The Difference Between Self-Publishing & Traditional Publishing


I would suggest that anyone considering some form of self-publishing check out Clea Saal’s site (beginning with the POD articles section). The following three books are also extremely helpful.

The Clearly Confusing World of Self-Publishing & POD, by Clea Saal (some of the book chapters are available as free essays on her site, with her comparisons of various “vanity” publishers).

The Fine Print of Self-Publishing:The Contracts and Services of 45 Self-Publishing Companies Analyzed, Ranked, and Exposed, by Mark Levine. He’s an intellectual property attorney who offers his ratings and critiques of the various publishing contracts offered by various “vanity” publishers. Including a listing of some vanity publishers to avoid at all costs.

Become a Real Self-Publisher by Michael N. Marcus. He’s fairly anti-vanity publishers, and he “names names” in his book about the disadvantages of dealing with various vanity publishers. He also gives detailed information about the mechanics of being a writer and a publisher who takes control of all aspects of creating a book.


Incidentally, even though it’s a pejorative term, I don’t have a problem with the term “vanity” publisher—I used one for my book. I think that some of the vanity publishing companies are good as long as the writer goes into the situation with their eyes wide open—and fully understands the difference between vanity publishers and traditional publishers. There are two main differences.

First, with vanity publishers, the writer is paying for book cover design, interior layout, editing, and other book production services.

Second, the vanity publisher is NOT going to market the author’s book. They don’t get their money from book sales. Unlike traditional publishers, vanity publishers get their money from selling book production services to writers, and not from selling the books. When using vanity publishers, writers need to have their own marketing plan for bringing attention to their book.

The bottom line is that most vanity publishers function as glorified printers. That’s all. Period. Overall, I’m pleased with my experience with my publisher because I had researched what to expect from them. And I went into the process with my own plans about book marketing and book cover design.


Here’s A Tip From Khadija’s Writing Adventures. A traditional problem with many vanity publishers is that they often design amateurish-looking book covers. If you use a vanity publisher, don’t let them design your book cover from scratch. It’s better to approach them with design ideas of your own, along with detailed, concrete examples. Best of all is to learn from the big-budget examples provided by traditionally published books. I spent an evening looking over dozens of book covers on For my own cover, I selected design elements (typeface, subtitle on top and over the main title, and so on) from some book covers that I liked. Here’s part of one of the emails I sent to my publisher about the cover that I wanted for my book:

“Hi ________,

I’ve found examples for the book cover that I would like to have for my book . . . Here’s the link to


(1) I like that the subtitle is at the top. I would like my subtitle to also be at the top similar to how it is on this cover. I would also like my subtitle “A Black Woman’s Guide To Having The Life And Love You Deserve” to be in the same all capitals type face as the _____________________ subtitle (and with the same sized font). I would like my subtitle to be in the same maroon color used for the 2nd subtitle for the _______________ book.

(2) I like the progression from a cream color to another color toward the bottom part of the __________ cover. I would like the same effect for my book cover. However, I don’t want the green that the ____________ cover uses. Instead of the green at the bottom that the __________________ cover uses, I would like the bottom part of my book cover to be the same maroon that I mentioned above regarding the subtitle. . .

. . . Thank you for your time and consideration in this matter.”

The cover design techs suggested and added other elements to the book cover (such as the muted photograph of the woman—I instructed them to add a man walking beside her). But their starting point was based on my initial comments and examples.


From what I can tell from reading comments on various blogs, many of the writers who are angry about their experiences with various vanity publishers didn’t do their research. Many of them had the mistaken belief the vanity publisher was going to market their books (like traditional publishers do). Many of them didn’t comparison shop or research the differences between the contracts offered by various vanity publishers. Many of them didn’t research which vanity publishers to avoid; and there are some terrible vanity publishing companies out there. Buyer beware!

The Writer Beware blog is another good resource for avoiding the various tricks, traps and scams involved in the writing biz.


On a slightly related note, from what I’ve read, another common source of bitterness for many self-published writers is the result of their lack of awareness of the widespread, heavy-duty stigma against self-published books within the book industry. See here for an example. See here for a less dismissive perspective from a literary agent about the difficulties involved with self-publishing (particularly regarding fiction).

All of this shows why aspiring writers need to be clear about their priorities. What are you looking to do with your writing? Earn a living? Become famous? Advance a social or political movement? Become a respected author within academic or literary circles? Some combination of the above? There are different strategies for achieving each of these goals.

In the nonfiction context, I don’t care about the stigma against self-published books. This is because of the particular goals I have with my nonfiction works. For those nonfiction works specifically addressing African-American women, I’m looking to advance a social movement (abundant life for African-American women and girls). For the business-related nonfiction books (and other information products) that I’m writing, I’m looking to make money while educating people. What “approved” insiders within the publishing industry think about these two types of products is not relevant to achieving these two goals. As I mentioned in this post, there are many ways of making good money with nonfiction that have nothing to do with gaining the approval of book industry insiders.

The business model that I’m considering is similar to the one used by many small criminal defense law firms. They use the relatively steady stream of “bread-and-butter” DUI and other traffic cases to subsidize their involvement in pro bono impact litigation (such as class action civil rights lawsuits). I’m considering forming a publishing company that will use the sales of various “how to” information products as a foundation for eventually expanding into self-publishing my fiction.

However, I plan to use different strategies for my fiction works. First, because it’s easier to market self-published nonfiction (especially “how to” books) than self-published fiction. Second, because I’m beginning to believe that already having at least minimal credibility with industry insiders is best when it comes to fiction works.

I haven’t finished my research on this issue, but it appears that having some sort of industry “stamp of approval” is an entry requirement for success with fiction. What form that stamp of approval takes might vary. Landing an agent, and being published by a traditional publisher is one stamp of approval. Winning at least one fiction-writing contest is another stamp of approval. Selling a screenplay to a major studio is another stamp of approval.

What all of this means for me is that I plan to work at getting at least one “stamp of approval” for my first few fiction works before self-publishing later novels. The strategy that I’m mapping out is based on my specific goals with my writing. Your “mileage may vary” and you need to consider your own specific writing goals.

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8 Responses to “The Difference Between Self-Publishing & Traditional Publishing”

  1. Aisha says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences in publishing so those following along won’t keep making the same mistakes. Your input is priceless.

  2. Aisha,

    You’re welcome! Guurl, some of the accounts that I ran across while doing my preliminary research into various types of self-publishing services (including the vanity publishers) were awful.

    To get a flavor of the conversations at various blogs and forums about one vanity publisher in particular (PublishAmerica), check out the sites listed at this link:

    Predatory vanity publishers take advantage of the fact that many aspiring writers are unaware of the differences between the various forms of self-publishing and traditional publishing. So, these predatory vanity publishers pass themselves off as traditional publishers to the writers who haven’t done their research.

    Peace, blessings and solidarity.

  3. KM says:

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been looking into publishing for my fiction and I’m finding for where I am (IR romance), I’m probably going to go ebook route with a reputable ebook publisher instead of self-publishing. However, from what I’ve read here and other places, self-publishing definitely makes sense for non-fiction.

  4. Amanda says:

    . A traditional problem with many vanity publishers is that they often design amateurish-looking book covers. If you use a vanity publisher, don’t let them design your book cover from scratch.

    You ain’t never lied about that. I’m thinking of writing a story (I have been working on forever as a novel instead of a screenplay). I also am looking into writing a romance novel and self-publishing that as well. The thing that has turned me off are the book covers. People who say don’t judge a book by it’s cover (literally) forget that many of the books they have picked up are because the cover caught their eye.

    I’ve been researching book cover designs for my scifi/fantasy idea as well as romance book covers. What I want to know for romance is how does one hold a photo shoot. Because I cannot stand bw-ir,bw-bm romance novels where the characters don’t even resemble the description of the people in the book.

    Like you I’m wondering if self-publishing fiction is viable. My reason especially for the romance especially bw-ir is it seems I have control over things like the covers. From what I’ve learned for other writers is that even when the company specifically asked what they wanted the book covers to look like the company went and did their own thing anyway.

  5. KM,

    You’re welcome, and good luck! I look forward to checking out your ebooks when you have them published. {martial arts bow}


    I would strongly urge you NOT to self-publish your fiction. Or, at minimum, to get some industry “stamps of approval” for your fiction writing BEFORE self-publishing any fiction.

    The reason is because self-publishing fiction tends to block future opportunities for your fiction to be traditionally published. I figure that I can only get away with self-publishing fiction AFTER I’ve already gotten some industry “stamps of approval” with my fiction. Such as:

    (1) Landing an agent, and having at least one of my fiction works published by a traditional publisher; and/or

    (2) Winning at least one fiction-writing contest; and/or

    (3) Selling a screenplay to a major studio.

    Also note that when I speak of “self-publishing” my future fiction, I’m talking about doing so in the context of:

    (1) Having an actual publishing company

    (2) That is already making money with other, nonfiction, “how to” books.

    To repeat: My recommendation for 99.99% of the people who are thinking about self-publishing their fiction is DON’T DO IT!

    I say this because most folks have not thought through the stigma issue and decided how they’re going to deal with it; they have not established a pre-existing fan/supporter network that is primed to buy their book and urge others to buy their book; and they don’t have a business model of how they’re going to sell their book. This is a recipe for disappointment and failure.

    Peace, blessings and solidarity.

  6. You cover the advantages and disadvantages of self publishing and using a vanity publisher. I would like to hear more about the advantages and disadvantages of being published by a respected traditional publisher.

    I get so much mail and see so many internet sites based on how to self publish. I would very much like to see a thorough comparison of what the benefits and drawbacks are between self publishing and having your book published by a traditional publisher with a track record.

    Can you say more about this?

    Thank you.

    Joanna Poppink, MFT
    Los Angeles psychotherapist
    author: Healing Your Hungry Heart, 08/11 Conari Press

  7. Joanna,

    You’re welcome!

    You said, “I would very much like to see a thorough comparison of what the benefits and drawbacks are between self publishing and having your book published by a traditional publisher with a track record.

    Can you say more about this?”

    The primary complaints I’ve read from authors over the years about traditional publishers revolve around the marketing of their books. From the complaints, it seems that if you’re not already a celebrity or best-selling author, then the major publishers don’t promote your book with any real energy or creativity. That sort of effort is reserved for top-tier, best-selling authors.

    Meanwhile, you as the author have NO control or even real input about what the publisher is doing (or not doing) to promote your book.

    Expect Success!

  8. […] mileage may vary, but all aspiring genre fiction writers should look into this! In the past, I was strongly against fiction writers self-publishing if they hadn’t already gotten some form of …. This was due to the stigma against self-published books within the […]