Should You Self-Publish Or Traditionally Publish?

by | Jul 20, 2020 | Goals, Inspire, Publishing

For a long time, there was a stigma around self-published books, as it was perceived their quality was inferior to those published through a publisher. And that may have been true 5-10 years ago. It no longer is.

Today it’s easier than ever to self-publish and harder to get past the publishing Gatekeeper, but that doesn’t make one option better than the other; that depends on the end goal you have for your book.

Technology has enabled the Indie author (one who self-publishes) to create quality books which, if done right, have little distinction from their traditionally published counterparts.

There are still a few noticeable differences between the traditional publishing route (Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, etc.) and self-publishing (CreateSpace, Lulu, Draft to Digital, etc.). These need to be considered before making your choice.

Turn Around Time

The first is how long it takes to publish the book from the time you start writing to when it’s available to buy. With traditional publishers, the process takes about 18 months to 2 years. Self-publishing allows you to have your book available for sale within a few days of completion.

Royalty Advance

One thing that self-publishing doesn’t offer that traditional publishers do is the royalty advance. This is the payment you receive from the publisher when you sign a contract. The amount received varies from author to author depending on your saleability and experience.

Many authors fail to understand the royalty advance is to cover marketing costs for your book. Publishers are in the game of publishing not marketing. Most have no idea how to market books. That’s something you still have to do yourself no matter which route you take unless you’re a big-name author – J K Rowling, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, James Patterson, Dan Brown etc.

In many cases, the royalty cheque may be the only money you receive for your book.

Your share of the profits from any sales, often around 10-25%, are deducted from the royalty advance. Only after the book sales have surpassed this amount will you start receiving any more money. For most authors, this never happens.

The profits retained by the author for self-published books often range from 30-70%. This, of course, is only realised when a book sells.

Publishing Process

With a traditional publisher, your only responsibility is to write your book according to their deadlines. Once it’s submitted, they take care of everything else – editing, book cover, review quotes, and distribution. You’ll also be required to make any revisions according to their editors. 

As an Indie Author, you’re responsible for organising every step of the publishing process. You may do some or all of these yourself (although not recommended) or engage the services of professionals for some of the more technical aspects (the better option).

The upfront costs of self-publishing are higher, but you retain more control and profits from your book. You also have the final say, unlike with a publisher.


To me, this is the most crucial difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing. While there is room to negotiate a contract with a publisher, it’s stacked heavily in their favour.

Personally, I would only really consider giving a publisher foreign rights to have my book translated into other languages as they have access to resources I don’t.

If you’re considering signing one of these contracts, seek legal advice first to understand exactly what you’re giving up.

When you self-publish, you keep all the rights. A publishing contract allows the publisher to retain some or all of the following rights:

  • Intellectual Property/Copyright – the person who wrote the book is the one who usually holds this. If your publishing agreement states the publisher owns the copyright it means you can’t do anything with your book without permission from the publisher, including put it on your website, give away free copies etc.
  • Distribution Channels – these cover which outlets can sell your book and in which countries.
  • Foreign Rights – these are when your book gets translated into another language
  • Format Rights – these pertain to the ownership of the different types of formats available for your book – eBook, paperback, hardcover, and audio versions.
  • Adaptation Rights – who makes the decision and retains the majority of the profits if Hollywood or Broadway come knocking and want to turn your book into a movie or play.

Publishing contracts aren’t necessarily a bad thing. You just need to be aware of what you’re signing away so you can protect your interests. Before signing, ensure the contract has an end date of no more than five years. This means that after this time, all rights revert to you as the author.

Louise Hay, author of You Can Heal Your Life made this mistake. The publisher controlled all the rights for her book for around 15 – 20 years, meaning she couldn’t do anything with it without their permission (and probably a large share of the profits generated); even in her own country.

As you can see, there are pro and cons for both routes. It might be clear to you which option to choose, or you might still be undecided. Make your decision based on the end goal of your book.

Self-publishing may be right for you if:

  1. You have some funds available to at least cover editing costs and book cover design.
  2. Full control over your book is essential to you.
  3. Your book is the basis for creating workshops, speaking gigs, or building a business around. This includes planning to use your book as a giveaway, e.g. on your website or the first book in a series to hook readers.
  4. Speed to market matters.
  5. You have a solid following of readers, fans, and clients.

Traditional Publishing may be right for you if:

  1. You lack the time or desire to figure out or seek help to self-publish and distribute your book.
  2. You’re clear about what rights are critical for you to keep as the author and are willing to negotiate hard to retain them.
  3. Slow turnaround time has little, or no impact on your book goal.
  4. You’re willing to invest your royalty cheque to increase sales.
  5. You want to focus on writing and can do so to a strict deadline.

I’d love to hear which option you choose and why. Feel free to comment below.

Cheers to your writing success!