Is Traditional Publishing Dead?
IS TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING DEAD?
There was a time when writing a book and actually getting it published was a dream akin to saying “I’m going to make it in the NBA!” or “I’m going to be a rock star!”
Then, self-publishing came along. And while it didn’t garner much respect early on, in recent years self-publishing has taken over a major share of the publishing industry.
In other words, it’s easier than ever to get your book published.
Self-publishing platforms give you full creative control, and you get to keep your royalties. So, why spend time querying and getting rejected by traditional publishing companies? Has their time come and gone?
The short answer is, no.
Here’s why we think traditional publishing will survive, if not thrive, through the self-publishing boom.
Books Are Alive and Well, Sort of
As of August, U.S. print book sales were up 5.5% for the year over 2019. That puts 2020 on track to have one of the best years for print sales since 2004, according to NPD BookScan.
Along with print books, e-books and audiobooks are booming. In short, people still read in one form or another. That’s good news, no matter how you want to publish your book.
Why Traditional Publishing Lives On
When satellite radio hit the market, people declared broadcast radio to be doomed. That was 20 years ago, and you can still tune your radio in to get plenty of local radio broadcast stations.
It’s sort of the same with the publishing industry.
Despite the rapid growth of self-publishing — and we see no reason to expect it to go away — it hasn’t meant the demise of traditional publishers.
The competition is fierce, and traditional publishers may have to battle a bit more now to be successful. Regardless, for a number of reasons, traditional publishing lives on.
When writers think of getting published, they dream of a big publishing house accepting their book and helping to promote it to national prominence.
Self-publishing still has some stigma of vanity to it, though not nearly to the extent of 20 years ago.
Thomas Maltman, the traditionally published author of Little Wolves and two other novels, chose his route very intentionally, but that doesn’t mean it was easy.
“It’s not easy finding a publisher, since today agents are the gateway into publication,” he says. “For my first novel, I was able to find a few small, independent presses willing to accept a manuscript from writers who don’t have an agent. This is how I found my publisher, Soho Press.”
Not many publishers will take manuscripts from un-agented writers. And finding an agent is hard, too. You have to search for agents who represent your genre and have a good reputation. Then, you need to query them and sit and wait as rejections come back, just hoping one will take you on. So why bother?
Because when a writer jumps through the hoops and finally gets that acceptance from a traditional publisher, that’s the “I made it!” moment. That’s the dream.
Any way you do it, self-publishing costs money upfront. On the other hand, a traditional publishing house will pay you an advance and royalties for the rights to print and sell your book.
“Money isn’t everything,” says Maltman, “But at the end of the day, I think every writer and artist still hopes to get paid for their work.”
Getting accepted by a traditional publisher by no means is a golden ticket to quitting your day job and becoming a full-time author and living in luxury. But it can be the first step.
Once you’ve had your book accepted by a traditional publisher, it can open doors for future projects as well.
With traditional publishing, even if a book flops, the financial burden falls on the publisher, not the author.
Self-publishing is the opposite. The author pays to play and hopes to make that money back.
Traditional publishers know what works — and what doesn’t.
From book design to marketing and distribution, if your book is good enough, they know how to put it in the best position for success.
Most books on the bestseller lists are from traditional publishers. Why? Because they’ve done it before. They know how to get it in front of the right people.
As a self-published author, you’re on your own, and you’ll need a lot of luck to break through to significant financial success.
It does happen, but frequently, when it does, it’s when a traditional publisher takes notice of your work and latches on to it, taking it to the next level.
In short, traditional publishers have been there, done that, and have done it with success.
Not only do traditional publishers know what makes a book sell, they also have the resources and connections to make it happen.
They have marketing connections to get the book on important lists and in front of the right people. They can do things on a different scale than you could on your own.
This, according to Maltman, is one of the biggest selling points of traditional publishing.
“I believe having a traditional publisher is still the ideal route for a number of reasons: For one, you are paid for your work. And two, you have an entire team behind you from a publicist to get attention and reviews to your work, to editors and copyeditors and a sales and design team. Every writer needs people in his/her corner, and that’s exactly what having a traditional publisher gives you.”
As a writer, what do you really want to do? Do you want to spend your time marketing and doing self-promotion to sell copies of your book or do you want to be writing your next project?
While traditional publishing lives on, it is stronger in some genres than others. The publishing industry is far from immune to trends. In fact, it relies on them.
In 2020, a turbulent year, to say the least, current events are pushing the market trends.
In the adult book sector, politics and social justice non-fiction books are taking center stage. Fiction is doing well, too, but not to the same degree.
As families stay home and even do their schooling from their bedrooms and living rooms, children’s book sales are soaring as well. Children’s non-fiction is up over 26% over last year. Children’s fiction is up 7.7%.
If you’re looking for a silver lining in a pandemic, this could be it. Parents are buying more books for their kids!
The Outlook for Traditional Publishing
People still read, and they read all sorts of genres.
As self-publishing continues to improve, traditional publishing will have to be strategic about what books they choose to publish and promote and how many they print.
That being said, there’s no reason to believe that it won’t continue to thrive. Success for traditional publishers is largely based on predicting what’s hot and getting on it early.
Nicole Helget, an award-winning author of The Turtle Catcher and several other books, has had success with traditional publishing. She thinks the future is bright. “I’m very confident in the market, especially for writers who are open to independent, university, and hybrid publishers. Some of the most important work is coming out of those quiet presses. This puts pressure on the big, traditional market to respond.”
Maltman says that for most authors, traditional publishing should be the starting point. “My primary recommendation to anyone is to pursue a traditional publishing route first,” he says. “I would consider self-publishing if a work was unable to find a traditional publisher.
“Traditional publishing is far from dead,” says Maltman. “I’ve heard plenty of heart-breaking stories from authors with big publishers whose work was sidelined/forgotten, but even in these cases, the authors were paid for their work. The world we live in needs stories now more than ever.”
The world needs stories, and stories need publishers. There’s plenty of room for self-publishing and traditional publishing to co-exist successfully.
To paraphrase the famous Mark Twain quote, rumors of traditional publishing’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
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