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Self-Publishing vs. Traditional: What You Need to Know

Once you decide to write a book with the intent to publish it you have a few options when it comes to getting it into the hands of readers. Up until quite recently, most authors chose to take the traditional publishing route—but in the last decade, as the publishing tools available to individuals have become more sophisticated and more user-friendly, more and more authors are opting for self-publishing. Here, we’re laying out all the big things you need to know about each.

What is traditional publishing? 

If you asked a random stranger on the street to describe how books are published, the process they describe is going to be the one that takes place with a traditional publisher. Getting your book published traditionally typically starts with pitching it—for fiction, you’ll want a completed manuscript at this point, while for nonfiction you’ll need a proposal (at least). There are some cases in which you may be pitching these materials directly to editors, if they are at imprints that accept unsolicited manuscripts or you meet an editor at a conference for example, but in most cases you will be pitching to agents. Once you find an agent willing to represent you (this step often takes the longest for first-time authors), your agent will go out and pitch your book to publishers.

If a publisher is interested in buying your book, you will usually be given a contract that includes things like an advance and an initial print run. Then you will work with an editor to get your book ready for market, a process that varies in length depending on your genre. The amount of money, time and resources the publisher puts into marketing your book will also vary. The publisher will determine how widely it is released, via what platforms and in what formats, such as hardcover, paperback or e-book. Once the writing and editing process is done, you just get to wait for the book to come out, assist in publicity when needed and hopefully watch the royalties roll in. 

What is self-publishing?

Also referred to as indie publishing or independent publishing, this process requires the author to also take on the roll of publisher in readying the book for market. As the author, you would be responsible for writing the book and editing it (with help from a hired editor, if you like) as well as formatting it, designing it, marketing it and taking the necessary behind-the-scenes steps to ready it for distribution and purchase by readers. You don’t need to spend months or years securing an agent, an editor and a publishing deal and you have total control over every aspect of your book. But that also means that it’s your job to make every aspect of your book, from the words themselves to the font size, trim size and cover design, look as professional and polished as possible. 

What about a small press?

Small presses are a newer type of publisher that have begun forming as a result of the biggest publishers merging and forming essentially super publishers. The process for the author is going to look and feel much the same as it would with a traditional publisher with the responsibilities being divided in the same way. The primary differences are that a small press can provide more personal attention to the author and they typically won’t do an advance or an initial print run. Instead, many will release a book in e-book format and use a print-on-demand system for print copies.

How do you decide?

Some aspiring authors may read the descriptions above and immediately know which route is best for them. But there are pros and cons to each and reasons that one may appeal more to you at a certain point in your career. Here are some questions to ask yourself that may help you determine the best route:

Do I want to invest any money in publishing my book?

If your answer is no, then self-publishing probably isn’t your thing. If an agent, editor or traditional publisher ever asks you for money, it’s a red flag to turn and run in the other direction. While traditional publishing is definitely harder to break into and can take longer, it requires no financial investment on your part—only the time and energy needed to make your book the best it can be. And while it’s possible to self-publish a book with a minimal investment, the difference in quality from others that have invested more will be apparent. You’ll likely want to hire an editor or two and a cover designer, plus you’ll need a formatting program and ISBN numbers to make sure your book can be distributed (Ingram is the company you need to know about for everything distribution). 

Do I want total creative control? 

If you have an ironclad vision for how you want your book to look in the hands of readers, then self-publishing is your best bet. You will have some input along the way with a traditional publisher but they will always have the final say. 

Do I want to design the cover? 

If you’d rather leave cover design to the pros, that’s a point in the traditional publishing column. Most publishers will discuss cover design and imagery with the author, maybe offer a couple different options for your opinion, but then they will make the final call (the exception might be if you’re on your tenth book with a publisher and they’re willing to give you a bit more leverage). But with self-publishing, the cover is totally up to you. You can design it yourself, choosing all the fonts and imagery, or you can hire a cover designer and work with them to craft the cover of your dreams. 

Do I want to format the book and figure out how to distribute it? 

Now we’re getting into the nitty gritty. If you have a book nearby, open it and look at the pages. The font, the spacing, the margins, the page numbers, the headers and footers—those are all decisions that someone makes. If you are going to self-publish, that someone would be you. Likewise, you can’t just show up at your local bookstore with a stack of books, place them on the shelf and slap some price stickers on them. There are steps that must be taken to allow you to distribute and sell your book. If you go the traditional publishing route, none of these steps are your responsibility. 

Do I want to market the book? 

In today’s publishing environment, this one is kind of a toss-up. Some traditional publishers will spend money on marketing, but most will expect you to take an active role in publicizing your book as well. Likewise, the entire marketing plan falls on your shoulders if you go the self-publishing route. The good news: There are lots of steps you can take to market your book using tools and skills that are already in your arsenal.  

Can I do both traditional and self-publishing?

Sure! Lots of authors do. A common path is for authors to self-publish a book or two and then move to traditional publishing with those titles under their belt, as having the experience (and hopefully an established audience) can help them secure an agent quicker. Authors later in their careers may also take advantage of both, for example if they are under contract to a traditional publisher for a specific kind of book but have another they want to write that they decide to self-publish. 

A final thought: Remember that if you decide to pursue one route over the other, that decision doesn’t need to be set in stone. If you spend two years querying agents to no avail but feel strongly that you want your book out in the world, maybe that’s the moment that you decide to self-publish. Likewise, if you try the self-publishing route and feel wildly in over your head, maybe you pursue traditional publishing instead. In today’s publishing environment, both avenues have an equal chance of landing you on the bestseller list!


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