It can be a challenging task to decide how you will publish your book. If you’re like me, you may have grown up hearing all about traditional publishing and how it was the only way to publish and become an author. It wasn’t until eight years after I’d graduated college and had created Writing It Wells that I ever even considered self-publishing at all.
Making the decision to publish was very different once I learned about the options. Both traditional publishing and self-publishing have their advantages and disadvantages.
At times I was at a loss for which to choose. It felt like the most important decision I’d ever have to make in my career, and that pressure felt overwhelming.
The way you choose to publish can dictate the approach you use, how you market yourself as a writer, and of course, how your book is produced.
Understanding the difference between the two can make things easier. Rather than doing all the research yourself, I’ve created a guide to help you learn the facts and make the choice that best fits you and your book.
Traditional Publishing: When you query your manuscript to a publisher who then offers you a contract to publish. By signing the contract, you hand over the rights to your book in exchange for their ability to mass produce, market, and sell it. You receive royalties from the sales that they facilitate.
Self-Publishing: The exact opposite of traditional publishing. While traditional publishing is structured and provides both team and resources to the author, self-publishing means that you as the author must wear many hats. You’re the one in control of the entire process from creative to production to marketing and more.
Traditional vs. Self-Publishing
What are the pro’s and con’s of both types? The short answer lies in the chart below.
5 Things To Consider When Deciding How To Publish
I want to stress that there’s no right or wrong way to publish. Both are valid. However, regardless of what path you choose there are a few things you’ll want to consider.
When You Want To Invest
Either way, publishing isn’t free. To put it into perspective, it’s really about how you want to spend your money: now or later.
Let’s break things down.
Traditional: Your publisher will pay an advance on your novel according to your contract. For example, $10,000 for x number of copies. You receive this payment up front but after that only receive a percentage of the royalties for the copies that sell. On average, royalty rates for traditional publishers is less than 10%. You won’t be fronting the cost of production, marketing, and promotion like you would when you self-publish. But keep in mind that traditional authors typically see about $24,000 less in income than self-published authors for the same number of books sold (What Is the Typical Royalty Rate for an Author in 2023?, Publish Drive, Sarah Yoo).
Self-Publish: You’re paying the majority of all your publishing expenses up-front. Realistically, it can cost around $2,000-5,000 per book to self-publish depending on how you decide to invest your money. If this seems like a lot, consider the amount of people you’ll need to hire to help you make your dream a reality (editors, cover designer, formatting help, marketing coach, etc). Don’t let the upfront costs discourage you. Because you own the full rights and royalties there’s the possibility that you could gain your investment back and 50-70% royalty rate should your book do well.
The bottom line is that there’s no guarantee of making a sizable sum from publishing a novel. That’s the unholy truth. There’s a reason why there are so few full-time authors and why there’s a lot of skepticism from outside perspectives. It’s not an easy task, but then again, neither is writing a book.
If you’re passionate enough to write your novel, then you must be equally as passionate and determined to sell it. With hard work, smart decision making, and investing in yourself you can surpass these challenges and go the distance.
How Soon You Want To Publish
Consider when you want to publish your book. Are you in a rush? Or do you have all the time in the world? Would you prefer to release your novel and then update it as needed? Or would you feel more comfortable making it perfect before allowing it to be published? These are excellent questions to answer before you choose which way to go.
Self-publishing is excellent for authors who can’t wait to be published. If you’re dying to get your novels to readers, in a hurry to start building your author career, or simply want to start the process on the fly and be able to worry about the details as you go along, then this may work the best for you. One of the greatest benefits of this type of publishing is that you have complete control over when you release your novels. You create the timeline, the launch date, and when you want to release more books.
On the flip side, traditionally publishing means that timeline decisions are not within your control. Your publisher dictates when your novels are published. It could take years for your book to see the light of day (mostly due to quality standards and balancing publicity for new releases). There is also a chance that your book could be postponed indefinitely, though this is extremely rare. Producing a high quality product and giving it the best possible introduction into the literary world can be worth the wait. If you’re not in a rush, are more focused on perfecting your work, or feel comfortable with someone else calling the shots, then this may be a more effective route for you.
Whatever the answers to these questions are, it’s completely up to you as the author to choose what’s best for you and your book. Only YOU can decide, and this will vary from author to author.
How Important Is Creative Control
The biggest benefit of self-publishing is undoubtedly the creative freedom. Being able to call the shots on every aspect of your novel can not only be rewarding, but much more fun! You’re able to set your own costs, timeline, and market your novel however you choose. You get to stay true to yourself as an author, keep the integrity of your art as you see fit, and present it to the world the way you want to without bureaucratic limitations.
That’s not to say that all creativity goes out of the book publishing process if you traditionally publish. For many authors, going the traditional route not only fulfills a childhood dream, it also opens doors to creative avenues that they wouldn’t be able to broach themselves. This can come by way of media opportunities like being interviewed, being asked to join a podcast, collaborating with designers on a splendid book cover, the creation of book merchandise, or by accepting a deal to turn your book into a movie or a TV series.
How Much Exposure Are You Looking For
These days, no matter how you choose to publish, marketing responsibilities will come with the territory. Showing you can garner a social media following and attract readers can even help you get picked up by a publisher.
It’s all about how many eyes you can get your book in front of. If you’ve got a background in marketing or a knack for social media, this may be a strong reason why you’ll want to self-publish.
If this is not your area of expertise, it’s important to do your research and truly understand what you’re getting into should you choose to market your own story. Anyone can learn how to market their book, but not everyone is suited for the amount of planning and work it takes to lead a successful marketing campaign.
Traditional publishing comes with the advantages of having certain marketing tasks handled for you. Having an already curated and willing audience, experts that control how your book is promoted online and in bookstores, and access to networks traditionally harder for self-published authors to breech such as television appearances and interviews all come as perks of being traditionally published.
With self-publishing there’s more work that falls on your shoulders as the author but doing it can be super rewarding. You’ve got the opportunity to reach your target audience directly, learn new skills, and gain connections that you wouldn’t gain otherwise. This can come in the form of helpful writer friends and an extremely loyal readership that will purchase your present and future books. It can take more time to build up your network, but the good news is that this is an audience base that will be true to you and not the flashy sales tag associated with your book launch.
Literary Prestige And Recognition
This is a category that is dominated by traditionally published novels. As unfair as it may seem, the most prestigious literary awards and prizes tend to reject self-published work. This means that The New York Times Best Seller’s List is one of the places that won’t consider self-published work. While most of the established levels of recognition remain closed to indies, there are other alternatives.
There are plenty of places out there who cater specifically to self-published authors– the Eric Hoffer Book Award, the Independent Publisher Book Awards, and the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Award to name a few. You’ll also be able to make the Best Seller list on Amazon, so one could argue that your chances for recognition is even, just more spread out.
As a self-published author you’ll also have the task of submitting your work to these award programs, so definitely keep that in mind. If you’re shooting for literary greatness (like a Pulitzer) stay the traditional path.
Regardless of how you choose to publish, the opportunity to earn income from your books is largely due to how much effort you’re willing to invest in yourself. Both traditional publishing and self-publishing require patience, consistent effort, and determination. Anyone can become a successful author by following either path, so make your decision based on where your book will sell best and what you can realistically give to your pursuit.