Traditional publishing vs Self Publishing

What’s more controversial in today’s writing communities?  Well, probably lots of things, but self publishing is gaining in popularity.  I’ll put forward my thoughts on the topic.  I’ll start by going over what traditional publishing is and what it does and then compare it to self publishing, plus as a bonus I’ll waffle on about my thoughts on the matter.


In the traditional model, the author writes their work, polishes it then submits it either directly to a publisher or to an agent who then submits to publishers on the author’s behalf.  The publisher and sometimes the agent provide editorial feedback to massage the work into what the publisher wants to market.  Then the publisher does some marketing, the amount varies, but you’d expect they would at least push the work to various distributors and hand out copies to reviewers.  Oh and the author gets an advance on royalties.

Self Publishing

In the self publishing model, the author writes their work, polishes and then attempts to do everything the publisher does.


Over the last few years things have changed.  What has caused this change?  The internet, of course.  Even up until just a couple of years ago it was very difficult and, some would argue, fruitless, to attempt self publishing.  That is because the entry costs compared to possible payout were too high.  You’d need to buy a large print run of books, you’d have become a travelling salesman lugging boxes of books from shop to shop and you’d have only a small chance of selling anything.  E-books and publish on demand printing has changed all of that.  You can now get your book listed for sale and have a printer run off only the copies you sell.  Better than that, e-books don’t need printing, they’re electronic.

What a traditional publisher does:

  1. 1. Employs an editor to help the author with their work.
  2. 2. Physically prints the books (or at least foots the bill for a printer)
  3. 3. Sees the book is distributed to large book store chains.
  4. 4. Knows how to market the author’s work, knows who to put copies in front of.
  5. 5. Organises cover art, back blurb, author endorsements

What a self publisher can now do:

  1. 1. Employ an editor to help with their work.
  2. 2. Format their book as an e-book, organise a print on demand service.
  3. 3. Upload their e-book to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.
  4. 4. Use social network sites, blogs, review sites and a web site to get people interested.
  5. 5. Pay a one stop shop for cover art, blurb copy.

So what does a traditional publisher do that a self publisher can’t do?  For the most part it comes down to entry costs and marketing.  The cost for a self publisher to get a professional looking book out has dropped significantly, but it still can cost up to $5,000 or more depending on how much editing is needed and how many other services they want to use.  On the other hand, a talented author could have almost no costs, except time, but that is unlikely.  The big thing a publisher does now is have market knowledge.  As an example, with the amount of information on the internet now, anyone can create a web site, but with fifteen years in the industry, I would have a much better chance of making it work than a person who is self-taught and only just started out.  That isn’t to say it can’t be done, but experience is important.

So which is for me?

Ultimately I will be published, either through a traditional publisher or by myself.  My goal is not to become the next billion dollar author, nor even to be a famous author, but rather I would just be happy knowing someone out there has enjoyed my work, that someone has been inspired in some way, just like I have been inspired by the books I’ve read.

The Future:

I do not doubt that in the future there will still be physical books and there will still be publishers.  What I believe, though, is that publishers will need to change quite significantly.  They will need to remember that they don’t sell content, they sell access to content, they sell a reputation of quality.  The publisher that forgets that, that thinks they sell books or thinks they sell stories, will fail.  The book as a product has always been about being a convenient vehicle for content and that vehicle has changed.


About sjohnhughes

Author, nerd, father, runner and more View all posts by sjohnhughes

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