What is more lucrative: traditional publishing or self-publishing?

Some people write books for the love. Some to entertain and enthral readers. Some to make the world a better place. Some to teach their readers a new skill or approach. But let’s be honest, most authors would like to earn something for their efforts, craft, and creations. The question is: what will make you more money as an author—traditional publishing or self-publishing?

How much money you make as an author through either publishing method depends on a number of factors. The most obvious one is royalties, the amount of money you make from sales of the book. Less obvious is the amount you might spend up front on editing professionals and things like marketing. So, let’s weigh them up…

Up first: traditional publishing 

Factor 1: Annual income 

Generally speaking, traditional publishing is more lucrative than self-publishing. According to the Society of Authors salary report (published May 2019), the mean annual income for traditionally published authors was £21.5k, while it was only £2.5k for self-publishing authors. However, there’s a caveat to this. A big one. The report noted that the top 10% of writers earn about 70% of the total earnings. In essence, averages can be misleading.

Factor 2Rejection

That’s not the only issue. Traditional publishing can be lucrative if  you’re able to bag a reputable publisher who can get your book into physical stores as well as online. However, getting a publisher on board isn’t an easy task, and the vast majority of book proposals submitted to publishers are rejected. The publisher has to foresee that the book will make them a tidy sum.

Factor 3Up-front costs

On the upside, there are far less up-front costs with traditional publishing. It doesn’t cost you anything to submit your book proposal to agents. If the agent manages to secure you a deal, then the publisher will most likely provide their own editorial, design, and marketing teams. This means you don’t have to pay freelancer editors and designers to work on your book. That said, an author may hire a freelance editor to assess their book proposal, introduction, and chapters to be submitted so they have a strong proposal.

Factor 4Royalties

One major downside of traditional publishing is that the publisher takes the majority of the book’s sales income to pay their staff, run their business, and make a profit. As the author, you only get to take around 6% to 10% of royalties. That said, if the book turns out to be a bestseller, 10% could be pretty lucrative, and the publisher is best-placed to market the book with their industry experience, marketing clout, and network.

The next contender: self-publishing 

Factor 1: Annual income

As with traditional publishing, a small percentage of authors make the majority of the money. It’s estimated that a third of authors make less than $500 a year, and 90% of books get less than 100 sales. However, it’s also worth bearing in mind that many authors self-publish their books alongside a full-time job, being an entrepreneur, or running a business. In other words, they’re not full-time writers. Earning a few extra thousand from a book is an ideal extra revenue stream.

Factor 2: Rejection

Technically, self-publishing is free. It doesn’t cost anything to create a cover in Canva, do your layout design in Scrivener, and self-publish via Amazon KDP. But if you self-publish a book that isn’t good enough quality, doesn’t look professional, or is full of typos, then readers will reject it—either through poor reviews or poor sales, which can damage your reputation. This is why it’s vital to get experienced book professionals on board.

Factor 3: Up-front costs

Hiring a team of experienced professionals to get your book ready for self-publishing can be expensive. Editing can cost anywhere from a few hundred pounds to a few thousand, design can be in the range of tens to hundreds, likewise with proofreading. What’s more, if you have little to no network or marketing skills, then your book won’t find its way into readers’ hands. As such, you may need to hire a marketer and pay for marketing campaigns.

Factor 4: Royalties

The major upside of self-publishing is that you get to keep the majority of the money you make from sales. For example, Amazon KDP offers 60% royalties to authors for paperbacks and 70% for e-books (unless they’re priced over $9.99). If the book sells well, this means you keep most of the profit.

The winner is…? 

Let’s call this one a draw. When it comes to cold, hard money, both traditional and self-publishing have their pros and cons. Ultimately, the key factor is that the best authors with the best books are those making the majority of the money—regardless of how their books are published. So, choose the method that’s right for you, but either way, invest time (and if necessary, money) into ensuring that your book is exceptional. If you need help with that, get in touch. We help authors create incredible nonfiction books.