Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: Which Is Right for Me?

Learn from Chad Harrington the pros and cons of self-publishing versus those of traditional publishing, and how you can make the best choice for your next book.

The question of whether to self-publish or traditionally publish your book is a trajectory-setting question, and a lot of people are confused about it. The debate over self-publishing vs. traditional publishing essentially comes down to your abilities, your connections, and your means.

I have found that a lot of people are confused about this issue because there’s a lot of misleading information out there, with little input from those who have experience with both the self-publishing and the traditional side. Since I have my foot in both worlds through YouPublish and HIM Publications I can offer a good perspective because I have experience with both.

Why Does This Question Matter?

You want to make a good decision on your book for the long haul. A book is hopefully a pretty permanent fixture in your life, so figuring out the right path for a given book is really important at the beginning because it determines who you’re going to lock arms with and how the mechanics of it all work.

Definitions: What Are the Options?

Self-publishing is where you retain the rights and the royalties and publish the book with your own financing. You maintain both the copyright and the publishing rights, which are the only two rights for print and eBooks.

Traditional publishing is where you sign an agreement with a traditional publisher to sign over the publishing rights, while you maintain the copyrights.

Note: Authors always keep the copyright in both scenarios, even when working with traditional publishers. The deciding factor in this scenario is about who gets the publishing rights.

Pros and Cons of Each Approach

Here are the pros and cons for self-publishing vs. traditional publishing.

Pros of Self-Publishing

1. Simple

Self-publishing offers a simpler overall process. You don’t have to go through a lot of ropes to partner with people because you’re working with contractors and people that you hire.

2. Retaining Control

You also get full control over the process: everything from editing to the cover design to the title — you’re making the decisions on it.

3. Retaining Rights

Depending on who you work with, you can maintain all the publishing rights at all levels.

4. Retaining Royalties

As far as royalties go, you or your organization will receive all the royalties directly. You’re not splitting them with anybody, unless you choose otherwise. Then you could give your own book away. You could sell it at conferences, keep a thousand in your garage, or you could do print on demand — whatever you want to do. You have total control over things as far as the actual product itself.

Cons of Self-Publishing

1. Quality Control

One of the biggest downsides of self-publishing is that it’s challenging to get a quality product. There’s just not a ton of people out there who are easy to pull together to build a book, so it’s difficult to produce a professional-looking, well-edited product.

2. Finding Qualified Workers

Another challenge is finding experienced professionals in your niche, both with the editing in the design. A lot of people think, I have an uncle who can do graphic design and a friend who teaches English, and they try to piece things together. But the truth is that experienced book designers and experience book editors are rare.

Especially difficult is finding designers and editors in your niche.

Whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, memoir, discipleship, how-to, finances, business, or leadership, you want to find people who can edit in and create in your niche.

3. Marketing Challenges

With self-publishing, you have to do your own marketing. Even if you have a hybrid publisher, you’re going to have to do your own marketing on a great level. Most people just don’t have the marketing platform — nor do they have the understanding and the budget — to do their own marketing.

4. The Financial Investment

Trying to navigate your way through the financial cost is another big con for a lot of people. It costs thousands of dollars to publish a book, and that can be a setback for some, while not a major barrier for others.

As you consider self-publishing, remember that no matter how you go about it, you’re going to have to learn new things, including new technology. The biggest challenge is not knowing what you don’t know. That’s why having a great team you can trust matters so you don’t have to feel totally in the dark at each step.

Pros of Traditional Publishing

1. Partnership

With traditional publishing, you have a full-in partner. The history of traditional publishers goes back to the sense that a publisher used to be the bank. It was a 50/50 partnership at the outset, and royalty rates were calculated by a traditional publisher based on their costs and the desire to finance the author’s life during writing. When you go with a traditional publisher, you don’t pay anything. You just receive the checks — assuming you’ve got the right publisher!

If you come across a traditional publisher that asks for money, run! They’re not a traditional publisher but a hybrid publisher.

2. High-Level Workers

Typically, you’re going to work with high-level professionals throughout the whole process, from the project manager to the editors to the designers, because they’re all in, and they really want the project to be successful.

3. Marketing Help

A traditional publisher is also going to bring marketing to the table. That includes paid advertising, but also just the connections that a traditional publisher has with marketers. A lot of times, they’ll hire a PR agent for launching your book to get you on the radio, TV, podcasts, or blogs. They’ve got the connections and the budget to do that.

4. Advanced Distribution

While self-publishing through Amazon and other platforms offers your book basic distribution, traditional publishers bring to the table expansive and well-established distribution networks so you don’t have to set those relationships up (e.g., Christianbook, Spotify, Anchor, Ingram). In many cases, these distribution relationships cannot be formed by self-publishing authors.

Cons of Traditional Publishing

1. It’s Hard

It’s complex to get a traditional deal. Most traditional publishers will prioritize authors who have an agent. It’s not that they won’t listen to you if you don’t have an agent, but it helps a lot if you do.

2. Getting an Agent

So you have to get an agent, and the agent is going to be hard to get because they want to see that you have a platform. They generally define a platform as having high numbers of followers, whether on email or social media. But “platform” can mean other things too, like a vast network of fans built through relationship, or organizational reach due to an author’s leadership position within a nonprofit organization or company.

3. Writing the Proposal

The proposal process can be difficult. Creating your proposal can take months to do. Then, your proposal might still get rejected!

4. Lack of Control

If you do get a traditional publishing offer, then you’re going to have to let go of control over some big and small decisions because traditional publishers have the final say on the cover, the title, the product, and even some editorial direction and decisions.

5. Extended Publishing Timeframe

There’s also the time factor. It can take up to 18 months to publish from the time you turn in your first full manuscript draft. A year and a half can feel like a really long time for a lot of people. There’s a reason they take that long, but a lot of people don’t know that it can be that long of a process.

6. Royalties Adjustment

Traditionally published authors’ percentage of royalties will be smaller than if they self-published, but they can also have higher sales potential — so it may balance out.

How to Decide

So how do you decide between the two? Here’s the bottom-line answer to both routes.

When Is Self-Publishing a Good Fit?

There are various scenarios when self-publishing is a good fit. Here are some of them. They each come down to your goals.

1. Metrics

Self-publishing can be a good fit when money and sales are not your main metric of success. In other words, when you’re not doing it for the money, but you want to get your message out there. So maybe you’ve got a memoir that you want to pass on to your family; maybe you want a fancy business card, aka a book; or maybe you want to be an industry leader or an industry voice, and you don’t need the book to sell many copies but just to be written and published. Decide on self-publishing based on your main metrics for success.

2. Money and Control

Self-publishing can be the right move when you have the money to invest into it, and you just want more control and freedom. You might prefer self-publishing if you want to decide exactly what the cover looks like, for example, or the title of the book. Or perhaps you want to say something that traditional publishers won’t typically want a book to say. In these scenarios self-publishing is viable toward those goals.

3. Timetable

Our clients typically self-publish their book in three to nine months, depending on length and scope, so self-publishing is good when you need something done fast. And yes, that’s fast when you do it right! If you work with a good team, depending on its size and how much editing your book needs, self-publishing can be a much faster process than traditional publishing. When you find a good partner who gives the services you want, this can be a great move.

4. Entity Needs

If you have a non-profit or company that needs a book branded with your organization, self-publishing might be the better choice. We work with a lot of non-profit leaders who want their own books but need publishing expertise. This is becoming more and more possible with self-publishing service providers like us.

5. Marketing Power

A great situation for self-publishing is when you have a marketing platform and you have funds you can put into paid advertising. Or let’s say you have a podcast, a blog, or an email list — if you’ve got marketing power, self-publishing can be a really good path for you.

6. Previous Success

Finally, if you have previous publishing success, like if you’ve published traditionally and you want more control, self-publishing can be a great fit.

With the democratization of book publishing, anyone can publish books now. As long as you have a good product and you have marketing power, you can do it! The key is having a great team on your side.

When Is Traditional Publishing Right?

I like how Bobby Harrington says it: You’ve got a successful book when you have the four Ps (which I’ve adapted for this context):

  • A great product — which is your book
  • A unique personality that comes through in your writing
  • A developed platform that’s substantial and brings something attractive to the table
  • Substantial promotions, also known as marketing

That’s what makes a great book with a traditional publisher. Al Hsu with IVP says, in answer to the question, “What makes a successful proposal?” that a great proposal has:

  • The right author
  • The right topic
  • The right publisher
  • The right audience
  • At the right cultural moment

He says that the more of these five elements you have, the better chance you have of having a successful book.

The bottom line is going to be the answer to this question: Do you have a platform?

A traditional publisher or an agent is not going to give you the time of day if you’re not bringing something to table in this regard. And by platform, I don’t necessarily mean you have to have big numbers on social media. Think of platform more broadly, as bringing something to the table in terms of relationships with buyers.

I know, for example, an author who’s attracted to traditional publishers because of his network of connections. He doesn’t do so social media at all. He doesn’t even have an email list. But his first book did really well because he knows a lot of people who were in the position to buy a lot of books.

So platform is not so much about the numbers as it is the people who you’re connected to.

Traditional publishing is a good fit when you want an all-in partner and you have the ability to bring something of weight to the table that’s attractive to them.

Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: In Summary

If you’re torn between self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, just keep these main things in mind:

  • Self-publishing is good for authors who have means and want to be the sole decision-maker.
  • Traditional publishing is good for authors who have a platform and want an all-in partner.

Next Steps

If you’re wanting to get a traditional publishing deal, I suggest reaching out directly to publishers, or if you can, getting an agent.

If you’re still not sure about the best path for you, schedule a 20-min intro call with our team.

Or if you’re further in the process and you know you want to self-publish, you can go ahead and get a quote. Once you submit your quote request, we’ll schedule a call with you to go over it and determine a potential fit.

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