If you’ve finished a book or are working on one, then you’re probably thinking about how to publish it. There are two obvious choices: self-publish or try to get it published by a traditional publisher.
There was a time when self-publishing was a last resort, a final attempt after an author had accumulated piles of rejections. In recent years, technology has made self-publishing easy and accessible. As a result, reams of authors have elected to self-publish without even bothering with traditional publishing.
The stigma of self-publishing has faded but many authors still diligently query agents and publishers, hoping to get their books published by traditional means.
The good news is that now authors have a choice. It’s no longer a matter of choosing the better option but choosing the option that is right for you.
There are many factors to consider in deciding between self-publishing or traditional publishing. Let’s look at the benefits of both forms of publishing.
Benefits of Self-Publishing
- Creative Control
- When you go with a traditional publisher, they gain certain rights to your book. Contracts vary but as an example, they’re going to decide what cover and title go on your book. I’ve heard from authors who hated their book covers and/or titles. If you get a great agent and editor or if you’re lucky enough to get a cover and title you like, this may not be a problem. Publishers also own printing and distribution rights for a specified amount of time. Under the self-publishing model, authors retain all rights and creative control of their work.
- Agents and publishers cost a lot of money. Everyone gets a cut from the editors, proofreaders, cover designers, layout designers, distributors, etc… The list goes on and on. That means traditionally published books cost more, and that cost gets passed on to readers. The average self-published ebook novel is $2.99. Traditionally published: about $10-15.
- You’re sharing profits with everyone involved in producing your book, so you get a much smaller royalty. An average advance these days could be as low as $5000 and royalties are about 7-10% for a paperback and 25% for an ebook. When you self-publish, there’s no advance (in fact, you’ll incur some costs) but royalties are much higher. If you price your Kindle ebook at $2.99-9.99, the royalties are 70%. You set the price of your books, so you determine how much you make off each copy sold.
- I was sort of horrified years ago, when I learned that for most new authors, publishers don’t do a lot of marketing. You’re lucky if they send you on a book tour. Many traditionally published authors hire their own PR firms and marketing professionals and pay for these costs out of pocket. Again, this can vary depending on your contract but unless you have what they think is going to be a blockbuster (or if you’re already hugely successful), traditional publishers don’t usually invest a whole lot in marketing a new author. That’s not to say they won’t help with any marketing but from the authors I’ve heard from, when it comes to marketing, there’s not a lot of difference between traditional and self-publishing. Either way, most of the burden is on the author.
- After you finish writing your book, it can take months to get an agent (if you get one at all), and then it can take many more months to sell it to a publisher (if you sell it at all). From there, it’s usually about a year before the book hits stores. I’d say most authors wait 1-2 years (minimum) between finishing their book to seeing it in stores—and that’s if everything moves along on schedule. Some of that time is useful; you can start working on your next book and you can get your marketing plan going. Some authors don’t mind but others are frustrated, especially when that 1-2 years turns into 3-4 years or more.
- Up until a couple of years ago, agents and publishers acted as gatekeepers. They and they alone decided whose books got published. Some people say they prevented bad writing from hitting the market, but Harry Potter was rejected at least eight times, so they were obviously also preventing some good stuff from hitting the market. Lots of books that went on to be successful were originally rejected. What this tells us is that publishers don’t necessarily know what they’re doing when it comes to picking good or salable books. Also, and this is my personal opinion, I’ve come across some traditionally published books that I thought were terrible. Think about it: a book can get rejected because whoever read it that day was in a bad mood, didn’t like one of the characters, just read a similar story, or simply didn’t care for the tone, style, or voice.
Self-publishing has opened the gates and it’s true that a lot of low quality books have hit the market—poorly written manuscripts packed with typos and just plain bad storytelling (and awful covers). But readers are smart. They know how to read the first few pages, check the reviews, and filter the good stuff from the bad stuff.
Benefits of Traditional Publishing
- Even though they don’t always get it right, agents and publishers make a living choosing books that they think readers will embrace. Their job is to find the good stuff and get it to market. So traditionally published books do still have that extra stamp of validation and credibility. The question is: does the average reader check to see who published a book before they buy it?
- Editing, Design, and Formatting
- In the traditional publishing model, books go through several rounds of revisions as part of the deal whereas self-published authors take on the cost of hiring their own editors. The same is true for book covers: most self-published authors are not artists and have to hire someone to make the cover. As a rule, it’s fair to say that publishers know better than authors what cover or title a book needs. Some self-published authors also pay someone to format their books for print and electronic publishing. Many do it themselves (there are plenty of tutorials available online) but it’s pretty tedious work, especially if you’d rather be writing.
- Not only are publishers more experienced in the editing, design, and formatting steps in the book production process, they also have a team of professional editors and designers.
- Some authors, especially hugely successful authors, do get a marketing campaigns via traditional publishing. Marketing is half the work of selling books (the other half is writing them), so this is a crucial point: if your publisher helps considerably with marketing, it could save you a lot of time and money compared to self-publishing. But a marketing budget is not something new authors can count on. There may be downstream marketing disadvantages to self-publishing: for example, some reviewers who won’t look at self-published books and some bookstores won’t carry them.
- If you want to get your book into brick-and-mortar bookstores, it’s a lot harder when you self-publish. Traditional publishers already have a print-and-distribution system in place, so they’ll make sure your book is available wherever books are sold, online and offline. But if you self-publish, your books will primarily be available in the online space, which limits potential sales. Some self-published authors have successfully gotten their books into physical bookstores, but it requires a lot of legwork.
Self-Publishing or Traditional Publishing?
Ultimately, each author has to decide which model is right for them. The decision between self-publishing or traditional publishing is fraught with considerations, mostly dealing with time and money. Are you in a hurry to get your book out? Self-publishing is going to be a lot quicker. Do you lack design skills and can’t afford to hire a cover designer? Traditional publishing would probably be a better option for you.
Have you ever published a book? Did you choose self-publishing or traditional publishing? Why? When you do publish a book, which model are you more likely to use?