Traditional vs. Self-Publishing: Which Is Right for You?

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Makenzie Sparks is an SEO content manager at Markitors, writing articles and blogs for company websites. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and a Certificate in Creative Writing and Editing & Publishing from Arizona State University (ASU). Makenzie has written a Young Adult novel, and through her experience in the publishing world, hopes to share her expertise with other aspiring writers.

Today, she’s going to drop some knowledge on traditional publishing and self-publishing for beginners. This is a great article for those who know zero about the publishing industry and need someone to explain it in an eloquent, succinct manner. Enjoy!


I truly believe one of the biggest accomplishments a person can do is write a book. Whether your passion is nonfiction, sci-fi, supernatural, romance, YA, action, adventure, poetry, or anything in between, your book is an incredible achievement! No matter what difficulties your characters face, this book you’ve created is more than a collection of two-dimensional, black-and-white words on pages. You’ve created a colorful universe in those pages that you no doubt want to share with the world. 

Now that you’ve patted yourself on the back, however, you have to publish your cherished creation. Publishing can be a daunting task, especially when you’ve never done it before. Essentially, there are two different kinds of publishing you can explore: traditional publishing and self-publishing. Keep reading to learn all about the two different avenues of publication and discover which one is right for you.

Traditional Publishing

Most publishing companies do not accept unsolicited work. In other words, you can’t send your manuscript to them if you don’t have an agent. Traditional publishing entails finding an agent to represent your novel and get it published by a publishing company. While you don’t have to pay the agent for any of the work they do for you, he or she will get a percentage of whatever profits you make from book sales.

How Do You Traditionally Publish Your Book?

1. Get an agent. One of the best ways to find an agent is to find books in the same genre category as your book and research who published them. For example, perhaps you wrote a dystopian YA novel. You could start by Googling The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins to find who her agent was. As another option, you could Google what publishing company produced her book and find agents through the company’s website. Try QueryTracker too. It’s super helpful! Finally, grab these books to help you find agents and learn the ropes.

2. Write a query letter. Query letters typically include three well-written and brief paragraphs meant to entice the agent to request your book. In the first paragraph, explain why you are contacting the agent. Be specific. The second paragraph should be a three- to four-sentence synopsis of your book. In the last paragraph, write a short bio about you and your writing skills. Last, close the letter with a direct statement of your purpose. 

Your purpose might change depending on the agent you are sending your manuscript to. For example, most agents will ask for the first chapter of your book in their submission guidelines, but some agents might ask for a certain number of pages. Other agents might only want the query letter and will later ask for parts of your manuscript if your query letter piqued their interest. Very rarely will agents ask for the entire book with your query letter. Read their submission guidelines before emailing them! If you’re writing fiction, you’ll send a query letter to an agent.

If you’re writing nonfiction, you’ll send a book proposal to the publisher. Here are resources to help you:

Recommended Reading for Query Letters:

Recommended Reading for Book Proposals:

In the end, make sure your query letter and first chapter are near perfect. Your first chapter, however, may determine whether or not you get signed at all. That first page is super important! Make it count.

3. Rinse and repeat. It could take months to hear back from an agent and even years to get one, so keep sending out your query letter. Some of the most well-known authors in the world have struggled to get an agent to accept their manuscript, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t get good news right away. Be patient.

Pros for Traditional Publishing

  • It’s free! Working with an agent should come at no cost to you. If an agent tries to charge you money for any services he or she offers, don’t accept it. No established agent will make you pay for their services. They will only take a percentage (usually around 15 percent) of book sales.

  • Because an agent’s revenue relies solely on the success of your book, they work hard to get your book on the market. They want your novel to succeed almost as much as you do.

  • Agents will often edit your book, which allows you to get a professional opinion on the content before you send it out to no-man’s land. 

  • Your book will have wider distribution. It could be available in multiple stores and as an ebook on several platforms (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, etc.).

  • You get a professional cover designed for your book. You don’t have to hunt down a professional cover artist, which is a nice stress-reliever.

  • Getting an agent to represent your book is like a stamp of approval. Because agents are usually very particular about the books they pick up, choosing yours can be a huge accomplishment. Plus, it feels so great to know that you got through the gatekeepers.

Cons for Traditional Publishing

  • It can take weeks, months, or years to find an agent willing to work with you. Then you have to wait another 18–24 months to hold your book in your hand once you’ve signed with the publisher.

  • After you sign the contract, the publisher owns the rights to your book. Essentially, this means you have no say in the cover design, what stores your book is available in, or how much it will cost. You lose creative control and are prevented from making many choices in regards to the sale of your book. This is probably the biggest con of going with a traditional publisher.

  • It can feel like a less intense version of giving your baby up for adoption. You’re giving up your baby (book) to stranger in the hopes they’ll raise it right. That’s hard stuff!

  • Contracts can be difficult to understand. It’s possible you’ll need to hire an attorney to look over them.

  • You have to pitch to agents. You can’t just submit your book to a publisher and call it a day. You will be rejected, and that can hurt your self-esteem after a while. For example, The Help by Kathryn Stockett was rejected 60 times.

  • You still have to market your book. A big myth of traditional publishing is that you don’t have to market your books—the publisher does it for you. Anyone savvy in this department probably just chuckled at that. They know that if a book doesn’t take off within the first month, the publisher moves on to someone else. You are in charge of getting your book into the world.

Self-Publishing

Self-publishing puts you in the driver’s seat! You’re the boss and you’re required to do all the work a traditional publisher would do. Essentially, you are in charge of hiring the following:

  • Cover designer

  • Interior formatter

  • Editor

  • Proofreader

  • Sometimes other things such as writing coaching, marketing help, book launch experts, etc.

Unlike with a publisher, however, you have to pay for all these services or do them yourself, which isn’t recommended. A quality book means hiring quality people. Instead of sending query letters to publishing companies, you choose your self-publishing platform (e.g., Amazon KDP, iBooks, Kobo, etc.) to get the book on the market. However, the amount of money you spend depends on the publishing medium. Publishing an ebook, for example, can be cheaper than printing your book because you don’t have to pay for each copy to be made. 

If you're ready to self-publish your book, keep it simple with Amazon KDP for ebook and paperback. Follow along during Shayla Raquel's helpful, easy-to-understand tutorial for indie authors.

How Do You Self-Publish Your Book?

1. Prepare your book for publication. Because you don’t have a publisher, you are the publisher. Thus, you have to get a cover designed, have your book edited, and have it formatted to fit either ebook or printing guidelines. If you need help knowing how to prepare for the self-pub world, grab the Pre-Publishing Checklist for free:

"Streamlined and concise, the Pre-Publishing Checklist is required reading for anyone wanting a successful career in self-publishing." —M. L. Gardner, Bestselling Author of the 1929 Series

"Streamlined and concise, the Pre-Publishing Checklist is required reading for anyone wanting a successful career in self-publishing."
—M. L. Gardner, Bestselling Author of the 1929 Series

2. Choose your publishing platform. Unlike traditional publishing, there are many ways to publish your book. The most popular choice is Amazon, a great self-publishing option for ebooks because millions of people shop there. Amazon allows you to publish your book for free and they only take a small percentage of your book sales. Additionally, you can choose how much you want your book to cost and you always have the option to change it. Be sure to watch out for vanity publishers. You can learn more about them here: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Uncovering the Truth about Vanity Publishers.

3. Finally, market market market. This is probably one of the hardest parts of self-publishing. You can start by making a website and creating a strong social media presence. But ultimately, it’s important to be authentic, consistent, and value-driven.

Pros for Self-Publishing

  • You have full creative liberty! Many authors have expressed their dislike for the cover of their traditionally published novels because they had no control over it. As a self-published author, however, you get the freedom to choose your designer, approve her design, and use it for publishing. If you don’t like it, you can have her change it or you can choose a different designer.

  • You keep the rights to your book, which means you get to keep all the profits as well (except for the 30% Amazon takes, for example).

  • No one can tell you what not to write, so you won’t be censored. 

  • You can publish much sooner. Some authors publish as soon as three months, other between six months to a year depending on their genre and workload.

  • You don’t have to go through the gatekeepers. In this case, you skip all the query nonsense and let the readers decide if you’re any good.

  • Community! You become a part of growing, amazing community of indie authors who love to support other indies.

Cons for Self Publishing

  • It can be very expensive. From editing to cover design to interior formatting to printing, it can all add up fast.

  • You do all the work. You’re the boss. You brand yourself, you market your books, you oversee the professionals working for you—and so much more.

  • Self-publishing’s stigma of poor quality could deter some readers. Thankfully, things have been changing here, but the authors do things in a low-quality manner certainly make high-quality authors pay the price from time to time.

  • You could have fewer sales because the distribution will not be as vast. You constantly have to think of new and fresh ways to market your book and get more eyes on it.

Recommended Reading for Self-Publishing Authors:

Which Publishing Option Should You Use?

I asked this very question after writing my own novel. I received an answer from my then English professor, who was also an author of two novels. Essentially, as a first-time author, you haven’t created a name for yourself as an author. It’s much harder to become well-known if you go the self-publishing route. She recommended that once you’ve done the work to find an agent and they’ve published a book or two of yours, transition into the self-publishing world. Basically, after an agent makes a name for you, you don’t need their marketing expertise anymore. The important thing is getting a kick-start into the publishing world by getting your book out there.

However, that was just one person’s opinion. Ultimately, whatever publishing route you decide to travel is up to you. Every author’s circumstances are different and the choice ultimately depends on what you value most. So after weighing your options, take a leap of faith and jump into the unknown: let people read your masterpiece no matter which route took you there.


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An expert editor, seasoned writer, and author-centric marketer, Shayla Raquel works one-on-one with authors and business owners every day. A lifelong lover of books, she has edited over 300 books and has launched several Amazon bestsellers for her clients. Her award-winning blog teaches new and established authors how to write, publish, and market their books. She is the author of the Pre-Publishing Checklist, The Rotting (in Shivers in the Night), and The Suicide Tree. In her not-so-free time, she acts as organizer for the Yukon Writers’ Society, volunteers at the Oklahoma County Jail, and obsesses over squirrels. She lives in Oklahoma with her dogs, Chanel, Wednesday, and Baker.