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Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing Part 1: What is the Difference?

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

When I started this journey, one of the first decisions that I had to make was whether to publish The Train Rolls On via traditional publishing or self-publishing. There was only one problem: I didn’t know what either of these terms REALLY meant. This article defines both terms and outlines the publication process for each.

What is Traditional Publishing?

On one end of the spectrum lies traditional publishing, where an author works with a third-party publishing company to produce and distribute a book.

The traditional publishing network is well-established, having existed for hundreds of years. In fact, until the late 1990s, it was the only viable path to publication for a vast majority of authors. The publishers that form this network come in many shapes and sizes, but the U.S. industry is currently dominated by five powerhouses: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster.

How Do Authors Get Traditionally Published?

1. Secure a literary agent (if desired).

With traditional publishing, an author’s first step usually involves securing a literary agent. (Although some publishers accept un-agented submissions, many do not.) To secure one, an author writes and submits query letters, pitching their work to one or more agents. The author then waits to hear whether or not they have been accepted as a client. If accepted, the agent sells the author’s work to publishers and negotiates deals on their behalf, earning a cut of the author’s proceeds in return.

If an author decides to move forward without an agent, they may only send their work to those publishers who accept un-agented submissions.

2. Pitch manuscripts to potential publishers.

Whether or not an author is represented by an agent, their next step is to pitch their work to potential publishers. To do this, they write and submit query letters to the acquiring editors at their desired publishing companies. The acquiring editors determine which manuscripts to review and either acquire or reject the reviewed manuscripts.

3. Work with a publishing team to produce the book.

If a manuscript is acquired by a publisher, a contract is negotiated, and the author is paid an advance in exchange for the rights to publish the book. A publishing team then works with the author to edit, illustrate, design, distribute, and (in some cases) market the book. In other words, the publisher takes ownership of the book but manages the whole publishing process. Following publication, the author receives a royalty fee for each copy of the book that is sold (AFTER the book’s sales surpass the amount of their original advance).

What is Self-Publishing?

At the other end of the spectrum lies self-publishing, where an individual bears all responsibilities of publishing a book.

Once considered a last resort for authors who were unsuccessful in the traditional publishing realm, self-publishing has evolved over the last two decades and is increasingly becoming the first option for aspiring authors. With its growth in popularity, the number of companies and resources available to assist self-publishing authors has grown significantly. As a result, self-publishing has become a spectrum in and of itself.

How Do Authors Self-Publish Books?

DIY Self-Publishing

On one end of the spectrum, there are self-publishers who handle everything themselves (writing, editing, illustrating, designing, publishing, marketing, etc.). This is called DIY self-publishing, and it is the most cost-effective means of self-publishing a book. However, it is also a HUGE undertaking. As a result, this method best suits those individuals who either already possess skills in many of these areas or possess the time and will necessary to tackle them all.

Assisted Self-Publishing

The remainder of the spectrum is occupied by various degrees of assisted self-publishing. In this model, a self-publisher can take on as much (or as little) of the process as they are willing and capable of handling themselves, and they can hire professionals to handle the rest. Some companies even offer to hold a self-publisher’s hand through the entire process, much like a traditional publishing company would. Hiring professionals takes some of the guesswork out of publishing a book, but, of course, their services cost money.

Note: There are various definitions for both DIY and assisted self-publishing. The definitions provided here were derived from a Reedsy blog article entitled How To Self-Publish a Book: 7 Simple Steps to Success (see full article here). Reedsy is one of the most helpful online resources that I have found for all things publishing-related.

So...which publishing method is better?

To learn about the pros and cons of both publishing methods and why I chose to self-publish The Train Rolls On, read Part 2 of this article here.

For more information regarding my self-publishing journey, read my welcome blog here. For more information about The Train Rolls On, check out the book description here.

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