Independent vs. Traditional Publishing: Which One Is for You

Independent vs. Traditional Publishing: Which One Is for You

David WebbBeginnerCareerIndie PublishingTraditional Publishing

Should you self-publish your book, or should you pursue a relationship with a traditional publishing house? Or is there a third option that’s right for you?

It’s the age-old debate that has plagued authors since publishing houses have been around, and it’s an issue that has grown even more controversial as the digital revolution continues to transform the way we do business.

There’s a lot of nuance to this question, so today, we’ll be going over the benefits and drawbacks of both so you can make the most educated decision possible for you and your book.

The History of the Indie vs. Traditional Debate

For a long time, it was widely accepted that your book would not be successful unless you had an agent and signed on with a traditional publisher. And for the most part, this was true. You see, it wasn’t always easy to self-publish, not like it is now. We didn’t have the same business and marketing tools then as we do today, and so if you wanted any amount of success as an author, traditional publishing was typically the only choice.

However, there was one problem: if you wanted to traditionally publish your book, you had to win over the adorations of a literary agent and a publishing house. And if you couldn’t find anyone interested in your manuscript, it effectively meant that your work would not be published. And because self-publishing hadn’t become accessible to the masses yet, it meant that you had little chance of a career.

Even one of the most famous self-published books in that time, Eragon, only found success when another successful novelist noticed the book and republished it. It was the exception to the seemingly insurmountable odds that self-published authors faced.

Because the oppressive power of gatekeepers dominated the publishing industry for so long, many authors still think this is the case. They are convinced that self-publishing is a fool’s errand, a waste of time and money that is nothing more than a death sentence for their career. To them, it’s either traditional publishing or bust. In their minds, anyone resorting to self-publishing has given up on being accepted by an agent or publisher and is therefore an amateur.

If you’re reading this, however, you are likely more informed than the average, aspiring novelist, and I don’t have to belabor an opposing argument to the perceived stigma of self-publishing. But perhaps you’re still not convinced, and you wonder whether traditional publishing is the only chance you have at a successful career. I ask that you stick with me all the way through this article, however. Traditional publishing may indeed be the right choice for you, but it’s possible that self-publishing may be the wiser choice.

Clearing the Air

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. Your book doesn’t have to be traditionally published to make money. Thousands upon thousands of independently published authors make a full-time living solely from their books, and this dream career may not be as far out of reach as you might think.

Of course, chances are that you haven’t heard of most of these authors. Admittedly, your chances of fame decrease when you self-publish, but as you’ll find out later, the potential for wealth (in most cases) increases. However, fame is still not quite out of reach for self-published authors. Look at 50 Shades of Gray, or even The Martian.

But if I had to guess, it’s more important that you make a living with your books, rather than becoming a household name. In that case, have no fear. Your books do not have to be famous in order to make you money.

Why Bother Traditionally Publishing, Then?

Does this mean you shouldn’t traditionally publish? After all, if you can make more money self-publishing, why bother even risk the possibility of constantly getting rejected by agents and publishers until you find someone who wants to take you on?

Well, it all depends. There are certainly reasons to pursue a relationship with an agent and/or publisher. Do you want a one-size-fits-all approach? Are you hesitant to put time, money, and effort into marketing? Are you willing to surrender control over your intellectual property? If so, traditional publishing might be for you. It’s still a completely viable option that many authors find success with. But first, let’s make a case for why you might want to self-publish your book.

The Argument for Independent Publishing

When you self-publish, you open the door to a wide array of potential benefits, too many and too rewarding to ignore. But they can all be summed up in three categories:

  1. Money
  2. Flexibility/Control
  3. Community

Money

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to make money from your craft. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You’re not any less of an author for wanting financial reward for your hard work.

And as it turns out, there’s more money in self-publishing, at least for the vast majority of authors. Unless you’re a household name, a critically acclaimed bestseller, or an already established public figure, you’ll make much more money by forgoing a traditional publisher.

Of course, this assumes that you’re a talented writer, shrewd businessman, and savvy marketer. You must put in the work to master all three aspects of successful publishing, or you may never see a dime for your work.

But if you’re willing to put in the time to master your craft, both in prose and in print, you’ll make more money when you self-publish.

Why? The answer is simple math. Traditionally published authors earn about 10% of the profit for every book sale. Often as low as 7%, and sometimes as much as 15% or even 25%, but only in rare cases. Authors who self-publish can expect to earn anywhere from 30% to 70%. As it turns out, cutting out the middleman can be quite profitable.

Yes, you spend more money because you hire out contractors like editors, designers, formatters, etc. But these costs are negligible when it comes to the long-term returns from a bigger slice of the pie.

One can make the argument that you’d sell fewer books than a publishing house could, given their resources and expertise. But this isn’t necessarily true. It’ll take some work on your part, but an author with even a fundamental understanding of marketing can sell just as many books as a publishing house can.

How could this be true? For one, publishing houses are responsible for hundreds to thousands of books at any given time, and they’ll only devote so much time and money to your books specifically. They might also miss the mark when it comes to the best way to market your book, and if it doesn’t work the first time, they typically have no problem moving on to the next author who might make them the money they’re looking for.

You, on the other hand, are the person most invested in your own success, and therefore, ideally, no one will work harder to make sure your books succeed. You’ll have every opportunity to modify your approach, edit your work, and do whatever it takes until you finally find what works.

Flexibility/Control

It might sound like a dream come true to have your book be accepted by a publisher. But you’ll soon realize that such a dream comes at a cost. Suddenly, you have to have the second draft of your book to your editor by the end of the month, and you’re sweating bullets.

Maybe you got a multi-book deal. That may sound great until you realize that you have to write the second book by the end of the year, and you panic as you think about the three years it took you to write the first one.

What about rights? When you sign a contract with a publisher, they more or less own your work–at least certain rights to distribute, modify, or whatever else your contract dictates. If you want to expand into audiobooks, you’re typically at the mercy of your publisher, who will usually have a clause in your contract giving them the final say on whether or not an audio version will even be produced.

And if you’re a control freak, or if you have a fervent passion for a very specific message, signing your rights away could spell trouble. If a publisher doesn’t like what you have to say in certain areas, they are typically well within their rights to ask you to change it. If you don’t, you may find yourself in breach of contract and out of a book deal.

But when you self-publish, suddenly you are the boss. You have the final say on release timing, content, additional formats–everything. Of course, some people feel nauseous at the thought of being responsible for all this, and that’s okay. But if you care about maintaining rights and flexibility when it comes to your work, you must be ready to take on the responsibility for making sure it all gets done.

However, you can take your sweet time. You can go 20 years between book releases if you’d like. Your readers may not like it (looking at you, George R. R. Martin), but you are well within your right to do so. And that freedom may be worth more to you than the money you may miss out on by faster releases. Again, it’s all up to you.

Community

Don’t let the words “it’s all up to you” scare you. Yes, you are 100% responsible for the quality of your work and the business decisions that drive your career, but when you self-publish, you also enter into a fantastic support system.

You’re not alone in this journey, not in the least. There are thousands of self-published authors out there who have been in your shoes and are all too eager to share their wisdom. There are hundreds of thousands more who are in your shoes right now, learning the ropes and looking for someone like you for accountability and friendship.

A quick Facebook search will pull up a dozen different groups full of like-minded people, and each one of them has a varying percentage of authors who have made it. They’re living the dream, and most of them will tell you exactly how they got there.

If you live anywhere close to a major city, chances are there are dozens (if not hundreds) of self-published authors in your area. Don’t be scared to make friends, buy someone a coffee, and just listen.

Go to conferences. Make connections. Get involved. The community is out there, and it’s thriving. All it’s missing is you! The journey will become much more palatable when you have a support system on your side.

The Argument for Traditional Publishing

Even with all that said, there are still plenty of reasons why you might want to pursue traditional publishing. Yes, they are often more superficial reasons, but if your primary objective as an author is not financial reward, you might find the following benefits in traditional publishing:

  1. Money
  2. Status
  3. Focus

Money

The same point for both independent and traditional publishing? What gives?

Well, the money in traditional publishing can be a benefit for a very different reason: advance payments.

Advance Payments

If you’re more interested in immediate reward than waiting for royalties, authors can typically negotiate an advance from their publisher, meaning that you could secure a modest payment for your work without waiting for it to be published.

In addition, advances are usually guaranteed payment, which means that even if your book doesn’t sell that well, you still get paid as if it sold decently. Granted, you may not get a contract for book 2 unless you procured it beforehand, but you’ll have the check from the first book in the bank.

Lower Cost of Entry

When you publish through a publishing house, you won’t be paying for an editor, formatter, designer, etc. This means that you’re putting very little of your own money into your book. If you don’t have the resources to be the businessperson necessary to launch a successful book, that alone may sway your decision one way or the other.

I cannot stress this point enough. If you follow the advice I gave early and spend any amount of time on social media, connecting with other authors, you’ll see aspiring writers asking for advice on how to cheaply self-publish their book. They’re excited at the opportunity to publish sans gatekeeper, and they’re hoping to make money without actually putting any in themselves.

This rarely works.

I recently wrote a series on financial success, and I stressed a recurring theme in publishing and marketing. It’s a familiar adage, but so very true: you have to spend money to make money.

You can’t expect to publish your book cheaply, let alone for free, and expect to make any money from it. It’s possible, but only in the most rare of cases. In my many years as an author, I have seen exactly one instance of a writer self-publishing their book without spending any money on it and managing any significant amount of profit.

And to be completely honest with you, I never fully believed that no money was spent on this publication. But it goes to show you that no one bothers (except for maybe one person) to pretend that they made it big without spending any money–no one would believe it. It’s widely accepted that you’ll have to spend money at some point, and yet new writers try every day to make a fortune without putting any money into it up front.

Please don’t try this at home. If you really want to make money as an author without putting any money into it, find an agent and get traditionally published. It’s by far your best chance.

Status

This point’s a big one. It’s one of the biggest reasons why people choose to traditionally publish, even if it means less money in the long run. Just about every author, at some point in their life, has dreamed of landing the big book deal and seeing their name in bookstores all over the world.

Some authors focus so hard on this goal that they scoff and turn their nose up at self-published authors. They focus more on the status and less on the money. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. I’d argue that it’s not the most practical approach, but if money is not as big of a priority, it’s a perfectly valid motivation. However, it ceases to be okay when you let the status go to your head to the point where you denigrate and mock those who choose self-publishing. Don’t be that person.

On the other hand, don’t be the self-published author who mocks the fame-seeking writer. Their motivations are just as valid as yours. And though most people who self-publish won’t admit it, the simple fact of the matter is that no matter what you think about the prestige and fame, traditional publishing is where you’ll find the glory–if you’re lucky.

It’s rather difficult to get your name out there as a self-published author. While the stigma is slowly eroding among authors, it’s stubbornly holding on in the eyes of critics, bookstores, and even readers, making it difficult (impossible in some cases) to qualify for literary awards, print distribution in bookstores, and other prestigious benefits. Even libraries typically won’t order books that aren’t available in bookstores.

Is it fair? No. Are there exceptions? Very few. It is a lot easier now to get your books in bookstores, for example, if you work with a company like IngramSpark. But for the most part, traditional publishing is the way to go if you’re in it for the glory.

Focus

In my opinion, focus is the best reason to choose traditional publishing. What do I mean?

Let’s say you’re a prominent motivational speaker. Or maybe you’re a successful businessman who wants to impart wisdom to the next generation. You might just be a “purist.”

Don’t self-publish your book.

I’m serious. In most cases, it’s a literal waste of your time. Let’s break down each of the above examples and explain why focus would dictate the choice to traditionally publish.

The Motivational Speaker

If you’re looking for a great way to differentiate yourself from your competitors, no matter what business you’re in, one of the best ways is to write a book. There are few tactics more impactful in the minds of potential clients than when they see that you literally wrote the book on the subject. It becomes your business card, in a sense, and a very impressive business card at that.

But you’re better off finding new clients, expanding your speaking territories, or scaling up your business than you are dealing with the minutiae of publishing and marketing. Depending on the size of your business, you could actually end up losing money in the time it takes to handle all the small details.

The Wise Businessman

If you’ve achieved success in the realm of business, chances are you’re not hurting for money. And if your motivations are truly altruistic, you’re better off traditionally publishing every time.

Don’t get me wrong. If you’re looking for another stream of income, self-publishing may still be the right path for you. I’d actually recommend hiring a private firm to publish your book so that it gets the attention needed.

But if you just want to disseminate your wisdom in the hopes that future generations can learn from your successes and failures, go with traditional publishing. Depending on your level of success, most publishing houses would leap at the chance to work with you, and it’ll be much easier to get your words in libraries and schools, where people need your wisdom the most.

The Purist

This is the category where most writers think they are, or at least where they think they should be.

Imagine the “ideal” writer, the mental image most people get when they think of successful authors: the Harper Lees of our time who spend their lives crafting the next Great American Novel. The next Stephen King, aspiring to be the biggest name in a given genre. Insert whatever famous name you’d like here, really.

Chances are, when you dreamt of your author career, you never envisioned self-publishing. You didn’t picture yourself hiring an editor, managing Amazon ads, or juggling self-employment taxes. It may even be that the thought of such menial tasks makes you sick.

For most aspiring writers, I would humbly suggest that they adjust their expectations. But there are those who chase the ideal author image with such fervor that they couldn’t focus on the business aspect of it all, even if they tried. Some people simply don’t see it as worth their time, and they instead choose to focus on writing the next book while someone else takes the reins.

Whatever the reason, if you are determined to focus on being a writer and nothing but, then traditional publishing is the way to go. Self-publishing ceases to become an option when you’re not willing to put serious time and effort into it. As stated earlier, don’t think that it’s enough to spend five years working on your masterpiece, then slap a homemade cover on it, click Publish on Amazon, and then watch the money roll in. If you can’t be asked to put in the time, money, and effort to make self-publishing work, that’s fine. Do the right thing for your work and pursue traditional publishing. But don’t think that by doing so, you excuse yourself of all marketing responsibility…

The Biggest Misconception of Traditional Publishing

A traditional publishing house will not do all the work for you.

Yes, despite the attractive reasons I just gave of why you might want to pursue a relationship with a publishing house, I always feel the need to stress this point.

I’ll say it again. A traditional publishing house will not do all the work for you.

Once upon a time, you could expect that a publisher would give your book a full suite of marketing and advertising benefits that would all but guarantee that you would get your name out there.

Now that it’s just as easy for authors to do it themselves, publishers have taken a huge step back from all but their highest bestsellers. On one hand, you can’t blame them. It’s the 80/20 rule. 80% of your profits come from 20% of your efforts. Therefore, publishers find the 20% of their client base and put most of their time, money, and effort toward them.

On the other hand, you’re kind of left out to dry. Yes, they will do the bare minimum. After all, it’s a waste of their money to publish your book and not try to actively sell it. But they’re not going to spend unnecessary money on you when you’re not a proven seller.

You see, no matter whether you self-publish or traditionally publish, you will have to learn how to market your book and sell yourself.

So be warned: Traditional publishing is not a free ride.

The Argument for Hybrid Publishing

Hybrid publishing is a marriage of traditional and independent publishing. Like actual marriage, some authors do it out of desperation, some do it for money, and a few actually love it.

A lot of writers think that hybrid publishing is what you get when you start by self-publishing, usually because–despite your best efforts–you’ve been unable to break into the more mainstream industry. All with the goal of drawing the attention of publishing houses who will finally pick up your book.

This rarely happens, and for a number of reasons. First of all, very few publishers will want to re-publish your already-published work. It just doesn’t happen all that often. Secondly, publishers don’t make a habit out of spying on the Amazon bestsellers and approaching authors who show promise. It’s just not how they typically conduct business.

Once in a blue moon, if an author explodes overnight, a publisher may be interested in pursuing a relationship with them. But these cases are rare indeed, and it’s not a feasible strategy for you to assume that you will be the exception.

No, hybrid publishing is really more of a diversification in your author career. It’s publishing some of your work independently, and some of your work through a traditional publisher.

Why bother doing this? In a word, customization.

The freedom to pursue different avenues for different books can be powerful for the savvy author. It’s definitely a more advanced strategy, but you may find that as you continue in your career, you’re better suited for marketing certain kinds of books than others. You may want to focus more of your time and effort on your zombie thrillers, while you still want to publish your sweet romances but don’t care for all the marketing that comes along with such a competitive genre.

If you’re just starting out in your journey as an author, you probably shouldn’t worry too much about hybrid publishing, but keep it in the back of your head for the future. No matter what you choose now, you’re not necessarily locked into it. Just keep an eye out for clauses in contracts that may give your publisher first right of refusal for any future work.

The Final Answer

All right, so let’s get to the reason you’re all here. We’re going to settle once and for all which one you should choose.

Drumroll, please.

The answer: I dunno, do whatever you want.

Come on, did you really expect me to lay down the law and say there’s one option for you? You may have missed the spirit of this article… Either that, or you saw “The Final Answer” in the table of contents and skipped to the end. If so, what the heck? You’re a writer–do you want people to skip to the end of your books? Go back to the beginning and give it an honest read. I’ll be here waiting.

You’re back? Okay. So now you know that there’s no way I’m going to put it on myself to say you should definitely self-publish, or that you’d be crazy to do anything but find an agent and land a book deal.

As for me, I self-published my works because I wanted control over my own IP, the flexibility to experiment with different release schedules, and the freedom to take the series in a direction a traditional publisher may not like.

But your priorities may not align with mine. Chances are, you approach writing in a completely different way than I do. All I can offer is the above guidance that may tip the scales one way or the other for you. But at the end of the day…

There’s No One Right Answer

Chances are, you started reading this article already “knowing” which route is best for you. It’s possible that your reasons were less-than-informed, and if so, I hope I’ve challenged you to think about another viable alternative. I hope others are more confident in their choice and continue in their career with no regrets.

And for those of you who are still unsure about which route is right for you, I encourage you to take one piece of advice from this article that you may have skimmed over: find your tribe. Whether through social media or real-world connections, find authors who have already walked the road you’re considering–preferably ones in your particular genre. Find out why they chose what they chose, what they might have done differently, and what they did right. It may not be until you make those connections that you finally get your answer.

Just know that it’s possible to find success in many ways. Don’t let anyone tell you that one road or the other isn’t viable. And no matter what side of the fence you land on at the end of the day, I wish you the best of luck in your publishing career.

Independent vs. Traditional Publishing: Which One Is for You
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