self publishing vs traditional publishing

Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

In the modern publishing industry, authors have more publication options than ever before. That can be amazing, as it allows authors to choose the option that best suits their goals for each specific project and for their career as a whole. But it can also make it difficult to determine the best route for your book and writing career. Understanding the pros and cons of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing is a big first step in determining your ideal publication avenue.

These types of publishing are very different, and neither is inherently better than the other. With traditional vs. self-publishing, they each come with unique benefits and drawbacks, and they each require the author to put in the work to create an outstanding book.

Before you take steps toward publishing your book, it’s important to understand the differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing, along with the expectations for each. Along with helping you make an informed decision about your publishing plans, understanding the industry will help you avoid scams and predatory companies.

Let’s break down how to publish a book using the major types of publication, with the pros and cons of each option.

Represented Traditional Publication (With an Agent)

What? Represented traditional publication involves publishing with a traditional publishing house (such as the big five) while being represented by a literary agent.

Why? You want to seek publication through a big house.

This is the traditional, time-tested publication process. Here’s the breakdown:

Step 1: Write a book.

This should be a given, but it’s worth mentioning that you should write and complete your manuscript before querying agents.

Step 2: Secure a literary agent.

Signing with an agent can be a long process. Personally, it took me six years. The process of securing a literary agent involves writing and submitting one-page query letters, responding to requests for your partial or full manuscript, having a discussion over the phone with an interested agent, and finally making the decision to hire a literary agent to represent you. Don’t underestimate this process. It’s not easy.

Read about how I got my agent here.

Step 3: Go on submission.

After signing with a literary agent and determining your manuscript is ready, your agent will submit your manuscript to publishers. Your manuscript needs to make it through several levels of the publishing house to be officially accepted. Once that happens, and you agree to the terms, you’ve got a book deal.

Of course, there are more steps in there. (Traditional publication is a complicated process.) But that’s the gist of it.

Pros of Agented Publication

1. Agent support

Having an agent in your corner is a big deal. Not only does an agent allow you to get your foot in the door of large houses, they also help you negotiate the best deal for your book. Many agents are also editorial and will help you improve your manuscript prior to submission.

2. Publisher support

Your publisher takes care of things like cover design and interior formatting. You’ll also have a team of editorial and marketing support.

3. No up-front costs

That support your publisher provides? Those are things you would otherwise have to pay for yourself.

4. Advance

After receiving traditional book deal, you get a cash advance. The amount varies, but this is money in your pocket—which can make it easier to write your next book.

5. Career opportunities

Traditional publication with a large publishing house is still the most prestigious form of publication, largely because of the many gatekeepers between writing the book and securing a book deal. Those gatekeepers serve as a type of quality control, so readers and industry professionals know that books published with large houses meet certain standards. Also, books published by large houses typically reach a larger readership, which can help you gain fans and launch your career more quickly.

Cons of Agented Publication

1. Long process

This is not an overnight process. Publishing traditionally takes a while, and there is no way to rush it. Securing an agent can take many years. Getting a book deal can take a year or longer. And even after securing a book deal, the actual publication process is not short. This is all in addition to the rounds of editing that happen at each stage of the process.

2. No guarantees

At no point in this process are you guaranteed publication. You can submit a million queries and never sign with an agent. You can sign with an agent and never get a book deal. You can get a book deal and never get a second one. To pursue this path, you have to be all right with a good deal of uncertainty.

3. Limited control

Traditional publishers take care of many aspects of publication, such as cover design. While this can be beneficial for the author (especially financially), it does take some control from the author. They may not have a say in the way their book is presented aesthetically. The publishing house may also ask for changes to the story.

4. Low royalty percentage

The services the author receives from their agent and publisher are not free. The agent and publisher take a percentage of the royalties—a large percentage. Most authors receive royalties comprising 10 to 15 percent of book sales. Agents typically take 15 percent of those royalties.

Represented Traditional Publication ProsRepresented Traditional Publication Cons
Agent supportLong process
Publisher supportNo guarantees
No up-front costsLimited control
AdvanceLow royalty percentage
Career opportunities

Unrepresented Traditional Publication (No Agent)

What? Authors can submit work directly to some smaller publishers, such as independent presses, to publish traditionally without the help of a literary agent.

Why? You want publisher support with a shorter timeframe and are okay with a publisher who has fewer resources.

It is possible to pursue traditional publication without an agent. While large houses, such as the big five, do not typically accept unsolicited submissions (i.e. manuscript submissions directly from authors, rather than from agents), many smaller houses do. These publishing houses are often called small presses or indie presses.

The process for publishing in this way is similar to publishing traditionally with an agent. First, complete the manuscript. Then, submit to publishing houses. Publishers may ask for a query letter or for the full manuscript.

Authors can also secure agents or publishers by pitching at conferences.

​Here are the pros and cons of this type of publishing.

Pros of Unrepresented Traditional Publication

1. Faster than agented publication

Because publishing with a small press does not require the author to secure an agent first, the process typically takes less time

2. Publisher support

Like a large house, indie presses offer support on elements such as cover design and marketing. The level of support varies by house. However, small presses rarely offer as much support as large houses.

3. No up-front costs

As a form of traditional publishing, there are no up-front costs. If a publisher asks for an up-front fee, do not associate with that publisher. These types of publishers are known as vanity presses and are not legitimate.

4. Career opportunities

Because there is one gatekeeper prior to publication, this type of publishing is considered more prestigious than self-publishing, though not as prestigious as publishing with a large house. Each small press has a different reach and offers a different level of marketing support.

5. Possibility of an advance

Small presses may or may not offer a cash advance. Consider this when evaluating potential publishers.

Cons of Unrepresented Traditional Publication

1. No guarantees

While there are less points at which the process can fail than in traditional publishing with representation, there is no guarantee of being accepted by a small press.

2. Moderate control

Authors often have more control when publishing with a small press than with a large house. However, they do not have all control. Authors taking this route should understand how much control they will have before agreeing to publish with the house.

3. Less reach

Books published through small houses typically reach fewer readers than those published by large houses. More of the responsibility for marketing falls on the author.

4. No negotiation support

When working with a publishing house without representation, the author has no one in their corner to ensure they’re not being taken advantage of. The author must negotiate the details of the book deal themselves—a task most authors are not qualified to take on. Authors considering publishing with a small press should do their due diligence in researching aspects they should look for in their contract. They can also reach out to the publisher’s current authors to learn more about their experiences.

Unrepresented Traditional Publication ProsUnrepresented Traditional Publication Cons
Faster than represented publicationNo guarantees
Publisher supportModerate control
No up-front costsLess reach
Career opportunitiesNo negotiation support
Possibility of an advance

Self-Publication (Independent Publication)

What? Self-published authors are their own publisher, and they assume all responsibility (financial and otherwise) of tasks usually handled by the publisher: editing, book design, marketing, etc.

Why? You want full control or guaranteed publication and are okay with putting forth the initial time and financial investment.

​Self-publishing is the newest type of publishing and is changing the landscape of the publishing industry in big ways.

What it is: a way to publish your work in a manner that allows you complete control.

What it is not: a backup plan if you are not able to publish traditionally.

Self-publishing is a lot of work, and if you have your heart set on publishing traditionally, but your manuscript is not accepted, don’t think of self-publishing as a consolation prize. If you are not sure self-publishing is the best route for your career, trunk the project and start a new one.

Self-publishing gives you all the control and all the responsibility. The author becomes the publisher as well, by publishing their book through a print-on-demand service such as Kindle Direct Publishing or IngramSpark. After finishing the manuscript, the author—either themself or by hiring professionals—completes tasks including editing, interior formatting, and cover design. The author is also responsible for all marketing efforts.

Pros of Self-Publishing

1. Potentially faster than traditional publication

Self-publishing, done correctly, is not a short process, but it is much faster than traditional publishing—especially agented traditional publishing.

2. Guaranteed publication

There are no gatekeepers and no quality control in self-publishing. If you want to publish something through KDP or IngramSpark, you can. No questions asked.​

3. Complete control

By self-publishing, authors maintain complete control of their book and its presentation. They okay everything from the final story to the cover design, and they can change these aspects at any time.

4. High royalty percentage

Typically, authors publishing through KDP receive royalties amounting to 60 percent of sales, after deducting printing costs. Because there is no agent or publishing house taking a cut, the percentage of royalties self-published authors receive is much higher than those for traditionally published authors.

Cons of Self-Publishing

1. Less reach

​Self-published authors may have a difficult time getting their books into brick-and-mortar bookstores and libraries. Typically, books published through IngramSpark have a broader reach than those published through KDP.

2. No support

With complete control comes complete responsibility. The author is also the publisher and is responsible for everything. That includes editing, cover design, interior formatting, and marketing. The author has no support except professionals they hire.

Note: Check Write Beware before hiring any publishing professionals.

3. Up-front costs

Because the author is responsible for all aspects of publication, there will be up-front costs. Because the likelihood that a single individual is proficient in all aspects required to create a quality book is extremely low, no author should attempt to do everything themselves. They will need to hire professionals to take care of various aspects of the publishing process. They will also need to pay for marketing efforts, such as a marketing team, promotional materials, and booths and book fairs.

4. No inherent prestige

Because there is no gatekeeper for self-publishing authors, there is no inherent prestige to publishing in this way. Self-published authors can earn their stripes through positive reviews and high sales figures.

5. No advance

In addition to paying for up-front costs, self-publishing authors receive no cash advance.

Self-Publishing ProsSelf-Publishing Cons
Can be fasterLess reach
Guaranteed publicationNo support
Complete controlUp-front costs
High royalty percentageNo inherent prestige
No advance

Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: Choosing the Best Option for You

There is no one-size-fits-all route to publishing a book. The best option depends on your specific project and career goals.

If you’re considering traditional vs. self-publishing, you may not even need to decide. Many authors pursue different types of publication for different projects. These “hybrid authors” may publish a book with a large publishing house and self-publish another project. This can be great for authors who write multiple genres, especially where one genre tends to do better in the independent market.

There is no right or wrong way to publish a book. There are only different options, each with unique pros and cons. Take your time determining which route is best for you, and don’t feel locked in to a certain path.

And remember that our team is here to help you determine which path best fits your manuscript and goals. Book a consultation to discuss publication options for your book and how Blue Pen can help you succeed, whichever route you choose.

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