How to Publish: Pros and Cons of Traditional and Self-Publishing
Which publishing route is right for you and your book depends on everything from your book’s genre to your expertise and personality. No one can tell you which path you should take, but they can help you understand the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing so you can make an informed decision.
Similarities Between Traditional and Self-Publishing
Regardless of which path you choose, once your book is in print or available at ebook retailers, you are a professional published author. Own that and celebrate. There is still a lingering stigma against self-published authors because too many people have published unedited manuscripts, but as more indie authors achieve success, this bias decreases. Traditionally and self-published books will be shelved (virtually or physically) together.
YOU WILL HAVE TO MARKET YOUR BOOK. Many authors I work with want to traditionally publish so they don’t have to do any marketing. That’s not how book publishing works in this century. Even if you traditionally publish, you will have to do the lion’s share of marketing. This is why building an audience is important for every author.
One reason many authors choose to self-publish is to maintain creative control of their book publication. Indie authors get the final say in book cover design, font choices, back cover blurbs, edits, and marketing copy. All of these are decisions you get to make as an indie author.
Traditionally published authors rarely get any say in their covers, fonts, and marketing copy. Often, you don’t even write the blurb for your book. You also have to explain and have good reasons for refusing edits from your publisher’s editors. You don’t get the final say in your finished book when you traditionally publish.
The date a book is published is something only self-published authors can control. Traditional authors have to wait once their book is ready. They spend years finding an agent and publisher, and when they do, usually wait 1-2 years in the publisher’s queue. Control over the publication timeline gives indie authors the ability to do a rapid release, where they release one book in a series every month or every three months or in whatever short time frame they choose. This is a successful marketing and publishing strategy. Traditionally published authors are lucky to release one book a year.
If you want creative control, go indie. If you don’t mind giving up control for other benefits, go traditional.
Money Now or Later
When you traditionally publish, you don’t have many, if any, upfront costs. Your publisher pays for the editors, marketing, print runs, and book design. They even give you an advance. If you have absolutely no money to spend on publication, this might be your only option.
However, when you traditionally publish, you give away the rights to your book and the majority of your royalties. This means authors often only receive 10% of print book and 30% of ebook profits AFTER they have earned back their advance. Your advance is not a pay check from your publisher. It’s an estimate of 10% of the profits they expect your book to bring in.
When you self-publish, you have to pay for everything upfront. You must pay for your edits, book design, marketing, and print runs, unless you have the skills and resources to do these things yourself. If you can’t do any of these yourself, budget $5,000-$7,000 depending on the length of your book, knowing you will have to pay for more marketing later. Don’t skimp on any of these services if you want to sell. Your book is competing with all of the traditionally and self-published books that put in the effort to produce a quality product. Readers can spot DIY covers, edits, and design instantly.
Self-published authors pay upfront, so they keep 100% of their royalties. They keep all of their profits, hoping to make more than they spent publishing their book.
If you want to keep all of your profits, but pay for publication services, go indie. If you want an advance and to have someone else cover publication services and are willing to give away the majority of your profits, go traditional.
Your Publication Team and Resources
Traditional publishers have studied the writing industry for decades, so when you publish through them, you gain access to their knowledge. You can ask questions about writing craft, marketing, and publication without having to pay an expert or attend a class. Agents are especially valuable. Not only will they help you see your book in print, they will also advise you on how to navigate the industry and sell rights for film, foreign markets, and more. All of these people are willing to help because when you sell more books, you make them more money as well.
Self-published authors have to spend more time and money acquiring this knowledge through courses, experts, writers’ conferences, online resources, and trial and error. When you self-publish, you are both the author and the publisher, so you have to wear a lot of different business hats.
Because traditional publishers have built up a reputation and relationship with bookstores, libraries, and award committees, traditionally published authors have a much easier time getting into these places. Traditional publishers vet authors and books before publishing them, so bookstores trust traditional authors to sell. Indie authors are starting from scratch, so they have to prove themselves to get their books into and keep them in physical book stores.
Although there are more awards for indie authors now more than ever, many well-known and respected contests don’t accept indie books. To get into these contests, you must traditionally publish.
If you want a team of people helping produce your book “for free” (you pay with royalties you give away), go traditional. If you are willing to learn publishing best practices and pay for advice, go indie.
An Editor’s Advice on Choosing Your Publishing Path
Neither form of publishing is easy or guarantees success. As the author, you are going to have to work to sell your book, just like you worked to write it. When you become a published author, you are starting your own business, so surround yourself with experts you trust and enjoy working with.
Regardless of which path you choose, start an email list. Ask people to sign up everywhere you can. Your email list is made of people who want to hear from you when you publish a book, finish a short story, or receive an award. Then, partner with a handful of authors who share your readership. Join together to promote your books. Readers are voracious consumers, so they will purchase more than one author’s works.
You also have a third option. You can both traditionally and self-publish. Many authors have multiple series and will traditionally publish one and publish another themselves. Hybrid authors are some of the most successful writers in the industry today. Consider creative control, what you can afford, and what resources and skills you have to decide if you should traditionally or self-publish to Ignite Your Ink.
Which publication route do you lean toward and why? Share your preferences in the comments below. For more advice on writing and subscribe to Ignited Ink Writing.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.