Self-Publishing or Traditional Publishing: Which Is Best for You?
The difference between the two routes is similar to the difference between raising capital to start your own business or funding it yourself.
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For many people, publishing a book is a lifelong dream or career aspiration. Regardless of any inspiration or intention, it's key for an author to treat publishing a book like a business venture. Like any business venture, one can start it by raising external capital or one can use their own funds. We will dive into the pros and cons of the two main avenues of publishing a book.
There are two primary avenues: self-publishing and traditional publishing. Although they may lead to the same outcome of having a book for sale, self-publishing and traditional publishing are vastly different. The former is when an author assumes complete control over the publishing process and how the book is released to the market. In the latter scenario, a publishing house buys the rights to an author's work and oversees its release.
Self-Publishing or Traditional: Which Option Is Better?
The real answer might be disappointing to hear: It depends. Just as individual writers vary in their styles and approaches, authors will also have their own distinct priorities while pursuing publication. Instead of viewing one type of publishing as superior to the other, it's better to think of them as separate options that are both valid in their own right.
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Key Factors and Considerations
Odds of Getting Published
One of the biggest benefits of self-publishing is that anyone can do it as long as they're determined. There isn't a fixed quota of books, so self-published authors aren't competing with each other to reach shelves and stores. By retaining control of the publishing process, they can also present their work directly to readers instead of appealing to industry gatekeepers who sometimes let their own biases influence their professional decisions.
In order to publish through a traditional house—the largest of which are known colloquially as the "Big Five"—the first step usually involves getting a literary agent. Agents approach publishers on behalf of their clients to see if the publisher is interested in buying the rights to a particular book. For fiction, authors send a prospective literary agency a query letter that describes the basic plot of their novel to see if they would like to read it. For nonfiction, they send a proposal that outlines their background and the unique elements of their research.
Nelson Literary Agency compiles their querying statistics on an annual basis. In 2020, the four-agent team received 13,561 queries/proposals and signed 13 new clients. With such low numbers, securing literary representation can take a significant amount of time, and many traditional publishing houses only read manuscripts that are submitted by an agent.
That's not to say that there aren't reputable traditional presses that authors can submit to on their own. It will just require more work on behalf of the author since they won't have the support of a literary agent to help them identify opportunities. Again, there's also likely to be a limited number of slots. If there's one constant at any level of traditional publishing, it's competition.
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After identifying a prospective publisher either alone or with an agent, those pursuing traditional publication will then need to compete with other authors for a book deal itself. New York Times bestselling author Rick Riordan notes that one survey estimated an author's chances of being traditionally published at 3 in 10,000.
Some authors elect to publish through both channels to balance the advantages and drawbacks of each type. They self-publish some of their books and release others through a traditional publishing house. Opting to self-publish titles allows for more creative freedom without any pressure to accept an editorial suggestion or hit a deadline stipulated by the publisher's contract. At the same time, these suggestions could be blind spots that the author may miss if left to publish on their own.
When it comes to actually putting a book up for sale, nothing beats the speed of self-publishing. While coordinating shipping or dealing with the logistics of physical copies can add some additional time, self-publishing in a digital format is nearly instantaneous. There's no schedule to abide by, so authors can select their own launch date and decide how quickly to release the installments of a series.
Traditional publishing is far more sluggish. If an author signs with an agent, there is typically a period of limbo that involves polishing the manuscript, discussing a submission strategy, and finding editors who might be a good match for the project. (Note: Acquiring editors purchase the rights to books and guide writers through the publication process. They shouldn't be confused with copy editors who evaluate materials for things like spelling and grammar.)
Once an offer of publication is made and accepted by the author, it often takes well over a year for the book to actually come out. The publisher sets the launch date, so authors have very little input into when their work will hit stores. Each publisher has various imprints for different genres, and they plan their launches around a portfolio strategy that maximizes their total sales from all their books, rather than maximize any one author's sales specifically. Including the time it takes for the publisher to actually send you a check, it could be over a year before you get your first payment – as compared to a 90-day payment cycle when self-publishing on Amazon.
Choosing a Support Team
Self-publishing requires authors to take on a range of roles and responsibilities that are performed in traditional publishing by others. This isn't necessarily a negative because it means that authors can hand-select their cover designers, editors, and supplemental support staff. Once they form a relationship with their team, they can continue to utilize their services going forward.
In traditional publishing, the publisher has an existing internal team to perform these functions. While an author may get to provide input into things like cover design, it's usually more of a courtesy than an obligation. Since the publisher owns the rights to the book, they have the final say in most cases.
Furthermore, since authors are beholden to the publisher's schedule, they may not have the same team between projects. This constant shuffling can make it difficult to form lasting relationships or develop a rhythm.
Regardless of the type of publishing, sending a book out into the world isn't a cheap undertaking.
Self-published authors assume the majority of all associated costs, though publishing through a digital-only or print-on-demand company can eliminate the need to store or ship physical copies. Some of the common expenses are cover design, formatting, editing and marketing. Some costs may be reduced if the author is skilled in that area, therefore it's important to look at various services offered by an author services company and determine what you really need. Typical costs incurred by most authors are between $400-$1500.
Meanwhile, traditionally published authors shouldn't expect the publishing house to cover all expenses. While publishers foot the bill for things like editing and cover design, they won't pay for all ancillary expenses that crop up. If an author is invited to speak at an event an hour away, the publisher isn't going to pay for gas.
Advances and Royalties
Self-published authors shouldn't expect to be paid an advance before the release of a book. Instead, they immediately start generating royalties starting with their first sale. The royalties for self-published books can be substantially higher than in traditional publishing, though the actual rates will depend on the publishing service used.
Amazon offers a 70% royalty rate in self-publishing compared to a 15% royalty in traditional publishing. While that might seem like a huge gap, remember that self-published authors are paying for many of the expenses typically absorbed by the publisher in traditional arrangements. Therefore, you pay for your own expenses upfront but get to keep a significant chunk of the royalties earned.
Traditionally published authors, on the other hand, frequently receive an advance against their royalties before the book comes out. Once they start making sales, they need to "earn-out" the money already paid to them by their publisher.
For example, if author A. B. Charlie receives a $2,000 advance against royalties when they sign the contract for their new book, they won't receive another payment until they sell enough copies to pass the $2,000 threshold. In a sense, an advance is almost like a loan that the author repays over time from sales of their book.
Advances vary wildly and can even extend into six figures. It's almost impossible to establish a ballpark range without knowing the specifics of a book deal. One agent estimates that a debut novel at a major traditional publisher would likely fall between $5,000 and $15,000. However, there are always outliers on either end.
Distribution and Placement
In physical bookstores and libraries, space is a commodity. Self-published authors face an uphill battle because they're competing against traditional publishing houses with sales teams, catalogs, and a constant stream of new material. Brick-and-mortar stores can't possibly stock every available title. Even if they could, a self-published author would deplete their budget by shipping copies to each interested party.
There are a couple of potential strategies that self-published authors can use to address these problems. The first is to self-publish through a distributor like Ingram Book Company. Ingram prints books upon request by a store or library, then packages and ships the copies without requiring any work from the author. With access to over 40,000 retailers, they also allow self-published authors to reach a wider audience without tying themselves to a single platform.
Traditionally published authors don't have to worry as much because their publishers will often have mechanisms in place to distribute and place books in stores. Still, with such limited space available, it may require additional marketing on an author's part to get their book on shelves with certain vendors.
Making a Decision
Choosing to pursue self-publishing or traditional publishing doesn't need to happen overnight. One can always try to find an agent and have a traditional publisher handle everything, and if that doesn't work out – because of the low rates of acceptance – then go ahead to self-publish. At my company, eBook or Print, we've seen self-published authors earn over $100,000, while some traditionally published authors struggle to earn out their first $10,000.
Self-publishing and traditional publishing are extremely rewarding paths to a creative career. There's no one-size-fits-all approach. There's nothing keeping a self-published author from publishing traditionally or vice versa. As the world continues to adapt to creative trends and emerging technologies, the publishing industry and its authors will undoubtedly need to change as well.