Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing—Pros and Cons
What is traditional publishing?
In the traditional publishing model, a publisher is the gatekeeper to your audience, and a publishing agent your first port of call. The model begins with you scouting for and commissioning an agent to pitch your book/book proposal to a publishing house. If luck favors you, you will be signed on by a publisher and receive a book advance. Once your book is published and starts to sell, you will earn royalties, typically in the range of 7% to 15% of sales. The royalty payments, however, begin only after the book has sold enough copies to earn out—that is, after the publisher has recovered the book advance from the royalties on your early sales.
Pros of traditional publishing
- It brings prestige. Being signed on by a book publisher still serves as validation for many authors. If a publisher sees merit in your book and invests resources in it, you must have written a good book!
- You pay nothing. Since all publishing costs are borne by the publisher, lower-than-expected sales will not cause you any financial loss. Even if your book does not earn out, you are not expected to repay any portion of the book advance.
- The publisher takes care of everything. The publisher provides professional services such as editing, proofreading, and designing, as well as takes care of printing, warehousing, and distribution (making the book available at bookstores, libraries, and other institutions). They would also arrange for editorial reviews and organize book signing events. Having someone take care of all this is a big relief for authors, who can then devote more of their time to writing.
- Your book will get a place in physical bookstores. As traditional publishers have a good distribution network and offer a book returns option, physical bookstores would be more willing to stock your book. This would improve its chances of being discovered and purchased.
Cons of traditional publishing
- It is time-consuming. New authors in particular are likely to be rejected many times over before they manage to land a book deal. Even after a deal is signed, it would take another year or two for the book to be published and available in bookstores.
- Authors have limited creative control. You would not have complete control over the creative aspects of your book, such as its title, its cover design, and how it is edited.
- Royalty rates are lower. Royalty rates in traditional publishing are lower than in self-publishing.
- Publisher contracts are complicated documents. In addition to being complicated, they often include terms that favor the publisher. You and your lawyer will need to go over the terms and clauses carefully to ensure that you hold as many of the book’s rights as possible.
What is self-publishing?
Authors can bypass the traditional gatekeepers and publish on their own, using one or more of the many self-publishing platforms available. For a measure of how authors have taken to it, know that self-published books now account for 30% to 40% of all ebook unit sales. The growth in online bookstores has further encouraged sales of ebooks, the preferred format of independent authors.
After writing your book, have it professionally edited and designed before you publish with a publishing service company. Most companies do not charge any upfront fees, but deduct their commission from sales. Commissions are typically in the range of 10% to 65%. The rest of the money is yours, and you begin receiving payments right from the very first book sold!
Pros of self-publishing
- Every book can get published, quickly. Niche books and books by first-time authors, which would be considered as risky investments by traditional publishers, can see the light of day. Moreover, self-publishing usually takes a few days or weeks at most.
- Authors have complete creative control. You can hire professional editing services and book designers who understand your vision for your book, and can help you create something that is in line with your vision.
- It is easier to make changes if something isn’t working well. As books are not printed and stored in advance, textual and design changes can be made even after the book is published. For example, if your book cover isn’t enticing enough, you can easily replace it with a newer, more attractive design. Any typographical errors that went unnoticed before can be corrected. (Note that if the changes are substantial, you will need to apply for a new ISBN.)
- Books get a longer shelf life. Traditionally published books have a limited shelf life in the bookstore and are periodically removed to make way for newly published books. Self-published books, on the other hand, are always available in online bookstores and can be discovered and purchased months and years after the book is published.
Cons of self-publishing
- The responsibility to market your book will rest with you. Be prepared to invest time in creating and updating a blog, building a mailing list, soliciting reviews, using social media and book discounting sites for promotions, contributing articles to websites and blogs that can drive traffic to your page, publishing with multiple platforms in order to achieve the widest reach for your book, and so on. This is not strictly a disadvantage, though; some authors want this level of control and would enjoy exercising their creativity.
- You will have to pay for professional services. If you are looking to self-publish, be prepared to pay out of your pocket for professional services such as editing and book design .
- You will spend more time away from writing. All the time spent in looking for and vetting professional service providers, marketing your book, and monitoring the effectiveness of the publishing and marketing decisions you make will leave you with less time to write. As a newbie, expect to spend more time and effort on these tasks than a seasoned self-publishing author would.
- Bookstores will not stock your book. It will be difficult to convince bookstores to stock your book because you won’t be able to accept book returns, unlike a traditional publisher.
If you do not look forward to marketing your book or paying for professional services, traditional publishing is for you. Be prepared, though, to spend time looking for a publisher and then waiting through the publishing process.
Self-publishing, on the other hand, will bring your book to the market in a matter of weeks. It will also help you avoid the hassles and restrictions of a contract and give you more creative freedom and flexibility. However, self-published authors lack the support ecosystem of a traditional publisher, and you will have to bear the responsibility of promoting your book and giving it a professional level of quality.