Self Publishing vs Traditional Publishing: Which one is right for you?
By titling this post ‘Self Publishing vs Traditional Publishing,’ we run the risk of suggesting that one approach is better than the other. Naturally, the traditional path to publishing is (with good reason) most alluring to writers who dream of book deals, newspaper reviews and the sight of their name on bestsellers lists. However, technology and reader behavior has changed significantly in the past decade. Self-publishing has not only become a viable alternative but, in the case of some authors, the preferred choice.
In this post, we’ll go through the pros and cons of both publishing methods and help you decide which one is best for you as an author.
What is traditional publishing?
If you need a bit of context, here’s the skinny. When we talk about traditional publishing, we’re referring to the system authors and publishers have used in almost every country for hundreds of years. In traditional publishing:
- Authors will ‘sell’ their book to a company, often with the help of an agent;
- The publisher will arrange for editing, production, distribution and marketing; and
- Authors will receive a ‘royalty,’ percentage of the publisher’s cut.
What is self publishing?
Self-publishing (which we’ll also call ‘independent publishing’ for the sake of variety) may mean different things to different people. In almost all cases of self-publishing:
- Authors will manage the editing, production, distribution, and marketing of the book; and
- They will receive the publisher’s royalty, which is everything that’s left after tax and retail markup.
You might read this and think: in self-publishing, the author does more work and so they keep more of the profit. This is both accurate and a gross oversimplification. In this next section, we’ll dig deeper into the real benefits and drawbacks of both systems.
Self publishing vs traditional publishing
At the end of the day, the amount of weight that the pros of self-publishing or traditional publishing hold for you will depend on your publishing goal. Sure, all authors would like to earn the maximum amount of royalties for their ebooks. That being said, if it's always been your dream to see your book on the shelves of brick-and-mortar stores, the fact that self-publishing tends to deliver higher ebook royalties will likely matter less to you.
Let's start by addressing nine questions every author should ask themselves about their publishing priorities.
1. Which approach is easier for authors to access?
Access is the biggest sticking point of traditional publishing. To be considered for most large and medium-sized publishers, authors will often need to find an agent first. Literary agencies and presses are almost always looking for the same thing: books they know they can sell. For that reason, you have a much better chance if you are writing in a commercial genre — and if you have an existing platform or fanbase.
With self-publishing, you could literally publish an ebook in the next two hours if you wanted to.
What does it mean for the author? If “ensuring that your book gets out there” is at the top of your priority list, then the self-publishing route is your best bet.
2. How does the distribution match up?
This is where things get a bit more complicated. The one considerable benefit of traditional publishing is that it’s the best (and often only) way to get into bookstores — whose buyers will often not consider self-published titles.
The upside with indie publishing is Amazon’s incredible market share. You can sell and list books on their site, and others like Barnes & Noble and Kobo. And the best part is that your listing will be indistinguishable from that of a trad-pub book (if you do it right).
An additional benefit is that self-publishing authors can choose to distribute the book across the globe right from the start, while even the largest of imprints will still work on a territory-by-territory basis.
What does it mean for the author? A Big 5 press (or Big 6 — if you're including Amazon Publishing's imprints) can get you onto physical shelves, but if you don’t, you can still reach a wide audience through online retailers and ebook stores. And if you want to reach an instant global audience, self-publishing may be your best bet. (For a comprehensive Book Launch Checklist, check out this post here!)
3. What role does the author play in producing the book?
For the sake of brevity, let’s group editorial, design and printing all together. When you work in the traditional system, you will be assigned an editorial team that includes development editors, copy editors, and proofreaders. Often at the same time, a book designer will develop the look of the final product, including typesetting and jacket design.
The good news for self-publishing writers is that most of the professionals mentioned above are freelancers — even when they’re working for Big 5 companies. As a result, you can hire world-class professionals to work on your book by searching for them online... perhaps using a certain service.
What does it mean for the author? Today, all authors have access to the same kind of publishing talent, regardless of whether they have a book deal. The big difference, however, lies in the money — which brings us onto our next point.
4. What are the upfront costs?
The cost of publishing a book is perhaps the single largest hurdle that indie authors have to clear. Unlike traditionally published authors, who will have their production costs paid for by the publisher, a self-published writer will need to find the finances to pay for their collaborators. The full suite of editorial and design services can cost around $4,000 for an 80,000-word book, so we’re not talking about an insignificant sum.
Of course, you always have the option to not get an editor, and to design the book cover yourself. However, this is not an approach shared by many successful indie authors. They understand that indie books need to compete with trad-pub titles in order to succeed — and that means that they need to be of a professional standard.
What does it mean for the author? Self-publishing is almost indistinguishable from starting a small company. You need to start with some capital, which often involves dipping into personal savings. However, more authors are finding success through crowdfunding, which is proving to be a great way to: a) pay for production, b) create word of mouth, and c) shore up pre-sales.
5. Who handles the marketing?
If you’re guessing that self-published authors do their own marketing, you’d be 100% on the money. The most successful indie writers have a strong grasp of online marketing, and will have tactics to grow their mailing list — and target them effectively for each new book they’re releasing.
However, traditionally published authors can hardly sit back and let their marketing team handle all the promotion. Most authors, even with Big 5 presses will do a lot of their own marketing: arrange book tours, managing their own mailing lists, and such.
What does it mean for the author? All new authors will be expected to do some marketing for their book. Indie authors, however, will need to think of this as an essential part of the job. If you’re considering becoming a serious self-publishing author, you must be willing to learn the basics of online marketing. Thankfully, there are ways to teach yourself these skills and find marketing professionals who can fill in the cracks.
6. What royalties can you expect?
Royalties are the payments authors receive for each book sold. In traditional publishing, authors can expect 7% of sales for printed books and under 25% of all ebook sales. They won’t see a dime of this until their advance is paid off and from what’s left, their agent will take 15%. Indie authors, on the other hand, will get to keep everything apart from the retailer’s cut. This can be up to 70% on ebook sales and perhaps 50% of print royalties.
What does it mean for the author? If you believe that most readers will buy your book online and that you’re able to market your book directly to customers, it may be worth self-publishing. With the disparity in royalties, a traditional publisher will need to sell seven times as many copies for you to receive the same income.
7. How long does it take to publish?
The publishing industry is still, in this century, incredibly slow. With editing, design, approvals, marketing, and distribution, it’s not unusual for the process to take between one and two years. And of course, there’s no guarantee that your book will see the light of day at all. If the author’s advance is just a few thousand dollars, it’s pretty easy for publishers to write it off as a sunk cost if they lose confidence in the book or the author.
What does it mean for the author? If you want to make sure your book is published in a timely manner, you may be better off self-publishing, where you have full control over the schedule.
8. What about prizes and reviews?
If one of the reasons you want to get into publishing is for the accolades, that’s entirely fair. Who amongst us would say no to being shortlisted for prestigious prizes or the opportunity to be reviewed in the New Yorker? A publisher can provide these opportunities to writers. Their connections to literary publications and reviewers can give your book greater exposure than you’d be able to muster alone — plus they’re often the only way to be considered for prizes.
What does it mean for the author? If prestige and awards are two of your top priorities, then you will need to take the traditional route. If you’re writing literary fiction, it’s worth bearing in mind that self-published novels are ineligible for the Booker Prize.
9. How much creative control will you have?
As soon as you hand your manuscript over to a traditional publisher, it becomes theirs. They have the final say on your cover design, format, and title. That’s not to say that publishers are meddlers who just want to wreck your book. They’re professionals whose jobs are to help your book best reach its target audience.
On the other hand, self-publishing authors call all the shots. Short of printing plagiarized or defamatory content, there’s nothing you can’t do with an independently published book.
What does it mean for the author? If total creative control is important to you, then you might find that self-publishing is your way forward. Just remember, being in control doesn’t mean you should ignore all professional advice. If an editor suggests a new title, there might be a very good reason why.
Which publishing route should you choose?
If you’re still not sure which publishing route you should be taking, here’s a quick summation:
You should consider self-publishing if:
- You have a pre-existing platform or fanbase
- Your book is not considered ‘commercial enough’ or you’re writing for a niche market
- You want to keep a greater portion of your royalties
- You have an entrepreneurial spirit
- You have a basic understanding of digital marketing (or are willing to learn)
- You want to get your book out within a year
- You want total creative control
- You are willing to fund the production of your book
You should consider traditional publishing if:
- Your book belongs to a commercial genre
- You don’t want to do much (or any) marketing
- You want to be sold in chain stores
- You’re comfortable working in a team where you don’t have the final say
- You are not in any hurry to publish
- You want your book to be considered for prizes
What about hybrid publishing?
“Hybrid” is a term that means a few different things in the book world. Hybrid publishers are companies that will work with authors to produce and publish a book, in exchange for sharing costs. If an author is considering working with a hybrid publisher, they should be careful to avoid vanity presses. As with hybrid publishers, vanity presses will not pay authors an advance and will expect authors to pay for production costs. However, instead of signing on books they truly believe will do well and earn money, they sign on any author willing to pay them — and earn the majority of their income not based on actual book sales, but from the money they charge authors for editorial and design services. You can find out more about how to tell hybrid publishes apart from vanity presses in this article.
Then you have the practice of “hybrid publishing” which refers to authors who self-publish some books, and work with traditional publishers for other books. A famous example would be J.K. Rowling, who publishes her Harry Potter paperbacks with Scholastic and Bloomsbury, but self-publishes her ebooks and audiobooks through her Pottermore brand.
If you want to publish both commercial and non-commercial titles, this might be a suitable approach. Or… if you’re a published author with a devoted fan-base and you think you think you can sell almost as many copies without the help of a big-name press, then you might choose to self-publish your next book. Then, you might be said to be dabbling in ‘hybrid publishing’.
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve hopefully learned a bit more about the two most popular ways to share your book with the world. Regardless of which you decide, just remember this: becoming an author takes hard work. But if you have a book in you that you need to share with the world, it doesn’t matter what path you take — just get it out there and into the hands of the people you know will love it.
What have been your experiences with self publishing vs traditional publishing? Please share your comments in the box below.