The 3 Main Publishing Paths

Oct 25, 2023

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Writing a book and publishing a book are two separate things, and when it comes time for authors to choose a publishing path, the options can seem overwhelming. With so many opportunities for writers today (each with their own pros and cons), it’s important to research each type of publishing to determine the best fit for you and your book. Let’s take a look at three of the most common publishing paths, as well as why or why not authors might choose them.

1. Traditional Publishing

The original and oldest model, traditional publishing, revolves around the idea that an author sells his/her book to a publisher, who then makes all decisions in terms of title, cover, publication date, etc. In return, the author receives an advance (money) up front and only accrues additional funds (royalties) once they’ve earned out that advance. Today, this process requires the addition of a literary agent, who acts as a middleman between the author and the publisher. To get a literary agent, authors must query their project—a process that is notoriously slow and challenging. Agents also take, on average, 15% of the sale of your book.

Traditionally published books often come from one of the Big Five publishing houses: Penguin Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan. These publishers have the experience and ability to distribute books everywhere, from bookstores to airports to libraries and more.

Choose traditional publishing if…

  • You dream of having your book in bookstores.
  • You don’t mind giving up creative control.
  • You’re okay with waiting (querying and submission process, plus 1-2 years for the book to come out).
  • You don’t have time or interest in learning the self-publishing process.

2. Self/Independent Publishing

Authors who self-publish take on the full burden of bringing the book to market—either completely on their own or by hiring experts for things like editing, formatting, and cover design. Self-publishing allows authors greater control, as well as 100% of the profit. However, it comes with a flip side: when you self-publish, you act somewhat like a one-person show and can’t rely on the expertise of a publisher for help.

The most common self-publishing platform is Amazon KDP. Authors can follow simple step-by-step instructions for uploading both print and ebooks, set their own prices, and determine when they want to run promotions or deals. In KDP, authors have the option of enrolling in KDP Select, which is an exclusivity agreement wherein authors receive much higher royalties in exchange for only selling through Amazon. Other indie authors choose to “go wide” (distributing through multiple retailers/platforms) and not limit themselves strictly to Amazon.

A downside of self-publishing is the difficulty in getting visibility. Without the backing and “ins” from a publisher, it can be harder to grow a readership and sell as many copies as you might have hoped. Most self-published books aren’t sold in bookstores, and many marketing opportunities are closed for indie authors/books.

Choose self-publishing if…

  • You don’t want to endure the long process of querying agents and publishers or don’t have the patience to wait 2 years for publication.
  • You enjoy having creative control over your work.
  • You have some tech experience or are willing to learn.
  • You are a go-getter in terms of publicity and marketing (as this will be all on you!).
  • You want to earn and keep higher royalties.
  • You don’t mind that your book likely won’t be in bookstores.

3. Hybrid Publishing

A middle category between traditional and independent publishing is hybrid publishing. In this model, authors pay upfront for the publishing package, which typically includes all editing, formatting, cover design, ebook creation, and distribution. In essence, the author funds everything in exchange for the publisher’s expertise. Hybrid books may have a better chance of bookstore placement than indie books, but not as much as traditionally published books.

Perhaps the only drawback of hybrid publishing is the investment. Packages can run several thousand dollars—money from the author’s pocket in return for a quality, professional finished product.

Choose hybrid publishing if…

  • You have a sizeable budget to work with.
  • You want help with all aspects of book creation or don’t want to do it on your own.
  • You’re looking for a higher royalty than traditional publishing.
  • You aren’t interested in or don’t have the time to query agents.
  • You want your book to come out sooner.

The Takeaway:

At the end of the day, choosing a publishing path is an individual decision and can vary from project to project. Some authors do a combination of publishing types, while others stick to one lane. While it’s easy to fall into “comparisonitis” or to feel outside pressure to make a choice, this big decision should feel right for you and your book. Take the time to research all options and then move forward confidently.