Well, hello there, and welcome to this first Ask Me Anything for authors. I had an absolutely cracking question submitted, so thank you very much for that! You can read the post or listen to the audio version here.
And the question is,
Which do you think is best self publishing or finding a publisher? I’ve heard pros and cons for both. So I’m a bit confused.
And yes, indeed, there are pros and cons for both of them so I can understand why you would ask the question. Now, obviously, in all interests of transparency, I’ve never gotten published by using an agent however, I have had experiences with independent publishers so I will include that within my answers, and I do also know plenty of authors who are traditionally published and love it!
But we’re going to go through the pros and cons and hopefully, you’ll be able to decide for yourself which suits you and your circumstances best.
Pros of Self-Publishing
So the primary pro of self-publishing in my view is that you have complete control over the process. You get to choose who your cover artist is, what the cover looks like, who your editor is, what your marketing strategy looks like, and how much you want to charge. And also crucially, you get access to everything at the back end. That means things like the Amazon dashboard, the metadata, which includes your blurb and keywords, and so on.
If you decide that you want to run a promotion, you don’t need to ask anyone’s permission. You just go ahead and make the changes.
I know one of the problems that I had when I had a couple of books with small publishers, was it became apparent that one of the books was in the wrong category on Amazon. That meant having to approach the publisher and wait for them to change it, meaning I could potentially be losing sales if people are browsing the category I wanted to be in…and I wasn’t in it.
Perhaps the biggest pro for most self-published authors is that your royalties come straight to you. You don’t have to wait until they hit a certain limit, or it’s a particular point in the publishing year. Some publishers might only pay once a year, others might pay once a month—that all depends on the publisher.
Cons of Self-Publishing
But this is also where we get into the cons of self-publishing because you become liable for all costs. Everything comes out of your pocket, whether that’s the cover design, the editing, the formatting, or the ads you run. I should point out that you can absolutely learn how to do your own formatting, but unless you’re a graphic designer, you should really outsource your cover to someone who knows what they’re doing. Editing is an absolute must to make sure that the book is going to be readable. We can get into choosing an editor another time!
But you have to pay for everything up front in the hope that you will then recoup those costs down the line by selling books.
The other con is that in order to sell books, you have to build your platform yourself.
Now, it should be noted that is indeed something that you would also have to do, were you to go down a traditional route. And this is one of the big points that I want to make because I’ve often heard this among the writers in my writing group that they want to get a traditional publisher so that they can access that publisher’s contacts and that publisher can get them into bookstores, and that publisher can do all the marketing. And while yes, they can get you into bookstores, a lot of publishers won’t spend a huge amount of money on marketing a brand new book. You will be expected to market it yourself and then they’ll spend more on you once you’ve sold enough copies of the first one to show you’re a bankable writer. Nobody really pays attention to who the publisher is on a book now, so the only cache you get with being with a publisher is being included on their website or in their publicity.
So to sum up, while yes, you have to pay for everything yourself upfront with self-publishing, if you think that you are going to recoup those costs or indeed you have some means of offsetting the cost or at least doing things on a budget, then it might be worth considering.
Pros of Traditional Publishing
So that being said, what are the pros and cons of having a publisher? Well, first of all, it’s not just a question of you simply contacting Random House and saying “would you like my book?” Unless you’re submitting your book to one of the smaller presses during one of their open submissions window, you have to go through the process of getting an agent first. So you’ve immediately got that extra step of shopping your book around agents, and then they will hopefully sell your book to a publisher. Now the advantage that you have there is the agent is obviously well versed in contracts and so on in order to get you the best deal that they can with that publisher. They work as your advocate, but it is that extra level of difficulty to try and actually find an agent who will take you on in the first place.
There are of course small presses where you can approach them directly, or they might approach you (which is what happened with me). If someone approaches you and asks you to pay them, AVOID. They’re a vanity press, not a publisher.
But for reputable small presses, you can then contact them yourself, having researched which presses would be a good fit for your book. They’ll all have different submission processes so be sure to follow what they ask for.
Another one of the pros of traditional publishing is the fact that you don’t have to pay for anything upfront. They cover the costs and production process, which can remove a few elements of the publishing journey for you. You’re dealing with professionals who can handle all the cover design, formatting, editing etc. because they know what they’re doing and they’ve been selling books for years.
It does obviously mean that you then might end up with a cover that you don’t like and you can’t do anything about that because it fits a trend, but at least you haven’t had to organise having all of that done yourself. It does also mean as well that if you do go to the publisher, and you do sell well, then obviously you can obviously then continue with them in future if you like.
Traditional publishing can be a good way to get yourself established, and in non-fiction, being with a traditional publisher is a good way to earn credibility too.
Cons of Traditional Publishing
The downside of traditional publishing is that the amount that you will get in royalties is substantially less than you could potentially get by self-publishing. So for example, if you self publish with Amazon and you sell your book for £2.99 or more, at the moment, you’re able to get 70% of that back in royalties from Amazon. If you’re using a traditional publisher, you might only get a tiny fraction of the royalties back because they have to recoup all the costs of what they’ve spent on your book. So it may well be you may not even get an advance depending on your contracts, and if you do, you need to sell enough copies of your book to repay the advance before you start seeing any royalties.
You’ve got to sell a lot more books with a traditionally published book in order to see the same money back that you would with self-publishing. And while yes, you do then have routes into book shops a lot more easily, there are also ways of doing that with self-publishing since distribution has become a lot easier. Also, if your book does suddenly pick up and people take an interest, then you may then get a bigger marketing campaign off the back of it. But that’s not a guarantee anymore for brand new unpublished without a track record of success.
And as I intimated earlier, a con to traditional publishing is the lack of control over the process. I’ve heard all sorts of things where publishers have decided to put blonde characters on the cover, but in the book, they’re described as a brunette. Rather than changing the cover, it’s cheaper to force the writer to change the writing to match the cover.
I’ve also heard horror stories of publishers wanting to entirely rewrite whole books because they wanted the concept but not the book itself. So you even lose control over your creative product. That’s less of an issue with a smaller publisher where you’ll have more chance of collaboration, but if you want a lot of control over the end product, then really, self-publishing offers more flexibility.
And therein lies the dilemma. How much of the control are you willing to or happy to hand over to somebody else? If you’re happy for someone else to do as much as possible, then try and find an agent and go down to the traditionally published route. If you want to have a good degree of control over what you’re doing, then I would say go down the self-publishing route.
Yes, it can be hard to learn how advertising works. Yes, it can be hard to learn how the marketing side of things can work. But you can learn them.
Mark Dawson is opening up his Self Publishing 101 course again soon, which I actually became an affiliate for because it was so comprehensive and taught me a lot about how to self publish (saving me from making a lot of silly mistakes). But I highly recommend it because it covers everything you need to know and it’s regularly updated. You can check out the course here.
And remember, you’ll need to do a lot of the marketing yourself even if you choose traditional publishing. Gone are the days when a writer could just write a book and be a recluse and never be seen.
If you really stuck between which one to go for there is a hybrid solution and that is to try self-publishing one book. Invest in a good editor, and then see if you can find a designer at a local college who was looking to build their portfolio, get them to do the cover for you, obviously for either a nominal fee or indeed they might not charge anything if it’s a portfolio piece for them. You’ll be much more collaborative with them but they’ll have better ideas about typography and graphics than you will, unless you’re a trained designer.
You can code the ebook yourself using the free tool on Reedsy’s website, and you can hire people to do the interior of your book if you want to do a paperback. You can even hire me because that’s something I do myself!
But you can learn all the platform-building stuff yourself, and put your book out to see how it performs. We can talk about platform-building in a future AMA if you want to know more about that.
If you then end up with a decent number of sales off the back of the book, or indeed you’ve simply built a good platform, then when you go to an agent you can show them your sales figures or platform too. An agent is more likely to take someone on who already has that platform than someone who hasn’t and is completely new with the whole thing.
You might decide you enjoy the self-publishing process, so you just keep doing that, or you may hate it, in which case you might decide to go with the traditional publisher.
So ultimately, self-publishing pros are you have more control over the process and can earn more, but it’s more expensive to create the book upfront.
Traditional publishing has the advantage of lower upfront costs, but less control and lower royalties.
I hope that was helpful! If anyone has any follow up questions or would like to know more about any of these things that I’ve mentioned, please do feel free to ask another question using the link in the email!
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