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Publishing 101: Navigating the Publishing Process: Traditional vs. Self-Publishing

When you want to publish a book, which option is better? Traditional or self-publishing?

When you've written a book and want to get it published, there are two possibilities. You can go the traditional route and submit it to a publisher, or you can self-publish your book. The self-publishing process is fairly recent, and it allows authors to take full control of the life of their book, from writing to sales.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these processes, and the choice you make may affect not only the sales of one book, but also your potential career as an author.

Traditional publishing

Most authors are familiar with the traditional publishing process. You write a book, then seek out a potential literary agent or publisher. Most large publishers don't accept un-agented manuscripts, so getting an agent is essential. This means that there are two gatekeepers who will choose if your book is worthy of publication: first, an agent, who only earns money if they sell your book, will decide whether it is worth their time. Second, they have to convince a publisher to take the next step and actually publish the book.

Once an agent has sold a book to a publisher, the production process begins. This includes developmental editing, which edits and makes suggestions for plot, character, style, pacing, and other large issues, though an agent may already have worked with an author on this. The publisher then moves on to line editing and copy editing, handles layout, cover design, and production, then prints books and generates ebooks. They then handle the distribution and sale of books to wholesalers and distributors, and, in some cases, work to promote books through ads, social media, book tours, and other means.

All publishers list books on Amazon and other online retailers, but larger publishers have more weight on sell-in, getting bookstores to buy copies of books when they are first released. Larger publishers leverage their reputations to convince booksellers to champion new titles, while smaller publishers often have to rely on word of mouth to get books into retail stores. Larger publishers are also much more likely to place popular books in locations like airports and supermarkets, which can greatly improve sales of best sellers.

The main disadvantage of traditional publishing is that you give up control of your book. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing; having professional editors and designers can help improve your book and make it sell better. But there are many steps involved in the traditional publishing process, and you don't always have much say in how your book is handled. In addition, you generally have to wait about a year from the time your manuscript is accepted until it is published.

And don't forget the financial aspect. Literary agents generally take about a 15% commission, and, while royalties on sales vary, they generally don't exceed 10% for new authors. This doesn't mean that the publisher keeps 90% of the retail price; they sell the book to wholesalers at roughly 50% discount, and they bear the cost of producing, printing, and shipping finished books.


When you self-publish a book, you are in control of everything. This includes writing, editing, designing, and producing your book, as well as marketing it and getting it into bookstores. Most authors realize that their prose will not be perfect, so it can be advantageous to hire a professional editor to go over the book before it's finalized. Unless you're an artist, you should probably hire a cover designer as well. If you only plan to sell your book as an e-book, you don't need to worry about production, but if you do want printed copies, you can go through one of the many print-on-demand services to have books printed.

Since ebooks represent from 10 to 50% of fiction sales, depending on genre, most self-published books are published that way, and, if you write a book in a genre where ebooks sales are high, you may not even offer print books. You can use Scrivener to easily produce ebooks from your manuscript, and you can use a self-publishing platform like Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) or Ingram Spark to publish both ebooks and print-on-demand books.

In addition to being responsible for the production process, you are in charge of marketing your book. Hiring a publicist to assist with this is an additional expense, though many self-published authors promote their work through social media, online book clubs, and other channels. You can also try out different types of marketing, whereas traditional publishers tend to use marketing strategies they are familiar with. One thing that many self-published authors leverage is a mailing list, which they use to contact existing readers about new books they have published.

When you self-publish your books, you retain much more of the retail price, up to 70%, depending on the platform, and depending on whether you are selling print or ebooks. But these financial calculations need to take into account any costs you may have incurred to hire an editor, book designer, or publicist. You may end up earning as much from a self-published book as from the same book published traditionally, even if you sell far fewer copies.

However, when you self-publish, you are not just an author: you are also a business person. This means that you spend a fair amount of time on work that is not writing, and if that's not your thing, the traditional publishing route may be more appropriate.

How to choose between traditional publishing and self-publishing

In the end, your decision comes down to several factors. Whether you want to spend the time producing and promoting a book, or whether you want to leverage the professional services of a publisher, and the potential that they have to help you build a more extensive career as an author. Whether you want to publish your book more quickly, versus the slower traditional publishing model. And whether you feel you can earn more from your book on your own or with a publisher who may be able to promote the book to channels that are harder for self-published authors to access.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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