I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve answered this question for my clients. It usually involves a thirty-minute discussion at the very least.
It’s important to address the self-publishing vs. traditional publishing question early in your writing process (if not before) because your answer will better guide your process.
For instance, if you choose to self-publish, you may need to contact an editor when you begin so they’ll be able to schedule you a few months from now. If you choose traditional publishing, you may need to spend more time up front on your query, pitch, and proposal than your full manuscript.
It’s better to have some inclination of which route you want to take before you’re lost in the forest of your manuscript. Knowing whether you’ll self-publish or seek literary representation for traditional publishing provides a map to help guide your process so that when you finally emerge from the wilderness of your words, you have a firm idea of where to go next.
When my clients and would-be clients ask me about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, I try to distill my answer to the essentials, as there are many variables to take into consideration.
First, let’s define self-publishing and traditional publishing.
Self-publishing means you, as the author, undertake the role of every other person responsible for creating, publishing, and marketing your book.
Now, you may not actually do that work yourself. You may outsource some of the work and hire an editor, a book designer, and a marketer. Or, as I did with my first book, you might want to learn the ropes and do almost everything yourself. (For most authors, I don’t recommend that.)
Self-publishing is not paying some “self-publishing” company (an oxymoron if ever I’ve read one) an exorbitant amount of money to turn your book into a reality. These are vanity presses, and in decades past they were a self-publishing author’s only avenue for printing and distributing their own books. They will charge you multiple thousands of dollars before you’ve ever sold a book for the “privilege” of being published by them. They may also require you to buy a certain number of books from them or charge a high wholesale cost. I can buy wholesale copies of my first book for $3.41 whether I buy one or one thousand.
Friend and editor extraordinaire Shayla Eaton has a great rant, er, video on why authors shouldn’t consider working with a vanity publisher. If you’ve ever been tempted to place your book in the hands of WestBow Press, AuthorHouse, or Xlibris, just stop reading this and read (or watch) Shayla’s “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Uncovering the Truth about Vanity Publishers.”
Don’t get stuck in the muck and mire of a supposed self-publisher that’s just a vanity publisher in disguise. They will wrest control of your book away from you—and you’ll pay them for the privilege.
The bottom-line with self-publishing is that it’s self-publishing. You do the work, or you manage the process of outsourcing the work to trusted, vetted freelancers.
Traditional publishing means being published by a company whose stated purpose is to publish books.
These include the Big Five publishers: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster. But it also includes small presses and academic presses. To make matters somewhat more confusing, each of the Big Five houses has multiple imprints. For example, Hachette owns FaithWords, the imprint that’s releasing my next coauthored book, The Father Effect, this Tuesday, October 24.
When you seek to be traditionally published, you’re hoping that one of these institutions of enlightenment or entertainment will publish your book. The publisher takes on the tasks of editing, book design, marketing, and distribution. And, in stark opposition to vanity publishers, you don’t pay them for the privilege of being published. Rather, they pay you an advance!
An advance is upfront money a traditional publisher invests in your book in the hopes that it sells at least as many copies as to cover the amount of your advance.
For instance, when you hear of a celebrity getting a million dollars for their book before it’s even published, that means they’ve received a million-dollar advance on royalties. Before that celebrity “author” can earn any more money on their book (aka royalties), the book has to have sold at least enough copies to cover the publisher’s million-dollar advanced investment in that author. If the book fails to sell enough copies to cover the publisher’s investment, the author still keeps the advance. The publisher effectively loses that money.
It’s a high-risk, high-reward situation. That’s also why traditional publishers are so selective. Would you bet a million dollars on your book? Or even $5,000?
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
When we talk about getting an advance and the oftentimes ridiculously lengthy time required to land a publishing deal, we’ve dived headfirst into the waters of our question at hand.
Should I self-publish or seek traditional publishing?
If I tried to answer this question in full, we’d sink beneath a deluge of words. Instead, I typically sum up an author’s choice through four questions:
1. How soon do you want to release your book?
If the client answers, “As soon as possible,” or, “Before the end of the year,” that already tells me they may be leaning toward self-publishing (even if they don’t know it). Self-publishing can be done in an instant. (A friend of mine did that just because he wanted to. This was the hilarious result.) Depending on the length of your book and how long the editing and design process requires, you could have your book available for purchase online in less than three months (though I’d recommend six).
In contrast, traditional publishing can take years. That’s not a typo.
John Finch and I spent months honing his proposal for The Father Effect. We were fortunate to quickly land an interested agent, David van Diest, because David also represented a friend of mine, JR. Forasteros (who’s excellent book, Empathy for the Devil: Finding Ourselves in the Villains of the Bible, releases Nov. 7). From there, the agent shopped the proposal to publishers. We had an early bite but didn’t make it past the pub board meeting, aka, the final round. Almost a year later, FaithWords bought the book. Almost a year after that, the book is releasing.
All told, John and I waited for two years to see this book become a reality.
And that’s a good turnaround for traditional publishing!
If you don’t want to play the waiting game, you may want to self-publish. But please, still take your time in making your book the best it can be. (See “How Hurry Kills Good Books.”)
2. How much control do you want?
Self-publishing gives you total control. For some, this can be a nightmare. Unless you’re already experienced in editing, book design, publishing, distribution, and marketing—or know people who are—you may pull out the rest of your hair while learning the process through much trial and error.
Yet, if you’re the type with either the knowledge or resources to successfully write, edit, publish, distribute, and market a book on your own, maintaining total control is a boon afforded to us by the internet (and, really, Amazon.)
When I think about a successful self-publisher, I think about Sean McCabe’s Overlap: Start a Business While Working a Full-Time Job, which I had the pleasure to edit. He was even involved in the kind of packaging that went with the book, a level of detail I’d never experienced before and which I won’t soon forget.
With self-publishing, you get final say over every last jot and tittle of the entire process.
Traditional publishing gives you far less control. After your book has been bought by a publisher, your title may change. You may not get a say about your cover. You’ll never get to set your own price, run your own discounts, or offer your book for free. You don’t get to plan your book tour. Once a traditional publisher has paid you that advance, you’re their employee. You get to keep the advance (unless you fail to deliver the book), but for all intents and purposes, your book is now pretty much their property. But what you give up in control, you could stand to gain in distribution, which leads to the next important distinction between these two publishing options.
3. How many people do you want to reach?
Unless you have a breakout hit like The Martian or Fifty Shades of Grey, both of which began their literary lives as self-published work, the likelihood of a self-published book being read by the masses is slim.
A million books are published every year. Traditional publishers are still the best way for an author to get their books into brick-and-mortar stores and for the media to take a book more seriously. Plus, being a traditionally published author still holds much sway in the popular consciousness, even though its cachet may be fading ever so slightly with each passing year. (Just try to name the publisher of the last best book you read.)
Traditional publishing can help your book have a much wider reach than you could ever hope to achieve on your own. That’s its biggest draw to me, in addition to the perceived legitimacy that comes with being published by a Big Five or a well-known small press or academic press.
When you self-publish, you’re effectively left wading in the overcrowded pool of Amazon’s system, hoping someone will randomly stumble upon your book and click buy. You also have to figure out how to get your book into bookstores (a trying, time-consuming process at best), how to market your book at events, and how to promote your book via social media and paid advertising.
It’s hard to sell a book, and most self-publishers the world over know that through experience.
Which leads to my last question.
4. How much money do you want to make per book?
If you’ve read any of my previous articles, I’m an advocate for mainly doing the work of writing for the benefit of simply doing the work. Anything that comes as a result of your writing ought to be considered gravy—icing—whatever metaphor best suits your culinary tastes. If you refuse to let what you earn dictate your worth as a writer, then we can discuss money more dispassionately and, I hope, more honestly.
Typically, you’ll earn 10 to 30 percent of book sales with a traditional publisher (and that’s often on the lower-end of that spectrum). If you self-publish, you could earn 70 to 90 percent, depending on a number of factors.
So, let’s say you earn 10 percent royalties on your books through your traditionally published book that’s being sold at $15. For each book, you’d receive $1.50. If you sold 100,000 copies (after the publisher has earned back your advance), you would have made $150,000.
That’s not a bad haul, right?
But what if you had self-published the same book and were somehow able to rival a traditional publisher’s reach when it comes to distribution and marketing. At a 70 percent royalty, you would have made $1,050,000.
That’s retire-now money.
Therein lies one of the main pressure points for deciding between self-publishing and traditional publishing. If you legitimately believe you can sell 100,000 books on your own, why not opt for earning a much higher percentage of your book sales?
But to even earn $150,000 from your $15 self-published book, you’d have to sell 14,285 books—and “it’s estimated that the average self-published print book sells around 250 copies over its lifetime.”
If you doubt you could ever reach that many people, traditional publishing may be an option. What you give up in royalty percentage you could earn back through distribution. In other words, would you rather sell 100,000 copies with help for a 10 percent royalty or 14,285 copies without help for a 70 percent royalty?
These numbers are provided as an example. Actual numbers fluctuate, e.g., traditional publishers offer different royalty rates for different formats (audiobook, hardcover, etc.), and royalty rates are also sometimes tiered, meaning that an author could earn a higher royalty if they sell more than X number of copies.
Money shouldn’t be your prime motivator for choosing between self-publishing and traditional publishing because there’s still an inherent amount of luck involved in whether a book lands well with the public. That’s why it’s my last question. But, because we do want to make money from our books, it’s something we should understand before delving into either option.
To summarize, when choosing between self-publishing and traditional publishing, the main issues at play are:
- Time: How long can you wait to see your words in the world?
- Control: How much control of your book can you give up?
- Reach: How many people do you want to reach?
- Money: How much do you want to earn from each sale?
Many more factors play a role in this discussion, but I believe these are the central issues. If you’re still unsure about which route to take, leave a comment or contact me at http://www.blakeatwood.com/contact.