To self-publish or traditionally publish. That is the question.
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of agents and publishers or to take arms against a sea of books on Amazon, and by being among them, rise above? To die, to sleep (oh wait you won’t), to sleep perchance to dream of fame and riches… aye there’s the rub.
So. You have yourself a book. Should you just go ahead and self-publish and see how it does? Should you try your luck with agents and publishers? Should you try agents and publishers first and then self-publish if that doesn’t work?
Which way should you go? Here are seven questions to ask yourself:
Is your book a niche/passion project or does it have broad, national appeal?
In order to attract a traditional publisher, especially one of the major ones, you’re going to need to have a book that fits squarely into an established genre, is of appropriate length, and has mass commercial appeal.
Be honest with yourself. Is your book something that has broad, national appeal or is a niche? Is it a potential bestseller or something you just wrote to, say, have your family history recorded for posterity?
If it’s hyper-specialized you might want to either try for a similarly specialized publisher, or just go ahead and self-publish. And if it’s a passion project without commercial potential you’re probably best-served going straight to self-publishing.
How much control do you want over the publishing process?
If you go the traditional route, you’ll have an agent who will likely want you to edit your work before submission. You will (hopefully) have a publisher who will want you to revise your work. You won’t have approval over your cover, and you’ll probably only have mutual consent on your book title, meaning if your publisher doesn’t like it you’ll have to think of a new one that you both can agree upon. You’ll probably have limited control over how and where your book is marketed.
Traditional publishing is a group process and you absolutely cede some control over your book. This can be a good thing, chances are you’re dealing with experienced people within the publishing industry who are experts in their fields, but you may be frustrated at times with decisions you don’t agree with.
Meanwhile, with self-publishing, everything is up to you. Edits, cover, title, fonts, marketing, whether or not you want to include that stream of conscious sequence about the philosophical implications of of cotton candy… all your choice.
How much does the validation of traditional publishing matter to you?
The stigma surrounding self-publishing has largely dissipated, but it’s not gone entirely.
And there’s still something gratifying about doing something as hugely difficult as making it through the traditional publishing process, having your work validated by professionals, and being paid for your efforts. The names Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster… they still matter to many people.
Success is success, and in the end it’s the readers who are the ultimate validators. Do you want the validation that comes with traditional publishing? Or are you cool going straight to readers?
How important is it for your book to be in bookstores and libraries?
While you might be able to strike up some individual relationships with local bookstores and libraries as a self-published author, the surest route to bookstores and libraries is through traditional publishers, who have wide distribution.
Do you care about being in bookstores? Are you writing in a genre, like books for children, where libraries are super-important? If so, you might want to pursue traditional publication.
How capable are you at marketing and self-promotion?
There’s no guarantee that a publisher is going to adequately promote your book, but they’ll at least give you a bit of a boost at bare minimum.
If you self-publish, you’re entirely on your own. You don’t necessarily have to be a social media maven or a celebrity in order to give your book the boost necessary to generate crucial word of mouth, but you’re going to have to do something.
Can you afford to invest money in your book?
Say what you will about traditional publishing, but one great thing about it is that it is not very cost prohibitive. You might incur some postage sending your manuscript around or if you choose to pay an editor before pursuing publication, but agents don’t charge you until they get commission for selling your book, and publishers pay you.
Self-publishing similarly doesn’t have to be hugely cost-prohibitive, but there are a lot of tasks involved in self-publishing, such as generating a cover, editing, copyediting, formatting, self-promotion, that you’re either going to have to spend the time to do yourself or pay someone to do for you.
Depending on how much time you have to spend and your level of expertise, you may end up spending a thousand dollars or two to effectively self-publish. Can you afford that? (And you shouldn’t necessarily assume you’re going to get it back).
How patient are you?
Choosing traditional or self-publishing isn’t necessarily an either/or decision. You can absolutely decide to pursue traditional publishing first and fall back on self-publishing if you so desire.
But even in the best case scenario, traditional publishing can take forever. It can take a year or more to query agents, and then a year or more to find an editor when you’re on submission to publishers, and then even if you get a book deal it can be a year or two after that before your book comes out. It can very easily add up to two or three years or more after you finish your manuscript.
Meanwhile, when I finished How to Write a Novel, it was up for sale a few days later. Self-publishing is practically instantaneous.
Are you the patient type? Do you want to cut to the chase? That can perhaps be the most important factor of all.
How did you decide whether to pursue traditional publishing or self-publishing? Did I miss anything?
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Le tour de la France par deux enfants by G. Bruno