Self-Publishing or Traditional Publishing?

Updated: May 7, 2020

Here are some of the benefits & challenges of self-publishing and traditional publishing.

I often get asked questions from beginning writers about whether to publish their books through self-publishing or a traditional publisher. There are a few advantages and disadvantages for each. Here are a few:

The first two books I published (one was a poetry book and the other was about the power of the voice) were published through a friend’s publishing company. While my friend did own his own publishing company the experience was more like that of self-publishing as I paid a fee for my friend to handle the editing, layout, cover design, securing the ISBN, and all tasks necessary to get my book published. It was a small, one-person operation, which which kept the costs of publishing down for me. That was a wonderful benefit.

Also, since it was a small publishing company it didn't take too long for my book to be in my hands. At traditional, more well-established publishing houses it can take over a year or longer from the time an author submits their manuscript for review until the time it is actually published.

Another benefit of self-publishing is that the author gets to retain all rights to their book. This means the author gets to keep all the profits made from book sales. The general practice with traditional publishers is for the author to sign a contract that transfers ownership of their book to the publishing company. Many publishing companies will offer the author a negotiated percentage of book sales (generally between 8-10 % for first-time authors). This means that an author who signs a contract with a traditional publisher would get a smaller percentage of book sales.

While self-publishing clearly has some advantages there are also advantages to publishing with traditional, more established publishing companies. When an author self-publishes their book they have to pay for particular services such as editing, page layout, securing an ISBN, cover design, and marketing and promotion. Traditional publishers generally take on all the costs of publishing, marketing, and distributing an author's book. The author takes home a smaller percentage of book sales but they don't have to pay any fees to get their book published. And in some cases, like when Fortress Press published my book The Last Blues Preacher, traditional publishers will give authors a cash advance.

Next, using a traditional publisher saves a lot of time. One thing beginning authors don't realize is how much energy and time it will take to market their books once they are published. It really is true that marketing a book takes as much energy as it takes to write a book. When I self-published my first two books I had to do all the marketing and promotion. That was a lot of work! It was exhausting. My third book, The Last Blues Preacher, is published through a well-known publisher, Fortress Press. It was so refreshing relying on the publishing company's extensive resources, including book distributers, built-in audiences, graphics designers, social media promotions, etc. Using a traditional publisher often saves authors money and provides authors with a broader reach to audiences much more quickly than many self-publishing companies are able to achieve. Additionally, a well-known publishing house has relationships with bookstores like Barnes & Noble and has the infrastructure to distribute your book nationally and internationally with little to no effort on your part.

Finally, getting your book published with a well-known traditional publisher will mean that you'll have to submit a book proposal to a publisher and an acquisitions team will decide whether to publish your book or not. Many self-publishing companies don't require authors to submit proposals, since authors pay fees for service. For those self-publishing companies that do require proposals the standards for those proposals are not the same as those traditional publishing companies set for authors. Submitting a book proposal that has demanding expectations provides a great experience for you as a writer. One reason for this is because you're going to get some rejections. Every writer trying to use a traditional publisher experiences rejections. J.K. Rowling experienced rejections when she first started out. I experienced many rejections when I was trying to find a publisher for The Last Blues Preacher, which just recently won the 2019 International Book Awards for best biography! But rejections are great opportunities to learn and grow as a writer. The more you submit book proposals the better you become at writing them.

So, if you want to use a traditional publisher then it's a great idea now to begin researching what publishers would be interested in your book's content. A GREAT book to buy is the most recent version of Writer's Market (Writer's Market 2019). There you'll be able to see what kinds of books particular publishers are looking to publish. Finally, it’s worth researching both self-publishing and traditional publishing because the education will make you a better writer and a writer with more of a business sense for how to make a book successful.

I hope this helps. Keep writing!

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