A to Z Challenge

The Pros and Cons of Traditional and Self-Publishing

P is for Publishing.

I decided to continue with my quest to find out everything about publishing (as shown in most of my A-Z posts this month). To help with that, I invited Iola to share more knowledge.

(This is a post for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop. To find out more, click here or see A.)

This post is part of the April #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop, hosted by Raimey Gallant. My name is Iola Goulton, and I’m a regular participant in the Blog Hop from my own website, Christian Editing Services (www.christianediting.co.nz). Back in February, Ronel invited me to share with you on the perils of vanity publishing. That led to questions …

So Ronel has asked me to contribute today’s post to the April A-Z Challenge: The Pros and Cons of Traditional and Self-Publishing (because today is P for Publishing).

What is Traditional Publishing?

Traditional publishing (also known as trade publishing or legacy publishing) is the established publishing industry. Authors submit to a publisher, either directly or through a literary agent. If the publisher likes the book, they offer a publishing contract. This contract should outline:

  • What the contract covers (which book in what format/s and in what countries and languages).
  • How much you will be paid for signing the contract and submitting the book (the advance).
  • How much you will be paid for each copy of the book sold (the royalty).
  • How many free author copies you will get.
  • How you will get your rights back (e.g. after X years, if the book doesn’t sell Y copies in a year, if the publisher closes).

(Note: I’m not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. You get publishing contract advice by paying a competent intellectual property lawyer. You do not get legal advice off the internet, from a friend, or even from a literary agent—unless that literary agent is also a lawyer with a current practicing certificate.)

The main pro of traditional publishing is obvious: the publisher pays the author. They might not pay a lot—an author might only earn pennies per book sold—but authors do get paid. Any publisher claiming to be a traditional publisher who expects the author to pay is a vanity press, as discussed in my previous post.

Pros of traditional publishing:


A traditional publisher will take books through several rounds of professional editing and proofreading to tighten and improve the writing, and ensure the book is as error-free as possible (although no book is perfect. A 100,000-word novel that is 99.99% perfect still has 10 errors).

Cover Design

A traditional publisher will design a genre-appropriate cover, ideally using custom art work or photography.


A traditional publisher will format the book according to accepted publishing standards.

Retail Distribution

A traditional publisher will have established sales channels and distribution networks to get their books into large chain bookstores (e.g. Barnes & Noble), big box stores (e.g. Target and Walmart), and smaller book chains and indie stores. You can visit a local bookstore and find books from this publisher on their shelves.

Small presses, vanity presses, and self-published authors can list with Ingram Spark and make their book available to retailers, but that doesn’t mean anyone will notice it or buy it. Vanity publishers will try and legitimise themselves by saying something like:

“book presented to buyers at Barnes & Noble, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Follett”

What this means is their book is listed with major distributors such as Baker & Taylor (owned by Follett) and Ingram Book Company (who distribute to over 40,000 retailers including Barnes & Noble). It does not mean your local branch of Barnes & Noble will even know your book exists, let alone offer copies for sale. 

Library Distribution

A traditional publisher will make their books available to libraries nationally and internationally.


A traditional publisher will have a promotional plan (and, hopefully, a marketing budget) for your book. This may include:

  • Bookmarks or other book swag
  • A blog tour
  • Catalogue placement
  • Print and online advertising
  • In-store promotional materials e.g. posters
  • In-store promotional placement (you know those books stacked on the table at the front of the store or by the cash register? The publisher has paid for that placement.)

What about the cons?

There are four major cons of traditional publishing:

Most publishers don’t accept unsolicited submissions

Most major traditional publishers only accept manuscript submissions from recognised literary agents (who then take 15% of earnings as payment). Those traditional publishers who do take unsolicited submissions from authors are often small, which means they don’t have the same level of retail distribution, and they may not provide the same level of editorial or marketing support. Some don’t know what they’re not good at (like cover design, or editing), and they produce a horrible product. Others are vanity presses masquerading as traditional publishers.

Authors don’t earn much

It is estimated that less than half of traditionally published books make enough money in sales to cover the author advance, which means the author won’t earn any royalties from the title (that was what the advance was: an advance on royalties).

Even when a book does earn out the advance, author royalties aren’t high. A solid traditional publishing royalty might be 15% for print books, and 25% for ebooks. If these royalty rates are on net (what the publisher receives) rather than gross (what the book buyer paid), then an author could end up earning less than a dollar per book, so you have to sell a lot of books to make a full-time income.

Authors don’t have control of their book

Once that contract is signed, the publisher owns all the rights to the book, and they can ask you to change the book to make it more saleable. They might want your diverse characters to be less obviously diverse (or more stereotypically diverse). They might design a cover with people who don’t look like your characters. They might want you to change something you don’t want to change. You have to change it, or they won’t publish.

Authors are still expected to market their books

Traditional publishers will undertake some marketing efforts, but authors are still expected to actively promote their books in person and online. Sure, a traditional publisher will be able to provide advice and support, but the author doesn’t get to sit back and just write.

So there are pros and cons to traditional publishing. What about self-publishing?

What is Self-Publishing?

Self-publishing (also known as indie publishing) is when the author is also the publisher. This means the author is responsible for both writing the book, and for publishing. Publishing includes:

  • Developmental editing
  • Line editing
  • Copy editing
  • Proofreading
  • Formatting
  • Cover Design
  • Distribution
  • Pricing
  • Promotion
  • Advertising
  • And all the small business decisions that go with being a publisher: marketing, accounting, marketing, tax, ISBNs, and more marketing.

That’s the main con of self-publishing: you have to do it all. Even though you’re not an expert at 90% of it and may even hate some of it (no one decided to become an author because they wanted to become a tax expert).

You can’t do everything, and you shouldn’t.

The essence of self-publishing isn’t that the author does everything themselves, but that they are in control of the process and contract out those parts of the process they can’t do themselves (like editing) or that could be done better by a professional (e.g. cover design).

You might be able to use critique partners or beta readers for developmental editing, and you might be able to find some willing volunteers as final proofreaders. But you’ll still need at least one round of paid editing.

This is the other main disadvantage of self-publishing: money. You have to pay someone else to do what you can’t do yourself.

But there are advantages of self-publishing:

You control the product.

Your book will be published the way you want it published (diverse characters and all). You won’t have a book description which includes a major plot spoiler. You won’t suffer the embarrassment of having a blonde woman on the cover of your novel with no blonde characters. If someone finds a typo in your book, you can change it, and upload the new version without having to wait for hundreds or thousands of paper copies to be sold first.

You control the distribution.

A lot of self-published authors choose to enrol in Kindle Direct Publishing Select (KDP Select), which means they promise to only make their ebooks available on Amazon, but then get paid per page read in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited ebook borrowing program. Others choose to “go wide” and sell their books on a range of platforms, including Apple, Google Play, and Kobo. Self-published authors get to make this choice. Traditionally published authors do not.

You control the pricing.

You can make your books (especially ebooks) as expensive or as inexpensive as you want. Many self-published authors price their first book at 99 cents or even free to attract new readers. You can also hold short-term price promotions.

You control the promotion.

You can find your audience online or in real life, then build a marketing plan that caters to that audience without feeling you have to fit someone else’s cookie cutter marketing plan. You can advertise and promote where you crowd hang out (like in your email newsletter list), not where your publisher tells you to.

You control the marketing.

You can market your book as much or as little as you want. You can market it however you want (but for the sake of the rest of us, please don’t spam). You control the look and feel of your online brand.

You earn the money.

Most online retailers pay 70% royalty for ebooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99, which means you earn more per copy sold than most traditionally published authors.

Which is best?

That depends on you, and what you’re writing. If you’re an outstanding writer in a popular genre who has finalled or won prominent industry contests for unpublished writers, you might be able to attract the attention of an agent and a traditional publisher.

But if you’re writing in a less-popular genre (e.g. poetry) with less-popular characters (e.g. not middle-class white people) with a less-popular setting (e.g. outside the USA or Europe), then you might have trouble attracting an agent and a traditional publishing contract. Self-publishing might be a better option, because then you can use modern online marketing to connect with your readers.

The choice is yours.

Whichever choice you make, remember this: don’t submit or publish until your writing is stellar. It’s the quality of your writing that counts to readers, not how you publish.

About Iola Goulton

Iola Goulton is a New Zealand book reviewer, freelance editor, and author, writing contemporary Christian romance with a Kiwi twist. She is a member of the Sisterhood of Unpronounceable Names (Iola is pronounced yo-la, not eye-ola and definitely not Lola).
Iola holds a degree in marketing, has a background in human resource consulting, and currently works as a freelance editor. When she’s not working, Iola is usually reading or writing her next book review. Iola lives in the beautiful Bay of Plenty in New Zealand (not far from Hobbiton) with her husband, two teenagers and one cat. She is currently working on her first novel.Website | Facebook Instagram Pinterest Twitter

Do you have any questions for Iola? What do you think about the different ways one can get published today?

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