|Jan Vermeer, “The Geographer”|
The amount of control an author has over the traditional publishing process is something that I think tends to surprise non-writers.
Do you get to approve the cover? Nope.
Do you get to call the book whatever you want? Not usually.
But what if you don’t like the cover? Can’t you stop it? Sometimes. Not often.
As we move into an era when authors have a real choice about whether they want to go the self-publishing or traditional publishing route, authorial control over the publishing process is a very very important issue, and it’s something author Hannah Moskowitz recently touched on as well.
I think it’s essential to know what kind of author you are. Are you the type of person who wants control the entire publishing process? Or are you happy to give some of that up?
Personally, I like the collaborative element of traditional publishing. My publisher has been great, I love my editor, and I truly don’t know what I would have done without them. I love my illustrator, I love the cover, I love the pages, I love the ink, I love the paper, I love the air between the pages when they’re kind of flapping in the wind.
I actually did have have input over the illustrator, and I was so thrilled with Christopher S. Jennings’ illustrations that I changed description within the book to match the illustrations. I feel like he captured Dexter in particular better than my description did.
For a lot of authors (like me), when you have a traditional publisher you view your book as part of a collaborative process. The book really truly benefits from the input of your publisher. You trust that they know what they’re doing. They are living and breathing covers and jacket copy and titles and books and all the rest. It’s what they do. You best be listening to them, and those rules about publishers having ultimate say exist for the reason. They’re fronting the investment to produce the book, and it prevents books from being held up by arguments and disagreements.
But you do give up some control with traditional publishing. When you go with a traditional publisher they may have at least mutual approval or at most total approval over what your book is called. The traditional publishing process will likely involve discussions about what your title is going to be. You probably won’t have ultimate say over your cover.
If the idea of giving up that control gives you the willies: Self-publishing might be the way to go.
You now have that option to produce the book exactly as you want it. Self-publishing affords you total control: over the cover, the editorial process, the title, and everything else. Freedom is yours.
If you want someone else to handle the nuts and bolts and trust the publisher to make the ultimate calls: Traditional publishing may be for you.
Traditional is the decision I made, and it’s a choice I’ve been very happy with.
The publisher chooses the title?! Nathan, you made my day. I love developing a story. Naming it, not so much.
Useful post and very true. Strangely, my first novel to be published is going to be somewhere in between. In the past I've hidden my literary short stories in anthologies, glad to be in good company, but then in a crazy spree I wrote a commercial women's novel and it was taken up by a UK independent publisher on their first fiction run after (successful) years of poetry and magazines. The upside is that they know their way and I have great grammatical and commercial support, and as an ex-graphic designer they are letting me do my own cover which was a blast! Please do have a look:
Yes hard to relinquish control but I know where my capacities run low and collaboration does feel good! best, catherine-in-italy
Simon Gray says
I think self-publishing sucks and is there for the vain and the writers who aren't basically good enough to sell commercially. The market is swamped by mediocrity, making it even harder for those with real talent to get noticed. I have experience through the 'assisted publishing' route which apparently is a step up from self-publishing, ie they think you have talent but you still have to pay for cover production, marketing etc … after months of sailing along you're eventually ready to go, full of excitement and enthusiasm, and then you enter the doldrums … absolutely nothing happens and unless your prepared to flog them to your friends and family and trudge up and down High streets trying to interest jaded book store owners, that's exactly where you will stay.
Patrick Neylan says
My inclination is to trust the publisher when it comes to covers and even titles. How many books have you published? They've published millions.
If your book is worth publishing then you're the expert on the writing. But covers and titles (and the blurb on the back) are aspects of marketing, and what makes you an expert in that? Unless you're sure they've totally misunderstood your book (in which case there's a deeper problem), you should trust their final judgement.
Janice Phelps Williams says
Interesting post, Nathan. Thank you for clarifying this issue for writers. I think there are many degrees of involvement within the two choices, however.
Background: I've worked as a designer/editor on 200+ self-published or micro-publisher books. I am also a publisher (10-yr-old small press with 30+ titles, 3 by myself but the rest by others and under traditional, they-don't-pay-anything contracts). I've also been published, once, by another publisher and have works in progress.
Self-publishers can use freelance editors/designers who are experienced and knowledgeable to ensure that their book looks and is marketed and is edited to be as professional and marketable as a traditionally published book. The results are indistinguishable from a traditionally published book, if the author is willing to listen to the advice of those with more experience in publishing and if the editors/designers are willing to respect the author's voice, vision and point of view, as well as have the ability to diplomatically tell their paying client when they are wrong.
For authors who choose a traditional route: If you connect with a small publisher, you may be pleasantly surprised to find how much input you will have in cover design and editing. Lucky Press is bringing out 6 books this year and in each case I involve the authors in each step of the design process, showing them mock-ups, getting feedback, taking their input into account. Also with the editing process: it is a close relationship, author to editor. There is a lot of back and forth. I respect that this is the author's work, passion, pride-and-joy. No one knows the story, the characters, better than the author. The editor stands there in the place of the future reader and says, "Well, I see what you mean about this character, but the words you have here on the page, aren't saying that as well as they might…what about this?"
If the author is not able or willing to listen to this sort of advice, then there are larger problems that will not go away, that will affect marketing the book and sales, that will effect the author's writing career. But I have found this is rare.
Whether a large publisher or small, it helps if the author understands the financial risk a publisher is taking, on the work and on the author. The worst feeling as a small publisher is realizing you've made a mistake in extending a publishing contract (for publishers/editors, like authors, learn from experience). The most wonderful feeling is realizing you have published a writer's debut book and it was a wonderful day when you found each other and your heart is infused with a sense of "this is why I work in publishing, to bring books like this to life."
Nathan, your post is right on. A writer needs to know "thyself" and then work from that place of self-understanding to make the best career choice. Hopefully, having done this foundation work, they will then connect with the people who can bring their book to interested readers.
Jim Thomsen says
Nathan, there's one big element of control that you failed to mention, and it's this: A self-published author can publish as often as he or she wants. A traditionally published author can only publish as often as the publisher will allow them. I think the myth of "glutting the market," particularly with work in a series, has pretty well been exploded (fans will gobble up a book a week from an author if authors could work that fast) … and so all that remains is the fact that an author who works clean and fast and is capable of putting out, say, three to five good books a year is having bread taken out of his or her mouth by the hidebound process of traditional publishing, which still largely grinds along at its archaic 18-to-24-month pace per volume. A writer has one lifetime and many dreams … one of which is making a self-sustaining living at writing. And a publisher that fights that in defense of a glacial process seriously harms that writer.
Margo Lerwill says
So, Simon, how would you characterize authors who had already been traditionally published who have now chosen to try out self-publishing? Are they also vain, and does their work suddenly suck simply by virtue of their chosen method of distribution?
Noooo, not divisive at all.
Jim Thomsen says
How many books have you published? They've published millions.
They've also had millions shredded and pulped at a loss — to their authors — after they failed to sell.
Rachael W says
I've been following the traditional publishing vs. self-publishing debate avidly, and I've never seen this point raised before: What about the MFA folks who want to teach at the college level? Universities will only consider candidates who've had book(s) published (and well-received) in the traditional manner. So for those of us who want to eventually teach — and I'm one of them — traditional publishing remains the only route.
I remain wedded to the idea of traditional publishing for many of the same reasons as you, Nathan. However, I can't deny that the industry has changed rapidly in the last few years, and that these changes might mean that my chances of being traditionally published could narrow significantly.
It seems to me that those of us who are pursuing MFAs in order to teach at the undergraduate level are potentially caught, as the saying goes, between a rock (the criteria set for future employment) and a hard place (who knows what's going to happen to traditional publishing?). And since no one's addressed this yet, I was wondering if anyone here had thoughts on this aspect of the debate.
Rachel, I hear you. Is there going to be a market for self pubbing literary fiction? Multicultural fiction? Book club fiction?
The thing is, the whole journal system relies on writers needing (begging, paying) to get published. So it will take writers to change it. And if enough do, you can publish what and how you want and still teach. But for now, lit fiction writers are wedded to traditional indicia of talent and they are stuck.
John M says
Call me a control freak, but in the end I trust my own judgment most. There is something very liberating about seeing your vision carried through completely. I compare it to being a painter who decides what he will paint rather than being hired on commission. It's your idea, your way.
Theresa Milstein says
I want to go the traditional route too. For queries and manuscripts, I get help from other writers. Why wouldn't I want feedback from professionals?
When I hear authors speak about their agents and editors, there's often gushing going on. Sounds like there are many benefits of these relationships.
Here's my sad story: Found no takers for my warped tribute to Mark Twain so self-pubbed on an Espresso Book Machine & designed cover with my girlfriend. Had a NAME graphic designer on board but industry-ites let me know that even if the project was a good fit they wouldn't allow someone who wasn't in-house design the cover. Someone out there tell me why that locked-up/locked-down mindset isn't screwed up. What made it worse/funnier was that the next thing I know I'm looking at a godawful cover on one of the most highly anticipated books from last year — "The Auto.. of Mark Twain". No kidding, is it me or does it look like Twain's looking out from inside of a dirty hamper on the cover. That was the best photo to choose from if the publisher had to go with a photo? With all that work going into the first volume he deserved better. But, oh yeah, they're professionals.
In short, who wants to go storm the Holy Gates of Trad-Publishing with me? I'm going to the garage to get my trojan horse out of storage.
Bob Mayer says
I don't necessarily think an author needs all that control as an author isn't an expert in all those areas. I always trusted my traditional publishers with covers. Only once was a title changed and it was indeed an awful change.
Now as an indie publisher, it is neat to have control, but I don't do it all myself. I have someone else do covers, but I get final say.
The bottom line is no one cares more about the book than the author.
Claude Nougat says
Great post, as always. You've zeroed in on what is perhaps the GREATEST difference that remains between traditional and self-publishing, now that the stigma of self-publishing has been removed by the digital revolution: the question of CONTROL. You're so right.
Which way you go will depend a lot on whether you have that wild entrepreneurial spirit in you or not. Because it's not just a matter of CONTROLLING the book production process but ALSO MARKETING.
And that, in many ways, is a LOT harder, unless you've already got a platform, say, as a celebrity…I'm no celebrity, so it's harder for someone like me – still I've decided to go for both, traditional publishing ans self-pub, hedging my bets as it were…Wish me luck (just about to self-pub a YA historical-paranormal-fantasy, quite a mix!)
C. JoyBell C. says
Even though I am an avant-garde author (I am self-published), I still see the creation of my books as a collaborative process. I still have a copyeditor, an interior layout design team, an exterior layout designer, a marketing assistant, a press-release writer, and a publishing adviser. I pay for all these services at CreateSpace: making my publishing process a collaborative one. My books are beautiful and I truly enjoy working with my team and adviser; artists and editors and marketing consultants! So, even though I spend for the capital when I pay for all these services, it's still a collaborative effort. At the same time, I have the final say, I get to approve or disapprove of final touches, tweaks to the layout and etc.
The self-published author can still experience the joys and tears of the whole publishing process, given he/she has enough capital to fuel it. And allow me to add, that authors like me become acquainted with and are able to hone a great variety of book publishing skills in the process!
With traditionally published books there is some amount of quality control built in. I rarely read a traditionally published book that is execrable. It happens, but it's rare.
Self-published books, on the other hand, are pretty much guaranteed to be truly awful. To the extent that I will no longer purchase a self-published book, not even in ebook format.
Chris N says
Re: Andy – And you honestly don't think that traditional publishers can't be control freaks? The ability to publish work that isn't rejected because it's "too controversial" or touches on subjects that a big corporation is weary about "backing" is a major point in favor of self-publishing, which I'm glad some of the commentators here mentioned.
You also seem to assume that self-publishers have an inherent dislike for editors. Wrong. Many of us, including me, hire very good editors to make sure our work has a minimum of errors. We also hire good cover designers. Not having to wait a year or two to see your work become available because your corporate publisher has a hundred other books to put their time and effort into simultaneously is another big plus. Then there's the matter of not having to worry about your book ever going out of print, and allowing it the opportunity to find its readers over the long haul.
No doubt there are benefits to the traditional publishing route. But bashing those who prefer to go the self-publishing route unfairly like that is simply a form of stereotyping. A desire to be the main architect of your destiny does entail risk, but it's hardly a sign of the control freak.