Traditional vs Independent (i.e. “Self”) Publishing

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Choosing the right path for you.

To start off, I have to say that I’ve never liked the ambiguity surrounding the term “self-publishing.” It can be used for someone who published their fanfiction online (see E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey) or for critically-acclaimed work (Margaret Atwood’s Double Persephone and Andy Weir’s The Martian). An author could hire an editor, a proofreader, beta readers, and a marketing agent, and that author could still be described as self-published. In reality, self publishing is independent publishing.

The term, “independent publishing” invokes a sense of purpose and drive. To be independently published could mean using an online platform like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) or it could mean approaching a small publishing house, many of which are also non-profits. Transitioning to calling this route independent publishing is crucial: more and more books are being published through online services and calling it “self-published” seeks to diminish the book and author. With this distinction clear, we can discuss which route, traditional versus independent, is right for you.

It’s not a question of which route is better. Traditional publishing houses like the Big Five (Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan) have earned their place in book publishing. They publish about 80% of the books released in the US every year. But being an author for such large companies comes at a cost, financially and otherwise.

As a first-time author, it would be nearly impossible to get from the stack of manuscripts onto an editor’s desk at a place like the Big Five. They receive thousands of manuscripts and simply don’t have the manpower to get through each one in a timely manner, so unless you know people on the inside, you’re likely to remain in that stack for years, unnoticed. You will often have to go through the process of querying numerous literary agents to represent you, and they may or may not even respond. It’s a frustrating and demoralizing process that many authors find themselves trapped in.

If by some turn of fate, someone ends up reading your work, you often have to agree to giving up a certain amount of creative control. Your book is being published under their name and their brand, so they’ll take steps to make sure your book fits their needs. Because they’re so well established, traditional publishers will typically cover the costs of all of the publishing details (cover design, printing, etc.), which can be a relief for many authors. Along with that, you’ll get an advance, though you have to earn back that advance through books sales. You do benefit from having a well-known publisher’s name on your book, but beyond that, the majority of the marketing responsibilities fall on you.

The same is often true for independent publishing. Without the name of a big publisher to carry you through, you have to work harder to market yourself and reach your audience. But while you’re responsible for the marketing, you’re also the deciding voice on how you’re being presented, what your book’s cover and title are, etc. You maintain creative control and if you’re with an independent publishing house, you often get a whole team to support you through the process. Independent publishing costs more up front, but it also gets you higher royalties, running from 30%-70% per book sale, even as a new author. 

The internet has created more opportunities for publishing than ever before. While everyone has the access to become a published author, the writing and publishing processes with independent publishing still require the same level of commitment as they do with traditional publishing. 

So whether you choose traditional or independent publishing to represent your book and brand, remind yourself of your goal: to get your expertise out there!