Dimly lit bookshelves stuffed with books, possibly a second-hand bookshop

Traditional Publishing or Self-Publishing—How to Decide

“Oh, you self published? I thought you were a real author.”

Wow, love. You actually said it out loud, didn’t ya?

I read an article not so long ago (the article itself is pretty old, but the sentiment hasn’t really gone away) in which the author wondered if self-publishing is an insult to the written word. “I'd rather share a cabin on a Disney cruise with Donald Trump than self-publish,” she declared.

The article contains a lot of misconceptions and some outright nonsense about independent publishing; as if only traditionally published writers have put in the time and effort required to become good at what they do.

(Orly? I’ve been writing and studying writing since I was a child. We’ve definitely put in the time and effort.)

There’s the implication that the gatekeepers of the traditional publishing industry (which is mostly white, male, and immensely privileged) are somehow the only arbiters of what makes a good book. And that somehow they alone know who wants to read, what they want to read, and who’s going to buy it.

(They’re not. I’m sure you’ve read plenty of shite that’s come out of the big publishing houses, as have I. And there are whole demographics out there hungry for books that are written by people like them, who traditional publishing have traditionally ignored.)

It’s 2022 and there are still people around who turn up their noses at self-published books. As if, by publishing them ourselves, they somehow don’t pass a test.

Well, the only test that matters to me is that people enjoy my book and find it helpful—and I’ve had plenty of feedback that tells me I’ve succeeded.

That’s not to say traditional publishing is a bad thing; it’s not, necessarily. I just want you to know you have a choice. And to ignore the haters. And to know what you’re getting into, whatever you decide.

What will you choose to do?

By now, you may be thinking about what happens next—what do you do after you’ve finished writing your book?

After the drafting and crying and editing and crying and beta readers and more editing and crying and yet more editing and proofreading… what’s next?

Publishing, yes; but how?

Most of the people I work with want to independently publish their books. It makes sense for them to do so. But you might not be sure, so I wanted to run down a few of the pros and cons of each choice.

The Money

If images of enormous cheques are waltzing before your eyes, courtesy of a big publishing house, I’m afraid what you’re about to read will be like a bucket of cold water in your face.

Writers like J.K. Rowling, James Clear, and Stephen King get the kind of royalty cheques that can buy a yacht; the rest of us… well, let me paint you a picture.

Typical book publishing royalties are between 10-12% of the retail price of the book, and an advance is usually around one-third of the total royalties. Let’s say your book costs £20. You negotiate a royalty rate of 10%, so for each book sold you receive £2. If your print run is 5,000, and they all sell, your total royalties will be £10,000.

Which means your advance, around a third of your total royalties, will be £3,330. And the rest will drip in as and when your books sell. Not really enough to buy that yacht, is it?

And given how much hard work you’re putting in to write the thing, £10,000 is pretty depressing.

If you do want to give it a go—and particularly if you want to try for one of the big publishers—you’ll need an agent, and you’ll have to write a book proposal, which is a beast of a thing, and it’ll feel like writing your book all over again. It might even be worse.

Your book proposal will be around 30-40 pages long and must include the following:

  • A description of the market for your type of book and how the market looks at the moment.
  • What makes your book different from others.
  • Your expertise: what makes you the expert on your topic?
  • A summary of your book.
  • One or two sample chapters.

Still interested? Go and learn everything you can about how to write a book proposal, and study hard.

But it’s not all doom and gloo: with traditional publishing, the publisher takes all the business risks. They edit, design, print, publish, and (if they’re betting big on your book) market your book for you. The gamble is the advance on your royalties—the publisher is betting that they’ll sell enough copies of your book to cover your advance (and hopefully many more).

A Word Of Warning

There are, without a doubt, many advantages to being published by a publishing house—especially one of the big ones. The more famous an author you are, the bigger the benefits.

But if you’re a typical business owner like me and a publisher publishes your book, remember: that small royalty advance is likely to be the last money this particular book makes you.

Your book may wither away on bookshelves because a few months after you’ve published, your publisher will move onto the next book. They’ll be promoting someone else’s baby, not yours.

And there’s nothing you can do about it because your publisher owns everything.

That’s the big, huge, giant downside of traditional publishing when you’re a business owner. When you sign a contract, you sign away all your rights of ownership to the book, and you have little-to-no creative control over the title, cover, blurb, or anything else. But they’ll still expect you to do most of the marketing. Imagine you want to produce a second edition… but you can’t, because the publisher isn’t interested. Imagine the publisher pulps your book because they can’t sell enough copies! Your book will be a massive wasted opportunity.


Okay, so that’s traditional publishing—not quite as exciting, money-wise, as we might have hoped. But what about indie-publishing? Aha. Well, that can be quite a different story. (Note the emphasis on can be because I make no promises here about anything.)

Let’s start with the upfront costs because if you independently publish, all the costs are your responsibility. For a good quality book, you can expect to pay at least £1.96 per copy. Here’s how much I paid for my book, How the hell do you write a book:

250 copies = £ 2.43 per copy

500 copies = £ 2.27 per copy

1,000 copies = £ 1.96 per copy

So, if you order 1,000 copies of your book, costing you £1,960 in total and send them second class as large letters at £1.64 postage, you could get your book into someone’s hand for £3.60. If you’re charging £20 for your book, suddenly it doesn’t look so expensive—especially if you pre-sell enough copies to cover your up-front costs.

Assuming you sell all 1,000 copies at £20 each, you’ll make a total of £20,000—with a profit of £16,400, more than enough to pay editors, cover designers, and the like. That £16,400 is just for selling the books.

But remember: what your book leads to is where the real profits lie.

Most of the authors I work with run a business and they want to write a book that supports that business. At least, that’s usually part of the reason.

A book can boost your credibility, open doors and create opportunities, and find and win higher-paying clients. Not to mention all the other cool—and profitable—things you can do with your book once you have it. The money you make on the books themselves isn’t the point. It’s the tip of what can be a vast iceberg of opportunity.

Take Kenda Macdonald, my friend and client. She’s on her second book now, but since publishing her first, Hack The Buyer Brain, she’s done some awesome stuff. Here’s the type of thing that’s possible:

  • She did a book signing at an event, where the organiser bought 50 of her books and gave them to the audience. People queued for 45 minutes to meet Kenda.
  • She won the outstanding contribution to her field award from the Content Marketing Academy because the judges said her book made her the obvious winner.
  • Two universities want Kenda to lecture for them, and they put her book in the curriculum.
  • The Content Marketing Academy has made her book required reading.
  • Because of her book, Kenda had an average of two interviews per week for the few months after publishing—which will get her name and credentials out to a far wider audience.
  • A potential client watched Kenda speak, bought her book, read it the next day, then contacted Kenda asking to talk about a project. She closed him on a £9,000 project on the call.
  • She closed a £12,000 contract off the back of the book, too.

All within two-and-a-bit months of publishing. So if you’re wondering if writing a book is worth the investment, I hope this spurs you on. You must do the work, of course—but without the book, these opportunities may never have come up for Kenda.

How will you publish?

Whatever publishing route you decide to go down, there’s one thing you absolutely must do—no excuses and no exceptions. You must build a platform from which you can launch your book. That means a website, social media presence, and other marketing gubbins.

Even if you’re going the traditional publishing route, you will still need to do this because even if your publisher loves you, they’re never going to be as invested as you are. It’s a requirement these days for all traditionally published authors to have a reliable marketing platform

Build a platform, do it now, and start working it.

And for the love of all that is holy, do not listen to snobs who try to imply that a book is only “proper” if it’s come out of a traditional publishing house. That is absolute hogswash. A book is proper, in my humble but correct opinion, if it makes a positive difference in someone’s life.

Your responsibility is to do that—and then get it out there to as many people as you can, in whatever way seems best to you.

There are many more details about publishing in my book, which you can get here.

But right now?

You have more than enough to start writing your book… so—are you doing it? Are you writing?

Drop me an email and let me know you’ve begun.

And if you haven’t—let me know what’s standing in your way.

Psst: did you know you can book a 90 minute Book Breakthrough Jam session with me to get your book started? If you’re stuck and would like my help to get going on your book again, click the button below and book a slot.

Notes in the Margin

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About the Author Vicky Fraser