Writing A Book: Traditional Publishing vs Self-Publishing

Welcome to my “Write a book” series.  Here are all the articles:Create-Space

One question which is becoming more and more relevant for authors: Should I use a traditional publishing company or self-publish?

I’m going to take a look at the pros and cons of both, figure out which type of books are suitable for self-publishing and look at some examples of authors that I think should have self-published.

Traditional publisher


  • Advance payment of royalties – This helps give the author a base hourly wage for their efforts, even if the book doesn’t sell
  • Shelf space in brick-and-mortar book stores
  • Prestige
  • Promotional help (this is very debatable)
  • Help with book editors/proof readers/marketing experience (ie what topics sell)
  • Publisher does all the “publishing” stuff – book cover design etc
  • Motivation – You have the advance plus the editors assigning deadlines


  • Low profit per book ~10% royalty
  • You have to get a deal
  • Once you sell the book to a publisher, you lose control over it
  • Most books don’t get much promotional help
  • Little incentive to promote the book yourself
  • Inflexible for future editions
  • Deadlines which might not be convenient for you
  • You can’t switch to self-publishing later on



  • Much higher profit per book – A smaller paperback like mine (6″x9″, 128 pages) has a fixed cost of $3 for printing and 20% for distribution.  A $10 retail price would mean a $5 profit compared to maybe a $1 profit with a traditional publishing deal
  • Nobody has to approve your book
  • You maintain complete control over the book at all times
  • You can update the book anytime you want.  Since it is POD (print on demand), there are no stockpiles of books which are suddenly out of date
  • Inexpensive – If you don’t outsource anything, the basic cost to list a book is about $100 (including the proof copy)
  • No deadlines, so you can work at your own pace
  • You can always do a traditional publishing deal after you self-publish


  • No advance – If nobody buys the book, then you’ve spent a lot of time for nothing
  • No shelf space – This is not as critical as it used to be.  See the section below “Role of Amazon in book sales”
  • No prestige – This is changing, but at one time the only people who self-published were authors who couldn’t get a publishing deal
  • No help putting the book together.  Editing, proof reading etc.  These steps can be outsourced.  It’s cheaper to pay some money up front and then get higher residual profits
  • More work to set up account at self-publisher and format book and create cover.  Formatting and book cover can be outsourced
  • Motivation – It all comes from you

Why use a traditional publisher?

I think the biggest benefit is the advance, the prestige and the shelf space.


Getting a decent advance for your books means that you can basically just write for the advance and not worry about sales at all.  Of course if sales are not good, then future advances are not as likely.


The prestige of a publishing deal means easier access to media, speaking events and more street cred.  I suspect this advantage is lessening, but I think it still exists.

Shelf space

Shelf space is good promotion.  If you aren’t planning to do any promotion of your book, having it on a shelf is a must.

Why self-publish your book?

Main benefit is a much higher profit per book.  You have to be able to promote the book.  The other big benefit is control.  For better or for worse – you control the whole thing and will be 100% responsible for the final product.

Which kind of books are suitable or not suitable for self-publishing?

If you self-publish then Amazon will be your main sales channel.  With a traditional publisher, brick-and-mortar bookstores as well as Amazon will be the sales channels.

If a good chunk of your audience will buy books from Amazon, then self-publishing might be a viable option.

I think that the younger your audience is and the more tech-savvy they are – the more likely they are to use Amazon to buy books.  If you are writing books aimed at people in their 20s then I’m positive that a large percentage of them are comfortable buying books online.

What if your audience is older?  A book on retirement activities might be popular in bookstores, but I’m guessing that it won’t do as well online.

Of course, this generation gap will disappear over time, but I think right now you have to try to make sure that you aren’t avoiding a big chunk of your audience by picking the wrong path.

Jonathan Fields wrote a really good essay on this topic called A Modest Proposal For Publishers and Authors.  Well worth a read.

What is the role of Amazon in book sales?

Amazon is like a search engine for books – if your book ranks well and is popular, you won’t have to do any promotion – it will sell itself.  Amazon will pair the book with “bought with” selections which will also help.

I feel that more and more people buy books off Amazon compared to the book store.  This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t want my book in a bookstore (I do), but rather that it is not critical.  This would not have been true even five years ago.

I did some Googling to try and find out what percentage of book sales are on Amazon vs book stores and found this very interesting page.  According to their info, Amazon is the largest book retailer – look at the second graph (first line is Amazon North America Media Sales) and you’ll see the comparison between Amazon vs brick-and-mortar chainstores.

That graph is very interesting:

  • Amazon sells more than either BarnesNoble or Borders
  • Amazon sells less than BarnesNoble + Borders
  • The trend is amazing – regular bookstore sales are dropping, but that is irrelevant – Amazon sales are skyrocketing.

It should be noted that these sales include non-book items such as dvds, cds, coffee and brownies which might skew the results.

This type of data tells me that the role of the bookstore is not as important as it was 5-10 years ago.  Yes, bookstores still sell a lot of books, but I’d rather take a higher profit and sell only on Amazon.

What if I sell my self-published book on Amazon and then sold the “print” version to a publishing company so it could be in bookstores.  This would be the best of both worlds.  I would continue to do what I’m doing now – selling the self-published book on Amazon and then some publishing company would buy the print rights and could stock the book shelves.

Not going to happen.  From what I can see, you sell all the rights to the books – not just the worst parts.  🙂

Some examples of authors that I think should have self-published

Art of Non-Conformity – Chris Guillebeau is a master marketer.  One of the best in my opinion.  He just released his book and decided to use a traditional publisher.  As I write this, he is conducting a huge book tour that he organized/paid for himself to help promote the book.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why Chris didn’t self-publish.

Let’s look at some key factors that support self-publishing:

  1. Chris is a great promoter.
  2. Chris is doing all the book promotion.
  3. His audience is relatively young and likely tech-savvy – they would have no problem buying off Amazon.

I would love to see the breakdown of his sales by Amazon vs in-store sales.

Four Hour Workweek – Tim Ferriss.  Tim has turned his book into a brand.  This example is similar to the previous one.  Tim has been very successful promoting his book, his audience is young so why didn’t he self-publish?

Another two examples are JD Roth of GRS and Trent Hamm from TSD.  They have both written books on personal finance.  In their case, they have large followings (tribes) on their blogs.  I suspect that most of their sales will come from readers or indirectly from readers.  Because their topic is so competitive, I doubt they will get much benefit from being on a book shelf.  They also have the ability to do a lot of promotion for their books.

What do you think?  If you have further thoughts on self-publishing vs traditional publishers then please leave a comment!


9 Responses to “Writing A Book: Traditional Publishing vs Self-Publishing”

  1. Nice article! It’s quite an effort to do, so your guidelines are helpful.

    The prestige thing really is a big one, b/c I doubt 90%+ of book authors make more than $100,000 from their book. Correct me if I’m wrong. Hence, what’s left is prestige. Since anybody can write an e-book, there is no prestige.

    Definitely one of many people’s life goals, to have a published book on a bookshelf somewhere!

  2. Mike says:

    Thanks a lot Sam!

    Just to clarify – self-publishing does not mean e-book. The final product is still a normal, physical book.

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  4. Hi Mike,

    I do self-publish a lot of things – in fact, that’s how I earn my living. But for a print book, there was no way I could have done that on my own and achieve the same reach. The goal with the print book is influence and spreading the message. I’ve met a couple thousand people on the tour so far and many have found out about AONC through the book instead of the other way around.

    So overall, I’m happy with both self-pub and traditional pub – not either / or.


  5. Mike says:

    Hi Chris, thanks for dropping by.

    Good point that both publishing methods are appropriate for different situations.

    I still think you are underestimating your reach however. 😉

  6. Gotcha Mike. Thanks for clarifying.

  7. Wendy says:

    I have written a children’s picture book set in China. My husband has encouraged me to self-publish, believing that we can market the book successfully. Since I am working in China at present, I have had a Chinese illustrator illustrate my story. He has done a superb job – far better than anything I could have imagined. It has given me hope that a traditional publisher may be willing to look at and publish the story. However, my husband believes that with hard work, self publishing can be more lucrative. Assuming at least a midsized traditional publisher is willing to publish my story, would going with a traditional publisher generally earn more royalties?

  8. Mike says:

    Wendy, I have no idea what the best choice for you is.

    Publishing books that have illustrations and color present a lot of challenges for printers and will raise the printing costs.

    You should really talk to other authors of similar books and see what they say.

  9. Van Heerling says:

    Hello Mike,

    I really enjoyed your article. I wanted to ask your permission to post it on my site. I am a newly self-published author and am starting to receive some really nice feed back.

    I will be creating a “Friends” page within my site and I would like to place a link to your site if you would be okay with this.