Self-Publishing or Traditional Publishing? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself
Once you have a finished and polished book, it’s time to begin the next exciting step of your writing career: getting your book into the hands of readers! There are two main paths you can take to make this happen: traditional publishing or self-publishing.
Traditional publishing often requires that you sign with an agent first, who will then submit your book to publishing houses. If the publisher buys your novel, they will handle all printing and bringing your book to market. Self-publishing, on the other hand, means handling everything on your own: being your own designer, editor, seller, and marketing company, or paying out of pocket for these services. The former option offers an experienced support system to help you succeed, while the latter offers full creative control over your book and brand.
There are pros and cons to both self-publishing and traditional publishing, so the decision over which path to take comes down to the type of writing career you want. In this post, we’ll share the five questions to ask yourself when deciding which type is right for you.
5 Questions to Figure Out If You Should Self-Publish or Traditionally Publish
1. How quickly do you want to see your book in a bookstore?
If you get a traditional publishing deal, the timeline between finishing your book and seeing it on shelves will take several years. Here’s what the publishing process will typically look like:
After finishing your book, you’ll need to write stellar submission materials (query letters, synopsis, etc.) to try and sign with a literary agent. After querying, you’ll hopefully get an agent who will then submit your book to editors at major publishers and sell it—a process that will take months, maybe even a year. After that, it may be over a year before you see your book on shelves. During that time, you’ll go through rounds of edits with your editor before sending your book to the printers and marketing your book alongside your publisher. All told, going the traditional publishing route will take a minimum of 2+ years.
If you choose to self-publish, on the other hand, the timeline you’re working with can be shortened significantly vs. traditional publishing. You could potentially hold a physical copy of your novel in a matter of months rather than years. This is because all the decisions concerning publication belong solely to you. However, learning how to self-publish and distribute your book yourself may be extremely time-consuming.
2. How much creative and marketing support do you want?
If you have a traditional publisher, you'll have a team of experts helping you throughout the editing process. Your publisher will also have the resources and industry relationships to get your novel into the hands of trade reviewers and influential bloggers. Your publisher can even set up author tours for you. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that publishers have finite resources for marketing, so new authors are less likely to receive as much support as more established ones. As such, debut authors should be prepared to do some marketing on their own.
Another benefit to being traditionally published is that you get whatever esteem or credibility your publisher carries in the publishing industry, which can greatly boost your writing career and help you get noticed by your target audience.
It takes a real self-starter with a salesperson mindset in order to be a successful indie author. With self-publishing comes a list of publishing tasks you have to figure out how to do on your own—and pay for out of pocket. The good news is that these days, there are a lot of online tools that teach you how to do all this, and there is an abundance of freelancers you can hire for things you don’t feel confident doing yourself. It will take time, money, and work to educate yourself, but it’s entirely possible! Just keep in mind that self-publishing may impede your ability to distribute and sell your book since some bookstores, literary festivals, and airports will often only stock titles that come from traditional publishers.
3. How much control do you want?
If you go the traditional route, you will face rejection along the way, which can be discouraging and make traditional publishing seem like an impossible dream. However, if you do land a traditional book deal, you don’t have to worry about things like formatting, cover design, printing, marketing, distribution, and selling. This comes as a package deal when you sign with a traditional publisher, meaning you can just focus on being a writer. However, with all this comes the reality that you’re going to lose some creative control. Your publisher will have the final say in things like cover design, title, and book layout. That being said, most publishers are keen to compromise if disagreements arise.
When self-publishing, however, you maintain full creative control over your writing, brand, and book promotion. This means that you will be the one who has to handle all the expenses, decisions, and soliciting expert help (like hiring a cover designer) when necessary. However, the freedom and control of this path make it empowering and appealing to many.
4. How much are you hoping to earn?
Now, let’s talk money. If you traditionally publish your book, you will receive an advance, which is basically the publisher paying you some of your expected royalties up front, or "in advance." This means you’ll start seeing money well before your first book sale, which is great! Keep in mind, though, that you won’t get all of your advance in one check. These days, you can expect your advance to be chopped into 4-5 payments spread out over eighteen months or more, usually based on publication milestones like turning in the final manuscript, entering into copy edits or production, upon publication, etc.
Once your book does go on sale, you’ll have to earn back your advance before you earn royalties, which can range anywhere from 5-25% of a book’s profit, depending on your contract. This is a much lower royalty rate than you’d earn by self-publishing. Remember, though, that what you get in exchange for lower royalties is not having to front publication costs yourself.
When self-publishing, your royalties can start coming in immediately, and you get to keep most of the profit (royalty rates are usually around 60-70%). However, you’ll also use a lot of that money to pay for editing, designing, marketing, and other publishing costs. If you’re just starting out as a self-published author, you’ll have to do a lot of work to prepare your book and build a readership before you start seeing meaningful sales, which could take months or even years. That being said, successful self-published authors have a steady stream of income from sales without having to wait for a publisher to parcel out chunks of their money across several months. Just remember that if you hear success stories about self-published authors who make a living from their self-publishing royalties, there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes.
5. What feels right to you?
If you’re still wondering if you should self-publish your book or pursue a traditional deal, ask yourself what’s most important and doable for you. If you want full rights to your book and your brand, are eager to shout about your book on social media, love the idea of proactively building a community with your readers, and trust your ability to run a small business, then self-publishing is a great option. If, however, you’d rather just write books while leaving everything else in the hands of professionals, or if you have dreams of winning literary prizes, being a bestseller, and seeing your novel in big-name bookshops, then traditional publishing is probably a better path.
One important note: If you ever hope to have a book traditionally published, do not self-publish that book first. You can always pursue traditional publishing after being a self-published author, but outside of a very small number of exceptions, publishers will not consider a book that has already been self-published— you’ll need to start fresh with new material.
It’s certainly not unheard of for authors to develop a strong readership in self-publishing and use it to launch a career in traditional publishing and vice versa. You’re not stuck in whichever publishing path you choose— ultimately, your author career is yours!