Self-publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

Right Place Wrong Time CartoonSince joining the online writing community earlier this year, I’ve observed a constant debate in agent and writer blogs: self-publishing (via e-books) vs. traditional publishing (via printed books).

Opponents of self-publishing decry the lack of quality in the finished product, the writer’s need for instant gratification, and the focus on the needs of the author and not of the reader.

Proponents of self-publishing speak of the creative control writers have over their book, the ability to deliver their work to a potentially huge audience online, and the speed in which their book is published—in days instead of months or years.

It appears to be polarizing topic, one that causes proponents of self-publishing—writers who are probably very nice, polite people—to sometimes be snarky and rude in their comments.

I can sense their pain and frustration. Perhaps they have been trying for quite some time to garner an agent and break into traditional publishing. They are confident that their story needs to be told. They have done everything they are supposed to do, but it is still not enough. So they decide to take matters into their own hands by self-publishing via e-book, encouraged by success stories like that of Amanda Hocking; see the USA Today article: “Authors catch fire with self-published e-books.”

As I read blogs and review comments about this topic, I am taking it all in while trying to keep an open mind. At this early stage of my writing journey, my goal is to get published in the traditional way. I want the validation, expertise and support of an agent. I want the editing, design, marketing, and public relations savvy of a publishing house team. I want the credibility of having a publisher put their stamp of approval on my work.

I want the physical, substantial, tactile, weighty evidence that my novel is worthy of putting ink on paper—many times over. And I am willing to work to master the craft, for years if necessary, in order to attain that goal.

I realize that the publishing industry is going through a huge transition—the so-called democratization of publishing—and the chips have not yet fallen where they may. I realize that there is a lot of luck and timing involved in breaking into print; you have to get yourself in front of the right person at precisely the right time in exactly the right place. Even at that point, the whole thing can be completely subjective; it is a game of chance.

It’s easy for me to have big dreams at this stage of the game. I’m in that happy place where I have drafted my first manuscript, have received feedback from my first reader, and am going through the lengthy editing process. I have not yet put any queries out there. I have not yet been rejected. I am not yet disillusioned by the publishing industry.

It’s a special time between dreams and reality, and I am cherishing it as long as possible.

How about you?

Are you seeking to be published in the traditional way? What steps have you taken in that direction, and with what results?

Or are you taking the self-publishing path? Why? Did you try the traditional route first?

Leave a comment


  1. The arguments you’ve presented have been fighting in my head ever since I finished the last draft of my novel. I honestly have no idea what to do next – both modes of publication have strong pros and cons. Recently, my mother self-published her book and is very happy with the results. For her, it was about having the physical book and the control over every aspect of the layout. I like that idea, but I also have no faith in my ability to pull that off!

    What I’m starting to realize is that this decision comes down to something very personal. You have to do what feels right for you as a writer. Unfortunately, this is as far as I’ve come to making any sort of decision. I’m getting ready to print out the last draft and let some readers give me a little feedback. Their (honest, I hope) reactions will maybe help decide which route to take.

  2. C.B., thank you for your contemplative response.

    I agree with you – it is a very personal decision. And I hope I haven’t knocked self-published authors out there; I just feel strongly that I want to try the traditional path and go through that learning experience.

    And you know what? I just realized this very moment that, duh, I am already self-publishing through this blog. It’s a blast, and enormously satisfying. There’s room in this writer’s heart for both worlds. : )

    I subscribe to both The Writer and Writer’s Digest, and I am inspired by their regular columns “Breakthrough” and “Breaking In,” respectively. What stands out to me is EVERY author has a DIFFERENT success story. It’s encouraging; there is no one right way! There are many ways to skin a cat!

    • I love those two columns! They always remind me of how important it is try. You just never know what could happen unless you put your writing out there and see what happens. Good writing always finds its way to readers, whether it be through a big company or small press.

      Writing is a very personal journey no matter the genre, so it makes sense that publishing is also an individual journey. Something I’ve recently considered is how the intended audience plays a crucial part in deciding how to publish a piece.

  3. Kudos to you Natalie! At this stage of your career as a writer, to have the wherewithal to make the comparison and to do it so eloquently, concentrating on the true core issues of the debate, rather than the ancillary drivel so many in these blogs tend to get caught up in.

    I have done a TREMENDOUS amount of research into the prospect of self publishing…not because I am considering it, it;s simply not for me… but because, as an inquisitive writer who makes his living off of my words, I really wanted to know if it’s really a viable option.

    Hearing all the gush about keeping 70% of total book sales as opposed to the traditional 30% did certainly pique my curiosity, but rather than take anyone else’s word for it, I decided to do all the research, fact check all the statistics and see who was blowing smoke, and who was really sitting on some solid facts. this is what I found:

    There are basically 2 types of writers: The type that truly want to make a career out of writing and are willing to dedicate the time and effort to continuously honing their craft and sharpening their skills,

    The second type are the ones that strive for the result, not the journey. These people may be fantastic story-tellers, but they are NOT authors, nor should they ever be. Indeed, wide old people have told captivating campfire tales since the dawn of man, but you would never expect, or even want them to publish a book unless it was prepared by a competent ghostwriter.

    There is a reason why being an author is an elite club. It’s because it’s VERY hard to do. It takes a rare set of genetic talent as well as a tremendously developed cognitive skill, combined with a mastery of the language you prefer to write in so that those words can be crafted into meaningful, emotionally moving prose.

    Because anyone can publish a blog nowadays, does NOT, in ANY way, make them an author — it simply means they publish their own blog. The quality of the words, ideas and emotions expressed within that blog will determine on their own merits if that person has what it takes to be a bonafide author; but like you already humbly and accurately admitted, there are MANY hoops to jump through, many breaks that need to be caught, and the patience and ferocious diligence of both a saint and a Pit-bull, to even hope for success.

    All that being said, when you do the research for yourself, and not listen to all the amazing success the people on these sites are claiming to have, you see very clearly that self publishing is overwhelmingly almost never a good option, UNLESS, it is the only way your words and ideas will ever get published, OR, you have already made a name for yourself through traditional methods and don’t need the assistance of a publishing house to market, promote, design or distribute your books.

    I have done all the research, and will be publishing it in my blog this afternoon., in case you are interested to see the facts and the sites where to go to get the information for yourself. I would publish them here for you too, but i just don’t want to go through all that twice in one day since the tone of my blog will be substantially different than the one I’m expressing here. Feel free to stop by and read and comment if you like. I intend to subscribe to your blog and sincerely hope you will do the same with mine.

    It is very refreshing to see someone so new in this, yet so articulate and filled with the desire to put in the hard work that vilifies us as true authors, and not just folks around a campfire with a decent story to tell.

    I look forward to exchanging many ideas and anecdotes with you in the future.



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