Traditional vs. Indie Publishing: The Bottom Line

Leslie Jones' Avatarby Leslie Jones

Which route should a serious writer take toward publication? Which path is better? Which is faster, pays more, garners more prestige? The great debate of traditional publishing versus the self-publishing path rages on. The bias of popular opinion has swung alarmingly toward Indie publishing, to the point that some Indie authors view traditionally-published colleagues with disdain. The traditional route has even been described as the legacy process, meaning that it’s an ineffective holdover of past methods. As the discourse continues, however, the actual process of each path seems to get lost in the debate. Bottom line, what’s the difference? What are the pros and cons?

Traditional publishing:

  1. This generally requires an agent. The prospective author (you) queries and then signs with an agent, who then peddles your book to major publishing houses. Assuming the book is salable, you sign a contract with the Big 5 (Hachette, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster), or an imprint of the Big 5.
  2. The publishing house assigns you an editor, who helps you polish your story to a high gloss. She’ll identify pacing issues; plot holes or inconsistencies; or problems with character, setting or dialogue. She examines goal, motivation, and conflict.
  3. A copyeditor looks the book over for grammar, punctuation, and spelling mistakes, and verifies facts and statistics.
  4. The art department does the layout, designs the outer and inner covers, and writes the verbiage for the back of the book.
  5. The marketing department will assign you a publicist, who will help you navigate some of the marketing waters.
  6. The publishing house then prints, markets, distributes and warehouses your book for you.

Indie, small-press, and digital-only publishing:

  1. Does not generally require an agent.
  2. You are responsible for self-editing or hiring an editor.
  3. You are responsible for verifying your facts and correcting your own grammar, or hiring a copyeditor.
  4. You are responsible for creating your own cover art, or hiring a graphic artist. Similarly, you format your own books for digital publication, and write your back cover blurb.
  5. You are solely responsible for marketing and distribution, or for hiring a publicist.

So what are the pros and cons of each?


  1. Pro: The publishing house takes all the risks.
  2. Pro: You incur no out of pocket expenses.
  3. Pro: You have professional editors, copy editors, graphic artists, photographers, publicists, and distribution networks at your disposal.
  4. Pro: Traditional publishers can reach certain markets more easily. Brick-and-mortar bookstore and library buyers still rely heavily on recommendations from big publishing houses.
  5. Pro: You’ll get marketing help from your publisher. Your publicist will send your book to trade reviewers, place them in catalogs, and maybe even pay to have your books up on the front table and Barnes & Noble. You might be sent on a book tour (if your name is James Patterson) or get a news spot or magazine ad.
  6. Pro: There is still a level of prestige associated with being published with a Big 5 house.
  7. Con: Each day, agents and publishers receive a staggering number of queries in their slush piles. These queries will probably be read by an intern or assistant rather than the agent or editor. Fewer than 1% of authors seeking the traditional route are successful.
  8. Con: Royalty rates are low compared to Indie royalty rates. A trade paperback averages a 7.5% royalty rate from the Big 5; it averages 35% for Indie authors. For digital copies, the disparity is even bigger: 25% for traditional, 70% for Indie.
  9. Con: You sell various creative rights to the publisher; e.g., physical and ebooks, audio, movie or foreign rights. Sometimes it can be a struggle to have these rights returned to you later on.


  1. Pro: You don’t have to wait for an agent or editor. 100% of authors who wish to self-publish may do so.
  2. Pro: You have total control of your book. Voice, style, and storytelling remain exactly as you wish.
  3. Pro: You have total control of your product, including price, marketing, and design. The cover will look exactly the way you envisioned it, as will the fonts, graphics, and back cover copy.
  4. Pro: Royalty rates are much higher than in traditional publishing. See #4 above.
  5. Pro: You retain all rights to your books, which means you have control over physical, ebook, audio, movie and foreign rights.
  6. Pro: You can reach markets now that were closed to you only a few years ago, thanks to Internet commerce and the comparatively low cost of book production nowadays. You can publish internationally without a lot of inventory.
  7. Con: You take all the risks.
  8. Con: You incur all the expenses. Some of these may include freelance editors; graphic artists or stock photo purchases; cover design; ebook formatting; marketing; and purchasing ISBNs, business licenses, or physical books to sell.
  9. Con: You have to do all the rights work yourself. If you want an audio book, you have to find and hire voice actors, etc. to make that happen. If you want a Russian version, you must find a professional and pay to have it translated.
  10. Con: You’re responsible for all marketing. Ad space, paid reviews, book tours, etc, all incur costs.
  11. Con: All revisions, edits, proofreading, graphic design, marketing, distribution, and storage are solely up to you.
  12. Con: With over a million books a year now being self-published, it’s difficult to make your book stand out from the crowd.
  13. Con: As a serious, career-minded professional, you get lumped in with every impatient hack who throws a sub-standard book up on Amazon.

Clearly, this is a personal decision each author must make. Before you choose one side or the other, gather all the facts, and go in the direction that best suits your style and personality.


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