Self-publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

As promised, a post taken from an email I wrote. This is an overview of my thoughts on self-publishing and traditional publishing, based on my and other people’s experiences. Though having experienced both, I’ll admit I’m pretty biased towards self-publishing. But whichever route you take, you should know what you’re in for.

Unless you’re a mega bestseller, it’s really hard to make a living through writing in traditional publishing. Self-publishing makes it much easier for the average author (or “midlister”) to earn a real income. Self-publishing also pays monthly (with an initial two-month delay after publication), and you can see all of your sales numbers. In traditional publishing, on the other hand, you have no idea when you’ll get paid. When a publisher buys your book, they give you an advance on royalties (and these numbers range wildly–could be $5,000, could be $500,000, theoretically depending on how many copies they think they can sell in the first year, but honestly it feels pretty random, and different publishers will make completely different offers on the same books).

Anyway, usually you’ll get half the advance on signing your contract, and half when revisions are done, but sometimes the advance will be paid in thirds instead, so one third on signing, one third on turning in the revised book, and one third on actual publication. There is literally no way to know when any of these steps will be done. Contracts can take only a few months to put together, but I’ve known people who had to wait a year for them. Even getting your revision notes depends on how busy your editor is and when they can get around to it, and then once you’ve actually done them and turned them in, the editor has to find time to read them, which could be weeks or months. Sometimes this process goes fairly quickly (as in, only a few months), but sometimes authors get stuck in revision hell where the editor just keeps requesting revisions over and over again for years. It’s rare for it to take that long, but it happens. Publication dates also get pushed forward sometimes, though at a certain point it’s locked in place. Then once your book comes out, you start getting royalty statements, which list your sales numbers, and if you’ve earned back your advance, they’ll also come with a royalty check. But these statements only come twice a year, and they’re six months after the fact. So whatever sales numbers they list are completely outdated, so for the most part, you’re always in the dark about how your book is doing. Publishers can also “hold against returns,” which means even if you’ve earned out your advance, they might not pay you anything because they’re trying to keep a buffer in case copies of your book get returned.


With self-publishing, on the other hand, you always know your sales numbers and how much money you’re making and when it will be paid.


You also have very little control over what a publisher does with your book. You can say no to edits–which a lot of authors don’t realize and end up making changes they don’t like–but the publisher has complete control over the cover and the blurb on the back of the book. (And if the cover offends people, readers always blame the author.) The publisher also controls the pricing and the Amazon categories the book is listed in. Amazon categories are super important for selling books, and putting it in the right combination of categories can have a huge effect on sales. As a self-publisher, you can choose categories and keywords and can change them at any point, but a publisher will set them once and never touch them again.


Traditional publishing is also super slow. It can take years for a book to come out, and that’s after you’ve found a publisher, which can also take years. For my first book, The Rise of Renegade X, it took me a year and a half to find a publisher, and then it took another year and a half for it to come out, but it can take more like two or three, depending on how full their publication schedule is. The book only took me a month to write, but it took another three years for it to hit the shelves. The publisher also did no marketing for it, and the buyer at Barnes and Noble (because yes, there’s one person per bookstore chain who decides if any of the stores can sell your book) had a “personal reaction” to the book (whatever that means) and decided no Barnes and Nobles were going to sell it. That may have contributed to my publisher not marketing the book–it’s hard to say. But basically, most of a book’s fate has been decided before readers even have a chance to buy it. Three years after the book came out, it was out of print, and I was able to get the rights back (because of a certain clause in my contract that said if sales fell below a certain threshold within a certain amount of time that I could ask for my rights back–this clause varies, depending on the contract, and sometimes they’re so convoluted that you won’t get your rights back unless the publisher actually goes out of business). I republished the book myself, along with a sequel–which the publisher wasn’t interested in, because my sales numbers weren’t high enough–and sold more copies of book one in three months than my old publisher had in three years. I had the same cover (different title font, but same art. which I licensed from the artist), and all I did was lower the price on the ebook and change the categories.


Traditional publishers can also get in the way of you publishing other books. Book contracts will have option clauses, meaning the publisher gets to look at the next book you write. This clause can be more specific, limiting it to a similar genre or even a book that only has the exact same elements, so that you don’t get screwed by it. But a lot of them are pretty open (my first one was–it was just any book in the YA or MG genres, which is everything I write). This means that when you write another book–or even just a proposal (sample chapters and a synopsis), the publisher gets an exclusive look at it. The contract will specify how many days they get an exclusive for (45, usually, or maybe 60), and then they’ll either make an offer or not, and you can either take the offer or try elsewhere. The real problem–and the one that nobody ever tells you ahead of time–is that publishers won’t actually look at anything else you’ve written until they’re finished with your first book. This might mean after edits are done, or it might mean after the book is actually published. This means that if you want to sell another book (or, you know, need to, because you have bills and stuff), you’ll probably have to write something in another genre (assuming your option clause allows for that). The publisher will also get first look at any sequels, which makes sense, but this can also tie things up for a long time. I’ve had publishers take months or in one case a year just to tell me that they weren’t going to publish a sequel. In both cases, I was then free to self-publish sequels myself, but sometimes authors end up with contracts that give the publisher complete control over their world and characters, meaning there’s nothing they can do. Which is a really crap situation to be in.


With self-publishing, you can publish on your own schedule. Meaning, if you write fast, you can publish fast, and the more releases you have, the more money you can make. Getting books out can take months instead of years (or for some people, weeks). You can write in whatever genres you want. You can write to any length–a thousand pages, a hundred pages, whatever. And the royalty rate for self-publishing ebooks is currently 70% (if your book is priced between $2.99 and $9.99, which is why a lot of short books still cost $2.99, because anything outside that range jumps down to 35%). With traditional publishing, ebook royalty rates are going to be way lower–ballpark range, maybe 20% – 35%, depending on your contract. Royalty rates for paper books are usually more like 10%. Whether you self-publish or not, most of your sales will be ebooks, and most of them will be through Amazon.


The only catch with self-publishing is that you need to provide cover art. Some people can make their own and do a good job (some people make their own and do not do a good job), but most people will need to pay an artist. You don’t want to skimp on cover art, because your cover is one of your most important sales tools (along with pricing, book description, and categories), but depending on what you need, you can usually get a good custom cover for a few hundred dollars. Sometimes less. (And by custom cover, I mean photo-manipulation covers, since custom illustration covers can get crazy expensive.) There are tons of pre-made covers out there in the $50 – $200 range. They vary in quality, but some are really good. (And you can always change the cover later.) And technically, you can publish a book with, like, just a flat color with some text on it. (I’m not recommending that, but my point is you don’t have to let anything stop you.)


There are other costs you can spend money on, like hiring an editor or a formatter, but those are things you can do yourself. Formatting an ebook takes two seconds. Formatting a print book takes a bit longer, and there’s more learning involved, but it’s still very doable. And also not nearly as important as having an ebook version up for sale.


As for categories, Amazon lets you pick three, but you can also assign keywords to your book, and those will also influence what categories it ends up in. I believe you can also just email them and say, “Hey, can you put my book in X category?” and they will, but I haven’t tried that. You want to research categories that would fit your book, looking specifically at what the ranking is for the top books in that category. How high does the ranking have to be to get on the first page of that category’s bestseller list? How high to get to the top? Ideally, you want to stagger your categories so that at least one needs a much lower ranking to get to the top listing, and at least one where it’s more difficult to reach the top (possibly way more difficult–some of them are tough!). The reason is because Amazon’s algorithms will promote a book that’s at the top of a category, no matter what category it is. This will in turn boost sales, which will boost its ranking, which will bring it higher in the more competitive categories, which will boost sales, etc. (A traditional publisher is never going to do this for you, especially since it takes some upkeep and the ability/willingness to make changes).

How many reviews you have–especially positive reviews, meaning four and five stars–also influences how the algorithms promote your book. One thing that The Rise of Renegade X had going for it when I republished it is it counted as a new release, since it had a new publisher, but it kept the reviews it had accumulated from its original publication. Meaning that the algorithms saw it as a “new book” that had a bunch of positive reviews from day one. That’s just my speculation, though, so take it with a grain of salt. Book 2 also did pretty well, and it didn’t start with any advantages, other than being the next book in the series. It also helped that I ended up releasing them at almost the same time, meaning they both ended up in Amazon’s Hot New Releases, and readers who enjoyed book 1 could just pick up book 2 and keep reading.

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