Well, that’s what Shakespeare might be asking if he was still alive. Indeed, it’s the question on many a budding author’s lips. As a freelance book editor, the authors I work with often ask the question: should I self-publish or look for a traditional publisher? The simple answer is that it depends on who you are as an author and what you want for your book, which is … not that simple really.
Have no fear. This is your no-sense guide to publishing vs. self-publishing. Having worked in-house for a book publisher for several years and as a freelancer supporting writers who have gone down both routes, I’ll lay out the pros and cons of both options here from an insider’s perspective, so you can decide what’s best for you.
While self-publishing was considered a dirty word just a decade or so ago, it’s now a viable option for many authors. With the dramatic rise of self-publishing platforms since 2000, an increasing number of authors are choosing to self-publish.
The advantages of self-publishing are, broadly speaking, publish what you want, fast, and keep most of your profits. It sounds ideal, doesn’t it? The disadvantages, however, are that you’re going it alone, trying to promote the book yourself, against a swathe of others in the same boat, so your chances of “success” in terms of money, fame, or recognition are limited.
To find a publisher:
Traditional publishing has existed since the 1400s, and it’s the dream of many writers to gain a contract with a book publisher and see their book on the shelf of a book store, maybe with that little penguin adorning the spine.
The advantages of getting a traditional publisher on board include the support team, who will help make your book a success, from the editorial team who will add polish to your book to the marketing team who will promote it—not to mention designers, illustrators, reviewers, distributors, printers, and so on.
The publisher will get your book in book shops, where it is likely to sell more copies. The disadvantages are that you may have to go through months of editorial processes, agree to changes that you may not want, and keep a much smaller percentage of the profits.
Money, money, money…
So, on that note, let’s talk dough. With a traditional publisher, you can expect to receive around 15% of the profits, while the bigger chunk is split between the publisher, book seller, and printers. Publishers may offer an “advance” to cover some of your costs up front, which can potentially be thousands and enable you to take time off work to write the book. But when it comes to sales, if your book doesn’t sell well, you’re likely to end up with little more than pocket change as royalties. If the book is a best seller, you could be handing in your notice and making a living off your book.
With self-publishing, you can keep around 70-80% of the profits, but you may sell less copies overall without a publisher to market the book, and you may have a lower starting price than a publisher would. Just check out the number of books selling for 99p on Kindle. To make up for the lack of an advance, you can apply for “crowdfunding”, where individuals who are interested in the project will pay towards it. But you’ll also be responsible for paying for your editor, proofreader, designer, and marketer, which can wrack up costs before you’ve earned a penny from the book. The average author makes less than £500 from self-published books.
Fame and notoriety!
If you hope to see your books on the shelves in Waterstones, that’s only going happen if you have a publisher to get it there. Most big shops simply don’t sell self-published fiction, so you’re likely to only see your book on a web page or e-reader.
If it’s good old-fashioned fame you’re after, then the answer is largely the same. While a few authors have gone from self-published to super-famous, such as E.L. James, these authors are still in the minority.
If you have big ambitions to become a New York Times Best Seller or a Man Booker Prize award-winner, then realistically you need a publisher. Most, if not all, major literary awards are closed to self-published works.
Of course, times are changing. Award criteria may be reconsidered, book shop giants may start stocking self-published titles, and more indie authors will become stars, but it’s a slow-turning tide—one that you may not want to hang around for if you’re looking for fast fame and fortune.
Speed to market
On the contrary, some authors’ main aim is to send a time-critical message to the world, maybe regarding current politics, the state of the world today, or a recent event. While you’re waiting for a publisher, or several, or many, to reject your manuscript, time is ticking away—and your book is becoming less and less relevant.
Even if the first publisher you apply to accepts the manuscript, you still have to wait for them to complete their often lengthy processes, multiple rounds of editing, and so on. This means at least a few months, and possibly a year, before your book hits the shelves. Will this time-critical information still have the same effect?
For some budding authors, the issue is neither time nor money, but the contentious nature of their book. If your book is controversial, you may struggle to find a publisher who will take it on board—or they may ask you to make significant changes that would affect your intended message.
In this case, self-publishing is a great option—as you can say exactly what you want. However, there are some small publishers who actually seek subversive content, so it’s worth checking these out before giving up on the idea of getting published if that’s what you’re really dreaming of.
Putting in the time
Aside from the actual time spent on writing, both traditional publishing and self-publishing require considerable effort and time on your part. You may exert a ton of energy seeking an agent or a suitable publisher, and submitting your manuscript to countless publishers. You may suffer many rejections or simply not receive a response at all, and all the while the clock is ticking.
With self-publishing, it’s up to you to ensure that the book is good enough, and this can be time-consuming. It means you need to take time finding the right editor, proofreader, and book or cover designer for your book. You need to spend time researching the right self-publishing platform and format for your needs. Then you need to invest the time in marketing and promoting the book yourself. All of this takes time.
Marketing the book
So, the book’s ready to be published and now you want readers to read it. To get your book in readers’ hands, you need to market it. When you have a traditional publisher on board, they generally do at least some of the marketing for you. They’ll probably ask you to market the book as well, via your own networks, but a good publisher will market the book. Put simply, what makes them successful as a book publisher is knowing how to sell books, and they most likely know how to market a book better than you do! The trick here is bagging a publisher who offers marketing service, and being very wary of those who expect you to pay for marketing or other services (known as vanity publishers)
This leads to the biggest problem with self-publishing. Most authors don’t have the knowledge, access, or influence to market and promote their book compared the traditionally published books they’re competing against. If you have a wide social network who are willing to help, you may find this easier, but I’ve seen many authors self-publish great books and experience varying degrees of success with marketing. Promoting your book without a publisher may well be the greatest hurdle, and the steepest learning curve. If you do decide to self-publish, it’s worth hiring a marketer to promote your book and get it in readers’ hands.
Fiction vs. nonfiction
The final factor that might influence your decision of whether to self-publish or seek a publisher is whether your book is fiction or nonfiction. Broadly-speaking, the quality of self-published nonfiction tends to be better than self-published fiction novels. I’m yet to discover why this is the case, but there’s plenty of great self-published nonfiction books out there, compared to a limited number of great self-published novels.
Likewise, readers seem to pay less attention to whether a book is self-published (or who the publisher is) when choosing nonfiction, compared to fiction—where the Penguin or Macmillan brand instantly attracts readers. If you’ve written a great novel, having a renowned publisher on board adds credibility, while this is far less influential in nonfiction.
So, which to choose?
In short, there’s a lot of factors to consider, and which you choose depends on your book and your aims. If you’re still not sure, then you might try to find a traditional publisher first (be it a big publishing house or a small independent), and if they’re not interested, then you can always self-publish later.
Whether you’re hoping to self-publish or find a publisher, I offer book editing services to ensure your book is up to scratch. This includes developmental (content/structural) editing with comprehensive feedback, copy editing (language/flow), and proofreading (errors/typos). Get in touch and I’d be happy to help.