Confused about publishing? Start here.
This guide will help you…
Learn the key differences between traditional and self-publishing
Decide which path is best for you and your manuscript
Determine your next steps to get published
Many authors who come to us care about getting their books into the hands of readers but are unsure where to start. In general, you can choose either to publish traditionally with the help of an agent or to self-publish through Amazon or a similar service, such as IngramSpark.
Whether you choose to publish traditionally or self-publish comes down to your goals:
Do you want to work with a literary agent who will pitch your book to traditional publishers to land you a potentially prestigious publishing deal with, ideally, an advance payment?
Or do you want to have far more personal control over the publishing process and get your book out to readers as fast as possible?
The information below will help you make this decision.
What if you already know you want to publish traditionally by working with a literary agent but you’re unsure whether your manuscript is ready? We wrote a guide on how to tell if your manuscript is ready to shop around to agents.
What are the key differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing?
Self-publishing on the scale we currently see is a recent development. Until recently, the only “legitimate” way to publish was to have your manuscript acquired by a publishing house. With the growth of print-on-demand (POD) and eBook sales through online retailers like Amazon, the publishing industry has changed dramatically.
Self-publishing, also known as independent or indie publishing, is faster, requires more work from the author, and yields a higher amount earned per book. With self-publishing, the author takes on all of the roles that were once handled by the publishing houses. He or she becomes responsible for all parts of the publishing process, including editing, design, and marketing. Compensation: After expenses, the author keeps all sales proceeds (before taxes, of course).
Traditional publishing means pitching a manuscript either to publishers directly or, more commonly, to a literary agent, who will represent the author in pitching the manuscript to publishers and in any contract negotiations regarding the manuscript. It’s a much slower process, it’s thought by some to be more “prestigious,” and it yields less earned for the author per book. If a publisher acquires the manuscript, the publisher pays the author an advance and takes on the rights to the work, after which the publisher prepares the book for publication and distribution. Compensation: After earning out the advance, the author is paid royalties on the sale of the book.
We’ve broken down a few main differences below. (Though it’s possible to argue these characterizations ad infinitum, please know that they’re bird’s-eye views of two changing approaches to publishing.)
Traditional Publishing: A traditional publisher will acquire the rights to your manuscript for the period of time specified in your contract. This will likely include eBook and audiobook rights and may include foreign distribution rights, again depending on your contract. This may or may not also include ownership of the copyright of the material.
Self-Publishing: You generally retain all rights to your work, including the right to publish it in multiple formats, amend it or publish new editions, translate it and distribute it worldwide, and otherwise exercise your creative freedom with regard to your material.
Traditional Publishing: A legitimate publisher will bear any costs associated with preparing the manuscript for publication, producing and distributing the book, and marketing it. Be extremely wary of “vanity presses” that ask you to pay anything at any point! Any request for payment is a warning sign that you may be working with a vanity press (where the author loses the rights to his or her work yet still assumes all the financial risk of publishing, often for little reward) rather than a legitimate publisher.
Self-Publishing: You bear all associated costs of editing your manuscript, designing the cover and interior layout, and marketing the book. eBook distribution is fairly simple, and most online distributors offer a print-on-demand (POD) model for physical copies, meaning you won’t have to keep stock of your book on hand to sell. What do editing, design, and marketing costs look like? See our sister site, ProofreadingServices.com, for transparent prices.
Traditional Publishing: Advances in traditional publishing vary widely according to your book’s genre and market conditions. Once you earn out your advance, you can normally expect to be paid a royalty of around 10% on sales of your book. If you are represented by a literary agent, he or she is not paid anything upfront but will take a percentage of your advance and royalties, usually around 15%. These figures will depend on your contracts with your agent and your publisher, of course.
Self-Publishing: Your earnings will come directly from the sale of your book. If you choose to distribute through a third party (most people do), for example, an online distributor such as Amazon, that party will take a cut of your sales and pay you the remainder. Figures vary depending on which distributor you work with and which distribution options you select, so you can expect to receive anywhere from 30% to 70% of your sale price. Here’s ProofreadingServices.com’s comparison of the main self-publishing companies.
Traditional Publishing: Traditional publishers are businesses first and foremost, so their main consideration in acquiring a manuscript is its sales potential. While smaller presses may be interested in acquiring books that tackle niche topics, major publishing houses typically seek manuscripts with the potential for wide appeal.
Self-Publishing: If your manuscript is on a niche topic, you may find that self-publishing allows you to target your audience most effectively. However, the unrestricted nature of self-publishing means you will be competing with other books of varying (and potentially poor) quality, so readers may be wary of taking a chance on purchasing your book. Realistically, you’ll have to do some marketing to make your book stand out.
Let’s sum it up:
If you want to focus on writing rather than any other parts of the publishing process, if you’re confident that your book has the potential for mass appeal, and if you want to receive an advance payment for your manuscript, you are likely best suited to pursuing traditional publishing.
If you’re keen to take on various roles within the publishing and marketing process, if you want to maintain creative control over your material, and if you want to earn money directly from the sale of your book rather than upfront, you are likely best suited to pursuing self-publishing. QueryLetter.com doesn’t help with self-publishing, but our sister site, ProofreadingServices.com, has helped authors self-publish for over 10 years. They offer editing services, cover design, eBook formatting, help with marketing, and more.
What if you’re still unsure? If part of you yearns to be a traditionally published author, consider sending out query letters for three months. Then, if no one bites, you can pursue self-publishing. It’s much harder to go the other way around (self-publishing, then traditional).
What are your next steps?
If you want to pursue traditional publishing, your first step is to make sure your manuscript is ready to pitch. We at QueryLetter.com offer detailed manuscript critique packages to help pinpoint possible issues. If your manuscript is in great shape and you’re ready to get published, you should start sending out query letters to literary agents. Our professional team can prepare a query letter package for you that contains the materials you’ll need for the submissions process and recommendations for agents or publishers who may be interested in your manuscript.
If you want to self-publish, you’ll need to start preparing your material through revisions and editing. Our sister site, ProofreadingServices.com, offers comprehensive editing packages for authors and can recommend which level of editing your project might need. At the very least, you will want to look into hiring a copy editor to weed out grammar issues in your manuscript. After your manuscript is prepped and polished, you’ll want to hire a cover designer and a book formatter. Finally, you’ll want to decide which platform(s) are going to distribute your book (here’s a guide on that) and come up with a marketing plan with ProofreadingServices.com’s assistance: They make it easy with book marketing packages, and they can also provide other strategies to help you promote your self-published book.