Does Self-Publishing Hurt Your Chances at Traditional Publishing

Doug Landsborough
April 20, 2023

So you’re writing a future bestseller and wondering if you should self-publish. Maybe you’ve heard about this whole self-publishing thing and people who are making a living off it, but you aren’t sure if that’s for you.

Or maybe your dream is to be published by Penguin or Tor or some other big publisher like all those authors you read growing up. Can you do both? And does self-publishing help your chances of getting in with one of the big players, or does it make the whole process more difficult?

Long story short, self-publishing can help you land a book deal. But there’s a heck of a lot of gray area in that “can,” and even instances where being an indie author will hurt your chances at getting traditionally published.

So let’s talk about all that. In this article, we’re going to discuss the following:

  • What the heck self-publishing is
  • The pros and cons of self-publishing fiction
  • How self-publishing impacts your chances of being traditionally published

And by the end of it all, you’ll hopefully have a better idea about what you want to do with your author career.

What is Self-Publishing?

There’s no hiding anything in a term like self-publishing. Also known as independent publishing (thus, indie authors), self-publishing takes out the gatekeepers, drawn-out processes, and lower royalty rates in exchange for an author wearing many (all) of the hats involved in the publishing process.

Most indie authors publish through distribution platforms like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing or IngramSpark. Others sell directly from their website and take advantage of conventions to get in front of people.

There can be a romanticized idea of self-publishing. Take it from someone who self-publishes their work: being an indie author isn’t easy. It’s a heck of a lot more work than “just” writing a book.

I always like to relate self-publishing to being an entrepreneur. You’re in charge of marketing, distribution, writing, editing, cover design, formatting, growing a community, and so much more. 

For some people, that’s exciting and fulfilling. For others, it sounds horrible. Neither side is more right than the other, but finding what’s right for you is important. 

And we’ll cover that in the next section. But first, I want to mention one more thing you should know about self-publishing.

Self-Publishing is on the Rise

If you’re considering self-publishing, I have some good news! The market share and average income of people who put in the work to be indie authors are on the rise. 

Oppositely, traditional publishers are losing market share, and even well-known, established authors are embracing a hybrid approach of traditional and self-publishing.

That said, traditionally published authors are still among the highest earners among their peers, thanks to the marketing powerhouses behind them. 

Does this mean indie authors are doomed to be starving artists or traditional authors are destined to fade away into obscurity?

No. But you should check out this article to understand how much you can expect to earn as a writer.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Self-Publishing for Fiction Writers

Even if self-publishing can help you get traditionally published, you still need to determine if it’s worth it.

Try to be honest with yourself. If you hate the idea of advertising, is it worth learning, funding, monitoring, and optimizing Facebook ads just to hopefully get in with a big publisher?

On the other hand, see if some of these advantages appeal to you enough that you want to self-publish your book rather than hope to sign a contract.

For the sake of space (and getting to the meat of this article), check out our deep dive into whether self-publishing is for you.

But you should know pretty quickly whether or not self-publishing is even a possibility. We’re going to quickly dive into the pros and cons of self-publishing to help you make that decision.

The Advantages of Self-Publishing

There are a whole host of reasons you might want to self-publish your book—otherwise, people wouldn’t keep doing it!

And get the notion that people self-publish because they “aren’t good enough” to go the traditional route. Not only is that wrong, but it’s disrespectful. Think back to the entrepreneur comparison: would you say someone starting their own business is doing so because they “aren’t good enough to work for someone else?”

Here’s why people choose to self-publish.

Flexible scheduling - Indie authors at the height of their game can take a first draft and get it to their readers in a matter of weeks. You also can write on your own time and make your self-imposed book “deadlines” work for you. Compare that to traditional publishing, where deadlines are set and your book will usually release two to three years later.

More income potential - While traditionally published authors are still earning, on average, more than indie authors, the potential for higher earnings is more prevalent in self-publishing. This is due to the vastly larger royalty rates for self-published authors (70% compared to 10-25%).

More control - Because you’re a one-person show (even if you’re contracting tasks out), you have the final say over what your cover looks like, how your book is formatted, what’s included in ad copy, etc. Bear in mind that you should be using market best practices to inform these decisions, but you get to be the one who decides everything.

Reach a wider audience - Traditionally published authors will have marketing bucks behind them to reach a wide audience, but they’ll also have stipulations and restrictions about marketing and social media built into their contracts. As an indie author, you can be more agile and try out new tactics to reach more people.

The Disadvantages of Self-Publishing

It would be disingenuous to claim self-publishing is for everyone. Here’s why you might not want to go this route, no matter the advantages. 

No guaranteed income - While it’s impossible to “guarantee” income with any book, traditional publishers know how to sell books and might even offer you an advance. With self-publishing, your books will only sell if you aren’t putting in the effort to sell them.

Difficulty getting noticed - Millions of books are published every year. Not thousands. Not tens of thousands. Millions. You need to become a marketing professional in order to get your books noticed. This usually includes paid ads (Facebook, Amazon, etc.) and organic traffic (social media, email swaps, etc.).

Potential for lower quality - Being an indie author means your work will only be as good as you make it. It can get expensive paying for multiple rounds and styles of editing, commissioning a quality cover, and so on. But doing it yourself can lead to poor quality—odds are, you aren’t an editor and cover designer and writer all wrapped up into one.

Risk of overwhelm - Self-publishing means more than just writing. That fact alone might be enough to turn some writers off, even if it can increase their chances of getting a contract with a big publisher. 

How Self-Publishing Impacts Your Chances with Publishers

If you’re still hanging around, you’re probably thinking self-publishing might work for you. That’s great! But how will it affect your chances of getting in with a big publisher?

Unfortunately, that depends on the publisher.

Most publishers will not “republish” your self-published book. If you’ve already generated enough sales to warrant a publisher noticing your book, you’ve probably tapped out enough of the market to reduce their return on investment.

If you’re focusing on a series, this means they probably don’t want the sequels, either. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it makes the prospect less likely.

Of course, there are authors where this hasn’t been the case. Wool by Hugh Howey was originally self-published, and Howey hustled to sell his book both online and from the trunk of his car. He then went on to sign a $500,000 distribution deal with Simon & Schuster, though he retained his rights to the work.

Where self-publishing can help you get a deal with a publisher is with your future books.

Let’s say you’ve self-published a book or three, but you have a new, unrelated book you want to submit to agents and publishers. Publishers are for-profit businesses. Anything you can do or say to prove that your book will make them money will help.

Since you’ve already put in the effort to polish and market your previous books, you have some things working in your favor.

Established author platform - Talk about the size and engagement of the community you’ve built across social media platforms and with your email list. These are easy targets for sales, and publishers don’t have to spend a marketing dime to sell to them.

Stronger connection with readers - Building off your established platform, indie authors thrive when they’ve built a strong connection with their readers. This means a publisher isn’t just getting you when they offer a contract, but hundreds or thousands of fans who will champion your work.

Proven sales - Most importantly, publishers will love you if you have a track record of sales. Did your book become an Amazon bestseller? Are you constantly ranking it high enough that the algorithms are happy to promote your author brand? How many thousands of books have you sold with your marketing team of one?

Untapped market - Some people only read books by indie authors. Other readers just simply haven’t picked up a Penguin Random House book in years. While you won’t bring more new readers to a publisher’s catalog than they will bring to you, you’re still a source of new customers. 

These days, publishers lend more credit to anyone who has put in the time and effort into building their own brand, even if they’re just getting started. Your own marketing efforts don’t end when you sign that contract; your publisher will still want a marketing plan for the book they’re buying from you.

Being able to point to metrics like community size, engagement, and sales will make you much more appealing to publishers. 

What Will Your Publishing Journey Be Like?

Even though there isn’t a definitive “you should do this” answer, I hope this article has equipped you with the knowledge you need to make an informed decision about where you want to take your book.

Whichever route your choose—self-publishing, traditional publishing, or a hybrid that mixes the two—there’s still a lot more for you to learn. And writing your book is just the start.

If you’re looking to traditionally publish your book, you’re going to want to perfect the art of writing query letters. Check out our article on how to write one that gets a response.

Whether you’re self-publishing or not, a great place to learn about publishing is from people who have had success with their own writing. So head on over to the Story Craft Café, a community of writers who love to support and help one another throughout our journey in this writing world. We even have a podcast where we chat with bestselling authors about everything from writing habits to marketing strategies.

And last but not least, you can’t publish your book until you actually have a book. To help you go from idea to first draft, download our free e-book, Let’s Write a Book, and get your story written. Then, when you’re ready, go ahead and get that book in front of readers. We can’t wait to see what you come up with.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.