Writing a book has always been a challenging undertaking.  With all the changes in publishing, deciding how to publish has become an equally complex task. In the last week, I have been part of several complicated publishing decisions, each of which has proven the difficulty writers face as they figure out how bring their work into the world.

  • Client A was contemplating pulling her project from her agent because it wasn’t getting picked up by publishers. She thought self-publishing was the way to go. But after landing a juicy magazine article, she reconsidered the odds and decided to stick with her agent awhile longer.
  • Client B had a very powerful agent trying to sell his second book, but the publishers kept asking him to make it something he didn’t want it to be. He decided to self-publish, and has a bold and aggressive plan in place for launching the book himself according to his exact vision.
  • Client C whose second book is about to come out from a traditional publisher and whose agent is thrilled at the project’s success, has decided that she wants to self-publish her third project before going back to the agent and traditional publishers for her fourth.
  • Client D happily brought his first book out himself, having never considered going the traditional route.

Given all the paths to publication, how is a writer supposed to know that the path they are taking to publishing is the right one?

The best way forward is try to understand what each path offers, and try to align your goals with the one that gives you the best chance of success in reaching that goal.

There are four main differences between the two main publishing paths – but before I discuss those, I want to take a minute to outline the way each of the paths works. Here are the basics of each:


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Note that the primary tasks of writing and connecting with readers appear at the start and end of each path. At the end of the day, the one constant is that writers write and work to connect with readers. That’s what we all do. What is different about the publishing paths is what happens in the middle, and the way the writer gets paid. Here are brief outlines of four of the biggest differences:

1.    Creative Control

As the writer, you are 100% in charge of the creative choices you make during the writing of the book. That means that for months or even years, you have been the god of your story, the boss, the queen, the dictator, and the grand poobah of the work. You have not had to listen to anyone (unless of course, you are working with a book coach, but in that case, you have invited that person into your creative process. They may make suggestions but you are still in charge of them and of your process.)

Having 100% creative control is one of the pure thrills of writing. I don't know about you, but I don't have 100% control of anything else I do in my life and it's one of the reasons I enjoy writing.

In the traditional publishing model, when you sign on with a publisher, you give up creative control. Unless you are JK Rowling or Stephen King, you don't get to decide on the cover, the price of the book (either at launch or during any promotions), the trim size, the paper, the layout of the text, how it will be brought to market, or when.

That reality of this can be a truly wonderful thing. We call it being part of a team. In traditional publishing, the team consists of the following people, who are all highly trained professionals who have gone into the business because of their love of books, and, by extension, their love of YOUR book:

  • An editor, who will make large and small editorial suggestions for making your book the best it can be, and participate in decisions about whether the book will come out as a hardback, paperback, or e-book.
  • A copyeditor/proofreader who will work with you on a comma-by-comma basis to ensure that the book is clear and correct.
  • An art director, who will decide on the book cover, the interior design, and the paper stock.
  • A publisher, who will set the price of your book, decide how it is discounted in various venues, assign a marketing budget, and work with the editor on the publishing decisions.
  • A marketing person, who may write the jacket copy for your book, decide whose blurb goes on the cover, and decide whether or not your book is going to be included in a Publisher’s Weekly ad for great books for Christmas.
  • A PR person, who might suggest that you blog every day, fly to Texas for the weekend to do a TV show, or take a new author photo. Or they may do little more than send out a press release that includes your book as one of many on a list.
  • A sales person, who decides whether or not your book will get into Barnes & Noble, Costco, your neighborhood bookstore, or any other bookselling venue.

To self-publish is to make a declaration: instead of simply writing a book, you take responsibility for designing it, producing it, publishing it, distributing it, marketing it, and selling it, OR you make a decision to personally hire and pay for the people who will do all of those tasks the way that you tell them to. You become the boss of the project. For anyone who has ever done a remodel on a house, it’s like being the contractor and hiring out all the sub-contractors and keeping track of all the steps and fees and processes.

It’s great to be in control, but it’s also a lot of work. And it tends to be lonelier.

2.    Speed

Because of the presence of a team and an established process, traditional publishing tends to take far longer than self-publishing.

If you sell your manuscript to a publisher tomorrow, you can expect to see it on the bookstore shelves in approximately 12 to 24 months.

You can self-publish that same manuscript and have an e-book up online and a print book in your hands in approximately a month.

If speed matters to the success of your project, self-publishing might be a more attractive option.


3.    Distribution and Reviews

I said above that in traditional publishing you can expect to see your book on the shelves.  This is one of the big differences between traditional and self-publishing. Although there are ways to increase the odds of getting a self-published book into a bookstore, library, or other physical bookselling venue, this is still a traditional publisher’s superpower.

A self-published writer might get their book into a few bricks-and-mortar venues if they know the owner, live in the town, or have some other reason that it makes sense for the bookseller to carry that title, but for the most part, self-published writers sell their book outside the confines of brick-and-mortar venues.

This same divide exists for getting book reviews, as well. Major publication such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Time magazine have all featured self-published books in reviews or other editorial coverage, but it is much more difficult to pull off, and very rare.


4.    Money

As my above illustrations show, the author pays for the privilege of working with a team of pros at a publishing house. It just doesn't SEEM that way because the publisher pays the writer an advance, and pays a royalty on sales after that advance earns out. But the writer is only getting approximately 15% of the money that is made, and they must pay their agent 15% of that.

To make it easy to understand how this works, let’s look at the simplest possible set up for this reality.  (There are some great online calculators for getting into the nitty gritty on this – like the one at Tim Grahl’s site – but I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty right now. I’m staying at a very conceptual level to illustrate the main point about the difference between self- and traditional publishing.) Imagine a book for sale for $10.

  • The author gets a $1.50 royalty for every book sold.
  • The publisher takes the other $8.50 so they can pay their team of pros and make a profit.
  • Out of the $1.50, the author pays 23 cents to their agent, so they end up pocketing $1.27 per book.
  • If they sell 100 books, they make $127.00 – but remember they only actually get that money after they earn out their advance. The author gets to keep whatever the publisher paid as the advance, but doesn’t earn additional royalties until the publisher recoups the costs on the advance.

In a self-publishing model, depending on which vendors they use for production and distribution, and which formats they publish in, the author might earn anywhere between $3.50 and $7.50 per book. 

  • If they sell 100 books and get $3.50 each, they make $350. At $7.50, they make $750.

The fact of the matter is that you pay a price to publish no matter which path you take. Depending on the number of books you expect to sell, your existing platform, and other factors, you may make more money going one direction than another.


Some people see these differences and they absolutely know which path they want to take to publication. Others need more time to think and debate. 

If you are considering the path to traditional publishing, you should know that getting an agent and a traditional publishing deal is tough – and getting tougher all the time. Agents are inundated with queries (pitches), and only the most commercially viable books get through.

If you want to set yourself up for success in this realm – or if you are curious about what, exactly, it takes, and want insight before you make your final publishing decision – I invite you to check out my brand new course, The Pitch Track. It starts on April 25th. You can review the details HERE.