Now that you’ve written a book you’re proud of; you’re ready to share it with the world. But first, you have a question: Should I self-publish or hire a publisher?
Maybe you’re aspiring to be the next Sarah Dessen in YA fiction. Or perhaps you created a series you’re confident will rival the book-to-movie success of “Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter.”
You probably are already aware that the road to authorship is not paved with gold. There are pros and cons to both ways of publishing a book, regardless of whether or not you opt to self-publish or go the traditional route.
Self-publishing or traditional publishing?
As much as self-publishing authors extol the wonders of creative control and higher royalties, they also complain about the uphill climb it can sometimes be to reach an audience. Publishers who publish traditionally say mainstream success is the only way to go, all the while enjoying the ability to have a say in final book decisions.
Therefore, there is no conclusive answer to this age-old debate. A path that is right for you depends entirely on what you want from your author’s experience.
You could ask many other questions about whether it’s better to self-publish or find a publisher, but these five fundamental ones should give you a good foundation for what can be a complex and confusing process.
I recommend researching more about the topics that resonate with you once you’ve worked through these questions. In addition, it would help if you researched your decisions before fully committing since the publishing world changes every month.
Here are the five vital questions you need to ask yourself about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing.
When would you like your book to be released?
Typically, a traditionally published book takes at least one year to publish.
Writing the manuscript or pitching agents and waiting for a publishing house to accept your book is not included. Depending on the size of the publishing house, it may take a longer time for your book to be published, but in general, if your manuscript is accepted, it will take another year to be published.
As a co-author on the traditional side of publishing, we needed a year before a publisher bought our book. Another year passed before the book went on sale. It took us two years following the writing of the book to see it in bookstores.
On the other hand, you could self-publish your book tomorrow.
As long as you completed all the steps to prepare your book for publishing – editing, cover design, formatting – and uploaded your documents correctly, you could have a publishable book in a day.
While I wouldn’t recommend it, fast-turnaround self-publishing can be done. For example, if the immediate release of your book is the primary goal, then self-publishing may be the best option.
It would greatly help if you didn’t base your choice on speed to market alone. Don’t decide without considering these other factors.
What is the number of people you want to reach?
Writers want their books to be read by as many people as possible. Or, at least, they want their target audience to find, read, review, and become lifelong fans.
With rare exceptions, such fandom isn’t just a given. Either you will self-publish your book or work with a traditional publisher, but the foundation must be strong. Nowadays, both processes require the author to have a platform.
Self-publishing can be a black hole for authors without a sizable platform trying to reach readers. Jane Friedman wrote in Publishing 101: “When writers chase self-publishing as an alternative to traditional publishing, they often have a nasty surprise in store: No one is listening. They don’t have an audience.”
If you do not agree, then consider this: As of August 1, 2018, the Kindle store sold 6,922,403 titles.
Since Amazon sells the majority of ebooks among all retailers, those millions of titles are your competitors. So you have the opportunity to reach Amazon’s millions of daily customers. Still, you also have to figure out how to get those customers to discover your one-in-a-million book.
Unless you’re familiar with the many publishing outlets available to self-publishers, your sales will likely come from Amazon’s ecosystem. One caveat, however: it will not be distributed in bookstores.
A bookstore could order your book if a patron specifically requests it, but the chances of your self-published novel getting distributed to major bookstores across the nation are very slim.
Traditional publishers’ relationships with distributors and bookstores may be their most significant asset to authors.
Traditional publishing will definitely provide the biggest distribution, both physically and digitally, since traditionally published books still dominate markets.
Don’t believe the lie that a traditional publisher will provide ample marketing dollars to support your work. Most likely, they won’t. Moreover, even if they invest some money in your book, it must do exceptionally well when it’s first released and the first few months to convince them to invest any further.
What level of control do you want over your book?
You should self-publish if you want complete control over your book. However, if you’re going to control your book, you need to consider precisely what you’re taking on – or giving up.
Controlling your book means fully taking responsibility for every aspect of it. The process goes well beyond just writing the book.
You will need to spend both money and time to ensure that your cover design, editing, interior design, editing, rights, distribution, pricing and marketing are all at a level that can compete with traditionally published books.
Either you will need to apprentice yourself to the many aspects of self-publishing, or you will need to pay someone – or many people – to help you.
However, you retain creative control. For example, you may hire freelancers to work for you. Because you sign their paychecks, you get to tell them what to do.
Some authors find that terrifying. They wouldn’t be able to accept changes that went against their creative sensibilities. But, after all, it’s their book.
However, for some authors, giving up that control is liberating. The seemingly incidental aspects of getting a book published don’t require them to spend time, money, or brainpower. Then they can focus on writing the next book.
You will have to give up something, whether you choose self-publishing or traditional publishing: time, money, or control. What are your top priorities?
How much do you hope to earn?
Unfortunately, we cannot all be like John Scalzi, who signed a 10-year, 13-book contract with Tor Books for $13.4 million after a successful transition from self-publishing to traditional publishing.
It is hard, perhaps even impossible, to earn a living from book sales today. As the Authors Guild’s 2018 Author Income Survey indicates, earnings by American authors are at historic lows. Estimates from respondents report a median author income of $6,080 in 2017.
It’s down 42 percent from 2009.
Let’s not talk about what an average self-published author makes. Even the estimates are poor since we cannot provide any specificity. Of course, there are outliers – Rupi Kaur, Andy Weir, Hugh Howey, E. L. James – but most self-published authors aren’t as fortunate.
I’m trying to unsubtly suggest what Jane Friedman emphasizes in her book: “Anyone in it for the coin should find some other field.”
So now that I’ve cautioned you against the lure of publishing riches let me share some frustrating and unhelpful facts about publishing earnings compared to self-publication.
If you self-publish, you will make more per book since royalties range from 30 to 70 percent.
Since the biggest drawback of self-publishing is distribution, you won’t have as many places to sell your book.
Traditionally published books offer lower advances (unless you’re famous or have written a book that leads to a bidding war). In self-publishing, royalties are much lower – if you even earn out your advance. Unfortunately, most books never earn back their advances, which means that their authors never receive royalties.
Traditional publishing offers better distribution, which is frustrating and confusing. Your book is now available in more places.
In essence, here’s the important question to ask yourself. Would you rather earn more from each book while selling fewer books as a self-publisher, or would you rather earn less from each book while selling more and using a traditional publisher?
What is the primary goal you have?
What if you’ve read so far, and each of your answers cancels out the previous one? By now, are you more confused than when you began?
Think about your primary goals:
If you want your book to reach the market as soon as possible, self-publish it.
To reach the maximum number of readers, choose traditional publishing.
Choosing self-publishing will give you creative control over the final product.
Don’t rely solely on your book sales to earn money.
It’s hard for me to tell you what route is better for this: authors have made good money – and sometimes outrageous amounts of money – both through self-publishing and traditional publishing.
You may not even see your primary goal in this article, but you must define what success for your book looks like. From there, work backward.
Regardless of the path you choose, make sure you follow it as passionately and attentively as you did when you wrote your book. You are the first and most significant champion of your book.