Real questions to ask when deciding between traditional or self-publishing

Last week, I shared some of my complex feelings on discovering traditional publishing probably wasn’t the best path to publication for me to follow. This week, I’ll be sharing part of why.

When I started researching traditional vs. self-publishing from a new angle, I created a spreadsheet where I could break down some of the points of consideration that came up while I was studying the current market.

The importance of each item is up to you. What is important to me might be no big deal to you. Also, this information may change in coming years. It’s based on my findings in 2017. By the end of this year, it may be out of date and inaccurate, but hopefully it’ll offer a good starting point for your own studies in the future. Furthermore, ruling a path the winner of some subjects are made based on generalizations. A skilled agent may be able to open other possibilities, but don’t count on it. Let’s get started, shall we?

1. Is it a prestigious form of publication?

We might as well start with what’s probably the biggest hang-up for most authors. This is one of my biggest hurdles to overcome. Let’s be real: self-published authors are generally viewed with disdain. We’ve all heard the phrase “Anyone can self-publish” and whether or not it’s true doesn’t matter. If you can’t impress an agent, the assumption is you self-published because you failed. If you get a traditional publishing contract, even with a small press, it means you weren’t the one who decided your work was good enough. That automatically makes it more valid, right? Except that isn’t true. Some of the biggest blockbuster titles of the past five to ten years have started as self-published books, and no one would ever imply they were less because they were first self-published. Good books are good books. The assumption that every book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble is a good book because it landed an agent is clearly false. But prestige is important to a lot of people, so decide up front what this means to you. If the prestige and respect of being signed with a traditional publishing house matters most, there’s no point in having you read further.
Winner: Traditional publishing.

2. Will your books be readily available in bookstores?

If you’ve kept reading to point 2, consider this carefully: Having your book immediately available in traditional bookstores is an issue of vanity. The vast majority of books are sold online–even those that are traditionally published. But traditional publishing with a major publishing house is the only route to your book automatically showing up at B&N or your favorite niche bookshop. We’ll discuss this a little more in the coming points, but this is the only other point where traditional publishing has a clear lead.
Winner: Traditional publishing.

3. Can additional bookstore presence be negotiated?

For both traditional and self-publishing, the answer is a resounding yes. If your book is available in paperback, there’s a chance for you to get it into stores on your own legwork–regardless of the path you’ve taken into publishing. Lots of independent bookstores will fail to keep your book in stock, even if you’re traditionally published. You need to go to them to get it on the shelves. Even Barnes and Noble has forms you can fill out to request your self-published books be stocked. Even if they decline at a corporate level, a good relationship with management of your local store can still get your book on shelves. There’s one little catch: if you’re self-published, bookstores may turn you away if your paperback is printed through CreateSpace. Amazon is the rival of other booksellers, and they don’t offer returns for unsold paperbacks. Consider other distribution venues, such as Ingram Spark, to aid your chances in getting your book stocked.
Winner: Tie.

4. How long are books typically stocked on shelves?

While there is some variance, as independent bookstores set their own time frame, most books are stocked for 3 months. Doesn’t matter who your publisher is or even who you are–if your book isn’t selling, it won’t stick around. After 3 months, unsold books are typically returned to the vendor.
Winner: Tie.

5. Is the length of a print run limited?

If your book is traditionally published, the 3 months your book is first on the shelves is sometimes your only shot at proving yourself. If a print run does not sell out, you don’t get another run. Your book may remain available in digital editions, but it won’t be reprinted. This is the first place independent publishing has a clear advantage. If you’re independent and have paperbacks, you’ve either sponsored your own print run or offer your book through print-on-demand. Your book will stay in print as long as you want it to.
Winner: Indie.

6. Can your book be added to public libraries?

Absolutely. Befriending local librarians can get it there, but a better way to get your book stocked is having readers request it. Traditional publishing will only get you into the library system if there’s obvious demand for your work. If you’re new or even a mid-list author, you may have to petition libraries yourself.
Winner: Tie.

7. Will you have access to professional editors, artists, etc.?

The good news is, everyone has access to these resources. The difference is cost. When you’re indie, you’re responsible for your costs up front. When you’re traditionally published, you make it up to your publisher later. More on this later, though.
Winner: Tie.

8. Can you expect to work with one editor, artist, etc. long-term?

This is one people often fail to consider. When you’re traditionally published, you get to work with your publisher’s editors… but who knows how long they’ll stick around. That editor you click with this week might not be there next week. Same with everyone who touches your book, aside from you and your agent. Publishers are like any other business; they see employees come and go all the time, and it’s outside your control. However, if you publish independently, you’re the boss. If you find an editor who really gets your vision for your book, you can hire them over and over again, providing they have openings in their schedule.
Winner: Indie.

9. Is there any cost up front?

For indie publishing, yes. No question about it. For traditional publishing… it’s not quite so clear cut, and I’ll expand on the reason for that under the next point. Generally speaking, you don’t pay to have your book traditionally published. You get paid, not the other way around. If any publisher expects money prior to publication, it’s a scam and you should run the other way. But there are expenses associated with publishing–especially indie publishing–that means opening your wallet. If you’re indie, you’ll need a cover, formatting, money to order proofs, the list goes on. Regardless of whether you’re indie or trad, you’ll need to spend money on a professional-looking website, a marketing budget, and most importantly, editing.
Winner: Traditional publishing.

10. Do I always have to pay for editing?

For indie publishing: Yes. Skipping editing should never even cross your mind. For traditional publishing: Also yes. Don’t believe me? Go look up some agents and check out their submission guidelines. See how many of them state they expect a manuscript that is complete and edited. That means professional editing, not you reading it a second time to clean up any obvious mistakes. I was a little hazy on it, so I took the time to actually ask an agent. Agents absolutely expect you to have spent money on professional editing before you even get to the querying process. Sorry, guys. You can’t escape the editor.
Winner: Tie.

11. What should I expect to spend on producing my book?

This is one field where your mileage may vary. Sometimes widely. The good news for those of you pursuing traditional publishing is that you can get away with editing and spending a bit on marketing. Based on quotes I was given for a 95,000-word fantasy novel, you can expect to pay between $900 and $1,250 for extensive editing. Then you’ll want to put away a few hundred for advertising opportunities. $1,500 is a reasonable estimate. If you’re looking at self-publishing, you’re going to be looking at a much higher total. Assuming you can do nothing yourself, you’ll need an editor, a professionally made cover, professional formatting, graphics for advertising, and your ad budget. $2,500 is a realistic budget for producing and promoting a high-quality book on your own. The good news is you can mitigate these costs depending on who you know and whether or not you have skills to do things on your own. As an example, I have a background in art and graphic design, so I do my own book covers and formatting. This also means I can trade covers and formatting for high-quality editing, as it’s not uncommon for editors to be authors, too. My expense for producing Her Midnight Cowboy was especially low–only $30, not counting advertising/marketing funds.
Winner: Varies by your skill set, but usually traditional publishing.

12. What are the average royalty rates?

For traditional publishing, commonly between 8 and 15% of the wholesale price. That’s right–the wholesale price, not the cover price. The cover price is the markup bookstores place on a book. They have to make money, too! It’s not uncommon for a traditionally published author to make a dollar or less off a $30 hardcover book. For digital editions, many traditional publishers give their authors 50% royalties. But keep in mind that’s 50% of what’s left after vendors take their fee, and your agent gets an average of 15% of all your earnings, too. Indie authors get a much better deal. Lots of publishing platforms take a small cut of 10 to 15%. If you publish directly through Amazon, you can expect to receive between 35 and 70% of your eBook’s list price. Paperback profit margins depend on you and what distributor you’re using, but it’s not uncommon to make a dollar or two off every sale.
Winner: Indie.

13. Does it pay an advance?

Indie publishing? Never. Small press? Rarely. Traditional publishing? Usually. But there are two important things to know about advances ahead of time. For one, it’s exactly what it sounds like–an advance loan against future earnings. Sometimes, contracts stipulate it has to be earned back within a certain window of time. And if your book doesn’t earn out its advance, you’re often expected to pay back the difference. This comes out of your earnings, which means that 8 to 15% you’re getting off each sale? Those pennies are going to be absorbed to cover your advance. It could be years before you see another dime. The other important thing to consider is that advances are getting smaller all the time; for mid-list authors, sometimes it’s only enough to cover the bills for a single month. The advance certainly isn’t what it used to be, and you shouldn’t count on it. For new authors, there’s no guarantee you’ll get an advance at all.
Winner: Traditional publishing by default.

14. Are there any hidden costs?

With indie publishing, no. All your expenses are up front. With traditional publishing, you have to remember that all that free stuff you got, edits and book covers and the like? Yeah, you’re paying for that long-term. You aren’t earning 8 to 15% just until your advance is earned out. That’s the range perpetually. Sometimes you’ll go from earning 10% to 15% after your advance is earned out, but after that, that’s your income in perpetuity. If you have an exceptionally successful book, you end up paying more for these services in the long run than if you’d paid for them out of pocket up front!
Winner: Indie.

15. Who is responsible for the brunt of the advertising?

This one’s a sad truth: You. Unless you’re an established author or the lucky winner the publisher has chosen to back, you’re probably going to be responsible for the vast majority of your own advertising. The biggest leg up you get from traditional publishing is having an immediate bookstore presence, but you’re still going to be the one doing the pushing, no matter how you publish. On one hand, traditional publishers are more likely to give you more backup once you’ve picked up steam on your own. But on the other, you’re doing all the leg work anyway–if you’re indie, you get to keep more of the profits. Don’t want to market? Tough luck. No matter what you do, you’re going to have to learn how to do it.
Winner: Tie.

16. Can you re-publish through another company or venue later?

If you’re traditionally published… probably not. Rights reversions are hard to get, especially from larger publishers. And even if you get it, nobody wants to pick up another publisher’s leftovers. You might be able to regain the rights to your book and republish by yourself, but it’s tough going. But if you’re indie, absolutely! You’re in control. In fact, good quality indie work gets picked up by traditional publishers all the time–and when they’re the ones who approach you, you’ve got more leverage, which means you can have your choice of agent or literary lawyer and will have a lot more clout in your publishing contract.
Winner: Indie.

17. Can you escape a bad publishing setup?

This is sort of related to the previous point. If your publisher tanks or they’ve presented your book poorly, you’re probably stuck. You can’t just weasel out of a contract after you’ve signed it; you’ll be in for the long haul. With enough time, effort, and money for legal expenses, you might be able to get out in a few years. But if you’re indie and you don’t like a platform, all you have to do is pull your book and try it somewhere else. You can change venues within a matter of days.
Winner: Indie.

18. Do you get to title your own book?

With traditional publishing, probably not. Does that surprise you? It surprised me too, but I heard it from a lot of agents. They aren’t too worried about the title you’ve given your book as a working title, because it’ll change–sometimes regardless of your opinion. Plenty of authors hate the title their books were assigned. You might get a little input, but don’t get attached. According to multiple agents I’ve heard speak on the matter, only around one book in twenty actually gets published with the name the author chose. This seems exceptionally low to me, but if the agents are saying it, I have to accept that’s the case. But if you’re indie, no one is stopping you. You’re the boss. Just keep in mind that using a name that’s too similar to an existing book might get you in trouble.
Winner: Indie.

19. Do you have any influence on the book’s cover?

With traditional publishing, you may be given a little input, but you’re not in control. More often than not, you’ll be handed a cover they choose for you. With indie, it’s all up to you. You can hire any artist you want–even one that charges ten thousand dollars for a custom oil painting. You can also make your own cover, if you really want to, but you probably shouldn’t.
Winner: Indie.

20. Can the title, cover, etc. ever be changed?

With traditional publishing… not likely. Old romance novels sometimes get re-printed with new titles and covers, but the vast majority of books only ever see one print run. But if you’re indie, you can do whatever you want. Think of a better title two weeks after publishing? Change it. No one’s stopping you. Want to update your cover to match current genre expectations? Hire whatever artist you want. You can even stick special seasonal covers on your books if you really want to. The sky’s the limit.
Winner: Indie.

21. Do you have any control over formatting and presentation?

Like with covers, traditional publishers may tolerate a few suggestions from you, but at the end of the day, you need to sit down and accept that they’re the professionals. As an indie, you have your choice of formatters at your fingertips. If you don’t like the result, you can hire a new one–or learn to format books yourself.
Winner: Indie

22. Are there restrictions on how frequently you can publish?

Traditional publishing is notoriously slow. If your book gets signed tomorrow, it’ll be around two years before it hits shelves. In addition to a slow process, it’s not uncommon for traditional publishers to throttle the speed of releases. They give various reasons for this, but I think speed at which publishers function is the main influencing factor. One book a year is considered a rapid pace for traditional publishing. Indie authors could publish a backlist of eighty-three books in the span of a week if they really wanted to. I don’t know why you would, but hey, why not?
Winner: Indie

23. Will you be expected to surrender property rights?

There was a time where all you signed over was print and maybe some of your sub rights. But according to many agents, modern publishers have become more aggressive and will push for full rights in boilerplate contracts–which is what you get if you’re not already a big seller. So unfortunately, this is probably now pretty much a given with traditional publishing. A particularly skilled agent or a big-name author can probably get this changed pretty easily. For new authors, there’s definitely no guarantee. If you’re indie, you never have to sign away anything–your rights are yours in perpetuity.
Winner: Indie

24. Can you sell some rights (Film, audio, etc.) and retain others?

Indie, yes. With traditional publishing… it depends. Previously, it was normal for publishers to pick and choose from things like foreign rights, audiobooks, eBooks and print, but authors had a little more say in what they were signing. Most modern publishers will not accept books for print-only runs; they want every venue for distribution open to them. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of authors being underpaid, too. Audiobooks and eBooks both are more popular than they were ten years ago, yet their increasing value has not seemed to have much impact on what authors are offered as far as advances or royalties.
Winner: Indie

25. Can publication require a non-compete clause?

With indie publishing, basically never. But for traditional publishing, this is becoming a more common clause in contracts. Not only can you be barred from working with other publishing houses for a specified amount of time, you can be barred from competing with yourself–which means you can’t self-publish anything while you’re in contract, either, even if it’s a completely different series.
Winner: Indie

26. Can poor sales kill a series or contract?

This happens in traditional publishing all the time. Maybe you signed a two-book deal and the first book didn’t sell according to expectations. They might be stuck publishing a second book, but then they’ll drop you without signing a third. I have also heard of cases where poor sales of a first book–or issues within the publisher, which have nothing to do with an author–led to termination of a contract before the second book in a two-book deal could be published! So yes, it’s totally possible. Worst of all, few if any publishers are willing to pick up a series partway through. You may be freed up to pursue indie publishing for the rest of your series, but only if your contract allows it. If you’re indie from the start, nothing stop your series but you. Even if you never sell a single copy of book two, nothing is stopping you from publishing book three.
Winner: Indie

27. Can issues like piracy, etc. prematurely end your series?

People used to swear this wasn’t an issue, but bestselling author Maggie Stiefvater’s dramatic struggle against this issue earlier this year says otherwise. Her publisher did everything in their power to try to kill her series, despite incredible sales. With indie, again, nothing ends a series but you.
Winner: Indie

28. Can a book flop damage your career?

There’s nothing worse for an author than failure to earn out an advance. This is a black mark on your record, one other publishers won’t ignore. Worst of all, it may not be your fault. Errors are often introduced in editing stages, or maybe a book wasn’t properly advertised. Either way, a failed traditionally published series can be a death knell for getting anything else traditionally published in the future. By contrast, a tanked indie book could set you back in both time and money, but nothing will ever stop you from continuing to publish.
Winner: Indie

In conclusion

If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’ve found something valuable in this post that took me two hours to type. It’s a lot of questions, but these are the things that seemed important to me as I was beginning my research into different paths. At the end of the day, I feel like there’s a clear winner: For me, it may well end up being indie publishing. But that’s the conclusion my research has brought me, and you may draw something different. However, there’s one factor that makes all the difference in my decision.
I have to retain my property rights.
Sure, a skilled agent could ensure I keep them even though I’m a nobody, but how do I know I’ll get an agent who can? How do I know, with absolute, 100% certainty, that signing with an agent will ensure all six of my completed fantasy books see publication? How do I know the publisher will want all six? What about the next three using the same characters that I have yet to finish? How do I know they’ll keep the naming convention I have for the whole series? I don’t–and after spending more than fifteen years developing these stories, characters, and their world, I don’t know if I’m willing to risk it. If my books are good, they’re good, and they’ll be successful no matter how I get them into readers’ hands.

But is indie publishing right for you?

Only you can decide.

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