Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: Which One Is Right For You?
Congratulations! You finished writing your book and you’re ready to share it with the world. But. . . how?
Your two main options are traditional publishing with a publishing company, or self-publishing through a platform like IngramSpark, Amazon Kindle Direct, or Indie Author Project / Biblioboard.
Many authors have strong opinions about which publishing path is best. Traditional publishing offers support from a full team of experts, including editors, designers, and salespeople, often leading to higher sales and a more polished product. However, traditional publishing is notoriously slow and has historically excluded writers from marginalized groups. Self-publishing offers a quicker way to share your book with readers, as well as freedom from industry pressure to write something “sellable.”
However, self-published books can suffer from the lack of professional editing and design, and self-published authors take on the hard work of sales, marketing, and distribution.
There’s no one right answer. It depends on your personal goals for writing and publication. Below are three questions to help you decide whether traditional publishing or self-publishing is right for you.
1. How Do You Want To Spend Your Time?
You want to spend it writing, of course! However, writing is only one part of an author’s career. Authors also spend time revising, marketing their books, and, if you’re pursuing traditional publishing, finding an agent.
Most major publishers do not accept submissions directly from writers. Instead, writers find agents who sell their work to publishers in return for around 15% of profits. Having an agent signals to publishers that your book is good enough for at least one person to stake their career on it. And having an agent means you can focus on writing your next book instead of researching every editor at every imprint of every publishing house, and then becoming an expert in negotiating your own publishing contract.
However, you will have to put that research and negotiation power toward querying agents. During the querying process, writers email a brief pitch of their work to agents who may be interested. Querying is often considered one of the most difficult parts of traditional publishing, as writers may receive hundreds of rejections over multiple books.
Rejection isn’t always bad, though. It can be an invitation to revise and improve your work. Writing is hard, and no one gets it right on the first try. Early drafts of a book get the idea out of your brain and into words. Later drafts make the story reach its full potential.
Traditional publishing has multiple rounds of agent and editor revisions baked into the process. Self-publishing does not. Self-published writers decide for themselves how much to revise their work before sharing it. Some self-published authors hire freelance editors. Some trust friends and family for feedback. Others skip revisions, share the work as-is, and move on to their next project. Skipping revisions can have negative impacts on book quality, but ultimately, it’s a question of whether you’d prefer to spend your time telling new stories or polishing old ones.
Before publication, it may seem like traditional publishing takes a lot more work than self-publishing. However, once a book is published, the tables turn.
Traditional publishing includes whole teams of people working behind the scenes to determine how much books should cost, negotiate deals with booksellers, review books so teachers and librarians know which ones to buy, and more. If you’re self-publishing, you are those teams of people. You do all the work of pricing, formatting, selling, marketing, distributing, and more. Even if you only want to e-publish, you still have to format your own manuscript, or hire a professional to do it for you, and submit to the online platform(s) of your choice. You have to figure out a marketing strategy that will make you stand out, not only among self-published or indie authors, but also against professional marketing teams from billion-dollar publishing companies. It’s hard work! And it takes time away from writing.
Whether you choose traditional or self-publishing, writing is only one aspect of your career. It’s worth asking whether you’d prefer to spend time querying agents or becoming an expert in everything from typesetting to book distribution. It’s also worth considering why you want a writing career in the first place.
2. Do You Write For Love Or Money (Or Both)?
Every writer has their own reasons for writing. We love it. We don’t know how to live without it. We want to tell our story or make the world a better place.
Usually, the answer is not money.
And that’s okay! Creative expression can be fun and freeing and deeply meaningful, even if you never monetize it. If you know up front—before sending 100 query letters or spending hours and hours typesetting your manuscript—that writing is not a financial or career goal, you can save yourself a lot of stress and rejection.
However, if you do want to make writing a financially viable career, it’s important to know how and when you get paid through traditional or self-publishing.
In traditional publishing, when your agent sells your book to a publisher, you are paid an advance. An advance is a lump sum that the company expects to earn back later through your book sales. Advances vary wildly in amount. Small, indie publishers might pay as low as $1,000-$2,000. Large publishers might offer up to six figures or more. The amount depends on factors like genre, target age group, and whether it’s your first book or you’re more advanced in your career. After your book earns out its advance—meaning the publisher made back the money they paid you—then you earn royalties on every additional copy sold.
In traditional publishing, writers do not pay anything up front. If your agent or editor charges “reading fees,” or if you are asked to pay for any part of book design or production, you are being scammed. This is an important distinction because self-publishing works differently.
In self-publishing, your income depends entirely on how many books you sell. There are no advances. You may also have to pay up-front, depending on which parts of book production you want to tackle yourself and which parts (if any) you’d like to hire experts to manage for you. Up-front self-publishing costs could include hiring a freelance editor or book designer, or paying to print your book if you plan to sell hard copies. There are free e-publishing options, such as Kindle Direct or Indie Author Project / Biblioboard. For hard copies, a print-on-demand model like IngramSpark can save you from paying to print and warehouse extra books that you’re unable to sell.
It can be difficult to know whether it’s financially better to shop around your manuscript a little longer, waiting for that big advance, or whether you should go ahead and self-publish to start selling copies now. The answer can depend on what genre you’re writing in and what age group you’re writing for.
3. What Is Your Book About?
Your book’s length and genre, as well as the age of your readers, can have a huge impact on whether you’re able to make money in traditional or self-publishing. Sometimes, both can be profitable.
Romance is a rare genre that both tops traditional publishing sales and has recently seen significant income growth for self-published authors. In fact, many romance writers are now “hybrid,” writing both traditional and self-published books.
Other genres are trickier, however. Memoirs are notoriously hard to sell, either to publishing companies or self-published to readers, unless you’re already famous. Niche topics, like regional history, might have too small an audience for big publishers to profit, making self-publishing the only way to share the information. On the other hand, children’s books tend to struggle with self-publishing. Many self-published books are e-books only, and fewer children have e-readers. Most children’s books are also bought by adults, like parents or grandparents, who are looking for physical gifts and are worried about screen time.
Length also makes a difference in whether a traditional publisher is likely to buy your manuscript. Every genre and age group has an expected word count, ranging from picture books at 400-700 words to adult sci-fi and fantasy at 90,000-125,000 words. There’s some variability, but manuscripts that fall far outside the expected word count will likely be rejected by agents and traditional publishers.
Publishing companies have spent hundreds of years and billions of dollars figuring out what kinds of books sell best to which audiences. This is great news if you’re writing that specific kind of book and want to pursue traditional publishing. If you’re writing a different kind of book, however, you’ll likely need to revise heavily, start a new project, or self-publish.
Final Verdict: Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing
There is no one right answer to whether traditional or self-publishing will bring you more joy and success, there are only trade-offs.
Do you want complete control over your book’s production and sales, or would you rather trust professional designers and salespeople? Do you want to spend time querying and revising for what feels like the hundredth time, or would you rather personally negotiate book sales with your local indie shop? Do you want the full might of Disney-Hyperion Books behind you, or would you rather strike out alone?
These are choices that every writer makes, whether traditionally or self-published. The New Orleans Public Library wishes you success no matter which path your publishing journey takes.
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