The Publishing Triangle: Traditional, Indie, and Self

January 11, 2022 6 min read

By Author Wren Handman

When it comes to writing a book, it sometimes feels like the hardest part comes after you type the words ‘The End.’ The writing process is hard, yes, but it’s also creatively fulfilling. You’ve accomplished something amazing! You’ve turned a collection of ideas into a cohesive narrative. You’vewritten a book.

Now what?

To get your book into the hands of readers, you’re going to have to publish it. But thanks to modern technology and an ever-changing publishing industry, the question of how to publish your book isn’t as easy as it once was. In fact, you have three choices for how to put out your book: traditional, indie, and self-publishing.

The Three Arms of the Triangle

1. Traditional Publishing

Traditional publishers have existed since the dawn of the novel. They take on the bulk of the marketing and publicity for your book, and, in exchange, they take a large percentage of the money your book earns.

They have good distribution through brick-and-mortar bookstores as well as online.

With some authors they will give you an ‘advance,’ which is money that they give you up front, but you then earn back through book sales.

Traditional publishing is very competitive, but brings a lot of cache.

2. Indie Publishing

Indie publishers, also called small press publishers, are professional organizations that publish fewer books each year than traditional book publishers.

They generally have much smaller marketing and publication budgets than their large counterparts, which means that a lot of the promotion of their books falls to individual authors.

Indie presses often don’t have as robust a distribution system: they likely sell e-books in all of the online markets, but their paperback publishing is likely on demand, through Ingram or Amazon, which makes getting into bookstores more difficult.

3. Self-Publishing

There are scores of platforms that help writers self-publish their books, and even more that allow writers to do it themselves, without any hand-holding.

Self-publishing means that there are no gatekeepers deciding whether or not to pick up your work. It also means that you’re entirely on your own for marketing and publicizing that work.

Getting into bookstores as a self-published author is very difficult, and some press won’t cover self-published work. But your royalties are all yours.

Each of these paths have pros and cons, and each will suit different authors depending on your goals, the book you’ve written, and where you hope to take your project. So let’s dive deeper into each part of the triangle.

Traditional Publishing

Royalties: 10%
Marketing and Promotion:In-house team
Barrier to entry:Agent required

Many authors see traditional publishing as the Holy Grail of being an author. After all, who wouldn’t want a three book deal with a six-figure advance? But like any path to publishing, traditional markets have pros and cons.

Pros

Traditional publishers are well-established, and that brings a lot of checks to the pro column. They often provide large monetary advances, and they don’t expect authors to pay a lot of their own money on marketing and publicity (though you will be expected to attend signings, be active on social media, and generally help promote your book).

They have great distribution, which helps get your books into the hands of your readers, and they handle cover design and layout, making sure your book is beautiful and error-free. 

Cons

Traditional publishers don’t accept unsolicited submissions. That means that you can’t just send your book to them. First, you have to find an agent.

Finding an agent can be difficult, and not all agents are created equal—just because you land an agent doesn’t mean they’ll be able to sell your book to a traditional publisher.

As well, large publishers are doing a lot for your book, but they charge for those services. Most contractors will see publishers taking 90% of your book sales, and leaving you with only 10%. And you’re giving another 10% of that slice to your agent.

Indie Publishing

Royalties:20-30%
Marketing and Promotion:Small in-house team, helped by you
Barrier to entry:Competitive release schedules

Indie publishing is the halfway point between traditional and self-publishing options. A small press can help you establish yourself as a writer, but they’re going to need some of your muscle along the way.

Pros

A small press will provide a much more personalized experience than you get with a traditional publisher. You’ll know the whole team, and you’ll be involved in decision-making. Small presses often have loyal fan followings, so the press will be able to help market your book.

Because the marketing team is smaller and they’re not spending as much of their own money on your book, you get to take home a greater percentage of what your book earns. And though small presses are still competitive, you don’t need an agent to submit to most of them. 

Cons

Small presses simply aren’t as established as the bigger companies. That means that you have to do your research before you submit to one! There are a lot of ‘vanity presses’ that will claim to be a small press, but will actually charge you for services like editing or cover design.

Buyer beware! If your publisherever asks you for money, they are not a small press.

More on vanity presses under self-publishing.

Want to learn how to become a freelance writer? Book a 1-on-1 consultation with Freelance Writer Mike Pietrzak.

You also need to have a good handle on marketing with a small press, because they can’t do as much to support your book. It will be up to you to help find readers and make sure your book is a success.

Self-Publishing

Royalties:70-100%
Marketing and Promotion:Self-run
Barrier to entry:Standing out

Self-publishing has been getting a lot of attention over the last decade, in large part to success stories of authors making half a million dollars a year or more from their catalogue of books. But is it that easy for everyone? Of course not.

Pros

You have complete control of your manuscript, your story, and your words. You get to design the cover, pick your editor, and release your book without gatekeepers telling you whether or not it’s good. Let the readers decide!

Note that some self-publishing platforms, like Amazon, take a large percent of your book sales, while others are entirely free (for instance, you can sell ebooks directly from your website and keep every penny you earn). In most cases, you can self-publish on multiple platforms, to reach as many readers as possible.

Cons

You have completely control of your manuscript, your story, and your words! Okay, that’s a little facetious, but it’s true.

When you’re self-publishing, you’re in it entirely on your own.

You have to design, market, and sell your book. If you’re a graphic designer, great! If not, you’re going to be paying someone for all the services that your publishers are taking a percentage to handle, and that means you need access to money up front.

Be prepared to buy a professional book cover, pay an editor and a proofreader, and spend a lot of time marketing.

A note on vanity presses

There are services that will charge you money in order to help you self-publish your book. This can be a great option if you have a lot of capital up front, aren’t tech savvy, and are confident that you have a market for your book.

But everything a vanity press does for you, you can do cheaper by doing your own research.

A cover designer, layout artist, and editor are going to cost you a lot less individually than a vanity press will charge you for the same services.

So, if you go this route, make sure you know why you’re doing it. Maybe you just don’t have the time to do it all yourself, and that’s okay!

Make Your Pick

Now that you have the information on each kind of publishing, you have to decide which is right for you.

If you have the time to submit to agents and go for the traditional publisher, it’s a great option. If you want more control over how your book is presented, indie publishing is the right fit for you. If you have a strong fan base and connections, and are confident you can sell your book, you should consider self-publishing.

Whichever path you choose, make sure that your manuscript is in great shape before you start thinking about publication. You only get one chance to put your book out into the world—so do it looking your best

Want to learn how to become a freelance writer? Book a 1-on-1 consultation with Freelance Writer Mike Pietrzak.

About The Author

Wren Handman is a novelist and screenwriter from Vancouver, Canada. She writes a wide range of stories, from science fiction (Wire Wings) to young adult paranormal (In Restless Dreams, I Walk Alone).

All of her stories blend the magical with the everyday—probably because she secretly wishes magic were real. You can find Wren spending way too much time on Facebook or Twitter.

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