Updated: Aug 9, 2021
I see this question all the time from new writers. What are the benefits and drawbacks of traditional and self-publishing? I’m here to answer those questions for you. Despite what some believe, neither route is “better” than the other. There are successful authors in both areas.
It really comes down to what your vision is and the type of writer you are. Let’s dive into the differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing and the process writers must go through to publish in either form.
PROS AND CONS OF TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING
Traditional publishing has gatekeepers, and this can be a benefit or an obstacle, depending on one’s point-of-view. The good thing about the gatekeepers is that they know their stuff. This sounds contradictory, but getting rejected by an agent could improve your manuscript, as it’s a good barometer to determine if your story still needs work.
The problem, however, is that agents and publisher’s opinions are subjective. They could reject a book because they already have a similar book on their list or because it bends genres or simply because it wasn’t their type of book.
Another issue with traditional publishing is how slowly it moves. It can take a long time to get signed by an agent, and it can take a long time for an agent to manage to sell the book to a publisher. Then it takes a year or two from the time you get a book deal to the time the book is released. If you want your book published immediately, traditional publishing might not be for you.
Traditional publishing also gives you less control over your work. As a new author, you don’t really get much of a say on typesetting, cover design or your back cover blurb. It’s also possible that the editor at the company will want to change certain aspects of the book as a condition of your book deal. If you think your book is absolutely perfect as it is and you aren’t willing to make changes to the story, this is something to consider.
It’s also worth saying that traditional publishing gives you lower profits. You don’t make money until your book has sold enough to cover the advance the publishing company paid you, and the agent takes out 15% of your royalties. [Note: they totally deserve it, as they get you a book deal, do all the contract negotiation and essentially manage your career]. If you want to be making 50% or more off of your books, this is not the route you want to take.
The huge benefit of traditional publishing is that if you get a book deal, the publishing company does all the work for you. They set you up with an editor and have typesetters, cover designers, marketing teams, and copy writers on staff—a team of seasoned professionals that ensure you publish a polished final product.
And all of this is for free.
With self-publishing all the steps a publishing company takes, you have to do yourself or hire other people to do for you. Either way it requires time and money.. Finally, traditional publishers give out advances upon signing the contract. For debut authors this usually isn’t much—between $2,000 and $10,000, but it’s more than most self-published authors make and you don’t have to pay it back, even if your book fails. This option is a great one if you want to focus on writing and nothing else.
PROS AND CONS OF SELF-PUBLISHING
Self-publishing can have many benefits. The first is that there are no gatekeepers, meaning if your book has gotten rejected hundreds of times, or if the book you want to publish is different than what most traditional publishers take on, you still have a chance to get your book out there. There are no barriers to entry. Another great thing is that you have higher profits.
With traditional publishing, the publisher receives 70-80% of the profit, and as I mentioned earlier, your agent takes out 15% of the amount leftover. This can make it difficult to make a living as an author if your book doesn’t sell very, very well. Self-published authors can keep 40-60% of the profits from their book. There is no question that if your book sells well, you will make more money going this route.
Self-publishing also offers significantly more control. If you want a book cover guaranteed to make you happy, or you refuse to make any changes to your story, self-publishing could be for you.
The big problem with self-publishing is the investment of time, money, blood, sweat, and tears. The only options are to do it all yourself, which I do not recommend, or hire a team of professionals. All the steps traditionally published books have to go through, self-published books should go through as well.
I cannot stress this enough: if you want to self-publish your book but can’t afford to hire professionals, you should wait and save up until you can afford it. I don’t want to crush anyone’s dreams, but DIY books are rarely, if ever, successful. They come off as cheap, unpolished, and unprofessional and are likely to earn you some bad reviews. Readers deserve a polished product, and your book deserves its best shot at success.
Another thing no one tells you is that the self-publishing market moves much faster. The successful self-published authors release a book every few months, or a series all at once. This is because readers like to binge-read. If you can only write a book every year or two you will likely struggle to maintain your readership. The ideal is to pump out books consistently, which can be difficult, particularly if you have a full-time job.
A self-published book is a business, and you have to treat it like one. Doing it right requires a lot of work on an ongoing basis; treating it like a hobby will not lead to success. Now, if you’re only goal is to get your book out there, not to make a living from it, this isn’t much of a problem.
Now let’s detail the steps needed for both self-publishing and traditional publishing so you can make an informed decision.
TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING STEPS
1. Submit to Agents
This is the first task on the way to being published. There are a few ways to find agents to apply to. I recommend looking at MSWishlist to see which agents are seeking books in your genre. You can also Google the agents who represent your favorite authors within your genre. This is great because you can state that you’re a fan of their client in your query letter.
Speaking of query letters, you need to have one, either by writing it, or hiring someone else to do it for you. The query letter is very important, and should contain a hook to get the agent interested, a paragraph or two describing the premise of your book in a way that pops, and a short bio. To increase your chances of gaining the agent’s interest, I suggest doing your research to show that you’re not just copy-and-pasting a query, but that you wanted to submit to them for a reason.
After completing your amazing query that perfectly captures the essence of your novel, you should polish your sample pages (usually the first thirty or so pages of a manuscript) and submit. Every literary agency lists submission guidelines on their website—make sure you follow them to the letter. Your sample pages and query should use Times New Roman 12pt font and be formatted correctly.
If the agent likes your query and your sample pages, they will ask for a partial or the full manuscript. After reading the full manuscript they will either reject you and explain why (or at least, they’re supposed to) or, if they fell in love with your story, they will offer representation. Think long and hard about whether that particular agent is the right one for you. If so, you sign with them and now you’re on your way to being published!
2. Agent Sells Your Book
An agent’s job is to sell your novel to a publisher. He or she is has an entire network of connections in the publishing industry, and they will pitch your book to editors until at least one bites. Then the editor has to get approval from the company to acquire your book.
Usually the editor will call the author and have a conversation to see if you’re a good fit and possibly state some changes they would make to the book if they were to buy it. If multiple publishing companies want your book, there will be an “auction” where the companies try to out-compete each other by offering the best terms. Then you choose one and celebrate, because you have a book deal.
3. Edit the Book
After signing your deal, you will work with your editor at the publishing company to revise and improve your book. This can take 6 months or a year. After you’re done, you wait patiently while the book crawls through the publishing process, and then it’s released. Easy peasy (not always).
There are a lot of steps you need to take in order to self-publish, many of which require money. As I said earlier, self-publishing is an investment. If publishing your book is your dream, then you should be willing to save up until you can do it right. None of the steps listed can be skipped without seriously hurting your book and its chances at success. Keep that in mind. I also do not recommend any author DIY the steps listed unless they are a professional. Doing so is a fast way to make your book look cheap and unpolished. Remember, if you want your book to be at the same level as traditionally published books, you need to do all the things traditional publishers do to books before releasing them.
I cannot stress this enough: professional editing is an absolutely necessary step if you are self-publishing your book. It doesn’t matter if you’re good at finding typos or were an English major or even if you’re an editor. It is impossible to look at your own work objectively, and typos, continuity issues and plot holes will evade you if you are not a trained professional. Giving a book to beta readers is no substitute for professional editing. Now there are a few different types of editing, all of which are explained on my Services page. Chances are, you will need more than one round of editing. If your book isn’t working or has story structure issues you can’t figure out on your own, it’s worth getting a developmental edit. After all revisions have been completed and there will be no more changes to the story, you should then have your book copy-edited to improve readability and catch typos. Finally, your book should be proofread in order to catch anything that might have slipped through the cracks in previous rounds of editing.
After the book is proofread it needs to be formatted. There are special guidelines and rules involved in typesetting for how to deal with pesky things like margins, widows, orphans, hyphens and other elements. Typesetting ensures the reading process is as easy and pleasant for your readers as possible and that your story reads like a book rather than a long Word document.
3. Cover Design
Many readers decide whether or not they will buy a book based off of its cover. It’s important for the cover to be unique and eye-catching, while also fitting in with the other books in its genre. This is a delicate balance. The fantastic thing about self-publishing, however, is that you can hand-pick your cover artist and keep tossing out covers until you find one that you love.
The back cover of a book should contain the author’s name and bio, the description, the barcode, and book reviews or testimonials. The spine typically has the book title, the author’s name, and the publisher’s logo.
4. Jacket Blurb and Description
This is your book’s metadata, which is basically all the description information for your book. This involves doing some research and finding highly searchable keywords and phrases. You want your book description and title to contain these keywords.
Your description should be fine-tuned to peak the reader’s interest. It should explain the exciting and/or unique premise of your novel in a colorful way that evokes your story’s tone. If you do this yourself, I recommend reading a lot of blurbs belonging to books in your genre. You can easily find them on Amazon. A last note: you want to make sure your description is evergreen, so avoid time-sensitive phrases like “coming soon” or “out next month.”
5. ISBN and BISAC Code
ISBN is an acronym for International Standard Book Number. It’s a identification number that’s recognized around the world and necessary if you want your book to be sold by bookstores, online retailers or wholesalers. I recommend purchasing this before you hire a cover designer, as it should be included in the back barcode. You will need a different ISBN for each format your book is in (hardcover, paperback, ebook). Some self-publishing platforms offer their authors a free ISBN, but I highly recommend you purchase your own.
A BISAC code specifies what your book is about including the genre, topic and theme. Booksellers and retailers need it to determine which category to put your book in, both in stores and on their website.
There are many self-publishing companies to choose from. Popular ones include Kindle Direct Publishing, IngramSpark, and Barnes&Noble Press. Each offers different prices and features, so make sure you do your research before committing to one. These platforms should walk you through the steps necessary to publish using their platform, so I won’t get into detail here as specifics differ.
Book distribution is the process through which your book is sent to bookstores and retailers. There are numerous book distributors such as IngramSpark, Smashwords, and Draft2Digital, among others. You can either deal with platforms individually and directly, which usually leads to a higher royalty per unit sold, or you can use an aggregator such as the companies named above. This allows you to upload your book to one dashboard, through which it is automatically distributed to other platforms for you. Note: using an aggregator doesn’t give you as much control over your metadata as dealing with platforms directly. When looking for a distributor you should make sure it is secure, reliable, easy to use, and cost-effective. This is a very important step, so do thorough research before taking any action.
How well you accomplish this could make or break your book. You could have the most amazing, well-written, original novel of all time but if you don’t promote it, no one will know it exists. I think it’s definitely worth hiring a marketing professional to design a strategy for you. If that is out of the question, make sure you cover the marketing basics. You will need an author website. Period. This gives you instant credibility in addition to helping you engage your audience. This way, when you tell people you have a book, you can give them a website they can browse to learn more. It’s the 21st century version of a business card. You should also make social media accounts, take some webinars, and try to gain followers. You don’t need to be on every platform—I recommend picking two or three that you can be very active on. The platforms you choose should be whichever ones your target audience is most likely to use. Start a Youtube channel, a blog, or a podcast to promote your book. Now, whatever content you make should be valuable to your audience—no one wants to listen to someone monologue about their book for thirty minutes straight—but you can also use it to plug your work and gain readers. I plan to do a more in-depth article on author marketing in the future, but these are basic steps you should undertake.
The lesson to be learned is you can be successful whether you choose traditional or self-publishing. Your decision should revolve around how much time, money, and effort you’re willing to invest to make your book a success.