The pros and cons of traditional publishing

I recently took part in a panel discussion looking at traditional publishing versus e-/independent/self-publishing, as part of the Blue Lab Creative Industries Symposium. It was a useful exercise, in that it made me look at exactly why I have chosen – and intend to keep choosing – the traditional publishing route for my books.

My fellow panelists (all women, which is noteworthy in itself) – including the talented, self-publishing spec fic author Jenny-Lee Heylen – made some pretty convincing arguments for their chosen areas, and I was there speaking from the traditional publishing corner.

The first thing I had to think about was the things I wished I’d know about traditional publishing:

  • It takes a long, long, long, long time for things to happen in publishing. You frantically scribble away to meet your deadline, submit it to your publisher with a proud flourish, sit back and wait for the feedback … and wait … and wait. It’s not that they don’t care, but until you appear on the publishing schedule – which happens about six months before your book is due to appear on shelves – you don’t exist. Once you’re in that six-month-zone, it’s crazy and everything has to happen yesterday.
  • The issue of rights – international, digital etc – is boring enough to send an insomniac into a coma but it is also fundamentally important for authors to understand. I found out a lot of things, particularly around international rights and ebook rights, after having made random ill-informed decisions without understanding the consequences.
  • The money is shit. Don’t write a book for the money. Write it because you have a story to tell.
  • The rewards of seeing your story printed, with a beautiful cover, with your name on it, in bookshops, being read on trains, being reviewed in newspapers and online, and knowing that people who are not related to you by blood or marriage are prepared to fork out $34.95 to read your words, are priceless.
  • You have to be your own marketer and public relations person. Publishing companies do a great job promoting and marketing to mainstream audiences, but if you want to promote your book to a specific audience – whether they be fans of your sub-genre or specialists in your field of expertise – you need to do the legwork yourself. Be prepared to fork out a good amount of money to buy plenty of promotional copies to send to reviewers (other than the ones your publisher will already have sent to), specialist audiences, etc. For example, I wrote a book about death, so I sent a lot of copies to palliative care and cancer organisations, magazines, patients groups and specialists.
  • If you write a non-fiction book, there’s a good chance that half the money you’ll make from the book will be speakers fees. Be prepared to give talks, and have a good talk prepared – give people value for money, and they’ll be more likely to buy your book afterwards.

So what are the pros and cons of traditional publishing? Here’s my list:


  • you get seasoned professionals managing your editing, cover design, publishing, and marketing.
  • you get the might of a publishing company backing you, which makes it more likely your book will get noticed by people/reviewers
  • advances: you don’t get them if you self-publish, and often not if you digital only publish
  • well-established bookshop distribution networks which makes it more likely you’ll experience the delight of seeing your book in your local bookstore
  • international networks; publishers around the world all talk to each other.
  • good representation at the international book fairs, which makes it more likely that your book will get picked up by an overseas publisher
  • publishing companies are full of awesome people who love books, so you get the joy of working with them


  • You only get paid about 10% of the cover price, and that’s AFTER you’ve earned out your advance. Did I mention the money is shit?
  • It’s a very very slow process – you are just one of a large stable of authors, so once your book has had its brief moment in the sun, you get pushed aside by the next month’s round of new titles – publishers are all looking for the Next Big Thing that can save them from extinction, so it is getting harder and harder to get published, especially in fiction.


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