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  • Writer's pictureNicole Arch

Traditional Publishing: Dream or Nightmare?

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

Many aspiring authors dream of signing a book deal, but few consider whether traditional publishing is really the fairytale-perfect fit they imagine. Today, we’re going to look at the pros and cons of traditional publishing to determine whether it's truly a dream come true—or an unexpected nightmare—for you and your manuscript.

Silhouette of a person in the doorway with a giant moon rising behind them. Text says "Traditional Publishing: Dream or Nightmare?"

So what is traditional publishing?

Traditional publishing refers to the established system of publishing a manuscript through "querying," or submitting their work to a publishing house. Traditional publishing deals do not involve any fees on the author’s part, though many publishing houses do require agented submissions. Publishing houses only accept a very small percentage of their applicants for publication, and the author receives royalties based on the book's sales.

Traditional publishing is "the dream" for many writers due to its strong pros, including…

Lack of financial costs for the author

Once an author signs with a traditional publisher, the publisher pays for the entire publication process (including but not limited to editing, cover design, and production). Some publishing houses even offer advances for authors upon signing a contract.

Please note that you don't have to pay for a traditional publishing contract. If you are asked for money, then you’re likely dealing with a hybrid publisher, vanity press, or scam—NOT a traditional publisher.

Support from publishing professionals

Traditional publishers will have team of professionals to develop their books. These editors, cover designers, and formatters will help ensure that your manuscript becomes a high quality book, all at no charge to you. Some publishers even provide marketing, though the extent varies from publisher to publisher.

Potential for mainstream exposure

Traditional publishers have the budgets and industry connections to offer authors the highest potential for traditional media coverage and/or print distribution in bookstores. Their area of expertise is printing and distributing physical products, and they possess the ability to get your book in front of more people than you typically could on your own.

Association with prestige, status, and validation

Traditional publishing houses tend to have strong industry connections and a reputation for publishing credible, high quality books. As such, publishing with these houses can serve as a symbol of prestige or status for some writers, validating the quality of their work.

Access to prestigious awards

Literary prizes and critical acclaim are much more likely through traditional publishing, especially since many literary prizes aren’t open to indie or self-published authors.

However, the extreme downsides of traditional publishing could actually make it a nightmare for some writers. These cons include…

Insanely high competition

Traditional publishers receive huge quantities of submissions, meaning that less than 1% of queries result in book deals. As the industry grows more competitive for authors, the standards of what submissions are accepted also increase. Many publishers require agented submissions, so writers must go then through an additional round of querying and rejections before a very small percentage find acceptance. To help their submission stand out in the slush pile, many writers now hire professional freelance editors, coaches, or consultants to polish their work before submitting it to an agent or publishing house. Those who don’t hire a professional freelancer usually invest in reading books about writing or taking courses on the craft at a minimum—meaning that while signing a traditional publishing contract is free for the author, the path to get there often requires some financial investment.

Low royalties

Since the publishing house takes on most of the financial risk, they also take more of the reward. The author is paid in royalties, usually around 5 to 25% of the book’s selling price, with the publishing house taking the rest of the profits.

Please note that any advance offered to the author is made against royalties. The author will not begin receiving royalties until the royalties exceed the advance amount.

Loss of manuscript rights

When an author signs with a traditional publisher, they usually sell most or all of the rights to their manuscript. Selling all rights means that the author cannot use, sell, or republish their own material elsewhere. If the publisher chooses not to pursue additional markets or formats (for example, audiobooks), then the author is deprived of additional sources of revenue. Contracts may additionally include prohibitive clauses, like non-compete clauses, that can negatively impact the author's career, revenue potential, and/or ability to publish new materials.

Loss of creative control

Since the publishing house takes on most of the financial risk, they also take more control over the manuscripts they publish. You may be assigned to an editor you don’t agree with, and decisions about the title, cover, and marketing will ultimately fall to the publisher—not you. If you want complete creative control over your project, or if you’re someone who struggles to accept constructive feedback, then traditional publishing may not be the right fit for you.

Focus on broad appeal over niche genres

Traditional publishing is a business. They’re only interested in books they think will sell well, which usually means appealing to a general audience as opposed to a niche one. According to Reedsy, a renowned platform for freelance publishing professionals, “genres like poetry or short story collections are particularly tough to publish the traditional way, since most publishers don’t see their market appeal… especially when they come from debut authors.”

Slow to publish

Since agents and publishing houses receive so many queries, and selection committees can take time to assemble and deliberate, several months may pass before querying authors receive any responses… and yeses are much, much rarer than nos. Authors who do sign with a traditional publisher then have to wait to be published, which can take up to another year or more. This lengthy timeline results primarily from the need for collaboration between the multiple experts and professionals working on your manuscript, which can result in time-consuming back-and-forth, as well as the division of the publisher’s time and resources between your manuscript and the numerous other projects they’re publishing simultaneously.

Short shelf life

Though traditionally published books are much more likely to end up on store shelves, traditionally published author Rick Lauber notes that such books are typically only in shops for a month or so. After that, they’re replaced by a publisher’s newest release, with only perennial bestsellers remaining indefinitely.

Lack of significant marketing help

Marketing efforts can vary broadly from publisher to publisher. New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author Joanna Penn notes that authors have increasingly been required to do their own marketing in recent years... which is why agents and publishers tend to prioritize signing writers with an existing platform or email list. Reedsy also notes that “the big marketing guns (special edition designs, submission to book boxes, pop-up stalls, etc.)” are typically reserved for “books that the publisher thinks will likely become hits.” In short, though many writers have historically sought traditional publishing in order to focus solely on writing, today’s aspiring authors need to clarify what their publisher will and won't include when it comes to marketing—and what will fall to them as the writers.

Final Thoughts

The pros of traditional publishing make it a dream for some writers... but its cons are a nightmare for others. Still, traditional publishing may be the right fit for you if…

  • You aspire to the prestige, validation, or status associated with traditional publishing. If your definition of success is tied to traditional publishing because of these attributes, then alternative publishing options just won’t hold a candle for you.

  • You are flexible, possessing a willingness to accept advice, incorporate feedback, and take your hands off the wheel. Traditional publishing gives complete creative control to the publisher. The publisher's choice for your cover, title, or other creative elements may not be exactly what you envisioned—but they’re designed by an industry professional who knows what titles, covers, and other elements are selling well in the current market. If you have a specific vision for your book, and you just can’t see yourself handing the reins over to your publisher, then traditional publishing might not be the right fit for you.

  • You have a tenacious spirit and thick skin. Traditional publishing usually requires going through two rounds of gatekeeping: querying agents and querying publishing houses. Querying is a time-intensive process that results in far, far more nos than yeses. If you’re serious about traditional publishing, then you should be prepared for rejection… and able to power through it.

  • You’re patient. Querying is typically a very long process, and even if you get a publishing deal, you’ll still have to wait another year or two before your book is published.

  • You aspire to "just write;" you cannot imagine yourself either learning and completing the other aspects of publishing (like cover design and production) by yourself OR hiring and managing professionals to help you with these aspects. Please note, however, that trends show publishers placing more and more of the marketing onus on their authors. In short, traditional publishing deals don't necessarily equate to "just writing!"

  • You already have a platform. While having a certain number of followers or email list subscribers isn’t required by all agents and publishing houses, generally, traditional publishing prioritizes writers who already have an audience waiting to purchase their book.

  • You have a highly polished manuscript with broad market appeal. If you aren’t willing to invest the time and/or money to polish your manuscript prior to querying, or if your manuscript has niche appeal, then traditional publishing will be a much more difficult path for you.

If traditional publishing still feels like your dream, consider working with a publishing consultant or freelance editor. They’ll help you polish your prose, perfect your query, and ensure your submission stands out in the slush pile. Or, if traditional publishing sounds more like your creative nightmare, come back next month for an editorial article on the pros and cons of self-publishing. Just remember—there’s no one “right” way to publish. It’s all about what’s right for your manuscript and your needs as an author!

Still have questions?

Let me know! I'm always happy to answer comments, or you can reach out to me at my contact page.


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