Traditional Publishing, Self-Publishing and Control

by | May 16, 2011 | Self-publishing | 68 comments

Jan Vermeer, “The Geographer”

The amount of control an author has over the traditional publishing process is something that I think tends to surprise non-writers.

Do you get to approve the cover? Nope.

Do you get to call the book whatever you want? Not usually.

But what if you don’t like the cover? Can’t you stop it? Sometimes. Not often.

As we move into an era when authors have a real choice about whether they want to go the self-publishing or traditional publishing route, authorial control over the publishing process is a very very important issue, and it’s something author Hannah Moskowitz recently touched on as well.

I think it’s essential to know what kind of author you are. Are you the type of person who wants control the entire publishing process? Or are you happy to give some of that up?

Personally, I like the collaborative element of traditional publishing. My publisher has been great, I love my editor, and I truly don’t know what I would have done without them. I love my illustrator, I love the cover, I love the pages, I love the ink, I love the paper, I love the air between the pages when they’re kind of flapping in the wind.

I actually did have have input over the illustrator, and I was so thrilled with Christopher S. Jennings’ illustrations that I changed description within the book to match the illustrations. I feel like he captured Dexter in particular better than my description did.

For a lot of authors (like me), when you have a traditional publisher you view your book as part of a collaborative process. The book really truly benefits from the input of your publisher. You trust that they know what they’re doing. They are living and breathing covers and jacket copy and titles and books and all the rest. It’s what they do. You best be listening to them, and those rules about publishers having ultimate say exist for the reason. They’re fronting the investment to produce the book, and it prevents books from being held up by arguments and disagreements.

But you do give up some control with traditional publishing. When you go with a traditional publisher they may have at least mutual approval or at most total approval over what your book is called. The traditional publishing process will likely involve discussions about what your title is going to be. You probably won’t have ultimate say over your cover.

If the idea of giving up that control gives you the willies: Self-publishing might be the way to go.

You now have that option to produce the book exactly as you want it. Self-publishing affords you total control: over the cover, the editorial process, the title, and everything else. Freedom is yours.

If you want someone else to handle the nuts and bolts and trust the publisher to make the ultimate calls: Traditional publishing may be for you.

Traditional is the decision I made, and it’s a choice I’ve been very happy with.


  1. Cameron Chapman

    I think there's more to it than just control. I've never worked with a traditional publisher for fiction, but I've been on both the self-published and trad-published sides for non-fiction. While my publisher has been great, I'm also learning that I definitely prefer self-publishing. I'm just not well-suited to working within a corporate environment. It's why I freelance in the first place. Maybe I'd feel different with a smaller publisher. But the traditional publishing world, especially when you're talking about the big multi-national publishers, isn't my cup of tea. And I've had a huge amount of control over my book.

  2. Andy

    I tend to see self-publishing as the sole province of control freaks. They are NEVER wrong, so an editor is superfluous. Sure, the self-publishing advocates can rant about better royalties and getting the cover they wanted. But in the end, a majority of self-publishers are still putting out a crappy product that's tied to their "vision" (which, in most cases, suffers from acute glaucoma).

  3. Re Gypsy

    Interesting points you've raised here, it's true that nothing beats the feel of a book in your hands, but it does boil down to the author, and perhaps how they feel about the integrity of their work, and/or how much are they willing to lose. Writing is an emotional roller coaster,and we do get attached to our work. Losing a title say maybe too much for some.

  4. Lucinda Bilya

    This is a great post!!!

    Adding my feeble comments are useless because you said it all!

    Thank you Nathan!!! (love all those !!!!? Well, sometimes they are unavoidable)

    word ver: yoperse (not yo perse)

  5. Anonymous

    I think there are other reasons than control. I think there are political issues at play in traditional publishing and what if your voice doesn't fit (or buy) into that?

    I just read that The Kite Runner was rejected by 30 agents. 30. Really? Bring on all the talk of all the authors who found it hard to land an agent. But what does that book do? It touches on controversial topics and asks that you see certain people as people. Maybe that made it harder. Just saying.

  6. Ted Fox

    Traditional is the route I plan/hope to go, too (otherwise signing with an agent was pretty pointless). In general, I want the direction of experienced book people to give my work the best possible chance of success–particularly when it comes to things like covers that, as a writer, I know relatively little about. I suspect some edits to the content itself will be harder to take than others, but I believe the benefits outweigh any drawbacks.

  7. K. C. Blake

    Great post, Nathan!

    I've been on both sides of this. When I published with a traditional publisher, they changed the title on my first book to something that still makes me cringe. Then they changed practically everything on my second book. I was not happy but felt totally helpless. In the end the second book seemed more like it was their book than mine. Now I've published on my own. I did my own cover for Vampires Rule, but I did have some help editing, Thank God. The book is doing amazingly well for an Indie book.

  8. Julie Nilson

    I'm coming to this from the world of corporate non-fiction publishing and communications, so I'm pretty comfortable with collaboration–in fact, I've had to work on a lot of projects where there were way too many Indians and even more chiefs, so a project with a small team might be something of a relief!

    I'm not querying yet, but my impression is that your agent, editor and publisher *want* you to succeed, so in *most* cases they are really doing what they think is best for you and what will help you sell the most books. So I think I would probably be inclined to go along with what they recommend, at least in terms of cover art and that sort of thing. Although I understand how terribly frustrating it could be to see your book with a terrible cover.

  9. Cathy Yardley

    I have been traditionally published for about ten years. I applaud the efforts of the self-pubs, and I've been researching it for my own work. The only issue I have is reviews. Fewer book blogs are accepting "self-published" for a variety of reasons. Without reviews or book blog interviews, and without a pre-launch of either a healthy subscriber list or blog following or whatever "platform," it's going to be tough to get traction. How are self-pubs getting around this?

  10. Mr. D

    Anyone who's married already knows about giving up control!

  11. Anonymous

    Great post!I'm on the side of the traditional publisher as I have no qualms about handing over cover and title decisions to them.I would love to work with an editor that would make my work the best it could be. So in the end it is the only option for me.

  12. Rosalie Lario

    I don't know if we necessarily need to choose one form over the other. There are some books that may be well geared toward traditional publishing, and others that won't fit. Barring a non-complete or other publisher clause that prevents it, why not try both?

  13. Richard Gibson

    For me there were many reasons to go with print-on-demand beyond control. I liked being able to design my own cover, page layout, everything, but I certainly didn't have to. And was happy to make many revisions based on comments from reviewers.

    The niche market (as pointed out by the agents who liked it but worried about sales) was probably the main factor, together with speed to press (one month vs 2+ years) and confidence in enough sales to recoup the small investment (vs a likely small advance, if I got to that point) were more driving factors.

    Once I had a POD publisher I trusted everything chugged along incredibly smoothly. Since I'm also comfortable with marketing (and expected I'd have to do pretty much the same if it had been traditionally published), I'm right where I want to be.

    I'd say "control" was more a matter of my enjoying the aspects that a traditional publisher might control, rather than being unwilling to give them up, and it was low on the list of reasons for going with POD.

  14. Megg Jensen


    There are TONS of blogs out there that review self-pubbed books. My novel, Anathema, has appeared on more than twenty blogs. The second book in my trilogy, Oubliette, releases in June and I had to turn away bloggers looking to participate in my launch.

    With hard work and a good book anything can be achieved.

    As someone who has either run her own business or worked in other small businesses, I can tell you that nothing beats the entrepreneurial spirit.

    Self-publishing has been an amazing experience for me.

    I also want to give kudos to Nathan on the change in focus of his blog. I followed him religiously when I was riding the query-go-round and quit when I took the epub leap. It's nice to see a traditionally published author recognizing epubs. Good for you, Nathan. The new platform fits you well.

    Megg Jensen, YA Fantasy Novelist

  15. Barbara Kloss

    Your post is insightful as always! Another reason I lie reading what you have to say is that I love all the comments. I would love the opportunity to collaborate with those that "know better than I" , but am glad for other options in case it doesn't work out. And I don't think self-pubbed authors are the only "control-freaks"…I mean, come on. To write a book we all have to have a little control freak in us (God complex??) 🙂

    Thanks, Nathan!

  16. Nate

    Great post! Working for a large book manufacturer for years I saw both sides of the coin. What works for one author may not be best for another. Authors should really look at every angle and what is best for their situation, the days of only being able to make it through traditional pub are long gone. Big publishers are now quietly taking and helping self publishing authors because they know the control and power is in the authors hand.
    All the best.
    Have a great week!
    Nate K.

  17. Barbara Watson

    Good insight into both publishing worlds, and , as with anything, there are positives and negatives to both worlds. What I appreciate in this post is the honest portrayal of traditional publishing. Thank you.

  18. the-elvis-costello-method-of-novel-writing

    Very interesting. When I write, I see the cover art, the blurb, the pages, the font, everything. I even see the movie trailer and imagine the actors who will play my characters…

    Maybe I'm in the wrong business!

  19. Jeffrey Beesler

    I'm with you, Nathan. I'd rather be able to work on my next story than to have to worry about things like covers. I'll probably just be uber-stoked to see an artist's rendering of my story in the cover art. This sort of input is something I'm definitely able to make peace with.

  20. Josin L. McQuein

    I have a habit of designing mock-covers for my WIP. (Go ahead and make weird faces, but it helps me lock into the atmosphere of the book.)

    I do this knowing full well that my mock-up isn't going to be on the cover, nor may it be anything remotely like what's on the real cover should the book be published.

    So long as the actual cover isn't hideous, I can live with that. (If the actual cover is hideous, there may be an author tantrum of epic proportions, but even in that case, only my neighbors will hear it.)

  21. Anna

    Charles Dickens and George Cruikshank enjoyed a similar collaborative process. Thanks for giving your input!

  22. Michelle Davidson Argyle

    I'm with a small publisher, and I get a lot of say over my work. It has been the best for me, and I'm happy with the decision I made to go with them. It seems like just the right balance of working with a professional team and also getting some say over every aspect.

  23. Liesl

    Very good points. Though I'm all for traditional publishing I still cringe when I hear some of the horror stories out there about cover art. Covers that are just totally wrong for the book, a picture of a white girl when the MC is black, images that have nothing to do with the story…

    And I think it's a big deal because people do judge a book by its cover, no matter how much we tell them not to, and the cover should portray what the story is.

    Anyway, I'm glad this was not a problem for you and I constantly pray it won't be for me, should my book get published with a traditional publisher.

  24. Emily White

    This was perfect timing, Nathan, and just what I needed to read.

  25. doreen

    For me it is about control and also rights. As a first time author I was not willing to give up the rights and that made it very difficult to sign with a traditional publisher.
    The route I chose is somewhere in between. I have folks working on the nuts and bolts per say but I get to yeah or nay them.

  26. Jonathan Auxier

    Every time I read about how little control writers usually have over their books, I'm again grateful that my pub (Abrams) has been so gracious in inviting me into the process. Now I'm spoiled.

  27. Terin Tashi Miller

    Great post, as usual, Nathan.
    As a self-published and self-publishng writer, I just had this thought and discussion with someone while I was doing a "Meet and Greet" book signing with readers at a local bookstore.

    I guess in my advancing age, I'm becoming more and more of a control freak. I sort of have an idea for my cover when I'm done with my story, usually. And I like to be the one to decide what the title should be, even how the book should look.

    I'm not a "best selling author." I may never be. My interest is in attracting readers, not getting rich or making a huge profit for a traditional publisher.

    I've noticed traditionally published friends, whose books have been handled by the "professionals," still have to market their books more than their publisher, and sometimes the "professionals" think they know what will sell, which is their job, but turn out in the end to be wrong.

    It doesn't mean my friends' books are any less well written or worth reading. It just means you choose to give up control to benefit from the collaborative effort. And if you don't see a benefit from the collaborative effort–or the publisher doesn't–it gets harder to market your next book.

    How many books are on shelves these days where the author's name is the most prominent text, and the title of the book is secondary? I always thought the story was supposed to be what people got something from…

    In the "I paint what I see" camp, which isn't to say I wouldn't at some point cooperate or collaborate with a jacket cover illustrator, or a traditional publisher for that matter, just that your post was excellent for pointing out that your book becomes a collaboration once you sign with a traditional publisher,

  28. D.G. Hudson

    Your points are interesting, Nathan, but you've said all this before.

    I'm trying the trad route first, and will not rule out self-publishing. I can be flexible, and bend when it's to my advantage. I can also work well with a team — I've had to do that in my past jobs.

    I think it's a common attitude that self-pubbed books are not up the quality of trad pubbed books — but that's a fallacy. It's hard to think of quality in trad publishing when so many vacuous celebrity books are published & usually don't sell well. It's hard to read simpering tales of the rich and famous – who cares?

    Then occasionally a good trad pubbed book rises to the top, like your book, Nathan, or the Paris Wife, which I'm currently reading.

    The important thing is to have faith or confidence in whatever method you choose.

    I believe in looking at all the options. You never know what the future holds – that's what makes it interesting.

  29. Matthew MacNish

    I love the idea of collaboration, leave it to you to point out the positive, Nathan.

    And as to that painting, I knew you had some appreciation for the Dutch, considering all the orange.

  30. Megg Jensen

    Sorry, I have to pop back in one more time.

    Any indie author who publishes a novel on his/her own without input from anyone else is headed for disaster.

    Indie authors absolutely collaborate with other people. I have a cover designer for my Cloud Prophet Trilogy. When I described my book and told her what I wanted, she came back with an entirely different idea.

    Guess what?

    It WORKED! Everyone keeps saying you can judge my book by the cover because both are excellent. I didn't complain that I knew better than her. No, I chose to go with her concept and it was one of the best decisions I've made.

    As a member of SCBWI I have many, many writer friends, some traditionally published, some with MFAs in Writing. Guess what? They are the people who edit my book and they are are brutal. How can my novel be better if I don't take their suggestions and incorporate them into my next draft? Once the novel has been edited (multiple times, I might add), I send the book to proofreaders. Guess what? More changes ensue.

    My novels are absolutely a collaborative process. With other SCBWI friends of mine we formed DarkSide Publishing, which is basically an editing/critiquing/promotion group on steroids.

    Indies don't go it alone. They shouldn't go it alone.

    Am I control freak? Yeah, probably. But I'm also smart enough to know when to let go and follow someone else's advice.

    Megg Jensen, YA Fantasy Novelist

  31. Margo Lerwill

    Sorry, Nathan, but I must admit I'm beginning to cringe whenever you blog about this topic. It turns your blog into a place where writers call each other names and act like jerks. Such a contrast to the forums.

    Nope, not a control freak. I have experienced traditional publishing, and I also enjoyed the collaborative aspects. My self-publishing experience has been equally collaborative. I hired a professional cover designer and was eager to get her ideas for the cover. I hired an editor and was happy to incorporate her ideas. The major difference was that I did still have final say on the cover and the edits, but since I'm not a control freak, their input was appreciated and made the project better.

    No, I'm not putting out crap, and I'm not raving about the EBIL agents and publishers. My motives for going self-pub are about certain realities in the current market, not about rejection or control or making a million dollars with a book I scribbled out over a weekend.

    Nathan, you don't have to justify your choice to go traditional. There are pros and cons to traditional, small press, and self-publishing. Having to justify our choices to people who are threatened by our decisions is THE major 'con' in my view.

  32. Katie Klein

    I put my latest "crappy" ebook up for sale in March, and this control freak has spent the last 20 days in the Teen Top 100 Bestsellers on Amazon.

    The reviews look okay, so I don't know. I sold more books in the first 15 days of May than the entire month of April (I said the same thing about April too, though).

    I made enough off sales to pay my mortgage last month. I'm on pace to pay my mortgage four times over this month.

    Whatever. (shrugs)

  33. Nathan Bransford


    I'm a little confused why things get divisive as well. I'm not trying to justify my choice, just saying why it was the one I chose. If someone else wants to do it differently, that's great too.

    I'm also not trying to say that the self-publishing process isn't collaborative, but I still think there's a big difference between collaboration by choice and collaboration where you give up quite a bit of control.

  34. Megg Jensen

    It's divisive because people are still embarrassed by self-publishing. It's treated like the ugly, demonic stepchild. You know, the Jan Brady.

    Everyone feels like they have to justify their positions. JA Konrath's blog feeds on that. He's like a literary vampire. While I think Nathan's blog stands in contrast to Konrath's by being the kinder, gentler, traditional version, people who support trad flock here while people who support indie flock to Konrath.

    I've had many, many people assume I wrote Anathema and then slapped it on the web the next day. Not true. I wrote it more than two years ago and have worked hard to improve it.

    Is it as good as it could be if it had gone through the traditional publishing grinder? Probably not. But that doesn't mean it's awash with typos and dangling plot lines either.

    Right now the industry is focused so much on the us vs. them mentality and everyone is taking sides.

    How about this? Let's all hold hands, sing Kumbaya, and congratulate each other on our hard work. I have lots of traditionally published friends. I don't hate them for it and they don't hate me for going epub. It's all good! 😀


    Megg Jensen, YA Fantasy Novelist

  35. Margo Lerwill

    Nathan, I would agree that it feels different to collaborate by choice. I do wish control wasn't an issue for so many self-pubbed authors, because it can blind them to good input from others. I see the willingness to collaborate as a sign of professionalism, regardless of the publishing method.

    Meg, I'm with you, but can we change the song to It's a Beautiful World? Can't stand Kumbaya!

  36. Megg Jensen

    True Margo. There are self-pub authors who refuse to collaborate. That's like jumping into shark-infested waters with no fear. Probably not the smartest thing to do.

    Or we can all sing Too Legit to Quit by M.C. Hammer, which happens to be the inspirational song in my blog post today. 😉

    Megg Jensen, YA Fantasy Author

  37. The Red Angel

    This is a really important post, Nathan, and I'm glad you touched base with this topic.

    I personally like to exercise at least some control over the publishing process, I mean it IS my book. It's like, my baby. And I'm sure most parents prefer to dress/feed/play/raise their baby the way they want.

    At the same time, I'm with you. I like the collaborative effort and working with experts in multiple fields to make the book happen.


  38. The Pen and Ink Blog

    I would always choose traditional publishing. Did yo every stay for movie credits? Look at how many people it takes to make a film?
    In traditional publishing, there is a huge support staff making your book happen. I think that's wonderful. That being said. What's your take on the word said? Anyone want to join the discussion?

  39. Anonymous

    And I remember when you used to say that you loved reading on electronic readers, that it was silly to overvalue the experience of reading paper books…before your own book was published in paper. Changed your mind, eh?

  40. mapelba

    First, I'll say I have failed again and again to get an agent. I'd love to go the traditional route, but so far the traditional route doesn't care for my work.

    Second, I dislike the dividing lines between self-published and traditionally published authors. I support anyone's choice. People seemed to take it as an implied criticism when other people make other choices. And that is on both sides–from the people who assume self-pubbed work is crappy to the self-pubbed people who think the traditional folks are dense.

    Write a good story. Figure out what you want to do next.

    But third, while I would LOVE control over the cover, I don't see many self-pubbed covers I like. The covers usually shout "self-published." If I could have a cover of the same quality as the traditional publishers can manage, I might change my mind about self-publishing. Yes. I know that many authors hate the covers of their books, but by and large the quality is superior–the paper, the graphics, etc.

    And I refuse to read Konrath. H'es too vitriolic. I prefer the kinder tone over here.

  41. HM Ward

    Cathy – You can launch a self-pub book without utilizing bloggers. Gasp! Did she really say that? Yes. Yes, I did. At the launch of my book, I had 33,000 facebook fans and I only released a blurb and the 1st chapter. It's not impossible to self pub and not suck.

    As for control freak – I dont find that offensive at all. I am one. I blogged about it. At the same time, the opinion of others who are experts is awesome and I welcome their advice.

    But as I progressed with my novel via traditional means, the mistakes that were occurring were mind blowing. Now, I think my book passed the "suck test" since I had multiple agents who wanted to sign me/my book, and then publishers liked the story. They all saw the same appeal the 30K fans did. Maybe my crappy traditional publishing experience was a fluke, but it totally turned me off to traditional publishing.

    The other reason that I didn't see mentioned to self pub vs. traditional was less to do with control freak tenancies, and more to do with the mass homogenization that's occurring. Traditionally published books in the same genre all start tend to blur together. I can't tell you how many YA books I've read that felt like the same book. As a reader, I can't stand it. As an author, I didn't want to do it. Different is good. Fly your freak flag!

    I'm glad stuff is working out for your Nathan. Your cover is awesome and you should be totally excited about your book. I personally can't wait to see more Indie authors out there b/c they chose that route…with awesome stories and awesomeness to share. And if more publishers ate Awesome-Os for breakfast and were as good as yours seems to be, I might change my mind at about trad pub at some point. :o)

  42. Bron

    Great posts Margo and Megg (and Nathan obviously). I imagine being able to retain control is way down the list of why most people choose to self-publish. From what I've heard, most self-pubbers hire someone to do the cover anyway. So a professional is still designing the cover, the difference is their skills are vetted by the author and not the publisher. Self-pubbing does have a few advantages over trad publishing; the ability to veto a rotten cover is one of them.

  43. linda collison

    Good post, Nathan. Having pubished four books the traditional route, I have to say in general a good editor improves one's work. The industry is definitely changing and self-publishing is a viable option for some authors. That said, I've been pleased with the editorial process of TP. My beef is in the one percent of their titles that the big TP houses put all their marketing money behind.

  44. Mira

    Well, I don't think things get divisive. People have strong feelings about this issue and express them, but that's okay. It's okay to disagree. I have never seen people attack each other here, at least not for a very long time.

    Speaking of which, I am delighted that I am in disagreement with this post, Nathan.

    I've been feeling almost in awe of you the last couple of days, because I recognize outstanding commercial writing when I see it, and Jacob Wonderbar is just terrific. You're so smart and talented!

    Thank goodness, I disagree with you here, it can bring more balance to our blogger relationship.

    First, I thought the line about the wind through the pages was funny.

    But here's where I disagree with you. I think publishing doesn't want author's opinions, not for the reasons you listed, but because it devalues the author. It not only doesn't care what the author thinks, but it is establishing a culture of author obedience by pretty much ignoring them.

    I think you may have had a different experience in part, Nathan, because you were not just an author, you were a publishing peer. I don't know that for sure, but I suspect it.

    And finally, this is a very important point. Wanting to make decisions about your book is not about being a control freak. It's about ownership of a creative vision.

    When I write a book, I am expressing from deep inside me a vision that I am trying to manifest. Although I invite feedback, I truly don't see the point of authoring a vision just to have it changed by other people's visions.

    There is a place for co-authorship, of course. But if I am the author of the book, and my name is on the cover, and my vision is manifest between it's pages, than my muse gets the final say about the final product.

    Anyway, I am delighted to be in disagreement with you, Nathan, and thank you for the really fascinating topic and discussion. I'm glad when we tackle controversial topics here. It's cutting edge, relevant and (for me at least) fun.

  45. Anonymous

    When the collarboation between editor, cover artist, and author work well, letting go of that control is the best thing an author can do. It wasn't just Lucy that made I Love Lucy a great TV show that went down in television history. It was a combined effort, and they all knew this.

  46. Marilyn Peake

    You’re assuming that all self-published books aren’t the result of a collaborative team. I know quite a few authors who work with editors and artists to produce their self-published books.

    Just a few short years ago, indie publishers that published primarily in eBook format were looked down upon. Well, recently, the eBook publisher of my indie books, after ignoring the critics and continuing to work with his nose to the grindstone for years, signed a deal with Mark Ordesky, Executive Producer of THE LORD OF THE RINGS movies, to create a film company in which many of the books in his indie eBook publishing house will be turned into movies and TV shows, with the SyFy (Sci-Fi) channel being considered. The same type of thing is happening to self-published authors. In these times of quickly advancing technological change, the best thing a writer can do is perfect their manuscript, and then pick a path, any path, to get into the game.

    I’m currently having some of my work published by indie press, I’m experimenting with self-publishing some of my novels and short stories for 99 cents each through Amazon Kindle, and I’d love to one day sign with an agent. I also decided to look into other authors’ self-published books on Amazon, starting with those that have won major awards and received good reviews from reputable sources. I wanted to see what’s out there. It’s been like having the wool pulled back from over my eyes. There are amazing self-published books available at extremely low prices. There are many fantastic self-published literary and genre books that delve into important issues in a way that books from the Big Six publishers often don’t. Self-published and indie books can say deeper things with no need for pop-culture slants in ways that books from the Big Six often don’t, because self-published and indie books can afford to take bigger risks. Right now, I’m reading a self-published novel by an author I’d never heard of before that is so fantastic, I went ahead and purchased the entire series plus another novel outside the series by this author. The novel is about a painful time in history written in such beautiful prose, with an unflinching look at the historical period. The novel reminds me so much of John Steinbeck’s novels, I think of finding this $2.99 self-published book as having found hidden treasure.

  47. Nancy Lauzon

    I don't have glaucoma, but I'm very myopic. My vision for many years has been to publish three crappy novels. I'm proud to say I'm a self-published control freak, bordering on obsessive compulsive. I won't allow anyone to edit my work, do my cover art, or sell my books at their bookstore. In fact, I'm so controlling, I won't let anyone read them, either.

    There's a reason I won't let anyone else do my cover art. Read more at:

  48. Lisa

    Oh, Nathan, you forgot the second category of folks drawn to traditional publishing: those of us who could DIY but who are terminally lazy and want other people to handle the minutiae. Just thinking about researching and procuring a professional editor, graphic designer, bundler, etc. is taxing. Imagine actually having to do it and following through. No, thanks! Not now, at least. Maybe someday when I have all day to lollygag.

    The collaborative effort is indeed important. I do believe that, because I’ve done some thorough editing and taken manuscripts that were horrendous and spiffed them into shape to the point where the first and last versions were barely recognizable. Even the best writer cannot edit his or her own work objectively; it takes different sets of eyes to see the flaws and make everything fluid.

    P.S. Congrats on the release of “Jacob Wonderbar!” I wish that I had a tween-aged godchild, niece or nephew that I could give it too, but they’re either too young or too old!

  49. Whirlochre

    The traditional is always changing and the self-pub phenomena will undoubtedly have an effect on the way the publishing industry works in this regard.

    As more and more self-pubbed authors rub shoulders with their trad buddies these kind of freedoms will become apparent and I suspect authors in general will have more (informed) say.

    Along with piracy, this will be another way publishing can catch up with the music industry.

    I can't imagine Sub Pop saying to Kurt Cobain, "Very well, we'll call it In Utero but for the next one we're insisting on Fluffee Bunne Love Toonz…"

  50. medussa74

    The publisher chooses the title?! Nathan, you made my day. I love developing a story. Naming it, not so much.

  51. astrid

    Useful post and very true. Strangely, my first novel to be published is going to be somewhere in between. In the past I've hidden my literary short stories in anthologies, glad to be in good company, but then in a crazy spree I wrote a commercial women's novel and it was taken up by a UK independent publisher on their first fiction run after (successful) years of poetry and magazines. The upside is that they know their way and I have great grammatical and commercial support, and as an ex-graphic designer they are letting me do my own cover which was a blast! Please do have a look:
    Yes hard to relinquish control but I know where my capacities run low and collaboration does feel good! best, catherine-in-italy

  52. Simon Gray

    I think self-publishing sucks and is there for the vain and the writers who aren't basically good enough to sell commercially. The market is swamped by mediocrity, making it even harder for those with real talent to get noticed. I have experience through the 'assisted publishing' route which apparently is a step up from self-publishing, ie they think you have talent but you still have to pay for cover production, marketing etc … after months of sailing along you're eventually ready to go, full of excitement and enthusiasm, and then you enter the doldrums … absolutely nothing happens and unless your prepared to flog them to your friends and family and trudge up and down High streets trying to interest jaded book store owners, that's exactly where you will stay.

  53. Patrick Neylan

    My inclination is to trust the publisher when it comes to covers and even titles. How many books have you published? They've published millions.

    If your book is worth publishing then you're the expert on the writing. But covers and titles (and the blurb on the back) are aspects of marketing, and what makes you an expert in that? Unless you're sure they've totally misunderstood your book (in which case there's a deeper problem), you should trust their final judgement.

  54. Janice Phelps Williams

    Interesting post, Nathan. Thank you for clarifying this issue for writers. I think there are many degrees of involvement within the two choices, however.

    Background: I've worked as a designer/editor on 200+ self-published or micro-publisher books. I am also a publisher (10-yr-old small press with 30+ titles, 3 by myself but the rest by others and under traditional, they-don't-pay-anything contracts). I've also been published, once, by another publisher and have works in progress.

    Self-publishers can use freelance editors/designers who are experienced and knowledgeable to ensure that their book looks and is marketed and is edited to be as professional and marketable as a traditionally published book. The results are indistinguishable from a traditionally published book, if the author is willing to listen to the advice of those with more experience in publishing and if the editors/designers are willing to respect the author's voice, vision and point of view, as well as have the ability to diplomatically tell their paying client when they are wrong.

    For authors who choose a traditional route: If you connect with a small publisher, you may be pleasantly surprised to find how much input you will have in cover design and editing. Lucky Press is bringing out 6 books this year and in each case I involve the authors in each step of the design process, showing them mock-ups, getting feedback, taking their input into account. Also with the editing process: it is a close relationship, author to editor. There is a lot of back and forth. I respect that this is the author's work, passion, pride-and-joy. No one knows the story, the characters, better than the author. The editor stands there in the place of the future reader and says, "Well, I see what you mean about this character, but the words you have here on the page, aren't saying that as well as they might…what about this?"

    If the author is not able or willing to listen to this sort of advice, then there are larger problems that will not go away, that will affect marketing the book and sales, that will effect the author's writing career. But I have found this is rare.

    Whether a large publisher or small, it helps if the author understands the financial risk a publisher is taking, on the work and on the author. The worst feeling as a small publisher is realizing you've made a mistake in extending a publishing contract (for publishers/editors, like authors, learn from experience). The most wonderful feeling is realizing you have published a writer's debut book and it was a wonderful day when you found each other and your heart is infused with a sense of "this is why I work in publishing, to bring books like this to life."

    Nathan, your post is right on. A writer needs to know "thyself" and then work from that place of self-understanding to make the best career choice. Hopefully, having done this foundation work, they will then connect with the people who can bring their book to interested readers.

  55. Jim Thomsen

    Nathan, there's one big element of control that you failed to mention, and it's this: A self-published author can publish as often as he or she wants. A traditionally published author can only publish as often as the publisher will allow them. I think the myth of "glutting the market," particularly with work in a series, has pretty well been exploded (fans will gobble up a book a week from an author if authors could work that fast) … and so all that remains is the fact that an author who works clean and fast and is capable of putting out, say, three to five good books a year is having bread taken out of his or her mouth by the hidebound process of traditional publishing, which still largely grinds along at its archaic 18-to-24-month pace per volume. A writer has one lifetime and many dreams … one of which is making a self-sustaining living at writing. And a publisher that fights that in defense of a glacial process seriously harms that writer.

  56. Margo Lerwill

    So, Simon, how would you characterize authors who had already been traditionally published who have now chosen to try out self-publishing? Are they also vain, and does their work suddenly suck simply by virtue of their chosen method of distribution?

    Noooo, not divisive at all.

  57. Jim Thomsen

    How many books have you published? They've published millions.

    They've also had millions shredded and pulped at a loss — to their authors — after they failed to sell.

  58. Rachael W

    I've been following the traditional publishing vs. self-publishing debate avidly, and I've never seen this point raised before: What about the MFA folks who want to teach at the college level? Universities will only consider candidates who've had book(s) published (and well-received) in the traditional manner. So for those of us who want to eventually teach — and I'm one of them — traditional publishing remains the only route.

    I remain wedded to the idea of traditional publishing for many of the same reasons as you, Nathan. However, I can't deny that the industry has changed rapidly in the last few years, and that these changes might mean that my chances of being traditionally published could narrow significantly.

    It seems to me that those of us who are pursuing MFAs in order to teach at the undergraduate level are potentially caught, as the saying goes, between a rock (the criteria set for future employment) and a hard place (who knows what's going to happen to traditional publishing?). And since no one's addressed this yet, I was wondering if anyone here had thoughts on this aspect of the debate.

  59. Anonymous

    Rachel, I hear you. Is there going to be a market for self pubbing literary fiction? Multicultural fiction? Book club fiction?

    The thing is, the whole journal system relies on writers needing (begging, paying) to get published. So it will take writers to change it. And if enough do, you can publish what and how you want and still teach. But for now, lit fiction writers are wedded to traditional indicia of talent and they are stuck.

  60. John M

    Call me a control freak, but in the end I trust my own judgment most. There is something very liberating about seeing your vision carried through completely. I compare it to being a painter who decides what he will paint rather than being hired on commission. It's your idea, your way.

  61. Theresa Milstein

    I want to go the traditional route too. For queries and manuscripts, I get help from other writers. Why wouldn't I want feedback from professionals?

    When I hear authors speak about their agents and editors, there's often gushing going on. Sounds like there are many benefits of these relationships.

  62. Anonymous

    Here's my sad story: Found no takers for my warped tribute to Mark Twain so self-pubbed on an Espresso Book Machine & designed cover with my girlfriend. Had a NAME graphic designer on board but industry-ites let me know that even if the project was a good fit they wouldn't allow someone who wasn't in-house design the cover. Someone out there tell me why that locked-up/locked-down mindset isn't screwed up. What made it worse/funnier was that the next thing I know I'm looking at a godawful cover on one of the most highly anticipated books from last year — "The Auto.. of Mark Twain". No kidding, is it me or does it look like Twain's looking out from inside of a dirty hamper on the cover. That was the best photo to choose from if the publisher had to go with a photo? With all that work going into the first volume he deserved better. But, oh yeah, they're professionals.

    In short, who wants to go storm the Holy Gates of Trad-Publishing with me? I'm going to the garage to get my trojan horse out of storage.

  63. Bob Mayer

    I don't necessarily think an author needs all that control as an author isn't an expert in all those areas. I always trusted my traditional publishers with covers. Only once was a title changed and it was indeed an awful change.

    Now as an indie publisher, it is neat to have control, but I don't do it all myself. I have someone else do covers, but I get final say.

    The bottom line is no one cares more about the book than the author.

  64. Claude Nougat

    Great post, as always. You've zeroed in on what is perhaps the GREATEST difference that remains between traditional and self-publishing, now that the stigma of self-publishing has been removed by the digital revolution: the question of CONTROL. You're so right.

    Which way you go will depend a lot on whether you have that wild entrepreneurial spirit in you or not. Because it's not just a matter of CONTROLLING the book production process but ALSO MARKETING.

    And that, in many ways, is a LOT harder, unless you've already got a platform, say, as a celebrity…I'm no celebrity, so it's harder for someone like me – still I've decided to go for both, traditional publishing ans self-pub, hedging my bets as it were…Wish me luck (just about to self-pub a YA historical-paranormal-fantasy, quite a mix!)

  65. C. JoyBell C.

    Even though I am an avant-garde author (I am self-published), I still see the creation of my books as a collaborative process. I still have a copyeditor, an interior layout design team, an exterior layout designer, a marketing assistant, a press-release writer, and a publishing adviser. I pay for all these services at CreateSpace: making my publishing process a collaborative one. My books are beautiful and I truly enjoy working with my team and adviser; artists and editors and marketing consultants! So, even though I spend for the capital when I pay for all these services, it's still a collaborative effort. At the same time, I have the final say, I get to approve or disapprove of final touches, tweaks to the layout and etc.

    The self-published author can still experience the joys and tears of the whole publishing process, given he/she has enough capital to fuel it. And allow me to add, that authors like me become acquainted with and are able to hone a great variety of book publishing skills in the process!

  66. HemlockMan

    With traditionally published books there is some amount of quality control built in. I rarely read a traditionally published book that is execrable. It happens, but it's rare.

    Self-published books, on the other hand, are pretty much guaranteed to be truly awful. To the extent that I will no longer purchase a self-published book, not even in ebook format.

  67. Chris N

    Re: Andy – And you honestly don't think that traditional publishers can't be control freaks? The ability to publish work that isn't rejected because it's "too controversial" or touches on subjects that a big corporation is weary about "backing" is a major point in favor of self-publishing, which I'm glad some of the commentators here mentioned.

    You also seem to assume that self-publishers have an inherent dislike for editors. Wrong. Many of us, including me, hire very good editors to make sure our work has a minimum of errors. We also hire good cover designers. Not having to wait a year or two to see your work become available because your corporate publisher has a hundred other books to put their time and effort into simultaneously is another big plus. Then there's the matter of not having to worry about your book ever going out of print, and allowing it the opportunity to find its readers over the long haul.

    No doubt there are benefits to the traditional publishing route. But bashing those who prefer to go the self-publishing route unfairly like that is simply a form of stereotyping. A desire to be the main architect of your destiny does entail risk, but it's hardly a sign of the control freak.


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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