That is the Question

ListTo be or not to be. To move or not to move. To quit or not to quit.

Anyone who’s ever written a Pros/Cons list has essentially mimicked Hamlet’s famous question.

What if things aren’t just black and white, though? I personally prefer the subtle nuances of shades of gray—ash, dove, slate, gunmetal, charcoal. I don’t often live a life of absolutes. (And yes, I have to add the qualifier “often” or someone will point out a situation where I don’t compromise.)

Take publishing, for example. The choice seems dichotomous enough, right? Sign with a publisher or self-publish. Either/or. But there are other options. Let’s review the pros and cons of each.

The Big Five

Ah, New York. Pretty much anyone who grew up wanting to be a writer fantasized about a contract with a large publishing house. It seemed so glamorous—lunches at Tavern on the Green, international book tours, an interview with Oprah, a multi-movie deal. New York promised fame and fortune.

Times have changed. For better or for worse? You be the judge.


  • The reputation of the publishing house is an endorsement in and of itself.
  • They offer the biggest marketing machine in the industry.
  • They also have the biggest and most influential distribution network.
  • They reach out to other popular authors as well as readers to get blurbs for the cover and reviews lined up for release day.
  • They provide a thorough and professional service, from editing through cover design.
  • They offer writers advances, sometimes quite lucrative ones.


  • Despite having the budget to market extensively, they often won’t spend money on a new author until they know their investment will pay off.
  • They won’t wait as long to see if you become a bestseller. They can be ruthless about canceling contracts with authors who don’t earn out their advances or don’t meet sales targets.
  • They require agents to submit manuscripts on behalf of the author, which means the profits need to be split among more people (or, essentially, authors earn less per sale).
  • The time from submission to shelf is the longest of any of the publishing options.
  • All or part of author royalties can be withheld if sales can’t support the advance or if several books are returned.

Mid-Sized Presses

As Amazon changed the landscape of publishing, many different sized presses emerged. The mid-sized press forms a bridge between features of a traditional press and small presses.


  • No agent is required for submitting a manuscript.
  • They may offer limited distribution and marketing plans (although their abilities won’t be as robust as the big presses).
  • The royalty split will be better than that of big presses, because there are fewer people involved.
  • Time from submission to shelf is shorter than with the big presses.
  • Authors will get more specialized attention because they aren’t one of thousands the house is working with.
  • There is no self-publishing stigma associated with these presses.
  • Many offer editing and design services that rival, if not surpass, those of the Big Five.


  • The marketing efforts and distribution channels can’t compete with New York.
  • Sales numbers will almost certainly be lower than with big presses.
  • There will be no national and international tours.
  • Authors may not even get a media kit and news release.

Small Presses and University Presses

These are options many first-time authors consider. While it isn’t fair to say it’s the easiest route (university presses can be notoriously difficult to get a contract with), they appeal to niche markets that might make the process easier for authors. University presses typically take academic texts and literary work. Small presses often choose to specialize in only one or two genres.


  • No agent is necessary.
  • The smaller author pool guarantees more attention for the author from the personnel who work on the book.
  • The self-publishing stigma is avoided.


  • The marketing efforts and distribution channels can’t compete with New York, possibly not even with those of the mid-sized press.
  • Sales numbers will almost certainly be lower than with other presses.
  • Authors probably won’t get a media kit and news release.

Vanity Presses

Don’t. Just don’t. It’s a scam. But if for some reason you’re considering it…


  • Your book will be published. Probably. Possibly.


  • You put up the money, not the publishing house. And it could very well cost you a fortune.


Thank you, Amazon, for making it possible for authors to avoid publishing houses altogether. Although, without a vetting process, a lot of books hit the market that never should have. Lousy covers, no editing, horrible writing… the list of pitfalls a self-published book can contain is vast, which is why there is a stigma associated with a self-published book. As the industry grows, though, many authors have been able to prove that stigma wrong, and the reputation of a self-published work isn’t as detrimental as it used to be. It’s not there yet, though.


  • The author maintains total control over every aspect.
  • Time from completion to publication is by far the shortest.
  • The royalties will be the largest of any publishing option (per book).
  • An author has access to all the numbers all the time, so they will know what is working and what isn’t.


  • The author has to do everything or outsource one or more tasks.
  • There is still a stigma associated with self-publishing.
  • It is unlikely an author can get work in libraries or bookstores (other than perhaps a local bookstore on consignment).


Basically, in a nutshell:

  • The further an author gets from New York, the fewer sales they’re likely to have. (And yes, I know plenty of self-published authors who are making a lucrative living. But I’m talking the norms, not the exceptions.)
  • The more work they’ll have to do (get to do?) on their own.
  • And no matter what route an author takes, at least some of the marketing is his or her responsibility. (That’s right; even New York expects a writer to do his or her fair share of publicity. But discussing marketing efforts will require a whole separate post…)

So what’s an author to do? It’s hard to say. I certainly can’t answer that for you. It depends on your needs, abilities, and expectations.

I, personally, am a hybrid author. I tried the New York route, and I hated the process. Maybe I didn’t have a good agent, maybe I don’t have the patience required, maybe I wasn’t good enough. I have no idea. But I was thrilled to switch from pursuing the elusive New York contract to publishing with a smaller press.

Once I got my feet wet, I learned that even smaller presses can’t build my backlist as fast as I feel is necessary. (We can discuss the benefits of the backlist in yet another post.) So I’ve dipped my toe into the wonderful world of self-publishing, too. Not either/or, but both. (Like I said, hybrid.) This method is currently working for me. I like the control I have over my self-published works. But I like the efforts my publisher extends on my behalf, too. (For example, they run ads, send out news releases, and have a larger network from whom to request reviews.)

Did I miss something? (Probably, there was a lot to cover.) Do you have a preference regarding your publishing career? A horror story or success to share? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.

By the way, this will be my last post at Story Empire until January. My, how the time has flown. Unless you visit me at my own site, we won’t chat again until next year. (It sounds so weird saying that!) Please know, as I wind down and assess 2016, I am grateful for you and the time we spend together. In closing, let me take this opportunity to wish you all a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year. See you in 2017!

8 thoughts on “That is the Question

  1. An accurate description of the publishing opportunities with their good and less favorable parts. I am with two small presses. The thing that I can give you as con is something that has just hit me – they are easy victims to the lack of sales. One of my publishers is closing next year.

    Wishing you A Merry Christmas and A Prosperous 2017!
    Happy Writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sorry to hear that, Carmen. But you’re right; the smaller the press, the more vulnerable they are to bankruptcy. And that can bring up a whole other set of issues for the author. Best wishes to you, and happy holidays!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the way you presented everything in this post, Staci. Like you, I’m a hybrid author with a mid-sized press, but I do have several indie releases. I’ll probably go the indie route again at some point, although even splitting the royalties, I’ve done better with the releases through my publisher than my indie books. I’m sure that has to do with the amount of promotions they run and the budgets they set.

    But I know I have books that won’t fit their criteria, so indie is a wonderful alternative. There are also some fab indie books out there and authors doing very well for themselves.I love that Amazon has opened up the publishing world to many new authors.

    I’m more than content to remain a hybrid author for now. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m seeing the same results as you, Mae. My publisher has reach that I don’t, so my numbers are better there. But some titles just don’t fit the traditional-press mold. And sometimes I want to get my stuff released faster than a house with many authors can do. That’s why I’m content to be a hybrid. But I think everyone needs to evaluate their own wants and needs. I know I’ll reevaluate often, and my opinions on the subject may change.

      And I agree; there are a lot of wonderful indie authors out there.

      Liked by 1 person

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