Let me start this off with a quick disclaimer: I’ve never personally tried self-publishing. However, I’ve interacted and spoken with many self-published authors who have shared their experiences with me, and feel that I have a pretty good understanding of what goes into it. That being said, a lot of the aspiring authors I communicate with are in the process of choosing between self-publication and pursuing traditional publishing, and they’re not quite sure about the pros and cons of each option.
So, with that in mind, I thought I’d give a brief list of 6 key differences between these methods of publishing your book.
First, let’s talk about quality. A reputable publisher is simply more likely to turn out a high-quality book than you can create on your own. That’s not to say that there aren’t incredibly well-produced, self-published books out there—because there definitely are. However, high-quality production of a book requires higher upfront costs (see below), and many self-published authors just don’t have the budget to spring for the best of everything when producing their book.
So, in this category, I have to give the point to traditional publishing. Publishers employ and have connections to reliable, high-quality cover designers, editors, typesetters, and other essential services for putting out a quality book. Simply put, they have the upper hand in this area.
One reason a lot of people choose to go with self-publishing is that it affords them a lot more control over the final manuscript. As writers, our books are our babies. We spend years creating and fine-tuning these books, and the idea of surrendering control to another entity is, quite frankly, a little terrifying.
As someone currently in the process of being traditionally published, I can tell you that those fears are not totally unfounded. Fun fact: When you sign on with a publisher, there’s usually a caveat in your contract that says they have the right to terminate the contract if they decide the manuscript can’t be edited to meet their standards. Essentially, they get the final say on major changes, and if you can’t agree on them, you can lose the contract.
There have been a lot of points in this process where I’ve felt like things are out of my hands, and I just have to rely on the knowledge that my publisher wants my book to succeed just as much as I do. That can require a lot of trust on your part, as the author. So, if you want total control over the final product, then self-publishing is probably the better option for you. But if you are willing to surrender a little control, and view your publisher as a partner in perfecting your book, then you get the bonus of their knowledge and expertise in the industry.
Here’s one big area where traditional publishing has the upper hand. If you have a publisher, your upfront costs for producing your book are somewhere between very little and absolutely nothing. While you will have to pay for things like headshots for the jacket cover, the expenses associated with producing, editing, and printing your book all fall on your publisher—subject to your specific publisher, of course.
Self-publishing, on the other hand, requires you to foot the bill. Of course, with the incredible popularity of ebooks, self-publication costs can be incredibly low. But if you want to turn out a quality product, you’ll still need a cover designer and an editor, at the very least. And if you decide you want to print your book as well, you’ll have to find and pay for that service all on your own.
An important note: Vanity publishers are not traditional publishers!!! If someone is promising to publish your book, but claim that you have to pay them several thousand dollars, then this is a vanity publisher, and you should run the other way. You’re far better off self-publishing.
It’s no secret that your publisher will take a substantial chunk of your book’s sales. Most authors can expect between 10% and 15% in royalties from their book sales; if you used an agent, their pay comes out of your royalties as well. This may seem like a tiny percentage, but typically, a traditionally published book simply sells more copies than a self-published one. So, though you won’t be taking the full profits from your book home with you, you do have the potential to sell a lot more copies and, therefore, still make a lot more money.
Obviously, if you publish the book on your own, there are no other hands in the pot. You get to keep the total profits from your book. But, to summarize a popular saying, “100% of nothing is still nothing.” So, really, the winner of this category is largely going to be based on how much of a boost your publisher can give to your sales. Of course, there’s rarely any way to prove how much of a difference they would have made. So, this category is going to be a draw.
Want to see your book up for sale within the next year? Don’t go the traditional publishing route. Even if your manuscript is totally polished and you think it’s ready to go, there’s a lot that goes into the production, prep, and marketing for a traditionally published novel. In fact, I had to have the final edits of my manuscript to me editor a minimum of 10 months before the desired publication date.
Plus, your publisher is going to have a schedule of books to be released, and if your book is similar to another one that’s slated for publication, you could get pushed back even further to avoid any conflicts in marketing.
Self-publishing, on the other hand, is much faster, especially if you’re sticking to ebook format. It can be done in just a few days—and that’s if you’re still working on the cover and formatting. This route is going to give you the gratification of a published book much sooner than publishing traditionally.
Marketing and Distribution
Once upon a time, I thought traditional publishing meant that the publisher would handle pretty much all of the marketing for me, whereas self-publishing would also require self-marketing. Turns out, it’s not that simple. So here’s the true comparison in this category.
Yes, with self-publishing, marketing yourself and your novel is 100% on you. Social networking, online listings, trying to contact distributors (if you’re publishing a physical novel), and so on are all your responsibility. That’s a lot. If you’re dead set on seeing your novel succeed, it could even be a full-time job. And that’s precisely why I always wanted to do traditional publishing. I didn’t want to deal with that.
But here’s the catch… Traditional publishing doesn’t entirely free you of marketing responsibilities. In fact, there’s still a lot of work that you have to put in to build your following and increase name recognition. Your publisher is going to want you on virtually every social network, as well as maintaining your own website, posting regular blogs (oh hey, look at me go!), staying active on Goodreads, attending any relevant conferences and conventions you can go to, and so on. Let's just say I'm grateful my editor told me all this via email. The look on my face probably wouldn't have been very reassuring to her.
So, there went my whole “sit back and let the publisher do all the marketing” idea. As someone who is terrible at self-promotion, it was a definite wakeup call. And thus, here I am, writing a blog on my author website, which I will soon share to Twitter and my Facebook page--four things I never thought I'd have to do.
Of course, I do still have an entire marketing team behind me. In fact, I wouldn’t even know that Goodreads is vital to my online presence if it weren’t for them. And, obviously, they’ll be doing a lot of work behind the scenes to promote Bright Star and get it to the right sellers.
So, I guess what I’m trying to say here is, if you’re like me and don’t want to do a ton of the marketing work, you definitely want to go with traditional publishing. But you also shouldn’t expect to sit back and enjoy the ride either. You’re a partner in the marketing efforts, so you’ve got to put in your hours too. On the other hand, if you’re a social media guru and can drum up email subscribers like nobody’s business, you do you and go with self-publishing. You clearly have powers that I could never hope to possess.
Well, there you have it. If you’re still deciding which route is best for you, hopefully this helped you to weigh the pros and cons of each option a little bit more. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong path—just the right or wrong path for you. The best one for your journey as an author is going to depend on your strengths and weaknesses, and which factors are most important to you. But in the end, both paths will lead you to being a published author. And isn’t that what we’re all after anyways?