Time to Print: Traditional vs. Self-Publishing

Over the past few months, I’ve been scrambling to query two books (one fiction, one non-fiction). The plan for both is to give traditional querying a shot first. I’ll self-publish if I can’t get any bites from agents. Why would I set up the process this way? It’s all about time.

Traditional publishing takes time…a lot of it

In traditional publishing, you get some nice perks. Your publisher likely will help connect you to marketing opportunities. You’ll also be eligible for many book award contests and can have bookstores like Barnes and Noble stock your book. There is clout from being among the 1 percent of submitted books that get printed.

But these benefits come at a cost. Let’s assume you write your book in 6-12 months. After that, querying can take months, if not years. It can take even more time for an agent to find a publishing house that wants to present an offer. When you finally sign a contract, it still can be a year or more before the book is released. So, a timeline of 1-5 years is not unusual.

With all of this considered, a typical advance usually tops out at around $50,000. So, if you must wait five years to see your finished manuscript printed and released, your advance pays you only $10,000 per year.

You know that’s not above the poverty line, right?

Self-publishing can dramatically condense the time needed to publish

Some individuals can afford to wait to see their books published. Many have supportive partners who bring in income while they write, or they have good jobs themselves. However, many writers cannot afford to wait years to get paid. In those cases, writers can sacrifice the perks of traditional publishing listed above in favor of publishing on their own timelines. Self-published authors commonly will release a book — or even multiple books — every year when they do not have to wait for an agent and publisher.

Self-publishing usually gives writers a significantly higher percentage of money per sale. However, there’s no guarantee they’ll make more money overall. This lack of an income guarantee is especially true if the writers don’t market aggressively. But they can start pulling in earnings sooner, thereby relieving cash flow problems. The more titles they can release, the faster they can develop a solid, attractive portfolio.

What’s your timeframe?

When choosing between traditional and self-publishing, ask yourself how long you can or are willing to wait. Don’t worry about what others do. Look at what’s best for your circumstances and consider your emotional and financial tolerance. For me, that means not sending some queries past a limit. If you need income quickly, or if you need emotional wins more often, it might be best to publish yourself and retain control of the process. If you are less concerned with funds and want the perks only traditional publishing can offer, you might do well to seek an agent and publish with their help.