What is the difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing?
Let me give you an analogy.
Let’s say publishing a book is like getting to the top floor of a very tall building.
Traditional publishing requires you to convince a few gatekeepers (agents and acquisition editors) to let you into the building first.
The problem is that there are thousands of people trying to get in at the same time.
Once in, if you are in the lucky 1%, you realize that you’re going to have to take the stairs to the top.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get 5% of the sales of your book,” someone says and pats you on the back.
You’ll have a few people meet you on the way up (an editor, a designer, maybe a marketer). But it will take more than a year to get there.
Self-publishing, on the other hand, is like entering the building unhindered and finding there are a few elevators you can take (although you’ll have to pay a fee).
There’s a bunch of freelance editors and designers milling around the lobby that you can hire to come up with you as well.
The ride to the top is a breeze.
Once you get there, you’ll notice something interesting.
There is nobody waiting for you, but there are people (booksellers, reviewers, literary awards peeps) talking to those who made it up the stairs.
They ignore you, as if you didn’t exist.
Luckily, though, you soon realize that you don’t need them.
On the other side of the hallway there is a large door and a sign that says “Amazon.com — keep 70% of the profits.”
So you go in with your book, ready to take on the world.
Either way, stairs or elevator, is up to you to market your book and use it to grow your business.
Now, let’s break down the differences in detail.
When you sign a contract with a traditional book publisher, you are basically giving away your book to them in exchange for some services (editing, design, distribution and marketing) and a small percentage of royalties: 15% hardcover, 7.5% trade paperback, and 5% mass market.
They have the final say on the edits, the cover design, pricing, and whatever marketing strategy (if any) they want to implement. They owns the print license (and digital), while you own the copyright. Movie rights and other ancillary products are negotiable.
This is what the process looks like for a nonfiction book:
- Write a book proposal
- Find a literary agent to represent you (extremely hard, they are swamped)
- Wait for the agent to pitch publishing companies your book idea (less than 1% of proposals are accepted)
- Sign the publishing contract
- Receive the advance on royalties (if any is offered)
- Write the book
- Submit for editing and copyediting
- Make changes required by the editor
- Wait 12 – 36 months for publication
- Market the heck out of your book yourself
Pros of Traditional Publishing
- You may get some money before publishing (the advance), which you are expected to spend on marketing.
- You get a professional editor and designer to work on your book
- Bookstores are open to place your book in their shelves
- You are eligible to show up in a best-seller list
- You are eligible to be reviewed by mainstream media
- Bragging rights
Cons of Traditional Publishing
- A lot of time and work to get past the gatekeepers and get a deal
- By the time your book comes out, it may not be as relevant anymore
- You lose ownership and control over your book
- Slim chance of making any money out of your book
The fact is that if you can get a traditional publishing deal, it’s because you have a large following or platform already. A big New York publisher would like to see in your proposal that you can guarantee sales of 25k copies of your books to your existing audience…. in the first month!
So, you should definitely go for traditional publishing if you are a celebrity, a politician, a famous actor, the CEO of a big corporation, or an established author with previous best-sellers.
But even then, you could still make more money self-publishing.
If you don’t belong to the 2% of people described above, then you are in the 98% of authors whose best bet is self-publishing.
Once upon a time, this was almost impossible or crazy expensive. Then, it became popular but dismissed as a fad for mediocre writers who could not get a publishing deal. But today, self-publishing is the logical choice for whoever understands the digital world and the Direct-to-Consumer economy, where we don’t need a middleman anymore.
Take this quote from Category Pirates newsletter by Eddie Yoon, Nicolas Cole, and Christopher Lochhead, who are best-selling authors, both in traditional publishing and self-publishing:
“The book category also has a lot of ugly components. The book publishing business model today takes as much risk as a venture capital firm but with much less upside. Like startups, the vast majority of books will “fail,” while even the most financially successful books & authors in the world (the J.K. Rowlings and James Pattersons) achieve a fraction of high-flying unicorns.
“This broken risk/reward model causes publishers to hunt for books to acquire and publish in a more mercenary fashion. Most of the questions they have are “How are you going to help us sell enough of these books to cover the risk of our first printing?” as opposed to “How will this book change the world for the better?” And book retailers seem like a noble business, until you realize how little risk they take on the authors and publishers by returning unsold books and getting full refunds. The entire industry is so busy playing hot potato with the risks that come with book publishing that too many have lost the mission of transforming lives through the written word.
“From our perspective, the legacy category of “big book publishing” is dying.
“So, we abandoned our long-form book project and started a Substack weekly newsletter instead. (Will we still write long-form books? Of course. A few will even be for sale before the end of the year! But we are a digital-first, 100% independent, publishing company.)”
Pros of Self-Publishing
- You own and control your book
- You keep all the royalties and make more money per copy (between 40% and 100%)
- You make creative and editorial decisions
- You can publish fast (in a matter of months)
- No time wasted waiting for someone else to approve your work
- You can write for a small niche without needing a huge following
Cons of Self-Publishing
- You have to learn and manage all the publishing and distribution process
- You need to invest a lot of time and energy
- It carries upfront costs to hire and editor and designer
- If you don’t hire the right people, you may end up with a crappy book
- Top-notch editors and designers are expensive
What about Hybrid Publishing?
This is a deceptive model in some ways, where companies appear to be traditional publishing companies but ask the authors to cover the costs of publishing. For example, they’d review your manuscript and then send you a contract where you have to agree to buy a minimum amount of copies of the book (usually at almost full price).
They promise to do the editing and design work and a bit of marketing, but will still keep a large percentage of the royalties. There is usually no advance on royalties, although these can be higher than the ones provided by traditional publishers.
The waiting process can also be long, between 6 and 24 months.
This is the worst option. The money you would pay for the hardcopies would be better invested in self-publishing and keeping control and future earnings.
What book publishing option should you choose?
If you are a solopreneur, coach, consultant, or any other non-celebrity, the best option for releasing your book is self-publishing. If you are willing to put the work and work with the right team, you will succeed.
Because publishing a book is a team sport. Here are the players:
- The writer (you)
- The book coach (me)
- The editor
- The cover and interior designers
- The publisher
You could skip the coach and wing it yourself. You should ditch the publisher and just self-publish. If you are also an artist you could design the cover yourself (but you have to be really good). You could also learn how to do the layout in InDesign (it’s actually easy).
But never, ever, publish without an editor. A professional editor will go through 4 levels of editing:
1. Developmental editing: high-level editing to assess if the book’s structure and flow work well.
2. Content editing: medium-level editing looking at consistency of voice and style, clarity, and readability.
3. Copy editing: low-level editing to fix any problems with grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
4. Proofreading: granular level editing to correct anything that was missed in previous passes.
I’ve publish 14 books and I’ve played all the roles, but I always work with an editor (sometimes several editors, specialized in one of the 4 levels above). Another pair of eyes makes a huge difference in the final product. So, if you are writing a book, gather your team. Or at least make sure to get an experienced editor to work with you before publishing.
When you are ready, here are three ways in which I can help you:
1. Sign up for my free email course How to Finally Start Writing your Book. This mini-course will provide a simple plan to stop procrastinating and start writing daily. Sign up here.
2. Grab my course, Write your First Business Book in 90 Days. Learn the 7-Step System to Write a Book Fast. This course will guide you to write your business book in 90 days, even if you have little or no time to write, you’re not a skilled writer, and your book idea is half-baked. Buy it here.
3. Work 1:1 with me: If you want to work 1:1 with me to refine your book idea, find a niche and develop a plan to write and publish your book, then set up a 1:1 coaching session with me. Click here to book.