Editorial Note: This is the first article in a series on publishing. Books are an amazing marketing tool. They can be used to convert readers into email subscribers (giving away a free ebook in exchange for an email), or they can be used as another source of revenue for online businesses. This series of articles on self-publishing a book will teach you all you need to know to get your first book out there and make it a success.
Until very recently, you had one choice if you want to get your book in the hands of readers: traditional publishing.
But today, traditional publishers are no longer the sole gatekeepers. You have a lot of options when it comes to publishing your book.
Wondering whether it’s worth it to pursue a deal with a traditional publisher, or whether you should take matters into your own hands and strike out on your own publishing journey?
In the first post in our self-publishing series, we’ll weigh the pros and cons of each side so you can make an informed decision.
Traditional vs. Self Publishing: How Do They Work?
Most famous authors (think Judy Blume and Stephen King) are traditionally published (sometimes called “trad pub” for short).
With traditional publishing, your book has to be chosen by a publishing company among thousands of manuscripts. Usually this involves getting an agent to pitch your book to publishing companies for you.
In the old days, authors would send their book out to publishing companies over and over again, getting rejection slip after rejection slip until their book was finally chosen.
Determined authors didn’t let the repeated rejection get to them:
“By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Many best-selling authors (Agatha Christie, J.K. Rowling, Louis L’Amour, Dr Seuss, C.S. Lewis, Judy Blume, and many more) received hundreds of rejections over many years before their books were finally picked up.
(I wonder how many amazing books we’re missing out on because they were rejected by short-sighted publishers, and the authors gave up?)
Getting an agent may help – but again, you have to court agents until one deigns to work with you. Literary agents negotiate with publishing companies on your behalf, and typically work for a percentage of the books’s total profits. Most literary agents charge 15% of all gross income for the book’s entire income-producing duration.
When it comes to choosing a publishing company, you have a choice between the top “Big 5” publishers:
- Penguin Random House
- Simon & Schuster
…or you can opt to work with a smaller, independent publishing company. With these companies, authors typically don’t need a literary agent. They usually welcome submissions from anyone, including first time authors.
A few examples of independent publishing companies are:
- Charlesbridge Publishing
- Meadowbrook Press
- Harvard Common Press
- Hunter House
- Overlook Press
Self publishing (also called “self pub” or “indie publishing”) is the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry.
With self publication, authors have full control of the creative and selling process as well as everything in between. Authors are responsible for the full cost of production, marketing, and distribution. The finished copies plus all copyright and subsidiary rights are exclusively yours.
Unlike with traditional publication, the process is pretty simple. Just create your book, design your cover, and upload the files to a distribution company.
Self publishing companies offer services such as on-demand book printing and e-book distribution. Some famous self-publication companies (also called “vanity presses”) include:
- Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and CreateSpace
- Infinity Publishing
Authors who sell a combination of traditionally published and self published books are called “hybrid authors.”
With a traditional publisher, in the past you’d often get an advance payment against royalties for your book. It’s basically a signing bonus that’s paid against future earnings from your book. Advances can range anywhere from $500 to millions, depending on the book, author, and publishing company.
But advances aren’t as common, or as large, today as they used to be.
Many publishing companies have cut down on or eliminated them altogether, because 7 out of 10 books never make back their advances. Advances tend to be more common with larger publishing companies – smaller publishing companies may not have the means to supply them at all.
On the other hand, self published authors can’t rely on any advance payments. They have to pay the costs of publishing up front, and only earn when their books sell.
The difference in royalties between traditional publishing and self-publishing is huge! Besides the ease of publication, this is one of the biggest factors for authors deciding to self-publish.
Authors working with traditional publishing companies can typically expect to receive 10-15% in royalties off of each sale.
(Also, as mentioned before, authors working with large publishing companies will also have to factor in the literary agent’s percentage, so they’ll earn less.)
Self publishing royalties will depend on the company that the author chooses to work with.
For example, if an author chooses to publish an e-book on Amazon KDP, you’ll typically earn 70% of each sale as long as your book meets certain basic requirements. If it doesn’t meet the requirements, you’ll earn 35%.
Traditional publishing was once viewed as the only reputable way to have a book published, however, authors are shattering that stigma and gaining full control of their books by self publishing. Below are just a few of the many successful self published authors to date:
- E. L James-50 Shades of Grey
- Hugh Howey-Wool Trilogy
- Amanda Hocking- Trylle trilogy
- Lisa Genova-Still Alice
Hybrid author Rachel Aaron, who’s been on both sides, explains in a recent interview:
“When I got into the book business, self publishing was still seen as the last resort of the desperate. Every author blog and writing advice column was constantly screaming at us not to even think about self publishing, so…I didn’t.
But when the sea change of the early 2010s hit, I started singing a different tune. All of a sudden, self publishing wasn’t so fringe anymore. I was meeting lots of self published authors at conventions who not only were making good money, but they had good books, and they were making their own business decisions!
That was really what decided it for me. I’m a giant control freak, and I love running a business.”
If you aren’t already a famous celebrity, mogul, or professional athlete, you should expect to do a large chunk of the marketing yourself even when working with a traditional publishing company. In general, publishing companies are looking to work with people who already have a large following (“platform”) to begin with.
Traditional publishing will usually create a press kit for authors to approach the media with.
Traditional book tours are becoming a thing of the past, but an official book launch and a few appearances may be included in the marketing plan for traditional publishing.
Self published authors are responsible for marketing their books themselves. It helps if you have some sort of following prior to the book’s release. If not, getting recognition and sales will take some time and dedication. (Stay tuned to this series for more info on how to market your book!)
When it comes to traditional publishing, once you sign a contract with the publishing company, you lose control over the final product. The publisher will control the editing, cover design, legal rights, and so on.
Your contract will almost always grant the publishing company the right to distribute the book, both in print and electronically, in the English language in the United States including its territories. Publishing companies may also be granted certain “sub rights,” such as the right to sell your book for film or television show and the right to sell the book throughout the world. The contractual agreement is going to be different for each author, but in general you lose a lot of your rights (though you can try to negotiate the details).
Self publishing greatly differs from traditional when it comes to control. When you self-publish, you retain all your rights and have complete control over the final product.
Publishing with a traditional publishing company can be a lengthy process and the timeline will vary from company to company. Here is an example of a traditional publishing timeline:
- From idea to book proposal to your literary agent: 1-3 months
- From agent to editor and book contract offer: 2-5 months
- From contract offer to first paycheck: 2-3 months
- From contract to delivery of manuscript to editor: 3-9 months (sometimes longer)
- From delivery of manuscript to editor actually working on it: 2-5 months
- From editor to publication: 9-12 months
Total time from idea to print: approximately 2 years, once again, the timeline with vary with publishing companies and authors.
Again, authors are fully in control of their timeline when choosing to self publish. Instead of waiting on your publishing company for each step, you’re in control.
Timelines for self-published books can vary widely depending on the author. One book may take a year to produce while another is designed and printed in three weeks. Three to six months is a reasonable estimate.
Ready to Start Planning Your Book?
Still torn between traditional publishing or self publishing? Check out the next post in the series which will expand on budget and timeline.