Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing

You’ve written a book, or are in the middle of your first draft, and you’ve started thinking about your publishing options. Should you try to get a traditional publishing deal, or would self-publishing make more sense for you and your book?

Over the past decade or so, the publishing landscape has changed. Fifteen years ago, traditional publishing was the only option if you wanted to publish a credible, high-quality book. However, with the growth in DIY publishing technologies available, and the increasing number of creative freelancers and publishing services companies out there (many of whom have traditional publishing backgrounds), self-publishing has become a much more popular, and more greatly accepted, method for bringing a professional book into the world.

So in the self-publishing vs. traditional publishing debate, which should you choose? What are the advantage and disadvantages of each, and how do you weigh them up to ensure you’re making the right decision for your book?

In this article I’ll give an overview of each of your publishing options and the pros and cons of each so you can make the right publishing choice for you.

Understanding the publishing landscape

So what is self-publishing, and how is it different from getting a traditional publishing deal? Before we get into the pros and cons, here’s a quick outline to ensure we’re all on the same page.

What is traditional publishing?

In traditional publishing, you’ll usually complete a draft of your book and start submitting it to publishing houses and/or literary agents (who will then submit it to publishing houses on your behalf).

Your book, proposal or query letter then gets reviewed by an acquisitions editor at the house, or an agent, to decide whether or not they want to publish it.

If they do, the publishing house will buy the rights to the book and will pay you an advance to help support you while you work with your editor on edits and revisions. They will coordinate the entire publishing process for you, and will cover all of the expenses involved in publishing your book (yay!).

Once the book is released (usually about two years later), they will take the lion’s share of the profits, leaving you with a royalty of 10%-15% of the book’s sale price (which you only start to receive once the book has sold enough copies to pay back your advance).

What is self-publishing?

There are a lot of variations on self-publishing, including:

  • You write the book, run it through spell check, design your own cover and upload it to Amazon.
  • You recruit a team of freelancers who take care of different parts of the publishing process for you (an editor, a proofreader, a designer, a printer, etc.).
  • You work with a publishing company that provides the end-to-end publishing service, including editing, design, printing, eBook conversion and distribution.

What makes it self-publishing is the money – in traditional publishing, the publisher pays all of the expenses and makes their money back through sales of the book. In self-publishing, the author pays all of the publishing expenses, but then gets to keep the profits from all book sales.

(NB: There are some companies that charge at both ends – first a fee to publish your book, and then they take a cut from any books you sell in future. Personally, I consider this to be unethical and would avoid these companies. The reason a traditional publisher takes the lion’s share of the profits is because they are the ones who have fronted all of the financial risk involved in publishing the book. When you self-publish, you take on the risk so also benefit from the rewards. A company that charges up front and takes a cut of profits is taking on no risk and getting rewarded at both ends, which seems a bit unfair to me.)

Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing: The breakdown

So if the big difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing is the upfront investment, traditional publishing should come out as the winner, right?

The truth is that there are many more aspects to consider when choosing the right publishing model for you, including credibility, cost, profit, time frames, distribution, marketing support, the calibre of your publishing team and creative control. Which model you choose will depend on the importance you place on each of these factors.

The credibility of different publishing models

Traditional publishing

if you’ve been picked up by a publishing house, you can argue that you gain an instant credibility boost. The industry has decided to invest their time and expertise into you and your book, therefore you must have written something worthwhile. If you’re worried about whether what you’ve written is any good, this can be very validating.

There are also a number of literary prizes that are only open to traditionally published authors, and you’re far more likely to receive critical acclaim for your book (assuming it’s a good one, of course) than a self-published or independent author.

Having said all of this, though, I’d have a think about your target readers before jumping on the credibility bandwagon. If your book is professionally produced, would they even know whether or not it was published by a traditional publishing house? Would they care?

I’ve found more and more readers, particularly those in tight niches, care more about the quality of a book and its content and, assuming that you publish a high-quality book, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a self-published or a traditionally published one.

Self-publishing

The truth is that anyone can write and self-publish a book. And, because there are a number of authors out there publishing bad books, they can bring down the reputation of self-published books as a whole. Simply, their content doesn’t give value and their books don’t look professional.

Fortunately, the number of great self-published books in the market is going up every day, which means any stigma against self-published books is going down (in fact, I’ve found it only really exists among literary types today).

However, this makes it even more important to invest in making your book look, read and feel like it was professionally published – your credibility’s at stake.

The cost of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing

Traditional publishing

As I’ve already covered, with traditional publishing, you have it made. There are no upfront financial costs with a traditional publisher, and they will often pay you an advance when you sign the contract.

All the editing, proofreading, typesetting, design, printing and distribution costs are covered by your publishing house, and some may invest a small marketing budget into your book as well.

If you get a publishing deal and they ask you to make an upfront investment of any kind, they are not a traditional publishing house.

Self-publishing

If you’re self-publishing, you will be the one fronting the cost of your book. And, depending on who you choose to produce your book, the level of service you choose and the quality of the service you get, these costs can add up very quickly – ranging anywhere from about $4,500 to $16,500 (note that these are Australian figures – you can see the full breakdown here).

So, unsurprisingly, you’ll need the budget upfront or you’ll need to raise funds to self-publish your book.

How much will you make? Publishing profits

Traditional publishing

If you have a traditional publishing deal, you can expect an advance from the publisher, which is supposed to tide you over while you finish your book. Advances vary depending on how successful they expect the book to be, but for a first book you can expect from $5,000 to $15,000 if you sign with a major house.

Once your book is for sale, you can expect royalties of between 7% and 12% of your book sales, or $1.75–$3 for a $25 book.

However, you won’t start getting paid those royalties until you’ve sold enough books to pay back your initial advance. So, if you got a $10,000 advance and are getting paid a 10% royalty on a $25 book, you’d need to sell 4,000 books before you saw any financial return (and most books sell fewer than 1,000 copies).

10% x $25 = $2.5 per book

$10,000 advance / $2.5 per book = 4,000 books

Self-publishing

As a self-published author, once you’ve produced your books, you get to keep all the profits.

If you sell eBooks, you will get a royalty of 35% to 70%, depending on the retailer and the price. (See the figures for Amazon here.) If you use a print-on-demand service, you will get between 50% and 75% of your book’s retail price, depending on your print specs. (More Amazon figures here.)

For a more detailed breakdown of how to calculate the ROI of your self-published book, check out:

How long will it take? Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing timeframes

Traditional publishing

Traditional publishing is slow.

It could take months (or years) for you to find a literary agent. Then it could take more months (or years) to find a publisher. (Note that it takes some agencies and publishers months to make their way through their slush piles, or unsolicited manuscripts.)

And, once you have a publisher, the traditional publishing process generally takes between 18 months and three years before your book will be available on shelves. (Though sometimes exceptions are made for topical, nonfiction books.)

Self-publishing

By contrast, self-publishing is fast. If you are taking a DIY approach and your Word document is ready to go, you could upload it to Amazon within a few hours.

If you’re working with a team of freelancers, or an end-to-end self-publishing company, three to six months is a more realistic timeframe to take your book from draft to print. (Note that it can take longer than this, but in most cases it’s because the book gets stuck back with the author in between different stages of the publishing process.)

Distribution: Where will people be able to buy your book?

Traditional publishing

If you get traditionally published, your distribution is taken care of. Your publisher will upload your print book and eBook to all the major online retailers, and they will also organise bookstore distribution on your behalf.

All major publishers have a team of sales reps who go from store to store, sharing their catalogue so stores can order the new releases that are coming up. This is much harder to manage if you’re self-publishing.

Self-publishing

If you’re self-publishing, you can upload your book to retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository and Booktopia yourself, either publishing directly with the retailer or using a distributor like BookBaby or Ingram Spark.

However, it’s very difficult for self-published authors to get bookstore distribution. It’s not impossible, and you might even find that bookstores start to chase you if your book gets good media coverage (this happened with our client Craig Goddard’s book 28 Tips for Teenagers), but it is rare.

The other option is working with a publishing services company that already has a relationship with a distributor, and then the distributor can act like a traditional publishing house’s sales rep and get your book in stores.

Marketing for self-published vs. traditionally published authors

Traditional publishing

Many authors believe that a benefit of traditional publishing is that the publishing house will manage your entire PR campaign.

Unfortunately, while they’ll do some marketing for you, publishing houses have many books on their plate, and the ones they’ll be pushing are the ones by established authors that are more likely to become best sellers (and make the publishing house more money). Just think, if a book by an unknown, first-time author came out in the same month as the eighth Harry Potter novel, which would you want to promote?

This means that, even if you publish with a traditional publishing house, you still be the one marketing your book. You’ll still need to research the regular media that might be interested in your book, build relationships with journalists and industry leaders, stay up-to-date with current events in case there’s something you can comment on, organise public appearances with bookstores and relevant associations, pimp out your social media profiles, and more.

Self-publishing

Again, there is no marketing support (unless you hire a book marketing company to help you out).

In my view, if you’re doing all of that work anyway, you might as well get a bigger slice of the pie.

Your publishing team: Traditional publishing houses vs. self-publishing services

Traditional publishing

When you publish through a traditional publishing house, you get the benefit of working with a professional publishing team. Their editors, designers, marketers and sales people are all qualified professionals who have experience working on many other books – some of which will be like yours.

They know what works and what doesn’t, and can advise you accordingly.

Self-publishing

As a self-publishing author, you’ll either be learning how to do everything yourself, or you’ll need to source your own publishing team.

Self-publishing teams can be a bit hit and miss – yes, there are some good ones out there (I like to consider our team a part of that community!), but there are also a number of dodgy providers or people who don’t have much experience doing the work you need them to do.

And, as a busy professional, do you want to risk the future of your book on a publishing team that is subpar?

Fortunately, there are also a range of highly qualified freelance professionals and publishing services companies out there, many of whom have traditional publishing backgrounds. Learn more about how to find the right publishing team here.

The freedom to be a control freak

Traditional publishing

If you’re a control freak like me, I have some bad news for you. What your publisher says, goes.

Your editor might rip your book apart or tell you to start again. You might get saddled with a cover that you don’t like. You might go to print, only to discover that your publisher is marketing your book in a different genre to what you’d originally expected.

That being said, publishers are used to working with creative-types and, if you treat them with respect and are able to explain your writing decisions reasonably, you can usually preserve the integrity of your message and voice.

However, they do have the power and can decide not to publish your book if you cause too much of a fuss.

Self-publishing

As a self-publisher, you have the power.

While you’ll be working with editors, designers and printers, you have the final say. If your editor makes a change you don’t like, you don’t need to listen. Likewise, you can change designers (or edit your cover yourself in MS Paint if you must) and get multiple versions of your book printed to figure out what you like. (Having said this, remember that you are hiring professionals, and they are advising you based on years of experience and knowledge, so seek to understand their advice before disregarding it altogether.)

You also have the ability to use the book as you like once it comes out – you can give away copies for free to snag those high-value clients or lucrative business deals. You can include marketing materials in the books you do sell. You can print as few or as many books as you like, depending on how you’d like to use them. And you can make tweaks and updates every time you print a new version.

The power is yours.

In a nutshell: The self-publishing vs. traditional publishing breakdown

 Self-publishingTraditional publishing
CredibilityYour credibility comes down to the quality of your book, not the publisher’s nameHigher credibility (especially among literary types)
CostExpect to pay $4,500–$16,500 (unless you DIY)Free!
ProfitThe full retail priceRoyalties of 7%-12% on the retail price
Time3-6 months2 years+
DistributionOnlineOnline + bookstores
MarketingDIY or outsourceDIY or outsource
TeamYou need to vet carefullyThe publishing house has already vetted the team
Creative controlYou have the powerThe publisher has the power

 

So which is right for you? It really depends on your priorities.

If you want to kudos of working with a traditional publisher and time frames aren’t an issue, then a traditional publisher could be a good match.

If you want to retain creative control of your book, you want your book out as soon as possible, and you can budget for the costs of self-publishing, then self-publishing would be a better match.

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