Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: Which is Better?
If you’re reading this, chances are you already have a book in the works and are surfing the web for the best way to go about publishing it. There are plenty of variables to consider: book rights, creative control, author earnings, time investment, industry trends, and so on.
Let’s tackle these things one by one.
What’s the difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing?
It’s self-explanatory, really: when a writer submits their manuscript to agents and publishers, hoping to get a contract, they’re going the traditional way. But when a writer recruits service providers and the power of the internet to publish their book by their own self, it’s called self-publishing.
In traditional publishing, the publisher handles all publishing-related activities: editing, formatting, designing, printing, warehousing, and distribution. In exchange for these services, the writer sells them the publishing rights to their book. Along with this, the publisher also owns all the profits from sales. Basically, the publisher owns the book.
In self-publishing, the writer handles everything. They either learn the skills required to publish a book, or hire professionals to manage the services one can’t combat alone. Aside from what they pay these service providers, all the profits from sales belong to the writer alone. They also retain all publishing rights to the book. Basically, the writer owns the book.
But is there a clear superior among these two publishing methods? Let’s take a look.
Publishers get millions of submissions every day, but their actual way of reaching new writers is through book agents. So the first thing a writer needs here is to find an agent, which in itself is a long process full of rejections and disappointments.
The agent acts on behalf of the writer and submits their book proposal to various publishers. Based on the book idea and the proposal, a publisher eventually offers a deal, which is open to negotiations.
Publishers often make an upfront payment of around $5000-$10,000. This is an advance against royalties, which means that once the book begins to make money, the publisher will first collect the amount equivalent to whatever they’ve paid the writer through their royalties. Once they’ve collected that amount, the writer’s royalties are rolled out.
Here are the pros and cons of traditional publishing:
Prestige: A deal with a reputed publisher means well for your status in the publishing world. It sends a signal of quality to readers and guarantees the value of your book. This also means attention from mainstream media outlets, which works wonders for your author brand.
Hassle-free: The publisher covers all professional services, so the writer doesn’t have to lift a finger. Professionals with industry experience handle everything and the writer is free to, well, write.
No cost: Since the publishers provide all professional services, they’re also the ones spending the money. The writer doesn’t pay a single penny to get their book published. Even if the book underperforms in the market, they don’t have to repay any amount to the publisher.
Advance: The writer gets monetary compensation before the book gets published. This is an added plus in case the book doesn’t sell well enough, since you don’t have to pay it back!
Bookstore placement: Traditional publishers have a strong distribution network. They ensure that the book gets placed in physical bookstores, which increases a writer’s chances of being discovered.
Hard to get a deal: Publishers and agents are flooded with book proposals on a daily basis, so they reach out to very few writers. New writers especially find nothing but a string of rejections in traditional publishing.
No creative control: Once the contract is signed, the publishers have full rights to edit and market the book as they wish. The writer gets a very limited say in how their book is designed, promoted, and sold in the market.
No marketing control: All publishers today rely on authors to market and sell their books, so the effort put in by an author here is the same as that under self-publishing. But if you have other ventures or businesses you want to market alongside your book, you’ll have to depend on the publisher’s word. Only book sales are important to publishers; an author’s brand and marketing strategies are secondary to them.
No ownership: In giving up the publishing rights of the book, a writer also gives up their intellectual property. In case the book becomes popular in another venture like movies or video games, the author won’t be able to earn from it.
Low earnings: The low royalty rates of 7.5% do not measure up to the profits earned from the 50-70% royalty rates in self-publishing. In the long term, self-published authors tend to do financially better than traditionally published ones.
Time investment: On top of the time spent in trying to get selected by agents and publishers, traditional publishing typically takes a year or two to publish a book. In an age where Amazon can publish the same book in a matter of hours and you can start earning in 60 days, this is a big drawback for traditional publishing.
Complicated contracts: Publishing contracts are complicated documents that almost always favor the publisher. Writers need to go through them carefully and take help from lawyers to retain as many of the book’s rights as possible.
Shelf life: Even if publishers can get a book into physical bookstores, they can’t guarantee a good shelf life for it. Publishing houses roll out a large number of books every month, so no book has a guaranteed shelf life unless it sells.
Now you know how traditional publishing works. But the question is, will it work for you?
Will traditional publishing work for you?
There’s no hiding it: publishers only care about sales. For them to accept any proposal, they need the author to assure them of a ready audience waiting for their book. Publishers also depend upon you, the writer, to market your own book, so you need to have a sure base readership that can sell a given number of copies.
Based on what we know so far, traditional publishing will work for you if (and only if) you:
- Have a ready audience for the book,
- Can wait for a couple of years to have your book published, and
- Are okay with losing creative control and ownership rights.
If you don’t satisfy these conditions, traditional publishing might not be for you. Not to worry! As you’ll soon see, self-publishing is a fast-growing industry that new writers can easily use to their advantage.
In self-publishing, the author handles everything by their own self. This doesn’t mean that one has to do everything themselves, of course. Writers can pay freelancers or other service providers to handle publishing tasks such as editing, proofreading, and book design. If a writer has money to spare, they can pay professionals to make sure that their book is also professional.
But even if one does have money to spend, it’s not exactly a cakewalk. The process is long and tiring, and a writer will end up spending more time doing things like networking or hiring proofreaders than actually writing. Plus, the writer alone has to make sure that their book meets global standards and doesn’t reflect badly on them.
On the bright side, self-publishing lets the writer have complete freedom of activity, complete control over design and marketing, and one is free to publish their book as soon as it is ready. Depending on how much money a writer spends on their book, about 50-70% of the total profits go directly to the writer.
Here are the pros and cons of this method:
Creative control: The writer determines the look and style of their book. They aren’t answerable to anyone and need not make any unnecessary sacrifices. It is easier to appeal to niche audiences and build a readership for your own aesthetic.
Rights and royalties: The writer owns all publishing rights and most of the earnings.
Marketing Control: Writers can create blogs, be active on Goodreads, and establish an author brand to market their book effectively. They’re free to market the book to their convenience: they can offer discounts, partner with other businesses or promote their own.
Profits: The long-term earnings of self-published authors are definitely more than those of the traditionally published ones. This is because of the writers’ ownership of their book and the higher royalty rates they enjoy. Plus, if a movie or video game opportunity comes knocking, you get to keep all earnings for yourself!
Fast to publish: Since there are no gatekeepers involved, books dealing in niche areas and first-time writers find it much easier to get published this way. It takes only a few days or weeks for you to self-publish a book!
Personal investment: It’s a lot of work to self-publish, even if you hire professional help. The writer is personally involved every step of the way, since they have to make sure that their book is perfect.
Time-consuming: It can take some time for a writer to master all the different skills that self-publishing requires. Some authors like being self-sufficient and enjoy the challenge this process presents, but it’s not for everyone.
Cost: Professional help is required at some stage or the other, if only to ensure that the book is stylistically great. Depending on how much you outsource, this can cost anything between $100-$5000. You can either invest a lot of time into doing everything yourself or you can hire experienced service providers who will achieve the same goal.
In the last decade, the self-publishing industry has grown exponentially. As a result, the prestige associated with traditional publishing and the stigma associated with self-publishing have both started to fade. While making your decision as a writer, therefore, it’s good to keep in mind the changing industry you’ll soon be a part of.
Self-publishing, a fast-growing industry
The publishing industry is always developing, but this decade has seen nothing short of a digital revolution. Ever since the ebook phenomenon revolutionized the industry, self-publishing has become not only a viable but also an incredibly profitable option for the majority of writers.
According to Bowker records, Amazon’s market share of self-published books in the US has increased from 6% in 2007 to 92% in 2018. Along with this, around 98% of all authors in the US chose to get self-published in 2018. This shows that writers now have a ready pathway that is already leading many to the avenues of success, economic and otherwise. Of course, even in this scene of global change, the status capital of traditional publishing is quite strong.
Status and Stigma
For all its prestige, however, traditional publishing has several serious problems. A recent study by FicShelf found that women made up 67% of the top-ranking titles under self-publishing whereas in traditional publishing, they were at a meagre 39%. Traditional publishers also have a history of underpaying writers of color.
By freeing writers of the systematic problems in the traditional publishing industry, self-publishing can empower minority writers. When you take control of your own story, not allowing anyone to come between you and your reader, you add incredible value to the field of writing by making more space for yourself, the writer.
The publishing industry is confusing and competitive. It’s extremely hard to get an agent, let alone get published. However, the last decade has seen a digital boost that has helped new authors find their footing through self-publishing. Self-published authors have been making more money than ever before, and the social stigma surrounding the publishing method is starting to disappear with hit movies being made from self-published novels such as The Martian, Eragon, and Fifty Shades of Grey.
Despite rapid changes in the industry, at present, people of the publishing world continue to favor traditional publishing. The future, though, is with the self-published writer. So, which is the better publishing method?
Traditional publishing vs. self-publishing: which method should I go for?
At the end of the day, the answer to this depends on what is more important to you. Do you, as a writer, value creative control and ownership, or is status more important to you? We’ve prepared a chart that may help make things easy:
We hope that your choice is clear to you now! But in case you want to read a bit more before making your decision, you can check out this step-by-step guide to self-publishing.
- Will self-publishing reduce my chances of getting published traditionally?
Not at all. By helping you build an audience, self-publishing actually increases your chances of getting a book deal. Legally Blonde, for example, was self-published in 2001, before Plume Publishing took interest and published it again in 2003!
- What is vanity publishing?
Vanity press is the name for publishers who charge a fee for publishing. A vanity publisher seeks control over book rights and royalties, and often provides inferior services despite charging a fee.
- Is vanity publishing different from self-publishing?
Yes. In self-publishing, the author is the publisher. In vanity publishing, the author is different from the publisher, and has to pay a fee to get published. Sometimes, vanity publishers also expect a cut of the royalties from the author. (Just to be very clear: we at PaperTrue want no such thing!)
- Can I make only digital copies via self-publishing?
No, you can publish your book in any desired format: print, digital, or audiobook.
- Do I need to know coding to self-publish my book?
No. All printing services offer tools for you to format and publish your book with ease.
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