Traditional or Self-Publishing?

It All Depends on You!

by Kate Willoughby and Angela Eschler

You just wrote “The End” on that last page and you’re ready to heave a well-deserved sigh of relief. But just as you’re ready to fill your lungs with the sweet breath of accomplishment, you’re sucker punched with the ragged reality that this isn’t the end. No, my friend, it’s just the beginning … now you have to figure out what to do with your masterpiece.

Before you consider how to publish and sell your book, remember one proven truth: The number-one way to sell a book is to write a good book—one that people need and want, one they can’t put down, one they’ll tell all their friends about. If you’re not sure if that describes your book just yet, maybe it’s time to go back to work or get confirmation from legitimate sources. But if it does, read on—it’s time to look at your publishing options.

Never before in the history of publishing have such a staggering range of options been available to authors. But after all is said and done, the decision comes down to one basic choice: should you tie your fortunes to a traditional publisher, or are you ready to brave it on your own by self-publishing? There are many blogs, articles, and claims out there that the publishing industry is (or should be) going in one direction or another—and there’s a new one lighting up the Internet almost weekly. But if you think they’re clearly illuminating the situation, think again. In truth, countless issues factor in to the decision, including your genre, category, writing skill, platform, budget, goals, and time limitations. And those represent just the tip of the iceberg.

To complicate matters, nothing here is black and white. One isn’t the clear winner across the board. As with pretty much everything else in life, there are pros and cons to each option, and finding the one that works best for you takes some deep introspection. To see what I mean, let’s take a look at just some of the pros and cons on each side.

Self-Publishing

Let’s start with the pros, since those are the ones you most often hear about:

  1. You have all the control. You determine when the book is published, how it looks, how much the book sells for, and where it is marketed. In other words, you make all the decisions. A side benefit: it’s quick and easy to make changes down the road.
  2. You earn more than a traditional royalty and get paid more frequently—once a month for online sales and almost immediately for the stuff you sell out of the trunk of your car. Most traditional publishers, on the other hand, issue royalty checks two times a year.
  3. Your book is automatically “accepted”—no slogging through rejection letters, then getting an agent just to wait around again while the agent shops it to publishers; and there’s no holding your breath while publishers fret and stew over a decision.

Sound good so far? Now let’s take a look at “the rest of the story”:

  1. There’s a price to be paid for all that freedom and control. You pay all the costs a traditional publisher usually covers—content editing, line editing, copyediting, typesetting, proofreading, cover design, jacket copy, printing, binding, shipping, distribution, e-book creation, sales, book trailers, videos, and other promotional efforts. Not to mention all the time and legwork that goes into successfully moving through those steps. Unless you’re doing print-on-demand, you also pay to store the books or fill your garage with the financial risk of thousands of printed books.
  2. Outside of doing e-book only, you also have to do all the legwork to get your book into brick-and-mortar stores (very difficult to do for many self-published authors who lack established sales records) and to get it online on all the best sites. Increasingly more stores and sites are resistant to books that don’t come through an established distributor (which, of course, costs more money).
  3. Self-publishing, as a rule, isn’t the cash cow some make it out to be. Most self-published authors sell very few books because they don’t understand what goes into successful self-publishing and what increases their sales—and learning that takes a significant amount of time and requires a steep learning curve.

Traditional Publishing

This method of publishing books has been around a long time and has some well-established pros:

  1. There’s a “gatekeeping” process that comes along with traditional publishing. While that may seem like a con, it’s a pro from another perspective. Agents and editors don’t take your book unless they think they can help make it really successful. That means a pairs of eyes other than yours will go over every word of your manuscript, and someone in the know will help you make it the best it can be before hitting bookstore shelves.
  2. The publisher pays all the costs of production; many publishers also pay for author websites, endorsements, and book trailers/videos.
  3. The publisher has marketing capabilities and funds along with distribution connections that are hard for self-published authors to replicate: automatic listing in catalogs from which bookstores, wholesalers, and libraries choose their product; salespeople who hit the road to sell your book; press releases and media connections to radio, television, and print venues; promotional events; incentives for bookstores to feature or hand-sell your book; and the ability to maneuver your book title onto bestseller lists (including the coveted New York Times list). Keep this in mind: the hours you spend marketing a self-published book are hours you can’t spend writing your next one. (While authors need to promote no matter how their book is produced, traditional publishing offers a leg up that can save the author a lot of time and get the word out in ways the author can’t.)

Those might sound like some pretty compelling points, but don’t forget to look at the cons:

  1. If you’re one of those folks who likes immediate gratification (and who doesn’t?), you’re not likely to get it with a traditional publisher. It can take a long time to get your book accepted—and once you do, it generally takes six to eighteen months (and often longer) before your book is actually in print.
  2. You give up much of the control over your book. Editors make changes, the cover design is out of your hands, you don’t have any say in how much of the publisher’s marketing dollars or time are devoted to your book, and you’re generally not involved in many of the decisions regarding your book.
  3. The pay is less frequent and lower than with self-publishing: royalty checks are issued twice a year, and generally range from 6 to 20 percent of sales. Some publishers even base the royalty on the wholesale, not retail, price of your book.

Wait! There Are Lots of Other Pros and Cons!

Yes. There are. As a matter of fact, the consultants at Eschler Editing have pages and pages of pros and cons for their clients, not to mention more than an hour of Q&As on what’s best for your individual situation. So why don’t I list it all here? Obviously, that would turn this blog into a book! But more importantly, context is critical. I could list something like you get to design your own cover as a pro of self-publishing, but that’s only a “pro” if you understand the power of a cover as a marketing tool, you know how to make the cover fulfill that purpose, you have a firm grasp of current trends and competition, and you’ve got professional training in cover design—all of which require years of training and experience. If you lack any of that, designing your own cover could actually be a “con” in your case. A con that turns off your ideal reader and eliminates potential promotion opportunities.

Here’s another example: I might list not having to sign a contract as a “pro” of self-publishing. That would be irresponsible without the context: sign a contract, and you generally have a publisher who works diligently to build your name, establish your brand, and give you a platform—because they have a vested interest in making sure you have good sales numbers so stores and distributors will be interested in carrying all your titles to readers. While contracts might be constrictive in some ways (which is why you should always consider them with your literary-contracts lawyer or agent standing by), they can also help you get advances, foreign translations, and ensure that a publisher is interested in looking at your next book. I could go on … but I hope this helps explain the shortness of my lists.

Reasons You Should or Should Not Self-Publish

This may not be the place to give you an exhaustive pro-and-con list for each type of publishing, but I can give you some basic reasons why self-publishing would or wouldn’t work for you:

Reasons Not to Self-Publish
  1. Don’t automatically jump to self-publishing because your first attempt at an agent or traditional publisher wasn’t successful. Maybe the competition is too intense, readership is down, your writing lacks finesse, the scope of your book is too broad, or you’re chasing a trend that’s already on its way out. Get plenty of professional feedback on why your book isn’t having success before you try to self-publish.
  2. Don’t self-publish to impress a traditional publisher. Few will choose to reprint a book that’s already been self-published (if it’s not a rare and astounding success), especially if your sales have saturated a niche market. And few, if any, will be impressed if your sales numbers are bleak.
  3. Don’t self-publish just because you’re impatient and want your work out there. This can be among several more thoughtful reasons to put your work out there, but it needs to be coupled with a professionally produced work and some idea of how to successfully market. There is the rare chance a story will just take off without intelligent marketing strategy, but generally that way is paved by a fresh, compelling, well-written story and a lot of luck. Don’t let emotions alone drive your choices—and don’t count on chance as your marketing plan.
  4. Don’t self-publish because you can’t handle rejection. If you’re insecure, the last thing you need is bad reviews or abysmal sales, both of which are common with self-published authors who haven’t had professional training or help.
Reasons to Consider Self-Publishing
  1. If you’ve been rejected by traditional publishers or agents for reasons unrelated to quality and if professional feedback indicates you have a good shot at reaching a sizable audience, consider self-publishing. (For example, you’ve been rejected because the publisher may have just published a similar book, or your project doesn’t fit the traditional publisher’s format, or you’re writing a romance in the wrong era, in terms of what’s selling to publishers at the time.)
  2. Time is of the essence. For example, you might have a pressing media situation coming up where getting coverage now will be critical to sales. Or you might have terminal cancer and want to leave a memoir for your family or the world.
  3. This is a one-time shot. You have no intention of a serious career in writing and you don’t want to spend the time and energy trying to get an agent or traditional publisher. Publishers will want you to write multiple books because they are investing in your “brand.” If you don’t want that hassle, self-publishing is for you.
  4. There is a specific demand for your book. Maybe your blog audience is begging for it, or your speaking/coaching (entrepreneurial) career would benefit if you had a book with which to spread your message.

Your  Goals Are the Driver

The major factor in your decision is your unique goals. It’s time to ask yourself some critical questions:

  1. Why do you want to publish? If you want to start a long-term writing career and have the largest sales reach possible, considering a traditional publisher as part of that plan is probably best. If you want to leave a legacy of your thoughts and advice for loved ones, you need to consider your age, health, or time limitations and consider whether you can wait years for the traditional publishing route.
  2. What genre/category does your book fall into? How hard is it to get published in that genre? What are new-author royalties typically like for that genre? What is the size of your buying audience? (If it’s a niche market of only several thousand people, a publisher likely won’t be interested, but you could still make money there.) In fiction, genre novels and especially romance typically do better in self-publishing scenarios (children’s literature and others, not so much). Nonfiction books, especially business and self-help, are more successful self-published books than fiction because it’s easier to target a specific market for them.
  3. How much money can you afford to invest in publishing without putting your family at financial risk? A traditional publisher charges you nothing. On the other hand, professional-level self-publishing can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $35,000, depending on the genre and size of your book, how much editorial help it needs, how many copies you want to print, whether you need to hire professionals in publicity, promotion, or to negotiate foreign rights, and so on. The average book for a business platform costs $5,000 to $20,000 to produce and print. And the right promotion help—which can really produce good ROI—will add to that.
  4. What are your highest priorities and concerns? You might want to go for self-publishing if your priorities are your potential up-front financial gain, the ability to make all your own decisions, the adventure of starting your own small business (which is what self-publishing really is if you do it right), or the sheer delight in learning a craft. You might want to stick with (or plan to include) traditional publishing if your concerns include your personal time, a primary focus on just the writing, avoiding financial risk, the quality of work you present to the world, and your long-term career potential.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Either/Or

You’ve probably noticed that it’s not just newbies and midlist authors who are turning to self-publishing. Successful traditionally published authors are supplementing their income with self-publishing, and the reverse is also true—self-published icons are accepting traditional book deals. There are reasons for the crossover despite these authors’ initial successes: each market offers something different and opens new possibilities to expand your readership. The best ways to take advantage of both opportunities? Here are a few ideas to get you thinking:

  1. Experiment with a pen name in self-publishing so you don’t ruin your potential long-term traditional career if sales don’t go well.
  2. Self-publish in formats not generally produced in print by traditional publishers—novellas, short stories, contributions to anthologies, or installments—while building your traditional career with books that are selling to publishers.
  3. Take a Plan A/Plan B approach. Write a good book, shop it around to agents/publishers while you write the next, then repeat, and repeat again. If you don’t get satisfying results on the traditional path and you know your books are compelling and professionally competitive, then give up on the waiting game and self-publish—knowing that you have more than one offering ready if you develop a fan base. Think synergistically and strategically when planning your career goals, from the production of your works to the marketing.
  4. Self-publish past or hard-to-sell works. If you have/had a traditional career with a few out-of-print books (your backlist) on the shelf, consider buying back your rights and re-releasing them as e-books with new covers or self-publish a couple of your good but hard-to-sell books.

Do This Now

  1. Add some breadth/depth to your perspective. There are two sides to all the sensational, breaking news on the publishing industry. The devil is always in the details. (Read some of the excellent articles linked above for examples.)
  2. Decide whether you want writing to be a serious, long-term career or whether you’re looking at it as a hobby or one-time thing.
  3. Do your research! Find out how much money, time, and effort are required for traditional publishing versus self-publishing in your genre. What’s the potential return on investment (of your time or money)? Look at the factors that are the same across the board (such as good-quality writing) and the ones that are different (such as the amount of promotion you have to do yourself). In essence, build your own personal pro-and-con list. Talk through these details with someone who knows the industry or has experience doing what you’re considering.
  4. Decide what your goals are. Prioritize them. Winnow them down from the top 10 to the top 5 to the top 3. Force yourself to be realistic about what’s most important to you long-term and right now, and assess what resources (in time or money) you have available to pursue different routes.
  5. Compare your in-depth research to your goals. If you’ve done your research and clearly defined your goals, you should be able to choose the best option for you and then map out a plan with a realistic time frame for each step. Whichever route you go, it all begins with that first step!

If this article has you scribbling notes related to your goals, contact us today for a free strategy consult; we can help you outline the plan most geared toward your genre, platform, and long-term success.

Start your strategy consult today. 

If you’re not quite ready, click here to see how we can help with fiction. And go here to discover what we offer nonfiction authors.

 

And now we want to hear from you, dear reader. Have you tried self-publishing? Let us know about your experience—what you loved as well as what you hope never to repeat! Or, what have you found to be the most critical factors for success with either venue? Speak up below.

And if this post was helpful, please share it!

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Kate Willoughby has worked in the traditional publishing industry for forty years and has also served as an editor and consultant for clients who have successfully gone the self-publishing route.

Angela Eschler is the founder of Eschler Editing and has worked in publishing for fourteen years, both in house and as a freelance editor for several publishers, as well as with individual authors (both traditionally published and self-published) and businesses and academic organizations.

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Comments

  1. I’m of the opinion that unless one of the ‘big 5’ publishing houses picks you up, traditional publishing really isn’t that much better than self publishing. I’m working with an author who has dealt with two “traditional publishers” (one in the past and one currently) that have done nothing for him. He still has to do a lot out of pocket, and the supposed marketing from these publishers is really pathetic. So while there is more cost involved in becoming an indie author, i’m personally of the opinion that most authors will have a better shot that way, especially with the rise of the ebook.

    That said, I agree with the article 100% that it ultimately comes down to quality writing an professional cover design. You have to start with a good book. If it’s poorly written and/or poorly edited, the chances of success rapidly decline. With regards to cover design, generally speaking, it’s best to let a professional do it. Remember, first impressions and all!

    Self publishing is definitely a lot of work, but the alternative is to sign on with one of the big publishing houses, and even then, I’ve read about bigger name authors that have opted to go it on their own. So ultimately, as the article points out, it has to be up to you and what your goals are.

  2. I have lots of thoughts on these things: I started working with Angela when she was an editor at a small, niche press and I put out three books with them. Now I have moved on to HarperCollins where I have released three books, and have contracts for two more. I also have my MBA in marketing, so I know a lot about which I speak.

    I have one series that has been on submission for nearly a year, because it’s admittedly weird. People have urged me to self publish it and the reason I don’t can be summed up in one anecdote: I was at LTUE last year, speaking on a panel about marketing (with Jess Smiley and Michaelbrent Collings, both notable self pub guys.) Someone asked the question of how much time you spend marketing, and both Jess and Michaelbrent put the number at somewhere between forty to sixty percent of their time. And me, published with Harper Collins could say that if you include screwing around on Twitter, and attending conventions, I maybe spend 10-15% of my time marketing. I didn’t get into publishing because I wanted another marketing day job. I got into publishing because I had stories I wanted to tell. William Morris put it best: don’t think of it as self publishing; think of it as starting a micropublisher–a small business. If you want to start a business, then go for it (although you’ll find much more lucrative, less risky businesses out there). But if you care about writing above all else, then go traditional.

  3. I appreciate that this post gets to two of the major points that frequently go unmentioned in this debate; namely, that your product and audience are crucially related to the decision of which publishing track to use. If you are writing MG speculative fiction, like myself, then you have to ask yourself, “how do books like mine get to my audience?” My audience are kids and young teens. How do these kids get books? As a junior high English and reading teacher, I can tell that it is primarily parents, librarians, and teachers who are putting books in the hands of this demographic. And I can’t emphasize enough that the we are literally placing a hard copy in front of them, not a digital copy. Yes, some of my kids have digital reading devices, but they are still almost entirely reading traditionally published books that their parent has purchased and is all the buzz among teachers, librarians, and classmates. I talk to my kids about books a lot and I have yet to hear a book mentioned that wasn’t traditionally published. Consider for a minute their other entertainment tastes in things like film and music. What percentage of kids and young teens consume media from indie-produced sources? They primarily spend their allowances or their parents’ money on Hollywood blockbusters and top 40 music. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard kids singing the new Disney song “Let it go” in my classroom in the last few months.) For my genre, the best path to get to my audience is the traditional route. This is among the reasons why I sought after and feel extremely fortunate to have an agent. In addition, I also agree with Rob: I want to write, not take on a part-time job marketing my books. I have a lot of other things I’d like to do with my time.

  4. I definitely agree that you shouldn’t self-publish unless you are approaching it from a business angle. You will be taking all the risk and doing all of the work, and that includes making sure your product is marketable and competitive, much like a traditional publisher would make that assessment. I have 2 traditional publishers and I also self-publish. But I still have about 3 books that I’m shopping around for publishing opportunities, some of these I’ve been doing for 3-4 years. Maybe the time will be right to self-publish them, but I want to seek out other opportunities first. Some of my projects, I start them out knowing I’m going to self-publish them. Others, I write specifically for the traditional route.

  5. Lisa Mangum says:

    Great post! You hit all the major points in a clear and thoughtful way. What I love about publishing right now is that there *are* so many options. Just like no two books are alike, no two paths to publication are alike either. And one isn’t necessarily better than the other–you really have to find the path that works best for you. Ask yourself, “What needs to happen for me to feel like my book is a success?” If the answer to that is “It needs to hit the NYT bestseller list,” then taking the path of publishing with the Big 5 is a good option. If the answer is “I want to share my story with my close friends and family,” then perhaps self-publishing is the way to go.

    Thanks for the insights and clarity.

  6. Great article! Rob hit the nail on the head when he said that you’re not just self-publishing a book, you’re starting a small business. Like many authors, I have a few manuscripts sitting on my hard drive that haven’t found a publisher. Yet I don’t have a burning desire to get them out there by self-publishing. It’s not that I’m lazy or that I think I couldn’t learn everything I’d need to know, it’s just that I am very pressed for time. I don’t want to spend what little time I have marketing. I want to do what I love and know I can do well if I work hard enough, and that’s create characters and stories.

  7. This post has lots of great tips — I especially loved the one about adding deep breaths to your list! That was great.

    I have done, and hope to do again, traditional publishing. There are many pros to traditional publishing. Basically the author doesn’t have to worry about anything but writing–which is the fun part. With self-publishing, the author has to work on EVERYTHING related to publishing, and sometimes that can take time from the craft of writing and the enjoyment of writing.

    But I have self-published one title, and plan to do another one this year, because the types of novels I’m writing are “soft” in the traditional market right now. At the same time, I have an agent and I’m writing novels that are commercial enough to sell in the traditional market.

    Authors need to write what they love to write, and be willing and brave enough to explore all publishing options if one of them isn’t working for the novels they produce.

  8. It’s my opinion that to self publish an author has to be a real presence on the web, which takes a dedicated interest and a large amount of time. I’d rather be writing.

  9. As a new author, I found Eschler Editing’s help invaluable!! I choose to self publish because of the points mentioned and I wanted to retain control of the message and story. A self-published author needs to be comfortable with asking for the sale. And I am. I thought this was a great read outlining the pros and cons with both formats of publishing.

  10. Thank you for a balanced look at publishing. As an aspiring author, I’m still weighing my options, but I love that this doesn’t valorize or demonize either route.

  11. @Leta: For what it’s worth, I’ve now gone through the editing process for four traditionally published books, and I have never been asked to change the message of the story. I’ve been asked to add a scene here and cut a scene there, but I think the fear that a New York publisher will take control of your book is a big myth. They obviously bought it because they liked it.

    • I think for a lot of non-fiction authors (Leta’s book), the control concern has even more to do with pricing control and sales/marketing control than it does the content of the book. If you can’t control the price of the book, where and how you can sell it, where and how you can use the cover image and content, it could impede your business career–especially if your book is for the speaker/coach platform. Many nonfiction authors don’t intend to be writers, but just want a book or two out there for marketing reasons and another revenue stream. Of course, your option there with a traditional route would be to have a really good agent negotiate all that with a publisher (your ability to sell to certain markets/venues at certain pricing, but you’d probably have to know what you wanted up front), so, depending on your platform, having the publisher backing you could grow that platform faster. But I think there’s a reasonable concern there for those that don’t want to be writers but need platform support through a book. And publishers generally don’t want you to be a one-hit-wonder author. They’re trying to build your brand. So that’s something to consider for a mutually fulfilling relationship.

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