Traditional Publishing vs Self-publishing: Which Is Best For You?
Authors now have a choice in how they publish and get their books into the hands of readers. This article covers the pros and cons of traditional publishing and self-publishing.
Of course, you don’t have to choose either/or. Many authors are now hybrids, using both forms of publishing for different projects, but hopefully, this will help you evaluate your options.
What is traditional publishing or self-publishing?
Traditional publishing refers to the established system of getting a book deal, which involves submission to agents over a period, usually some rejections and then (hopefully) being accepted. Then the agent will submit the manuscript to publishers with usually many rejections and then (hopefully) a contract is signed. The book will then go through more edits and will eventually be published.
The pros of traditional publishing
Prestige, kudos, and validation. Most authors suffer from self-doubt and wonder if their work is good enough. If you make it through the process to get an agent and then a publisher, approval by these gatekeepers is usually validation that your work is good enough. Even if the book doesn’t go on to sell very well, at least somebody thinks it’s worthwhile. If your definition of success includes a traditional deal because of these reasons, then nothing else will do!
Print distribution in bookstores is easier.
This is what traditional publishing excels at and what their model is primarily designed to facilitate. Sales reps go to the stores and make it very easy for book buyers to select books they like and pay later on one invoice per publisher minus any returns. Books are usually in the store for a month and only remain if they are perennial sellers.
An established professional team to work with.
The agent and publisher provide Editors, cover designers, formatters and (possibly) marketing help as part of the contract. The marketing effort is usually related to how much is invested in the project, and marketing for publishing companies is generally to booksellers rather than consumers. But you should at least get a sales team to take books to bookstores. Many authors say they “only want to write,” which is why they want a publisher to handle the rest of it all.
There are no upfront financial costs, and there’s usually some kind of advance against royalties. You don’t have to pay anyone to get a traditional publishing deal, and if you are asked for money, then it is NOT a traditional publishing deal. It’s likely to be a vanity publisher and you should be very careful.
Literary prizes and critical acclaim are more likely through traditional publishing, and many literary prizes aren’t even open to indie authors. There have been outliers, e.g. A Naked Singularity by Sergio De Le Pava which won the PEN/Robert W Bingham Prize, but it’s still rare for self-published authors to even be allowed to enter literary prizes.
Potential to become a brand-name author. There are only a few household name authors in the world: Stephen King, Dan Brown, J.K.Rowling and E.L.James for example. These are the superstar writers. Below them are the A list, most of whom have been writing for many years, people like Lee Child and Nora Roberts, who are treated very well by traditional publishing and wouldn’t see any reason to move. Yes, there’s a chance of becoming a writer of that stature through traditional publishing. It’s like a lottery ticket. Definitely worth doing if you want to play the game but the odds are against you.
The cons of traditional publishing
These are the main issues with going the traditional route.
It might take you a year or two to get an agent. Then it might take a year to get a publishing deal and then it will likely be from six months to two and half years before your book is launched. So it’s a very, very slow process, which is crazy in a world where you can publish on Amazon, and your book can be on sale within four hours and then you can be paid 60 days later.
Loss of creative control.
You give this up when you sign with a publisher. Many authors get titles, covers and marketing angles that they’re not happy with.
Low royalty rates.
Royalty rates are a percentage of the sale of the book. They’re likely to be net, so all the discounts, returns, marketing costs and overheads are taken off the total before your percentage is calculated. Royalty rates for traditional publishing will usually range between 7% and 25%, with the latter on the unusually generous end. The rates will also differ per format e.g. ebook vs. hardback vs. audio. Royalty reports may come every six months for a specific period of sales and many authors report how difficult they are to understand. They may also not tally with the amount of money that you get in your bank account, so authors who are traditionally published can’t really do a cash flow forecast for future income.
Lack of significant marketing help.
Increasingly, authors have to do their own marketing and agents will often seek out authors who have a ‘platform’ or at least an email list of readers. If you do want a traditional publishing deal, make sure you ask them what is included for marketing and make sure you get more than just inclusion in a bookstore catalogue.
Another big issue is signing contracts where they take World English rights in all formats. Don’t do that. (Unless the money is really worth it!) Your job and your agent’s job, if you have one, is to keep as many rights as possible when you’re doing a deal so you can exploit them in other ways. For example, you could just sell the US and Canada rights and then self-publish in the rest of the world. Be careful with formats as well, especially audio books. Many publishers take audio rights as part of a contract and then they don’t actually end up recording it. You don’t want that to happen. Either keep audio rights or specify a length of time the publisher has to exploit them before the rights revert to you.
Look at the term of the contract and the rights reversion clause. It used to be that there was an out of print clause, but of course, in these days of print on demand and ebooks, a book never goes out of print. You have to consider when you might get your rights back, because what if this goes really, really badly?
It’s like a marriage.
You don’t plan for it to fail, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. (And I say that as someone who is very happily married – for the second time!) You want to be able to get out of this relationship if it goes bad, or if the publisher just isn’t selling enough of your books and you think you can do a better job.
Once you sign a contract for your book, it essentially belongs to the publisher, and it may belong to the publisher for the life of copyright which is the life of the author plus 70 years after you die. That is a really big deal.
You should also look at the do not compete clause, because this may stop you publishing during the term of the contract under the same name, in the same world or with the same characters. For example, you might sign a three-book deal with one book coming out every year starting in a year’s time. So, that’s four years in which you may not be allowed to publish anything else under that author name, in that world with those characters.
You have to really consider whether the money for the contract is worth it. This is where many authors go a bit crazy, because they think, “I should just take whatever contract I’m offered.” Many authors will sign deals because they’re grateful that they have been offered anything, but you need to value your work.
Remember how important your rights are over the long term.
Publishers are not charities. They are not doing you a favor by publishing your book. They are businesses and they want to make money.
If you’re looking at a traditional publishing deal, there are a couple of books I recommend you read:
Closing the Deal on your Terms: Agents, Contracts and Other Considerations
To put the discussion about publishing into perspective, try this little exercise:
Think of your favorite book
What is the author’s name?
What is the publisher’s name?
Most people will have a favorite book and they’ll know the name of the author, but they are unlikely to know the name of the publisher. Most readers don’t shop by publisher. Publishers and publishing names and imprints only mean something to authors and those in the industry.
So your publishing choice is more a question of the outcome that you want to achieve and your definition of success. It’s not really what the reader thinks about.
Would I take a traditional publishing deal?
Absolutely. For the right project and for the right terms and conditions.
The pros of self-publishing
Total creative control over content and design.
Many authors who were in traditional publishing and are now in self-publishing talk about how painful it was to have a cover or title they hated, or to have editorial choices imposed on them that they didn’t agree with but were insisted upon. The start-up mentality that mistakes are how we learn and ‘failure’ is just a step along the way makes this easier for indies. But this reinvention practice is also common in the publishing industry and older books are revamped all the time.
Compare that to the empowerment of a self-published author who can learn new skills, work with professionals, make mistakes and learn from them, earn money directly and interact with customers. Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s certainly empowering as hell. The positive energy involved in being an indie can propel you much further, much faster than waiting in line for your turn.
Stop asking permission.
You don’t need it. Stop waiting to be chosen. Choose yourself.
Faster time to market.
You still have to spend the same amount of time writing and editing. If you’re doing print on demand, you can get that up within 24 hours if you approve the formatting online. Or, you can order a copy and it might take a couple of weeks, but essentially, it’s incredibly quick to get your book up for sale
Sell by any means in any global market, as you retain the rights.
Niche books can reach an audience.
Publishing houses have an expectation of a certain number of sales, so if you’re writing a niche book on a particular type of organic tomato, for example, then you might find the market is too small for a major publisher. But the market size may well be enough for you to satisfy your own definition of success with smaller sales and lower income. You can also price as you like, as chances are that your book will appeal to a very particular reader who might pay higher prices.
Use it to get into the game.
These days, if you self-publish and do well, agents and publishers will come to you. The power balance is reversed and the empowered indie can get much better deals than a first-time author with no evidence of sales. Just look at the deals Hugh Howey, Bella Andre, Jasinda Wilder, Meredith Wild and A.G.Riddle have done in the last year for both print books and movie/TV deals. Or the incredible success of The Martian, which started off as a self-published ebook, then went into audio and then became a movie and worldwide phenomenon. And let’s not forget 50 Shades of Grey which started out as self-published fan-fic before selling 65 million copies. So if you want a traditional deal, skip the slush pile and serve your apprenticeship as an indie.
So there’s the positive side, but what about the negatives?
You need to do it all yourself or find suitable professionals to help. As with any new skill, it’s a steep learning curve. You still obviously have to do the writing and marketing, but you also have to do the publishing. You have to find an editor and a cover designer and work with them, decide on the title, get your work formatted into ebook, print and any other format you want and find suitable professionals to help. This isn’t such a big deal as we all share with each other online and you can join The Alliance of Independent Authors which vets companies. But you do have to decide on your definition of success and understand that you need to run all aspects of the business if you want to go the pro indie route. For many people, this is a negative, because they just don’t have the time to do everything or they don’t enjoy doing it. I’m lucky because I love being an entrepreneur. I love all aspects of what I do – from idea generation to creating words on the page, to the technical side of things and everything in between. After many years, I’ve found the perfect work for me. If you can manage a project or you could learn to, then you’ll likely enjoy it too. But this life is certainly not for everyone.
There’s no prestige, kudos or validation by the industry.
The ‘stigma’ lessens every day, but if your definition of success is bound up with what other authors, agents and publishers think of you, then indie might not be best for you.
You need a budget upfront if you want a professional result. These days, you’re likely to spend on professional editing before submitting to an agent anyway, or at least be spending on books and courses for writers. Everyone spends money on their hobby, so whether you’re knitting or writing or mountain biking, most people are happy to spend money they never get back on something they love. However, if you’re intending to make a living from this, then yes, you need to invest money in creating intellectual property assets for the business with the intention of getting it back in multiple streams of income. Either way, you will need a budget upfront if you want to be a pro indie.
It’s difficult to get print distribution in bookstores.
It’s certainly not impossible and if you care about print distribution then look at the options with Ingram Spark. But you’re much more likely to get bookstore distribution with a traditional publisher, as that’s essentially their business model and has been for a long time. They are experts at printing and distributing physical product.
Most literary prizes don’t accept indie books and most literary critics for mainstream media won’t review them. So if your definition of success is literary acclaim, you’re probably better off going the traditional route.