Traditional vs. self-publishing – and an alternative to both

Last week, my favourite book industry blogger Jane Friedman posted an update to her popular infographic breaking down the major routes to publishing. It is shared with permission here, but you might also want to check out her original post at

She names those four routes as traditional publishing, fully assisted self-publishing, DIY self-publishing, and community publishing. I consider the latter a special case as it ranges from blogs to serialized fiction and fan fiction, so won’t elaborate on it in this post. To the rest, I would add one more: LifeTree Media’s hybrid publishing model, which offers a unique alternative to any of these.

Traditional publishing

Under this model, a publisher acquires rights to a written work, either paying the author an advance against royalties or, increasingly, not. They usually retain copyright to the work for as long as the book remains in print, and the author can’t reuse that work in different ways during the lifetime of the contract. The publisher shoulders all of the financial risk — and their investment can be significant, as the better publishers will use highly skilled and experienced publishing professionals to develop, produce and market the book. The system is highly selective, so obtaining a publishing contract of this sort can take years, if it happens at all. Books are physically printed and distributed in stores as well as available to buy through online retailers. Royalties are low, and many books do not earn out their advance, meaning that in most cases, an author who received an advance will not see any more revenues from their book. But due to its high professional standards and print-run distribution, traditional publishing is seen by many authors to offer the most serious route to visibility and credibility.

DIY self-publishing

This is a highly accessible system under which any author can put out a book or ebook with as much or as little editorial support as they wish to access – but they must be prepared to manage and pay for the whole project themselves. Some DIY self-publishers hire freelance editors and book cover designers to work on their books. Most self-published books are distributed as ebooks or print-on-demand (POD) books, meaning that the books are only printed when they are ordered (usually online) by the customer. Some authors, particularly those with strong potential to sell directly to their audiences, may hire a printer and invest in a print run. Whatever distribution route is taken, self-published books are not stocked by major retailers (and only rarely by independent bookstores) and are not generally recognized by mainstream press.

Fully assisted self-publishing

This system, dominated in the United States by Author Solutions and its many subsidiaries, is for self-published authors who don’t want to get their hands dirty at all with the business end of publishing their books. Service packages vary widely and, as Friedman points out in her infographic, many providers offer services of dubious value. There are no gatekeepers, which means that anyone can use these services to publish their book, but there is also no quality control. Books may or may not be available to order at bookstores, but they are not physically distributed and stocked. As with DIY self-publishing, these books are also not acknowledged by media. To Friedman’s points, I would add that in my experience as a former arts editor (who saw many such books come across my desk at the Vancouver Sun newspaper), creative and professional standards under this system are not equivalent to traditional publishing.

Hybrid publishing

Under this very rare, emerging model, a hybrid publisher such as LifeTree Media performs all the functions of a traditional publisher but is far more accessible. The publisher offers a complete service, including high-calibre editorial, production, sales and marketing, on a fee-for-service basis to authors who meet their requirements. Unlike assisted self-publishing, this system is not open to every author; these publishers must be selective because their reputation rests on the quality of their books and their authors’ performance in the marketplace. It is essentially an elite alternative to assisted self-publishing, with the major added benefit of mainstream print-run sales and distribution. Rigorous developmental work and quality control mean that budgets are high, on par with the level of investment a better traditional publisher would make in a similar book. This system best suits authors whose book has serious bestseller potential and who are in a position to shoulder significant financial risk in order to put a well-developed product into the broader marketplace. Authors retain copyright to their work so are free to exploit it in other ways, including high-margin direct sales that can help them recoup their investment much more quickly even while their book is for sale in retail outlets.

Maggie Langrick

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