Traditional publishing vs. self publishing

Traditional or self publishing Lyndsey's Book Blog

Happy New Year! I know I’m a little bit late, but I hope 2020 brings you lots of happiness and success, especially if you’re querying or plan to self publish a novel this year.

2019 was a particularly challenging year for me, for so many reasons, and some of the struggles aren’t quite over yet, so 2020 should be a pretty interesting and exciting year. I’m hoping to be in a completely different place by the end of this year (physically and mentally), I’ve got some big plans that I’d like to pay off in the next 12 months, and I’m going to need some accountability. Which is where you come in!

I’m not a huge fan of resolutions, but I do have a few intentions for the coming year, and the main one relates to my writing.

In 2020, I’m going to publish my first novel, The Fair Queen.

I’ve decided to self publish instead of pursuing traditional publishing any further, for several reasons. I haven’t decided on an exact date yet, as I need to complete another round of rewrites, send the manuscript to a professional editor, and give it a good polish before it’s ready for publication. I’m aiming for September, but as we all know, things happen and plans change, so I won’t announce an official release date until I’ve at least engaged an editor, in case their schedule doesn’t quite fit with a September launch.

So, I thought I’d explain why I’ve decided to go down the self publishing route. I’m going to weigh up the pros and cons of both self publishing and traditional publishing, as there are definite benefits to both, it’s just about personal preference and circumstances really, so don’t worry, I’m not just going to try and convince you that self publishing is the best option for everyone.

Let’s get started, shall we?

What’s the difference between traditional and self publishing?

In a nutshell, traditional publishing means a publishing house buys the rights to your book, and then they take on the cost of printing and (some) marketing of your novel. The publisher pays you an advance, which they then recoup from sales, and once that’s been paid back you start to earn royalties. Your agent gets a cut too, usually around 15%.

With self publishing, the upfront costs of printing and marketing your novel all fall on you, but once the book starts to sell you won’t have to split the profits with anyone – except perhaps your sales agent, e.g. Amazon.

And that’s pretty much it. Except, obviously there are a million and one other little things that tip the scale in either direction, depending on your specific circumstances and needs.

The pros and cons of traditional publishing

The number one benefit of traditional publishing is access – access to the best editors and cover designers in the business, access to a much larger market of buyers thanks to a big marketing budget/team and contacts in every major bookstore. Access to information and knowledge that takes years to amass, and thousands of pounds (or dollars, euros, etc.) spent on degrees and courses, membership to professional organisations, and everything else it takes to be at the top of your professional game.

The other main benefit is, of course, the money, as you won’t pay a penny up front and will actually be paid a lump sum for your hard work, before any books have even sold.

Unfortunately, book advances aren’t quite what they used to be (what industry hasn’t had to make cuts?), and they’re normally paid in 3 instalments – the first on signing the contract with the publisher, the second on delivery of the completed manuscript, and the third on publication. And, as we all know, publishing is a very long process, so these payments could be a year or more apart. So even if you were lucky enough to receive a £50,000 advance, you won’t receive it all in one go, and if you’re a full time writer or decide to quit your 9-5 on receiving your book deal, you might struggle to pay your usual outgoings if you rely on your book advance alone.

But, on a positive note, once you outsell your advance, you’ll start to receive royalties. Only a small percentage of books ever actually outsell their advance, and when they do, royalty cheques are usually only paid twice a year, so there could be a six month stretch between each payday. (Here’s a great article on book advances and royalties.) In short, until you’ve published several books and can command large advances, and are bringing in a good amount in royalties, you might want to keep your day job to make sure you can afford to eat and pay the bills.

Some authors are very open and honest about the publishing industry and the money they receive for their books. Mackenzi Lee (author of The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue) often does Q&As on her Instagram Stories where she answers questions from readers and writers looking to publish, she’s definitely worth a follow (and if you haven’t read her books, I’d 100% recommend them!).

Even if you do get a book deal with a major publishing house, and they decide to invest some of their marketing budget in selling your book, you won’t be guaranteed a book tour, or a stand at YALC, or any advertising. You might find that you still have to organise and pay for these things yourself, if you choose to do them. You’ll likely have to pay for your own travel and accommodation if you do book signings and readings or attend festivals.

If you want to encourage pre-orders (a huge factor in whether a book is successful in its first week, effecting the author’s future advances etc.) you’ll probably have to organise your own pre-order offer, whether that’s a free enamel pin or a postcard with a character portrait you’ve had commissioned.

These marketing methods are all optional, but if you want your book to succeed and outsell its advance, and to improve your chances of selling your next book to a publisher, you will have to play a part in marketing it yourself.

(My day job is actually in marketing, so I’ll do a whole post on book marketing soon and link to it here when it’s live.)

For me, the biggest negative against trad-publishing is that you’re no longer able to write whatever you want. If you planned a trilogy but book one has poor sales, your publisher may not buy book two. You might have a brilliant idea for a space-western-thriller, but if your agent and publisher hate it there’s no point in writing it (unless you decide to do it in your spare time for fun or bonus free content – but now that writing is your job you won’t have as much time to write for fun/free, sadly).

Ultimately, there are some huge pros to traditional publishing, you’ll have the support and assistance of entire teams of qualified and experienced people, and you won’t have to worry about cover design, formatting, getting your book into shops or on Amazon, plus you’ll start earning money almost straight away. If you can get through the query trenches and find an agent, and get a publishing deal, it’s definitely worth taking the offer of traditional publishing, if only for the exposure you’ll receive and the contacts you’ll make. Just remember that it’s not all easy-breezy and wonderful, and you might not make as much money as you always imagined – especially not from your first book. Go in with your eyes wide open, and you could become hugely successful as a traditionally-published author.

The pros and cons of self publishing

Self publishing is the DIY option for getting your stories into the world, and that comes with lots of positives as well as a few negatives. First of all, you have complete control over what you write, your book’s title and cover, how much it costs for readers to buy and whether it becomes a six book series or remains a standalone. You get to decide when it’s released, where it’s available to buy or download, and how it’s marketed.

Unfortunately, this also means that you’re solely responsible for doing and funding all of the above. Which means spending a lot of time reading and researching, whether it’s genre standards your novel will need to fit, such as length and style, or cover design basics (your book should sit well next to others in its demographic and genre, so you’ll need to maintain certain elements of cover style to look like your book “belongs”, whilst also standing out enough to be picked).

You’ll either have to learn how to format your novel and convert it to the right file format, or pay someone else to do it for you. You’ll need to learn about publishing platforms and chose the right one for you, and decide whether to publish just an ebook or offer a print version too, via a Print-on-Demand service. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing is probably the easiest and most well-known option, but you may also want to get your book into physical shops, and, you’ve guessed it, that all comes down to you with self publishing.

Ingram Spark, the other well-known self publishing service, will make your book available to book stores and libraries, but they have to know about it and request it, so you’ll still need to get the word out there about your book yourself.

You might have seen other books with cool features, such as maps, custom character artwork, quote prints and enamel pins, book trailers and fancy online ads where elements of the cover art appear to move. And there’s no reason why you can’t have any or all of these things, but unless you learn how to design and create them yourself, then you’re going to have to pay a professional to do it for you, and the cost of design and production can be prohibitive when you’re just starting out and haven’t made a penny from book sales yet. Fiverr is a good place to start, or search on Instagram and ask for recommendations from your online author friends.

You may need to build an author website, create a presence on certain social media (Twitter and Instagram have the biggest bookish communities), maybe even start a blog or email newsletter in order to reach your audience and build a readership. These can all be done completely free, but your time is your most valuable resource and you don’t want to waste it on marketing efforts that may or may not work for you.

Have you noticed I haven’t mentioned writing yet? Let’s assume that you’ve got a pretty solid book written already, it’s got a beginning, middle and end and an appropriate word count for your genre. (Here’s a great blog post on word counts by genre). In order to make it the best book it can be and get it ready for publication, you’ll need to get as many eyes on it as possible, and not just any old eyes, but other writers, readers who know and love your genre, and professional editors. (I wrote a post a while back about alpha and beta readers and critique partners, give it a read if you’re not sure which kind you need.) The only one of these that should cost you money is a professional editor, but I wouldn’t recommend skipping this step unless you yourself are a trained editor, and even then there’s definitely going to be something you miss as the author that another skilled editor will pick up on.

The most important thing a self published author needs is a community, as you’ve missed out on the all-important access that traditional publishing offers – you need to build a network around you of other writers, especially other self publishing authors who can support and advise you along the process. You want to find other writers in your genre to share manuscripts with and offer critiques and feedback, to recommend great editors, cover designers and marketing professionals, to you. To celebrate and commiserate with through the ups and downs, to share each others books and help spread the word to your audiences, and to become lifelong writer friends.

In summary, the biggest pro of self publishing is the freedom – deciding what to write and when to publish it, without falling prey to the whims of agents and publishing houses. And the biggest con is that you’ll have to do it all by yourself, or part with your hard earned cash to get professional help.

What is hybrid publishing?

In recent years, as self publishing has become so much more accessible, there has been a growing trend in hybrid publishing. As you can imagine, hybrid publishing refers to a combination of both traditional and self publishing. For example, an author who has a traditional publishing deal for an ongoing series of crime thrillers may also love writing cosy mysteries, but their publisher doesn’t want to damage the brand they’ve built up in the author’s name, so they won’t publish the cosy series. The author may choose to self publish, possibly even under a pseudonym, as long as it wouldn’t impact on their publishing deal.

Some authors start off as self publishers, but are eventually discovered by an agent or publisher who loves what they write and offers them a contract. They might continue to publish some books themselves whilst also writing for the publisher, or they may leave their previous publications up and go fully trad-pub, having gotten their big break as a self-pubbed author.

Whichever way it works out, hybrid publishing may be the best option for a lot of writers. Say you have an idea you know the big publishing houses are desperate for right now, you could write and query that, whilst self publishing the strange little story that whispers in your head at night, but that you know no agent or publisher will want to touch. There are almost no limits to hybrid publishing (as long as you keep to any contractual terms and conditions), so it’s worth considering when deciding whether to trad-pub or self-pub – you don’t have to choose just one!

Now you know the basics of traditional publishing, self publishing and hybrid publishing and can make an educated decision when the time comes to send your words out into the world. Let me know how you plan to publish, or if you are already a published author then how you decided which way to go!




  1. Good post! Personally, I find hybrid to be the way to go. It simply sounds like the best of both worlds! Lots of luck to us all, as we continue to write and publish this year.


  2. Nicole Evans says:

    Awesome breakdown between the two options (well, three with hybrid). I’m definitely hoping to go hybrid myself, but I am rooting for you in your self-publishing journey! And if you ever need a book boost, help spreading out the word or moral support (or a professional editor), hit me up! OH, also check out SPFBO after you’re published. I think it’s a contest you’ll be interested in entering. 🙂


  3. Wow, this is a super informative post, and as someone who comes from a country where publishers are few and agents almost don’t exist, this definitely helps highlight the various other paths an author could take. Thanks for comprehensive insight, Lyndsey!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lyndleloo says:

      That’s so kind of you to say! Also, I’ve just discovered the Kindle Storyteller competition, which runs every year between May and August and has a £20k prize, amongst other benefits, so if you’re considering self publishing it’s well worth entering.


      1. That competition sounds interesting indeed. Thanks for the heads up!


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