Self-Publishing v. Traditional Publishing: What's the Difference?

There are quite a few options available to you when you look into the publishing process, and I know a lot of it is contradictory and overwhelming depending on the "type" of publishing. In this post, we're going to talk about the differences between the three main methods of publishing: self-publishing, traditional publishing, and the middle ground: indie presses.

Understanding the differences between these types of publishing will help you understand which one you want to pursue.

Traditional Publishing

Traditional publishing means that your book's rights are purchased by a publishing house, and then that publishing house handles all of the costs associated with production and distribution, including editing, cover design, formatting, and limited marketing.

The traditional publishing process, in general, works like this:

  1. Finish and polish your manuscript - this does not mean hiring a freelance editor, but typically does include several beta readers and critique partners

  2. Query literary agents - this person will be representing you and your book, so it's very important to find the right literary agent, and not just the first one who offers representation

  3. Go through revisions with your agent - this step depends on the type of agent you signed with; some will offer editorial feedback, and some won't.

  4. Your agent puts your book on submission - this is where your agent sends your manuscript out to publishing houses.

  5. A publishing house acquiring editor offers you a contract OR your manuscript goes to auction and gets offered a contract - either option is fine, but you'll end up with a contract with a publishing house to publish your book

  6. The publishing house editors work with you to revise your book

  7. Book is finalized for production - this includes cover and formatting, as well as any marketing resources the house might be able to offer

  8. Your book is released.

You may or may not get an advance, which is essentially a payment of your royalties in advance before you "earn them" with sales.

More and more commonly, you will receive a portion of sales royalties, after paying your agent (who sells the book to the publishing house) and any other staff you have. You have little control over what happens once your book's rights are purchased by the publishing house.

Another good item to note is that historically, traditional publishers have handled marketing for their authors. This is becoming increasingly less common, particularly for debut authors or marginalized authors. I want to caution you to not pursue traditional publishing simply because you believe they will handle the marketing for you. They likely won't.


You are responsible for the entire process of writing, editing, marketing, and publishing your book. From writing the book to finding an editor, from choosing your cover to choosing your price, to pushing the book out to your selected retail channels, all of it is up to you.

You are in complete control, for better or worse. You might hire freelancers, like a cover designer and an editor, but you control who you hire, you pay them, etc. You have the control and the decision power here. This can be both good and bad, and can be expensive. There are options available to you to self-publish on a budget, but typically, self-publishing is an expensive pursuit.

There are a lot of things that go into being a self-published author, and for someone who's never done it before, it is extremely overwhelming. Despite that, there are many many resources out there that aspiring self-publishers can turn to for guidance.

In general, the self-publishing process looks like this:

  1. Complete your first draft of your manuscript

  2. Begin edits, starting with self-led revisions and then working either with beta readers or a freelance editor

  3. Concurrently, begin the cover design process

  4. Concurrently, determine how you will format the book and what formats you want to offer the book in

  5. Concurrently, determine which distribution channels you want to use

  6. Concurrently, determine your marketing plan to promote your book (here's mine for an example)

  7. Finalize your book and cover

  8. If your marketing plan includes a cover reveal, stage and host the cover reveal

  9. Format your book and upload to distribution channels, either for release or for preorder (some channels you can put the book up for preorder without a finalized file, like Amazon or Barnes & Noble ebooks)

  10. If your marketing plan includes an Advance Reader campaign, send out ARCs with your requirements and deadlines

  11. Release the book

  12. Continue marketing the book and begin writing your next project

The self-publishing timeline is typically much faster than the traditional publishing process, with many things happening at the same time and overlapping with each other. Additionally, the self-publishing process is much more customizable, so if something doesn't work for you or your book, you can set your own path.

There are no requirements. This is your business and you can run it however you please.

Indie Publishing (or Indie Press):

The third option is to publish with an indie press. The term indie publishing is often interchanged with self-publishing, but for the purpose of clarity, they are different. Indie presses, or independent publishing houses, operate like traditional publishers but typically on a much smaller scale.

They might only work with certain genres or niches, and typically select a much smaller number of authors to publish.

You contract with an indie publishing house, sometimes called an indie press. They will typically help you choose a cover, and they may or may not offer in-house editing or an outsourced freelancer to edit. Typically, indie presses will handle the distribution of your books for you, though the methods of distribution are often similar to that of self-published authors (i.e. IngramSpark and KDP).

You may or may not get an advance with an indie press, but you will definitely get royalties for your book sales. You do not have to have an agent for most indie presses. That being said, please be sure to have someone knowledgable look over any contracts before you sign anything. If you are a member of the Author's Guild or the Alliance of Independent Authors, they have in-house legal services that would look over the contract for you, and it's included in your membership dues.

Author Beware: Vanity presses are often confused for indie presses. REAL indie presses and indie publishers will either pay you an advance and then pay you royalties, or just pay you royalties. You should never, I repeat NEVER, pay a publishing house or press up front to publish your book. They get paid when you get paid. That's it. Any publishing company that asks you for an upfront fee to publish your book for you is a scam and DO NOT DO IT. (Note: This is not talking about distributors like IngramSpark that require an upload fee. They are a distributor, not a publisher.)

Of course, these are not all the methods available to you to get your book out there, but they are the three most common. I hope this post was helpful, and as always, if you have questions, please feel free to let me know!


Self-Publishing v. Traditional Publishing in 2022 by Scribe Media

Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing by Joanna Penn

What is Indie Publishing by Gatekeeper Press

Indie Publisher or Self Publisher by Sue Campbell

The Traditional Publishing Process by Well Storied

Manuscript Wishlist - A Database of Literary Agents

The Complete Guide to Query Letters by Jane Friedman

Self-Publishing Release Checklist by me

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