Traditional publishing vs. self-publishing. Which should you choose?

From Nathan Bransford:

Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of agents and publishers or to take arms against a sea of books on Amazon, and by being among them, rise above? To die, to sleep (oh wait you won’t), to sleep perchance to dream of fame and riches… aye there’s the rub.

Ahem. Sorry.

So. You have yourself a book. Should you just go ahead and self-publish and see how it does? Should you try your luck with agents and publishers? Should you try agents and publishers first and then self-publish if that doesn’t work?

. . . .

But once you have a general sense of the differences between traditional and self-publishing, you’ll have decisions to make. Having traditionally published my Jacob Wonderbar series and self-published How to Write a Novel and How to Publish a Book, I’ve seen both sides.

. . . .

Dispelling myths

Before we get to some of the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing, I feel the need to dispel some myths.

For some reason, rival camps of traditional and self-publishing devotees continuously spring up online and besmirch the other side, even as the number of authors who have dabbled in both traditional publishing and self-publishing (like me) continues to rise.

Some self-publishers (often adopting the “indie” moniker) profess that traditional publishing is the stuff of retrograde dinosaurs and haughty agents looking only for authors who aren’t like them and that no one should even waste their time sending out queries.

Some traditional publishing types paint self-publishing with a broad brush as little more than vanity publishing for books that weren’t good enough to make it through the traditional publishing process.

These caricatures don’t have any truth to them. Both self-publishing and traditional publishing are viable paths.

Traditional publishing has its merits. Self-publishing has its merits. Traditional books can catch on. Self-publishing books can catch on.

What’s important is that you choose the process that’s right for your project based on what’s important to you and what your strengths are.

Get in tune with your goals

So before you go down this path, get in tune with your goals.

I’ll get to more detailed questions later in this post to help you weigh that right approach for your project, but really sit with your thoughts for a bit and gauge the elements of writing and publishing that are most important to you.

Why did you write the book? How important is it to you to make it revenue positive? Do you want it out there in a big way or are you content just having copies you can give to friends and family?

Starting this process with some self-reflection and getting in tune with your writing goals will prime you to make the best decision.

7 questions to ask yourself

Okay. You’re now open-minded about choosing the path that’s right for you and you’ve gotten in tune with your goals.

Here are questions to ask yourself to help narrow down which path you should choose. And if you’d like to talk it through with me, feel free to book a consultation.

Is your book a niche/passion project or does it have broad, national appeal?

In order to attract a traditional publisher, especially one of the major ones, you’re going to need to have a book that fits into an established genre, is of appropriate length, and has mass commercial appeal. As in, it’s something for a broad audience, not a narrow niche. And if you’re writing prescriptive nonfiction, you need to be one of the top people in the entire world to write that book if you want to pursue traditional publishing.

Nearly everyone who has ever written a book views it as a potential mega-bestseller, but this really requires some honest self-assessment.

Does your book have broad, national appeal or is it niche? Is it a potential bestseller or something you just wrote to, say, have your family history recorded for posterity or to get a bee out of your bonnet?

I like to use the airport bookstore test here. Is your book something you could potentially see on sale in an airport bookstore?

The major publishers (and the literary agents who work with them) are going for broad, mainstream audiences. If your potential readership is more narrow, you might want to go directly to a small press or self-publish. If you are writing nonfiction and lack a significant platform, you may want to just go ahead and self-publish.

But if you can genuinely see it reaching a wide audience, you can give traditional publishing a shot.

How much control do you want over the publishing process?

One of the things I like most about the traditional publishing process is its collaborative nature. You’re working with experienced professionals who bring a wealth of expertise to bear at every stage of the process.

But this does mean giving up some control. Your agent may want you to revise your work before they send it to publishers. You will almost assuredly be edited by an editor at a publishing house. You won’t have approval over your book’s cover and you’ll probably only have mutual consent on your book title. You’ll have limited control over how and where your book is marketed and things like discounts and promotions.

This all requires a collaborative mindset and ceding some of the decision-making. Your publisher may well make some decisions you don’t agree with, and some that might even drive you a bit insane.

Meanwhile, with self-publishing, everything is up to you. The edits, cover, title, fonts, marketing, price points… it’s all your choice.

So if you have an extremely precise vision of what you want your cover to look like or are dead-set on including your own illustrations, self-publishing may be the way to go. If you’re willing to be flexible, traditional publishing is an option.

How much does the validation of traditional publishing matter to you?

There’s still something gratifying about making it all the way through the traditional publishing process, having your work validated by professionals, and getting paid for your efforts.

The names Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster… they still matter to people.

But maybe you don’t care one whit about the name of the publisher on the spine of your book. And that’s fine too!

Gut check how much a publisher’s validation matters to you or whether you’re fine going straight to readers.

How important is it for your book to be in bookstores and libraries?

Traditional publishers still have a significant competitive edge in the print era because of their distribution and sales infrastructure. If you want your book widely available in bookstores and libraries, you are going to need a traditional publisher.

Sure, you might be able to strike up some individual relationships with local bookstores, but traditional publishing is the surest path to having your book widely available in stores and libraries across the country.

Now, in a world where close to the majority of books are purchased online, maybe this no longer matters to you. If you self-publish, you can have your book available on Amazon alongside all the other big names.

But if you care about being in bookstores, traditional publishing may be worth a shot.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

PG stifled himself (a rare occurrence). Feel free to comment.

3 thoughts on “Traditional publishing vs. self-publishing. Which should you choose?”

  1. In their desperate search for validation, too many beginning authors waste their time trying to get through the gate keepers instead of writing that next book. Don’t forget 99.99% of beginning authors will never be offered a traditional deal. And even fewer will become world class best sellers.

    Instead, I say, just go Indie. Write, publish, repeat. Validation will come via the readers. There is nothing better than receiving an email from a stranger telling you that they stayed up all night reading your book and asking when the sequel will be available. That is true validation and way more profitable.

    Believe me, there was a time when I would have loved a traditional contract. Now I am so thankful I never got one. I would have been limited, made less money, and not been allowed to write the books I wanted to write.

    It really comes down to effort and labor compared to chances of success. Go ahead and try for that traditional deal. Get it out of your system. Just don’t spend too much time or emotional investment. Be ready to let go of your dream for something that may turn out even better.

    • The fundamental divide comes down to “when” the author came to market, which market they are targetting and why, and what they value more: a tradpub contract or copyright control.

      The latter two are purely judgment calls so no amount of factual data will convince the commited.

  2. Well, the spelling issues on the last cover — reflecting a certain disdain for other languages (which may indeed be part of the issue in the book, although that would be highly unusual for anything going through the NYC-based commercial publishing pipeline†) — are a bit eyebrow-raising. This is particularly so in light of how a German-speaking Boomer would interpret it if spelled correctly: “Jakob Wunderbar” ≠ “Jacob Wonderbar”. This also raises other, implied Issues that would not be all that apparent this side of the Pond (which, again, may be dealt with in the book but would be out of character, so to speak).

    † Although this is a self-published book, Bransford himself used to be with a Big Agency in NYC. That leaves… scars.

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