Choosing Your Path to Publication, Part 1: Traditional Publishing

If you’re an unpublished writer just starting out, you’ve probably already come face-to-face with the big question: how will I publish my book? In the “old” days (way back before 2010), you really only had one choice. Print out your manuscript, nestle it into a manila envelope along with your SASE, and mail it out to potential editors and literary agents. Now, though, thanks to the advent of print-on-demand and distributors like Ingram Spark and Amazon, you have an alternate option—self-publishing. But with two such different paths, how is a writer to know which route to take?

Over the next few blog posts, we’re going to break down traditional publishing and self-publishing into pros and cons. The wrap-up post will give you some things to think about as you make your decision, as well as a list of what every writer needs for success, no matter which path they take. And you’ll get to hear why I’ve chosen traditional publishing.

Sound like a plan? Then let’s dive in!

(Note: For the sake of this article, I’m including small indie presses under traditional publishing, although depending on the press, these run the full range in terms of your author experience. Always, always, do your research before signing any contracts!)

Traditional publishing: slow and steady wins the race


1. You don’t pay them…

All costs to produce the book are covered by the publisher. In traditional publishing, you sign a contract with the publishing house (whether a Big Four or a small press) and deliver the manuscript, and they cover the editing, the cover design, the formatting, and the printing of the book.

2. …they pay you.

With a big publishing house, they’ll offer you an advance (typically ranging from $5000-50,000 for debut authors), payable in installments—usually upon signing, upon delivery of the manuscript, after edits are completed, and upon publication. This is an advance on your royalties, so you won’t be paid again until the book sells enough copies to cover the cost of the advance. Because the publisher bears all the upfront costs and needs to recoup their expenditures, royalties are fairly low, typically 6-15% of the suggested retail price for paper copies and 25% for ebooks. A smaller press might not offer any advance.

3. You get a built-in creative support team.

If you take the traditional route and aim for a major publishing house, you’ll need a literary agent to submit your manuscript to editors. (This is a huge hurdle all on its own, but we’ll have to save querying for another day.) But, once you have an agent, you’ve got somebody in your corner helping you make career decisions and negotiate contracts. And once you’ve signed that golden publishing contract and have an editor, you’ve also now got an entire creative team backing your project. That kind of support can take a lot of pressure off the author and give you a boost of confidence.

4. Brick-and-mortar opportunities and credibility within the writing community.

Frankly, I don’t think most readers could name more than a few publishing imprints, nor do they typically check to see who published a book. But other writers know, and getting to tell someone you’re being published by *Big Four Publishing House* can give you a certain feeling of validity as an author. Booksellers and libraries also pay attention to publishers, and they’re much more likely to carry your book if it’s being printed by a publishing house.


1. Loss of creative control.

This one can be a driving factor for a lot of creatives. If you go the traditional publishing route, you have the benefit of a partnership with your agent, editor, and publishing house, but that also means you’re no longer making decisions in a vacuum, based on your wishes alone. When you’re deciding what story to write next, you’ll need to consider your agent’s knowledge about what’s selling right now. You’ll have to factor in what kind of books your editor wants. Until you’ve built up a big enough brand and name, you’ll need to write to market, even if it means setting aside some story concepts that you adore.

And once you’ve signed a contract, depending on what that contract stipulates, you’re handing over your manuscript with little say on the cover, the promotion, or even the title of the finished book. Hopefully you’ll work with a great team and be absolutely in love with your book, but plenty of authors have had negative experiences with bad covers or bad market positioning that have hurt their sales and left them wishing they could get their rights back.

2. Most writers don’t earn enough to make a living as an author.

This is one of those hard truths about publishing that’s becoming more talked about in recent months. I read in an article recently that 96% of books published in 2020 sold less than 1000 copies. Only 0.01% sold more than 100,000 copies, enough to make a good living off the royalties. For nearly all authors, writing is a side gig. Even many NYT bestselling authors still have day jobs or can only write full-time because of their spouse’s income. Unfortunately, though, you’ll see this problem exists for most people who self-publish too. Being a full-time author is a tough job to pull off, and most authors supplement their income through other avenues.

3. You’ll need to do your share of marketing.

Just to get through the querying process, you’ll need to do some leg work in terms of your online and social media presence. Most agents will want to be able to google your name and find easily identifiable social media accounts and a website dedicated to your writing. Crafting your brand becomes even more important after you sign a contract and prepare for your book release. You’ll need an email list and social media accounts for promoting your work and connecting with readers. Depending on your contract, your publisher might have a big publicity team and offer help with marketing, but the extent varies significantly based on who the publisher is and where your book fits into their offerings.

4. Traditional publishing is S L O W…

Poke around for a few minutes on people’s querying experiences, and you’ll see most have writers have written multiple manuscripts (or rewritten the same one) over a period of years before they sign with an agent. After that, your manuscript might be out on submission for weeks to a year or longer before it sells. And if it doesn’t sell, your next manuscript will head out to repeat the same long process. Once you get an offer (hooray!), it could take months to negotiate and sign the contract, then more months of editing, then more months of waiting for formatting and cover design and the release date. My first book with Love Inspired Suspense (writing as Kellie VanHorn) came out only nine months after signing the contract—quite a whirlwind in the world of traditional publishing! One to two years is far more likely.

Depending on your contract, you might be limited during that time on what else you can publish in the same genre or under the same name (a non-compete clause). Your contract might also include an option clause giving the publisher exclusive access to offer on or decline your next book on their time frame. All this means, you won’t be firing out your books in a rapid-release format.

Do the cons of traditional publishing sound like too much? Then look for my next post on self-publishing!

In the meantime, what are your thoughts on traditional publishing? Any more pros or cons to add to my list?

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10 thoughts on “Choosing Your Path to Publication, Part 1: Traditional Publishing

  1. Great article, Kellie. Lots of good information. Something I’ve run into with traditional publishing is when your editor leaves the publishing house and you’re then an orphan. You hope they will place you with another editor, who also loves your work, but it’s always a crap shoot.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Choosing Your Path to Publication, Part 2: Self-Publishing | Kellie Michelle Parker

  3. Pingback: Choosing Your Path to Publication, Part 3: Decisions, Decisions | Kellie Michelle Parker

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