To self-publish or traditionally publish. That is the question.
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of agents and publishers or to take arms against a sea of books on Amazon, and by being among them, rise above? To die, to sleep (oh wait you won’t), to sleep perchance to dream of fame and riches… aye there’s the rub.
So. You have yourself a book. Should you just go ahead and self-publish and see how it does? Should you try your luck with agents and publishers? Should you try agents and publishers first and then self-publish if that doesn’t work?
Having traditionally published the Jacob Wonderbar series and self-published How to Write a Novel, I’ve seen both sides of the publishing world.
Which way should you go? Here are seven questions to ask yourself:
Is your book a niche/passion project or does it have broad, national appeal?
In order to attract a traditional publisher, especially one of the major ones, you’re going to need to have a book that fits squarely into an established genre, is of appropriate length, and has mass commercial appeal.
Be honest with yourself. Is your book something that has broad, national appeal or is a niche? Is it a potential bestseller or something you just wrote to, say, have your family history recorded for posterity?
If it’s hyper-specialized you might want to either try for a similarly specialized publisher, or just go ahead and self-publish. And if it’s a passion project without commercial potential you’re probably best-served going straight to self-publishing.
How much control do you want over the publishing process?
If you go the traditional route, you’ll have an agent who will likely want you to edit your work before submission. You will (hopefully) have a publisher who will want you to revise your work. You won’t have approval over your cover, and you’ll probably only have mutual consent on your book title, meaning if your publisher doesn’t like it you’ll have to think of a new one that you both can agree upon. You’ll probably have limited control over how and where your book is marketed.
Traditional publishing is a group process and you absolutely cede some control over your book. This can be a good thing, chances are you’re dealing with experienced people within the publishing industry who are experts in their fields, but you may be frustrated at times with decisions you don’t agree with.
Meanwhile, with self-publishing, everything is up to you. Edits, cover, title, fonts, marketing, whether or not you want to include that stream of conscious sequence about the philosophical implications of of cotton candy… all your choice.
How much does the validation of traditional publishing matter to you?
The stigma surrounding self-publishing has largely dissipated, but it’s not gone entirely.
And there’s still something gratifying about doing something as hugely difficult as making it through the traditional publishing process, having your work validated by professionals, and being paid for your efforts. The names Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster… they still matter to many people.
Success is success, and in the end it’s the readers who are the ultimate validators. Do you want the validation that comes with traditional publishing? Or are you cool going straight to readers?
How important is it for your book to be in bookstores and libraries?
While you might be able to strike up some individual relationships with local bookstores and libraries as a self-published author, the surest route to bookstores and libraries is through traditional publishers, who have wide distribution.
Do you care about being in bookstores? Are you writing in a genre, like books for children, where libraries are super-important? If so, you might want to pursue traditional publication.
How capable are you at marketing and self-promotion?
There’s no guarantee that a publisher is going to adequately promote your book, but they’ll at least give you a bit of a boost at bare minimum.
If you self-publish, you’re entirely on your own. You don’t necessarily have to be a social media maven or a celebrity in order to give your book the boost necessary to generate crucial word of mouth, but you’re going to have to do something.
Can you afford to invest money in your book?
Say what you will about traditional publishing, but one great thing about it is that it is not very cost prohibitive. You might incur some postage sending your manuscript around or if you choose to pay an editor before pursuing publication, but agents don’t charge you until they get commission for selling your book, and publishers pay you.
Self-publishing similarly doesn’t have to be hugely cost-prohibitive, but there are a lot of tasks involved in self-publishing, such as generating a cover, editing, copyediting, formatting, self-promotion, that you’re either going to have to spend the time to do yourself or pay someone to do for you.
Depending on how much time you have to spend and your level of expertise, you may end up spending a thousand dollars or two to effectively self-publish. Can you afford that? (And you shouldn’t necessarily assume you’re going to get it back).
How patient are you?
Choosing traditional or self-publishing isn’t necessarily an either/or decision. You can absolutely decide to pursue traditional publishing first and fall back on self-publishing if you so desire.
But even in the best case scenario, traditional publishing can take forever. It can take a year or more to query agents, and then a year or more to find an editor when you’re on submission to publishers, and then even if you get a book deal it can be a year or two after that before your book comes out. It can very easily add up to two or three years or more after you finish your manuscript.
Meanwhile, when I finished How to Write a Novel, it was up for sale a few days later. Self-publishing is practically instantaneous.
Are you the patient type? Do you want to cut to the chase? That can perhaps be the most important factor of all.
How did you decide whether to pursue traditional publishing or self-publishing? Did I miss anything?
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Le tour de la France par deux enfants by G. Bruno
Curtis Edmonds says
Just completely FYI, I put together a much more extensive questionnaire on Quora – listing lots of things that I wish someone had asked me before I started self-publishing. https://www.quora.com/Curtis-Edmonds-3/Posts/Your-Self-Publishing-Self-Evaluation
Good list of 7 good questions. I'd just like to add that you have to be willing to take on about 10 times more work to indie publish.
And, this post is just about going with either a large trad publisher or indie publishing. But there are a lot of authors out there right now who have been making money with small start up e-presses who are facing this decision, too. The reason they are facing this decision is because small e-presses are shuttering and leaving orphaned authors and books stranded. So before an author goes with a small press make sure that small press will be around for a while. Otherwise you'll be indie publishing those books whether you like it or not.
Nathan Bransford says
Good points, Anon. I think that may be worth a future post.
Edith Hope Bishop says
Thanks for this! I appreciate how you keep your advice simple and to the point. (Because good lord there is SO much conflicting info out there.)
Belinda Frisch says
I think you covered things to a point, but self-publishing isn't so cut and dry. Instantaneous, sure. But not easy. I've self-pubbed five novels. Two of them I had to go back and basically completely rewrite due to ineffective, amateurish editing. I didn't know (when I was starting out) what makes a good editor. Even now it's easy to get hosed by recommendations made more because of the "good old boy network" than skill.
Self-publishing is great, but there are a lot of predators in the waters from marketing pros to editors and cover designers. The best ones are often expensive, and there's a long wait to work with them if you don't plan ahead.
A bare bones self-publishing venture with zero professional connections seems like an easy road, but it's also a great way to put something out there that you'll regret later (learn from my mistakes).
One of my five novels was recently acquired by Amazon's Thomas & Mercer imprint. I can't tell you how great they have been to work with. You're missing that whole indie to Amazon publishing option in your article. Amazon imprints are a nice mix of traditional publishing and indie. Good royalties, fair turnaround times, and they allow for author input on everything from editing to cover art. I am grateful for the opportunity. Mine is a path I might not have found without self-publishing.
You wrote "(And you shouldn't necessarily assume you're going to get it back)”
I think it much more sensible to assume you will *never* get it back. That way, you don’t allocate grocery or rent money to your literary project.
Interesting other points, too. Thanks for sharing.
Magdalena Munro says
Loved the post and especially Belinda's thoughts. As usual-your posts are timely for me to digest.
Linda Lee Greene says
I published my two novels with a small press that went out of business and left me with the embarrassing notation under the photo of my latest book on Amazon, "No longer available." I've decided to take the plunge as an Indie Author with a reissue of it, and of a book for young readers, both to be out soon. In addition, I'd love the prestige of having a big trad publisher next to my name, but I'm too old to wait around for that possibility. I think you should include the age-issue to your otherwise complete and informative list. Thanks for another great post.
Natalie Wright says
Excellent post, Nathan. I've just independently published my fourth novel and agree with your points and Belinda's as well.
I want to share my own experience to highlight your point about bookstores and libraries. If a writer writes for tweens/teens, having your books available to readers via bookstores and libraries is still important. And if you self-publish via CreateSpace, it will RARELY happen. Why? What I have learned (the hard way) is that independent bookstores and many libraries view Amazon as an enemy and/or dislike dealing with them (probably not a surprise to anyone now but something I did not appreciate fully back in 2011 when I began my self-publishing journey). So they will NOT order your books if published via CreateSpace. 'm sure there are exceptions to that rule for authors whose works become high demand (I'm thinking Hugh Howey kind of demand). But for the rest of us mere mortals, if you self-pub via CreateSpace, you will find significant push back from stores/libraries. If you write in a genre whose audience wants the Kindle version and print copies are unimportant, than this is not an issue. But if your audience will likely want a paper copy (via stores/libraries), then this can be a big issue.
I write for young adult and while my books have some crossover appeal, my primary audience is tweens/teens (not adults), and they want/need print books! They still discover books via libraries and bookstores.
For my new series, I created an IngramSpark hardcover in addition to my CreateSpace trade paperback. It's a new experiment so I don't have any data yet to share with you. But my hope is that having a title through Ingram (rather than CreateSpace) will allow me to get my book into more libraries and independent bookstores and thus reach more of my target audience.
Ernie J. Zelinski says
Here are my top 10 advantages of self-publishing:
1. You make a lot more money for every copy of your book sold – it can easily be five times as much ($1.00 vs. $5.00 a copy).
2. You get to sell the foreign rights yourself which means you make more money from these rights and you get paid right away instead of months or years later. (I have negotiated over 111 book deals around the world for my books without going to the Frankfurt Book Fair.)
3. You don't have to wait a year or two to get your book published. I once had a book published exactly two months after I started writing it – 3.5 weeks to write it and another 4.5 weeks to get it designed, printed, and in bookstores.
4. You get to have final say on your cover design. Just because someone works for a major publisher doesn’t mean that she or he knows anything about the right cover design for your book.
5. You don't have to deal with controlling editors who will try to make you politically correct when you don't want to be. I can tell you a story about this but I won’t.
6. If you have a great distributor such as NBN which I have, you get great detailed online reports telling you how many copies sold today as well as how many copies have sold on Amazon, B&N, etc. in the last month, year, or whatever period interests you.
7. You can give a lot more promotional copies of your book away because you get them for the cost of printing (as low as $1.50 per copy) whereas with a publisher the copies cost you 60 percent of retail price ($12.00 on a $20.00 book).
8. You can keep your book in print as long as you want whereas a publisher may cease printing when the book sells fewer than 1,000 copies a year.
9. You don't have to compromise your integrity by having to deal with a publishing company that uses dishonest or unscrupulous practices such as ones that The Author’s Guild has recently cited by major publishers.
10. You can aggressively pursue bulk sales on your own and make this very lucrative for you versus any bulk sales a publisher will sell will likely be very low.
Ernie J. Zelinski
The Prosperity Guy
"Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free"
Author of the Bestseller "How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free"
(Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
and the International Bestseller "The Joy of Not Working"
(Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)
Carmen Webster Buxton says
This is an excelled list! I would add a caveat that you shouldn't assume that going the self publishing route will mean that your book will never be rejected. Self publishing guarantees only that the book will be available for sale. But instead of a few hundred editors and agents, the pool of people would can reject it will number in the millions. That pool is your potential readership, and it will take a lot of work (aside from writing the book) to make them notice that your book is there. There are approximately 90,000 to 100,000 new releases in the Kindle store every month.
#5 is a particularly relevant concern. I have a critique partner who wants to see his military historical novel in print. After less than ten rejected queries, he decided to self-publish, but he has no idea about how to reach potential readers. He's willing to do the work, but there isn't much information about the market for his kind of books on the web. So far, I think he's sold five books.
Anyone considering self-publishing needs to make an honest assessment of their own marketing abilities. If you don't know how to reach readers before you hit "submit" at CreateSpace or wherever, you won't magically know afterwards. If you don't know, a small specialty press might make more sense.
After publishing a couple dozen nonfiction books with "New York" publishers, and becoming frustrated with the process and changes in pub'ing, I began bringing my backlist out on Kindle. Since then, I've also published some original nonfiction and partner with a small (and nimble!) publisher. Happy to say I'm earning more now than ever before, and it's increased my visibility as well as my author platform. It's easy to do–but does take skill and knowledge of what you should hire done vs DIY. The same challenges apply whether self pub'd or traditionally pub'd and that's discoverability. Doesn't matter how good the book, if nobody can find it.
I'm patient, and not good at self promoting. Maybe some day I will be retired with nothing to do but write and I'll change my mind about going traditionally published. But I like the validation of professionals. And publishing on Kindle Direct, Smashwords, Create Space, etc, does not equate to instant readers. I know too many self published authors getting 0 sales; even when the book is offered for free.
My dream is to see my women's fiction trilogy on a B&N book shelf. A futile dream, but keeps me out of the casino's 🙂
G.P. Grewal says
Thank you, Nathan. You consistently offer some of the best advice on the whole internet.
For me, I made the decision to go solo a year and a half ago, #7, the insufferably long wait and see game that I knew I'd face if I went the traditional route with my latest novels, being what made up my mind.
Also, I should say that after hundreds of rejections of my old books, a couple of them quite nasty and pettish, I was quite sick of suffering the slings and arrows of agents and publishers, as you say.
Of course, it's been a very hard road being self-published, marketing probably being the toughest part, though I am grateful beyond words that thanks to technology the opportunity for a writer to try to take his fate into his own hands is finally here.
In 10 years, let alone 20, I don't think there will be any stigma attached to self-pub at all, especially if one's books become even moderately successful.
Alan (Ahrens) McManus says
Linda Lee you are young and beautiful! Nathan thanks for this and thanks to other contributers. I love being in the happy company of self-published authors and yes it's tough promoting your book but my print-on-demand publisher wasn't doing that and didn't even edit or do the layout. So now, with both my ethics books (Life Choice is the latest) and Bruno Benedetti mystery series, I've learned so much about how to get the page or screen looking as I want it to. I have friends in Brazil and China reading my books. That's just dandy! 🙂
Janiss Garza says
I've been traditionally and self-published, along with being a indie publisher for others' work, and I have to say, there are a lot of writers out there (good ones too!) who really should not self-publish. I just helped one out who banged out a pretty decent 50,000-word novel and tossed it on Amazon via Createspace and Kindle… and it looked horrible and unprofessional. It was formatted all wrong, had punctuation errors all over the place, and could have used some editing to make it tighter and to clarify some parts. He made himself crazy trying to do an epub version, so I finally took his Word doc, tidied up the punctuation (left the text as it was), formatted it properly, gave it some styling and handed him the validated epub and mobi formats. All as a favor, since we've been friends for a couple of decades and I used to edit him for a magazine I worked at in the 1990s.
He had NO idea what he was doing, was working on a shoestring budget, and the person who was helping him with the cover design and such didn't know much more than he did.
If somebody wants to self-publish, they really need to sit down, create a plan, a budget, a promotional schedule – and if they really can't afford to have someone else do the formatting, at least invest in some lynda.com courses for a few months to learn how to do it the right way. To NOT do these things is doing yourself and other authors a disservice because it makes your book look unprofessional (even if the writing is amazing) and it becomes a bad example for self-publishing in general.
You can tell I feel really passionately about this. As an indie publisher, I am working to fill a niche with well-written, great looking books that generate enough income to make my time, and the authors', worthwhile. I think there is a REAL need for small indies like mine, and wish there were more out there for authors who have the writing talent but who really don't have the business talent self-publishing requires.
May I ask you a question, Nathan? Which of the two publishing options did you find the most satisfying and the most lucrative? I'm guessing that the main stream publishing was satisfying given the validation you mentioned in your post, plus the fact that you didn't have to do everything yourself. I'm also guessing this avenue was also the most lucrative – and not just because you had three books published.
Which option are you considering for your next book?
Cinthia Ritchie says
It's a complex decision. I traditionally published and while happy with part of the decision, it's also true that a first-time author is small potatoes (small sentences?) to a biggie New York publisher, and it's easy to get lost in the shuffle.
I have read some beautifully written and professionally edited and formatted self-published books. However, I've also skimmed many that are poorly written and edited, with shoddy grammar skills. I don't think these are necessarily bad writers. I do think, however, that most writers are incapable of editing out their own flaws. Thus, professional editing (by a real editor not a friend who says she is an editor) is absolutely necessary.
As far as grammar well, no one is perfect, but I wish that more people would please, please, please take the time to learn the basics such as when to use lie or lay; affect or effect; run or ran, etc.
Being a writer means more than having a great story to share. It means taking the time to learn grammar and plot structure, pacing and good dialogue techniques.
A few weeks ago I received a Twitter message from a self-published author requesting that I nominate her for a literary award. I read a sample of her book. There were two (two!) glaring grammatical errors in the first paragraph, and the punctuation was sloppy, too.
Don't get me wrong: We aren't all blessed with solid grammar skills. But for heaven's sake, if you expect to get paid for your book, please have the decency to put forth a product worthy of someone else's hard-earned money.
Okay, my rant is over.
P.S. For what it's worth, I will probably seek an indie or small publisher for my third book.
paloma bird says
Thanks for this post. I have decided to self publish my book after collecting rejections from Brazilian editors (I write fiction in Portuguese). I think I made up my mind to self publishing after reading and understanding a it more about the publishing industry. Literary agent in Brazil is nearly a non-existent profession.It's kind of shocking, but we don't really have many of them and some are quite unprofessional. Also, I realized that publishers will not invest their money on a new author that does not interact with social media and has a good number of followers. The whole thing with traditional publishing seem to confused for me at the moment. I only want to write and to find people to enjoy my stories.
Nathan Bransford says
I found them both satisfying for different reasons, but I don't know if I would have found self-publishing as satisfying if I hadn't already had the validation of traditional publishing.
I'm keeping an open mind for my next book and not sure what I'll do yet, just need to finish it first!
Dale Day says
Nathan, let's not forget that you have one advantage that the vast majority of us don't – you spent years as a literary agent and have an inside track with publishers. You also know the "business" side of writing.
I went the small publisher bit and found it most disheartening. Editors who refused to accept my "voice" in the works. Failure to live up to their responsibilities as a publisher, And months being totally ignored by them.
I recently wrote a Western short story and within 2 months of starting, have it up on Amazon.com. Whether it sells or not depends upon ME, not someone else! (I just hope the opening available as a sample are good enough to attract buyers/readers).
Martina Zeitler says
Great post Nathan and timely as I launch into my second book release and reflect on your post. I write and illustrate childrens books, so from an independent publishing perspective, my costs are quite low as I can make the front cover, images etc.
When I started a couple of years back, I spent a most frustrating 6 months sending off manuscripts to various publishers and even played by their 'rules' (eg: send printed copy and give us 3 months to review, in which time you are not to approach any other publisher. Oh and if we don't like it, we won't bother sending you a courtesous email or letter indicating you were not successful. Instead, we will remain silent).
I think frustration and lack of patience sent me down the self publishing path, which I do not regret. I've learnt alot, had full control over content and appearance and feel like I am now the master of my own destiny (whatever that may be).
Very funny beginning, and good points! I am enjoying the discussion, too. Nathan, though I consider that i'm still at the beginning of this journey, one thing I've learned is that patience is essential! It's important, I think, not to rush something out there if it's not ready yet. Going through the steps needed to try to find an agent has helped me improve my books.
So I think it might be good for those of us who choose to self publish to go through those same steps first. If we come up with queries, synopses, and elevator pitches, it can help us see exactly what story we're telling and whether it needs further revision.
I think I will try self publishing first.
For those interested in self-publishing, I would highly recommend Seumas Gallacher's blog (https://seumasgallacher.com/) and his book on the subject. He has done very well self-publishing his thrillers and making a decent penny at it by treating his writing as a business. The comments from successful self-publishers confirm that.
Personally, I can't get my first draft done let alone decide which route to go and then build my platform accordingly. Blog, tweets, social media — eek! It ranks with "I really need more research" as an acceptable procrastination technique to FINISH THE BOOK. My heart desires a traditional publisher and my personality demands it.
Thank you for the blog, Nathan. Much appreciated!
Carol Styron says
Within the last year, I self-published two books. I've given up at this point. It's not worth my time or money. I like writing but I am not good at promoting, but I always enjoyed writing stories. I dislike the editing process. It's just too much for me. I no longer consider myself a writer. I am a storyteller, and just love telling stories. All that technical stuff it takes to write a novel, is not for me. I just don't have the drive, but I do encourage those of you out there that have the drive to do it. Good luck!
Eryn Bailey says
I found this information to be quite helpful. I am in the first-round editing process with my first book and was feeling a bit unsure of which direction to take. I found the way you posed your questions to be enlightening and am very grateful for the information. I still have some mulling to do, but all of your information was very helpful to getting me closer to a decision.
Carol Styron says
Thanks, for responding to my comment about giving up, it was very encouraging. I wrote that comment at a time when I felt totally defeated. I had just finished self-publishing my second book, and I wanted my sister, who is an English major, and also a writer to read it. I was so proud of that book, and I was thrilled that she took an interest in it, when nobody else in the family seemed to give a damn about reading it. After she finished reading it and gave me her honest opinion, I was floored. I put so much time and effort into that book, but what really got me is that she asked me why I couldn't make the first part of the book as exciting as the second half. I told her that I wrote what I felt, and she said that I could have worked harder. Those were not her exact words, but I felt terrible. If she had realized how much effort and time I put in that book, she probably wouldn't have said that. Anyway, that's all in the past. I am back to writing full-time, but I don't know if I going to publish. Thanks, again, to the person who sent me those encouraging words. Even though I came to my own revelation to continue writing, it's always feels good to receive an extra helping of encouragement.
Sue C says
Does anyone have an opinion of Chandler Bolt who is selling a course on how to sel publish??
Sue C says
Does anyone have an opinion of Chandler Bolt who is selling a course on how to sel publish??
Hi. I really found this Blog useful. I am writing a children's novel at the moment. not easy when your dyslexic but, I have a teacher friend who helps me edit. I also use spellchekerplus. i'm telling you this because my grammar will not be the best here. really I just wanted to know. is it possible to use my own illustrator for the front cover. my daughter is an amazing artist. I know it would mean the world to her if she could do the front cover for me. I would hate to disappoint her. book illustration is what she would like to do when she leaves school hopefully.
Found this video helpful in regard to this topic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XD2-NqCBZhg
Daniel Redus says
Let’s break down the costs of the self-publishing process, and we’ll share some secrets to bring those costs down if you’re budget-conscious. https://writersopt.com/cost-self-publish-a-book/
Bharat Krishnan says
These are pretty excellent questions.
I asked myself most of these, and decided to go the self-publishing route.
Naomi Lisa Shippen says
A very helpful overview of the pros and cons of traditional vs self publishing. Lots of food for thought here.
Rahul singh kaurav says
very interesting post