Because there's been a lot of discussion in the publishing/writing world lately and because this is top of mind after an interview I did a week or so ago, I thought it might be a good time to discuss the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing. Just a few years ago, I was clinging to the old ways, where we thought of self or independent publishing as something kind of sleazy. Now it's opened a lot of new opportunities for authors to be in control of their careers. I'm basing this on my experiences as a "hybrid" author who's worked both ways -- with multiple publishers and going it alone. Mind you, it's all changing so fast that this advice may be out of date next week.
In traditional publishing, you may have some degree of input, but the publisher has the final say on most things. You have the most control over content, but the editor can refuse to accept a book if you refuse to make changes the editor deems absolutely necessary to make the book publishable, and your agent and maybe even lawyers might need to get involved. You may be given some input on the title and cover, but it's possible that your input will be entirely ignored. You generally don't get any say on release date or price. On the other hand, the people who make these decisions are professionals who've worked with a lot of books and have a good idea of what works and what doesn't.
In self-publishing, you're in control of everything -- you have final say on the content, formatting, title, cover, price, distribution and release date. This can be both good and bad. It's nice to be in control of your book, but it's also a lot of responsibility and work. If the cover turns off readers, it's your fault. You can't say the publisher failed you. In order to make the best decisions, you'll need to do a lot of research and consult with people who know what they're doing. Even if you hire a professional cover designer, you should probably study books similar to yours so you'll know if a proposed design is likely to fit well enough in the genre to signal to readers what it is while also standing out. Likewise, you'll need to look into sales patterns to get a sense of what release schedule and pricing is likely to work best.
Bottom line: It depends on how big a control freak you are and how knowledgable you are which one would be best for you.
In traditional publishing, the publisher covers all the cost of producing the book. You usually get paid an up-front advance that may be divided into payments upon signing the contract, upon acceptance of the final manuscript and maybe even upon publication. Depending on the publisher and on your contract, that can range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to millions. A first book with a major publisher tends to average in the $5,000-$20,000 range, unless the book goes to auction and is in high demand. The author usually earns around 6-15 percent of the cover price for print books, and the e-book rate seems to be in constant flux, but 25 percent is in the ballpark. Once the book has earned royalties that go beyond the advance, you'll receive royalty payments twice a year. If you had a high advance, your book may never earn out and receive extra payments, or it may take years to earn out.
In self publishing, you pay up front for costs related to producing the book -- editing, copyediting, formatting, cover design and art, marketing, etc. Depending on the sales venue and your cover price, you may earn around 70 percent of the cover price. How much you earn depends on how well your book sells, which is nearly impossible to predict. You get paid monthly, usually starting the month after your book goes on sale, though different venues have different payment schedules.
Bottom line: Self-publishing requires some investment but can pay off. Keep in mind, though, that the people making millions are generally outliers -- you hear about them because they're unusual. There's more money up-front with traditional publishing without the financial risk, but you keep more of the money from self-publishing. The cover price is likely to be lower with self-publishing, but you get more of it.
Traditional publishing doesn't move very quickly. It generally takes about a year from the time you turn in a manuscript until it's published. My next traditionally published book took more than a year to sell, and it will be published more than two years after it was bought. Publishers generally don't publish more than a book a year from any one author unless they're doing a special promotion where they do back-to-back books to build an author or series.
With self-publishing, you can turn around quickly. My last self-published book was available for sale within two months of me finishing it. You can put out as many books a year as you can write.
Bottom line: Success in self publishing tends to come from frequency, so if you're a one-book-a-year writer, it may not be for you. But if you can write faster than publishers can publish, you can get your books out there, and you can take advantage of market trends much more quickly.
Traditional publishing has gatekeepers -- you have to find an editor who likes your work, and then the editor has to convince the publisher and the beancounters that this book will make money. Most books are rejected. Sometimes they're rejected because of quality, but sometimes they're rejected because the topic doesn't fit a trend, because the perceived audience is considered too small or just because they don't quite know what to do with a particular book that doesn't fit any obvious niche. However, because of the gatekeeping, a traditionally published book is generally considered to have a stamp of approval that makes it eligible for most revue venues, and the authors are considered professionals by organizations and events.
Anyone can self-publish anything. This can be both good and bad. Books that don't fit an obvious niche can find an audience, but there's also less quality control, and that has given self-published books a bit of a stigma. Unless the author has an established reputation, readers may hesitate to take the chance of finding a badly written, unedited book after they've been burned a few times. Many revue venues won't consider self-published books, and unless the authors have really made a name for themselves, they're not considered eligible as guests at conferences and conventions and may not meet professional organization membership requirements, though this is changing rapidly.
Bottom line: This is probably the biggest reason I'm publishing a lot of my own work, since I don't fit the trends or niches, but I have the advantage of also being traditionally published, which gets me through the door for a lot of promotional opportunities.
A traditional publisher has a marketing and publicity department with a lot of established connections. They promote books to booksellers and libraries and make review copies available to the media. They can arrange booksignings at the corporate level. Your book may be available in brick-and-mortar bookstores. However, most of the publicity and marketing effort is focused on booksellers. You'll still have to do much of the outreach to readers. You'll have to produce your own web site and marketing materials, unless you're a huge bestseller, and you'll probably have to buy any advertising you want.
A self-published book can be available, even in print, at the major online booksellers but is less likely to get brick-and-mortar distribution, though that's becoming less important as chains close and shrink and more people buy their books online. You can make review copies available at NetGalley. You'll have to do all the publicity work yourself or hire someone to help.
Bottom line: Publicity is a lot of work either way, and the changing landscape is changing the importance of physical distribution. This is one of those areas that's really in flux.
You probably should have an agent for dealing with traditional publishers because their contracts are so complex and you want to make sure you hold onto as many of your rights as possible. But getting an agent can be a real challenge.
You don't need an agent to self-publish your books, but if you've had some success there, you might want an agent to help sell foreign translation rights, audio rights, film rights, etc. Agents may also be able to get deals where you keep electronic rights and just sell print rights to a publisher to get your books in stores. Some agents facilitate self-publishing, using their resources and their clout with the various bookselling venues. If you've been a bestseller on your own, it'll be a lot easier to get an agent.
Bottom line: You're probably going to eventually need an agent if you're going to make a career out of this (though I've seen a number of authors disagree about this).