Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing (and everything in between)

At a recent meeting of my writer’s group, we were talking about how we planned to publish the books we were working on. The vote was split between self-publishing and traditional publishing.

When I researched options, however, I learned that there’s more than those two paths. Thankfully, the publishing industry provides numerous options for aspiring writers, nor do you have to aim for the Big Five to be successful. Many small presses can provide the same benefits as the larger ones, and hybrid publishers can give writers more control over the final product, though it comes at a price.

Which path you choose depends on a number of factors, such as the type of product you’re creating, how much time and money you want to invest in it, and what you hope to gain. As new technologies emerge that impact the publishing business, authors have more options to choose from than ever before. It helps to understand what they are, and to ask yourself several questions to clarify your goals.

There are three primary publishing options: traditional, self-publishing, and hybrid. Each is explained below. For an even more detailed overview of publishing options, Jane Friedman has published this fabulously informative chart that describes and compares each option more fully.

Traditional publishing. Traditional is as it sounds, the conventional path to publishing where an author signs a contract allowing a publisher to produce and deliver a book that the author has written. The defining characteristic is the signing of a contract. Authors have few expenses to worry about in this option, but they share in the profits. Many traditional firms offer an advance against royalties. Authors usually need an agent to get their foot in the door and should have a completed manuscript to submit.

The traditional path is dominated by the Big Five publishing firms: Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan. Each has dozens of imprints.

Then there are numerous small and medium sized firms that provide the same benefits to authors. These traditional firms have marketing teams that can help promote the finished product, although they may also request an author’s involvement in the marketing process, such as promoting on your social media and website, doing live readings at libraries and appearing at book signings.

However, there are some downsides. For example, this may not be the most profitable option for authors. Once the publisher and agent get their cut of the profits, there’s less available to the writer.

Self-publishing. With this option, authors publish their works on their own and at their own expense. It helps to have strong business acumen to understand both the creative and business aspects of publishing process. While self-publishing provides greater creative freedom to write what you want to write and publish, you absorb all the expenses. It may require more work and more time than you’re able to give it.

Authors oversee all aspects of development from editing and formatting to book cover design and distribution, which is great if you like to get your hands dirty and be involved in all aspects of production. Writers are also responsible for doing their own marketing to make sure the book gets noticed in the marketplace. If you’re not skilled at certain things, like book design or editing, be prepared to hire designers and editors to help develop the book the way you envision it. That means paying for those services too. It’s why self-publishing is not for everyone. That said, the profits are all yours because nothing is going to a publishing house.

Hybrid publishing. As the name implies, this option combines the benefits and flaws of both self-publishing and traditional publishing. Many of today’s authors opt for this approach because it gives them more creative freedom and control in the process. As Barbara Lynn Probst explains on Jane Friedman’s blog, hybrid publishing:

“resembles self-publishing because the author carries the cost and financial risk; thus it involves an investment of your own capital. It resembles traditional publishing because professionals, not you, carry out the tasks required to transform a Word document from your laptop into an object called a book that people can buy and read.”

As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to each option. When choosing the best option for you, it may be helpful to ask yourself a few questions.

  1. What type of product are you publishing? Is it a non-fiction book, a novel or an e-book? Smaller products like novellas or business e-books might be better suited for self-publishing while larger works might be better suited for the hybrid or traditional model.
  2. Do you have an agent? Most large publishing houses don’t accept manuscripts from unagented writers. If you’re a first-time author, you might be better off at a small press or hybrid.
  3. How much time are you willing to spend on the production and promotion processes? Some paths require significant time on your part while other paths require less. How involved do you want to be? If you have a full time job, you’ll likely want the path with less time involvement. Either way, be prepared to put in some time and effort to make your publishing dream come true.
  4. How much of a risk taker are you? How much risk are you willing to take on? Self-publishing requires more time, money and energy on your part, but the rewards are greater too.
  5. Are you a DIY-er? Do you like do-it-yourself projects? If so, self-publishing will allow you to get your hands dirty and get you involved in all aspects of the publishing process.
  6. How much control and creative freedom do you want? If control and creative freedom is important to you, then self-publishing is your best option. If you’re willing to give up some of those factors, the hybrid or traditional path will work best.
  7. How involved do you want to be? Some people like being involved in every phase of the publishing process, while others are only interested in writing. Knowing how involved you want to be will determine the best option for you.
  8. How much money are you willing to invest? Publishing costs money, and some of it may come from you. Depending on which path you choose and what size publishing house you work with, be prepared to invest some money on production and marketing. Most beginning authors don’t have a lot of money to invest. My advice is to set aside some cash to cover costs.

No matter which publishing path you choose, be sure to know your writing goals and be prepared to wear several hats.