If you’re like me, it’s not an easy decision. Your novel is done, and you’re ready to share it with the world. But is it better to publish independently or traditionally?
Both methods have their own sets of advantages and disadvantages. Before you choose, it’s important to understand your options and assess which priorities are the most critical to you, your work, and your career.
Are you more concerned with maintaining the rights and creative control over your work, or are you willing to sacrifice that in order to have the knowledge and power of a full publishing team behind you?
I’ll admit it—I used to be guilty of believing that traditional publishing was the “right way” and self-publishing was a cop-out for writers who either weren’t good enough to receive the validation of a publisher, weren’t brave enough to risk the rejections, and/or weren’t willing to put in the work to go through the proper process.
And I wasn’t alone. That way of thinking still persists in society, largely thanks to self-publishing methods like Amazon making it easy to let writers cut corners and publish without even editing their work. Today, anyone can self-publish a book, even if it’s riddled with typos and other quality issues, and claim that they’re a published author. It’s no wonder self-publishing still gets a bad rep and some bookstores refuse to carry independently published books.
Would it surprise you that I changed my mind and became an indie author in 2018?
That decision was, in large part, thanks to a mentor who explained to me that self-publishing has come a long way over the last decade. Once I learned the pros and cons to both publishing methods, I had a better understanding and was able to make a more informed, less biased decision. And then I proceeded to independently publish my second award-winning novel in 2020.
My mindset about publishing a book “the right way” is no longer based on the actual publication process, but rather the care and commitment to quality. I highly encourage other indie authors to make the proper investments and rely on professional editors and other necessary resources. There’s no reason an independently published book can’t be at the same level of quality as a traditionally published one.
For more information on my personal self-publishing journey and tips about the process, check out these other articles I’ve written on the topic:
What Does It Mean to be an Indie Author?
An indie author is someone who has self-published, which is also referred to synonymously as independent publishing. The author, not an agency or publishing house, is responsible for the entire process, including proofreading, editing, formatting, printing, designing the cover, and marketing the book.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you did all of that by yourself—many indie authors utilize outside resources and hire businesses and freelancers to help them. But the author makes all the decisions.
Advantages of Self-Publishing
Authors today have a lot more resources when it comes to independent publishing than they used to. The process is becoming easier and more popular, leading to opportunities that indie authors didn’t have ten years ago. Here are some of the pros of self-publishing:
- Creative control: Indie authors make all of the decisions and have the final say when it comes to their work. They can hire whomever they want to bring their vision to life. Editing suggestions are just that—suggestions. While they should be carefully considered if given by an industry professional, the author may choose to incorporate or disregard them.
In the traditional publishing world, many different people will have input on your work because they will all have a stake in it. The publishing house’s name and reputation is on the line, not just yours. This will likely impact your content, your cover, and perhaps your title. Even bestselling authors like Terry Goodkind don’t always have control over their book covers and may be stuck with artwork they hate on the book they worked so hard on.
- Retain the rights to your book: When indie authors purchase their own ISBN, they are officially the publisher in addition to being the creator. They can list the book under their own name, an LLC, or a DBA if they want to register a company name for the work to make it seem more official.
It’s important to note that most independent publishing platforms give authors the option to use a company-issued ISBN for free as opposed to purchasing it through Bowker. If the author chooses this route instead, the self-publishing company will be listed as the publisher instead of the author.
- Faster results: It can take years or even decades of querying literary agents and collecting rejections before an author is connected to the right person at the right time. But with self-publishing, a finished book can be ready for sale within a few hours to a couple of days, max. For some, the waiting game isn’t worth it. I, for example, was willing and ready to wait as long as necessary to find an agent, but when I reevaluated my priorities, I realized that I had people in my life whom I wanted to be a part of this journey with me. I wanted my grandparents and other loved ones to hold my book in their hands, not be a “in loving memory of” dedication. We never know how much time we have.
- Build a platform: It’s a harsh but true reality—traditional publishers still look for people who have a strong following, robust platform, and steady online traffic. If you don’t have that, your task to convince a publisher to take a chance on you just became a lot more difficult. But self-publishing gives you the opportunity to get your books out into the world, connect with readers, build your fan base and email list, prove you’re serious about marketing yourself, and then possibly become a more appealing candidate for a traditional publishing house down the road if that’s what you want.
- No bulk printing waste or risk: A traditional publisher will decide on a set print run based on how many books they think they can sell. Let’s say, for example, they do a 10,000 book print run. They now have to sell as many of those 10,000 books as they can in order to earn back that investment. This does have some benefits, such as a push to sell the products and a lower cost-per-book price. However, indie authors have print-on-demand (POD) books, which means the product doesn’t exist until someone places an order. No astronomical upfront investment to print 10,000 copies. No waste of resources or risk of losing a lot of money if your sales aren’t what you’d hoped.
- Higher royalty rates: I want to be VERY clear about this one, because most sources will cite this as a fabulous perk while leaving out a crucial detail. Traditionally published authors usually earn royalties somewhere in the range of 7%-25%. Now, keep in mind that an agent will take a cut of that, and new authors are most likely going to be on the lower end of that range.
In comparison, indie authors can expect to earn between 55%-70% royalties. Sounds like a pretty good deal, right? But it’s not that simple. I didn’t learn this lesson until after I became an indie author myself, which is why I’m so frustrated by the lack of transparency out there. Depending on the medium and size of my books (what can I say, I like big books and I cannot lie), I do earn more than 50% royalties. HOWEVER, the print cost of each paperback and hardcover comes out of my share, so it’s not going in my pocket. When you do the math with that factor included, I’m actually earning about the same, sometimes slightly higher than traditional royalties when the books are purchased online or through retailers. Not nearly the same margins as advertised.
At the end of the day, an indie author’s royalties aren’t that much better than a traditionally published author’s royalties. The big difference is that the traditionally published author is likely selling a lot more books than the indie author. This is something to seriously think about if you were seeing dollar signs with self-publishing.
Disadvantages of Self-Publishing
There’s a reason independent publishing hasn’t obliterated the traditional method yet. While it does have its share of perks, especially for authors interested in total autonomy of their rights and creative control, it also has its downfalls. Here are some of the cons of self-publishing:
- Higher cost for the author: This is a key difference between the two publishing methods. A traditional publishing house will pay for everything—editing, formatting, artwork design, (limited) marketing, which means the author doesn’t have to pay for any of that. An indie author, on the other hand, is stuck with those costs.
I could get in to vanity presses here, but I do NOT recommend them. The vast majority of them will overcharge you by thousands of dollars you really didn’t need to spend, and oftentimes you’re getting cheated on editing and other quality control measures. For those who can afford it and are willing to pay for the simplicity of not having to deal with too much of the publishing themselves, a vanity press is an option you can consider. For those who are on a budget and can’t afford to throw money away, don’t do it. There are a ton of scams out there for writers who are desperate to have their books published.
- Marketing is a struggle: This has definitely proven to be one of the biggest challenges for me. Traditional publishing houses have a lot of resources and networking contacts to promote a book. Indie authors are left on their own to figure it all out. And it can be absolutely overwhelming.
I will note, though, that traditional publishers don’t do nearly as much of the legwork as they used to. Through my research and discussions with my traditionally published professional contacts, it’s my understanding that a lot of the marketing responsibilities still fall on the author’s shoulders. Gone are the days when the publisher took care of everything and the author could simply sit back and start working on the next book. The publishing house might help in small ways, like making arrangements for an author to be a guest blogger on a website or sending the book to magazines and reviewers, but other than that, a book’s success is mostly up to the author except in the cases of high-value bestsellers.
- No support staff: This category sort of falls into both the pros and cons. On the pro self-publishing side, nobody except the author can make executive decisions, giving the author complete control over their work without anyone else undercutting their desires and vision. On the con side, experienced proofreaders, copy editors, line editors, publicists, artists, and other experts can have immense value. They know what they’re doing, and they know what has succeeded or tanked in the past, so even if their creative vision is different than the author’s, there’s a good chance that their changes will be beneficial. Indie authors have to rely on their own gut instinct and contracted freelancers when it comes to making those decisions.
- Less visibility: Traditional publishing comes with a sense of prestige and validation, and it can open a lot of doors that are much harder to access as an indie author. There are more chances for major book reviews, literary prizes, and a shot at the bestseller list. That’s not to say those feats are impossible for an indie author (both of my books have won awards, and I know other indie authors who have also received various literary awards), but it’s definitely a lot more hustle to make it happen.
- Harder to get your book on shelves: Your options as an indie author are much more limited. Bookstores often have exclusive deals with major publishers and are ready to advertise the latest releases as soon as they’re available. But if you’re self-published, there are restrictions.
First, if you publish solely through Amazon (KDP), expect most bookstores to reject your book. Amazon is their competitor and isn’t renowned for great quality since it’s free and very easy to publish. Second, some bookstores have a personal policy against self-published books. It may be due to the bad rep of low-quality books flooding the market, or other factors, but if they say no, you’re not getting around it. Third, even if a bookstore is willing to carry your novel, you (or a hired representative) have to be the one who reaches out to them so you can let them know the book exists and then convince them why it belongs on their shelves. Smaller bookstores have a limited amount of space and usually vet any new additions before they would consider carrying new books.
Here’s the thing—self-publishing is hard if you’re serious about producing a quality book and then marketing it. Becoming an indie author is a daunting, time-consuming endeavor, and it’s going to be an uphill battle.
But it’s not hopeless! As an indie author, I’ve won literary awards; scheduled a Barnes & Noble tour that covered seven cities in three states; participated as a featured speaker in an author panel; sold my books at fairs, bookstores, conferences, coffee shops, and festivals; partnered with a candle company that created a unique fragrance named after my fantasy series; created and sold my own merchandise online; and so many other accomplishments!
If you are willing to put in the investment, you can find success. Maybe you’re attracted to the creative freedom and control of self-publishing. Or maybe the assurance of having a publishing house staff to polish your content and help you market is more appealing.
You don’t have to rush your decision. Take some time, think about the pros and cons, and consider what is most important to you. What worked for me may not work for you, and vice-versa. We all take different paths in pursuit of our goals.
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