Traditional Publishing, Independent Publishing, and Self-Publishing: What’s the Difference?

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If you’ve written a book of any sort, you’ve got three big options when it comes to putting your pages into the hands of readers–traditional, independent, and self-publishing. These three options are very different animals and will suit different authors in different ways.

Traditional publishing

Traditional publishing usually involves the so-called Big Four publishers (Penguin Random House/Simon and Schuster, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Macmillan) or any of their imprints. You typically need an agent to editors seriously consider your work, and you query the agent in much the same way you would any publisher/editor. Work is extremely competitive, with houses publishing just 1-2 percent of submissions.

Working with a traditional publisher can be ideal in that large houses generally are expert marketers. They know how to get your book into all the major retailers and can help you set up all kinds of publicity events. You can sell a larger number of books as a result. A big downside, however, is that the publisher often takes quite a bit of control over the production of the book, which can take years. You might be asked to do significant rewrites and typically don’t have too much say over elements like cover art.

Pay from a traditional publisher typically includes a small advance ($2,000-$20,000). Royalties can be on either gross or net sales and generally are between 5 to 15 percent and max out around 25 percent. But remember, you need an agent! They’ll take another 10 to 15 percent of your earnings. However, going with traditional publishing requires zero upfront investment.

Independent publishing

Independent publishing tends to combine elements of traditional and self-publishing. You still submit to houses, but the houses are much smaller and typically are more willing to take some risks in terms of what they publish. They tend to offer their authors more flexibility and a more collaborative relationship through the publication process. They can handle the printing and warehousing of physical books, which often would be too expensive for authors to do alone. They also can set their own royalty structures and usually provide larger advances than traditional publishers do. Many independent publishers are open to writers who do not have an agent.

Self-publishing

With self-publishing, you have to cover all upfront costs, including marketing and distribution. You use a service like CreateSpace to format your manuscript and get a formal ISBN. Then you use a service like Amazon to take the prepared manuscript and distribute it. Distribution can be purely digital or include print-on-demand (POD). You can get your book into bookstores with the POD option, but because the distribution is so expensive, you likely won’t make any money. If you opt not to distribute into bookstores, however, you can earn royalties of 40 to 60 percent, and you don’t need to worry about finding an agent or paying them additional fees. Payments also usually happen faster.

Most writers who self-publish do so because they want to maintain control over the creative aspects of their work. But successful self-publishing requires considerable marketing work and business savvy.

The bottom line

If you don’t mind losing some of your artistic control to have an experienced publisher do the heavy lifting for you, and if you don’t have a lot of money to put up upfront, traditional publishers likely would be a good fit for you. Independent publishers might be the best option if you need some guidance but want more of a say in publication. Self-publishing can be the easiest path to producing your book and usually offers the biggest royalties, but you’ll need to invest upfront. It’s a good choice if you want maximum artistic control.

All this said, as an author, you don’t have to stay in one camp or another. Some writers self-publish some projects and use independent or traditional publishers for others. Simply consider your preferences and the goals for specific work when deciding which path is best for you.

 

Should You Work as a Ghostwriter?

If you talk to most people who want to be writers, one of their main dreams is to have their byline become familiar to others. But thousands of writers are flying under the radar as ghostwriters. Let’s explore ghostwriting a little more in depth so you can decide whether it’s right for you.

What is a ghostwriter?

A ghostwriter is someone who writes for a client, who then publishes the writing as their own work. In lots of cases, the ideas in the writing are actually the client’s. The writer simply puts them on paper, ideally capturing the client’s own voice in the content. Sometimes ghostwriters also fix or expand existing manuscripts to make them flow and read better. Most people who hire ghostwriters do so because they don’t feel like they are good writers themselves, or because they are too busy to focus on a manuscript by themselves. A good ghostwriter can help a client gain some additional exposure and reputation.

Lots of practice

One benefit of being a ghostwriter is that you get tons of practice not just generally writing, but also in being more aware of differences in formats, dialects and tone. You’ll have the opportunity to learn about a lot of subjects and industries, and to meet plenty of interesting people with incredible information and stories. This has the capacity to shift your thinking and way of looking at problems and the world.

Pay

Ghostwriting can be lucrative, especially if you find a larger project or a few clients who want to work with you for the long haul. But most ghostwriting projects are one and done, such as a single article for an online publication. They also often do not provide any sort of royalties. So you can’t necessarily guarantee a steady income, and you will need to continue to look for clients.

On the other hand, just as with bylined work, you need to protect yourself against scams. Bad clients are out there who consistently aim to grab content without compensating authors, so make sure you have your agreement in writing, try to get references/referrals, and get a downpayment and establish payment milestones. Be aware that if you get shorted, taking legal action isn’t always an option, even if you have a clear contract-based case, as the cost of the project can be much less than the cost and time involved in a lawsuit.

Your career

When you are trying to get editors to publish your work, most of them will want to see pieces you’ve published that you can prove you authored. The trouble is, with ghostwriting, part of the deal is that you’ll stay mum about the fact your client didn’t write “their” work. So while you can say you’ve done work as a ghostwriter, it’s tricky to let editors know which specific publications or people you’ve worked with without violating this confidentiality. Subsequently, it’s incredibly difficult to build a real resume, post your work on social media, or put clips on your website.

For this reason, ghostwriting can work better for people who already have some standing as authors. If you already have a few published clips, then you can use those to earn new ghostwriting jobs. You can start out ghostwriting just for the income, too, of course, but without the bylines, you’ll likely have a difficult time landing more permanent work, such as staff writing or a column. Many writers combine ghostwriting with bylined work to get the best of both worlds.

One thing to think about related to the above is that ghostwriting clients are often considered experts in their fields. That expertise has pull when editors are considering publication. So what sometimes happens is, your client will submit your work and get accepted based in part on who they are. If you were to submit similar work independently, the editor very well might reject your content. This double standard can be ridiculously infuriating, since you know the editorial decision isn’t always based in the quality of your work by itself. No matter how well you write, no matter how well you source the text, reputation bias can work against you. So if your clients get accepted and you can’t on your own, don’t automatically assume there’s anything wrong with what you’ve put on the page.

So how do you work around this? If the venue is one you know you’d be personally interested in, then once your client has a good relationship with an editor because of your work, see if the client would be willing to recommend you to the editor. This way, the editor is going through someone they already trust.

As a last note here, be aware that some publications do have strict non-ghostwriter policies. You never want to put yourself in a position where you and your client would have to admit you violated this policy. So know what venues expect before you sign contracts, and ideally, have the client agree to be upfront in their queries/submissions that they have or plan to work with a ghostwriter. That way, they can be honest with the editor about how they know you. If the client has been published with a venue with their own writing, then just have the client tell the editor that you’ve done ghostwriting for them for other purposes. Even with a recommendation, be ready to provide some samples.

The final word

Ghostwriting can provide an income and let you learn an incredible amount as you network. But it does not give you an easy way to promote yourself and your writing experience. You might even find that editors accept your work when they think it is from someone else, and that they reject it when you offer it under your own name. Combining bylined and ghostwritten work can be a happy medium, but you can choose one path or the other depending on your goals and needs.