By Colleen M. Story
Have you wondered whether traditional or self-publishing is best for you?
My latest novel, The Beached Ones, releases this summer with CamCat Books. This marks my third traditionally published novel.
I’ve also self-published three nonfiction books for writers.
That means right now, at this stage in my writing career, I’ve published an equal number of books each way.
So which is best?
Below, I discuss good things about each, from my experience.
3 Pros of Traditional Publishing
As a traditionally published author, you’ll get a certain level of recognition for your accomplishment. Even though we’ve come a long way with self-publishing, many readers, reviewers, libraries, and bookstores will have more confidence that a traditionally published book will be of high quality.
It is difficult—and has only gotten more difficult over the years—to get a traditional publishing contract. Publishing companies are finding it harder to make a profit today than they did many years ago. That means there are only so many slots each house has to fill, and the competition for those slots is insane.
Should you get one of those slots, you will enjoy the recognition that comes with that. This can be helpful in many ways.
- Libraries and bookstores will see you as more “legitimate” and may be more inclined to buy copies of your book.
- You may find it easier to gain entrance as a guest onto some podcasts or video interviews because of your traditional publishing credits. This can help you more easily market yourself as an author.
- You can use the achievement to bolster your career in other ways. If you want to coach other writers, speak at conferences, or provide writing programs, for example, the fact that you’ve been traditionally published can help establish you as an authority.
- It plain feels good and helps boost your confidence.
- Many other writers and readers will respect your achievement.
2. The Publisher Makes the Investment
If you’ve ever self-published a book, you know that the investment it takes to get a quality book to market can be significant.
You have to pay for the editing, copyediting, and proofreading yourself, as well as the cover design, interior design, ISBN (if you choose to use one), and the like. If you want to do an audiobook, you’re likely to invest even more.
Though some authors do well with a limited budget, it can take $1,500–$5,000 or more to self-publish a good book, particularly if you invest in a few rounds of quality editing. (By far the most expensive part of the process.)
A traditional publisher will take on this investment for you. You don’t have to spend a penny on editing, cover design, interior design, or audio production. With a good publisher, you won’t have to pay for entry into many of the biggest book awards contests, either, such as the Ben Franklin or Foreword Book Awards.
In general, a traditional publishing contract takes most of the financial burden of publishing off your shoulders, and that’s no small thing.
3. The Editing Process is Often Top Notch
Yes, you can and should hire editors for your self-published book, and yes, you can find some great ones. But if you traditionally publish, you’re likely to gain access to some of the best editors in the business, and that is wonderful for your progression as a writer.
I loved the editing process of my latest novel, The Beached Ones. It was the best of any I’ve enjoyed so far. It helped me make the story as good as it could be while also giving me some valuable wisdom I can apply to my next novel.
The Pros of Self-Publishing
Now let’s look at some of the great things about self-publishing.
1. You Have Control
This is the best part of self-publishing. Decisions that are often left up to the publisher—such as what the cover will look like, what offers to put in the back of the book, and when the book will release—are up to you when you self-publish. If you love the graphic design or like to plan out your marketing according to your schedule, you will enjoy this part of the process.
Plus you have control over how many books you release per year. If you’re a prolific writer, this can help you gain traction on the market faster than you would traditionally publishing.
2. You Can See the Results
One thing that frustrates me with traditional publishing is that I can’t see the sales numbers in real-time. That means I don’t know if a marketing effort worked very well or not.
When you self-publish, you can check your sales numbers at any time. That means you can run a special, advertise, publish a guest post, put out a video, etc., and immediately see the results. That can help inform your future marketing efforts.
3. You Own the Rights
When you self-publish, you own the rights to your book. That means you can change it, update it, put on a new cover, or do anything else you like with it at any time.
When you traditionally publish a book, the publishing company takes the rights for a certain amount of time. It’s up to them and the term of your contract when you get those rights returned. Often, it’s years into the future.
That means if you want to change the cover—because maybe it wasn’t as effective as you thought it would be—you can’t. Not until the rights revert to you.
In summary, I have enjoyed both types of publishing and I plan to continue as a hybrid author. What methods you choose will be up to you, but you don’t have to limit yourself. In today’s publishing world, there are many paths to success and you get to forge your own.
Colleen M. Story is a novelist, freelance writer, writing coach, and speaker with over 20 years in the creative writing industry. Her latest novel, The Beached Ones, released from CamCat Books on July 26, 2022. Her previous novel, Loreena’s Gift, was a Foreword Reviews’ INDIES Book of the Year Awards winner, among others.
Colleen has written three books to help writers succeed. Your Writing Matters is the most recent, and was a bronze medal winner in the Reader Views Literary Awards (2022). Writer Get Noticed! was a gold-medal winner in the Reader’s Favorite Book Awards and a first-place winner in the Reader Views Literary Awards (2019). Overwhelmed Writer Rescue was named Book by Book Publicity’s Best Writing/Publishing Book in 2018.
Colleen frequently serves as a workshop leader and motivational speaker, where she helps attendees remove mental and emotional blocks and tap into their unique creative powers.
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Virginia Anderson says
One thing not mentioned in this excellent article is that traditionally published books have a short shelf life. It has been a while since I traditionally published, but my memory is that your book stayed “on sale” for only about six weeks. That definitely did not include being on the shelves in any major book stores–that perk went only to what the publishers considered their hottest titles. After your book becomes yesterday’s news, the publisher holds on to the rights for much, much longer, dead time to the author unless one of those coveted paperback (or OMG movie deals!) ensues. Finally, you, the author, have to invoke the “out=of-print” clause that had better be in your contract to reclaim your rights–and then you have to self-publish anyway or the book is dead. Obviously this does not apply to some major breakout bestseller, but writers in general are ill-advised to assume that their book will be the next one of those. In contrast, as the article points out in passing, a self-published book can live as long as you want it to, can be revised, re-covered, re-everythinged, and marketed with as much energy and creativity as you care to invest. Oh, and unless you are one of those superstars, you will doing all your own marketing anyway. A huge advance might make the difference. If you can make them pay you big money in advance, maybe you can end up on the shelves longer with their marketing behind you. Otherwise, you’re on their timetable and subject to their discretion about how your book gets sold.
Mindy Alyse Weiss says
This is the best list showing pros of both traditional and self-publishing that I’ve seen. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Colleen. And congrats on all 6 of your books!
Thanks so much, Mindy! :O)
I don’t know if it’s the same in every country, but where I live, the authors that use a big publishing house get just the 10% of the earnings. And they never get to audit the sales, so they never know if they’re getting a fair share.
I’m an editorial designer, and I’ve worked in a small publishing house and as a free-lancer and every design I’ve made is always approved by the author (the book, the cover and sometimes even the promotional pieces), I’ve always worked closely with the author and the editor, but the author has the last word. Although I’m not privy to the contractual part of the business it’s my understanding that the author pays for the service (design, edition and distribution, all of that or some of them), but I think their shares of the profits it’s higher than with a big publishing house. It’s an intermediate type of publishing between self-publishing and a big publishing house contract.
Thanks for your thoughts, Mari. Yes there are many models of publishing out there. I imagine it all depends on the publisher and the contract, but in all three of my cases (traditional pub), the publisher had the last word on the cover. If I hated it they’d definitely take that into consideration, as they wanted me to be happy, but they always had the last word. With a true traditional publisher, even the smaller ones, you don’t pay for editing, design, distribution, etc. There are some services available today that will provide these services for a fee and then publish the book and give you higher royalties, but that is a different type of service or publisher, sometimes called a hybrid or vanity publisher. I’ve found your thoughts on royalties to be about right, though I think you can audit the sales if you wanted to.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Thanks for sharing your insight here, Colleen. It’s so nice to get information on this topic from someone who’s seen both sides :).
Thanks, Becca! Yes, it’s been an interesting journey for sure! :O)
Jan Sikes says
You did a great job in breaking down this dilemma, Colleen. I’ve done both as well. I’ve self-published lots more than I’ve traditionally published. But I sought a traditional publisher for the simple reason that I was broke. I had no more money to invest in self-publishing. I can easily say I’ve never recouped my original investment, which ran around $2,000 per book. And that isn’t counting what I’ve spent on marketing. I think the bottom line is that it is up to the author and their wants and needs. Great article!
Thanks, Jan! Yes, self-publishing can be expensive for sure, particularly if you’re committed to a quality (well-edited) project. And the marketing is allllll up to us! (ha ha) Thanks for reading. :O)
Jennifer Lane says
Helpful post, thank you! Congratulations on your sixth book.
Thanks so much, Jennifer! Kind of you to say. :O)