Arm wrestlersBefore you consider how to publish and sell your book, never forget: The number-one way to sell a book is to write a good book—one that people need and want, one they can’t put down, one they’ll tell all their friends about. If you’re not sure if that describes your book just yet, maybe it’s time to go back to work. But if it does, you’ve got some decisions to make about publishing options.

Whether you’re talking traditional publishing or self-publishing, the success rates are very similar. A few authors end up as bestselling superstars. Some authors do very well. And the majority do not make a living from it. Bestselling books, no matter how they reach the market, are never created and published in a few minutes.

Each author is different, and each book is different. If you know your target market and have a clear set of goals for your book, you should be able to figure out the right publishing strategy for you.

img art traditionaltwilightzonesmallWelcome to the Twilight Zone

When it came to publishing, there used to be only one choice: traditional publishing.

Now, in addition, there is a whole Twilight Zone of other companies—not true royalty-paying publishers, but not really vanity presses either; these range from almost traditional to simple printers. Two of the most popular right now are the hybrid publisher and the boutique publisher.

The Hybrid Publisher—

  • A traditional publisher that decides to make additional money on all the systems, networks, and team members they already have in place for their traditional imprints.
  • They create additional “imprints” under which they publish. For example, a publisher that publishes only books about and for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might create an imprint under which they publish inspirational books targeted to members of any Christian faith.
  • You pay them to publish your book.
  • They keep an eye on your book’s sales. If your book starts doing well, they may offer you a contract with one of their traditional imprints, as well.

A Boutique Publisher—

  • Has never operated under a traditional publishing model.
  • A team of professionals who can help you self-publish professionally.
  • They generally won’t take much or any of your royalties once the book is out because you pay up front for their services.
  • They don’t have a traditional imprint outside of the services they offer to authors.
  • They save you the time and hassle of learning the ropes of self-publishing; many will also consult with you about the industry and market. 


Man chewing wheatThe Times They Are a-Changing

As recently as the mid-2000s, self-publising wasn’t very popular. In fact, it was downright panned by many. A stigma surrounded both self-published books and self-published authors; in one meeting of the Chicago chapter of the Romance Writers of America in the mid-2000s, only three people showed up for a workshop on how to self-publish—and one of them was already self-published.) At the time, self-publishing indicated some kind of author failing or eccentricity.

Times have dramatically changed, and it’s almost the other way around. Some self-published authors now accuse traditionally published authors of being misguided or short-sighted in their allegiance to a “legacy” system.

The Difference between Traditional Publishers and Self-Publishing

Traditional Publisher

  • Almost always starts with print; some also offer eBooks and/or audio books along with print books
  • Provides all the expertise/people needed to publish successfully (editors, designers, printers, marketing pros)
  • Pays all publishing-associated costs (evaluations, editing, typesetting, proofreading, printing, warehousing, marketing, distribution, reviews)
  • Assumes all financial risk
  • Pays writers royalties based on sales after any advance is covered
  • Is a lengthy process—it takes the average writer ten years to get a first novel published
  • May pay an advance; if it is paid at all, the average advance for first-time writers is $5,000
  • Designs a professional cover (but the author generally has little or no say)
  • Will eventually take books out of print unless they are blockbusters or backlisted titles (books they know will continue to sell over time)


  • Creates both digital and print, though most are digital
  • The author pays for everything
  • The author assumes all the financial risk
  • The author maintains all control over the work
  • The author receives all money from sales of the book
  • There is no advance
  • The author has to provide the cover design
  • The book never goes out of print until the author so decides

Which Should You Choose?

The Pros and Cons of Traditional Publishing

The Pros—

There’s a “gatekeeping” process that comes along with traditional publishing. Agents and editors don’t take your book unless they think they can help make it really successful. Pairs of expert eyes will go over every word of your manuscript, and someone in the know will help you make it the best it can be before hitting bookstore shelves.

The publisher pays all the costs of production; many publishers also pay for author websites, endorsements, and book trailers/videos.

BookstoreThe publisher has marketing capabilities and funds along with distribution connections that are difficult for self-published authors to replicate: automatic listing in catalogs from which bookstores, wholesalers, and libraries choose their product; salespeople who hit the road to sell your book; press releases and media connections to radio, television, and print venues; promotional events; incentives for bookstores to feature or hand-sell your book; and the ability to maneuver your book title onto bestseller lists (including the coveted New York Times list). Keep this in mind: the hours you spend marketing a self-published book are hours you can’t spend writing your next one. (While authors need to promote no matter how their book is produced, traditional publishing offers a leg up that can save the author a lot of time and get the word out in ways the author can’t.)

You have to sign a contract. That means you generally have a publisher who works diligently to build your name, establish your brand, and give you a platform—because they have a vested interest in making sure you have good sales numbers so stores and distributors will be interested in bringing all your books to the market. While there are naturally some restrictions in most contracts, they can also help you get advances, foreign translations, and ensure that a publisher is interested in looking at your next book.

The Cons—

The publishing process itself can be lengthy, more so with larger publishing houses. It can take a long time to get your book accepted—and once you do, it generally takes six to eighteen months (and often longer) before your book is actually in print.

You give up much of the control over your book. Editors make changes, the cover design is out of your hands, the final title is out of your hands, you don’t have any say in how much of the publisher’s marketing dollars or time are devoted to your book, and you’re generally not involved in many of the decisions regarding your book.

The pay is less frequent and lower than with self-publishing: royalty checks are issued twice a year, and generally range from 6 to 20 percent of sales. Some publishers even base the royalty on the wholesale, not retail, price of your book.

The Pros and Cons of Self-publishing

The Pros—

You have all the control. You determine when the book is published, how it looks, and how much the book sells for. In other words, you make all the decisions. A side benefit: it’s quick and easy to make changes down the road, especially if you published digitally.

You earn more than a traditional royalty and get paid more frequently—once a month for online sales and almost immediately for the stuff you sell out of the trunk of your car. 

Your book is automatically “accepted” for publication—no trying to craft a brilliant query letter, figuring out where to submit, slogging through rejection letters, then getting an agent just to wait around again while the agent shops it to publishers. 

You get to design your own cover—but that’s only a “pro” if you understand the power of a cover as a marketing tool, you know how to make the cover fulfill that purpose, you have a firm grasp of current trends and competition, and you’ve got professional training in cover design—all of which require years of training and experience. If you lack any of that, you will need to pay someone who does.

The Cons—

Books in garageThere’s a price to be paid for all that freedom and control. You pay all the costs a traditional publisher usually covers—content editing, line editing, copyediting, typesetting, proofreading, cover design, jacket copy, printing, binding, shipping, distribution, e-book creation, sales, book trailers, videos, and other promotional efforts. Not to mention all the time and legwork that goes into successfully moving through those steps. Unless you’re doing print-on-demand, you also pay to store the books—unless, of course, you decide to fill your garage with the financial risk of thousands of printed books.

Outside of doing e-book only, you also have to do all the legwork to get your book into brick-and-mortar stores (very difficult to do for many self-published authors who lack established sales records) and to get it online on all the best sites. Increasingly more stores and sites are resistant to books that don’t come through an established distributor (which, of course, costs more money).

Self-publishing isn’t usually the cash cow some make it out to be, so don’t hang your hopes on the handful of amazing success stories you’ve heard. Most self-published authors sell very few books because they don’t understand what goes into successful self-publishing and what increases their sales—and learning that takes a significant amount of time and requires a steep learning curve.

Reasons You Should and Should Not Self-Publish

Reasons Not to Self-Publish

Need a jobDon’t automatically jump to self-publishing because your first attempt at an agent or traditional publisher wasn’t successful. Maybe the competition is too intense, the market is in a down trend, your writing isn’t quite what it needs to be, the scope of your book is too broad, or you’re chasing a trend that’s already on its way out. If you were rejected by a traditional publisher or agent, ask for feedback on why before you make a decision to self-publish. If you’ve written a book about a trend that’s on its way out, for example, it will still be on its way out if you self-publish.

Don’t self-publish to impress a traditional publisher. Few will choose to reprint a book that’s already been self-published (if it’s not a rare and astounding success), especially if your sales have saturated a niche market. And few, if any, will be impressed if your sales numbers are bleak.

Don’t self-publish just because you’re impatient and want your work out there. Don’t let emotions alone drive your choices—and don’t count on chance as your marketing plan. Don’t jump into self-publishing just because the traditional route sounds like such a drag. Don’t self-publish just because you want the instant gratification of getting your book out there. That’s one of the worst reasons there is to self-publish. If you have any interest whatsoever in traditional publishing, exhaust all your agent/publisher options first. Get thoroughly rejected (as much as that may hurt), and then self-publish. It’s very difficult to go in the other direction successfully.

Reasons to Consider Self-Publishing

If you’ve been rejected by traditional publishers or agents for reasons unrelated to quality and if professional feedback indicates you have a good shot at reaching a sizable audience, consider self-publishing. Examples of those reasons would include being rejected because the publisher just published a similar book (and doesn’t want two of them in their line) or your project doesn’t fit the traditional publisher’s format.

Time is of the essence. For example, you might have a pressing media situation coming up where getting coverage now will be critical to sales. Or you might have terminal cancer and want to leave a memoir for your family or the world.

This is a one-time shot. You have no intention of a serious career in writing; in fact, this is the only book you intend to ever write, and you don’t want to spend the time and energy trying to get an agent or traditional publisher. Publishers will want you to write multiple books because they are investing in your “brand,” and if you don’t want to write multiple books, self-publishing is probably a better bet. 

There is a specific demand for your book. Maybe your blog audience is begging for it, or your speaking/coaching (entrepreneurial) career would benefit if you had a book with which to spread your message.

Your Goals Are the Driver: Some Questions to Consider

The major factor in your decision is your unique set of goals. It’s time to ask yourself some critical questions:

Why do you want to publish? If you want to start a long-term writing career and have the largest sales reach possible, considering a traditional publisher as part of that plan is probably best. If you want to leave a legacy of your thoughts and advice for loved ones, you need to consider your age, health, or time limitations and consider whether you can wait years for the traditional publishing route.

What genre/category does your book fall into? How hard is it to get published in that genre? What are new-author royalties typically like for that genre? What is the size of your buying audience? If it’s a niche market of only several thousand people, a publisher likely won’t be interested, but niche markets are often the best for self-publishing. Those that tend to do best with self-publishing are business books, personal development and self-help books, fantasy, sci-fi, and romance. 

Money in toiletHow much money can you afford to invest in publishing without putting your family at financial risk? A traditional publisher charges you nothing. On the other hand, professional-level self-publishing can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $35,000, depending on the genre and size of your book; how much editorial help it needs; how many copies you want to print; and whether you need to hire professionals in publicity, promotion, or to negotiate foreign rights. The average book for a business platform costs $5,000 to $10,000 to produce and print; costs for promotion are additional.

What are your highest priorities and concerns? You might want to go for self-publishing if your priorities are your potential up-front financial gain, the ability to make all your own decisions, the adventure of starting your own small business (which is what self-publishing really is if you do it right), or the sheer delight in learning a craft. You might want to stick with (or plan to include) traditional publishing if your concerns include your personal time, a primary focus on just the writing, avoiding financial risk, the quality of work you present to the world, and your long-term career potential.

Do you expect or want to see your book stocked in bookstores across the country? It’s next to impossible for a self-published author with a single title to achieve wide-scale distribution for their book at bricks-and-mortar stores. You may be able to get your book stocked locally or regionally, but for the most part, a self-published authors’ books will sell primarily through online retail. That’s not the drawback it used to be, given that more than half of all books sold in the United States sell through Amazon (regardless of format).

Do you want to hit the New York Times bestseller list or get major media attention? If your goal is a spot on the New York Times bestseller list, you’ll probably need a traditional publisher’s muscle behind you. It’s also very challenging to get any major media to pay attention to you as a self-published author, though they have been getting more real estate on the USA Today or Wall Street Journal bestseller list, as well as the Amazon bestseller lists. 

How much of an entrepreneur are you? Becoming a self-published author means you are fully responsible for your book’s success. You’ll need an entrepreneurial mindset and the willingness to learn the publishing business to undertake a serious self-publishing career. A self-published author also needs some level of comfort and proficiency with being active online—and will probably need a professional author website, activity on social media, and the willingness to experiment with online marketing/sales tactics. If you would rather work with a team of people or want to feel like you have a business partner, you may be better suited to traditional publishing. 

How to Tell If Your Project Is a Good Fit for Self-Publishing

  • You want to kickstart your writing career, are willing to put the time and effort into creating quality books, but you’re not willing to wait for a “gatekeeper” to open the publishing door.
  • You want to get a lot of books out quickly or write in multiple genres (and/or plan to use several pen names).
  • You want flexibility in your writing career and/or to maintain control over all your content, branding, pricing, and promotion and are ready to take on the learning curve (or invest in professional marketing) to get it right.
  • You’d like to supplement your traditional publishing schedule and royalties through frequently released short stories, novellas, and one-offs.
  • Your topic/genre is too niche, currently oversaturated, or not trending in the traditional market.
  • You’ve invested years in a particular story series or fantasy world and—though you want it to be good—you don’t want to be forced to make changes in order to see it out there.

Book signingIt Doesn’t Have to Be Either/Or

Hybrid authors cross over—they do some publishing with traditional publishers and do some self-publishing. As you should have learned through this article, each type of publishing offers something different and opens new possibilities.

If you want to take advantage of both opportunities, consider the following:

  1. Experiment with a pen name in self-publishing so you don’t ruin your potential long-term traditional career if sales don’t go well. Or be prepared to take down a book that ended up with poor reviews, or wasn’t your best work after all, if you intend to later court a traditional publisher .
  2. Self-publish in formats not generally produced in print by traditional publishers—novellas, short stories, contributions to anthologies, or installments—while building your traditional career with more traditional books.
  3. Take a Plan A/Plan B approach. Write a good book, shop it around to agents/publishers while you write the next, then rinse and repeat. If you don’t get satisfying results on the traditional path and you know your books are compelling and professionally competitive, then give up on the waiting game and self-publish—knowing that you have more than one offering ready if you develop a fan base. Think strategically when planning your career goals, and consider everything from the production of your works to their marketing.
  4. Self-publish past or hard-to-sell works. If you have/had a traditional career with a few out-of-print books (your backlist) on the shelf, consider buying back your rights and re-releasing them as e-books with new covers; your publisher will probably be willing to negotiate something like that. You might also decide to self-publish a couple of your good but hard-to-sell books.

(Photos: arm wrestling,; twilight zone, SnapChat; man chewing wheat,; bookstore,; books in garage,; money thrown in toilet,; book signing, Wikipedia)


"Kathy writes compellingly and swiftly, has an eye for detail, and possesses an uncanny sense for how to shape a story to make it pulsate with energy."
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