The pros and cons of self publishing vs. traditional publishers are debated daily in writing groups and a subject my clients always ask me about in our initial consultation. The answer? It depends. (Don’t you hate that?)
Should you self publish or find a traditional publisher for your book? The answer is all about you, baby.
Most authors would love a juicy publishing contract from a Big Five publishing house, along with a six figure advance. We have probably already practiced our witty and insightful responses for Oprah, and the humble thank you when she holds up a hard cover copy of our book and says, “You have to read this book. It has changed my life!” (Just me?)
Hold onto that dream.
But in the meantime, let’s take a look at the realities of publishing your book. I work (for the most part) with business authors—those people who want to establish their expertise and leadership in their chosen field. If you write paranormal mafia reverse harem romances with dragons and elements of steampunk, much of this will still be helpful to you. The mechanics of publishing are the mechanics of publishing, fiction or non.
Here are the most important points of comparison:
Speed of Publishing
Traditionally published authors are used to sending in their manuscript, going through rounds of edits, approving covers, etc. and they know that they won’t hold that book in their hands for at least a year to 18 months. Sometimes longer. Publishing houses have schedules and there’s a method to their choices of release dates that has to do with any number of factors, including timing for the genre (there’s a reason great beach reads are released in May and June) and limiting competition among the house’s authors. There’s a great deal of coordination that goes on behind the scenes for each book, and then further coordination to create a balance of offerings each and every month. If you’ve ever tried to make all the dishes in a complex meal come out at the same time, you get a bit of a feel for what publishing houses do.
Self publishing, on the other hand, is relatively speedy. In fact, you can write a book today, upload it with a cover image, and pretty much have it available as an eBook within 24 hours. While I don’t recommend writing and publishing a book in that short a time frame (though you can put out a pretty good first draft in three days), it can be done. People who create low content books such as journals, planners, and coloring books can publish ten to twenty books in a day. (You read that right.) Many of those involve putting ten or more different covers on the same planner or journal innards. People choose these types of products based on the cover image or colors; it makes sense to give people a choice.
Having a traditional publisher lends credibility to both you and your book; your book was deemed good enough to catch a publisher’s eye and get backing. You don’t need a Big Five publisher to gain credibility; there are many smaller publishers that are known for their quality, both in the authors they publish and the quality of the book itself.
The credibility of a traditional publisher comes into play when it comes time to market your book. The media take note of their press releases; you have a better chance of getting interviews with larger outlets because the publisher has contacts they can leverage. A traditional publisher will be able to distribute your book more widely and more easily because they already have a track record with bookstores and other retailers. Bottom line, traditional publishers have more credibility and that transfers to you. That’s a big plus. It’s hugely helpful.
That being said, very few readers look to see who the publisher of a book is. Most people don’t know to look. If you use a company name to buy your ISBNs, that is your publishing company. Unless your company name is your name (Tom Jones & Associates), most people won’t know that you own the company unless they go looking.
So nobody is going to point and laugh at you and your book and yell, “Self-published!” if you put out a professional product. That means if you have a well written, well edited book with a professional looking cover, people won’t even look to see who your publisher is—unless they like your book so much they want to order in bulk.
Let’s make that a big “if” because too many self-published authors put out an inferior product. The book is poorly written, unedited, riddled with typos and errors. The cover is amateurish. That’s when people will notice you’ve self published. These are all issues you can avoid.
Done-For-You vs. D-I-Y
The huge advantage of having a traditional publisher is that they do all the technical stuff for you. Even better, you’re not laying out money for all the services the publishing process requires. Editing is the most expensive part of the process and working with a professional editor will improve your writing—not just on the finished page, but in the guidance given and the suggestions they make. The publishing house has cover designers and interior formatters. They take care of getting the ISBN. All of these things cost money. There’s a definite advantage to having someone cover the upfront costs.
Self publishing has a learning curve and is time consuming. This is why vanity presses, hybrid presses, and people like me who act (basically) as a general contractor exist. I always tell people they can do the work themselves and for less money—it’s not rocket science. (Yes, of course I have a free Self Publishing Resource Guide.) The problem is many new authors don’t know where to start. So, what needs to be done?
- Interior Formatting/Layout
- Cover Design
And the big ones:
First off, you need to have someone other than yourself edit your book. If you can’t afford an editor and have good skills, you might find another author to swap with. Many people have a team of unpaid beta readers who will point out typos, inconsistencies, points of confusion, and other things that need attention. If you can only afford a proofreader, get that at a bare minimum.
If you’re working on a super-tight budget, you can do your own formatting using free templates. Cover design is an art and science, but if you need to, you can make your own. Again, the print-on-demand platforms have templates for this. You can also find pre-made covers that can be customized for your book, or hire someone off a site like Fiverr or Upwork. Covers can range from $50 to $5,000 (and maybe more). Covers sell the book. As much as I hate to say it, the best place to put your money is in the cover; the second best is in editing.
ISBNs are purchased through Bowker. Buy a pack of 10 for $300. You‘ll need one each for print and eBook and if you are buying fewer than 10, they are $125 each. If you do an audiobook, you’ll need another. If you write another book, you’ll be glad you bought the ten-pack. You can register your copyright with the US copyright office but you don’t have to. Your work is automatically covered by copyright protection. However, it’s an added layer of protection and proof if anyone ever steals your work. (The ISBN/Copyright section of this article goes into more detail.)
Independent publishers can get distribution in as many places as traditional publishers. It may take a bit more legwork (and in some cases, like getting your book into libraries, a lot more legwork), but self-publishing no longer means that you can’t reach brick and mortar bookstores and other retail outlets (think Target and Walmart), as well as online retailers.
Using a company such as IngramSpark will get you the chance of wider distribution: IngramSpark puts your book in their catalog that retailers can order from. You have to set up a wholesale price and most (really ALL) retailers want to be able to return unsold books. For many self-published authors, that’s kind of scary. If a bookstore orders a lot of copies and then returns them months later, you have to pay back the wholesale price of the books plus shipping and handling. You can opt to receive returned books (which are sometimes thumbed through and damaged and at an additional cost) or allow the retailer to destroy them. (OUCH!)
A lot of publishing scammers say they can make your book available to the big retailers. They make it sound like your book will actually be put into brick and mortar stores. They’re just publishing through IngramSpark which puts it in their catalog; it’s up to the store to actually decide it wants to order your book. So, while trad publishers have the weight to get your book into brick and mortars like Barnes & Noble, self-publishing through IngramSpark at least opens the door to that happening.
Expanded eBook distribution is easier. IngramSpark automatically distributes eBooks to 42 online retailers including Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and sites you have never heard of. Other sites like Draft2Digital make wide distribution easy. Quite frankly, Amazon is where 80% of your sales are going to come from. If you choose to upload directly to Amazon, you’ll be okay.
Which leaves us with Marketing.
Do You Have a Platform?
What was once the biggest downside of self-publishing—you have to do all the marketing of your book—has lessened in the past decade. It’s not that marketing of self-published books has become easier; it’s that publishers are doing less marketing for their middle and lower level authors. Having a traditional publisher handle your marketing is not the shiny benefit it once was.
One of the questions you are asked when a publisher is considering your book is whether or not you have a platform—a built-in audience. Part of your book proposal includes things like number of social media followers, number of email subscribers, whether or not you have a podcast, radio or TV show, a YouTube channel. And if you do, they will want to see numbers—viewership, downloads, ratings. Having a platform gives you a built-in audience, hopefully one that will buy your book.
If you have a built-in audience—and I’m talking a solid list of followers in the tens of thousands range, not the hundreds—traditional publishers are going to view you more favorably. That puts you in the enviable position of deciding whether or not you need the publisher. Which leads to the next question.
Do you know how to market?
If you are comfortable with marketing (or have the money to hire a good marketing team), self-publishing might be your path. No publisher is going to care about your book or work as hard as you will to make sure your book sells. If you understand marketing, have a flair for copywriting, and a healthy marketing budget to work with, you can sell as many, if not more books than a small publishing house might.
If you don’t know the ins and outs of marketing, if you don’t have a sizeable following yet, and you get a solid offer from a reputable publishing house, then take it—unless you’re in a hurry for your book. Some smaller publishers work faster, make that one of your questions when you’re first talking to them.
One of the best courses I have found on marketing your books, especially on marketing your books in BULK (yay!), is from Dave Chilton, author of The Wealthy Barber. It’s all video which is usually hard for me (I’m a reader), but the videos are short, engaging, and stuffed with real world information. Added bonus: He’s funny.
Let’s Talk Money
A big draw of going with a traditional publisher is the carrot of an advance against royalties. But unless you’re a big name, forget about a hefty advance. Most advances for first-time authors are usually small (under $10,000), enough to give you a bit of a bump, not enough to change your life.
The downside that isn’t talked about enough is that traditional publishers have started clawing back advances if the book doesn’t make enough money. That was pretty much unheard of twenty years ago. Publishers have tightened their belts and it is now a pretty common practice.
Because the publishing house has put out all the money upfront, the royalties are smaller than if you self-publish. Royalties from traditional publishers on paperbacks run 8% to 10% of the retail price. So, if your book retails for $19.95, you’ll make somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.60 to $2.00 per book.
The pro side of self publishing is that you get to keep all of the royalty money. For example, the royalty on a $19.95 paperback published through Amazon would net about $8.70 after printing and Amazon fees.
The trade-off is that your sales will probably be higher with a traditional publisher.
The questions then become:
- Do I want to get a lower royalty from a publishing house if I am the person doing most of the work to make all the sales?
- Is it worth it to me to take a lower royalty if a publisher is taking care of all the publishing work and covering those costs?
- Will the publishing house make substantially more sales than I will?
For some people, the answer is yes because they want the backing of a traditional publisher or they don’t want to go through the learning curve and do “all the things” involved with self-publishing. And that’s valid.
You could also go with a combination approach. Some people self-publish, make respectable sales, and then approach a traditional publisher (or agent) with a proven track record and make a deal for their next book(s). Sometimes, if a book has strong sales, a publisher will pick up that book, too, and put a marketing push behind it. (Think 50 Shades of Grey.)
Which Should You Choose: Traditional or Self Publishing?
And this is where we get into the “That depends” territory. It’s up to you. The mechanics of self-publishing aren’t hard. It really comes down to how well you can market your book (or market your business with your book).
Most new authors want the prestige and security of a traditional publisher. The idea of having “everything” handled for them and the carrot of a huge advance is appealing—for all authors. It would be lovely to “just write” and not have to deal with the editing, marketing, technical aspects, and expense of self-publishing.
Working with a traditional publisher involves writing a solid book proposal and finding an agent who has the right contacts and can pitch your book to publishers. It’s a given that there will be rejections and the process is time consuming. The good news is that you can write the proposal and find an agent as you’re writing/finishing your book. If you don’t get any takers within a specified time period, you can decide to self-publish.
Some of us know from the get-go that we are going to self-publish. Many business authors sell their book after speaking engagements or have the book as part of the included materials when speaking or training. They like the option to buy in bulk and add an income stream. Others buy in bulk and give the books away as lead generators. Self-publishing makes that possible. Yes, you can get discounted author copies from traditional publishers, but they will govern bulk sales, adding an extra layer of admin work (and lead time). You will also be paying more for those bulk copies and earning less.
You could go traditional and have that nice stamp of approval and credibility or you could self-publish and have a marketing tool as well as an income generator. The real income with most nonfiction books is not in the royalties as much as using it to market your services–speaking, training, etc.
Again, the ball is in your court: Self Publish vs. Traditional? It’s your choice.