Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing Part 1: Head-to-Head Comparisons
Updated: Jan 26, 2018
This topic has been written about almost as many times as Kanye West has stormed up on stage and discredited another artist, but for the author that has just started their journey into publishing, there are some very important considerations when deciding which route is best for you.
First, let’s acknowledge that self-publishing can sometimes refer to the process of using print-on-demand and open-to-all eBook platforms. Using this definition, many small publishers are essentially “self-publishers” that work with other authors. While they technically fall under the concept of a traditional publisher in the sense that they are going to divvy out royalties and sign contracts with authors, they are essentially using the same methods an author would use if they attempted to publish on their own in the 21st century. For our purposes here, we will still refer to these small publishers as traditional publishers, but we need to understand that they do not typically sit in the same market space as a much larger traditional publisher.
Allow me to also admit upfront that I specialize in self-publishing services and consultation as a career, and I have championed self-publishing in many ways since before it became as “acceptable” in the publishing industry as it is today. Regardless, I strive to give honest information and not necessarily sway you against the route of traditional publishing, as both methods have their merits. It truly is about what is right for you, your book, and your goals.
In this first post about the two publishing options, let's explore some direct comparisons between the two methods. The infographic below offers some quick comparisons, but we'll go into more detail immediately after.
Traditional publishing is plagued by long periods of waiting. Responses may take as long as six months to a year after submission, often to only have your book rejected. It can sometimes take years to have a book published.
Self-publishing has no wait time for acceptance and no chance of rejection. Books can literally be published within a couple weeks, though usually I wouldn’t suggest rushing into that quickly.
Author's Cost of Publication
With traditional publishing, the author will generally only be out the cost of postage supplies and ink. However, author's sometimes need to pay for the services of a literary agent.
Self-publishing means the author will either have to spend their own money or become skilled at the process of publishing themselves. It is technically possible to publish with almost no budget with the right skill set, but it can take years to learn these skills adequately. Cost of hiring help can vary greatly depending on the size of the project.
One benefit of traditional publishing with a major publisher is that it almost always comes with an entire team of professionals that will edit, proofread, design your book’s interior, design your book’s cover, and follow through on printing and distribution. Marketing is generally covered by the publisher. With a large publisher, this is a huge benefit. The author often still plays a role, though.
With self-publishing, however, you will have to decide which parts of the process you can handle yourself and which parts you will need to hire help to handle. An author on a budget may not be able to afford anything near the type of team a larger publisher can put together. Marketing is left up to the author or hired help, which can be a major drawback to self-publishing and easily one of the largest challenges.
Royalties (Getting Paid for Sales)
With traditional publishers, royalties are commonly 8-15% per sale, though it can vary. Sometimes there is an advance on royalties, but you won’t receive any additional payments until this is repaid through sales. However, if the book doesn't perform as well as expected, you owe nothing.
With self-publishing, royalties are generally 40-70% (40% for print, 60-70% for eBooks), though sometimes less in certain cases. However, in comparison to a large publisher, lower sales can sometimes mean that the profit isn’t actually better. However, when a book does perform well, you keep a much larger piece of the pie.
Artistic and Creative Freedom
With a traditional publisher, you may have to compromise some artistic preferences. You will almost always lose some control, especially as a newcomer to the industry. In some situations, this is not for the worst.
With self-publishing, as long as it’s not illegal and doesn’t violate the terms of services of your publishing platforms, you can do whatever you want with your writing or art. Use that poetic license all you want.
Rights to Your Work
With a publishing contract, you may have to give up the rights to your book, usually for a predetermined amount of time. Pay close attention to these clauses when considering a publishing contract.
With self-publishing, you almost always retain all rights to your work and can republish, repurpose, and do anything you want with your content in the future, even if that means shopping it out to traditional publishers later.
Traditional publishing lands you a better shot of your book being available in brick-and-mortar locations in addition to all of the usual online markets. This is truer if you work with much larger publishers. Smaller publishers may not be able to help you achieve this goal.
With self-publishing, your book probably isn’t going to be in brick-and-mortar locations. It is possible, but most businesses shy away from self-published print books due to issues with returning them when they do not sell. However, you can effectively reach all major online markets without much issue. Considering Amazon is the world's largest bookseller, that isn't as minuscule as it may sound.
Working with a traditional publisher, your book may go out of distribution if it doesn’t sell often enough. It may eventually go out of print entirely, even before your contract is over.
With self-publishing, though, your book can theoretically remain in print and digital formats indefinitely, even if you only sell a handful of copies per year.
Smaller traditional publishers come and go quite frequently, often leaving a trail of unhappy authors that never saw a dime even though the publisher often meant well in the beginning.
As a self-published author, you run the risk of self-sabotage either from lack of knowledge, lack of motivation, and/or lack of a support system that can truly help you reach your goals. Your intentions may have been there at the start, but execution is a lot more than good intentions.
Can You Trust Your Publisher?
There are a huge amount of “traditional publishers” that are actually just “vanity publishers” that seek to make money off of their authors and their families with bogus claims. An overzealous first-time author may be prone to getting swindled.
If you are your own publisher, you can at least rest easy knowing that you aren't out to take advantage of yourself.
Will The Book Sell?
Despite the competitiveness of the industry, very large traditional publishers have the money, network, and knowledge to put your book where it needs to be to reach the desired audience.
Self-publishing has created a book market that has more books coming out per year than future readers being born. These books often never go out of print, so the competition can be very stiff. This is true of traditionally published books too, though, so it shouldn’t be reason enough to avoid self-publishing.
With either method, you become a published author, and with that comes a sense of pride and a level of credibility that helps to situate you as a writer or an authority in your field. This comparison probably scratches the surface of the discussion you must have with yourself if you're debating how to move forward with your book or book ideas.
Next week, I'll discuss traditional publishing at more length. I'll try my best not to discourage anyone away from this method, but of course, I'm a huge supporter for independent publishing and authors retaining control of their own work. Until then, feel free to ask questions in the comments below or send me an email.
Robert Louis Henry,
Right Hand Publishing