A Simplified Analytical Model Describing the Differences Between Traditional and Self-Publishing

This is a copy of a blog post I placed today in the IFWG Publishing site.

I have been involved in many discussions of late, on the differences between Self Publishing using (Print On Demand technology) and traditional publishing, and I have read so many commentaries on the topic on the Internet, that my own views have solidified somewhat, and I feel an urge to discuss them.

I also want to dispel some myths.

I don’t want to dwell on self-publishing efforts by authors who do much of the logistics by themselves, but I believe that this analysis does largely cover the same challenges and opportunities as companies that provide self-publishing services.

A good focus point for this discussion is to try to think of publishing, for an author, as a simplified linear equation:


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Title Success refers to the end goal – to have a title that sells well and contributes to the success of an author;

Quality of Title is self-evident – the better the creative work, the better chance it will sell well. This is not a given though, as it is my belief that many excellent titles just take too long to be recognised, if at all.

Quality of Publisher. This factor represents several elements – it refers to the publisher’s requirements to ensure polish of text, printing, cover art, etc. There needs to be an expectation in the industry that a given publisher delivers.

Publisher Marketing Effort. This refers to the extent to which the publisher will support marketing the title to the industry and reading public.

Author Marketing Effort. This refers to the extent to which the author makes an individual effort in marketing the title, both in terms of assisting the publisher, as well as pure individual effort.

There are other influences, but they collectively cannot match any of the factors represented above. Luck is one, and there is little point in discussing it. The best example is the alignment of some titles, and their coincidental exposure, with a world fad – the Dan Browns, the Harry Potters. If it happens, then it happens. Winning lottery happens too.


Each of these factors that collectively contributes to Title Success behaves differently between traditional and POD publisher effort. The following table discusses them:


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Success Factor

Traditional Publishing

Self Publishing

Quality of Title

Publishers are generally conservative & will only publish titles from “tried and true” authors and celebrities. It is notoriously difficult for new authors to get a notable publisher to publish them. While dependent on the publisher, titles are generally of high quality, in line with the conservative model.

Most publishers have no interest at all in the quality of the title. They will publish anything the author wants, as long as it is paid for. Authors are in the difficult situation of having to judge the quality of their own work, and unfortunately most of them are seriously biased due to lack of professional help or experience.

Quality of Publisher

Leading publishing houses have professionals who will polish titles to an excellent standard, and provide artwork, including covers, of high grade. There are also notable exceptions to this, depending on the maturity of a given company, as well as their target readers.

Publishers vary in quality, and many should not be in business. Because most work on an authors-pay basis, they have little, if any, interest in polish. There are countless examples of titles that are self-published with appalling typeset, grammar, spelling errors, and artwork.

Publisher Marketing Effort

Publishers tend to spend minimally on new titles, and rely on their sample effort to determine if further spending is required. Often, this initial effort does little to further the title’s progress. The author is stuck with the publisher’s effort because the title is under complete control of the publisher.

Publishers will only market if they are paid to do so, in most cases. Even then, it is relatively minor and they tend not to have the market penetration of traditional publishers. In most cases, however, the title is not bound to the self-publishing effort – the author still has control.

Author Marketing Effort

Good publishers will work with the author, but at a minimal level. There is an expectation that the author will work hard to market the title and it is in fact in the author’s interest to do this, as it may assist in getting the sales needed to attract publisher interest to continue with it.

Publishing companies will make it clear to the author that marketing is generally up to them, and that success will be determined by that effort. This locks the author into a great deal of time commitment, and perhaps money. This does not bode well for authors who have little aptitude for this discipline.


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As you can see in the table above, most categories, be they traditional or using the self-publishing paradigm, have negative features. Few have positive. The industry is geared toward business, not the author. This is obscene, and it has been like this from the very start.

However, I think the industry is changing – mainly due to technological innovation, where some of the negative factors are being undermined, re-evaluated, if you will. For example, self-publishing started off as vanity presses, where the author would have to cough up a great deal of money in order for print-runs and binding to take place. This was the only way printing could take place back then. These businesses worked with models where only a small number of customers were needed. Then came the Internet, digital printing, just-in-time printing technologies. Suddenly it was a lot cheaper and faster to publish a book with high grade printing, paper and binding. This is goodness. This phenomenon, along with others, doesn’t per se improve the authors’ lot, but it enabled the industry to be flexible enough to allow for the possibility of better deals for authors.

From the perspective of traditional publishing, there is a proliferation of new small publishers who genuinely want to publish new titles from new authors and are willing to find them. They work hard and don’t necessarily make a lot of money, but they are able to publish, because it is cheaper to do so. I respect these companies to no end. My own company, IFWG Publishing, intends to go down that road with a new imprint within a year.

With completely different dynamics, there is a small subset of the POD/self-publishing industry that is also looking to provide a better deal for authors. I call it hybrid publishing. This is where the publisher chooses to make policy decisions that provide a stronger emphasis on authors’ interests. In the case of my company, IFWG Publishing, this entails:

  1. Not accepting just any title for publishing. It has to have a minimum standard. The philosophy is really very simple: authors can only grow if they can lift their standard to a publishable level; and our company will have better market penetration for titles if all the titles have a reputation of quality. Symbiosis.
  2. Minimum marketing. Our company must provide a reasonable level of marketing support, even if it only entails good working relationships with authors and the provision of good advice. We can and do more than that.
  3. Decent pricing. We simply believe that if we have highly competitive pricing, then we will attract more authors, and more authors will be able to afford to publish their work.
  4. The company authors are authors themselves. We want to help authors grow and we know their motivations. This adds support to the growth of author careers.

I really don’t know where the industry is going to settle, if it will ever settle. What I do know is that the two classic models of publishing, which have existed in one form or another for many years, are not working for authors. This seems incredibly stupid to me because it is clear that readers (whether they be e-readers or print readers) are insatiable and love good new work. It’s what makes writers write, and many publishers publish. If tapped, it can also make publishers run successful businesses. I believe in my company, in part because I we can contribute to changing this injustice.

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