Yes, traditional publishing is still relevant. It's about the only way to ensure that your book will be available in print in bookstores around the world. While self-publishers rule in digital publishing the traditional presses still have the bookstore and library market wrapped up.
But hybrid publishing is filling the gap. Hybrid publishing is evolving, but complicated and hard to pin down. It's necessarily a creative deal between author and publisher or service provider. Distribution is the advantage you're looking for as well as professional help with editing, design, and marketing. To help you identify a good hybrid publisher, the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) has published a Hybrid Publisher Criteria doc.
Last week I interviewed Angela Bole, CEO of the IBPA, an organization that advocates for author-publishers and independent presses. We talk a lot in the podcast about hybrid publishing. The interview will be released on the Author Friendly Podcast on Oct 2, 2018.
How does hybrid publishing work? Let's use She Writes Press as an example. She Writes Press is a small press who publishes authors under their imprint but they also offer a subsidized hybrid deal via their SparkPress imprint. Subsidized hybrid publishing is where authors invest in their projects up front and retain a large portion of profits. SparkPress's all inclusive package costs $5900 and you retain 60% of net profits on print (which get traditional distribution) and 80% of net on ebooks.
They use Ingram Publisher Services who, like all the big traditional-style wholesale distributors, employ sales teams—actual people—to visit book buyers and pitch them on the books in their catalog.
You can also enjoy traditional distribution if you've done all the work yourself (and your book is professionally published) by making a hybrid deal with a small press with a catalog that fits your book.
Still another way that self-publishers can get traditional distribution is by applying directly to a traditional style wholesale distribution company like Small Press United (SPU), a branch of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), a traditional distribution company. (In the early 2000s I distributed my self-published books with IPG, and then SPU, before self-publishing services were available.) SPU only accepts about 40% of applicants. They do, after all, have to go out and sell your book so they need to literally stand behind it, and be confident there's a market for it. They (and you) do not want to lose money with book returns.
But the truth is that most books are bought online now and most of those are bought online on Amazon.
Amazon's top-of-the-heap status may eventually erode due to the recent launch of the Walmart iBookstore powered by Rakuten Kobo (See IBPA Industry news for my evaluation of the partnership and a link to my interview with Kobo Writing Life Director Chrissy Munroe.) Of course it will take a while. However, with Kobo's ties to independent publishing—they have long supplied indie bookstores with digital books through their partnership with the American Booksellers Association—and library markets, they may prove to become a more interesting path for self-publishers who want to reach traditional outlets. This is going to take some time but watch out for it.
Today, the best case scenario would be to keep your digital rights and publish your print books with a publishing house. You have to have a fair amount of negotiating power to do that. (Bring a big platform to the table.) Bella Andre, the romance writer, famously made that groundbreaking hybrid deal with Harlequin in 2012. But she is a publishing powerhouse. Still, it gave publishers permission and a model to work with.
So yes, there's a place for both. But level the playing field. Do your market research and competitive analysis, and write a damn good book. Get it edited, designed, formatted, and proofread. Pay for an eye-popping book cover. Engage your readers, listen to them, and keep writing.
This is not a fast process and being too quick to publish is the biggest mistake 99.9% of self-publishers make. They write it, slap a cover on it, and upload it to Amazon. And then wonder why it doesn't sell. Boo hoo. Throw some money at marketing it. Boo hoo again. Here's the reality: Marketing starts when you start writing the book. If you can't get traction with fans who read early chapters, then think twice about completing it. (Unless it's strictly a personal project, of course.)
Traditional publishing does not publish in a hurry. They take 12-18 months to publish a book. Before they even accept it they make sure that the book is relevant and wanted (acquisitions editor).
Then, they hover over the author to make sure it's written and edited to that market (developmental editor).
Creating marketing buzz happens far before the book is even finished, with the author posting segments to social media and developing superfans from their bank of early readers.
Then advance review copies (ARCs) or galleys are sent off 3 or 4 months in advance to the trade reviewers.
An awesome cover, or two, or three, gets created and tested, maybe by the author on social media. (I've even seen covers morph even after publication. Take a look at Chris Pavone‘s The Expats for example.)
The final "proof" copy is proofread (which is a separate process from copyediting).
The publishing house PR team is, all this time, urging the author to keep their tribe engaged by doing all the social media things, blog tours, personal appearances, radio, television.
The author's literary agent may have negotiated a marketing budget as part of the deal, perhaps where the PR department handles traditional media stuff with the author committing to a certain and perhaps matching budget to market herself. (Yes, literary agents rock. Get one if you want to publish traditionally.)
All while writing the next book.
Self-publishers need to learn to slow down and do all the things that traditional publishing does to publish successfully and keep our eyes open for hybrid deals that bring the creative and business sides of the business together in a way that benefits both parties. And if you can take advantage of the power of traditional publishing, go for it. Just don't count on it completely.