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Answering the Question: To Self-Publish or Traditionally Publish?

For many aspiring authors, the dilemma of how to publish a book is foggy and ever-changing. The decision between self-publishing and traditional publishing can be a difficult one, especially in an industry landscape that still considers traditional publishing to be more legitimate–albeit subtly–but is also seeing indie author income and market share grow substantially.

The opportunity to self-publish slowly kicked into motion in the late 1990s, with the invention of print-on-demand technology that allowed for the printing of one book at a time. It allowed services to indie authors to begin, but we did not see a major uptick in self-publishing until the last ten years. With Amazon taking the reins as the retail giant, e-commerce (and eBooks) skyrocketed. This element, among many other trends in the rapidly evolving industry, allowed for indie authors to succeed without having to fight for brick-and-mortar shelf space.

The industry changes have been expedited by numerous new services aimed directly at self-published authors, including Smashwords, Book Baby, Amazon’s CreateSpace, and more. Various publishing houses now have their own self-publishing arms, as well.

With eBooks accounting for 30-35% of all book sales in the U.S., and with more than 60% of all units (print and eBook) being sold via an online retailer, it’s become increasingly easy to create a digital book and toss it into the marketplace, without the need for a physical product or a third-party publisher.

In February 2016, it was reported that eBooks from independent authors accounted for 45% of the eBook market share. Additionally, Author Earnings reported that in January of this year, 56 of Amazon’s overall top 100 bestselling eBooks (more than half!) were self-published indie titles.

It’s apparent that self-publishing has a front-and-center place in the book landscape, and the industry is increasingly friendly to indie authors. With all that in mind, why go the route of traditional publishing? This is the question I hear so many aspiring authors asking, and it’s a really good one. There are pros and cons on each side of the dilemma, and I believe that the answer simply comes down to what your goals are.

Traditional Publishing

Pros:

  • You get paid an advance up front, and then a royalty for all books sold beyond that initial pay-out.
  • You have the help of an editor to walk you through each draft and help with substantive content needs and more detailed copywriting issues.
  • You receive titling and cover design help from industry leaders.
  • You partner with a marketing team to get promotional support and resources.
  • You have access to wide distribution channels and multiple retailers, making print distribution, specifically, easier.

Cons:

  • You are subject to many publisher decisions, including timeline, marketing tactics, retail sell-in, etc.
  • You do not bring in the majority of the profits.
  • You often do not maintain full rights to the book.
  • You usually have to have a literary agent, which can require resources and time to find.

Self-Publishing

Pros:

  • You work on your own timeline and set your own release date.
  • You have full decision-making power over title, cover, marketing initiatives, etc.
  • You earn almost 100% of the profits, based on which indie services you choose to use.
  • You avoid the expenses of a literary agent and the process of acquisitions.
  • You own your work and have full rights to the content.

Cons:

  • You lack counsel in process and legality.
  • You are on your own to find a graphic designer to do cover art and internal pages.
  • You are on your own to find an editor and/or ghostwriter.
  • You miss out on the wide distribution channels that publishers have, meaning print distribution, especially, is complex.

Keep in mind, though, that there’s not and hard-and-fast line between self-publishing and traditional publishing. We are seeing more and more authors move back and forth between the two worlds, and in fact, Publisher’s Weekly reports that “hybrid” authors earn the most money, with a median income between $7,500 and $9,999 a year.

There’s no perfect answer between traditional publishing and self-publishing, and I generally tell authors that it comes down to personality, work style, and long-term goals.

Wondering about self-publishing vs traditional? Simply look at your work style & long-term goals. Click To Tweet

If you’re someone who likes the structure of having a process and a guide, go traditional. If you’re someone who excels in a more ambiguous self-starter landscape, go indie. If you’re hoping to be a “career author” (a loose term!) with print books on brick-and-mortar shelves, go traditional. If you’re hoping to just get your ideas out into the world and are comfortable with e-commerce only, go indie. The pros and cons on each side are strong.

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  • Fantastic breakdown Chad.

  • That’s the best way to think about the differences that I’ve ever seen. Bookmarking this one!