One of the first questions I ask potential book clients is which publishing path they want to take: traditional publishing or self-publishing? Many people have no idea which is the better fit for their project—and some aren’t even clear what the difference is. So today’s article is a nice long explainer.
When we talk about traditional publishing, usually we’re referring to established publishing houses that select books through a submissions process; produce, market, and distribute those books; and pay authors an advance and royalties based on sales.
In the US, there are five major publishing houses: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette, each of which has numerous imprints (brands). Check out this amazing diagram of these publishers and their imprints. There are also many publishers in the next tier that you are probably familiar with, such as Wiley/Jossey-Bass and McGraw Hill. And there are numerous small, regional, university, and literary presses.
The traditional publishing process
When you pursue the traditional publishing path for nonfiction, here’s the general process:
- Write (at least part of) your book. Whereas with fiction, you write the entire novel before looking for a publisher, with nonfiction, you might write the entire thing, or you might outline the book and write only a few chapters (keep reading for why).
- Write your book proposal. Nonfiction manuscripts are often sold on the quality of the idea and the reach of the author’s marketing platform. A book proposal is a description of your book, why the market needs it, and how you’ll reach the market; it includes a summary or outline and a couple of sample chapters.
- Find an agent. An agent represents you and your book to publishers. (There may be some presses you can approach directly, but typically an agent will be needed to reach larger publishers.) You contact agents with a query letter—your pitch basically; if they are interested, they’ll ask for your book proposal.
- Find a publisher. Once you’ve signed with an agent, their job is to find a publisher: they help revise your manuscript and proposal, send the proposal to publishing houses, negotiate the contract, and so on.
- Finish writing your book. If your manuscript was not done when you started working on your proposal, it’s time to finish it. (Of course, this may be occurring simultaneously with the prior steps.)
- Produce the book. Once the book is done, the publisher drives the production process, which includes editing, cover design, proofreading, developing a marketing plan, setting up distribution, and so on. You (the author) participate in the process, especially with respect to editorial changes, and you may get to have input on design and marketing, but some things will be out of your control.
- Launch and market your book. Your book hits the world!
Pro and cons of traditional publishing
In my experience, for most authors the biggest benefit to traditional publishing is the prestige that comes through the curation process—someone chooses you. Additionally, traditional publishers bring market experience, editorial skill, and distribution relationships, with bookstores in particular.
The biggest drawback most authors seem to feel is the time it takes to get to market. The traditional publishing process can take a long time simply due to the challenge of finding the right agent and then finding the right publisher—and there’s no guarantee of either. You can anticipate a year or eighteen months (possibly longer if you are still writing) from the time you sign a contract to the time your book hits the bookstore shelf. Additionally, you may have to give up some significant control—you might not get to have input on the title, the cover, the price, the promotional plan—it all depends on the publishing contract.
In the gray area: many authors think they will get expert editing and lots of marketing support from the publisher. They are often disappointed with both. With marketing especially, the publisher often chooses a book in part due to the author’s existing marketing platform. If you don’t have marketing reach, it will be difficult to get a publisher. And the publisher is often looking to the author to do a good chunk of marketing. So if you think you can avoid marketing by finding a traditional publisher, think again.
One final gray area: profitability. When your traditionally published book is sold in a bookstore, the author gets a small amount—maybe a dollar or two. This is less than you could make per book self-publishing, but a traditional publisher may enable more sales, thus achieving higher revenue for you overall.
With self-publishing, sometimes called independent or indie publishing, you are in charge of everything from writing to editing to production to marketing. If you hire people to help with any of these functions, you bear the cost.
Self-published authors typically use platforms like Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and IngramSpark, which allows them to distribute their book to online and brick-and-mortar retailers and, for print books, to print only the number of copies needed and avoid holding inventory. After the sales channel takes its cut and the printing costs are paid, the author receives all other sales revenue (royalties).
The self-publishing process
When you self-publish, here’s the general process:
- Write your book. This includes revision and editing.
- Produce your book. Design and format the interior, design the cover, create files for ebooks, proofread, develop metadata, manage upload logistics, and press “Publish.”
- Launch and market your book. Marketing strategy and execution is all on you—both when you launch the book and on an ongoing basis. (Of course, you savvy business folks know marketing can start while other steps take place.)
Looks a lot simpler than the traditional process, yes? Well, maybe; maybe not. Remember, you’re in charge of doing everything or finding someone else to do it for you.
Pros and cons of self-publishing
In my experience, authors cite two main benefits that push them towards self-publishing: speed to market and control. Because self-publishing gives you control, you get to make all the creative, marketing, pricing, and promotion decisions—and you can move as fast as you want. You can get your book available for sale much faster than you would through the traditional publishing process.
However, that speed and control has led to a sometimes-deserved reputation for poor quality in self-publishing. This is usually due to authors trying to do everything themselves without understanding industry standards. If you don’t normally spend your days looking up comma rules in the Chicago Manual of Style or futzing with fonts in InDesign, it’s probably a good idea to get help on editing and design.
Having full control also means bearing the full expense of your book project. If you aren’t willing or can’t afford to invest in editing and design, the quality issues can be magnified.
In the grayer area: distribution and profitability. As a self-published author, it is difficult to get into bookstores—mostly because bookstores have to (1) know your book exists and (2) be convinced it will sell. Launching a campaign to make those points is cost- and time-prohibitive for most individuals. As a result, many indie authors sell primarily online through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other retailers.
Related to distribution is profitability. Since the author maintains control of the price, it is possible to make more per book when self-publishing. However, without having scale in your marketing reach, it may be difficult to sell a large volume of books.
You may also hear the term “hybrid” publisher. While there is no clear, undisputed definition of hybrid, publishers who describe themselves as hybrid typically have elements of both traditional publishing and self-publishing. Commonly:
- Similar to a traditional publisher, the hybrid publisher manages book production and distribution, does at least some marketing, and pays royalties.
- Similar to self-publishing, the author pays for at least a portion of these services up front and usually has a fair amount of control over the creative decisions.
The hybrid publisher makes money up front on its services and on the backend from sales. Because they’ve reduced their risk, the royalties paid may be a bit higher per book than that of a traditional publisher, but lower than what an author could make with self-publishing.
Because of the lack of agreed-upon definition, there is a huge range of services and quality you will find from “hybrids.” Before engaging with one, it is critical you understand what they will do and not do, the quality they provide, and how the money flows.
What we do at Clear Sight Books
At Clear Sight Books we help authors with both traditional and self-publishing.
- For those interested in finding a traditional publisher, we help revise the manuscript to make it as strong as possible. (This doesn’t mean the publisher won’t ask for more changes though!)
- For those interested in self-publishing, we offer turnkey services to get it done. We start with the same attention to developing a high-quality manuscript. Then we produce a professionally edited and custom-designed book. During the process, the author maintains control over creative, timing, pricing, and other decisions. This approach is sometimes called “assisted self-publishing” or “professional publishing.”
For us, it’s important to create beautiful, high-quality books and to be transparent about our business model for doing that.
Which publishing path should you take?
It may be evident to you from the descriptions above which publishing path better fits your goals, but let’s just stipulate: there is not one right answer.
- Going traditional may be a good fit for you if you want or need the stamp of approval from a known publisher and the timeline is not an issue.
- Going indie may be a good fit for you if you are entrepreneurial, want to be in control, and like to move fast.
- Hybrid might be a good approach for you if you want to maintain control and get some publishing expertise but don’t want to fund everything up front yourself.
Still going back and forth on traditional and indie? You could consider these strategies:
- Pursue traditional first with self-publishing as a fallback position. If you have any interest in pursuing the traditional route, try that first. If you self-publish first, don’t sell many books, and then try to find a traditional publisher for your book, it will be much harder.
- Self-publish your first book with the intent of finding a traditional publisher for subsequent book(s). If you can self-publish your first book and demonstrate success (e.g., sales, reviews), you may find it easier to get a traditional contract on your second book.
- Go indie and look at traditional publishing only if they come to you. If you find success self-publishing, traditional publishers may come to you—it’s uncommon, but it does happen. However, at that point you may have achieved enough scale that you want to stay independent!
Regardless of the path you take, it’s important to do your research and have clear expectations. And if you’re not quite ready to decide, focus on writing your book. That way you’ll be ready for either path!
Got a manuscript but still not sure which publishing path to take? Let’s talk (firstname.lastname@example.org) and see if we can point you in the right direction.
Learn More about Self-Publishing
Because we help so many clients self-publish, we publish a lot of articles about the process so that those who want to do it themselves have resources and information to help. These are some of the most foundational (and popular!) articles on the topic:
- Book Project Support: What Do You Need?
- KDP vs. IngramSpark: Which Publishing Platform Is Right for You?
- KDP and IngramSpark Printing Options
- A Comprehensive Guide to ISBNs
- The Amazon Ecosystem for Authors: A Field Guide
- Position Your Book for Top Billing on the Publishing Stage – Part 1: Front-of-House Bling
- Position Your Book for Top Billing on the Publishing Stage – Part 2: Behind-the-Scenes Metadata
- Self-Publishing? Avoid These Common Book Layout Mistakes
- Proofreading Oversights You Don’t Realize Are Giving You Away as Self-Published