Self-Pubbed vs. Traditional: Which is Better?

Someone asked me this recently and my answer got kind of long-winded insightful, and I figured why not inflict it on you guys? I'd save myself the trouble of writing another blog post you guys might be interested in what I think talking about it.

Although my personal neuroses have staunchly led me down the traditional path so far, the short answer is I don't think either path is objectively better.

Traditional publishing is harder to break into. You have to please more people (agents and editors need to believe they can sell your book, and sometimes they're done with a genre that readers still want) and you have to deal with more rejection. It will stretch you though, and if you make it, the benefits are pretty huge: an agent to partner with, professional editing, cover design, print distribution, etc.

Self-publishing, obviously, is easy to get into. I could do it right now. But success is more difficult because you have to do it yourself. You have to edit it (I recommend paying someone). You have to get a cover (again: pay someone). You have to find your audience by yourself (and hope they're into self-published e-books). The benefits are freedom, speed, and control.

But in my opinion, the biggest danger in self-publishing is fooling yourself. Susan Quinn addresses this really well in her Seven Questions to Ask Before Self-Publishing. I've seen a few folks go to self-publishing before they were ready. Some had been rejected by traditional publishing and didn't take the hint. Some thought the praise of their writer friends meant that perfect strangers would feel the same way. Some believed the hype of the self-pubbing community and were surprised when they only sold 200 copies.

Which path you choose depends on a lot of things: your writing, your personality, the market. But very generally, my advice is don't self-publish your first book.

But do query it.

Most likely it will be rejected, but I think you can learn a lot by querying, without harming your reputation or your status as a debut author. (I should note that weak sales in self-pubbing might not be a lot of harm, but I personally think you can learn more from querying anyway, so why risk it? You can always self-publish it later).

But no matter which path you take, no matter how low the sales or how high the rejections, don't give up and don't stop writing. Not if this is what you want. There are a lot of ingredients for success, but I've become more and more convinced that the most important one is stubbornness.

What do you guys think? Is there a better path? Why?


Matthew MacNish said...

It's funny, but one of the reasons I doubt I'll ever self-publish is that it feels like more work. It's not, really, or at least not necessarily, because writing any book is often years in the making, but I think it's the matter of being so many different kinds of work. I don't have a problem writing hard, even if it takes months or ever years, because I'm confident that I have some skill at it, but all that other stuff? I'd be lost.

Stina said...

I agree. You shouldn't self publish your first book. Query it instead. Then you'll realize you're still a long way from being a good writer and won't scare of readers with your first attempt.

I'm still not sure I want to self publish. I know there are a lot of issues with traditionally publishing, but to me traditional publishing is like the Olympics. It's takes years of hard work, training, and high level competition to get there. Self publishing is like playing at the community level. Anyone can do it. (Not that being traditional published means you're an awesome writer. But you must be good enough to get past the judges).

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

I didn't start writing to get published. I started writing one day, and I found I couldn't stop. I write for myself. When I woke up one day and realized I wrote a whole novel, I thought maybe, just maybe, one day I could publish something. But not that horrible novel. I wrote another. And then another.

When I finally thought I was starting to get relatively decent at writing, I started querying. And was informed that my writing still needed a lot of work. I went back to editing, found friends who give great feedback, and then edited some more. I'll start querying again when I'm through this round of edits.

A year of research into how publishing works has made me grateful there are agents in the world. There is NO WAY I could tackle all the stuff they do, in addition to all the stuff a publishing company does. I'll stick to writing. That's why I started all this in the first place.

I never wanted to essentially go into business for myself. I'll leave the business side of things to other people who know what they are doing. Even if it means my writing never sees the light of day. But that's just me.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Some had been rejected by traditional publishing and didn't take the hint.

For some "the hint" is indeed that their writing isn't ready for prime time yet.

But for many "the hint" is simply that there isn't room for their story in the few slots the publishers have available this year (Sorry we already bought a story about mindreading that won't come out for another 18 mos). Or perhaps that publishers don't believe that your story has a wide enough market to justify their investment (literary story from the POV of a goat? Who on earth would read that? Midnight's Tale, currently #216 on Paid Kindle). Or perhaps they have no idea where to shelve it (is it YA or is it Space Opera? What, it's both? Sorry, no one buys that. Except that they do.)

But no matter which path you take, no matter how low the sales or how high the rejections, don't give up and don't stop writing.
This is the most important thing. As I told a writer friend recently, Do not ever lose hope based on someone else's opinion of your work, whether it's a query reject or writerly feedback. They may be right or they may be wrong, but they never can hold you back from moving forward with your writing, unless you let them.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

p.s. thanks for the shout out. :)

Stephsco said...

It's definitely a question that requires a nuanced answer; I'm at the earlier stage of writing (still working on a draft, have never queried) and general folk who want to know "how my writing is going" often throw in the "why don't you self publish?" like all I have to do to finish my book is to upload it to create space and then I'm an author. For these people,I have simple answers that are mostly generic and assure them they mean well.

Now that I'm involved in a few local chapters of two different national writing organizations,I'm seeing first hand how authors who were previously published traditionally are now finding success in ebooks with small press or self publishing. Most of these authors had at least a small fan base, experience working with editors, where they continued to work with editors of some sort.

As for me, I have zero expectations that my first novel would sell more than a dozen copies to friends and family if I put it up right now, and in fact, some of those friends and family would ask me why they couldn't just get a copy for free. I think the reality of publishing in all forms can be a shocker depending on what ideals have been built up in the first place.

Patricia JL said...

I think your advice about querying your first book isn't a bad idea. I will note a few people I've met have self published their first books and I'm glad they did. Their stories blew me away. So maybe that advice, like all advice, is up for the individual to decide to if it's advice they want to try or not.

Sarah Ahiers said...

I definitely thinks it a "to each their own" sort of deal. I'm for the traditional path, at least at this point in my life, and most likely forever. I just don't really have the temperment to drum up the kind of response needed to be a successful self pubber. But i know at least one person who is a self pubber who now makes more with her ebooks monthly than her salary at her day job

sally apokedak said...

Why can't you self publish a paperback?

Good post. I agree that both are valid options and both have pros and cons.

Adam Heine said...

You can, but since most bookstores won't stock them, self-published sales typically rely on ebooks.

Myrna Foster said...

I want to work with editors who love my stories enough to pay for them, not editors I have to pay to read my stories.

Hepius said...

I've been very satisfied with my self-publishing experience. Would I like more sales? Sure!

My biggest mistake was spending too much time promoting book one instead of jumping right into book two. A second book automatically promotes the first. Now I'm playing catch-up trying to get book two done.

Your advice is great and I recommend that new authors follow it!

sally apokedak said...


I just bought Evertaster in paperback because he wasn't offering it on Kindle last week. Now it's 2.99 on kindle and I'm a little ticked that I paid 9.99 to get it in paper.

But I think if I self-publish I'll offer both paper and kindle versions right away.

Steve MC said...

Thanks for inflicting your long-winded thoughts on us. :-)

It's reassuring to see someone else come to the same conclusions. (Especially when they've given it more thought and research than I have.)