Traditional or Self-Publishing: Which is the best option for you?

It is often said that now is the best time to be an author, but it may also be the most confusing. That’s because historically, there was only one path to get published. Now there are four distinct paths to get your book into the hands of readers. These include:There are many options when it comes to publishing a book.

1. Do-it-Yourself (DIY)

2. General Contractor

3. Supported Self-Publishing

4. Traditional Publishing

The key differences between each of these paths are related to content ownership, investment, and speed of availability. To help you decide which path is best for you and your book, let’s examine each option in more detail:

1) Do-it-Yourself (DIY)

Do-it-yourself is just like it sounds. You do everything yourself. Typically, that means you upload your manuscript and format it using a tool that is available on a platform. Ebook and print formats are usually an option, but even though it does not “cost” you to publish, publishing is never really free. Chances are, you’ll need to have to make some investment in editing, cover design or marketing if you want to have a book that competes in the market.There are many tasks that you must complete on our own if you self-publish a book.

2) General Contractor

On this path, you work with independent contractors to complete the various aspects of your book. You can serve as the General Contractor, or you can hire someone to fill the role. The Task List chart to the right shows many of the tasks that need to be accomplished to get your book into the hands of readers. Note that only the first two bullet points actually have to do with writing. Most of the other tasks are related to publishing and marketing so keep that in mind if you chose this path.

3) Supported Self-Publishing

This option enables you to work with one company who offers all the services you need to edit, publish, market and sell your book. In other words, it’s a one stop shop for professional services. In most cases, they offer service packages that focus on meeting different goals and that have different price points. Before reviewing the fourth option, let’s look at an easy way to compare these first three:

DIY book publishing is like making a meal at home.One helpful way to think about the differences between these paths is to think about them like preparing, making and eating a meal. DIY is like cooking at home. So the meal will only be as good as the ingredients you have in your pantry or fridge and your talent as a cook. The General Contractor path is like going to the deli. You are still in control of the meal, but you have relied on someone else’s time and talent to give you options. Supported self-publishing is like eating at a nice restaurant. You have a menu to choose from and you can spend $30 on dinner or $300 - depending on your budget or the occasion. Also, you also will have a level of service at a restaurant that you wouldn’t have at home or at a deli.

4) Traditional Publishing

This path is often the option with which people are most familiar and is also the one that proves most challenging. That’s because you are not in control of publishing your book. First, you need to pursue an agent who will then pitch your book to traditional publishers. So, if this is a path you want to pursue, you want to make sure you find an agent who represents your genre, and follow the instructions provided for submitting your material. That may mean submitting a book proposal or a query letter, but it is most important that you do as they request. Many agents report that if someone can’t follow simple instructions on how to submit, they will not even look at the material.

Working with an agent

If an agent does agree to represent you, they will shop your book to various imprints that publish books in the genre you have written. If a publisher does want your book, they will often pay some type of advance or an upfront payment against future royalties. Your agent will take a percentage of the advance as payment for their services as well as any future earnings once the advance is paid back through royalties on book sales.

Importantly, anyone who claims to be a literary agent, but wants money up front, is not a professional agent. They are simply using the title to get you to spend money with them. Stay away from them. You will assign your rights, but have control of which rights.

If you do agree to sign with a traditional publisher, keep in mind you are assigning the rights to your content. That means you have some flexibility as to what rights you assign and which ones you keep for possible assignment to others. For example, you may only want to assign print rights and keep film development rights. Or you may choose to assign rights for a particular country and language and retain the rights to other territories and languages.

However once you assign the rights, the publisher has final say on things such as title, cover and even content. In addition, they will decide when the book goes to market. So, it is not uncommon for a publisher to change a title, revise a cover or do another edit. The key is they are doing what they think will make the book even more marketable even if that means delaying when the book comes out.

What do traditional publishers look for?

One question authors often ask is, how many books must they sell to get picked up by a traditional publisher. The reality is there is no magic number. If you have a lot of relationships, you might be able to get all your friends and family to buy a copy when it first comes out and hit a sales threshold, but not sell any after that.

The fact is traditional publishers look for a combination of things in the books they want to acquire. These include:

A well-written manuscript
If you’re going to submit your work to an agent (who is ultimately going to send it to a publisher) you want to ensure the manuscript is edited and in good shape. They’re not interested in just buying your idea. They will evaluate the manuscript because that’s the product you’re selling.

Books in the genre they publish
They also look for the type of books that they publish. For example, there are imprints that publish books in the “Mind, Body, Spirit” category or others that focus on the Christian market. Too many authors just assume every publisher will publish any book, but that is not the case.

Ability to reach an audience
If your book fits their catalog they will also want to understand your ability to connect with an audience. That can happen in many ways-on social media, through in-person events or with a blog. Regardless, they want to know if you can find and cultivate a relationship with readers. Sometimes this is referred to as building a platform, but whether yours is established or growing, you will need one.

Sales velocity if you are self-published
If you’re self-published, traditional publishers often look for what is called sales velocity. That means are you selling books over a period of time that shows some growth. In other words, if you were to graph your book sales, would the line to the right be pointing up t or down? An arrow pointing up would indicate that you are likely selling books to more than friends and family, which suggests there is a market for your book and your marketing is making a difference, and word of mouth could also be contributing.

Having more than one book
If at all possible, publishers like to have more than one book from an author. That’s because readers will become repeat customers. So if you have a fiction book, having a series can be an asset. Or if you are writing a non-fiction book, sharing your what other book ideas can be helpful.

Transitioning from self-publishing to traditional publishing

It is also important to remember if you want to eventually be picked up by a traditional publisher, you can be discovered on one of the other paths. For example, consider Pete Honsberger’s story. He was at an age where he was getting invited to participate in and attend many weddings. Some of the toasts he heard at these events were quite good and some were just terrible. So he wrote a book called: Don’t Burn Your Toast, which gives tips on how to give a good wedding toast. He started building a social media following around this topic and generated some sales velocity as word of the book spread. Eventually, Pete’s book caught the attention of an editor at Simon and Schuster. He was picked up and the book was brought to market with a new title, Wedding Toasts 101.

Pete Honsberger went from self-published author to being picked up by an imprint of Simon and Schuster. Thus demonstrating that it is it is possible to move from self-publishing to traditional publishing.

Pete Honsberger went from being a self-published author to a traditionally published author.
Advantages and drawbacks of traditional vs. self-publishing

As you consider your path, the chart below can be helpful because it provides a summary of the advantages and drawbacks to each option. Perhaps the most important thing to note is that even if you choose the traditional publishing path, you will likely still be expected to make an investment of time and perhaps some money to help with the marketing. The idea that traditional publishers will do everything is one of the most critical misconceptions about that path. At minimum, your publisher will likely expect you to be engaged with readers and potential book buyers through social media and events.

All publishing paths have pros and cons.

No matter which path you choose, keep these principles in mind.

All things considered, the question remains, which option is best for you? Here are some key things to keep in mind no matter which publishing path you pursue:

Publish the best book you can.
There is no prize for putting a bad product out there fast. Ensure you take the time to edit, have a well-designed cover and memorable book title.

Have patience.
If you choose to pursue traditional publishing, you will need patience. You will likely find yourself waiting for responses from agents and eventually publishers. If you self-publish you will also need patience as you build your reader base, platform and sales velocity.

Believe in your book.
One key thing nearly all successful authors have in common is they believed in their books even in the face of rejection or delays. Authors like Louise Hay, James Patterson, Lisa Genova did not find an immediate market for their books or a publisher who was interested. But they really believed they had something to say that needed to be in the hands of readers. So even though they faced rejection, they pressed on either through self-publishing or pursuing a traditional publisher and the world is better because they did.

How to choose the best path for your book project

So how can you determine which publishing path might be the right one for your book? Listed below are some questions for you to think about as you compare your options:

What are your goals and expectations for your book?
To help define your expectations write down what you hope to accomplish with your book and make the goals achievable. Many would like to be New York Times best-selling authors, but this happens for very few authors. So scale your goals in terms of how many people you can reach, how many events you want to hold or how many speaking engagements you want to get. Make your goals observable, measurable and achievable.

What skills and experience can you bring to the project?
This is very important if you are choosing one of the first two self-publishing paths. If you have never designed a book cover or formatted an e-book, you are likely going to need some help with those tasks, plus many others. Remember your goal is to give your book the best opportunity to be successful.

How much time do you have to invest in the project?
No matter which path you choose, you will have to invest time. Yet, the first two self-publishing paths will likely require the most time. So before your choose your path ensure you have realistic expectations.

What budget do you have to invest?
Publishing is never free. So make sure you are clear on what you will need to and want to spend to make your book as perfect as possible. Most authors know they need to spend a few thousand dollars to create a marketable book. Some will spend more depending on what marketing help they need. But no matter what path you choose, you will have to make an investment.
It truly is the best time to be an author because you have never had more opportunity to get your book into the hands of readers and impact their lives. Hopefully, this article has given you a better idea of what options you have as an author and how to choose the best one for your book.

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