Traditional vs. Self-Publishing – An Overview

If you’re like most writers, you dream of publishing your book and of that book selling a decent amount of copies, and, okay, you wouldn’t say ‘no’ to achieving J.K. Rowling’s or Tim Ferriss’s level of success if it happened. Of course, you have to start somewhere. Let’s assume you’ve written your book and you’ve proofread / edited it. Now, your beautiful baby is ready to leave the nest and go one to do great things in the world. The only problem is…what do you do next? Who should you entrust your baby to?

Pick a Publishing Route


Your first step is to decide if you want to go traditional or self-published.  Fifteen years ago, being self-published was somehow ‘less-than’, like getting a degree online was. Now, like getting a degree online, being self-published can be equally as lucrative and as respectable as its traditional counterpart—sometimes more so.

Because both roads lead to publication (ideally), here are the key differences to use as decision points in deciding if you want to self-publish or to traditionally publish.

An Overview of Traditional Publishing

Okay, yes, traditional publishing does still have some extra clout associated with it; being accepted by a publisher gives you social proof—it means that someone with some expertise said, “This book is good enough for me to invest in,” because that’s essentially what happens when a publisher picks up your book; they invest in it.

Landing an Agent

For a publisher to get your book, you have to query an agent because in most cases, to reach the publisher, you have to work through a literary agent. Once you land an agent (a step in and of itself), he or she pitches your work to various publishers that work with your niche. Hopefully, someone (or many someones) will want your book. Congratulations! You now have an agent and a publisher—you’re on your way!

Negotiating Your Author Contract

Next, there will come the contract in which you, your agent, and your lawyer evaluate the contract and ensure all terms are agreeable to you. The contract outlines how you will get paid, when you will get paid, who owns copyrights (usually you), who has print rights (the publisher), when you get rights back, international rights, licensing rights, etc.

Editing Your Book to Satisfy the Publisher


Once your contract is in place, the publisher will (likely) ask you to make some kind of revisions to your book. This happens to fiction and nonfiction authors. You’ll have a deadline for completing the revisions. Failure to comply can result in you losing your contract. If you were paid a royalty (not terribly common with smaller publishers these days), you might have to give it back. Most of the time, this kind of souring doesn’t happen between publishers and authors, and you’ll do the edits and then wonder, when is my book going to be published.

Playing the Waiting Game

Patience. Design, production, marketing, and sales all do their parts. Someone else designs the cover (they might run it by you for approval). Beta readers will read the book and blurbs, quotes, and reviews will be acquired. Marketing will put together an ad campaign and media kit for the book’s launch, and your book will get on the list for whatever season the publisher thinks it will do best. It can take up to three years for your book to go from, “Yes, we’ll take it,” to hitting the shelves.

Traditional publishing is (at least right now) not a speedy process. Spend those leisurely 36 months writing your next book.

Marketing Your Author Brand

Before and after your book is published, you’ll want to do a lot of marketing and tactful self-promoting on your e-mail newsletter, social media, etc. For sales, you’ll collect royalties. If you did get an advance, then that will be paid back before you start to collect said royalties. Royalties are typically paid out twice per year, and it’s not uncommon for publishers to keep a reserve of the royalties to cover returns. The specifics of your royalties compensation will be outlined in your contract, and you can negotiate it within reason.

Anyway, at this point, you’re in the same boat as a self-published author. You’re a guy or a gal with a book and you just want people to buy it.

An Overview of Self-Publishing

(AKA Being an Indie Author)

If traditional publishing sounds a little restrictive, that’s because it is. In self-publishing, you make all of the choices. You are in charge of having your book edited, of seeing the edits through, of designing the cover, of getting all of the front and back matter handled, of indexing (or of paying someone to index) your content, of marketing your books, etc. It’s a lot of work. Most authors are not entrepreneurs and would just as soon chew through metal than deal with the rigmarole of publishing and promoting their writing.

Having Your Book Professionally Edited

But let’s back up. Where does the self-publishing journey begin? Well, when a girl and a boy like each other when you’ve finished your book, you should have it professionally edited. I’m not telling you this because I’m an editor; I’m telling you this because no one wants to read a book with a bunch of meandering passages, bad word choices, misspelled words, plot holes, etc. (The Editorial Freelancers Association posts average editorial rates used by professionals.) I can’t tell you how many self-published works were well-described on Twitter and that I said, “Nope,” after reading the sample. Mistakes and shoddy writing happen in traditionally published books, too, but they tend to be more common in self-published works. So, please, do your book a favor and hire an editor.

Deciding Which Self-Publishing Option to Use


While the editor is doing her thing, figure out what publishing platform(s) you want to use. There are pros and cons to many.  You’ve probably heard of Amazon; Amazon is the “big dog” and has a huge share of the market, but it doesn’t have the entire market. Because there are certain restrictions on how you can distribute your book if selling through certain retailers (**cough**Amazon KDP), you need to conduct a market analysis to find out where your niche audience is buying.

Do this by evaluating authors and works similar to yours. Where are they performing well? What price points are they using? Model your approach after theirs; use the distributer or straight-to-author retailer they use. If you plan to sell hard copies of your works, you can use print-on-demand (POD) services. Read the terms and conditions of the various approaches before making a decision. Read what other indie authors do / did as well to help you make your decision.

Designing Your Book’s Cover & Formatting Your Book

Once you’ve chosen a “publisher” and have edited your book, it’s time to design the cover. Look at your peer authors whose audiences are similar to yours for cover inspiration. Unless you are particularly skilled in graphic design, it’s best to hire a pro to design your book jacket and back cover content. Be specific with your designer regarding what you are looking for; provide her with specific passages of the book to help her get a “feel” for it.

Get Beta Readers to Review Your Book & Acquire Blurbs for the Jacket

Different beta reader sites have different guidelines for the book’s level of readiness before they read them. There are also beta bloggers. You’re responsible for getting these reviews and blurbs for the book’s cover. These help with marketing and promoting your book. Look for reviewers who work and have influence in your genre. Kirkus is also an excellent, reputable paid-review resource

Establishing Your Author Brand & Marketing Yourself / Writing

While this is going on, you need to establish your author website, e-mail, content marketing approach, and social media platforms. Note these are different from you as a person; your author brand should focus on the audience for your books—not getting likes and reads from your BFFs. Encouraging family and friend follows will throw off search algorithms making you harder to find (unless they happen to also read your niche).

You need to build an e-mail list as well; newsletter marketing (despite being one of the older digital marketing strategies) is still one of the most efficient, especially for authors. Joanna Penn has a great book on marketing for authors called How to Market a Book: Third Edition that discusses the e-mail newsletter, social media, website, etc. I have a background in content marketing, and Penn’s insights are exactly what indie authors need to promote their writing.

Compared to traditional publishing, launching a self-published book (especially if it goes straight to e-book) takes no time. Soon, you’ll be published and the sales will be…. Even with traditionally-published works, sales can take a while; however, once you do gain some traction and the algorithms start to notice your book, you’ll start to see results. Yippee!

You’ll also start to see an income (sweet!). Income is where indie authors have an advantage—they keep more of their money. 

Brief Summary of Differences

So, to reiterate, the main differences between the two options are:

  • Control and independence over design, editing, production, marketing, etc.
  • Paying for design, editing, marketing, etc. up front as a self-published author or paying for it on the back end through royalties
  • The support and social proof of a professional publisher

Regardless of if you’re traditionally-published or are an indie author, you still have to take your own initiative with your marketing. To that end, there’s no wrong way to publish. You need to do what is best for you. If you have the time, resources, patience, and passion to produce and market your book, then indie publishing might be best for you; if you’re rather hand over the reigns after typing the end, then try to find a traditional publisher. The end.

Whether you’re an indie author or a traditional author and you need help editing or marketing your book, contact me. I provide consulting and hands-on services. If I can’t help you, I’ll find someone who can. I want to help you make your dreams come true.