Working as a developmental editor, and being a writer who has self-published a memoir and is now working on a fiction novel I’ll pursue traditional publishing for, I get asked this question all the time. And the answer is always: it depends.
I have connections to agents and experience helping writers to pursue that traditional publishing path. But the truth is, I only recommend going down that road to about 5 percent of the writers I work with. If I believe your manuscript is best suited for traditional publishing, I will always do everything in my power to help you get there. But not every manuscript is.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
There are a a few different considerations when choosing to pursue traditional or self-publishing:
Traditional Publishing Pros
- You have the backing of a larger corporation, which means an entire team of experts (editors, cover designers and marketers) dedicated to getting your book published. These people are part of the deal—you shouldn’t have to pay for their services. And if you do, you don’t have a traditional publishing deal, you’ve signed on with a vanity press—which is a whole other beast I’ll address at some point in the future!
- Because of that backing, traditional publishing will almost always produce a more professional finished product than what you might produce on your own. If you want to produce something of similar quality as a self-published author, you need to be willing to invest a fair amount of money on the same services a traditional publishing house would provide.
- You have their marketing experience and reach to rely on. That means your book will likely be read by far more people, and you will likely be given the opportunity to do things like book tours and speaking engagements related directly to your book—again without having to pay for those opportunities.
- While self-publishing is becoming more common, there is just a heightened level of respect given to authors who still manage to pull off traditional publishing today. Mostly because anyone can self-publish a book, but very few can pull off a traditional publishing deal.
Traditional Publishing Cons
- Convincing an agent or publisher to even look at your book in this market is HARD. Traditional publishing is changing a lot, and most publishers are focused on authors who have already proven themselves or already have a very extensive reach. Connecting with one of the Big 5 publishers as a first time writer is unlikely. Not impossible, but very difficult to achieve.
- Most first time writers are far more likely to get picked up by a smaller press. But even with that, it could take years to get one to take a bite and show interest in your book, and sending out queries is a time intensive, sometimes soul-crushing, endeavor. Then, even if you are picked up by a traditional publisher, small presses usually have a much longer waiting period for publication because they typically only roll out a few new books a year. So you might be signed, only to be given a publish date that is 4 years down the line.
- The payout is much smaller with traditional publishing than self-publishing. With self-publishing, you get 60 to 75 percent of the royalties from your book. With traditional, it is more like 6 to 10 percent. Granted, with a greater reach, the potential is there to make more (6 percent of 100,000 books sold is obviously still better than 60 percent of 100 books sold). But traditional publishing doesn’t always translate into more books sold, or at least not enough more to account for that difference, so it is a risk.
- You give up a lot of control with your book. Once you sign on with a publisher, you are subject to their editing requests—which can sometimes be substantial.
- At the most basic level, anyone can self-publish with just a few hours of effort (after the book is written, of course). There are great online publishers that make the whole process fairly seamless, and most are already connected with big retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
- You have more control over the finished product, and can usually hire freelancers for anything a traditional publisher might do. If you are willing to invest the time and money, you can produce a finished product most people would think was completely professional
- You get more returned to you in royalties, which is a bonus especially if you have the marketing expertise to successfully market your book.
- You aren’t hindered by publishing schedules. You can publish your book as soon as you feel it is ready, use it to start building a name for yourself, and dive into your next project.
- A LOT of authors get ahead of themselves with self-publishing and are so excited to get their words out there, that they wind up publishing a sub-par product. You can go back and fix some things after the fact, but you can’t erase bad reviews. And people will tear your book apart if it doesn’t come across as professional.
- You are on the hook for paying for all the up front costs (editors, cover designers, formatters, etc.), which can reach up into the thousands if you are truly committed to a professional end product.
- Very few self-published authors have the marketing expertise to market their books well, so it isn’t at all uncommon for someone to spend a lot in up-front publishing costs, only to fall extremely short of recovering those costs in sales.
- There is a lot of competition out there. Everyone is self-publishing these days, and when people hear you self-published, there is the risk of losing some credibility as a result. So you really have to have something special to convince them your book is worth reading, as opposed to the hundreds of other books out there on a similar subject.
There are some questions you have to ask yourself when deciding which route to go:
- What are your ultimate goals for this book, and for your future?
- Do you want to use it as a stepping stone, or are you aiming for something more—perhaps to make a career out of writing?
- What is more important to you? The payout (money) or the prestige of being a published author?
Just to give you some context, there were a lot of factors that went into my deciding to self-publish the first time around:
- My book was considered a niche genre, which would have made it even harder to get a traditional publisher to look at it. Realistically, it was a book that was mostly going to appeal to women (thereby cutting the potential audience in half right away), and more likely women who had dealt with infertility (again, greatly reducing the potential). On top of that, it was a memoir, and memoirs are a dime a dozen—convincing a publisher yours is something different is hard. In a situation like that, I went into it knowing it would have been near impossible for me to ever convince a traditional publisher or agent to even crack the cover.
- I had a pretty extensive and loyal audience built up already. My blog was achieving 5,000 to 10,000 views a day when I published, so I was confident in my ability to market the book, particularly because it catered so specifically to the audience I already had.
- When I asked myself the questions above, I realized that my goal with this book wasn’t to get rich. I mostly just needed to get the words out there. I wanted to be able to say I was published, to be able to use that in my attempts to get other writing jobs, and to use this as a “first book,” but not necessarily something that would be representative of my entire writing career.
- I had no interest in waiting years for this project to see the light of day. I put 2 years into writing and editing, and I didn’t want to commit any more time to it than that. I was ready to move on, and once it was done, I just wanted to share it.
So, I decided to self-publish. For me, and this book, that was absolutely the right decision. It did very well with self-publishing, certainly better than most, and given all the above—I don’t think it ever would have made it to print if I hadn’t.
That said, I’m currently working on a fiction manuscript that I have completely different goals for. It has traditional appeal, and my desire now is to write novels for a living. So once this manuscript is done, I will be pitching it to agents and pursuing the traditional path.
You have to really examine the potential of your book, and how that aligns with your goals, when making this decision. There’s no universal right or wrong answer. It’s more about being honest with yourself about what your book is, what you personally have to offer, and where the best starting point for you may be.