Traditional Publishing versus Self-Publishing

Choosing between self-publishing and traditional publishing methods is no easy task

A close-up of a movable type machine is on the left, a close-up of a keyboard is on the right. The word "versus" is written in the middle.
Out with the old and in with the new?  The choice is up
to you when publishing a manuscript.

Today, authors who want to get published have many options. In this article, we focus on the two most prevalent—traditional publishing and self-publishing—as well as the respective pros and cons.

Traditional publishing

In traditional publishing, the author completes his or her manuscript, writes a query letter or a proposal, and submits these documents to a publishing house (or has a literary agent do this for them, if one can be acquired). An editor reads it, considers whether it is right for the house, and decides either to reject it (leaving the author free to offer it to another publisher) or to publish it. If the publishing house decides to publish the book, the house buys the rights from the writer and pays him or her an advance on future royalties. The house puts up the money to design and package the book, prints as many copies of the book as it thinks will sell, markets the book, and finally distributes the finished book to the public.

Self-publishing

The process is a bit different for self-publishing. An author who decides to self-publish basically becomes the publisher. The author must proofread the final text and provide the funds required to publish the book, as well as the camera-ready artwork. The author is responsible for marketing and distributing the book, filling orders, and running advertising campaigns. In the past, the author had to decide on the number of copies to print, sometimes resulting in stacks of unsold books gathering dust in the garage! Fortunately, the Print on Demand (POD) technology now used by some self-publishing companies means that authors can have fewer copies printed—only as many as they need, in fact.

Fundamental differences between the two

Time

With traditional publishing, a manuscript can take years to become a book. First, an author may have to pitch the manuscript to several publishing houses before it is picked up. Considering that the bigger houses can take up to six months to work through the "slush pile" (the multitude of queries on editors' desks) to get to your manuscript and that you will likely have to try several publishing houses before you get one to show interest…well, you do the math! That's a lot of waiting. Then, if a house does decide to take your book, the actual process of producing the book takes at least another year. Admittedly, this process applies mainly to fiction. Nonfiction books that are topical and relevant to current world events might be pushed through more quickly.

With self-publishing, depending on the company, an author can literally have a finished book—hardcover or paperback or both—in his or her hands within six months. And, with the advent of ebooks, this can be reduced to weeks, or even days. Of course, authors have to pay for this service, which raises the issue of money.

Money

With self-publishing, you often pay thousands of dollars, depending on the company you choose. In contrast, with traditional publishing, you are paid an advance, ranging from small sums to seven-digit figures. In traditional publishing, the publishing house, with its huge resources, experience, knowledge, and contacts, vigorously promotes your book. When you self-publish, you pay for everything—design, editing, printing, advertising, distribution—to get your book into stores and ultimately into people's hands. You're all by yourself; self-publishing works best for people who are good at self-marketing. The major payoff for all of your payout, though, is control.

Control

Often an author's joy at selling a manuscript turns into despair when an over-zealous editor at a publishing house rips that manuscript into unrecognizable shreds. Publishers might refuse to publish a book because it is too controversial, doesn't fit the house's list, or simply because it won't sell. With self-publishing, the author has much greater control over the contents, design, and appearance, as well as where the book is marketed and distributed.

It's all up to you...

Having looked at traditional publishing versus self-publishing, ask yourself some tough questions about what is best for you, your intentions, and your manuscript. Are you willing to play the waiting game in order to earn a large advance from a traditional publisher? Or is control of your manuscript and a quick turnaround more important?

The good news is that the available tools—POD, the Internet, and online booksellers—are leveling the playing field between traditionally published and self-published books. Authors now have more options.

Remember, a document that's free of spelling and grammatical errors is far more likely to catch the attention of a publishing house editor—or satisfy the customers for your self-published book. Submit your draft to one of our book editors or ebook editors today to ensure that your document is error free.

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