To Self-Publish or Traditionally Publish: Vital Insights You Must Know

A Writer’s Dream: Your Published Book

As a teenager, plotting my fiction series and dreaming of being a published author one day, no one was asking whether to self-publish or traditionally publish a book.

You would order your copy of Writer’s Market or Christian Writer’s Market Guide for that year, and comb through listings of traditional publishers to find one that might accept your unsolicited manuscript. If you had high hopes of becoming a famous author, you would get the Guide to Literary Agents and start writing your query letter.

Fast forward to 2019: my unfinished novels were stored in the basement, but my inspirational self-help book was ready for the editing stage. I scrolled through bunny trails of a Google search discovering a new era had dawned in the publishing industry.

E-books saturated the book industry–but had not overruled print books like everyone had been warned. Traditional publishing worked well for the elite but seemed inaccessible to newbie authors without much of a following or platform. Self-publishing had gained popularity because of its accessibility. And while the market was flooded of low-calibre books, many self-published authors had figured out their paths to success.

Now that I knew some viable options, I faced the dreaded fate (at least for this author of Dare to Decide): making the best decision for my book and my future as an author.

Who Should Pay for Your Book?

With over 80% of the world wanting to write a book one day (or so elusive stats say), hurdles frustrated aspiring writers who wandered around the self publishing vs traditional publishing dilemma.

What gets more confusing is all the opinions floating around on who should pay for the production, printing, distribution and marketing–and risk–of an author’s book:

  • “A writer should not have to pay to get a book published. If you have to pay, it’s a scam.”
  • “Traditional publishing is the way to go because they’ll take care of the editing, publishing and get your book in bookstores.”
  • “Self-publishing gives you the best creative control and highest royalties.”

The problem with asking questions is that you’ll find answers to the questions you ask–but not necessarily the insights and information you need. So a wise author will ask, “What questions will give me the answers I truly need?”


What Are the Best Options for Publishing and Distributing My Book?

Times in the book and publishing industry are changing more quickly than ever, because of influences such as the pandemic, #booktok, AI, and constantly shifting trends. Even terms and methods of producing, printing, and distributing books have many nuances now.

It’s more important than ever as an author to do your research, know your reputable, effective options and understand what industry strategies and trends are working for your genre and goals.

And what’s the deal with all the different terms for the various publishing path options available? Here are a few you may have seen: subsidy publisher, vanity publisher, author-assisted publishing, assisted self-publishing, big-5 publishing, publishing house, hybrid press, self publishing companies, partnership publishing, indie publishing, independent press, team publishing—and probably more.

So, how do you decide who should produce and pay for YOUR book? Here are your current top options worth considering:

  • Pursue a book deal with a major publisher or small press
  • Seek a hybrid publisher
  • Hire a team to manage the self-publishing process for you
  • Manage the project yourself by self-publishing

In trade or traditional publishing, the publisher assumes all publishing costs and pays the author an advance and royalties, handling everything from editing to marketing and distribution. It’s okay for them to pay — they’re taking the risk that your book will pay off.

With self-publishing, where the author takes on the financial responsibility and control of the entire process, from production to promotion. This can be a DIY approach, outsourcing each task individually, or hiring a self publishing company or service. It’s okay for you to pay, because you’re assuming the risk and complete control of the process.

Hybrid publishing falls in between these models, combining elements of both: authors subsidize publishing costs while benefiting from the professional services and distribution channels typical of traditional publishers. It’s okay for you both to pay, as you’re both taking some of the production costs, risks and control.

Let’s look at the distinctives, pros and cons of each of these options to help you make the best decisions for your goals.

A Comparison: Traditional Publisher vs Hybrid Publisher vs Self Publishing vs Full Service Author Support

Here’s a detailed breakdown of traditional publishing in contrast to author-assisted publishing, focusing on key areas to consider, such as key areas such as ownership, transparency, creative input, reputation, book presentation, speed to market, distribution, royalties, and promotion.

Ownership

  • Traditional Publishing House: In trade publishing, the publisher typically acquires the rights to your content and they own the ISBN. They manage and control the publishing process, including decisions on editing, cover design, and marketing strategies.
  • Hybrid Publishing: With hybrid-publishing, ownership is typically shared or varies by contract. You invest in the publishing process, which gives you a significant say, but the publisher also has some rights and responsibilities. Usually, your book is published under their imprint.
  • Author-Assisted Publishing: With author-assisted publishing, you retain full ownership and control of your content, ISBN and publishing accounts. Your can even publish under your own imprint (publishing name) so that it looks like a professional publisher. You are the driving force behind every decision, so you pay for the services you need to help you with each step.
  • Self-Publishing: Similar to author-assisted publishing or team publishing, except you are doing most of the task yourself.

Transparency

  • Traditional Publishing: The process is less transparent, possibly depending on the size of the press or publishing house. Decisions are often made behind the scenes, and authors may not always be privy to the details or rationale behind them.
  • Team or Author-Assisted Publishing: There is a higher level of transparency, as you are directly involved in all aspects of the process. If a publishing or editing coach is part of the team, they might offer in-depth industry context so you understand why and how certain process impact the success of your book. You see and approve every step, from editing to distribution.
  • Self-Publishing: The process is entirely transparent since you oversee and manage all aspects. You are aware of every decision and cost involved.
  • Hybrid Publishing: Transparency varies. Reputable hybrid publishers offer clear contracts and detailed information about the process and costs, but some may not.

Creative Input

  • Traditional Publishing: Creative input is shared. While the publisher’s team will provide expert advice and make many decisions, your voice is still important, though sometimes secondary to market demands.
  • Hybrid Publishing: Creative input is collaborative. You work closely with the publisher, combining your vision with their expertise. You have significant input, but they guide the process.
  • Team or Author-Assisted Publishing: You have complete creative control. Every aspect, from the manuscript to the cover design, is guided by your vision and preferences, however, you can give your team more responsibility to relieve you from decision fatigue.
  • Self-Publishing: You have complete creative control. You make all decisions regarding content, design, and marketing based on your vision and preferences.

Reputation

  • Traditional Publishing: Traditional publishers often have established reputations and credibility, which can enhance your book’s prestige and visibility in the market.
  • Hybrid Publishing: Reputation depends on the publisher. Some hybrid publishers are highly reputable and offer substantial credibility, while others may not have the same level of recognition.
  • Author-Assisted Publishing: Reputation is built by the authors, and can be influenced by the service providers you choose. Some may have excellent credentials or clout in your niche, while others might not be as recognized. Some may excel in leveraging your strengths and platform to enhance your reputation through collaborations.
  • Self-Publishing: Reputation is built by the author. High-quality self-published books can gain credibility, but it often requires significant effort in marketing and establishing a personal brand.

Book Presentation

  • Traditional Publishing: Books produced by traditional publishers generally have high production standards, including professional editing, design, and formatting, resulting in a polished final product.
  • Hybrid Publishing: Typically offers high-quality production values similar to traditional publishing, combining professional services with your involvement in the process.
  • Author-Assisted Publishing: Quality can be equally high, but it depends on the services you select and your budget. You have the opportunity to hire top-notch professionals for each stage and task in your book production.
  • Self-Publishing: Quality varies based on your choices. You can learn how to do it yourself and be okay with a lesser quality or the extensive time it takes, or you can hire professional services for editing, design, and/or formatting to achieve high production values.

Speed to Market

  • Traditional Publishing: The timeline is lengthy, often taking 18 months to two years from manuscript acceptance to publication. This is because of the rigorous process of editing, design, marketing, and scheduling. In addition, authors can often spend years securing an agent and/or researching and sending off query letters, and waiting for editors to select their manuscript from their pile to read.
  • Hybrid Publishing: Faster than traditional publishing but slower than self-publishing. The timeline is collaborative, balancing professional processes with your input.
  • Author-Assisted Publishing: You can typically publish much faster, sometimes in a matter of months, since you control the timeline and can move things along at the pace of you and your team.
  • Self-Publishing: You control the timeline, allowing for a much faster process. New authors navigating the process often take a year or two, underestimating the time and involvement it takes to invest in the quality and skills needed. You can publish within months, depending on how quickly you learn and manage the stages.

Distribution

  • Traditional Publishing: Traditional publishers have extensive distribution networks, ensuring that your book is available in physical bookstores, online retailers, and often internationally.
  • Hybrid Publishing: Offers a mix of distribution options. Reputable hybrid publishers have access to major online retailers and some physical bookstore distribution.
  • Author-Assisted Publishing: Distribution can be more limited but is improving. Many author-assisted services know strategies for effective distribution through major online retailers, and some also have strategies for physical bookstore placement. Selling directly to readers through the author’s website is increasing in effectiveness and popularity.
  • Self-Publishing: Distribution is managed by you, with options for accessing online retailers worldwide and print-on-demand services. Physical bookstore and library placement can be challenging but not impossible.

Costs, Risks and Royalties

  • Traditional Publishing: Authors receive royalties, but they are often lower because the publisher absorbs the costs and risks. Advances against royalties are common, but must be earned out before additional payments.
  • Hybrid Publishing: Royalties authors receive are usually higher than traditional publishing but lower than self-publishing. You and the hybrid publisher share in the costs and profits, and terms vary by contract.
  • Author-Assisted Publishing: Royalties for authors are higher since you’ve invested in the publishing process. You keep a larger share of the profits from each sale. There’s no advance, so often authors will fund their book project through crowdfunding or making their book a part of their business strategy.
  • Self-Publishing: Higher royalties since you bear the costs and risks. You keep a larger share of the profits from each sale. Of course you receive no advance, which is why some authors research grant options or initiate a crowdfunding initiative.

Promotion + Marketing

  • Traditional Publishing: While publishers often have dedicated marketing teams and established media contacts to help promote your book. authors are still expected to be actively involved in their own marketing. Their involvement can be directly related to the amount of advance you receive and the success of the book during the first few months of its release.
  • Hybrid Publishing: Combines professional marketing services with your involvement. Reputable hybrid publishers provide marketing support, but you also play a key role in promotion.
  • Author-Assisted Publishing: Marketing is primarily your responsibility, though you can hire professionals to assist. Some author-assisted services offer marketing packages, and the effectiveness can vary depending on their methods, connections, and knowledge of current trends that are working in your genre.
  • Self-Publishing: Marketing is entirely your responsibility. You can hire professionals, but the success of promotion depends on your efforts and strategies.

In summary, traditional and hybrid models offer a comprehensive, professional path with established credibility and support, but less control and slower timelines. Author-assisted and self publishing models give you more control, potential for faster publication, and potentially higher earnings, so it requires an investment of time, money, and effort on your part. Each path has unique benefits and challenges, so it’s important to choose the one that best fits your goals and resources.

Writer Beware: Vanity Publishing

The path from writing a book to marketing a published book is difficult. Because of overwhelm and ignorance, many writers get excited when a ‘publisher’ offers to publish their book and they don’t have to jump through a bunch of hoops to do so. Unfortunately, many fall victim to vanity publishing scams. They have high hopes for their book and vanity presses can prey on their hopes and dreams by over-promising and under-delivering. Authors might be so thrilled about the promised results that they ignore or misunderstand the fine print, or they just don’t know how to discern their options.

Though vanity presses get a bad rap, not all vanity presses could be scams. However are they the wisest use of your money for what you get and what you’ll still need to learn as a new author?

Here’s a breakdown of key concerns with vanity presses:

  1. Ownership, Royalties, Costs: The vanity press usually owns the rights, ISBN and publishing account access to your book. Authors bear the full cost and control of editing, design, printing, and marketing expenses, and usually the risks. Plus the vanity publishers collect the royalties and are supposed to pass them on to you, but that exchange can get sketchy.
  2. Reputation: Vanity publishing sometimes carries a negative stigma, as it is often associated with lower-quality books or a reputation for spotty communication and shoddy quality once your money is received. Many are involved in lawsuits by disgruntled authors.
  3. Accessibility and Speed to Market: Vanity publishing can be much faster than traditional publishing, often because they aren’t selective in who they work with, and they aren’t as rigorous in their editorial guidance or production.
  4. Book Presentation: Many vanity presses do not provide high-quality services. Poor editing, design, or marketing can impact the success and reception of your book.
  5. Distribution: Distribution channels might be limited or not maintained, making it harder to reach a wide audience or keep up with current marketing keywords and trends.
  6. Examples of Vanity Publishers to Avoid: You can find a full guide to vetted publishing services companies at the Alliance of Independent Authors but some of the vanity presses currently red-flagged on their list include: Xlibris, iUniverse, Abbot Press, Archway Publishing, Author Solutions, Balboa Press, AuthorHouse, WestBow Press.

Instead of paying the substantial fees of a vanity press for a less-than-ideal outcome, it would be more beneficial for an author to invest in a publishing package that will not only help produce a quality book but teach and coach them through the process that equips them to write, market and sell their book.

Conclusion: To Self-Publish or Traditionally Publish?

Choosing who should publish and pay for your book’s production and marketing involves understanding key factors like ownership, transparency, creative input, reputation, book presentation, speed to market, distribution, royalties, and promotion.

As you understand your options, assess your book’s potential, and carefully weigh your goals and resources, you’ll be equipped to make the best decision for your book’s success.

What questions does this bring up for you and your book idea?

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