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How to Decide Between Self Publishing and Traditional Publishing

by Amy Bennet

A writer told me, “I think I’ll start out with self publishing because I’m new.” And I thought, “Of course authors get daunted by the prospect of getting published, and don’t know how to start.”

There is a story that traditional publication is better. People in power said yes, so your work must be good. Your book has a logo on the spine that gives it legitimacy and ties it to a long tradition of success. You have access to coveted resources, like foreign rights agents and Hollywood agents and bookstore distribution. You are part of the club. 

And writers choose to self publish, too. They’re tired of waiting in line. Tired of people in power who say no, and take months or years to say no. Tired of companies who demand the lion’s share of the proceeds, and require the book to look and feel the way they want it.

Publishing, like any industry, has waves where the new takes over the old. That wave has been coming up the beach for over a decade. It hasn’t washed away the sand castles, but it has worn away some walls, and created a new sandbar here and there.

The question isn’t even, “Do I publish traditionally or do I self publish?” because so many writers do a hybrid these days. It’s common now for established writers to self-publish their backlists (meaning their older books) or even their new books, for a variety of reasons. But how do you start if you don’t already have a committed following? You may have heard of writers like Hugh Howey, Amish Tripathi, and Amanda Hocking. How did they do it? They wrote books that people wanted to read, and they got a buzz going.

The underlying assumption I think many new writers have is that if they self publish their book, that a career will happen somehow. It happens sometimes that an unknown author becomes a bestseller, often enough that the dream is there. The industry depends on dreams. Traditional publishers offer self-publishing services, too, for a price.

People think of book publishing as this alchemical industry that will discover talent if given enough time. The opposite is true. The publishing industry will overlook and squash talent, left and right, without any ill will intended. If a few agents said no and that was powerful enough to make you give up your goal, why give them that much power over you? Stephen King kept his rejection letters nailed to the wall using a railroad spike because a regular nail wasn’t strong enough.

And yet authors who self publish might shrug and say, “I just want to get my book out there.” Their unspoken expectation is that somehow, magically, people will find it. There are over a million books published every year. More people write poetry than read poetry, too.  

Your writing career is not something to leave up to quiet hopes. Your talent is too precious. It deserves nurturing, and it deserves an honest conversation with yourself as a writer about what you want and what you’re willing to commit in order to do it.

There’s this myth of the Great American Novel, as if all you needed to do was to find the time to write, and the story would flow, and you’d shock everyone with your brilliance. I’ve read unpublished stories by professional writers, stories they’d written decades earlier, because the manuscripts were in a library archive and I was curious. Some of those stories were very good, and some were so bad that they made me laugh and made me cringe. Reading them gave me a sense of perspective that brought relief. Being good at writing comes from wanting it and putting in the practice, just like being good at cooking. Many successful writers will have “trunk” novels, called that because they stay in the trunk, never to be seen.

Some communities would have you believe that traditional publishing is better. Some communities would have you believe that self publishing is better. Instead of “better”, ask what it’s better for. What are your goals, and what methods will help you reach them? What investments and sacrifices are you going to make? If and when you succeed, how will you feel, and what is that worth to you?

If you want to be published, and you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t, consider giving yourself the gift of working with a professional editor who can help you get closer to your dreams. Your talent is worth nurturing, and success doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

About the Author

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