Traditional publishing vs. Self-publishing: What is the real difference?
I spoke recently on a panel on “The Art of Publishing” alongside a self-published author, an author with books both traditionally and self-published, the editor of a weekly newspaper, and the owner of a small press. More than anything, this conversation led me to consider the labels we use when discussing different means of publication. A vast amount of information is available on “ traditional publishing vs. self-publishing. ” You can consider the pros and cons of each, their histories, statistics, and anything else you could possibly want to know to help you decide which road to go down. I certainly imagined myself standing at a forked path with manuscript in hand while I was obsessively pouring over those sites.
What these blogs and Facebook posts don’t convey is that these are not the only two publishing routes that exist, and that increasingly, the other options are blurring the boundaries between what seemed like two distinct choices.
Traditional publishing used to just be “publishing.” There were a limited number of people in the world who had access to the physical resources needed to print and distribute a book. If you wanted to publish your writing, they acted as the gatekeepers. Of course, people have hand-written and distributed writing for a long time, but publishing houses, with Richard Hoe’s patent of the first rotary press in 1846, could circulate paperbacks, introduced to the United States only one year earlier, widely.
Technology– accessible word processors, printers, computers, the Internet—made it possible for a vast number of people to create, replicate, and distribute their work on a broad scale. The self-publishing/ traditional publishing dichotomy was born. Large publishers were no longer required in order to access these tools, and their role changed to that of a content filter and voucher. They came to be seen as quality control—a way to sort through the enormous sea of work that was now available around the world.
But there is more good work out there than the Big Five publishers can publish. Small publishers began challenging that monopoly and filling some of that gap. Even with the numerous small presses that now exist, there is still more great writing, and potentially great writing, than they can manage. Publication sometimes relies on politics—who you know, how much money and access you already have, etc., as a filter because publishers are humans and humans can only read, edit, design, market, and distribute so much. But anyone has access to these tools. People can publish their work themselves. And a lot of it is good! What challenges outdated ideas about the connection between publishing and quality even further is that increasingly folks are choosing to publish their work independently not as a compromise or act of settling, but intentionally. There are a number of reasons some prefer to publish books themselves, including viewing it as a middle finger to the politics and gatekeeping of traditional publishing.
So publishing is no longer necessarily about who can physically publish and distribute a book. And it’s no longer necessarily an indicator of quality. Where does that leave us?
With choices! Here we are again at that fork– You can pursue traditional publishing with a large house or small press or you can publish your book yourself. But there are choices now that blur the line between these two. My first novel, Rock of Ages, is in production with Inkshares, a crowdfunding platform for books. In this model, authors who secure 750 preorders within a set timeframe receive publishing services from the company including cover design, developmental and copyediting, marketing and distribution. Crowdfunding puts the key to that golden gate in the hands of authors. Instead of standing like a sentinel in front of the opening, platforms like Inkshares step aside and ask “Can you reach high enough to unlock the gate yourself?”
The new venture Writing Bloc is taking on, the cooperative publishing model taking that a step further. We’re working as a team to write, edit, design, market, and distribute our own work. Like self-publishing, we’re eschewing the need for someone to do it all for us. Instead, we’re utilizing the expertise and work ethic of our group as a unit to publish our own quality content. We are taking ownership of the gate and everything inside. But at what point does this kind of venture become more like traditional publishing than self-publishing? After all, we are developing contracts, establishing content guidelines, and hopefully will eventually be distributing royalties. As Robert Batten writes, “publishers are people.” Batten is emphasizing that in order to get in with the company, The Entity, you must first win over the people who make up that entity, but remembering that publishers are people also challenges their hegemonic power. Publishing houses are not gods. They no longer have a monopoly on resources and they’ve never had a monopoly on quality. They are groups of people who remain the gatekeepers simply because they’ve appointed themselves such and we’ve continued to go along with it. So does it matter when we cross that line when the line is increasingly arbitrary?
What it boils down to is that the labels are becoming irrelevant. I made a comment on the panel that had all of the participants nodding. One of the amazing advantages of having access to many means of publishing means that you don’t have to write to a target audience if you don’t want to. You can write the book that you want to write—the story that needs to be written—and then find your target audience. When you put your book out into the world you want editing, design, marketing, and the validation that comes from people enjoying your work. Increasingly, those are at our fingertips in a number of innovative configurations. You may not have an audience of tens of thousands. But amongst the billions of people in the world, you probably have an audience of at least hundreds. What is important is creating exceptional books and getting them into the hands of people who will find meaning and value in them, however, we do that.