Traditional vs Self Publishing: The Last Decision Guide You’ll Need

Now is the greatest time in history to be an author.

You have the opportunity to reach the greatest amount of people with the lowest barrier to entry than ever before.

You can publish an ebook that is immediately available across the world on a marketplace where 95% of books are sold. And you don’t need anyone to give you permission or access. You just sign up and do it.

And yet, there are still traditional publishers. They sign and sell a lot of books. And really smart, business savvy authors continue to sign on with them.

So in this world of opportunity, when it comes down to deciding between self-publishing your book and traditionally publishing your book, how do you make the decision? What are the pros and cons? What are you gaining and losing with each option?

In this article, I’m going to outline clearly each step of the decision and how to know which is right for you. I’m also going to point out some common misconceptions and missteps you may run into along the way.

So, let’s get started.

Traditional vs Self Publishing: The Last Guide You'll Ever Need

Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing

This seems like a logical place to start. In many forums and blogs, people extol the virtues of self-publishing. I’ve even self-published two of my own books. So that leaves us with this question, what’s the good and the bad of self-publishing?

Pros:

  • Complete control over your project: You get to write the book you want to write. Edit it the way you want to edit it. Pick whatever book cover you want, etc. You’re the boss. You’ve signed zero rights away, so you get to make all the decisions.
  • Keep all the money: Here’s another big one. You get to keep all the royalties. You’re no longer giving up 85% of the money to the publisher. It all comes into your pocket.
  • Marketing and pricing freedom: This could have gone under the “complete control” point above, but it’s important to make it separate. If you want to give your book away, you can give it away. If you want to run price specials, then you can do that too. There’s zero bureaucracy to go through for pricing and marketing choices. A friend of mine had hard data proof that giving away big chunks of his book turned into more book sales, and it still took him two years to get permission from his publisher to do this.

Cons:

  • Complete control over your project: You have to make all the decisions for your book. You have to find, vet, and hire an editor. You have to find, vet, and hire a cover designer and an interior designer. And you will need an ebook conversion person. And you have to pay all of them yourself. This can be daunting.
  • No infrastructure: You don’t have a stable network of people around your book that “do this for a living.” You don’t have distribution channels you can leverage. There’s no network of other authors to tap into. You’re on your own.
  • Mistakes: You’re going to make mistakes. Yes, publishers make plenty of mistakes too. There are tons of horror stories. But you’ve never done this before, which means you’re going to make a lot more mistakes. When I was working with my designer for the cover of Your First 1000 Copies, I had sent it to the printer before I realized the words on the spine were facing the wrong way. This is one of the dozens of mistakes that plagued the book. Each one arose simply because I had never published a book before.
  • No advance: I hesitated to even add this one, because the odds of you getting any kind of significant advance on your book is really, really low, but you could potentially be giving up an advance by self-publishing. Just keep in mind, the check you get is an “advance against royalties.” You don’t actually get paid again for your book sales until you have earned out.

Now on to traditional publishing…

Pros and Cons of Traditional Publishing

Pros:

  • Infrastructure and community: Have you wondered how those first-time published authors are getting all those high-end blurbs on their books? That’s because their agent and/or editor connected them to other authors in their circles. Plus, you have a company behind you that repeatedly and systematically publishes lots of books. You’ll get an editor, designer, etc. all assigned to your project. Plus, you’ll have certain distribution opportunities that are really hard to get for self-published books.

Cons:

  • You give up control: You no longer own the rights to your book. And while depending on your contract, you may have some say in what goes on, the publisher makes the ultimate decisions. And remember, you are one author among hundreds for your publisher. Your book is not as important to them as it is to you.
  • Marketing and pricing: There’s a reason your publisher wants to know more about your author platform than about your book. The marketing is going to be completely up to you, especially if you are a new author. You will get very little support here, but you will have your hands tied on what you can do. There will be a lot of restrictions about what you can share from the book and how you can price the book. Plus, you will probably have to buy copies of your own book to give away.
  • Money: Your publisher will keep most of the money that ever comes in from your book. Your royalties will be roughly 15% of print and 25% of digital.

Now that we’ve looked at the pros and cons of each, let me share this with you…

The #1 Mistake Most Authors Make

Before I dive into how to make this decision, let me share with you the biggest misstep authors make when approaching this decision.

Most authors make this an emotional decision.

Here are two scenarios…

You have wanted to be published your whole life. You’ve been writing since you can remember and have dreamed about walking into a bookstore and seeing your shiny new book on the book shelves. Maybe, I don’t know, one day, if it really works out, you’ll hit the New York Times bestseller list.

The path to bookstores and bestseller fame looks like this…

  1. Work on your craft.
  2. Get an agent.
  3. Pitch to publishers.
  4. Get a manuscript picked up by a publisher.
  5. Sell a ton of books in bookstores and reach bestsellerdom.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. We all know this. Any amount of light research will prove this.

You’ll spend a long time desperately pitching agents that are getting too many pitches. Once you finally get one, they probably won’t be able to sell your first, second, or third manuscript. Once they finally do, you’ll get a $5,000 advance, zero marketing support, and almost zero distribution in physical bookstores. If you really bust your butt and get your book to sell, they might pick up your next manuscript, and you might get light distribution in stores. But it’ll quickly get pulled if fans aren’t showing up in the stores and buying your book.

And the odds of hitting the NYT list are really, really low.

Here’s my question…

Are you pursuing traditional publishing because you want the personal validation of being “chosen” by the establishment? Are you waiting for that to prove to yourself that you’re a “real” writer?”

If so, you’re setting yourself up for disaster and disappointment.

Here’s scenario number two…

You’ve done your research. You’ve read the blogs. You’ve followed those famous self-published authors.

Traditional publishing sucks. They’re a bunch of greedy monsters trying to get rich off the back of hard-working authors like you.

Screw them. You can do this yourself.

So you write your first draft. You edit it a few times and decide it’s ready to go.

It’s pretty simple, right?

  1. Get it edited.
  2. Get it laid out for print.
  3. Design a cover.
  4. Convert it to digital.
  5. Upload it to Amazon.
  6. Sit back and watch the sales come in.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Instead, it often looks more like this…

You’re light on cash, so you try to get a friend of a friend who’s an English grad student to edit your manuscript for you. The results… aren’t great. So you scrape together some cash and hire a real editor with real credentials. They once even edited one of Stephen King’s books!

But, whoops, they find a bunch of problems in your book. So now you have to go back and fix those problems and pay the editor more money to help you rework it and get it ready for primetime.

Alright, it’s taken a few months and money you didn’t want to spend, but now you have a Word document that’s 100% ready to go.

Get ready… because now you have to get the book formatted for print. Do you know Adobe Indesign? And then you need a great cover. A cover is important. You play around with a few things and realize pretty quickly that you don’t know what you’re doing. So now you have to save up some more money and try to find a graphic designer that is inexpensive but can still put together a killer cover for your book.

I could keep going… but you get the idea.

There’s a reason why plenty of successful self-published authors sign on with publishers. Self-publishing is like running a small business. And you have to ask yourself if you are ready for that.

PLEASE avoid making an emotional decision either way. You have worked hard on your manuscript, and you want to build a solid writing career that allows you to keep writing.

Now is the time to put emotion aside, look strictly at your goals and the facts, and make the best decision for your book.

Here’s how…

Step 1: Start with Self-publishing

I believe every author with every new book should default to “I am going to self-publish.”

Here’s why…

I currently own a year old Toyota Prius. I’ve paid for it, taken care of it… it’s mine. And it’s worth something. It has value.

If I wanted to sell it, I would first assess the value of the car, then find someone that was willing to pay that value.

I would not start desperately looking for anyone that wanted a car and then, once I found someone willing to take it, accept whatever they offered me.

That’s crazy, right?

Yet that’s how so many authors approach getting their book published.

They’ve poured their heart and soul into this manuscript. They’ve created something of value. This is their intellectual property.

But then they run around trying to get anyone to take it. And once someone decides to take it, they accept any amount or form of payment.

Intellectual property is one of the most valuable things you can create and own. If you are willing to give that ownership up to someone else, you need to get something in return.

Otherwise, just like my Prius, I’ll just keep it and keep using it myself.

So, my advice is this…

Start from the place of keeping ownership and control of your project.

If you are going to give up ownership and control of your project, make sure you know what are you getting in return.

Step 2: Assess Your Values

Here are some questions to think about. I suggest writing our your answers on a sheet of paper.

How important is moving quickly?
If you got a book contract today, it would probably be at least nine months until your book is for sale. Usually, it’s more like 18 months. If you don’t have an agent yet, you’re looking at two years.

If you want to publish quickly, then self-publishing is your only path.

How important is ownership/control?
If you want to call all of the shots from cover design to pricing to marketing, then self-publishing is the way to go.

However, traditional publishers will take care of all of that for you from editing the manuscript to designing your cover. You won’t have as much control, but you also won’t have to do it all.

There are horror stories on both sides of the fence, so ignore those as outlier situations. The real question is this… are you most comfortable having someone else take care of the details, even if you’re not 100% thrilled with the final results? Or do you want to make sure everything is exactly the way you want it, and you’re willing to do the work to make that happen?

The former is traditional publishing, the latter is self-publishing.

How much money do you have to spend on this project?
If your goal is to just get your book on Amazon, you can do that for free.

However, if you want a book that is on par with a traditionally published book, it’s going to take an investment. A friend of mine did this and it cost him $12,000. Of course, it doesn’t have to cost that much, but editing, interior and cover design, digital conversion, etc. all add up.

How much money do you have to invest in your project?

A traditional publisher will take care of all of the upfront costs in publishing a professional looking book. However, your royalty rates will be much lower than self-publishing. On the flip side, self-publishing will have a significant upfront cost in order to publish a high-quality product, but the long term royalties are much higher.

How important is validation within the industry?
You can read all the articles about the empowerment of self-publishing, but you may have always dreamed of being published inside the traditional publishing industry. I completely understand and validate that.

My next book is probably going to be through a publisher, and I catch myself dreaming about the bestseller lists even though I know all the games that go on behind the scenes. If this is what you want, then go for it. Who am I to say that this shouldn’t be important to you?

How important is distribution to you and your project?
You can get distribution into bookstores as a self-published author with tools like Ingram Spark, but it is much harder to do. Also, the odds of major chains picking up your book are extremely low. There is limited shelf space and traditional publishers have teams of sales people selling into that shelf space. I will say, unless your book gets picked up by a major chain such as Walmart or Target, even with wide distribution into stores like Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, etc, over 90% of your sales will still come from Amazon. The odds of bookstores stocking your book if you’re traditionally published are low but not zero. The odds if you’re self-published are basically zero.

There are other things to consider with distribution beyond bookstores though. Do you want your book carried in libraries? What about airport bookstores? What about foreign distribution?

All of this a traditional publisher handles for you. As a self-publishing book, you will have to do all of this yourself, and it is usually expensive with extremely questionable and, usually, low results.

Step 3: Make a Decision (and Commit)

Here’s the thing…

Both paths are hard. They both have pros and cons. They both are painful and exhilarating in different ways. And neither option have a guarantee on the results.

Which is why the decision is so hard to make.

When you’re struggling with the decision, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. This is not the most important decision you’re going to make in your life or career. This isn’t life and death. It’s not even life or death for your writing career. If your self-publishing efforts implode, that doesn’t mean your career is tanked. If you go after an agent and publisher and it doesn’t work out, you can always self-publish. You will keep writing either way.
  2. There are winners and losers on both sides of the fence. For every horror story from traditional publishing, there are success stories. For every success story in self-publishing, there are a hundred authors that can’t get their books to sell. Don’t believe the hype on either side. Look at your values and make a decision for you.
  3. Either way, your success is up to you. Whether you self-publish or traditionally publish, the marketing work is 100% on your plate. You’ll be in charge of growing your platform and launching your book. This decision is all about the moment leading up to your book being published and available for purchase. Everything after that is up to you no matter which route you take.

Now that you have looked at all the options and weighed your values, here’s what you must do:

  1. Make a decision. Choose to pursue (not definitely do) either self-publishing or traditional publishing.
  2. Commit to that path for one year. If you decide to self-publish, pursue that with all of your might for a full year or until the book is published. If you decide to start looking for an agent and a book deal, commit to doing that 100% for 12 full months. You must stop living in indecision. Pick one, and go after it, and refuse to question the decision again for an entire year.
  3. After a year, reassess. If your book is published or close to it, keep going. If you’ve lived in a purgatory of roadblocks and are no closer to your goal, go back through this article, and see if it’s time to change paths.

Like I said above, this is not the most important decision in your life. This will not make or break your writing career. The most important thing is not which path to choose, but actually choosing a path.

Epilogue: Let’s take a look at John

John Scalzi was one of those big-time, successful self-publishing authors. He’d put out a lot of his own books and was selling well into six-figures. Every self-published author looked at him as a role-model for what they wanted their career to be.

And then he signed a traditional deal.

And not just any deal.

A 10-year, 13-book, $3.4 million deal!

At first, that number is staggering and cause for huge celebration…like get-drunk-and-set-off-fireworks-naked-in-the-street celebration.

But if you do some math on the deal, suddenly you start to wonder why he would sign away so many books over such a long period of time for such little money.

And many indie authors asked this very question. They felt betrayed. Their self-publishing hero just signed a book deal that could very likely make him less money. Why would he do this?

Scalzi addressed this on his blog. Here are the two most important quotes from that post:

[It’s about] stability, basically. […] Also, I’m not going to lie: For the next decade I know where my money’s coming from. For a writer, that’s some nifty job security. Especially with a daughter coming up on college. Not having to search for a new book deal every book or two means I can spend more time writing, which I think is the thing we would all like me doing.

And then…

[L]ook, 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 [my traditional publisher] is as good as it gets, in every department. They are better at these things I don’t want to do than I am. I am delighted to partner with them and let them handle all that. I am clearly making enough money.

We all have different values and goals for our work as writers. Yours are different from mine and are different from John’s. And that’s fine. It’s good.

You must face this decision yourself and weigh the pros and cons for you and you alone.

Create your work, and start by recognizing the value of the thing you just created. Then assess your values and goals before making a decision that you stick to and pursue for at least a year.

In the end, your publishing choice will not make or break your writing your career. It is just the next step in a long series of steps.

Make the decision, pursue it, and, above all, keep writing your next book.


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