Today’s publishing landscape is shifting. Traditional publishing used to be seen as the only relevant choice and self-published books were looked down on as unrefined or unprofessional. Now, both avenues are reputable and worthy choices, but each has its strengths and weaknesses.
So, if you’re ready to publish that novel that you’ve been laboring on for years, it’s up to you whether you go with traditional or self-publishing. I’ll share a step-by-step comparison of each publishing process starting from a finished manuscript to a published book, and then I’ll compare the benefits and drawbacks of each. Decide for yourself which process is more fitting for your personality, your situation, and your novel.
Traditional publishing is the OG of the industry. You’ve heard of Hachette Book Group? Penguin Random House? Simon & Schuster? These, along with HarperCollins and Macmillan Publishers, are considered the “big five” publishing houses. The big five and dozens of other publishing houses control the traditional publishing option. If you want to go this route, let’s see what steps you need to take.
Step One: Create an Author Platform
The first thing to address is establishing your platform. A lot of writers, once they finish their manuscript, ship it off to as many agents as they can. While this isn’t a bad idea, your first step should instead be to create an existing audience for your book. Whether you have a popular blog, a fanfiction account, or self-published books, most agents want to see that your novel has an excited audience and the potential for immediate sales.
Step Two: Prep Your Submission Materials
Now it’s time to get yourself an agent, right? Nope. Once you’ve marketed your book around and can prove that you have an audience, you need to prepare the right material to send to potential agents. The requirements vary from agent to agent, but most will require at least a novel synopsis and a query letter.
A novel synopsis is a short, one- or two-page document that summarizes your story from beginning to end—and you must reveal the ending. A query letter is basically a one-page sales pitch for your novel. You have to convince the agent that your full manuscript is worth their time.
Step Three: Find an Agent
Finally, after you have an audience and you’ve written your submission material, you get to find an agent. This is a vital decision because your agent will act as your go-between with publishing companies. They’ll advocate for your book and try to get you the best deal possible. To make the right decision, you need to find agents who specialize in the same genre as your story and are accepting submissions. Scour agent listing websites to find someone who matches what you need, then send them your submission.
Even after all of this hard work, finding an agent is never guaranteed. You may find 20 agents who sound perfect, and all 20 may reject you. But persistence is key! Once an agent asks to see more of your manuscript and decides to take you on, you’ll create an agency agreement, or contract, that establishes the terms of your relationship. After that, your agent will begin lobbying your book to publishing houses.
When you go into a bookstore today or look for e-books online, do you look at who published the book? Chances are that you couldn’t care less. That’s why self-publishing is such a viable option today. Fewer and fewer people care about the prestige that comes with traditional publishing and care more about enjoying a thrilling story. Look at the steps that go into self-publishing to see if it’s right for you.
Step One: Polish Your Manuscript
The first thing you need to do as an aspiring self-published author is proofread and edit, then edit and proofread, then repeat. Enlist the help of people you trust so that all of you can read over your story and fix any grammatical errors, typos, or plot holes. If you don’t have family or friends you trust, consider hiring a professional editor or proofreader.
Step Two: Format and Design the Book
Now that your manuscript is the image of perfection, you need to design the cover, any included art, and the back. If this is out of your wheelhouse, hire a qualified professional, and don’t settle for anything less than high-quality work. After all, you probably have never taken a chance on a book with a cover that looks like a third-grader drew it.
Your book needs to look clean, neat, and professional so it can catch your reader’s eye. This includes formatting for both physical copies and e-books, an author’s bio, and a blurb for the back. Only after your book is formatted, designed, and totally completed are you ready to publish.
Step Three: Choose How You’ll Distribute
This is when things get a little fuzzy. Writers have an almost unlimited number of options when it comes to self-publishing. You need to research and decide on distribution channels, whether that’s Amazon, Smashwords, or IngramSpark.
Assuming you want to print your book, you’ll need to apply for an ISBN code. You also need to decide how you want to print your book. Will you print a set number of copies and advertise those? Will you let people order printed copies through distribution channels and only print on demand? Will you print the books yourself or hire a printing shop to do it for you? Once you decide all of this and get your book on shelves, physical or digital, you’re a self-published author.
The Work Has Just Begun
Both publishing avenues have further steps after publication. With traditional publishing, once your agent finds a publishing house, that business will buy the rights to your book and set a contract with you for more books in the future. And while the publishing house will handle formatting, designing, printing, and some marketing, you’ll still want to market your book as much as possible.
With self-publishing, you have to handle 100 percent of the marketing yourself. Tell people about your book on social media, in person, through paid ads, or any other way you think of. The more time you spend advertising, the more readers you’ll reach. Regardless of which path you’ll take, it’s wise to learn basic book marketing strategies so more readers can find your work.
Which Should You Choose?
A quick internet search gives you multiple reputable sources, each with a different answer to this question. There is no right answer, no absolute truth, but looking at the pros and cons of each makes it easier to decide which method is your best option.
The biggest advantage of traditional publishing is the cash advance. When a publishing house buys your novel from you, you get a sum of money that you never have to pay back. The amount varies wildly from publisher to publisher and author to author, but debut authors can expect anything from $2,000 to $10,000.
Along that same vein, you don’t face any upfront costs. The publishing house covers all of the costs to get your book on the shelves. Your book also has a team of professionals assigned to it who help with quality control through each step of the process, from editing to publishing. Finally, traditional publishing naturally gives your book greater visibility and reach due to publishing houses’ reputation and expertise.
On the flip side, with traditional publishing, you lose a lot of your creative freedom. That same team of professional editors, proofreaders, and formatters make a lot of creative decisions from the time you sign the contract until the end of the contract’s time. You may not get the final say on where your narrative ends up. Financially, you get lower royalty rates, typically around 10% of printed copies and around 30% of e-books. And you only get those royalties after your book has made back the advance you were given. Finally, the process takes a long time. It can take years to get your book on shelves.
As for self-publishing, one of the main benefits you enjoy is the freedom to write whatever and whenever you want. For example, if you’ve written a niche novel, you don’t have to convince a publisher to take a chance on a unique idea. You maintain complete and total control over your story, from the blurb on the back to the arcs of each of your characters. Plus, you won’t have any stressful deadlines besides the ones you give yourself. Financially, you’d get a higher royalty rate and get your money on a monthly basis, depending on where you self-publish your novel.
However, while you do get to retain most of the royalties, the upfront costs are considerably greater than traditional publishing. You have to pay editors, publishers, proofreaders, formatters, and more to create a good product. This effort of gathering your team also takes time and effort. And while you can hire a professional team, you don’t have an agent to help you get the best deal for your book. Finally, you risk financial loss because you have no guarantee that your book will sell—and you don’t get an advance.
Different genres lean more towards one publishing option or the other, such as genre fiction for traditional publishing or niche writing for self-publishing. However, only you can decide which route is best for you. You have your finished book in hand and dreams of authorship, and I hope this article has helped you decide on the next step toward that dream’s realization.