Let’s Talk About Publishing: Traditional Publishing

In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about the publishing industry. The internet is filled with countless conversations about how writers should publish their work, and questions about publishing methods are common topics amidst writing circles. Quite honestly, publishing is not what it used to be. With my experience and research into the publishing industry, it’s quite apperant that advancements in technology and changing societal expectations are encouraging new perspectives of the publishing industry.

In my next few blogs, I hope to supply some insight regarding the vast world of publishing, including discussions on traditional publishing, self publishing, pros and cons, and multiple levels of research. This first blog is dedicated to my research on traditional publishing and provides general definitions, research, and experience from writers and published authors.

First off, what is traditional publishing?

Traditional publishing is the most common form of publishing in present day. Although traditional publishing has been heavily criticized over the last few decades, there are benefits to this process depending on the writer, their process, and their situation. Shauta Grimes explains traditional publishing occurs when:

The author assigns the publishing rights of their book to a third party publisher who prints and sells the book through booksellers and other retailers and pays the author a royalty per book sold.

Shaunta Grimes

Essentially, the rights of the author’s work is signed away to the publisher. Of course, the author still participates in the publishing process, but the publishing house has the final say in all decisions. Other specific aspects of individual contracts such as royalties, extensions of rights, and included services vary between each publishing house.

One of the major aspects that is considered by authors is their right to have a say in the edits and design of the manuscript as it becomes a formal publication or book. Depending on the contract, the house can have full rights to not include the author in any decision making, while other houses may require the author’s approval in all decisions. This aspect of traditional publishing has been criticized for decades; however, in light of these criticisms, multiple publishing houses are also beginning to alter their approach to the rights that authors get to maintain.

Traditional publishing houses have gained a reputation for being a part of the aristocratic elite of America’s capitalist economy. As Beth Jordan, an Aquinas College student, mentions in her interview, “publishing has a very big reputation for being gatekeepy” (Jordan). This concept of traditional publishing houses acting as “gatekeepers” quite possibly extends from the old roots of publishing itself, where only the elite and educated were able to be published. This thread of elite competition has been exposed as intense and “archaic,” as described by Dr. Adam Schuitema, professor of English at Kendall School of Art and Design in Michigan, and author of Fresh Water Boys and Haymaymker (Schuitema). When Schuitema explained his own experiences in publishing, he stated that he explicitly remembered feeling “demoralized” by the large book of instructions on how to find and acquire a literary agent for his work (Schuitema). Jordan also mentioned her similar frustrations when beginning to research the publishing industry. Overall, the process of getting traditionally published is not an easy task and is often incredibly daunting and intimidating for both published authors and aspiring writers.

Despite these criticisms, Shaunta Grimes explains that traditional publishing is not as impossible as it seems. “New authors sign with agents and sell books to publishers every year,” as Grimes continues, she explains that while the traditional industry is “very selective” and “subjective,” this route is not impossible (Grimes). Moreover, in an article from the Guardian, Ros Barber acknowledges that the traditional publishing process is more than a service to writers, but a service to consumers and readers as well. Traditional publishing is inherently a business and “if you are serious about writing, you will simply raise your game” (Barber). While the traditional publishing industry has proven difficult to navigate, there is potential for new and aspiring writers to gain contracts with publishers.

While traditional publishing has gained much criticism in modern day, various parts of the industry are being addressed, most notably the negotiation of rights. Considering the current evolutions of the traditional industry, many writers are reconsidering the traditional publishing route and recognizing its benefits despite some of the negative experiences attached to traditional publishing.

Other aspects of traditional publishing…

Historically, traditional publishing has had other processes and expectations that are utilized in order to become a part of the published elite.

  1. Literary Agents. These agents essentially act as the communicator between the writer, or aspiring author, and the publishing houses. Literary agents act as a guide through the industry and can navigate submission guidelines, provide edits on work, and research the expectations and trends of the current industry. This system is still common today, especially for more popular authors who are often managing various publications and events. However, many writers and authors proceed with traditional methods without literary agents.
  2. “Debut Authors.” In Schuitema’s interview, he explains that the traditional publishing industry “loves debut authors,” as it shows a potential for raw talent and provides the publishers with the potential gain of a lifelong profit (Schuitema). Oftentimes, if a piece of work is not considered genius or new, many houses will not accept the manuscript, despite if it’s interesting or good writing. Also younger authors have proven to be more tech savvy and willing to self promote their work, which guarantees a profit for the publisher (Jordan). Of course, not being a debut author is perfectly acceptable, but it’s helpful to be aware of this when entering the industry.

Some pros & cons to consider:

With the above information, several pros and cons are already apperant. However, there are other attributes of the traditional process to consider when trying to decide if traditional publishing is right for you:

Pros:

  • Professional appearance. In other publishing models, authors’ works may appear tacky or distasteful to various audiences. Publishing houses usually guarantee sharp and exciting tools and products.
  • Reputation. It’s difficult to gain the attention and/or approval of traditional publishing houses; therefore, being traditionally published shows dedication and skill.
  • Opportunities for literary reviews. Literary reviews both validate and promote writers. Oftentimes, self-published work is allowed to apply for literary reviews. 

Cons:

  • Bypassing the gatekeeper. Traditional publishing houses have a reputation for being elitist. Fighting through the various infrastructures of the industry can be infuriating and exhausting.
  • Time consuming. Writers often search for publishing houses and submit manuscripts for years before it’s accepted. Then, once a manuscript is accepted, the average publication process takes an additional year or two.
  • Ownership. Depending on the writer’s contract, they may lose some rights to their work. However, publishing houses and contracts can vary. Read your contract in-depth to avoid miscommunication. 

Hope this has proven helpful for some writers out there! Next month I’ll be posting the part two of my research on the publishing industry.

Citations

Barber, Ros. “For Me, Traditional Publishing Means Poverty. But Self-Publish? No Way.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 21 Mar. 2016, www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/mar/21/for-me-traditional-publishing-means-poverty-but-self-publish-no-way.

Grimes, Shaunta. “A Guide to Traditional Vs. Self Publishing.” Medium, The Write Brain, 23 Sept. 2019, medium.com/the-write-brain/a-guide-to-traditional-vs-self-publishing-6f7c126707b5.

“Is It Better to Self-Publish or Get a Publisher? An Author’s Guide.” Reedsy, Reedsy, 14 Oct. 2020, blog.reedsy.com/self-publishing-vs-traditional-publishing/.

Jordan, Beth. Personal interview. 1 November 2020.

“Publishing, After a Life in Publishing.” Publishers Weekly, vol. 262, no. 4, 2015, pp. 4-n/a. ProQuest, http://aquinas.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.aquinas.idm.oclc.org/docview/1648944791?accountid=8340.

Schuitema, Dr. Adam. Personal interview. 25 November 2020.

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