Pros and Cons – Traditional v Self-Publishing by Roland Fishman
Once you’ve written the best novel you can and feel ready to get your novel published and release it to the world, the first decision you must make is whether to self-publish or pursue a traditional publishing deal. This article explores the pros and cons of both paths.
The British author services firm, Reedsy, describes self-publishing vs traditional publishing as one of the great debates of the literary world.
Self-publishing authors sing the praises of having creative control, not having to deal with the publishing gatekeepers and receiving higher royalties.
Traditional publishing professionals maintain they offer a well-earned stamp of legitimacy, the benefits of working with an established team of professionals and the surest path to mainstream success.
‘The truth,’ Reedsy says, ‘lies somewhere in the middle. There are pros and cons to both sides, and the right choice depends on you as an individual author.’
Self-publishing is also referred to as independent or indie publishing. Not to be confused with independent publishers who are relatively small publishers not allied to major houses.
We will also look at Online publishing which falls between Traditional Publishing and Self-Publishing.
To get a broad overview of the publishing landscape, see the first article in the series –
Traditional book publishing is when a publisher offers the author a contract and takes responsibility for the publication and, to some extent, the marketing and promotion of the novel.
The publisher pays the author royalties from book sales. Normally they pay an advance, which is deducted from book sales. The size of the advance usually reflects the perceived sales potential of the novel.
In return, the publisher oversees the design, editing, proof-reading and packaging of the novel, supplying a team of seasoned professionals to work on the manuscript.
They print as many copies as they think they can sell and take care of much of the marketing, promotion and distribution of your novel to various bookstores and other retail outlets.
In Australia, royalties are usually ten percent of a book’s recommended retail price (RRP), or twenty five percent for e-books. If you have an agent, they generally take a fifteen percent commission of the ten percent the publisher pays the author.
Securing a traditional publishing deal delivers significant benefits.
Ingrid Ohlsson from Pan Macmillan says that being published by a traditional publisher gives a writer a sense of legitimacy and prestige.
The writer gets to work with an experienced team who have the contacts and expertise to make sure your book gets into bookstores, is reviewed and promoted. This gives a novel its best chance of being reviewed and getting onto the bestseller lists.
For many writers, getting a traditional publishing deal is a much sought after stamp of credibility, recognition and validation.
However, to get a publishing deal, your book must pass a series of gatekeepers, including agents, publishers and marketing departments. It is critical you take your time and submit the best novel you are capable of producing.
‘To me, the single biggest mark of the amateur writer is a sense of hurry …’ Charles Finch, a USA Today best-selling author and essayist, said. ‘I wonder how many self-published novels might have had a chance at getting bought, and finding more readers, if their authors had a bit more patience with them?’
Not getting an agent or publisher doesn’t mean your novel isn’t worthwhile or won’t find a market. Many traditional publishing decisions are based on what is selling. Something no one can predict going forward.
If you fail to find a traditional publishing home, it doesn’t mean you won’t find an enthusiastic market for your novel through self-publishing. You can still make money and derive great pleasure from seeing readers enjoy and review your work.
Traditional Publishing – Pros
- Prestige, Kudos and Validation. As mentioned above, securing an agent and a publishing deal delivers significant prestige and validation. It means a group of industry professionals recognise the merit of your novel and are willing to put their money behind it.
- You get to work with a team of experienced professionals. Having an established, professional team behind your novel, is for most writers a rewarding experience and a real bonus of traditional publishing.
- Your book will get into bookstores. This is where traditional publishers excel. Sales reps go around the bookstores promoting your novel and make it easy for book buyers to select your novel.
- The publisher promotes your book. Publishers will help get your novel reviewed, get you more interviews and improve your chances of winning literary prizes. They will actively market your book for the first six to eight weeks of publication and will guide you on how to best promote your novel.
- You don’t have to pay for any of the above services, which you would have to do if you self-publish.
Traditional Publishing – Cons
- Getting through the gatekeepers. One of the biggest drawbacks of going down the traditional publishing path is that in order to get a traditional publishing deal, you have to get through the gatekeepers. Only a small proportion of books submitted are picked up by traditional publishers.
- Traditional Publishing moves at a glacial pace. Not only is getting a publishing deal difficult, it can be frustratingly slow to get a response from agents and publishers. Then, after being accepted by an agent, it can take up to two years before a book hits the marketplace. Oliver Sands, who along with his partner, Ged Gilmore, has self-published six books, tells of an experience he had with a top-five UK agent. ‘She said she loved [the novel]. Gave in-depth feedback. But getting future responses was like pulling teeth.’ After six months of moving and getting nowhere, he decided to publish himself and has never regretted it.
- No guarantee of sales. Getting a traditional publishing deal is no guarantee your novel will sell. If it doesn’t, there’s a good chance it will disappear from sight. Whereas if you publish a novel yourself, thanks to print on demand and eBooks, you can continue to promote and sell your book indefinitely.
- Creative control. You lose a degree of creative control. Some novelists find this very frustrating. However, for the most part, a professional editor can always make your work better.
- Much lower royalties. Traditional publishing royalty rates are much lower – ten percent in traditional publishing versus up to seventy percent with self-publishing.
Self or Indie Publishing
There are two ways to self-publish your novel.
- Do everything yourself, including editing, typesetting, cover design, and uploading your book on online platforms. You are then responsible for marketing and promoting your novel. This is relatively inexpensive, but you are unlikely to get a good result.
- You can hire highly skilled professionals to help you with every step of the publication process. This gives you your best chance of finding an appreciative audience, but it does cost time and money.
Joanna Penn says, ‘I use the term independent author, or indie author, for what I do. I work with top freelance professionals … this is a business for me, not a hobby. I make a multiple six-figure income as an author entrepreneur and being an indie is a positive choice, not a last resort.’
Those who make a success of self-publishing their novels tend to be those who treat it as a business.
Self or Indie Publishing – Pros
- It is not a matter of if you get published. Today, you are guaranteed that if you want to publish your novel, your novel will be published. There are many experienced industry professionals who you can hire to help you produce a quality product that readers will enjoy. You can utilise affordable marketing avenues to get your novel reviewed, find readers, sell copies and make a name for yourself as a writer. Once you’ve proved yourself as a writer by writing a well-received novel, it may help you attract a traditional publishing deal for your next book.
- You control your destiny. You pour your heart and soul into your novel and then when you put it out into the world, the process of finding a traditional publisher can be extremely disempowering, frustrating and disheartening. You don’t have to wait for agents’ and publishers’ approval or have to fit into their timelines or whims. You can work with industry professionals to produce the book you want to produce. You take control of your creative process.
- You don’t have to wait. As mentioned above, getting an agent to represent you can be a slow, frustrating process. If you succeed in securing an agent, they still have to find a publisher and then your novel has to fit into the publisher’s schedule. The process can take years. In comparison, self-publishing is relatively quick.
- Your novel won’t go out of print. Thanks to Print on Demand and eBooks, your self-published novel will never go out of print. You can promote your book through social medial, Amazon ads and other online marketing platforms to attract new readers. You control the marketing process to reach an audience.
- Much higher royalties.
Self or Indie Publishing – Cons
- Sales and recognition. If your book is traditionally published, you are more likely to be reviewed, win awards, have your book made widely available in bookshops, have articles written about you, be interviewed, be invited to writing festivals and get onto the bestseller lists.
- You are responsible for everything. Self-published novelists don’t have the benefit of working with a team of established professions. You can’t just sit back and wait for people to find your book. You must learn how to promote your novel through digital marketing channels.
- Time and money. You have to create your own team of professionals and pay for their services. To make your novel as good as it can be, to reach appreciative readers, attract positive reviews and sell books through self-publishing, takes time and money.
Coming soon – Promoting your Self-published novel. This article isn’t yet available – contact us if you want to be notified when it is available
Online publishing falls somewhere between traditional publishing and independent/self-publishing. It generally involves a publisher producing eBooks, printed books and audiobooks, which are exclusively sold online.
As with a traditional publisher, Bookouture put her novel through a rigorous editorial process. But unlike a traditional publisher, it will not distribute her book in brick-and-mortar bookstores. Their website says, ‘We don’t pay advances, but we do pay high digital royalty rates of 45% of net receipts on sales of ebooks and audio editions.’
‘When I started out,’ Louisa said, ‘the aim of aspiring writers was very focused on getting a traditional publisher who would prepare a book for publication, promote it and get it into the bookstores. Self-publishing was regarded back then as second-tier.
‘Not so anymore. And in the last ten years, a new middle ground has emerged: online publishers. They offer all the skills of a traditional publisher, plus a team dedicated to online sales. What they don’t do is distribute books through bookshops.
‘Online publishers now specialise in maximising sales online. Bookouture is brilliant at it. They are highly professional, understand all the algorithms and all aspects of digital marketing.
‘They are very thorough and professional. You have a dedicated editor and there is a four-stage editorial process: structural, line and copy edit and proofreading.’
Another huge advantage of working with an online publisher is they have a much faster turnaround. Louisa delivered the manuscript for her next thriller in April and it will be published on September 28, only five months later.
‘I love the publishers I am with. I feel like I have found my home.’
Her advice to writers who have finished a novel and are looking to get published: ‘Make sure the manuscript is the very best you can make it.’
These days, you don’t necessarily have to choose between traditional publishing and independent/self-publishing. Many authors are now hybrids who use both forms of publishing for different projects, or who transition from independent/self-publishing to traditional publishing, depending on the book and the marketplace. You could have your novel traditionally published in Australia and self-published in the rest of the world.
‘Just because you indie publish one book doesn’t mean you can’t then go the trad (traditional) route with your next book,’ Oliver Sands said. ‘You can prove your book sells and can gather positive reviews, which makes you a more attractive proposition for trad publishers. You can use the first indie book to leverage a trad deal.’
According to one industry professional, ‘Nobody becomes a New York Times bestselling author overnight. The bottom line is if you’re a first-time writer, it will be harder for you to attract the attention of the publishing industry anyway.
‘Putting out your book as a self-publisher can help you attract a fanbase and build up an email list while also proving to potential publishers that you know how to write a book.
‘Many successful authors got their start in self-publishing, and producing an underground hit on your own may attract the attention of traditional book publishers in the future.’
For first-time authors considering how to publish their novel, we recommend you don’t let the challenges of the traditional publishing process put you off. Back yourself and your novel and submit your work to agents and publishers.
If the process of landing an agent or a publisher becomes too frustrating, we recommend you work with industry professionals and self-publish your novel. You can reach a significant audience and a successful publication might help land a publishing deal down the track.
Writing fiction is a craft that takes time to master. It takes as long as it takes. Focus on what you have control over, creating the best novel you are capable of writing.
Failing to land a publishing deal doesn’t mean your novel is no good, you have no talent or you should stop writing. You might need to write another novel before writing a story that finds a wide audience.
Sometimes it comes down to luck and timing. Many years ago I got to know Steve Berry, the New York Times bestselling author of twenty novels, at a writing retreat in Fiji. One evening over mineral water at the outdoor bar, he told me how, when he’d started out, he had written four novels that no one was interested in publishing.
Then, when The Da Vinci Code was a huge success, publishers became interested in his novels, which were in the same genre. ‘I now have seven million books in print,’ he said.
Stephen King said, ‘I wrote five novels before Carrie. Two of them were bad, one was indifferent, and I thought two of them were pretty good.’ He has sold over three hundred and fifty million novels.
If you want to be a writer, the only failure is stopping.