Pros and cons of self-publishing, indie and traditional publishing

If you want to publish a book, it is worth knowing your options: self-publishing, indie and traditional publishing. Each has pros and cons. In a nutshell, traditional publishers require from authors no money investment to edit, print and market their book. However, they have low acceptance rates, offer little profit to the author, a slow route to the market and no manuscript rights. Self-publishing platforms give authors freedom over book production and marketing and a quick way to the market. Still, they require considerable time or money (or both) to make the book successful. Finally, indie presses may offer lower royalties (compared to self-publishing) and less market outreach (than traditional publishers) but offer flexibility, a quick route to the market and free publishing services.

A red dart in the middle of a round black and white dartboard, where the top score in the middle was replaced with the word "publish." this image illustrates the pros and cons of self-publishing, indie and traditional publishing.

So let’s have a closer look at self-publishing, indie and traditional publishing operations and compare them from the perspective of an author who wants to publish a book.

What is traditional publishing?

Traditional publishers, referred to as the Big Five, are Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Livre and Macmillan. They are enormous, old and make profits worth billions of dollars. Penguin dates back to the early nineteenth century and has more than 300 imprints worldwide. HarperCollins, established in 1817, is one of the most prolific English-language publishers, including such well-known imprints like Harlequin. Hachette was founded in 1826 in France; it currently has 60 imprints. Simon & Schuster publishes over 2,000 titles annually and has 35 imprints. Macmillan, founded in 1843, operates in over 70 countries. It originally published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Jungle Book.

How to publish a book with a traditional publisher?

After you have done your research and identified the readership and market, you usually need to find an agent. Many traditional publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Thus, after you have done your research and identified the target. If you are a non-fiction writer, attach your book proposal when contacting a literary agent (often, a sample chapter may be required, too). On the other hand, fiction writers must provide a complete manuscript. If the agent chooses to work with you, they will present your writing to the publishers. Alternatively, if you reach the publishers directly, provide the book proposal and a sample chapter or the finished manuscript, depending on your genre. Finally, if the publisher accepts your submission, they will handle your book’s production, marketing, distribution and warehousing.

What are the pros of traditional publishing?

Each type of publishing route has advantages and disadvantages, and traditional publishing may suit some authors. The pros of traditional publishing include no financial investment required from the author for the production, marketing, distribution and warehousing. Also, some people consider it more prestigious to publish with traditional publishers.

  • Publishing services. Once the publisher accepts your manuscript, you will bear no costs to the several publishing processes. Specifically, developmental editing, line editing, copyediting, indexing, cover design, typesetting, proofreading and printing are carried out for free. When the book is out, the publisher promotes it and invests in warehousing, distribution and retail.
  • Wide marketing reach. A team of marketing professionals will champion your book to make it stand out in this highly competitive market. Seeking a return on their investment, the publisher will commit to promoting your book. This will ensure its visibility on the market and will drive sales.
  • Validation. Some may consider traditional publishers more prestigious than independent enterprises or self-publishing. This is underlined by the assumption that because they only choose to work with a few selected authors, they guarantee the highest quality of the content with their decades- or centuries-old expertise in publishing.
  • Advance payment. When you publish a book with the Big Five, you may receive an advance payment against future sales.
  • Wide distribution. If you publish with the Big Five, well-known bookshops will have your book on their shelves. This means the print copies will be widely available and potentially displayed.

What are the cons of traditional publishing?

Traditional publishing offers no book rights, insignificant royalties, a long route to the market, low acceptance rates and no creative control over the book.

  • No manuscript rights. A contract with a traditional publisher most often provides them with a book ownership rights clause. This means that the author no longer controls what will happen to the book and in what formats and mediums it will be sold.
  • Small royalties. Royalties offered by traditional publishers vary depending on the format or medium of the book. On average, the author’s royalties from paperback sales equate to 5–7%, hardcover — 15%, and ebook and audiobook — 25%. This range is significantly lower than the 35–70% range offered by the self-publishing platforms (discussed later in this post).
  • Slow route to the market. Because of the complexity and number of processes involved in traditional publishing, it may take two years for the manuscript to be published. Most of the publishing processes do not occur concurrently; each has its place in the overall book production process
  • Low acceptance rates. To publish a book, an agent needs to accept your manuscript, and then the publishing house needs to accept the manuscript submitted by the agent. Apparently, agents accept 1% of the manuscripts they receive. That is an effective blocker. Now, consider that very few books the agent sends to the commissioning editor will land a deal. On average, traditional publishers accept only 1–2% of received manuscripts annually.
Traditional publishing
Pros Cons
Free editing, design, printing and marketingNo control over the manuscript
Wide market reachSmall royalties
Assumption of qualitySlow route to the market
Advance paymentLow acceptance rates
Pros and cons of traditional publishing.

What is indie publishing?

Using the term indie publishing, I refer to small presses, non-profits, academic presses, boutique publishing houses or any publisher not associated with the Big Five and their imprints. Like traditional publishers, indie publishers release various genres of print books, audiobooks and ebooks. However, often, they will specialise in a particular genre or a topical niche.

How to publish a book with an indie publisher?

Similarly to traditional publishing, research and identifying the target readership and market are the first step. You can reach the indie publishers directly and provide the book proposal and a sample chapter (non-fiction) or the finished manuscript (fiction). Finally, if they accept your submission, they will handle your book’s production, marketing, distribution and warehousing.

What are the pros of indie publishing?

With indie presses, you get the perks similar to those working with a traditional publisher: professional publishing services and some marketing reach. Indie publishers will also offer faster turnaround and more flexible royalty structures than traditional publishers.

  • Publishing services. Authors bear no costs to the several publishing processes transforming the manuscript into a book. Specifically, developmental editing, line editing, copyediting, indexing, cover design, typesetting, proofreading and printing are carried out for free. When the book is ready, the indie publisher also handles its marketing, distribution and warehousing.
  • Niche. Indie presses often specialise in a genre or a topic. They may be perfect for specialised manuscripts or authors who want to be published alongside recognised writers within their genre. Moreover, for manuscripts unsuitable for traditional publishers on the grounds of a narrow target readership, indie publishers may be an ideal solution.
  • Faster route to the market. You do not need an agent with indie publishers, which significantly speeds the process. Indie publishers have a faster pace in book production, but the quality may suffer because of the speed.
  • Higher royalties. Indie publishers often offer 50% royalties, which is significantly higher than traditional publishers’ 5–25% range. (However, it is still not as good as what you will earn when self-publishing).
  • Creative and marketing control. Compared to traditional publishers, authors’ voices are definitely heard more when publishing with an independent publisher. Indie presses are considered more flexible and allow the author’s involvement in the creative and marketing decisions. They may consider authors’ input in choosing the book cover, jacket or illustrations.

What are the cons of indie publishing?

Authors who publish a book with indie publishers must consider their disadvantages, such as the impact of the limitations of their size and budget on the marketing outreach and the advances. They will also take ownership of the book rights, just as the traditional publishers.

  • Ownership of the manuscript rights. Book rights may include print, ebook, audiobook, movie, translation, foreign, television adaptation and large print edition rights. A contract with an indie publisher (same as with the traditional publisher) most often provides them with a book ownership rights clause. This means that the author no longer controls what will happen to the book, in what formats it will be sold and to whom.
  • Limited marketing reach. Indie presses have smaller teams and budgets. Their promotion campaigns and marketing strategies might have a more limited reach than traditional publishers. Still, publishing with them means you will not have to market the book yourself (or pay someone to do it), as with self-publishing.
  • Small or no advance. Indie publishers may not always offer an advance on account of future earnings on book sales. However, if they do, it will usually be lower than those provided by the Big Five and their imprints.
Indie publishing
Free editing, design, printing and marketingNo control over the manuscript
Niche focusSmall or no advance
Faster route to the market (than traditional model)Limited marketing reach (comparing to traditional model)
Higher royalties (than traditional model)More creative control (comparing to traditional model)
Pros and cons of indie publishing.

What is self-publishing?

Self-publishing entails the author of a book using print-on-demand (POD) platforms like Ingram Sparks, Draft2Digital, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), Google Play Books or Barnes & Noble. They provide book and cover templates and only print a copy and charge the author when a book is sold.

How to self-publish a book?

Because the author (who now also becomes a publisher) has complete freedom of choice, there is no one set pathway to self-publishing. They need to choose a POD platform and consider the publishing services that the publishing houses usually offer for free for authors whose manuscripts they accept. These services include editing, proofreading, indexing, typesetting, illustrations or cover design. Authors may outsource some or all of them to freelance professionals or do them themselves, depending on their preferences and time and budget constraints. When the book is ready, it will be available on sale on the POD platform and printed and shipped every time someone buys a copy. The POD will charge the author their fee, and the author will receive the rest of the profit (discussed in the next section).

What are the pros of self-publishing?

self-publishing, indie and traditional publishing each has unique benefits. For instance, compared to the indie and traditional publishing houses, self-publishing offers the highest royalties, the fastest route to market, complete control and ownership rights.

  • Highest royalties. Royalties offered by the PODs may vary depending on the price of the book, format or country of distribution, and they range between 35% and 70%.
    • Amazon KDP: 70% for books priced $2.99–$9.99, 35% if below $2.99 or above $9.99.
    • Apple Books: 70% royalties.
    • Barnes & Noble: 70% royalties for ebooks, 55% for printed books.
    • Google Play Books: 70% royalties for books sold in over sixty partner countries and 52% in remaining countries.
  • Fastest route to the market. Without the agent and commissioning editor’s review, self-published books have a swift turnaround time. You could even see your book live within six months.
  • Complete control. To publish a book as a self-publisher means complete freedom, not only creative and marketing freedom, but control over all aspects with no oversight and external controllers or reviewers.
  • Ownership of the manuscript rights. As a self-publishing author, you own all book rights. Book rights may include print rights (paperback or hard copy), ebook rights, audiobook rights, movie rights, translation rights, foreign rights, television adaptation rights, and large print edition rights.

What are the cons of self-publishing?

Self-publishing requires time and/or money investment from the author, and it may be a financial risk to them, depending on how successful the sales are. Furthermore, some people consider self-published books of lesser quality because of the lack of review and editing offered by the publishing houses. Finally, self-published books rarely reach bookshops, which limits their visibility on the market and may affect their sales.

  • Financial investment. Although it is possible to publish your book for free, some things (editing, ISBN, book cover) will enhance the value of the book or will contribute to increased sales (advertising) and may be worth spending money on.
  • Less prominence. Because self-publishers’ budgets may be significantly smaller than those of publishing houses, the presentation quality of the self-published books may not be as good. Equally, because these books did not undergo the commissioning editors’ review, some may consider their overall quality of the content lower than those published by the publishing houses.
  • No advance. Because the author is the publisher, there is no advance on account of the future sales of the book.
  • Financial risk. For a book to be commercially viable, it needs to sell over 5,000 copies, and 86% of books do not achieve this. Thus, if your book does not sell, you may suffer financial losses.
  • Limited distribution. Traditional publishers stock the best-known, high-street bookshops globally; indie publishers may work with indie bookstores. But self-published books usually do not reach the shelves of bookstores.
Complete controlAuthors invest in editing, design and marketing
Full manuscript rightsNo advance
Fastest route to the marketFinancial risk to the author
Highest royaltiesOnly online sales
Pros and cons of self-publishing.


Self-publishing, indie and traditional publishing houses have pros and cons, and publishing with each of them is suitable for different manuscripts and authors. The key is to make an informed decision when looking to publish a book and find the option which will bring you the joy of seeing your work published and retailed.

Navigating the publishing world may be overwhelming but also extremely rewarding. If you are still struggling to decide which route to take to publish a book you should take, follow me on MastodonTwitter, Facebook and LinkedIn or join my newsletter for more from me, including editing, publishing and writing tips. You can also ask me for a free sample edit (and remember to use my early bird discount) to prepare your manuscript for publication.

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I am an editor, indexer and a lifelong lover of literature with a PhD in literary history. I am an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, a student member of the Society of Indexers and a vetted partner of the Alliance of Independent Authors.