Self-Publishing Vs. Traditional Publishing: What’s Your Best Option in 2021?

Should I self-publish or traditionally publish? That’s a question thousands of writers have asked themselves over the years.

And I still see it every other week. A lot of new writers are still confused about which avenue is better. However, a lot of established authors have gone past confusion and have stuck to what they believe works for them—and some of them have tried and tested both methods, so they have made informed decisions.

But…there’s still a small percentage to whom this question is still as complicated as astrophysics. I understand your confusion, this isn’t a clear-cut situation and it’s not like if you chose self-publishing, you’d be more successful than you would if you traditionally published (and vice versa).

Not to worry though, I took it upon myself to explain things and help you make very good decisions regarding your publishing route.

self publishing vs traditional publishing

The Key Difference between Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing

Self-Publishing and traditional publishing are not that different if you study them closely.

If you self-publish and you hire an editor, you pay them. You spend money on marketing your book, and you indirectly pay printing fees—et cetera et cetera.  

It’s a similar case with traditional publishing; the editors are paid out of the publishing house’s revenues. They spend money on marketing which is recouped using revenues—et cetera et cetera.

But…. Among the many little differences, there is one I find to be KEY: Royalties!

A self-published author owns the rights and royalties, and a traditionally published author surrenders the rights and a huge portion of the royalties to the publishing company.

What Is Traditional Publishing?

Traditional publishing refers to a publishing process that uses a third-party publisher to release your book. It entails getting a book deal through literary agents and enduring a whole lot of rejections over a long period. The publishing house handles the editing, design work, and marketing for your book.

Usually, you’re given an upfront payment once you sign a book deal and when it’s released, you’re paid a small percentage of royalties.

a publisher offers a book deal to a writer.
A publisher offers a book deal to a writer.

With traditional publishing, you relinquish your rights and royalties and, in return, you get the publisher’s services and, somehow, you become a name in the industry.

That sounds like a ‘selling your soul’ type of deal (*laugh emoji*). Forgive me, but there’s a resemblance here.

Benefits of Traditional Publishing

I read somewhere that the traditional publishing world has a lot of “gatekeepers” that one has to get past before their book gets published. Well… it’s understandable, considering the plenty of benefits that a traditional publisher offers.

No overhead costs and upfront payments: Traditional publishers cover all the expenses incurred in the publishing process, from editing fees for your draft to the last penny before your new book hits the market. They aren’t angels, neither are they stupid; they know what they’re are doing and work hard to recoup that money by getting a larger percentage of the book’s revenue. That means lower royalty rates for you. But, it’s still a good investment for you since publishing using a traditional publisher potentially increases the chances of your book’s success and, consequently, yours as an author.

you won't have to worry about editing, book cover, book sales, or marketing if you work with a publisher.
You won’t have to worry about editing, book cover, book sales, or marketing if you work with a publisher.

You have reliable support: When you sign a deal with a publishing house, you have, at your disposal, a lot of paid professionals and tools that help your book become a success. The publisher has people that can take care of everything apart from writing your book and this type of support saves you a lot of time, money, and energy. You don’t have to worry about editing your drafts, designing a book cover, managing book sales, or marketing your book.

You gain validation and prestige: When you get published by a major publisher, you walk shoulders high in the literary streets. Your image automatically improves and you are seen as a good writer (well, at least those who haven’t read your work automatically do see you in that light). A name of a major professional publishing company alone can give you a lot of connections and can improve your chances of getting major deals in the future.

the publisher's job is to get your book into the hands of your readers as quickly as possible.
The publisher’s job is to get your book into the hands of your readers as quickly as possible.

Print distribution in bookstores is easier: Traditional publishers know quite well that their money comes from selling books, so they build very good distribution channels. The professional teams also include a team of sales representatives who move around to find exclusive deals with bookstores. Their main task is to get your book to your readers as quickly as easily as possible. If your book does well, it can spend years on the shelves of the book stores; otherwise, if it’s not doing very well and the bookstore is quite a busy place, it usually stays for a month or two.

The Downsides of Traditional Publishing

These are a lot of discouraging issues when you opt for the traditional route. Here are some of them:

It’s a very slow process: It’s agonizing. Looking for an agent, then having to endure rejections from publishers, and even after you get a publishing deal, it takes a long time for your book to be launched, aargh! You can write as fast as you want but to get it to the other side, it’s a hustle, a slow one. And, when you think about how fast it is to get published on sites like Amazon, the very slow process that you endure with traditional publishing just doesn’t seem worth it.

a chart showing the traditional publishing process with filters screening out books.
Chart showing the traditional publishing process with filters screening out books. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

You forfeit creative control: When you sign with a publisher, you surrender creative control. The publishers can decide your book’s title, cover, and can even choose marketing angles that you wouldn’t agree with. For them, it’s what sells that matters, not what your creative spirit is telling you to do with your book. The in-house editors are way more annoying than a freelancer; they sort boss you and can make changes you don’t agree with. Plus, most of these editors aren’t that experienced because more experienced editors are either “kicked upstairs” and are given management roles or have resigned to start working as freelancers to make more money.

Low royalty rates: The percentage of the sale of the book that you get from a traditional publishing arrangement are considerably lower than those from self-publishing. Your book sales cover all the costs that the publishers incurred (marketing, printing, overheads, etc.), it also covers their profit, and you get the rest. That’s why traditionally published authors rarely get royalty rates above 30%; in fact, if you get between 20% and 30%, consider yourself very lucky. Yes, you get the upfront payment, but it is likely to get confusing six months or so after your book launches with some inapprehensible royalty reports that don’t always translate to income.

Biased marketing schemes: I’m not saying that all publishers are guilty of this, but… there are a lot of publishers who market famous authors more vigorously than less popular authors. Some authors resort to doing their own marketing and use platforms other than those provided by their publishers to push their books. The most annoying thing is that the publishers will still claim their “marketing” costs in the royalty reports.

What is self-publishing?

self publishing
When an author self-publishes, he or she manages the entire publishing and marketing process independently.

Self-publishing means the author handles the entire publishing process on their own and with their own resources. They handle all the responsibilities related to publishing a book, from printing, editing, proofreading, formatting, cover design, release, to book marketing.

Of course, you can outsource some services like editing, cover designing, marketing, etc. But, the money still comes out of your pocket and if you do a good job, you can recoup this since you retain a very high percentage of your book’s rights and royalties when you self-publish.

Benefits of Self-Publishing

Self-publishing offers you creative control and the possibility of getting a higher percentage of the revenues than traditional publishing. But those are just two of the many advantages of self-publishing.

Let’s take a look at four of them:

Creative control: Self-published authors enjoy the liberty of creating stories they want, not what some honcho says “is sellable” or “acceptable.” Writers in the traditional publishing sphere often have less control over what content should be on their book, what type of book cover they should go with, etc. If you’re self-publishing and decide to hire some professionals to work on your book (i.e., a cover designer or book editor), you’ll still have total autonomy and can still choose what makes it into the published book.

Publish Using Your Own Schedule: This works well with the marketing side of your publishing. Let’s say you want to write a Christmas story but it’s already past the festive season, you can still write it, publish other works and start advertising its release many months before you even finish it. Plus, with self-publishing, you don’t have to worry about waiting for a long period before your book is accepted and published. You can submit the book for publishing today, and it can be available in 24 hours.

Higher royalty rates: Traditional publishers give you a payment upfront, and I see many upcoming writers craving for that. But that payment only feels good when your book doesn’t sell a lot of copies because it just seems like you’ve been paid for writing an uninteresting piece. Once the checks start coming, it dawns on you that the royalty rates, which are usually under 30 percent, are sort of a ripoff. Self-published authors usually get over 65 percent.

Quickly find a fan base: Self-publishing gives you the perfect opportunity to make a name for yourself. Let’s be honest, it’s almost impossible to get your first book (like first-ever) published by a traditional publisher. With self-publishing, you can attract a fan base and give yourself a chance to shout just enough to attract the attention of potential traditional publishers.

self publishing allows an author to bypass the filter of literary agents and publishers
Self publishing allows an author to bypass the ‘filter’ of established agents and publishers. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Downsides of Self-Publishing

Self-publishing has its disadvantages too. Here are some disadvantages of self-publishing:

Higher costs: When you self-publish, you’re not getting the free services offered by traditional publishers. You have to pay for editing, design, printing, and marketing costs. And you’re not getting any advance money, and that makes it even harder for you to cover all those costs.

Less visibility: This is probably one of the biggest reasons why a traditional publishing deal seems more attractive than self-publishing.  Traditional publishing offers the author platform that sort of oozes validation and prestige. And… if it’s a big publishing house, then the validation and visibility are higher, and there are more resources at your disposal. With self-publishing, you’re literally on your own; it’s just you, your writing skills, your funds, and your marketing skills.

Hard to convince major print distribution streams: Traditional publishers boast of well-established distribution networks that make it easier for them to sell their printed books. On the other hand, if you’re a self-published author getting an exclusive deal with a major distributor or bookstore is almost impossible—they’re really looking for your books.

Sorry.

You have to work very hard to get a deal or invest in some sort of distribution avenue. It’s not like bookstores don’t have self-published works on their shelves, but they look at the projected returns and if you’re a no-name author, your book is likely not going to end up on a bookshelf of a major bookstore.

Who Should Traditionally Publish?

Well, it’s not entirely a matter of choices or wishes, you have to get an offer or get accepted to traditionally publish.

royalties and payments
Royalties and Payments in a publishing contract.

It only becomes a matter of choice when you get an offer, and you think about the offered royalties and the advance payment. Are they good enough for you? Do you think you deserve more?

In a win-win publishing deal, these types of people are those who—I think—should self-publish:

  • Big-name Celebs
  • Hollywood A-Listers
  • Famous Athletes
  • Famous Company Execs
  • Politicians
  • Very famous Professional Writers

For these people, the advance will be considerably higher than what other writers usually get. But if they don’t like the advance or the royalty rate, they can self-publish and success is almost guaranteed since they’re already household names.

Who Should Self-Publish?

When it comes to self-publishing, it is open season, all year, for everyone.

Everyone can and should get self-published. I’m talking about tutors, entrepreneurs, consultants, lawyers, coaches, doctors, business owners, and many others.

Anyone who just wants to write and get their work published. Everyone who’s not convinced of the advance payment and, maybe, “the gatekeepers” should choose this route—and “everyone” includes those in the list I mentioned on the traditional publishing list.

If you’re famous, forget the big advance (which isn’t really big for standards anyway) and get a taste of the advantages of self-publishing.

How to Determine Whether to Self-Publish or Traditionally Publish

Before you decide on which route to use to publish your book, you need to be sincere with yourself first. You need to assess your chances of getting a traditional publishing deal. For unknown writers, the odds are always worse than 1/1000 but if you believe you can, then try your luck. Otherwise, just self-publish.

It’s not about the rejections from the publishers though, if you know you have a huge audience large enough for your book to make at least five figures in sales, then persevere and traditionally publish.

If you get a traditional publishing offer and the deal gets thrown onto your desk, the question becomes, “should I take it?”

Taking the deal or not depends on the intricacies of the offer and, to a large extent, your aspirations. What is it that you want?

Do you want prestige and validation? If that’s what you want, then traditionally publish.

Do you want that quick upfront payment? No brainer, traditional.

If you want to enjoy your sales revenue, don’t think about it, self-publish.

Do you want total control over creativity, self-publish.

This video talks about the benefits of self-publishing versus traditional publishing and how your choice can affect your revenue, freedom, sales, and more.

Does Self-Publishing Hurt Your Chances with a Traditional Publisher?

No! Not at all! Self-publishing does not hurt your chances with a traditional publisher. As a matter of fact, success for your self-published books can help you get a publishing deal with a traditional publishing house.

Traditional publishers are investors; they calculate chances of getting a good return on their investment—and in this case, they’re looking for authors whose books can sell, like a lot. If you become successful on your own, the traditional publisher will see a possibility of a good return and are going to be willing to publish your book.

a successful author who self publishes has signed a contract with a publisher.
A successful author who self-publishes has signed a contract with a publisher.

It’s straightforward, they are hunting for success, and having success and making a name with limited success, you give them an incentive to believe that your books can sell a lot more with the amount of resources they have.

So, success as a self-published author might make it easier for you to get a literary agent and strike a book deal with a major publisher.

Can You Self-Publish and Traditionally Publish at the Same Time?

Yes, you can do both—you can self-publish one book and move on to traditionally publish another. It’s not like you’re selling your soul, and there’s no chance of getting back to God, you don’t sign away your name.

No, it’s not that exclusive.

You can take what is the “hybrid approach to publishing.” Using this approach, you can forfeit the rights of a particular book to a traditional publisher and publish other books on your own. This means that you choose the best possible route for each book.

A lot of authors—the likes of Hugh Howey, Jasinda Wilder, and A.G.Riddle—have successfully used the hybrid approach to manage their rights and royalties.

The hybrid model helps you have a say in the direction of each project and decide the type of success you want your books to have.

Is It Worth It To Self-Publish?

Is it not? It is worth it, 100%. But… you have to put in the work, nothing good comes easy.

It’s not magic, you can’t just publish your book on Amazon and leave it there to create wealth for you, NO! It doesn’t work that way. That’s why you have some schmucks running around the internet telling people that self-publishing is a waste or that there’s no money to be made self-publishing.

The thing is, you have to know how to properly position your book on sites like Amazon, and you have to market it.

So, Should I Take A Traditional Publishing Deal?

Hmm… you should. Don’t forget the “hmm,” that is the period before signing the deal, the period you should use to carefully scan the terms and conditions.

I think a deal with a traditional publisher is, sometimes, more than just that upfront payment. You see, once you submit your manuscript and they start handling the rest of the process, you can take your mind off that book and get yourself some time to write another book.

it takes a long time for your book to be published in traditional publishing.
It takes a long time for your book to be published in traditional publishing.

The only time you should not take a traditional publishing deal is when you want your book released as quickly as possible. Traditional publishers don’t do quickies; NO, NO, that’s not them.

Their process can be annoyingly slow at times, so it’d do you a lot of good to just go it alone if you want to get your books out as soon as you’re done writing.

Final Thoughts on Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

I know you sensed that I’m more into the self-publishing route, I think it’s what everyone should be using to publish their books today. Eeh… traditional publishing feels like releasing music using vinyl, it’s cool but it’s not effective.

I don’t know the analogy, but it feels like that to me.

That aside, we have to consider that people have always dreamed of publishing traditionally, who are we to stop them from achieving their dreams. If it’s been your dream to publish a book or all your books using the traditional route, do it!

I think I have presented valid arguments for both sides, but you can sense that I’m very convinced that self-publishing trumps traditional publishing any day—any day of the 21st century, that is.

About Jessica Majewski

Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.

She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.