Each month, the Nonfiction Authors Association asks a burning publishing question of the industry’s best, brightest, and most innovative experts. Here’s what they have to say for May!
NFAA: For those nonfiction authors who’ve been traditionally published, what have been some of the pros and cons?
One of the biggest drawbacks to publishing a book traditionally is that readers are shifting into digital media. Publishing a hardcover book is great for increasing your credibility as a writer. You’re able to get your books shelved in international book stores, enhancing your reach and helping you earn critical acclaim. However, there are a number of drawbacks in pursuing this avenue. Chief of which is how difficult the publishing process really is. As well as the process taking considerably longer than its digital counterpart, you’re likely to encounter your fair share of rejections from publishers. Agonizing over whether a publisher will take your book on board, or whether it will even sell well, can be emotionally draining and troublesome for the advancement of your career.
During a pivotal time in society, many writers have decided to save themselves the heartache.
One of the most noticeable changes as a result of the pandemic was the manner in which we consume media as a society. In lieu of outdoor activities, many people are reading significantly more than usual. However, they’re doing the bulk of their reading on social media through blog posts, articles, or e-books. With billions of eyes online, traditional book publishing is getting overshadowed by the streamlined content creation process of social media. It would be sensible for budding writers to consider modern media avenues to achieve acclaim and build a presence before publishing traditionally.
Chief Technology Officer @ ConvertBinary
SAMUEL M. CAGGIULA
It takes a village to publish a book. I published a nonfiction book with Sterling titled City In Time: Washington DC. I would never have been able to do this coffee table book on my own.
The layout their team did was so far beyond anything I could have done. But really, the two biggest factors were having an editor and having a sales and marketing team. I firmly believe having an editor who truly was with me every step of the way helped to create a better finished version, not only in the grammar and language but also in the final form and shape of the entire work. That collaboration was essential.
Secondly, I’ve known more than a few self-published authors who end up with a garage full of books because they don’t really have sales channels ready to accept their work.
Working with a traditional publisher and its representatives, the book was placed in brick-and-mortar stores as well as online retailers, and the publisher helped to get me included in a prestigious event at The National Press Club. That would not have happened if I had self-published.
I’ve done both traditional publishing and self-publishing. The pros of working with a publisher are that they know the process, they promote your book and they have systems and deadlines to keep you on track. The downside is that you have to follow their process, adhere to their editorial
guidelines and meet their deadlines. The other major factor is the cost and budget for author copies. When you self-publish a book you can order your books at cost from the printer. With a publisher you typically negotiate a set number of complimentary books and a number at a set discount.
When I use my books for speaking, as a training tool, or to send to prospects I appreciate the flexibility and cost of self-publishing. The key to deciding which option is right for you is to think about why you are writing a book and how you plan to use it.
CEO of Boot Camp Digital
I am the author of 12 traditionally published nonfiction books. Eight are for school-aged children, four are for adults, and I am under contract and currently writing two more adult books.
1. You get an advance, so you know up front the minimum money you will make with the opportunity to make more through royalties.
Traditional publishers have good accounting systems and are quite accurate about the number of books sold and returned. I have heard a lot of complaints from self-published authors that they can’t find out how many books were distributed/sold/returned. I’m not suggesting that companies that offer these services are dishonest, only that some are not well-equipped to handle the accounting procedures for the masses of self-published books that come out each year.
2. Traditional publishers can and do sell to libraries and schools. For the books I write, this is the biggest advantage over self-publishing. Traditional publishers can get their books reviewed in places like Library Journal that librarians use to determine what books to buy. Libraries and educational institutions are built-in sales audiences that are extremely difficult for self-published books to crack. It costs money to catalog a book and give it shelf space in libraries, so librarians tend to refuse to buy self-published books. Several librarians have told me that donated self-published books often end up in library sales rather than on the library shelves.
3. The writer is freed from hiring a cover artist, development editor, copy editor, and, production/distribution company. Traditional publishers also provide ISBN numbers, copyright the book, register it with the Library of Congress, format e-books (often in multiple formats), create audio books if the topic is appropriate, and supply art for bookmarks and posters and post the book on multiple online sales sites. They also help create effective copy for these sites.
4. With a traditionally published book, multiple professional eyes read the book, so most mistakes, confusing spots, and typos are spotted and corrected before printing.
5. The publisher handles shipping, distribution, and billing.
6. Traditional publishers have booths at the big book fairs and professional library conferences to give your book additional exposure. They also have a sales force and marketing department trained to sell books.
7. Although financial support for publicity is usually minimal, the marketing department will supply advice and suggestions on things the author can do.
8. Most traditional publishers have a permissions person/department, relieving the author of that aspect of the business.
9. Traditional publishers have a legal department. If you find your book pirated and posted on the internet the legal department will send cease and desist orders and work to have the book removed. I’ve had pirate posting happen with two of my books on sites where they could be downloaded free and the legal department did a great job stopping this.
Cons of Traditional Publishing
1. All the services listed above cost the publisher money, so the royalty rate for traditionally published books is substantially lower than in self-published books.
2. Editors may request changes in emphasis, revisions, deletions, etc., to the text that the author may not be thrilled about but that he/she must accommodate.
3. Limited control of cover. (I have had the cover of two of my books changed when I objected to the publisher’s art. I have also had to accept one cover that I hated. The rest have been okay.)
4. Editors can come and go during the writing of the book. I had one book where the editor left when the book had been completed and was headed to the copy editor. The new editor had a totally different take on the book and wanted it completely re-written. We eventually agreed that I would keep the advance and the publisher could do whatever they wanted with what I had written, which effectively killed the project even though it had been enthusiastically approved by the editor who left.
5. Traditional publishers require a contract that often specifies word length, deadline, advance, and has clauses that protect the publisher from certain liabilities and give them certain rights. These contracts also to some degree protect the writer, but they are always skewed in favor of the publisher. The author or author’s agent can try to negotiate out some of the worst clauses, but often is unsuccessful.
Author of What You Need to Know About Diabetes (ABC-CLIO 2020)
We are having Persuade—our fifth book as a company and my first—published July 7th by Wiley. When we weighed our publishing options for this book, we felt that self-publishing had higher revenue potential and more control, but less credibility and access to editing resources. A publishing company does not drive book sales. They help the author sell the book, but its success is really up to the author. As a result, any author who wants to maximize their income potential from a book likely should consider self-publishing. You also have more control when self-publishing, and these two areas go hand in hand because you can offer dynamic pricing (discounts to get sales going at first, for example) and you keep the majority of the revenues, except for the portion that is taken by selling platforms like Amazon.
On the other hand, having a publisher gives you a team of people to review your work, edit it, help with formatting, advise you on content and sales strategies, etc. These are experts who do this exclusively every day and therefore they typically know their craft well. And, for those who are fortunate to land a well-respected publishing company, that adds additional credibility to your book—for readers, potential reviewers, etc.
Shapiro Negotiations Institute
I have published 8 books—two traditionally and the rest self-published. Both traditional ones are business books in the field of employee training and professional development. One was published by Pfeiffer (the biggest publisher in this topical area) and one by the professional association ATD.
Honestly, I have nothing good to say about traditional publishing. I find that in order to make page count and spine size, you end up having to write a lot of fluff. You invest nine months to a year writing and they invest two weeks in marketing.
The royalties are marginal at best.
And when they decide to delist your book you have no rights to it or you have to pay them to get your own intellectual property back.
I have written 13 books in my own name, co-written another 10, and ghostwritten another 25. I have been published by major publishing houses, e.g., Hay House, and have also self-published.
The advantage of traditional publishing is that there can be more credibility, but I think that is eroding. The chances of getting a great advance from a traditional publisher have long past, (I once got 50K for one book), unless you have a massive social media presence, in which case why do you need a publisher? Even when going with self-publishing, you still have to do a lot of your own marketing, and you keep control of the project, especially the timing of publication. You can do almost everything a publisher will do for you and keep control of the project, including such things as foreign sales rights.
My first traditionally published book came out April 6th from Simon and Schuster/Tiller Press, and here is what I found were the pros and cons of the process:
Pros: It certainly helped me open doors to market myself and other projects. When people recognize the publisher behind your book, they seem to take note and listen. It has also been amazing to see all of the people behind the scenes at my publisher working hard to see the book succeed. I wouldn’t have had that team with so much combined expertise available to me
had I tried to publish a book myself. If I have any advice, it’s to continue to build your platform and find those promotional opportunities even while your publicity and marketing teams are doing their jobs. It takes a team!
Cons: The timeline for traditional publishing is much different than self-publishing. My publisher did an amazing job of getting a book out quickly, while it was still relevant to the market. Still, it was difficult at times to see others self-publishing competing titles and getting their work out there many months before I could. It’s certainly a trade-off, and one that I’m happy with, but if I had advice for a new author, it would be to carefully consider if your book will be attractive to a traditional publisher based on timing alone. If it won’t be something that can sell
after a year, you probably won’t get it out the door in time. It’s not for short trends, and your agent or publisher will probably be honest about that fact.
Author, Content Creator
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I’ve been a publisher for more than 30 years, mostly nonfiction, at houses big and small. Right now, we’re a hybrid publisher of mostly large format (coffee table) books distributed to the trade by National Book Network. What I look for in authors is “are they a book person?” Do they know what constitutes a good book in their field? Are they well read (and well-connected) in their field? I know that pitch letters are a sine qua non in some areas of publishing. In our area, authors come right to us with their proposals. We don’t need to be pitched. The world of digital publishing and genre publishing has a disproportionate place on the internet but it’s not for every book or every kind of book. Look around for the books you admire and see who’s publishing them. They need new books too!