Written by Emily Harstone January 5th, 2015

An Argument For Traditional Publishing

Writers are often very frustrated with traditional publishing. It can be hard to find a publisher. Publishers don’t always give writers the freedom they want. Plus in the age of near instant self publishing, it is easy to wonder why traditional publishers are even necessary.

However, there is still a large contingent of authors who want to be traditionally published. Some are focused on self-publishing first and are hoping that a traditional publisher will later buy their book. Hugh Howey and Katja Millay are among the many authors who have turned self-publishing success into a traditional publishing contract. Others hope to get their feet wet in self-publishing, learn some things, and then shift. Other writers are simply waiting for a traditional publisher to pick up their book.

When I was in graduate school, working towards my Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing, the idea of self publishing a manuscript, particularly for fiction writers, was something no one was interested in.

However, after the program, a few years down the line. some of my friends from the program had traditional publishing contracts, others had self-published, and others were pursuing self-publishing options.

The world is changing and some of the change is a very good thing. However, this is not an argument for self publishing (which has plenty of cheerleaders these days). This is an argument for at least trying to get your book traditionally published.

What follows are three of the major arguments in favor of traditional publishing. The first argument is that self-publishing is about more than just self promoting, the second is that traditional publishing provides a filter, and the third is that traditional publishing builds a writer’s career.

They are not the only arguments one could make, but they are the ones I am deciding to focus on because I think they are largely left out of articles about self publishing.

Self Publishing is About More than Just  Self Promoting

A lot of individuals, when they first self-publish, think that it is just a matter of putting the work up online or printing it, and hoping for the best. They may have other ideas about blogs and social media, but they usually vastly underestimate the amount of time and work that it takes to become successful. Even self published authors with successful Facebook pages struggle to get “fans” to buy their book.

You have to think of self-publishing as running your own business. You can’t just focus on writing a good book and promoting it. You have to think about all the aspects of selling your book, including design, distribution, editing, and promotion. You have to build relationships with distributors, readers, and then find a way to turn those relationships into sales.

It can be very time consuming. If you have no previous experience in the arena of self promotion, and even if you do, the learning curve can be exceptionally high. And even if you are good at self promotion, you still need to learn how to translate that into a sales process that gets reliable results.

In the traditional publishing industry you are expected to do your own promotion. But many publishing companies will provide you with additional resources and information that they have learned from their years of experience. Most publishers won’t do most of the promotion for you, but many will provide you a frame work that can be successful, and give you tools to help you succeed.

Not only that, but when your book is published it will have a distributor and will be better placed online and in retail stores. Even if your traditional publisher does not help you promote in any way (which is rare), their name and the fact that they chose your book is already helping you.

For example, it is much easier to set up readings at book stores when you are published by a known publisher.

The same is true when you approach a newspaper or a radio station for publicity. They are much more interested in promoting your work if you are traditionally published. Even if it is by a very small press.

As a writer who loves to write, and as someone who already runs a small business, I don’t have the interest or the time to properly support a self published book. A traditional publisher takes over many of the aspects of the book business. They don’t do everything for you, but they do provide value.

Traditional Publishing Helps Filter Work

I am not saying that all traditionally published work is better than self published work. That is far from the case. However, a lot of work that is not ready for the world is published simply because it is so easy.

It is hard to know, before buying a self published book, whether it has been professionally edited and held up to industry standards, or not.

I am not just saying this as a reader. I think it is hard for a writer to make a reputation for themselves if they start out self publishing work that is still part of their learning curve.

When I was 15, I wrote my first novel. Now many first time teen novelist self publish their first novel.

I know because I have heard from many of them. Self publishing at that time was not even an option I would have considered. Instead, I started to learn a lot about the publishing industry and wrote two more novels before my 18th birthday. I am really grateful that none of these books were published. It would have hurt my career and might have even diminished my interest in being a real writer.

Traditional Publishing Helps Build A Career

This for me is the most important point. It is often stated that most writers, unless they are Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, do not make an entire career on writing books alone. If they are a big name with a large back list like Anne Lamott, they support themselves in part by traveling and giving lectures and workshops.

However, most writers who have published one or two books don’t have enough of a reputation to make much money  giving lectures. They often end up teaching at a university or a college instead. Sometimes they write articles for established magazines. Other times they help develop curriculum.

However, all of those jobs depend on having a reputation as a published author. This reputation cannot be established without having a publisher. Academic institutions do not want to pay self published authors. This has a very large and direct impact on many writer’s lives. For example, if you want to be a tenured professor of creative writing, you have to be traditionally published. There is no other choice.


If you’re able to find the right traditional publisher for your book, it can be a no brainer. For example, I once had a student with a book deal for 2 children’s books. Just one of the books was completed, and she was given a big advance. When she graduated college, she had enough money from the advance to live comfortably and spend her time writing. She had no previous publishing experience. She simply had a book the publisher thought would be highly successful.

If she had self published, her odds of reaching the same level of success were very, very low. Yes, a good traditional publishing contract is a bit like winning the lottery. The good news is that people win this lottery every day. And it is not just based on how many tickets you purchase. It is based on the quality of your writing and the connections you make in the publishing industry. These are things that take work, but the payoff can be worth it.





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