Traditional vs Self-Publishing

If you’re publishing a book today, you’ll find two paths laid out before you:

You can follow the traditional route – attempt to get a book deal with a publishing house, usually via an agent, and have them produce and distribute your novel.

Or, you can self-publish. This means producing the book yourself, with the help of freelance professionals, and selling it directly either in person or through a marketplace like Amazon.

The traditional publishing model was once seen as the default choice for serious authors. However, the modern publishing landscape is rapidly changing. Independent authors – another term for self-publishers – now account for almost half of all ebooks sold on Amazon, and their market share grows every year. Tales of indie authors earning six-figure incomes are increasingly common.

While neither option offers easy success, there are significant advantages to both models. Choosing the right one for your novel can make all the difference.

Let’s look at a few key areas where the two routes differ.

Control

Traditional publishing takes away some control

For many authors, the biggest turn-off in traditional publishing is the loss of control. Not only must a publisher be willing to buy your book in the first place, but they’re also in the driving seat for many of the decisions that follow. Don’t like the cover they’ve chosen? Tough. Disagree with the genre or target audience they’re pitching at? Good luck.

That’s not to say you can’t sometimes fill an advisory role, particularly if you’ve already built a name for yourself. For most new authors though, the reality is that you’ll play a far smaller part than you’re probably hoping.

On top of that, you should know that the publishing world moves very slowly. Even after your deal is struck, you can expect to wait anywhere up to a couple more years before you finally see your book in print.

This is where self-publishing scores its biggest win. As an independent author, you retain complete control of your project. There are no gatekeepers to please. You’re free to publish the book you want, exactly the way you want it. Even better, the self-publishing process moves as fast as you let it – you could have your book available on Amazon within hours of finishing your final draft if that was what you wanted.

Support

Self-publishing means you have all the responsibility

While giving away control of your novel sucks, there are worse people to give it to than a publishing house. These companies exist to make and sell books, and they know their stuff. They won’t always share your vision, but their goal is always for your book to sell and they have the resources to make that happen.

Your publisher will assign their own in-house experts and freelancers to provide editorial support, proofreading, cover design, formatting, and sales. In other words, they let you focus on the job you do best – writing. If that’s the part you love, then traditional publishing will probably suit you just fine.

However, a self-publisher has to be more than just a writer. All those things that would normally be done by your publisher – those are now your responsibility. This means a lot of work, so go into it with your eyes open.

Thankfully you don’t need to do everything yourself – the internet is full of great editors and cover designers – but you do need to make sure it all gets done. Handle the responsibility well, and it’s not without its rewards.

For more thoughts on thinking like a self-publisher, check out my post from a few weeks ago.

Marketing & sales

Traditional publishing is the best route into physical bookstores

I could have put marketing under support, but the balance isn’t quite the same so it deserves its own mention.

Under traditional publishing, marketing can be a bit of a mixed bag. Your publisher might give you a full fledged marketing campaign if they sense a bestseller, but in most cases marketing is increasingly becoming the responsibility of the author. This comes as a surprise – and a disappointment – to many new authors.

What you do get through traditional publishing is access to the big brick and mortar bookstores. While there’s no guarantee that the bookstores will actually sell your book (and you won’t get paid if they don’t), simply having a place in a publisher’s catalogue means they’re much more likely to put you on their shelves.

Unsurprisingly, self-publishers handle their own marketing too. Given the abundance of competition, marketing is absolutely crucial if you want your book to sell. Other than on the writing itself, marketing tends to be where successful self-publishers spend most of their time.

There are a number of services which allow self-publishers to produce their own print books, but this can be expensive and getting them into bookstores will be tough. In most cases, you’ll find the vast majority of your sales will come from ebooks.

Money

Self-publishing offers more profit, but with more risk

Not many authors get into writing for the money, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be part of your decision – particularly if you’re hoping to one day do this for a living.

Under traditional publishing, the publisher pays for everything – you shouldn’t have any up-front costs. If an agent or publisher tries to charge you money such as a ‘reading fee’ before they’ll offer their services, stay clear.

In exchange for footing the bill, your publisher effectively owns your book and receives most of the income from it. As the author, you will be paid royalties. This is a small percentage of each book sale, typically 6-10% for paperbacks, 10-15% for hardbacks, and 25% for ebooks.

Usually, your publisher will pay you a certain amount of royalty money up-front as an advance. Advances aren’t as big as they used to be – for a debut fiction author, it’s unlikely to be more than about $10,000/£7,000. You won’t receive any further royalties until they catch up to your advance (known as ‘earning out’). Most books never actually reach that point.

We’re not quite done yet – your agent still has to take their cut. Agents don’t charge an up-front fee. Instead, they receive 15-20% of your income from contracts they’ve negotiated. This includes your advance, royalties, and other deals such as film or foreign rights.

Sounds a bit complicated? Yeah.

If you’re a self-publisher it’s a bit simpler. You’ll have to cover any up-front costs yourself, such as editing, cover design, and marketing. You won’t get an advance, but you will receive a far larger share of the profits. Amazon’s KDP for example, one of the largest platforms for self-published ebooks, pays a royalty rate of 70%.

If you can sell those books and afford the initial costs without the luxury of an advance, then self-publishing is arguably the more profitable choice. However, those are some big ‘if’s. For some, the money up-front and lower risk of traditional publishing makes it the more appealing choice.

Rights & contracts

Publishers buy rights off you, self-publishers keep their rights

The legal nuts and bolts might be the last thing on your mind, but they really shouldn’t be.

When you sign a publishing contract, you hand over certain rights. Effectively, your book now belongs to the publisher. Unless your contract specifies otherwise, they will keep owning it until the copyright expires 70 years after your death, even if they’re no longer printing it. The contract might go so far as to include ownership of your world and characters, film and foreign rights, and so on. This is why a good agent is essential if you’re publishing traditionally – they’ll know what to look out for and can make sure you’re getting a fair deal.

Self-publishing lets you keep ownership of your work. If you want to branch out into audio books or sell your novel in another language, those rights are yours. If you want to sell print rights to a traditional publisher and hold onto the ebook rights, you can do that too. Some platforms like Amazon’s KDP Select might offer you a sweeter deal in exchange for exclusivity, but it’s still your book and your decision.

The feel good factor

For many authors, there’s simply an emotional pull in one direction or the other.

Being traditionally published means instant credibility, particularly if you’ve got a deal with a well respected house. You’re part of a brand. Someone influential within the industry has judged that you make the cut.You don’t really get that with self-publishing.

This isn’t just an intangible benefit, either. Readers may be more inclined to pick up your book since they know they’re likely to get a certain level of quality.

Of course, self-publishing is by no means without its emotional rewards. There’s something entrepreneurial about being a successful independent author. You’re a writer, but you’re also more than that. Indie publishing is the future, and you’re carving our your own success. That’s pretty awesome.

So there you have it – I hope this helps you pick out the right path. If you’ve had your own experiences with either route, I’d love to hear about them!

If that was too long for you, here’s a quick summary of the key points:

Traditional publishing Self-publishing
Publisher has the deciding vote, but you might play an advisory role. Very slow process. You keep complete control of your project. Process moves as fast as you let it.
Publisher will provide professionals to manage the publication process. You focus on writing. You take on the publisher’s responsibilities and arrange your own freelancers.
Marketing support varies from some to none. Easier access to physical bookstores. You do your own marketing. Print is an option, but ebooks are your primary market.
You get paid an advance plus royalties (6-25%). Publisher covers the up-front costs. No advance, but much higher royalties (70%). You cover the up-front costs yourself.
Publisher owns your book, plus other rights based on your contract. You keep ownership, including the option to change your mind later.
Credibility – you’re officially a published author! Empowerment – you did it! Your effort, your rewards.