Self-Publishing versus Traditional Publishing: Eight Questions to Help You Choose

Nov 6, 2014
Red hardcover book with flipping pages
Photo courtesy FutUndBeidl, Flickr Commons

These days there’s an endless barrage of articles about why traditional publishers are horrible (they’re not.), and why self-publishing is a bad idea (it’s not). Page Two was built on the belief that there is no one right way to publish. Traditional publishers make sense for some projects, and self-publishing makes sense for others. It’s your content, skills, inclinations, audience expectations, and market realities that should decide whether self-publishing or traditional publishing will work for you. These are some of the questions you might ask yourself as you’re trying to decide how to publish.

1. What is your timeline? Is there a reason you need to publish soon? For example, will your material date quickly? Is there a major event, such as an election, that you need the book to be available for?

With a publisher, you face a long submission and production process. It can take several months to get a book deal, then of course you have to write it, and finally once your manuscript is accepted, it can take up to a year before the book is available in stores. Publishers can move faster when warranted, for instance with current affairs books with tremendous sales potential. But don’t count on that happening. On the other hand, you can self-publish in weeks or months, depending on how professional an editing and production process you undertake.

2. What is your budget? A publisher pays for editing, design, printing, production, distribution, etc. It shouldn’t cost you anything to publish with a traditional publisher. In fact, the publisher may pay you an advance to write your book, though it’s rarely the equivalent of a salary. Once your advance earns out, you’ll earn roughly 10% of the retail price on each copy sold.

It’s true that you can self-publish for free, and some authors barter with creative friends to help keep costs down. But if you want to produce the same professional results as a publisher, you will likely have to hire some freelance support. You pay for any services you use. The good news is that you will earn higher royalties on your sales once the book is published (often 30–70% of the retail price, or 100% if you sell direct to readers).

3. Are you a multi-tasker and a DIYer by nature? A publisher handles all aspects of project managing the book, leaving you in a reactive mode. You can focus on writing and revising, and responding to the publishers’ requests. You will also need to support the publishers’ marketing efforts.

When you self-publish, you are the project manager, in addition to the writer. You will hire your team, if you choose to work with one, and oversee the book’s production.  

4. How important to you is creative control? Since the publisher assumes the financial risk and handles the publishing details, when you work with one, you cede control over many parts of the process. The publisher will set the price, for instance, and direct the cover. If a publisher feels a title won’t work in the market, they will work with you to invent a new one.

For better or for worse, when you self-publish, you are in complete control from start to finish. Some authors value this, particularly non-fiction authors who see their book as an extension of their brand. On the other hand, you won’t have the brain trust that a publisher can bring, helping you avoid pitfalls specific to the book trade. Maybe that title you’re in love with won’t actually sell the book.

5. How niche is your subject or genre? Most trade publishers look for books that can be sold to a general audience. There are exceptions, of course. Minneapolis’s Motorbooks is a good example of a niche publisher. They specialize in transportation books on everything from motorcycle culture to Great Lakes tugboats, many of which are on such specific subjects they could only appeal to true transport lovers (Building the Ultimate Adventure Motorcycle, for instance). They know their audience. They’ve established the distribution and marketing networks they need to sell their niche effectively.

If your book is fairly niche, a general trade publisher is unlikely to be interested in it. And niche publishers on your subject may not exist. In that case, self-publishing might be your best option. Besides, if your book has a very specific focus, you may know better than a publisher how to reach the audience. One of our clients, Levonne Louie, is the perfect example of such a self-publisher. She is an expert in the area of mineral rights and land ownership. She knew that she was much better positioned to sell and market her niche book, Mineral Land Rights: What You Need to Know, than a publisher would. Her decision to self-publish was fairly straightforward as a result.

6. Where will your audience find your book? Publishers distribute your book in a wide range of established retail channels: bookstores, online, libraries, etc. They may also handle special sales, such as sales to corporations.

It is challenging for self-publishers to access brick-and-mortar bookstores. But it is straightforward to access online bookstores for both print books and ebooks, such as Indigo, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kindle, and KOBO. Plus if you have an established audience, you can sell direct. Still, if bookstores are critical in helping you reach your audience, working with a publisher might be the way to go.

7. How much do you enjoy marketing? Some authors relish promoting their new book through interviews, events — you name it. Others despise the thought. If you’re the latter, you should think carefully before you choose to self-publish, because without marketing, nobody will discover your book. Publishers lead a book’s marketing, though authors are expected to act as partners in the marketing process. And many authors argue that publishers don’t do much marketing anymore. This is an endless debate that we’ll address another time. For now, let’s just say that if you self-publish you have to be willing to pitch your book to media, bloggers, festivals, bookstores, libraries, etc. — or to hire people to do that work for you.

8. Do you have plans to repurpose the material? A publisher licenses the rights to your book for the term of copyright, which in Canada is the life of the author plus fifty years. Once you license them, it can be difficult to get them back, unless the work goes out of print. A publisher needs to protect their investment in the book’s creation, so they will not want you to produce anything that might be seen as competing with the book. That can pose a problem for authors who want to repurpose the material in a variety of ways, for instance, creating workbooks to accompany the primary book. On the other hand, when you self-publish, you retain rights to the work and can exploit them however you want.

Still confused? We hope these questions have helped clarify your thinking about your own book. If you’re still feeling muddled, we do short consultations with writers to help them think through their next steps. Drop us a line!