You finished a book! Congratulations! Put on your favorite playlist and indulge in your favorite sugary carby vice, because a completed manuscript is a finish line which many people aspire to but never cross. You should be very proud.
But now for the next battle: how do you get people to read it? Maybe you’ve heard people talking about traditional publishing vs. self publishing, which they prefer, and why. But how do you know which one is right for you?
Not to worry—we’ll guide you through some of the pros and cons of self publishing and traditional publishing, and some of your self publishing vs. traditional publishing FAQs. Ready to take the next step?
Self publishing vs. traditional publishing—what’s the difference?
The difference between self publishing vs. traditional publishing is that with self publishing, you create a body of work and give it directly to the audience; with traditional publishing, you entrust an experienced team to develop your body of work and give it to the audience for you.
When you decide to become a self published author, you retain complete control of your work (more on that below), but you’re also responsible for all the nitty gritties like editing, layout, cover design, printing, distribution, and promotion. This can be intimidating and time consuming for one person, especially if you’ve never done it before. This is why many people prefer the support network of the traditional publishing world.
If your book is accepted for a traditional publishing deal, it will be handed over to a team of competent, experienced people with established industry knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work who can make your book the very best it can be.
Both self publishing and traditional publishing can be incredibly rewarding, and there are a few reasons you may choose to go one route or the other. We’ll look at those more below.
Can you self publish and traditional publish?
One question people often ask is if you can self publish and traditionally publish, rather than just choosing one or the other. You can certainly pursue self publishing and traditional publishing over the course of your writing career, but not at the same time.
It’s very rare for a traditional publishing company to take on a book that has already been published somewhere else—whether that’s by you or by another publisher. They are looking for new, unique work that nobody else has seen. For this reason, choosing to publish your own novel means that you won’t be able to submit it to a literary agent or traditional publisher later.
However, self publishing and marketing a book successfully can be a great way to get your name out into the literary world, especially if you write genre fiction.
If your self-published books sell well and gets good reviews, and you develop a fanbase of people who enjoyed your work, these are all valuable things you can present to a traditional publisher for your next project. They’ll be able to see that you’re taking your career seriously, that you’ve put in the time and the work, and that you have an audience in place. In return they’ll give you their professional support and services of the traditional publishing process and help you get your work out to an even wider audience.
On the flip side, some traditionally published authors decide to become self-published authors later in their career. This might be because they’ve become familiar enough with the traditional publishing world and their craft that they no longer need the support of a publishing house, or because they want to write something different from what they’ve written before.
Choosing between traditional publishing and self publishing doesn’t mean you’re making a marriage that you’re bound to for life; it just means that you’re making a choice based on what’s right for you, right now.
The pros and cons of traditional book publishing
So now you know a little bit more about the world of traditional publishing companies and what they have to offer. Let’s look at the biggest benefits and drawbacks when it comes to choosing traditional publishing vs. self publishing.
Pro: wider distribution
A major publisher will have access to avenues you wouldn’t be able to reach on your own. Most physical bookstores and libraries will only stock work from reputable publishing companies, since they don’t have time to read every book themselves to make sure it meets their quality standards.
Traditional publishers can get your book into brick and mortar stores across the country including airports, major department stores, and literary festivals. Choosing a traditional publishing company for your book means that more people will see it.
Con: less creative control
The biggest drawback to traditional publishers is that at the end of the day, they get the final say on what goes to print—you won’t retain complete creative control of your work. This means that if they don’t like the font you painstakingly chose, or one of your character’s names, or the way you chose to end your book, they can ask you to change it. You also don’t get to decide on things like the book cover design or how you want to layout your text.
Most of the time, publishers work with their authors to try and compromise on things they don’t agree on so that everyone feels like they’re part of a happy, healthy working relationship. In rare cases, however, you might have to make a hard choice between a change you don’t like and withdrawing your book from the publisher.
Pro: professional quality support
Traditional publishing companies, especially larger ones, are run by people who are very good at what they do. Chances are they know things about the industry you don’t and have been navigating it for longer than you have. This is a gift.
You will have the support of experienced cover designers, editors, marketers, and a sales team that will make your book look as professional and covetable as it can be (bonus: while they’re doing this for you, you get to spend more time writing!).
Con: loss of ownership rights
When you self-publish, you retain all legal rights to all of your writing, including any film or audio adaptations that might come out of it. When you traditionally publish, the publisher will take ownership of at least some of these rights. These will all be outlined in your publishing contract.
They might claim things like worldwide distribution rights or distribution rights within a certain country, digital distribution rights (for instance, ebooks and Kindles), potential film and television rights, audio rights, etc. Some of these things may be negotiable, which you can discuss with your agent, a lawyer, or with a writer’s union representative.
Pro: little to no upfront cost for the author
One of the biggest traditional publishing pros is the low investment. A traditional publisher will never charge you anything to work with them. The only cost you might be responsible for is some of the promotion and marketing after the book has been printed. You don’t have to pay your agent, either—they’ll make a commission on the total royalties from your book.
Self-publishing, on the other hand, can get very expensive very quickly. You need to pay for the printing, distribution costs, reviews, shipping, events, and any other hidden costs that may accrue.
Con: often slower
Traditional publishing is a slow business. Once you’ve secured that coveted book contract, it might be several years before your book hits the shelves. Not only is there a lot going on between acceptance and publication, as we’ve seen, but the publishing company is also managing a full list of authors and prioritizing recognized names that will make them the biggest profit.
As a new writer, your work will make it to release, but it won’t be at the front of the line. With self-publishing, you can have your book ready for print distribution in a matter of weeks.
Traditional publishing carries some pretty impressive bragging rights among writers. Not only does it give you a sense of external validation for your writing, but it also opens doors that you wouldn’t be able to on your own.
Most prestigious literary awards only accept nominations from traditional publishing houses, and most notable literary festivals don’t take on self-published authors. Becoming a traditionally published author is still the gold standard of the literary world, and it offers opportunities that you can’t reach any other way.
The pros and cons of self publishing
As you can see, self publishing is gaining a lot of respectability in the literary world, but there are pitfalls to be aware of too. Let’s look at some advantages and disadvantages to self publishing to keep in mind when making your choice.
Pro: full creative control
The main reason writers choose the path of self-publishing is because they get to retain more creative freedom of the choices they make for their work. Independent authors get to choose the cover, the layout, the font, and everything that happens within your story world. In traditional publishing, the publisher gets the last word in any disagreements between the author and the editor.
Self-publishing is a good choice for anyone who wants to be present for every step of the creative process and who trusts themselves implicitly.
Con: higher upfront cost
Unlike traditional publishing, in which the publishers pay you for the right to distribute your work, self-publishing means you’re the one shelling out your hard-earned cash.
You need to pay your printers, your shipping costs, any prestigious reviewers, all of your marketing and promotion, event spaces and travel costs, legal fees, and anything else that comes up as your book is being sent out into the world. This means that you’ll probably only be able to run very limited printings at a time. Most people rarely make enough profit to do more than break even.
Pro: faster process
When you publish your book traditionally, you’re being squeezed into a complex and crowded system of authors at various stages of their career, and you’ll often find that the process of getting your book ready for release is much slower than you would like. It can take anywhere from several months to several years for an accepted manuscript to become a book sitting on a shelf.
When you self publish, you get to set your own timeline based on how much time and effort you’re able to put in. Once you’ve finished your manuscript, you can have a completed book ready in a matter of weeks (which means you can spend more time writing the next one).
Con: lower quality control
Most new authors still have a lot to learn about the publishing industry. When you traditionally publish your book, you get to work with a team of experts experienced in editing, typesetting, and design who will support your work and make it the best it can be.
When you’re self publishing, you need to either hire externally (which kicks up your cost even more) or learn to do it yourself. Most new writers opt for the latter, which is cheaper but often won’t give you the best results. Without prior knowledge and training in these specialized areas, you risk sending out a work that looks sloppy and unprofessional.
Pro: higher gross revenue
Although your costs will be higher as a self publisher, you’ll also get to keep more of the money that your book makes. Traditional publishing companies have a lot of people to pay with the money that your book earns.
After your advance against royalties, most writers are paid between 5% and 15% of the sale of the print books. When you release a self-published book, you’ll get to keep a much, much higher percentage of the book sales of each copy sold.
Con: narrow distribution
As a self-published author, the avenues for sending your book out into the world are limited. Most libraries and book stores will only accept work vetted by traditional publishing companies, and it’s difficult to learn get into literary festivals and events without the backing of a traditional publisher. Without one, your book buyers are more or less limited to who you can reach on social media and online bookstores.
Pro: retain full copyright
When you take on publication of your own writing, you don’t sign your rights over to anybody. You retain full control of what gets sent where, what gets adapted into audio or film or alternative media, and where your work gets seen. When you’re working with a traditional publisher, they’ll usually ask you to sign away at least some of your creative rights to your work. That can be a deal-breaker for some writers.
Con: more leg work
Selling books is hard. It’s a lot of work, a lot of stress, a lot of emailing and liaising with printers and curating your social media and communicating with reviewers and distributing and researching your market and building your author brand.
Without the support network provided by a traditional publisher, getting your book into readers’ hands can be overwhelming. If you choose to independently publish your book, you need to be ready to throw yourself into the deep end.
Pro: more of a learning experience
On the flip side, getting to work with each step of the publishing process is a fantastic learning experience that you won’t find anywhere else. Learning how to create and distribute a book from start to finish is a huge challenge that’s immensely empowering. You’ll learn more about design, formatting, and marketing than you ever have before and come out of it with an incredible new skill set that you’ll be able to apply to all sorts of industries and areas of your life.
Con: literary stigma
The truth is, there’s still a stigma in the literary industry against self-published work, even from successful authors. This is because a huge amount of poorly written work gets self published every year, and it can be difficult to wade through it and find the one or two gems written by talented writers. If you self publish, you also won’t be eligible for most major literary prizes or inclusion in major festivals, which will make it more difficult to build a following around your work.
The barriers within the industry are beginning to change, but there are still obstacles for self-published writers to overcome in order to gain the same respect as their traditionally published peers.
Self publishing vs. traditional publishing: which is right for you?
Now that you know a little bit more about self publishing vs. traditional publishing, how do you know which path you should take? Remember, you don’t have to stick with just one choice for your entire career—you can change teams later, and even change back again, as you learn and grow as a writer. But while you’re getting started, here are some things to keep in mind.
Choose self publishing if:
Being in control of every aspect of your work is important to you
You’re comfortable with social media, and you know how to play the game
You’re a self starter who can keep yourself on track, manage your own deadlines, and set ambitious goals
You love learning new things and developing new skills
You’re a born salesperson
Choose traditional publishing if:
You want the support of editors and designers more experienced than you are
External validation makes you feel more confident in your work
You think you might need help selling yourself to your readers
You want to see your book being sold in high street bookshops
You’d like to be eligible for prestigious literary awards
Self publishing vs. traditional publishing? Both can be paths to success
Once you’ve completed your book (and celebrated for about a week straight), you’ve got a whole new journey ahead of you. As you can see, both traditional publishing and self publishing your work come with their own benefits and challenges, and each one can be liberating and rewarding in its own way. Now it’s time to join the legacy of writers that have gone before you and share your work with the world.