It’s a new world!
Yes, if you’ve finally decided to write that book that has been swirling in your head for ages, you need to decide whether to self-publish or go the traditional publishing route.
Publishing wasn’t something authors bothered with some years ago. Publishing companies were the kingmakers, book agents the glorified chaperones. And writers jostled to be noticed in hopes of being crowned kings with publishing deals.
But the internet and technology have changed this paradigm. Independent (indie) authors are all the rage. And publishers aren’t kingmakers anymore.
It’s a new dawn for writers, or is it? Does self-publishing match up to traditional publishing? Is it worth the hype? Which option should you opt for?
Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: What is the Key Difference?
Two key differences exist between taking complete control of the publishing process or handing it over to a publishing house.
One, traditional publishing reduces your chances of seeing your book make it to the shelves. Quality book deals aren’t lying around waiting for every aspiring author to pick them up.
You need to check several boxes to stand a chance of getting a good deal, such as:
- Large social media following and engagement
- An existing client base
- A large and engaged email list
Self-publishing, on the other hand, gives you a fair shot at becoming a published author no matter what.
The second key difference has to do with rights and royalties. With self-publishing, you own all the rights to your book and earn more royalties.
On the other hand, traditional publishing will have you transfer your ownership rights to the publisher and earn fewer royalties.
Let’s dive deeper into each publishing option and what you can expect from them.
Everything You Need to Know About Self-Publishing
Self-publishing is the process of independently publishing your book. In this sense, you double as the book’s author and publisher instead of offering your manuscript to a publishing house to finetune, package, distribute, and market it on your behalf.
Self-publishing requires no approval from a third party, there’s no advance on royalties involved, and the book can get to the market in months.
What Self-Publishing Means for You
Invert the positives of self-publishing, and you have the cons of traditional publishing.
1. The Decision to Publish is Yours Alone to Make
Much of traditional publishing involves the author getting “permission” to live their dream of sharing their work with the world. You have to convince a book agent you’re worth the effort and get a publisher to take a chance on you by offering a deal.
Self-publishing helps you bypass these gatekeepers.
P.S. There’s the tendency to view publishing deals as validation for a manuscript’s potential and their absence as proof of low-quality book ideas.
We disagree. J.K Rowling had the door slammed in her face 12 times while trying to publish Harry Potter before sealing a deal.
Rejection stories like this prove that publishers sometimes don’t recognize a book’s potential at first glance. So, not getting a writing deal and opting to self-publish doesn’t necessarily mean you’re taking the easy way out or putting out mediocre work. It could just mean you’re taking the best route to ship your work without having to wait for 12 rejection emails first.
2. Shorter Publishing Timelines
Publishing houses are businesses, meaning they have targets, publication schedules, fixed workflow structures, and processes.
They will work on your book on their own time and in their way while you just go along with the ride. This ride could easily take one to three years to get your book to the market.
By taking on the publisher’s role, you can sidestep clunky workflows, cut through the clutter of organizational bureaucracy and roll out your book quickly.
Instead of waiting a year or more, you can publish your book in months. Your timeline will depend on how fast you work or how efficient the small team you build is.
3. Pocket More Royalties
Deciding royalty rates is where the “no free lunch” rule comes into play in the writer and publisher relationship.
Traditional publishers will skim off 80-95% of the book’s selling price and give you anything from 5-20%. And that’s after they’ve recouped the advance payment made to you before publishing.
Self-publishing, however, will have you going home with more money from your book sales — as high as 40-100%, depending on the marketplace.
For instance, listing your work on Amazon can get you 35% or 70% of your book’s price in royalties.
4. Keep Your Rights
More money isn’t the only thing self-publishing offers. It also lets you keep the right to republish and use your work as you please and transfer those rights to anyone in exchange for money.
For instance, you retain the subsidiary rights to your book — the freedom to adapt it to other formats.
So say a producer or filmmaking company is interested in adapting your story as a film; they’d have to reach out to you and pay for the right to do so. In contrast, you could find yourself giving up those rights while negotiating with traditional publishers.
5. Retain Full Creative Control
From choosing what ideas to retain, reshape or remove during editing to determining your cover design, the road from manuscript to published work contains several stops.
Working with a traditional publisher means you’d have in-house professionals throwing in their two cents on what your book should look like at every step.
While you need their expertise, the feedback loop can get tiring quickly. Even worse, you may make concessions that may alter your manuscript in ways you might end up regretting when the final work is published.
Self-publishing flips this process on its head. You’re the master of your book’s destiny. Yes, you should get extra pairs of eyes to review your work. But every decision comes down to what you want.
The downsides are pretty obvious. So, we won’t dwell on it a lot:
- The writer receives no advance on royalties
- The author foots the bill for publishing the book
- No standby support system of professionals
- Securing print distribution in bookstores is more difficult
Steps Involved in Self-Publishing
1. Write a Book Worth Reading
Writing and publishing materials has never been easier. On the one hand, this has democratized access to the creator economy, but on the other hand, it has also flung the door open to more low-quality publications.
You don’t want to add more mediocre work to the existing pile, so write what matters.
2. Edit Your Manuscript
Editing is critical to giving readers the best possible experience. This could involve clarifying your ideas, rewriting entire sections, or removing them, not to mention weeding out minor mistakes like typos and grammatical errors. Once you’ve done your bit, bring in a professional editor to wrap things up.
3. Create an Attractive Book Cover
Your book could be brilliant, but only a few people will get close enough to find out if the cover isn’t attractive.
The book cover is the first thing potential readers will see, so it has to be compelling enough to get them to take a closer look, read your synopsis, and possibly purchase the book.
Ideally, you should get a professional designer to design your book cover, but it doesn’t hurt to know what a great book cover should have.
Keep your audience in mind while opting for an evocative but simple style with a clear title and a descriptive but concise subtitle. Let the designer worry about typography, hierarchy, and other elements.
4. Format Your Book
Formatting your book determines how it should appear to readers in whatever publishing method you choose — paperback/hardcover, ebook, or audiobook. (There’s no law against formatting your book for all four types.)
For prints and ebooks, formatting involves structuring paragraph breaks, line breaks, indentations, spaces, and more for proper display in the chosen publishing mode.
You have two options with formatting: you can either do it yourself or outsource it.
If you go for the former, you’ll need DIY book formatting tools such as Amazon’s Kindle Create, DIY Book Formats, Vellum, Atticus, and Scrivener; even Microsoft Word could do the trick for an expert user.
5. Choose a Self-publishing Platform
With your book ready to go live, the next decision is where to list it. There are several options, but one of the easiest and most popular is Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).
KDP lets you upload your book so people can either get an electronic copy or purchase a printed version on demand. Amazon’s KDP is accessible to anyone, and you can learn how it works here.
Beyond Amazon, there are other self-publishing platforms where you can upload and sell electronic and print copies of your book (only some offer the latter option). These sites include Barnes & Noble (B&N Press), Apple Books, Kobo Writing Life, Google Play Books, IngramSpark, and others.
Everything You Need to Know About Traditional Publishing
Traditional publishing involves selling the rights of your book to a publisher who then handles the publishing and distribution process end to end.
In a conventional setting, you need to look for a book agent who will represent you to publishing companies. Next up is putting together your pitch which your agent will send to book publishers and wait for offers.
If or when offers come in, you negotiate and sign the best deal and some of your rights to the publisher. In most cases, you get an advance against royalties.
All that’s left is writing your book and delivering the manuscript to the publisher, who then packages, mass produces, and distributes it.
What Opting for Traditional Publishing Means for You
Bear in mind that when you invert the pros of traditional publishing, you have the cons of self-publishing. Here are some of the upsides of going the traditional publishing route:
1. Money won’t be a Problem
The initial royalty advance is perhaps one of the juiciest perks of traditional publishing. What’s more, an advance on royalties is usually in the six to seven-figure region depending on the perceived revenue potential of the book. Plus, you don’t have to pay back an advance no matter how poorly the book performs in the market.
Caveat: Publishers aren’t charities. They will only pay you an advance based on their estimation of how much money they can make from your book. And one of the markers they use to judge this is the audience you have waiting to buy your book when it launches. If you don’t have that sizable audience, you may not even get a deal, much less a hefty advance.
With that out of the way, another area where the publisher’s resources will come in handy is packaging, publishing, and distributing the book.
With self-publishing, you’ll foot the monetary or time cost of designing your book’s layout and formatting it yourself or outsourcing these tasks. But traditional publishers only need your manuscript, and they’ll take it to a finished book using their expertise, time, and money.
2. Enjoy Mainstream Exposure (where applicable)
The biggest publishers usually have extensive industry connections with media outlets, bookstores, and online reviewers. This rich network could be instrumental in getting the word about your book out on a larger scale than you could manage on your own.
Of course, there’s the caveat highlighted in the heading. Mainstream exposure is only helpful if you’re dealing with a generic topic.
Targeted marketing could be just as or far more effective when dealing with a niche subject. In that case, the exposure the publisher offers may not be valuable.
3. Leverage Extensive Industry Knowledge
Traditional publishers have extensive experience selling books of different genres to different audiences. They know what makes people tick and how best to present your work so it catches on.
This doesn’t mean their insights are always spot on. But more often than not, their decisions will be more reliable since they will be based on data and experience.
4. Become Credible by Association
Big publishers have built a trusted brand over time. If you’re lucky enough to get a deal from such publishers, your book automatically enjoys the brand’s clout.
The ripple effects of being associated with such a big-name publisher can also take your writing career to new heights, open fresh opportunities and expand your audience.
5. Be in the Run for Notable Awards
Publishing your book the old-fashioned way opens you up to prestigious awards not available to independently published works.
The Booker Prize, for example, is one of the world’s most coveted awards. But its submission criteria include a clause that excludes self-publishers. Being considered for such an award and even winning it could be life-changing.
P.S: Hundreds of awards are open to indie writers too.
Most of the cons of traditional publishing are the inverted pros of self-publishing:
- Lower royalties
- Loss of ownership rights
- Loss of creative control to a large extent
- Longer publishing timelines (12-48 months)
Steps Involved in Traditional Publishing
1. Create a Book Proposal
A book proposal is a document to convince publishers to publish your book. It’s meant to prove that your book is worth investing in as it promises massive returns on investment based on certain factors you’ve identified.
Your goal is to pique the publisher’s interest and start a conversation that ultimately leads to you getting a publishing deal. This proposal will also come in handy when you’re pitching agents.
Your proposal isn’t your entire manuscript. It’s more of a business case and should include the following elements:
- Title page: your book’s full title and your name.
- Overview: a summary of what your book is about. Think of it as an excellent summary to buy your book.
- Author bio: talk about yourself briefly and frame your bio to portray your competence to write about that topic. You can also include past published work and your experience.
- Chapter outline: include a list of proposed chapters, their titles, and a summary of each chapter.
- Sample chapter(s): ensure your sample chapter captures the essence of your book and reflects your writing style, particularly if you’re not a household name. It’s your chance to make a strong impression.
- Comparative analysis: here’s where you spotlight the unique perspective or value your book brings to the conversation. You may want to list five to ten similar books on the market and then compare your book’s approach to each.
- Target audience: a description of who your book is for and why they will buy it.
- Marketing strategy: Your goal here is to prove to publishers that you have an established route to a massive audience. For example, you can share data on your social media audience, newsletter subscribers, organic traffic numbers to your website, relationships within the literary world you intend to leverage, etc.
2. Create a Shortlist of Literary Agents
You’ll need an agent to represent you, especially if you’re eyeing one of the “Big Five” publishers —Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Penguin Random House.
You can liaise with smaller publishers on your own. But more accomplished ones prefer to deal with a writer’s agent.
When searching for an agent, create a list of viable candidates based on their history of representing authors in similar genres and their overall experience. Your go-to search sites should include QueryTracker, AgentQuery, PublishersMarketplace, Duotrope, Google, Linkedin, and the acknowledgment section of other authors’ books.
3. Pitch and Screen Agents
Next, you want to pitch the candidates that are the most suitable. Most agents have varying submission requirements, but here’s what you’ll typically need:
- A query letter: This is a letter designed to persuade a literary agent to represent you. It should briefly describe your work, your credentials, and why you want that specific agent.
- Book proposal: For non-fiction, your proposal is a detailed, often 20 to 30-page document that argues the marketability of your book, sort of a business case. For fiction, your proposal will mostly include a query letter, your novel’s synopsis, and sample chapters.
Be careful to follow each agent’s submission guidelines to the last letter. Once you’ve rolled out your pitches, wait for responses, and follow up where necessary. But also know that silence could mean no.
And for agents interested in representing you, conduct a brief interview. Ask them how they work with authors, their experience, and why they are interested in your work.
4. Send Your Proposals to Publishers through Your Agent
Now is where you let your agent do their work of reaching out to publishers. Experienced agents will often already have contacts in publishing houses that will get them through the door faster and give them access to the decision-makers.
Be patient and ask for updates at reasonable intervals. You don’t want to be a pest. But you also need to ensure the agent does their best to get you a deal. And hasn’t shifted your work to the back burner.
5. Review and Negotiate the Publisher’s Offer
Once a publishing contract rolls in, your instinct might be to jump at the deal without doing your due diligence.
Don’t do that. This is your book, and you need to be careful that the contract terms are what’s best for you and the book. You also need to know who’s proposing the deal.
Here are a few boxes to tick to determine if a contract is worth accepting:
- Rate the publishing company based on experience, the performance of published books, treatment of other writers, etc.
- Determine if the proposed advance on royalties is fair.
- Review the proposed royalty rates.
- Consider the proposed delivery deadlines for your final draft.
- Ensure you spell out the publisher’s duties with clear deadlines.
- Understand the essential rights you have by law, those you’ll transfer to the publisher, and what happens to those rights in certain circumstances.
- Pay attention to how much say you’ll get in authorizing derivatives of your work.
- And, of course, don’t forget to get a lawyer to review the contract to ensure everything is in order.
Finally, understand that you have the right to negotiate any clause you aren’t comfortable with.
Is it Better to Self-Publish or Get a Publisher?
Preferences aside, certain circumstances might hasten your choice here.
For instance, traditional publishers are more open to handing out deals to people with a considerable following. They prefer to make deals (in advance) where they win the lion’s share of the profits. And see the author’s audience as potential buyers. Chasing a publishing deal might prove futile if you don’t have such a large audience.
But we believe many writers are better off self-publishing. Gone are the days when traditional publishers were the sole custodians of writing success.
Self-publishing has broken that monopoly and democratized the global reach for writers.
With self-publishing in the picture, the tradeoffs writers had to make when choosing publishing deals are no longer worth enduring.
- Why wait for one to two years to publish your book when you can self-publish it in months?
- Why earn meager royalties when self-publishing lets you keep the lion’s share of the revenue from book sales?
- Why lose ownership rights to your book permanently when you can retain such rights if you published independently?
And the list goes on and on.
Yes, publishing independently doesn’t offer an advance. But it makes up for this with a higher earning potential over time.
How about the seeming prestige traditional publishers offer? That’s fast fading out.
Today’s readers care about excellent writing packaged professionally, not the company backing it. And luckily, independent publishing gives every writer a chance to make a name for themselves without forming costly ties with a publishing house.
The Best of Both Worlds: Introducing Hybrid Publishing
We believe there’s a sweet spot at the intersection of both options — hybrid publishing.
The hybrid model is where a writer partners with a publishing company to cover some of the costs of publishing in exchange for a higher percentage of royalties, distribution, and marketing assistance.
So hybrid publishing resembles self-publishing because the writer shoulders most of the financial cost of publishing the book and gets no advance on royalties. And it mimics traditional publishing because a contracted company with high professional standards handles the book’s production and distribution.
The best way to summarize the unique value of hybrid publishing is that it’s self-publishing plus traditional publishing but without the critical drawbacks of both.
The biggest downside of traditional publishing is that the writer loses control over timing, the book’s traits, ownership rights, and more.
Hybrid publishing lets you have a say in shaping most of these factors while enjoying the perks of having professionals manage your book’s production and distribution. You can leverage the publisher’s expertise and network without making as many concessions as you would in traditional publishing, such as giving up your ownership rights.
With self-publishing, you often have to go it alone or put together and manage a team of freelancers. But hybrid publishing solves this since you’re working with a publisher with its in-house team that handles production, distribution, and some marketing. You also can access the publisher’s existing network of book reviewers and other industry players.
What Matters to You?
What would success as a writer look like for you? A 100k sold copies? A quarter of a million dollars in revenue in the first few months of launch?
The biggest thing you can do for yourself is to clarify your goals and write them down. These objectives should serve as your North star when choosing a publishing channel.
The traditional publishing vs. self-publishing argument has a clear winner. But hybrid publishing tossing its hat into the ring makes things more interesting. It strikes a delicate balance between traditional and self-publishing that most writers should be looking to exploit.
Ready to give it a try?