Is Traditional Publishing Still Superior to Self-Publishing?

Reaching your audience

After writing my first book, my goal was to publish traditionally. Self-publishing was not an option. Based on the little information I heard and read about self-publishing, I viewed it as “vanity publishing,” as labeled by many figures in the traditional publishing workforce. However, during my research on book publishing methods for a university writing course, my views on self-publishing softened. Below is the synthesis I wrote on this subject.

Reaching Your Audience: Traditional Publishing and Self-Publishing

Books have been a part of arts, culture, and education for centuries. Traditional book publishers want to keep books in schools, colleges, storefronts, convenience stores, and on our laps. Some of those prospects are safe havens for these publishers; however, when faced with the growing successes of self-published works through innovative author-invented, author-driven marketing strategies, industry observers believe traditional publishers are close to losing touch with audiences. Stringent, industrial protocols among traditional publishers have been linked to overlooked new and potentially best-selling talent, in favor of writers with already established platforms and agent backing. A promising alternative for many modern writers is self-publishing. And the prominent successes of some self-published authors are leading numerous writers to ask what value a traditional publisher can give them that they cannot obtain on their own. Currently, new and established authors are taken advantage of accessible and affordable self-publishing alternatives and marketing techniques. The continued coexistence of traditional publishing and self-publishing, or the victory of one over the other, might ultimately be decided by writers: the lifeblood of both mediums.

How Traditional Publishers Scout Writers

Albert Greco, author of The Book Publishing Industry, writes that the dichotomy of the U.S. publishing industry is business and culture. However, much of his book addresses business over culture: talent recruitment, reading committees, editors, typesetters, and other staff, who all must be paid. Authors, who are the foundation of their enterprise, should be well-paid, or, at least, paid. Historically, without the staff publishers invest in preparing, printing, and distributing books, few people would have access to such a resource. The machinery of the book industry serves all readers, including involuntary readers, such as high school students assigned to read books from, for example, Scholastic and Pearson publishing houses (Greco xii).

Within the gears of a publishing house, such as Pearson, are people astute to what content is on the market and what consumers need or possibly want. These personnel select what text is worthy of publishing. A different subset of staff manages the editing and compilation of the text. Then the work reviewed by a reading committee (Carolan and Evain 293), and if further editing is necessary, it is done. Lastly, the physical book is designed, bound, printed, and distributed. A writer considering self-publishing might question whether they alone can perform all these functions to ensure that their work is fit to stand among similar works. Likewise, one must ask whether the average reader has the time or desire to cross-check self-published books against traditionally published books for quality before buying. The likely answer to this last question is no. Books distributed by large publishing houses have an assumed level of professional quality that puts readers at ease when selecting books (Carolan and Evan 292), giving traditionally published books a significant advantage over self-published books.

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 What Traditional Publishers Deliver for Authors

The primary value traditional publishers deliver to authors is quality. Pay and marketing services are also welcome; however, both are attainable through self-publishing, too. The quality traditional publishers produce encompass editing, content development, reading committees, and fact-checking. It is said that “the worst editor in the world is the author” (Greco 5). Many writers can be blind to their errors and half-baked ideas because they know their intention and what should be written. Copy and line editors staffed by publishing houses provide fresh eyes and an objective view of texts to address errors and raise the presentability, organization, and completeness of an author’s overall work (Hunter “Why Copy Editors Matter” 9).

However, quality not guaranteed from traditional publishers. In “Why Copy Editors Matter,” Sylvia Hunter underlines the common practice of publishers granting best-selling authors editorial freedoms that can lead to easily preventable errors and garrulity. Decrying one such an example, Hunter refers to a particularly verbose book from a famous author wherein “the first eight chapters could easily and fruitfully have been condensed to two” (6). Outside of this practice of laxity among publishers, many readers can relate to the experience of finding an error in an academic or fiction text. Thus, revealing that quality control within traditional publishing is not infallible.

How Traditional Publishers Miss or Deter Talented Authors

Many writers actively submitting manuscripts quickly learn that an agent can increase the likeliness of their work being read by a publisher. It is not uncommon for publishers to send boilerplate responses or “form letters” stating they accept agented work only (Preston 1). This is a method publishers deploy to control the torrent of submissions they receive, and to address the issue of not having enough staff to read all submission (Frank 218). In “Perverse Outcomes of Intense Competition in the Popular Arts and Its Implications for Product Quality,” Joshua Frank writes publishers receive 15,000 novel submissions per one contract-worthy book (Frank 215).

To streamline their talent search, and hopefully grab the best talent, many publishers require some assurance of quality from writers before reviewing any manuscript; thus, the agent-only rejection letters. This leads some writers to seek representation – which can cost them money – while other writers might be discouraged, either unable to obtain an agent or unaware of how to land a legitimate agent – many fraudulent literary agents advertise to hopeful authors (Preston, “Preston on Publishing: Agents” 1). Obtaining an agent is not always as necessary as many publishers lead writers to believe, John Preston, author of “Preston on Publishing: Agents” writes: “Of course there are unagented authors whose work would be considered. The form letters are just an easy way to get rid of writers who don’t understand the rules of the publishing game” (1). Those rules are often related to what level of establishment an author has: how much of a following they already have, rather than a lack of representation. This deceptive agent-representation-only practice can lead to distrust from aspiring authors, who may then consider publishing their works themselves.

Writers who simply wish to write, may be discouraged to learn that they must participate in book tours, readings, and other promotional events when contracted with a publisher. In “What do Agents Want?” Nancy Love explains that the era of publishers contributing one-hundred percent of book promotion, sales, and marketing plans are over. She says modern writers “[have t]o really hit pay dirt, you might need more than credentials; it will also help if you have a “platform” – a following or a guaranteed promise of advance sales” (Love 8). These nascent requirements from traditional publishers can put off many writers, especially those who might be the writer-on-a-lone-island-type, or those with no business, marketing, or entrepreneurial acumen.

Challenges of Traditional Publishing

A poor history in traditional publishing can be a major deterrent for authors on the traditional publishing path. Some authors are shunned by publishers after obtaining a book deal; the cause: low sales. This scenario often results in residual copies of their book being destroyed or “pulped” by the publisher, as detailed by Gabriel Zaid in his book So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance, whom Carolan and Evain reference in their article, “Self-Publishing: Opportunities and Threats in a New Age of Mass Culture”: “[Zaid] sees one book being pulped for every one book sold” (293). An author whose work is so sterile that it leads a publisher to essentially pulp their own money and time investment by destroying the author’s book, is one who is rarely granted another contract or able to obtain a different publisher. Such an author’s sole recourse might then be self-publishing.

The Reality of Self-Publishing

Eighty percent of new book releases include self-published works, and from whence, several best-seller successes have come (Carolan and Evain 286). Still Alice, Wool, Damaged, The Wealthy Barber, and Fifty Shades of Grey are successful self-published books written by now-famous authors (Afsheen). Even with the popularity and success of a growing number of self-published books, self-publishing itself is steeped in its own shortcomings and is often slapped with the “vanity publishing” label; a preferred slur of traditional publishers toward this mode of publishing. Vanity or not, some readers greatly enjoy creations from self-published writers, and would have possibly never had a chance to read their work if self-publishing was not available.

Some authors use innovation and specialized knowledge to trounce the marketing and promotional capabilities of traditional publishers; authors like J.K. Rowling, who is innovative and talented; John Grisham, who leveraged his legal career to invest in his book career; and James Redfield, who is knowledgeable and well-versed in his niche (Carolan and Evain 288). While Rowlings and Grisham are both traditionally published, they both used innovative techniques to interact with and grow their audiences in a similar way to successful self-published authors. James Redfield, who self-published The Celestine Prophecy, took advantage of a strong, niche audience to his benefit, as Carolan and Evain explain, “niche markets are perfectly suited to self-publishers as specialist books do not appeal to large-scale publishers” (288). Carolan and Evain refer to authors who employ innovative marketing tactics as author-entrepreneurs, because they are self-made: obtaining and growing audiences by their wits, not with the aid of a major publisher (287).

A new wave of innovative author-entrepreneurs is disconcerting to traditional publishers. When J.K. Rowling created her own interactive platform, Pottermore, for her audience, her publisher, Bloomsbury, obtained only “a fraction” of her total print earnings (287). Like Rowling, some self-published authors employ unique user experiences that lead them to such success that they do not consider signing with a traditional publisher. However, if they should change their minds, Carolan and Evain write they would be “in a better position than ever to negotiate their [digital] rights” because publishers wish “to avoid seeing future potential revenue slip out of their nets in the way that Bloomsbury lost out with Rowling” (288). Theoretically, a writer considering self-publishing can follow the promotional and marketing examples of Rowling and others to create their own successes without a major publisher.

Challenges of Self-Publishing

There are several ramparts in the path of self-publishing that traditional publishers do not face, chiefly, quality control, distribution of physical books, and book cover quality. Although self-publishing has grown into a serious industry, with Amazon ostensibly gearing to disrupt the traditional publishing model (Deahl 1-2), many booksellers and agents hesitate to accept self-published books. Agents interviewed by Publishers’ Weekly expressed hesitation to distribute their clients’ books on Amazon Publishing soon after it was released, saying “their chief concern is selling a book to an untested entity” (Deahl, “All Eyes on Amazon” 1). Large and small independent booksellers express a similar reluctance to Amazon Publishing’s titles, as are some agents to promote such books. Many offer Amazon Publishing titles by customer request; test the titles for a limited time; or flatly refuse all and any self-published books indiscriminately (Deahl, “All Eyes on Amazon” 1-2).

Regardless of the book industry’s most well-known and recited proverb, many people do judge a book by its cover – or at least initially select a book by the cover’s appearance. Amateur-quality book covers and nonstandard book dimensions are a widespread issue in self-publishing (Carolan and Evain 296). Jeremy Thompson, a publishing house director calls this issue “the biggest hurdle to self-publishers is in terms of image . . . . Self-published books did not stand a chance in comparison to traditionally printed books as they attracted reader’s attention for all of the wrong reasons” (Carolan and Evain 296-297). This issue still needs to be addressed.

A plague, perhaps the greatest plague on self-publishing is the much-complained-about lack of professional editing, proofreading, and fact-checking enlisted on works released. These services are time-consuming and costly to outsource for quality execution. “[T]here are no widespread mechanisms of quality control” in self-publishing, Simon Carolan and Christine Evian write in “Self-Publishing: Opportunities and Threats in a New Age of Mass Culture” (292). However, collaborative networks are being set up to offer writers these services at little to no cost.

The final challenge to self-publishing is the saturated book market. The average self-published author often has few readers and makes little to no money. Worse, soon after publishing, their books often fall off the radar as more books are published, drowning it. Carolan and Evain liken today’s book industry to an ocean, and they label the average self-published author a “plankton or even [an] amoebae,” rather than a fish, in a big pond (289). They say the best solution is for authors to connect with readers, online or in person (289). Self-published authors must be their own markers, as J.K. Rowling and Grisham have been and are.

Author’s Voice, Author’s Choice

Advances in self-publishing, particularly Amazon Publishing, concern traditional publishers, especially as all levels of the self-publishing process work to address systemic issues. The prestige and assumed quality that comes from traditionally published works still distinguish the industry segment and are the primary sources of its sellability. Given the advantages to self-publishing and traditional publishing, it’s easy to imagine the future of book publishing as a parallel to the modern music industry. Writers can self-publish to start their careers and sign with a traditional publisher after gaining a healthy audience. Or, some writers might value the control, comfort, and independence of being self-made and find themselves content with the lifestyle, money, and/or success obtained through self-publishing. Options are the way book publishing is going. Modern authors can weigh what path is most valuable to them throughout their careers.


Carolan, Simon, and Christine Evain. “Self-Publishing: Opportunities and Threats in a New Age of Mass Culture.” Publishing Research Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 4, 2013, pp. 285-300. ProQuest,, doi: Accessed 10 Oct. 2018.

Deahl, Rachel. “All Eyes on Amazon Publishing.” Publishers Weekly, vol. 258, no. 32, 2011, n/a. ProQuest, Accessed 10 Oct. 2018.

F., Afsheen. “10 Self-Published Authors Who Made It Big.” Bookstr, 5 Nov. 2015,” Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.

Frank, Joshua. “Perverse Outcomes of Intense Competition in the Popular Arts and Its Implications for Product Quality.” Journal of Cultural Economics, vol. 32, no. 3, 2008, pp. 215–224. JSTOR, JSTOR, Accessed 10 Oct. 2018.

Greco, Albert N. The Book Publishing Industry. Taylor and Francis. Print. 2011. “Editors, Book Acquisitions, and Production.” pp. xi, 5, 160, 271.

Hunter, Sylvia. “Why Copy Editors Matter.” Journal of Scholarly Publishing, vol. 36, no. 1, 2004, pp. 6–14, doi:10.1353/scp.2004.0030. pp. 6, 9.

Love, Nancy. “What do Agents Want?” The Writer, vol. 111, no. 10, 10, 1998, ProQuest, pp. 7-9.

Preston, John. “Preston on Publishing: Agents.” Lambda Book Report, vol. 3, no. 12, Lambda Book Report, pp. 1, 40.

Zaid, Gabriel. “So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance.” The Booklist, vol. 100, no. 1, 2003. ProQuest, pp 24, 293.


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  1. Pingback: A Writer’s Progress: Looking to the Future

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