s different pros and cons to both the systems.
Did you have any thoughts about that, Donita?
Donita Bundy: Just that I agree with the summary of what Alison gave about the traditional. I’m one of those ones that felt like I couldn’t make it in the traditional publishing because of all the things that I had to do and I tried and I failed and I then decided that I thought, well, self-publishing was the way for me because I could actually get a result out of it.
But there’s an awful lot involved that you just don’t know about. Like I said before, there’s so much you don’t know and I think that’s one of the most important things about groups like Gracewriters: coming together to actually get information from people who’ve been through the process and learning how to go about it and all of the little steps.
One of the great things I love about this series that we’re starting is that we’re going to be exposing a lot of those things. But being someone who likes to be hands-on and have control over my work I think that I enjoy that benefit of self-publishing. Also, my work doesn’t easily fit into a box that would be easily promoted by a traditional publisher.
As you said, Belinda, there are other reasons why people choose to do self-publishing rather than traditional. Not because they’ve failed but because it’s so hard for traditional publishers theses days fighting against self-publishing and publishing houses closing and having to work so hard. More people buy online than in bookstores, so they’ve really got a tough job ahead of them.
But that also opens the doors more readily for those people who want to have a go at self-publishing especially with so many cross-genres. How many specific cross-multiple-genres are there! And how can you publish or how can you expect a publishing house to market those. So, that’s one of the great benefits.
And also coming into the system now where people have gone before us and really opened doors and changed expectations and changed the way things are done. I think we are in a prime time to have those options available. To make choices that are right for us. Yes, I’ve enjoyed the process of learning, both processes, which has equipped me for the decisions that I’ve made. Yes.
Belinda Pollard: And what about how our faith influences these choices that we make? Any thoughts on that, Donita?
Donita Bundy: I think by definition our God is creative and diverse. I mean, all we have to do is open our eyes and look around to see the truth in that. So, it would follow that apart from the gospel, which I think is summed up beautifully in Ephesians 4:4-7:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.
So apart from the uniformity of the gospel, within the body of Christ one size does not fit all. And grace and gifts and faith, etcetera, has been apportioned by the love and through the wisdom of our God. We are all equal but we are not the same.
So, there are vast diversities in the kingdom of God. We all come from different backgrounds; we speak with a unique voice with a message for a particular audience. Therefore, I think it’s really important to keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to publish our work.
As Alison has researched, you would have heard, that there are pros and cons for every single way and I think the variations of traditional and self-publishing, it’s a huge range of how we can be published but each way involves hard work, rejection and heartbreak.
Belinda Pollard: Yay!
Donita Bundy: Yes, let’s keep going onwards! But just as there isn’t one way, I don’t think there is an easy way either. It’s more about finding the right way for you and the work you’re publishing at this particular time. I think it’s really important to keep in mind that the pathway to publication does not determine the worth of the work and I’ve mentioned this before.
We are Gracewriters. Our writing is born from a passion for the written word and for whom we represent.
And we know it can be a lonely road with the additional element of attack because as we set out to change popular culture one word at a time we’re entering enemy territory. It doesn’t matter who we’re writing for, the general population or Christian population.
So, perhaps than rather entering debate about which is the overall best way to publish we prayerfully consider which is better for us at this particular time for this particular work and remember to celebrate with each other whenever any of us have gracenotes that find voice when they’re released into the wild, whatever avenue that takes.
I think it’s about whatever publication makes it, that is worth celebrating. Our words have found a voice in the population and that is something worth celebrating. I think that’s the main thing but prayerfully consider what is best for us and acknowledging we’re just different and so we shouldn’t strive to be the same and accept that our journeys will be different.
Belinda Pollard: And that issue of the gracenotes in our work – that can sometimes be a reason for choosing one path over the other. So, if a publisher is potentially going to want to erase our gracenotes or force us to include content that we don’t want to promote, that can be a reason for choosing self-publishing.
But I agree with you and particularly in terms of wanting to have both excellence and integrity in either path because of who we serve. The God we serve.
Did you have any thoughts on that, Alison?
Alison Joy: I think one of the things is we shouldn’t necessarily restrict ourselves to all traditionally published or all independent is what Donita said. It’s choosing the right path for the current work that we’re doing and we’re not restricting ourselves that we’re only going to do this or we’re only going to do that.
And we might end up being a hybrid model and as Donita said, it’s not going to be an easy road and it’s trying to navigate the way through that. Maybe prayerfully consider our options as to which way we should go.
Belinda Pollard: And respecting one another no matter which way we go and supporting and encouraging and building up one another in love, regardless of which way we go.
So, we’re going to be looking a little more in this series as the series progresses. Next time the three of us are going to talk about why we chose self-publishing and then move into some more episodes with self-publishing information and then we’re going to be interviewing a range of traditionally published authors as well and looking at the traditional publishing process over these coming months. So, we hope you’ll be enjoying that series as that unfolds.
How about I pray for the Gracewriters.
Heavenly Father, we thank you for your words and your Word and we thank you that you have given us a passion for communicating your truths in various small and large ways in our written words. We pray that you will give us wisdom, humility, hope, strength and resilience as we pursue our various publishing paths and that you will use our work for your glory and your kingdom. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Alison Joy: Amen.
Donita Bundy: Amen.
Belinda Pollard: Alison Joy and Donita Bundy, thank you for your help today. I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you next time on the Gracewriters podcast.
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