Self-Publishing vs Traditional Publishing: The Pros and Cons
So far, my First Time Author blog posts have been very focused on writing my book. But with a full draft completed and in the hands of beta readers, it was time for me to start thinking about publishing.
While I didn't start writing this book with the intention of getting published, at this point in the journey, I had decided that I would like to get it out there. While the thought of putting my work into the public domain was scary, I also felt proud of what I had achieved (still do) and wanted to share that with others.
So I started to investigate publishing options.
As all writers know, there are essentially two options: Self-Publishing and traditional publishing through a publishing company. While I knew those where the options, I didn't know much about how each worked, and what the pros and cons are. So I started researching. Here is what I learned.
Self-Publishing means that, as an author, you publish your book yourself. Twenty years ago, that was a tough thing to do. However, thanks to self-publishing platforms like Amazon's KDP or Ingramspark it has gotten a lot easier and more achievable for a wide range of authors. And thanks to print to order services, you can now even self-publish hardcopy versions of your book without having to pay high printing costs upfront.
But like most things in life, self-publishing has its pros and cons. Here are the ones that stood out to me.
The PROS of Self-Publishing
You stay in control of everything.
The great thing with self-publishing is that all decisions regarding your book are yours and yours alone. You can choose things like the cover design, title, sales copy, launch date and marketing strategy without having to ask anyone for input or permission.
Higher Royalty Percentages
While most traditionally published authors only get somewhere between 7-25% (average is about 10%) per book, as a self-published author, you usually get between 35-70% of the revenue generated. However, keep in mind that with either option, how much you earn is directly linked to how many books you sell, and 10% of 1,000 books is more than 50% of 100 books.
Faster Speed to Market
With self-publishing, you save yourself the time it would take to query agents and publishers, which can be a very time-consuming process. In addition, traditional publishers can be slow in getting books to market even after a deal has been signed. If you self-publish, you determine the timeline.
The CONS of Self-Publishing
It's easy to get impatient and skip or rush things
While speed to market is a significant advantage of self-publishing, it can be hard not to let impatience get the better of you. I've read a few self-published books now where I can't help but feel like the author was maybe a bit too eager to get their book to market and rushed the editing and fine-tuning part which then led to average reviews and reduced sales. With no one other than yourself in charge of quality control, this is a risk you shouldn't underestimate.
You need to invest to produce a great book
There is a big difference between writing a great book and publishing a successful one. Just because you're a great writer, doesn't mean you're also a great editor, proofreader, sales pitch writer, cover designer, marketer and salesperson.
That means, if you want to publish a truly great book that readers will (a) hear about, (b) buy and then (c) love, you need help from other experts. At a minimum, you should engage a professional editor, and that comes with a cost. You also probably need to invest in marketing to get the word out about your book (unless you already have a significant following).
While you can publish a book without investing anything other than your time, that approach is unlikely to lead to the best result.
It can be lonely
Publishing a book comes with a lot of decisions: what format to publish in? When is the best time to publish? What is the best cover design, sales pitch and title? How to promote the book? ... It can be lonely having to make all these decisions on your own, especially the first time you do it all.
Hard to get into bookstores
While I've heard of some self-published authors who managed to get their books into smaller stores, it is highly unlikely that a bigger chain or a book store you don't have a personal connection with will stock your book.
It doesn't give you the same level of credibility
Like it or not, self-publishing simply does not give authors the same level of credibility as traditional publishing does. This is kind of where one of the advantages of self-publishing becomes a disadvantage. Because it is so easy and accessible, anyone can self-publish a book. You could let your cat run over the keyboard and then publish that as a book. There is no quality control and no one who makes sure self-published books are at a certain level before they are being sold.
Therefore, the publishing industry, literary awards and some readers don't give indie authors the same level of credibility and kudos as they do with traditionally published authors who had to jump through a lot of hoops to get their book out.
Traditional publishing means that a publishing company takes your book to market. In most cases, the publisher buys the rights to the book and then becomes the driving force in publishing it - usually in collaboration with the author.
Just like self-publishing, going the traditional path has its pros and cons.
The PROS of Traditional Publishing
The publisher pays for editing, cover design, layout design, etc.
Usually, publishers provide an editor and proofreader who help make the book the best it can be. They also typically provide the cover designers, book designer and have experts who help with the development of the sales pitch. They also have people who take care of getting the book formatted and uploaded to all the different ebook platforms.
Of course, you can also get this support from professionals when you self-publish, but then you have to pay for it. And if you do it yourself, it takes a lot of time, and some of it probably won't be done as well as a professional would do it.
Your book has a much better chance of making it into bookstores
Publishers usually have the right connections to distributors and retailers to make sure you're book finds its way into book stores.
It gives you much more credibility
If you want to make a name for yourself as a highly regarded and renowned author, then traditional publishing is much more likely to get you there than self-publishing. As explained above, there is absolutely no quality control with self-publishing. On the other hand, industry experts, as well as large portions of the general public, know how hard it is to get a traditional publishing deal. If you can prove that you have gotten past the barriers and managed to convince a publisher that yours is the book they should publish, out of the 100s of queries they received, it tells people a lot about the content and quality of your work.
And I'm not saying that all traditionally published books are better than self-published ones. There are several examples of amazing and successful books that were rejected by many publishers. But in an industry where the only alternative is completely uncontrolled self-publishing, publishing through the traditional path seems to give authors more credibility and recognition.
You get an advance
Most traditional publishers pay authors an advance. However, how much varies hugely, and for new authors, it's usually a pretty small amount. It is also worth remembering that this is an advance. That means once your book starts to sell, you do not see an extra cent until the advance has been 'paid back'. Nevertheless, an advance is guaranteed income - something you don't get when you self-publish.
The CONS of Traditional Publishing
You give up control
In most cases, publishers buy the rights to your book. That usually includes the final say on things like title, cover design, content, and much more. While most publishers seem to work very collaborative and involve authors in these decisions, it is ultimately their call. There is a risk of them making a decision you're not happy with.
In addition, you won't have full visibility every step of the way. I hear from some authors who have minimal interactions with their publishers and don't really know what is being done, or what the timeline looks like. However, it is partly in the hands of the author to ask questions and follow up with the publisher to be kept in the loop. Nevertheless, it's important to understand that signing a traditional publishing deal usually means handing over control over what happens to your book.
Lower royalty percentages
As already mentioned above, traditional publishers pay lower royalties than you would get if you self-publish. However, this often balances out by the fact that they have access to more distribution channels and marketing resources as well as the fact that they pay for editing and design work.
Finding an agent or publisher is time-consuming and slow
Querying agents and publishers is time-consuming! You have to do a lot of research to find the right agents and publishers for your genre, draft personal query letters and send them out one by one. If you write non-fiction like me, you also need to prepare a detailed proposal, which takes a lot of time - especially given many publishers have particular formats they want them in.
Many agents and publishers receive a lot of queries, and it often takes them months to review them and reply. It takes a lot of persistence and patience to go through this process without losing hope - especially given you could self-publish within a few weeks.
The Stats are not on your side
Statistically speaking, the chances of success are slim. Some agents and publishers say they accept less than 1% of the queries they receive. These odds are not exactly motivating. You’re facing the risk that you will spend a lot of time querying agents and publishers without ever getting there. There is not such risk with self-publishing.
It’s not a success guarantee
Some writers seem to think that once they’ve signed a traditional publishing deal the hard work is done and the money will start rolling in soon. That is simply not a reality. Even within the cohort of traditionally published books, only a few end up being truely successful and even with a publisher, the author will have to do a lot the marketing and promotion so the hard work is far from done.
There you go, those are my top pros and cons of self-publishing and traditional publishing.
For me, the decision was pretty easy in the end. The most important thing for me was making sure the book is as good as it can possibly be. That meant I would need professional editors and designers. If I had gone down the self-publishing route, I would have had to pay for all of that myself, which would have been a significant investment.
Credibility is also really important to me. As a non-fiction writer, I'm hoping my book will open doors to other things for me, and I think it is much more likely for that to happen if it is traditionally published.
And finally, I LOVE book stores, and I have to admit that the idea of seeing my book in a store is super exciting to me.
So with all of that in mind, I decided to give traditional publishing a go. However, I did have self-publishing as a backup plan and probably would have gone down that path if I hadn't been able to find a publisher.
Which path is right for you depends a lot on your priorities and goals.
So much for now. In my next blog post, I will share some more tips and insights around publishing. After that, I will share how I went about finding a publisher and preparing my query. Make sure you sign up if you don't want to miss those posts.
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