Should I Self-publish or Find a Traditional Publisher?

Great question!

When I speak with prospective clients this question "Should I self-publish or find a traditional publisher?" inevitably comes up. My answer is, "Absolutely consider going with a traditional publisher if offered." The benefits of being able to say Random House or Penguin Books is your publisher is a privilege no one should overlook. That said, getting a traditional publisher to take notice of you and your book may be easier said than done.

This quick snapshot of total earnings from most revenue earned over a lifetime to the least earned, is below:

  1. Partner publishing = $16, 470

  2. Hybrid publishing = $8970

  3. Small press = $5250

  4. Self-publishing = $4620

  5. Traditional publishing = $240

Same list less a $3000 investment* for Partner, Hybrid and Small press and a $5000 advance** from Traditional ranked from most total lifetime earnings to least.

  1. *Partner publishing = $13, 470

  2. *Hybrid publishing = $5970

  3. **Traditional publishing = $5240

  4. Self-publishing = $4620

  5. *Small press = $2250

Here is an overview of the different publishing options available and what to expect when you work with them.

Note: Under each type of publisher there is a numbered list. Number 4 is based on the same metric of the average lifetime of 3,000 books sold means you would earn $XX.00, not taking into account any investment or ongoing expenses.

Traditional publishers

  1. Author Investment: zero

  2. Best benefit: Pays an advance, maximum prestige, super cool cover design, cost of promotion is covered by publisher, low time commitment

  3. Any cons? Yeah, you’ll need to pay back your advance before you start receiving fairly low royalties, you’ll need an agent first, and expect a lot of contract signing

  4. If you sold an average lifetime of 3,000 books you would earn $240

If you have a great story, a large following or are an influencer, pitching the big 5 publishers may be the way to go. Remember, unless you are a “Big Deal” you’ll first need to get an agent prior to approaching publishers. If a publisher take an interest in your book you can expect an advance, plenty of deadlines for manuscripts, intense editing, stunning cover design, title tweaking, marketing and all the little details of making a book deal real. It certainly will not cost you anything upfront, which is great and keep in mind it may take a couple years before you are in print. If you have ideas for design and interior illustrations, that’s great but the publishers will probably use their own resources.

Typical royalty payments may be something like this:

  • Hardback edition: 10% of the retail price on the first 5,000 copies; 12.5% for the next 5,000 copies sold, then 15% for all further copies sold. (Source)

  • Paperback: 8% of retail price on the first 150,000 copies sold, then 10% thereafter. (Source)

For reference, if your paperback book retails at $9.99 and you sold 150,000 copies then your royalty (at 8%) would be $12,000* or if you sold an average lifetime of 3,000 books you would earn $240. Keep in mind this number does not represent the cost of your investment or ongoing expenses.

*(0.08 x $9.99) = $.80
(Royalty Rate x List Price) = Royalty amount

The rub comes with the number of books sold on average. Reports say that the average book sales per year is under 300 and over its lifetime the average number is 3,000 books total. It's hard to find solid numbers on this and of course there are always the extraordinary exceptions, but you can see the potential issues here. If an average number of books sold per lifetime is 3,000 then your royalty payment would be $240, or said another way, $12 per year over 20 years. Ouchy! You’ll need to sell a a quarter of a million books to make some real money.

If agents are not engaging with you, you want to earn more on average, or want to get to market quicker don't worry there are other ways to get published.

Small press publishers

  1. Author up-front Investment: Usually there is no upfront fee

  2. Best benefit: Some design input, 50/50 royalty split, you don’t need an agent, and the people care about selling your book

  3. Any cons? Yeah, no advance, some cost for promotion is authors responsibility, author does not own ISBN, and books are printed in bulk and inventory is managed

  4. If you sold an average lifetime of 3,000 books you would earn $5250

Small press publishers that specialize in your niche topic are good ways to get a publishing deal. They will be much more flexible, give you some editorial control, let you weigh in on cover and interior design. Keep in mind that a net 50/50 split is typical plus you may be able to negotiate subsidiary rights. Time to market can be shorter and many small presses will expect you to have your manuscript edited, proofread and ready to go into production. Read about one authors experience with a small press.

For reference, if your paperback book retails at $9.99 and you sold 150,000 copies then your royalty would be $262,500* or if you sold an average lifetime of 3,000 books you would earn $5250. Keep in mind this number does not represent the cost of your investment or ongoing expenses.

*(0.50 x $9.99) = $5.00 - $3.25 = $1.75
(Your Royalty Rate x List Price) = Gross sale – Estimated Bulk Printing Cost = Net Royalty payment

Hybrid publishing

  1. Author up-front Investment: It varies from zero to hundreds of dollars.

  2. Best benefit: More control over design and distribution and higher royalties, less restrictive contract, time commitment to get to market is less

  3. Any cons? Yeah, expect to pay for some services and promotion, you may not own your ISBN

  4. If you sold an average lifetime of 3,000 books you would earn $8970

Another avenue is hybrid publishing. Hybrid publishers should follow a code of ethics, generally follow the methods of small presses, and will assist authors to publish their work. They can provide a publishing imprint, ISBN, copyediting, professional cover and interior book design, and production services for a negotiated fee. In this model the author and the publisher work together to meet the goals of the author. The author has some control of design, distribution, printing, marketing and public relations, and has a publisher on record to help. Hybrid publishers will take a smaller royalty than traditional and small press and for this conversation let’s say they take 25%. Hybrid publishers offer different services so research your options and find the partner that works best for your project.

For reference, if your paperback book retails at $9.99 and you sold 150,000 copies then your royalty income might be $448,875* or if you sold an average lifetime of 3,000 books you would earn $8970. Keep in mind this number does not represent the cost of your investment or ongoing expenses.

*(0.75 x $9.99) = $7.49 - $4.50 = $2.99
(Your Royalty Rate x List Price) = Gross sale – Estimated Printing Costs on Demand = Net Royalty payment

Author self-publishing

  1. Author up-front Investment: It varies from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

  2. Best benefit: Maximum control and royalties plus you can own your ISBN, no exclusive contracts, books on demand

  3. Any cons? Yeah, expect to pay for professional services incurred for production and PR, big time investment leading up to market launch and after

  4. if you sold an average lifetime of 3,000 books you would earn $4620

Author self-publishing comes in many forms and many price points. You’ll need to do your homework based on your genre, skill set, time, and cost.

KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing), which used to be called CreateSpace and is an Amazon company, is an option. From my experience and reading articles it seems some folks love it and others don’t. You’ll need to research this option and see if it is a good fit for you. The exposure is good and keep in mind they do take a 40% standard royalty. I have heard uploading your Word document is easy.


For reference, if your paperback book retails at $9.99 and you sold 150,000 copies then your income would be $225,000* or if you sold an average lifetime of 3,000 books you would earn $4620. Keep in mind this number does not represent the cost of your investment or ongoing expenses.

*Applicable Printing Cost calculation for Amazon: $0.85 (Fixed Cost) + (300 (Page Count) $0.012 (Per Page Cost)) = $4.45 (Printing Cost)

*(0.60 x $9.99) = $5.99- $4.45* = $1.54
(Your Royalty Rate x List Price) = Gross sale – Estimated Printing Costs on Demand = Net Royalty payment

Lulu is another option for self-publishing, especially if you want a hardcase book. There are others too.

Partner publishing

  1. Author up-front Investment: It varies from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

  2. Best benefit: Maximum control and royalties plus you own your ISBN, sign service agreements, not contracts

  3. Any cons? Yeah, expect to pay for professional services incurred for production and PR , big time investment leading up to market launch and after

  4. If you sold an average lifetime of 3,000 books you would earn $16,470

Partner publishing, like Brand & Book, requires the author to have investigated all possible options and is comfortable working in a team environment where decisions are discussed and shared. Because there is a cash investment involved authors will need to have a budget and the mindset to birth a book into the marketplace. Unlike vanity publishing companies who will publish manuscripts in return for money, good partner publishing companies will have guidelines for authors who wish to work with them. Their role as consultants is to provide the best business solutions for your project. Partner publishing is built on relationships, ownership, professionalism, and equity.

For reference, if your paperback book retails at $9.99 and you sold 150,000 copies then your income would be $823,500* or if you sold an average lifetime of 3,000 books you would earn $16,470. Keep in mind this number does not represent the cost of your investment or ongoing expenses.

*(1 x $9.99) = $9.99 - $4.50 = $5.49
(Your Royalty Rate x List Price) = Gross sale – Estimated Printing Costs on Demand = Net Royalty payment

Final thoughts

The difference between author self-publishing, partner publishing and hybrid publishing is a question of skills and time vs. investment cash and royalty. If you have plenty of technical skills, such as layout, design, computer knowledge, resources for artwork, printers, etc and the time to do the work, then self-publishing on your own may be your answer. If you don't have the time, nor skills, but also want to keep maximum royalties then you may want to consider partner publishing. Keep in mind most retailers will not stock your book if produced through Amazon KDP, so it’s a good idea to put your title on Amazon via KDP AND publish with company that offers print on demand and distribution. Also, KDP does not allow for returns which retailers depend on. Here is the KDP Price sheet for September 2018.

And for those interested in traditional publishing, look for literary agents in your genre and be sure you have sufficient klout to impress them with your social media followers (10K+), your website and blog content, and your overall business brand and plan. Many authors mistakenly think that if a traditional publisher agrees to publish their book, the author will not have to hustle and spend time marketing their book. The truth is every author WILL NEED to market their own book according to the goals they have set for themselves. If you are already a “Big Deal” or celebrity your hustle may not be as time consuming, but even big names do book tours.

Brick and mortar retailers like Barnes & Noble will be more likely to order your book if you use a model that has a distribution channel built-in and will allow for returns. Retailers may stock a small quantity of your book if it looks professionally made and they think it can sell. They will often offer a consignment arrangement that will allow them to take a bit of profit as well. 

If you have a story in you, one of these methods will work for you. The good news is you have options! But remember, having your book published is one thing. Making money from your book is another matter completely.

P.S. My examples here are just that, examples of what might be based on my research and experience. Every book project is different.