Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: What You Need to Know

Frank facts and advice from a marketing expert

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If you want to get a book published, you have many options these days. In addition to traditional publishing, there are options for self-publishing, hybrid publishing, and variations that blur the lines between categories.

But there are real-world differences for authors going each route.

Publishing vs. Being Published

Bridget Marmion, the founder of Your Expert Nation full-service marketing firm and a former senior vice president of marketing at some of the most prestigious publishing houses, understands the critical differences that authors must be aware of. Even better, she has actionable marketing advice for all authors.

"There are exciting options in our digital world today for writers who want to share their work, including those who want to see their ideas produced as e-books and/or printed books," she said. "Everyone can create books, or have them created, while not everyone is accepted for publication."

Being Published

Being accepted for publication means that a publisher has read a manuscript (if it's fiction) or a proposal (if it's non-fiction) and has approached you with an offer.

 A publisher invests in a writer. The company provides an advance against future earnings on the book and invests in staff time to:

Publishers use many strategies to publicize a book, up to and including sending the author on a tour of bookstores to stage public readings.

All these are time-honored processes that publishers use. The introduction of e-books has changed little beyond adding another production and distribution system.

The Credibility Issue

Notably, a traditional publisher is investing its own reputation and goodwill to a new author added to its list.

Many authors might and do complain that they aren't getting enough publicity and marketing support from their publishers. But being published by a traditional house means the author is taken more seriously by stores, by many readers, and by the media. The author benefits from the reputation of the publisher.

"A publisher invests in a writer," Marmion said. "As soon as you pay a company to create a book, you are working with a company providing publishing services. You are not 'being published'."

The Self-Publishing Option

Anyone who goes the self-publishing route must be aware of the additional challenges in an industry that is notoriously competitive in any case.

Books published by traditional publishers are considered for coverage by the media, awards organizations, and bookstores, many of which won't even consider self-published books. This is slowly changing, but it is an issue now for most self-published authors. 

That said, we live in an age in which anyone can publish a book using readily available technology and paying for its publication.

On the upside, the self-published author gets more control over the book and more of the profits from sales. If they're good at self-promotion, there are plenty of inexpensive ways to do it these days through social media, a personal blog, and online advertising. It helps if you already have a strong social media presence. Good contacts in the media help, too.

An entrepreneurial spirit has the edge. Think about the public or community events you can go to as a bookseller, promoter, expert, or guest personality.

The self-published author must keep in mind that they are 100 percent responsible for making the book a success. If you're considering taking this route, consider what you're willing to invest in time and money.

The Self-Publisher's Decisions

Marmion says an author considering self-publishing has to back up and answer a fundamental question: Why do you want to create a book? The answer will help you identify your target audience, pick the right title, format, and price, determine how to reach your audience, and more.

Next, determine your budget of time and money. This is a business enterprise and must be treated that way.

The Self-Publishing Contract

A lawyer experienced in self-publishing contracts should review your agreement.

There are a few basics:

  • Copyright must always be in the author's name, even if another company is handling the registration.
  • The publishing rights clause must say "author holds rights." Even if it does, watch out for any language elsewhere in the document that says something like: "Publisher has exclusive rights to publish this work in any form or format." That would give the company all control and, potentially, all income if, for example, a traditional publisher wanted to purchase the right to publish it. 
  • The words selling, marketing, or publicity in a book contract may mean merely listing it on the online retailers and one or more book wholesalers.
  • The phrase "book format" should specify printed copies, an e-book, or both.

How to Be a Professional Writer

Whether you go with a publisher or self-publisher, Marmion says the most successful launches begin while the author is writing the book. Build relationships:

  • With booksellers by being a regular, valued customer
  • With librarians by being a patron.
  • On the website site Goodreads, by participating in the community of book enthusiasts
  • With readers by joining social media groups devoted to your genre
  • With those in your trade organization and special interest groups by speaking at events, building visibility as a trusted source, mentioning the book you're writing, and collecting email addresses.

Finally, once your book is published, consider an online ad campaign with an effective landing page and email marketing. 

Don't Try This

There are a couple of time-honored rule.

  • The author is never able to edit his or her own work. "I run a marketing firm, but I tell writers planning to self-publish that the first money they should spend is with a professional editor," Marmion says. 
  • The author is never the best judge of the right title for the book. The author is simply too close to the work, and can't respond as a new or potential reader would. Advising on book titles is one of the essential services Marmion's marketing firm offers.