Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
I have heard numerous horror stories on the fiction front from authors who sold their books to publishers only to find they had lost control of content, were cursed with ugly covers that doomed any hope of sales, received very little assistance or support in the way of marketing and promotion, or learned that their publishers had little investment in their careers as writers and/or no interest in their future books. Such horror stories often seem pervasive, and they easily become rallying cries for self-publishing and the greater control it provides authors. Are these tales of dissatisfaction with traditional publishing notable exceptions, or are they the norm?
The traditional-publishing victims I’ve encountered typically report that they had been thrilled to receive their contracts and had accepted neglect or poor treatment or disadvantageous terms because they felt they had no choice. Indeed, before self-publishing became a viable option, few of them did. Worse, such experiences could harken the death spiral for an author’s career: no investment from the publisher could lead to sluggish sales which in turn could lead to poor chances of selling a subsequent title either to publishers or bookstores. Authors would be forced to abandon series or throw away their brands and try to reinvent themselves.
Cautionary tales capture our attention, and they tend to get repeated and even embellished. In other posts, I reported survey results showing a preference for traditional publishing among authors. I also found that authors had expectations for several advantages of traditional publishing relative to self-publishing. With so many authors positively disposed toward traditional publishing, perhaps these horror stories are very visible and heartbreaking exceptions, a disappointing conclusion to the struggle to break into the traditionally published ranks.
Several of the questions on the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey were designed specifically to examine authors’ experiences with publishing. Separate sections on the survey asked comparable questions about experiences with the last book authors had traditionally published and about the last book they had self-published While the sample is not a scientific sample and may not be representative of the experiences of the full population of published authors, we are able to report on the experiences of 3,008 authors: 1,636 who had only self-published, 774 who had only traditionally published, and 598 hybrid authors who had done both and reported separately on each experience.
A look at the median response for each survey item provides insight into whether authors tended on the whole to be satisfied, dissatisfied, or neither regarding their experiences. In the chart below (which excludes aspiring authors who have no direct experience with publishing), the responses are coded using plus and minus signs to denote whether authors reported being “very satisfied” (++), “satisfied” (+), “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied” (-/+), “dissatisfied” (-), or “very dissatisfied” (–). Experiences with which 50% or more of authors reported being satisfied or very satisfied are highlighted in yellow.
For this sample of authors, authors’ experiences with traditional publishing fell short of expectation. Traditional publishing left authors satisfied with certain parts of their experience and less satisfied with others. For most experiences, traditionally published authors appeared surprisingly similar to their indie-published peers. Overall, authors were not very satisfied with their experiences, perhaps due to the gap between our hopes of producing bestsellers and the harsh realities of the market.
Notably, hybrid authors—those who had both indie published and traditionally published—were less satisfied with traditional publishing than they were with indie publishing. Does this mean we should credit the horror stories as common? Not quite.
I probed the data a little further and compared responses of hybrid authors about their latest experiences in both traditional and indie publishing. What I found surprised me.
If the horror stories are the norm, then we would expect large differences between the self-publishing and traditional publishing experiences for most authors. Given that the scale used to measure satisfaction ranged over 5 points from very dissatisfied (1) to very satisfied (5), we would consider a 1-point difference to be meaningful, e.g. a move from “dissatisfied” to “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied” or a move from “satisfied” to “very satisfied.”
Instead, the results showed that, with the exception of creative control, the average swings in satisfaction ratings were relatively small. Self-publishing outperformed traditional publishing in these authors’ experiences, but only by a little bit.
Authors’ experiences with traditional publishing appear lackluster—and likely different than publishers themselves might expect—given expectations about the supposed benefits of having a traditional publisher. Based on these survey results, I conclude that the horror stories about traditional publishing are not the norm, but nor are tales of overwhelming joy.
See the full report, What Advantages Do Traditional Publishers Offer Authors?, for the complete data and analysis.