Part 2: Ariadne’s Rope for an Author

20 May 2024

Laetitia Pancrazi, Executive Vice President, and Director of Athena Advance

This blog post is Part 2 of a two-part series. Part 1 explored the history of the publishing industry in Britain and how this legacy from the past still informs current trends. With this better understanding of the publishing industry, authors are better positioned to choose which publishing route is more appropriate and beneficial to them. These publishing routes are explored in depth in this blog post. This series focuses on the British publishing industry. A future series will explore the USA’s.

The Rule of Three

 A brief history of the publishing industry is enough to understand why it can feel like journeying through a labyrinth (or searching for the first printing press in England on Wikipedia and three hours later wondering how I am now reading about Letitia Elizabeth Landon, her poetry, and the scandalous rumours surrounding her!).

Here, our Ariadne Rope is the rule of three: a nice, neat, bound principle that most writers know of and one that, thankfully, I can apply to the publishing industry in the UK.

 In the UK, authors can choose between three publishing routes:

  1. The traditional route.
  2. The self-publishing route.
  3. The hybrid route (which has had many names!).

The Traditional Route

What is it?

This is the holy grail for most writers who want to become published authors as it brings with it a certain degree of honour and prestige. Traditional publishers include the Big Five (Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan) as well as smaller publishing houses.

With this route, authors will receive a payment from a publisher in the form of an advance. What traditional publishers have in common is that they assume all financial risk (meaning they may not recoup the advance they have paid an author through book sales or the investment they make into publishing a specific book) and typically they invest in a print run (meaning they produce physical copies).

Pros for an Author
  • It provides strong external validation of an author’s talent and the merit of their work. Although the industry is changing, there is still an entrenched belief that this is the most illustrious route.
  • It offers a safe financial position. The publisher carries out most of the financial burden of publishing a book. If the sales are not as high as expected, the author carries none of the risk and does not have to return their advance.
  • Editing, design work, printing and distribution, marketing and advertising are all led by the publisher who invests a vast amount of time, money, and resources behind their selected authors. Most of them will also assign authors a publicist who will organise book reviews, publicity events, and other marketing to build an audience.
  • It gives an author the ability to leverage a publisher’s vast distribution network (and the Big Five will have the most extensive distribution and marketing networks).
  • It leaves the author with more time to focus on writing.

Cons for an Author

  • Submitting proposals to publishers is very time consuming and it can take years until a publisher accepts a proposal.
  • A lot of ‘traditional publishers’, including the Big Five, do not accept unrepresented authors’ proposals. This means authors must first find a literary agent. Querying agents is also time-consuming.
  • Submitting proposals to literary agents (and publishers) can be a massive blow to an author’s confidence. It demands resilience, determination, and a willingness to face rejections and make edits.
  • First-time authors are less likely to be picked up by a literary agent or a traditional publisher. They represent a bigger risk and a potentially lower return on investment.
  • Dealing with contract negotiations can be a minefield and the terms tend to favour the publishers. It is why it is important to have a good agent and/or proper legal representation. Members of the Society of Authors can find excellent counsel and legal support, including for contracts.
  • Authors must be willing to give some (probably a lot of…) creative control to their publishers.
  • There is a significant time gap between securing an agent/publisher and getting dividends.
  • The royalty rates are much lower than for self-published writers.
  • Authors are still expected to do some marketing to cultivate an audience and raise their visibility.

The traditional publishers are no longer the gatekeepers of the written world. The democratisation of publishing, thanks to technological, societal, and digital advances, has led to a varied and rich publishing landscape that more writers are capitalising upon. This includes the steady rise of the self-publishing route.

The Self-Publishing Route

What is it?

The self-publishing route is when an author decides to publish a book on their own and it tends to focus on selling digital copies only.

It has gained a lot of traction in recent years as debut and/or niche authors struggle to find representation in an increasingly risk-averse, competitive industry. The rise of eBooks and commercial retail platforms has also made it easier to sell digital copies whilst removing the need for expensive printing costs.

Various platforms also exist to support authors who choose this route, including some that provide editing, design, and marketing services. Authors should research these platforms and check their services and revenue shares to determine if they want to use one and which one would meet their specific needs. Some platforms will charge a sales commission, but most do not charge any upfront fees.

Pros for an Author
  • An author retains complete creative control of their work.
  • An author retains all rights to their work.
  • An author will get more money per copies sold (although they may not sell as many copies as through the traditional route).
  • With platforms like Amazon’s Kindle Store, authors can now more easily distribute and sell their books (mostly digital copies).
  • Authors can build a deeper, more interactive, and more personal engagement with their readers. This is particularly true with the rise of social media. If an author already has a following or a captive audience, then the self-publishing route can be very appealing.
  • Authors can more easily edit and change the books they have already digitally published. Indeed, eBooks have a longer shelf-life and can easily be edited, whereas printed books need to be reprinted as a new edition when any changes are made.

Cons for an Author

  • The self-publishing route is more successful for eBooks/digital books than physical books. It is increasingly difficult (and very costly) to print books as a self-published author.
  • It will be much more difficult to stock a book in a ‘brick-and-mortar’ store (Waterstones and company). Unless you have a track record of sales, it is unlikely that bookstores will be willing to print your work given the costs associated.
  • An author takes full responsibility for everything, from editing to marketing. They must invest time in this process to get results (including sales).
  • Editing, book design cover, marketing, advertising can end up being costly. And this investment is needed for a book to perform sales wise. Some self-published authors decide not to hire any experts for these services and do it themselves. But it often leads to lower quality books and poor sale’s performance. An author should at least invest money in getting their manuscript copy-edited to a professional standard.
  • Given the money and energy investment required for this route, authors have less time to focus on writing. Although it is worth noting that debut authors choosing the traditional route will have to spend a lot of time submitting proposals to agents and publishers rather than writing.

The Hybrid Route

What is it?  

As the name suggests, the hybrid route fits somewhere between the traditional and the self-publishing routes, the publishing industry’s very own Minotaur.

This route is the most open to interpretation and has had various names. It includes:

  • Independent publishers and/or small presses: They take on less financial risk (compared to the traditional route’s publishers) because they offer no advance and tend to avoid print runs by offering digital-only deals. With these publishers, authors are usually expected to undertake some of their marketing and advertising and may not be assigned a publicist. Authors should be cautious when considering these publishers as some do not offer many benefits compared to the self-publishing route. This is when careful review of the contract terms is crucial and expert advice should be sought. As a rule of thumb, the less financial risk the publisher accepts, the more flexible the contract should be, and the higher the royalty rates offered to the author should be.
  • Vanity publishers (also called hybrid publishers): An author pays money to these publishers to publish their book, entering into an agreement or contract with them. The price authors pay to these publishers vary enormously (up to six figures!) and there is always a risk of paying too much for the services provided. There is also a risk of paying for services that an author does not need, or services they could easily undertake themselves. This area is rife with scams so authors must carefully research these potential publishers and always look for comments from fellow authors to assess the credibility and quality of the services offered.
Pros for an Author
  • The hybrid route can offer many of the benefits of the traditional publishing route (provision of editing, printing, distributing, marketing services) whilst authors retain greater creative control, and more rights, similarly to the self-publishing route. But this will depend highly on the publisher and the contract terms.
  • Authors tend to keep a much higher cut of the profits than with the traditional route.
  • It implies less stress and responsibility for the authors compared to the self-publishing route.
  • Authors will often be assigned a consultant to help them determine and achieve their publishing goals.
  • It reduces the technical labour required to physically print a book compared to the self-publishing route (if the publisher offers printed copies deals).
  • These publishers tend to operate on a print-on-demand basis and authors can easily order new copies to use in book fair, markets, or other marketing events to build an audience.

Cons for an Author

  • This route, in particular vanity publishers, requires authors to invest a significant sum of money upfront to get their book published. This money is not always recouped (or it can take a long time).
  • Fraud, scam, and poor-quality outputs are very common. Some vanity publishers offer expensive but low-quality services when it comes to editing and book cover design. It is worth doing some research and, in some instances, it may be worth hiring freelance editors/designers rather than those recommended by vanity publishers.
  • Printed/physical book packages tend to be far more expensive and rarer than digital book packages.
  • Contracts offer very little (and often no) room for negotiation and need to be carefully reviewed.

Navigating the Labyrinth

As you can see (read?), the publishing industry is complex, and Daedalus would have been in awe of its labyrinth-like qualities.

But with this complexity comes more options than ever for writers looking to publish their work. Yes, the traditional agent-author route remains the most successful way to get published (a mere 5% of bookspurchased last year in the UK were self-published). And yes, more print books get sold than eBooks or self-published books combined (Nielsen Statistics recently published a percentage ratio of 70 / 25 / 5 between printed books / eBooks / self-published books sales, or in terms of numbers of copies bought a split of 227 million / 80 million / 16 million).

But, in a flat market, self-published titles are rising more strongly than other options, and with new options like subscription-based operations or crowd-funded publishing, there is an opportunity for anyone brave and resilient enough to navigate this industry.

That being said… You do not have to do it alone! That is exactly why we created Athena Advance. 

We can help you:

  • Choose the most appropriate publishing route.
  • Build your audience, profile, and visibility.
  • Identify adequate literary agents and/or publishers based on your publishing goals.
  • Prepare submissions for literary agents or book proposals for publishers who accept unrepresented authors’ submissions.
  • Guide you along the self-publishing route.


Simply get in touch with us!