As an (aspiring) author of the twenty-first century, you will come to the point after finishing your novel when you must ask yourself which path you should pursue: self-publishing or traditionally publishing. Each has its merits as well as its cons, and each appeals to a certain kind of person. But before you make a decision, make sure you know all the facts.
This is the way it has been done for hundreds of years, and it’s worked because there are great benefits to it. When a publisher purchases book rights, it gives an author an advance on her royalties based on how well it thinks the book will sell. These advances can range anywhere from “$500 to millions of dollars,” and as long as the author does what is expected of her, she can keep the advance, even if her book doesn’t sell enough to pay back the advance to the publisher. The publisher gets the author access to editors, cover artists, distributors, and marketers with the publisher paying the bill. Through traditional publishing, an author also gets her book on store shelves, a lucrative avenue nearly exclusive to traditionally published authors, and has her work eligible for bestseller lists. This also lends credibility to the writer, as when a reader sees a book has been published through a house, he has more confidence in his purchase than he would with a self-published title. As demonstrated, traditional publishing has many perks, which explains how it has been around for so long.
However, with traditional publishing comes lengthy contracts and strict guidelines. These contracts often hold clauses requiring the author to give away creative rights and control, meaning that the publisher can demand the book be changed to their liking. This can be as simple as the cover art to something as huge as the plot. Since traditional publishers don’t like to take risks, some will ask authors to do such things as “make a gay character straight, or cut him out altogether,” which happened to Stranger authors Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith. If an author is trying to push new boundaries and is not yet established, she’s going to have a hard time finding a publisher willing to take her due to her high risk. On a financial note, while post-advance royalties have never been great, the situation has grown worse. A study published in 2014 found that royalty earnings for authors in the UK had fallen by 29% while the average earnings for a UK worker were down by only 8%. Despite the security and instant gratification of an advance that comes from this type of publishing, it’s no wonder authors are flocking to the self-publishing market.
This option gives an author more freedom and control than traditional publishing. Through Amazon, the goliath of self-publishing, an author can publish both ebook and print-on-demand copies of her novel and keep control of every aspect of the process. She is in charge of the content, her schedule, the cover, the marketing, the price, and everything a traditional publisher would have taken care of, all while retaining sole rights to her work. Publication is instantaneous, and if the author finds a typo after publishing that she’d like to correct, she can do so immediately. The author herself dictates marketing tactics, granting her the ability to create more informed and targeted plan than a marketer employed by a publisher, who would likely know only the bare bones of the story and not the heart. Freedom is the key calling-card of self-publishing, and each author is master of her own destiny.
But with great freedom comes great responsibility, and not everyone is up to the demands of self-publishing. Due to the fact that literally anyone can self-publish, the overall quality of these books tend to be low and lead to these “indie” authors to flood magazine editors like Roger Sutton with review requests for low-quality work. To be successful in self-publishing, the author must invest a much larger commitment as she takes on the roles of writer, publisher, marketer, editor, and cover designer. She can choose to outsource any or all of these aspects, but doing so takes money directly from the author’s pocket, and the final call is ultimately on her shoulders. Since the author is paying out of pocket for any services she might want regarding her book, the poor state of the self-publisher’s wallet grows only worse. The median profit range for self-published authors is $1-$4999 while the median profit range for traditionally published authors is $5000-$9,999, and “few authors are getting rich off of their writing or even earning enough from their writing to quit their day jobs.” While self-publishers are making significantly less than traditionally published authors, neither in general are doing well enough to make a living, so maybe the indie author can sleep easier at night knowing that. The risk and responsibility involved in self-publishing weighs heavily on an author, and they serve as reasons to pursue traditional publishing for many authors.
So which of these options is right for you? That’s up to you to decide. Do your research, and do what feels right — not just what you think you’re “supposed” to do.