Traditional vs Self-Publication: The argument has flipped.

There was a time when the world at large looked down their noses at anyone who self-published, like the writing was sub-par. In many ways, it was. In those early days of Amazon and Kindle, self-publishing was so easy. Getting your book out into the world was just a matter of uploading your file to the internet and clicking on a few buttons. You didn’t even need to pay a dime if you didn’t want to. As such, everyone from the dog to the neighbor was self-publishing — and the world became flooded with books, many of which should have never been published when they were.

The market is still flooded with sub-par self-published books, but things have moved on. With the changes that have occurred within the industry as a whole, the quality of the self-published works has gone up and the ability to get traditional publication contracts has dramatically become harder. And the attitudes about self-publication have now flipped, and the stigma is now attached to the traditional roads.

For someone like myself, it is exciting times to see these transformations within the publishing industry. However, the shift in attitudes actually make my blood boil — but not because of where the stigma now lies, but because of the way people treat me when they discover that I’m determined to go down the traditional route with my fiction.

I’m surrounded by self-published and traditionally published writers.

As a writer, I’m blessed. In my local community, I’m surrounded by self-published and traditionally published writers. Most of them are incredibly open about their experiences, willing to share with me any of the pitfalls they’ve encountered along the way. And because I never once ask for them to defend their choices, I’m normally able to get that little tidbit that they won’t share with others.

Because of it, I have been able to witness the struggles of both roads. And I’m able to piece together why the ones struggling to gain any traction are losing out in a big way.

Far too many self-published writers were incredibly quick to just get out there. They finished their books (and some of them are AWESOME books), but they only had the one. They had nothing to follow that debut with, keeping fans interested. One writer published her debut novel ten years ago, which was meant to be the first in a trilogy, and there is still no sign of the sequel. Another has done something similar, but hit stalemate when the pressure became too much. In both cases, they complain about the fact that their first book isn’t selling, even with it being out on the market for all these years. And part of the reason for that one: they don’t actually market their books.

Yet, I know others who have self-published and are doing extremely well. They have rightly identified their target audience and have amassed a following. New books are coming out all the time, and the backlist is finally selling itself.

The lesson here is if you are going to self-publish fiction, you need to have more than one book ready to go BEFORE you published the first one!

The traditionally published writers seem to be a mixed bag too. One is doing extremely well, finally getting the recognition for her talents from the publisher themselves — but it took her a good five years to get to that point. Another is irritated with the lack of support that she seems to get from her publisher. And another is only just starting into that venture and has no thoughts about it either way. Yet, there is one common thread among them: they all agree that the money sucks.

Is one path better than the other?

With all those around me who are either self- or traditionally published, I’m able to piece together a road map to navigate those muddy waters. And I can honestly say that BOTH paths have their advantages and disadvantages.

I’m not going to go into the advantages and disadvantages here. However, I will say that I’m fully aware of what I’m getting myself into. Yet, whenever I have a conversation about my hopes and dreams, mentioning that none of my fiction is published yet because I’m going traditional, there is instantly this whole lecture that comes my way about how traditional publication is evil.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s not far off it.

The topic of traditional vs self-publication is a HOT topic. Writers everywhere were disillusioned, hoping to make their millions off their writing. But my personal goal for my writing career is not focused on my writing alone as a source of income. Sure, it would be nice to be able to make a living from my writing alone, but I openly recognize that I need to do other things too (which is why I’m also a professional editor). However, one of my goals for my career is to see my books (plural) on the shelves of any bookstore in the western world. To get there, I NEED to go traditional.

Publishing in New Zealand is not like the US.

Before I go much further, I need to point out that I live in New Zealand. The publishing industry within New Zealand (the country where I live) is dying. The market is NOT here. If you somehow managed to get a publication contract with a New Zealand publisher, you can expect to sell in the order of 400 units. That is not a typo, but rather a quoted number from one of the only remaining agents within this country. And for those who are self-publishing, the only reason that you would sell more units is because you’re selling to overseas markets.

For me, my target market is actually the USA. And I can’t pound the streets to get a self-published books into stores in the USA. It’s another reason why I need to go traditional.

When I have the conversation with other writers about this, almost everyone agrees. If the goal was to be in bookstores around the world, then for New Zealand writers, traditional is the best way to go. That is changing, but it will require A LOT of marketing for the self-published writer for it to happen — time and energy that I don’t have.

Regardless, those conversations are often tainted with some variant of “You’ll never make any money though.”

Grrr… Even now, when I think about this attitude, it gets my back up. How dare ANYONE transplant onto me THEIR hopes and dreams. My ultimate goal has nothing to do with money!

I can count at least three separate occasions where I have found myself having the exact same conversation in the past three months. All of them were with those who were self-published. All of them were with those who had never bothered to even attempt the traditional road (for whatever reason). And all of them had this delusion that my focus was about money.

But I will mention that I’m actually a hybrid writer.

Hybrid is a thing too!

Hidden Traps by Judy L Mohr

I am ALREADY self-published. Even though it was under my own imprint, Hidden Traps was by all definitions self-published. However, I knew that it was a book that would never make it through traditional means, because it was time-sensitive material — and was out of date within one month of publication, much to my dismay. 5 years later, and almost all of the software tricks discussed in the book are now out of date.

Twitter has been updated. Facebook has had a massive overhaul. Instagram was nonexistent in that book, and even WordPress is no longer the same.

Production lead times was a massive balancing trick with producing that book. Yet, I still had to entirely rewrite a few of the chapters after it went to the copyeditor, because platforms changed while it was in the middle of final production.

One day I’ll put out a second edition of that book — maybe — but I’m struggling to stay ahead of the platform changes just for my blog. As such, I refuse to make any promises on release dates.

Because of the self-publishing options, I was able to get Hidden Traps out there. I was able to help spread the word about how these systems work and how writers can protect themselves online.

To me, that was important. That was the purpose behind that book. But if I was to believe the doomsayers who are so determined to see me walk solely down the self-publication path, then Hidden Traps should have been a hit.

Well, it BOMBED! I haven’t even made back the money that I poured into it. It was a massive loss. It was also a massive learning curve.

It gave me an appreciation of what the traditional publishers have to go through. I was able to see what it would take to create a quality product (and gain an appreciation for the amount of money it was going to take for such a venture). I was able to fully understand the issues with typesetting and distribution. It also helped me develop a few strategies to help market my own fiction novels when I get there.

Self-publication is NOT better than Traditional. Traditional is NOT better than self-publication.

I don’t think I can say it any plainer. Neither road is better than the other. They’re just different. They have different challenges and different issues. They require different mindsets and different attitudes. AND they suit different personalities.

If you are trying to make the decision for yourself as to which path you should go, you might find these resources from Jane Friedman as food for thought.

In this post, she discusses some questions that you need to ask yourself about what goals you have for your book and your writing career. In this post, she links to a PDF that she updates regularly with the advantages and disadvantages of both paths.

I’m absolutely sick of those who are self-published looking down at me because I’m determined to go traditional. I’m getting frustrated beyond belief with those who insist on imposing their goals onto me. Every journey is different. Why can’t people accept that?

I’ll leave you with this final thought: Remember that there was once a time when those going traditional looked down their noses at those who were self-published. Remember how frustrated and irritated you felt. Stop thinking that self-publication is better than traditional. Don’t misinterpret our actions with this incorrect belief about traditional. Accept that they are DIFFERENT.

Learn from the other group. Don’t judge! You never know, you might discover something about yourself that you never realized.

P.S. I’d love to meet you on Twitter or Facebook.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2019

Posted in A Writer's Journey and tagged , , , .


  1. This article is very interesting. My son and I are working on a book together, and I was not sure if we should self-publish or not. I had always thought you would make more money if a publisher took on the project, and published the book, because they would do the marketing for you. Is that not true?

    • The marketing side of the equation has always been an interesting one. If you were to be traditionally published, some of the initial marketing will be done by the publishing house, but the lion’s share of the work falls on your shoulders. This is one of the reasons why many have turned to self-publication.

      In terms of making more money… Again, this is an interesting area. If one was to self-publish through the likes of Amazon KDP, you can earn up to 70% of the royalties, but you would also need to do a significant amount of marketing to see decent returns. Saying that, you can see the returns faster, as you don’t need to wait for the publishing house’s schedule for you to get those returns.

      With a publishing house, you should be offered an advance. However, you will not see any more money until your portion of the royalties is worth more than what you were given as an advance. It’s a calculated risk that the publishing house makes. How many units do they think they can sell (with your assistance in marketing)?

      In terms of deciding what you should do with this project, going self or trad, decide what your goal for the project actually is and go from there. If your goal is to make money, then I would seriously consider self-publication. If your goal is to have a wide reach and go international, then seriously consider traditional.

      However, also consider what your ideal timeline to publication is. If your goal is to be published within a year, then self will be the way to go. If you’re prepared to wait years (and years is not an exaggeration), and be willing to face rejection after rejection after rejection, then you might have the temperament suited for traditional.

      I myself am a hybrid, with both traditional contracts and self-publications with my nonfiction writing, so I do understand the dilemma you’re now facing. Regardless of the path you choose, to provide yourself with the best chances for success, ensure that you have written a quality product that has been well edited.

      Go through some of the articles and resources available on Black Wolf Editorial Services. I do talk about some of the pitfalls of both paths over on that blog.

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