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Posted on Feb 18, 2020

Is It Better to Self-Publish or Get a Publisher? An Author's Guide

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. So, with people singing the praises of both methods the question remains: is it better to self publish or get a publisher?

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.

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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:

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:

And if you're seeking representation — or just curious to see what's out there — you can browse through our literary agents directory, which lists over 600 reputable agents across all genres and categories!

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.

self-publishing vs. traditional publishing pros of both sides

Which route you pick is dependent on your background, skills, and the kind of book that you're writing. So, first, we recommend taking this quick 1-minute quiz below that will help break down whether you're best-suited for self-publishing or traditional publishing.

Is self-publishing or traditional publishing right for you?

Takes one minute!

If you'd like to learn even more about whether it's better to self publish or get a publisher before making the final call, that's what the rest of this post is for. We've looked at self-publishing vs. traditional publishing through the lens of five important categories here. Let's go over them one by one.

1. Money

self-publishing vs. traditional publishing costs and royalties

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

Creative control is the main differentiator between self-publishing and traditional publishing. At its essence, self-publishing is about the level of control that you maintain 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. If you self-publish, you have boundless creative control — true to the self-publishing moniker, you get to do everything yourself!

Though there are other “in-between” options like hybrid publishing and small press publishing, authors who want that control should probably self-publish. 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

self-publishing vs. traditional 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.

Want to publish your book ASAP? Check out our free book formatting tool to get a clean, professional interior design within minutes.

4. Reader exposure

As you might expect, traditional publishing is the typical choice of authors looking for mainstream exposure. A major publisher can promote your book heavily online and prominently display it in brick-and-mortar bookstores (though there's also the chance they'll skimp on the marketing and hang you out to dry).

Conversely, self-publishing can make it tough 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 less-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 more connections to get your book in front of mainstream audiences fairly quickly. 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.

Final thoughts

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.

13 responses

dark love says:

01/09/2017 – 13:13

The most intresting question, how to find own audience? Writers who cannot find it stop to write because for whom they have to write their books?

↪️ Reedsy replied:

01/09/2017 – 13:21

Absolutely. We have a whole post on this topic:

↪️ dark love replied:

02/09/2017 – 01:03

Thank you. But what if a writer has an audience on the site where people post only free stories but this audience is not available to buy cause of own age (17-18 years old) or doesn't want to buy because get used to read for free? And how to reach people who is older, but studying and haven't time to read books in internet, or they work but haven't time to look at internet because too tired? So how to make audience to attract to the books that they want to buy? Post only teasers? It doesn't help. Post only teaser chapters? It also doesn't help. Use Radish where promotion only for writers who write NON MATURE FICTION but a writer writes only MATURE FICTION and it looks like Radish doesn't support him. Radish supports only bestseller writers or writers I think who maybe pays for commercial. So where else a writer has to look for fans, asking fans of bestseller books who loves mature romance like Fifty Shades Of Grey to read its book? But these fans read only this book and don't want to read another! Which method a writer must use to reach his loyal audience if he tried all ways and nothing help? To write publishing companies or use all ways of promotion on internet, but wonder would it help because a writer can spend money and nothing get in return??? I think this article doesn't reply on this question.

stone says:

20/01/2018 – 14:59

Helpful article thank you!

Harvey Stanbrough says:

11/09/2018 – 22:17

This is a little simplistic, especially the admonition that if you want your books in physical bookstores, traditional publishing is the better route. My work has been published through traditional, subsidy, and now independent publishing. My indie-published print books are available in brick and mortar stores as well as on line. Indie-published books given wide distribution are listed in the Ingram catalogue and made available to buyers from bookstores.

↪️ Reedsy replied:

12/09/2018 – 10:11

There's a difference between "being available to buyers from bookstores" and "being stocked and displayed in brick-and-mortar stores". Distributing through IngramSpark allows indie authors to make their books available on the Ingram catalogue, but the hard part is getting bookstores to actually order a number of copies of the book to stock and display in-store. Traditional publishers have a sales team (or a distribution partner with a sales team) whose members have established relationships with book buyers and wholesalers. This allows them to negotiate in-store retail space for their books (on top of special in-store promos). As an indie author, you can get your book stocked locally in book stores near you by visiting them and pitching to them yourself, but it's near impossible to get into bookstores on a national scale. Unless, of course, you partner with a publisher or with Ingram themselves for special print distribution — but that's only happened in a handful of cases, where the authors were already international bestsellers (e.g. Tucker Max or Barbara Freethy).

Roy Bliven says:

26/06/2019 – 03:38

Self publishing is really another name for Vanity publishing. A book may be worth it to a trad publisher but if you have to get an agent and do all the marketing anyway, was any of it really worth it. Sure, as an author I can get my book published and printed but does it sit on the shelf and never get sold? Either way, it seems the author loses and there is no glory or purpose in writing if nobody ever reads the book! So what the hell, maybe I should just go to a printer and have them print me a couple hundred books and sell them at a flea market! Seems like an act of senseless publishing, right?

↪️ Martin Cavannagh replied:

26/06/2019 – 09:13

Self-publishing, in the commonly accepted sense, isn't really the same as vanity publishing. Vanity publishing requires a company taking payment from an author for what they claim is the equivalent of what a traditional publisher does — this usually involves editing and design (of questionable quality) and distribution and marketing (which is often limited to 'making the book available from wholesalers') These days, indie authors who put out their own books really don't print off hundreds of copies and flog them out the back of their cars. Ebooks and print on demand suppliers have pretty much taken care of the risk from that side of things. However, if your local flea market happens to attract your target readership, that's not a terrible idea! I think the point we're getting at is that these days, all authors have to take on some of the marketing burden. For self-pub authors, at the very least that means growing and maintaining the mailing list, and perhaps getting to grips with basic digital advertising (which you can probably teach yourself in a few afternoons). There are plenty of self-published authors who do manage to sell a lot of books — they rarely get any mainstream press, which is why you've never heard of them.

Swapnaja Deshmukh says:

19/10/2019 – 17:16

I don't worry about the book sales.

Laughing Cougar says:

02/12/2019 – 09:20

Hello, I have been so confused trying to become a writer. I first "published" a poem under my pseudonym Laughing Cougar. Now the website is saying I am an "international" poet? But my most popular poem only has 1095 views. So that doesn't make sense. Maybe I read it wrong. And for some odd reason it was saying my Audiobook was a "best seller"? That does not seem to make sense either. When I log on it says I only have sold 3! Actually I know it should be 4 because I literally had to buy it again because they switched to the audible app and my kindle (audiobook) version crashed. I literally have no idea what I am doing. I pretty much have no Idea on how to even become a successful writer. Either way I mostly enjoy writing for its therapeutic aspects anyways. But I am so very much confused. I will welcome any input anyone is willing to offer both good and bad. Thanks for your time and allowing me to vent a little. Best of Luck to all other writers out there. Sincerely, Jim

Chukwuka Christopher Okafor says:

27/12/2019 – 18:46

I'd go for self-publishing and hybrid than traditional method. Because l want to retain greater percentage of my loyalty

Chukwuka Christopher Okafor says:

27/12/2019 – 18:49

I'd go for self-publishing and hybrid than traditional method. Because I want to retain greater percentage of my loyalty

Shannon Smith says:

14/03/2020 – 16:28

this was very helpful! I'm currently writing my cookbook, which I intend to self publish. Gaining followers on social media and collecting a solid number of email addresses from subscribers on my website will be key in the sale of my book. It's not easy, but I'm enjoying the freedom of creating my own vision with the help of lot of people with expertise I don't have. Thank you for this informative article.

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