Traditional vs Self-Publishing – The Fundamentals You Need To Know

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The meaning of ‘publishing’ has undergone a tectonic shift in the last decade.

Once upon a time, publishing was almost entirely dependent on the support of a publisher, a larger entity which would pick and choose which works would ever see the light of day. Now you can publish your work electronically in a matter of hours.

To bring these processes under the single banner of ‘publishing’ is possible only in the sense that they end with a written product being available for sale. In reality they are very different, both in what they ask of you, the author, and what they offer in return.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the three main types of publishing – traditional publishing, vanity publishing, and self-publishing. I’ll explain the benefits of each as I go along and will share what you need to know before choosing between them.

What is traditional publishing?

Traditional publishing is when an author, usually in conjunction with their agent, secures publication under the aegis of an organization providing that service professionally.

Working through a publisher means securing the creation of physical copies, and that those physical copies will appear in bookstores, all taken care of by the publisher’s employees and contacts. Publishers will also pay in advance for your work, on the understanding that they will receive a percentage of future profits.

The cost of these benefits is that much of your success will depend on someone else’s work, and you will be beholden to many of their choices. It is the publisher’s decision whether or not to publish you, and this power imbalance will be present throughout the decision-making process. How many stores will you appear in, what will your book look like, what form will advertising take (if any)? You’ll have input into all these decisions, but you are in control only to the point that you can withdraw permission to publish your work.

Likewise, publishing is a very competitive field. It can take years for even the most tenacious authors to be chosen for publication, if at all, and even more time to actually see your book reach the market.

The key to understanding traditional publishing is appreciating that when you submit your work to a publisher you are asking to form a team, the goal of which is getting people to read your story. You’re not asking them to just print your story in exchange for a cut of the profits, but recruiting people with valuable skills to a cause that will benefit you all.

Many authors struggle with this idea – their work starts as their baby, and it’s hard to think that the finished product will actually be a collaboration. Publishers take on projects they believe people want to read and which will be profitable for them. If they think a book needs sweeping changes, they’re unlikely to invest their time when a more fully formed work is right around the corner.

How vanity publishing works

Vanity publishing involves paying a fee for the publication of your book. Generally this takes the form of paying a vanity publisher for a prearranged number of physical, high-quality copies, but it can take other forms such as paying to have your work included in an anthology.

Vanity publishing allows authors the respectability of having professional-quality, physical copies of their work while also giving them complete control over the finished product. Authors can then go on to sell their own work with no financial commitments to the vanity publisher.

For a multitude of reasons, vanity publishing has something of a bad reputation. Schemes such as the anthologies mentioned earlier often leave the author with very little to show for their money, and can often be outright scams.

Similarly, having physical copies often feeds an author’s ego but doesn’t lead them any closer to success. Sales of physical copies come from the work of publishers and bookstores to legitimize the product, and so a vanity-published author will often find they have trouble selling the copies they’ve paid for.

Finally, the cost of producing books is very rarely in the author’s interests. High costs mean it’s impractical to buy a small number of copies, but difficulty in selling on the product means buying in bulk will often leave the author with a surplus.

Vanity publishing is seldom the right fit for authors, but there are circumstances where it can be beneficial. If an author knows of a sales avenue or existing market which will support a small number of books, then they may make money on the transaction. Many travelling performers, be they comedians, poets, or other forms of writer, find that they can sell copies of their work at shows or readings.

The key to vanity publishing is to accept that any money put into obtaining physical copies is spent rather than invested. Like any product, ‘worth’ is determined by how much you’re willing to spend; it may be that having a copy of your work for your bookshelf is worth the price, but the majority of the people who make significant money through vanity publishing are the ones offering the service.

Should I choose self-publishing?

Self-publishing is available through many routes, and usually involves making your work available in a digital format. Authors retain complete creative control from content to cover, and are responsible for quality control and marketing. Online stores usually take a percentage of profits, though these are generally far less than a traditional publisher would require.

The benefits of self-publishing are in the freedom of the author to bring their work to potential readers. There is no lengthy publishing process – an author could (but shouldn’t) make their work available on the same day they finish it. Authors are free to invest in making the best product possible, but the process is very cheap and can be done for almost nothing.

Online ebook stores require very little remuneration – their costs are minimal, so they’re happy to offer thousands of low-sellers on the off chance that this ‘all welcome’ attitude will net them something more profitable.

The downside to this approach is that self-published works still have a long way to go in terms of prestige. Readers are not as trusting as they would be of traditionally published works, and there is no mechanism outside the author for differentiating high-quality work from the glut of much poorer work.

Those who do wish to self-publish need to keep in mind that processes such as copyediting and book cover design are genuinely difficult, and errors in these areas can easily lead readers to decide that an otherwise excellent book belongs in the lower end of the self-published market. These services can be easily sought out, but will cost money in their own right.

It’s also worth noting that while the ebook market is constantly growing, it’s still a much smaller share of the literary marketplace than physical media. Publishing in a digital format means limiting the number of people who will encounter your work, although that limited number is still a huge potential readership.

Finally, authors looking to self-publish have to accept that getting their work read will be their own responsibility. This means networking, using social media to build their brand, and engaging in activities such as book giveaways and interviews, and submitting to marketing services. Self-publishing guarantees your work will be available for purchase, but success requires a great deal of personal effort and invested time.

Traditional vs self-publishing vs vanity publishing – considering your options

While vanity publishing is usually the preserve of those with a specific use for a set number of physical copies, traditional and self-publishing offer competing benefits that may attract authors to one or the other as their preference.

Keep in mind that choosing one path doesn’t close off the other. Many authors began as self-published writers before gaining the attention of a publishing company, and many successful authors spent years pursuing a publisher before shifting their sights to the self-publishing market.

In the end, the only right choice is the one that suits your current goals. As those goals shift, make sure to reconsider your options and make sure that the type of publication you’re considering is the one that does the most for you. Above all, remember that success doesn’t hinge on the publishing route you choose, but on the effort you put into marketing your book to readers. Work hard, and work consistently, and you can find success through any avenue.

For more on the publishing process, check out our other articles What literary agents do (and don’t do) for authors, and 12 steps to getting your book published.

Do you long for traditional publication or do you think self-publishing is the future? Let me know in the comments.


15 thoughts on “Traditional vs Self-Publishing – The Fundamentals You Need To Know”

  1. Excellent report, Rob. I have some questions.

    Does the buyer of the vanity published book know it is vanity published?

    How are eBooks priced? For example, is there an advantage for beginning authors to price their eBook at say, one cent? Or does that imply the book is worth only one cent?

    As for hard copy books, I have seen authors peddle their own books on street corners for fifty cents to a dollar or two.

    1. Thanks very much Jim,

      Vanity books aren’t marked as such in any way, but are generally apparent by the absence of publisher logos or information. Most readers aren’t really looking for that information, especially online, so while the book’s nature is there for them to see, it’s usually not something that gets picked up on at point of sale.

      Unfortunately, there’s no absolute answer to book pricing. Low pricing for eBooks is a good sales tactic and certainly in a digital market won’t harm the author’s reputation, but then it also won’t make the author much money. For authors just starting out it’s definitely something I’d advise, since it’s the best of a very limited number of ways to get people reading your work.

      Selling paper books depends entirely on who you’re selling them to. You can’t price as low since you have more costs to consider, but if you’re doing it in person then you can vary the price however you like. Again, free copies are a great way to get noticed, but don’t make you any money in the short term. There are a few pricing tips and tricks authors can use to their advantage, which you’ll find in the articles I’ve linked below.


      Hope that’s useful,

  2. Robert
    Thanks for a thoughtful article.
    May I suggest a further evolution in the industry? There is a fast-growing segment that is composed mostly of small publishers that are independent from the traditional publishers. They assume the costs of cover designs, editing and formatting, and make a contribution to marketing, like the traditionals. They are also selective about the authors they publish, but not as ‘sure-thing’ afflicted or elitists as traditional publishers. They also tend to publish in selected genres and favour ebooks first and paperback second. I suggest these are the legitimate independent publishers.
    Independents are quite distinct from vanity publishers and from self-publishers who, while not pay-to-publish firms , will publish almost anything, with little quality adjudication, and low-quality support services (design, editing, marketing, etc).
    The challenge is differentiating independents from self-publishers. One way is to raise awareness, like this.

    1. Hi James,

      Thanks for your thoughts. A great thing about articles like this is that while they’re designed to be assets for authors, they also prompt authors and those in surrounding fields to act as assets to each other.

      As you say, independent publishers are still establishing their presence in the marketplace, but can be a legitimate option for some writers. While they bear a similarity to traditional publishers in terms of how the process will be experienced by the author, it’s an interesting and helpful topic all of its own, and certainly one that bears deeper exploration. Expect to see an article dedicated to this topic in the near future.


  3. To some extent I’m surprised that vanity publishing still exists.

    Services like CreateSpace produce books that are close enough to mass produced quality that most people can’t tell the difference – and I’ve seen lower quality with traditionally printed books on more than one occasion.

    There’s nothing to stop you creating your own plausible publishing house name (I’ve done that, just fill in the appropriate box) and a logo would be easy done on Fiverr.

    I suppose the plus point with vanity publishing is spending the money which can help push some people to finish their work. Horses for courses.

    1. Hi Trevor,

      Thanks for commenting – some great points. I wouldn’t advise falsifying a publishing house as there’s always the possibility (however slim) of legal complications down the road, but you’re right that the quality of printing has reached a point where the end product can be almost indistinguishable from its publishing house equivalent. I also think Fiverr is an incredibly underrated resource for self-published authors.


  4. Hi Rob

    Thanks for those thoughts – my house happens to have a name (quite a lot of houses here in the UK do) so I used that as the name for my publishing house. If it was ever questioned, that would just be a trading name. Plus it’s quite a literal use of publishing house – the thought of the bricks and mortar logging into the bank could even make a plot for a children’s book 🙂

    Agreed that Fiverr is great – I’ve used it lots for book formatting and book covers. It’s just a matter of reading some of the reviews plus making sure they’re not all bunched together when they asked their friends to help their review count.

    1. Hi Trevor,

      Sounds like you know what you’re doing regarding trading names and the like. I added the proviso as I’ve seen a lot of cases where authors have mocked up this kind of thing in a context that could have legal ramifications – sometimes it adds to the authenticity of the work, but sometimes it can leave them unprotected in unexpected ways.

      I’m actually based in the UK, but I agree that pretty much every house name I can think of doubles up perfectly as the name of a publisher.


  5. Super informative and helpful! I am just venturing into the publishing world and appreciate the your insightful, well-informed and well written article.

    1. Hi Tiffany,

      Thanks for your comment – I’m really glad you enjoyed the article and found it useful.


  6. HI, I really enjoyed your article.

    I am a first-time author, from Mumbai, India, looking to go the Self-publishing route. Now there are a lot of publishers online. But I heard that many vanity publishers are posing as self-publishers.

    So as a novice author, how can I differentiate from the publisher’s online site, whether they are self-publishers or Vanity Publishers?

    1. Hi samrat,

      A poor quality site is a bad sign, but you’re probably not going to be able to tell from that alone. Genuine publishers should a) be able to direct you to their prior satisfied customers and b) be able to make you some clear, legal guarantees. If a publisher is cagey about who they’ve worked with in the past or unwilling to provide a basic contract, don’t work with them, since there’s no good outcome to that situation, even if they’re not trying to con you.


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