Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Self-publishing vs. Traditional: Some Straight Talk

I'm thrilled to have a guest post from Natalie Whipple, one of my former clients, who is now a "hybrid" author with experience with both traditional and self-publishing. She is the author of Transparent and House of Ivy & Sorrow, which comes out today, and Relax, I'm a Ninja, which will come out in June!

Here's Natalie's post:

There is a lot of talk online about legacy versus indie publishing and which is better. People seem to spend so much time focused on defending one side or the other, that the details of what each path actually entails get skewed or lost entirely.

To me, arguing which is “better” is a lot like fighting over whether basketball, baseball, or football is the superior sport. They are all sports, they all have a fan base, and they all bring enjoyment to the people who choose to participate in them. Is there really a “better”? Well, no. They’re just different. Same with legacy and indie publishing.

Maybe I see it this way because I’ve chosen to venture into both legacy and indie publishing. I’m what people are now calling a “hybrid” author. So since I’ve been on both sides, today I want to give out neutral, practical information on the difference between Legacy and Indie. I’ll leave it up to you guys to decide what you think is more advantageous or preferable or whatever.


Most people think of authors selling their books, but really it’s more about selling your creative rights in legacy publishing. A publisher wants to buy your rights to reproduce your words in a certain form—usually a book form. There are also other rights you can sell, like electronic (ebook), cinematic, audio, and translation. In the legacy model, a writer usually obtains an agent who specializes in selling and drawing up fair contracts for these various rights. You get a percentage of profit, your agent gets a cut, and of course so does the publisher.

In indie publishing, a writer keeps all their rights and uses them as they see fit. You could say an indie sells their books because of that. That means they get almost all the profit to themselves, but also have to do all the work themselves as well. Indies effectively become a small publisher of their own work. If they want to sell in audio book format, they have to hire the voice actor and make it happen (yes, you can do that). If they want to translate their novel into Spanish, they can hire someone to do that. Their rights are in their hands, for better or worse.


As alluded to in the previous section, indie publishing is all about control. The writer is in charge. While most authors hire out editors and designers, it’s still the writer who chooses who to work with and what the final product looks like. The writer controls price, marketing, design, everything.

In legacy, a writer gives up a lot of control when they sell rights. Your publisher will decide your cover, the price of the novel, the marketing scope. They will decide when your book releases and when they want to put it out of print. You can argue, but they don’t have to listen.


Legacy authors receive payment in two ways—advance against royalties, and then royalties if the novel “earns out its advance.” Your contract will contain royalty rates for each book format they purchased rights for. Advances are usually paid in segments upon contract signing, D&A, and publication. If you earn royalties, you may see a check every 6 months, sometimes once quarterly.

Indie writers do not receive advances, but begin to immediately make “royalty” on their work. The royalty received is much higher—usually 60-70% (as opposed to 6-25% legacy depending on format). Online distributers usually pay monthly if a threshold of income is achieved (from $10-100 depending on the place), otherwise it will be held to the next month.

Cost To Author

Legacy publishing has very little upfront cost to an aspiring writer (unless you consider time a cost, which is something to consider). Agents don’t take payments, but receive commission upon selling rights to your work. One you sell a novel, you may be paying for your own travel or marketing materials, but overall the cost can be almost zero if you don’t choose to do those things.

Indie publishing does have an upfront cost. The average for a quality product is around $1500 for a first novel, most of which goes to a freelance editor. Other costs can include interior and cover design, ebook formatting, ISBN purchasing, business license, marketing, purchasing hard copy inventory, etc.


Indie publishing can reach many markets it couldn’t previously, thanks to online marketplaces and reduced cost of production in the digital age. An indie writer can make their book available globally without having to own a lot of costly inventory. Legacy publishing still has a leg up in the bookstore and library area, having deep connections and filters that are easy for store/library buyers to use. Though the stigma on indie is slowly lifting, there is still a trust built between established publishers and store/library buyers.


Legacy publishing, in theory, gives an author a marketing plan they wouldn’t be able to accomplish on their own. At minimum, they submit their novels to trade reviewers, make them available in the publisher’s seasonal catalog, and make them more visible to store/library buyers who then champion those books to customers. At best (if you are very lucky), legacy publishers send authors on tour, get them big ad spaces in movie theaters, have features in well-known magazines, get radio and TV spots, etc.

Indie writers are responsible for their own marketing, and it’s really a matter of how much money and hustling they want to put into it. An indie can get ad space—it’s just very pricey. They can get trade reviews and other visibility. They can plan their own tours. They just have to foot the bill for everything. So it’s about maximizing visibility at a reasonable cost.

I hope this clears up some of the differences with legacy and indie publishing. But more than that, I hope it helps people see that both avenues have their pros and cons and aren’t necessarily against each other. Publishing is a hard business, no matter how you decide to tackle it. But I personally have found things to love in both methods, and I hope more writers begin to see that they have options and they don’t need to be afraid to explore them.


L. Shanna said...

I'm curious where the $1500 figure came from for indie publishing. I just went that route and spent much more. $1500 went to editing alone.

J Scott Savage said...

Interesting post. I agree with most of the points, but I wonder about the terminology used. A quick look-up of the definition of legacy comes up with,"Something that happened in the past or that comes from someone in the past."

This phrase is often used for software that is outdated or no longer supported. Is the assumption then that traditional publishing is going away? I'm not seeing that in my experience.

Andrea said...

Like Scott (hi, Scott!) hinted at, Natalie using the term "Legacy publishing" is slightly derogatory to traditional publishing. The term was made popular by authors who hate traditional publishing.

As a former hybrid, now full-time self-published author, here are my notes on the cost of self-publishing:

My first self-published book:
Edits: $1,000
Cover: $300 (it was done by a professional artist. Many authors get covers for much, much less than that)
Print book Typesetting: $150
Formatting: free (I did it myself)
Total: $1,450

Second book:
Edits: $450 (I only paid one of my editors. I found a couple of professional proofreaders who loved my first book and volunteered to help out with the rest of the series and my other books)
Cover: $300
Typesetting: $150
Formatting: free
Total: $900

Third book:
Edits: free (my editor and I worked out an arrangement where we swap publishing-type favors rather than money.(Formatting, cover design, etc.))
Cover: free (same with my editor. My cover designer and I now have an arrangement that helps both parties)
Typesetting: $150
Formatting: free
Total: $150

All of the rest of the books in my series cost me around $150, as did my other stand-alone novels and stories.

I'm now writing my tenth novel, and my production costs will be $0.00 for it. I've found a small-press publisher who will typeset my books for free in exchange for proofreading.

Here's the thing. The first book is expensive, but everything after that starts costing much less as the author makes connections in the writing world. I have more than one editor, but because of arrangements that benefit both parties, no exchange of money takes place. This won't happen for everyone, but I can guarantee it'll be more likely for someone who's willing and able to work, learn, and network effectively.

Traditional publishing was fun (especially signing that first contract!) but the longer I self-publish, the more satisfied I am with it. It's so much more rewarding and I make triple what I did as a traditional author.

Darcy said...

I have to say that I question the neutrality of the post when the author uses the term "legacy" rather than "traditional. " I've only ever seen "legacy" used as a slur by self-publishing cheerleaders. I don't think there is anything wrong with self publishing or with traditional publishing, but I know that when the term "legacy" is used, the author is definitely not neutral. Just my opinion.

Kristi A. said...

What an interesting article - very much enjoyed the comparison.

Natalie Whipple said...

First off, I'll totally apologize for using "legacy." I am admittedly newer to the indie thing and as I was writing this post I was just like "indie and legacy are shorter to type and I have about an hour to do this so I need to be fast."

No intention of slurring anyone whatsoever. Had no idea it was a slur.

J Scott Savage said...


Knowing you, I knew you weren't intentionally slurring traditionally published authors. But there are definitely words that have a certain meaning for certain people, and legacy is one that is almost always used by people who are saying traditional publishing is on the way out.

Like you said, it's a tricky business deciding what is best for you. You can sign with a huge publisher and have them do nothing for you. But you can also publish your own book, work your tail off, spend lots of money, and still not make a profit.

One of the things that makes deciding the hardest is that what we hear most about are the outliers on both sides--the people who make gobs of money and get lots of attention. While the truth is that most of us have never heard of the majority of people who are indie or traditionally published.

Also, Hi, Andrea! Thanks for sharing your cost info.

Andrea said...

I didn't either at first - easy mistake to make. I figured that's what had happened, since I'd done the very same thing in the beginning.

Great post, by the way!

Bob said...

Terminology is a mixed bag. I believe I was the first to use "hybrid author" back in a blog in 2011. Now it's all the rage. But even that could mean different things. It used to mean trad and self. But for me, it now means self and Amazon publishing, which I don't consider trad. With 42 books via NY, I can you working with 47North is a very different experience.

Bottom line is every author's situation is unique and a blog post like this helps educate those who need it in order to make their own personal decision for their career plan.

The big thing is to have a long term plan.

Peter Dudley said...

Natalie, you are 100% correct. Basketball, baseball, and football can't compare to soccer, which is by far the best sport.

As to the rest of your post, nice work. The one thing you left out, though, was timing. I know traditional publishing can be all over the board, but with self publishing you can go from finished manuscript to printed book in a few weeks. It can be an important consideration. (E.g. when I finished my first YA post-apocalyptic manuscript and was ready to query, the channel had just become saturated and no one was buying. I decided to bypass traditional publishing and had my novel out within a month, coinciding with the release of a big, relevant movie. That helped drive downloads significantly.)

Overall, I no longer pay much attention to the self vs legacy (sorry, "indie" vs "traditional") foofaraw. Opportunities exist, and picking sides only limits which opportunities you allow yourself to pursue.

Tracy Krauss said...

This is an excellent break down of the differences. I like your sports analogy and I totally agree. Its time people stopped trying to say one is better than the other. They are just different and it is really a matter of preference. I have also delved into both and there are pros and cons to each, especially for the low list or fledgling author.

Paula B. said...

If you're paying your editor only $1500, chances are you aren't getting a good one. Editing a book-length manuscript takes hours and hours and hours--hundreds, really. If your editor is putting in hundreds of hours for only $1500, well, you can see that he or she is going to go broke in a hurry. That's true even if you're only talking about copyediting, which requires many, many passes in its own right. Seriously. I've done it a zillion times, and I know.

Marilynn Byerly said...

"selling your creative rights'

A bit more nitpicking on terminology. You are leasing the rights to the publisher, not selling them. Selling them means you are selling them your copyright which is not true in most cases.

Laura Martone said...

Thanks, Natalie, for this informative and, despite the apparently controversial term "legacy," balanced post. As someone who's published travel guides in the traditional way and who will soon be self-publishing her novels, I REALLY appreciate this comparison between the two publishing paths. And as Tracy commented, I love your commonsensical sports analogy - because, yes, it's just a matter of preference these days... which makes it a great time to be an author!

rangewriter said...

Well rounded and much needed comparison. $1500 is a low figure, but it can be done if you find lots of new talent waiting to break into their fields: Editing, book and cover design. Proofreading, etc. But for people providing those services to make an honest living, you're going to need to pay them more. Bartering rarely pays the rent. And of course, lots of authors skip the professional polish and their books reflect the loss. But if they're selling books, who cares?

Jamie Lane said...

I have issue with the passive agressive tone of this article -- and I say this as a long time reader of both your blog, Nathan, and Natalie's.

Natalie's struggle with traditional publishing is well known and documented on her own blog. Legacy publishing is a well known term coined by those that hate big publishers. It's unnecessary. I note Natalie's explanation, but I think the article should be changed before many others -- especially those in the industry -- take more note.

Anonymous said...

"No intention of slurring anyone whatsoever. Had no idea it was a slur."

I didn't know that either. I use both myself, without an agenda.

But just to clarify one thing, many indie authors are opting NOT to pay huge fees to editors and they are collaborating and working with each other to edit books at no cost. Many of these books are hitting bestseller lists on Amazon.

Liza Perrat said...

Thanks for a very interesting post. Another way to cut self-publishing costs, marketing work and angst, is to be part of an author collective, a phenomenon which is definitely on the rise in today's publishing world. Several writer-friends and I formed the Triskele Books author collective over two years ago now, which made our self-publishing route far easier (and much more fun).

Kentish Janner said...

So... what I'm basically getting is: if you're poor with a lot of other commitments in your life, self-publishing is something of an impossible dream?

Decision made then. Looks like my first step will be trying to find an agent...

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Beautiful, succinct, concise and clear summation.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Excellent post. Plenty of good information to mull over.

Anonymous said...

@Kentish Janner

That's really a big misconception and this isn't the only information out there with "straight talk" on self-publishing.

I know cover artists who will put together a fantastic cover for $60.00. I also know *good* copy editors who will work for $200.00.

And many indie authors are doing very well and they've had other authors copy edit for them in the form of a barter system.

Please, please read up on all the information out there about indie publishing. There are all kinds of articles written that don't always apply to everyone. There's also a great deal of hype put out there about the quality of indie books and that's a misconception in most cases, too. Yes, some aren't well produced. But most are done well and the authors didn't spend even close to $1500 on editing fees. The problem is that very few want to admit this up front because it seems they are expected to pay huge editing make the book look better.

Indie publishing is a different process for everyone. I'm not contradicting this post. I'm just stating that this is one indie author's experience.

The most important part of indie publishing is marketing and promotion. And, dealing with some indie authors who game the system. The competition is hard, and to spend anywhere near $1500 dollars on edits isn't the best investment when considering the return... especially for a first book. A good deal of success in indie publishing comes from working in volume and being prolific.

But the bottom line is that you don't have to be wealthy to figure out a way to get a book published anymore. Fifty Shades of Grey started out as self-published fanfic. If you're lucky enough to get an agent, that's wonderful. But most writers aren't, and it's getting even harder to get an agent. So you just have to figure out what works best for you and keep working at it.

johnkador said...

The analogy lumping football, baseball and basketball is not apt to describe differences in traditional and indie publishing.

A more apt comparison is football, baseball, and badminton or fencing. All have their passions and fans, but the distribution of the sports can't compare. It may not be fair, but the media treat the sports differently.

Distribution (thus far) is the key advantage delivered by traditional publishers.

Natalie Whipple said...

Jamie Lane, I'm sorry your found this passive aggressive. While yes, I have admitted my honest struggles in publishing, I don't think indie is exempt from that either. It's been hard to learn (obviously I'm still learning because veterans here have helped clarify for me and I've learned from these comments as well), and I've invested a lot on my own with no real guarantee of a return. That is personally very scary to me.

Publishing is hard, no matter how you do it. And I am okay saying that. But that doesn't mean I haven't enjoyed working with my editor at a traditional publisher, or that I haven't loved every single agent I've had at Curtis Brown (CB has taken such good care of me over the years!). Going through that process has been as rewarding as it's been hard, much like anything worth doing. (And I also believe the same is true for indie—hard but rewarding.)

My choices to try indie had nothing to do with displeasure on the traditional road, but rather my writing style. Not everything I write is commercial enough to sell in the normal market—I'm totally okay with that and understand the market won't necessarily have room for all my weirder tales. But I still wanted to share those stories, and indie lets me do that.

So yes, I have indie projects, and I'm also on sub right now to traditional publishers. I have no intention of picking a side because I do like both. And I am especially enjoying everything I've learned by trying both—everything I'm continuing to learn. They are not perfect methods and I won't ever say they are (because nothing is perfect), but that doesn't mean I don't respect each path. I definitely do, and I'm sorry if I failed in portraying that in this post.

Peter Dudley said...

@johnkador, good point, but if we're going to nitpick the analogy, I'd say lacrosse is a better third sport. I've been told it's the fastest growing sport in the US, and it has its own very popular professional leagues and media coverage in certain markets. (Plus, it's older than football and baseball by several centuries.) That said, your last sentence is your main point, and I agree 100%.

Anyway, I'll echo the comments that say self-pub does not have to be expensive. My first book (which went to press with four typos, the same number I recently saw in a traditionally published fantasy best seller) cost me a grand total of $33 out of pocket: $8 for the proof copy and $25 for CreateSpace's expanded distribution service. Later I wised up and hired a cover artist for $200, but really it doesn't have to be expensive.

One of my problems with the way people view self-pub is that agents and publishers tell writers that a book has to be "perfect" before you pitch it. But then they say that you can't possibly self-pub without paying an editor a bunch of money. And everyone seems ok with this duality of message. But I think if you have a good critique group and hone your own editing and proofreading skills (i.e. do your job as a writer), there's no reason to spend a boatload of money on the self-pub process.

All that said, before you self-pub you have to know what your goals are. Writing novels is not my day job. Posts like this one calibrate people's expectations against reality, which is the most helpful thing an experienced author, whether traditionally or self published, can offer unpublished writers.

Anonymous said...

@Natalie Whipple:

"They are not perfect methods and I won't ever say they are (because nothing is perfect), but that doesn't mean I don't respect each path. I definitely do, and I'm sorry if I failed in portraying that in this post."

I didn't take it that way. I thought you were objective and you explained your own personal story with indie publishing well :)

Bruce Bonafede said...

This is basic stuff, but it's good IMPORTANT stuff because there are new writers delving into the subject all the time and it isn't all that easy to find articles that aren't pushing their author's agenda. (like some of the comments on this post appear to be) Yes, costs can vary. Big news. Overall, very nice post.

Anonymous said...

It 's great that you've been able to take both the traditional and indie route to publishing. I know that a number of authors going the traditional route today haven't been so lucky - their contracts contained some tricky "non-compete" language that doesn't allow them to independently publish any books at all because those books would compete with their traditionally published books. Those authors were quite shocked to discover that.

P.I. Barrington said...

Sorry sorry everyone but I prefer the traditional route. I self-published one novel, but all my others are published via independent publishers. I have neither the competence nor finances to continue self-publishing so I rely on pub houses who have the editing, cover artist and legalese staff in-house without extra cost. Speaking of legalese, anonymous stated that some authors were surprised by non-compete clauses so using an attorney or paralegal to consult or read/explain the contract would constitute yet another cost to the list of self-publishing expenses. Unless you sell hundreds and hundreds of your self-published book, it appears to me that the cost is higher than the reward. JMHO.

Linda Covella said...

When people think "traditional publisher," they usually envision the big major publishers. Another thing to throw into the mix are small "indie" publishers. I'm just starting out with two different ones, and they appear to support their authors much more than the big ones might do with a debut author. Smaller can mean you're going to get more attention. I'm hoping to find that is true, but the indie publishers could be a good alternative to the major publishers and self-publishing.

James W. Lewis said...

Both routes definitely have their pro's and con's. I initially went the traditional route and even had a literary agent, but things didn't work out. I've been indie since 2010 and love it! However, we spent more than $1500 to get my first book ready for launch. With my publishing company The Pantheon Collective, we've sold over 30,000 copies with four books. Still, I think being a hybrid author is the best way to go!

Anonymous said...

Linda Covella said, "Another thing to throw into the mix are small "indie" publishers."

See, this is why it's a problem that self-publishers have started calling themselves "indie" to avoid the negative connotations of "self-published." They are neglecting the fact that actual INDEPENDENT presses exist (small presses not under the umbrella of a big press, who nevertheless vet mss, pay advances, promote, edit, and take on all the expenses and risks of putting out authors' books). It is really disheartening to those presses when people they are no different then one person putting out his or her very own book of random quality.

Mridul said...

Found this video helpful in regard to this topic.

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