Mainstream vs. Self-Publishing: To Be or Not To Be

Oct 13, 2011 | The Publishing Industry

I’m faced with something of a conundrum.

At this point, I’m pretty confident that my writing is good enough to publish. The Novel is still sitting in editing hell – and at this point, I’m eyeing up NanoWrimo to rewrite the whole damn thing, chapter by chapter – but I got the chops to knock out some pretty stellar prose on my good days. I’m moving into copywriting on the business side of things as well, after a contact sent a freelance job my way, and I got much praise for the delivered work.

The question is simply whether it’s worth it to go hunting for a traditional publisher. I keep up with a lot of the news coming from the industry, and at this point, I’m not convinced that one of the big houses can offer a better deal than what you get from Amazon if you choose to self-publish.


  • Mainstream – forget about it if you’re not a big name already. You have to do your own marketing, and you’d better have a blog and be able to build an audience independently. Major authors or celebrities can command the resources of the big publishing houses, but if you’re new, you’ll get little support by all accounts. Apparently, the current trend is for authors to spend their advance on marketing and publicity, with no guarantee of a return. This absolutely boggles my mind, seeing as the advance is supposed to be what the author lives on while writing their next book. Don’t give up the day job, indeed.
  • Self-publishing – you do it all yourself, from the ground up, but without being listed in any sales catalogues and no hope of exposure through brick-and-mortar stores. Not for the faint of heart or the technologically dis-inclined.


  • Mainstream – your advance will be low. The median advance for first-time speculative fiction authors is only $5000, according to this survey. The averages are not much better. A low advance means a low investment by the publisher, and probably a low print run. Royalties vary from 6% to 15% on the retail price, which just isn’t a whole hell of a lot unless you sell upwards of ten to twenty thousand copies – and you have to earn back the advance first. E-book royalties are about 25%, which still seems low for something that costs nothing to produce or distribute bar the initial outlay.
  • Self-publishing – Amazon offers a 70% royalty rate on e-books if you keep the price under $9.99 and agree to sell it for at least 20% less than the physical book. You also have to let Amazon sell for the same price or less than other competitors. Amazon’s Createspace publishing arm will let you sell a 300 page book (fantasy books tend to be a bit longer than usual) for $14.99 through their Createspace eStore and give you a third to a half of the price, depending on whether you’re on their Pro plan or not.


  • Mainstream – self-explanatory, really. You have very little control. The publisher will listen to your input, but they have the final say on stuff like the cover and editing. They can also request revisions to make it more marketable, for example. The upside to this is that they’re trained professionals who know the business, and you’ll get the benefit of their skills and experience.
  • Self-publishing – full control, and every opportunity to cock the whole thing up.


(Thought I should mention this – limiting your book by geographical region is nothing short of insane in the modern world. It hasn’t worked for DVD distribution or movies – it just increased piracy in the restricted areas – and locking out the global market means less money for you. If the book is popular, people will want it regardless of whether it’s licensed for their region or not. If it’s not popular, your foreign rights are worthless.)

  • Mainstream – you license your book to them for certain areas. You can license them to sell it in the US, for example, and keep your foreign rights to sell to another publisher in the UK, for example. This can mean more money.
  • Self-publishing – you can choose to sell to the whole world if you want to.

Needless to say, I’m somewhat divided on whether mainstream publishing is really going to offer me enough in exchange for the control I give up and the expertise they offer, but the sheer mountain of work that’s involved with self-publishing scares me. I have the know-how to market online and the technical knowledge to build out a site and handle social media, but can I really do all that and freelance as well to support myself?