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17 Pros and Cons of Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing

When choosing your publishing journey, it's important to weigh the potential benefits and drawbacks in order to make the right decision for you and your work. Author Rick Lauber lays out 17 pros and cons of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing.

Choices. We all make them and some are easier to make than others. When struggling to decide, it can often help to draft up a “pros and cons” list for the alternatives. Doing so can provide an easy and excellent visual and be greatly beneficial for authors considering book publication.

Typically, there are two routes an author can choose—a traditional publisher or a self-publishing arrangement. Both have their benefits and drawbacks that should be carefully considered before an author makes a major commitment.

(10 Tips on Negotiating a Traditional Publishing Agreement)

As a twice-published book author, here are some lessons I have learned:

Traditional Publishing Pros

No Cost

Traditional publishers do not charge authors—these publishers want your book and want it to succeed as they will earn their money through further sales of the completed project. Traditional publishers asking authors for upfront payments are not legitimate.

On a related note, a traditional publisher may offer an author an advance prior to starting the project. Authors being offered an advance shouldn’t get too excited however … advances are not gifts or honorariums. These must be repaid through royalties earned.

Credibility

Traditionally published authors often hold prestige or clout when connected with a small, medium, or large publishing house. And authors will benefit by having champions in their corner. Bookstore managers are among those proponents as they will typically support a traditionally published author but hesitate with a self-published author.

I remember doing a previous book signing and chatting with the bookstore manager. She explained that, as regular practice, she does not invite self-published authors in for such events (nor stock their books for sale). Initially, this sounded harsh to me; however, she stated that many prospective authors could easily publish a book on their own and not have the backing of a recognized, traditional publisher.

Industry Knowledge

Traditional publishers are in the business of selling books. Therefore, they will be knowledgeable about what makes a book attractive and interesting to a reader. While they may take design recommendations from authors, I felt far more comfortable agreeing to my publisher’s preference to title my books and create front covers rather than trying to do so myself and hoping both would work.

Hired Know-How

Traditional publishers will have an in-house or contracted team to develop books. When writing my books, I worked with an acquisitions editor, a copy editor, a substantive editor, a fact-checker, and a publicist. All these professionals were available to me at no additional charge.

Validation

Writers often develop, publish, and/or post content without receiving any kind of feedback from readers. A solid contract offer (and a green light to proceed) from a traditional book publisher acknowledges both your idea as having “legs” (meaning it is viable…) and you, as a writer.

Traditional Publishing Cons

Loss of Rights

This is perhaps the most important issue for writers. When authors sign a contract with a traditional publisher, they are typically selling all (or many) rights to their work. When traditional publishers insist that an author sell “all rights,” this means that the author cannot use, sell, or republish their own material elsewhere. As an author, would you want to lose complete control to what you have written?

Delays

The path to becoming traditionally published can be painfully slow. After submitting my first proposal, it took several months for my book publisher to finally accept it—the reason given was that their selections committee only met irregularly and authors had to wait. Following acceptance, traditionally-published authors can find that back-and-forth editing and fact-checking can also drag on.

Disagreements

With more people on a traditional publisher’s team, there is more likelihood of differences of opinion. A traditional publisher’s editor may recommend a copy change the author does not agree with or the publisher may market the author in a completely different genre. With many authors, they will have their own personal and professional preferences to how they are categorized, but a traditional publisher may have a much different plan.

17 Pros and Cons of Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing

Self-Publishing Pros

Faster Publication

Understandably, authors can be eager to see their book(s) published, and self-publishing can result in this happening. Self-publishing can, in fact, shave months off of the entire process.

Higher Earning Potential

Traditionally published authors receive royalties for books sold—typically between 10-15 percent of a book’s list price. Conversely, self-published authors can keep every dollar earned from sold books. Therefore, a self-published author who isn’t shy to sell his/her own work and truly hustles can find the results lucrative.

Control

Authors choosing self-publication will have complete creative control. Therefore, there will be no arguments with the publisher about the front cover design or the price of the book. It can be very empowering to make your own decisions.

Longer Shelf Life

Traditionally published authors may see their book front and center on the bookstore shelf for several months but be unceremoniously replaced by a publisher’s newest release. Self-published authors can keep their book visible for a lifetime (but will have to devote the time and effort to promote themselves).

Self-Publishing Cons

Cost

Self-published authors must often pay out of their own pocket to create a book. The costs, covering development, production, distribution, and marketing could amount to be in the thousands of dollars. This may be money spent that the writer will never recoup. Unlike a traditional publisher, authors choosing to self-publish will have to pay for each service.

Lack of Support

Authors choosing to self-publish can expect to shoulder all the work involved themselves (or contract others, like an editor or graphic designer, to complete this work). Unless an author has the outside skills necessary, having to do everything independently can become a roadblock to publication.

Lack of Recognition

In addition to being potentially shunned by bookstore managers for book signings, self-published authors may also receive the cold shoulder from media refusing interviews, literary agents offering marketing help, and contest developers offering prize money.

Lack of a Guarantee

I use the term “guarantee” loosely as there are few certainties in life. However, with a traditional publisher, authors can be more assured of support and success as the publisher provides solid backing. A self-published author may find that he/she is simply investing money into a project and getting little in return.

Required Storage Room

Unless you have a spare bedroom or space in your basement, self-publishing may not be ideal. A self-published author, typically, may store numerous copies of his/her book at home. Instead of stocking books at home (and tripping over the boxes), I have far preferred to order small quantities from my publisher’s distributor in advance of a planned event.

While it is advisable for authors to always have some copies of their book on-hand at home (you never know when you will need one), I prefer having books shipped directly to me and not having to hold onto superfluous stock.

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While I chose a traditional publisher for both of my books and couldn’t be happier with the outcome, this avenue isn’t for everybody. By listing out and weighing the pros and cons of traditional publishing and self-publishing, an author will be able to make a far better and more informed decision. 

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