Which is best: self-publishing, traditional publishing or the small press?

confusedThat’s an incredibly hard question to answer, because they each have their own merits, as well as their downsides, plus individual authors have markedly different requirements. These days, since the advent of the age of the almost ubiquitous internet, getting your material out there is easier than ever, allowing writers to bypass the traditional routes to seeing the fruits of their efforts gracing bookshelves, whether real or virtual.

At least that’s one of the greatest advantages of self-publishing: the process of endlessly sending out pitches or submissions to potential publishers to generate interest in your work, or securing the services of an agent to do the same on your behalf, are now no longer necessary. It’s just a matter of writing your book, formatting it, designing a cover and uploading it onto a site like Amazon for dissemination electronically, or a service like Lulu which gives you the option of eBook and physical paperback. Within a matter of weeks or days it’s out there, with your name on the cover. Of course, it also means that the writer has to do all the hard work of promoting, getting copies out to reviewers and generally making people aware of its existence, but that’s offset by the returns should people like it enough and it sells well.

That last bit is predicated on the book receiving positive reviews, needless to say, but it’s as well to remember that you will be competing with numberless other hopeful writers who are looking for the same thing. One of the major disadvantages of the self-publishing arena is implied in that very phrase: it means that anybody can write something and get it published. There are no gatekeepers assessing the quality of the fiction or whatever on offer, so it can be a gamble for the purchaser. Systems where you can read samples of the book are extremely advantageous in this respect, allowing potential readers to weed out the good from the catastrophic. There are gems to be found amongst the ocean of dross, but sometimes it may take a while for a reader to find them. (As an aside, I once read some years ago that traditional publishing houses avoid looking for new authors in the self-publishing arena, simply because of the amount of crap that’s an inevitable part of it – I’m not certain that this still holds, although there have been writers who have made the transition from self- to traditionally-published and are doing very well. In these cases, I should think word of mouth and numbers spoke volumes in the decisions to take them on.)

Traditional publishers are not elite snobs

Traditional publishing companies rely mostly on agented submissions and, judging from the travails of some aspiring writers, representation is a very hard thing to come by. This is partly because they’re looking for quality saleable literature (so they can make a living at it) and also because, unlike self-publishing, there’s only so thin a publisher’s budget can stretch to on an annual basis so, as unpalatable as it may appear, they are looking for the ‘best’ (purely subjective to a large degree, of course, but nevertheless backed up by experience). The oft-heard complaint that traditional publishing is elitist and snobbish about self-publishing is most likely nonsense if not a little paranoid – publishers have limited budgets and that money has to be spread as economically, sensibly and broadly as possible amongst their clients. The laws of capitalism, whatever we think of the system, dictate that they have to be certain that they’ll receive a return on their investment. It’s a simple fact of economic life, however distasteful it may appear to some.

However, if you can interest an agent and subsequently get a deal, then it isn’t a bad way of setting out your literary stall. It also means that your name is associated with a particular publisher plus the manuscript has been vetted for quality (although, again, this is subjective). This implies a great deal of hard work over and above the actual process of sitting down and writing, plus it also means the hopeful author should be prepared for a lot of rejections. The latter is one of the reasons why so many writers opt for the self-publishing route – they can set their own publishing agenda and frequency, and there aren’t any pesky agent fees to pay if a book’s been sold. It simply comes down to individual preference and what the writer ultimately wants.

The small press gatekeepers

Small press publishing works in a similar way to traditional publishing, in that there’s a ‘gatekeeping’ system in place, however the major difference is that there’s no need for an agent to be involved so it’s direct submission. It’s where a great many well-known writers spent their formative years learning to hone their craft. It can be quite a tough arena to crack, as there are many discerning readers who like to delve into what it offers. The downside, of course, is that there isn’t a great deal of money in it – many imprints are labours of love rather than business concerns. Just like most things in life, there are good and bad small presses, so it pays to carry out extensive research to find which outfit will suit you and your writing. Word of mouth is often the best indicator of those presses who are worth bothering with and those who aren’t (especially the latter).

One other thing about the small press: don’t associate the fact that they’re small with low quality. There are many publishers in this field who are producing superb material, that are high quality and professional. Some even put the majors to shame at times and their books wouldn’t look out of place in a ‘real’ bookshop.

One form of publishing, which I deliberately didn’t mention in my intro, is vanity publishing. I’m specifically thinking of the companies who advertise in the backs of newspapers and magazines, ones that go along the lines of ‘Authors Wanted’. A lot of these companies encourage you to send in a manuscript, tell you that your work has been accepted and then will publish said manuscript in return for buying so many copies of the book in question. I heard of one case of an aspiring poet who had some verse published in a poetry anthology but she had to buy 500 copies of the book (or some similarly outrageous number), which she was completely unable to sell. No publisher should ask you to pay for publication – the author is the one who rightly expects to get paid. These sorts of publishers are unscrupulous scammers, nothing more, and should be avoided.

Ultimately, there really is no ‘best’ type of publishing scheme out there – each has their advantages and disadvantages. It is also worth considering how readers perceive each of the methods – each have their advocates and detractors. Some hate self-publishers, others love them – it’s the same for the traditional and small press publishers. It’s up to each individual author to look at the different options and decide for themselves which fits their requirements and expectations most fully – and I guess that’s all that matters at the end of the day.


Simon Marshall-Jones is the editor/publisher at British Fantasy Award-nominated Spectral Press, and is also a writer, artist, columnist and blogger.

If you would like a free no-obligation quote about Simon’s freelance editing services contact him on spectralpress@gmail.com.

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