Should You Be Getting a Book Published Traditionally or by Yourself?

getting a book publishedNo matter if you’re a brand new writer or have a bit of experience under your belt, all of us eventually need to figure out what’s involved with getting a book published.

Not only that but today we have the option of self-publishing, in addition to publishing traditionally. It wasn’t all that long ago when getting a book published only had one real option.

Now, in figuring out which of these is best for you, here are a few of the questions that might be on your mind: (By the way, this article is quite lengthy so you can click any of the bullet points below to jump directly to that section.)

Fear not – if any of these are questions you have about getting a book published then you’re in the right place. Before getting started, here’s a bit of backstory: I recently attended Toronto Writing Workshop, where one of the sessions was called “Publishing Options Today.” This was led by Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest and it was all about the pros and cons getting a book published through either traditional or self-publishing.

It was extremely fortunate timing because this was already the next article I had in mind to write. I was able to take all of Chuck’s wisdom and incorporate it into this piece. Café visitor – now sit back, read and learn all about the pros and cons of getting a book published through traditional or self-publishing.

Which is Easier?


If you haven’t started writing your book yet and this is the first question on your mind, I’m going to give you the bad news right away. Both methods of getting a book published are hard as hell.

No matter whether you’re getting a book published traditionally or through self-publishing, it’s going to require A LOT of work.

Giving a definitive answer to this question is extremely tricky because what works for one person might not for the next. For example, with traditional publishing, if you’re extremely fortunate and land yourself a literary agent after sending out only a handful of query letters, traditional publishing might seem easier.

On the other hand,  if the number of rejections from agents starts to total higher than you can (or want to) count, your motivation to publish could become shot. You’re going to think traditional publishing is harder than winning a thousand bucks off a scratch ticket.

So then you look at self-publishing. Sure, there aren’t any hurdles to jump through, preventing you from getting your book onto the Amazon marketplace, but there’s bad news too. If you’re self-publishing, you’re responsible for formatting your manuscript, getting cover art designed, obtaining an ISBN number, hiring an editor, building your own website and doing all of your own marketing.

Do you have to do any of this stuff? No -but if you want people to buy your book, you’d better. Whoever said to not judge a book by its cover might have had their heart in the right place, but their mind wasn’t there in terms of marketing. People absolutely judge a book by its cover and if you only spend five minutes throwing a cheap design together in MS Paint, it’s going to reflect poorly on your book sales.


Traditional Publishing: Not easy, because getting a book published this way requires learning how to write a query letter and how to submit it to agents while keeping yourself motivated as you receive rejection letters. If you do get a literary agent you will have to make further edits as they are sent to you, which means giving up some control of your book. Can be easier than self-publishing because you have a team of people to help you and take care of things like cover design and editing.

Self-Publishing: Not easy, because you are 100% responsible for doing everything.  You will need to spend money on hiring an artist for cover design, an editor to proofread your book, plus get an ISBN number, find publishing platforms and do all your own marketing. Can be easier than self-publishing because you are guaranteed to get your book published as long as you have the willpower and a bit of cash.

Where’s the Money?

Some individuals say you shouldn’t write for the wrong reasons. They say you shouldn’t write because you want to get published, but because you have a voice and a message. By extension, you shouldn’t write because you want to make money and get rich.

I say – why you can’t you do both?

Money isn’t the root of all evils. What it does is give you more options to do the things you want to do and be the person you want to be. Are you charitable and giving? Money will help you be more charitable and giving.

Why justify being a starving artist when you can be a thriving one instead? I highly doubt anyone who claims they don’t write for money would tear up a cheque for $10,000 if it was offered for their work. Perhaps they would if they think they could get a better offer elsewhere.

Yes – you should write because you have a voice and something you want to say.

Yes – you should write with a goal in mind. Whether that goal is to get published, be a best seller, or simply to have something to celebrate no matter the outcome – that much is up to you.

As for whether there’s more money to be found in traditional or self-publishing, I have more bad news for you, it’s going to be hard either way. Although the answer is a little more clear-cut in this case as well.

Your odds of making more money are higher as a self-published author, but only if you’re doing your marketing well. When I was at Toronto Writing Workshop, Chuck Sambuchino explained that the royalties to be made as a traditionally published author are small. For each sale of a $25 priced book, a traditionally published author would likely make only $2.50 – and that’s before the 15% agent commission and taxes.

You can make money both routes. Author, Michael J Sullivan, shares his personal income breakdown on Reddit.

Of course, traditionally published authors also have access to a publicist, enhanced marketing and distribution.

With self-publishing, your royalties are much higher. MediaShift shows that Amazon Kindle, and Kobo both let you keep 70% of what your book sells for. Smashwords pays 85%. If you can generate self-published sales then you’re looking at taking home far more dough, as long as you set your price point at the sweet spot.


Traditional Publishing: You have access to more marketing and distribution but unless you’re a best seller the odds of seeing a lot of money is low as author royalties are not high. Publishing houses will often pay authors an advance. That’s your money to keep no matter how well or poorly your book performs.

Self-Publishing: Higher royalties from sites like Amazon and Smashwords means you will earn more money on book sales. Of course, it’s completely up to the author to do all of the marketing for their self-published book , so the money only flows if you work hard to make it happen.

What About Success?

No one who goes through the trouble of planning, writing, editing and pubishing a book wants to see their project fail.

The short answer to the success of getting a book pubished is, “it depends.”

The longer answer is still, “it depends,” only with more details. Here are a few questions you can start by asking:

What is your definition of a successful book?

Is  your definition of a successful book one that makes you a lot of money? What if you release a free eBook – how many downloads does it need to be considered ‘successful?’ Are you looking for media coverage? Do you want it to be turned into a movie?

As far as a successful book goes, you will have to figure out what this means for you.

Are you writing fiction or non-fiction?

If you’re writing fiction, you’ll want people to read it – plain and simple. You also have access to large markets of people who enjoy reading certain genres. For instance, you can appeal to the tastes of fans of romance, of YA fantasy or of horror.

If you’re writing non-fiction, you might have quite a smaller audience. A book about how to grow the perfect tomato garden won’t have as much demand as a generic YA urban fantasy. There’s just far fewer people interested in reading about growing the perfect tomato garden.

Technically, if you’re writing non-fiction you can have a successful book even if no one reads it. If your non-fiction book is related to your professional career (eg. ‘real estate’), you can introduce yourself to a potential client as the author of a book about making great real estate deals. Suddenly, you’re an expert because you wrote a book about real estate, even if no one read it. This does wonders for your credibility.

Does your book appeal to large audience or is suited for a niche one?

By the way, unless you already have a platform to market yourself, it will be far more difficult to get a non-fiction book traditionally published.

What’s your genre?

Similar to the previous question, different genres have different markets. According to a 2014 article on The Richest, romance and erotica were the most popular genres, grossing $1.44 billion. The runner-up, crime & mystery, only grossed $728.2 million.

What’s popular, what are you writing and what is their room for in the market?

If you’re looking for traditional publishers – which ones are looking for each type of genre and story? If you’re self-publishing, the only thing that matters is doing your homework and your marketing.

How much time are you devoting to marketing?

A traditional publisher may assign a publicist to you who may or may not be helpful with your marketing. If you’re self-publishing then you’re 100% on your own. You should be prepared to invest time and energy into marketing, no matter which route you’re taking.

How much money are you prepared to invest in marketing?

Similar to the previous question, how much money are you prepared to invest into marketing? This includes the cost of a website, printing materials, setting up speaking engagements, getting business cards and everything else that’s associated. Getting a book published isn’t too expensive, but there are more costs associated with the self-published route.

Traditional publishing costs less as the publisher will take care of things like cover design and editing, but you may spend more time getting to that point. And time is money.

Do you have a platform?

This is especially critical for non-fiction. A writers platform means the number of people who will buy your book if you’re ready to sell it today. Who is listening to you already?

The reason this is important for non-fiction is because as a non-fiction author you should already have some authority and an audience who is listening. They should trust you to some extent.

For a fiction author it’s not as important because you don’t have to be qualified to tell a good story, you just have to tell it.


Traditional Publishing: There’s no guarantee of success but you can increase your odds by writing books that appeal to a wider audience and not leaving book marketing exclusively to your publisher. Get involved.

Self-Publishing: It’s going to be a tough road ahead so make sure you’re prepared to invest time, energy and money into marketing. Success can also vary wildly depending on whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction.

Can I Do Both?

You might be tempted to self-publish first and then look for traditional publication for the same book, later.

Don’t do this.

This is a very bad idea and I’ll tell you why. Let’s talk about something called First Publication Rights. In layman’s terms, this refers to ‘who gets to publish a piece of writing first.’ North American publishers want to have those rights. In fact, they need those rights.

If you self-publish, you have given up those rights.

If you put the first two chapters of your book up on Wattpad, your website, or any other publicly accessible place on the web, you have given up those rights.

In other words – if you are thinking about getting your book published traditionally – DO NOT self-publish first.

Yes, Fifty Shades of Grey’s origins began as a self-published novel. According to author E.L. James, it started as Twilight fan-fiction and evolved into the famous erotica novel after getting picked up by an Australian publisher. It can happen where a traditional publisher picks up a self-published book and takes it on, but this is an extreme exception to the rule.

Chances are, you will not be that exception – so don’t try.

That’s the official reason why getting a book published by a publisher when you’ve already self-published won’t work. Now let’s talk about the unofficial reason – the subtext.

When you try to get your self-published book traditionally published, here’s what the agent or publisher is going to hear:

“Hi, I self-published my awesome book but no one bought it and I didn’t make any money. Can you take my failed book on for yourself and use your own money and resources to make it successful?”

Unless you have the numbers to back up your success, that’s what they’re going to hear. And if your self-published book was successful, kudos to you! You don’t need a traditional publisher for help with getting a book published.


Traditional Publishing to Self-Publishing: If you’re successfully getting a book published traditionally then you have no reason to self-publish it later. You can always self-publish a completely different book though.

Self-Publishing to Traditional Publishing: This won’t happen. You can try to get traditionally published first and then self-publish if you were unsuccessful, but don’t try to get your self-published book published traditionally.

Which is Fastest?

Self-publishing is fastest.

Getting a book published traditionally is slow. Abysmally slow.

If you intend to self-publish, you could have everything in done in a couple of weeks. Sure, you’d be absolutely, completely drained by the end of that second week. But you could have a book published on the Amazon Marketplace and Smashwords in that time if you really wanted to. It’s theoretically possible.

With traditional publishing, not a burning chance in hell.

I like to refer to this simple 25 step guide on how to become a traditionally published author. FYI: It took me 4 years to reach step #15. Hey, at least it’s more than halfway there.

According to Chuck Sambuchino, even after an agent takes you on as a client and a publisher gives the big OKAY on your book, you can still be looking at an additional two years before your book is seen on store shelves.

Traditional publishing is slow – and that sucks. It really sucks.

But it’s the truth, so now you know.


Traditional Publishing: Getting a book published traditionally is super slow. Expect to be trapped in this process for years.

Self-Publishing: It’s the fastest. The only delay in getting it done is you.

What if I Want Control?

Self-publishing is the answer in this case.

When you are getting a book published traditionally, you are in fact, giving up a lot of control. Your agent will request changes in your story, as will the editor, as will the publisher. You might be forced to remove scenes you love, add extra information you never thought of, kill a character you want to keep around. You really don’t know until it happens.

This comes in the form of something called an EDIT LETTER. It’s a document outlining all the little and big changes you’re going to have to implement if you ever want your book to see beautiful shiny daylight.

Keep in mind, as much as this might hurt, as much as it might sound sucky, it is for the greater good. Agents, editors and publishers know what a book needs in order for it to sell. The edit letter might tear your story apart, but only to make it better.

If you self-publish, there is no edit letter. You can hire an editor (and should) who may make suggestions, but it will be totally up to you whether or not you implement them. If you self-publish, you have absolute control over your entire book, from start to finish.

Just remember that sometimes having too much control can be a bad thing.


Traditional Publishing: Getting a book published traditionally means you’re going to have to give up a lot of control, but it’s for the greater good.

Self-Publishing: You have 100% control over everything you do. Just be careful as too much control can sometimes be detrimental to your own success.

Which is the Most Professional?

Let’s put it this way, self-publishing can be seen as professional. If you hire an editor, get a professional design, obtain many positive book reviews and do all of your marketing correctly, you’re going down the right path. Unfortunately, even if you do all of this, you’re still going to have to fight against the stigma of bad self-published books every step of the way.

Traditional publication will be seen as professional, every time. No one is going to believe for a second that your book, which has been vetted by agents, editors and publishers, is unprofessional. They just won’t.

The simple truth is that anyone can self-publish a book. Not everyone can invest the time, resources and energy into getting a book published traditionally. It takes hard work, time and sacrifice. The reward for doing that is a seal of approval of quality.

There’s a reason why traditionally published books get put into major bookstores and self-published ones don’t.

There’s a reason why many media and news outlets will only review traditionally published novels.

You might have the greatest book in the world, but if you self-publish, you’re always going to have to prove it.


Traditional Publishing: Getting a book published this way will always be seen as professional.

Self-Publishing: You will always have to prove your book is professional if you’re getting a book published this way.

Publishing Comparison

So you’ve read through everything here about getting a book published and now you’re looking for a side-by-side comparison. Let’s break everything down, nice and simple.

Traditional Publishing
Which is easier? Harder: Requires getting an agent and lots of revisions. Easier: Get it edited, design a cover and upload.
Where’s the money? Usually less money unless you become a best seller. Higher royalties offer more opportunity to earn.
Success? More likely but too many variables to know for certain. Less likely but too many variables to know for certain.
Can I do both?  If you’re on the fence, try traditional first.  You cannot get a self-published book traditionally published later.
Which is fastest?  Can take years.  Can take weeks.
If I want control?  You’ll have to sacrifice some control.  You control everything.
 Professional? You will always be seen as professional.  You will always have to prove you are professional.

Hopefully this answered all your questions about getting a book published either through self or traditional means.

Did I miss anything? Do you still have any questions or concerns about which one of these two methods to choose? Please leave a comment down below with your thoughts or concerns.

Until then – good luck!

By | 2017-05-18T18:30:23+00:00 August 25th, 2016|Publishing|0 Comments

About the Author:

Author of ELEMENTALISTS: THE FIRES OF CANICUS. Owner of WritingABookCafe.com. Helping writers succeed from planning, to publishing and beyond.