The decision whether to pursue traditional publishing or to self-publish is personal. Traditional publishing holds greater clout and respectability than self-publishing. The proliferation of low quality, AI-generated books further degrades what respect self-publishing has managed to build. But I ask you this: Do you check who published the book you’re reading or want to read before you buy it?

I don’t. I generally don’t even bother to check the author’s name, except to verify that the author is one of a handful whose work I refuse to read (generally due to issues of execrable quality or cliffhangers).

I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to say it: self-publishing does not mean “do it all yourself.”

Most people, regardless of their profession or career path, have limited areas of expertise. One probably doesn’t expect a master gardener to also have mastered finish carpentry, or an expert mechanic to also be skilled at embroidery. This explains why an author should not expect his or her own professional expertise at all the tasks involved in producing a quality book.

I’ll use myself as an example.

I fancy myself to be a good writer. I’m also a good editor. I’ve had decades of page layout experience (and a bit of education in that, too), conferring a certain level of competence in that skill. However, I am not a graphic designer or a graphic artist. My creativity with images just doesn’t extend that far … and I’m smart enough and self-aware enough to recognize that lack and admit to it.

I also don’t tune up my car’s engine, fix leaky faucets, or diagnose software glitches. My areas of expertise are limited—specialized one might say. I rely on the expertise of others in areas where my capability is not adequate.

So, I basically break down the responsibilty of self-publishing like this:

  1. Writing the story. This is my sole responsibility. I have the idea. I develop it. For those who have a great story idea but not the expertise to develop it, one has the choice to hire a competent ghostwriter who does have that creative skill.
  2. Self-editing the manuscript. Again, this is my sole responsibility. I know that the rough draft (i.e, the first draft) is not fit for public consumption. The first draft is for my eyes only. Once I finish with the first draft, I set it aside to let my brain rest. Then I go back to it and begin reading it through. I fix the small problems as I encounter them and note any larger issues to be corrected later. When I finish that round of self-editing, I go back to the beginning and start over with an eye toward rewriting and revising to fix those major problems. When I finish that, the manuscript’s ready for the next step.
  3. Professional editing. The author is always too close to the story to serve effectively as its editor. This is why I hire a professional editor and urge her to be candid: “Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. Be blunt.” This is no time for an author to be sensitive, because a book with glaring flaws will incur scathing reviews from the public. It’s better to avoid that public lambasting and keep it private between me and an editor. What many new authors don’t realize is that there are different levels of editing. Most new authors need all three levels. Experienced authors may not. Regardless, editing consists of more than correcting errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. You can use editing software to help with that, although software often introduces as many such errors as it corrects.
  4. Book design. This is the page layout or book formatting portion of the project. There are several decent online services available to help self-publishing authors do this on their own: Atticus, Vellum, Draft2Digital, Reedsy, etc. When it comes to formatting for print, nothing beats the precision and strength of Adobe InDesign, especially for a document like a newsletter, magazine, or a book containing lots of graphs and images. There’s more to page design than filling the pages with content. The design of the page directly affects the reader’s experience, so it’s important to get it right. If you’re not cognizant of what makes for good page design, then hire a professional.
  5. Cover design. Page design is part of the graphic design spectrum of skill, but it’s not equal to graphic design and certainly not equivalent to graphic art. This is where my skill does not measure up to professional expectations. Therefore, I hire a professional.

An author who self-publishes is responsible for producing the professional quality the reading public both expects and deserves. It’s that simple. And it gets expensive.

Most self-published authors try to economize because they want their books to earn profits. That’s not unreasonable. What is unreasonable is the expectation that a book an author won’t invest his own money in deserves the investment of readers’ hard-earned income to purchase. If you believe in your book, then you’ll invest in its quality.

Because producing a quality book can and does get pricey, many new authors decide to pursue traditional publishing first. I say “pursue” because no traditional publisher is obligated to accept your manuscript. That comes as a surprise to many who haven’t bothered to do their research into the publishing industry. Finding the publishing companies and literary agents most likely to publish your book takes research. Two reputable sources to get you started in finding the right publishers and agents are the Writer’s Market and the Literary Marketplace.

A traditional publisher accepts most of the financial risk and reaps most of the financial reward (if any) for the books they publish. The publisher hires and pays a staff of professional editors, artists, and designers. Whether the book sells or not, those pros get paid. Statistics show that it’s a low percentage (perhaps a third) of published books earn back the advances paid to authors, so publishers focus on producing books that they believe will generate sufficient revenues to pay for staff salaries and benefits, pay for operational expenses, put money in shareholders’ pockets, and generate a bit extra for authors. This is why authors receive such low percentages of royalties from traditional publishers.

Many publishers use literary agencies as an initial screen to filter out manuscripts not likely to make money and will not accept unsolicited submissions. This means an author who wishes to be traditionally published must also seek acceptance from literary agents. Legitimate literary agents earn their incomes from selling manuscripts to publishers and from a share of the royalties paid to authors.

Authors who pursue the traditional publishing route are responsible for submitting their work to the correct people in the correct manner. Their manuscripts should be clean of errors and well-written, because publishers and agents prefer work that adheres to their submission guidelines and doesn’t need excessive massaging to bring up to snuff. A great idea poorly executed will not be picked up by either an agent or a publisher.

Because of that, many authors who will pursue traditional publishing can best serve their manuscripts by hiring a professional editor. The manuscript doesn’t have to be perfect, and the agent or editor will undoubtedly suggest changes and require some revisions, but an editor can help the author clean up the manuscript to present the story in its best light.

The one major responsibility of publishing concerns both self-published authors and traditionally published authors: marketing. Book marketing is a specialized niche within the much broader field of marketing and requires extensive knowledge of the book industry to be effective. Book marketing entails social media expertise, advertising know-how, and skill in graphic art, graphic design, and copywriting. Most authors do not have this combination of skills. I certainly don’t.

Many commercially successful authors learn how to effectively promote their books. They spend countless hours on social media such as TikTok and Facebook. They learn how to craft effective advertisements on Amazon and Facebook. When it comes to marketing, there’s a definite tradeoff: either you spend a lot of money or you spend a lot of time and effort. You, as the author, must choose what works best for you.

If you decide to self-publish your book, don’t assume you can do it all and do it all well. Hire the expert professionals you need to produce a book that’s worthy of your audience.

I’m one of those professionals, and I offer ghostwriting, editing, and book design services.