Just about every call I have with a client includes the golden question: “Should I self-publish or traditionally publish?” It’s a perfectly normal question to ask. The answer, however, isn’t so perfect. As a matter of fact, it’s not even cut and dry. It’s different for everyone and really depends on what it is you’re trying to accomplish.
To demystify the question and give you the very best answer, I decided to answer the question based on the pros and cons of each, as well as who typically goes with which camp, and why. That way, by the end of the post, you can make a decision and move forward with your manuscript.
Sound good? Great. Let’s dig in.
When you self-publish, you enter into a process where you write a full manuscript on your own without the help of a publisher or agent. In some instances, your book is available for sale within days of completion.
- You have full, creative control. Traditional publishers often take control when it comes to the title, contents, and design of your book. If you want full control, then self-publish. It’s calling your name. This is me. When I learned of the potential “shifts” that might occur if I went with a traditional publishing house, I decided I was too much of a creative storyteller (AKA: control freak) to allow that to happen. So I self-published all three of my books.
- Available for consumers quicker. Once you get through this section and mosey on down to the traditional publishing section, you’ll learn that time-to-market with your book can take 2 – 4 years with a publishing contract. That’s a long time. There are always variables that change this timeline, but for the most part, it’s a long process. I published my first book with Balboa Press (a division of Hay House). I had my softcover books on my doorstep in six weeks. I published the other two with Amazon Kindle. Those babies were available for sale within minutes.
- Higher Royalties. When you self-publish with Amazon, you get 70% of the cut. If you publish traditionally, you get anywhere between 7-25%. If you’re a killer marketer, you can make a decent buck with your books and you don’t have to wait for a quarterly check to reap the rewards. That’s often how traditional publishers pay out royalties. I get my royalties from Amazon monthly.
- Retain rights all over the world. If you self-publish, you retain the rights to sell your book globally. (Thank you, Internet. We love you.) With a publishing contract, authors usually sell World English rights, but rarely sell outside of the U.S. because the books aren’t made available elsewhere. You have to be a mighty big author (Jack Canfield, Stephen King, JK Rowling) to have a publisher buck up to sell you in other countries.
- You can still publish traditionally. Even if you’ve self-published, it doesn’t mean your traditional publishing days are over. If you sell a lot of copies and garner the attention of a publishing house, your self-published book can still become traditionally published. Tama Kieves, for example, an author I admire and have attended her workshops, wrote This TIme I Dance and self-published it. When a friend encouraged her to seek representation (because it’s that good), she did. And lo and behold, Tarcher/Penguin nabbed her book and republished it for wide distribution.
- You don’t have a team. In the world of traditional publishing, you have an entire team behind you to find your mistakes, fix them, and work hard to improve your book. Too many self-published books are printed with shoddy covers and unchecked copy. Please do yourself a favor and invest in a copy editor who can find your mistakes and make your sentences smooth as butter.
- You pay for it all. Without an advance from a traditional publisher, you’re on your own with bucking up for self-publishing. Depending on the route you take and the self-publishing house you go with, it can cost anywhere between $0 and $6000. Zero dollars if you upload to Amazon and create your own cover, and anywhere between $1 – $6000 if you go with a self-publisher that will format, print, and distribute your book. The price depends on the “bells and whistles” you choose when you work with a self-publisher. Some offer to send out press releases or create personalized bookmarks. There are plenty of self-publishing platforms that offer these kinds of services, but I advise you to be very wise when choosing. Ask a lot of questions and read website details thoroughly.
- There’s no publisher prestige. While the stigma of being self-published has fallen by the wayside, some authors feel strongly about the accolade that goes along with being picked up by a publishing house. If this is important to you, self-publishing won’t float your boat.
WHO IT’S FOR
When you self-publish, understand that you are undergoing a process for self-driven entrepreneurs and creatives who already have an outlet for marketing and selling their books. This is often the route taken by speakers, coaches, niche experts, and designers. If you’re not an entrepreneur but have a story to tell, this is still an incredible route to take if you don’t want to go through the red tape of traditional publishing. Bottom line, it’s a process for creative self-starters who don’t mind taking on the aspects of creating and marketing their own book.
Traditional publishing is a process where you submit a query letter or partial manuscript to various publishers, most often with the help of an agent, in order to secure a book deal. It can take months, even years, before the query is accepted and the process begins. Your book is available for sale only after it is completed and edited by the publishing house.
- You have a team. When you secure a contract with a publishing house, you have an entire team working for you and your book. This typically includes a cover designer, a formatter, editors, and book marketers. But how much those book marketers sell depends on the kind of contract you sign. The marketing team may only market to select bookstores, leaving the rest of the marketing up to you.
- Enhanced Status. If you’re an entrepreneur or business owner who really feels status is an important part of your brand, publishing with a name brand publishing house may be important to how you define your success. Some authors feel that finding an agent and renowned publishing house elevates who they are and what they stand for.
- Bookstore Distribution. For a traditionally published author, getting their books distributed is a cakewalk. After all, this is what the traditional publishing model was designed to do. Interested book buyers (bookstores and big box stores) can pick the books they like, stock ’em on shelves, and pay the bill later. If sales are decent after thirty days, they’ll keep the book stocked and you’ll start to reap the rewards.
- No Upfront Costs. This is usually the first reason authors give when they say they want to go with a traditional publishing house. They don’t have to pay anyone. If you talk to a publishing house that tells you otherwise, then you’re not talking to a traditional publisher. The amount of the advance you receive varies but is often in the neighborhood of $10,000 (give or take). Also, the amount you receive depends on the genre of the book, your ability to market it yourself, and whether or not you intend on taking royalties in advance. Bear in mind that the large advance you get is often counted against royalties. That means you have to sell enough books to match the advance amount before you start collecting any money for yourself. This is a basic overview, but all of these details can be clarified by your agent and the publishing house.
- It’s a lengthy process. Getting a book published traditionally can take several months, even years. In some instances, many years. For example, it could take a year or so to find an agent. Maybe twice as long to find a publisher that wants to publish you. Once all of that is established, it could take upward of two years to get your book on the shelf. If time isn’t of the essence, go for it. But if you need a book published quickly, you may want to consider self-publishing.
- Less creative control. If you’re married to the title of your book and the way you have the book constructed, traditional publishing isn’t for you. On a regular basis, I read or hear a story about an author who had to cut out sections of his or her book to satisfy the publisher. Or worse, had to kill the title they so badly wanted just to appease the publisher. A lot of creative control is lost with this process. If that’s not an issue, fantastic.
- You still have to market your wares. Things aren’t like they used to be twenty, even ten years ago. Today, agents will sign an author with a large social media following faster than an author with a scant few. This is because, depending on the deal you sign, you’ll be largely responsible for marketing your own book. This alone is the reason so many entrepreneurs and leaders decide to publish their book themselves. They’ve already got the following. Why bring in a third party (publisher) to take a cut of what they’ve earned based on the audience they’ve worked years to build?
- Contract Clauses. Some publishers are happy to sign you, provided you agree to give them a certain percentage of your sales. While this isn’t unusual (they have to make money too), the amount they ask for is what you need to be wary of. 15% or more is a red flag. If you’ve worked hard on building your following, discuss modifications with this clause. You don’t want to pay a publisher for an audience you hand built yourself.
- The publisher owns the book, not you. This is one of the reasons I never went with a traditional publisher. If I wanted to change the contents of my book, update the chapters, or update the cover (and I have), I can’t without it becoming a huge issue. Also, it belongs to the publisher for the life of the author plus 70 years. I won’t even be married that long. Why would I give away my book for that long?
WHO IT’S FOR
Those who go the route of publishing traditionally are usually aspiring authors with the dream of making a career out of authorship, fiction or non-fiction. For authors who only want to write and leave the marketing and distribution to a team, traditional publishing is the answer.
In A Word…
If you’re looking to make the New York Times Best Seller list, go traditional.
If you’re an entrepreneur and already have an audience and niche on your side, go self.
If you need validation or guidance from an agent or publisher, go traditional.
If you don’t care about validation and want to get a book to market quickly and also provide more value to your current client list, self-publish.
If you dream of becoming a well-known author and want to reach a wider audience, go traditional.
If you dream of landing more speaking gigs, pitting yourself as an expert in your niche, and don’t mind hosting your own book sales at your local Barnes & Noble, self-publish.
Now that you have a good idea of the difference between the two, which way will you lean?
Joleene Moody is a ghostwriter, screenwriter, and actor based in Central New York.
Learn more at www.joleenemoody.com.