Traditional Publishing vs Self-Publishing: What’s the Best Way to Publish Your Book?

26 Mar 2020


You’ve written a book—congratulations!

But after the initial euphoria wears off, many authors are faced with this looming question: Now what? You want to get your book out into the world—but aren’t sure which is the best way to do so.

Should you try to land a contract with a traditional publisher? Or is self-publishing the best way to go?

Evaluating Publishing Options

With so many viable options available to aspiring authors today, writers are more empowered than ever. But with so many different paths to consider, it can also feel pretty overwhelming.

Deciding which approach is the best one for you comes down to three main factors: your comfort level with risk, your need for industry validation, and how much control you prefer to have over the final product.

This can be a very personal decision, and each approach has merit.

Don’t rely on someone else to tell you what to do. If you carefully evaluate the different characteristics of each, chances are good that one method will feel more in line with your values and preferences.

Advantages of Traditional Publishing

You Get a Lot More Help

When you land a contract with a traditional publisher, a team of people will begin working on your behalf to get your book ready for the world. This generally includes an editor, cover designers, people to take care of formatting, and promotion (although publishers are devoting fewer and fewer resources to marketing than in the past).

Getting Your Book Into Bookstores is Easier

Traditional publishers have established relationships with book stores and they work with book buyers to get as many of their authors’ books into stores as possible. This is a huge help if you are interested in having your book available at brick and mortar stores. The publisher also handles returns, which is a significant factor, that we will discuss later.

No Upfront Costs are Required

A contract with a traditional publisher means the publisher believes your book will likely be profitable for them. They take on all of the expenses from editing to design to distribution, and collect the money from book sales. As part of your contract they may offer you an advance (meaning you will get paid upfront a certain amount, which can vary pretty widely depending on the type of book). You can also earn royalties from the sale of every book.

Validation and Prestige

This last factor is the least concrete, but possibly one of the biggest reasons people prefer to be traditionally published. Landing a contract with a traditional publisher can feel like validation that your writing is good enough to make it into this rather exclusive club.

Disadvantages of Traditional Publishing

It’s Highly Competitive

In most cases, you will first need to get an agent. This process is almost as difficult as getting a book selected by a publisher. It can take several months to years. After acquiring an agent, they begin working to get you a publishing deal, which is another highly competitive, and lengthy process.

It Takes a Long Time

The wheels of traditional publishing turn very slowly. And the process doesn’t even start until after you have invested a great deal of time and effort into writing your book.

If you manage to acquire both an agent and a publishing contract, that is certainly cause for a major celebration! Because the truth is, many writers never get past step one. If a reputable publisher wants to publish your book, that means you are part of the estimated one percent of writers who are offered a contract from a traditional publisher each year. But more waiting is in store; it can take anywhere between one and three years before you actually hold a published book in your hands.

You Give Up Some Creative Control

The publisher ultimately has the final say on many aspects of the book, including the cover, title, and even the text. The publisher makes suggestions they believe will make the book the best it can be in terms of content and salability. Some writers are resistant to making changes they don’t believe are true to their vision of their book.

Advantages of Self-Publishing


The timeframe with self-publishing is a very attractive benefit for many authors. When faced with a timeline of 3 to 5 years before getting a book to publication, self-publishing is an appealing alternative. Not counting the time it takes to get your book written and in publishable shape, once you are ready to upload your file to the publishing platform, it can take as little as 4 hours to 4 weeks (although it sometimes takes longer) for it to be complete and ready for sale. Payment for sales of any books sold also come to the author much faster. Most platforms pay on a monthly basis, starting from your first sale.


When you self-publish, you are in charge. That means you have total control over the final product, from the editorial, to the title, to the cover design, everything. You also decide where and how to market your book, if you are seeking wider distribution and sales.

Higher Royalties

While royalties vary depending on which self-publishing route you take, the percentage of sales coming to you are significantly higher than with traditional publishing. For example, an ebook priced between $2.99 and $9.99 on Amazon will bring a 70 percent royalty to the author. This is compared to typical royalties of 7 to 25 percent with a traditional publisher.

Disadvantages of Self-Publishing

Authors Must Pay Upfront Costs

If you are trying to create a book that you hope can generate sales, you will need to make sure it is professionally done. It is highly recommended you hire an editor, a cover designer, and marketing support. You will also need to pay for the services of the publishing platform, which can either be upfront or a percentage of your sales.

You Are on Your Own

Having total control also means you are responsible for all steps in the publishing process. Some self-publishing platforms offer some support, but again, at a cost. You will be responsible for all aspects of marketing and selling your book without the resources and contacts of a publishing house.

Lack of Traditional Prestige

Although it is fading, there is some degree of stigma that comes with being a self-published author. For many, this is not an important factor. But for some writers, the mantle of prestige that comes from a traditional publisher is non-negotiable.

So how do you decide which route to take?

Other Considerations for Choosing a Publishing Path

Why do you want to write and publish a book?

Some people are not interested in creating a book to realize a dream of seeing it on the shelves of bookstores, or selling loads of books. They may have very personal reasons, such as to create a record of their family’s history, or to write a children’s book to share with their family.

Other authors want to use their book to help support their business. A book can be a very useful tool to establish your credibility on a subject, or to help bring in potential clients or customers.

Who is your audience?

Some authors are interested in writing a book that would only appeal to a very limited niche or geographic area. Many traditional publishers are not able to take on such projects because it is not cost-effective for them. Self-publishing offers a path to getting your book to this audience. You will need to do the legwork, but you can be very focused in your outreach.

What is your timeline?

This is often the factor that leads writers to choose the self-publishing route. You may need your book to correspond to a particular event in time (for example, an important anniversary) or the subject happens to be in the spotlight, which can be a fleeting condition (such as trends in technology). The multi-year process of traditional publishing can make meeting such deadlines impossible.

So how does one decide which path to take?

Much of it can come down to how much control you want over the publication process. As Joanna Penn, author and self-publishing entrepreneur writes in her book, Successful Self-Publishing, “You don’t need to ask anyone’s permission to write or publish. You can write whatever you want and publish whenever you want.”

If these factors are important to you, then self-publishing may be the right path to take.

If, however, you prefer to have someone else take on the lion’s share of the publishing process, and would like to experience the prestige and validation that can come from being traditionally published, then you should seek opportunities in the traditional route.

Carol Kim 

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