Updated: Dec 17, 2021
Deciding whether to self-publish or traditionally publish can be difficult. Both of these routes have pros and cons, and it's worth thinking about which one suits you best before you jump into one or the other.
First, ask yourself why you want to publish. Do you want to be the next Julie Murphy or NK Jemisin? Do you want to publish a memoir only for your family and friends? The purpose of your writing and the audience of your work will help determine what publishing journey fits you and your goals.
If you want other people to manage the nitty gritty aspects of the publishing process, traditional publishing could be for you. Be warned, though, that getting into traditional publishing is not easy.
The first step to publishing traditionally is to get your manuscript into top shape. Send it to beta readers then to professional editors to make sure the biggest story flaws are worked out and the writing is tightened up. When your manuscript is polished, the next step is to start querying agents.
When you query an agent, make sure your query is personalized to get their attention. You will need to query multiple agents to increase your chances of finding one who will accept your manuscript. Don't be discouraged if you don't hear a reply right away or if you receive a rejection; most agents get up to 100 emails or more every week, and they can't read through all of them immediately. If you get rejected, pick yourself up and keep querying.
To put things in perspective, some of the most well-known books out there faced multiple rejections. Kathryn Stockett's The Help was rejected 60 times, and Stephen King's Carrie was rejected 30 times. It's only once you've received 100-or-so rejections that you might need to rethink your story and/or writing. Making sure your manuscript is polished before sending it out will increase your chances of acceptance.
Once an agent agrees to represent you, they will send your manuscript to publishers. Large publishing companies will not accept manuscripts directly from the author; for example, you will need an agent if you want to get into Penguin or HarperCollins.
If you want to send your manuscript to publishers yourself, you will need to find small presses that accept unsolicited manuscripts. You can find these online or by going to local literary festivals. Make sure you send your manuscripts to presses that publish in your genre, and follow their submission guidelines.
Traditional publishing can take months or years to get into, but it can be worth it.
There are many reasons to choose self-publishing over traditional publishing: you are only publishing for people you know, you do not want to find an agent, or you want complete control of the publishing process. Whatever your reason, there are many different ways to self-publish, and the route you pick here could determine your level of success.
Ultimately, self-publishing is starting a business, so you need to see yourself as a business owner as well as an author.
With self-publishing, you control what your book looks like and where it is sold. You are in charge of getting a cover designed, figuring out your format, sending it for multiple rounds of editing, deciding how many copies to print and who prints them, contacting stores to sell them, etc. This is a plus for many people because they want full control of their work. If this does not appeal to you, you may want to look into traditional publishing.
There are some companies out there who will help you through the publishing process, but they often charge much more than you would pay if you hired individuals to manage different portions of the process. These are called vanity presses. My advice is to stay far away from these; it may be more work to go through the self-publishing process on your own, but it will probably save you money.
Many of these companies take advantage of authors and provide sub-par products. Before you agree to work with a vanity press, read over the Writer Beware pages on the SFWA.
Some of my clients have chosen to self-publish exclusively through Amazon KU. This could be a good option for you if your audience reads mostly e-books.
Another way to self-publish is to publish directly to a variety of vendors or to use a distribution platform like IngramSpark or Draft2Digital. If you go wide, you have more options of where to market and sell your books. You can put them on Amazon, of course, but you can also sell them in bookstores or directly from your own website. If you'd like to go wide, I recommend joining the Alliance of Independent Authors and the Wide for the Win Facebook group to find out more.
When it comes to self-publishing, ask other self-published authors about their experience to see what you would like to do. There are some companies that are not vanity presses that will help you through the process, but you need to do your research. Make sure you are comfortable with self-publishing and understand what you are getting yourself into.
To save you the trouble of finding resources, I have compiled lists of Writing and Publishing Resources for you!
If you already have a book published, let me know which publishing route you took and what you thought of it. I'd love to hear your story!