The Evolution of Traditional Publishing into Self-Publishing


The mass publishing of printed books in America began in 1638 when a printing press was imported to Cambridge, Massachusetts from England. Since then, it has grown to over 2,500 publishing houses and billions of dollars in revenue each year. Benjamin Franklin maintained a print shop in Philadelphia, authoring and publishing countless books. By the 19th century, New York City had become the publishing capital in the United States, seeing the rise of such prolific publishing houses as Harper, Scribner, and Putnam.

When self-publishing became commercially viable, it was because technology entered the market to replicate what only large publishing houses previously could do. Print-on-demand services now make processing print runs of many thousands of copies of a single title irrelevant. Authors working on a shoestring budget do not have to invest thousands of dollars upfront just to stack copies of their work in their garage. Now, authors can order as few or as many copies of their professionally bound books as they want for just a few dollars each (plus the cost of shipping).

To the dismay of many large publishing houses, online marketplaces like have democratized book marketing and distribution. Authors with only a basic knowledge of internet marketing can find creative and inexpensive ways to get their books in front of their ideal readers. Amazon and its affiliated companies take their cut of the purchase and automatically send the order to be printed and shipped or delivered instantly over the internet in the case of digital formats like e-books or audiobooks.

Self-Publishing Challenges

Self-publishing has brought about the most recent changes to the book industry. The process has not yet been optimized for or fully embraced by readers. Self-published authors still often carry negative stigmas of amateurism that traditionally published authors do not. The common perception is that any book a "real" publisher wouldn't work with is not worth reading. Without a barrier to entry, the seal of quality offered by large publishers is absent. No matter how terrible or revolutionary their message might be, anyone can sell their book on the same platforms as War and Peace or the Harry Potter series.

What all this means for aspiring authors is that if they are willing to deal with the stigmas and difficulties associated with self-publishing, they no longer need to search for years or know people in the right places to have their book published. Everyone has an equal opportunity to make their voice heard, so long as they learn to make use of the resources available to them. For better or worse, the doors have been permanently opened. There is no turning back.

Traditional publishing often appeals to authors who strictly want to focus on writing, though this can be misleading because large publishing houses still expect the author to assist with marketing their book. Publishing houses do, however, have professional sources in place for professional editing, graphic design, and copywriting. Authors who choose to go it alone will have to either handle all these supplementary tasks themselves or outsource the parts they don't like to professionals. The self-published author necessarily wears many hats.

Trаdіtіоnаl рublіѕhеrѕ take over most of the heavy lіftіng, but their involvement carries great соѕts. Not only will the author's book royalties be significantly smaller than they would if they self-published, but the author will not even retain control of their intellectual property. The рublіѕhіng соmраnу they sell their rights to decides how or when they rеlеаѕе and promote the bооk. Additionally, the author's agent mаkеѕ their mоnеу as a реrсеntаgе оf the аdvаnсе (if аny) and royalties for the bооk (typically 15%).

Creative Control

When a writer signs a deal with a publishing company, the company owns the print license, while the writer owns the copyright. Giving up the print license means the рublіѕhеr has control over thе tіtlе, cоvеr, content, рrісіng, рrоmоtіоn, and distribution of the book. They may require substantial modifications to the content and tone of the work, diminishing the authenticity of the message.

If an author's point of view is unconventional, they may have a hard time convincing a traditional publisher to leave it as is. Publishers take a risk every time they purchase the rights to a book and expend their resources producing and promoting it. They aren't in the business of gambling on unknown authors who don't fit the mold of what they know turns a profit. Publishers will likely require significant modifications to an uncommon book (if they are even interested in publishing it), unless the author has somehow proven their work's saleability. In today's world, that usually amounts to having an enormous social media presence that will pre-order thousands and copies because they are already diehard fans of what the author puts out. Good luck attracting the interest of even a literary agent, let alone a major publisher, unless you happen to be a social media wiz.

The thought of someone else having the final say on what will go in their book is unbearable for many authors. Their name and face are going to be associated with whatever ends up in print. If their publisher doesn't understand the unique, personal appeal the author intends, they will tarnish the message. The revisions could be minor and valuable, like fixing problematic punctuation and superfluous vocabulary. They could also be large and deconstructive, like an overhaul of order, theme, title, style, and cover design. Traditional publishers may be right and they may be wrong about their revisions, but they're going to have final say even if the author disagrees.

Royalty Splitting

A trаdіtіоnаl рublіѕhеr pays its authors 7–15% royalties on book ѕаlеѕ (minus the lіtеrаrу agent's 15% оf the author's 15%, typically a total of 2.25% of the sale price). Through self-publishing, authors keep most of the royalties from each sale. When an author enters into a private agreement with a retailer like Amazon, the retailer keeps a portion of the book revenues for the privilege of listing the book on their site, allowing users to leave reviews and adding the book to their category rankings. If an author publishes their e-book through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and prices it between $2.99 and $9.99, they will receive 70% royalties for their book. For any retail price outside this range, author royalties from Amazon drop to 35%, which is still vastly superior to the maximum 15% that traditional publishers offer.

For physical books, KDP Print (Amazon's department for print-on-demand paperbacks) charges a small fixed printing fee plus a per-page cost. As of June 2023, these rates were raised to a $1.00 fixed cost for paperbacks (and $5.65 for hardcovers) plus one and one-fifth cents ($0.012) per page for black and white books. The per-page cost rises to six and a half cents ($0.065) for premium color paperbacks. Authors publishing paperbacks can expect a 250-page black-and-white book of any page size to cost less than $4 per copy to print. Amazon then keeps 35% royalties of the retail price of KDP Print paperbacks when sold on their platform, leaving the author with a profit of about 50% of the book price in royalties (which is, again, far better than the 15% or less available through large publishing houses). The exact amount will depend on the retail and printing prices of the book. Other print-on-demand companies like IngramSpark and Lulu have their own pricing structures, sometimes allowing the author or publisher to set wholesale discount rates.

Publishing Timeline

A trаdіtіоnаl рublіѕhеr may rеԛuіrе 12–18 mоnthѕ tо publish a bооk from the time they acquire the rights to it. In fact, a book project could get саught in development hell and be delayed for years, if not abandoned altogether. If a book's subject is topical and timely, its content may be outdated by the time the gears of conventional publishing finish turning. If a book is tied to other aspects of its author's professional life, a delayed release could mean the loss of new business and opportunities. Book marketing efforts will be fruitless if an author cannot predict when their book will be available. Through self-publishing, an author can have their bооk on Amazon within days from the time the final draft is ready. It is seldom desirable to rush a book's release so much like this, but it's always an option. The self-published author will not beckon to anyone's timetable but their own.

The burden of self-published authors is to achieve the same level of professionalism as their traditional counterparts. Self-publishing, therefore, requires authors to be responsible for much more than writing. They must aspire to conquer the many responsibilities of publishing if they are to achieve success. Even the world's most skilled writers cannot handle cover design, formatting, editing, presentation, or sales and marketing with the same effectiveness. They will need to outsource at least some parts of the process. It is the only way to produce a book approaching the standards set by traditional publishers that readers expect when they pay $20 for a paperback or $30 for a hardcover.

For self-publishers, many aspects of the book refinement, presentation, and promotion processes are difficult to predict. Editing can happen in one quick round of feedback from a critical mind, or an author can belabor it for months on end, with dozens of readers pointing out ways to improve individual sentences or alter the structure of a book's message. An author can cut entire chapters. They can move the end to the beginning or the beginning to the end. They can even end up rewriting their book from scratch once the first draft has been thoroughly eviscerated.

Then there are all the skilled creative decisions that go into cover design, title selection, and interior formatting. Assessing all the creative alternatives, finding and paying the right talent, or putting the many required hours of their own labor in could extend their book's release date by weeks or months, even after the content is finalized. To self-publish, an author must get comfortable managing these kinds of decisions as though they were the architect and foreman behind the construction of a house.

Publisher Gatekeeping

My latest work, Our Global Lingua Franca, was a manifesto about improving how we teach English as a Foreign Language (EFL) around the world. I had no specific audience for English teachers and linguistics nerds, so I considered the possibility that the wisest strategy with this book would be to entrust it to a publisher that specializes in the language or education niche. However, most literary agents and small presses didn't cater to this genre. The closest most came was a fairly vague category of books on "social issues" or "cultural criticism." Educational books like mine were exclusively handled by academic presses that produced the learning material for universities and other accredited institutions.

Not expecting much, I was pleasantly surprised when a few academic publishers expressed interest in seeing my work. Reading their reviews of my manuscript gave me an inside look at their editorial processes. I figured the worst response I could get would be that though my book contained a lot of value, it just wasn't something that would fit well with the publisher's slate. And indeed, that was the response I received from most of the publishers I queried. But from one academic publisher in particular, I received criticisms that were overwhelmingly disparaging, vitriolic, and biased against everything my book stood for.

This publisher considered my work an insult to EFL pedagogy because it clashed with what their textbooks taught about the state of worldwide English education. The reviewers lambasted me for sharing my own opinions and experiences of what works with teaching English to foreign learners. They had the unmistakable air of people who had learned a great deal about how education works around the world from prescriptive books, not on-the-ground experience. They were too high in their ivory tower to see what things were like down in the trenches. One reviewer disparagingly described me as an autodidact (i.e., self-learner), as though it were a flaw in my character and justification for why no one should take my opinions on education seriously. They were even critical of the fact that I was willing to independently put my work out into the world instead of going exclusively through traditional publishers. On all fronts, they were opposed to the idea of people figuring things out or doing things on their own.

They primarily compared my book to $130 EFL textbooks that represented how they believed the subject should be approached. If you've ever attempted to read a scholarly work like this, you already know how inaccessible the style is to ordinary people. These books showed no sales presence on Amazon or other book platforms, most likely because they were only ever bought and read by linguistics students at universities who were required to read them. This was obviously not the standard I was aspiring to with Our Global Lingua Franca. My goal in publishing is to spread access to useful knowledge in original forms. Theirs seemed to be to contain and regulate it.

These professional criticisms could have devastated me and caused me to doubt the value of the information I was trying to put out into the world. They might even have stopped me from publishing altogether, which may very well have been one of their ulterior goals for being so harsh. If the acknowledged experts deemed my work utterly worthless and unpublishable, who would I be to argue? Fortunately, I was already familiar with the range of possible responses to anything I wrote. I had already submitted Our Global Lingua Franca to feedback from beta-readers consisting of more than a dozen experienced English instructors and learners. Their comments were almost universally positive, thanking me for sharing unconventional anecdotes from my experiences teaching around the world and for calling out the systemic shortcomings they dealt with daily. I already knew a market existed that would find my book uniquely valuable.

This experience reminded me why self-publishing is so important: It allows people with divergent messages to circumnavigate the gatekeepers who would have kept them from getting their messages out generations prior. These negative reactions were useful because they caused me to seriously rethink the book's title and how I should frame its value to readers. I saw how important it was to clarify my approach, which differed from what one might expect from a conventional book about English education. It's how I arrived at the book's subtitle: An Educator's Guide to Spreading English Where EFL Doesn't Work. I also reworked the book's description, preface, and introduction to better address its focus and goal.

I had unshakeable confidence in the value of what I was saying. It's what motivated me to write the book in the first place. I would not have attempted to foray into the EFL niche unless I saw a massive, persistent problem with its current practice. I hope that whatever you choose to write your first book about, it will be something you can hold onto a similar level of confidence about.

Gregory V. Diehl is the founder of Identity Publications and author of several popular nonfiction books on business and personal development. His book The Influential Author is a lengthy, in-depth guide to crafting and publishing meaningful nonfiction books at or beyond the standards expected from traditional publishing. 

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