The Traditional vs. Self-Publish Debate (Part Two)

Last week we looked at the different aspects of publishing traditionally. Now it’s self-publishing’s turn to get put under the microscope.

As I mentioned previously, self-publishing has always existed, but it wasn’t until the advent of the eBook that it really started to become a lucrative option for writers. Prior to the eReader revolution, self-publishing meant two things:

a) You weren’t good enough to be published traditionally.

b) Your savings account would dwindle significantly, and your garage would soon be filled with unsold books collecting dust for eternity.

Neither of those things really apply now that sites like Amazon, Smashwords, and others have made self-publishing a much more viable option. True, there will still be some financial burden on the author, but it’s nowhere near what it was. And yes, you’ll still run into the stigma of self-published equaling lesser quality, but that’s mostly an attitude held by other writers and members of the publishing industry. Readers don’t care about the publishing house logo on your book’s spine. They only care whether it’s an enjoyable read. With a professional presentation, it is possible to turn a self-published title into a #1 bestseller. E.L. James’s Fifty Shades Trilogy was self-published prior to its current version, and look at the success it’s now earned. It might not be the shining example of literary greatness, but no one can argue with those sales numbers. So it can happen. If you’re willing to work.

Work is the key word here, because if you choose this route, you will have to work. Hard. Unlike publishing traditionally, you won’t have a team of experts backing your venture into published-land. So you’ll have to be your own editor, marketing department, publicist, salesman and master distributor– all while still being a writer. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? You can outsource some of it, like editing and cover design, to freelance contractors specializing in those fields, but the task of finding readers will ultimately fall on you.

There a million different ways to go about gaining the exposure necessary. Author branding, blog tours, social media campaigns, community involvement with other writers/readers, contests/giveaways, the list is seemingly endless for the marketing savvy indie author. But all of it basically comes down to one thing– networking. Networking is important for both modes of publication, but it’s inextricably tied to a self-published author’s livelihood. Word-of-mouth recommendations can mean the difference between success and failure in the self-published world. Thousands of titles are published on Amazon every day, not to mention the thousands that join the market from other sources. So it’s not enough to simply put your work out there with a kiss and a wave and hope it will get found. Aside from your friends and family, no one will ever know you even published a book if you don’t bring it to their attention.

Welcome to the crux of self-publishing– without exposure to potential readers you won’t get any sales, and without any sales, well, you better not quit that day job.

But no worries; you’ve got this. You’ve created your master plan, you’ve got a secret MBA in marketing, you’re a networking genius. You’ll have no problem reaching the droves of fans who don’t realize they’ve been waiting for your book. Right? Not exactly. Even if the stars align and you become an instant eBook success, an indie demigod, guess what? You’ve only managed to reach 25% of the reader market. That’s right, according to several sites, eBooks, while growing significantly in popularity, still only equal about 25% of all book sales. There’s still 75% of the market that doesn’t know you exist, that prefers holding a real book to reading one on a screen, and who will likely never purchase your baby. Frustrating, no?

There are POD (Print-on-demand) sites like or that allow self-published authors the ability to print their titles in physical form without requiring the quantities that would mean boxes stored in your garage. But I’ve heard mixed things about their quality. And oddly, while readers have few qualms taking chances on self-published eBooks, they seem a little more hesitant to shell out their precious paychecks for a self-published paperback. Oh, and good luck getting anywhere but the indie bookstore down the street that loves to support local authors to stock your book. Because, well, see point “a” above. Self-published books are still judged under the stigma that they must be poorer quality than traditionally published works. The public knows, even if they don’t consciously realize it, that traditional publishing consists of a quality control system that prevents drivel from making an appearance on their bookshelves (yes, the definition of drivel is subjective, but you get my point). Most instantly think that a self-published work must have been rejected by the publishing houses, otherwise, it wouldn’t be self-published. Therefore, it must suck. Logical, yes? But also false.

More and more authors, both new and established, are turning to self-publishing despite the smaller audience numbers. Why? For the royalties.

This, my friends, is one of the main reasons that self-publishing is so attractive. If you remember from last week, the royalty rate for traditionally published books is piddly. By comparison, self-publishing rates look like a gold mine. They differ depending on the site you’re using, but in general, they seem to average anywhere from 20-70%. That’s a lot heftier portion per sale than the measly 8-10% you’d get from traditional publishing. Then there’s the difference in time to publication. Remember that 2-3 year delay between finishing your book and having it available for sale that plagues traditionally published authors? It’s nonexistent with self-publishing. You only have to invest maybe a couple months from the time you finish your final draft to making your work available for readers everywhere to enjoy. Which translates to as much as a 3 year head start on generating sales instead of waiting, penniless, watching that sad little advance disappear to the three bills it’ll cover while you wait for your traditional publisher to finish running your book through production. And there are no contracts. You are entirely the master of your own destiny. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, doesn’t it? More money, more control, it’s a writer’s dream life come true!

Of course, it all depends entirely on the ability to drum up sales. Which we’ve already established is significantly more difficult this way. Aside from the strategies listed above for gaining exposure, a lot of successful indie authors get around this hurdle with one simple feat– being prolific. Often, self-published authors will churn out as many as 3-4 titles a year as opposed to the 1-2 you’d see from a traditionally published author. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but when you look at some of the self-published authors that are wildly popular, (Amanda Hocking comes to mind here), you’ll see that they’ve already amassed more titles than most of the high profile names in traditional publishing have over a lifetime. For a slower writer like myself, the fact that success seems to go hand in hand with being prolific is a major downside to self-publishing, and one that may factor heavily into my final decision.

These are just a few of the pros and cons. Every writer’s experience/success will vary depending on the multitude of factors involved. No one can tell you which publication method is correct for your work; you’ll have to figure that out for yourself. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, an aversion to giving up control, and a prolific imagination, self-publishing could well be for you. If everything I’ve listed here, (aside from the money part– everyone loves money, except maybe that baby in the Capital One ads), has left you feeling ill and frozen with trepidation, then you’re probably better off trying for traditional methods. Self-publishing definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. Are you willing to put in the effort? I’m not sure I am.

Next Week on Nightwolf’s Corner: The Traditional vs. Self-Publish Debate, Part Three: Summary & Helpful Links


4 thoughts on “The Traditional vs. Self-Publish Debate (Part Two)

    • Thank you for reading! I’m really glad it helped someone. Check back next week for all the links to my sources. My paraphrasing doesn’t do most of them justice. 🙂

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