Forget Self-Publishing vs Trad-Publishing! Why Authors Should Embrace Both

In 2015 I attended the London Book Fair for the first time (If you’ve never been, go, you’ll learn a hell of a lot about how the book trade works). There I listened to a talk by author C J Lyons that completely changed my perspective. She said:

Don’t think of it as ‘self’ publishing. You are CEO of your own Global Media Empire.
– C J Lyons

Meaning that the publishing world had changed, and authors no longer needed to be passive cogs in a traditional publishing machine to be successful, they could be the directors of their own personal publishing strategy. It was the first time I’d heard someone pitch the idea that an author could (should) be an entrepreneur.

Hybrid Publishing and the Concept of the Indie Author

The first key element of Lyons’ vision was that we must shatter the myth that self-publishing meant going it alone. The stigma that has surrounded self-published books in the past, and still persists now, is that they are all sub-standard, poorly edited books with bad self-designed covers, and that only authors who couldn’t (read: not good enough) or wouldn’t (read: arrogant) get a trad-publishing deal would instead try to do everything themselves. She rejected this, and instead painted a picture of the author as a project manager, working in collaboration with freelance editors, cover designers, publicists, agents and so on. A force of authority, directing a process, to produce a quality product. What Lyon’s termed Hybrid Publishing.

At the time I had an inkling this was possible, but I was guilty of believing in the stigma. Let’s face it, some authors have self-published some truly awful (or awfully produced) books, so we haven’t helped ourselves in that regard. But, that day my eyes were opened to new possibilities.

I think (I hope) this understanding has become more widespread among both authors and the rest of the book industry. Anyone who has attended the Self Publishing Conference will vouch for this. Certainly the evidence suggests freelance publishing professionals are capitalising on a growing demand for their services. As have professional Author Services outfits like Matador and Silverwood Books, who champion the hybrid publishing model by putting resources directly at the disposal of authors.

Tailoring Your Publishing Strategy

The second key element of Lyons’ concept of the Entrepreneurial Author was to dismiss the idea that trad-publishing and self-publishing are mutually exclusive. This is why I no longer refer to authors who have self-published titles as self-published authors. I use the term Indie Author, because self-publishing one book doesn’t define how you must publish all your books.

Using her own career as an example, Lyons outlined how an author might choose different options for different projects. Work with an agent, traditionally publish some work, self-publish others, making choices on a project by project basis.

The obvious question arises that if you have an agent and a trad-publisher for one book, why not go that route for all your books? That’s the stigma talking! The assumption that self-publishing is a fall back when authors “fail”. No. There are many valid reasons to self-publish:

  • You have a good relationship with a trad-publisher but the new piece isn’t a good fit for them. You may not want to search for and develop a new relationship with another publisher for a one off.
  • Your piece is difficult to place commercially. Trad-publishers are highly risk averse. If the genre, subject or format of your work is difficult to pigeon hole they may not be interested. This doesn’t mean it’s not good writing. This also applies to re-releasing back catalogue.
  • You want to provide your readers with bonus content which isn’t commercial. Short stories up to novellas that tie into a series are good examples of this. There can be demand for it, but a trad-publisher may not be set up to handle it.
  • You want to retain complete creative control. This is particularly relevant for first time authors who are more at risk of being bullied by publishers and doesn’t preclude working with an editor. There can also be other reasons why control might be important to you.
  • Because you can. Authors with an existing fan base especially can benefit from cutting out some or all of the middle men. Also people publishing for niche audiences, or as part of a wider creative collaboration.

I would also like to add to the list of myths to dispel, the notion that self-publishing and trad-publishing can only co-exist in a linear way, i.e successful self-published author gets picked up by trad-publisher (read: underrated writer is finally validated). This is too restrictive when exploring the idea of the Entrepreneurial Author.

Self-publishing is not the less than ideal fall back for rejected authors. It can be:

  • Your stand-alone business model
  • One part of a more complex business model incorporating trad-publishing
  • A complimentary addition to a mostly trad-published career
  • A way in for new authors
  • A way to test new material on readers
  • A way to diversify either the content or format of your work
  • The more flexible option for unusual content
  • A publicity tool
  • A way to engage with your readers directly

Once you start to appreciate the complex reasons for and uses of self-publishing, you can start to see how it becomes a strategy, a tool, under the control of the author, to be used on its own or in conjunction with other strategies.

Your No.1 Responsibility: Don’t Perpetuate the Stigma of Self-Publishing

If you’re deciding how to publish, do not think of self-publishing as the easy option. If you do it well it is bloody hard work! Firstly you should self-publish for the right reasons. Your reason may be in the list above or it may be something more personal to you, but do not self-publish for the wrong reasons:

  • You want all the money for yourself. If you’re serious about self-publishing a good quality book, you will need to pay people to help you. A lot. Trad-publishers do not keep a chunk of your sales out of greed, they earn it, not least by taking the financial burden off your hands.
  • You don’t want to work with an editor. Enough said. Let’s not go there. Anything less than a copy edit and proof read should be considered a crime.
  • You’re tired of rejections. This is a grey area, as it depends on why you’re getting rejected. I’ve put it in this section because it’s a negative driving force rather than a positive one and can lead to a bad attitude when approaching the tasks of self-publishing. Find a positive reason for your choice.
  • You don’t want to wait. You’ve finished writing a book and you can upload it to Amazon with a few clicks and sell it! Amazing. No! No, no, no! You are the source of the stigma. Editing, design work, publicity, trade distribution – you can do so much better.

Self-pub vs Trad-pub

We’ve come a long way in three years since I listened to Lyons’ talk, but we’re still held back by the perpetual need to compare and contrast self-publishing and trad-publishing. In terms of author identity, self-published vs traditionally published is redundant and serves only to perpetuate a false dichotomy where one is considered more legitimate, more valid, than the other. We shouldn’t ask which is better, or which authors prefer, as a blanket question, because it suggests you have to choose and distracts from the bigger opportunities presented by incorporating both into a tailored publishing strategy.

Instead, ask authors open questions. How have they published their existing books? What are their plans are for future books? What’s their publishing strategy and why? We can choose to be more than cogs in the trad-publishing machine, certainly more than directionless amateurs outputting sub-par books. We can be entrepreneurs. Masters of our personal publishing universe.


This Article was edited 18/06/18 – I’d previously stated that the talk at the London Book Fair was 2013, but it was actually 2015, so I have corrected the article to reflect this – Chrissey

3 Replies to “Forget Self-Publishing vs Trad-Publishing! Why Authors Should Embrace Both”

    1. Thank you!
      This article has really seemed to chime with indie authors, so lets hope that’s evidence that attitudes on the whole will eventually mature.

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