Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: Which Is Better?
You’ve written a beautiful book and now you’re ready to release it to the world. But before you can truly embark on your publishing journey, you need to make a major decision: will you self-publish your book, or attempt to get it published traditionally?
Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing is one of the great debates of the literary world. Self-publishing authors sing the praises of creative control and higher royalties, while traditionally published authors say theirs is the only path to mainstream success.
The truth, however, lies somewhere in the middle. There are pros and cons to both sides, and the right choice depends on you as an individual author! In this post, we’ll unpack those pros and cons of traditional vs. self-publishing and tell you honestly which path is better for you. Let’s start by breaking down what each of these terms actually means.
What is self-publishing?
Self-publishing is the process of undertaking all responsibilities related to publishing a book. If you decide to self-publish, you’ll be in charge of edits, cover design, formatting, and releasing and marketing your book.
Of course, being “in charge” doesn’t mean you have to do all of this yourself! You can hire an editor, a cover designer, etc. to help you out — but you’ll arrange and pay for these services out of your own pocket. This allows you to maintain ownership of your book’s rights and royalties when you self-publish, which is exactly why so many people take this route.
To learn more about self-publishing, check out these posts:
- How to Self-Publish a Book: 7 Simple Steps to Success
- 8 Essential Dos and Don’ts for All Self-Publishing Authors
- The 12 Best Self-Publishing Companies of 2020
What is traditional publishing?
Traditional publishing is the process of working with a third-party publisher to release your book. In traditional publishing, the publisher will manage the editing, design work, and marketing for your book. They’ll then release it through one of their imprints and pay you, the author, a small percentage of royalties.
Basically, with traditional publishing, you exchange the product of your book for a publisher’s services and industry connections. You’ll no longer have complete ownership, but everything will be taken care of!
If that sounds like a fair trade-off, traditional publishing might be for you — but keep in mind it’s pretty competitive, and you’ll need to bypass the gatekeepers first.
To learn more about traditional publishing, check out these posts:
- How to Get a Book Published in 2020
- How to Write a Query Letter to Attract Agents
- The 20 Largest Book Publishers in the World
Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing
Now that you know what they are, let’s address the question that brought you here in the first place: which is better, self-publishing or traditional publishing? Here’s a quick infographic that sums up the benefits of each side, though we’ll go over everything in greater detail below.
At its essence, self-publishing is about control. Not just creatively for things like your title, your cover, and the story itself, but control over the entire publishing operation! Self-publishing allows you to define your own costs and timeline, earn a high percentage of royalties after sales, and market however you prefer.
That level of control, in contrast to the competition and uncertainty of traditional publishing, makes self-publishing the better choice for the majority of modern authors. Choosing to self-publish means that you can have your book on Amazon tomorrow, looking exactly how you want.
Though there are other “in-between” options like hybrid publishing and small press publishing, authors who want that control should just go ahead and self-publish. But for those who want to know more before making the final call, we've broken down self-publishing vs. traditional publishing into five important categories here! Let's go over them one by one.
We won’t sugarcoat it: self-publishing is more expensive than traditional publishing, simply because you have to finance the process yourself. Our data puts the total cost of self-publishing a book at around $2,000, including editing, design, and marketing services.
The good news is, by investing smartly in your self-published book, you’ll entice far more readers to buy it! And with that 50-70% royalty rate, you can recoup your costs surprisingly quickly (as long as you’ve got a solid marketing plan in your corner).
Traditional publishing, on the other hand, looks financially stellar from the outset. The publisher absorbs all costs and you don’t have to lift a finger! But you may be in for an unpleasant surprise when your book goes up for sale. Trad pub royalty rates are more like 5-15%, meaning you’ll need to sell 6x as many books to match your potential self-publishing royalties.
The bottom line: You have to spend money to make money with self-publishing, but the money you make is yours. With traditional publishing, the big guys take most of your royalties, which royally sucks if your book under-sells.
2. Creative control
As mentioned, creative control is the main differentiator between self-publishing and traditional publishing. With the former, you have boundless creative control — true to the self-publishing moniker, you get to do everything yourself!
Still, all these responsibilities can easily become draining and overwhelming. To minimize stress and avoid mistakes, educate yourself first and take your time with this process.
With traditional publishing, you can trust the publisher to do everything more-or-less right. However, that doesn’t mean you’ll always approve of their choices. If creative control is important to you, but you still want to publish traditionally, definitely check out your indie press options!
The bottom line: Self-publishing guarantees creative control, though with great power comes great responsibility. Traditional publishing varies, but in general, the publisher has the final word.
3. Publishing timeline
When it comes to publishing timelines, you have pretty cut-and-dried choices. Self-publishing allows you to publish whenever you want, whether that’s in ten minutes or ten years. All you have to do is run it through a formatting tool and upload it to Amazon at your leisure.
Traditional publishing, meanwhile, is a veritable sea of red tape. Even after clawing your way to the top and having your book acquired by a publisher — which, again, can take years — it will be another year or longer before they actually publish it. There are many reasons for this, from extensive in-house editing to wanting to space out big releases.
Publishers can even postpone a book indefinitely and refuse to ever release it — the literary version of development hell. Admittedly, this is quite rare. But it’s still something to take into account: how would you feel if that happened to your book?
The bottom line: If you want to publish quickly, or simply on your own time, self-publish. If you don’t mind it taking years — and you’re willing to accept the slim chance that your book might never be published — you’re prepared for the trad pub timeline.
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4. Reader exposure
As you might expect, traditional publishing is the standard choice of authors looking for lots of mainstream exposure to readers. A major publisher will promote your book heavily online and prominently display it in brick-and-mortar bookstores. You'll be discussed in influential literary circles, and your title will have more cultural relevance overall.
Conversely, self-publishing a book makes it pretty difficult to achieve widespread recognition, but you may be able to reach your target audience more directly. By contacting niche review blogs, running price promotions and Amazon ads, and cultivating your personal fanbase, you’ll gradually build a not-so-mainstream but extremely loyal audience. Indeed, not only will they purchase this book, but likely your future books as well!
The bottom line: Traditional publishers have the connections and clout to get your book in front of mainstream audiences right away. With self-publishing, it may take longer to capture readers, but they’ll stick around.
5. Literary prestige
This is the only area where it’s virtually impossible to compete as a self-publishing author. Sadly, the most prestigious literary prizes and respected lists tend to reject independently published works. The New York Times, for example, doesn’t even consider self-published titles for its Best Seller list.
Of course, there are tons of worthy indie prizes out there — the Eric Hoffer Book Award, the Independent Publisher Book Awards, the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Award, etc. And you won’t be excluded from the Best Seller list on Amazon, which arguably has more sway over modern readers than the NYT.
Still, we understand the old guard’s limits can be discouraging. We only hope you won’t let starry-eyed hopes of winning a Pulitzer keep you from self-publishing your amazing book!
The bottom line: Classic literary prestige is the domain of the traditionally published. However, self-publishing authors would do well to remember that book prizes aren’t the end-all, be-all of success.
Self-publishing is the more viable and personally satisfying route for the vast majority of authors today. That said, if you’ve always dreamed of publishing traditionally, don’t let us stop you from giving it a shot! You’re free to query agents and explore different publishing options, and if you ultimately decide to self-publish anyway, you can do so at any time.
Armed with the information in this article, we trust you’ll move forward with confidence and clarity needed to produce a fantastic book — no matter which publishing path you take.