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Traditional Versus Self-Publishing

by Arlene Robinson
with Terry Robinson

We often work with writers who've already decided to self-publish their books. Others want to find an agent or royalty-paying publisher. It's an important decision, so we'd like to share a bit of what we've learned about both options with you.

Traditional Publishing

To find an agent or publisher requires four things besides a well-written, well-edited manuscript:

  • A compelling query (sales) letter. This is usually your first point of contact with any agent or publisher.
  • The right marketing tools: for fiction, a synopsis (summary) of the story; for nonfiction, a persuasive book proposal.
  • A list of carefully researched agents and publishers.
  • Plenty of patience: Finding an agent or traditional publisher can take months, or even years, with no guarantee of success.

Most writers have no problem with the first three requirements. Unfortunately, it's hard to maintain a patient attitude when someone has a manuscript they dream of seeing in print as soon as possible. For that reason, more and more writers are choosing to publish their books themselves: A self-published book can be ready to sell in as little as four to six months.


Aside from faster publication, there are other reasons writers choose to self-publish. Perhaps you only need a small quantity of books for family and friends. Or, if you're a public speaker or consultant, you want a published book to add credibility to or complement your platform or business concept. Some writers choose to self-publish as a sort of "test market"—to see if there is any interest in their story or book idea before approaching large publishers.

Today, there are two types of self-publishing—traditional self-publishing, and POD (Print On Demand) publishing. Each has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages. Two big advantages of both are profit, and control of the rights. Any profit made after expenses goes to the author, and you'll usually be able to cancel your self-publishing contact if a royalty publisher makes an offer for the book. You'll also have control over how your finished book will look, its content, and its retail price.

Another important advantage is that your overhead is lower than a publishing company's. Depending on which printer or company you choose, you might only have to sell 1000 to 2000 copies to recover your original investment.

Other issues to consider: If you have the knowledge, energy and networking ability, a nonfiction book can often do as well or better with self-publishing. Self-publishing is also a good option for poetry and short story collections, since there are fewer royalty publishers for that type of writing. On the downside, novel-length fiction rarely does as well with self-publishing.

In traditional self-publishing, you'll usually need to fully prepare the book before it goes to the printer—a term often called "camera ready." This includes steps like layout, graphics or illustrations, cover design, author photograph (if you use one), and the book jacket text. You'll also want to make sure the book is edited and proofread, since making changes later is usually expensive.

These preparations might seem daunting, and it's true they take a good bit of time, knowledge and effort. For that reason, some printers provide what's known as "turnkey" services, and take care of some or all of these things for you. If you decide to use a turnkey service, make sure that every task is thoroughly detailed in the agreement you'll sign. There are also freelance professionals who will do some or all of these steps for a fee.

With traditional self-publishing, you'll usually be required to order at least several hundred to several thousand copies of your finished book. However, buying in bulk makes the cost-per-book fairly low—in some cases, as low as three to five dollars each.

Also, since you're paying all the costs upfront, you should be able to retain all the rights to the book. Again, make sure this is specified in the contract; most printers are ethical, but as with most industries, there are some sharks in the water.

Print-On-Demand publishing (also known as "POD publishing") is a recent technology made possible by the use of high-speed laser printers. With this method, the writer pays only for the cost of setting up the book for printing, and copies are only printed when they are ordered. Even though a different printing method is used, the finished book should be almost impossible to distinguish from a traditionally printed and bound book. The upfront cost is low, and you won't have to store large numbers of books until they sell.

Like traditional self-publishing, many POD companies also offer services to help you prepare the book. Some services might be included in the setup fee; others might offer a list of "menu options" you can choose from. Some companies even offer marketing (selling) assistance. One caution: possibly because of the convenience of purchasing these services as a package, some of them are more expensive than if you obtained them from different vendors. For example, one company offers editing services for $4.50 per page. However, if your manuscript only needs light copyediting, you might be able to find that same service from an independent freelancer for as little as $2.50 per page. For this reason, it's a good idea to shop around before accepting a package deal.

With POD publishing, you'll often be asked to give up some of your rights for a specific time. The most common are the exclusive right to print the book and to sell it from the company's Internet site. No matter what rights the company asks for, their contract should have an end-date for these rights, or a way to regain these rights. Remember: If you're paying for publication, you should never have to sign away any right indefinitely, and there's no reason a POD company should ever ask for all rights.

Your setup costs are much lower with this method, but since POD publishing isn't as cost-effective, the retail price of the book (and the cost to you, if you order your own copies) will likely be higher. However, many POD companies will work with you to get the price of your book as low as possible.

With either method, choosing the right company is important. Some tips:

  • Ask for and check at least one client reference for any company you're considering. Some companies display their clients books on their Web page; others should be happy to share this information.
  • Order and visually inspect at least one book by the company. This will help you make sure their binding and materials are as good as they claim.
  • Ask for and carefully read their standard contract. Most ethical companies will make this available to you if you ask. Never sign any contract you don't understand or agree to.
  • Make sure the company cares as much about excellence as you do. Too many self-publishing companies will print any manuscript presented to them regardless of quality. We urge you to stay away from these companies. You don't want your book painted with the same brush as poorly written/edited books by the same company who printed your book!

Over the years, we've kept track of companies that were reasonably priced, produced a good finished book and treated our clients right. Here are a few of them to investigate:

  • Book Locker ( – a POD company that began by selling e-books (electronic books) online, but now has a paperback book option.
  • Five Star Publications ( – began as a book promotion company, but now offers POD and traditional self-publishing in addition to comprehensive marketing services.
  • ( - a POD company that also offers a menu of additional services.

Deciding whether or not to self-publish is a big decision, but we hope this information will help you navigate that sometimes-rocky path!

Reprinted with the permission of Booking Matters ( a literary publication that promotes authors, book clubs, and bookstores.