The 3 Publishing Processes Every Writer Should Understand

Abi Wurdeman
May 19, 2023

Understanding the different publishing processes is essential when it comes to mapping your writing career. You see, whichever publishing route you choose, that process will become a regular part of your authorly life.

Will you have the kind of career where you’re simultaneously writing a book and designing its launch strategy? Brainstorming ideas for a new novel as you field agent feedback on the last one? Retiring early on the advance you got from your first published book?

(Just kidding. That last one’s not a real option. Sorry, cruel joke.)

Whatever vision you have for your career, you’re about to find the publishing path that can help you get there. You’ll learn:

  • The three different publishing processes
  • How they work
  • How long they take
  • What they’ll cost you
  • How much money you’ll make

First, the basics:

The Three Publishing Processes

There are three routes you can take to get your book out into the world:

  • Traditional publishing
  • Self-publishing
  • Hybrid publishing

We’ll cover each one, digging into the pros and cons and laying out what you should expect. But to put it simply for now:

The self-publishing and hybrid publishing processes give you more creative control and tend to move faster.

Traditional publishing requires less of an investment from you in terms of time, effort, and (usually) money.

As for which one is most profitable, that’s a tougher question to answer. So I won’t tackle it now, but I’ll fill you in on the details as we go.

So let’s get to it.

Traditional Publishing

Close-up of popular traditionally published books on a shelf.

When you publish a book traditionally, a publisher takes responsibility for production, distribution, and marketing. They pay you, the author, a percentage of the profits (royalties). In most cases, they give you an advance, which is an upfront payment paid against royalties.

Of course, this means the publisher is on the hook financially. They’re using their own resources to produce this book, generate buzz, and give your masterpiece a solid start.

So it’s unsurprising that traditional publishing comes with a lot of gatekeepers. For many authors, it takes years to get a publisher to take a chance on their novel. But don’t let that discourage you. 

As you’ll soon see, all three publishing processes have their drawbacks. Your best bet is to choose the one that best fits the career you envision for yourself and welcome the accompanying challenges with open arms.

Here’s what to expect with traditional publishing:

How Does It Work?

Most authors begin by finding a literary agent. This person shops your manuscript around to publishers, finds a buyer, and negotiates a contract on your behalf.

To find an agent, you’ll send out a query letter, which includes a brief but compelling description of your novel, a couple sentences about yourself, and an explanation of why you think your book is a great fit for this particular agent.

The goal is to get the agent to request your manuscript or sample chapters. Hopefully they love it, you love them, and you begin a beautiful working relationship. They’ll give you notes on your manuscript and, after some revisions, set out to find a publisher for your book.

Now, you can skip the agent part and find your own publisher. Just know that most major publishers will only consider submissions from agents. 

Once a publisher falls in love with your novel, it’s time to negotiate a deal, draw up a contract, and snag that advance. 

But it’s still going to be a while until your book is in the world. Probably several months to a year, sometimes even longer.

In the meantime, your editor will want more revisions from you. The publisher will get to work on finalizing a title, cover design, and typesetting. They’ll handle fact-checking, book jacket copy, and the final proofread. 

Then there’s a lot of sales and marketing. Your publisher will send out ARCs (advanced reader copies) to get reviews and generate buzz before the book’s release. They may work on getting you interviews and their sales team will pitch your novel to booksellers.

Finally, at long last, the publisher will actually print your book, and you’ll be able to hold this lifelong dream in your hands.

How Long Does It Take?

We actually have a whole article outlining the typical timeframe for each step of the process. Short version: it’s really tough to predict how long the whole process will take. There are a lot of moving parts here.

If you’re really jonesing for a number, I’d say expect about two years from the time you start querying agents. Just know it could be much longer or even miraculously shorter.  

What Does It Cost?

Traditional publishing costs nothing but your time and energy. All production, distribution, and marketing expenses fall to the publisher.

You will have to pay a commission to your agent. Most charge 15% of your earnings from the deal they secured for you. But you don’t pay them a dime until you get paid for your book.

Also worth noting: your publisher handles marketing, but it’s a good idea to do some proactive marketing yourself. Most publishers seriously limit their investment in new authors, saving the beefier marketing budgets for big names. 

You don’t have to run ads, but think about setting up a newsletter, building a social media presence, and arranging book signings.

How Much Money Will I Make?

Doug lays it all out really well in this article, but here’s the snapshot:

The advance for a first-time traditionally published author rarely exceeds $10,000. It can be much less. And many newbie authors don’t earn out their advance. In other words, they don’t sell enough books to make additional royalties in the long term.

Could you be the exception who has the right book at the right time and gets rip-roaring rich off of your first novel? Sure. But I’d say the more valuable takeaway is this:

One book does not make a career. You have to keep writing, and with each new book, you’ll earn a little more.

That’s true for all three publishing processes, especially this next one.


A person with long, curly hair sits on an orange rug beside a white sofa, typing on a laptop computer.

Self-publishing is exactly what it sounds like. You do it yourself. Production, distribution, marketing… all of it. That’s what sets it apart from the other publishing processes. 

Sound exhausting? It is. It’s also thrilling and empowering if you’re the entrepreneurial type. While traditional publishing requires you to meet the approval of gatekeepers and give up some creative control, self-publishing allows you to call the shots.

So what exactly does this process involve? 

Let’s take a look.

How Does It Work?

You are your own gatekeeper; it’s up to you to make sure this novel is print-worthy. So your first step is to write an outstanding book

Most self-published authors hire developmental editors and copy editors to make sure their book shines. Depending on your book’s content, you might also need to hire a fact-checker or sensitivity readers. 

Then you’ll decide how you want to put your book out into the world. There are many publishing platforms out there—enough to warrant a whole other article. But the big questions you’ll want to ask yourself are:

  • Do you want to publish exclusively through Amazon for perks like KDP Select and higher royalties in some countries?
  • Would you rather go wide
  • Do you want to publish e-books only? E-books and paperbacks?

Do a little research and decide what works for you. Once you’ve chosen a publishing platform and know their design specifications, you’re ready to format your book’s interior. 

For ebooks, you can use resources like the Smashwords Style Guide or Calibre. KDP has templates to help you format paperback and hardback books. Vellum and Atticus help you with both e-books and physical books.

When it comes to your cover, you can create your own cover or hire a professional. Whichever route you choose, this article can help you navigate the process.

Now, while all of this is going on, you’ll also be promoting your forthcoming novel. You might do this through ads, social media, newsletter, podcasts, blogs, or any other genius marketing idea you come up with. Here are some tips for planning a buzzworthy book launch. 

Then, finally, you’ll upload your book to your chosen platform and click publish.

Pour a celebratory glass but don’t get too comfortable. There’s more marketing to do. You’re a publisher now.

How Long Does It Take?

Of all three publishing processes, self-publishing is the one that offers you the most control over the timeline.

Regardless, you never want to rush to publish a book that’s not ready. You might also have to factor in the availability of any editors or designers you hire. But aside from those two factors, the time it takes to self-publish a book is up to you.

What Does It Cost?

It’s entirely possible to self-publish a book for zero dollars.

That said, most authors who hope to make a living off their words invest in their self-published books. They pay for professional cover design, editing, writing tools, advertising, and more. 

But the beauty of it is that you always have control. You can choose how much you want to invest and which services are worth the expense. 

How Much Money Will I Make?

The downside to self-publishing is that no one is giving you an advance and you won’t earn a profit until you sell enough books to make up for your production and marketing costs.

The upside is that your royalties are much higher when you’re a self-published author: 35 - 70% versus about 10% with a traditional publisher. You earn more for every book you sell.

Ultimately, your success as a self-published author depends on the quality of your book and how well you understand your market. Regardless, you won’t build a successful career from one book but from publishing more books on a consistent basis.

Now, let’s talk about the trickiest and most confusing of these publishing processes.

Hybrid Publishing

Two people whose faces are not showing shake hands over a desk.

Talking about hybrid publishing gets a little dicey because of how closely this option resembles vanity publishing. And vanity publishing is an exploitative scam to make money off people’s authorial dreams. 

In hybrid publishing, you hire a publisher to handle the production, marketing, and distribution of your book. It’s the hybrid of traditional and self-publishing because you don’t have to handle these things yourself, but you have to cover the costs.

Now, this is basically what vanity publishing is. What makes hybrid publishing different is that a true hybrid publisher observes certain standards. 

They provide professional editing services and produce a book that looks like something you’d find in a bookstore. They have legitimate publicity skills and industry connections. And they’re particular about which books they’ll publish, thereby maintaining a positive reputation. 

The only problem is that none of this is actually regulated. Any jerk with printing equipment can call themselves a hybrid. In fact, they don’t even need printing equipment with platforms like KDP or IngramSpark.

In an attempt to combat this, the Independent Book Publishers Association has created a list of criteria to help you recognize whether a so-called hybrid publisher is actually legit. So do your homework to make sure no one’s taking advantage of your ambition.

If you decide to go with a hybrid publisher, here’s what you can expect.

How Does It Work?

Because hybrid publishers are required to be particular, you’ll have to submit your manuscript for consideration. There’s no need for an agent. Just find out the publisher’s submission guidelines and send them your work.

If your book is selected, they’ll give you pricing information. Most likely, you’ll have different package options to choose from. You might have an option to pay for production only, production and distribution, marketing as an add-on package—you get the idea.

You may have to dig a little to make sure you understand the full, final cost of your package. It’s not unusual for hybrid authors to be surprised with additional charges like paying for their own ISBN. (Even though “transparency” is part of the IBPA criteria.)

Once you’ve signed the contract, the publisher gets going on production. Between editing and book design, this process is similar to what a traditional publisher would do. One key difference is that a hybrid publisher offers you more creative input; you're more customer than business partner.

Depending on your package, they may also handle media outreach, create marketing materials, and pitch your book to booksellers. 

How Long Does It Take?

You can expect a hybrid publisher to turn your book around in about six months. It’s faster than traditional publishing and potentially slower than self-publishing.

What Does It Cost?

It depends on the publisher and package. It’s possible to pay around $3,000 - $5,000, but it can be as much as $10,000 - $30,000.

How Much Money Will I Make?

With hybrid publishing, you can expect to earn royalties that land somewhere around 25%, give or take. Don’t worry about scrolling up the page—I’ll just tell you: that’s more than traditional publishing, less than self-publishing.

Now, is that enough to make a profit after what you’ve invested?

Maybe. You might benefit from the marketing and distribution capabilities of a legit hybrid publisher. They won’t have the kind of reach that a Big Five publisher has, but it might be more than you have on your own.

That’s why you want to do some serious research before working with a hybrid publisher. Make sure they’re offering you something that could actually increase your visibility and sales.

Which Publishing Process is Right For You?

Three wooden doors in an old red stone building, symbolizing the three publishing processes.

It’s your call. Each one has its pros and cons. None of them offer a quick path to fame and riches. (Sorry about that.)

Do you dream of being an author only? Are you able to be patient with someone else’s timeline and open to their vision? Then traditional publishing might be your route.

Does the thought of taking charge of your destiny thrill you? Would you love to wear the hats of both author and entrepreneur? Go for self-publishing.

Do you just want to have a nice-looking book on bookshelves, whatever it takes? Don’t want to deal with production yourself? You might consider hybrid publishing.

Whatever form your journey takes, know that you’ve always got a community to support you in Dabble’s Story Craft Café. Join us to connect with critique partners, workshop query letters, swap publishing tips, and more.

We might all live out our days in our individual writing caves, but we’re all in this crazy business together.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.