To Publish Traditionally or Self-Publish? A Framework for Decision-Making

By Tara Makhmali | CEO of CommonSmarts Media, LLC | Author of MISSWIRED

The question of whether one should self-publish or publish traditionally is a misnomer because what does it mean to “publish traditionally” and what does it mean to “self-publish,” given that the two have been in flux for over a decade? Traditional publishing is no longer traditional, given how people consume content, and individuals who pursue self-publishing are simply small business owners that leverage available platforms and services and outsource everything else.

So the question is: what problem set do you want to acquire? And more specifically, where do you want to sit in the process and can you bankroll it? Here are two scenarios for a debut author.

Problem Set One: Traditional Publishing

The assumption with traditional publishing is that you will write a draft of a manuscript (or a synopsis of one), pitch it to an agent, and then that agent will pitch you to a publisher who will then edit, transcode, print, warehouse, distribute, market, publicize, and sell your book and its many derivatives.

  • In this scenario, the common misnomer is that you will release your perch (a draft of your manuscript) into the hands of an agent/publisher and, eureka, a best-selling, award-winning book will pop out at the other end. This is not the case.
  • Just because a publisher has some of the above capabilities and hopefully the established contacts, that does not mean they will give all of them to you, do all of them for you, or do any of them well. Even if they offer all of these perks, lets safely assume that every company has pockets of talent, and this talent makes up for 20% of its people. The other 80% varies and can possibly be as harmful to you as it can be helpful.
  • Okay, so what would compel a publisher to give a debut author the crème de la crème service? And even if they get that white-glove service, consumer behavior is unpredictable and complicated, and publishers are not typically hailed for their marketing, advertising, and publicity savvy. This means that if you already are a successful media or industry personality, have a strong social following (a.k.a. are an “influencer”), or have a credential or award that establishes you as a toted expert in a particular field and you intend to write about that field, then you have priority seating in the nebulous, traditional “old guard” world. How do you break through these nepotistic barriers, and do you want to? What would be the motivation to pursue a traditional publisher as a debut novelist without all the proverbial clout/privilege? The motivation would be to gain recognition, and that becomes a very personalized process that depends on individual strengths and weaknesses. We do not live in a society where one’s true-life experience is adequately portrayed through a résumé (like that defining moment when you sat by your dying father’s bedside for a month and felt his hand go limp as you observed his final breath). It should be, but it is not.

Problem Set Two: Self-Publishing

As a self-publisher, or what some people call “artisanal” or “indie” publisher, you own the entire process, as opposed to taking a seat within it. You bypass the pitch to an agent and publisher, and then you cherry-pick who you want to work with to develop and sell your product. This includes everything from editing to design to marketing, publicity and so on.

  • In this scenario, the common self-publishing misnomer is that once you write your manuscript, all you have to do is plop it somewhere and ta-da, you will have a best-selling, award-winning book. This is not the case. The reality is you’re building a business that will serve as platform for the remainder of your writing career.
  • If you don’t have the product development network, you’ll have to build one, and if you don’t know the product development process, you’ll have to learn as you go.
  • While consumers don’t appear to care too much about whether a writer is traditionally or self-published, indicated by the fact indie ebook sales constitute for roughly 30-40% of market share in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand*, there is a misperception that self-publishing is what a writer should do after they first try to get a traditional publishing deal, or that it’s what you do when you have failed as a writer. This narrative shouldn’t surprise anyone since, when it registers, self-publishing works against the bread and butter of the traditional publisher, not in favor of it. So yes, it can be a challenging misconception and sure, self-publishing is not for everyone, but when you consider who gets priority within a publisher’s Rolodex, the question becomes what is your motivation? How neatly do you fit the traditional mold? (Are you already a highly accomplished and affluent person with lots of social media followers?)

Notice how neither of these two scenarios has much to do with the quality of the writing or the quality of a person as a writer. Realistically, the people who care about these types of articles are either writers who are trying to break into the business or individuals who are concerned they may be losing validity within it.

A Framework For Decision-Making

So again, the question is, which problem set do you want to inherit? To figure that out you have to ask:

  1. What are your goals and your motivations?
  2. What do traditional publishers actually look for and how well do you map to it?
  3. What other skills can you bring to the table?
  4. What are your financial parameters? (I didn’t mention this earlier, but the royalties for a self-published author are typically far better than for a traditionally published author, but the startup costs are much higher for an indie author, particularly if you’re aiming for excellent.)

Anecdotally, I can tell you that when I wrote MISSWIRED, and published it through my company, CommonSmarts Media, LLC, my goal was (and continues to be) to establish myself as an excellent writer of literary fiction and, for me, that means doing everything possible to ensure that I have an opportunity to iterate on my work, now and as long as I am alive, based on direct feedback from mass consumers, at my own optimal productivity pace, and with a handful of credible people that I’ve carefully selected. I don’t see self-publishing as a last resort; I see it as a must for any writer who wants to do this for life, any writer with product development experience, and any writer with an entrepreneurial mindset.

I am motivated and invigorated by running a business, both as a woman and as a minority who, at the onset, might otherwise have difficulty breaking into the nepotistic model of traditional publishing. Additionally, I am learning about what the business of selling books (vs. writing and producing them) actually entails, so if I ever do choose to work through a traditional publisher, I’ll be equipped with the knowledge to advocate for myself far more effectively and know when/where/how to fill any gaps in their offering.

This may be the opposite advice espoused by advocates of traditional publishing, but again, agents and traditional publishers are in direct competition with self-publishers for market share, and the world always needs quality writers. Hence, we’re not comparing apples to apples here.

Since I already have experience working in publishing (I used to lead the development of multimillion-dollar educational programs) and have gained wonderful experience from the projects and companies for whom I have worked (Bridgewater Associates, HBO, FCB Advertising), I love taking on all the challenges of running a small business.

I’m generally more comfortable in an entrepreneurial environment, partially from my upbringing, but also because of my naturally creative and analytical nature.

Ultimately, I opted not to acquire the traditional agent/publisher problem set because it felt like an arbitrary impediment to my end goal, given my experience, and my passion.

Now, if a traditional publisher reframed their offering and came pitching to me out of the blue today, I might reconsider it, but even then, would they pursue me without my initial upfront investment? Would it be worth it? I don’t know, but to quote Rayna James from the television series Nashville, “there’s plenty of sunshine for all.”


*February 2017 Big, Bad, Wide & International Report: covering Amazon, Apple, B&N, and Kobo ebook sales in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand

If you have more questions about whether to pitch to a traditional publisher or to self-publish, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I know these decisions aren’t easy to make.