Self-Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing
‘I want an agent and a traditional publishing deal, but I guess I can always whack it up on the Kindle as a last resort.’
If I had a £1 for every time I heard this from a wannabe novelist, I would be hella rich by now.
It seems as if new authors think self-publishing is the bottom of the pile, the ‘easy’ option if you will. It’s the thing you do when you have no other options left. The last resort. Ugh.
Oi, Writers: NO!
As most veteran Bangers know, I work with writers. The vast majority of my work is screenwriting-related, as you might expect … But since I started writing novels and non-fiction, a good portion of my work now includes authors too.
When authors talk about self-publishing being a last resort with me, I ask them the following questions …
1) Do you know HOW to ‘whack it up on the Kindle’?
There’s lots of things would-be self-published authors need in order to create an eBook. It’s not a question of simply writing a book in Microsoft Word and then uploading it (more’s the pity!). An eBook has to be formatted in a special way, then again for other eReaders like Kobo. In addition, paperbacks need to be formatted a certain way too.
You’re going to need to buy software to do this (see point 3 on this list), or pay someone to do it for you. This is all AFTER the costs incurred for development edits and proofing. Yowser.
2) How many books do you think the average title sells in its lifetime?
According to Publisher’s Weekly, the average title only sells 500 copies in its lifetime. Now, that article I linked to was written in 2006 — before the Kindle even really took off.
So, what kind of numbers are we talking in 2022 and beyond??
Well, the publishing industry is spectacularly shady about releasing numbers. They’re fine with bestsellers: it’s easy to find figures for the likes of Stephen King and his ilk. But these are what I’ve heard publishers and agents call ‘uber authors’ – in other words, the usual rules don’t apply.
All that said, it’s believed the average self-published, digital-only book sells just 250 copies. Yikes.
3) How much £££$$$ do you have?
Many wannabe authors want to do self-publish on the cheap. They tend to underestimate the importance of cover art and often don’t understand what they need, such as …
- Editing. Just as no writer in their right mind would send out a first draft to agents, no self-publisher worth their salt would upload a non-edited, non-proofed book to the Kindle or elsewhere. These costs can range from £75-500 and beyond.
- Cover art. Tempted to skimp on cover art? I have one word: DON’T. A good cover is an absolute must. Expect to pay somewhere between $80 and $500 for good cover art.
- Technology. As mentioned in point 1, you’ll need software to format your book like Vellum which costs approx $249 — or to pay someone to do it for you. You will also need your own website as a kind of ‘shop window’, even if you don’t sell your books direct from it. Expect building, web hosting and backup to set you back at last $500 a year.
- ISBNs aka the International Book Standard Number. Every publisher needs these for non-digital books, that includes self-publishers. They usually cost somewhere in the region of $125, though you can get discounts if you buy in bulk.
- Book stock. You will probably need some paperbacks of your book, if only to check yourself. You may also want to send copies to reviewers, book bloggers, book shops or libraries. If you are in the UK, you are also LEGALLY REQUIRED to send a copy to the British Library (check your own country to see if they require similar).
- Marketing costs. If you just ‘whack your book up on the Kindle’ and leave it there, chances are no one will see it. This is because there’s a whopping 33 Million titles on that site alone! This means you WILL need to market the book … and costs quickly add up. Blog tours, email marketing software, hosting fees for your website, advertisements on social meda and beyond will bash you in the wallet.
- Ads. Ads on social media or other platforms are important. It’s a great way of getting your book to stand out in a sea of others. This is especially important on Amazon. This is because algorithms are now so sophisticated they can show the ad for your book to people who are most likely to buy. Check out Bryan Cohen’s Ads For Authors for more about this.
A lot of writers who think of self-publishing as a last resort don’t know ANY of this. Eek!
What’s more, the above is not the ONLY stuff you need either … HERE’S a great checklist of everything you need to think about for a successful self-published book launch.
4) How much TIME do you have?
I’ll be brutal: launching a book online with no author platform or following to speak of is a waste of time. If you …
- Hate blogging
- Don’t have a following on social media
- Have no website
- Don’t know how to utilise blog tours or book launch teams
- Aren’t using existing platforms like Patreon, Wattpad, Substack or Medium
- Don’t know how to use ‘real world’ PR like newspapers and radio
- Have no clue how to get people to sign up for your author newsletter
Then don’t waste your time self-publishing. Don’t put the cart before the horse: gain a following first, then you won’t be launching your book to crickets. ‘Build it and they will come’ — cheesy yes, but true!
CLICK HERE for a recent B2W article on building a following.
There’s lots more on B2W about building a following if you check out the drop-down menu for the label ‘social media’ … but if you want a whole course on this subject to guide you, check out Online Confidential.
Self-Publishing Is NOT A Last Resort
By the way, NONE of this is meant to dissuade you from self-publishing. Far from it. I believe more writers SHOULD take their writing destiny into their own hands … but to do that, we have to GET REAL! This means finding out exactly what we need to do to get our books published and out there.
So as you can hopefully see now, self-publishing takes just as much time – and money! – as traditional publishing. This is why I vehemently disagree with people who look down on self-publishing. It’s also why I am always at pains to dissuade authors from thinking they can just ‘whack’ their books up on the Kindle!
If you’re thinking about self-publishing versus traditional publishing right now, consider what your good points are. If you have a strong following online and are comfortable with marketing and promo? Go for it. If you’re not, I’d recommend going the traditional route.
Don’t forget though: you CAN do both!
That’s right: hybrid authors – those that do self-publishing AND traditional publishing – exist. I am one such beast … and I wouldn’t have it any other way!! I love the freedom and autonomy it gives me. Last resort. Tsk.
Hi Lucy and any visitors to the site,
love the article. Loads of useful info here for anyone considering self-publishing.
I just wanted to add a thought on the title.
In one sense, I completely agree. I’d be a bit mad if I didn’t since my choice to self-publish was my first choice. Never at any point did I consider trying to find an agent or a traditional publisher.
My self-publishing journey has been traumatic, filled with mistakes that I could have avoided IF I had read up properly and listened to good advice. I could write a book on how to fail at self-publishing. I have already given talks on that subject.
However, in another sense, I still feel that it is a last resort. Please hear me out. Traditional publishing, if you cna get a deal, is brilliant. You might not make much money, but you won’t end up seriously out of pocket, and you won’t have to jump through as many hoops.
The very things listed in this article, that make self-publishing a serious option that you have to work hard on, are the same reasons why any writer should, ideally, want to be trad-published.
You don’t have to buy ISBNs, you don’t have to worry about finding and paying an editor (BTW, I would expect to pay a LOT more for a full professional edit of a novel than £500) or cover designer, or any of that.
I must admit, even if I were starting out again, I wouldn’t go trad, but that’s me. I’d love to have known then what I know now. I’d love to know now what I will probably know in ten year’s time! But I could never have gone through the rejection process of trad.
But if an author comes to me and says they want to self-publish, I am often inclined to ask if they have considered trad, especially if they are young and have plenty of time, or if they have any serious ambitions to become a professional author.
It is unbelievably hard to make a living at this, but it is so much harder if you’ve spent two or three thousand pounds producing your book before you get your first sale.
Thanks once again for a great post and a constant supply of good advice.
Great article, and totally agree with the points re. the work involved in self-publishing or anything in between. I just recently got a publishing deal for a book that had been rejected 52 times, with a hybrid publisher. There are still costs involved but not as big as the costs involved in self-publishing. For me, the main reason I DIDN’T want to self-publish / hybrid initially were to avoid having to pay upfront costs, but I think in the long run, self-publishing and hybrid can be more cost effective and generate more income, but it definitely takes a lot of work and commitment!