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Traditional Publishing or Self-Publishing? A Solid Case for Going Indie in 2020

Updated: Sep 30, 2020

Traditional publishing is seen as the benchmark of success for many aspiring writers. Knowing that your story has passed through various rings of fire to be rewarded with a publisher’s stamp is possibly the most gratifying feeling ever. Recognition and the potential for lots of sales are just some of the most obvious reasons why so many writers want to go with this publishing route.

But while your name and book title are listed on the hallowed catalogues of the likes of Simon and Schuster and Penguin Random House, you wind up losing maybe more than you bargained for. It’s no secret that self-publishing is popular for new writers. But more and more, established authors are also coming to see the benefit, even the beauty, of alternative forms of publishing.

So, while we can’t deny that there are some major advantages to traditional publishing, I'm here to tell you that indie/self-publishing is also a worthy option.

Here’s why.

Indie Publishing Allows the Author to Have Creative Control

To publish independently, you have complete control over ev-er-y-thing. You are your own publisher. To be more specific, here’s what you’re in charge of:

  • Editing (you get to choose an editor you can trust)

  • Sourcing beta readers

  • Acquiring your ISBN (free of charge for Canadian authors)

  • Hiring a cover designer

  • Selecting the physical characteristics of the book (size, page colour, embossing, etc.)

  • Pricing your book

  • Preparing, formatting, and uploading your ebook version

  • Finding distribution channels

  • Marketing (everything from social media, book trailers, tours, ads, etc.)

This is not to say that you must do these things all by yourself (especially the editing part). There are many freelancers and companies that provide these services, but the main difference is that you’re the boss. Big publishers will typically keep you out of these processes. The benefit of indie publishing is that all these service providers grant you the power to say yea or nay.

Looking for self-publishing services? Check out these sites:

The Downside to Creative Control

If the above list seems like a lot, trust me, you’ll discover so many more tasks that you have to take care of during this process. While complete creative control is a major advantage to self-publishing, it’s also its disadvantage. There’s no denying that this is a lot of work.

To reiterate, self-publishing your book means that since you’re paying the bills, you get to call the shots. Depending on how much work you can commit to doing on your own, i.e. marketing, you’re looking to spend anywhere from $1,000 to $6,000.

Indie Publishing Works on a Faster Timeline

If you plan on taking your book to a traditional publisher, be prepared for a long road ahead. If you don’t already have a literary agent, expect to wait much longer. Publishers plan their book releases several seasons in advance. Let’s look at a few things that can add time to the publication calendar:

  • Finding an agent (~6 weeks–3 months). This is often the first step to becoming published, as most medium- and large-scale publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. But finding an agent can take months, even years. Agencies have huge slush piles from new authors, and it’s rare that they will take a chance on an unknown writer. But even if an agency decides to represent you, you can expect to wait at least six weeks for their response.

  • Finding a publisher (up to 5 months). Getting an agent is a great sign that a publisher will buy your book, as agents know the market and know what publishers are looking for. But even so, this stage could still take a year, and it really all depends on the whims of the publisher.

  • Contract Negotiations, Editorial, and Print (1 year or +). Once you’ve signed over your rights to the book, negotiated a contract, and received your advance, the editorial process will start and can take quite a long time. Simultaneously, your publisher will be working hard to sell your book and set up printing and marketing.

These timeframes are certainly not set in stone because all writers have different experiences with their agents and publishers. What’s important to take away from this is that the traditional publication process can take up to two years, not including the time it takes to actually write your book.

Patience is a virtue.

How Long Does it Take to Self-Publish a Novel?

Instead of two years, you could be looking at two months. Assuming that your book is edited and ready to go, you have much more control over how quickly you want your book to hit the shelves. Obviously, there are factors beyond your control, especially if you’re working with multiple companies to design your cover, interior aesthetic, and print physical copieswhich there’s actually no need to do in advance, unless you want to order print copies for your book launch. Otherwise, there’s a wonderful thing now called print-on-demand, so you don’t have to cough up too much money up front to print dozens of copies you may not sell.

By and large, you get to dictate your release date, but that’s not to say that it should be rushed. Make sure to give yourself enough time (at least 2–3 months) to promote your novel before it’s released.

Self-Publishing Can Do (Almost) Everything that Traditional Publishers Can Do

One of the biggest benefits of going the traditional method is the scale of marketing and book distribution. It’s no secret that these big companies can effortlessly get your book into big-box stores, airports, pharmacies, and ebook sites. They can make sure your book is reviewed by major newspapers and book critics. If they deem it worthy of their time, they will push your book as far as possible.

But—and there’s a big but—they often don’t. And if you’re an unknown author, they often won’t. Once your book is out, they’re already moving on to the next release. The reality is that they’re saving their big marketing budgets for their big authors, so besides maybe a shoutout on their social channel, you’re (with the odd exception) on your own when it comes to marketing.

If you publish your book independently, you’ll have to work hard to sell and market your novel, but if you consider that publishers still expect authors to do their own marketing, it becomes a question of, “Well, if I still have to promote my book anyway, what do I need you for?”

Besides international recognition from major newspapers (which can still happen, by the way), self-published authors can do everything traditional publishers can do…without selling their rights.

Indie Publishing Puts More Money in Your Pocket

Let’s talk profit margins. Writing is not a lucrative business. For every Stephen King and JK Rowling out there, there are thousands of hungry authors who can’t afford to write full time. If you decide to go the traditional publishing route, expect to get less than 15% of total book sales. The sales trickle from the book vendors to the publisher to the agent and finally down to you.

That’s right, even though your work is at the centre of all this production and profit, you are the last to get paid.

But let’s not forget your advance! Let’s just say your advance was $8,000. That money was leveraged against future sales of your book, so essentially, you’re paying your publisher back in sales. Once your advance is paid off, only then will you start to make money.

Do Indie Writers Make More Money?

This is a loaded question because the answer really depends. Indie writers, just like writers whose books are published through conventional channels, can make no money at all. Selling books is tough, and even tougher if your story is bad (hey, it happens). But let’s just say you have a real hit on your hands. If we just look at Amazon sales, you could receive up to 70% of profits. Keep in mind that even though you don’t get an advance, you are still starting at a deficit, once you factor in the cost of editing, book cover design, printing, ebook formatting, etc. And if you really want to put your money under a microscope, don’t forget to factor in the cost of your time.

Bottom line: Assuming that your book is good, and you’ve marketed it to the right audience, you’ll make your money back a lot faster and earn higher profit margins than through traditional publishers. By far, indie writers make MUCH more money on the sale of a single book.

…BUT Indie Publishing May Not Be for Everyone

Okay, so we’ve spent a lot of time making a case for indie publishing. The benefits can’t be ignored. And in fact, it’s increasingly becoming a writer’s first choice. But that’s not to say that it’s for everyone. Not all writers have the time, money, or energy to get their books ready for publication. It is a very hands-on process and requires a great deal of effort. If you’re not ready to do that, traditional publishing is perhaps the best thing for you.

If you want critical acclaim with a little slice of fame, you’re more likely to find that through traditional publishing. If you want a Reese’s Book Club sticker on the cover of your book, stick with traditional. That’s not to say that all these things will automatically happen. But you’re more likely to find celebrity endorsements this way.

What About Me?

I hope it doesn’t come as a shock to anyone that I am also a writer. After I completed my book, The Wise One (coming October 2020!), I spent quite a long time weighing the pros and cons of both traditional and indie publishing. In the end, indie publishing won, and I’m so excited to be a part of the publishing process. Stay tuned for more book-release updates!

How are you feeling during the writing process? Need help, extra support, or someone to hold you accountable to your writing goals? Contact me to learn about how novel coaching can help you not only reach your writing goals but make your book the very best version of itself.