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If you’re reading this, chances are you already have a book in the works. You’re almost done with the writing but still can’t decide between traditional publishing and self-publishing, so you wish to compare the pros and cons of both. So, self-publishing vs. traditional publishing: which is better?
Which method earns the most revenue for the author and which method secures your marketing interests? When you compare traditional publishing and self-publishing, there are plenty of variables to consider: book rights, creative control, author earnings, time investment, industry trends, and so on.
It’s self-explanatory, really: when you submit your manuscript to agents and publishers, hoping to get a contract, you’re going the traditional way. But when you recruit service providers and the power of the internet to publish your book yourself, it’s called self-publishing.
In traditional publishing, the publisher handles all publishing-related activities. This includes editing, formatting, cover designing, printing, warehousing, and distribution. In exchange for these services, you sell them the publishing rights to your book. Along with this, the publisher also owns all the profits from the book sales. Basically, the publisher owns the book.
In self-publishing, the writer handles everything. You either learn the skills required to publish a book, or hire professionals to manage the services you can’t combat alone. This can include anything from editing and proofreading the manuscript to getting an ISBN or a copyright page. Aside from what you pay these service providers, all the profits from sales belong to you alone. You also retain all publishing rights to the book. Basically, you own your book.
But is there a clear superior among traditional publishing and self-publishing? 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 you need here is to find an agent, which in itself is a long process full of rejections and disappointments.
The agent acts on your behalf and submits your 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 you through your royalties. Once they’ve collected that amount, your royalties are rolled out.
Here are the pros and cons of traditional publishing:
1. 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.
2. Hassle-free: The publisher covers all professional services, so you don’t have to lift a finger. Professionals with industry experience handle everything and you are free to, well, write.
3. No cost: Since the publishers provide all professional services, they’re also the ones spending the money. You don’t have to pay a single penny to publish your book. Even if the book underperforms in the market, you don’t have to repay any amount to the publisher.
4. Advance: You get paid 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 anything back!
5. Bookstore placement: Traditional publishers have a strong distribution network. They make sure to place your book in physical bookstores, which increases your chances of selling your book.
1. 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 in traditional publishing but a string of rejections.
2. No creative control: Once the contract is signed, the publishers have full rights to edit and market the book as they wish. You get a very limited say in how your book is designed, promoted, and sold in the market.
3. No marketing control: All publishers today rely on the writers to market and sell their books, but don’t allow them to decide on marketing strategies.
4. No ownership: In giving up the publishing rights of the book, you’re also giving up your intellectual property. In case the book becomes popular in another venture like movies or video games, you won’t be able to earn from it.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. Complicated contracts: Publishing contracts are complicated documents that almost always favor the publisher. You need to go through these carefully and take help from lawyers to retain as many of the book’s rights as you can.
Now you know how traditional publishing works. But when you think about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, the question often becomes:
There’s no hiding it: publishers only care about sales. For them to accept any proposal, they need you to assure them of a ready audience waiting to buy your book. Publishers also depend upon you to market your own book, so you need to have a firm 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:
1. Have a ready audience for the book,
2. Can wait for a couple of years to have your book published, and
3. Are okay with losing creative control and ownership rights.
If you don’t satisfy these conditions, then 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, you handle everything. This doesn’t mean that you have to personally undertake every pre-publishing task, of course. You can pay freelancers or other service providers to handle various pre-publishing tasks such as editing, proofreading, and cover design. If you have money to spare, you can pay professionals to work on the manuscript and ensure that your book is polished.
Also read: 8 pre-publishing steps for the self-published writer
But even if you do have the money to spend, it’s not exactly a cakewalk. The process is long and tiring, and you’ll end up spending more time doing things like networking or hiring proofreaders than actually writing. Plus, you alone have to make sure that your book meets industry standards, so it doesn’t reflect badly on you.
On the bright side, self-publishing lets you have complete freedom of activity, complete control over design and marketing, and you can publish your book as soon as it is ready. Depending on how much money you spend on the book, about 50–70% of the total profits go directly to the writer.
Here are the pros and cons of this method:
1. Creative control: You determine the look and style of your book. You 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.
2. Rights and royalties: You own all publishing rights and most of your earnings.
3. Marketing Control: You can create blogs, be active on Goodreads, and establish an author brand to market the book effectively. You’re free to market according to your convenience: offer discounts, partner with other businesses or promote your own.
4. Profits: The long-term earnings of self-published authors are definitely more than those of the traditionally published ones. This is because as a self-published writer, you own your book and all your royalties. Plus, if a movie or video game opportunity comes knocking, you get to keep all those earnings for yourself!
5. 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!
1. 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 you have to make sure that the book is perfect.
2. 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.
3. Cost: Professional help is required at some stage or the other, if only to ensure that the book reads well and looks 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.
Now that you’ve seen the pros and cons of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, there’s one more thing left to consider: industry trends. 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.
The publishing industry is always developing, but this decade has seen nothing short of a digital revolution. Ever since the ebook phenomenon revolutionized this 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 to success, economic and otherwise. Of course, even in this scene of global change, the status capital of traditional publishing is quite strong.
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. While thinking about the self-publishing vs. traditional publishing debate, a writer needs to consider these issues as well.
By freeing writers of the systemic 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 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 forever changed the self-publishing vs. traditional publishing question. Self-published authors have been making more money than ever before, and the social stigma surrounding self-publishing 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 choice between traditional publishing and self-publishing?
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? Traditional publishing and self-publishing both have different and valuable things to offer.
We’ve prepared a table that may help make things easy:
We hope that the 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.
1. 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!
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. Can I make only digital copies via self-publishing?
No, you can self-publish your book in any desired format: print, digital, or audiobook.
5. 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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