As a hybrid author, I get asked a lot about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. I absolutely LOVE both. I have LOVED every single editor and publisher I’ve worked with so far, both self-pub’d and traditionally pub’d. I’ve been lucky, I think, that I haven’t really had a bad experience with either (because I’ve heard stories). Each new place and partnership has been a learning opportunity and another exciting step in my journey as an author.
Personally, I love self-publishing because it gives my brain other aspects to think on. I love the control and getting to decide everything and not being as limited. It can be more nimble and flexible than traditional publication. I’d say not as pressured, but it’s just a different kind. I love traditional publishing because I get a partnership with a group of people who are invested in my book succeeding too. Ones who have expertise and market knowledge and, often, a greater reach. This is a support system that means I don’t have to do it ALL.
Every author’s goals, needs, and wants are so different, and journeys/experiences vary widely with publishers, editors, agents, and so forth. Where one might be highly successful with one path, someone else may do better with another. If you’re just starting out, I highly recommend asking many published authors what their experience is/was for a good cross-section.
The below pros and cons are mine:
I personally started out self-published. I had, by total dumb luck, landed myself a fantastic contract content editor who really helped me strengthen my craft and writing side of things, but I still wasn’t sure my stuff was readable and querying seemed like the long way around to figure that out. I self-pub’d because I figured if total strangers reviewed the book even half-way nicely then I’d keep going. It was mostly a quality check thing on my part.
I discovered, doing this, that I loved every aspect and step of the publishing process. However, keep in mind that I now own my own business to help other authors with things like cover design, blurb tweaking, editing, and so forth. So I am able to do almost all the steps without outside help (though I still contract editors) and with a level of quality that I think is competitive in the market.
- Having that total control over every aspect of a book.
- Not being stuck to a publisher’s schedules, both for deadlines but also for releases.
- Not being stuck to a publisher’s opinions about the market, what sells, your writing, or your book. (This one isn’t a big deal to me, but is to others. Personally, I like that someone else is doing analysis and trying to figure out what sells. But for some authors, that feedback and/or restriction isn’t what they want. This is totally a personal thing. Whatever works for you.)
- Indie authors can utilize some options (like KU) available to them more easily than traditional publishers.
- You see all your sales real time to be able to know what works and what doesn’t with your marketing and advertising efforts.
- I learned so much from the process. I learned how much the different parts of the publishing process cost and how long each could take. I learned that there’s more than just grammar involved in editing. I learned what things to tell a cover designer were helpful and what were not. I learned about the behind the scenes of dealing with the retailers to get books up, change prices, adjust cover copy. I learned how much I didn’t know.
- Because of that learning process with my first 5-6 books, when I finally got in at a publisher, I felt much more comfortable with the process and what I knew they’d need from me.
- You get to keep all of your royalties, instead of divvying them up and getting less.
- Getting to use your brain in all sorts of different ways (I love this part).
- You are doing EVERYTHING and making every decision = a lot of pressure.
- You have to pay for EVERYTHING – contractors for editing, cover design, formatting. Software to help you with some of that.
- You have to learn EVERYTHING (which involves more apps/software/tools than you’d think.) Be ready to be a fast learner.
- Marketing & advertising is ENTIRELY on you, both figuring it out and paying for it.
- Reaching out to bloggers and reviewers is ENTIRELY on you.
- Because self-publishing is flexible, it’s also easy to not stick to your deadlines.
- Uploading the books can be a big pain. So can things like price changes and sales. (Services like Smashwords help here).
- Unless you get lucky out the gate, there is a ton of noise. By noise, I mean a lot of other books on the market vying to catch readers eyes. (This is true no matter how you publish though.) But my experience so far is I sell better with a publisher than on my own. However, I know a ton of self pub’d authors who rock it on their own.
- Yes, there is a stigma to self-pub’d books. Because it is so easy for anyone to put anything out there, the quality for self-pub can be hit and miss. This stigma is better than when I started within professional writing circles. And while some readers might be wary, there are plenty of readers out there. But be aware it does exist.
- I’m hearing that it’s getting harder and harder to start in self-publishing and get any traction. Those who started 10-15 years ago, or who are moving over from traditional with a following already built, do fine, but newbies might struggle to do so.
- Being in total control is scary and a LOT of pressure. If you think writing a book is tough and time consuming, try adding in all the other parts and making every single decision yourself.
TRADITIONAL – SMALL PRESS
I transitioned into traditional starting with a small press partly because they said YES first (best feeling in the world), but also partly because I felt more comfortable there to start. Less intimidated. This was an absolutely lovely place to be. I got to experience the processes of doing this whole book thing with a professional editor and publisher and learned even more as I went along.
I will say that I do know some authors who make more self-publishing (and keeping 100% of the royalties) than going with a small press (especially if no marketing/advertising $ is available to help push your book). But I also know authors who love having that support system in place and don’t want to go bigger because of the cons there, or know that self-publishing isn’t an option for them (for whatever reason – usually the technology or just being overwhelmed). They love their small press and the partnership with them, and that’s awesome. Everyone has their own path!
- Someone else is footing the bill for editing and cover design (and sometimes more).
- More eyes on your work to help make it awesome!
- Publishers come with their own loyal readers built in, many of which love to try out that publisher’s newest authors.
- A small press can feel more personal and possibly less intimidating than one of the larger traditional publishers.
- A small press can be more nimble and flexible than the larger publishers.
- Smaller publishers are often more open to working with an author in very niche spaces or outside some of the stricter bounds larger publishers have (at least in the romance subgenres) .
- If you’re interested in traditional publishing, a small press can be a great stepping stone to things like finding an agent. It helps open doors.
- A built in network of other authors who become friends, a support group, and love to cross-promote. (They’re out there for self-pub too, but not as immediately easy to connect with.)
These really vary a lot between smaller presses depending on their publishing model, size, and budget.
- Marketing/advertising help often isn’t in the budget and all of that still falls on you. (Keep in mind, even at large publishers, a lot is still on you).
- Getting your book out to book bloggers and reviewers usually still lands entirely on you. That can cost more $ to get a book up at places like Netgalley. Or you do a ton of legwork cold calling book bloggers.
- Some of the smaller publishers put out a lot more books than medium-to-larger publishers (again publisher dependent). It can be easy to get lost in the mix of the numbers of books being published (both for the readers, but also for the publisher support and focus).
- You are now on the publisher’s schedule for deadlines, but also for when your book releases and it won’t always line up with what you want.
- Be ready to be more flexible and develop a thicker skin.
TRADITIONAL – MEDIUM to LARGER PUBLISHERS
I’ve been with medium to large publishers as well. For my personal goals as an author, these are the best fit for me at this time. I don’t mind the constrictions that come with these publishers because the PROs that come with them are exactly what I’m looking for at this stage in my career.
Do keep in mind that medium/large publishers usually have many imprints. Some imprints put out print books that end up in retailers like B&N, Walmart, and Target, whereas other imprints might be eBook only which can feel more like a small press environment in terms of the pros/cons. So experiences here vary a ton as well.
- A pro for all traditional – someone else is footing the bill for editing and cover design and more.
- Even more eyes on your work than smaller presses. They might have additional steps like sensitivity readers and readers looking at your completed book from a market perspective.
- Their loyal reader base can be larger than a smaller press.
- They (so far for me at least) do get your books to more bloggers / reviewers / early readers via book mailings, Netgalley, Edelweiss, etc.
- Marketing help is more readily available in terms of dedicated PR person to work with you on ideas, reach with book stores and conferences to get you in the door, and, sometimes, budgets for things like advertising and PR.
- There is a bigger machine in place helping with things like market analysis, but also helping authors get into audio, or be translated for foreign markets more easily.
- That same awesome built in network of author friends/support/cross-promotion that a small press has.
- Harder to get in the door. Some require you have an agent before they’ll even look at your submissions.
- The biggest of the presses can easily feel intimidating especially to a newbie author (Don’t get me wrong, they’ve been absolutely lovely to me so far. This is a mental thing. That whole “impostor syndrome” many authors deal with.)
- Fewer slots available and, therefore, are more specific about what they are looking for. For example…They might not sign a fantastic author, because they already have an author in that space. OR, they tend to be less interested in niche authors, reaching for a broader audience.
- Stricter guidelines about not just the content of your book but things like word count. If you submit to an imprint with 100k, and their max word count is 70k, they won’t even look at the book. Automatic rejection.
- Larger publishers set the motions in place months or even years in advance, which can mean they are a little less flexible and nimble.
- I have heard that larger publishers can also be quicker to not re-sign an author or back-burner upcoming books if the first books aren’t selling well. I’m not far enough along to know yet. But this is a business, so it makes sense to me that a book with more $ invested into it will be expected to perform.
- Like with small presses, you are now on the publisher’s schedule for deadlines, but also for when your book releases.
- For print books, the publisher is often still at the mercy of the retailers (B&N, Walmart, Target) and the market and what they want to stock. One more added pressure point in terms of sales and performance for your book.
- If anything, you’ll need to be even more flexible and develop and even thicker skin here. Yes fight for what you want, this is your creation in the end with your name on it. But at the same time, you most likely went traditional for their expertise and reach. Learn how to listen and partner with your team at a publisher. If you can’t handle feedback and criticism well and incorporate that into your books and career, then this might not be the space for you.
Both self-published and traditionally published at the same time.
- The Pros from all of the above PLUS…
- You can fill in any gaps between traditionally published books.
- You can continue to publish those niche books the traditional publisher might be less interested in picking up.
- You can use it as a marketing tool to reach more readers with things like short stories and novellas and freebies.
- It’s a very handy skill to have to put together things like multi-author anthologies.
- It gives you a different perspective on the market and what is selling.
- You can react faster to changes in the market with your self-published stuff than a traditional publisher can.
- The stress of managing so many different books in so many different channels.
- The stress of doing it ALL while still sticking to publisher deadlines.
- It’s very easy to back-burner your self-published works as deadlines for your traditional publishers loom.
- You might end up competing with yourself on releases.
- Some traditional publishers don’t like it and won’t sign someone who self-pub’s. Same for agents.
I hope you found some of this novel (man did I have a lot to say) of my experiences with self vs. traditional pub helpful! Again, and I know I’m repeating myself but it’s true…every author’s needs, wants, and journey is different. Talk to others about their experiences and then decide what’s best for you!