Self-Publishing Vs. Traditional Publishing: A Comparison

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You’ve written a book. Awesome! Amazing! Be it a compelling account of your own life, a travelogue of your journeys, poetry, gripping fiction, or whatever kind of book; the contents are done and you’re ready for the next steps. And you’re here, reading this (thanks by the way), so I think it’s safe to assume you’re interested in Self-Publishing. Which is great too! 

Which brings us to the central question we’ll be addressing today: how do you know which publishing path is right for you?

Publishing Options Abound

There are just too many author scenarios to consider the question from a writer’s perspective. Your story, your goals, and your current situation all impact your decision making. Rather than trying to pin down all those variables, let’s look at your publishing options.

Stock image of a typewriter and publishing materials on a desk

Self-Publishing

A rapidly growing option for authors, the speed to market and low cost to publish are very appealing to many. Using print-on-demand technology to print your books, Self-Publishing offers a few benefits authors find very important to their publishing goals.

Lock graphic from Pixabay

Creative Control – Because publishing with a print-on-demand provider is done entirely by supplying an interior and cover file, you (the author) have complete control. Owning your design isn’t always a positive, as you may suffer from a lack of expertise in cover design or layout. But the trade-off is total control.

Revenue – When you self-publish, you control more than just the contents. Your publishing company will set the cost to print, but the revenue you earn is up to you! That means you can set a list price that fits your audience and enjoy most of the earnings (most self-publishers offer between 60% and 80% to authors). You can even white-label your publishing (shameless Lulu xPress plug) and earn 100% of the revenue!

Time to Publish – Traditional publishing deals take a long time to organize, sign-off on, and get moving. Then there are months of editing and design. Suddenly, months or even years have evaporated while you wait for your book to be published. Can you wait that long? If not, then self-publishing will fit your needs much better. Most self-publishing sites can upload and ready your file for printing in a matter of hours.

Traditional Publishing

Graphic showing the logos of the Big 5 Publishing companies

The polar opposite of the DIY self-publishing route; traditional publishing relies on long-standing traditions of gated publishing. Agents have to select a book, then pitch the book to publishers, who likewise have to select the book before even thinking about publishing. The traditional publisher acts as a gatekeeper—preventing the vast majority of work they consider from ever being published.

Let’s not delve too much into the negative aspects of traditional publishing. Suffice it to say that the gatekeeping role is important to help the best (or more often most marketable) writers gain the attention they deserve. And that same role stifles a huge number of great writers who deserve attention too. If you are a writer in the 1% of writers, you’ve either already landed a deal or will eventually. If you’re one of the other 99% of writers, those odds decrease significantly.

I want to acknowledge that the traditional publishing house will keep a large cut of book sales, usually leaving something in the 5% – 15% range for the author (though this varies significantly). The trade-off is that a traditionally published book often sells in higher volumes. And there is almost always some kind of advance to the author against future earnings.

Vanity (or Assisted) Publishing

Often maligned as a scam or cash-grab, modern Vanity Publishers represents a model that can work for a lot of authors. The problem for the legitimate vanity press lies in two long-standing issues:

  1. Differentiating between a legitimate vanity press and a scam can be hard; and
  2. A vanity press suffers from the same limitations as self-publishing

Historically, the vanity presses of the world gained a bad name by charging large amounts upfront, doing a little actual design work on the book, and ending the process be shipping the author a few hundred books. Contact fulfilled, on to the next customer.

The business model focused on volume like a traditional publisher but ignored quality. To the detriment of all.

Today, there are vanity publishers (who often prefer to go by ‘assisted’ publishers) who offer paid services for authors without the predatory sales tactics or the bloated price tag. Websites like Reedsy and ALLi likewise provide ‘assisted’ writing in the form of recommended freelancers, giving authors the tools to form their own pseudo-vanity publisher. 

None of this really answers the question; what is a vanity press?

True. And fortunately, there is a simple answer. A vanity press offers the services (editing, design, graphics) of a traditional publisher at a direct cost to the author. They also provide some number of books printed for the author to sell (or sometimes offer a sales channel). 

That’s basically it. You bring a finished manuscript; they help you polish it and publish it, charge you a fee, print you some books, and send you out into the world to sell that book. The issue with vanity publishing continues to be predatory sales tactics and return on investment for the author. 

If you’re an author with some money to spend and an interest in preparing your book quickly, an assisted publisher might be a great idea. If you’re more the indie author type and want to do it all yourself, stick to true self-publishing.

And for anyone who is thinking about working with a vanity press or any kind of paid publishing service, I cannot stress enough how good an idea it is to look through Writer Beware, a blog highlighting dishonest publishers.

Which Route is Right For You?

Big questions time. Which publishing path should you take?

I already did my best to alleviate myself from responsibility for making that choice. It’s too personal and varies too much based on individual circumstances. If you forced me on the point, I’d say self-publishing is the better means to moderate success, but I may be a little biased.

Okay, what I can offer is a table (see below) with a little information about how different publishers perform in different areas.

A Chart for Publishing Comparison


Self-PublishingTraditional PublishingVanity/Assisted Publishing
CostReview copies and copies to sell by hand at the author’s expenseGenerally, no upfront cost, though the author may pay for their own promotional materialsThe author pays for all services and printing, usually a set cost from the beginning
RevenueUsually between 60% to 80% based on the POD service used to distribute the bookVaries based on the contract, but in the 10% to 15% rangeKeep 100% revenue for most services; some vanity publishers provide distribution and take a cut of revenue
CopyrightAuthor keeps all rightsRights are controlled by the publisherVaries; most often the author keeps their rights
ControlThe author controls every aspect of design and distributionPublisher manages the design, editing, and distributionSometimes the designer will control elements, but directed by the author
TimelinePublish in hours, books shipping in weeksVaries, but often publishers will take months to years to edit, design, promote and releaseVaries based on the package purchased, but editors and designers will need weeks to months to complete designs
Retail – OnlineDistribution available for major retailersDistribution available for major retailersVaries, most will offer a distribution option at an additional cost
Retail – BookstoreLack of return options limits bookstore retailer optionsWide distribution through booksellers based on the publisher’s relationshipsDistribution services may include catalog listings, but POD still limits retailer options
EditingThe author edits or hires an editorPublisher provides editingPublisher edits the manuscript based on the package purchased
DesignThe author designs or hires a designerThe publisher provides design servicesPublisher designs the book based on the package purchased

Indicators Toward Your Publishing Journey

To close out today, I wanted to touch on two indicators that can help you decide which publishing avenue is right for you. Again, I have to say all of this is very subjective. You won’t fit perfectly into any category. So think of this as a guide, not a rule book.

Control

Do you need to be in control of your content? Is the story deeply personal? Or told in a unique way that you feel is vital to the story?

If yes, you might be better suited to self-publishing. Traditional publishers do not uniformly make major changes to your manuscript. But they can. And if they feel it will increase the likelihood that your book sells, they absolutely will make those changes.

Money

If you want to write to earn money, looking for a traditional deal might suit you best. Self-published authors do earn money. But there’s a lot of (constant) work to do. Day and night, the independent artist will spend more time working on selling than creating.

If that’s not you, getting a deal will lead to better returns and less overall work. Yes, landing a deal that makes you money isn’t easy. But for the writer who just wants to write, it’s the best path to success.

Marketing

If you’re a fan of marketing, are good at it, or come from a professional marketing background, self-publishing may be the best way for you. The other pieces needed to publish (a printer, distributor, designer, etc.) present upfront costs, but they are finite.

The marketing costs can really add up. But if you’re good at marketing (and have a following!) you can be economical and make smart decisions about how to market your books. And if you just love marketing, you’ll have the control a traditionally published author might not.

Closing Thoughts

There is no right answer. Publishing deals. One-off print runs. Ebook only or print-on-demand distribution. DIY designs or hiring professionals. If you got this far and have more questions than when you started, you’re on the right course.

All I can say is this: do your research. Then do more research. 

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