Well, that’s what Shakespeare might be asking if he was still alive. Indeed, it is the question on many a budding author’s lips. As a freelance book editor, 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 the 1400s, and it’s the dream of many writers to gain a contract with a book publisher, see their book on the shelf of a book store, with that little penguin adorning the spine.
The advantages of getting a traditional publisher on board are the support team that 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, graphic designer, and marketer, which can wrack up costs. 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 I’m afraid 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 a’changin. Award criteria may change, 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.
Speed to market
On the contrary, some authors aren’t seeking fame or fortune—what they want 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 to reject your manuscript, potentially several publishers 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. 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 good option—you can say exactly what you want. However, there are some small publishers who seek subversive content, so it’s worth searching these out before giving up on the idea of getting published.
Putting in the time
Aside from the actual time spent on writing, both traditional publishing and self-publishing require considerable effort on your part. You may exert a ton of energy seeking an agent or a suitable publisher, not to mention submitting your manuscript to countless publishers. You may also suffer many rejections or simply not receive a response at all.
With self-publishing, it’s up to you to ensure that the book is good enough, so you most likely need to find an editor, proofreader, and even a graphic designer. It’s also on you to find the right self-publishing platform for your needs.
But perhaps the hardest part of self-publishing is that it’s your job to market and promote the book. If you have a wide social network who are willing to help, you may find this easier, but from my experience of authors who have self-published, overwhelmingly—promoting their book has been the greatest hurdle. If you do decide to self-publish, it’s worth looking in to hiring a marketer to promote your book and get it noticed.
Still not sure?
In short, if you’re seeking money, fame, or recognition from your book—and you genuinely believe it’s good enough to be published—then it’s worth the effort of trying to find a traditional publisher first, be it a big publishing house or a small independent. If they’re not interested, then you can always self-publish later.
On the contrary, if you just want to get your book out there into the world, quickly, and uncensored—if you’re happy to make a little money from it and promote it yourself, then self-publishing is the way to go. Who knows, you may gain some success from it, you may even become the next star of the self-published world.
Whether you’re a hoping to self-publish or find a publisher, I offer book editing services to ensure your book is up to scratch. This includes a multi-draft content/structural edit, copy edit, and proofread with comprehensive feedback, or a final proofread before submitting a manuscript to a publisher. Get in touch and I’d be happy to help.