Traditional vs. Self-Publishing: Which is Right for You?
By Cayla Cappel
Well, the answer depends on what you want. I have done a lot of personal research on the benefits and drawbacks of both, and I eventually decided to self-publish my own fiction novel. I’m not here to tell you which to pick, but I am going to lay out the process for both and let you make your own decision.
This form of publishing is generally the more respected of the two. It is promoted heavily by writing professors at USU. If you choose to go this route, the process will be long and hard. You will be rejected many times. I have a friend who traditionally published her novel, and she talked about her woes often. To have a decent chance at traditional publishing, you need a literary agent, and this can get dodgy. Some literary agents are scam artists who want you to pay them upfront and will continue to ask for more and more money while not helping you. According to both my friend and my research, true literary agents only get paid when you do. These types of scam artists are prevalent in the publishing world, so be on the lookout. Vanity publishers are also something to watch out for, though they are more prevalent in the self-publishing world. I will explain more about vanity publishers in the next section.
After you get an agent, they will handle submitting your work to publishers, but some publishers do accept work you submit on your own without an agent. Your work will go through a lot of steps, and it can be rejected at any time. If your work is rejected, you need to find another publisher and go through similar steps. The steps may be different from publisher to publisher, but it will likely take a long time no matter which publisher you go to.
Once a publisher decides to publish your book, they will buy the manuscript from you. This will be a lot of money upfront, and it will feel great to have it, but then that is all you will get for a while. Yes, you do get the royalties, but it’s usually around 2% of the profit while the rest goes towards the publishing company.
Then there is marketing. A traditional publishing company will sometimes help you out with marketing when you first get published, but they might not stick around. If your work becomes successful, they will stick around with you, but if it is a flop, they might leave you hanging and not print a lot of copies because, to them, if they’re not getting money out of it, it’s not worth printing.
On the bright side, traditional publishing does all the hard work for you. They have editors, printers, cover designers…Everything! You won’t have to do it yourself. Publishing traditionally also comes with a lot of “street cred” in the writing world, so it will sound more impressive. Having the company do everything for you can take a boatload of stress off of your shoulders unless you like having control.
Self-publishing might be faster than traditional publishing, but that is not to say that it isn’t difficult. You are entirely in charge. As a result, you have to find your own editors, cover designers, printer, and typesetter, and it will cost a lot of money. Opposite to traditional publishing, you won’t get a big check upfront. You’ll have to spend the money yourself, and the self-publishing world is full of people who want to take advantage of you like vanity publishers.
Vanity publishers can be somewhat legitimate and get your book out there into the world, but they usually ask for more money than necessary and drag the process out to keep you on the hook for more money. A way to spot a vanity publisher is by listening to how its representatives talk. If they talk about nothing other than getting your work published and provide no plan for how it is going to get done, they might be a vanity publisher.
As for the editing, you will have to find an editor yourself. There is a site called Reedsy (link below) that puts self-publishing authors in contact with all kinds of editors from content editors to copy editors. These editors are freelancers and work for a fee usually based on the number of words in the manuscript. If you cannot afford an official editor, having other people you know read your story can be a big help. This might be risky because they might miss some things, but I personally have read a traditionally published book that skipped a whole half a sentence, leaving me confused as a reader. Even traditional editors make mistakes. Reedsy also puts authors in contact with cover artists and provides a place to typeset your book.
However, to sell the book, you have to find your own printing agency and get an ISBN. A way to avoid vanity publishers at this stage is to stick with tried and true companies like Barnes and Noble or Amazon, companies that both have printing facilities for self-publishers. You can choose to sell your book at Barnes and Noble or on Amazon respectively, or you can have them send printed books to you, and you can sell them yourself. There are various ways to sell. You can create a seller’s account on Amazon, create your own website, etc. There are hundreds of ways, but if you’re not tech-savvy, like me, you might need to get some help.
As for the ISBN, there is only one official source in America where you can get one. It is called My Identifiers (link below). As there is only one official source to get an ISBN, the company takes the opportunity to price gouge and charge $125 for a single ISBN. Keep in mind that you need a different ISBN for every version of your book. Even if the content is the same but one is hardback and the other is paperback, you need different numbers for both.
The upside of self-publishing is that you get to keep all of the money you make from the books. Having to pay for the books you print, your editors, cover artists, and marketing can put a big hole in your wallet, but, unlike with traditional publishing, you get all of the money rather than about 2% of the profits. There are also a number of resources like Reedsy and Canva to help.
Canva is not to be confused with Canvas (below there is a link to Canva). It is a place where you can use provided materials and edit them how you like to create a cover for your book. However, it only creates cover sizes for online ebooks. If you want to use it for a physical book it will likely need to be resized. Many of Canva’s materials are free, but there are several that require a paid account to use. Each account uses different licensing agreements in order to use their materials to sell as your book cover. I recommend visiting the site for more details.
After taking all of this in, I can’t tell you which to go for. If you’d like the help with marketing, editing, etc., don’t mind them possibly changing details or the long wait, and enjoy that big up-front check, then go for traditional publishing. Or if you think you’re capable of marketing, getting editors and designers yourself, and think that your book will do well enough to make up the money you lost, go with self-publishing.
The choice is up to you. Both have pros and cons, and both are respectable. Either way, you should be proud of yourself.