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 no money and time investment from authors to edit, print and market a 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 you freedom over book production and marketing and a quick way to the market. Still, they require considerable time or money (or both) investment to make the book successful. Finally, indie presses may offer lower royalties (compared to self-publishing) and less market outreach (than traditional) but offer flexibility, quick route to the market and free publishing services.

So let us have a closer look at these three types of publishing operations and how they compare 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 Publishers. 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 sixty imprints. Simon & Schuster publishes over 2,000 titles annually and has thirty-five imprints. Macmillan, founded in 1843, operates in over seventy 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 target readership and market, you usually need to find an agent. Many traditional publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. 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 publishing a book with a traditional publisher?

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 promote 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 publishing a book with a traditional publisher?

With the rise of indie presses and self-publishing platforms, authors have come to evaluate the merits and demerits of traditional publishing. The latter includes no book rights, insignificant royalties, a long route to the market, low acceptance rates and no creative control over the book once the publisher accepts it for publication.

  • Ownership of the 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, in what formats and mediums it will be sold. Book rights may include print, ebook, audiobook, movie, translation, foreign, television adaptation and large print edition rights.
  • 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 between the manuscript being accepted by the publisher and arriving in the bookstores. Most of these processes do not occur concurrently; each has its place in the grander book production process. Even before the manuscript appears at the commissioning editor’s desk, another impediment is the wait for the agent to respond. (A commissioning editor is an editor in charge of accepting manuscripts submitted to the publishing house.)Then, if they decline your book proposal, the author must repeat the same process with another agent.
  • No creative and marketing control. Traditionally, authors do not have control over creative and marketing processes. These processes may include choosing the book cover, jacket or illustrations or selecting social media influencers to promote the book. Authors may at least voice their opinions or, in some cases, influence these decisions. But ultimately, the publisher holds the creative and marketing control.
  • Low acceptance rates. To publish a book, you need to consider two hurdles. Firstly, it is the chances of the agent accepting your manuscript. Secondly, the chances of the publishing house accepting the manuscript submitted by the agent. Apparently, agents accept 1% of the manuscripts they receive. As is, 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. It may vary, but over 95% of the rejected manuscripts are not up to par with the publishing standards, including:
  • messy language (lack of copyediting),
  • or incoherent plot/argument (need for developmental editing).

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 publishing a book with an indie publisher?

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 timelines and more flexible royalties structures than traditional publishers.

  • Publishing services. Once the indie publisher accepts your manuscript, you will 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 will also handle 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, indie publishers may offer the services of editors or peer-reviewers who are experts in particular genres or fields. Finally, 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. Although a speedy route to the market may not apply to the academic presses. Apart from the traditional publishing services, they also put the manuscripts through peer review, adding to the overall length of book production.
  • Higher royalties. Indie publishers often offer 50% royalties, which is significantly higher than traditional publishers’ 5–25% range. (Although, 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 allowing 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 publishing a book with an indie publisher?

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.

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 a book?

Self-publishing has many advantages. Compared to the indie and traditional publishing houses, it 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.
    • 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 a book?

Self-publishing is brilliant, but like everything else, it also has disadvantages. It 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 and availability on the market and may ultimately affect their sales.

  • Time and money 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. If you choose to carry out the publishing processes and marketing yourself (editing, typesetting, cover design, proofreading), you must be prepared for a substantial time investment. If the outcome is unprofessional in any way (language, visuals, marketing), this will reflect on you as an author and publisher.
  • Less prominence. Because self-publishers’ editing or design 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 and presses.
  • No advance. Since self-publishing is author’s own endeavour, there is no third party to offer you an advance on account of the future sales of the book (as is the case with traditional and indie publishers).
  • Financial risk. The frightening truth of publishing is that most books do not sell. For a book to be commercially viable, it needs to sell over 5,000 copies, and 86% of books do not achieve this. If your book does not sell, in the best-case scenario, you receive no return on your time investment. Pessimistically, you will suffer financial losses if you invest in editing, book design, marketing or ISBN when your book does not succeed commercially.
  • Limited distribution. Traditional publishers stock the best-known, high-street bookshops globally; indie publishers may work with indie bookstores. What about self-published books? They usually do not reach the shelves of bookstores.

Conclusion

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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Magda

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 (CIEP) and a student member of the Society of Indexers.

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