Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: What You Need To Know

Frank Facts and Advice from Book Marketing Expert Bridget Marmion

Your expert nation conference table
Bridget Marmion leads a book marketing "Confab". Your Expert Nation

What does it mean to have your book published? In this day of options — traditional, self-publishing, hybrid publishing — too many, the line feels blurred.

But there are real-world differences for authors who self-publish vs. traditionally publish.

Bridget Marmion, a former SVP of Marketing at some of the most prestigious publishing houses and the founder of Your Expert Nation full-service marketing firm, makes the distinction for important business reasons.

In this frank Q&A, Marmion explains to Valerie Peterson the critical differences that authors must be aware of — and she shares actionable marketing advice for all authors.

Self-Published vs. Traditionally Published

Bridget, when I heard you speak at Social Media Week, you made a distinction between creating a book and “being published.” Would you elaborate on what you feel is the difference?

There are exciting options in our digital world today for writers who want to share their work, including those who want to see their ideas produced as e-books and/or printed books. Everyone can create books, or have them created, while not everyone is accepted for publication. The options to explore are very different and which option is best begins with writers asking themselves, "Why do I want to publish?" Self-publishing might well be the right, and a very satisfying, option for many writers. I just want those new to the publishing process to be more aware of what to expect, and questions to ask.

While anyone with the means can have a book created today, and handle or pay for the many related tasks, here's a very brief outline of what is meant by 'being published':

A publisher invests in a writer. As soon as you pay a company to create a book, you are "working with a company providing publishing services." You are not "being published." A publisher invests in a writer not only by way of providing an advance against future earnings on the author's book (with no guarantee the book will earn anything) but also invests in staff time to:

  • Edit the book
  • Design the book (interior and jacket; yes, e-books need that, too)
  • Copyedit/proofread the book
  • Prep or sell the title into accounts of all appropriate channels
  • Publicize the book
  • Market the book

Also, any publisher is using various other means — including coaching the author — to alert the audience the book is coming, develop a community of readers, and create some interest.

And ALL of that is done with [the publisher having] significant experience in your genre, whatever the format of the book, p-book or ebook. Only production and distribution vary between print books and e-books. 

Most important to note is that a traditional publisher is also investing its own credibility and good will in adding that author to its list. 

While many authors feel they don't get enough publicity and marketing support from their publishers, the real fact is that simply being published by [a traditional] house means the author is taken more seriously by stores, by some readers, and by the media than if they are self-published. The authors benefit by 'inheriting' the good will and reputation built up by that publishing house and its publicists and sales teams over years.

Publicity Challenges for Self-Published Books

So self-published authors generally face more sales, publicity and marketing challenges?

There are exceptions, of course, but yes, writers should be aware of the additional challenge of media coverage — which is hellishly competitive anyway — if you are self-published.

Authors and books published by traditional publishers are considered for coverage by certain media and awards which don't consider self-published books. It is slowly changing, but it is an issue now for most self-published authors. 

It is not to say that being published by a traditional house is any guarantee of major media coverage, great sales, a perfectly satisfying experience, but it's important to articulate these points. 

It is also true that even many traditionally published authors hire publicity/marketing veterans to complement the efforts of their busy in-house teams.

Advice for Self-Published Book Authors

And what if an author hasn't been successful getting a traditional publisher?

It is wonderful that anyone can create a book today, by using available technology and by paying companies to help them turn their ideas/images into printed and/or e-books. As a writer said to me recently, "Only a decade ago, I'd have no choice but to leave my manuscript in the drawer."

Just be aware that while self-published authors do get more control and a higher percentage of income, they also get 100% of the cost and work of releasing their book. The cost and the amount of work can be substantial. See all those tasks above that a publisher does? You will have to handle those or pay someone else to handle those tasks. So…

  • What's your budget, of time, of money?
  • What skills entrepreneurial, technical, social media, contacts, are you bringing to the project? Have you already developed a large community of potential readers via social media, speaking engagements?

Given the amount of commitment necessary, what advice would you give someone who is considering self-publishing?

First, ask yourself: Why do you want to create a book? That will help you identify your target audience, the right title/format/price, how you'll get to that audience, etc. Until you're clear on that, you won't know which of the many services is right for you.

Next, determine your budget, of time and money. Learn how to do a P&L, specific to self-publishing.  This is a business enterprise and must be treated that way.

And learn the questions to ask; have a lawyer experienced in self-pub contracts review your agreement.

Any caveats — clauses to look out for?

"COPYRIGHT" — Copyright must always be in the author's name, even if another company is handling the registration. This is key. 

"PUBLISHING RIGHTS" — Even if the clause relating to copyright says: AUTHOR HOLDS RIGHTS, watch out for any language or a clause later that says something like: "Publisher has exclusive rights to publish this work in any form / format..."  

That clause would give your printer / self-publishing company all control and, potentially, all income if, for instance, a traditional publisher read your book and wanted to purchase the right to publish it.  

A publishing expert will explain more about the huge significance of that second clause, should your book be one of the 30 in 1,000,000 books published each year which breaks out... and why that clause is unacceptable without clauses that also make clear the sub rights split between author and the publisher — who, by the way, should have a sub rights department to monetize those rights. 

"SELLING" — Rather than a rep pitching your book to any account, "selling" may mean making your book available for sale by listing it on the online retailers and (which?) book wholesalers. Do you want your book in libraries? That's much harder if it's not available via [the library wholesaler] Baker & Taylor.

"BOOK FORMAT" — Do you want printed copies or is e-book only fine?

"MARKETING" or "PUBLICITY" - Note that some marketing and publicity services offered by publishing services companies are just listings someplace, not actual pitches of your book.

Do you care if your book is available in stores? Then effective discounts matter, which may affect your royalty because the self-pub company will be protecting its own margins.

Among authors, what have you found to be the biggest misconception - what is the big eye-opener when they enter the publishing world?

Biggest eye-opener: Just because the book is 'ready' doesn't mean there's anyone waiting to read it / buy it.  

Writers, whether published by houses small or large, or self-published, come to us too close to release date. I believe it's because we live in a TYPE, CLICK, HIT 'SEND' world, that people believe marketing happens faster than it used to. The fact is that because media is as diffused as it is, it takes longer than ever to cut through the noise. 

What's the one most important piece of strategic marketing advice you would give to an author?

The most successful launches begin while the author is writing the book — begin then to build relationships:

  • With booksellers begin by being a regular, valued customer
  • With librarians by being a patron, get to know the staff by attending branch events, some have reading groups. Librarians recommend books - perhaps yours someday.
  • On Goodreads with other writers by sharing news of their work
  • With readers by participating in social media and on platforms (again, like Goodreads). If you write mysteries, romances, sci-fi, find those communities online and become an active member —NOT by talking about your book, but by adding interesting points to conversations, sharing news of other writers you enjoy. 
  • With those in your trade organization and special interest groups by speaking at events, building visibility as a trusted source, mentioning the book you're writing and collecting email addresses as appropriate.

For authors closer to publication? Truly useful advice would be based on the genre and target audience, but in general terms, I'd say consider a strategically created and executed online ad campaign (with a very effective landing page) and email marketing. 

Of course, if that author has 500,000+ Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Instagram followers, I'd give much different book launch advice.

Ideally, professional advice should be engaged a year before you plan to release, so the book's title, description, author positioning, and metadata can all reflect input based on the target audience and author goals.

Your Expert Nation has a great resource on our site — a Timeline for Publishing Success

For Traditional and Self-Published Authors: Marketing Books Today

The Your Expert Nation team is really broad in its capabilities — can you speak to any trends or shifts in what kinds of support and guidance authors — both traditional and self-published — need as the market changes? 

In this digital world, we are still matching marketing efforts with the author's target audience and how THAT author is comfortable/effective engaging with readers. 

Of course, the tools and platforms are changing all the time, which is why my business model is so fluid, but YEN's important and popular services now include:

  • Metadata reviews of book and author website. Metadata is the least sexy and most important word in marketing today, given the challenge of discoverability in this digital age.
  • Post-publication meta data reviews since the value of keywords change.
  • Social media coaching. Since it's especially important for writers to establish or improve their visibility and impact via social media communities, we offer one-on-one coaching to help each writer find the platforms on which he or she is most comfortable engaging. We find that they need help with the development of best practices like content management, which contribute to efficiency and allow authors more time for writing their books.
  • Email marketing, which often has a better conversion to sale than social (depending, as always on the author and audience).

Strategic advice and priorities will vary as much as each writer's genre, target audience, and promotional ammunition varies. At Your Expert Nation, I assemble a unique team based on each client's needs, to work together on a coordinated campaign. The team uses every tool at our disposal — both the timeless and the newest — to connect writers and readers in the most effective way.

So, what hasn't changed all that much?

The author is never able to edit himself/herself. I run a marketing firm, but I tell writers planning to self-publish that the first money they should spend is with a professional editor

Also, the author is never the best judge of the right title for his/her book. The author is simply too close to the work, and can't respond as a new or potential reader would. After working with hundreds of authors, I have my successful process for helping authors discover their best titles.

Bridget, the info you've provided is terrific. Anything you’d like to add?

There's too much for this article! There are a lot of resources on our site, and we host very informative events we offer every other month at our Conference Room Confabs where industry veterans address subjects of interest to authors, agents and our colleagues in publishing. These are held in our Union Square offices and we live-stream them, too, across the country. 

Bridget Marmion

As SVP Marketing of Farrar, Straus Giroux, Random House and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Marmion created and directed campaigns that lead to the best-seller list, and has overseen publicity and marketing, traditional and digital, for both adult and children’s books. She has been Chair of the AAP Trade Executive Committee and has extensive contacts and expertise in all channels including retail, K—12, college, library, online and the agent community. In 2012, Marmion launched Your Expert Nation, Inc., a full-service marketing firm. 

Follow Bridget/YEN

Twitter: @yrexpertnation

Facebook: www.facebook.com/YourExpertNation

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/bridgetmarmion

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