Should You Self-Publish or Traditionally Publish?

should you self-publish

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Are you wondering if you should self-publish or traditionally publish? You’re not alone. The same question is on the minds of many writers I meet, regardless of their career path or how established they are.

When I began working in the publishing industry in the mid-1990s, a stigma surrounded both self-published books and self-published authors. I recall speaking at the Chicago chapter of the Romance Writers of America in the mid-2000s, and running a workshop on how to self-publish. About three people showed up and two of them were already self-published; it was by far the worst-attended session I’ve ever run at a major writing event. At the time, self-publishing was not a well-regarded path to success, and it indicated some kind of author failing or eccentricity.

Times have (dramatically) changed, and now some self-published authors accuse traditionally published authors of being misguided or short-sighted in their allegiance to a “legacy” system.

But there is no single right answer to this question because it’s context dependent. That means the right answer can change—even for the same author—from book to book, and from year to year.

This post outlines what I think are the biggest factors that play into the decision.

1. Do you expect or want to see your book stocked in bookstores across the country?

It next to impossible for a self-published author with a single title to achieve wide-scale distribution for their book at bricks-and-mortar stores. You may be able to get your book stocked locally or regionally, especially if you have the right connections or are a well-known person in your community. But for the most part, a self-published authors’ books will sell primarily through online retail, whether as a print book or an e-book. That’s not the drawback it used to be, given that more than half of all books sold in the United States sell through Amazon (regardless of format).

2. Do you want to hit the New York Times bestseller list or get major media attention?

If your goal is a spot on the New York Times bestseller list, you’ll probably need a traditional publisher’s muscle behind you. It’s also very challenging to get any major media to pay attention to you as a self-pub author. (Traditionally published authors struggle as well—just not as terrifically hard.)

That said, self-published authors are not uncommon on the USA Today or Wall Street Journal bestseller list, as well as Amazon bestseller lists. And if your book appeals to a niche audience, the media outlets that serve that niche audience are probably open to covering your work.

It’s very difficult to score traditional book reviews, traditional media coverage, or even hire a traditional publicist when you’re a self-published author. New indie authors find it exceptionally frustrating at how much they’re ignored by traditional media. Traditional publishers have a much easier time getting those doors to open.

3. Does your book appeal to a specific audience that you can (or already) reach on your own?

It makes little sense to partner with a traditional publisher when the book’s audience is one that you already reach easily and comprehensively on your own—whether that’s through your own business, website/blog, speaking engagements, or anything else that brings you in touch with your readership or fanbase.

This is one of the reasons I self-published Publishing 101; I don’t need a publisher’s help to reach an audience of writers. I can do that myself, and even if I lose sales as a result of not being in bookstores, the shortfall is more than likely made up through an increase in profits from each sale.

However, if you’re looking for a book to increase your readership in some way—or to help you pivot—then a publisher can be useful in setting the stage, helping secure traditional media, or extending distribution in a way that supports those goals. As an example, indie author CJ Lyons partnered with Sourcebooks when she started a new YA series, since it was a departure from her previous work that focused on adults.

4. What are the qualities of the audience or the market you are targeting?

Some genres or categories of work are ideal for self-publishing efforts because the audience or market is already primed to consume things digitally and to discover their next read through online channels. Romance and erotica are prime examples.

But then there are other markets where you’ll find it very difficult to gain traction because they either haven’t moved predominantly to digital consumption, or the traditional publishers still perform a valued gatekeeping role—providing needed or wanted validation and curation. Literary work is one such market: you’ll find it hard to gain acceptance within a certain community unless your work has been editorially selected, plus the literary audience still prefers print.

Children’s books—especially for young readers—is another area where it can be challenging to gain acceptance without a traditional publisher. Educators, librarians, and others who are in a position to introduce books to children are using trade publications, reviews, and other traditional methods to guide their selections. Self-published authors need to have a very high level of proficiency in the publishing business to get attention—or a lot of luck.

To use another example from my own career, I’m working with a traditional publisher (University of Chicago Press) to release The Business of Being a Writer because it’s intended for the university classroom. Professors rarely adopt self-published textbooks; they are more likely to trust a book released by a university press with a peer review process in place.

5. How much of an entrepreneur are you?

Becoming a self-published author means you are fully responsible for your book’s success. If you’re a first-time author, you have may have little or no knowledge of what a professionally published book looks like. You may not understand the editing or design process, or how sales and distribution work, etc.

You’ll need an entrepreneurial mindset to undertake a serious self-publishing career, and a willingness to learn the business of publishing. Some authors are not eager to learn and would rather outsource as much of the work as possible. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—as a self-published author you can hire whomever you want to assist you—but some authors’ personalities are a really poor fit for the demands of a professional self-publishing operation.

If you would rather work with a team of people, or feel like you have a business partner, you may be better suited to traditional publishing. Alternatively, there are self-publishing service companies that can perform this role, but some authors do not have the funds to pay for quality help, and don’t even know what quality help looks like.

Also, a successful self-publisher must have some level of proficiency and comfort with being active online. Because most of your sales will happen through online retail, you need to show up and be familiar with how books get marketed and promoted in online environments. You’ll need a professional author website, some level of activity on social media, and a willingness to experiment with online sales and marketing tactics.

6. Do you want the validation, guidance, and support of a publisher?

Some authors have always dreamed of working with a traditional publisher, and nothing will satisfy them until they get that experience. This isn’t something to be ashamed of; in fact, if you can figure this out sooner rather than later, you might save yourself a lot of wasted time and effort self-publishing because you think that’s the “right” or “better” thing to do.

The Catch-22, however, is that once you experience what traditional publishing has to offer, you may end up disappointed by it. Or maybe not. Authors’ experiences vary so widely (even within the same publishing house) that it is very difficult to generalize.

Don’t use self-publishing as a way to land a traditional deal

I think one of the worst possible reasons to self-publish is to use it as a way to score a traditional publishing deal. Such efforts fail 99% of the time. Even though there is no longer a stigma associated with being a self-published author (at least for most genres), once you self-publish a book, it will be exceedingly difficult to garner interest for that book from an agent or traditional publisher. But you may be successful in selling them your next project.

This is why you should not start to self-publish a series unless you’re committed to self-publishing the ENTIRE series. If a traditional publisher is not interested in book one, they almost never pick up book two in a series when the first one is self-published.

Obviously you can find exceptions to all of the above. For example, The Martian was self-published and then picked up by a traditional publisher. But these are outlying unicorns, and not typical of the average author experience.

On writers’ lack of patience

I see some writers self-publish mainly because they lack patience with the querying and submissions process of traditional publishing. Or they want the instant gratification of getting their work on the market. But again, this is one of the worst reasons to self-publish. I find many authors on my doorstep because they thought “Why not self-publish now and shop it around later to agents/editors?” — and ended up disappointed with the results. If you have any interest whatsoever in traditional publishing, exhaust all your agent/publisher options first. Get thoroughly rejected (as much as that may hurt), and then self-publish. It’s very, very hard to go in the other direction successfully.

On the issue of earnings

Perhaps the biggest argument offered in support of self-publishing—at least within the self-publishing community itself—is that you will earn a lot more money than you would with a traditional publisher. That may be true. It’s possible to sell far fewer copies as a self-published author and yet earn more than a traditional deal would pay you; it’s also possible to sell more copies as a self-published author but not earn as much as a publisher’s advance and royalties. It all depends on the book and the type of deal or contract you’re offered.

The success rate for self-publishing is really not that different from traditional. A few authors end up as bestselling superstars. Some authors do very well. And the majority do not make a living from it. Self-published authors may find that marketing and promoting their book is much tougher than they imagined. Self-publishing careers typically take years—and four or five books—to gain traction and produce earnings that are meaningful. Are you committed to producing more work, and marketing that work, month after month and year after year?

As I stated before: each author is different, and each book is different. If you know your target market, and have a clear set of goals for your book, you should be able to figure out the right publishing strategy for you.

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Posted in Publishing Industry, Self-Publishing and tagged , , .

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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[…] Should you self-publish? There is no single right answer to this question—it's always situational. This post outlines the key questions you should ask.  […]

Another factor would be where the author is and where the author hopes to sell. Authors in the US, UK and Germany have easy access to distribution in strong ebook markets and stand a good chance of finding at least moderate success as an indie author. An author in France writing in French would be far better off pursuing a trad deal and getting full print distribution. For all countries trad pub offers the best potential rewards, and in most of the nascent markets indies should be seeing ebooks as a spearhead opportunity to get a foothold and gain local… Read more »


Hi Jane!

Will your DBW class be available as a recording if I pay? I can’t attend at that time.


Hi Jane….as an author that was published by small publishers twice and have now gone on to self publish I am much happier. Realizing I was not a marketer, I thought a publisher would be a big help. Unfortunately in my case (and that of most other authors I’ve talked to) I recieved little or no promotion from my publishers (even though it was promised) and barely made any more money than I have now from my own books that I self published. As you say, only a tiny percentage of authors make any significant money at their books and… Read more »

Adam Henig

Hi Jane, First and foremost, I love reading your blog and always look forward to it when I see it in my inbox. At this very moment, as I begin my third book, I am grappling with this very question of self-pub vs. traditional pub. After self-publishing my first two books, I feel it’s time to reconsider the option of working with a traditional publisher (assuming one will have me). I write narrative nonfiction and I’m wondering–unlike other genres such as YA, romance, self-help, and sci-fi–if it is at all possible to break through in this field as an indie… Read more »

Adam Henig

Thanks for the speedy reply and feedback.

[…] Should You Self-Publish or Traditionally Publish? (Jane Friedman) Are you wondering if you should self-publish or traditionally publish? You’re not alone. The same question is on the minds of many writers I meet, regardless of their career path or how established they are. Related: Everything You Need to Know to Begin Self-Publishing Successfully […]


One other consideration would be whether there is a market in traditional publishing. Photo books, for example, is a really tough sell (production cost vs. print run makes them a risk for publishers). It is a really small segment of the market and, once you get away from the usual coffee table type topics, becomes even smaller. Poetry might be another area where the tradition avenue is really hard. Yet a traditional publisher behind you has a benefit. I think this is really where the conversations around publishing and books become difficult. When “books” are mentioned, it is assumed as… Read more »

[…] Should You Self-Publish or Traditionally Publish? | Jane Friedman […]

[…] Jane Friedman has some handy questions to ask yourself when deciding whether to self-publish or traditionally publish. […]

[…] Click here to see Jane Friedman’s excellent feature in its entirety. […]

G.W. Willis-Brannigan

I’m trying my hardest to self-publish (Createspace) but it’s impossible figuring out formatting, book cover etc – all the technical crap… the marketing would be a friggin’ breeze if I could get the damn thing in print (the Kindle thing was easy but not so the print version – why even bother)… should I just go with the ebook?

Frank Godstime

Plz i need help here i have a problem i have been accepted by (Austin macauley pub Ltd) if you may know them? But the problem is the money that i need to pay them 2300p i don’t have it plz what can i do ?

Alex Woods

Yes, I too have been offered the same deal by Austin MacCauley. I was not entirely impressed by the fact that in their letter they forgot to change the name of the other writer they had sent the same letter to! They obviously send out template letters to the doubtless thousands of writers who send in manuscripts. Not a bad business model for them…

Jarle Kotsbak

If you use LeanPub, as I have earlier proposed, you get a lot of help with the formatting. You can sell e-books both on Kindle and on any other format. When you want to print, you can start out with print-on-demand, POD. You can use sites like Lulu and CreateSpace for print-on-demand publishing. It is cheaper than traditional printing unless you sell more than 10 000 books. And it is much easier. And you do not have to worry about unsold books.

Carol Ann McCarthy

How do I know if Next Century Publishing or any self publishing outfit is on the up and up? Next Century seems to be able to do what I need them to do, but are they reputable?

[…] and self publish:  Harold Underdown and Jane Friedman  “My advice is that you do not consider self-publishing until you have spent at least a few […]

[…] Jane Freeman tackles the question should you try to publish traditionally or go the self-publishing route.  She gives you some thoughts you might not have heard before.  Personality has a lot to do with it. As someone who is self-employed, self-publishing seems a more likely route for me, if I ever get a book finished. ; ) […]


You mention “…once you self-publish a book, it will be exceedingly difficult to garner interest for that book from an agent or traditional publisher. ”

But I’ve read elsewhere that self-publishing first is only a negative if the book had either a wide release and/or a negative reaction. So that if the book’s scale was small and/or received positive reviews, then a traditional agent/publisher wouldn’t mind picking up the work since it can still make them money.

Thanks for your excellent article, Jane.


Excellent. Thank you again for your help!

[…] presents Should You Self-Publish or Traditionally Publish? posted at Jane […]

[…] Should you self-publish or traditionally publish? A high-level view of the differences. […]

[…] Should You Self-Publish or Traditionally Publish?, by Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman): If you’re an author weighing the options of which publishing route to take, this post can help you lay out exactly what you’re looking to achieve and help you make the best decision for your goals. […]


How would you suggest going about to find a literary agent.? I tried self publishing a children’s book and it was just a pain and I ended up canceling my contract. I would like to try traditional publishing to help with illustrations. Thank you for your time and for your article!

[…] Friedman, J (2016) Should You Self – Publish or Traditionally Publish? [Online] Accessed on 21/03/17 at […]

[…] Should You Traditionally Publish or Self-Publish? […]

[…] distribution of self-published books (either print or digital) happens mainly online. While it is possible to get into local and regional libraries and independent bookshops, […]

[…] If you’re sure if you should traditionally publish or self-publish, then here’s how to m… […]

[…] Should You Self-Publish or Traditionally Publish? […]

Janice Baldon-Gutter

Excellent advice that I found to be true. I self published the first time (Caregiving: A Daughter’s Story) and did get on I want to reach the caregiving – aging market. The audience is there but the distribution is difficult. I want to get into the major bookstores and retail this time and going to try for that support and distribution this time around; I will approach the caregiving topic from a totally different perspective that I haven’t noticed to set myself apart. That’s the easy part – I find the hardest part is marketing and distribution. Everything you… Read more »


I just don’t want to give up the rights to my work! That’s the main reason I want to self-publish.


Thank you very much for your excellent article Jane!
I have just completed my first book. It’s a nonfiction book addressed to a niche (it teaches people how to do research in the business world). While I am not depending on the income from the book for my livelihood, I would like the book to reach my target audience – product managers, designers, etc. What would you recommend for my situation?


Thank you very much Jane. I really appreciate the fast response!

Mark Marsland

Great article Jane,so very helpful and insightful.After just finishing my first book it’s the first question I had.
Thanks so much for sharing your hard earned wisdom.

Mark Marsland

Jack Messenger

Thank you, Jane, for another interesting article. The decision to become an independent author or attempt to publish traditionally often depends on one’s experience and objectives. Some of my writer colleagues are solely focused on becoming bestsellers, while I and others simply want to reach an audience, no matter how small. So the former will probably persevere and try to find a publisher, while others will become independents. My experience of publishers, literary agents, small presses and now even book bloggers is that they are overwhelmingly closed to submissions from writers who are unknown or who do not have a… Read more »

Ken Coleman

Thanks for this Jack. I write fiction short-stories, and I have despaired about my options, because I have not published before and I am not well known. I think the idea of self-publishing is becoming more attractive to me, as I do not think I will ever be a million-seller, but I want to have my work read, for better or worse. May I ask what self-publishing direction you found to work best for you?


Hello Ken I published as widely as I could via D2D, Amazon and Lulu. All these service are free up front. I’ve followed all kinds of marketing advice, but none of it has worked – I think because I do not write genre stuff, so the principles and assumptions simply don’t apply. If you do write a strong genre (e.g. sci-fi) then you will stand a better chance, but try every free marketing option first: there are lots of them. I have just hired the services of a PR company, which doesn’t come cheap, but they offer guaranteed radio and… Read more »

Richard Conrath

This is a great discussion of the pros and cons of self-publishing as opposed to going the traditional route. I have tried the traditional path for the last six years and have finally decided to go ‘Indie’–for good or ill. From what I’ve heard from my fellow writers, marketing is something that you have to do either as an Indie writer or as a traditionally published writer–unless, as one of my New York Times best-selling writer/friends told me recently–“you’re one of the Big Boys.” So the Big Five houses will expect the lower-level artists to market–so will the small presses.… Read more »

Don Siegel

I’m close to finishing a novel, after publishing thousands of pages of scientific prose (as a professor) and one cookbook through a publishing house. I just wonder how on earth I could even get looked at by a traditional publisher. Maybe my scientific credibility might catch their interest, but why? Even if the novel has some science in it. Or for that matter, an agent. So I kind of feel I have to self publish through Amazon or Bookbaby or iUniverse. I don’t want to, but feel rather constrained to do so. Sigh.


Thanks for this viewpoint. As an unpublished writer, I am still tossing up which path to pursue. Many online opinions (and sites) seem to push the self-publishing route, but your article gives me a balanced scenario which is exactly what I was looking for.

Kirsten M. Corby

Excellent post, thank you.

Chris Charlton

Hey Jane,
I just read your article and it was vey informative. I think for me getting published and walking in a book store and seeing your book on the shelf is 95% reward for me. I know the chance of making much money is slim but an added bonus. Like you said patience is the key – I’ve been writing my trilogy for 22 years on and off. Ha! But if all else fails I will self publish.

Thx Again for you article.
Regards Chris


I am taking a class on E publishing books. the class says that by cutting out the publisher that 60% of the profit goes to the author instead of the publishing company. Also the class state that romance novels are at the top of the selling list. Any tips on producing a good romance novel?

Anne Lovett

Hello Jane, I’ve self-published two books, one “upscale women’s fiction” and one “mystery-romance.” Both have been contest finalists and one was named in 100 best books of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews. I now have other books ready to go, and I believe they will get requests from agents. But here’s the thing. I am 75 years old (but don’t look it) and have no academic writing credentials. At my age, do I have a snowball-in-hell’s chance of getting a publishing deal, or should I not waste my time and proceed with self-publishing? I am fairly energetic and can get the… Read more »


Hi Jane, Thank you for all the valuable info you shared with us! I’m a younger (36yo) guy, very strongly considering writing a how to book for a niche market. I’ve got plenty of experience and subject matter. Additionally, I’m finding that options for this type of book are very limited, so I think there’s a solid opportunity here. I’m aware that due to the subject (glass blowing) there isn’t an overly wide customer base, but I’m not looking to get into this to get rich. It’s just my passion. Clearly I would be looking at a self publishing scenario.… Read more »

Unknown for Now.

Hello, Any advice for teens who like to write? I started writing for fun when I was in 6th grade, now I’m in 9th (Almost 10th, as the school year, is almost over) and I still love writing. A lot of people support me and think I have great writing and yet I tend to hear all of the other people saying the negative things. When I was in 6th grade I would write these silly stories about my friends and as each year passes, I’ve grown closer and closer to writing. I honestly don’t know who I’d be without… Read more »

Jonathan B. Books

Ms.Jane, I have self published 2 Christian Help books in the last several years through Create Space/Amazon. I am currently working on a new genre for me. I am writing about the decline and fall of America from a cultural, economic, political, infanticidal, drug,psychological, religious, ad infinitum point of view. I have concerns as it is nowhere “politically correct” but will be chapter by chapter, factually based and may require 2 volumes. Does the need for a possible second volume make this a more difficult endeavor? Secondly, I am not on the “social media ” web. Your opinion plz-problem? Also,… Read more »

Jonathan B. Books

Thanks, I will let you know what I come up with concerning the topics we discussed. In light of todays “public anger” issues, I am concerned about our safety. America won’t “go away” per se, but our hegemony in the world is at risk and our cohesion as a nation is also. If we aren’t guardian light against the dictators of the world, who will be. Thanks Again, J.B.

Michael C Smith

I would rather be read than be rich. (I know. Sounds naive.) Seems self-publishing would be the route for mainstream fiction. Thoughts?


Hi Jane, I was avidly reading some of your posts – Thank you for your thorough clarity, very helpful! I have however a question: – In this post you are advising _not_ to consider self publishing as a way to score a traditional publishing deal… – However, if I am not mistaking you, in a previous 2010 post here you were saying the opposite… saying not to be afraid that either publish or post things online would have an adverse effect on a later traditional publication… So did you change your mind for specific reasons or maybe it is me… Read more »


Hi Jane, Thank you for your prompt and helpful follow-up already! I am impressed from your commitment to follow-up with us readers – Thanks! What still confuses me however is that in your previous post you linked to examples also of self-published books, which were then picked by traditional publishers also because of (rather then despite) the proven records of copies sold online… Here is the link I am referring to from your post: How self publishing can lead to a real book deal: The fact is that, that made sense to me, in particular the reasons quoted in… Read more »

Staci Stanley

I wrote a little book (kid’s book-12 pages) …AND my mother-in-law ILLUSTRATED it (in watercolor!). I would LOVE to get it published. Just not sure where to start. Any suggestions?

Chris Shelton

I started writing an autobiography, I’m at 30000 words – it has a serial killer, serial rapist, murderer, betrayal, top gun, lived in 3 countries, 60 moves, lots of stuff, I am a unknown, should I get a traditional publisher? I also have 2 movie ideas. What’s your thoughts?

Chris Shelton

Hi Jane, I’m 48, this only covers 30 years, but I understand what you mean. Thank You.


Thanks for this. I am now positive that traditional publishing is the path for me.