What is the difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing?

Every single client I have ever worked with has asked me about the difference between “traditional” publishing and self-publishing.

Traditional publishing: A publishing house signs you and pays you an advance, or an advance plus royalties, to write your book.

Self-publishing: you publish the book yourself using tools that have become widely available just in the past few years!

First off, here’s what doesn’t change:

In both cases you’re thinking about selling books, of course! You’re asking yourself questions like, “Who needs this book?” and “What will transform inside my reader after they read it?”

That focus on the audience to answer the question, “Why does this book need to exist?” That doesn’t change.

Now, I could detail all kinds of differences between the two, including differences in how you can distribute the book, the rights you retain, and how the book gets marketed.

But here’s a difference I want to highlight because it’s less Google-able: to land a book contract with a publishing house, the house needs to understand what your book does for them.

In the case of traditional publishing, you have to contend with the possibility that a publisher – or multiple publishers – just won’t understand. If they don’t “get it,” or get you, they are likely to pass on your book idea.

So! Explore the traditional publishing route if it feels right. Just don’t misunderstand publisher rejection as a referendum on whether your idea is any good.

Their rejection is not a reaction to your idea: it’s a reflection of the decision-makers’ taste and knowledge – and the limits of that knowledge.

If you know there’s an audience for your topic that’s been largely ignored (particularly if you’re a member of that audience), or if you know there’s a topic that your audience craves more information about but it’s taboo so no one is willing to talk about it, those are great things.

They just won’t always be recognized by traditional publishers.


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