Self-pub vs. traditional: different worlds?

Both self-publishing and traditional publishing are viable routes for writers today. Yet the differences between them – from both writer’s and reader’s perspective – sometimes make them look like different worlds.

How did we get there?

Before I get to the differences, let’s have a look at the background. Self-publishing was a thing in past – but was most often a domain of dissidents (such as on the eastern side of the Cold War).

The current state of ‘book world’ has its root in the digital revolution, so to say. As it tends to be, people with vast interest in the ‘old ways’ tend to distrust the new ways. That’s not limited to e-books, the digital revolution affected many other aspects of life: cash vs. bank card, streaming of music/movies vs. CDs/DVDs and TV, paper tickets vs. phone apps, etc. And in many cases, the new ways were greatly underestimated.

When you consider the first generation of Kindle e-reader costed massive $400, it’s easy to see why some people believed e-books will never be a major thing. And thus, despite the ‘coding’ of Kindle e-books not being closed format (though DRM was, but that’s another story), the major publishers let Amazon sell the e-book editions, thus giving Amazon customers and feeding the growing beast.

The technology evolved. E-readers became cheaper, the display better, their memory larger… and it was too late to change the course. Present-time e-readers are lighter and smaller than a book yet able to fit hundreds or thousands of books in their internal memory.

While print books still hold a major piece of the pie, this is caused by a great deal by non-fiction: e-readers are limited when it comes to displaying formulas or illustrations.

And the existence of e-books led to the existence of present-day, wide-spread self-publishing.

Different worlds?

Today, there are three main formats: e-book, print, and audio. And two main publishing routes: self-published and traditionally published. Each of them have their advantages and disadvantages. And they affect both writers and readers.

When it comes to writers and their choice of publishing route, it’s not just about the (dis)advantages but also writer’s priorities. Likewise, it’s good to realize the differences in formats.

Writer’s side

For that reason, self-publishing often focuses on e-books as their dominant format. Even with the existence of print-on-demand to cut down costs compared to mass production (which comes down mostly to transport and storage of printed books), the costs are a major part of the price. Thus, self-published authors often have the most sales among e-books.

On the other hand, traditionally published books will have the focus on print books – for an author who wants to see their book in a bookstore, it might be the only way. In case of success, it’s also easier for traditionally-published book to see an audio version which, likewise, demands a massive investment (tens of hours of the narrator’s time and studio work).

Audience specifics

That being said, there are many cases where the audience matters a lot.

Print books are extremely inconvenient to carry around compared to a ‘pocket library’ that e-readers are. For that reason, e-books are the format of choice for people who travel a lot – or for people with limited space. More so if they’re voracious readers who would otherwise need a new bookshelf every other year.

Another advantage of e-books is the ability to change the font size, which makes them great for people with impaired vision – or for old people, if they can accept the use of new technology.

The last ‘haven’ of e-books are some niche genres – the biggest examples are romance and erotica, which comes down to two factors: first, the covers are often very suggestive, which might not be comfortable to unfold in the public transport. Second, they’re on the shorter end, which means a lot of books per year for voracious readers and thus the lower price of self-published e-books (or subscription such as Kindle Unlimited) becomes something print books can’t match. Also, because there’s no investment into printing, it’s the way to go for genres with very limited readership – at a point where print would never break even.

Audiobooks are also great for people on the move – but they have a major cost (as I said above). Some people are crafty and willing to narrate them personally but this might still come at cost of quality (such as outside noise). On the other hand, these entry costs are what contributes to the higher individual price of audiobooks (which can be mitigated by subscription-based options). And ‘reading’ audiobooks also requires the reader to be able to do so – they’re no-go way for people like me who tend to daydream when idle and might lose a piece of the story this way.

While print book (especially paperbacks) can easily be bought online, there’s still a cost to them. Not only in the creation (as I said) but also in the demands for space. Sure, you can re-sell the book but a voracious reader of print books will need a large bookshelf – which could exceed the cost of an e-reader while taking much more space.

Ecology and book format

In the present world, there are many people in various level of eco-friendliness. Which might affect their choice of format. Trying to judge the formats by their eco-friendliness is not easy because there are many variables.

Print books might seem to have a massive impact on the nature for the simple reason that papermaking is a process with high demands both on energy and resources (wood, water) and while recycling will cut the wood consumption, it won’t cut the water and energy costs. Furthermore, there’s a lot of transport involved (wood or to-be-recycled paper, the produced paper to the printer, book from printer to a warehouse and then bookstores). A bookshelf takes wood to make as well.

E-readers might seem like the lesser evil, but… mining materials for batteries and semiconductors is not an eco-friendly process either. Those materials and the e-reader device are thansported over larger distances – but it’s the only transport. Sending a file with size around 1MB takes minimal power and so does the use of e-ink display. The major costs comes with expired devices (mostly due to battery life) and their ‘afterlife’ (even if they’re recycled).

Audiobooks are the hardest for me to judge. As you can listen to audiobooks on a smartphone, this cuts the need to purchase an extra device. On the other hand, phones and headsets/earbuds tend to have shorter lifespan than a dedicated e-reader. And unless an audiobook has a major amount of downloads, the power needed to run a recording studio – tens of hours – won’t be a small thing.


So, to wrap this up, there are many aspects when it comes to what could be the best way to get your book out into the world. Genre and audience has significant impact on what’s the dominant format in each case, and that has an impact on what might seem to be the best route.

But even with all of it considered, it still comes down to the author’s skills and decisions – such as cover art and blurb to entice the right reader to purchase a book they’re considering, or the amount of resources given to marketing to make sure people know about the book. All of that ties to the writer’s priorities which means this is not easy decision to make – and even harder to give an advice on. Research is important to make an informed decision – which will always be on the writer.

If you’ve already went through this, feel free to share how and why you decided to go that way. And you’re just as welcome to share your opinions on any other aspect of this post.

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