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"Self-Publishing Vs. Traditional Publishing: A Simple Breakdown at Last!"

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

by: Ned Barnett, Path To Publishing Marketing Companion

Of the 39 books I’ve had published, at least 13 of them were royalty published and ten were self-published (the others were ghost-written books published by my clients). So, I’ve seen both sides, which allows me to give you an overview of what to expect.

Specifically, I’d like to review for you some of the pluses and minuses of working with a traditional royalty publisher versus self-publishing your own books. You may be one of those individuals who thinks self-publishing is too much work, but – after I review each aspect of publishing – I’d like to help you see that there are ways to self-publish that are low-effort and cost-effective.

Traditional Publishing

First, submissions. Some royalty publishers only take submissions from literary agents. If you’re currently working with an agent, that takes away that particular barrier. However, working with an agent who has no previous background in your genre can be hit-or-miss. This doesn’t mean they can’t place your book. It just means it may take some time, which can also be the case with an agent with a background in your genre.When submitting, you’ll want to sell at least two books (two-book deal), and perhaps more. Some publishers might offer you a contract on one, then insist on a right of first refusal (option title) a year or two down the road before they even consider your second book. Your best bet is to publish them both by the same publisher to maximize sales and benefit from the shared brand the two books would have. But two-book deals, while possible, are not as common as they used to be some decades ago, and most publishers would prefer to take a chance on one book rather than two.

Next, distribution. Theoretically, publishers will be able to place books in bookstores, primarily because they (are believed to) agree to allow for the return of books that didn’t sell. That’s one of the unspoken promises made to authors by royalty publishers. However, it’s not true – at least, it’s not always true. Many publishers refuse to accept returns, especially on behalf of relatively unknown or first-time authors. Without that ability to return books, relatively few bookstores will carry those books. In short, when your publisher refuses to allow returns, they are betting against your success rather than for it. So, your agent should try to get a right of return in your contract, but most new authors have relatively little leverage. If a publisher doesn’t want to risk producing an expensive-to-produce four-color process children’s book, then having it returned, you/your agent probably won’t be able to talk them out of it. 

This issue doesn’t come up with self-publishing because it’s 100% up to you to decide if you’ll accept returns. If you want your book in bookstores, you’ll take the risk and accept returns. If you decide against pushing for bookstore acceptance, you can decide on no returns and focus your sales online (Amazon). But at least it would be your choice.

Next, production lead time. I was speaking to an author who just sold her book to a royalty publisher, but that publisher is currently buying manuscripts to be published in the fall of 2021 – that’s two years from now. She has more than 15 other books in print, so timing is not so important to her as it would be to a new author. My experience with royalty publishers tends to be more toward a book being published around 18 months after the contract has been signed, and certainly, for some titles (i.e., those tied to breaking news, for instance), publishers can accelerate publication. But they almost never do it for first books, or for authors with no platform and no track record. So, if you start selling your book to a publisher early in the New Year, you’re looking at publication no sooner than the first quarter of that following year, and more likely, that fall, or even later. 

When your book is scheduled that far out in the future, a change of editorial staff could see your book deal canceled, as the new editor wants to focus on “her” books instead of her predecessor’s books. That happened to me. I had a science fiction novel slated to be published in an anthology, until a new editor pulled the rug out from under me. So I know it can happen, and when it does, there is no recourse but to start over with a new publisher. You can’t even use that experience as an excuse for another publisher to act fast, since who wants a book that was accepted-then-rejected by someone else?  Nobody.

However, a self-published book will be available for sale to consumers POD (Print On Demand) as soon as you submit the book for production to Amazon Kindle Direct and, if you want bookstore and library sales (and you should), as soon as you submit the book for production through Ingram Spark. Of course you have your digital (short print run) and offset (larger print run) printing options as well.

Royalty Payments. In today’s market, smaller publishers – and even some big ones – never pay advances to first-time authors. Just doesn’t happen. Many authors used to live on their advances, writing so many books that the next set of profitable advances kicked in before the royalty payments for earlier books began. That may still apply to Stephen King or John Gresham, but not for the average author. 

What that means is that you won’t see any money until three to six months after the end of the quarter (or half-year) that your book is published. An example: With one of the most recent books I sold to Simon & Schuster, they set up the royalties on a half-year basis. So, for any books sold between January 1 and June 30, you get royalties at the end of the next half-year – on December 31. If your book is published on January 1, 2022, it means you’d see your first royalties on December 31, 2022. That’s a long time to wait, but it’s a realistic time-frame. Yes, some publishers pay quarterly, so, for books sold between January 1, 2022 and March 31, 2022, the royalty check is cut on June 30, 2022. Still a long time to wait, but marginally better.

Another factor to consider is that publishers will give you – generally – in the range of 8-10 percent of gross sales as your royalties. I’ve seen it as low as 6-7 percent and as high as 12-15 percent, so 8-10 percent is an average, not a guarantee. They use the other 90 percent to cover their costs, such as editorial, artwork, production/printing, warehousing, shipping, the cost of sales, returns, etc., plus their own profit. Of that, your agent would take 15% off the top (20% off the top for foreign), as agents work on commission. In some cases, the publisher will pay your agent 100% of the royalties, and once the check clears, the agent will pay you your share. Some publishers will send the agent their portion of royalties and the author theirs.

However, if you self-publish, you control your own costs of production, and don’t generally have to worry about warehousing or shipping. You pay the book producer an agreed-upon fee, and you then split the royalty with whomever sold the book (Amazon, B&N, etc.). So, you get more money per copy, and you get it quicker. Amazon, for instance, currently pays in three months, not six to twelve months (this could change – Amazon changes all the time). But whatever it is, it’s better than how royalty publishers pay.

Publishing. Your book’s rights will be sold to a publisher. If you are a children’s book author who paid someone to do the illustrations prior to submitting your work for publication consideration, the publisher may decide to go with the illustrations you have. This also goes with book covers you may have paid someone to design for your book. However, they may prefer other illustrations – for the cover and inside the book – and you’ll have no say over that. Yes, some superstar children’s book authors do have a say, or even a veto, but that’s never given to first-time authors. I know how important illustrations are to a children’s book author.

An author I know – she’s been a client of mine – had a book produced by a very popular publisher/self-publishing assistance company before I began working with her. One reason she hired me was outrage – the book’s title was spelled wrong and the publisher wanted nearly $1,000 to re-do the book with a correct title – an outrage, indeed. She was one of the authors who later took back her rights and self-published a revised, updated (and correctly-spelled) version of the book.

Promotional Copies. Publishers sometimes offer authors “discounted” books for promotion or direct sales efforts, but if they do, they charge far more than what it would cost to have your book manufactured by a company that does nothing but print and bind books for others. For instance, back in 2004, my late wife and I sold a book to Gateway Publishing, which published it in print and eBook format. When we wanted copies for promotion purposes, their cost-per-book was so high that we actually saved money by ordering them at retail through Amazon. Even with Amazon’s profit margin, we saved significantly over what the publisher charged us for books to distribute to the news media, to reviewers, or to sign-and-sell at author events. I have yet to see a publisher give an author a fair price for this – because they’re not just publishers – each book they sell (no matter who it’s sold to, even you) has to cover their editorial, production, warehousing and other overhead costs.

Marketing. Most publishers will not lift a finger to help you market your book – or if they do, their help will be minimal. For instance, one of my clients had a discount eBook sale on Kindle, with the goal of becoming an Amazon best-selling book and Amazon Best-Selling Author. We succeeded, yet all the publisher did was coordinate with Amazon to ensure that, for the time of our promotions, the book sold for $0.99 instead of the usual Kindle price of $7.99. Other than that, we got nothing – of course, we didn’t expect anything from them, so we weren’t disappointed. But until you’re a legitimately profitable best-seller (for the publisher), no publisher will help with promotions or marketing. So that will remain all up to you.


Self-publishing may seem to be either way too much trouble, or as some authors unfortunately experience, way too unscrupulous – to handle. However, considering all the time and energy and costs an author has to put into self-promotion, I have no doubt that one could self-publish at a reasonable cost. Or you could work with an honest hybrid publisher or self-publishing assistance company, such as Path To Publishing (, who would do what needs to be done professionally, effectively, and at a fair and reasonable cost. As a matter of fact, Path To Publishing is one of very few self-publishing assistance companies that refuses to list cookie-cutter priced packages on their website (learn more about that at

Submissions. There are no submissions with self-publishing – you’re doing this yourself. So send an email submission to yourself, then answer, “YES!” and you’re done.

Distribution. As noted above, you can choose to offer your book POD and sell to bookstores, with a “return” guarantee (otherwise most won’t take your book). You accept the risk of returns, and in exchange, you have access to retailers, bookstores and public libraries, just as do royalty-published books from publishers who allow returns. Of course, as noted above, not all publishers do allow returns – especially for first-time authors with no track record, so in this case, self-publishing distribution is actually better. To gain access to retailers, bookstores, and libraries (which is not the same thing as winding up on their shelves, but it’s an important first step), all you need to do is have your books POD printed (for this market alone) via IngramSpark, a division of Ingram, America’s largest book distributor. This is a clear plus for self-published books over royalty-published books.

Also, you get into personal distribution – the books you sell (autographed) from your website, or those you sell at personal events your marketing team sets up. These you get at cost, and if you’re willing to warehouse some, you can get a price break by printing 250 or 500 or 1,000 at once (through a digital or offset printer), instead of printing and selling them in penny packets. I do not recommend a large inventory to start – there is more risk than reward for you. But for those books you want to sell or distribute for promotion purposes, this is a much better deal than you get with a publisher.

Production Lead Time. When you self-publish, your lead time is cut to nothing. As soon as you’ve sent your book in final format, digitally, to your self-publishing firms (Amazon Kindle Direct for both eBooks and for Amazon POD sales) and IngramSpark for your retailer/bookstore/library sales, the book will be “in-print” and ready to ship, usually within about two weeks – far different than as much as two years into the future with some publishers.

Royalty Payments. Amazon, as noted, pays about three months after sales – this may change (Amazon is notorious for changing everything, all the time, but they’re also the 800-pound gorilla in the market, so what Amazon wants, Amazon gets – and given their near-monopoly status, they are far fairer than they have to be). I’m not sure about IngramSpark’s payment schedule, but their lead-time for payment is not all that long, either. Certainly weeks instead of months or years. Of course, if you direct-sell, you get paid immediately.

Publishing, when self-publishing. When you self-publish, you decide on the design, the format, the type face, the cover, and the illustrations. Nobody has control except you. So, your book should wind up looking just as you imagined it. You also decide if you want POD or if you want an inventory (or some hybrid of the two, where you maintain a personal inventory of 25-50 books for local events, sales, and autographed copies)


Promotion Copies. You decide how many you want, then you pay actual costs. This is far lower than what any publisher will give to you, if only because they have to cover a lot of overhead, while you’re only paying for the actual costs of production. These you can then sell directly, give away as gifts, or use as promotions (giving one to a library purchasing manager, suggesting he buy copies for all branches, or giving to a book club president, suggesting she chooses the book as book of the month for the other book club members to buy or borrow from the library).

Marketing. You will control all marketing – you’ll pay the costs and reap the rewards. But you’ll do that anyway, but in some cases, royalty publishers insist on controlling (or at least approving) promotions, such as the one I described earlier in which earned my client Amazon bestselling status. My client’s publisher was very helpful, but that was the exception, not the rule. And, knowing you’re controlling the marketing (and knowing you’re getting author copies at cost), you’ll be more likely to try new things, such as some of the book promotion programs offered by the IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association), which I recommend strongly.

Compare and contrast. While royalty publishing (once you’ve got the deal) seems easier, giving up your rights to choose the illustrations, for instance, or for undertaking special discount promotions, might be more than you want to give up. Also, you lose all control of your publishing schedule – that’s totally up to the publisher, and even if they “promise” to publish it sooner, they are free to change that decision without your permission – without even telling you in advance.

With self-publishing, you bear all the costs, but you make all the profits. And you do so on your schedule.

Unfortunately, there are far too many authors who get “taken” by services that claim to help self-publishers, but are nothing more than rapacious “vanity press” deals aimed at bilking money out of aspiring writers who “don’t have a clue.” There are many legitimate self-publishing services that provide high quality at very reasonable rates. I know a few, and I know Path To Publishing and CEO, Joylynn, also helps authors in this way, and the services and rates are impeccably honest and fair.

To traditionally publish or self-publish is your choice. However, while I do work with some clients who have been royalty-published satisfactorily, and I’ve done so myself with ten non-fiction books and three Sci-Fi books, I also know that in the best (i.e., most profitable) book deal I ever had – it earned me $113, 000 – I much later found out that my royalties should have been double that, but the cleverly-worded contract (somewhere in the fine print), excluded me from profiting from a reprint, which the publisher negotiated without me. Of course, if you have an agent (or even an attorney), they’ll more than likely help you avoid those pitfalls, but traditional royalty publishers do not look out for their authors – they look out for themselves and their bottom lines.

I hope you’ve read this (I tried to be concise, but there’s a lot here) carefully, and I also hope you’ll take what you’ve read into consideration when considering your path to publishing your literary works. Regardless of which path to publication you choose, educate yourself on the business of writing and publishing. And the best place to do so is at the Path To Publishing "Act Like an Author, Think Like a Business" 2020 Conference being held September 17th-19th in Las Vegas, Nevada. The conference doubles as a DIY MBA in Publishing Program. So not only will you learn everything there is to know about publishing, you'll also  have the opportunity to master it!

You can get more information now by visiting There are only 200 seats available. Don't risk losing yours.

In a writing and promotion career spanning more than four decades, Ned Barnett has been an award-winning marketing and promotion expert who has also written and published 38 books, as well as several screenplays that were profitably optioned in 1994. His earnings ranked him among the top 97 percent of working screenwriters. Among his three dozen published books are 15 ghostwritten books. In addition to being a widely-published author, Barnett serves as a book promoter (Barnett Marketing Communications, and was the senior agent at Barnett Literary Agency for more than a decade. Meet Ned at the "Act Like an Author, Think Like a Business" 2020 Conference where he is one of the breakout session presenters.


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