I was reading on the meta site that someone thinks we're hostile to self-publishing, and I read over some old questions looking for evidence. I didn't really find signs of hostility, but I certainly did see several people expressing concerns about it. I think we've danced around the question a bit, but maybe it's time to look at it directly. What are the pros and cons of different styles of publishing?

I'm thinking we could look at:

1) the Traditional route - get an agent, sell to the biggest publisher possible;

2) the small publisher route - skip the agent, find a publisher directly (maybe I'm wrong in assuming that this is likely to be a small publisher?);

3) the self-published route - probably e-books, but maybe POD as well;

4) the vanity publishing route;

5) creative, new approaches - serialization on the web, co-operative writers' groups... what else?

I know it's a big question, but maybe it would be good to have all the ideas gathered in one place.

  • Should this not be a community wiki Q&A? It seems to me answers will by necessity be subjective lists of opinion. YMMV. Aug 13, 2011 at 10:14
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    I'm not sure. I think there are facts to be uncovered. I mean, if I'd asked which is 'best', I'd agree with you. But I feel like the answers so far have done a pretty good job of giving information, albeit with a subjective edge. I think just about everything about writing is pretty subjective, really.
    – Kate S.
    Aug 13, 2011 at 11:56
  • Self-published is not simply e-publishing, nor POD. Self-publishing is any venture where you are marketing a book that has not been bought by a publisher. Literally: there is no publisher involved but yourself; all publishing-related efforts have been either carried out or paid for by the author.
    – Standback
    Aug 14, 2011 at 9:18
  • Also, downvoted because this really seems like a broad discussion topic rather than an answerable question. Not that that's going to keep me from answering it :P
    – Standback
    Aug 14, 2011 at 9:21
  • re. Selfpublishing - do people self-publish large print runs? Or what are you referring to that isn't POD or e-book?
    – Kate S.
    Aug 14, 2011 at 11:32

3 Answers 3


1) Traditional publishing with an agent

Pros: You as a writer focus on only one thing: writing. You have an agent who is responsible for shopping around your manuscript. Once it sells, the publisher is responsible for all the overhead: editing, printing, selecting a cover, distribution, marketing, and sales. There is no denying that there is a certain level of recognition that goes along with being traditionally published. It is like having a badge that says "I made it"! This is something that shouldn't be ignored.

Cons: You must first find an agent, which will require sending out query letters and inquiries. Most agents will only represent established writers, so for a new writer, this in itself can be daunting. If you choose to skip an agent, then you still have to go through the process of shopping your manuscript. Your royalties on sales are very small, as low as 6-10% for a new author, perhaps as high as 20% for a truly established writer. The author has little or no input on the cover selection or layout of the book. The time to market is generally 12-18 months. If you receive an advance, you don't collect any royalties or further payment unless and until your book earns out the advance. Your book will usually remain in a book store for 6-8 weeks before it is returned to the publisher, so you have a very small window of opportunity. Regardless of how much money you actually earn in the end, your agent will collect a percentage based on your contract agreement. That could be anywhere from 10-25%, but is generally closer to 15%. Traditional publishers tend to price their e-books at or near the same price as their paperbacks, which makes it difficult to compete with self-published book pricing. Also, although traditional publishers receive a much higher profit on e-books, that rarely equates to a higher royalty percentage for the author.

2) Small publisher

Pros: See above (with the exception of the agent shopping your manuscript)

Cons: See above (minus the agent comments). Also, a small publisher will have less money to spend on promotion or marketing. They will also more than likely have less clout with book retailers, which means that your book will have a smaller distribution and will likely spend less time actually in the stores.

3) Self-publishing (e-books or "Print on Demand" - POD)

Pros: The writer has full control over the selection of cover art and the layout design. The writer does not have to share any royalties with anyone. The royalty rates for e-books is 70% (based on the Amazon KDP program, with books priced between 2.99 and 9.99). The royalty rates for POD trade paperbacks is dependent on whatever price you choose to set for your book. (The author essentially controls their royalty rate.) The time to market is less than 30 days, regardless of whether you choose e-books (which is closer to one week) or POD. If you find errors in your book or decide to change any part of it, you can do so virtually overnight, whereas this is virtually impossible with a traditional publisher. You have the potential to generate interest in yourself as a writer, and if you are successful in selling at least one of your books, then you have an advantage of other writers if you should decide to go ahead and pursue a traditional publishing deal.

Cons: The writer is responsible for all the legwork to get the book ready and to get it to sell. This means you have to either do the editing yourself or hire it out (which could cost a couple hundred dollars, depending on the size of the book). You have to either create your own cover art or hire that out (generally costs about $100). You have to do the layout and design to create the final format for your book, and it usually requires at least three different formats, or you can hire this out (usually for about $50 or less). The writer has to take responsibility for sales and promotion, which means figuring out a way to draw attention to the book and persuading people to buy it. The time involved with having to promote your own work and do the networking to try to draw attention to your work can be very debilitating to your writing. One of the biggest challenges for most new writers is finding the time to write, but if you have to spend the same or more time promoting your work, it becomes even more difficult to get anything new written. There is still a stigma attached to self-publishing that causes people to frown upon authors who opt for this choice. There is the possibility that your work will be perceived by some as inferior or inadequate, and until and unless you can generate the sales to prove otherwise, it may be difficult to rise above that perception.

4) Vanity publishing

Pros: Similar to a traditional publisher in that they provide the editing (minimally), and they do the design, layout, and printing.

Cons: Could easily cost as much as $3000, depending on the number of books ordered and the size of the book. They do not do any distribution or promotion of your book. The writer has to find a way to get people to buy the book. Most book stores, and also most online retailers, will NOT accept books directly from authors if they go through a vanity press. Royalties tend to be low because you have to price the books higher to recover the sunk costs.

5) Creative new approaches

I can't really give any pros and cons on these because they are, after all, new! However, I know a number of authors who have done serialization of their novels on their web sites. They basically post a new chapter each week, while also providing readers with a link to purchase the entire book in case they don't want to wait.

I also know a couple of successful authors who originally started out by providing their entire novels as a collection of podcasts. Once they reach a certain level of subscribers, they then sent the subscribers a link to purchase the complete novel.

I am currently working with a group of writers to create a new novel in which each writer takes a separate chapter and builds the book from scratch. It's challenging, but so far the book is turning out better than I had imagined.

I also know of a group of writers who went together and created a short story collection where each writer provided their own story as well as sample chapters of other books they have written. I believe there were eight authors involved, and three of them have now been signed to traditional publishing deals!

Disclaimer: While I will be the first to admit that I strongly believe that the potential for success for a new writer is much greater through self-publishing, I also believe that the recognition of having been published by a traditional publishing house will garner a writer much more attention. However, I am seeing more and more examples of writers who strongly believe in their work who have managed to land traditional publishing contracts after they have proven that they can sell their own books. It is my opinion that this may be a faster avenue for obtaining the more lucrative advances and esteem that come with a traditional contract.

  • 2
    One key point to mention about the self-publishing eBook route is that the long-tail comes into play, something that does not happen with the "traditional" route. Aug 12, 2011 at 21:18
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    See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_Tail for a good explanation, but the basic idea is that you can sell a large number of niche items (e.g. your books) in small quantities, and come out ahead. The internet, fortunately, allows you to adopt this strategy with a very low cost to yourself. (Small correction to what I said though: I should've said it's easier to leverage the long-tail through self-publishing, rather than saying it doesn't happen with the traditional route.) Aug 12, 2011 at 23:40
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    I think I could go for this answer if you clarified the benefits of the distribution side of big publishers. e-books are definitely on the rise, but there's still money in ink, and the publishing companies have pretty-much exclusive access to the distribution channels for bricks and mortar book stores.
    – Kate S.
    Aug 13, 2011 at 13:08
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    While the distribution of books is a pro for traditional publishers, it is much more of an advantage for established authors than it is for new writers. Also, the number of "brick and mortar" stores is on the decline as more people go online to buy books. If a buyer wants an e-book version of a title released by a traditional publisher, the price is most likely going to be close to the same price as the paperback. This is where self-publishers are gaining the advantage, because they can beat the big publishers on price. Aug 13, 2011 at 14:01
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    Also, even though the big publishers are pricing their e-books much higher and therefore making a much bigger profit (virtually no overhead with e-books), the author does not see the same royalty that would be earned though self-publishing. The author will still be getting about 15-25% (less agent share) for e-books, compared to 70% through self-publishing. Traditional publishers need to change their royalty rates for e-books, or they risk losing more and more "name" authors. Aug 13, 2011 at 14:05

The more work you do yourself, the more money you get to keep. It's a sliding scale.

Full-bore old-school publishers do almost all of the work beyond the writing, and they like to keep most of the money.

Pro: You get to go onto the next writing project, and you get some money (your advance) up front. Once the edits are done, you are no longer particularly responsible for the thing. Note that this may also get you qualified for membership in some writer's societies.

Con: You don't get too many more decisions about this work, and you only get more money if the book REALLY takes off. If you use an agent you have to split the money with the agent (on the plus side, the agent probably got you more money to split!)

Full-bore self publishing means you do ALL the work yourself (all the layout, manufacturing of books, deployment of e-books, marketing, etc, etc), and you get to keep all of the money.

Pro: You get all the money!

Con: You do ALL the work. And it's a LOT of work. Which prevents you from writing the next book just yet. Especially the marketing parts - that's a hard thing, and if you want to make a big splash (adds in newspapers and magazines) it's awfully expensive.

There's relatively few people doing absolutely EVERYTHING themselves, because it's just too much.

Pretty much no one prints their own books (they go to a printer for that). Maintaining your own printing plant is just too darn much overhead.

Lots of folks don't do their own layout (there are people and companies who will lay out your book for reasonable fees). The same companies may be able to do e-book layouts as well.

Few people sell e-books from their own website - Amazon is more than happy to run servers and deliver books to the large variety of devices they support. Apple and B&N have systems for this as well. If you want your e-book to have DRM, you really need one of these guys to have a significant audience.

There are folks who hire free-lance editors to edit their works before publication.

You could hire a marketing firm to try to promote your book, if you've got the cash and you want to.

Publishers are evolving to understand the new market realities, and you can count on seeing lots of companies with new approaches as time goes by. Most of these are going to be more middle-of-the-road sort of deals (especially in the e-book only publishing world), where you do some of the work, they do some of the work and the money is a lot more favorable to you.


Traditional Publishing


  • If you're in, you're doing good. If you've got an offer, that says a lot about your writing ability. Not that all good authors get published or all published authors are good, but being published serves as a sort of indicator that you're at least at a certain level of competence. This is important for a lot of the rest of the pros, because good editing doesn't much help a lousy manuscript. The pro here is the explicit indication that you've written something that has publishing potential - if it doesn't, then polishing your ms, marketing, etc. etc. has very little value. So that's a good thing to know :)
  • Professional editing. Good editing makes your book better. Usually, a lot better. You do want your book to be really really good, don't you? :P (...but see cons.)
  • Professional marketing and promotion. Publishers have access to marketing venues that an individual author can't get near. Conventions, catalogs, websites, contests, promotions; soliciting reviews from respected venues; getting media appearances and interviews. In today's glutted, over-saturated market, these are invaluable. (...but see cons.)
  • Professional distribution. E-books have changed this somewhat, particularly Amazon's distribution of self-published books. Nonetheless, an established publisher has tremendous advantages in getting books out to bookstores and libraries that an individual author can't hope to match. And this is important because the easier it is for a reader to stumble across your book and take it home, the greater the chance is that he'll read it.
  • Industry recognition. Previous published books look good on your credit list, and make it much easier to achieve future successes. You’ve made it before; that instantly sets you apart from the mass of slush who might not know how to string two words together or might go ballistic if an agent suggests that three semicolons is too much for one sentence. Doesn’t mean it’s an easy road, but they know that you know how to walk.
  • Saleable rights. Not every book has this potential, but plenty of books can earn some extra cash with translation rights, reprints, excerpts, even movie options (as opposed to actually buying rights to film, which is much much rarer and less of a consideration for most).


  • Hard to get into. It’s really, really, really tough to get published. Talent and effort help a lot, but they’re hardly a guarantee, let alone a swift entry pass. And plenty of times, industry practices and trends make it very difficult for a newcomer to actually get in, even if they write at about the same level that some published authors are.
  • Marketing effort expected from the author. While publishers market their books, it’s often far from the level or visibility of marketing that the author would like or expect. And authors are often expected to promote their books, in what can be a very arduous process -
  • Must work well with others. Since you're working in cooperation with lots of people who get a ton of control over your book, you need to be able to deal well with cooperative efforts and possibly painful compromises concerning your work.
  • Professional does not guarantee good. Writing, publishing, and marketing are fields that are both subjective and extremely risky. Editors, publishers and marketers are not automatically and infallibly right. This means you need to find a publisher whom you trust and respect, and you need to second-guess even the professional feedback you get.
  • Watch out for scams.

Big vs. Small

The main difference is that the entry bar is lower, but the publisher's resources are fewer, so they're less good at getting you the pros.

Self Publishing


  • No entry requirements
  • Complete control over final product
  • Profits are yours to keep


  • Lack of professional input
  • Amateur marketing efforts
  • Physical distribution difficult to nonexistent
  • Negative industry recognition
  • Book market is super-tough
  • Watch out for scams.

Self-Publishing vs. Vanity

Vanity publishing, by every definition I've found, seems strictly inferior to self-publishing - it's basically the same thing, but with more (false) pretension of getting you the pros of professional publishing. See: What's the distinction between "vanity publishing" and "self publishing"?

Creative New Approaches

This is reducible back to the other two categories. A great marketing concept is a great asset whichever publishing avenue you choose. Probably easier to market as you like if you're self-publishing, but again, this comes along with (A) having a lot more trouble reaching wide audiences, and (B) a greater chance that your brilliant marketing scheme isn't as brilliant as you thought.

In Summary

Traditional publishing offers modest percentages of a highly risky endeavor with a whole lot of quality control (which may be restricting and even mistaken). Self-publishing offers high percentages of a hugely risky endeavor with zero quality control (which many self-publishers do not properly appreciate the necessity of).

Therefore, self-publishing is most appropriate when one of the following applies:

  • Your book is such that its modest, targeted success is sufficient for you, while commercial publishers could not afford to invest in a niche product (nor an amateurishly published one, though many readers would not mind this in the least).
  • You are confident enough in the book and in your own marketing ability that you believe it will bring you greater success - i.e., that even absent the advantages of traditional publishing, you will sell enough that the advantages and rewards of self-publishing will play out in your favor.

In contrast, if you think your book has great potential but are not sure of your own ability to single-handedly bring it to fruition, then a publisher is likely to be both far better capable at that than yourself, and (when shopped to a wide range of publishers) a more informed opinion of the potential your book actually has.

  • All are welcome to chip in to my attempt at an ordered answer. My "In Summary" is a personal opinion, but I guess edits and amendments to that are fine too.
    – Standback
    Aug 20, 2011 at 21:15
  • I think I may edit your self- vs. vanity publishing. I've never done either, but as I understand it, vanity publishing sucks up a lot of money, while giving the author no more real services than self-publishing. So a writer with a limited budget (like... all of us?) would be much better off saving their $ for promo, quality cover art, editing, etc., rather than throwing it away on a vanity press.
    – Kate S.
    Aug 20, 2011 at 21:44
  • Since I wasn't sure, I decided to ask :)
    – Standback
    Aug 21, 2011 at 12:13
  • "Saleable rights"? Apart from it being "Sellable rights" (I think), I don't see this as a pro exclusive of traditional publishing. Aug 21, 2011 at 22:10
  • @Jürgen: Not exclusive, no, but rather more typical, at least to my humble knowledge. I'm not aware of self-published authors selling these types of rights; if I'm mistaken, by all means edit appropriately :) And: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/saleable
    – Standback
    Aug 22, 2011 at 4:45

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