A Coffee with Writers: Traditional Publishing vs. Self Publishing

Traditional publishing vs. self publishing hangout image

In case you weren’t able to watch the live stream of my hangout with author Ashlee Willis this morning, you can watch it anytime on YouTube!  I will put a disclaimer here…Google had some serious glitching problems toward the end and knocked both Ashlee and myself out of the hangout multiple times.  Thus, the ending is rather disappointing, but below the video is the written version of our Q&A, as well as the questions we were unable to ask, due to Google’s fabulously timed glitching.  Hopefully this will make up for the sad ending.  Ashlee is also posting the Q&A on her blog as well!  🙂  If you have any questions about publishers, vanity presses, or traditional vs. self publishing, feel free to email me at therubyvial@commspeed.net.

Questions Regarding Traditional Publishing:

—What was the timeline between an agent/publisher interested in your work and the book being published?  Do you think this is about average or shorter/longer?

I began sending proposals in Jan 2013. I heard from the publisher around May of that year expressing interest. They offered me a contract around Oct 2013. In June 2014 my book released. So all in all it was about a year-long process. I think that’s probably about average for traditionally published books, more or less.

—Did you have a say in the editing process-as in, keeping certain phrases or words and removing others?  Did the publisher have the final say?

I did, yes. They were very willing to work with me on any changes they proposed that I wasn’t ok with. Luckily they didn’t have any big-picture changes they wanted made to the overall structure of the story, so I didn’t have to deal with that.

—Would you recommend finding an agent first before contacting publishers, or is that not as necessary as it seems?

I think it has everything to do with what you, as the writer, want. If you already know you want to self-publish, or you’d like to go with a small name publisher and you’re comfortable researching your publishing contracts and coming up with your own marketing plan, you probably don’t need one.

Some things, though, an agent can do for you that you can’t do for yourself. They have connections, they can get your proposals in to big name publishers (which most times won’t even accept a query directly from the writer herself).

Agents don’t necessarily all offer the same thing either. Some agents may be more focused on marketing, some of them may be better at helping you revise. So again, it’s what you, as an individual writer, are looking for.

—What are your suggestions for writing a good-convincing-query letter to agents/publishers?

Query letters are always sooo tedious, there’s just no getting around it in my opinion! The trick for me was not to send off the first letter I wrote. I just hated them so much that once I got that first draft finished I was like, ok, here we go! Send! But you have to revise your query letters just like you’d revise your book. Maybe even more so! Because they are the first (and maybe only!) impression you get to make on an agent or publisher.

Another thing that’s crucial is making sure that your proposal follows the exact guidelines for each individual agent you are sending it to. That means you won’t be able to get away with writing just one query letter and sending copies of it to all the agents or publishers you’re interested in. You have to tailor-make each letter, bring out the points of your book or proposal that appeal most to that particular agent (according to the research you’ve done on him/her). If they see that you’ve followed their guidelines exactly, that tells them a lot about you as a person and as a writer, and they will be much more apt to consider your proposal.

—I’ve noticed that a lot of query letter submissions require the author to explain why they are qualified to write the novel.  This seems rather daunting to me since I personally didn’t starting writing because I thought I was “qualified.”  I wrote because I had a passion for the story, simple as that.  How would you recommend tackling that question in a way that would convince agents/publishers to represent us?

I think most times you’ll hear that question is when you’re querying for a non-fiction book that would require some extensive knowledge about a certain subject.

However, the times I’ve come across that question before, or questions like “what are your previously published works” … well, what can you do but ignore them, actually? If you have no special qualifications for writing what you’ve written, it’s best not to bring attention to the fact. What I would do, though, if you feel you need to address the question in some way, is to outline exactly what you said: that you have a great passion for the subject you’ve written about.

—You’ve mentioned that it’s important to stay away from publishers who want you to sell ALL the rights to your book.  I hadn’t even realized it was possible to keep some rights.  Which rights would you deem important to keep?

I think most legitimate publishers would never ask you to sell your rights to them in the first place. What a normal publishing contract does is to LICENSE the publisher to USE some of the rights to your work – such as editing, creating cover art for it, printing and of course listing and selling your book. No one could do that, obviously, without your permission as the author. Therefore you have to have an agreement that says basically, “yeah, I’ll allow you to do these things to help me out with my book, and in return you get a percentage of my sales.” My contract (and I’m assuming most publishing contracts) says something about the publisher “having the right to edit and revise the work, provided that the meaning of the work isn’t materially altered.” So you’re protected against your book being changed in any big ways.

It’s good to keep the rights to anything you think the publisher won’t take advantage of or actively pursue. For instance, if the publisher has no intention, or just doesn’t have the budget, to do an audio version of your book, you should keep those rights. That way if you decide you want to use those yourself down the road, you don’t have to play tug of war with your publisher. Same goes for movie rights or anything else like that.

–What do you pay for author copies of your book?

I pay just over 40% of the listed price of my books (that comes to around $5.50 per book). That means that when I sell the author copies on my own, I make 60% of the listed price (as opposed to the 30% I get when the publisher sells it).

—What are some of the most important reasons for having an agent?  Navigating publishing contracts?  Help with marketing/book signings, etc?

Well my situation is a bit different. I started querying publishers before I did agents, so by the time I got an agent I was already in the midst of negotiating a contract with my publishers. So I feel like I haven’t probably felt the full effect of the benefit of having an agent yet. I think after my next book is finished I’d be able to answer that question better. So far, though, my agent has helped me communicate ideas or concerns I have to my publisher in a clearer way than I’d be able to do myself. She’s also given me some tips on marketing.

—Could you list some qualities you think a good agent should possess?  On the other hand, what are some red-flags when it comes to agents?

It’s important to research each agent you want to query, and it’s important to remember that basically, you are hiring the agent – not the other way around! Yes, the agent is looking for specific things in your book, but you also have a right to look for certain things you may want in the person who is to represent you. You may want an agent who is willing to update you frequently on the status of your proposals. Or you may want an agent who is really aggressive with a marketing plan. Etc. It also helps if you can personally get along with your agent, almost like you would a friend. You’ll need to be able to trust that your agent’s vision for your work is similar to your own – that you’re both on the same page about where it is going and the potential it has. Not to mention, she should just have faith in your story and your talent in general!

I’d say anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, stay away from. If the agent is pushing you in a direction that you’ve already made clear you don’t want to go, that’s a bad sign. If she asks for too many rights or too high of a percentage of your proceeds, that’s not good either. Also I’ve heard of some agents who want to begin working for the author and sending out proposals before anything official and legal has been decided as far as their representation. That basically means the agent doesn’t want to take a risk by signing you until she already has proof that a publisher is interested – you definitely want to stay away from that, too!


Questions Regarding Self-Publishing:


  1. How difficult is self-publishing? Doing everything yourself seems kind of daunting to me – is it as hard as it sounds?

I actually didn’t do everything myself.  The thought of doing everything, as in designing the cover, formatting the interior, formatting the eBook….that is certainly daunting.  However, I purchased CreateSpace’s services to design my cover and format the interior, plus the eBook, so it wasn’t nearly as hard as it probably could have been.  However, I do know several self-published authors who have done everything under the sun by themselves, and they say it actually isn’t too hard.  I’d still be nervous to do it, considering I have no idea what I’m doing, but perhaps it wouldn’t be incredibly difficult after all.

  1. Did you consider having your own “publishing company” to publish your books under, as I’ve heard some self-published authors do? What would be the benefit of that?

I am very impressed by self-published authors who are brave enough to create their own publishing company.  Simply as an indie author with CreateSpace, if you want something done, you usually have to do it (with some exceptions).  However, if an author has their own publishing company, they literally have to do Every. Single. Thing. Themselves.  Meaning, the writing, editing, designing, formatting, printing, binding, shipping, listing on websites, the copyright, ISBN…everything.  The thought of doing that is rather terrifying to me.  I’d much rather let CreateSpace take care of the listings, printing, binding, copyright, and ISBN.  So no, creating my own publishing company really never was an option for me.

  1. How difficult is it to do all the “business” stuff … obtaining an ISBN and copyright, uploading your book to various sites, etc.?

This is partly why I love CreateSpace so much.  They take of the ISBN, copyright, and listing my books on various sites.  Now, authors do have the option of using their own ISBN instead of a CreateSpace ISBN, but I honestly have no idea what that would entail.  I’ve simply used the CreateSpace ISBN, and I haven’t had any problems.  Also, about the copyright…technically once you publish something under your name, you are claiming the copyright.  Copyrights really aren’t as scary as they seem, and you can read more about them here.

  1. What are some of your favorite things about self-publishing?

I love having the control over my work.  After all, the book is my “baby.”  I love that if I want to do something with my book, and I have the means for it, I can—and I have the final say.  If I don’t want to do something, I have absolutely no obligation to.  It’s as simple as that.  I also enjoy the higher royalties, though it really depends on where the book is purchased.

  1. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how horribly unpleasant it is to format their eBook. Is it really so bad?

I haven’t formatted my own eBook, so I really don’t know.  For first-timers, I’ve heard it’s pretty complicated.  However, I’ve also heard it’s easier/faster than formatting the paperbook.  I suppose it really just depends on the person, how much experience they have, what program they are using, and if they know what they’re doing.

  1. Do you spend a lot of money on advertisement or marketing? Or do you mainly do that from your own social media or with other bloggers?

Well, considering I am nineteen, I don’t have all that much money to put towards professional publishing.  Because of that, a lot of my marketing involves other bloggers, Goodreads giveaways (incredible networking opportunity, by the way), and social media.

  1. What site/company did you self-publish through? Can you tell me a little about the basics of using that company? I’ve heard of CreateSpace, but not really any other self-publishing places.

I published through CreateSpace, which is an Amazon company.  This means that when you publish your work through them, the book is automatically listed on Amazon, which is super helpful.  Also, authors have the option of choosing an “Expanded Distribution” option, which will list the book on Barnes and Noble, Google Books, and many more on the web.  I’ve come across my book on at least fifteen different sites that I didn’t even know existed.

Anyway, with CreateSpace, you can either upload your own print-ready PDFs of your interior and cover, or you can purchase their services to create and format them for you.  You can also purchase their services to format your book into a Kindle book.

  1. Do you have a print run of your paperbacks? Or does your self-publishing service allow you to do print-on-demand?

All books published through CreateSpace do print-on-demand.  I’ve heard that most other self-publishers do this as well, but I don’t know if it counts for all of them.

  1. Who mails out your orders of paperbacks when they are purchased? Is that your responsibility? Amazon’s? How does that work?

When someone purchases a book anywhere on the web, Amazon mails out the order.  That’s another reason why I love CreateSpace…they take care of all that for me.

  1. How complicated is it to get the digital version of your cover design to look right on the paperback? Are there a lot of things you had to learn about as far as color schemes, etc., to get the finished cover to look like you wanted it after it was printed?

Once again, I didn’t design my cover for my first book, “Holding the Future Hostage,” but it looked great when I received the proof, so I have a feeling the CreateSpace designer perfected that before sending it to me.  However, it’s been a bit of a different story with my second book, “Where Shadows Lie.”  WSL has a rather dark cover, so even though the digital looked great, it was far too dark once printed.  My designer, Perry Elisabeth (perryelisabeth.blogspot.com) and I will play around with lightening techniques a bit before finalizing it.

  1. What percentages of your sales do you get from the various sites your book is available through?

Amazon Kindle: about 70% of the profit (by far the most of all sites)

Amazon: about $3, give or take some change.

CreateSpace eStore: about $6, give or take some change.

Barnes and Noble: about 20 cents.

If my book is purchased from any other site than these mentioned, the royalty really isn’t anything.  As you can see, it’s pretty small for Barnes and Noble, even.  Everyone has to get their cut, I suppose.

  1. Did you have any sort of detailed marketing plan before your book was released? What did you do to get it out there in front of people?

Before my book was released, I began a blog to start publicizing my soon-to-be-published novel.  I was actually able to meet lots of people through the blogosphere, so that was definitely a great start.  Soon afterward, I signed up for Facebook.  I’m on lots of other social sites now, including Pinterest, Tumblr, G+, YouTube, and Instagram.  Marketing through these socials have really helped me connect with other authors and readers alike.  I don’t know if it’s resulted in many sales, but the networking helps to just get my name out there.

  1. Can you tell me about how much you have to pay to purchase your own author copies?

I pay about $6.63 per each copy I purchase, and then a whole lot more for shipping. 😉  Even though I have a great discount per each book, it’s the shipping that kills me.

  1. What are the differences between self-publishing companies and vanity presses?

Vanity presses are sites that offer publishing packages for at least $100 each.  These sites have big “Publish Now” buttons and are plastered with positive testimonials.  Even though they sound good, RUN AWAY.  You should not have to pay to publish your book.  Now, there is a difference if you are paying someone specifically for designing your cover, or specifically for formatting your interior.  However, you shouldn’t have to purchase any “package” for a few hundred dollars in order to publish your book.  You and your book deserve more than that.  Believe me, I’ve fallen into the trap of vanity presses before—three times, actually.  If you’re looking at a website, and you’re not sure if it’s a vanity press or not, send me an email at therubyvial@commspeed.net.  I’ll be happy to take a look at it for you.


4 thoughts on “A Coffee with Writers: Traditional Publishing vs. Self Publishing

  1. Tialla,
    First of all I want to say you have a great ministry here with this website, blog, and featured Christian authors on your site. It was by happenstance that I came across your site, but I found it fresh, fun, and a down to earth view on publishing. Let me say that I am probably not your typical follower of this site. First of all, I’m a man. Secondly, I’m an older man (52). What we do have in common is a love for the Lord and a desire to bring forth books that are entertaining, as well as come from a Christian worldview. I think we also have 80’s music in common; I’ll talk more about that later.
    I am an author myself and write Christian fiction. See my website at http://www.dcreyesauthor.com , (I need to update my site with my new releases, but as you know, everything costs money)
    I generally write in the genres for tween/teen and young adult. I consider young adult between 18 and 25. In regards to this article and interview with Ashley Willis, I would like to put my “two-cents” worth on the subject of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing. I have been down the road of both, so my perspective comes from my own personal experiences.
    First of all, I think that both publishing routes can be good, but it depends on many factors. I won’t go into the vast details of each, because I could write a whole book on the different aspects of traditional, vanity, indie, co-publishing, self-publishing, and what defines each. Instead I will simply tell you my story.
    First of all, unlike you Tialla, who has begun to write at such an early age, I did not start to write until I was much older. In fact, I barely started to write seven years ago, when I was 45. The most I had written before that, was probably a book report when I attended a community college back in the eighties. (The Catcher in the Rye, if I recall). Anyway, one day my wife and I were flipping through the multitude of channels on the TV, when as usual, there was nothing worth watching. My wife, who is an avid reader, began to read one of her novels. Suddenly a thought popped into my head to write a book. I recalled having a vivid imagination growing up, so I began to write a little story. What I ended up writing would become the first book in The Fuller Creek Series.
    After I felt a tugging on my heart from the Lord that I should pursue publication, I started down that long, hard road of seeking out a traditional publisher. One of the main aspects that drive first time authors to seek out a traditional publisher, is validation. We write a story, get good feedback from family and friends, but what we want is “authoritative validation”. We want the satisfaction of knowing that a book editor, “in the industry” thinks our book is good enough to put the time, money, and effort into publishing it.
    As it is with the majority of authors who send out queries, you get some good feedback as well as some bad and discouraging feedback. One thing I want to say to your readers, is when you get rejection letters, don’t get discouraged. This is one editor’s opinion. Let me give you a brief example of how two editors can have vastly different opinions. I submitted a manuscript of mine, which was my Christmas book, to two different traditional publishers. When they got back to me, one said they just loved my smooth-flowing writing style and storyline. The other publisher wrote out a list of all the things I did wrong, and basically said that I needed to go back to Writing 101—ouch! That same book was eventually contracted by a traditional publisher, and I have even had a couple of film makers show interest in turning that book into a MOW, (Movie of the Week).
    Getting back to traditional publishing; I have been offered traditional contracts on most of my books. Now these are not your Random House publishers or “The Big Five” as they say; they are small to medium size Christian publishers. However, that being said, I now only self-publish and I probably would not go through a traditional publisher again. You may be asking, why?
    Traditional publishing can be a slippery slope, where you better make sure just what that contract says and exactly what you are getting. When a first time author gets an offer by a traditional publisher, he or she is ready to jump for joy, or swing from the nearest chandelier, whichever is most prudent. However, be careful! Publishers are there to make money, Christian or not. Publishers must make their money by publishing each book with the least amount of investment. This is where you need to be wary and diligent in understanding each aspect of that contract. Don’t just quickly read it over and say, “Oh, it looks pretty good and the royalties seem fair, so I’ll go ahead and sign the contract.”
    The following is a list of things to watch out for that I have personally had to deal with in some of the contracts I have had, as well as those I have since terminated.
    First is the contract duration and who owns the rights. Make sure that you are only given them the license to use the manuscript and are not selling them the manuscript itself. I believe Ashley touched on that subject. Also, I would not sign long term contracts. To me, three years is fine for both print and eBook. Anything beyond that, I would try to negotiate that down. Also, does the contract include eBooks? Be careful when it says “we have the electronic rights to publish the book.” Make sure this means that they “will in fact” publish your book in eBook form. I had a contract with that same verbiage, only to find out later they would only “exercise their right” if I paid a fee to have it published as an eBook. Be careful with this verbiage and make sure what you are getting. Also, never, and I repeat, NEVER sign a contract that states the agreement is in “perpetuity”. If you look it up, it means, endless…… You are basically locked into that contract until the second-coming! (“Oh lord, come quick so I can get out of this terrible contract!”) lol.
    Also, if you have a series, find out if there is a provision which states that the publisher has “first right of refusal”. If it does, this means they have first rights to your next book in that series. At first glance, it looks like the “first right of refusal” is a good thing. You think it means the publisher must like your book so much that they want to rights to the rest of the series—and is some ways it does. However, what happens if you have trouble with them? What if you didn’t like how they edited your first book and changed some of its content? Now suddenly you are obligated to them on the second book of your series, where it is “their option” to publish it or not—you have no say-so.
    In regards to editing. Make sure the contracts says that they “will in fact” edit your book. I had a contract once that said, “We have the right to edit the manuscript.” Guess what? They may have had “the right”, but they did not “exercise that right”. In others words, they did not edit my book. It was left up to me to either let the manuscript go through as it was, or take it back and hire an outside editor. I had to hire an editor which cost me hundreds of dollars. Seriously, it happened to me.
    Also, be sure of exactly what royalties you are getting. Is it based on the retail price of the book, or the net price? In other words, 15% of the retail price, may be higher than say, 30% of the net; which is after everybody takes their cut. You’ll need to figure that out.
    Another issue that may come up, is the right of the publisher to cease to list your book with the distribution outlets if it does not achieve a minimum amount of sales. Now let face it, we all hope to achieve the minimum sales. Most contracts say a minimum of either 50 or 100 books in a calendar year. We all have high hopes of achieving these numbers, and of course much more. But the solemn truth of the matter is, that 90% of first time or unknown authors do not sell the minimum. Which means, that if your contract has this provision, the publisher then has a right to pull your book from all the distribution outlets; Amazon, B&N and everyone. You see, whether the publisher goes through Ingram Distribution or some other avenue to distribute your book, it costs money to have it listed. Each year there are renewal fees that the publisher must pay to keep your book listed. If the publisher does not feel your book is achieving the minimum sales, they may exercise their right to pull it out of distribution. This happened on one of my books, because it was seasonal. One day I went on-line to see where that book was in the rankings, when I noticed it said that it was “no longer available”. When I asked the publisher about it, they said my book was not meeting the minimum sales so therefore they did not find it “financially beneficial to their publishing model” to renew it with Ingram. At that point, the only place it was being sold was on the publisher’s website. Knowing this fact, I had to make them “an offer” to get out my contract, which cost me hundreds of dollars. So be careful if there is a clause like this. And if there is, make sure that the minimum amount is not too high.
    One of the aspects of traditional publishing is marketing. This is an area that the “pro-traditional” advocates claim as one of the big advantages to self-publishing. I have found that aspect not to be true. One publisher I had, made claims that they would do all this advertising and marketing, yet when it came down to it, they did very little. Another publisher said that they, “have many marketing options available to their authors.” Be careful of that verbiage. Notice it said, “Options available” to their authors. Well I found out, that you the author, had to pay for those marketing options. One of those options was something called, “a book blast”. Meaning, they send out an announcement of your title to the different on-line retailers. However, it cost me $50.00 for this so-called book blast. Another marketing option available to me, was book reviews. My book would be made available for reviews which would be placed on a couple of websites or blogs. There was a fee for that program (I believe $40.00), plus the author had to pay for the book to be shipped out to the reviewer.
    From my experience, most of these marketing strategies do not work. In fact, the books that I have self-published have made more sales than the books published through traditional publishers. Now if you decide to go with a traditional publisher, make sure what you are actually getting in that contract. Don’t be afraid to negotiate, and ask questions before signing on the dotted line.
    Because these different scenarios came up in my experience with traditional publishers, I no longer go that route. I am not saying traditional publishing is bad or that they are scams or anything like that. However for me, I would rather have full control over all those aspects I mentioned above. For this reason, I now self-publish all my books.
    The bottom line this… If you are looking for that validation factor and are very diligent in negotiating all aspects of a traditional contract, then by all means go for it. But for me, better control, faster publishing time frames, no restrictive terms of contract, better royalties, and the satisfaction of creating the finished product, outweighs traditional publishing by far. When I tell people I self-publishing my books, people ask me, “Isn’t it better if you get your book published through a traditional publisher?” I answer them by saying, “I’ve already gone the traditional route, and I like self-publishing much better!”
    Anyway…, that’s my two-cents worth on the subject.

    Tialla… on a side note, I really think you would thoroughly enjoy my series. It’s set in the 80’s, where one of my protagonist, Jesse, is always referring to different songs of that era. I noticed you said you like songs of the 80’s, so that aspect may be of interest to you as different 80’s songs are mentioned. This series is filled with action, adventure, mystery, clue-finding investigations, school life drama, and teen romance. It’s written from a Christian perspective, where each episode has a ton of spiritual lessons my protagonists learn on their life’s journey. To illustrate its spiritual content, my book editor gave a copy of my book to his pastor’s wife. She has now started to use my series for homeschool reading hour. If you wish to receive a FREE copy of the first book in that series, simply go through my website and provide a location where I can send it. Otherwise you can also download the eBook version which is cheaper if you wish to continue to read the rest of the series. I do have to warn you thought, once you start with the first book, you will want to read the rest!
    God Bless you and your ministry of this site.

    Ps. Given your list of TV shows you like (mystery investigative storylines), you should seriously watch Castle. You need to start with the old reruns first, so it will all make sense and follow Castle and Beckett’s relationship.

    • Wow, thank you so much for your comprehensive comment! I’m definitely saving this to look back on and read over again. You make some excellent points here, and on aspects I wouldn’t have thought about. Thank you! I’ll have to check out your books.


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