Self-Publishing vs Traditional Publishing: How to Earn 4X Royalties

Posted on Feb 1, 2024

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Written by P.J McNulty

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If you’re a writer looking to release a book, at some point you have to make a choice: should you self-publish or pursue the traditional publishing pathway?

Writers unfamiliar with the details of the two options typically dream of landing a traditional publishing deal. That’s understandable – for decades, it was the most viable route to becoming a successful author.

However, thanks to the disruption caused by self-publishing and the rise of the ebook, things are no longer as straightforward.

We’re here to share the facts about these two publishing pathways, so when it’s time to make your choice, you can make an informed one that’s right for your book.

Read on to discover the reality behind self-publishing vs traditional publishing, and you’ll soon see the truth isn’t what many people imagine it to be.

This guide to self-publishing vs traditional publishing covers:

  1. What is the difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing?
  2. How to decide whether self-publishing or traditional publishing is right for you
  3. What are the pros and cons of self publishing?
  4. What are the pros and cons of traditional publishing?
  5. Why self-publishing is the better option
  6. Examples of successful self-published authors
  7. Should you self-publish your book?
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What is the difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing?

Before we help you decide which option is right for your author career, let’s drill down into the terminology of self-publishing and traditional publishing to understand what they mean.

What is traditional publishing?

Traditional publishing takes place when an author signs an agreement with a publishing house. 

This publisher then takes on the roles of production, distribution, and marketing of the book, and in exchange, secures a significant share of the profits.

What is self-publishing?

The author has total control and ownership over their book.

From production to distribution to marketing, they oversee it all, enjoying a much larger share of the revenue as a result.

At a glance, these two publishing pathways might seem obvious.

However, there are significant consequences of choosing either pathway as an author. 

Let’s explore how both options impact your book earnings, creative control, and overall author journey.

Is it better to self-publish your book or sell it to a traditional publisher?

Traditional publishers, with an eye on market trends and commercial viability, are notoriously selective. 

In fact, traditional publishers only end up working with around 1% of authors who reach out to them. 95% of submitted manuscripts don’t even get looked at in detail.

For the vast majority of aspiring authors, and even many established ones, self-publishing isn’t just an option—it’s the only realistic way to get your book out into the world. 

But what if both publishing pathways seem viable?

Even then, for many authors, the benefits of self-publishing make it the superior choice.

Why?

The positives include having unparalleled creative control, the potential for better profits, quicker access to market, and the opportunity to reach niche readerships.

While we’ll be diving deeper into these advantages soon, it’s clear the balance usually tilts in favor of self-publishing.

It’s worth noting that a select group, including celebrities or those with substantial followings, might find traditional publishing more fitting for their needs, especially due to perks such as significant advance payments and broad media exposure.

However, for the vast majority of writers, the clear advantages of self-publishing are hard to overlook.

Let’s explore further and weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of both routes.

What is a self-published book?

When you self-publish a book, you as the author oversee and fund the entire publishing process, from writing and editing to distribution and marketing, without partnering with a traditional publishing house.

What are the pros and cons of self publishing?

The path of self-publishing presents its own set of advantages and challenges.

Let’s delve into them.

Pros of self-publishing

Here are the main advantages of choosing to self-publish your book.

1. Higher royalties

With the middleman out of the equation, authors generally receive a significantly larger share of the book’s sales, enjoying royalty rates of around 60-70% as opposed to traditional publishers who receive 10% or less of the list price after their agent’s fees have been deducted.

Check out the difference in author earnings between self-published and traditionally published books. Ready?

Traditionally Published Earnings:

Book retail price: $14.99

Initial Royalty Rate: 10%

Income per book: $1.49

Books Sold: 6000


Earnings: $8,940

Now, same retail price, same number of books sold, but check out the income per book and earnings change…

Self-Published Earnings:

Book retail price: $14.99

Initial Royalty Rate: 60% = $8.99

Print Cost: $3.04

Income per book: $5.95

Books Sold: 6000


Earnings: $35,700

The self-published author sold 6,000 copies and made $35,700. The traditionally published author sold 6,000 copies and made $8,940.

That’s 4x more earnings for the self-published.

-Math

2. Creative freedom

Without external ownership from publishers, authors retain full autonomy over their book’s content, design, and overall direction.

3. Faster time to market

Control over the process often translates to quicker publication timelines, getting books into readers’ hands sooner.

4. Rights retention

Authors maintain rights to audiobooks, foreign translations, sequels, series, and box sets, opening multiple revenue streams.

5. Marketing control

Decisions about promotion, pricing, and strategy lie entirely with the author, allowing tailored and nimble campaigns.

Cons of self-publishing

Let’s take a look at some drawbacks of self-publishing.

1. Upfront investment

Costs for editing, cover design, and initial promotion rest squarely on the author’s shoulders.

2. No advance

Unlike traditional publishing, authors don’t receive any advance on potential earnings, although these days many traditionally published authors don’t either.

3. Perceived prestige

Some still view traditional publishing as a more “legitimate” or prestigious route.

4. Sole responsibility

Complete control means bearing the weight of every decision, from editing choices to marketing methods.

What are the pros and cons of traditional publishing?

Venturing into traditional publishing carries its own set of benefits and drawbacks:

Pros of traditional publishing

Many people consider the following to be the best reasons to pursue traditional publishing.

1. No upfront costs

Authors aren’t expected to finance the publishing process; the publisher covers these expenses.

2. Advance potential

There’s a possibility of receiving an advance against future sales, although this is often only $5000 to $10,000 for first-time authors and has to be recouped in full before the author earns any royalties.

3. Built-in support

Publishing houses offer teams for editing, design, and initial marketing pushes.

4. Perceived prestige

Being selected by a traditional publisher can enhance an author’s perceived standing in the literary community.

Cons of traditional publishing

Here are some of the main negatives associated with traditional publishing.

1. Slower process

The journey from manuscript acceptance to bookshelves can be prolonged, often taking between one and three years in total.

2. Barriers to entry

Traditional publishers, focused on commercial viability, are often highly selective.

3. Advance repayment

Any advance given needs to be “earned out” through sales before authors see additional royalties – something 75% of authors fail to do.

4. Reduced royalties

A significant portion of the book’s revenue goes to the publisher – even if an author is in the 25% that manage to earn out their advance, they will then only receive 7.5% on paperback sales – and that’s on the price the retailer pays for the book, not the price it is sold to customers for, and also requires an amount to be paid to the author’s agent.

5. Limited creative control

Editorial and design decisions usually rest with the publisher.

6. Rights limitations

Authors usually relinquish rights to audiobooks, foreign translations, and more.

7. Marketing expectations

Despite publisher support, authors are still expected to be active in promotion.

8. Continuation uncertainty

Many authors find that securing a deal for a second book is not guaranteed, even after initial success – more than half of traditionally published authors never release a second book.

How much does traditional publishing cost?

While traditional publishing might seem to be free of direct expenses for authors, there are other costs you should be aware of

1 – Advance repayment

While an advance can feel like a windfall, it’s essential to remember it’s an advance against future earnings.

Authors need to earn this out before gaining a single cent in royalties.

And just to be clear, an average advance of $5000 to $10,000 often has to last over two years before their book even makes it to market.

2 – Lost time

The traditional publishing mechanism often operates at a slower pace, translating to potential lost sales and reader engagement – in the two years it can take for a traditional publisher to release your book, you could have released several independently. 

3 – Rights restrictions

The inability to capitalize on other editions or formats can mean missed revenue opportunities.

4 – Having to start over eventually

For many, the traditional route is a one-time journey.

Should a second deal not materialize, and for most it won’t,  authors often find themselves having to turn to self-publishing, essentially starting from square one.

Now that the reality of self-publishing vs traditional publishing is a little clearer, let’s take a look at how to make the right choice.

How to decide whether self-publishing or traditional publishing is right for you

While the reality is that 99% of authors will not be chosen by traditional publishers, those with a burning desire to try should consider the following points.

You could consider traditional publishing if you:

1. Have patience

Traditional publishing is not swift. From acquiring an agent to securing a deal, it can be a years-long journey.

2. Value prestige

If being associated with a recognized publisher is crucial to you, you might want to give it a shot. 

3. Lack desire for creative control

Creative decisions, from cover design to key edits, will be out of your hands.

4. Are fine with lower royalties

Financially, you’ll get a smaller slice of the pie.

5. Have no interest in diversifying

You don’t want to be in control of and able to profit from audiobook or foreign editions.

6. Are able to embrace uncertainty

Understand that even if you secure a deal, future prospects, like earning out the advance or securing another deal, are not guaranteed, and are in fact unlikely. 

On the other hand, self-publishing is the better option for you if you:

1. Prioritize speed

If you want your book out sooner without the extensive timelines of traditional publishers.

2. Can front the initial costs

You’re ready to invest in services like editing, cover design, and marketing.

3. Seek creative autonomy

You have a vision and wish to see it through, undiluted.

4. Desire higher royalties

More of every sale goes directly to your pocket.

5. See beyond print

You’re looking to expand into audiobooks, book series, or foreign markets.

6. Are in for the long haul

You’re ready to cultivate a dedicated readership and author platform over time.

When weighing up your choice, please remember: many authors spend months or even years trying to catch the eye of a traditional publisher.

Only a minuscule percentage succeed.

In the duration it takes to receive a single response, you could have made significant strides in self-publishing, establishing yourself and building a reader base.

Is traditional publishing worth it?

For a select few, traditional publishing may offer a pathway aligned with your desires and circumstances.

The recognition, support system, and advance payments can be alluring.

However, for the majority, the slow timelines, potential financial pitfalls, and loss of creative freedom outweigh these benefits.

The prestige of traditional publishing remains, but the practicalities often make it either unviable or unattractive.

Is self-publishing worth it?

Unequivocally, for most authors, the answer is a solid ‘yes’.

While self-publishing demands effort, dedication, and a proactive approach, the potential rewards—both financial and creative—are substantial.

Self-publishing offers unparalleled control, a direct connection with readers, and the flexibility to adapt and grow.
For those ready to commit, it offers not just profitability but also the profound satisfaction of seeing your creative vision realized on your own terms.

Why self-publishing is the better option

When you stop and consider everything we’ve covered in the preceding sections, it becomes clear that self-publishing is the more advantageous route for the majority of authors.

If you’re still on the fence, the next section might help.

What are the benefits of self-publishing?

We’re going to show you in clear terms how life as a self-publisher is preferable to one as a traditionally-published author.

1. Lack of gatekeepers and barrier to entry

As a self-published author, you’re not at the mercy of a gatekeeper whose whims dictate your future, rather, you’re building your own path to success, where you do things on your own terms and schedule.

2. Publish at your own pace

You have the benefit of writing your book and releasing it at a pace that suits you, not dictated by external deadlines that don’t align with your lifestyle and ambitions.

3. Timescale to publication

While a traditionally-published author might wait years to see their manuscript on shelves, you, the self-publisher, can expedite that timeline, launching when you decide your book is at its best.

4. Unhindered creative freedom

Your narrative voice remains pure, untouched by external influences.

Your story, characters, and plot twists are exactly as you envisioned, not a diluted version catering to a committee’s preferences.

5. Financial upsides

Picture this – every book sale sees up to 70% of the earnings coming your way.

In contrast, a traditionally-published peer only gets 7-10%, once they’ve settled their advance, which most never do.

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6. Freedom to expand

Feel a sequel brewing or a series unfolding?

As a self-publisher, you embark on that journey as and when you want.

Your traditionally-published counterpart? They have to ask for permission.

7. Charting your own author career

As an independent author, you’re in the driver’s seat of your career.

You can plan book launches, engage with readers, pivot genres—every decision is yours.

The traditionally-published author is stuck on a pre-charted path, with fewer detours permitted.

To choose the world of self-publishing is to embrace creative freedom.

If that prospect ignites a spark within you, you owe it to yourself to consider self-publishing in more detail.

Examples of successful self-published authors

Hopefully you now understand the many benefits that come with choosing to self-publish your book rather than seeking out a traditional deal. 

Just to show you some tangible examples to inspire and assure you, here are just six of the many self-published authors who have achieved massive levels of success on their own terms.

1. Amanda Hocking

Amanda Hocking burst onto the scene with her “Trylle Trilogy” and “Watersong” series. 

As a self-published author, she impressively sold over a million copies of her books, demonstrating the vast potential of self-publishing in reaching readers on a large scale.

2. Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey’s post-apocalyptic series “Wool” gained rapid popularity in the self-publishing world. 

The intrigue and engagement with his series were so substantial that he became a benchmark for success in the realm of independent authors.

3. Andy Weir

“The Martian” by Andy Weir began as a labor of love, shared chapter by chapter on his blog. 

As he transitioned to a self-published eBook format, the tale of survival on Mars captivated hundreds of thousands, marking Weir as a standout self-published author.

5. LJ Ross

With her gripping “DCI Ryan” mystery series, LJ Ross carved a niche in the self-publishing world. 

Her engaging narratives resonated with readers, leading to sales of over 4.5 million copies and establishing her firmly as a powerhouse in genre fiction.

5. Rachel Abbot

Rachel Abbott’s psychological thrillers, including titles like “Only the Innocent” and “The Back Road”, are prime examples of self-publishing achievements. 

Her debut novel climbed to the number 1 spot in the Amazon Kindle store in the UK, setting a precedent for her continued success.

6. Mark Dawson

Thriller aficionados quickly became familiar with Mark Dawson’s series, such as “John Milton”, “Beatrix Rose”, and “Isabella Rose”.

In the self-publishing world, Dawson’s books reached hundreds of thousands of readers, and he’s also revered for sharing business insights related to self-publishing, benefiting many aspiring authors.

Each of these authors showcases the immense potential and reach that self-publishing offers, making a significant impact without the traditional publishing middleman.

Should you self-publish your book?

We strongly feel that choosing to self-publish your book is the best move for both your short and long-term author goals.

Having worked with countless self-published authors, as well as publishing many books independently ourselves, we know just how much of a life-changing process it can be.

Many people describe becoming an independent author as the third most meaningful moment of their lives, following only their wedding and birth of their children.

We want you to experience the same levels of success and creative freedom for yourself. 

Are you ready to make it happen?

Good – we’d love to help you every step of the way.

Find The Best Publishing Path For Your Needs!  Take This 2-Minute Assessment To Learn Which Of Our Publishing Paths Will Be  The Best For You And Your Unique Needs As An Aspiring Author. Answers Delivered  Immediately!  Take The Assessment!

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