FAQ: Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing

When I first considered publishing, I didn’t have much guidance. I was basically told, “Hey, just Google it.” Well, Google is indeed a wonderful tool, but sometimes, you need something a little more direct to give you the answers you want and need. From my experience interacting with various writer groups as well as indie author communities, I’ve learned that one of the most common sources of confusion is in regards to self-publishing vs. traditional publishing.

Now, I’ve covered these two aspects in a previous blog post, but I figured people don’t want to read a long, drawn-out explanation of the differences, so I’ve decided to create this easy-to-digest FAQ section to give indie writers a better resource on which direction to take in terms of publishing. Please remember that this is mostly based off my experiences and the experiences of several other authors friends, both traditional and self. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which path is best for your wants and needs, but I hope that this FAQ will at least help you with the decision-making process.

What is the difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing?

Traditional publishing is when you have a literary agent sign on to represent you, and when they find you a publisher who will publish your book. Self-publishing is when you take the reins for yourself and publish your book on your own, just as the name implies. Simple enough, right?

Which is better: self-publishing or traditional publishing?

Unfortunately, this question can’t be answered in just three or four sentences. In all honesty, there’s no real answer. One is not “better” than the other, and anyone who tells you different is wrong. Most often, you may hear people say traditional publishing is superior and that self-publishing is “the easy way out.” While self-publishing is much more accommodating, that’s not to say that it’s in any way inferior to traditional. Don’t ever let someone try to shame you for taking the self-publishing route.

How do I get traditionally published?

In order to be traditionally published, 99% of the time, you need a literary agent. Some smaller presses and publishers let you query directly to them, but ultimately, big publishers will only accept manuscripts from literary agents representing writers.

How do I find a literary agent?

QueryTracker is just one of many fabulous resources for writers seeking literary agents. Look for agents that represent your specific genre: fantasy, historical, drama, thriller, etc. When you’ve narrowed down a list based on your genre, you want to look at their submissions page. Some may indicate that they are no longer accepting submissions while others are more than happy to get them. Read over the submission guidelines carefully and make sure you follow them exactly. Agents get tons of submissions each day. They won’t hesitate to toss a manuscript from an author who doesn’t bother to read or respect the guidelines. I’ve covered how to write a proper query letter in a previous blog post.

Will a literary agent represent a self-published book?

This is entirely dependent on the agent. Some will represent a previously self-published book, while others will explicitly state on their submissions page that they won’t read them. Your best bet: submit a new project. In a majority of cases, agents will only represent a previously self-published story if you can prove it has successful sales numbers.

How much does a literary agent cost?

A reputable literary agent will NEVER ask you for upfront fees. Agents are in the business to get you represented by publishers, who will pay them based on sales. If an agent asks for some type of payment to represent you, turn around and run away. Learn more about vanity publishers here.

How many literary agents can I query at once?

Unless they clearly state that they do not allow writers to submit to multiple agents at once, literary agents, for the most part, don’t care how many submissions you send out. Go nuts. Send your query to a dozen agents a week. Just remember that if you get accepted by multiple agents at once, you need to be prepared to reject the agents you don’t choose. Also, you can’t use a generic query letter template for every agent. Every agent has their own preferences when it comes to submissions. Also, a lot of agents are close friends, even if they work for different agencies. If an agent says, “don’t submit to other agents when you submit with us,” then follow those warnings. Agents talk to one another, and word spreads quickly.

What do I do if I’m rejected by an agent?

If you want to be traditionally published, you have to be ready for a lot of rejection. It is very unlikely that you’ll get accepted by the first agent you query. Rejection will be your best friend during the querying process. Don’t let them discourage you. If an agent rejects you, just move on to the next one. Do NOT talk badly about them on social media (it’s unbelievable how many people do this when they’re rejected). Also, I learned from a recent Q&A with a literary agency that you don’t need to send anything after the rejection. Previously, I would send a “thanks anyway,” type of note, and I will continue to do so, but you don’t have to feel like this is mandatory. As the agent said, it’s not necessary nor expected.

How do I self-publish a book?

There are numerous platforms for writers who want to self-publish. I personally used KDP – Kindle Direct Publishing, which I found to be very user-friendly. I’ve heard good things about other similar companies such as IngramSpark, Lulu, and BookBaby, but since I never used them myself, I can’t personally recommend them.

Do I need an editor?

Yes. No matter which path you choose, you need an editor. At the very least, you want someone else to look over your manuscript, even as a beta reader. When we read our writing, we tend to overlook certain spelling or grammatical errors out of habit. I recommend having someone else giving your manuscript a look-through, even just as a casual reader. You never know what they may catch that you missed. If you want to catch the eye of a traditional publisher/literary agent, then finding an actual editor is a MUST. One spelling mistake can cost you representation. When you self-publish, you still want an editor because you want your book to be polished to absolute perfection. The main point I’m trying to get at here is: hire an editor, no matter how great of a writer you think you may be.

Do I need an illustrator?

This is where things get a little tricky. If you want to be traditionally published, you don’t have to worry about an illustrator. Your publisher will find an illustrator to take care of it, except in very specific cases. If you self-publish, you will need to pick one of two options: you illustrate the book yourself or you hire an outside illustrator. I’ve hired illustrators to do my covers and interior illustrations, and I’ve paid for KDP to do my cover illustrations. Overall, I recommend hiring a third-party illustrator. Make sure you clarify the details with your illustrator. Many will take an upfront payment, while others will want an upfront payment in addition to a portion of royalties. Either way, you need to understand that you will be paying a hefty sum for a decent illustrator, and I can assure you that they will be worth every penny. Illustrators help bring your book to life, so you can’t expect to get far trying to pay someone with just “exposure” or a fee that’s well below what they deserve.

Which type of publishing will make me rich and famous?

Sorry, but the chances of you becoming rich and famous as an author are very slim, whether you go the self-publishing or traditional publishing route. There have been some self-publishers who have lucked out and have become financially successful (E.L. James and Andy Weir), and then there are some traditionally published authors who produced one book and then fizzled into obscurity (not going to call them out here). Regardless, if you want to become a rich and famous author, no matter which path you take, you need to put a lot of work into your authorship.

How do I market my books?

When you’re traditionally published, you have an agent who can assist with the marketing aspect for your book – although, this is a “your mileage may vary” situation where some agents may be significant help with marketing while others will do minimal work. When you self-publish, you need to handle the marketing all on your own, unless you hire a public relations expert to assist you. My advice to self-published and indie authors is to capitalize on social media, and to take advantage of local book festivals and craft fairs (especially around holiday time).

How do I get paid?

Here’s a question that many writers have in regards to publishing: how do I make money? If you’re traditionally published, you get a cut of the book sales (a portion needs to go to your agent and publisher). Your publisher may also give you an advance payment. It’s vital that, prior to signing a contract, you have a legal representative carefully inspect it to ensure you’re not being swindled out of your hard-earned money. Unfortunately, there are many “agents” out there who like to take advantage of naive writers. With self-publishing, at least via KDP, you’re paid royalties each month, which are a percentage of your book sales. I recommend setting up a separate bank account for these royalties to help you with your year-end taxes.

How do taxes work for an author?

Let me begin by saying that I am not a tax specialist, so my advice should not be taken as professional counsel. This is purely based on my experience. I created a business entity for my authorship (it was necessary for me to sell my books at an event in Philadelphia). When I take my taxes to my accountant, she helps me file everything accordingly, and tells me what expenses I can deduct. I have been able to deduct table costs, marketing materials, writing-related supplies, and more, because they are all business expenses. I highly recommend consulting with a tax professional to see what you can do in terms of deductions come tax time.

Do I need a pen name?

A pen name is more or less an alternative author identity. For whatever reason, many authors will use a pen name when publishing books. I advise you to use a pen name if you have a speciality in one genre and you want to disassociate another genre. For example, I use my real author name and identity for my children and young adult novels, but if I ever decide to write a murder mystery, I will want to use a pen name. Other authors may use a pen name if they want to keep their writing a secret from friends and family. It doesn’t matter the reason for your pen name, but just make sure you stay consistent.

These are all the most commonly asked questions in terms of publishing. If you have any more questions, feel free to email me at realewrites@gmail.com, or contact me on social media.