You finished writing a book. Awesome! You then went through the editing process and now you’re exploring your publishing options. At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Should I choose traditional or self publishing?”
Just to make sure we are all on the same page, let’s quickly define both publishing methods.
Traditional publishing refers to having your book published through a company (a publishing house) that deals with all aspects of the process, from preparing the book for publication to dealing with marketing and promotion.
On the other hand, self publishing is when you, the author, arrange everything, from formatting to marketing. You might still hire a freelancer—for instance, to design a cover—but you basically control the entire process.
Now, many people might think that the question “traditional or self publishing?” is not a true dilemma, for two reasons: Firstly, these people assume everyone should opt for traditional publishing because it’s just “better,” in some undefined way; secondly, because they assume that since publishing houses are so picky about accepting manuscripts, you’d be mad not to publish your book traditionally, if you have the chance.
However, it’s not quite that simple—few things in life are!
As someone who has experienced both publishing forms, traditionally and self published, let me assure you that these assumptions are false.
No, not everyone should automatically opt for traditional publishing. Moreover, publishing houses are not a single entity, where everyone is equally picky. They come in shades of gray, which also affects their relevant pros and cons, as we will see.
And so, allow me to share a few details of my personal publishing journey, and highlight the pros and cons of both traditional and self publishing. You do have a choice, but in order for your choice to be one that serves your true interests, you better be well informed!
As with so many other aspects of our lives, the digital revolution has affected book publishing, as well. Long gone are the days where you took your manuscript to a couple of publishers and if they said “no,” then that was it. Today, everyone with a computer and an internet connection—in the United States, this is 90% of the adult population—can publish a book for free.
Though I have no specific data to back it up, based on the sheer number of self-published versus traditional books out there, I assume a vast majority of writers try self publishing before they get published traditionally (if at all).
My own experience was the exact opposite.
Since I began to write fiction at a very young age, I didn’t have access to the amazing tools and platforms available to authors today. In fact, I didn’t even use a computer for my first couple of novels.
Later, when I had a computer and an internet connection—old-school, dial-up!—it couldn’t help me get my work published. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, perhaps one of the most popular platforms of its kind, launched in November 2007.
November 2007. Exactly four years after my first novel was published (by a traditional publisher), and around the time I became entirely disillusioned with the publishing industry.
But let’s rewind …
Somewhere in early 2003, I was waiting in the queue at a bank when my cell phone rang. It was the call every author who’s ever pitched a manuscript awaits. I was told my manuscript had been accepted.
I recall feeling an odd, intense sense of unreality. If you’ve ever dreamed of winning the lottery or—even better!—kissing that guy/gal you always liked, the experience was somewhat similar. It felt like a dream.
We signed a three-book contract. We organized a book presentation at a central bookstore, where lots of people attended, including actors and academics. Naively, I imagined all my writing and publishing woes were over.
The publisher’s initial interest in me drifted to other authors and books. Marketing and promotion soon trickled to a stop. Inevitably, the promising sales of the first couple of months also slowed down.
The worst part was a disconnect between words and actions. The publishing industry is, quite literally, one predicated on words; promises, assurances (of various extents), and all sorts of verbal agreements that can change without warning. It took me some time to learn the lesson, but I finally realized the publishing world is fertile ground for hypocrisy. People tell you one thing but mean and do another.
Bottom line, traditional publishing does not guarantee you anything.
Although many authors think traditional publishing quasi-magically opens all doors, it’s really not like that at all. In my case, for reasons I’ll refer to later, it actually made me hate writing. It took me many years to overcome the disgust I felt throughout that experience.
The advantages of traditional publishing are rather self-evident, so I’ll begin with those.
With a traditional publisher, you as an author don’t have to worry about things such as designing a cover, formatting the book, or making it available for sale. Much more importantly, you don’t have to worry about marketing and advertising, and you don’t have to pay anything, either.
Of course, whether the publisher will spend $5 or $5,000 on promoting your book depends on the publisher’s size, budget, and strategy. Remember, publishing houses come in many shapes and forms. The really big guns—which are also the pickiest—might have a lot of resources. Smaller publishing houses that are more likely to accept your manuscript will typically have much smaller budgets, too.
In any case, although you are of course encouraged to promote your book and spread the word, with a traditional publisher you can still have sales while doing nothing—though as we’ll soon see, “doing nothing” is a bit misleading.
So what about disadvantages?
Oh my, where do I begin …
I probably project a bit too much of my own priorities here (we’ll talk about that in the concluding section), but there’s something inherently enslaving about traditional publishing. If you think that being published traditionally means someone buys you, you’d be right, just not quite in the way you think.
Traditional publishing means you have given up the rights to your book. You are still recognized as the author, but you have relinquished control to someone else. You no longer have a say about what the cover will look like or what the back flap will include. As for marketing, your publisher decides all about how and where to promote your book, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
I have personal, bitter experience with that, seeing my literary-fiction novel advertised next to self-help guides.
Ironically enough, some of the advantages can also become disadvantages: You don’t have to do anything about marketing, but you also can’t do anything, in terms of having a say on the matter. Indeed, sometimes you have to do something you don’t necessarily want to—such as make a public appearance, shake a lot of hands (of people you loathe), and smile.
Yeah, I have personal experience with that, too.
Of course, once again, this all depends on the size of the publisher. I really can’t stress enough that they come in many shapes and forms. In my case, it was a fairly big publishing house, which severely limited my input. With smaller publishers, there might be more flexibility.
So what was I left with after my traditional publishing journey? Allow me to transition into self publishing, because the reasons for this transition are directly related.
After my traditional publishing experience, which lasted about four years, I was left with little: a bit over a thousand sales; exactly zero royalties—according to the contract, my royalties were 0% for the first 2,000 sales, if I recall correctly; and feeling frustrated and disillusioned.
More crucially, I didn’t feel like writing at all. I didn’t care about the lackluster result in terms of sales, but I was disgusted with the way there. The industry reeked of hypocrisy, and I really couldn’t deal with that. That was around the time I began my academic career, which was a great excuse to put my fiction-writing on hiatus—one that lasted about eight years.
Meanwhile, a lot happened. As I mention in more detail in my post on writing comebacks, a hiatus as long as mine means the world has changed. I realized I no longer needed to deal with publishers and agents to get my work out there.
For perhaps most authors, self publishing feels like the fallback option in case they can’t find a traditional publisher. To me, at that point in time and my writing career, self publishing felt like the primary, if not the only, option.
Let’s start with the other side now, but for the exact same reason: Because with self publishing it’s the disadvantages that are more obvious, I’ll begin with those. Funnily enough, you’ll notice another similarity, in reverse: The disadvantages can partly be a blessing in disguise.
The most evident disadvantage of self publishing is that you’re on your own. There’s “nobody” to help you with formatting, or designing a book cover. The quotation marks are there because the internet is full of guides, groups, and tutorials, so in some sense, there are always resources available.
Still, you have to do it yourself and live with the consequences of your choices. The first couple of novels I self published after my hiatus won’t win any awards for cover design. But I learned from my mistakes and applied the lessons to subsequent books.
The most crucial disadvantage of self publishing is that you’re on your own when it comes to marketing. Critically, this is the case not only in the sense that you have to plan and execute your marketing strategy, but also that you have to pay for it.
Sometimes, when I try to calculate whether to spend $10 on ad type X or $20 on ad type Y, I briefly miss my traditional-publishing days, when my book was advertised in magazines, newspapers, and bookshop window displays—though one of the most pleasant surprises was when I found it on display in the Athens International Airport!
This feeling is only transitory, however, because then I realize how much more I’ve gained with self publishing. Yes, there are many advantages, too, and to me, they’re invaluable.
If the biggest downside of traditional publishing was giving up control, you can guess what the biggest upside of self publishing is.
I can do whatever I want now.
Not only can I freely decide what to write—even that part can be influenced by a publisher—but I can choose how to present it to the reader. I can choose the design, what to include in the back flap, what genre to present my book as, the selling price, and every other aspect.
Yes, it’s really difficult to bring the book before untold thousands of eyes, the way traditional publishing offers. Nowadays, the only way to get my books to an airport display stand is by taking them to the airport’s book-swapping location—which is fine!
However, what to me is more important than quantity is quality—not the destination but the journey. My budget and methods might be limited, but within these boundaries, I’m entirely free to choose how to promote my books, including the option not to promote them at all. If I don’t feel like organizing an event, I don’t have to. I don’t need to please anyone, and I don’t need to socialize with people I despise.
No gods, no masters. To me, that’s a huge deal.
Would it be the same to you? Like so many other things in writing (and life in general), it boils down to priorities.
It’s a cliche, but true: It’s all a matter of priorities.
In this post, I shared my own experiences, trying to help you form a more complete picture of the dilemma. And it is a dilemma, a choice you have to make. It’s true, if your goal is to get a 10-year contract with a top-5 publisher and make millions of dollars, you’re not the only one having a say in the matter. But there are other publishers, smaller ones, and then you really have to weigh your options.
Having experienced both forms of publishing, traditional and self, there’s no doubt in my mind that I have been happier and more creative self publishing. This has to do with my own expectations, priorities, and perhaps personality. Put simply, I just don’t react well to having to please people and put on fake smiles. I also detest giving up control of my creative work.
This means far less sales and exposure, but it’s something I decided to accept. You might be different, willing to be a bit flexible in exchange for more sales, and that’s a perfectly legitimate option, too—there’s no right and wrong here.
It’s about understanding your options, choosing the one most suitable to your needs, and accepting the relevant tradeoff. It’s not a perfect world, and the same applies to the publishing landscape. But you can still make the best of it if you’re well informed and honest with yourself.
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops programs focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general. Chris is a senior content editor for Craft Your Content.