Self-Publishing vs Traditional Publishing

Self-Publishing vs Traditional Publishing

If you're interested in writing, you probably (eventually) want to get your material in front of people and put money in your pocket. I get lots of questions about whether self-publishing or traditional publishing is "better."

Just like basically everything, what makes the most sense for you to get your writing out there for the world depends a lot on your skills, goals, and willingness to put up with annoying aspects of either path.

If you've never considered this too deeply before, here is the TLDR explanation:

Traditional publishing will give you more respect with certain groups, better access to physical bookstores, better access to academic audiences, and professional cover design and editing.

When you self-publish, you have to handle everything yourself (including cover design and editing) or via contractors you manage, and you need to do more marketing and more traditional business type activities.

Traditional publishing allows you to focus almost entirely on the writing itself so it's a good choice if that's all you want to do. You'll still be expected to do SOME marketing and show up at book signings and trade shows and stuff, but your time will be 95% writing.

Self-pub, on the other hand, gives you more control over the entire process but is much more demanding. You might have a 70/30 time split on writing business or even 50/50.

How much of a control freak you are may lean you in either direction.

Self-pub's major advantages compared to trad-pub are low barriers to entry, schedule speed, and revenue per book sold. There are no gatekeepers, you can release the same month you finish writing if you like, and you keep up to 70% per book sale vs about 7% for tradpub.

You really need to look at this as a business decision. In tradpub you're basically outsourcing all of the functions you'd normally do yourself for about 90% of your revenue. Is this worth it to you? It may be. It depends how big the market for what you're writing is and how you plan to break into it absent assistance from a third party.

Also, if you're writing more for professional credibility or prestige (to advance your career or platform) the money may not matter as much. If you simply want to be seen as an expert in your field and claim to have written a book and make some extra cash, I'd probably tell you to find an agent and work with a publishing house to get your 1-3 books out there and help you promote them.  If your goal is to build a fiction business for yourself and publish dozens and dozens of books to build a revenue stream to support yourself, I'd recommend self-pub in 90% of cases.

The process for getting a book traditionally published usually involves finding an agent (either through contacts or online) and persuading them to shop your writing around to major publishing houses. You're dealing with several levels of gatekeepers and it's a long process. If your agent takes you on and a publishing house likes your book and wants to buy it, they'll offer you an advance on sales and have you work with an editor while they handle the design and distribution. It will often be months to a year before your book is out. But you'll have a high level of confidence that the cover design will be genre-appropriate, the editing will be professional quality, and you have someone working with you on foreign rights and audio. You should not expect a huge advance (especially if this is your first book) but it will still be 2-3x what you might make even off a very successful self-pub book in the first few months to a year of publishing it, especially if you don't have a back catalog.

Self-pub, on the hand, is trickier because you have to learn every aspect of the business yourself: covers, file format design, keywords, marketing, contractor management. But this knowledge is arguably very valuable for anyone with an entrepreneurial streak and is learnable. This is not as overwhelming as it might sound.

Cover design is something you can learn in a weekend of focused effort (especially if you already know how to use Gimp or Photoshop) and get better at over time. You're mostly learning how to match your genre style. Editing is something that you can either acquire fairly cheaply (and gets easier with time if you know you write clean drafts and have confidence in your structural skills). Everyone says don't self-edit but honestly it entirely depends on your personal attention to detail.

Contractors can be easily found through Upwork just by making a job posting for whatever you need and you can interview people for the job and pay them through the platform for submitted work. I translated many books into foreign languages I don't speak using this method. There are hundreds of blog posts with information on how to use keywords and advertising effectively--you need to read a lot and experiment, starting small and building up from there. Having a background in management or business does help, but you can learn anyway.

This goes back to my articles about how to learn anything--if you're the type of person who is confident in your ability to pick up new skills with a little effort, you should not be afraid of any of this. (patreon.com/posts/38283284)

On the other hand, if reading that article gives you anxiety hives, you might be better served with outsourcing all of this to a publisher. Just remember that you're paying them 80-90% of your book value for this service.

The speed with which you can write matters too. If you can put out 5k words/day, then you can easily write a book per month. No publisher will let you publish this fast.

If you run your own business, you can put out books as quickly as you can write them. The other aspect of control I like from self-publishing is you retain all rights, so you can experiment however you like with your sales strategy. Want to bundle 3 books and sell them as a set? It's as easy as making a cover and hitting publish with a new foreword. You can choose what languages you want to target yourself and you can decide when and how to do audio if you think it appeals to your audience. If you don't like your book's cover, you can make a new one and update it.

Also, if you're thinking, "I'm an amateur... all of this stuff will be bad at first," remember that books are evergreen by nature. In five years when your skills are better and you business is sold you can update all your covers and buy new editing for your earliest titles. You can always test it in a new format or launch an "anniversary edition" or go back to spruce up older books that haven't been selling as well. You can try new promotional techniques or resell the rights.

Because of my business background and independent nature, I'm heavily biased in favor of the advantages of self-publishing for all of these reasons. It's also helped me learn and improve transferable skills that are useful in all kinds of contexts, which is something I value.

From my perspective, the biggest benefits of taking the time and effort to go through a traditional publisher comes down to image. It's a big deal for lots of readers to have "Random House" or "Tor" or "Macmillan" stamped on your book. If you're trying to get professors to use your book in their classes or to impress your friends or build yourself a platform as an expert speaker, traditional publishing gives you a level of cache with the influencers for those spaces you don't get when self-publishing.

ASSUMING they notice. Not everyone pays attention to this. So you shouldn't assume that it's critical. Again, it depends on your audience and goals.

It's also far more common to see and buy self-published titles than it once was and they've put price pressure on tradpub. There used to be an argument that tradpub books sell for $15-$30 and self-pub sells for $3 a lot of the time (in fiction) so this makes up for the 10x differential in rewards, but this is less true than it used to be. Most people won't pay $30 for a book anymore.

And with most buying happening on the internet, with well-targeted and marketed books you're on a much more level playing field with the big players. I see no-name indie romance books beat big names in the charts all the time. It takes time and skill and its hard to do this consistently, but it's possible to make a living doing this.

I recommend self-pub for most people excepting special cases.