Should I Self- or Traditional Publish?

Should I self-publish? Or is it better to publish traditionally?


There’s no easy answer to this. It all depends on you: On what you want to achieve, the amount of work you’re willing to put in, the skill set you have (beyond writing), and whether you have money to spend.


Self-publishing is booming. By some measures it accounts for nearly forty percent (and rising) of the revenue generated from book sales. This is a larger chunk of the pie, in fact, than traditional publishing. But there’s a caveat: That piece of the pie occupied by traditionally published writers is divided among a much smaller number, so each writer on average is making more (the numbers are skewed somewhat, however, because there’s a select group of traditionally published authors who make enormous amounts of money from their works). Self-publishing’s share of the pie, while a little bigger, is divided among many times the number of writers. Again, there are a handful who make a lot of money (a much, much smaller number than in the elite writers of the traditional publishing sector), but the majority make far less than five thousand dollars a year. In fact, the average self-published book sells less than two hundred copies. In many cases far less than that. Clearly not a road to riches.


To do self-publishing well, you either have to be equipped to take on many other tasks besides writing, or you have to have the money to hire people to do those things. That can get quite expensive, and it’s not unheard of for self-published writers to spend several thousand dollars getting their books to print and marketed (and still never sell more than a couple of hundred copies). Even those who choose to take on most of the tasks themselves (such as the marketing and PR) still need to spend considerable amounts of money getting their books professionally edited. And good editors can cost upwards of two to three thousand dollars a book. (Yes, there are a lot who go for much cheaper, but many of them either don’t really know what they’re doing or give you a very basic edit. They don’t do the necessary substantive editing that would vastly improve your work. And heed the fact that those who don’t get their work professionally edited invariably see the results in poor reviews.)


In self-publishing there are a lot of things the writer has to worry about that the traditional writer doesn’t. If you go the traditional route, things like editing, copy-editing, proofing, cover design, interior design, printing, marketing, PR, distribution, acquiring professional reviews, etc. are taken care of for you by the publisher. You don’t pay for any of that. Moreover, depending upon how big the publisher is, you’ll get a nice advance before the book even launches. Guaranteed money in your pocket.


With self-publishing you’re going to have to do all those things and more, which means any money involved is more inclined to be going out of your pocket rather than into it before even one book is sold. Assuming you were to do all these things yourself, you’d still not be getting them for free, because each of them eats up a considerable amount of time. Now, if you’re retired and have time to spend, then you may not consider it necessary to factor it into the equation. But if you’re working another job and writing on the side, this surely means that every minute is of value to you, and so it must be accounted for in summing up the costs. Moreover, all the hours, days, weeks (even months) spent doing these things is time you’re not spending writing. And isn’t that what you really want to do?


In truth, most self-published writers do not spend any money getting their book to market. Far too many simply write the book, self-edit it, and then upload it to Amazon’s e-book publishing arm and/or to CreateSpace. The results show in their sales, which are generally miniscule. It’s definitely not the cash-cow some misguidedly believe it to be.


Of course, those who self-publish do so for a variety of reasons. In some cases they tried the traditional path and gave up after being rejected by agents. Sometimes too soon; sometimes after hundreds of rejections. In the latter case, you can’t blame them for opting to self-publish – though if your number of rejections reaches into two or three hundred range, it may be a sign that what you have to offer simply isn’t very good, or just doesn’t have a sufficiently realizable market to attract even smaller publishers.


Many people never even bother to try the traditional path. Often this is because they’ve bought into the myth that there’s more money to be made in self-publishing. They argue that you’re better off because you don’t have to fork over 15 percent of your take to the agent and your royalties are much larger than what you’d get if you traditionally published. This is undeniably true, but the fact remains that the average traditionally published writer still makes far more than the average self-published one.


What of all those stories you’ve heard about self-published writers who made it big and who earned hundreds of thousands of dollars (even millions in a handful of instances) selling their books? Well, they’re truly the exceptions. In fact, Amazon recently stated that they number forty. Yes, that’s right: forty. Amazon considers a mere forty individuals to be truly successful self-published authors. Forty out of literally millions.


It’s true you may get more return on each book you sell by self-publishing, but the chances are pretty good that if you traditionally publish, you’re going to sell many more books.


Frankly, if you truly believe in your work, there’s no reason not to at least try the traditional path. Don’t believe those people who tell you agents don’t read the submissions sent to them, that publishers aren’t interested in anything new, that unknown writers are never going to get taken on, and that only if you have a name or know someone are you likely to get an agent and get published. This is all nonsense. Every day agents take on new clients who are new to the game. Every day publishers put out books from writers who have never been published before (books that are often very adventurous and way outside the box, by the way). And the majority of those writers do not have connections, are not celebrities, and for the most part are no different from you or me.


The industry is unquestionably difficult to break into. No one is denying that. Yes, there are a lucky few who just seem to hit the jackpot right out the gate, but for most it’s a much more sobering story. For most it means knocking on the door for a long time, hoping it will eventually open if one just keeps knocking long enough. And because it often takes so long or never happens, it can often seem as if the whole business is run by a bunch of elitists determined to keep the riff-raff out. But again, this is more perception than reality, invariably spun by people who have failed to make it and are bitter and unwilling to concede that one of the reasons they may not have succeeded is simply because their works were not good enough.


Don’t get me wrong: There are definitely great self-published books that started life being passed over by the traditional industry. Some of those eventually succeeded, regardless, but far too many, sadly, have languished in obscurity. They’re little gems that will probably never be found, and that’s definitely a pity.


So yes, sometimes the publishing industry can seem like a closed shop, but the truth is that it is remains open to any and all. Those who choose not to attempt to enter its dominion shouldn’t cast aspersions upon it. Anyone who doesn’t have the guts to try for a traditional publishing contract, really shouldn’t moan and complain. And those who opt to self-publish should be aware that to succeed at it takes at least as much work as the traditional path. Don’t self-publish your book with the notion that all you have to do is write the novel, upload it, and sit back and wait for the money to start rolling in. That’s not going to happen. You’re going to have to work even harder than a traditional writer to get readers.


If you self-publish, you must also bear in mind one incontrovertible reality: that many readers still consider self-published books to be by “amateurs” and traditionally published books to be by “professionals.” It’s not really a fair assessment in some cases, because self-published writers are increasingly becoming more attuned to the need to ensure that their books are produced with a degree of professionalism that rivals that of the major publishing companies. This means that increasingly there are more and more self-published books that are just as well written, edited, and produced as those coming from traditional publishers. Unfortunately, for some readers the die has already been cast, and for them the stigma attached to self-publishing simply won’t go away. That’s an additional obstacle self-published writers face, and so long as there remain those among their ranks willing to flood the market with poorly produced drek, it will remain difficult overcome.


So, is one way better than the other? Is traditional publishing better than self-publishing? Is the latter easier than the former? Ultimately that all depends on you and what you’re willing to put into it. It depends on what you want to achieve. Just be forewarned that to be a success at self-publishing demands a lot of work and isn’t any easier (if done properly) than traditionally publishing. The latter is harder to get into, but the former is harder to be a success at.