If you’ve written a book of any sort, you’ve got three big options when it comes to putting your pages into the hands of readers–traditional, independent, and self-publishing. These three options are very different animals and will suit different authors in different ways.
Traditional publishing usually involves the so-called Big Four publishers (Penguin Random House/Simon and Schuster, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Macmillan) or any of their imprints. You typically need an agent to editors seriously consider your work, and you query the agent in much the same way you would any publisher/editor. Work is extremely competitive, with houses publishing just 1-2 percent of submissions.
Working with a traditional publisher can be ideal in that large houses generally are expert marketers. They know how to get your book into all the major retailers and can help you set up all kinds of publicity events. You can sell a larger number of books as a result. A big downside, however, is that the publisher often takes quite a bit of control over the production of the book, which can take years. You might be asked to do significant rewrites and typically don’t have too much say over elements like cover art.
Pay from a traditional publisher typically includes a small advance ($2,000-$20,000). Royalties can be on either gross or net sales and generally are between 5 to 15 percent and max out around 25 percent. But remember, you need an agent! They’ll take another 10 to 15 percent of your earnings. However, going with traditional publishing requires zero upfront investment.
Independent publishing tends to combine elements of traditional and self-publishing. You still submit to houses, but the houses are much smaller and typically are more willing to take some risks in terms of what they publish. They tend to offer their authors more flexibility and a more collaborative relationship through the publication process. They can handle the printing and warehousing of physical books, which often would be too expensive for authors to do alone. They also can set their own royalty structures and usually provide larger advances than traditional publishers do. Many independent publishers are open to writers who do not have an agent.
With self-publishing, you have to cover all upfront costs, including marketing and distribution. You use a service like CreateSpace to format your manuscript and get a formal ISBN. Then you use a service like Amazon to take the prepared manuscript and distribute it. Distribution can be purely digital or include print-on-demand (POD). You can get your book into bookstores with the POD option, but because the distribution is so expensive, you likely won’t make any money. If you opt not to distribute into bookstores, however, you can earn royalties of 40 to 60 percent, and you don’t need to worry about finding an agent or paying them additional fees. Payments also usually happen faster.
Most writers who self-publish do so because they want to maintain control over the creative aspects of their work. But successful self-publishing requires considerable marketing work and business savvy.
The bottom line
If you don’t mind losing some of your artistic control to have an experienced publisher do the heavy lifting for you, and if you don’t have a lot of money to put up upfront, traditional publishers likely would be a good fit for you. Independent publishers might be the best option if you need some guidance but want more of a say in publication. Self-publishing can be the easiest path to producing your book and usually offers the biggest royalties, but you’ll need to invest upfront. It’s a good choice if you want maximum artistic control.
All this said, as an author, you don’t have to stay in one camp or another. Some writers self-publish some projects and use independent or traditional publishers for others. Simply consider your preferences and the goals for specific work when deciding which path is best for you.