This is a question that gets asked a lot in The Dragon Writers, where we have a wide spread of both kinds of authors.
The short answer is: with self publishing, or “indie” you get a bigger slice of the pie but you have to work harder for it.
Choosing to self publish should never be about having a back up plan, it’s not something you should do just because you’re tired of rejection.
Self publishing is being CEO of your own business.
You are the manufacturer of the product (the book), you are the person responsible for finding a team to quality control the product (editors and proofreaders), you’re the person responsible for getting the product to market (uploading it on retailers, choosing which retailers are best, deciding whether to print local copies or use distributers to get it into book stores), you are the person responsible for marketing the product (ensuring the cover is not only professional, but that it communicates to the end user what to expect from the product). You will also have to be your own compliance officer, which is what many people don’t talk about. You need to worry about rights, and taxes and GDPR and all that jazz.
Like all businesses, making and selling books requires a capital outlay to start with.
You will probably need to pay your team. I say probably because if you’re fortunate you will be able to make arrangements with qualified friends and barter, but if you’re not in that position, you’re going to need to pay someone real money.
Even if you don’t end up paying for that, you’re going to have to pay for marketing. There was a time when Amazon first started their print on demand service when you could be discovered without spending money on marketing, there was a time when having an organic Facebook audience was enough for any business. This is no longer the case. People don’t stumble upon new authors accidentally.
You’re probably going to have to spend money on training. Sure, there are tons of free resources out there and you can probably learn a lot of what you need just by joining the right Facebook groups, but it’s likely that you will end up buying at least one book or course to train you in advertising or strategy.
The people who do well at self publishing are the people who thrive on the challenges of the business side.
They’ve got entrepreneurial hearts. They want to be involved in all this. They want to be in control. They love experimenting, and chatting to readers, and networking with other writers.
If you aren’t that yet, you can become that. No one starts off good at anything in life. You learn.
But if the very idea fills you with horror, then that’s where traditional might be right for you.
You see, in the traditional model a writer is just a writer.
You manufacture the product and that’s that. Well not quite. Like all manufacturers of any other product, you have to get someone to buy it to take it further. You have to pitch. You have to be rejected. You have to keep trying. You get better at pitches, you get better at creating products that fulfill a market need. Eventually someone buys your product and agrees to distribute it for you. You will probably have to make some adjustments, and you will get a very complex contract explaining what you each expect from one another.
Used to be that after that point it was out of your hands. Now the thing is if you want to sell another product to that buyer, you’ll want to do a bit of marketing yourself. But it’s not expected of you. Your book will end up in stores, you might get speaking opportunities and things like that, and you don’t have to worry about any of it.
If you only want to write and not worry about the business side of things, then traditional is probably for you. Yes, it’s a slow process, but it’s a process that frees you up to do what truly makes your soul happy. Don’t let people put you off if you know that this is what’s right for you. Just be patient and keep working at it. Your day will come.
The thing that makes traditional publishing so difficult is also its greatest benefit. Since there is such a huge barrier to entry, the assumption is that books put out by traditional publishers are top quality. Yes, there are many that aren’t. However, people who see the brand names of the big publishers on your book will assume that your book is up to scratch because it made it through that selection process. You don’t have that with indie. You have to create your own brand and it’s up to you to prove it’s quality even though it’s mixed in with a lot of books that are not quality at all.
The in between
Vanity presses (sometimes called hybrid publishers)
are like that greasy guy with the slicked-back hair twho show up at your door or networking event to tell you they’re onto the next big thing and if you just give them cash you can be in on it too. Sure, some of them are legit (I mean I’m sure there must be one somewhere out there that’s legit) but you have to be so careful.
Rule of thumb is that if someone is asking for money to publish your book it’s one of these. And no matter what they tell you, all they will do is help with the manufacturing of the product. You’re still going to be CEO. You’re still going to have to sell it and market it and make a bunch of legal and regulatory decisions. However, they will (in theory) get the book edited, laid out and organise a nice cover for you, which takes a lot of the admin out of doing it yourself. Just be wary, look at other products they’ve produced before and ask around to see if they’re up to scratch. Since they’re getting their money from you, they have no incentive to make a book that will sell.
This is what I do personally, so I may be a bit biased. You’re still CEO and everything that I said about self publishing still applies. However, you can exchange your own skills with other authors so that it keeps the costs down. Find some friends who are very good at what they do (look for talent, not just friendship. This is crucial). Someone can be in charge of covers, someone can be in charge of interior layout, someone can be in charge of editing, someone can be in charge of proof reading, someone can be in charge of marketing, etc. You don’t have to do everything yourself. You’re a team and you work together to produce the absolute best products you can, but you still have complete control over your own publishing journey.
Publishing is hard. There’s no way around it. If it wasn’t, then traditional publishers wouldn’t be a thing. But just bear in mind, you’ve got time to learn. No business expects you to know everything on day one. In the end, you have to decide what’s important to you and what you want to get out of publishing and that will inform which method you select.