Traditional Publishing vs Self-Publishing: A 2020 Vision

POSTED ON Jun 27, 2019

Lee Foster

Written by Lee Foster

Home > Blog > Self-Publishing > Traditional Publishing vs Self-Publishing: A 2020 Vision

By Lee Foster

Few tasks concentrate the mind more than an assignment to give a 5-minute talk on a publishing panel. Recently, my assignment was: “Lee, since you’ve done books both self-published and with traditional publishers, what are the prospects for both strategies in 2020?”

The subject requested is something I am thinking about constantly.

This was a congenial task for me: Offer a succinct 2020 vision of our book publishing future.

There were also three other book authors on the panel. We would each describe our individual publishing paths and visions. The panel was for the Bay Area Travel Writers, a group in my San Francisco Bay Area region.

The Need for an Overview and For a Fresh Perspective

I enjoyed this assignment because I’ve had positive experiences in both publishing trajectories.

I have 13 traditional and 5 indie/self-pub books on my Amazon Author Page. Frankly, all have been good experiences. So I certainly had some observations to offer the other panelists and the audience.

But I also came to learn and listen. Sometime a beginning author has a fresh approach. For example, the organizer of the panel, Ruth Carlson, achieved a major publicity coup. She persuaded the largest local TV evening news program in San Francisco, KGO TV, to run a long segment interview in their prime-time evening newscast on her new and first book, Secret San Francisco, from Reedy Press.

As I thought of my talk, I knew I needed to be brief and cryptic. So I decided to concentrate on two revolutions and four observations that seem to me to lend the most clarity or “2020 Vision” to our book publishing dreams.


#1: Marketing

One seller dominates, and that is Amazon, and all books look equal to the buyer on Amazon.

It appears that Amazon sells perhaps 60% of all print books/ebooks sold in the U.S. I see various figures, some higher and some lower, and would like to have more precise numbers. Can anyone supply them with certainty and cite the source of the information? Whatever the final accepted figures, the hugeness of Amazon in the marketplace is apparent.

One consequence of this dominance: the appearance of all books to the buyer is identical on Amazon. That is a striking detail. The “shelf space” appearance given to each book is similar. In fact, an indie author who puts careful attention into the appropriate metadata for a book might end up with better exposure than a traditional publisher. On my to-do list for this summer: an improvement in the metadata for all my books on Amazon. I confess I am way behind.

Back in 2000, when I published with Globe Pequot my royalty book Northern California History Weekends, Amazon was not a factor. As an author, I absolutely needed a traditional publisher to get the book into Barnes & Noble and other bookstores. Today bookstores remain significant, but are more marginal. In fact, physical book placement in a bookstore is a negative until the book sells. After 90 days, the bookstore may well send the book back to the publisher/POD printer, with no profit for anyone and substantial loss for the publisher.

Happily, my Globe Pequot book will be jumping over later this year to my self-pub stack from my traditional-pub stack. The new title will be Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips.

Globe Pequot gave me, amicably, a total “reversion of publishing rights” letter regarding that volume and its content. Globe Pequot and I had a good run together. The people at Globe Pequot love books and authors. I told them, as they prepared to print another thousand copies at Bang Printing in Minnesota, that, “I could do the book better myself.” They said, “Lee, we’re not here to slow you down. We’ll give you a clean reversion of publishing rights.”

#2: Technology

Print-on-demand technology makes it possible for me as an author to print one-off beautiful black-and-white 200 pp books for perhaps $4, and sell them for $15.

In the olden days, only a traditional publisher with the capital (perhaps $15K for 5K offset-printed copies bw book 200 pp) would be viable.

My advice to authors is to do a POD print book directly with Amazon for Amazon and directly with Ingram Spark for bookstores. My POD opportunity makes self-pub viable for me as long as I stick to bw books. Moreover, with POD regionally available worldwide, a buyer in London can order my books today and get them delivered tomorrow. The offset version would have to be shipped from some USA warehouse at high expense and delay. The sale would seldom occur.

Of course, POD will not always work. I am particularly watching the price and quality of color POD and wonder when it will be viable. Your insights on that issue are welcome. Also, some books simply have a complexity of scale beyond my resources and my desires to self-publish.

For example, my most recent traditional pub book is with one of the top worldwide travel publishers, Dorling Kindersley, also known as DK. It is Back Roads California in their Eyewitness Series. I took a cash buyout (about $15K for my portion) rather than a royalty for my writing/photo content for the book. I suspect they spent a quarter million dollars of all aspects of this lovely color and high-design venture. They have fans worldwide who buy every printed book in their series. They are not interested in ebooks.

Beyond comments on these two “revolutions,” I had a little time to make four observations on what I call “variables.”


#1: Profits

Profits can be greater in self-pub.

When my $15 book sells in self-pub I earn about $4, paid next month. When my $15 book sells in royalty traditional-pub, perhaps 15% of net, I earned a royalty of about $1, sent to me 6 months later.

#2: Control

The control of publishing forms is total in self-pub, but can be highly restricted in traditional-pub.

Self-pub allows all conceivable forms, such as print book, ebook, website book, etc. Traditional-pub might mean print book only, with content locked up forever for other forms.

#3: Sales

What sells a book today? Is it the author or the “series” publisher?

With each passing year, it seems to me that energies of the author become more decisive, even if the book is in a “series.” Author engagement in Social Media can be critical.

In an earlier era, the “series” was highly important. I’ve had travel photos in more that 300 Lonely Planet books. They were the biggest “series” in my experience. Lonely Planet paid me about $220K for use of my photos 1998-2010 in more than 300 of their guidebooks and in their external photo-licensing business. Some bookstores of the past carried every LP book automatically, forever. That era has passed. A book resting in a bookstore unsold after 90 days is now a liability.

#4: Opportunities

Are there wildcard opportunities that a self-pub author can exploit better than a traditional publisher?

I believe there are. Could your book be an audiobook? I have one audiobook, my literary travel book Travels in an American Imagination. Why wait for permission from a traditional publisher to do this and why accept only a small percentage of the profit?

Could your book be published successfully as an ebook in China in Chinese? I have two Chinese-translated ebooks. Both are listed on my Amazon Author Page in the U.S. because is a main seller of ebooks in China. See them as Book 1 and Book 2.

Why wait for permission or hope that the traditional publisher might see the opportunity? For a book author, with a local market of easily identifiable non-bookstore outlets, why depend on the traditional publisher’s “gift shop salesman” to act? Few good results occur long term in the gift shop scene for the traditionally-published author, in my experience.

Insights of Other Authors and a Conclusion

It is always interesting to listen to truthful real-world stories of actual authors on how well or badly they are doing. Two other panelists, aside from moderator Ruth Carlson, offered interesting observations.

Barbara Barielle is an experienced author who has covered food/wine for decades and has in-depth knowledge of Sonoma County and other Northern California areas. As I listened to Barbara, I was reminded about how all “more seasoned” authors in all fields must play to their strengths. No 20-something will have a palatal and taste experience that Barbara offers, or will understand the changing food/wine business with the depth of her past experience. She has worked in film and in public relations, beyond her writer/author role. Her forthcoming book on Sonoma, available from Amazon, will be announced on her website.

Valerie Stimac is a young and energetic author carving out an entirely new subject and territory. She envisions a new publishing category in travel that she calls “space tourism” or “astrotourism.” She will champion this subject for worldwide travelers with her website, books, and tours. I believe Valerie could become a “shooting star” travel author to watch streaking across the book publishing sky. Her new book with Lonely Planet, out soon, will be Dark Skies: A Practical Guide to Astrotourism.

I did not offer a feel-good conclusion to my talk. Unlike some other folks in the publishing scene, I don’t assume that an author will easily sell truckloads of books. Neither a self-pub/indie nor a traditional-pub trajectory assures book author success in 2020. But there is hope in both approaches, and, I think, especially in self-pub.

An author needs to be highly attentive to all the details, both the obstacles and the opportunities, in the volatile and changing modern book publishing/content marketing scene.

Photo: BigStockPhoto. Amazon links contain affiliate code.

Lee Foster

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Lee Foster

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