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Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: Which Path Should You Follow?

Writing a novel is only the first part of your journey as an author. The second comes when your masterpiece is finished and it's time to publish. While you might have daydreamed of one day being published, chances are you didn't have a specific publishing plan in mind from the beginning (and if you did, way to go! You're lucky!). For those of us who have to make that decision once our book is written, it can seem like the biggest decision we've ever had to make- and to some extent that's true. Choosing whether to self-publish or traditionally publish can dictate the approach you use, how you market yourself as a writer, and of course, how your book is published.

Understanding the difference between the two different types can make making this big decision easier. Rather than doing all the research yourself, we've complied a comprehensive guide to help you learn the facts and make an educated decision.

What is Traditional Publishing?

Traditional publishing is when you query your manuscript to a publisher who then offers you a contract to publish your book. By signing the contract, you are essentially handing over the rights to your book in exchange for their ability to mass produce, market, and sell it. You then receive royalties from the sales that they facilitate. When you choose to work with a publisher you gain a lot of fringe benefits like the reputation and industry connections of the publisher, the expertise of professional editing, design work, and marketing specialists. While you share the burden of production, you trade off in ownership. This can be a great option when you don't have a prior reputation as a writer, lack the time/resources to do all the work yourself, or merely don't want to deal with the fuss of production. For this reason it's highly competitive and may take time to get your novel selected for this type of publishing.

What is Self-Publishing?

Self-Publishing is the exact opposite of traditional publishing. While traditional publishing is structured and provides both team and resources to the author, self-publishing means that you as the author must wear many hats. You're the one in control of how, when, who, and the way your book gets published. You'll be responsible for all the responsibilities of publishing- edits, cover design, formatting, launching, marketing, and selling your book. You don't have to do all of these single-handedly though! You can hire out the work to a team of your own choosing, another benefit of doing things for yourself. While it also means that there are more up-front costs, the pay-offs could be greater in the end should your book do well. This is because you'll have full rights to your book and full royalties rather than a percentage.

At A Glance...

What are the Pro's and Con's of both types of publishing? The short answer lies in the chart below.

Things To Consider

Here we break down the key differences between the two types and explain why you should consider which trade-offs are important to you and why.


Either way, publishing isn't free. To put it into perspective, it's really about how you want to spend your money: now or later.

With self-publishing it's fair to say that there are more costs associated with this process. This is because you're the only one funding your project and you're paying the majority of all your publishing expenses up-front. Realistically, it can cost around $2,000-3,000 per book to self-publish. If this seems like a lot, take into account the amount of people you'll need to hire to help you make your dream a reality (editor, cover designer, formatting help, marketing coach, etc). When you put things into perspective, you start to understand why the costs are so high. The reason that so many authors have chosen to go this route despite the costs is because of the potential to turn a higher profit in the long-run. Because you own the full rights and royalties there's the possibility that you could gain your investment back and 50-70% royalty rate should your book do well. Investing in a smart book marketing strategy can help make that happen. Without one, the results will not justify the initial means.

Traditionally publishing your book can seem like the better way to go at a glance. This is because your publisher would take all the expenses off your hands- meaning there are no up-front costs to you as the author. In fact, you gain a hefty lump sum up front in royalties. The downside to this arrangement comes with the amount you make in royalties after that initial royalty check (about a 5-15% royalty rate. Your book must sell a significant amount of copies in order to match the same level of potential royalties that you could gain from self-publishing- about 6x's as many books. This is great news if your book does fantastically well, but if it flops, you're out of luck.

The bottom line is that there's no guarantee of making a sizable sum from publishing a novel. That's the unholy truth. There's a reason why there are so few full-time authors and why there's a lot of skepticism from outside perspectives. It's not an easy task, but then again, neither is writing a book. If you're passionate enough to write your novel, then you have to be equally as passionate and determined to sell it. With hard work, smart decision making, and investing in yourself you can surpass these challenges and go the distance.


Consider the when you want to publish your book. Are you in a rush? Or do you have all the time in the world? Would you prefer to release your novel and then update it as needed? Or would you feel more comfortable making it perfect before allowing it to be published? These are excellent questions to answer before you choose which way to go.

Self-publishing is excellent for authors who can't wait to be published. If you're dying to get your novels to readers, in a hurry to start building your author career, or simply want to start the process on the fly and be able to worry about the details as you go along, then this may work the best for you. One of the greatest benefits of this type of publishing is that you have complete control over when you release your novels. You create the timeline, the launch date, and when you want to release more books.

On the flip side, traditionally publishing means that timeline decisions are not within your control. Your publisher dictates when your novels are published. It could take years for your book to see the light of day (mostly due to having quality standards and the balancing publicity for new releases). There is also a chance that your book could be postponed indefinitely, though this is extremely rare. Producing a high quality product and giving it the best possible introduction into the literary world can be worth the wait. If you're not in a rush, are more focused on perfecting your work, or feel comfortable with someone else calling the shots, then this may be a more effective route for you.

Whatever the answers to these questions are, it's completely up to you as the author to choose what's best for you and your book. Only you can decide and this will vary from author to author.

Creative Control

The biggest benefit of self-publishing is undoubtedly the creative freedom. Being able to call the shots on every aspect of your novel can not only be rewarding, but much more fun! You're able to set your own costs, timeline, and market your novel however you choose. You get to stay true to yourself as an author, keep the integrity of your art as you see fit, and present it to the world the way you want to without bureaucratic limitations.

That's not to say that all creativity goes out of the book publishing process if you traditionally publish. For many authors, going the traditional route not only fulfills a childhood dream, it also opens doors to creative avenues that they wouldn't be able to broach themselves. This can come by way of media opportunities like being interviewed, being asked to join a podcast, collaborating with designers on a splendid book cover, the creation of book merchandise, or by accepting a deal to turn your book into a movie or a TV series.

Reader Exposure

It's all about how many eyes you can get your book in front of. If you've got a background in marketing or a knack for social media, this may be a strong reason why you'll want to self-publish. If this is not your area of expertise, it's important to do your research and truly understand what you're getting into should you choose to market your own story. Anyone can learn how to market their book, but not everyone is suited for the amount of planning and work it takes to lead a successful marketing campaign.

It comes as no surprise that this is where traditionally publishing excels. Having an entire team of marketing specialists doing their best to promote your book to an already curated and willing audience speaks for itself. Having both online and real life opportunities can be difficult to manage and having an entire network of connections can help you reach widespread recognition. Traditional publishers will heavily promote your book online and actively ensure that it reaches spotlight tables in bookstores. This will happen quickly once things get started, meaning your book will appear before the proper audience faster than if you self-published.

With self-publishing there's more work that falls on your shoulders as the author, but doing it can be super rewarding. You've got the opportunity to reach your target audience directly, learn new skills, and gain connections that you wouldn't gain otherwise. This can come in the form of helpful writer friends and an extremely loyal readership that will purchase your present and future books. It can take more time to build up your network, but the good news is that this is an audience base that will be true to you and not the flashy sales tag associated with your book launch.


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Literary Prestige

This is a category that is dominated by traditionally published novels. As unfair as it may seem, the most prestigious literary awards and prizes tend to reject self-published work. This means that The New York Times Best Seller's List is one of the places that won't consider Indie work. The good news is that there are plenty of places out there who cater specifically to these authors- the Eric Hoffer Book Award, the Independent Publisher Book Awards, and the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Award to name a few. You'll also be able to make the Best Seller list on Amazon, so one could argue that your chances for recognition is pretty even, just more spread out. As a self-published author you'll also have the task of submitting your work to these award programs, so definitely keep that in mind. If you're shooting for literary greatness (like a Pulitzer) stay the traditional path.

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