Choosing what to do with your book baby is a tough choice. You have so many more options that you once did, and choosing the right one for you can be an agonizing decision.
This is a topic that has been coming up a lot lately in groups I belong to and with other author friends who are nearing the point in their career where they have to make that decision. So, I thought I'd share some of the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing I've experienced and why I've gone the way I have.
Let's break this down by the most common pre-publishing aspects like editing, cover design, formatting, and marketing, and what you'll get with both traditional and self-publishing.
Most reputable publishers will provide editing at no cost to the author. If a publisher wants to charge you for editing, that's a big red flag that you should take your book elsewhere. HOWEVER, finding a good editor is like finding the Holy Grail, and that applies to publishers and indie authors. I've worked with many editors and I can honestly say that only two have done a good enough job that I would work with them again. Don't think that going with a publisher means you'll get a perfectly edited book unless you sign with one of the Big 6. Smaller publishers can't afford multiple edits of a book, so you should plan to do a very thorough read through and possibly even hire an outside editor if the quality of the publisher's editor isn't what you were hoping.
Editing is all up to you when you self-publish. Editing your own work is tough. It's hard to catch all your mistakes. So, what are your options for a well-edited book? Hire an editor, of course, although, really good editors are extremely hard to find. Vet your editor well. Ask for samples of their work, references, and request a short sample edit of your work to test their skills. Many editors are willing to do this.
You can also work out a trade. However, don't just assume that another author can edit as well. Trades can be great, but do your research first. There's also the option to ask a friend. Know a good technical writer, English teacher, etc? See what they would charge you or work out a trade.
Formatting varies by publisher. Some will put a lot of time into making the formatting look nice and others will just do the basics. For ebooks, there's not a lot you can do as far as fancy formatting goes. Print books are different, but formatting is one of the easier areas of publishing (in my opinion), so it's usually not a huge concern with choosing a publisher. If you'd like to see the quality of their formatting, download samples of some of their books to check them out.
Formatting can be learned by anyone willing to put a little time into it. There are great tutorials online, and most ebook publishers have guides for authors that spell out what you need to do. It may be a little time consuming at first, but it gets easier the more you do it. All of your formatting can be done in Microsoft Word, but if you're interested in trying some fancier paperback formatting, InDesign can do some really neat things.
Cover design is hugely important no matter how you publish your book. Most publishers are willing to pony up for a good cover designer because they understand this very well. Even still, having a publisher does not a gaurantee that you'll end up with an awesome cover, but most do a pretty good job. When shopping around, check out their previous covers, and ask about whether or not they're willing to let authors have any say in the cover design. If you're with a big publisher, chances are you will get zero input, but some of the smaller publishers are willing to listen to author input.
Cover design is one of my favorite things to do, but I do have a background in art and graphic design. For those who are not artistic or aren't familiar with GIMP or Photoshop, cover design will be a challenge in self-publishing. Createspace and now even Kindle KDP have cover creating software to help you put together a nicely formatted cover.
You'll still need good pictures or stock photography, though. Fortunately, there are plenty of sites out their to find great stock art fvor reasonable prices. My personal favorites are Dollar Photo Club, Shutterstock, and iStock. If you know a photographer, you can get original photos as well. Just make sure to give credit to the photographer.
And if you're not comfortable putting together a cover, there are some amazing designers out there who work for very reasonable prices, like Tirzah Goodwin. Having a great cover is extremely important, but self-publishing doesn't mean you can't have that.
Marketing. This is probably the area that most new authors will struggle with, and what will push them toward a traditional publisher, but authors need to have realistic expectations about marketing. Most publishers, small or Big 6, have a limited budget for marketing, especially if you're not a top seller. Big 6 publishers will only put their money behind books they KNOW are going to sell tons of books. Newbies won't get much help and will be expected to pull most of the marketing weight. A lot of small publishers (though certainly not all) will put more effort into helping authors market because they need the sales too, but they have very small budgets and most of the work will fall to the author.
Obviously, all the work of marketing is on the author in self-publishing, but you also get the full benefit of your efforts by not giving up royalties. Marketing is hard, no matter what publishing path you take. When you self-publish, you have control over how your book is marketed, how much free or paid advertising is done, and what audience you're targeting. With self-publishing, you also have direct access to your sales numbers, so it's a little easier to monitor how effective your marketing efforts are by watching changes in sales numbers. There's a big learning curve to marketing if it's new for you, but there are many articles and books available to help you figure it out, and other authors are a great resource and source of marketing help as well.
What does it all boil down to?
For me, I've been doing this long enough and put out enough books, that I'm comfortable finding editors, doing my own formatting and cover design, and coming up with my own marketing plan. I have worked with four different publishers since I began publishing. Some have worked out, some haven't. I currently still have my contemporary romances with a publisher, because that's a new market for me and I felt the exchange of roaylties for their knowledge of the romance genre was worth it. For my YA books, that trade wasn't worth it for me and now I have all my YA books published independently.
I also like having control over my covers, formatting, editing, and how my books are marketed. I put a lot of time into learning more about the publishing industry and increasing my skills in design and marketing. Self-publishing takes a lot of work, but I enjoy doing it, and it's a good fit for me and my books.
Choosing a publishing path is a completely individual choice. What each author is comfortable with doing on their own will play a huge part. Break it down and see what you're willing to do on your own and what you need help with, then decide whether or not that help is worth giving up the percent of royalties the publisher is asking for. Don't jump into either option without knowing what you're getting yourself into.