The main purpose of this article is to spell out the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing, and enumerate its pros and cons, so that an author seeking to publish her book can decide which of the two options to choose.

The term “traditional publishing” or “mainstream publishing” refers to publishing as it is usually understood – where the publisher bets on the book and spends on it. In this mode of publishing, the common practice is for a publisher to either commission a book i.e. to ask an author to write on a particular topic, or to solicit manuscripts for publication. In the latter case, not all manuscripts are published, rather each solicited manuscript is passed through a round of editorial review. Once the publisher has decided to publish a book, all expenditures related to the book – its editing, design, printing, marketing and distribution – are borne by the publisher. In many instances, the publication process starts with an agreement in which the author hands over the rights to the book to the publisher, and in turn agrees to a ‘royalty fee’, a fixed percentage of sales paid to the author by the publisher. In some cases, an advance is paid against future royalty earnings.

traditional-vs-self-publishingSince the publisher is literally putting its money on the book, the publisher is choosy about the book it will publish. (Usually a publisher will publish just one kind of book, a genre, like crime thrillers, for instance. Or it may publish many genres under different labels, or imprints. For instance, Penguin India publishes business books under its Portfolio imprint and other contemporary non-fiction under its Allen Lane imprint.) A publisher may therefore choose to reject a book that is submitted to it by its author because the book does not fit among the books it has chosen to publish, or because the publisher does not see a market large enough for the book to be able to recoup its investments in that book. Please remember that a traditional publisher may reject your book even if it is a good one [].

Further, the publisher will take all necessary steps to ensure that the book appeals to its audience. The publisher brings its wisdom and experience to bear upon this process of developing the book for its market. That might mean making certain changes to the text, developing a cover that it finds suitable, setting an appropriate price for the book, and formulating a marketing plan appropriate for the book. The publisher can choose to do all of this without the involvement of the author. Based on its estimation of the market, the publisher will choose to print a certain number of copies of the book, and reprint or discontinue the book depending upon the response it gets. Depending upon the nature of the contract signed between the author and the publisher, the publisher has the freedom to negotiate and sign on agreements for translations of the book into other languages, for conversion into other electronic formats, and even for TV or movie rights.

So how is it different from self-publishing?

The self-publishing route differs from traditional publishing in the following aspects:

Cost: All costs related to the developing, printing and distributing the book, are borne by the author. That means the author remains fully invested in the process. Consequently, the author also has a say in all matters related to the book. Some options, such as crowdsourcing, that will make it easier for authors to fund their books are now available.

Control: This follows from the previous point. Having paid for the book, the author gets to decide (rather, should be given a chance to decide) on every aspect of the book, such as the book dimensions, the type of binding, the nature of the cover, the number of copies printed and the avenues of distribution.

Profits: All profits go to the author. Any deductions, if held back by the service provider, should be communicated to the author, preferably before the service is undertaken. The author must receive an explanation of the costs and reimbursements. Typically, the author gets to choose the quantum of royatly payable after each copy is sold, and, based on that, the price of the book. The author agreement, that every self-published author must read before signing, must explain how profits, and royalty, will be disbursed to the author. No advance on royalties is paid to the author.

Rights: The rights to the contents of the book remain vested with the author. Thus, the author decides on the rights for translations, serialization rights, rights to convert to other formats, as also TV and movie rights. An author agreement is therefore very important for authors who self publish, more importantly one that explains where the rights to various aspects of the book will be vested.

Time to Market: A self-published book almost always makes it to the market earlier than a book that is traditionally published. A six-month period is considered as the average time a book takes to become available when the author chooses the self-publishing route.

Having said that, self-publishing does not appeal to many. That is because self-publishing is hard work. It means a total commitment to the self-publishing process, understanding every aspect of the process, taking time to learn how publishing works, and, very importantly, taking it upon yourself to ensure that the book is adequately marketed and distributed. Self-publishing cannot be for authors who will outsource the task of monitoring the process to a third party.

On the other hand, a majority of authors do prefer the tradional publishing way. And for good reason:

There is prestige and validation: Being a published author implies having your book approved by a team of editors. That in itself is a badge of approval that many authors relish. Such validation does not come easily to self-published authors. In fact, in the case of many genres, such as academic books, self-published books are frowned upon. That stigma, though, is slowly disappearing.

Your book is worked upon by a large team of book editors, designers and marketeers: Very often the team assembled to work on your book has many years of experience between them. Given that the publisher has invested a lot of money in the book, it naturally follows that this team is charged with publishing a very good book. When you self-publish, on the other hand, you choose the team you will work with.

Distribution becomes easier: Book distributors and retailers believe that a book from a traditional publisher will be worth selling since it is assumed that the content is properly vetted and edited and a lot of effort has been put into developing a good book. No retailer would shun a good product and the publisher’s imprint assures the retailer of just that. Like many self-published authors will avow, getting physical stores to keep their books on their shelves is next to impossible.

There are no costs to the author, a lucky one might actually receive a royalty: In the traditional publishing model, the publisher invests the money necessary to develop, market and distribute the book. In case of established authors, the publisher might actually offer the author an advance against future royalties.

A traditionally published book is more likely to be accepted for awards and acclaim: Many literary awards are not open to self-published authors, and remain available for traditionally published books alone.

Self-publishing can be a way to get published the traditional way. Many authors have found commercial and critical success with their self-published books as a result of which publishers following the traditional model of publishing have noticed them and offered them a proposal for their next book. Ultimately it is the decision of the author, to choose which route to take. There cannot be any substitute for hard work and writing a good book. That done, both models are guaranteed to get the market to sit up and notice your book.

We are often asked why we insist that a manuscript submitted to us for self-publishing should be edited. Many authors believe, and some rightly so, that they have put in a lot of effort to make sure that the loose ends are tied and therefore the need to spend time, and money, on a round of editing is unnecessary. But we still insist on a round of editing, sometimes to our own detriment because many authors desert us when we ask them to have their manuscripts edited. We however believe that a round of editing is good for the book. Here’s why:editing

a. An editor will read your book with a different perspective: While most readers read the content of the book, and may thus oversee some errors in the text, a good editor will read every word to ensure that the text is as error-free as possible. Moreover, writers are so familiar with their own work, they usually miss many errors that a different set of eyes will see.

b. An editor will ensure consistency: Such consistency could be with respect to spellings, or the way dates are numbered or the way punctuation marks are used.

c. An editor will ensure accuracy: An editor will ensure that all facts are checked, the numbers add up, and, as it happened in one case with one of our books, that a person who died on page 77 does not reappear on page 132.

d. An editor will ensure clarity: An editor, who is unfamiliar with the text, and is reading it for the first time, will want to ensure that the narrative is clear to the reader. What might be obvious to the author might not be to the reader. The editor might therefore ask the writer to clarify the text so that it is communicated as clearly as possible. Similarly an editor will ensure that the narrative is not verbose and long wound, or bogged down with complex words when a simple word will be as effective.

e. An editor will iron out all issues with the grammar of the text: A writer need not know about split infinitives or dangling modifiers. That’s the editor’s job to know, identify and correct.

f. An editor underlines your commitment towards excellence: Every author wants to ensure that his/her book out there is the best. A round of editing can ensure that.

It is often argued that self-publishing authors should not be asked to cut and chop text, that it is their choice of what to keep and what to remove. A round of editing does not impinge on that choice, rather it only shows what the author could consider modifying so that the book reads better. A good editor will suggest modifications that do not impinge upon the author’s style of communicating. Editing is not a censorship tool, rather an approach towards perfecting the book. With the book on the shelf, the author has but one opportunity to make an impression on the reader. An edited book can ensure that that impression is a memorable one. At the same time, an editor cannot guarantee commercial success for the book, just that the book will read well.

So what are the types of editing available and what type does your book need?

Proofreading: During this process, the proofreader reads the proof (usually an already-edited manuscript) and acts only as a quality check for spelling and grammar, making sure that the copy editor has not missed something. The proofreader is not responsible for the overall consistency and accuracy of the text.

Copy Editing: Copy editing makes sure that the author’s raw text is corrected in aspects of spelling and grammar. Copy editing also involves, among other things, ensuring that the text flows properly, that nothing is missing or redundant, that sentences and paragraphs are uncomplicated and of adequate length and that the consistency of characters and plots is maintained. A copy editor also ensures that illustrations support the text and have appropriate captions.

In addition, editors will eliminate redundant words, replace repetitive words with appropriate synonyms, and will substitute weak words, phrases, and sentences with alternatives that deliver more impact or are more relevant to your subject matter. During all this, our editors will make sure your original tone remains intact. After a round of editing, we insist that the author reads and reviews these changes.

Substantive (or Developmental) Editing: Substantive editing, sometimes called structural editing, focuses on the content, organization, and presentation of the entire text, viewed wholly, from the title through to the ending.

Which editing you choose actually depends on the book you have written. At the very least, we suggest you have your book copyedited. This is necessary because it removes the scruff from the grain. A good copyeditor will see what you are blind to because you are too invested in the words you have toiled to write, and will help you make your book even better to read. If you are unconvinced, remember that in the traditional publishing process, it is the editing phase that takes the longest. Publishers who have invested in the book make sure that the book is properly edited. You are doing the same thing with your self-published book when you invest in a round of editing.