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?
If you’re unsure how these processes work, I’d begin by familiarizing yourself with the basics:
But once you have a general sense of the differences between traditional and self-publishing, you’ll have decisions to make. Having traditionally published my Jacob Wonderbar series and self-published How to Write a Novel and How to Publish a Book, I’ve seen both sides.
If you’re wondering how to choose between traditional or self-publishing: I’m here to help.
Before we get to some of the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing, I feel the need to dispel some myths.
For some reason, rival camps of traditional and self-publishing devotees continuously spring up online and besmirch the other side, even as the number of authors who have dabbled in both traditional publishing and self-publishing (like me) continues to rise.
Some self-publishers (often adopting the “indie” moniker) profess that traditional publishing is the stuff of retrograde dinosaurs and haughty agents looking only for authors who aren’t like them and that no one should even waste their time sending out queries.
Some traditional publishing types paint self-publishing with a broad brush as little more than vanity publishing for books that weren’t good enough to make it through the traditional publishing process.
These caricatures don’t have any truth to them. Both self-publishing and traditional publishing are viable paths.
Traditional publishing has its merits. Self-publishing has its merits. Traditional books can catch on. Self-published books can catch on.
What’s important is that you choose the process that’s right for your project based on what’s important to you and what your strengths are.
Get in tune with your goals
So before you go down this path, get in tune with your goals.
I’ll get to more detailed questions later in this post to help you weigh that right approach for your project, but really sit with your thoughts for a bit and gauge the elements of writing and publishing that are most important to you.
Why did you write the book? How important is it to you to make it revenue positive? Do you want it out there in a big way or are you content just having copies you can give to friends and family?
Starting this process with some self-reflection and getting in tune with your writing goals will prime you to make the best decision.
7 questions to ask yourself
Okay. You’re now open-minded about choosing the path that’s right for you and you’ve gotten in tune with your goals.
Here are questions to ask yourself to help narrow down which path you should choose. And if you’d like to talk it through with me, feel free to book a consultation.
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 into an established genre, is of appropriate length, and has mass commercial appeal. As in, it’s something for a broad audience, not a narrow niche. And if you’re writing prescriptive nonfiction, you need to be one of the top people in the entire world to write that book if you want to pursue traditional publishing.
Nearly everyone who has ever written a book views it as a potential mega-bestseller, but this really requires some honest self-assessment.
Does your book have broad, national appeal or is it niche? Is it a potential bestseller or something you just wrote to, say, have your family history recorded for posterity or to get a bee out of your bonnet?
I like to use the airport bookstore test here. Is your book something you could potentially see on sale in an airport bookstore?
The major publishers (and the literary agents who work with them) are going for broad, mainstream audiences. If your potential readership is more narrow, you might want to go directly to a small press or self-publish. If you are writing nonfiction and lack a significant platform, you may want to just go ahead and self-publish.
But if you can genuinely see it reaching a wide audience, you can give traditional publishing a shot.
How much control do you want over the publishing process?
One of the things I like most about the traditional publishing process is its collaborative nature. You’re working with experienced professionals who bring a wealth of expertise to bear at every stage of the process.
But this does mean giving up some control. Your agent may want you to revise your work before they send it to publishers. You will almost assuredly be edited by an editor at a publishing house. You won’t have approval over your book’s cover and you’ll probably only have mutual consent on your book title. You’ll have limited control over how and where your book is marketed and things like discounts and promotions.
This all requires a collaborative mindset and ceding some of the decision-making. Your publisher may well make some decisions you don’t agree with, and some that might even drive you a bit insane.
Meanwhile, with self-publishing, everything is up to you. The edits, cover, title, fonts, marketing, price points… it’s all your choice.
So if you have an extremely precise vision of what you want your cover to look like or are dead-set on including your own illustrations, self-publishing may be the way to go. If you’re willing to be flexible, traditional publishing is an option.
How much does the validation of traditional publishing matter to you?
There’s still something gratifying about making it all the way through the traditional publishing process, having your work validated by professionals, and getting paid for your efforts.
The names Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster… they still matter to people.
But maybe you don’t care one whit about the name of the publisher on the spine of your book. And that’s fine too!
Gut check how much a publisher’s validation matters to you or whether you’re fine going straight to readers.
How important is it for your book to be in bookstores and libraries?
Traditional publishers still have a significant competitive edge in the print era because of their distribution and sales infrastructure. If you want your book widely available in bookstores and libraries, you are going to need a traditional publisher.
Sure, you might be able to strike up some individual relationships with local bookstores, but traditional publishing is the surest path to having your book widely available in stores and libraries across the country.
Now, in a world where close to the majority of books are purchased online, maybe this no longer matters to you. If you self-publish, you can have your book available on Amazon alongside all the other big names.
But if you care about being in bookstores, traditional publishing may be worth a shot.
How capable are you at marketing and self-promotion?
Whether you go traditional or self-publishing, you’re still going to need to think about what you can do to promote your book.
And while there’s no guarantee that a traditional publisher is going to promote your book in a major way, they’ll at least give you some kind of a marketing push
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 in order to reach your first readers.
It’s not that hard to put a book together and have it self-published. The marketing is often where people get tripped up.
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 costs printing out your manuscript 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 few thousand dollars 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 by querying agents 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.
There’s a final wrinkle here as there are now “hybrid” publishers that combine some of the features of traditional and self-publishing.
Hybrid publishing models vary, but they essentially offer some of the services of traditional publishing, such as editing and design, and some offer varying levels of marketing and distribution. But they may require you to share in some of the up front costs associated with these services.
If you’re the type of person who doesn’t mind spending money for some help with the “nuts and bolts” of producing a book, hybrid publishers can be a viable option. I’d recommend checking out my full post on hybrid publishing if this sounds like it might appeal to you.
But do your research and due diligence as the quality and professionalism of hybrid publishers varies quite a bit. Some are no more than vanity presses by another name, and some don’t offer that much more than what you could pretty easily do on your own.
Making a final call
Hopefully after reading this post you’re now leaning in a particular direction. (But again, feel free to reach out if you want to talk it through).
Sometimes the decision is easy. If your project is super niche or if you’re in a hurry, self-publishing can be a no-brainer. Or you might be dead set on traditional publishing and don’t even want to entertain self-publishing.
But even if you’re on the fence, there’s nothing to stop you from sending out some queries, gauging the response, and shifting gears to self-publishing if you’re not getting traction with agents and/or publishers.
And through time, as I’ve found, sometimes there are projects that make sense to traditionally publish, others to self-publish. What’s incredible about the current era as a writer is that there are so many options. Every book has a shot to reach its readers.
How did you decide whether to pursue traditional publishing or self-publishing? Did I miss anything?
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED March 16, 2015
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