Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

If you’re somewhat interested in self-publishing, odds are that you’ve read John Locke’s How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months! Of course, odds are that you’ve also read about the real “secret” behind his success as a self-publisher.

But what really upset me was his genuine belief that he’s dealt some kind of deadly blow to traditional publishing, or that people are tools who should be used for marketing purposes. You know, talking monkeys with credit cards glued to their backs.

He also used this condescending tone when he referenced William Shakespeare at one point (he called him Billie.) He even implied that he was selling more than Shakespeare. Sadly, he’s not. Not even by a long margin. And he’s not nearly as famous as Shakespeare is.

I get it though. Sometimes people throw words without thinking too much. It happens. But, well, he said Shakespeare wrote plays, not books. He meant novels instead of books, I suppose, but that’s not the problem.

Well, first of all, Shakespeare is the third best known word in the world. Not author, not play writer, no, WORD. There are people in this world who haven’t heard about McDonald’s, but have heard about Shakespeare. Interesting. Then there are over 600 adaptations from his works, but that’s another thing.

So, yeah, John Locke is a brand now; he’s selling a lot of books(or at least used to), but he’s only marginally famous. Here in Romania no one has heard of him. Actually, there are some friends who don’t know what Amazon is. But they all heard about Shakespeare.

Ok, I get that he’s trying to make a point. He’s got something against traditional publishing. And it’s his right to do whatever he wants and be at war with whoever he wants, but let’s not make ridiculous assumptions. Publishing houses still make a lot of money, still manage to sell a lot of books, and there’s still a demand for printed books.

Fifty Shades of Grey would never sell so many books if it weren’t traditionally published. In fact, even though it’s constantly being referenced as being a self-publishing success, Fifty Shades of Grey started selling after it was traditionally published.

And then, if we think about the fact that in Europe people are just now discovering the idea behind Kindle, so it will take another few years before the market will resemble the one in the US. But there’s one more thing. There are people who like to read printed books, and people who will publish traditionally, and there will always be publishers. Small or big, it doesn’t matter, but there will be a certain editorial etiquette attached to the books said publishers will choose to sell.

This is not a war.

I like self-publishing. A lot. It’s the sole reason I can do what I do from a shabby neighborhood in Constanta, Romania. It’s also a great option for those who have the time, skill, and resources to market the books themselves. I’ve said it more than once: “self-publishing isn’t for everyone.”

Truth be told, I’d like for both of these options to co-exist. And there’s no reason why this can’t happen. In fact, I’m pretty sure that one does not exclude the other. Writers should be able to choose the path they pursue.

It’s really as simple as that.

Publishing houses are going to change their policies. Agents are going to change the way they treat writers. Either that or they’ll face a very slow death.

Self-publishing is already a viable alternative to traditional publishing. So right now, as more and more writers are choosing this route, they are doing so not because they secretly wish to attract enough attention from publishers (of course, I’m not saying that there aren’t some who do wish that), but because they want to be treated fairly — they want to be viewed as partners, to have a say in the way their books are marketed and presented to readers.

If there’s something that self-publishing is going to change in the near future is the fact that it’s going to force publishers to change their policies towards writers.

82 thoughts on “Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

  1. Pingback: Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing | I WIN

  2. I was irritated when I heard about how John Locke purchased batches of reviews (by the hundreds!) for his books. That just seems so unethical to me, even though I'm sure traditional publishers do something similar to get attention for new releases. Still, though, I lost a lot of the respect I had for him as a successful self-publisher when I heard of that fact, and I am now even LESS likely to read his work. You raise some good points though, Cristian, and I suppose I've taken such a negative viewpoint on traditional publishing over the last few months but in truth, they are not going anywhere anytime soon.


  3. I so agree with you, Christian, well written post as usual! Today is a big day for me, because my book got one step closer to reality and was sent to the final priting, Being a debutant and writing poems, I'm proud to be a part of a publishing house, I need all the help I can get. Lyrics don't sell much here in Norway, (or any place?) and I think I need the system that the publishing house can provide. Never the less, I've been pre-selling my book using facebook primarily, and I've sold 250 books before it went to print. I've learned so much from reading your blog, and I'm so grateful for all the sound advices you provide here. My book is in Norwegian, if not I would have offered you one :-) The title is "3898 ord om livet" in English this would be "3898 words of life" :-)


  4. What I like about self-publishing is that people who are willing to run their own writing business can do so. I also like it for the same reason I love and respect people who self-produce in music: it puts the profits in the hands of the people creating the works, and not the hands of the publisher. I see a serious market for a hybrid publishing world… where authors can choose advertising levels and editing packages for a set price (either percent profit or flat rate), and the ability to open a book to wider markets as it gains momentum. I also see the potential for traditional publishing houses to be more open to new authors and offer up more profit share to established clients. For instance, if I had J.K. Rowling's success and income, I'd kick my publisher to the curb and run my own show unless I thought I was really getting my money's worth. LOL


  5. You know, by today's standards, Shakespeare would be considered self-published–he didn't have an editor or a publisher–he wrote for a theatrical company in which he was a partner, and his plays were hand copied and distributed to the cast. To the best of my knowledge his work was never collected and printed in his lifetime.


  6. And you know what… I thought "What has he got against John Locke? The poor guy's been dead since 1704…" Then I realised you weren't talking about the philosopher. So the ebook guy is not only not the most famous author, he's not even the most famous John Locke.

    I agree; from a position of complete ignorance, I can't see why the publishing industry should disappear any more than the music industry has. It will have to change, of course, but survival is not in doubt.

    A publishing house is presumably a place where lives all the expertise necessary to turn someone's story (or whatever) into a polished final product. Like anything else – you can do it yourself, or you can pay a professional (or have the professional offer to take you on as a client).

    But it will be interesting to see where the equilibrium settles.


  7. Completely agree with whatever you said. I'm still learning the ropes of this business but what I've found from personal experience is that finding an agent is just so darn tough and the wait is just so arduous, that to be able to get your work out there at the click of a button, sounds just soo, sooo tempting!!


  8. Are you sure your 21? Okay, I used that line before. Love your writing, your thought process and your sensibility. Your blog is a service to amateure as well as seasoned writers. A refreshing alternative to mainstream. Well done, my friend.


  9. Hi Cristian

    I chose self-publishing because I didn't expect there to be many people outside my subjects' fan base who would want to purchase their biography, so no publisher was likely to take it on. So far though, I have been surprised at the level of interest from people that I know who know next to nothing about them. I am hoping to sell at least enough copies to recover my publishing costs …. and, who knows, maybe make a profit as well.


    • Clicked post comment too soon…

      Self-publishing doesn't yet have the "pedigree" of traditional publishing. You are absolutely correct that it is a viable alternative for unknown writers. Even some traditionally published authors are choosing it because of the quick turn times and higher profit margins. There are gimmicks, and certainly quantity over quality flooding the marketplace. This is true with anything. But you're right on the mark that the effect on established publishing houses is no avalanche. And they will figure out a way to use whatever emerges as the biggest bang for the buck.

      Nice post!!


  10. Pingback: Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing « Netty's Blog

  11. There are a lot of Self publishing scam writers out there that copy everything from the internet and Wikipedia and sell their books of 'facts' for exorbitant prices. Beware those. Fiction is a different story. There is a lot of hidden gems out there. But I heard fifty shades of nonsense started off as a lame fan-fiction. (I adore Fan-fic and write it all the time for practice, don't get me wrong) but I just don't understand why it's such a huge best-seller, it's nasty and demeaning to women, but I see women slobbering over it non-stop. Anyway, to each his own, Never heard of this John Locke, only the philosopher and the one from 'LOST.' lol.


  12. Another great perspective, well-said and well-thought-out, Cristian. You're absolutely right; this shouldn't be a war. Just as the advent of the ebook should not (and, in my belief, will never) abolish the market for paper books, the developments in self-publishing should not (and, in my belief, will never) cancel out the effectiveness of traditional marketing. There's no reason why the two cannot co-exist. Traditional will work wonderfully for many authors; many other authors will thrive under their own self-publishing machinations. It's just a matter of pursuing what work s best for you, and embracing that it might not be the same as what works best for others.

    Keep up the great posts on this topic. It's so refreshing to see someone else who is similarly minded about the whole thing.


  13. Nice post. I agree with you on the need to have both modalities; I am especially excited that you think pubs will treat writers better…

    "Billie" made me cringe.


  14. Writers like Rowling and King get bigger royalties. And I'm pretty sure that in their case they'd be losing money without distribution to bookstores. Basically there aren't enough e-reading devices to take care of the demand for their books. Or Lulu/Createspace printing facilities.


  15. Indeed. There are quite a few traditionally published authors who chose to self-publish titles that were rejected by publishers or titles whose rights reverted back to them. It's quite a nice way to try to sell more experimental literature or a more "different" way to tell a story, like serialization and stuff.


    • and iTunes, Kobo, Sony.

      Well, I'm not a big fan of KDP Select, especially granting Amazon exclusivity. And I also believe that the more outlets you choose to make your book available through, the better. More exposure, more options for different readers, stuff like that.

      But I believe that the real answer I have to give you is why I chose to use Smashwords over individually publishing through iTunes and Kobo and PubIt(Barnes and Noble's self-publishing platform.) It's easier. Especially since I'm an international writer. And Smashwords still pays a nice share.

      Also, I chose Createspace over Lulu because the retail price of a book is lower than on Lulu. And they also offer bigger royalties, fast shipping, and an overall excellent customer service.


  16. Twilight fan-fiction, yes. Then it got all freaky and stuff, without the sparkly vampires stuff. To be honest, I haven't read the book. I tried, but I couldn't get past the first page.

    But the thing is that no one knows why a book sells so well. At the super-bestseller level, it doesn't make much sense. It gets picked up by so many folks that quality can be mediocre at best. I mean the novel sold 20 million copies in the US alone. You can't expect that many people to enjoy D.F. Wallace or Julian Barnes.


  17. Well said. It's all about choosing the path that best suits you. Self-publishers are, in a way, also entrepreneurs. They know how to sell a book, they also know what readers want and expect in a book. It's a time consuming endeavor.

    Self-publishing is a world that evolves at a fantastic pace. People made a lot of money from KDP Select… that kind of stopped working a few months ago when Amazon changed their algorithms. Two years ago it was a great idea to price your books at $.99. Now more and more people are reluctant to pay less than a buck for a novel.


  18. I think what e-readers are doing to the publishing industry is very much like what mp3 players did to the music industry, and I think that the end result will be similar. I think the time of supergroups and mega-authors is over, instead we'll see independent producers of entertainment with smaller fan bases. The publishers–of music, of books, even of video–are being cut out of the middle and artists are able to reach the public directly, which leads to more choices for the consumer and more options for the artist.


    • There will still be "superstars" because they are a natural outgrowth of mass popularity and because the industry can exploit their fame to make a lot of money. They will be the exception, however, rather than the rule. I say good.


  19. "This is not a war."

    I completely agree. There are billions of people in the world, and they're not restricted to a single book purchase. There's room for many people to succeed without needing to destroy others.


  20. Great post, Cristian!

    I agree that there is no real war between self and traditional publishing, though some writers turn it into one. If anyone were to ask me which route they should take, I would say they should do what works best for them. That was my reason for choosing to self-publish because it appealed to me more so than traditional.


  21. my Kudos! to ye Cristian :) this post is too informative. i agree with ye and some of yer followers that there is pros & cons between paper books and e-books, business-wise. am afraid am an old fashion when it comes to reading, to mention it's just too sweet to read a freshly bought novel written by one's fave author(s) ;) however, one also needs to read fr. a mobile esp. when a certain novel fr. a certain author is not yet available on paperback. likewise, i have not heard of John Locke, sounds familiar though but perhaps my mind recollects the Philosopher :) whilst am not a huge fan of Shakespeare but nevertheless i like him so :D Thank Ye heaps and Blessed be….


  22. It was great reading your post Christian. One, you are a very gifted writer. Two, I share your sentiments. When you talk of people who still love to read a real book, I am one of them.

    In fact, I am known to spend my last shillings (Dollars) on a book. Nothing beats lying on a couch with my coffee just within reach and turning the pages till hours later i remember the coffee, or be moved to tears. I still buy magazines, from Oprah, to the Economist and Newsweek, almost every edition. What makes me fill rich, is coming home and wondering which of the books on my shelf is begging me to read it.

    The point is, we are not in the 19thC anymore where books had next to no alternative. I am currently reading a book, 'Amusing ourselves to death' by Neil Postman' and felt a strange comfort for books.

    Neither books nor publishers are dying, regardless of whether there is Kindle, Ipad or who knows what else to come. You know why? Where i come from in the Eastern part of Africa, in my home area there are children who have never seen a printed book, study under trees, the teachers share battered copies of books, there are no public libraries, they have never watched television, and there is no electricity. I guess these are the areas that publishers will be looking out for and whose demands they can meet.

    And by the way, even I had not heard of John Locke, and I am one of the biggest readers alive. I think self publishing is a great alternative, but it will be years to come for it to overcome traditional publishing, maybe in the US and UK, but that is not the world. We have to always remember that.


  23. Pingback: Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing « Dorset Odyssey

  24. I don't who John Locke is to tell the truth, but I know what Kindle is and self-publishing that is generated from it. I too, like books. I like seeing them, touching them, holding them, I even like the way a book smells, especially a book I am opening for the first time-it smells of adventure. I don't have much to say about self-publishing other than before there was the internet there were publishing ouses that you could pay to print up your book–they were called vanity presses. I think that everyone should write, paint, play music whatever, but being putting things you create, esp. writing, that is not filtered by the process of an editor and publisher, does nothing to make one a better writer. In fact, I believe it can have the opposite effect. I guess that's why they were called 'vanity' presses.


  25. I used to read all the e-books I bought on my computer just by downloading the ap from Kindle so I think there's room for it even if people don't want to buy an e-reader. However, that being said, I think there is benefit in both traditional and self-publishing. I think the real question is for the author. What do You want from your work? If you want to be in stores then traditional might be your best option. Or you're going to have to hit the pavement and try to get your local bookstores to carry your work. You'll have to strike up an arrangement with them (which will most likely include you providing the books so that if they don't sell the store hasn't lost any money). I think what people get out of their published works is greatly influenced by what they put into it whether that is traditional or self-published it still takes a lot of work to make it work. Another thing for people to remember is that worked for one won't work for all. I hope people aren't reading the success stories and thinking that they'll automatically have that if they do xyz. That's just not how life works.

    Great post :) Thank you for taking the time to write it.


  26. I think that your right that it is not a case of one of the other. There will always be traditional publishers. Most writers ultimately want to be published traditionally – I know I do. However, the big publishers are incredibly cautious and unless they change the way they think, they will be left behind. I think self-publishing is great. It has given me the opportunity to take a step towards following my dream of being a writer but there is no denying that the ultimate step – for me anyway – would be to garner a book deal from a big publisher.


  27. Great article and I agree with you.

    The purchasing of reviews has now been exposed and hopefully will be dealt a huge blow by the publicity it has received. And the process of authors, often well-known authors, reviewing under a pseudonym too.

    But yes, the publishing world has had to wake up to the new world of Kindle and the like.

    I love books, love the feel, the smell, the whole idea.

    But I do own a Kindle and I love that too.

    And publishing is not the same as it was years ago – there are very few publishers now and they are all ruled by the marketing men. Books are not king, the bottom line is.

    Digital publishing in all its forms will give the world a good shake, but both traditional and digital with survive, and be stronger.


  28. I think that self-publishing and traditional publishing houses serve different purposes (and markets). Self-publishing, along with blogging, are giving people with interest and talent (to some degree) for writing but who do not want to pursue this professionally an opportunity to find an audience. Those audiences are probably relatively small and selective. Traditional publishers will employ professional writers and aim to sell to larger audiences to break-even and possibly make a profit. I believe that prior to the development of the 19th century novel, as well as enough literate citizens, most publishing was done by the author for small runs of books sold to local readers. Maybe we are just going back to an older model of writing and reading, just with global technology that allows like-minded folks in different time zones to find each other.

    Wasn't John Locke an 18th century, Scottish philosopher? :)



  29. I hate reading all the silly 'war on traditional publishers' type posts. If a traditional publisher came along and asked me to sign with them for a nice advance, I'd say 'hell,yeah'.


  30. Thank you for your open-mindedness. I know I personally have a difficult time expressing to people and being understood that while self-publishing is all well and good, it's not something i would choose. Many of the people I have spoken to seem to feel attacked when somebody says anything non-positive about self-publishing. I feel here, you have adeptly expressed your personal qualms with both sides of the system: a fantastic objective view. Thank you!


  31. Loved this, especially the references to Shakespeare and his incredible fame (I grew up where he was born, Stratford-upon-Avon). Totally agree with you on this not being war and the importance of both options being available…it's all about choice, which is a matter of respect, for both writers and their readers.


  32. Self-publishing was a matter of preference for me. The creative man within me loves the ability to share my art with the world. But the businessman within me loves the challenge of building a product and effectively marketing that product. And like you, I don't consider it a war against traditional publishing. Shucks, I'd love for a big publisher to contact me about my books.

    Enjoy your posts as always. And yes! It is William Shakespeare, not Billie or Willie. But William. Respect!


  33. A phrase that remains missing in all these considerations is "commercially viable."

    Very little self-published work falls into that category, alas, and ultimately very little of what's being published by traditional houses is, either. And that's even before we get to the subsidized presses, including the university imprints. Or maybe I should add, even before we get to being paid for writing.

    I keep thinking of the time when a book would be printed in very small numbers for a particular bookstore. At least that's the sense I get in the really old volumes. Somehow, it's quite charming — and enticing.

    Maybe we're headed toward something similar, even if it's a small online "community." Something returning us to the field as a labor of love.


  34. I preferred self-publishing over traditional. I guess my business background and my love of hustling. Creativity is necessary for both routes. But the indie author has to become familiar with all aspects of the business. He has to market. He has to handle operations. But I love that. It is an adventure to me. That said, I don't think that there should be a war between indie and traditional. Shucks, I'd love for a big publisher to contract with me. But I do agree that big publishers and writers agents will have to adjust their treatment of authors. After all, its just nice to be nice.


  35. "In fact, I’m pretty sure that one does not exclude the other. Writers should be able to choose the path they pursue." I think that there is as always, politics tacitly working here. I believe that the burgeoning of self- or independent publishing is a fitting response to the intricacies of traditional publishing that tends to be elitist and socially biased. If you do not have a name yet, if your works do not conform to the taste of the public and worst, if your manuscripts do not conform with the status quo, it is very likely that you will find it hard to break through in the traditional field of publishing. It is as if writers can choose freely and independently on matters concerning their publisher. Not all has that privilege.

    If writers who turn to self-publishing are constricted in the mainstream flow of things where they are being excluded in a variety of ways, then it is up to them to improvise in order to challenge the orientation of traditional publishing, one that is mainly market-oriented. Even writing has been trapped by profiteering mechanisms and I believe that those who tarry on the side of self-publishing are writing less because they want to earn money that they simply want to say things. :)


  36. "…the developments in self-publishing should not (and, in my belief, will never) cancel out the effectiveness of traditional marketing."

    To this, I would like to note that there is a implication perhaps subtly made about the orientation of traditional publishing — it is one that is market-oriented. Not that this is not entirely bad, but I believe this is what mainly differentiates traditional from self-publishing. In the former, the writers are usually not the only players; they are joined by the publisher and perhaps the editors and the like in the pursuit of a primary goal — profit. Okay, perhaps they want to do a book for education's sake, for propaganda's sake, but I believe these are mostly subordinated by the profit goal.

    On the other hand, I think self-publishers try to get into the scene because they want to communicate what they have in mind. Blogging and the social media may not be enough for them since the audience for these types of channel is limited. With self-publishing, they can reach out to a greater audience whom they can have the freedom to select. The primary motive is not profit; instead, it is the transmission of messages that can spur the flow of discourses. :)


  37. "Publishing houses are going to change their policies. Agents are going to change the way they treat writers. Either that or they’ll face a very slow death."

    I think the above lines say it all and say it well. I think that the self-publishing fenomena, thanks to the internet, has taught writers to respect themselves and their work and has put the ball on their court, in a way; however, each writer should think about what matches his/her work style and ethic best and take that path. The transformation, the revolution of the publishing industry continues, and it will weed out the ones who are following a fad, a frenzy, and leave the true writers, the ones who love the craft, who do not care about a quick dollar, and who are in it for the long run – no matter which path they choose – traditional or self-publishing.


  38. I agree completely. And I haven't read Mr. Locke's book myself, but he sounds quite self-assured. Maybe he has the right to be, I don't know. But, as a writer just getting my foot in the door, I don't believe in burning bridges either. Very interesting blog!


  39. Pingback: Posts of the Week – The Blog Round-up Sep 21 | Fiction et al

  40. I'm a bit new to the technical aspect of self-publishing, but have always been a huge fan of independent success. Things like Kickstarter have made it possible for so many good ideas from independent sources to come to fruition. Donation buttons for downloading music or other art have made it possible for everyone to enjoy something at whatever price they can afford.

    Can that work for writing? Do donation buttons work on writing blogs? And by work, I mean, are they profitable for the writer?

    Great post–moderate and understanding both sides, but not afraid to criticize what you disagree with.


  41. I think you have written very clearly, and I agree. There is a place for both print options.

    I used to think that self-publishing was more for people who wrote either niche books that didn't make a big print run worthwhile, and then I saw several really rubbish writers self-publish, so I assumed a publishing editor had read their stuff and found it not worth printing from the point of view of content or writing skill.

    However, there are some recent traditionally founded publishing "sensations" whose writing skill leaves much to be desired, in terms of style, vocabulary, making believable dialogue, relying on cheap stereotypes, etc So the editors are just looking for something that they can market, not a writer's ability to communicate particularly.

    So neither publishing route is a guarantee of success or quality. Just write what inspires you, and always strive to be better. Don't stretch a novella script into a trilogy because it will be threadbare, and do not try to condense a big work into a pamphlet, because so much will be lost. Best wishes with your book!


  42. Thoroughly agree with you about self publishing and traditional publishing and how they will always now coexist. However there is one downfall in self publishing and that's the lack of a realistic second opinion.. That much needed one that says 'no, your material needs work' or the services of a professional editor who will see where the story needs rearranging. In truth, I see digital publishing houses as the only viable self publishing option unless you are multi skilled and have some experience at interrnet marketing as well..


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