Should I Self-Publish Instead Of Traditionally Publish?

Many authors wonder: should I self-publish? In this article, best-selling indie author Mark O’Neill offers his take.

They say everyone has a book in them. Still, for many people, the idea of hiring a literary agent and hawking their precious manuscript or book proposal to countless publishers doesn’t hold much appeal.

After all, with the increasing competition out there, traditional publishers can afford to be picky about who they take on. Also, do you want your hard work sitting at the bottom of a publisher’s “slush pile” never to be read or seen by human eyes again?

That’s why self-publishing has started to become much more appealing to the first-time authors. By being your own publisher, you’re cutting out the middle-man and running the show all by yourself. 

Once you know how to write a book, you’ve complete creative control over your work, from the cover design to marketing, distribution, and making a print book. 

Of course, it’s a lot more work doing things by yourself, but it’s definitely more rewarding having all possible publishing options open to you. Then, for any parts you don’t want to do, there’s always an expert out there who will do it for you for a fee.

I’ve been self-publishing since 2017 when, on a whim, I decided to start writing my own novels. Seventeen books in, it’s been a long hard road, with lots of ups and downs.

But I don’t regret for a moment not taking a traditional publishing deal. Once I had my first book in my hands, I knew it wouldn’t ever be a New York Times bestseller, but it was still all my work. That was an amazing feeling that can never be beaten. 

The 6 Questions You Need To Ask Yourself About Self-Publishing Your Work

Should I self-publish instead of traditionally publish

When I first started on this journey, I had a considerable number of questions.

Luckily, I had signed up for an online course which gave me access to a very supportive online community of other new authors. But if you don’t have that yourself, you can rely on me to help you navigate some of the pitfalls you’re initially likely to encounter.

1. What Is The Difference Between Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing?

When choosing between traditional publishing and self-publishing, people will say things like, “why should I do it all myself? A traditional publisher will do all the heavy lifting and front all the up-front costs. I’ll even get an advance!”. I should know — I had this conversation in my head myself.

But here’s the thing. First of all, that advance is likely only going to be a couple of thousand dollars — at most. And that’s an advance on your theoretical royalties. If you don’t sell enough books to recoup the advance, you’ll never see another penny ever again.

And when you sign the contract with a traditional publisher and accept the advance, you’re signing away all your legal rights to your work. That’s right — your book now belongs to the publisher. If the book flops, you can’t take it elsewhere. Theoretically, it’s possible to buy back your rights, but only if the publisher agrees and you have the money.

Traditional publishers also call the shots on the book’s marketing, including questions about pricing and whether there should be foreign translations and audiobook versions. In other words, your opinion on these matters is not really worth a lot.

But if you’re self-publishing? Then you’re the boss. You call the shots.

2. Do I Have The Money To Fund My Costs?

Like every entrepreneur, you’re going to need start-up money to fund the costs of publishing. Some people put it on their credit card, but I’d recommend not doing that if you can avoid it.

You’d just worry about the interest rate. Try and dip into your savings instead. If you do things right, the higher royalty rate offered by Amazon Kindle will recoup your money in book sales in no time at all.

You’re going to need money for proofreading, a book cover designer, an editor, proper eBook formatting software, and the big one — marketing and promotion costs. This can be anything from Facebook and Amazon ads to getting professional-looking graphics made.

It can be scary spending an amount of money on something with such an uncertain outcome, but everything in life comes with a certain amount of risk. That’s what makes it so much fun.

3. Do I Have The Time and Inclination To Learn New Skills?

Should I self-publish?
Set yourself up on retailers’ publishing platforms whether Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble

Becoming your own self-publisher is definitely a learning curve, as there’s so much on a list to remember and learn. Setting yourself up on retailers’ publishing platforms, whether Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or one of the others, takes a lot of time.

Then you have to design your website, figure out how Facebook, Bookbub, and Amazon ads work, learn about book cover templates … the learning just never stops. Some people enjoy this kind of thing, but if you’re working a day job, have kids, or other commitments, the idea of sitting down and learning the intricacies of pay-per-click marketing might not be so appealing. 

Me? I’m lazy. I outsource most of it. I tell myself I’m supporting other freelancer businesses by sending them work.

4. Do I Have What It Takes To Network and Hob-Nob With Other Authors?

Here’s the thing about me — I’m a huge introvert. I detest social gatherings and putting myself “out there.” So the thought of online meetings, interviews, book readings, live streaming on Facebook, and the multitude of other things required just freaks me out and exhausts me.

But if you’re a self-publisher, you’re also a marketing department of one. There’s no publicist out there doing all the hard work for you. It’s just you. And if you drop the ball on marketing and promotion, your book will sink faster than a rock.

So you have to ask yourself, can you temporarily make yourself an extrovert and jump right into social events to promote your work? Potential readers will want to meet the author after all. It’s not as easy as it may look, so you need to really think about this one.

5. Can I Keep Up The Pace and Bring Out a New Book Every Six Months or So?

One of the benefits of self-publishing is that you can dictate the pace of your publication schedule. Traditional publishers commonly only allow their authors to publish one book a year. As an indie author, you can rip up that rule book and publish it whenever you want.

The cold reality, though, is that unless you bring out a consistent new piece of work within, say, six months, your momentum is going to slow down to a snail’s pace. As self-publishing heats up, so does your competition.

Readers are spoilt for choice when they look for something to read. If you take too long, you’ll get left behind and eventually forgotten.

So can you keep up the pace without burning out and get your next book published?

6. Do I Have a Skin Thick Enough To Handle Criticism?

This is something that would also apply to you if you were a traditionally published author. But it’s also worth mentioning here before you head down the self-publishing route.

When I brought out my first book, I was so proud. It was my baby, and nobody could spoil my mood. That was until I got my first negative feedback on Amazon — and trust me, it was cruel. 

Needless to say, I was gutted and tempted to throw in the towel right there and then. But then I was reminded by an author friend to grow thicker skin. The essence of what they said was, “who wrote a book? You or them? That’s right, you did. Could they do any better? Probably not. At least you did it instead of endlessly talking about doing it.”

What I’ve learned is that sensitive people don’t survive as an author. So you either have to take the criticism on the chin or make a policy of never reading reviews. Eventually, I chose never to read the reviews — and my life is better for it.

Final Word on Should I self-publish

Self-Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Look, I get it; you want your book to be in bookstores. You want to be feted at literary festivals and be on TV. Maybe you even want to be famous. Who doesn’t? But with advances in self-publishing, traditional publishing houses are not all they’re cracked up to be anymore.

So instead of putting your destiny in other people’s hands, why not put it in yours instead? With Amazon KDP, social media, and hard work, you can maintain complete creative control. Go forth and create.

Want to learn more? Read our guide to the cost of self-publishing.

  • Mark has been a freelance technology writer since 2004 when he wrote a regular eBay column for AuctionBytes (now renamed eCommerceBytes). He also contributed articles to the now-defunct Bookologist, Google Tutor, and a few other sites now lost to time (although you could probably find them on the Wayback Machine). Then came a couple of years of soul-destroying English teaching work before MakeUseOf asked him in 2007 to become the managing editor.