A Reader’s Guide to Traditional vs. Self-Published Books

Written by ML Spencer

January 6, 2020

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Modern readers have what seems a never-ending selection of books to choose from, far more so than at any other time in history. With the rise of the self-publishing industry, the choices out there can be daunting. So how does the discriminant reader choose between traditionally published and self-published books? Are there benefits to reading self-pub? And what are the pros and cons of each? Here’s a quick breakdown:

Traditionally Published Books: The Pros

Traditionally published books have set the standard since the invention of the printing press. A familiar imprint has always been an assurance of quality in writing, editing, and formatting. Traditionally published authors enjoy esteem and validation by both readers and industry professionals and have access to resources that are usually beyond the means of their self-published counterparts. Their books are widely available in bookstores, grocery stores, and even airports. Many of their names have become household words, and some have even gone on to see their books produced into movies.

When we pick up a traditionally published book, we have certain expectations. The formatting will be up to standard. The book will have been well-edited, and we would be surprised to find even a comma out of place. The writing will be of a certain quality, as the manuscript has passed through the hands of multiple gatekeepers, including agents and several different types and levels of editors. It will have garnered reviews by esteemed periodicals and blogs, perhaps even celebrity endorsements. For many readers, traditionally published books are the safe choice—and therefore the easy choice. Some books we select may not be to our particular taste, but we have every reason to believe that most of our expectations will be met.

Traditionally Published Books: The Cons

Despite what most readers may think, there is no guarantee of quality in traditional publishing. Trad-pub books can still suffer from bad editing, bad formatting, and just plain bad writing. Big publishers are looking for books that are a statistically safe investment. They choose manuscripts that fit highly inflexible, cookie-cutter molds or trends and eschew those that don’t. Bringing a new book to publication can be a glacially slow process, so much so that waiting for a highly anticipated book can become a painful wait for the reader. Trad-pub books can be quite expensive, especially ebooks, which can be priced nearly the same as physical copies.

Self-Published Books: The Pros

What some readers may not know is that many of their favorite traditionally published authors started out as independents. Fifty Shades of Grey, The Martian, and Eragon are all examples of novels that were self-published before they were picked up by a major publisher.  Within the ever-expanding selection of self-pub books available today, it is becoming more and more common to stumble across true gems. Many of the authors currently topping the USA Today and New York Times best-seller charts are self-published. No longer do indie books deserve the stigma. Readers can find many books on the self-pub shelves that do not fit the formulaic, cookie-cutter models of their traditionally published competition. Niche books and genre mash-ups can be true joys to read, though such books are usually avoided by traditional agents and publishers for lack of solid statistics to justify their acquisition. Some readers may appreciate that indie authors maintain total creative control over their work, so they can feel assured that what they read on the page follows the author’s true vision. Many of today’s self-published authors go to great lengths to assure that their books are professionally edited and formatted. There are thousands of high-quality indie books available that are indistinguishable from their trad-pub counterparts—most at a fraction of the price.

Self-Published Books: The Cons

Just as in traditional publishing, there is no guarantee of quality among self-published books. However, in the case of indies, the lack of quality can be extreme. There are no gatekeepers in the self-published world and very little quality-control, if any. It is very easy for a drive-by author to throw a book up on Amazon without the benefit of even a second pair of eyes giving it a once-over. Often, readers feel that they are taking a risk when purchasing a self-pub book by an unknown author.

The Case of the Hybrid Author

Hybrid authors (not to be confused with hybrid presses) are traditionally published authors who have also chosen to self-publish. More and more, trad-pub authors are finding self-pub a viable way of breathing new life into books in their back catalogs that have gone out of print. Some authors still going the traditional route for their paperbacks might prefer to maintain control over their own audio or e-book rights, or self-publish across different genres.

ML Spencer lives in Southern California with her three children and two cats. She has been obsessed with fantasy ever since the days of childhood bedtime stories. She grew up reading and writing fantasy fiction, playing MMORPG games, and living, as mom put it, “in her own worlds.” ML now spends each day working to bring those worlds into reality. She loves to read and write grimdark fantasy because it probes the deep, dark questions of human nature and moral ethics.

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