Many writers aren’t yet sure which publication path they should take: self-publishing or traditional publishing. Or they may want to go down one route, but are open to the idea of another. There’s a lot to think about when choosing your method of publishing, and plenty of pros and cons to each. I’ll be exploring each one in depth, and hopefully giving you a good starting point to making the decision yourself!
In traditional publishing, you write and self-edit a manuscript as best you can, and then you query agents. Landing a literary agent is a difficult task in itself. Lots of authors have to write a few practice novels first before they’re ready. And even if you write a good book, it’s still incredibly competitive and difficult. Agents are swamped with submissions, they’re very busy people, and they only have the capacity to take on so many clients.
And this is just the first rung on the ladder. Once you land an agent, they will submit your book to publishing houses (usually after some revisions), hoping to secure you a book deal. But getting an agent doesn’t mean the book they signed you for will get published. Some authors work on two, three, even four or more manuscripts with their agent before they make a sale. Sometimes, the agent and author have to part ways because things aren’t working out, and the author has to go a different route.
I don’t say all this to be negative, just to paint a realistic picture of the industry and how it works.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of traditional publishing.
Pros of traditional publishing
- You will be pushed to hone your craft. Having something to aim for, where writing is vetted by industry professionals who know their stuff, can help you push yourself to improve. It can make you more determined to get better at the craft.
- Agents can negotiate contracts and deals for you, and handle any problems.
- A dedicated team. Aside from your agent, you’ll have the editor at your publishing house, a PR/marketing department (although you’ll still need to do marketing yourself), a copyeditor, proofreader, cover designer, formatter, etc, all of which you don’t have to pay for yourself.
- No up-front money required. Your agent only gets paid when you do, and they never charge an author up-front fees. You don’t have to spend money on editing, book covers, design, or formatting.
- Reaching bookshops and libraries. You’re more likely to see your book in a bookshop or library.
- Events are easier to access. Unfortunately there’s still some stigma surrounding indie publishing, especially when it comes to events, so many are only accessible by traditionally published authors.
- Selling rights. Your agent can try to sell radio/TV/film/audio rights for your book alongside print, giving you more publication opportunities in different formats.
- Translation rights. Your agent can submit your work for consideration to foreign publishers.
- Prestige and validation. Traditional publishing is still considered more “prestigious” than indie to a lot of people. It can also be validating to get past the vetting that goes alongside submitting to agents and publishers.
- Awards and prizes. A traditionally published book is able to be considered for awards, literary prizes, and grants, many of which aren’t open to indie authors.
Cons of traditional publishing
- Time and career stalling. It could take years to see your work in print. You could spend years submitting to agents across several projects, and more years to publishers. This can make it feel like your writing career is on hold.
- Luck and timing. So much of traditional publishing is down to luck, trends, what’s selling, and finding the right person at the right time. That can be frustrating.
- It’s not a meritocracy. Sadly, it can often not matter how hard you work. You can spend a few years pouring work and energy into a book, only for it to be rejected across the board. Of course, indie authors aren’t guaranteed success if they work hard, either, but traditional publishing has many more things that are outside of your control.
- Lack of control. You may end up with a cover you hate. You might feel pushed to change your style or genre, or make edits you don’t want to make, in order to break out as an author.
- Nepotism. Another unfortunate thing is that often, it’s much easier to break into traditional publishing if you know somebody who can help you get a foot in the door.
- Low advances. In traditional publishing, an author is paid an “advance” – an up-front sum of money to purchase the book. Bear in mind that your agent will take a percentage of that, and you’ll need to set some aside for taxes too. There are obviously people who get incredibly high advances, but these are rare.
- Low royalties. Your book has to “earn out” your advance before you start earning royalties, which is a percentage of the retail price per copy sold. According to The Society of Authors, this is about 7.5% for a paperback book, meaning for an £8.99 paperback, the author would get 67 pence.
- Lack of flexibility. Want to write about vampires? Unless you’re a well-known author or a bestseller already, it’ll be difficult to write about anything that’s considered overdone or not currently trendy. There’s also a risk of being pigeonholed in traditional publishing: if you write cute YA romances for a long time and want to switch to gritty adult thrillers, the transition may be more difficult or you may need a pen name.
Self-publishing is quite a different beast to traditional because essentially, you the author are the publisher and the business. It requires an entrepreneurial mindset to do it successfully. You don’t need to find an agent or a publisher. You do need to learn the skills required to self-publish.
The caveat is, some authors jump into self-publishing before they’re ready and before they’ve really taken the time to hone their craft or learn about the process. This is part of why self-publishing has a bit of a stigma attached. A small minority of authors might throw up a first draft riddled with typos and plot holes, with a badly designed cover.
There are plenty of authors out there doing very well in self-publishing, putting in the work to make a quality book, and finding loyal readers in the process. However, self-publishing can be a lot of work, and costly.
Unless you’re publishing a few copies for family and friends, it should be treated like a business decision.
Now for the pros and cons of self-publishing!
Pros of self-publishing
- Control. You get to choose your cover, interior design, fonts. If you don’t agree with your editor on a plot point or a character arc, you can still do it your own way. You can choose your publishing platforms. Although do bear in mind that there’s still a degree of needing to fit your book into a particular market (avid readers of fantasy romance will have certain expectations, for example).
- There are still plenty of opportunities to hone your craft. You can work alongside a great editor. Read craft books on the side. Improve with each book you write. Learn from other indie authors.
- Independence. If you like working for yourself, and doing things for yourself, it can be satisfying to take your publishing journey into your own hands and do it independently. Of course, you’ll still need the help of other people (editors, cover designers, etc), but all the choices are yours. (For some people, this might actually be a con.)
- Prospect to earn more. You’ll get a higher royalty rate publishing yourself. You won’t have to give an agent a cut, either. Joanna Penn writes in Successful Self-Publishing that if you sell on Amazon and price a book between US $2.99 and $9.99, you’ll get 70% royalties. However, bear in mind that earning good money in self-publishing can be difficult unless you’re selling extremely well – and that can be difficult to achieve.
- Flexibility. If you want to publish those cute romances and also write gritty adult books, you can do that. Want multiple pen names for each genre? Fine. Want to experiment with epic fantasy without telling your existing readers? You can do that, too.
- It’s easier to publish. You don’t need anyone’s permission to publish your book. You don’t have to wait years for a “yes”. You can just decide to do it, and do it.
- Data. Unlike with traditional publishers, you’ll have access to much more data about your book’s sales and this can allow you to plan how to do things differently with future books, or to tweak your approach.
Cons of self-publishing
- Decisions fall on you. This is a con as well as a pro! With every choice being yours, you may make mistakes or second-guess yourself. There’s plenty of help and advice out there, but mistakes are unavoidable. Without an agent to advise you, decision-making may be more difficult. You might dislike making so many big decisions by yourself.
- Stigma. As I mentioned before, self-publishing is still stigmatised to a degree, and many people still view it as a “lesser” option, or an option for people who have “failed”. You may encounter this stigma, and you may come up against resistance when trying to access events, find reviewers, etc.
- Bookshops and libraries aren’t as accessible. These aren’t likely to stock your book unless a librarian or bookseller actually requests them. There are methods for you to secure distribution, but it’s hard work and complex.
- Costly. You’ll be paying for absolutely everything yourself, and the costs can be high: the various stages of editing, cover design, formatting, advertising, marketing, web hosting. You could run out of funds unless your books are selling well enough for you to continue (or you have a good job!).
- No guaranteed income. There are no guarantees in terms of making money. In traditional publishing, if you sell your book to a publisher, you’re usually guaranteed an advance. But in self-publishing, you spend money to publish and have no idea if anyone will purchase the book. You may even experience a financial loss.
- A flooded market. Because self-publishing has become so easy, you’ll have a lot of competition. You may have to work harder to get noticed, especially if you don’t have an existing audience. Building a readership isn’t easy, and if you don’t enjoy marketing or promotion, this may be tougher for you. It can also be exhausting.
- You’ll be running a business. This might not be a con to you, if you enjoy this kind of thing, but if you’re self-publishing, you’re running a business. You will be responsible for sorting out your taxes on anything you earn and making sure you’re following the tax rules in your country. You will need to be business-minded, strategise, plan. Without someone like an agent to support you, it can be difficult to do this on your own.
Deciding which path is right for you
Now that you’ve seen the pros and cons of self-publishing and traditional publishing, which one is right for you? If you have an entrepreneurial mind, like the idea of running a business, and want full creative control and not to be held back by the slow timeline of traditional publishing, self-publishing might be the option for you. Maybe you have the funds to give it a try.
If you’re more interested in the sense of validation that comes from traditional publishing, you don’t want to do the bulk of the work yourself, and instead would prefer to work alongside an agent and publisher, give traditional publishing a go. Many authors go this route because they want to see their work in bookshops and be part of the traditional industry. Some authors can’t afford to self-publish, and so they attempt the traditional path instead.
Remember, whatever you choose, you can always shift focus. If you try going down the traditional publishing route and find it isn’t working for you, explore self-publishing. Many traditionally published authors are publishing some projects by themselves these days, becoming “hybrid” authors who do both.
For more resources on writing and publishing, check out my resource library.