Prior to 2005, seeing your book in print meant choosing from one of three paths to publishing:
- Pitch magazines to get “clips” to add to your portfolio so that when you pitch a literary agent you have samples of your accepted writing to go along with your proposal or manuscript, sent to the agent via a modern antique: the SASE (Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope).
- Spend thousands of dollars at a vanity press and have 500 copies printed on your behalf, 490 of which ultimately wind up in your basement.
- Visit your local Kinko’s and have your masterpiece spiral-bound.
Those limited options changed in 2005 when Amazon bought CreateSpace, a self-publishing platform through which authors could have their print books quickly and inexpensively published.
A few years later, in November 2007, Amazon launched its digital self-publishing platform, Kindle Direct Publishing program. KDP, along with other self-publishing platforms like Smashwords and Draft2Digital, paved the way for any author to see their words in print and digital formats.
Consequently, today’s authors have numerous paths to publication as Jane Friedman’s helpful informational chart, “The Key Book Publishing Paths: 2018,” attests.
But how is a writer supposed to know which route is best for them, their book and their career?
Of course, you will ask yourself more than five questions about whether self-publishing or traditional publishing is right for you, but these essential questions ought to provide you foundational answers for a complex and often confusing process.
Once you’ve worked through these questions, I recommend researching more on the topics that resonated with you. The world of publishing seems to change on a monthly basis, so it’s to your advantage to research your decisions before fully committing.
Now, let’s discuss the five essential questions to ask yourself about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing.
1. How soon do you want to release your book?
Generally speaking, a traditionally published book takes at least one year to be published.
That doesn’t include the writing of the manuscript or the laborious and time-intensive process of pitching agents and waiting on a publishing house to accept your book. Timelines do vary, as smaller publishing houses can move faster, but it’s a safe bet that once a publisher has accepted your manuscript, it’ll be another year before it’s on sale.
In my experience as a co-author on the traditional publishing side, we needed a year before a publisher bought our book. It was another year until the book was on sale. All told, we waited two years after its writing to see the book in bookstores.
In stark contrast, you could self-publish your book tomorrow.
If all of your essential prep work was complete — editing, cover design, formatting — and you knew how to upload the correct documents to your preferred self-publishing platform, your book could be available to the masses within a day.
I wouldn’t recommend doing this, but quick-turnaround self-publishing is possible. (That benefit is also a deficit: Self-publishing suffers from drivel overload because the barrier to entry is too low.)
If your primary goal for your book is to release it as soon as possible, self-publishing is your choice.
But speed-to-market shouldn’t necessarily be your only deciding factor. Take these other questions into consideration before making a firm decision.
2. How many people do you want to reach?
Most every writer wants the world to read their book. Or, at best, they want their target audience to find their book, read and review their book and become ardently devoted fans for the rest of the author’s life.
But, with rare exceptions, such fandom doesn’t just happen. It has to be built from the ground up, and it has to be built whether you plan to self-publish or seek traditional publishing. These days, both processes demand that the author has a platform.
When it comes to authors without a sizable platform attempting to reach readers, self-publishing is a black hole. In Publishing 101, Jane Friedman wrote the blunt truth: “When writers chase self-publishing as an alternative to traditional publishing, they often have a nasty surprise in store: No one is listening. They don’t have an audience.”
If you don’t believe that, believe this: as of August 1, 2018, the Kindle store sold 6,922,403 titles. (Thanks to Claude Forthomme’s aptly titled 2014 post, “To Self-Publish and Perish: Buried Under 3.4 Million E-Books,” for helping me find that number.)
And because Amazon sells the majority of ebooks among all retailers, those nearly 7 million titles are your competition. Yes, you have the opportunity to reach Amazon’s millions of daily customers, but you also have to figure out how to get those customers to find your one-in-seven-million book.
Unless you’re knowledgeable about the many publishing outlets available to self-publishers, you will likely rely on Amazon’s ecosystem for your sales. But that carries one looming caveat: little to no bookstore distribution.
Sure, your book could be ordered by a bookstore if a patron specifically requests it, but the likelihood of your self-published book being distributed to major bookstores across the nation is, well, nil.
The relationships that traditional publishers have with distributors and bookstores may be their greatest benefit to authors. In “Why We Still Need Traditional Publishers,” Leigh Shine writes, “Traditionally published books still overwhelmingly dominate the physical market, as well as nearly half of the digital market.”
In other words, traditional publishing will likely provide you with the greatest distribution, both physically and digitally.
Side note: Don’t fall for the lie that a traditional publisher will provide ample marketing dollars to back your masterpiece. They likely won’t. Even if they do front some money, your book better do very well in its opening week and first few months to warrant them investing any more.
Again: every author needs a platform. Don’t wait for anyone to build it for you.
Winner: Traditional publishing.
But you have three more questions to consider.
3. How much control do you want over your book?
If you want complete control of your book, you will self-publish.
If you can trust other professionals with certain aspects of your book, you may seek traditional publishing.
That self-publishing offers you the greatest control is apparent, but it’s important that you think through exactly what you’re taking on — or giving up — when talking about controlling your book.
Controlling your book means being fully responsible for every aspect of the book. This extends far beyond just having written the book.
You will have to spend time or money to ensure that your cover design, interior design, editing, rights, distribution, pricing and marketing are all accomplished to a level that can compete with traditionally published books.
You will either have to apprentice yourself to the many aspects of self-publishing or pay someone — or many someones — to help you. In “Publishing 101,” Jane Friedman calls self-publishing “a ton of work, like starting a small business (if you do it right).”
Still, you retain creative control. The freelancers you may hire work for you. You get to tell them what to do because you’re signing their paychecks.
In contrast, consider what else Jane Friedman advised: “When working with a traditional publisher, you have to give up a lot of power and control. The publisher gets to decide the cover, the title, the design, the format, the price, etc. You have to go through rounds of revisions and will likely have to change things you don’t want to change.”
To some authors, that’s terrifying. They wouldn’t be able to abide by changes that went against their creative sensibilities. It’s their book, after all.
In “Pros And Cons Of Traditional Publishing vs Self-Publishing,” Joanna Penn wrote about her friend Polly Courtney, who “famously resigned from her publisher on publication day because she was marketed as chick-lit when she writes gritty novels about social issues. She was angry and upset about losing that creative control. You may also get an editor you don’t agree with, especially as many of the more experienced editors move up in the company or are working freelance for more money.”
But, for other authors, giving up that control is freeing. They don’t have to spend the time, money or brainpower on the seeming incidentals of getting a book published. They can focus on writing, then on writing the next book.
In a rather well-known and lucrative move from self-publishing to traditional publishing, sci-fi author John Scalzi accepted a 10-year, 13-book deal for $13.4 million from Tor Books.
In a response to critics who wondered why he wouldn’t stick with self-publishing when he’d been so successful, Scalzi replied: “I like to write, and I don’t mind marketing myself. But there is a whole lot more that goes into producing a book than just showing up with a manuscript and then telling people about it. I don’t want to do any of the rest of that stuff. That’s why publishers exist. That’s what publishers do. As it happens, when it comes to science fiction, Tor is as good as it gets, in every department. They are better at these things I don’t want to do than I am.”
Whether you pursue self-publishing or traditional publishing, you’ll have to give up something: time, money or control. Which of those are most important to you?
4. How much do you want to earn?
Unfortunately, we can’t all be John Scalzi.
Today, earning a living from book sales is hard if not impossible. Just consider the stats from a recent Guardian article, “Publishers are paying writers a pittance, say bestselling authors”: “Median earnings for professional writers have plummeted by 42% since 2005 to under £10,500 a year.”
And let’s not discuss what the average self-published author makes. We can’t do so with any specificity, but even the estimates are woeful. Sure, there are outliers — Rupi Kaur, Andy Weir, Hugh Howey, E. L. James — but the majority of self-published authors likely make less than $100 per year, if that, according to John Kremer.
What I’m trying to unsubtly suggest is what Jane Friedman says so well in “Publishing 101”: “Anyone in it for the coin should find some other field.”
Now that I’ve warned you against the lure of publishing riches, here are the frustrating and unhelpful facts about earnings per book when it comes to self-publishing versus traditional publishing.
With royalties ranging from 30 to 70 percent, you stand to make more per book by self-publishing.
But, since the greatest negative aspect of self-publishing is distribution, you won’t have as many places to sell your book.
In contrast, traditional publishing offers increasingly lower advances (unless you’re famous or have written a book that leads to a bidding war). Royalties are lower than in self-publishing as well — that is, if you even earn out your advance. Up to 80 percent of books never earn back their advance, meaning that the author never receives royalties (“Publishing 101”).
The frustrating, confusing aspect is that traditional publishing offers better distribution. Simply put, your book is available in more places.
The question comes down to this: Would you rather earn more per book and likely sell fewer books by self-publishing, or would you rather earn less per book and likely sell more books by going through the traditional publishing process?
5. What is your primary goal?
This is the tiebreaker question.
What if you’ve read this far and each of your answers has canceled out the previous answer? What if, by this point, you’re more confused than when you began?
Consider your primary goal.
If you want to get your book to market as fast as possible, self-publish.
If you desire to have the greatest possibility of reaching the most readers, seek traditional publishing.
If you demand creative control over every aspect of your book, self-publish.
If you want to make money, well, don’t rely on just your book sales to do that for you. And I can’t tell you what route is better for that: authors have made good money — even ridiculous amounts of money — through both self-publishing and traditional publishing.
Your primary goal may not even be listed in this article.
Essentially, you need to define what success looks like for your book. Then work backward from there.
In the end, no matter which route you take, pursue that path with as much passion and care as you placed into the writing of your book. No one will champion your book unless you’re its first and greatest champion.
And be grateful that you’re a writer post-November 2007. Those SASEs were annoying.
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