Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing
Updated: Feb 23
When independent authors finish a book, they’re often faced with a fundamental question. Is it worth trying their luck with a traditional publishing house, or would it be better to pursue self-publishing?
Self-publishing refers to a writer completing the entire publishing process themselves. That includes the proofreading, editing, formatting, cover design, printing, and marketing work needed to bring the book to the marketplace. It happens by themselves or while using their own resources.
A traditional publisher makes the process easier by providing a support team, but that also typically means less creative control over the final product.
When evaluating self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, is one better than the other?
What Are the Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing?
Benefits of Self-Publishing
Concerns with Self-Publishing
Authors have more creative control over their work. There aren’t the gatekeepers who have opinions about the book's title, content, and cover. It’s an opportunity for total autonomy.
There isn’t as much visibility available to writers who take the self-publishing path. The big publishing houses provide more access to literary prizes, critical acclaim, and customer access. It’s not as easy to become a household name when doing the work yourself.
Higher royalty rates are available in the self-publishing world. If an author signs a traditional deal, they might get somewhere between 7% to 25%. That figure can reach 70% by taking this alternative route.
Traditional publishers typically pay for design needs, editing, printing, and other costs associated with printing books. If you decide to self-publish, all those upfront expenses are your responsibility.
Less waiting occurs between the time the book is finished and its publication date. Some authors have a sellable product in less than a week. When you follow the traditional process, it could be six months or more.
You must sell your books to get paid if you use self-publishing. If you don’t get any sales, the printing costs end up creating a financial loss. If you’re with a traditional publisher, the deal typically comes with a monetary advance.
You get to make a name for yourself. First-time writers always struggle to capture the attention of the publishing industry. If you can create an underground hit and prove that there’s a market for your creativity, the traditional route might be easier to access in the future.
When you sign a traditional deal, you’ve got access to publicists, proofreaders, professional editors, and more. Self-published writers don’t have a support system to help them with their work. You’ve got to do all the work by yourself – or hire freelancers to do it for you.
Many contracts in the traditional publishing world require authors to market themselves. If you’re already out there trying to build an audience, it makes sense to create a brand for you instead of the publisher.
It is harder to get print distribution when you take the self-publishing route. Most bookstores have exclusive deals with publishers, making it more challenging to get on the shelves in those stores. You might need to work with boutiques sellers before your name or brand receives enough attention.
Today’s print-on-demand self-publishing options put your book in the same channels and locations as a traditional publisher. That means you can work with your local bookstore to get the title on the shelf, host a signing session, and enjoy many of the same perks.
Since writers need to do the work themselves or hire others to do it for them, they’re spending more time away from the creative process. It can take more effort to publish and market a book than it did to write it.
You get to avoid the complicated contracts that writers sign with traditional publishers when doing the work yourself. Those documents often include terms that favor the publisher, which means legal assistance might be necessary to hold onto your rights.
Bookstores won’t automatically stock your title. Unless you work with a print-on-demand service or agency that allows returns, you’ll experience lots of hesitancy about the idea of putting your work on the shelf.
Self-publishing allows anyone to become a published writer, but that also means you’ll need to handle every aspect of the process. If you’re not looking forward to editing or marketing your title, the traditional process might meet your needs better.
If you self-publish, your title can be on the market in weeks – or less! You have the creative freedom to maintain your work while avoiding the potential restrictions that a publishing contract requires.
What It Takes to Get a Traditional Publishing Contract
Even though self-publishing is easier than ever before, it still comes with a bit of a stigma. When you take this course, some people will say that you went in that direction because you couldn't get the attention of a traditional publisher.
The implication is that your work wasn’t good enough.
Most traditional publishers work with literary agents, making it harder to contact them with a manuscript or story idea. You must work with the intermediary first, especially with the bigger houses.
Some smaller, more boutique publishers, accept unsolicited manuscripts or ideas, but it can take 90 days or more for them to review your work.
If you’re not accepted, you might not even get a rejection letter. You’re just ghosted.
That means the typical process to get a traditional publishing contract is time-intensive and extensive.
1. Many literary agents use a screening process that limits how much mail they receive. Remember – they make money by representing writers, so their focus is on their paycheck first. It might be weeks before your idea or manuscript gets reviewed.
2. Once accepted at an agency, you might be asked to make changes to characters, scenarios, or the entire plot of the story.
3. When the agent thinks the story is sellable, they’ll present it to publishing houses.
4. The publishing house might request modifications before offering a contract, which means you’re working even more without compensation.
5. Once you sign the contract, your agent receives a predetermined percentage of the advance and whatever royalties you earn.
6. You won’t receive any royalties until you’ve “earned back” the advance that you received. Depending on your contract, you might get a royalty check twice per year or once per quarter.
If your book doesn’t “earn out,” the risk of financial loss to the writer is minimal with a traditional publishing arrangement. Still, the amount of money you’re talking about here isn’t always enough to pay the rent all year.
That’s why many writers, even with representation, treat their profession more as a side hustle. You might have more opportunities to turn yourself into a household name, but that’s like buying two lottery tickets instead of one.
That’s why the self-publishing vs. traditional publishing debate for many writers leads them to a place where they decide to do the work themselves.
Best Self-Publishing Companies to Use
In the past, the only way to self-publish was to take your manuscript to a printer who could produce the book for you. From there, you were responsible for purchasing and selling them. You’d find writers at trade shows, conventions, and even on the side of the road with 1,000 copies in their trunks.
John Grisham started his career with a self-published book. One of the stories he shares is when Wynwood. Press granted him a 5,000-copy printing that he sold from his car. It would eventually get turned into a movie. Times are different.
Dozens of self-publishing platforms are available today, and some of them are much better than others. If you’re thinking about self-publishing, here are the companies you’ll want to consider using.
Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing
KDP is the best option for today’s authors. You can independently publish on the platform to reach over 300 million active users. Over six million ebooks are available, and you’ll receive
global support for metadata and content.
You can choose a print-on-demand option, including converting an ebook to a paperback print version.
Although you’re only allowed to sell your book on Amazon, the contract isn’t unlimited. You can take your title offline and work with a different publisher after a set number of days.
Apple launched its self-publishing platform in 2010. This option doesn’t have the same amount of global reach as Amazon, but it does provide more direct marketing access to people using Mac, iPad, and iPhone products.
You’ll need to be a Mac user to upload your manuscript to Apple Books. The platform also requires you to use the epub format, which isn’t as compatible as other options in the marketplace right now.
Barnes and Noble Press
It used to be called Nook Press, but they're still one of the best self-publishing platforms out there. Although they only retail through their website and physical bookstores, you'll find lots of great resources available as a writer. In 2021, the advertisement portal made it much easier to take on the challenges of marketing a title.
The royalty rate is 65%, which is less than other options. Their true advantage is that there are no restrictions regarding exclusivity.
When you self-publish on Lulu, you'll have access to one of the best royalty rates in the business today. It's 90% for ebooks and 80% for print. All you need to do is upload the book. Once you start using their services, the title gets distributed to Amazon and other retail outlets.
Although the self-publishing portion is free, there are charges for formatting, cover design, and marketing when using this platform.
Although this self-publishing platform is one of the newest ones out there, it is a Google-partnered company. It is also Apple-approved. Your work gets distributed to over 400 global stores with this investment.
The subscription plan isn’t the best for every writer. If you pay $100 per month, you get every cent of each sale. That’s great if you’re an established name. The alternative is that you’ll get charged 10% for all sales instead.
Self-Publishing Companies to Avoid
When you’ve got a tight budget to consider, it might be tempting to work with a self-publisher that offers a great price and a full suite of services.
Although there are some fantastic deals out there, you’ve got to watch out for platforms that have lots of red flags. Here are some of the self-publishing companies that have the lowest satisfaction ratings.
Writers have two primary complaints when working with this platform: missed deadlines and unpaid royalties. In several documented cases, authors weren’t even paid, and the promised marketing materials or services outlined in their agreements were not fulfilled.
Authors are also charged to participate in book signings and exhibitions where fees and book costs easily exceed $1,000.
America Star Books / ASB Promotions
This platform was once called PublishAmerica. Several writers have accused the platform of being a vanity press while representing itself as a traditional publisher.
Since 2017, the platform has ceased accepting new authors. Since that can change, writers should research the history of this company before proceeding with any agreement.
Please note: PublishAmerica still has an active website that compares itself to other self-publishing platforms. It is not a secure site.
This self-publishing platform works more like a telemarketing company. They tend to treat their authors as their customer base. Its goal is to sell books back to the writer instead of to a general readership.
Several imprints send their uploaded titles to this publisher, which means authors need to ask questions about who is doing the work.
Two class-action lawsuits have been filed against the company for its practices.
Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: What Is Right for Me?
Authors have more choices than ever when they’re ready to publish a manuscript. Whether you prefer an ebook or something more traditional, you can get your work in front of an audience without much trouble.
Traditional publishing offers prestige, but self-publishing delivers immediacy. Both options let you turn something you love into a viable side hustle – or a career!
Unless you’re in the 2% of authors who get into the traditional publishing world, self-publishing is the best option. You’ll retain all rights to the work while building a name for yourself.
Since each situation is a little different, you’ll want to see how your goals work in self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. By evaluating each advantage and disadvantage, you’ll find a course to chart that makes sense.
If you choose to self-publish, book cover is your main marketing tool. Get a book cover design by "Cover to Cover"