As one who is constantly monitoring the worlds of traditional publishing and self-publishing (from here on out referred to as custom publishing, which is more indicative of Orange Frazer’s belief in full-service customization), I’ve had a harder and harder time being patient with articles comparing these various forms. Obviously, the comparison/contrast must be done; it’s helpful to potential authors and writers, and helps a changing publishing landscape define itself. But the manner in which it’s often done seems to help no one. Each article has its own bias, its own particular underlying argument. You’ll notice that the bylines are typically writers/publishers representing one house or another; they’ve already staked out their respective sides in the fight.
This is where Orange Frazer actually has a unique, and potentially helpful, perspective: we’ve done, and continue to do, both traditional and custom publishing. In a world where the hybrid author is getting increasing recognition (authors who have had books self-published and traditionally published, at different points in their careers), the hybrid publisher is often overlooked (potentially because there are very few of us). As a hybrid publisher, we are distinctly aware of the remarkable differences between the two publishing tracks, the benefits and drawbacks of each, and the very different authors, audiences, and markets each track serves.
I was reading an internet post from a regional writers group the other day that was answering a submitted question on self-publishing, and frankly, though the writer clearly knew his stuff (the dollars and cents of publishing, that is), the answer felt misframed. He begins his response by detailing everything a self-publishing service won’t do: market your book, publicize your book, visit bookstores to get them hooked on your book, print advance review copies and send them to thousands of retail outlets, etc. As the list grows, an uninformed reader is probably thinking, man, what DO they do then? But this is exactly the problem. Why would a custom-publishing company do any of these things in the first place? Comparing traditional publishing to a custom publishing service is like comparing apples to oranges. It only misrepresents the fundamental difference between these two publishing tracks by describing one as a stripped-down version of the other. When treated this way, self-publishing loses its essential, entrepreneurial spirit, and this is the spirit that makes self-publishing such an innovative alternative to traditional publishing.
Traditional Publishing vs. Custom Publishing: Apples vs. Oranges
Both forms of publishing can be understood as investments. In traditional publishing, the publisher invests in the author and her work. Because of this investment, it is in the best interest of the publishing house to work as hard as it possibly can to sell the book to retail outlets, pitch it to reviewers, buy publicity spots and advertisements, etc. Traditional publishers shoulder the burden of cost in production and publicity because they are making money from the book: once they invest in it, they have rights to it, meaning that when it sells, they profit. In custom publishing (or in self-publishing) the investment scenario is flipped: the author/writer/client is investing in the production of her book by paying the publishing service to produce the book (and/or design, edit, copyedit, etc.). The publishing house is not earning any money on this book when it sells; it is simply producing a product for a client, and allowing that client the freedom to sell it as she so chooses. In this sense, it doesn't make sense for the publisher to shoulder the burden of publicity. The publishing house is not earning any money from that publicity, nor is it investing in the outcome of the book; it is providing professional services to a client and allowing the client to keep all of the rights of sale. It is the client's responsibility to market and publicize this book, as it is her investment that will be recouped. In a very real sense, the author has become her own independent business.
Imagine if this were a coffee shop. Perhaps the owner of the coffee shop doesn’t have the time to grow, harvest, and roast all of her own coffee beans. She may not have the skillset to do so (or the climate!), and she may have decided that it's not profitable for her to stretch herself this thin. She should do what she is best at: making fantastic coffee and selling it to caffeine-loving customers. The company that takes care of the production of these coffee beans is providing her a service, working within its skillset with its specialized resources to give her the product she needs for her business. Should the coffee bean company market her coffee shop? Send samples of her coffee to connoisseurs and food reviewers across the country? Foot the bill for coffee machines and espresso machines and cappuccino machines? No, it wouldn't really make sense. It would be inappropriate for the production and growing company to assume ownership over her product when it hasn't invested in it. It's her coffee shop, after all, her time and love and investment.
Promoting Your Book: The Business of Books
The book business has always been confusing simply because it is both a business and an art. It is a romanticized business, rightfully so in many ways (I am a lifelong book lover, buyer, and critic), but it is also a business. When books are bought by publishing companies, it is often because the editor has fallen in love—with the story, the characters, the setting—but it is also because the editor knows that there is an audience for this book, that this book could sell well in its established market, and that other people will buy, love, and recommend the book. As romantic as we make the book business, it will always be a business. When it is done right, self-publishing is no different. It is this balance of love and logic, heart and good planning, that makes the book business, any book business, sing.