Self-Publish or Traditional?

The inception of self-publishing created an “earthquake” in the traditional publishing world. Over the past years, publishing houses have been forced to merge or close until there are five major corporations—more on this later—that control the majority of what is now traditional publishing. While many writers still feel they want to be published by a traditional house, even more want to blaze their own path with self-publishing. How do you know which one is right for you? In our ongoing commitment to educate authors, through the next series of blogs we are going to look at both publishing routes, and the commitment needed from the author.

Traditional publishing

If you want to enter the traditional publishing world, you must complete your manuscript, write a query letter or a book proposal, then submit these documents to a publishing house of your choosing. However, before submitting any documents, be sure to read the publisher’s website for specific guidelines. It will take at least a few weeks, but an editor will review your work, determine whether it is right for their house, and ultimately decide to accept or reject it. If the publishing house accepts your work, the house will send you a contract stipulating they will own the rights, and the term of any advance payment on future royalties. The publishing house will then work with you to create the final print ready manuscript and put money—up to $50,000 for most books and much more if the house feels the book will sell well—into designing and marketing the book.


With self-publishing, the author doesn’t need a query letter or book proposal. He/she only needs a complete manuscript ready for printing. The author can choose to work with a team of editors and proofreaders to perfect their work, or simply say, “Here is what I want to publish.” However, he/she is ultimately responsible for the final content of their book.

With traditional publishing, an author may have to pitch a manuscript to several houses before their work is reviewed. The review process can take up to six months, due to an editor working through what is called the “slush pile.” As well, almost all traditional houses now use literary agents as “gatekeepers.” The agent determines if your work is ready for publishing house review. If so, the agent will contact those he/she feels are the best fit. If not, the agent may send you a nice “rejection letter” or may choose to work with you to get your manuscript ready for review. Whether you go it alone or work with an agent, if your manuscript is rejected, the process must be started again with other publishing houses. (Note that some house accept multiple submissions.) Once a manuscript it accepted, it can take nine months to two years for a manuscript to finally become a published book …That’s a lot of waiting! So you need to decide if this type of time commitment is worth it to you.

Self-publishing has considerably shortened the time to finish a book. Whether hard or softcover, you can have books in hand and on sale to the public in a few weeks or months, depending on the work needed. As well, eBook publishing can reduce your publishing time to a month or less. No matter what form of self-publishing you choose, you maintain control of your work. However, you must also consider a marketing plan—something we’ll cover in future blogs—or else your book will be one of about 1,000,000 books that are published each year in the USA alone, and you’ll wonder why no one is buying your book!

Controlling the Costs

You’ve given a lot of thought to the time involved in publishing your book; now let’s look at some of the costs.

If you’re fortunate enough to be picked up by a traditional publishing house, you may think your monetary commitment is over. Not so. One of the main deciding factors in a publishing house’s decision is whether or not you are “marketable.” What they want to know is: Do you have a platform? Do you have a blog? A following or your own tribe? Are you a speaker or other public figure? A traditional house is looking for a “complete package” author—an author they can partner with, not someone who is going to leave all the work to the house.

Marketing is also paramount in the self-publishing world. You may have a great book, but if no one knows about it, your work will never sell. While there are word-of-mouth exceptions to this, 99 percent of books need a marketing platform. Yes, we’ll discuss marketing in a future blog.

With traditional houses, you won’t have to pay for editing, proofreading, galleys, etc., and you’ll be given a certain number of free copies of your book. However, you’ll also have to pay for any others you want at a wholesale price.

In the self-publishing world, the author bears the costs of producing their book—from editing and proofreading, to layout and cover design and printing. This can range from around $1000 for an eBook to several thousands, depending on the amount of work your manuscript needs. However, this also gives the author complete control over the content, style, length, and other important book-related factors, and these are given over to a traditional house, once a contract is signed. Today’s authors also want to control their own destiny. A book is considered the new “business card,” making the author an expert in their field, which will help drive sales in their market. Others, such as fiction writers, are very talented and want to establish their own market niche.

Traditional Publishing House Advances and Royalties…

If you’ve braved the long road to traditional publishing and have been given a contract, we wholeheartedly congratulate you! However, the publishing house you signed with may not have explained exactly how you get paid. So we are here to help.

The word “royalties” is the one most commonly used when talking about author profits. However, traditional houses use the term “advance.” This means that the author is given an “advance against royalties.” What does this mean? You will be paid a certain number of dollars in advance of book sales. Once your book starts selling, the house will keep all royalties earned on your book until your advance is covered. While you will have your money upfront, you won’t get another dime until the house makes its money back.

First time authors typically receive $5,000 to $15,000 as an advance. This might be split in one-third payments, depending on the contract. Once your book starts to sell, you are “credited” with a percentage pay, anywhere from 7.5 to 15 percent. Here is a simplified look. Let’s say you were given an advance of $5,000, your book sells for $20, and your contract stipulates a 10 percent royalty. For every book sold, you earn $2 that goes “against” your advance. If you sell one book, then your “advance credit” drops to $4998. The more books you sell, the lower your advance credit. In this scenario, your book will need to sell 4500 copies before you break even, and start earning an actual royalty. Here are some other points to keep in mind:

Royalties vary depending on the type of book. Hardcovers earn higher royalties than softcovers, and softcovers earn more than trade paperbacks.

As long as you deliver what is expected in your contract, the advance you are given is guaranteed. The traditional house is willing to take the risk, and if your book doesn’t sell enough copies to cover all costs, you don’t have to pay your advance back. However, make sure this is part of your contract! There are unscrupulous companies out there, and you need to protect yourself.

You might think the traditional house is going to make a killing on your book. However, statistics show that the book averages 250-300 sales per year, and about 3,000 sales over its lifetime. Traditional houses know this and negotiate advances accordingly.

Until next time,

The AuthorSource


Get published.

Be heard.