Self Publishing or Traditional Publishing?

What’s the Better Business Decision?

Isn’t it every writer’s dream to be published? Maybe even to make a living writing books?

For a long time now, both of those dreams were elusive. It was hard to get noticed by agents and publishers, and even harder to become one of those authors who sold enough copies to quit the day job.

With the advent of ebooks and self-publishing, anyone at all can put a book in front of the world. The problem now is getting noticed in the glut.

But if your goal is to actually make a living writing … which mode should you choose? Traditionally publishing, or self-publishing?

What to Expect from Traditional Publishing

Time Frame

Your first task, after the manuscript is written, is to be accepted by an agent. Most publishing companies won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. So you have to figure out how to write a great pitch, then send it out to as many agents as you can think of who work with your genre. Don’t expect to be snapped up by the first agent you pitch; they have certain personal tastes and are looking to fill certain holes as the publishing market changes. So landing an agent who likes your manuscript and has a need for it now can take trial and error.

It can take years. Some agents may be willing to represent your book, provided you make certain edits. They may ask you to work with a freelance editor before resubmitting.

Once you do land your dream agent, it’s like starting all over again, this time pitching the book to publishing companies. Your agent will have connections and know what certain houses are looking for. But even with that advantage, your manuscript will be turned down again and again.

This process can also take a year or two. You may receive word from one or two houses that they may be interested in your manuscript, provided you make certain edits.

When you do finally land a contract with a publishing company, there’s a lot of work to be done before it hits the bookshelves, and everything has to pass through various committees. You’ll be assigned editors and rewrite the book again, from the big picture down to the punctuation. Cover art has to be designed. If you have a nice publisher, they’ll let you cast a vote for your favorite. Formatting has to be laid out, too.

All of this can take another year.

And then … Publication Day!

All that to say … traditionally publishing isn’t the fastest boat to China.

2015-02-04 Meeting (2)Marketing

Once upon a time, one of the great advantages of traditionally publishing was having a great big marketing department who would take care of all your book promo and see to it that you made as many sales as possible.

Sadly, with the rising costs of book printing, publishers needed to cut corners somewhere. They decided they liked authors who were willing to do a lion’s share of the book marketing themselves. (One of the reasons why it’s imperative to start your personal branding waaay before you finish your book.) Their marketing department will help you out, but they won’t do everything.

So no matter what mode of publishing you choose, you’ll still be marketing your own book. Get used to the idea.


One of the reasons to have a really great agent? They can go over your contract with a fine-toothed comb and pinpoint clauses that are not in your best interest. The publishing house will ask for as many of the rights as possible. The trick is to choose your battles and get a good deal, while not bringing the relationship to a grinding halt. (God bless those book agents.)


A publishing house is a large, hungry beast. They have paychecks to write to their editors (from the acquisitions guys to the editor-in-chief to the proofreaders), paychecks to write to their cover designers, and to their marketing team, and to their printers. They have to pay for paper and ink. (I hear that’s been expensive lately.) They have to pay to keep the lights on and the Internet connected and the building heated. They have taxes to pay, too, and maybe employee benefits.

After all those expenses are paid, they have to pay you. The amount left over is … small. It’s been tradition for a long time for traditionally published authors to never talk about how much they make. But they all keep repeating the same advice: Either keep your day job, or have a well-paid spouse, or inherit from a relative, because your royalties aren’t going to put enough in your bank account to pay your bills, even after you have multiple titles out and a beefy mailing list.


Obviously, you have a lot of people to please when you publish traditionally. You have to convince your agent, your publisher, your editors, and your cover designers of your vision. There will be a lot of give and take, and your finished book won’t be exactly how you envisioned it.

The Bright Side 

For a lot of authors, traditionally publishing is still the dream. Nothing wrong with that. For starters, the culture still respects traditionally published books over self-published books. Indie publishing is working hard to shed its bad reputation, but for the time being, a lot of consumers – and authors – still feel that traditionally publishing is the only “real” publishing.

If status is your goal, then publish traditionally. But know that if you want to make this system work to turn you into a full-time writer … you have to be very, very good, as well as persistent and patient. You have to be at the absolute top of the game, no exceptions.

What to Expect from Indie Publishing

2015-02-04 Watch (2)Time Frame

Let’s assume you already have a manuscript written. (Since that’s what we assumed when we examined traditional publishing.) Though you’ve self-edited your book several times, you need to get an outside opinion before making your work public.

Don’t join the ranks of sloppy self-published authors. Hire a freelance editor. (There are lots out there.) Or at least send your book out to a number of beta readers. (Ask around. Lots of people love a free read.) Preferably, do both! The more eyes the better.

Putting your book through beta readers should take about a month. Be coordinated, get the word out ahead of time to friends, family, and writer’s groups, and round up at least three people who have time to read your book.

Sending your book to a freelance editor can vary, depending on the editor’s schedule. Be pro-active, and contact potential editors before your manuscript is finished. They may be booked for a while, and it could be a few months before they can accept your book. Still, we’re talking months, not years.

You may choose to put your book through several rounds of edits, from content editing (the big picture), to style editing (word choice, paragraph structure, etc.), to proofreading (spelling and punctuation). The time frame will depend on your editor’s schedule and how long it takes you to make a revision.

Once you’ve finished the editing process, it’s time for formatting. If you’ve never formatted an ebook before, it could take you a few hours or a couple of days. For Amazon, check out Building Your Book for Kindle. For Smashwords, you’ll need the Smashwords Style Guide. Both books are free.

After that, upload at your retailer of choice, hit “publish,” and it’ll be live in a matter of hours.

So, an average turn-around time for a debut novel – one with a finished, self-edited manuscript – might be a few months. Compare that to the two or more years it may take to traditionally publish. If you’re eager for your book to see the light of day and to kick-start a full-time publishing career, self-publishing is much faster.


Book promotion really doesn’t differ much between trad publishing and indie publishing. Getting the word out will be mostly your job. You’ll have to put up a website. A blog is always a good idea. You’ll have to start a mailing list. (We like Mailchimp for that.) You should also have accounts on two or three social media sites, like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, and LinkedIn. And there are lots of things you can do to increase your visibility, like be interviewed on other people’s blogs and podcasts, send your book out to book bloggers, write freelance articles for magazines and websites, and create a press release.

There are tons of books and blogs all about how to market your book. If you haven’t dipped your toes into this arena yet, now’s the time! In the beginning, you will spend as much time – or more – on marketing as you do on actual book writing.


Indie publishing is bliss for authors. All the retailers ask for is one right: To sell copies of your book, in the formats you create, for as long as you let them. You can withdraw at any time. They are not your publisher; they are your book selling platform. That’s all.

Amazon does offer the “Kindle Select” program, which holds the vaguest resemblance to a traditional contract. You must agree to go exclusive with Amazon, and in exchange, they’ll help your book become way more visible to Amazon customers. Since Amazon is The Biggest Online Bookstore in the world, Kindle Select is a great deal for authors who don’t mind putting all their eggs in one basket. The Kindle Select program is a bit controversial, but on the bright side, you can always take your book off the program if you change your mind.

Generally speaking, you the author have maximum control over the rights of your book. You can make your ebooks, print books, audio books, and action figures (??) available through whatever retailers you like.


Get this: Most ebook retailers give you about 70% of your ebook’s earnings. That means that, instead of getting the left-overs, you get the lion’s share, and your earnings are directly proportional to the success of your marketing campaign.

What this means is that you don’t have to sell millions of copies in order to make it. You don’t have to be the top student in the honor roll. There are numerous mid-list authors whose names you have never heard, but who are making a comfortable, middle-class income doing nothing but publishing books. Anyone with a good book and good marketing skills can join those ranks.


You can write a book that doesn’t fit into any pre-defined category. You can hire the editor you like best – you know, the one who gets your work. You don’t have to convince anyone to give your book a chance. (Anyone except the readers, that is, and they’re more flexible then publishers!) You can find a cover artist you love and get exactly the cover you dreamed of.

There are no gatekeepers, which means you have maximum freedom to let your creativity run rampant.

2015-02-04 Rampant (5)

With that freedom comes the possibility of making mistakes. You do have to appeal to your readers, and you have to learn, for instance, that certain book covers draw certain audiences. You have to draw the audience you were actually looking for. But if you keep an open mind and listen to feedback, you’ll find that sweet spot eventually and gather a loyal fandom who wait with bated breath for your next release.


It’s no wonder that so many writers are moving toward self-publishing. Particularly that group of writers who want to make a living writing. Indie publishing lifts the restraints that used to make financial success as an author nearly impossible.

Book writing can now be more like an honest-go-goodness business, in which the proprietor has maximum power to make his own decisions, and maximum access to his own earnings. The author can be more flexible, too, responding to the market as he sees what works and what doesn’t.

Indie authors still have the stigma to deal with. When I tell new acquaintances that I’m starting a business as an author, they immediately assume I’m traditionally publishing. When I clarify that I self-publish, they immediately assume I’m a bad writer. Then I launch a discussion which is essentially an abbreviated version of the above, and they say, “Ohhhhh!”

Traditionally publishing is still good for the prestige. You have a publisher’s word that your book is worth reading. But if you want to make your living as a writer, your best bet is with independent publishing.

Resources for You

So what is your preference, self-publishing or indie publishing? Tell us about it in the comments!

2015-02-04 Scales and Balances (3)2015-02-04 Watch (3)

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