PRO: Opportunity for a financial advance from a publishing house. Often split into several payments: on signature of a contract, delivery of a manuscript, publication of a hardback and/or on publication of a mass market paperback.
PRO: Investment is made in an author by a publisher so authors don't pay for editorial services, cover design or promotion.
CON: Unless there is a bidding war between several publishing houses, a previously unpublished author is very unlikely to receive very much. Advances tend to be less than £5000 for a first novel, and even this must be earned back out of sales before additional income is paid.
CON: Even if a book is successful, an author with a publishing house deal has to sell a lot of books to make much money, because the percentage an author earns from each sale is relatively small. Typical contracts give authors about 10% of the list price for hardback sales, and 7% of paperback sales. According to The Society of Authors, the median figure earned each year by a published author is £12,300.
CON: Most published authors have an agent (as it is hard to get a mainstream publishing deal without one). A percentage of your earnings (usually 10-20%) will go to your agent out of your payments from the publisher.
CON: If an author earns out his or her advance, payment from publishers is sporadic (often every six months) leading to a ‘feast or famine’ existence. As an example, if your book is published in July, and rapidly earns out its advance, you still won’t receive payment for those sales until the following March. Payments are totted up at year end for the preceding six months, and then paid three months after that.
CON: Publishers – especially foreign publishers - are not terribly good at keeping authors informed of how much they have earned in royalties so often authors won’t know what, if anything, is owed to them. This can result in a pleasant surprise, but makes it impossible for an author to plan his or her finances.
PRO: With a deal from a publishing house, an author (or more probably their agent) is much more likely to be able to sell his or her book in translation to other publishing houses around the world. Translation rights can boost an author's income, as can sale of TV or film rights.
PRO: An author is more likely to sell a greater number of books with a traditional publishing deal. The big publishing houses can still offer far better distribution into bricks-and-mortar stores than self-published authors will ever manage alone, and bricks-and-mortar stores still account for a huge share of the book market. With the backing of a major UK publishing house, an author has a possibility of getting into chains such as Waterstones and supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s.
PRO: Having a professional cover design, as well as expert typesetting and proof reading of your book will help to ensure it is a high-quality product. But arguably more important than any of these is that you can benefit from the involvement of an editor. You can work together to hone your book, ensuring it is the best that it can it can possibly be. These people are all much more objective about your book than you will ever be, and it can be hugely helpful to have their insights.
PRO: You will also be assigned a publicist and benefit from the work of the marketing department. Plus the bigger the publisher, the bigger the sales force, and they will go out into field and sell your book, along with the publisher’s other titles.
CON: Increased competition – some from self-publishing and much from cut-price retailers like Amazon – means publishers’ profit margins are being squeezed more tightly than ever. In a bid to remain competitive, they have to cut costs somewhere. Most authors don’t get much marketing spend allocated to their books. Only bestselling authors will enjoy seeing their books being advertised by posters and instore point-of-sale, and even an author signed with a big publishing house will increasingly be expected to generate much of their own publicity.
PRO: Lastly, there is the prestige that comes from being published by a big – or even small - publishing house. For all the bravado and enthusiasm of those involved in the indie-author industry, most people (agents, publishers, bookstore owners, other authors, and indeed readers) believe that the best authors – and best books - are published by a publisher. Whilst the stigma of ‘vanity publishing’, as it used to be called, is gradually fading, it has by no means been erased completely. And to a large extent there is truth to this perception, not purely because indie publishing offers less of a 'sieve' in terms of sorting good from bad manuscripts, but because an army of professionals can make for a better book. If you're lucky enough to be offered a book deal by a big publishing house, I'd be doing you a disservice if I were to suggest you don't give it serious consideration. Of all the books I've had published, five are through a mainstream publishers; four I've done myself. But my bestselling book is One Moment, One Morning, and its UK publisher, Picador, played a huge part in that success. I could never have sold so many copies without them, nor would it have been so well edited - that's me with my editor, Francesca Main, above - and to this day I'm extremely grateful to all those involved.