When you’re starting out on the book-writing path, the options for publishing can be confusing – should you go the traditional route or self-publish? Which is best? 

The conundrum reminds me of the poem by Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken, which opens with:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, 

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood 

And looked down one as far as I could…

It used to be that traditional publishing was the only way to be taken seriously as an author. But with the advent of Amazon and IngramSpark, and other partner publishers, self-publishing is a legitimate way to get your book out into the world. 

If you’re here reading this, chances are you already have friends and colleagues who are authors. Some of those friends have probably self-published their books, and others have traditionally published their books. You’ve probably heard both success stories and horror stories from both camps, and you’re not sure which way to go when it comes to your own journey to becoming an author. 

So, which road should you take?

The answer depends entirely on what you need as an author, and which method will best serve you. We’ll go through some factors to consider, but first let’s look at a few of the pros and cons of each. 

 

Traditional Pros

  • Traditional publishing still has the panache to which we all aspire. Readers appreciate that there are gatekeepers who, supposedly, exercise taste and discretion as to what makes a good book. 
  • A traditional book deal can have the benefit of providing an advance to offset the costs of writing and marketing books. 
  • You will have the aforementioned gatekeepers to help you with quality control – the end result is a product of many eyes and hands.
  • The potential is higher for wider distribution and media reach, although publishers no longer have exclusivity on distribution (you can now hire a distributor yourself).
  • Media outlets take traditionally published books more seriously.
  • Can make the New York Times best seller list.

 

Traditional Cons

  • Your marketing platform is often more important than your message. If you don’t have thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of followers via social media or email lists, your likelihood of getting a traditional deal plummets. 
  • Advances are not nearly as large as the typical first-time author thinks they are. You have to have serious star power or a well-established name to get an advance in the 6-figure range.
  • Publishers do very little to help market the book, and often are not up-to-speed on current marketing trends (and will not admit that out loud).
  • Editors have very little time and may jump ship in the middle of your project to move up to a new position.
  • From proposal to publishing date, the process takes at least a year, and up to two or three years on average.
  • Your publisher may ask you to shell out the equivalent or more of your advance to ensure your book hits a list or makes the sales they expect.
  • You do not have exclusive creative control. For example, your publisher might decide to veto your opinion when it comes to your cover, and they are not known for their design prowess. Or they might prefer you cut a large portion of the text because it doesn’t fit their vision for the book.
  • You do not have control over the price of the book, nor do you retain a large percentage of the earnings. 

 

Self-Publishing Pros

  • You move at your own pace, at your own discretion. There is no one to stop you from hitting publish right now… or five years from now. 
  • You are completely in control of every element from the cover, to the style, to the content, to the design, to the price, to date of release.
  • You have far more flexibility when it comes to marketing your book and can employ creative ways of doing so. 
  • You retain all of the earnings of the book.  
  • Most authors spend far less on the costs to write, design, edit, print, and market their books than authors who traditionally publish (think anywhere from $10,000 to $60,000 on average, versus $100,000 to $400,000, on average).

 

Self-Publishing Cons

  • You move at your own pace, at your own discretion. There is no one to stop you from hitting publish right now… or five years from now. (yes, this is also a con). 
  • Less built-in oversight, which means you are the final stop when it comes to making sure you’re putting out solid work. 
  • Some industries and audiences still look down on self-published books.
  • You will be ineligible for the NYT bestselling lists, because they don’t look at self-published books, no matter how many you sell.
  • Having a previously self-published book *could* hurt your chances of securing a traditional book deal for a later book.

 

Taking all of these factors into consideration, you need to then ask yourself a series of questions:

 

Do you want to make it on a best-seller list?

First, you need to consider whether you have dreams of making it on a list. Now, this is really a vanity metric for all intents and purposes, and is way out of the league of possibility for most authors, but we need to discuss it because so many authors dream of achieving this feat. 

If you want to make a list, and you can’t possibly be talked out of it, you most likely have to traditionally publish, and you need to be ready to invest thousands of dollars into the marketing of your book in order to get it on a list. The Wall Street Journal and USA Today will allow self-published books onto their lists, but the New York Times will not.  

A word on what it means to be a bestseller. “Bestseller” means many things to many people. Traditionally, we think of the major bestseller lists, but the term is used so frequently now that it’s hard to discern what people mean when they claim their book is a bestseller. If you do five minutes of online research, you can easily see that maneuvering a book onto an Amazon bestseller can be fairly easy. I’ll address both kinds of bestsellers. 

After working with dozens of authors who have spent millions of dollars (not an exaggeration) to get on the NYT bestseller list, I’ve come to the conclusion that aiming for this list is not really a goal – it’s a dream. A goal has quantifiable steps that can take you where you want to go. A dream depends on a fair amount of luck and the fulfillment of factors outside of your control. In the case of the NYT list, it’s not just about getting 10,000 to 15,000 book sales within the first week and then sustaining at least 5,000 sales per week following the launch. It’s about getting the attention of the editors and meeting their subjective criteria – which changes all the time. 

As for getting on an Amazon bestseller list – go for it. It’s not a bad goal, and for the most part you can orchestrate the accomplishment of it. Just know that it’s largely a vanity metric. It doesn’t typically lead to more sales. 

 

Does your audience care how the book is published? 

Consider the audience that will read your book. If your audience looks down on self-published books (and you need to consider whether they would even notice that it’s self-published), then you may need to go the traditional route. 

Here’s one example where this is relevant. I had a client who is a professional speaker and demands rates of $30,000 for a keynote. His audience is a wide range of people, but one of his primary audiences as far as his speaking business is concerned is meeting organizers and event planners. That particular audience does care about a traditionally published book. Why? Because the kinds of planners who have budgets that large are those who work for Fortune 500 and 100 and 50 companies, typically. And they care about the cache of the book. Furthermore, they care a lot about lists… so, yes, he needs a traditionally published book.

Let’s look at another example. Let’s say you’re a marketer, and you’re known for being somewhat of a trendsetter. Let’s say your audience is primarily made up of other marketers. Let’s say you self-publish your book and come up with a creative way to design, package, and sell your book that wouldn’t have been possible had you traditionally published. Do you think your audience would care that it isn’t traditionally published? Quite the opposite – it might even work in your favor, because that particular audience likes to buck the system and push the edge. They like the idea of a maverick thumbing their nose at the establishment. 

 

Do you like to have creative control?

You need to consider how much creative control you’re willing to give up. Some authors are thrilled at the idea of a team of professionals at a publishing house giving their best opinion to make the book shine. That’s the ideal. And sometimes you get that, but remember, you don’t get to choose that team of professionals. You get to choose your editor, and after that the designer, copyeditor, and everyone else just come along with the package deal. The pros are that you don’t have to deal with finding and selecting these people, you don’t have to hire someone to handle the layout or design, you’re not fielding the costs for a good book cover yourself, and they take care of the printing. The con is that you might not like their work at all. It’s great when it works out, but when it doesn’t, it can make an author regret ever having signed a deal in the first place. 

 

What’s your timeline?

As I mentioned above, traditional publishing takes much longer when it comes to getting a publish date for your book. When you factor in two to three months for writing the proposal, and then another two to three months for shopping it around and securing a book deal, you’re already six months in. Then you factor in six to twelve months for writing the book, and then add on two months more for production (getting it typeset and printed), you’re looking at about a year and a half to two years before your book hits the store. If you’re cool with that timeline, then that’s great. But if you’re looking to write a book in the next year so that you can capitalize on a major industry conference you’re speaking at, you’ll need to seriously consider self-publishing.  

 

How much are you willing to pay to get your book published? 

While you might get an advance from a publisher, that’s not just “free money” with which you get to play and support yourself. They expect you to plow that much and more right back into marketing for the book. When you self-publish, all of the costs of production and marketing are on you. When you traditionally publish, you still pay for the marketing, and your publisher will have very high expectations of you – they want their advance to be paid back, after all. This means they expect you to invest a healthy amount of money (think multiples of your advance) into your marketing. If you self publish, you decide what you’re willing to pay, and when. 

 

For the majority of the clients who work with me, self-publishing is the best way to go. It’s far more economical, it gives authors the freedom of creative control, and it gives them the ability to take as much or as little time as they need to write it. Traditional publishing is not for the faint of heart and demands an extraordinary amount of time and energy and investment.

But it’s really only you who can decide which path is better for you and your book. If you’ve dreamed of a traditionally published book all your life, even though you have the business sense to know that self-publishing is a more efficient way to go, your heart probably won’t be happy unless you give it a try. The good news is, you can always try for traditional publishing and if you don’t get a deal, self-publish your own book. In this case, it’s not a matter of choosing one road, nor is it required that you choose the road less traveled. No one is stopping you from taking a chance at both roads.