Self Publishing Guide: Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

by Rachel Sawden
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When writing your book, you may be exploring what are the pros and cons of self-publishing versus traditional publishing. You will need to decide which avenue is right for you. Both come with their advantages and disadvantages.

Let’s start with how a book gets traditionally published through a publishing house:

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Getting an Agent

Unless you’re related or BFF with someone in a major publishing house, you will need an agent to get a deal with one.

Write an amazing query letter and synopsis. Research agents and find the ones that are right for you. Send individual and personalized queries following their submission guidelines to a T. They will all ask for something slightly different. Sign with an agent. Your agent will pitch your book to publishers, land a (usually multi-book) deal. They will negotiate the terms of your deal with the publisher and take a cut. They will be your cheerleader through the process of delivering the final manuscript and for future books under the contract they negotiated for you.

The Publisher Route

Some smaller publishers do accept unagented submissions. Going alone can be risky particularly if you do not know the business as your naiveté and desire to be published can lead to you being taken advantage of. If you can hook a publishing house that is offering an advance, you could then go query agents leading with this information as it means a guaranteed paycheck for the agent). The agent can then take over in negotiations to get you the best deal.

Please note that some smaller publishers do not offer advances and will only give a royalty.

Do your due diligence in researching these smaller/independent publishing houses as they might not offer a better deal than going the self-publishing route where you retain all of your rights to your work.

If you can land a publishing deal and do not want an agent, I would highly recommend finding a lawyer well versed in publishing law to read over and advise on your contract before you sign.

Vanity Presses

Beware of vanity presses – these are publishers who will ask you to foot the bill. With this route, the author assumes all of the risk and pays the publisher. The press will own the rights to your work   Google them; avoid them. A publisher should never ask you for money, and if they do – run!

Companies that provide self-publishing services will pay the author a commission based on sales.

Advances and Royalties

What are advances and royalties? An advance is a sum of money that a publisher pays for your manuscript. This will generally be paid in instalments based on certain milestones, e.g. half upon signing the publishing contract and then the other half upon the delivery of the final manuscript. Once the book is in print, royalties will be made upon the sale of each book. In traditional publishing this can be quite low for the author – less than 10%. Once your royalties add up to the advance and essentially pay back the publisher for their investment in you, then you will earn royalties for sales of your work.

Some publishers work on royalties alone, but when they do these royalties tend to be higher. Publishers who give advances tend to give lower royalties.

What is the right choice for me?

I cannot tell you whether traditional or self-publishing is better for you but I can outline the pros and cons of each route:

Traditional Publishing Pros:

  • Prestige and validation.
  • No out of pocket costs.
  • If you can get an advance, you’ll receive a guaranteed paycheck.
  • You will be in print in bookstores.
  • Open to major literary prizes.
  • Marketing support (sometimes).

Traditional Publishing Cons:

  • You could have a bad relationship with your agent, or your agent could ghost you.
  • Getting an agent doesn’t mean getting a deal.
  • Publishing moves at a glacial pace – Your book will take at best 18 months to hit shelves once signing the publishing deal (and may take that amount of time between
  • You lose control over your vision – don’t like the cover, too bad.
  • As a debut author you’ll receive very little marketing support.
  • Low royalty rates.
  • You’ll lose the rights to your work for the time specified in your contract, along with the rights to future works and possibly even past works.

Self-Publishing Pros:

  • You retain the rights to your work.
  • You are in total control of how your book looks and is marketed.
  • If your book needs to be published quickly or on a certain date, this is the only way
  • Higher royalty per sale.
  • You are open to indie/self-publishing prizes (the bar is lower).
  • Your book will have a longer shelf-life and it’s easier to make changes to your book.

Self-Publishing Cons:

  • It can be a significant investment (editors, graphic designers, marketing, etc.).
  • You’ll have to do all the work yourself getting it ready for print.
  • You’ll have to learn and do all the marketing.
  • You’ll need to build a platform and hustle for reviews to be taken seriously.
  • Self-published novels aren’t looked upon as favourably as traditionally published novels.

The question I’m sure you’re thinking is up next: how much does self-publishing cost?

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