Self publishing v Traditional publishing – what’s the difference?

What's the difference between self publishing and traditional publishing?

I am regularly asked by businesspeople how they can get their book accepted by a publisher and/or how to self publish.

As someone who has been in the book publishing industry for over 30 years, established two ‘untraditional’ publishing companies and one self publishing business I’ve experienced pretty much everyt aspect of book publishing, especially in the business book space.

Book publishing in either the traditional way or self publishing involves a range of different steps, skills, professionals and the passion/energy of the author to market their book.

Here’s my brief overview of traditional and self publishing and the pros and cons of each.

Traditional publishing

This refers to the way the mainstream publishing business operates and has done for a couple of centuries…and therein lies its power and problems.

The publishing industry is made up of publishers (with commissioning editors, proofreaders, editors, book cover designers, internal page layout designers), book distributors and bookshops at the top level and then a wide range of specialists at the next level: agents, publicists, marketing consultants etc. Each one of the top level players takes a cut of the retail price of books that are sold as does an agent, while others charge a fee for their services.

Where’s the writer in all this I hear you say?

Good question.

And the answer is, at the bottom, unless you become one of a VERY few who capture the best-seller mantle then you move from the bottom to somewhere in the middle.

To get picked up by a traditional publisher you need an agent. Publishers rarely accept unsolicited manuscripts, hence the ‘rejection letter’ scenario. To find an agent, in my experience with business books, is harder than flying to the moon.

Agents specialise in specific genres, and there aren’t many who specialise in business books.

IF you do happen to get picked up by a traditional publisher this means that they take on the cost of editing, proofreading, designing, printing and distribution of your book. This is clearly a big commitment in time and money. So publishers need to pick carefully as they need to be confident that they’ll sell lots of books to recoup and make a profit from sales of the book. It’s risky.

For you as the author shifting that risk to the publisher also means you need to accept that they will want to take control over a whole range of aspects of your book. This includes the title, cover design, structure of your book, editing, print run and more. Of course, they’ll consult with you but they’re calling the shots.

Can you control the timing of your book being published?

The short answer is no. Traditional publishers will slot your book into their production and publishing schedule. Typically this ranges from 6-12 months ahead of time. So, if you want to get your book out to a different timeframe, forget it with a traditional publisher.

The reasons for this are numerous, the most relevant being is that your publisher has to pitch your book (along with lots of others, via their distribution partner/division) to the bookshops. The bookshop chains review the books on offer and will place orders and from these the publisher gauges the interest in your book. Convoluted? You bet.

And yes, they’ll get it into bookshops and do a bit of marketing, but they’ll rely heavily on you as the author to promote and market your book. They might allocate a small amount for a book launch, small being the operative word. Expect to pay for a lot of your own travel and for events if you want to have them.

There’s an expectation that you will market and promote your book through your own channels and perhaps even cover the cost of a book publicist. Of course, your publisher will use some of their marketing resources to market your book, but this is fleeting, about three months – until the next around of books come in.

In fact the more profile, visibility and recognition you have will be a significant factor in a publisher taking on your book. So, you need to have or build a strong following across the key social media channels of LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Insta as well as Podcasts, industry websites etc.

The reality is no one is as interested in marketing and promoting your book than you.

After all this, your book ends up in bookshops. And, if it’s attracted attention (through your marketing and promotional efforts and that of your publisher) people hopefully find it in their bookshop and buy it. Happy days. Not quite.

And what level of financial return can you expect?

As the author, you are likely to receive 5-7% of the Recommended Retail Price as your cut. This is paid to you by your publisher every six months in arrears . And the reason for this? Well, of course, the publisher, distributor and bookshop have to take their cut AND bookshops work on a 90-day sale and return system. If your book doesn’t ‘sell through’ in 90 days the distributor has to pick them up and hold them in stock till more are ordered…hopefully.

Of course, if your book sells well, say 3,000 – 5,000 copies in Australia that’s good for everyone and you might get $4,000-$7,000 for your efforts plus, of course, the kudos and recognition of your book in a bookshop.

Before I move on to self publishing a quick word about the newer publishers such as Amazon. While their process for publishing a book with them is much faster, more direct and efficient (all huge pluses) you won’t be making much more money from book sales as Amazon keeps most of it, as do other Print on Demand (POD) publishing options.

The Pros of traditional publishing

  1. Majority of costs covered
  2. Less time required in production liaison
  3. Access to bookshops (bricks and mortar +online
  4. Sales and distribution managed
  5. Some marketing and promotional support

Cons of traditional publishing

  1. Lengthy time to secure a deal: 6-12 months and then another 6-12 months to publish
  2. Need for a third party to facilitate (an agent)
  3. Limited control over key aspects of your book: title, cover design, editing, launch, marketing, pricing, discounts etc
  4. Rights assigned to publisher (i.e. you assign control over certain rights to sell your book into other markets and/or versions of your book for varying time periods)

Self publishing

Self publishing has really come about because of the rigid structure of the traditional publishing industry and the power of commissioning editors in deciding what will be published or not alongside the advent of more and more options for writers to bypass this and self publish. As self publishing has developed over the past 10-15 years so have options and opportunities for such books.

Of course, there are now a wide range of offerings out there for businesspeople who want to self publish, of course The Book Adviser is one of them. Without too much trouble anyone can find experts to help in all aspects of self publishing from book writing coaches, editors, proofreaders, designers, printers, marketing and promotions and more. In fact there are so many options it’s often a challenge for a first time writer to know who to pick and how to assess what they need, the value of such services, quality and fees charged.

Business owners, consultants and executives are looking to self publishing as a way to increase their visibility and recognition in their field, leverage their knowledge and insights to build their own personal brand and/or their business.

Writing and self publishing a book brings a level of credibility and authority unmatched by any other platform or media. There’s a depth to a well written and published book. This said, a badly constructed, written and produced book can be a disaster for the author so you need to have a keen eye on the quality of what you are writing and publishing.

How does self publishing work?

In essence you the writer take on the role of writer and publisher. You have to write your book, then you need to find specialists to undertake the key functions of editor, proofreader, cover and internal page design and layout, printing, distribution and marketing. AND you have to pay for and manage the whole process.

If it sounds daunting, it can be. It’s like deciding to summit Mt Everest on your own . . . ill-advised, dangerous and costly.

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This said, there are a myriad of options for the first time business book writer from DIY through to full-service offerings. As you would expect, the cost and quality of these offerings varies greatly depending on:

  • what exactly is being offered (fully automated through to fully customised)
  • if you are writing your own book or want to commission a ghostwriter
  • the quality you want – in terms of your manuscript, design and printing
  • the level of engagement you want in the design and layout of your book, and
  • your own level of interest, capability and time to market your book over time (12 months at least).

The pros of self publishing

  1. Full control of all aspects of your book: title, cover, internal page design, print quantity, price (and different pricing options)
  2. Determine the timeframe and schedule for your book
  3. Retain all money from sales of your book (if you are selling it through your website, less if you sell on Amazon, Booktopia or other third party sites(
  4. Obtain the emails/contact details of people purchasing the book through your site which you can leverage to grow your business
  5. Target your specific audiences more effectively and efficiently (increasing sales of your book and potentially securing bulk sale orders
  6. Leverage your book to increase your visibility and recognition as an expert
  7. Integrate your book into your business marketing and growth

The cons of self publishing

  1. Uncertainty about the relevance and quality of your manuscript
  2. Investment of money to cover all aspects of your book production, printing (including eBook and audio book)
  3. Time to select, brief, manage all aspects of the production and publishing process
  4. Commitment to marketing and promotion of your book, before and after the launch
  5. Learning on the job can be costly and time consuming
  6. Commitment to marketing and selling your book over a 12-18 month period
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What’s the best option for you and your business book?

The reality is the traditional publisher route is not an option you can choose.

A commissioning editor in a publishing company will choose your book, or not, if you can secure an Agent, and that Agent can pitch your book. IF you are ‘chosen’ you’ll need to accept that your publisher has significant control over key decisions about your book . . . as they should as they are taking the financial risk.

You can choose self publishing, stay in control of all aspects of your book, maximise the opportunities your book can provide to increase your visibility and that of your business, retain all the revenue from book sales and develop the skills and knowledge within your business for future book projects.

And, as already mentioned, there’s a wide range of options available in the self publishing space from DIY simple PDF-style digital books through to a bespoke, complete ‘done for you’ service such as what we offer at The Book Adviser.

What option you choose should be based on a clear understanding of the purpose of your book and the goals you wish to reach with it.

If you’d like to have an initial discussion about starting your book journey email me at [email protected]