Self Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing

Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

As a writer the bottom line is simple: you want to get your books in front of as many readers as possible.  This article is about how you can do that. There is a lot of talk these days about self-publication, traditional publishing, the fate of bookstores, and digital versus books. We'll take a detailed look at the industry, so you can make the best decision for your book.


  • Traditional publishing has some very serious drawbacks writers need to understand
  • Self-publishing has different strengths than traditional publishing, but a whole set of its own drawbacks
  • Print books still outsell ebooks 4 to 1 as bookstore are making a comeback (and why that's important)
  • What to should consider when determining if you should self-publish or traditional publish


Many writers, from the famous Seth Godin to writers such as James Altucher and Hugh Howey, have written or spoken about how obsolete and doomed traditional publishing is. Traditional publishing still has some big advantages, but self-publishing companies and self-published authors are making the case that traditional publishing is nearly as obsolete as those compact discs gathering dust in your closet.

These critics of traditional publication make some great points.  Let’s take a high-level look at some of the most damning observations of traditional publishing.

Traditional Publishing Drawbacks

  • It’s slow: It takes somewhere between 9-18 months for a book to be released once it is submitted to a publisher, an infinity in the digital world.
  • It’s unfair: Publishers take the lion’s share of royalties, usually 85-92%.  That means most authors earn about a buck per book, or less.  Publishers hog roughly 70% of electronic royalties, for a product that has almost no production or distribution costs.
  • It’s outdated: They are not social-media savvy; they may have powerful inroads to traditional media, like TV and print magazines, but those things are increasingly irrelevant to book sales.
  • It’s ineffective: They do not give most authors a very big marketing push, or sometimes any marketing push at all.
  • It’s short-lived: Most authors’ books will be in bookstores for a few weeks and then get pulled from the shelves when they don’t sell very well, leaving it entirely up to Amazon sales.  This begs the question: why not just use Amazon?
  • It's not cost-effective: The vast majority of authors don’t make any real bankable money on their books.

Traditional Publishing Strengths 

Traditional publishing does offer far greater prestige, sizable advances to even beginning authors (if you have a good book proposal), seasoned editors who can offer incredibly valuable creative and practical feedback, the ability to more easily sell things like international and subsidiary rights to your book, and professional, in-house designers to create great book covers.  While few publishers will do all your marketing for you, good ones will actively support your marketing efforts.

But is traditional print publishing really dying a slow death?  Let’s take a closer look.

Print Books Are Doomed! (Or Are They?)

There is an assumption: everything is moving quickly towards digital, which plays against traditional publishing’s strengths and into their weaknesses. After all, one of traditional publishing’s biggest strengths is getting physical books into physical bookstores, in front of the eyes of physical buyers. Without this, they are taking another step to being like record stores without records, and we all know how that went.

But the death of print isn’t happening as predicted.

The Pew Research Center survey released data in December of 2012. The report showed that the percentage of adults who have read an e-book rose modestly over the past year, from 16% to 23%. But it also revealed that fully 89% of regular book readers said that they had read at least one printed book during the preceding 12 months. [1]

Bottom line: As of late 2012, electronic books had 22% of the total market, not exactly the domination and ass-whipping that had been predicated.  That means almost 4 out of every 5 books sold is still a print book. [2]

But Book Stores Are Still Doomed, Right? 

Bookstores had a rough time in the first decade of the 2000’s.   About a thousand small and independent stores closed their doors, Borders Books went out of business, and the media reported often on the dire state of the industry.

But something strange is happening.  Bookstores are growing again.

According to the American Booksellers Association, since 2009 the number of bookstores has gone up (very modestly mind you), from 1,404 to 1,567.  Independent bookstores currently sell 10% of the books, with Barnes and Nobel selling 20%, and Amazon 29% (the remaining 40% of sales are spread thinly through another 10 or so mediums, from Wallmart to resales outlets to audio books).  The independent booksellers holding their 10% of the market are finding novel ways of staying relevant to their communities.  [3]

Bottom line: It seems a safe bet that the book industry is not going to be the music industry, Part 2.

Self-Publishing Strengths

Self-publishing seems like it offers everything a writer could want. Print-on-demand. Design services. Fast turn-around. Copyediting services. Minimal financial risk. High rates of return per-sale (from 50-85%, as opposed to 8-15% in traditional publishing). The ability to write the book a writer wants to write. No risk of rejection, even for bad ideas and poorly written books.

These are all true. And some writers, such as Jan Strnad, Rachel Schurig, EL James, have made lots and lots (and lots) of money self-publishing. But it isn’t all sun and sunshine, either.

Self-Publishing Drawbacks 

  • While writers make most of the money, they also have to do all of the marketing themselves and take 100% of the financial risk. If you don’t have a large mailing list and a marketing plan, you will not sell books.  Period.
  • Editors are offered for hire, but they seldom have the breadth of experience traditional publishers’ editors have.  Most importantly, they won’t tell you “this book stinks and won’t make a dime, and here’s why.”
  • It is much harder to get books into small and independent bookstores (10% of the market), into huge book fairs like Book Expo and London Book Fair, and to sell the subsidiary and other rights for additional income.
  • 50% of self-published authors make less than $500 on their book.
  • 10% of self-published authors earn 75% of the money in that field, which means while the average for a self-published author is $10,000 a year, that statistic is hugely skewed by the top earners.
  • Anyone can self-publish, which means that self-publication gets clogged with vanity projects and books so poorly written they drag the reputation of everyone else down with them.  While traditional publishers also publish a lot of garbage, self-publishers are positively awash in it.
  • Most successful self-published authors will sign contracts with traditional publishers because the income potential is far greater. [4]

Should YOU Self-Publish? 

So what is a writer to do?  How does one determine if they should pursue self-publishing or traditional publishing?

You have a book, or want to write one.  Great.  That’s the easy part.  The hard part is selling it in this golden age of television, Netflix, Facebook, and Smartphones.  The world is busier and faster than ever before, and we are all very, very distracted.  A great book by a great author is no longer enough to capture and hold the attention of our culture.

All writers should create a book proposal for their book.  Why?  Because no publisher is going to swoop in and hand you a marketing plan and a best-seller, even if you get picked up by a big publisher.  Likewise, you’re not going to make 6-figures off of your self-published book without a marketing plan.  If you doubt that, I’m taking bets. Seriously.

Publishers can be a huge asset and partner on the path. Mine have been. They can also be a rip-off and do nothing for your book. I’ve experienced that kind of publisher as well. Self-publishers often position themselves to be the same as traditional publishers (only better!), but usually they won't deliver anything you don't pay them to do. And even then, most have a very limited reach. (A great cautionary tale about vanity and self-publishing can be found on Salon.)

How to Decide 

It is up to you to take responsibility for your career and your book. Self-publishing a good book, and then hoping it will sell will not work. Getting a traditional publishing contact and then hoping the publisher will do all the marketing isn't going to work.  You must know your target audience, identify similar books and writers, and fine-tune your marketing plan. You.

After you write your book proposal, ask these questions:

•  What kind of a deal you do you want from a publisher? (hint: if you don't know, you won't get a good deal)
•  What are they willing to do to promote your book, and you?
•  What are they willing to offer in writing?
•  What kinds of media interest and attention can they secure, if any?

And then ask yourself those exact same questions. If they’re not willing to do very much at all, you probably are better off self-publishing. If you're not willing to do those things either, you might as well save your wallet and your ego a drubbing, and not self-publish.

No matter which path you choose, your book will need a marketing plan and a way to get your message out there. Your book's success will, 99 out of 100 times, hinge on your willingness to keep promoting it, through blogs, Facebook, interviews, and creative offerings.

Writing your book is the first step to getting it out in the world. It's also the easiest part of the journey.

The good news is that you are not bound to take one path or the other. Many writers, myself included, have both self-published and published traditionally. So long as you're willing to roll up your sleeves and go to work on behalf of your book, you just might find yourself with some success on either path.

Keith Martin-Smith is an award-winning author, content strategist, and Zen priest. He is passionate about human connection, creativity, and evolution.