Traditional vs. Self-Publishing: Which one is right for you?

You’ve written a book, but don’t know how to go about publishing it? Let’s take a look at the options you have.

In this post I’ll examine the pros and cons of working with a traditional publisher vs. publishing your book yourself. Some authors strongly dislike one or the other, but I believe both have merits.

Traditional publishing

A traditional publisher will offer you lots of support in all necessary areas and will help you turn your rough draft into a polished final product. Some of the great services you will get for free include:

– Book cover: You get a quality cover by a professional designer

– Editing: The editor will help you turn your book into the best it can be.

– Marketing: You will get advertising that most indie authors can’t afford. In addition, you’ll get your book reviewed by other published authors, newspapers and magazine. Also, you get a great blurb written by pros.

– Placement in bookstores

– Quality guarantee: The publishing house leaves its name behind your book and guarantees its quality. The fact that they published your book means your work passed through the rigorous selection process and went through extensive editing. If readers are familiar with other books from this publisher, they are likely to check out yours.

– Advance payment: You receive an advance payment when you sign the contract and keep it even if your book doesn’t make any sales.

– You don’t pay anything. The publisher covers all costs, and you can only benefit.

This all sounds amazing, but unfortunately traditional publishing comes with a few caveats. When you sign a deal with a publisher, you give up creative control over all aspects of your book:

– Book cover: You don’t get to choose what’s on it. You may not even get to make suggestions or reject what they come up with. You may have “cover consulting” in your contract, but the editor has the final say. Having said that, most traditionally published authors end up with gorgeous covers, but that’s no guarantee that you’ll like yours.

Even some of the classic writers had trouble with their book covers:

J. D. Salinger

You’ve probably seen the more recent The Catcher in the Rye covers:

rye1 rye2 rye3

All Salinger covers have one thing in common – simple text over a simple background. If you’ve seen the original cover, you know that wasn’t always the case:


So, why are later covers much simpler than the original? What happened?

This happened:


The above is the cover for a short story collection by Salinger. He wanted to call it Nine Stories, but the publisher believed this wouldn’t sell and changed the title to For Esmé—with Love and Squalor – the title of one of the stories. The cover depicts a seductive blonde, which would be all great… if the character wasn’t a seven-year-old girl.

Salinger hated the cover, but could do nothing about it. He was so mad about this incident that in every publishing contract he signed afterwards, he added a clause that the cover can have only text, and no images of any kind.

And he wasn’t the only great author to suffer disappointment.

J. R. R. Tolkien

The Hobbit has seen many various covers over the years, but one in particular horrified the author:


Tolkien sent the following note to his publisher:

I think the cover ugly; but I recognize that a main object of a paperback cover is to attract purchasers, and I suppose that you are better judges of what is attractive in USA than I am. I therefore will not enter into a debate about taste — (meaning though I did not say so: horrible colours and foul lettering) — but I must ask this about the vignette: what has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a lion and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs?

All very good questions that raise another important point – your book cover is in all likelihood designed by someone who hasn’t read the book. The designer is likely working based on a blurb. The cover may be designed to sell, but it might not capture your novel’s essence the way you want it to.

David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest came with the following cover:

Infinite_jest_coverThe author was displeased and claimed it looked like an airline safety manual. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do about it.

– Editing: You get a lot of help, but ultimately the editor can tell you what goes and doesn’t go into the book. Now, ideally that shouldn’t happen. Your publisher picked you because your book fits with the trademark they’ve built, and they shouldn’t be asking you to make major changes against your will. That’s how it should work, and many authors have amazing experience, but that’s not always the case.

So, are authors ever asked to make a change they are unhappy about?

Unfortunately, yes. Such is the story of Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith – two published authors, who found representation for their post-apocalyptic YA novel… under the condition that they get rid of their gay character. Understandably, they were pissed. Judging from the article’s comment section, their experience was far from unique.

Thankfully, such issues are usually clarified before you’ve signed a contract with a publisher, so you can decide for yourself if you want to compromise.

– Marketing / Distribution: You don’t get to choose if your book is available as an ebook. You don’t get to choose if it’s available internationally and through what platforms. You don’t get to choose keywords and categories for Amazon or other online vendors. You don’t get to decide what goes in the blurb. Sometimes, your publisher can even change your title.

The blurb will likely be written by someone who hasn’t read your book. The final result may sell well, but may not correctly represent your work. And while sales matter, I believe another thing that matters is reaching the right audience. It won’t do you much good if thousands of readers buy your book only to discover it isn’t what they signed up for. Your blurb, genres, and overall presentation need to paint an accurate picture of your book, so that the people who buy it will be the people who want to read this book and not something else.

In spite of all that, I still believe traditional publishing has great advantages for writers. Unfortunately, it has another major drawback – it is extremely hard to get into. To find a publisher you need an agent, and many agents receive hundreds of queries per week, only to accept a handful per year. And if you do get an agent, there is no guarantee you’ll find a publisher. Even if your manuscript is amazing, there is no guarantee it will make it – Harry Potter was rejected 12 times. Luckily, nowadays self-publishing is easier than ever, and you don’t depend on someone else to publish your work for you.

Note: When I talk about agent, publishers, and how hard it is to get through, I am referring to English-language books. It is easier to publish in certain languages, and you may get less competition, but you also get a smaller market. I chose to write in English to reach a wider audience, but it’s always a trade-off.

So, self-publishing? Is it any good?

It may seem like with self-publishing you have nothing to lose. After all, it costs you nothing to self-publish. You can easily upload your ebook to Amazon and Smashwords and make it available through other vendors. If you want to go for a paperback or even a hardcover, nothing is easier! CreateSpace, Lulu, Lightning Source and many more provide print-on-demand options. You don’t pay to get a certain number of copies printed. A copy is printed only when it’s purchased, and you make some royalties from each sell. No upfront investment is necessary.

So, what are the disadvantages?

– Anyone can do it. There are no gatekeepers, and because of that self-published books often come with a bad reputation. They are often believed to be badly edited and cheaply produced, with the manuscript not being good enough for a traditional publisher.

In addition, even though you can publish your book with no initial investment, I would strongly advice against it. You’ll probably need help in a few areas:

– Editing: No matter how good you are, an editor can always make your book better. To be its best, your book needs to go through various stages and types of editing – developmental/content, copy editing, proofreading. Sadly, professional editors tends to cost a lot. Many editors offer as a cheapest option 2 cents per word, and you’ll likely need much more than the cheapest option, and several rounds of it. My novel is 100k words, and that’s Part 1 after I split it in two – I do like my books epic. This would give $2,000 for the most basic edit. No way. Luckily, there are ways to get your novel professionally and thoroughly edited for a fraction of that price. I’ll cover these in my future Self-Publish Like a Pro posts.

Editing is the single element of your book-production process you shouldn’t skip. Everything else you can probably do by yourself, but please, get someone else to edit your work. Keep in mind that there is already a prevalent belief that indie books are badly edited. Typos and other mistakes can happen to anyone, but readers are more likely to notice and remember them in self-published books because they expect them there, so you need to work extra hard to make your manuscript shiny.

– Cover: There is a common belief that indie books have awful covers. And indeed, if you self-publish, you may end up with a cover like one of these:

badcover1 badcover2 badcover3

Please don’t.

In my post on custom cover designs, I showed an example of a tattoo done right. The one above shows what happens when you try to Photoshop a tattoo but have no idea how (and they could have at least chosen a wolf who doesn’t look high).

And if you insist on doing your cover in Paint, try to make it less obvious it was done in Paint. Also, please don’t do your cover in Paint. Even MS Word has better functionality to create professional-looking covers.

A common mistake indie authors make with their covers is trying too hard. They put layers and layers of Photoshop, trying to recreate specific scenes from the book and depict characters that look exactly like what’s described on page. This rarely works, and even if the cover itself is well done, it may still be obvious it’s an indie cover just because it’s too elaborate. Often simple covers look more artistic and make a better impression:

simplecover1 simplecover2 simplecover3

Yet, indie authors seldom go for simple covers. They want to show that they can do it, that they can go as fancy as necessary. Often they end up putting everything possible on the book cover and forget that less is more.

Okay, I admit I don’t have the right to talk about this because… umm… well…

Kingdom of Ashes - E-book - web

…yeah. That’s my cover. Do as I say, not as I do 😉

In my Self-Publish Like a Pro series, I discuss the different book cover options for indie authors.

-Formatting: Argh, formatting! I thought this one was so easy! Converting Word to mobi and adding a clickable table of contents? Child’s play! Margins, page numbers and headers for the paperback? I know that stuff! But the more I read, the more I realized I knew nothing. There are so many typography conventions and apparently it’s easy to recognize when a book has been formatted by an amateur. Did you know that you have to use hyphenation in your paperback and if you have just simple, justified text, it immediately marks you as a novice? Did you know that white spaces can form “rivers” in the text and that needs to be handled? While I believe formatting is one part of the publishing process you can definitely do by yourself, I think you’ll need to put some effort to do it right. I’ll be covering all I’ve learned on typography in a future Self-Publish Like a Pro post.

-Marketing and presentation: Some authors pay others to write their blurb or to choose their keywords. Others hire someone to build their website, or purchase advertisements. Overall, that’s an area you can handle mostly by yourself, but some authors benefit from professional help.

Don’t forget that to self-publish a quality book, you need to act as a tiny publishing house. You need to assemble a team of skilled professionals and deliver the best you can.

Now, on to the advantages:

-Higher royalties: You get a much larger part of the profit than if you publish traditionally. Which makes sense – after all you covered all the expenses and took all the investment risk.

-You have complete creative freedom. You decide what edits to include. Your editors will return your draft with red marks and comments, and you decide what changes to accept or reject. You choose your cover artist and what to go on the cover. You choose what goes into your blurb, how to market your book, and what the price should be. You decide on the book’s interior design. It’s your baby in every way!

-You have the potential to make your book the best it can be. When you work with a publisher, you have deadlines. When you self-publish, you set your own deadlines. You may take 20 years to perfect your book, and may edit it hundreds of times. You may hire dozens of editors. You may get any artist you want, and if you are not happy with the result, get another. A publishing house is producing many books and there is only so much attention it can give to yours. You can give your book all the attention in the world.

Self-publishing means doing all the work front-to-back and producing a finished book from scratch. That can be terribly exciting, but also terribly scary!

Some authors take a third option and go with a small, indie press. These are usually easier to sell your book to, and sometimes it’s possible to forego the agent and send your manuscript directly to the publisher. Some of those are amazing, but others don’t do more than self-publish your book for you. They can’t get your book into bookstores and attach a big name to it. Often, they don’t provide much editing to save costs. This may be an option if you don’t want to spend time on publishing, but try to research your small publisher as much as you can before you sign anything.

Whatever you choose, best of luck and happy writing!

11 thoughts on “Traditional vs. Self-Publishing: Which one is right for you?

  1. Pingback: #LetsReadIndie 2017 | Kingdom of Ashes

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