The drawer full of notebooks. You whippersnappers won’t remember it, but that drawer was the equivalent of the folder on your hard drive that has all your writing in it. All the bits and pieces that haven’t seen the light of day – possibly for good reason.
If you’re not content with your writing living in that drawer (or folder, as the case may be), you have a decision to make. How are you going to get your work out into the world? How are you going to get it published?
Not that long ago, you basically had one option: try to find a publisher who wanted your book. Often that meant trying to find an agent who would submit your work to various publishers. Oh, there were vanity presses where you could pay a substantial chunk of money to get hard copies of your book which you would lovingly place in a box in your garage. If you wanted to get actual strangers to read your book, however, you had to get past the gatekeepers of traditional publishing: the agents and the publishers themselves.
In recent years, things have changed in the publishing world. Amazon is largely to thank (or blame) for the change. When they started allowing authors to directly publish their work as Kindle books, a route around the gatekeepers appeared. Suddenly, authors had options: they could follow the traditional route to getting their book published, or they could go it alone on the self-publishing route.
Should You Self-Publish or Publish Traditionally?
Which route is better? Honestly, there’s no one right answer. What’s best for one author may not be best for another author. It may not even be what’s best for the next book the first author writes. The one answer that is true for every author is this: make an informed decision.
Let’s look at some of the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing.
Investment vs. Return
No matter how you get your work published, you invest your time in writing the book and/or money having it ghost written. If you get your work traditionally published, the next investment is by the publisher. They typically pay you an advance – a lump sum reflecting how much they think your book will earn in its first year. They also cover the costs of editing, formatting, cover design, printing, and possibly some of the promotion.
The downside? You don’t make any more money after your advance until the book “earns out”, which happens when the royalties you’d normally get add up to more than your advance. You also get a much lower percent of the total profit from the book (somewhere around 15%).
If you self-publish, you have to either pay for the editing, formatting, cover design, etc, or you have to do them yourself. You end up putting out a fair amount of time and (often) money on the publishing end before you ever see any money back. And, let’s face it, you have no way of knowing if you will see any money back, at least with your first book.
Once you do start earning, however, you get a much larger percentage of the profits. If you sell through Amazon, for example, you get up to 70% of the profits.
In traditional publishing, you give up control in many areas. The publisher has a say in everything from cover design to editorial decisions about the content of your book. . You get the benefit of the publisher’s expertise, but sometimes have to live with decisions you don’t agree with.
An example: Justine Larbalestier’s novel Liar has a mixed-race protagonist. The original cover art depicted a white girl, a sales tactic that upset both Larbalestier and fans of the book. This story has a happy ending complete with a new, more accurate book cover, but it’s more often the case that authors have to live with whatever the publisher decides.
In self-publishing, you make all the decisions. Of course, it’s a two-edged sword. You may not always have the experience needed to make the best decision. If you prefer complete control over the look and content of your books, self-publishing gives you that opportunity.
Traditional publishers look for certain signs that books are going to be good sellers. Obviously, interesting, well-written content is one of those signs. Similarity to other books that have sold well is another. Currently relevant or tried-and-true subject matter / plots help too. They may personally love your book, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be passionate about publishing it. Traditional publishers are gambling by paying you an advance, and they want some reassurance up front that their gamble will pay off.
As the author of the book, you’re much more emotionally invested. You believe in your book. You have passion and commitment. If your book doesn’t fit the traditional molds for what is publishable and profitable, your passion and belief may be the only thing that gets your book in front of readers.
Traditional publishing takes time. You have to submit your book to an agent (or several) and wait. Once you sign with an agent, the agent has to submit your book to a publisher (or several) and wait. Once the publisher decides to publish your book, you wait on the contract, wait on edits, wait wait wait wait wait.
When you self-publish, you get your book in front of an audience in however much time it takes you to write, edit, format, design/outsource a book cover, and upload.
What’s Your Deciding Factor?
Traditional publishing has its benefits. You get paid faster, you get the experience of industry professionals at your disposal, and you get the social proof of a good book (and bragging rights) that comes from being chosen by a real publishing company.
On the other hand, when you self-publish, you can guarantee that your book gets published. Your book gets in front of an audience faster, you have more control, and you earn a greater percentage of the profits.
As an author, you have to decide which benefits are more important to you. When it comes to publishing, what’s your deciding factor?