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, publishing has changed. Fifteen years ago, traditional publishing was the only option if you wanted to publish a credible, high-quality book. However, self-publishing technologies have progressed and there are more creative freelancers and experienced publishing services companies today. The result? Self-publishing has become a far more popular and 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
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 complete a draft of your book and start submitting it to publishing houses, usually through a literary agent who then submits to publishing houses on your behalf.
Your book, proposal or query letter then gets reviewed by an acquisitions editor, to decide whether or not they want to publish it.
If they do, the publishing house will buy the rights to the book and pay you an advance to help support you while you work with your editor on edits and revisions. They'll coordinate the publishing process and cover the expenses involved.
Once the book is released (usually about two years later), they pay you a royalty of 10-15% of sales 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:
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.
Note: There are some companies that charge at both ends – first a fee to publish your book, and then a cut from book sales. This is often called Hybrid Publishing. The reason a traditional publisher takes the lion’s share of the profits is because they have fronted all of the financial costs involved in publishing the book. When you self-publish, you take on the risk and then benefit from the rewards. A hybrid publisher lands somewhere in the middle, charging up front but also taking a cut of profits.
Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing: The breakdown
The truth is that there are eight major aspects to consider when choosing the right publishing model for you. These are credibility, cost, profit, time-frames, distribution, marketing support, the quality of your publishing team, and creative control.
Which model you choose will depend on the importance you place on each of these factors.
1) The credibility of different publishing models
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 so 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. You’re more likely to receive critical acclaim for your book (assuming it’s a good one) as a traditionally-published author than as a self-published or independent author.
Having said that, think about your target readers before pinning too much on the credibility that comes from literary prizes. If your book is professionally produced, readers won't know whether or not it was published by a traditional publishing house. And if they did, would they care?
More and more, readers care only about the quality of your book and its content. And if you publish a high-quality book that adhere's to professional standards, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a self-published or a traditionally published one.
Today, 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 put, 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 has dropped and really only exists among elite 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.
2) The cost of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing
As I’ve already covered, with traditional publishing, there are no upfront financial costs and a traditional publisher will often even pay you a small 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 as well.
Note: If you get a publishing deal and are asked to make an upfront investment of any kind, they are not a traditional publishing house.
If you’re self-publishing, you're the one covering the cost of your book. 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 $17,000 and up (you can see the full breakdown here).
As a result, you’ll need to allocate this from your business' marketing and/or product development budgets or you’ll need to raise funds to self-publish your book.
3) How much will you make? Publishing profits
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
As a self-published author, once you’ve produced your books, you keep the profits. If you sell eBooks, you'll 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'll 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:
4) How long will it take? Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing time-frames
A major down-side of traditional publishing, particularly for entrepreneurs, is that the process is slow.
It could take months or years to find a literary agent, then more months (or years) for the agent to find a publisher. In fact, it often takes agencies and publishers months just to make their way through the piles of unsolicited manuscripts.
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 with some exceptions for timely, topical, nonfiction books.
By contrast, self-publishing is fast. 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 time-frame to take your book from draft to print. It can take longer than this, but in most cases it’s because the book gets stuck with the author between stages of the publishing process.
5) Distribution: Where will people be able to buy your book?
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 organize bookstore distribution on your behalf.
Major publishers have a team of sales reps who go from store to store, sharing their catalog so stores can order the new releases that are coming up. This is much harder to manage if you’re 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 don't count on it.
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.
6) Marketing for self-published vs. traditionally published authors
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 manage many books. The ones they push are the ones by established authors that are more likely to become best sellers and make them 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 promote?
This means that, even if you publish with a traditional publishing house, you'll still be the one marketing your book. You’ll still need to research media that might be interested, build relationships with journalists and industry leaders, and stay up-to-date with current events you could comment on. You'll need to organize public appearances with bookstores and relevant associations, promote to your email social media list, and more.
Naturally, with self-publishing, there is no marketing support. It all falls to you, but since self-published authors keep the profits from their book sales, many will hire a book marketing company to help.
7) Your publishing team: Traditional publishing houses vs. self-publishing services
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.
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. There are great ones out there (shout out to our team here!) but there are also many dodgy providers and people without much experience doing the work you need them to do.
For the busy entrepreneur, the financial upside of getting your book right is rarely worth the dollars you save by doing it all yourself or hiring an inexperienced team.
Fortunately, there are highly qualified freelance professionals and publishing services companies you can work with. Learn more about how to find the right publishing team here.
8) The freedom to be a control freak
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.
As a self-published author, 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're hiring professionals and they're 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 your book as you like once it comes out. Give away copies for free to snag high-value clients or lucrative business deals, if that's what makes most sense. Include marketing materials in the books you do sell. 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
Your authority comes down to the quality of your book, not the publisher’s name
Higher credibility, especially among literary types
Expect to pay $4,500–$16,500 (unless you DIY)
100% of net royalties
Royalties of 7%-12% of the retail price
Online + direct
Online + bookstores
DIY or outsource
DIY or outsource
Varies, so vet carefully
The publishing house has already vetted the team
100% creative control
The publisher makes the decisions
Which is right for you? It really depends on your priorities.
If you want to kudos of working with a traditional publisher and if time-frames aren’t an issue, then a traditional publisher could be a good match.
If you want to retain creative control, full ownership of profits, 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.