Book Publishing Options for Writers: Traditional vs Independent

“There are lots of clichés surrounding book publishing. ‘Everyone has a book inside them’ is the favourite. ‘Write about what you know’ is another. ‘To be an authority you first have to be an author’.”

“Actually all three clichés have merit but what they fail to transmit is that book publishing is a business, plain and simple,” says Georgina Hatch, a South African award-winning journalist and former publishing director of Struik Publishers.

The following is an article she wrote that I published in a magazine edition back in 2011. At the time of writing, she was a Publishing Consultant for Quickfox Publishing, a custom publishing company that offers professional book production, printing and publishing services for authors and companies who wish to publish their own books (read: independent book publishing).

Below she covers the business of publishing especially for South Africa and the main differences between traditional and independent book publishing. It is worth to read and understand how each publishing avenue works (and do the maths yourself).

Personally, I believe all avenues have something valuable to offer, but before you start getting disillusioned or, worse, rejected by the traditional route again and again, why not give it a try and publish yourself online a few stories on places like Amazon or Kobo? This way you can hone your craft, get other people to read them and, who knows, even build a sizeable fanbase in time. Now back to the traditional vs independent way of publishing…

“People publish a book for many reasons. It may be purely for personal satisfaction. Others believe that they may have a story to tell or an important message to relate and that people would benefit from reading that message or story. Others, particularly those who write business books, do it to establish credibility – after all, the word “author” is derived from “authority”.Whatever the reason, the ultimate point of publishing a book is to sell copies – and for this to happen, authors need to adopt a business approach.

A book is a product like any other. It is going to require marketing, and it is going to have to be packaged properly to sell. So you have a manuscript. You are convinced that it has sales appeal. How do you go about turning it into a book? Very few people can go it alone. Those who do can find themselves sitting with boxes of books that they end up giving away as gifts to friends and family. Bookstores are unlikely to take copies of a self-published book as they feel that the product lacks credibility. To publish a sellable book, you will need professional assistance.

There are two basic avenues of book publishing: independent book publishing and traditional, royalty-based publishing. The route that you take is largely dependent on the type of book that you have written and also your goal for your book.

Traditional book publishing

This is often the route that people take when they have an idea for a book or have written a manuscript, that they believe has widespread appeal and needs to be sold via bookstores. The topic of the book can be anything from cookery to finance, as long as the book publisher can be convinced the book will sell and that it will make money out of your idea.

Well-known South African publishers receive several hundred manuscripts per month and with fierce competition and high distribution costs, they need to be selective about what they take on. Traditional book publishing is driven by the publishing company. Its shareholders, sales executives, and marketing team will need to believe in the book and back its publication 100% if they are going to sell it.

The traditional book publisher takes control of the book. Although the author is consulted along the way, the publisher will be responsible for:

• Editing the book
• Designing the interior and the book cover
• Commissioning illustrations and
photographs if necessary
• Typesetting and proofreading
• All administration of the book from beginning to end
• Printing the book
• Marketing and publicity
• Distribution and sales

In other words, the publisher will take on full financial responsibility for manufacturing the book. In return for its investment, it will require the bulk of any profits made from selling the book.

At this point, let’s make one thing completely clear. You are unlikely to get rich from publishing a book! In South Africa, if you sell 3500 – 4000 books, it is considered to be a best-seller! Of course, there is the rare exception to the rule. John van de Ruit’s “Spud” sold more than 100 000 copies. Jack White’s book “In Black and White” sold more than 120 000 copies. But these truly are very rare exceptions.

In traditional book publishing, authors are paid a royalty of between 10 and 15% on the net receipt of the book. This is the trade price after bookseller discounts, and VAT has been deducted. Discounts to booksellers range from 40 – 60%, so the author is paid a percentage of the remainder, and the book publisher keeps the rest. For example, if a book has a retail price of R120, and the bookseller deduction is 45%, the net receipt is R66 minus 14% VAT that equates to R56.76. If the author is being paid a 10% royalty, he or she will earn R5.67 for each book sold.

In the South African market, the publisher will own all rights to the book for the duration of the publishing contract. In reality, there is very little room for negotiation with publishing houses unless the author is a “celebrity”. Additional income can be generated from the sale of foreign rights to a book if it has international appeal. When this happens, an international publisher will pay the South African publisher a fee to sell the book in its country, and the author will get a percentage return on this deal. There is no average return in this instance, as each deal can be completely different depending on the market involved. The main attraction of publishing through a traditional book publisher is that the process can be relatively hassle-free, provided you are, to a certain extent, prepared to relinquish control of your book.

Independent book publishing

This is different from self-publishing because you are using the assistance of an independent publishing company to turn your book into a reality. Independent publishing is particularly suitable for non-fiction books or special fiction books that appeal to a niche and devoted market.

When choosing an independent publisher, you need to be sure that the company can offer you a full range of services that include at least the following:

• Manuscript evaluation
• Project management
• Editing and manuscript preparation
• Book design, typesetting and makeup
• Book cover design
• ISBN application and barcode
• Printing
• E-book creation
• Bookstore and distribution options
• Online retail sales

Some independent publishers also offer marketing and publicity but this is usually carried out by other, closely affiliated specialists or service providers, and to a limited degree. Independent publishing means that the author covers the costs of book
production – but he or she also reaps the majority of the rewards via book sales. By making a financial investment in the book, authors are entitled to all of the profits from the sale of each book.

Depending on the project, most authors recover their costs by selling 200-250 of their books directly to clients and customers. This works particularly well when the author is involved in running workshops or presenting courses; or for businesses producing specialist information for their customers, as the author or company then has a captive market for book sales. By selling directly, the author can pre-set the retail price of the book without discounting to clients. This means that authors can make approximately 60-70% of the retail price, depending on production and printing costs.

Independent publishing also means that the author is completely involved in the production process, from beginning to end. It also allows authors to have full ownership of their book as they will own the electronic file to print their book. Of course, there are rules that need to be followed in order to reap success. There is no point in investing in a book that is not going to sell.

In the past, independent publishing has been seen as “self-publishing” and has acquired a reputation for poor quality. Nowadays, good independent publishing companies are managing to overturn this perception by:

• Producing readable books. Manuscripts are carefully evaluated in terms of quality writing and appeal to a specific target market.
• Producing quality books. Books are professionally edited and designed.
• Carefully controlling production so that it is a seamless process from concept to delivery.

Quality is a key issue and trade quality production is essential. Book publishing is a highly competitive market and for a book to be a success, it must stand out from the crowd. It must look appealing inside and out, the title and cover text must read well and the content of the book must be well edited and easy to read.

Publishing costs can vary drastically from one book to the next and they are affected by many factors, mainly related to the work involved in turning the manuscript into a publishable book. For those who are interested in working with an independent publishing company, here are some average costs which are meant as guidelines only:

Manuscript and publishing consultations: +/- R1 500 – R3 000
Editing: +/- R185 – R240 per 1000 words
Production: +/- R8 500 – R15 000
Project management: 15% of total cost
Marketing and publicity: costs start at R3 000 but are variable depending on requirements
Distribution: based on a percentage of the retail price and paid only on actual sales

Independent publishing companies can assist authors with retail distribution if required. The advantage of producing a good quality trade book is that book marketers and bookstores are more willing to take the book on. A good quality book is also essential for favourable book reviews as these will drive potential customers to the bookstores.

If an author chooses the independent publishing option, then he or she must choose to get on board and be totally involved in the process as their responsibility cannot end with the manuscript submission. It is particularly important that they are involved with sales and marketing, bearing in mind that direct sales will garner more profit than sales via bookstores.

With the success of social media, authors today can gain valuable exposure for their books via various methods such as Facebook and Twitter. They can set up fan pages, form special interest clubs, promote the book via downloadable extracts, organize competitions, sell e-book versions internationally – the possibilities are endless.

The ideal author should be able to identify potential sales streams such as industry associations, professional bodies and industry partnerships; and also direct marketing opportunities via a ready-made client base. How the book sells can largely depend on author participation and effort. But remember that the author receives the full profit so the effort is more than worth it!

There is really no definition for a best seller. Book sales are largely dependent on the topicality of the subject matter; the depth of the target market; the needs of the target market; and the attention devoted to marketing and publicity.

‘Everyone has a book inside them’. That may be true. But not everyone has a sellable book inside them. Think carefully about your options and choose the publishing route that you feel is right for you. Good luck!”


(Visited 69 times, 1 visits today)

Leave A Comment