If you’re an aspiring author, you’ve probably done a lot of research on how to get published. This can be paralyzing because there are seemingly endless options these days, ranging from self-publishing to traditional publishing. And what about hybrid publishing and co-publishing? How are you supposed to know which one is right for you?
Here I’ll review some of the pros and cons of each potential option—for you, and for your book.
There are a wide range of avenues to getting published these days, many of which didn’t exist ten years ago. Overall, this is good for aspiring authors since they are no longer as dependent on traditional publishers to get discovered and therefore to get a book deal. But as with anything, the more options there are, the more overwhelmed you can become.
So let’s start by defining terms.
WHAT IS TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING?
When most of us think about publishers or about getting published, this is probably what we have in mind. Traditional publishers usually pay authors an advance up front and royalties (a percentage of sales) after the advance has earned back, in exchange for the exclusive right to publish their work. In this scenario, publishers take on the entire financial burden of bringing a book to market. They cover the cost of editing, cover design, marketing, and promotion, as well as handling distribution and inventory of the final book product.
Traditional publishers run the gamut from huge publishing conglomerates that publish hundreds or thousands of books each year in virtually every category to small or mid-sized indie publishing houses, which carefully curate more focused lists of releases or specialize only in certain categories and genres.
Regardless of their size, traditional publishers usually offer authors the opportunity to partner with an established team that knows the market and has years of experience.
WHAT IS SELF-PUBLISHING?
Self-publishing has given countless authors the opportunity to publish their book regardless of the size of their platform. In many ways, self-publishing has leveled the playing field so that anyone who wants to can publish their book—for a price. And several self-published authors have had great success that enabled them to secure traditional publishing deals.
Costs among self-publishing platforms vary, as do the available formats, but what is consistent is that an author can publish their book without having to convince a gatekeeper such as an agent, editor, or publisher to take them on. While this option allows authors to retain creative control, they also bear the financial burden and must take responsibility for marketing, promoting, and selling their own book. However, they benefit from receiving all the future profits (if there are any). In some cases, authors are also responsible for distributing their book to retail outlets, unless they choose to self-publish through Amazon or Ingram.
WHAT ABOUT HYBRID PUBLISHING OR CO-PUBLISHING?
Hybrid publishing combines elements of traditional publishing and self-publishing. In this scenario, publishers and authors share the risks of bringing a book to market. As with traditional publishers, hybrid publishers have certain editorial criteria that dictate the types of books and authors they will publish. There is some level of selection or curation that authors should expect when working with this kind of publisher.
While the advance payments are lower, or non-existent, hybrid publishers often pay higher royalty rates than a traditional publisher. They also typically offer different marketing and promotional packages that authors can buy, often in a range of options for different budgets. Many hybrid publishers also offer authors the potential of some level of distribution through brick-and-mortar stores, proprietary websites, or other retail channels. Some hybrid publishers require authors to crowdsource their content, prove they have an audience, or raise a certain amount of funding before they’re offered a deal.
CHOOSING THE BEST OPTION FOR YOU
There is a common misperception of traditional publishing wherein authors think they bear no responsibility for how their book will perform. They might think that once they’ve completed their manuscript, their role in the process is done.
However, that couldn’t be further from the truth, especially today. Publishers now expect full participation and partnership from their authors throughout the process and, in fact, they often rely on the author to do some, if not most, of the heavy lifting when it comes to marketing and promoting the book. This is especially true for nonfiction books, which often require a higher level of author platform or influence.
Although traditional publishers often have the benefit of a certain level of brand trust or equity in the marketplace, and with consumers, authors must also be willing to relinquish control of their book. Authors can still make their preferences known, but most publishing contracts grant the publisher decision-making power over things such as final title, final cover design, and marketing plans and budgets. And while authors often receive an advance against royalties on the front end, standard royalties with a traditional publisher are lower. On the flip side, while self-publishing and hybrid publishing allow for a greater level of creative control, as an author you bear all of the responsibility for how your book performs. If you don’t know much about the publishing industry, marketing, social media, or you have just begun to build a platform, this can be a serious hindrance.
Ask yourself the following 4 questions in order to determine your best option.
1. Will my message, book concept, or story appeal to a broad audience?
Be honest with yourself. Are you sharing a personal story without a strong reader promise or takeaway? In other words, do you have compelling answer to a reader’s unspoken question, What’s in it for me? If not, then self-publishing is probably the right choice for you. Are you sharing a transformative principle or big idea that has practical application for others? If yes, you might want to pursue traditional publishing.
2. What am I personally willing to invest in getting published?
The costs of getting published are not insignificant. No matter which path you choose, you will spend lots of time or money (or both) to get your book out into the world. You must be realistic in assessing how much money you can put toward these efforts. A traditional publishing deal offers the potential of an advance and future royalties, but you will have to invest in building your influence and platform (especially for nonfiction) to secure this kind of deal. Also, the amount of money you receive varies widely depending on the size of the publisher and their assessment of your book’s future sales potential.
3. How long can I stand to wait for my book to be published?
Most publishing options will require a great deal of patience to see the project through to completion. However, assessing whether you are willing to wait a few months, a year, or longer can help to narrow down your options. Along with determining your intended audience and how much of a financial contribution you can make, evaluate how long you’re willing to wait before you see your words in print. The traditional publishing process can take up to two years for a wide variety of reasons, including the fact that simply finding a publisher can take months. In addition, a traditional publisher will slot your book into an existing publishing schedule that allows ample time for editorial development and promotional planning. By contrast, you can go from manuscript to printed book within a few months if you work with a self-publisher or hybrid publisher.
4. How important is the final quality of my book?
Standards of design and editorial quality vary widely among publishers, with traditional publishers typically providing the highest levels of quality. It’s important to know what your personal priorities are for your book. Are you more passionate about getting your story or message out to the market as quickly as possible? Or do you want to ensure that your book receives a thorough and professional edit, a high-level marketing campaign, and a professionally designed cover?
Thinking through these questions will equip you to make the best possible decision to meet your own publishing goals.
If you have additional questions on this or other publishing topics, check out our article archives or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.