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The Pros and Cons of Traditional Publishing

Post originally written July 2016; updated May 2022.

Back in 2013 I published my first book, The Boy From Hell: Life with a Child with ADHD, about raising my lovely son Daniel, who has had a pretty challenging life. The book came about after many years of wanting to become an author, and a lot of frustration at proofreading other people’s manuscripts whilst failing to write my own. I didn’t have any great ambitions for selling the book – really I just wanted to get it written and be able to call myself a published author. Even if I was actually a self-published author. Didn’t matter to me.

The book came out, on Amazon, Kindle and Smashwords (Nook, Sony ereader, iBooks etc) and it did pretty well! In about three years it sold  just under 2000 copies across all platforms – not bad considering the average lifetime sales of a self-published book are said to be around 200!

books-1194457_640But things were about to change. I was keen to publish a second edition as a lot of regulations around special educational needs had changed, and of course my son’s story had moved on. I was quite happy to self-publish again, but a chance encounter led to me contacting Jessica Kingsley Publishing – perhaps the most renowned publishers of books about special needs –  and asking if they would be interested in my book. And the answer was YES! So on February 21st 2016 the fully updated second edition of my book came out under the JKP label. Now I could truly describe myself as a published author!

However, several years on, my experience with traditional publishing hasn’t been the dream I anticipated. Given that I now have some experience of both traditional publishing and self-publishing, I thought it was time to have a look at the pros and cons of each.

The Pros and Cons of Traditional Publishing

The physical look of the book

Pros: One of the biggest advantages for me of being traditionally published is that my book now looks amazing! OK, I was actually pretty proud of the book anyway. I did the layout and formatting myself, I came up with the cover design (though got a designer to actually do the work) and it looked and felt like a “proper” book.

But when you compare it with the second edition the difference is astounding. The typesetting is really smart, the paper is a much better quality, and the cover is great. I was included in all the decisions re: the cover design – in fact, the end cover is based on a stock image I found – and it definitely wouldn’t look out of place on the shelf at Waterstones!

Self-published 1st edition
Self-published 1st edition

Traditionallly published 2nd edition
Traditionallly published 2nd edition

I was also very lucky in that although my book title is quite controversial, JKP understood the reasoning behind the title and were happy to stick with it.

Cons: Personally, I haven’t had any issues regarding the physical look of the book as a result of going with a traditional publisher. However, I have heard horror stories from other authors who were given no control over the cover design, title or even content of the book.

Marketing and exposure

Pros: When you self-publish, you are responsible for absolutely everything, including getting your book “out there” – and that can be really hard work. Many retailers don’t want to stock self-published books, it’s difficult to get in online catalogues and trying to be noticed among the gazillions of books in the Amazon store is difficult.

speakers-129535_640With a traditional publisher you do definitely get added exposure. My book is on the Waterstones and WH Smith websites and JKP’s own site as well as on Amazon. As far as I know it is not in any physical bookshops, though it can be ordered far more easily than a self-published book can. I am also confident that I will have more chance of getting local bookshops to stock it under the JKP label than the previous CreateSpace one. That’s something I mean to try in the next few months.

On launch, the publisher sent copies of the book to several well-read bloggers and a couple published reviews on their websites, which was good exposure to a new audience.

Additionally, I benefitted from exposure through JKP’s social media accounts, because when the book was launched they promoted it to their 272,000 Facebook fans and 10,000 Twitter followers across their various accounts. That’s exposure I could never have dreamed of achieving as a self-published author!

Cons: But of course with added exposure comes the possibility that negative feedback could arise – the more people know about your book, the more critics you have! Shortly after the book was published there was an explosion of outrage about the title on JKP’s Facebook page. As a self-published author I’d encountered maybe three or four people who disliked the “boy from hell” idea; now I was being attacked by dozens of people in a very public arena! It was a difficult experience as some of the comments were quite personal. Fortunately friends and family supported me, as did Jessica Kingsley themselves, who were great about the whole thing and even encouraged me to blog about why I called the book what I did. But after three years of generally hearing only good things about the book, it was a real shock to be exposed in this way.

Also, I’ve been very disappointed with the overall marketing for the book. I have heard over and over that even when you are traditionally published, and you’re handing over most of your royalties to the publisher, you don’t get much back in terms of marketing, and that does seem to be the case. Before the book was launched I filled in a big form listing websites, publications and organisations that might be interested in promoting it or interviewing me, but as far as I can tell I never received any sort of promotion in those areas at all. In fact, I’ve had less media exposure since being traditionally published than I was as a self-published author, when I was on local and national radio, in local press, on Sky News and Channel Five and even in Bella magazine! In part it’s my fault – I’ve not promoted the book as much as I used to (and there’s a reason for that – which I’ll explain later), but I was also expecting more of a marketing push from the publishers.

Kudos

Pros: I’m a published author. I AM A PUBLISHED AUTHOR!! There’s a huge amount of kudos involved with being published by a “proper” publisher. Some people still look down on self-publishing or even see it as vanity publishing, and while I was always very proud to tell people that I’d self-published my book, there was always that feeling that actually anyone can be a published author these days. But to be published by a traditional publisher – well, that is a whole different kettle of fish!

Cons: None – except that actually, I haven’t really seen a huge amount of difference in people’s responses to either the book or me as an author since the second edition came out.

Income

Pros: A small deposit in my bank account every six months.

Cons: Based on my experience, income/profit is where traditional publishing falls down compared to self-publishing. Let me explain how it worked for the first three years, when my book was self-published. Every month, without fail, CreateSpace and Kindle would work out the royalties on copies sold and put some money into my bank account. I was earning around 35% commission on paperback copies, and 70% on Kindle sales.  The amounts varied, but on average it worked out at about £150 a month, which was very nice to get, as it basically paid the utility bills each month! (I also got a payment every quarter from Smashbooks for sales of the Nook/Sony Ereader/iBooks formats, but this was literally pounds each quarter. Kindle definitely won the war when it came to ebooks.)

I also bought books at trade price (under £3 a copy) that I sold at speaking and networking events, via eBay and Amazon Marketplace, and via the ADDISS website. I didn’t make a lot of sales this way, but again there was a regular drip of money coming in.

savings-box-161876_640Cut to traditional publishing and all of a sudden that regular monthly income went, because JKP pays royalties twice a year, March and September, and six months in arrears. So in September 2016 I received royalties on sales from Feb to March, and then the March to September payment didn’t come until March 2017, and then every March and September thereafter.

And those payments are tiny, a fraction of what I was earning through Amazon. I think the biggest cheque was for about £470, of which £400 was for the sale of the publishing rights in the Czech Republic. Pretty cool, huh – but it doesn’t really compensate for the fact that most payments are for less than £100 … and this is for SIX MONTHS of sales, whereas I was earning around £150 A MONTH as a self-published author! I have no idea how much I make on each copy – it’s 10% of the profit, but that’s as much as I know. In addition, trade copies are not so cheap to purchase, so I’ve not been selling independently either.

I miss my monthly income – and it was a big factor in me not even bothering to look for a contract for my second book, What’s You Story? Take your non-fiction book from possibility to plan to publication – and beyond.

Control

Pros: As I mentioned earlier, I was lucky in that JKP gave me a lot of control over the look of the book, which I really appreciated. However…

Cons: I’ve never thought of myself as a control freak but I have realised that, when it comes to my books, I am one! One of the toughest parts of switching from self-publishing to traditional publishing is the lack of control I have over my sales figures and pricing. Let me explain.

sale-1165606_640When you use Amazon’s Kindle Direct Print services, you have total control over sales. You can log in any time you like and see straight away how many sales you’ve made and where, and how much money you’ve earned up till that point in the month. It meant that if I posted a new article about the book, or did some Facebook advertising, or was featured in a magazine, I could track sales and see what sort of impression it made, if any, and then I knew whether or not that particular marketing technique was worth using again.

I was also in control of my pricing – I could raise or lower prices whenever I wanted and use Kindle’s promotional tools to run countdown sales or giveaways. I often timed these to coincide with events like National ADHD Week or family birthdays, or to promote other services I was running, like my ADHD parenting course.

Now, however, I don’t have any control over price or sales figures at all. I was informed that I sold around 500 books in the  first six weeks, which was great, but since then I only find out how many sales I have made every six months (and in fact for the last few years I don’t even get sales figures, just a small bank deposit). I used to be able to tell you exactly how many copies I’d sold – now I don’t have a clue. Every now and then I check the position in the Amazon charts for its category, and for a long while it was stuck around 250th (much lower now though), but every now and then there’s a surge – it made it into the top 20 one weekend and I have no idea how or why! And I don’t have any control over pricing either. Personally I think the Kindle edition is way too expensive at £9.49; I would never buy a Kindle book at that price. Maybe it’s deliberate, to persuade people to go for the paperback version instead – but my ethos was always to make it affordable, so the Kindle version was never more than £2.99 (and often much cheaper). And of course I can’t do giveaways any more because control of pricing lies with the publisher…

In conclusion…

So do I think it was worth handing my book over to a traditional publisher, or should I have continued to self-publish it? It’s a tough one! I do love the fact that I am a “proper” published author now, though I think that’s very much an “in my head” perception rather than anything else, because certainly no one ever criticised me for self-publishing in the first place. I love that I am part of the JKP brand because they are a publisher I admire; I own many of their books and I am proud to have been chosen by them. And the new book looks great, much better than the original, though there was nothing wrong with that either.

The loss of the regular monthly income is an issue. It was really helpful having that payment drop into my account each month, and quite a shock when it didn’t arrive any more.

The issue of lack of control, lack of access to sales figures and being somewhat in the dark about how sales are going – and what’s influencing them – is a problem, and one I’ve struggled to deal with, but it’s just the way it is, I guess. And when I did ask the publisher how many I’d sold on launch, they were quick to tell me – though I know they don’t get info from suppliers on a regular basis, so there’s only so much info they can pass on.

horizontal-1155878_640Marketing is also an issue. While there is nothing to stop me promoting the book as I did for the first three years, the lack of access to sales data means it’s impossible to know what works and what doesn’t which leaves me feeling pretty unmotivated to do anything at all. And there has been zero marketing by the publisher since the book came out – so if they aren’t bothering, why should I? (Yeah, I know the answer to that question but…!)

Of course, I do acknowledge that I am very lucky to have been offered a publishing contract, because many authors try for years to get a deal. So on balance, yes I am glad I opted to be traditionally published, because it certainly gives me added kudos as an author. After all, they didn’t have to choose to publish my book! But I don’t think I will ever do it again, and I’m not sure if it would be right for everyone.

There are a few things I wish I’d considered before I signed the contract, and I’ll share them with you now.

  1. Be prepared to lose control over your sales figures
  2. Continue to do as much marketing as ever
  3. Expect more exposure than before – including negative exposure
  4. If you rely on the regular income, make plans to replace it
  5. Being a “proper” published author doesn’t make you famous!

Have you made the transition from self-publishing to traditional publishing? I’d love to hear what your experience was!

7 Comments

  1. How did the income from traditional publishing compare to self-publishing when you did eventually receive a payment?

    1. Not good! I generally earn about £100 every six months with my book under a traditional publisher, whereas it was around £150 every month when self-published. As well as the income issue, I’ve also found I have no motivation to promote the book – when it was self-published I could run a promotional campaign and see how it affected sales, but now I have no idea when sales happen.

  2. Hi Alison,

    One of the pro’s people often mention is the advance check and the fact that you don’t have to spend your own money on the book itself. Does that affect the fact that your paycheck got so much lower?

    And if you still have to spend the same on marketing, I would hope at least that the marketing money goes farther because you have more exposure… is that so?

    Thank you so much for your honest account of this!

    1. Hi Mark,

      I didn’t get an advance … the first royalty check was okay but since then I generally receive less than £100 every six months, and that’s across both print and ebook formats! Considering I used to earn around £150 a month when it was self-published, the sales are very disappointing. And because I can’t see real time sales figures it’s quite difficult to market because I have no way of seeing what works. I think I would definitely have stayed self-published, had I known – but it’s been an interesting experience overall.

  3. Hi Alison – Very interesting to read, and well put together advice for lots of people out there. You mentioned JK’s superior layout of your book etc. but readers need to know that self-publishing doesn’t mean you do everything yourself (although I know you are competent), merely that you keep the copyright. Indeed, to get recognition I’d always suggest getting the cover and layout done by an experienced freelancer… even if you are ‘self’-publishing.

  4. Hi Alison – that is really interesting and helpful. My first book was published by Routledge, but am working on another one now. It will take me a few years, but its good to read posts like this along the way, so thank you for sharing your experience.

  5. Thank you so much for this post! I am targeting JKP in a few months for my YA novel I’m almost finished drafting (draft #1). Your honest review of your experience with JKP vs self publishing was immensely helpful that I haven’t been able to find previously

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