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Traditional Publishing vs Self-publishing – your options

Traditional Publishing vs Self-publishing – your options

So, you’ve written your book and it’s on your computer. All your hard work is done and you feel elated– great stuff, writing a book is a huge achievement.

Now it’s time to get it out to the world so everyone can enjoy it – so, what’s next? How do you get it published?

Well, you have two routes: traditional publishing, or self-publishing, and I’m going to be explaining the differences of both and what that means in terms of money. I’ve highlighted the pro’s, con’s and alternative options of each.

You’ll also find the different types of printing that are available if you go down the self-published route. There are a few choices, and it’s really important to understand the impact of each one. Remember, the cheapest might not necessarily be the best and could have a negative effect on your book distribution further down the line, so read carefully!

Also, because this topic is quite complicated, I’ve referenced other articles to help bring in all of the information – it’s a complex subject and to try and explain all of the different elements could be a book in itself, so take the time to read what I link to as well to get a full understanding of costs.

Let’s crack on…

Traditional publishing.

This is the Holy Grail for authors. It’s where a reputable publishing house sees your gift as a writer and offers you a deal. Authors like Stephen King, Ian Fleming, Lee Child, J.K Rowling etc. have all been published through the traditional route.

Getting your book published through this avenue is really tough. 1000’s of like-minded writers are all trying to do the same thing, and this allows the publishing companies to really cherry pick the best of the best – there will always be a constant stream of people wanting to submit their work. It’s why it’s so difficult. You could have a fantastic book, written extremely well, but if it’s not seen by the right people, you’ll struggle to get it published this way.

Getting your work in front of the right people.

When you want to get your book traditionally published, you can’t approach publishers directly*, you have to go through ‘literary agents’ and they take your work to the publishers. There are 1,000’s of agents and thanks to the internet, most are at your fingertips. Each agent is usually a specialist in a particular genre, (I say usually, but some agents might represent more than one) be it children’s books, self-help, sci fi and so on and it’s really important you do your research before you approach any. Note; if your work is very niched, you might not find an agent who is that specific – so it’s more researching ones that fit your ethos and broader genre. You can do this by finding out what books they like; (are they on Goodreads?) do they have social media – can you follow them? Then you can get a feel for what books they like, and who they read. Don’t dismiss this step – as finding out what they like in terms of reading can be a really smart way of introducing yourself, as it shows that you’ve done your research.

When you’ve found your agent, you then need to find out what they want. Do they want a submission letter? Is there a specific proposal you need to fill out? Find that out first, and then you can tailor make your submissions to them. I wouldn’t send out more than 8 submissions in a go – and remember 99% of them will be rejections. Have your hard hat on… these agents get sent 1000’s of applications a day – and you can help yourself stand out by carefully following their guidelines – go off-piste, and your submission will find itself in the bin. Check out what Stephanie Thwaits, Curtis Brown Children’s and YA agent suggests when you’re writing a submission letter.

*After extensive research and asking other people in the profession, there are some publishers that can be approached directly. This is more common in non-fiction titles and business style books. It’s not something I would advocate – but thought I would add it as a note. There are hundreds of publishing houses, and to say none of them like to be approached directly is a bit presumptuous. However, I would say it’s more common practice to go through an agent.

Pros – if you find yourself with a publishing deal – congratulations! Your book will now be published by a publisher, and you will be making money from selling the book. They will now edit, lay out, and print the book for you, they will even advertise it, and get it in book shops ready for your reader. You will have a contract in place (maybe for more books) and they will be your publisher. How you get paid, depends on the contract. It could be:

  • A flat fee; an agreed amount, that stays the same no matter how well the book sells.
  • Royalties; a small amount, for each book sold, and
  • An advance against royalties; an amount up front, and then additional amount, depending on the book sales.

But remember you’re getting a royalty on the amount received by the publisher – so although your book is selling for £10, the amount the publisher gets for that book could be as little as £5 (even lower if a big distributor is squeezing 65% discount) – so it’s whatever % of that price – not the cover price. Royalties can be as little as 10% – so that’s 50p per book…. Not as much as you might have originally thought. This might be a real deal breaker for you – so look over the contract carefully.

Cons – You will need to sign a contract, and they may want to change the direction of your book, and you may only be making pennies per book sold. (Remember, they are in the business of making them money first, not you!) They might only offer you a yearly contract – and could drop you the following year if your sales aren’t high enough – if you’re not making them money, don’t expect them to keep you on their books! Be careful what you sign in the contract – read the small print. You don’t want to find yourself with no rights to your work when your publishing contract comes to a close.

It’s notoriously hard to get a publishing deal and you can expect to spend a lot of time doing the research, and submitting letters. All of this time is not paid for, so think carefully and be prepared for a long road ahead. If you really believe in your book, then being persistent, resilient and patient is key. You may also find that self-publishing is a good first step and I outline why in my authors’ Tip below.

Alternatives – Self publishing.


If traditional publishing is not for you, or you’ve tried the above with little result and feel that you want to do it yourself, then self-publishing has come on leaps and bounds. You can now self-publish your book fairly quickly and cheaply, depending on your route.

What is self-publishing compared to traditional publishing?

Self-publishing is where you produce and print your book yourself – you fund the entire process. You will need to get an ISBN number (The special bar code that is put on the book cover, this allows you to sell your book online and in book shops) and you generally become the publisher. (I say generally, as there are third party companies where you can buy ISBN numbers and they will then be the publisher – my sister company, compass-publishing.com is one of them. We don’t take any royalties from your book, we’re just there to help you get your book published.)

Sounds wonderful right? Well, in essence, yes. However, there are now 1000’s of self-published authors out there, and as much as that is good… you don’t really want to appear ‘self-published’ – or rather you want to make sure your book looks just as inviting as a traditional published book does – and that is quite tricky if you’re doing it all yourself. You’ve not only got to get your book edited and proofread, (I ALWAYS recommend you get it professionally edited and if you are submitting your work through agents, for the traditional publishing then this will need to happen anyway) you then need to lay it out, get a cover designed and get it printed. Knowing who to use can be a minefield, and if you’re not careful, pricey.

Editing and proof reading

This will be one of the most expensive elements of book production, and I would always recommend you get this bit done by a professional. Most editors charge by word count, and there are different levels of pricing, depending on what they are doing. (Just quickly, copy editing is where someone looks at the structure of the wording, and proof reading is where they look for spelling and punctuation – your book will need both, and if you follow any professional writer on social media, the editing process can be lengthy and contentious, depending on what the editors want changing! Check out this article to learn more about the editing process)

Layout and cover design

Now, there are lots of ‘do it yourself’ layout options for you – I know that CreateSpace offer templates that you can use, (you simply stream in your Word document into the template) and this could well be the right option for you. But not all templates are necessarily the right fit – for instance if you’ve written a business book that requires a specific layout, with pictures and graphs or pull out boxes and fancy quotes, getting the help of a professional book designer is the right way to go. Also, think of how many other people have used the same template as you. If you’ve written a novel, then that probably isn’t such a worry, as most layouts are pretty standard, but if you want your book to be different, then is looking like hundreds of other books the right choice?

The same goes for cover design. I’ve seen a huge rise in the ‘do it yourself’ free software that is available and if you’re strapped for cash this could be just the ticket – BUT if you’re not sure what you’re doing, then your book can scream self-published. It’s the little nuances that can make a huge difference – and these mistakes are the most common:

  • Line spacing, (this is the biggest give away for me)
  • Font choice (Do you want your book jacket to have the same font that 100’s of other people have used on their cover? Also, lots of people use too many types of fonts and it looks really unprofessional) and…
  • Text placement – how you place your text on the cover needs some thought and understanding (I’ve seen do it yourself cover design where the title of the book, the author’s name and picture are all jostling for attention, and looks confusing and inharmonious) – whereas professional cover designers know exactly how to get this right.

Remember, you’re a writer… not a book designer and feeling that you have no other option when you’re self-publishing your book is a mistake. If you can, hire a professional to design your cover. I know it’s an added expense, but your cover needs to represent your book; we all do really judge a book by its cover!

Authors’ tip!

Competition in 2017 is just too great to cut corners in time or money, and an automated jacket design will stick out like a sore thumb.

ProsYou are your own publisher and all the money you earn from the book is yours. So if you’re selling your book directly, then your cover price is what you earn.

You have complete control over how your book is produced, printed and distributed. You call the shots, so if you need to find out who is buying your book – this is an ideal option. However, if you’re self-publishing only through CreateSpace, then Amazon will be selling your book, and they won’t provide you with this information – and for authors of books that are being used for lead generation, this might not be the best option.

Authors’ Tip!

Also, it seems that big publishing houses are interested in authors who have self-published; I know editors at mainstream publishers who spend as much time looking at sales data of self-published books as they do reading through submissions from authors and agents – so this is something to consider.

ConsIt’s expensive as you are taking on all of the production and marketing costs. This includes editing, layout, cover design, printing and distribution. Of course printing through POD printers can seem like a cheaper alternative, but do read my info below to see exactly what you’re signing up for if you go this route. It may seem tempting – but is it really that cost effective?

Alternatives – You might find yourself using a publishing company that is specific for self-published authors, like compass-publishing – they provide support and help for your publishing project, but don’t necessarily take any monies from your book. Of course they don’t pay any advance for your work (see above) but they can offer a one stop solution if you need help with all of the elements of self-publishing. There are quite a few companies out there that offer this sort of support, so check out their small print and see how they can help you.

How to get your book printed

(If you have gone down the traditional publisher route, then you don’t need to worry about printing, as this is taken care for you.)

Printing your book is now the next step. Whoever you print with, be it CreateSpace, Lulu.com or traditional printers, you will need to have print ready PDF’s. These are high resolution documents that don’t move or flow. They are stapled down so to speak, so that whatever screen (or device) opens it, it will always look the same (unlike Word, where it ebbs and flows like the tide). It’s really important you know this difference. Now some of the companies above will offer a free uploading system, where you can take your Word document and stream it into one of their templates and then export it as a PDF – this can be really convenient, but like I’ve stated before, not always the best option for your book. Do you want your book to look like everyone else’s? What if there is a problem with uploading? Also, if you use CreateSpace and use their ‘free ISBN’ service, you cannot then use these documents to print elsewhere.

You will also need to have your cover ready. However, before you finish your cover, you need to know which printer you’re going to use, because you will need to have a spine width measurement – and that all depends on the paper you use, and what page count it’s at. Again, companies like CreateSpace have templates that you can use and they have a width calculator that determines the size of the spine, BUT – if you’re not used to formatting Word to a good level, I can guarantee you’re going to struggle. Covers are very specific when setting up margins and bleed within the document, (so that the text doesn’t run off the page) and I’ve seen some good cover design on screen look awful on the printed book, as the spacing around the edges has not been enough – even though it was designed within the margins – however not enough extra space was allowed within the document itself.

Types of printers


Print on Demand (or POD) is where your book is printed as someone orders it. Companies like CreateSpace, Lulu and Ingramspark are all POD printers. CreateSpace is part of the Amazon group, and if you publish your book through them, your book is then listed on their platform. This may seem fantastic – BUT look at the cost. Yes, it costs you nothing up front, but the royalties you earn will be very little – they take a hunk of commission for printing and distributing your book, (obvs) so if you sell your book for say £5.99 – you will receive roughly £1.20 in royalties per book. Click here to see their royalties’ charges. And that doesn’t get paid to you for 3 months. (Their invoicing system is so complicated!)

Lulu.com works out to be a cheaper option – but their quality is not fantastic (imo) – and it takes over 8 weeks for them to distribute to Amazon. Imgramspark is also a big contender and this article shows the difference of royalties earned between CreateSpace and Ingram.

It’s really important to know ALL of these figures. I think authors are so quick to ‘publish’ their book, and in the easiest way possible, they don’t actually do the MATHS. Earning so little for your hard work really makes me cross – but authors seem to think there is no other option or are not willing to do the research to find out what option is best for them.

Also, if you’re trying to get any of the POD books into bricks and mortar shops, it’ll be tough. Most book shops don’t take POD books – as there is a no return policy. (And it seems in the States, that quite a few book shops are boycotting CreateSpace imprinted books – see ISBN allocation for what imprint means– so it’s really important to find out all of these facts FIRST.) However, you can order your own copies of your book (usually at a special price) and you can then offer these to the book stores – but don’t forget, they’ll want a discount which can be as high as 40% on the cover price (some want 65%!).

Examples of POD – create space, Ingramspark, Lulu etc.

Pros – Cheap to set up (Although, you might want to note that Ingram has a set-up and yearly fee. Amazon have a yearly fee to sell your books.) You can upload your book, and make changes and you have the Amazon distribution network in which to sell your book. You don’t need to distribute books yourself – it’s all done for you! This could well be the best option for fiction writers – although I would add a caveat to get your book cover professionally done.

Cons – I don’t think the quality is as good as traditionally printed books. You have to do all of the uploading yourself, and you pay a hefty price for the pleasure. The biggest con for me is the chunk of money they take. Please do your maths before you decide.

Alternatives – Traditional printing.

Traditional Printing

Traditional printers are usually bricks and mortar printers who print more than 25 copies of your book in one go. You then order X amount of copies, and they then get delivered to your door. I believe these are better quality than the POD books, but it’s all a matter of opinion. If you’re printing more than 1,000 books, then it’s more than likely the printer will use a ‘litho’ press, and that without a doubt is better than digital (which is what POD uses) – although to be fair digital presses have come a long way in terms of quality.

Traditional printers will give you more paper choice, and the cover stock is heavier (that means it won’t bend so easily). The printer I use, uses eco-friendly sourced paper as well which is important to me. I also get to speak to a proper person (try doing that with Amazon!) and this could be really helpful for a first timer.

You will need to have your files ready for print – (High Res PDF files I spoke about earlier) and there are some printers who will do the layout for you (bonus!) but find out what books they have done, and always get a proof copy – I’ve had to rescue several books that were laid out by a printer and they weren’t great (they just gave the author less to worry about).

Finding printers is relatively easy; just do a google search (although if you can find one through a recommendation, even better) and ask questions. You’ll usually find a helpful team, and you should expect your book printed within 10 days. Always get a proof first – so that you can see exactly how it looks when it’s printed. Most printers will allow corrected PDF’s to be sent (some might charge an additional fee for this but mine don’t.) Seeing your book physically in your hands is a must for new authors – it’s amazing to see how different the book looks in terms of layout – and if you’re not experienced in book layout, your proof copy will show you just how it all translates.

ProsIf you are using a book where you need to know the details of the person buying it (books written for marketing purposes and lead generation) then I would absolutely recommend the traditional route.

The cost per unit is cheaper. This difference really comes into force on the number of copies you print up front. The more copies you print, the cheaper the unit price becomes – but no matter how many copies you order from Amazon, it will always remain the same. So, if you print traditionally, even though you’re paying for postage, you’ll make more money per copy than if you sell only through Amazon. (Also, as a note if you want to order ‘author copies’ through Amazon, it will be printed and shipped from the States which means a hefty postage cost. You can get around this, by lowering your price of your book on Amazon.co.uk itself, ordering copies through .co.uk site, and then once the order is confirmed, put your price back up – but this seems a real faff!)

Remember, Amazon will not let you know who’s bought the book, so if that information is important to you, then selling it this way is not smart.

“Amazon is in the business of making money, not to make authors rich.”

 Cons – It’s pricey up front. (But cost per book is much lower) and you have to do all the fulfilment yourself (this might be a pro though if you need this info). Storing 100’s of books might not appeal, although there are fulfilment houses that can do all of this for you – but you are looking at an additional expense.

Alternatives – If you can afford it, I would do both. Get your book traditionally printed, and upload onto Amazon. Then you can really compare the price – and see which one works for you.

Authors’ Tip!

Also, more and more print houses are offering POD style print runs – at a much cheaper price than before. So, getting just 25 copies is much more affordable – and you don’t have to buy in the 1000’s. The best advice is to do your research, ask around and get lots of quotes and samples. It may seem like a lot of work up front, BUT generally when you find a printer that you like, you stick with them.

Who is the publisher?

This is quite complex, but it’s important to know. It all depends on who ‘owns’ the ISBN number. This is the 13 digit ‘identification’ number that is printed on the back cover. You can buy ISBN numbers directly from the ISBN agency; Nielsen in the UK and Bowker in the States. These ISBN numbers will then belong to you – and you can be listed as a publisher for your work. You have an option of buying 1, 10 or 100. If you buy 1, you’re looking at around £98.

You can also buy ISBN numbers from other third party brokers, (like printers and other self-publishing companies) but they will then become the publisher of your book – and you need to make sure if they have anything in place to ‘tie you in’, or if they relinquish rights to your work. So, for instance, if you get a publishing deal through Bantam, they will use one of their ISBN numbers, and Bantam will be the publisher of your book. You will also have a contract in place, which states how much money you will make from each book (called royalties) and how long they will be your publisher for (usually it’s dealt in terms of years.) There are some brokers who sell ISBN numbers (like Compass-publishing.co.uk) who waive all rights to your work, don’t tie you into a contract, but are there to just help you through the ISBN number buying process – it’s expensive, and can take up to 10 working days – but do check carefully what their small print entails.

There are options to buy ISBN numbers from the POD companies that I have mentioned – CreateSpace have several options – and if you go with their ‘free one’ then CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform will be listed as the publisher and “This ISBN can only be used with the CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.” So you can’t distribute your book in any other way! You can choose to upgrade and get a paid for ISBN number – $99 at time of writing, and then YOU become the publisher and distribute how you like.

If you do buy your own ISBN number, you will then be responsible for listing that number with whichever agency you bought it from. This is really important, as in the UK it’s a legal requirement to submit books to the libraries (The British Library) once your book is printed, and if you don’t register your book, bookshops and retailers will not know any information about it. If you’ve bought your ISBN number from a broker, they may do this for you (Compass-publishing does) so you need to check when you order.

If you don’t have an ISBN number, then you won’t be able to sell on Amazon and other online stores.

In summary

There is a lot of information in this article – and I can’t stress enough how important it is to do your research. Don’t just think Amazon is your only option.

Publishing your hard work is such an achievement and even though some ‘traditionally published’ authors have dismissed the self-publishing route, it’s really shaken up the industry. There have been some fantastic books published this way – and you should NEVER give up on your dream of getting your book into the hands of your readers. Whichever way you choose – I wish you luck. And if you need any advice on self-publishing, then get in touch. Email me at alexa@thebookrefinery.com

Alexa is currently publishing her first book – “Publishing your way to more clients.” She helps business owners write and publish books to show off their expertise, resulting in higher paying clients. Her publishing company www.compass-publishing.com helps writers publish their books. She lives in Portsmouth with her son Oliver.

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