Potential pitfalls of traditional publishing: guest post by Michael J. Dowling

guest post by Michael J. Dowling

Michael J. Dowling is an author and blogger, and I subscribe to his e-newsletter, The Write Stuff. When this article appeared in my inbox a few weeks ago, I emailed Mr. Dowling and asked if he would object to my using it as a guest post on this blog. He graciously agreed—and here it is!

Authors Beware!
Some Pitfalls of Traditional Publishing

A while back, I wrote a book titled Boosting Your Pet’s Self-Esteem. It’s a humorous satire of the self-help movement that my wife, Sarah, enlivened with forty of her cartoon illustrations. Sans agent, I approached Macmillan Publishing because they had recently published another best-selling cultural satire, Politically Correct Bedtime Stories.

The editor at Macmillan liked my concept, but ultimately sent the manuscript to one of the company’s affiliates, Howell Book House, which specializes in the pet market. When Howell offered to publish my book, I was so excited that I immediately accepted.

Then reality set in. One month into the project, the marketing manager assigned to my book left and was replaced by someone short on experience. A short time later, this replacement left and for quite a while was replaced by no one. When a new marketing manager finally came on board, a few weeks before my book was due to come out, I visited with her while I was in New York City. To my dismay, I learned that my book had virtually no marketing plan or marketing budget. “If it starts to sell once it’s in the book stores, we’ll put some money behind it,” she told me.


Upon publication, Howell shipped copies of Boosting Your Pet’s Self-Esteem to its usual pet store accounts, where—you guessed it—they sat on the shelves. We should have realized that people go to pet stores to buy dog food, not cultural satires. Our primary market was not people who drive minivans and have pets, but people who listen to NPR and have therapists.

Howell also placed a few hundred copies with two national bookstore chains, where again they—you guessed it—sat on the shelves among thousands of other titles. With only a ¼” spine exposed to view and no marketing and promotion, most shoppers didn’t know my book existed. Six months later, these bookstores returned most of their copies to the publisher for credit. (Return privileges are standard in the industry. Big publishers are happy to grant them to bookstores, because they make it hard for small publishers to compete.)


Not to be deterred, I sent out scores of review copies to various media outlets at my own expense. I also put considerable effort into getting on talk radio shows across the country. My spiel was well received—one pet-show host said our interview was one of the funniest he had ever had, and humorist Michael Feldman gave away copies of my book on his Saturday morning National Public Radio show—but it resulted in few sales.

No marketing

Less than two years after publication, Howell took my book out of print. About two years and many hassles later, I got the rights back. All I earned for my efforts was a $2,500 advance on royalties.

My story is not unusual. These days traditional publishers devote much less time and money to editing and marketing than they did, say, thirty years ago. With the advent of the Internet and the revolution in printing technology, more and more authors are deciding to self-publish.

Advantages and disadvantages of traditional publishing

That’s not to say that traditional publishers don’t offer some advantages over self-publishing. They cover all production costs (cover design, interior layout, printing, etc.), which is not an insignificant benefit. Also, a traditional publisher’s name can add credibility to a title, which can be important in certain markets. And their established distribution channels can boost sales.

However, traditional publishing has at least five major drawbacks compared to self-publishing:

  1. Traditional publishing is a lengthy process. First, it can take quite a bit of time and effort to find a traditional publisher who will accept your manuscript. After you find a publisher, the publication process can take two years or more. In contrast, the self-publishing process typically requires about nine months from commencement of writing to printed book in hand.
  2. A traditional publisher will require that you give up considerable control over your book. And if the publisher fails to perform, you may have to expend lots of effort over an extended period to recover the rights.
  3. Traditional publishers generally pay royalties of 10% of their net sales. That means if your book retails for $12.00, you would typically earn a maximum of $ .60 per copy (10% of the wholesale price of $6.00). On the other hand, if the same book was self-published and the printing cost was $2.00 per copy, you would earn as much as $4.00 on each book sold. And for every book you sell at the retail price of $12.00 – for example, by selling it on your own website or at speaking engagements – you would earn about $10.00 per copy.
  4. Traditional publishing is a rather unattractive option if you plan to personally sell or give away a significant number of books, because you will have to buy books from the publisher at considerably more than the printing cost.
  5. Unless you have significant name recognition within the book’s target market (in the industry this is called a “platform”), you may have difficulty finding a traditional publisher anyway. After expending considerable time and effort looking for a publisher, you could still come up empty-handed.

Traditional publishing is terrific, but it’s not always better than self-publishing or subsidy publishing. Next month I’ll tell you about these two alternatives.

To learn more from Michael J. Dowling, and receive the next installation of this article, visit his website and sign up for his e-newsletter, The Write Stuff!