Should You Self-Publish or Go Traditional? [Infographic]

Should You Self-Publish or Go Traditional? [Infographic]

You might be ready to publish your book, but how do you decide whether to self-publish or pursue traditional publishing?

It’s not necessarily an easy choice for authors to make.

To help you decide which path is right for you and your book, I created a “choose-your-own-adventure” questionnaire that breaks down the crucial elements of each option. The Write Life turned it into this infographic:

Self-Publish or Traditional?


Want to embed the flow chart on your own site? Copy and paste the code below:


Looking for a more detailed explanation of each point? Here’s the full questionnaire.

1. Do you hope to become a millionaire from your writing?

If so, consider that for every J. K. Rowling, there are a million Henry Herzs. Who’s Henry Herz? Exactly. Go to 10.

If not, very good. You have realistic expectations. Go to 2.

2. Are you willing to work hard? Very hard?

If not, you’ll need to change your attitude. Honing one’s writing craft and becoming traditionally published take a Sisyphusean work ethic. Go to 10.

If so, very good. You have realistic expectations. Go to 3.

3. Why do you want to be published?

If you’re seeking the sense of accomplishment and bragging rights that accompany traditional publishing, good for you. Go to 4.

If you’re seeking personal growth, career development, speaking opportunities or want to see your writing in a physical book, good for you. Go to 8.

4. Have you built a community of people who want to buy your book?

Before you publish your book, make sure there’s a market for it and start building your author platform. Is selling 10,000 or more copies a realistic prospect? If so, fantastic. Go to 5.

If not, you should recognize that publishing is a business. Publishers won’t accept a project if they can’t reasonably expect to make a profit. Go to 10.

5. Is your skin too thin to withstand a hail of criticism and a deluge of rejections?

Does your critique group consist of your mom and your spouse because you only want to hear that your manuscript is fabulous? If so, go to 10.

If not, you appreciate that it is precisely the tough love offered by critique groups, beta readers, agents and editors that strengthens a manuscript and sharpens yourwriting. Go to 6.

6. Are you in a hurry to see your book traditionally published?

By “hurry”, I mean less than 18 to 24 months — a common timeline for publication. If so, you may not be aware of all the steps performed by traditional publishers in preparing, printing, and promoting a book. Go to 10.

If not, you have enough patience to be traditionally published. Go to 7.

7. Are you willing to follow publishing industry standards and the guidance of a professional editor?

If not, you must recognize editors have standards because they know from experience what works and what doesn’t. Your 3″ by 3″ 200-page dystopian picture book concept may be unique, but it probably won’t sell. Go to 10.

If so, you trust editors’ professionalism. Congratulations — you’re ready to pursue traditional publication! Go to 11.

8. Do you have the time and skills to publish, promote your book, fulfill orders and run a business?

Or do you have the money to pay others to do so? If not, perhaps you didn’t realize that the indie publishing path means you must have both writing and publishing skills. In addition to your role as an author, you must be an illustrator, an editor, an art director, a salesperson and a businessperson. Go to 10.

If so, impressive! Go to 9.

9. Are you well-organized?

Do you use calendars, spreadsheets, to-do lists and other tools to plan and keep track of your tasks, expenditures, sales and revenue?

If not, please recognize that running a business by using a shoebox to file your receipts is a recipe for disaster. Go to 10.

If so, you understand the benefits of being organized. Congratulations — you’re ready to indie publish! Go to 11.

10. You’re not ready — yet

If you’ve landed here, it means you’ve realized that you’re not yet ready for publication.

Don’t despair — while you may not be ready now, you may simply need to make a small tweak. Maybe that means saving up money to pay an illustrator, learning new skills or adopting more realistic expectations.

11. Indie versus traditional publishing

Let’s wrap up with a quick comparison of the benefits of each path.

The benefits of indie publishing include:

  • Publication is guaranteed: You know you’ll be published, since you’re the one making it happen.
  • Move at your own pace: Publish as quickly or as slowly as you’d like.
  • Full transparency and control: You make all decisions about creating, publishing and promoting your book, so you know what’s going on with every aspect of your project.
  • Set your own standards: You decide what your book will look like.

The benefits of traditional publishing include:

  • The publisher pays expenses: Someone else picks up all the costs.
  • Your team brings expertise: Your editor and agent know their jobs well and make your book as strong as possible.
  • You’re only responsible for writing: The publisher doesn’t expect you to be a copy editor, art director or marketing guru.
  • Wider potential audience: The resources and connections of a traditional publisher often lead to wider exposure.

The lesson? Your publishing decision should not be taken lightly.

While self-publishing gives you all the control and all the profits, it also means you’re responsible for all the expenses and all the work.

If you’ve published a book, how did you decide between self-publishing and traditional publishing? If you haven’t published yet, what are you considering?


  • Phyllis Humphrey says:

    Before self-publishing was an option, lots of us wanted to go traditional. Except in rare cases, that is not a choice. You can TRY, but how many years are you willing to wait for the acceptance? And when I did get accepted, I had no control over the cover (one was unbelievably bad) or the price of the e-book (three times higher than similar books) or the timing. And that doesn’t even count the four incompetent agents.

    Now I self-publish, swapping proofreading chores for artist cover design, and earn enough to pay a few bills. As my number of books written increases, so do my number of sales. This year is already shaping up to be my best yet. And my books will never go out of print.

    • It’s great to hear you’ve found a system that works for you, Phyllis. Bartering is an option many people overlook. Best of luck with your book sales this year!

      TWL Assistant Editor

      • Oscar says:

        Isn’t it possible to use self-publishing as a testing ground for more traditional publishing avenues?

        Let’s look at an example. Instead of submitting my novel to an agent, my first move would be to create a series of fiction works in which the same protagonist is featured. Let’s say I want to publish a mystery novel, so I create a series of Kindle books along with a blog to promote the series. I develop a mailing list of readers who love the series and I build anticipation into the blog about upcoming releases. Assuming all goes as planned, at a certain point, I’d reach critical mass – a large following of readers. That large following of readers thus becomes fodder for pitching my novel to traditional publishers.
        Or does it depend on the genre?

        • It’s hard to predict, Oscar, but that strategy might be a good one! Starting with self-publishing has worked for several authors recently (Hugh Howey is one example). Best of luck!

          TWL Assistant Editor

  • I think it’s a fun infographic, Henry, thanks. I’ve embedded it at my blog, as well.

  • I’ve gone the traditional route (my book will be published by HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books September 2015), but the only way I could “make it” to traditional publishing on this chart was to choose “bragging rights.” Something seems off to me about that.

    • Henry Herz says:

      Hi Jackie. Well, it is a (relatively) simple graphic that doesn’t cover all possibilities. What did lead you to make the decision to pursue traditional publication?

      • Yes, I understand that. And I think the infographic achieved what it intended (plus, it made me grin). 🙂

        I just think that “bragging rights” as the only way to be instructed to pursue traditional publishing missed the mark.

        • Jo Carter says:

          Jackie I agree with you! I want to go traditional publishing because I don’t have the money to pay for everything, and I want a physical book, not an e-book like many self publishing authors have. I couldn’t get to traditional publishing because I went to wanting the physical books as opposed to bragging rights, and then when I said I didn’t have the money for pay for advertising it told me I wasn’t ready!
          (Which I’m not, but not because of money issues! Because I haven’t finished my MS yet).

  • Loved this post – the flow chart especially made me laugh. Thanks Henry!

  • Cecilia says:

    Thank you, I put this on my blog with the link (a major achievement for a technophobe such as myself). A terrific little tool and a good grin generator. Thank you again.

  • Perse says:

    I imbedded the graphic to my blog. Thanks for providing it!

  • Robin Mizell says:

    Jennifer, since commenting you’ve probably seen that there’s a choice of two potential red answers to the chart’s question “Why do you want to be published?” The red answer that you initially noticed isn’t the only answer-path. Your point about making a living in the financial middle ground is valid. Henry must have been trying to get us to smile with his hyperbole.

    Henry, thanks for allowing everyone to share this infographic. I have, and it should come in handy when I talk to prospective clients. I’ll have a visual aid!

    All authors with experience being published can learn from each other. By nature, authors typically are very generous in this regard. The same is not true of all professions.

  • Something seems off here. Is it just me, or is the only way to even reach the indie publishing option to first say you want the bragging rights of traditional publishing? (And it seems a bit strange to force a choice between being a millionaire and just earning a few bucks from your writing — most indies I know do it because it’s a good way to earn a living, which falls squarely in between.) It’s a nice concept. But it doesn’t really work in its current state. 🙁

    • Thanks for the heads up about the error in flow, Jennifer — we had two elements reversed on the graphic. I’ve uploaded a corrected version.

      TWL Assistant Editor

    • Henry Herz says:

      Hi Jennifer. Good catch on the infographic. You are right that the choice of millionaire or not is an extreme one. That was intended to be a shorthand way to convey that one should not EXPECT to make a SIGNIFICANT amount of money from publishing; that to think one is the next J.K. Rowling is not realistic. Most indie published books sell fewer than 100 copies. I am glad to hear that you know people who can earn a living as indie authors. Unfortunately, in my experience, the number of indie authors actually earning a living is very small. I do think being an indie is a good way to hone BOTH one’s craft and increase one’s understanding of publishing and promotion.

      • Jrnnigrt Msttern and Henry Herz, your comments have targeted what I’ve learned about being an Indie publishing my book vs Traditional publishing. I am getting my book ready to re-publish as traditional. But, it is absolutely correct the things learned by Indie publshing; it is an immense learning curve and not meant for everyone to be writer, illustrator, and the one to format the manuscript ready for print. I can’t wait to get my book out there for the Traditional publishers. I am in this for the long haul, knowing I’ll be knocking on many doors. The steps of both shown in the graphic is enlightening.

        • Jennifer Msttern and Henry Herz, your comments have targeted what I’ve learned about being an Indie publishing my book vs Traditional publishing. I am getting my book ready to re-publish as traditional. But, it is absolutely correct the things learned by Indie publshing; it is an immense learning curve and not meant for everyone to be writer, illustrator, and the one to format the manuscript ready for print. I can’t wait to get my book out there for the Traditional publishers. I am in this for the long haul, knowing I’ll be knocking on many doors. The steps of both shown in the graphic is enlightening.

  • Brooke says:

    This is a really cool infographic; complicated but very well thought out. The one thing that’s missing here for me, however, is the very real fact that it’s incredibly difficult to get traditionally published. Most of the authors I work with—even most of those I publish—pursue traditional as a first choice, and then come around to the idea of self-publishing. It’s no longer the case that if you have the desire and the drive you can get traditionally published. The barriers to entry are officially so high that great authors who would have been traditionally published ten years ago simply cannot get deals. I just want to put that out there for the readers—that the path to publishing is not an either/or scenario. And then there are the hybrid options (like my press, She Writes Press, and so many others—Ink Shares, Turning Stone, and countless others) who are creating an in-between space specifically because there’s so much grey. Any thoughts on this, Henry?

    • Henry Herz says:

      Hi Brooke. I agree with your point that the barriers to entry for traditional are very high. And you raise an oft-observed tactic: strive for traditional and fall back on indie if traditional doesn’t pan out. My goal with this post was to convey that indie is such a different animal than traditional, that one should NOT view it as a fallback unless ALL the responsibilities are understood (performing or paying for artwork, editing, publishing, promoting, etc.) or one’s goals are extremely modest (e.g., I just want to publish 10 copies of my autobiography for my extended family).

    • Guess I did it backwards. I was about to go ‘self-pub’ with my memoir,’Yo God Jay’s Story’, when a traditional publisher accepted my manuscript.Can’t even begin to tell you how thrilling that was – especially when the self pub representative congratulated me saying, “way to go.”

      Let me preface this with a note that there isn’t a writer alive who doesn’t hope to become a rich and famous best selling NY Times author. Are you kidding?

      The forces that convinced me that traditional was the “way to go,” were:
      1. It was too expensive for me and
      2. a librarian’s statement. “We rarely stock self-published books.” plus the same comment from a few school districts ,” We don’t accept self-published books for our students to read.”

      Right here, I’d like to say that I have read and enjoyed many of them, but without exception found glaring mistakes by authors who think they don’t need (to pay for) editing. With my traditional publisher editing, art work FORMATTING and promoting were all financed by them. (Although I am doing a lot of promoting myself)

      Yes, I do feel a sense of accomplishment that I would not have gained through self-publishing. The best way I heard it put was:
      In self publishing (vanity press) you choose the publisher.
      In traditional, they choose you.

      The worst disaster I ever heard was from a friend who sunk 20 thousand dollars in her book and sold one copy.

      As far as the time goes, the 18 month wait was nothing compared to the 16 years it took to write my book . Like fine wine. a good product takes time to attain excellence.

      In retrospect, I am glad that I couldn’t afford to self-publish.

    • Ashley Nance says:

      The barrier to entry with a publisher are high, but I would say they’re not higher than self-publishing. Ultimately the task of finding readers falls to the author, and that’s hard to do no matter where the book comes from. Pitching to a publisher should be treated like a resume and cover letter for your dream job. If you do your homework – who they are, what they stand for, recent successful books, niche, who else just released a book on amazon on your same topic – you have a much higher chance of getting your manuscript accepted. I spent days honing the pitch for my memoir, but my effort paid off – it got accepted the first time!

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