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Self-Publishing vs Traditional Publishing

getting published Oct 16, 2022
After you self publish you might get a traditional publishing deal in the publishing industry like originally self published author jack jordan

You might be curious about self-publishing vs traditional publishing, perhaps now more than ever. In recent years we’ve seen self-published authors sky-rocket to fame and success – one particular icon for the self-published author is Andy Weir, who famously self-published The Martian which has since become a traditionally-published global bestseller and blockbuster film. Some writers feel that self-publishing will permit them complete creative control over everything in their book from characters to punctuation, the book title to marketing.

The road to a traditional publisher can feel long and daunting, requiring you to secure a literary agent before you can even begin to approach traditional publishing houses. But there’s no denying that seeing a beautiful cover design on your work, with a well-regarded imprint logo on the spine, sitting pride of place on the shelf of a physical bookstore, is a dream many of us have coveted since childhood.

To shed some light on the question of self-publishing vs traditional publishing, we turned to author Jack Jordan. With experience on both sides of the industry, Jack was originally a self-published author who has since transitioned to the traditional publishing route. Here, he shares his journey, and weighs up the pros and cons of both options.

 

All writers dream of publishing success

Regardless of whether you write fiction or non-fiction, which genre you write in, or for which age group, there is one key similarity that binds us writers together: the desire – the need – to get our work published. It’s the goal the majority of us dream of as we type away at our keyboards late into the night.

When we aren’t thinking of day-to-day tasks, we are conjuring our stories and our characters, and manifesting our hopes and dreams. In essence, being a writer isn’t just what we do, it is who we are.

Every aspiring and published author knows that the road to publication is neither straight nor narrow, and that rejection is part and parcel of the course. Luckily, there are many ways for authors to see their work in print, now more than ever before.

When we aren’t thinking of day-to-day tasks, we are conjuring our stories and our characters, and manifesting our hopes and dreams. In essence, being a writer isn’t just what we do, it is who we are.

The new world of self-publishing and digital publishers has meant more writers can share their work without having to hitch their ambitions to the traditional publishing process. I started as a self-published author, before entering mainstream publishing. From my time on both sides of the fence, I have learnt first-hand some of the pros and cons that can come with both.  

 

My journey – from self-publishing and beyond

My writing journey began in 2010 when I wrote my first novel whilst experiencing agoraphobia, which served as a great way for me to leave the house (albeit imaginarily) and live vicariously through my characters.

I didn’t think this book would see the light of day – I only shared it with those within my close circle. It was the novel that helped me learn the skills I needed and allowed me to commit to the course before embarking on the road to publication.

Between 2011 and 2013, I wrote three more novels and submitted these to literary agents, but despite some interest, none bit. After four years of knocking on the door of traditional publishing, I still found myself on the outside looking in. But I certainly wasn’t ready to lay down my pen.

 

The boom in self-published authors

Around this time, there was a boom in self-publishing going on in the industry. Writers were discovering the new route to publication, and traditional publishers were keeping a close eye on emerging talent. Author Rachel Abbott (Only the Innocent, Sleep Tight) achieved amazing success by going it alone. Other self-published authors had started in self-publishing before being snapped up by traditional publishers.

After looking into it further, I discovered that Amazon had created two self-publishing platforms, Kindle Direct Publishing for digital editions and CreateSpace for paperbacks (they are now under the same roof at Kindle Direct Publishing).

After four years of knocking on the door of traditional publishing, I still found myself on the outside looking in. But I certainly wasn’t ready to lay down my pen.

There were also new kids on the block in the world of publishing: digital publishers like Bookouture, who bypassed the agent hurdle and published authors in digital and print-on-demand paperbacks, in a direct relationship with the author. A whole new world opened up to me, and I saw my way in: if I could achieve success in self-publishing, perhaps the door to traditional publishing would open that way.

I spent 2014 writing my next novel and researching everything I could about self-publishing: book marketing, publicity, social media, creating relationships with book bloggers and influencers and joining in on the fun with the book community online – emulating what the big publishers did for their authors, but on a smaller, tailored scale.

In 2015, around my night job as a support worker ­– and then my day job as a communications officer – I published my debut novel (which was really my fifth book!) Anything for Her, followed by my second novel, My Girl, in 2016. These two books sold over 100,000 copies combined by the end of that year, with the latter reaching number one slots in Amazon charts around the world.

Then in 2016, the unthinkable happened: the door to traditional publishing creaked open. I was approached by an editor at Harper Collins, interested in having a meeting to discuss my books ­­– six years after my writing journey began.

don't hesitate to self publish because traditional publishing vs self publishing isn't so clear cut
The arrival of the traditional publishing deal

This led to me landing my first literary agent and being offered a deal by a second interested publisher, which I accepted. By the end of the year, I had signed my first traditional publishing contract.

Since then, I have published four more books traditionally, moved agents, and signed with a new publisher, learning so much about the traditional publishing process.

 

A traditional publisher isn’t always the goal for self-published authors

Despite self-publishing being a great way into the mainstream, many self-published authors don’t set out with this goal when publishing their work. Many have found success and fulfilment by going it alone, and do so brilliantly, as bestselling author L.J. Ross has done:

Digital publishing gives authors the potential to reach millions of readers worldwide, opening up a whole new audience, and gives writers like me the chance to benefit creatively and economically from the digital era.
—L.J. Ross

Self-published books are also a great way for writers from marginalised communities to bypass the additional hurdles that can lie in their way within the mainstream, like Rupi Kaur, New York Times bestselling poet: 

I was trying to get my book published [and] was constantly told there is no audience for poetry. They said don’t self-publish because the literary world will look down on you. I laughed because I don’t think they understood that the literary world didn’t even see me. I was a 20-year-old, brown, Punjabi Sikh woman from a working-class immigrant family who didn’t grow up with many financial resources and networks. So, I self-published. Social media proved that there is an audience for poetry. I sold almost 10 million copies.
—Rupi Kaur

There is no right or wrong way to become a published author, only the way that works best for you.

Below, I break down the pros and cons of both traditional publishing and self-publishing, to help you gain some insight into each of these opportunities.

But first, let’s determine what each area of the publishing industry does.

 

What is traditional publishing?

Traditional publishing is the term for the established route to publication:

  1. Write a book

  2. Sign with a literary agent

  3. Agent submits your novel to publishing houses

  4. You sign a book deal with a publisher

There are different-sized publishing houses, from the big ones (Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette, Pan Macmillan), to independent publishers (Head of Zeus, Atlantic), as well as digital and hybrid publishers too.

 

What is self-publishing?

Self-publishing is exactly what it says on the tin: when an author publishes their work independently without a traditional publishing house, and usually without a literary agent, often using self-publishing platforms. 

Having experienced both, here are the pros and cons I found for each route to publication.

 

Pros of traditional publishing


1. The literary agent

As traditionally published authors know, the role of your agent is a multifaceted one, working with you to not only get your book sold to a publisher but to support you throughout your publishing career.

Initially, your agent will work with you to edit your novel so it is ready for submission, before using their existing relationships with editors to approach those who are looking for novels in the genre your book fits into. Your agent won’t just work to secure publication in your country, either – they will pursue book deals in multiple countries around the world on your behalf.

They will then be there alongside you through the publishing process, celebrating the highs and representing you during the lows, and negotiating your next contract once the first is completed… where the process is then repeated!

Your agent will be there alongside you through the publishing process, celebrating the highs and representing you during the lows, and negotiating your next contract once the first is completed… where the process is then repeated!

 

2. The publishing team

A traditional book deal with a publishing house connects the author with a highly experienced team:

Editor

Your editor isn’t just the person who works with you on editing and elevating your novel, they are, in essence, the project manager of your book publication and your overall brand, and the in-house champion of you and your book(s).

Editors pitch internally to buy your novel, and then lead meetings with the sales department, the marketing team, the cover designer, and publicity. They send out proof copies of your book to other authors in the hope they’ll issue a quote of endorsement – and much more. Your editor is your main source of contact and information, and the person who keeps all the plates spinning. If you want to know more about the process, you can hear from Lily Lindon in her blog post about what an editor does.

 
Sales

The sales department is a team you might not communicate with directly, but it is nonetheless a huge aspect of traditionally published authors’ journeys.

This team nurtures relationships with retailers like Waterstones or Barnes and Noble, WH Smith or Target, supermarkets, and independent bookstores. They work on getting your story on the shelves, using their expert, up-to-date knowledge of the ever-changing industry.         

 

Marketing   

The marketing department is the team who creates the marketing campaign for your book: the cover reveal, the trailer, the flashcards with author quotes, working and collaborating to create your image and brand, and advertise your book online and in print, or if the stars are aligned, using billboards around major cities!     

 

Publicist

Your publicist is the person who presents you to the media. As traditionally published authors will tell you, this involves things like arranging for you to participate in book events, launches, festivals, organising a book tour, submitting your book to magazines and press for reviews, working with book bloggers and influencers to organise a book tour on social media – to name just a few.

 

3. The finances

When an author signs with a traditional publisher, they will receive an advance – a set sum negotiated by their agent that is given in instalments through the contract period. For example, a two-book contract advance might be paid like this:

  1. A percentage when you sign the contract

  2. Another percentage on delivery of book 1

  3. Another percentage on publication of book 1

  4. Another on delivery of book 2

  5. Another on publication of book 2

This is against the royalties your book receives – so your book(s) must earn out the advance before you begin to see royalties.

But the advance is actually what is more beneficial in mainstream publishing – think of the advance as your working salary and any royalties later down the line as icing on the cake!

you can traditionally publish with a traditional publishing company and see if it works for you

Cons of traditional publishing


1. Time

Working through a traditional publisher can take a long time. It isn’t unusual to sign a contract for your book, only for it to be published a year or two later. That’s because all of the work laid out above has to happen.

However, for the writer, this can feel like a very long time between stages. Depending on your editor’s level of communication, it can be a quiet period too, whilst the publishing team go about their tasks – although it’s a great opportunity to work away at your next book!

 

2. Different books get different treatment      

Publishing houses organise their release schedules for each calendar year way in advance. They have to work out which book will be published when, if it will be published in hardback first, or straight to paperback, or maybe even released in digital format before the paperback is released a few months later.

The publishing company will have different expectations for different books upon purchasing the rights, and with that, the books get a differing level of financial backing. Publishers will have a select number of Lead Titles each year (their big debuts, brand name authors, celebrity books) that they bank on making a high profit, so these books receive a larger amount of money in terms of advance for the author, and marketing and publicity around the book.

Having these profitable titles allows the publisher to acquire and release more books, known as mid-list titles. The focus for these will be equally planned out with a devoted team bringing them to print, but with a smaller budget than lead titles. A lot of authors start as mid-list authors and grow their careers over many books – you don’t have to begin your publishing journey as a lead title!

It can be tough for traditionally published authors to set their expectations in terms of how much backing their book might get.

 

3. Lack of control

I often think that the time when the author has the most control over their career is at the very beginning of each new contract, when the author and agent are discussing terms and plans with the publisher.

Once the contract is signed, the publisher gets to work doing what they do best, while the author edits the first book and begins writing the next. The other elements of publication are usually out of the author’s control. The budget, the publication date, the marketing and publicity campaign, the back copy describing the book, and often even the title and book cover. These will certainly be things the author is consulted on, but the final say ultimately lands with the publisher.

Your team will want you to like your cover and the title of your book, but they will also know what will work in the industry’s current climate, and what won’t, so there is often a level of compromise on each side.

Traditional publishing takes a lot of trust from the author, and the key element to a smooth publication is good communication between the author, their agent, and the editor, so the author knows what is happening behind the scenes, and why.

Traditional publishing takes a lot of trust from the author, and the key element to a smooth publication is good communication between the author, their agent, and the editor, so the author knows what is happening behind the scenes, and why.

 

4. Publishing professionals move around a lot

I’d say one of the biggest downsides to traditional publishing is an ever-shifting team.

Imagine you sign with the perfect editor, and then a year into the process, you receive a call: they have landed a new job with another publishing house. The downside is… your contract isn’t with your editor, it’s with the publisher, so you must wish your editor well on their new journey and hope you work just as well with the editor taking over the helm.

This happens a lot, and is something to prepare for. The reason for this is that the industry is rather small, making it difficult to progress through the ranks in one place. For example, for an editor to get a promotion from Senior Commissioning Editor to Editorial Director, they might have to move to another publishing house.

Often, traditionally published authors struggle with these transitions. The editor is the person they talk with the most from the publisher, as well as their biggest champion.

 

  a major publisher might boost your traditional media coverage and book sales in the publishing world including in online bookstores

 

Pros of self-publishing


1. Creative control

One thing that is hugely beneficial about self-publishing is the control the author has over their project: you decide how much money you want to invest, the cover you want to have, you write the back copy, and you decide how the book will be marketed, and when it will be published and in which countries.

The world is your oyster – and the book is completely and utterly yours to publish as you see fit.

 

2. Time

The turnaround time to publishing your book can be much, much faster if you’d like it to be.

That’s not to say hiring an independent editor to polish your work with you, or having a cover designed isn’t time-consuming, but you aren’t having to wait in line.

In traditional publishing, multiple books are being brought to publication simultaneously, all at different stages – sometimes your book might need to wait for the one before it to be complete. With self-publishing, the only book you have to think about is your own.

With self-publishing, the only book you have to think about is your own.

 

3. Money

Yes, you have to set up the upfront cost of publishing your book – but the rewards from sales are all yours to keep. Self-publishing platforms will very often take a fee for their part, but the rest is entirely yours.

This will be a much higher royalty rate than you would get from a traditional publisher, as they need to redeem the advance payments they have given you and then hopefully make a profit. But as you are the publisher, you get the larger sum.

  

Cons of self-publishing


1. Upfront cost

The downside of going it alone is taking on the cost of your publication.

There are multiple expenses to consider if you want to publish your book so it sits on par with your mainstream competitors. For example:

  • The cover designer

  • The graphic designer for marketing assets

  • The copy editor

  • The proofreader

  • The advertising budget

  • Early print copies for reviewers

  • An accountant

There are ways around this when you’re first starting out and don’t have a previous book’s royalties to bolster the cost. When I published my debut novel, I didn’t have an expendable income to put aside for the project, so I took out a loan to cover the editing, design, and advertising costs (this isn’t necessary for every case or writer of course, but the decision I made).

I also used connections close to me for help; a friend helped me create marketing graphics whilst he studied a marketing course. Maybe you have a family member or close friend who is good with numbers and can help file tax returns if this isn’t in your wheelhouse.

Ultimately, the amount you invest will determine the level at which you publish your book, and likely determine the outcome of sales. Word-of-mouth hits without an advertising push certainly exist, but I wouldn’t advise relying on this, as they are growing forever rarer as the competition continues to swell.

I think it’s important to view self-publishing as a professional business investment, rather than a personal expense.

I think it’s important to view self-publishing as a professional business investment, rather than a personal expense.

 

2. Larger workload

Self-publishing isn’t just about writing the book, but lots of other roles that would otherwise be performed by a team in the world of traditional publishing.

Whilst you can outsource editing and design, you will be the project manager of your publication, overseeing each element and doing lots of research so you know the ins and outs of each task.

If you’re someone who is business-minded and likes a challenge and an element of control, this might be right up your street; but it could be challenging for those without this inclination.

 

3. Limited support outside of online retailers

Getting support in brick-and-mortar stores is challenging.

With the competition as high as it is, and lots of books on the shelves, traditional publishers can’t ensure shelf space for every single book, which means it is just as hard, if not harder, for indie authors.

Self-publishing through companies like Amazon can also be a setback, as a lot of bookshops aren’t likely to support books affiliated with the company. Online retailers do the job extremely well and have carved out the market for self-published work, but so often it is an author’s dream to see their book in their favourite bookshop.

  

Conclusion

Traditional publishing and self-publishing are two ways to get your work in print. To determine which is right for you, determine what your goals are. Which route to publication suits your aims and ambitions best?

Or like me, you can do both! One can very much lead to the other.

There are some amazing tools now available to those self-publishing, like these 3-D cover tools here, and here. When it comes to cover design, Creativindiecovers.com is a wonderful ally, and you may find this universal book linker tool helpful.

There is no right or wrong way to share your work, and whichever publishing route you choose, it is good to keep in mind that often succeeding in publishing is playing the long game, which makes your dreams taste that bit sweeter, once they come true.

Dreams come true. Without that possibility, nature would not incite us to have them.
—John Updike

 


 
 
Jack is one of the self published authors who found success with a traditional publisher

Jack Jordan

 

Jack Jordan is the global number one bestselling author of six thrillers including Do No HarmAnything for Her and Night by Night – an Amazon No.1 bestseller in the UK, Canada, and Australia. His latest and much-anticipated novel Do No Harm was sold as a six-figure deal in a three-way auction to Simon & Schuster, and met with enthusiastic advance reviews from celebrated writers in the genre.

 


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