Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing

Whether you’ve just written your first book or your hundredth, the first step towards publishing it is choosing how to go from manuscript to print. In today’s publishing landscape, that means choosing between traditional- and self-publishing.

The traditional publishing model is a lengthy process navigated by an agent, funded by a publishing company, and, typically, backed by a small army of editors, designers, and marketers. Choose to self-publish, and you (and anyone else you enlist to help) will fund, publish, and market your self-published book.

Depending on your book and who you are, as an author and as a person, one option might sound far more appealing than the other right off the bat. But there are many self-publishing vs. traditional publishing pros and cons, financial and creative, hiding in the details. We’ll lay them out here so you can pick the right path.

But before getting into those details, you should know one thing up front: The percentage of authors for whom the traditional publishing book deal path is the best approach is very low—like, less than 2%. To know if you’re in that 2%, you’ll need to understand both options.

Traditional publishing

To best explain the differences between the two, we’ll start with the often-arcane world of the traditional book publishing process because much of what defines self-publishing is how it differs from this classic model.

Getting published by a traditional publishing house begins with two giant steps. The first is finding a literary agent to represent you and your unpublished book. The second isn’t so much a step as a waiting game. Your agent will submit your manuscript to traditional publishers to get them interested and ultimately pay to publish it—while these traditional publishers are fielding hundreds or even thousands of other new manuscripts. This process can take months or even years, particularly for first-time authors and those trying to publish hard-to-categorize books, poetry books, and short story collections.

Because it’s all out of your hands, the wait can be—to put it mildly—frustrating. And there are no guarantees your manuscript will sell at all. But once a publishing house is on board, one advantage of traditional publishing emerges: the advance.

Laptop Computer Next to Coffee Cup, Author Notes & Cell Phone

No upfront costs

The publisher usually pays the author a lump sum upfront before the rest of the process gets underway to secure the publishing rights. This ranges from a small stipend to hundreds of thousands of dollars. While you shouldn’t expect a windfall on your first foray into publishing, any advance can be a big win.

The economics from that point forward get a little murkier. The publishing company will pay for the production of your book, from editing to design to printing to distribution. That’s a win for the author. In exchange for carrying those costs, the traditional publisher will take a share of the royalties—a percentage of the sale price of each book that sells, negotiated upfront with help from the agent. The author usually retains a cut of between 5% and 20% of sales in traditional publishing, with higher royalties for hardcover books than for paperback and mass-market publications.

The royalties can add up if the book is a bestseller, but if it’s not, this small share of fewer sales may stay small in the long run. And whatever the share, keep in mind: authors’ royalties only kick in after your share exceeds the cost of your advance. This means that if your book only finds a tiny audience, you may never make another dime once it’s published.

Longer publishing timelines

A delay in the actual publishing exacerbates this delay in sales earnings. The publisher’s editors, designers, and printers will ensure that every facet of your book is as polished, professional, and appealing as possible before it goes to market. All of this can be critical to the quality and, ultimately, the success of a book.

But because every part of this process involves multiple decision-makers and intermediaries, you may find you’ve read more words in emails than in your book before it goes to print. 

Compounding this is the fact that every traditional publisher has to choose which books should take priority. So, when fighting for a slice of these expert resources, unproven or first-time authors may find themselves at the back of a very long line.

Marketing and sales support

The struggle for priority also carries over into the marketing and sales of a traditionally published book. Marketing clout and the connections to get books on shelves is a significant advantage for the major publisher. Still, titles that might be considered niche books are unlikely to be given the special promotional treatment, such as retail display collateral, special editions, press coverage, and the like.

Publishers usually reserve this star treatment for books they deem to have the most mass appeal; unfortunately, books that the publishing gatekeepers think are likely to sell will get the most help when it’s time to sell it. Knowing whether your book is likely to reap those benefits isn’t easy without deep knowledge of the rapidly-shifting industry and audience trends and, even more unknowably, the whims and priorities of a particular publisher. Good agents will help with that, too, but for some titles, getting exposure will always be an uphill battle.

Access to awards

One last benefit that traditionally published authors enjoy is a better chance at literary awards. Because traditional publishing houses have more resources to throw behind a title and because they often have personal relationships with award committees, the “Big Five” publishers (Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan) tend to dominate award season. Awards may not be a deciding factor for every author, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind if you’re hoping critics will recognize your book.

Benefits of traditional publishing, summarized

If that all sounds exhausting, ask any author, and they’ll tell you: It is! And they may also tell you it was totally worth it. When things go well, traditional publishing has its upsides, primarily:

  • Payment up front (the advance)
  • No costs incurred by you, the author
  • Assistance with design, editing, and marketing
  • Better chance at winning awards

Self-publishing

Any indie author will tell you publishing your own book is, all things considered, far less complicated. It can also be far more work for you, the indie author. That’s not surprising when you’re doing everything yourself.

That’s a huge difference, and it manifests right away. You will not need to find an agent interested in your manuscript, and that agent will not need to find an interested publisher. So happily, you can eliminate this part of the wait entirely.

However, that doesn’t mean you’re ready to publish immediately; all the editing and cover design work still needs doing. You’ll always be at the front of the line when you’re doing it yourself. But if you’d like the benefit of outside resources to help get your book into publishing shape, you’ll need to find them and, likely, pay them.

Author editing manuscript by hand

Total creative control

The good news with self-publishing is that you’ll be in complete creative control of the entire process. In even the most author-friendly traditional publishing deal, the decision-makers who help get a book to market exert some control over the process and the finished product.

Whereas with self-publishing, all of those critical decisions are made by you as fast as you can make them. And you’ll never wonder if other people made them with your best interests in mind. Instead, you’ll be publishing your book exactly as you want it, with way more creative freedom, and as soon as you want to print it.

All publishing rights

That control extends to the ownership of your creation. Traditional publishing deals always cede primary (first-to-market) publishing rights of the printed work to the publisher. Subsidiary rights are also in play during traditional publishing deal negotiations. Those are rights to audiobook versions and film adaptations (if you’re fortunate enough to need them).

If you’re confident in your work (and if you’re self-publishing, you should be!), these subsidiary rights are almost always worth keeping for yourself. If you self-publish, you’ll retain all rights to your work, in any form, in domestic and foreign markets.

Upfront costs

If you go the self-publishing route, you’ll also bear 100% of the cost of making and printing your book, and there’s no such thing as an advance. Unless you’ve found a generous benefactor or amassed some backing on a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter, financing a self-publishing venture is all on you. Carefully consider what you’re willing to spend to get your book out into the world.

Without the informed insights of an agent and a publisher, you’ll need to gauge audience interest ahead of your first printing run. And, if you’re looking to get your book onto physical bookstores, the same goes for retailer interest.

Print more than audience demand calls for, and it’ll be your own money tied up in those extra copies. Thankfully, today’s self-publishing options allow for a surprisingly speedy turnaround on new print runs, so if your book suddenly finds a huge following, you can get more copies into the market and brick-and-mortar stores relatively quickly.

Read about John Scarpati’s Blurb & Kickstarter journey

A larger share of the royalty

Bills & Coins

Perhaps the most significant upside to self-publishing is that independent authors keep a lion’s share of the sales from every book. You’ll effectively keep 100% of the net profits. This is because there’s no waiting to cover your advance—just your initial publishing outlay. Accounting for printing and distribution costs, this usually translates to royalty rates of around 50-70% per sale for the self-publishing author.

That higher percentage may or may not equate to more money in the long run—it’ll depend on how well your book sells. Responsibility for that largely falls on the self-publishing author as well. So make sure you have a plan and follow a few best practices on how to sell a book online and seek out advice from other self-published authors to help guide you along the way.

Benefits of self-publishing, summarized

With the right book, the right approach, and some determination, self-publishing can lead to a success story that clearly wins out over traditional publishing in some critical ways:

  • Faster to market
  • More creative control
  • All publishing rights
  • Larger share of royalties

 Learn self-publishing mistakes to avoid

Still not sure?

Don’t fret if you’re not certain that you’re in that 2%. The beauty of self-publishing is that you’ll learn a lot about yourself, your work, and the publishing business. Your first effort will set you up for future success, and remember, if you establish a solid readership through self-publishing, literary agents and publishers may seek you out for your next book. Then you can make this decision all over again!

Ready to start your self-publishing journey? Let’s make it happen!

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