Self- or Traditional Publishing?

Image from ShutterStock

Image from ShutterStock


This is one of the perennial questions authors face, even long after first making the decision. Once you choose, you question your decision, and wonder if the grass is greener on the other side.

But that first decision is important. More important than you realize at the time.

It seems intuitive that if self-publishing doesn’t work out, you can try traditional publishing later. Or vice-versa.

You can, but there are some complications that you don’t tend to realize at the time of that critical decision.

So before we discuss the pros and cons, and consider which option may be the best fit for your needs, let’s examine some of those complications.


Many authors self-publish first because that path seems easier to take. Then later, if their books aren’t selling, they wonder if they should switch to traditional publishing.

But there’s something they should know before the decide the first time:

First Rights vs. Reprint Rights

Traditional publishers and literary agents prefer first rights.

That is, they prefer to publish books that have never been published before.

Once you self-publish, you can no longer sell the first rights to your book.

Now you’re selling reprint rights, which are much harder to sell.

If your self-published book isn’t selling, why would a publisher want to invest in it? You need to convince a publisher that your book will sell. That’s nearly impossible when a simple search on Amazon shows the publisher that your book isn’t selling.

Even if your self-published book is selling, it has to really sell like hot cakes to interest a traditional publisher in reprint rights. And if that’s the case, why would you stop self-publishing? If you can sell thousands of books per week, you might interest a publisher in picking up your title. But why on earth would you do that if you can sell in large volume all on your own?

If you have moderate sales, that’s not attractive for reprint rights. Maybe those are all the sales you’ll get. The publisher has missed out on the initial splash. Why pick up the leftovers?

Switching from traditional to self-publishing carries its own challenge.

In this case, the difficulty lies in getting the rights to your book. The details lie in your contract. If and when rights do revert back to you, that doesn’t mean you’ll receive a copy of an editable file with all the editing and formatting built into it. Rather, you’ll probably start over with the formatting. And you’ll probably need a new cover.


There are a couple of ways that you can make the switch successfully.

The trick is to realize this before you first make the decision about whether to self-publish or publish traditionally.

Shop your book to an agent or publisher first.

This may even have its advantages if you’re already leaning heavily toward self-publishing.

If your book doesn’t wind up getting published traditionally, you’ll be able to self-publish instead. What’s the rush? If instead you self-publish first, you’ll lose your chance to sell the first rights to a publisher, which makes it hard to switch to traditional publishing.

Therefore, if traditional publishing is important to you or is something you’re strongly considering, you might explore agents or publishers first, and then self-publish if either you don’t find an agent or publisher or if you land a deal, but don’t like the terms.

While you’re shopping your book proposal around, you can write more books and get your online author platform going. This way, if after several months you decide to switch to self-publishing, you’ll be much better prepared to do it. Plus, the process of writing query letters and book proposals and thinking about the business side of your book will help you when it comes time to preparing your book description, back cover text, biography, marketing, etc.

You learn some valuable skills in the process. It may be worth going through even if you had been leaning toward self-publishing.

Write multiple books and use a pen name.

The alternative is to self-publish one book in one name, and if you decide you want to explore the traditional publishing route, write a different book in a different name.

There are actually many authors who do both—self-publish and traditionally publish.

Even if you do land a publishing deal, most authors write many more books than they can get published traditionally, so self-publishing offers a way to publish all of your books.

You get the best of both worlds by creating two brands as an author—one brand as a self-publisher, and another as a traditional publisher.

You’ll probably find it easier to market your self-published book using your own name (or a nick name).


The main differences are:

Do you have a book that’s particularly well-suited for library use or bookstore purchases?

If so, if you can get your book traditionally published, there is better library and bookstore potential.

It’s not about hoping that it will sell in bookstores.

It’s about knowing that your book will thrive in that environment. If you have a great marketing plan for sending customers into bookstores across the nation, that will help a lot. Certain kinds of books sell this way.

Your book won’t wind up on an endcap. It won’t appear on the top shelf with the front cover facing the customer. It won’t have a dozen copies on the shelf.

Your book will have limited visibility. It will be buried among many others on some shelf. It will have a limited shelf life unless you succeed in driving sales in bookstores.

Certain kinds of books attract library use. Again, if you have a great marketing plan for how to send people across the nation to their local libraries to inquire about your book, that’s a huge plus.

Otherwise, what is a publisher really doing for you? Many publishers don’t do many of the things that authors hope they will do.

Unless you’re already a bestselling author or celebrity. And if you are, I can’t believe you’re over at my humble blog reading this article. 🙂

Even if you have a book well-suited for sales to bookstores or libraries, you need to convince a publisher or agent of this. If not, you can still sell books to libraries and bookstores as a self-published author. Distribution isn’t as easy, especially on a very wide scale, but there are self-published authors who’ve done their homework on this and who do sell many copies this way, especially to local and regional stores (not necessarily bookstores).

However, note that bookstore distribution isn’t guaranteed even with a traditional publisher.

Are you an author of a textbook or other academic resource?

There are advantages of publishing textbooks and educational resources through major textbook publishers.

For example, if you can get classes around the country to adopt your textbook, that can be huge for sales—especially if they are fundamental courses that most students take. Many textbooks are peer-reviewed and heavily researched, which appeals to teachers. Most instructors adopt textbooks that are traditionally published. It’s much easier to get a traditionally published textbook adopted by a college bookstore.

Whether or not you can land the deal is another question. Textbook publishers will likely scrutinize your resume. The strength of your resume, and current position, may weigh much higher than your content knowledge and communication skills.

Supplemental materials can sell quite well even if they are self-published. Your resume is more likely to impress a customer at Amazon than an editor for a publishing house (where all the proposals come from professors).

Do you have a scholarly or more literary fictional work?

This gets a little tricky because publishers want to publish books that are most likely to sell.

But publishers also need well-written scholarly and literary works to help build their brands and show customers that they have quality material to deliver.

No matter how you publish, many literary pieces may find sales hard to come by, but you might find your market more easily with traditional publishing.

Still, landing the publishing deal and finding readers in the more scholarly, literary market can be tough.

Do you have a resume that will appeal to a traditional publisher or literary agent?

Are you a celebrity? Celebrity status can help to land a publishing deal. But if you have a huge following, that can help you as a self-publisher, too.

Are you a nonfiction author with an impressive resume? That may appeal to traditional publishers. Though again, that resume can be a marketing asset even as a self-publisher.

Are you the perfect person to carry out your book idea? If you can convince a publisher that you have a book idea that will really take off, and you’re the perfect person to write that book, this can help you get published.


Do you have a great book idea, but you might not be the best person to carry it out?

Then here is what may happen.

You might submit your book proposal to a publisher.

The publisher thinks, “That’s a great idea. But we need someone with relevant expertise to write this book.”

Guess what’s going to happen? Your proposal gets rejected.

Then a couple of years later, you see a book in the bookstore very similar to your proposal, written by someone with expertise on that subject.

No, it’s not plagiarism. They didn’t copy your book word for word. They took the overall idea, which you can’t copyright, and did something similar. Not so similar as to get sued for plagiarism. They probably changed your idea and made it even better.

Do you have some other goal or need besides reaching readers and selling books?

Maybe you just want to see your book on a bookshelf in a bookstore or library.

Maybe you just want to see a major imprint’s name on the spine of your book.

Maybe you want the status of being published traditionally.

Maybe you want to experience the feeling of getting accepted through a process that has a huge rejection rate.

These are reasons to favor traditional publishing, even if sales might be better otherwise.


Maybe you want to write a unique book that’s not likely to have much of an audience.

Maybe you have a time-sensitive topic that needs to reach the market quickly.

Maybe you have an idea for a series of books that you intend to publish once every month or two.

These are reasons to favor self-publishing.


A few things are equally tough no matter how you publish:

There is no easy path.

Traditional publishing requires learning about query letters, book proposals, and possibly approaching an agent. It takes much patience, persistence, and many queries. You must think about the business side of writing, as this interests the publisher. There is a lot of extra work that you must do besides just writing.

Self-publishing isn’t an easy alternative. Sure, you don’t have to worry about rejection letters. But do you actually want to sell books? If so, you need a marketable idea, you need to research your genre, you need to learn about your audience, you need to edit, you need to format, you need to design a cover, you need to package your book, you need to learn about marketing, etc.

No matter what, it takes self-motivated diligence to succeed as a writer. Neither self- nor traditional publishing offer an easy way to do it.

Marketing is your responsibility.

No matter how you publish, marketing is up to you, and it generally takes good marketing to sell books.

Publishers invest most of their marketing budget in bestselling authors and celebrities, i.e. books that they feel are most likely to sell.

Many new authors have the unrealistic expectation that publishers will market their books for them. You might benefit a little, but in general it’s largely up to you.

If you want to improve your chances of getting a second book published, you need to help your first published book sell very well.

Personal interactions can be a new author’s best asset. Nobody else can do this for you.

A writer’s life comes with challenges.

If you explore the traditional published route, you’re likely to receive many rejection letters.

No matter how you publish, your book will eventually receive public criticism in the form of reviews.

Criticism is a challenge that all authors face. You can run, but you can’t hide.

Earning good money from royalties won’t be easy.

It’s hard to sell books whether your self-publish or traditionally publish.

Even if you breakthrough and land a publishing contract, most authors still make much less from book royalties than most people realize.

However, you can get a decent advance (say, $1000 to $5000) if you land a publishing deal. You might not earn anything beyond that, but at least you have a chance to earn something up front.

With self-publishing, you can earn up to 70% royalties (via Kindle), compared to a typical 5 to 15% for traditionally publishing. A traditionally published book sometimes commands a higher price point, but self-publishing royalties can be lucrative. Either way, the challenge is to sell books. If your book doesn’t sell, it really doesn’t matter what your royalty percentage is.

Self-publishing pays you as your books sell. There is no advance. And there is no guarantee of sales.


Except for the special cases I noted previously that may favor traditional publishing…

Your best chance of succeeding as an author is:

  • to self-publish multiple similar books with a very long-term plan and marketable ideas
  • to self-publish multiple similar books and also traditionally publish under a pen name

If you happen to win the traditional publishing lottery, selling hundreds of thousands of your first book so that you become one of the very rare bestsellers that will gain premium bookstore exposure and publisher marketing, then traditional publishing can be very lucrative.

Or if you plan to only write one or two books and then quit… This greatly limits your chances of success no matter how you publish. You might get the most out of it by traditionally publishing.

But most authors who get traditionally published will be midlist authors, in which case it will take a lot of books to generate a lot of sales. And self-publishing is best-suited for publishing several books. You can publish some traditionally and others with self-publishing, or you can self-publish all of them, but your best chances of succeeding as an author are to include self-publishing at least as part of your long-term plan.

The key is that no matter what you need to:

  • think very long-term
  • have self-motivated diligence
  • be very patient
  • do your research before you write
  • be willing to learn and apply marketing strategies
  • produce quality content

But if you’re willing to write several similar books, figure out what your audience wants, gradually develop a professional author platform, focus on long-term publishing goals, and learn how to market your book, such self-motivated diligence naturally lends itself to self-publishing and gives you a healthy long-term edge. Things may start out very slowly, but there is much potential for the author who does his or her homework, produces quality content, and write several similar books.

These same skills can help with traditional publishing, too. But you may find it difficult to get all of your book ideas traditionally published, so even if you publish traditionally, you probably want to self-publish on the side, too (probably under different names).


You can win my 4-books-in-1 paperback book on Self-Publishing with Amazon.

This is an Amazon Giveaway hosted by Amazon. If you win, Amazon will fulfill the order and ship your prize directly to you. Click the following link for your chance to win. Every 300th entrant will win. Up to two winners.

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Ends the earlier of Mar 25, 2015 11:59 PM PDT, or when all prizes are claimed. See the Official Rules at


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Chris McMullen

Copyright © 2015

Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

  • Volume 1 on formatting and publishing
  • Volume 2 on marketability and marketing
  • 4-in-1 Boxed set includes both volumes and more

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9 comments on “Self- or Traditional Publishing?

  1. brilliant. Wrote a book. Tried to get it published by Unbound. Got about 50% marketing (£2500) then it died (needed another £2500). You cover the dos and don’t here. Thinking longer term is probably the best piece of advice.

  2. Thanks a very interesting article. I’m leaning towards self publishing my book, when I have finished it! I think I will take your advice thou and send it to traditional publishes first to see what happens. I might invest in a copy of your book to get some tips.

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