Deciding Between Traditional Publishing And Self-Publishing

In today’s world, the decision between embracing the ways of the digital age or going with the traditional route is a complex battle that each individual artist must face. Unfortunately finding the answer can be exceptionally tough because so many people will have different opinions about it, and you’ll probably go half-crazy like I did spending your hours reading through hundreds of opinions on the internet. There are just too many good reasons on both sides.

However, I think I can also safely say that there’s a naivety that exists in us writers, where all we want to do is just write and not have to worry about much else. However, today that’s simply not how it works as I’ve come to learn over the past six months. The first thing that must be understood here is that writing is not just about actually writing a book, which in itself is already the big achievement and the dream for many. I’m not downplaying it. It’s an amazing thing, and completing a book is the springboard for your hopefully great career, because it tells you that you can write a book and as a result many of your doubts and insecurities will fall away.

But an author, especially a self published author most of all, needs to be able to market themselves, their product and have good communication skills. Basically, you need to not just know how to write a book, but how to sell it. I’m currently in this process myself, and in some ways it can be tougher even than the actual writing part. Of course I’m no expert, but the joy right now in the journey is the learning for me. Regardless, if there are any newcomers to this scene, or those wanting to write but are unsure of where to begin, perhaps this post can help you.

On the other hand if you haven’t yet finished your book and not yet reached a stage where you’re ready to look at publishing, but you want to improve your writing skills, you can give my previous post a read about how journalism helped develop some essential skills for writing.

But now I’ll be focusing on answering the infamous question that most authors of today will probably face: traditional or self publishing? Maybe my experience with it can help you.

It’s an extremely complex dilemma as we’ve established, and anyone you ask will tell you something that adds another curve ball into the mix. While it’s always great to speak to people face to face on the matter, I can understand the frustration that sometimes you just want to know your direction and start actually doing something rather than hoping to do it. However, sadly as lame as it sounds the decision ultimately has to come down to you, and as usual the solution lies somewhere in the middle. You need patience and the right mindset.

What I mean is, instead of a steadfast either-or approach, the decision is more about your individual needs and goals. Every writer will be different.

As far as I was concerned, I consulted four major areas that helped me in deciding that I want to be a self-published author. I will run through each in turn.

Your Personality

This is hugely important. You need to ask yourself a variety of questions not only to understand yourself better, but to know which direction is more suitable to the kind of person you are. For instance, are you a do-it-yourself person? Or are you a creature who wants stability and assurances? Do you have the drive, patience and realistic expectations of yourself to go out there and learn not just how to write a book but how to sell it? Or do you want to focus more on writing and be unencumbered by having to learn such aspects? Are you the sort who wants total freedom, or do you want structure and a system? Do you hate uncertainty, or find it exciting?

In addition, there are various psychological strengths you’ll need to have. For instance with traditional publishing, unless you’re lucky – and I mean really lucky – or you’ve got a book that is out of this world, you’ll probably face rejection a number of times from traditional publishers. I myself have faced two, and I’m anticipating a third. Whenever that response email lands. With self-publishing that is not an issue since only a technical or format error can lead to rejection, barring of course some seriously off-putting content like the encouragement or poor portrayal (taste-wise) of racism, homophobia, sexism or rape. In place of rejection you still need massively thick skin to face disappointing sales or negative feedback from readers or reviewers.

All in all though, I’m sure you can see the different approaches between the two, and what sort of personality type you should have for either case.

Your Reasons For Writing

This is perhaps the simplest out of the four categories. Only you know your reasons for wanting to write a book. Were you bored? Do you want to be a commercial success? Are you writing for yourself, fame, family or to perhaps help others? Are you writing because you want to capture readers with a great story? Are you writing simply because you love it?

These questions are very important, because I feel that self-publishing is a field driven far more by individual passion than traditional publishing. I am not calling traditional soulless or corporate or something damning, but I did get the feeling that with traditional you are writing in accordance to what is marketable – it sits strongly in your mind. At least in my country. With self-publishing, it’s usually because you have a passion and it’s for you.

What You’re Actually Writing

This too is critical. Your genre and style determine what sort of audience you can get as well as which publishing houses will even look at your work. In my country, the market is extremely small, so I could totally forget about ever getting a horror book published here. But with self-publishing, there are no limits. You write what you want. Of course the drawback is that the volume is enormous, and it’s difficult to get a quality stamp or find out what’s good. But generally, your genre and your style will be a good determinant for which way you’ll go.

For instance, I do not want to be typecast. I don’t want to be a “crime writer” or “the guy who does X”. I not only want to jump genres with each book I write in the foreseeable future, but be unpredictable and fresh each time I release a novel. Maybe that may change in the future – never say never – but for now I have no inclination to stick to any one genre. That would be an extremely difficult situation for a traditional publishing house who wants stability, a career out of you and to market you effectively. I admit I’m making it more tough for myself, but it’s just how I am. And you should just always be yourself and just create good art.

However if you’re someone who wants to specialise in crime writing or romance for instance, traditional publishing may be a good avenue to explore, but at the same time it doesn’t take self-publishing off the table either. All factors should be considered together.

Your Circumstances

This was a big determinant for me. When looking at your individual circumstances, I’m sure you will consider the time you have available, the market in your area, your family, your support structure, your social reach and more. Social networking is a critical asset to authors today in either field. But if you’re someone who doesn’t want to engage in it religiously, perhaps self-publishing will appear less attractive since it thrives on networking and reach.

In my country of South Africa, I’m a victim of circumstance for numerous reasons. For one thing, the market is tiny and most of what is read here is crime, chick literature, spirit, non-fiction, motivational books and self-help books. At least, that’s what numerous publishing houses have told me. Furthermore there are no literary agents in South Africa, which makes overseas publishing very difficult since you, well, need an agent to do that. It’s a barrier I don’t have to face with self-publishing of course. But the reality is that there are big restrictions and limitations. 

Of course it will be unique to every person. Elaborating further, I’m twenty years old and in varsity for the foreseeable future, so I felt that I have more than enough time to build something for myself. For me that means that if I don’t make it, one day I can look back and say “you know what? I gave it everything I had.” As opposed to not knowing because I had a pile of rejection letters from publishers. Harsh, but very possible.

The Conclusion

Self-publishing for me is a “no regrets” route, but at the same time the possibilities are open because you always own the rights to your work so it doesn’t mean you can’t turn to traditional publishing at some point in the future. I feel that with what I’ve written above, I probably have made self-publishing sound more appealing – a bias that would be difficult to remove at this point since I’ve just started down that road.

But it is essential to understand that the choice is yours – and no one can make it for you.

The four reasons above for me were the most important in making my decision. Nevertheless, there are plenty of ways you can find out. I’d suggest sending over your manuscripts to traditional publishers anyway. Because it can be a numbers game. You may encounter good fortune. You may find a publishing house you really like, or a publisher or editor who really believes in you. It can’t hurt to knock on doors. The grand mistake would be to do nothing.

It’s just about feeling your way through it all a lot of the time as well. You just need to be careful of how many times you knock on the same door. Just don’t get stuck in a rut.

My ultimate advice – more so than anything said above – would be to not take it all overwhelmingly seriously. It took me a damn long time to learn that lesson and I still haven’t mastered it – but I am trying. Don’t have regrets. Give it your best shot, and just enjoy it. Don’t ever forget to enjoy it. I’ve heard many successful artists say that their biggest regret was not enjoying the journey enough, and over-stressing.

Remember: the beauty is often in the attempt.

Will you get rejections from publishers who offer you no tips to improve? Almost certainly. Will you face disappointment at a lack of sales from self-publishing and a struggle to get people to take interest? Probably. You’ll always have big obstacles, and it will take a long time to overcome them and actually make anything out of yourself.

But you know what? The number one rule would be to not give up, not get disheartened and never give up your fight for it – if it really is your dream.

After all:


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