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Traditional Publishing Versus Self-Publishing: Which is Better to Spread Your Ideas?

Posted by on May 4, 2013 | No Comments

So you want to see your ideas in print, huh?

Years ago, you pretty much needed to go through a traditional publishing house. Self-publishing, while theoretically possible, required a ton of difficult work. A prospective writer would have to recruit editors, typesetters, graphic designers, and printers to produce the book. Once produced, the writer then had to tackle distribution and marketing. It was a long, hard process that wasn’t especially effective.

The rise of technology has changed the landscape. With each passing month, new developments have radically altered the landscape. The Internet and open source movement have decentralized the publishing industry. Traditional publishers are no longer gatekeepers to the spreading of ideas via the printed word. Everything they once did can now be done faster, easier, and cheaper via self-publishing… and that trend is rapidly advancing.

When I self-published the original version of The Barefoot Running Book, it was a fairly involved process. I had to contract out a lot of the tasks, which ended up costing a fair amount of money. The entire production also took several months. Even then, the distribution was a very difficult hurdle to clear. The only chance the book had of widespread distribution was to use a traditional publisher, which happened eventually.

When I published the Squirrel Wipe book, the process was greatly simplified. I was able to produce and distribute the book without spending anything. The process was also ridiculously fast. I was able to produce and sell a good quality ebook and dead tree book in about three weeks. Had I been more organized, I probably could have done it in about two.

Pros and Cons

Both self-publishing and traditional publishing have advantages and disadvantages. Here’s a quick run-down of each:

Traditional Publishing Pros

  • Some degree of prestige
  • Publisher guides author through the book creation process
  • Widespread distribution potential
  • Advance money paid, well, in advance

Traditional Publishing Cons

  • Difficult to get a book deal, especially for new authors
  • Publisher owns the book; no control over distribution or other rights
  • Royalties suck
  • Very slow process (most books take a year or more to publish)
  • Limited or no marketing assistance given to authors unless the book is REALLY successful

Self-Publishing Pros

  • MUCH more financially rewarding
  • You retain all rights to the book
  • Incredibly fast process, which dramatically improves responsiveness to market forces
  • Opportunity to learn facets of the intellectual idea industry besides just writing

Self-Publishing Cons

  • May require more work including learning new technologies
  • Author assumes all risks, though book production can be done for nothing (hence no risk)
  • Literary snobs may look down on you

Which Route to Take?

The choice seems pretty obvious, but it really depends on your goals. Do you want to spread your ideas or do you want the sense of legitimacy that comes from being a “published author?” The choice was pretty easy for me, but I know a handful of English-types (in the academic sense) that seem to be more concerned about validating their education by gaining the approval of the big publishing houses. If that’s the case, ignore this post and go back to those query letters.

If the goal is to spread ideas, self-publishing is usually more financially-advantageous, faster, possibly easier, and allows you to retain the rights to your work. As time passes, the pendulum seems to be swinging farther from traditional publishing and closer to self-publishing.

Traditional publishing isn’t terrible. My experience was generally positive, though it was a lot of work for little payoff. I got to work with some talented editors, learned about and improved my own writing skills, and now get to add “published author” next to “lumber handler” and “grocery bagger” on my resume. It was fun to experience, but definitely was not the life-changing event many think it will be.

Ironically, it was my success with self-publishing that led to getting an agent and a book deal from the big publishing house.

I have several friends that have self-published, including Vanessa Rodriguez’s The Summit Seeker (review coming soon) and Pete Kemme’s Witness Tampering and The Low-Cost Gym. I also have friends that have went the traditional publisher route and decided to self-publish future projects.

Self-Publishing Tools?

If you decide to self-publish, what tools are needed? Writers need cutting-edge technology, right? A new Macbook Pro? The latest edition of Photoshop? A Starbucks?


You need a basic laptop and an Internet connection. Pretty much anything will do. I do almost all of my writing on this setup:

crappy ass laptop

It’s a three-year old Acer laptop (cost $250 new) with a cracked screen and no hard drive running Ubuntu Linux off a live CD. I do most of the writing at the “dining room” table in our RV. Sometimes I go outside to the picnic table.

What tools are available ?

I lean heavily toward free tools to minimize risk. There’s no pressure to recoup any production costs. Here’s the run-down of the stuff I use:

Writing (traditionally done with Microsoft Word, cost = $85-180):

Editing (traditionally done by editing services, at around $1-4 per page):

  • Friends- the route I took. Ask for volunteers, ask a group to quickly edit (not thorough.) Afterward, combine the collective edits.
  • Online grammar editors, such as– Most allow you to edit one section or chapter at a time, though they won’t offer big-picture editing issues like logical sequencing, character development, etc. Can be useful when combined with friends.

Publishing ebooks (can be done by a service at around $200-500 per book):

  • Calibre– This tool is absolutely amazing. It lets you create ebooks in a variety of formats, including .pdf, .epub, and .mobi. 

Selling ebooks

  • Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing
  • e-Junkie– allows you to sell ebooks from your own sites (you keep 100% of the profit)
  • PubIt! (soon-to-be Nook Press)- Barnes and Noble
  • iTunes- I don’t use this because Apple requires setup to be done with a Mac. I have principles, damn it!
  • There are quite a few other ebook sales sites in existence, but these seem to be the most profitable.

Producing and selling dead tree books. There’s always been self-publishing options known as “vanity presses” that would basically produce and print books for a price, then take a really big chunk of any profits. This was basically a scam preying on those that desperately wanted to see their name in print. Over the years, some legitimate options have been developed. By far the best of the best is…

  • CreateSpace– This Amazon subsidiary is a print-on-demand operation that allows you to upload a formatted manuscript, make necessary changes, then sell the book via Amazon. They offer tons of paid editing, formatting, and design options, but all the work can be done for free with a little practice. For an additional $25 CreateSpace will include the book in a catalog that allows any book retailer to buy copies. This has been the single biggest advance between The Barefoot Running Book and the Squirrel Wipe book. 

Marketing. Marketing via the Internet is exceedingly effective. My formula has been pretty simple. I do some writing to attract like-minded people, then write something they may be interested in purchasing. There are thousands of effective online tools, but I rely mostly on these two:

  • Blogs– BRU, Robillard Adventures, and a gaggle of blogs make up the brunt of my audience-building efforts. My formula is easy to follow: write quality content that either educates, inspires, or entertains. People will share it and search engines love it. My “paid” blogs cost about $70/ year to operate; the blogs are free.
  • Facebook, Twitter, and other social media– All give us the opportunity to connect. That connectedness is a much more focused and inexpensive marketing tool than TV commercials, magazine articles, or any other traditional marketing and advertising tools.

Final Thoughts

If you want to publish a book, the self-publishing option is becoming increasingly more appealing from every angle. Is it right for you? That’s a decision only you can make. Do some research before spending countless hours querying agents and publishers. You won’t be disappointed.

Writers- what are your thoughts? Anyone have experience with either traditional or self-publishing? Share in the comments section!



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