Traditional vs. Alternative Publishing


To understand the alternative publishing option, it’s important to recognize what it is that traditional publishers do. Once that’s clear, it’s easier to see the challenges facing authors who choose the alternative publishing route. Part of the job of our Path to Publishing program will be to help authors figure this out.

What Traditional Publishers Do

There’s much more to traditional publishing than just printing and selling books. Publishers employ editors to work with the manuscript, as well as copy editors, book designers, cover designers, and printers to make the book as attractive as possible. They also hire catalogue writers, graphic artists, e-book specialists, sales and marketing teams, publicists, and a variety of others to make sure that the book is placed in many stores and that information about the book is made available to the reading public. This is typically done at the publisher’s expense, so authors working with such publishers do not have to dip into their own pockets. If you add to that the advance against royalties that publishers often pay, the publisher may have a considerable investment in the success of the book. For that reason it is not unusual – or unfair – for the publisher to take a large percentage of the proceeds.

This system doesn’t always work perfectly, and a lot of good books never get published. The system is difficult for new authors to penetrate, and they almost always need an agent to do so. The largest publishers in America are all small divisions of large conglomerates, and that complicates matters even further. Nevertheless, this system has been in place for over a hundred years, and it has made it possible for many authors with no money – but a lot of talent – to get their books in front of the public. While there is a serious need for new, alternative methods of publication, there is no indication that traditional publishing will be going away – nor should it – any time soon.

Smaller Publishers and Co-Publishers

But beneath this top, rarified tier of publishing, there are many other smaller publishers with different methods of doing business. Some of them function the same way as the major publishers, and at the other end of the spectrum there are book packagers who live from deal to deal and negotiate new terms each time. Between them there are lots of publishers doing business in many different ways.

 If these publishers have one thing in common, it’s that they usually shift some—or even most—of the costs of publication to the authors. Advances paid to authors are often small—or even non-existent—and some small publishers expect authors to pick up a portion of the costs of publication, such as editing or book promotion. These issues can be tricky. In our Path to Publishing program we hope to help authors sift through such publishing alternatives and evaluate the ones that are feasible.

Self-Publishing: The Four Key Issues

Authors can also consider self-publishing. Fortunately, there are more good opportunities in this area than there used to be. Authors following this route usually have to bear the costs of publication themselves, but that’s not always true. Authors sometimes arrange a form of “hybrid publishing” in which they convince others to invest in the book or convince traditional publishers to acquire it after they’ve seen the finished product.

Alternative publishing requires a lot of informed choices— choices that are made more important by the fact that authors are usually dealing with their own money. Part of our Path to Publishing program will be to lay out the alternatives as clearly as possible. We think these issues can be best looked at under four major categories: (1) Writing & Editorial, (2) Design, (3) Printing & Distribution, and (4) Promotion.

1. Writing and Editorial

This is the phase that many writers think they can do entirely on their own, but that’s often a mistake. While there is no substitute for a well-crafted manuscript and an original voice, every book needs editing – or at least substantial input from others. Books that go through major publishers typically undergo a lot of in-house editing, but self-publishing writers have to arrange for that editing on their own.

Our problem with online publishers begins here: most of them attempt to direct self-publishing authors to a computerized package of editorial services where there is little or no personal contact between author and editor. The price of the overall publishing package appears low at first, but the author is quickly directed towards higher-priced, additional editing services. But when authors do pay for such additional editing services, they are handed over to an editor they’ve never vetted and whom they may never get to meet. This does a disservice to the author.

2. Design

Book and cover design is a highly technical process that almost always involves a book design specialist. Most publishers have inhouse designers. One of the goals of the Direct to Press program is to put authors in touch with design professionals who know how to meet the specifications of printers and e-book publishers and have the skills to create an attractive looking book.

Often, there is a temptation to cut corners at this stage. Online publishers typically offer a set of design templates from which the author can chose, but these rarely turn out to be satisfactory. After going to all the trouble of writing and editing a book, the last thing an author needs is to have a cookie-cutter cover and page design that will just sit limply on the book shelf. These online services offer individualized design, but they are usually quite pricey and rarely as well-executed as those of a local design professional – one who has a good reputation with other local authors.

3. Printing and Distribution

This is the stage where publishing decisions become critical. In a nutshell, it’s not enough just to print the book, because authors need a plan for distributing it to places where it can be sold. One option is to have the book printed by a local printer. If the author wants to order a significant number of copies at the outset, local printing usually provides the lowest cost per book. But printing the book locally doesn’t solve the distribution problem. Authors who only print locally are limited by how far they can travel on their own to find readers and deliver the books. They typically need an additional option to supplement local printing.

Online publishers offer a form of distribution, but it is usually limited only to e-book and print-on-demand orders through online sales channels. Almost none of them have direct accounts with bookstores. Equally important, it is almost impossible for authors to purchase their own books from such companies at a price that makes it practical to resell them through bookstores on consignment. Usually the unit price they have to pay to purchase their own books makes a subsequent sale to bookstores unprofitable for the author.

We will try to provide the best guidance in this situation. One very promising alternative is the new Ingram Spark program, created by the well-respected Ingram Book Wholesalers. For a reasonable fee, Ingram Spark will list the books of self-published authors on its database for both print and ebooks and make the books available to mainstream bookstores and online booksellers around the country on commercially reasonable terms. This is a program that will work for many authors—either by itself or in conjunction with a local printing of the book.

4. Promotion

This is the stage that is often the most difficult: making the book known to potential book buyers. Our Path to Publishing program will suggest the names of veteran book publicists, book bloggers, web designers, and others who can assist authors in making their books stand out from the crowd. Among other things, we will be offering classes on publicizing and promoting books. Book Passage will commit to carrying the books of authors who publish through this program for at least 90 days.

Book promotion is a long-term proposition. It requires an investment of time, money and imagination by the author. But this is true with all books—whether self-published or not. Authors need to think of book promotion as an extension of the writing process. It’s a long-term propostion in which the author is really the “CEO of My Book, Inc.”

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