Traditional publishing vs self publishing: some thoughts and an interview with Jeremy Thompson, MD of Troubador Publishing Ltd

The publisher I’m using for The Hairy Faerie is Matador – an imprint of Troubador Publishing Ltd.

As you probably know, this is the first time I’ve ever self-published and I wasn’t keen to do it.

However, because I read The Hairy Faerie aloud at school assemblies and writing workshops, I wanted a ‘real’ book; something children could take home and enjoy. Waiting the ‘traditional’ amount of time for publishers to get back to me meant I was missing opportunities to take the book into schools.

So, I decided to do this title myself.

I’ve taken a lot of advice from some very experienced people, already running their own indie houses and imprints. I looked into Kindle, Lightning Source and Ingram Spark. None of them offered exactly what I wanted – even though I wasn’t sure what that was, at first – and all of them had negative legal and taxation aspects that were off-putting.

In the end, a personal recommendation from someone who freelanced for Troubador Publishing
caused me to investigate. And now, here I am, reading proofs of The Hairy Faerie with publication just around the corner.

It struck me that the best person to explain some of the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing was the Managing Director of Troubador – Jeremy Thompson – a man with vast experience in both fields.

I got in touch with a few questions and this was the result:

Welcome to my blog, Jeremy. Sorry about the state of the place – I have real issues about housework!

*blows dust off cobwebs*

Joseph D’Lacey: Before getting involved with Troubador and its self-publishing imprint Matador, I visited your offices and warehouse facility to chat to one of your editors and make sure you were ‘for real’. As it turned out, your premises are spacious and well-appointed and you have a large workforce of highly skilled people. Clearly, it’s a very successful business; were you simply in the right place at the right time or do you do things differently from other self-publishing companies?

Jeremy Thompson: We’re very unlike most self-publishing companies, in fact we’re more akin to a traditional, commercial publisher, not only as far as premises and staff are concerned, but also in what we actually do with our books. Most SP companies offer just print ‘on demand’ distribution, effectively limiting book sales to online retailers as bookshops rarely buy POD titles. But as a commercial publisher, we already had the distribution and marketing set-ups for our own traditionally published titles before we started to offer self-publishing. We simply apply the same principles to self-published titles that we do to a commercially published title, which means that we want quality so we can sell it. We started to offer self-publishing back in the late 1990s almost as a sideline, but the self-publishing market has ballooned, especially in the last 10 years, so with our already excellent reputation we were well placed to develop that.

JD’L: Where does your experience, and that of your staff, come from – one can only assume you’ve all had jobs in traditional publishing and then left!

JT: Some of us have worked for commercial publishers previously, myself for many years. But many of the staff come into the company straight from university, at the bottom, as it were, and they learn the ropes with us. Training is key here, both in-house and external, as our staff are our most valuable resource. In the self-publishing side of our business, we actually have a customer service role just as much as a publishing role, as we want all our authors to be 100% sure about what they are doing and why; that involves a lot of hand-holding by staff.

JD’L: I’ve heard the term ‘landfill’ used to describe much of what has been self-published in eBooks over the last few years. Troubador, on the other hand, has built a reputation for quality. How carefully do you weigh the merits of submitted material and how much of it do you turn down?

JT: When we first started to offer self-publishing, my number one consideration was that we shouldn’t just publish anything that we were asked to, including being paid to publish. I never went into publishing so that I could publish things that were dreadful. Since then we’ve stuck to that principle, so that does involve turning down a fair proportion of what we are offered, even with an author willing to pay us for it. Non-fiction tends to fare best, as usually a non-fiction author knows their onions, but on the fiction and children’s side, we turn away around 30% now. It’s a strategy that’s paid off as we used to turn away more, but now fewer authors tend to submit poorly written manuscripts to us as I think they are aware of our policy. We’ve recently also announced that we are no longer going to accept author-supplied cover artwork if we don’t feel that it is commercial enough, or prepared to a suitable standard. Again, quality is key in publishing, and while not every book can be a winner, we do all we can do ensure that we aren’t knowingly publishing a turkey!

JD’L: Having pursued a traditional publishing route, self-publishing of any kind was something I pointedly avoided for fifteen years. On the day I visited Troubador, I had very mixed feelings about even being there. Now that I’m more familiar with the effort that goes into each project, I’m already thinking about thinking about releasing a follow-up title through Matador. What advice would you give writers who are weighing up their choices of publishing route?

JT: First have a serious think about why you are publishing, what are your aims? That very often will point you at the best route to take (ie. POD, ebook, bookshop distribution); for example, if you want your book to be available to buy in bookshops then you have to print copies in advance, POD won’t do that… understand the different routes to publication as otherwise you will face disappointment. Then do your research… which companies offer the services you need? What reputation do they have? Talk to other authors about their experiences, look at the books published by those companies you are considering… far too often an author will just go with the company who pops up on Google first, resulting in frustration and heartache. It’s just like having a new bathroom fitted: get several quotes, talk to customers, see the work done… but most of all, understand what t is you are seeking and ensure that what you are buying from any self-publishing company is going to deliver.

JD’L: So readers can see a little of what Troubador is capable of, can you tell us about a few of your bestselling titles and why you think they’ve done so well?

JT: I’m often asked to list the titles that have done well; my answer is always the same, that ‘doing well’ depends upon your aims. For example, last Christmas one of our titles held the Amazon paid-for ebook fiction number one spot for several weeks, the author sold hundreds of thousands of copies and has now signed with a major publisher. Last month, one of our authors achieved a lifetime’s ambition in publishing her poetry, written over the last fifty years; she has no expectations of financial or critical rewards, the reward of publishing a quality book that she can give away to people is reward enough. Interestingly, of those people who self-publish with Matador, at least a half are doing so for reasons other than financial reward or the desire to be a well known author. We publish a lot of business titles, for example, where the author is using the book as a ‘calling card’ for their business, to enhance their reputation and reputation… others publish as a hobby for fun, just as they might spend their money on playing golf, again with no expectations of financial reward. What they all have in common is the desire for their work to be presented in the best possible light, to do it justice. Those authors who come to with the aim of selling squilions of copies and becoming the new James Patterson, we spend time in explaining the realities of the commercial fiction market and try to set appropriate expectations (ie. don’t print thousands of copies to start with!).

JD’L: Not all books can be bestsellers, of course, but based on your experience, what are the key elements that must be present to make a book – whether published or self-published – successful?

JT: Well, you have to write a good book to start with, that’s the number one prerequisite! Without that and it’s an uphill struggle for any publisher. But you must present that work in the right way, and that involves things like cover design, blurb, positioning the book correctly for the audience… all of which are things that a commercial publisher usually takes away from an author as, frankly, they know the market where authors generally don’t. (Our refusal to accept author cover artwork is a part of our drive to ensure that a book is positioned correctly for the market, as authors aren’t designers and they don’t know the trends on cover design for specific genres, whereas we do).

Of course, the best product in the world (and I use the word ‘product’ deliberately here, as authors often forget that to a publisher, a book is a product to sell), the best product in the world won’t sell unless people know about it. That’s marketing, and it’s something that authors usually overlook, but without it, then you’re generally selling only to family and friends. Marketing comes in two guises: marketing to the trade and retailers (who after all make the buying decisions on what to stock), and marketing to potential readers. These are very different activities with very different requirements, and both are generally time-consuming to carry out properly.

Many self-publishers finish writing and want to then see their book in print as soon as possible, but in doing that they limit their book’s sale potential; retailers are working six months in advance on what they buy to sell, some parts of the media work even longer in advance. You have to plan ahead at least 6-9 months before ‘releasing’ a book, otherwise you limit your market by default and the resulting sales will reflect that.

Jeremy, my sincere thanks for your time and for sharing your knowledge!

Having worked closely with them for the last couple of months, I can’t recommend Troubador/Matador highly enough. Despite fifteen years experience of traditional publishing, I’ve had a lot to learn. I have no doubt now that, with their guidance, The Hairy Faerie will be the high-quality children’s book I always wanted it to be.

Find Troubador/Matador on Facebook and Twitter.

If you’d like a fun read for 5-9 year-olds, you can find out more about the book or pre-order it here.

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