Traditional Publishing or Self PublishingWhich One is Right for You?

It’s not easy to get a book published.

The understatement of the year ... right?

But, lucky us, here we are living in the twenty first century, with options and opportunities that didn’t exist fifty years ago. But those options and opportunities have brought with them new challenges, too.

Just the sheer volume of books that get released every year is staggering. The publishing industry has changed dramatically in the past couple of decades. The number of traditional publishing houses is shrinking and they can physically produce just so many books in a year. The self publishing companies have offered another way for authors to get their books out. Many of the books published by independent and self published authors are terrific, but some are maybe not so professional. Those can have great content that goes unnoticed because the quality of the physical book isn’t so great. Some self published books look great, but unprofessional writing makes them cumbersome to read.

Whether these books are terrific or terrible may not even matter, because many of the self publishers don’t know how to market their books. Just being listed on Amazon or a website or even in a book catalog is no guarantee that a book will be found by readers. The publishing landscape is changing fast, and there’s a big learning curve and lots of new opportunities cropping up for folks wanting to publish books.

Let’s take a look at the options you have for making your book a reality, and the advantages and the disadvantages of each option.

Traditional Publishing

This is the dream … and though the number of traditional publishers is shrinking, they’re not going to disappear completely.

There is unmistakeable romance and thrill involved with having a book published. To have a dream/vision/message for the world that burns in your soul … to put that onto paper … to have another human being see and understand that dream/vision/message and acknowledge its importance to the extent that they are willing to invest time, energy and resources to help you broadcast it to the world … you are validated! The world is a better place! And they paid you for the privilege!

Okay, that was fun … now here’s the reality …

You don’t just decide you will choose traditional publishing … traditional publishing decides if it will choose you!

The first big (biggest?) hurdle when going the traditional route is getting an editor to accept your project. Or, even better, finding an agent who will help you find that editor.

Do your homework … some publishers will only work through agents. Make certain that your work is the right style/genre that they publish. Especially for children’s picture books, which are a bit specialized and not all publishers do those.

Expect to wait up to three months or longer to find out if your project was accepted or rejected. If it’s rejected, find another publisher and send it off again and wait some more. Don’t expect to know why it was rejected. You’ll most likely get a curt, polite form letter with a simple No thanks. There are a million and one reasons why manuscripts get rejected that may or may not have anything to do with the quality of the manuscript. If you do get some feedback, that’s usually an encouraging sign … consider/act on their comments and continue sending it out.

For this article, let’s assume it was accepted … well, hooray! Now what?

First, the good news …

In addition to being compensated monetarily, you now have a whole team of professionals dedicated to you and your book!

The publisher will provide the best editors, designers, artists, and marketing pros to work on your project. You’ve given them the raw material to work with and now they will polish and spit shine it and turn it into a product that readers will pay money for.

This might be the biggest Ouch! in working with a traditional publisher.

We writers and drawers of children’s books have all these romantic notions of seeing our work in print and having readers’ lives being dramatically affected by the stories we tell … it might not be so comfortable a thought that a team of strangers is going to be tweaking your creation. But ultimately, the book making business is about making money, too. And if they deem it needs modifying a bit to make it marketable, then so be it.

To all you idealists out there, don’t pooh-pooh this! I’ve talked about this before – the creative/practical, leftie/rightie sides to producing a book. It’s a team effort and both sides are equally important.

Dreamers have to eat, and a life worth living includes our dreams and aspirations. If you just try to make a book because you think there’s money in that, you’ll likely end up with a boring book and not so many sales. If you’re the idealist/dreamer who produced something so fabulous and creative that might possibly rock the world, but you can’t bear the thought of anyone else touching your creation, you might not be selling too many books and be left starving!

With traditional publishing you get the best of both worlds.

You create the terrific dream/vision/message that will touch and influence readers, and the publisher packages and markets that dream/vision/message so that it will actually get into the hands of those readers.

When your creation is in the hands of the team, that generally means that your part has ended. You will not likely be consulted for input. Professional editors and proofreaders will be pouring over the narrative for mistakes and passages that need re-working. For picture books, they will select and direct the illustrator. They will have their own ideas concerning cover art. They might even change the title.

But it can be well worth it. You’re likely going to be pleased with the end result, though it may not be exactly as you envisioned it … it may, in fact, be quite better!

When the books are printed and ready for bookshelves, the marketing department will take over and send out the press releases to let the book sellers and the world know that your book is now available. This is the part where you can be more involved for things like speaking engagements and book signings.

I’m no salesman, and I don’t know much about the marketing end of the book business. As I learn more I’ll add articles about marketing to the site, and update the info here. But I do know that a traditional publisher has a much wider reach, influence, and distribution that you will get with self publishing. They’ve invested their own dollars and resources and are just as interested as you are in selling your book.

If your book is the type of story that will lend itself well to audio books, or movies, a traditional publisher can be your inroad to those, as well as foreign markets and translations.

Be patient … all of this will take T-I-M-E. From the moment a project is accepted until the day a book is available might be a year or two. This is in addition to however long it took to actually find the publisher to begin with.

But all this attention your book is getting won’t last forever. Unless it’s a run-away best seller, there will come a time – maybe in about 6 months or less – when it’s time for them to move on to their next project. You can extend the shelf life of your book by finding ways to promote your book on your own, through social media, classroom talks, library readings, local bookstore signings, etc.

So here’s a brief summary of the advantages and disadvantages of traditional publishing:

Traditional Publishing Advantages

  • They pay you.
  • The quality of a traditionally published book is professional and superb. Most self published books cannot compare.
  • From editorial tasks to layout and design and marketing, they will have a whole team of professionals to put together your project.
  • They will choose and hire suitable illustrators for your picture book.
  • For appropriate projects, they have the connections and resources for television, the movie industry, foreign translations, audio books, etc.
  • Especially with older, established publishers, they will have established markets they have worked with for years and a much broader distribution than self publishers.
  • Most traditionally published books are printed with offset printing, which is superior to digital printing.

Traditional Publishing Disadvantages

  • It can take a very long time to find a publisher or an agent to represent you.
  • It can take a long time – up to a year or more – to see the completed book.
  • The author loses all creative control of the project, and will likely not be consulted regarding layout and design, changes to the narrative, title or previously submitted art work.
  • After the shelf life of a book has passed – 3-6 months – the publisher will turn their attention away to newer projects and promotion will be up to the author if he/she wants to prolong the life of the book.

This is very general and different publishers will work differently. It’s a good idea to get in touch with published authors who have been there and done that. Find out what they experienced and what they might do differently next time.

But what about your self published colleagues … let’s see how things happen in their world …

Self Publishing

First things first … if you read nothing else, at least read and heed the following warning:


I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this …

… the fact that there are publishers out there who are “vanity” publishers in the most unsavory sense of the word.

New authors who are so excited at the prospect of publishing a book, but who are unfamiliar with the publishing world, are easy targets for the outfits that end up owning all the rights and most of the profits while the author foots the bill. And sometimes, these companies aren’t really bad, they just work in ways that the author didn’t fully understand up front.

A self publishing company that has its name and logo – their reputation - on your book will rightfully expect to share in the rights to your book, but the author should be the primary rights holder.

It is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to protect your own interests!

Put your emotions aside while you are negotiating with a company. Make sure you fully understand, and have in writing, the expected responsibilities and benefits for both parties. NEVER sign anything until you’ve read and FULLY UNDERSTAND what you’re getting yourself into. You probably won’t understand a publisher’s contract, so do your homework and seek out wise counsel from experienced people who understand publishing and can explain things and advise you. Not all lawyers will understand the nuances of publishing contracts, so, be wise when seeking legal counsel, too.

Now that that’s out of the way … back to our article …

I am an illustrator, but my background is in graphics for the printing industry. A few years ago when I began to be approached by “self published” authors to illustrate their picture books, I thought that meant that they were printing and marketing books on their own, under their own names. But on the finished books was the name of a publisher. So were they “self” published, or did an actual publisher print their books?

Then I learned about a whole new industry that has sprung up in recent years, the “self publishing” outfits that, for a fee, will “publish” your book.


Decades back when I was developing an interest in illustration, I learned about the “vanity” publishers. That’s where authors would go when they had books that they really thought had potential, but couldn’t grab the interest of a traditional publishing house. So they would turn to the vanity publishers and pay them to print their books.

Even though there are famous authors who went this route with good success, it was largely sneered upon by the publishing world. Vanity publishers and the authors who used their services had unsavory reputations and were snubbed by their peers. No author who was creating worthy material should have to pay to have their work published! Ridiculous!

But times have changed. Now anyone who can type on a laptop is an author, and anybody with a graphics program and a desktop printer is an artist and a designer.

Of course that’s not true. But – just like on YouTube where not every posting is a shining example of film making genius, yet there are those few shining gems that pop up occasionally – so it is in the self publishing world. The vanity publishers have evolved right along with the technology. They have shed their unsavory reputation and have aligned themselves with authors to help them turn manuscripts into real books.

These self publishing firms can do everything that a traditional publisher can do … for a fee. Instead of them paying you for your work and then putting together a team to produce your book, you pay them for all the services you will need to produce your book.

Different outfits work different ways, but in general, you will buy a “package” from them which will contain the services your project will require, including editorial services; layout and design for the inside pages and cover; printing services; marketing packages which include giving you listings in book sellers catalogs and online listings in their own stores and places like Amazon. If you are doing a picture book, they can also provide illustration services, or they will have a list of illustrators you can hire independently … which is how I got started, when I was invited to be added to one of those lists.

The quality of the printed books from these companies is generally pretty good. It really depends on the printing options you select, especially on full color picture books. Opt for a heavy glossy or coated paper for the inside pages and a hardback cover. Offset printing is superior to digital, but if you have quality paper for the inside pages – meaning no bleed-through – digital printing will suffice.

Also, on the printing, get the largest quantity of printed copies that you can possibly afford. That will keep your cost per book down so you will make more profit per book, which will be split with the publisher, by the way.

You will be spending several thousand dollars on the publishing package, and another possible $2,000-5,000 on an illustrator if it’s a picture book. So how many books at $15-20 per book will you need to sell to re-coop your costs? And how long will it take to sell that many books? It’s quite an investment to be self published!

Some authors opt for less expensive papers and smaller quantities to get their upfront costs down, but I personally think it’s better in the long run to have a top quality product that more people will want to buy. If you do the math, you will quickly see the problem picture book writers have, because full color printing isn’t cheap.

Successful selling of your book will be totally up to you. The publisher will help to a point, but they don’t have skin in the game like a traditional publisher. They will take a percentage from book sales, of course. But the reality is that, even if you never sell a single book, they have already made their money from the fees you paid them for producing the books.

So have a marketing plan. You can only sell so many books to friends and acquaintances. Your publisher will, of course, add your book to their book catalog, their online store and online booksellers. But Amazon isn’t like a brick and mortar bookstore and folks aren’t likely to find you while browsing through. So you’ll need other ways to point folks there: your own website, social media, online interviews with the author, local bookstores, libraries and schools for talks, readings and signings. Put your thinking cap on … who is your target audience? How can you reach them?

Self publishing is very expensive. Just like traditional publishing, there are advantages and disadvantages:

Self Publishing Advantages

  • The publisher will have resources available for editorial duties, layout and design, printing, etc.
  • No waiting here … book production begins the moment contracts are signed and deposits are paid.
  • You will have total creative control, choosing your own illustrator, and directing and approving work you’ve hired for editorial duties, layout and design, printing services, etc.
  • The publishing company will aid you in marketing by getting your book into their catalog and listed online through bookstores and sites like Amazon.
  • Marketing self published books these days might actually be a bit easier, since there is less need for a physical store and more online resources for buyers and sellers.

Self Publishing Disadvantages

  • You are responsible for all costs involved in the production of your book including printing and any services or resources you require for editorial duties, layout and design, printing, etc.
  • Self publishing is very expensive … count the cost carefully before you dive in.
  • Since you have total creative control, overall quality of your book can suffer if you don’t understand graphics, editorial tasks, the printing process, etc. Surround yourself with the most qualified people you can afford, whether from your publisher or people you hire independently.
  • Distribution might be smaller and limited for a self publishing company than for a traditional publisher.
  • Marketing and promotion can turn into a full time job. Without it, you might not sell enough books to re-coop the upfront costs.
  • Unless your project is so spectacular that the whole world is falling at your feet, it will be almost impossible – if not extremely difficult – for a self published book to get picked up for television or movie projects. But, hey, ceilings are there to be broken through, and we should never say never …

Traditional publishing sounds great, but who knows if you can ever get in the door?

Self publishing is really expensive, and how do you know if you’ll be able to sell the books?

For the truly adventurous souls, there is a third option …

Going Rogue

By “going rogue” I just mean striking out on your own.

Forget the editors you can’t get a response from.

Forget the vanity publishers who will make money regardless of whether or not you ever sell a book.

What if you just sat down, figured out the steps you need to take to produce a book and then take it to the market and sell it?

Going rogue isn’t for everyone. And it's most certainly not for the faint of heart.

I’ve never done it, so if you keep reading, just know this is simply the out-loud musings of someone who can get big, dangerous ideas, but who is also too cautious or cowardly or smart to actually act on those ideas. So just read on and hear me out … it will at least help you to understand how much is involved in publishing a book and why self publishing is so darn expensive. And why most of us really do need a helping hand from industry pros.

(And, please, be gentle if after slogging through the following you feel compelled to let me know I’ve lost my ever-lovin’ mind!)

Going rogue means that you are going to take the production and marketing of your book into your own hands. You’ll oversee the layout and design of the book; you’ll take care of all the legalities like registering the titles, applying for copyrights, acquiring ISBN’s, etc; you’ll negotiate with printers and oversee the production of the actual printed books; and you will oversee marketing and distribution.

Going rogue means that instead of paying fees to a self publishing company, you will take that money and hire folks to do the jobs you can’t do yourself … the editorial work, graphic design, layout, printing, marketing, etc.

Going rogue also means that when a book is sold, there are no royalties involved, so you keep 100% of the profits. Invest that money into your next book and do it all again!

Going rogue and being totally independent wouldn’t have even been possible twenty years ago. I’m not sure it will actually work today, but everything is changing so fast. Like I mentioned earlier, the physical book stores are dwindling and everything is going online, so who can tell what new opportunities are coming our way?

Going rogue might work well for two different types of authors: (1) the one-hit wonder type, and (2) the career author with an entrepreneurial streak.

The one-hit wonder types of authors are the folks who don’t intend to have a book-making career. They’ve just got a single story or message that they’d like to share with the world. Or maybe it’s a story that’s special to their family and they want to enshrine it in book form to pass down.

If it’s the latter case, and they don’t particularly care how many books get sold or even given away, it might be a better option for them to simply find a printer to print the book. Printing is expensive, but less expensive that a full-blown package from a self publishing company. They will most likely need to pay for graphic and layout services, and someone to edit and proofread. The print run needs to be large enough to get the unit cost down. And they will need a safe, climate-controlled place to store the books until they’re sold or given away.

For the author with the one message/story for the world, going rogue may not be best choice. It will depend on how much time and energy they’re willing to invest in marketing and distribution. A people-person who likes to chat it up online and in person, and can network through their clubs, associations and organizations they’re affiliated with, will probably do fine selling a few books here and there. But if there is absolutely no way this person will be interested or invested in marketing efforts, a self publishing company might be a better choice, because at the very minimum, at least the book will be listed on a few online stores.

For the career author, especially the novelists, traditional publishing is hands down the best choice. For the newbies, self publishing might help them get a foot in a few doors, but pursuing a good agent might be time better spent. These folks need to invest their time and energy plying their craft and writing that next best seller.

But if you're an author who doesn't need to spend every waking moment plying your craft, who’s a bit of a renegade with an entrepreneurial streak, and going rogue has you slightly curious, here’s what you’ll need to consider:

  • First, consider that perhaps there may be very important reasons why some editor rejected your work when you submitted it. Or perhaps you’ve never allowed another industry professional to see your work. Before you spend too many dollars and time on going rogue or even self publishing, get some professional feedback and do some tough soul searching … is your work yet at a level where it’s marketable and ready to be put out there? If not, keep working on that. If so, continue reading …

  • Can you find and assemble a team of talented, available and reliable freelancers who know how to edit and proof manuscripts; who can oversee, direct, or provide illustrative services, graphics and design services, etc. To be successful, you have to sell your product, and it won’t sell unless it is professional, top notch and worth paying for.

  • For books, that includes top quality printing. Printing and producing actual books will be your greatest expense. Especially for full color picture books. Offset printing is the best, though more expensive, choice. Digital printing will work also, depending on paper choices and the quality of the actual press. Before hiring printers, check out samples of their work and make certain of the quality.
    – Pick a printer who specializes in books and who has access to vendors who will add the cover and assemble the books.

    – The trick is to get your unit price down so that you can price the books to sell and still make a profit. Your unit cost is how much you paid for artwork, layout and design + the amount you paid for printing and assembling books ÷ the number of books you printed.
    If you want to sell the book for $15, but it costs you $12 per book to produce, that's no good.
    The set up for a printing press is the same whether you're printing 500 books or 2500 books. Larger runs actually cost less per print. So work with your printer to find where the quantity breaks are and how many books you'll need to print to get the cost per book down so you can make a profit.
  • You will need a safe, clean, climate-controlled place to store the books waiting to be sold.

Going Rogue Advantages

  • You’ll keep 100% of the profits from book sales.
  • You’ll have total creative control.
  • You’ll have total quality control.
  • You’ll be able to control and schedule your own timeline for completing projects.

Going Rogue Disadvantages

  • You alone will be responsible for the success or failure of your book project.
  • It will be very expensive, though maybe less in the long run than going through a self publishing company.
  • You’ll likely not be able to manage totally alone, depending on which areas you have expertise, so you'll need to assemble a good team of professionals – who can be freelancers – who can handle the tasks you are not qualified or interested in doing, like the editorial tasks, graphics, layout and design, printing, sales and marketing, etc.

The toughest part of going rogue will be the marketing and distribution. The publishing industry is seasonal and there are specific times of the year when new releases come out and when bookstores are stocking up on new titles. If you plan on going rogue – and even if you don't – it's a good idea to join some organizations, go to the conventions and mingle and find out what it's all about.

I don't know if the yearly book conventions and publishing organizations only cater to the big fish publishers or if we little fish can swim comfortably in the pond, too. I suspect the little ones don't carry the same clout as the big ones, but we've got to start somewhere! As I learn more about this part, I'll put up more articles about that.

But maybe it's time to try some new ways ... things are changing so fast and new opportunities pop up daily. With a click you have access to individuals, groups, organizations ... potential book buyers! All those folks that used to browse the bookstores need to go go somewhere ... put up a website store that will be just as much fun to browse through as that brick and mortor store was. Just like the vanity publishers adapted to become a reputable, viable option for authors, we can adapt to new and better ways of plying our craft, too. So put your thinking cap on and come up with ways to reach those readers.

Til then, keep dreaming big dreams and keep working on those marvelous books you make ... whichever route you take, I'm sure you'll get there!