This year the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia was kind enough to ask me to speak at their Halifax headquarters, about the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing.

Myself and Patrick Murphy (Managing Editor, Nimbus Publishing and Vagrant Press) discussed the differences between independently publishing your work versus traditionally publishing it. It was a two hour talk in which we presented for the first hour and then answered questions for the second hour. We had a good turn-out – about two dozen people – which is really almost all that the room could hold comfortably.

I thought it would be of value to offer you folks an idea of what I talked about.

So let’s charge right in, shall we?


1 – First off you need a rhino hide. You have to be absolutely bulletproof and impervious to all traces of discouragement. The good news – or the bad news – is that you need that same rhino hide for traditionally publishing as well. First thing you need to realize is that writing is NOT a game for wusses.

2. You need to be a self-starter. You are your own time clock and your own foreman and your very own kick in the pants. The same thing goes for traditional publishing as well.

This is not a lazy man’s game.

3. You need to be fast on your feet. The rules for self-publishing are changing constantly. You have to learn how to format a manuscript for Kindle, for Kobo, for Smashwords, for Apple – each one of those online book marketing franchises has their own standards and their own set of rules. You’ve got to find out the difference between an e-pub and mobi – and NO, I am not talking about great white whales.

4. You have got to have a hunger for learning. This is NOT a business for folks who hate to learn new techniques – but like I said before the rules for e-publishing are changing every week. As a matter of fact, while you were sitting there and reading this the rules just changed.

It happens that fast.


– Prestige – Let’s face it. There is something undeniably cool and prestigious about seeing a book in a bookstore or a library with your name on it – unless you are holding a magic marker in your hand. Publishing with a known traditional publisher automatically brings you an air of credibility.

– Book distribution and placement in traditional stores – The folks at Nimbus are VERY good at getting my books into bookstores right across the country. They have got a small army of representatives who visit with booksellers right across the country and make certain that they are aware of the next season of Nimbus books. A self-publisher doesn’t have that luxury. While it is possible to talk a bookstore into carrying your books it is a whole lot easier if that book is attached to an actual publisher.

– Easy access to book signings. Two or three times a year I am contacted by the marketing coordinator at Nimbus and I am asked if I would like to go and sit at a local bookstore, selling and signing my Nimbus books. This is a great opportunity to meet face-to-face with book-lovers and potential new fans. Trust me, it is a LOT harder to get a bookstore to bother setting up a table if you are self-publishing.

– When you have a traditional publisher in your corner you can count on an editor, a cover artist, possibly an illustrator and a promotions department who will work to make certain that you have the best opportunity to promote your traditionally-published book. If you want your self-published books to be properly edited you had better have deep pockets and be prepared to hire a professional editor yourself. The same thing goes with cover art.

– A publisher can also offer an advance on your royalties. Cash up front is ALWAYS a useful thing. You’ve got to be able to pay for that new laptop SOMEHOW!

– A lot of professional book reviewers will only deal with traditional publishers, preferring not to have to winnow through the chaff of self-publishing.

– A traditional publisher has a lot more capability of providing an up-and-coming author with book tours, a fully-catered book launch, guest appearances at literary conventions, book signings and other useful promotion.


Traditional Publishing takes a lot of patience. You have to learn how to put together a proper query letter and a submission package and you must be willing to wait patiently while the publisher – or publishers – get around to looking at your work. Even then there is no guarantee that they will automatically want to release your novel.

Perhaps they have just released a book similar to yours. Odds are they won’t want another. Perhaps they have had bad luck making back the advance of a book that was similar to yours. Odds are – even if your book is a huge improvement they still might be wary of trying the same trick again.

Some publishers will only look at agented material. Others insist upon authors with a proven track record. There are many variables that you have no control over.

Let us say that you have found a publisher who wants to publish your book. Then you have to deal with a long lead time for release. Your book will need to be passed before committees and scrutinized by editors and copy editors and proofreaders and the office dog. They might want to change a paragraph or an entire chapter or your title.

Keep in mind that these delays and the risk of having to change your work is NOT necessarily a bad thing. Some of my best writing came out following many laborious arm wrestling matches with editors.

Traditional publishing offers smaller and more structured royalties. Depending on who you release it with, an indie-published work can give you as much as 70% royalties on the cover price – which you get to set. Whereas most traditional publishers, depending on the contract and the nature of the release, will offer you 10 to 12% royalties on the cover price.

Some of the larger publishers will demand first refusal and exclusivity clauses and non-competition clauses – all designed to limit your future work. For example – if I sell a vampire hunter series to one publisher they might not be all that keen to see me release a second vampire hunter series with another publisher.

There are a LOT of clauses in a traditional publishing contract that an author needs to consider. A traditional publisher is going to want an AWFUL lot of subsidiary rights. They are a business, remember, and they WANT the opportunity to see your book turned into a movie, a video game, a comic book or an app. Often a traditional publisher will expect as much as 40 to 60% of any income that is derived through subsidiary sales.

An indie writer releases his book under their own flag and can keep control of ALL subsidiary rights. SO – if you manage to interest a filmmaker in selling the film rights to your novel you can expect to receive the whole share of the fee.
HOWEVER, that means that you need to be able to successfully market all of those subsidiary rights if you actually expect to receive any. A traditional publisher – depending on the size of the publishing company – will often have a person or possibly an entire department dedicated towards the sale of any and all subsidiary rights.

That includes translation rights, as well. There is huge market for French, German, Italian etc. translations of English e-books – and some traditional publishers, depending upon the nature of the book in question, will take steps towards securing a translator. If an indie author wants to put out a German/French/Italian version of his novel than he needs to hire a translator.

Translators do not come cheaply. Most will charge by either the word count or the page count and you can expect to pay several hundred or even over a thousand dollars for that translation – and even then there is no guarantee that you will receive a GOOD translation.

You think about that the next time you try to order a fancy French dish from the menu in Paris.

As I mentioned, royalties are a big plus for indie writers. I receive money every month from my indie work whereas a traditional publisher usually pays out royalties bi-annually – that is twice a year.

An author trying to decide between an indie or a traditional release must also take expense into consideration.

Traditional publishers do NOT charge you for your work. Remember that, now – no matter what you decide. If a publisher starts by asking you for money than you ought to run away as fast as possible.

HOWEVER, indie publishing can cost you. While it is possible to release as many indie published books as you want to without spending a cent – there are an awful lot of expenses that still need to be considered.

You might want your book edited – so that will cost you money. You might not have the technical ability or the skill or talent to create a nifty cover for your e-book and so you might decide to hire a cover artist – and that costs. Some folks might not feel confident enough to properly format their own work – and then they will have to hire themselves a formatter to turn the manuscript into something that is Kindle-friendly or Kobo-friendly.

Promotion is entirely the responsibility of the indie author. That means that if you want to get your book featured on various promotional websites then you have to be prepared to pay anywhere from five to five hundred dollars for that privilege.

Distribution is another factor to consider when you are choosing between a traditional publisher or independently releasing your own work. There is a HUGE variety of distribution networks to choose from.

Apple i-books
Page Foundry
Baker & Taylor

That is just a few of the top of my head. Being an indie author allows you to freely access all or most of these various networks and thus getting your books out to a whole lot of possible customers.

It is just a matter of time and research – and THAT, brothers and sisters – is the single biggest requirement to make yourself a successful indie author. You have to be ready to put the time and the effort into making and marketing and promoting your own books. It is not just a matter of handing them to your publisher and moving on to your next book.

So – the questions that you need to ask yourself about deciding between indie and traditional publishing are as follows –

Do you hate and fear change? – Stick to traditional.

Are you afraid of new things? Do you hate to learn new systems?

Then you better stick to traditional.

Are you a fast writer? Do you six or eight or twelve manuscripts sitting on your desk waiting for a traditional publisher to accept them, one by one? Or, do you have six or eight or twelve out of print books that the rights have reverted to you and you are wondering what to do with them?

Maybe you ought to be an indie author.

Are you prepared to invest time, effort and possibly money into the making and the marketing and the promotion of your writing?

Again – think indie.

All right – not that Indy!

Are you a control freak? Do you like to think for yourself and set up your own promotions and book sales and make all the decisions about title and cover and subject matter yourself?

Well, you might want to look at indie publishing.

Are you a genre writer? Certain genres lend themselves nicely towards indie publishing. For example, a skilled and prolific romance writer can do VERY well as an indie author.

Budding romance writer…

Do you like to read series characters? Do you like to WRITE a series? Writing series novels and novellas and short stories just naturally lend themselves towards indie writing.

The Adventures of Bolt Upright – Book 23 – The Stripped Nut…

Are you a hard worker? A self-starter? Are you ready to dedicate a substantial part of your life towards making your career a reality?

Then indie writing might just be the path for you to take.

yours in storytelling,

Steve Vernon

If you enjoyed this blog entry why don’t you do one of the very best things that you can do for an indie writer and pick up one of my e-books?


Steve Vernon on Kindle!

Steve Vernon on Kobo!


  1. Thanks Steve, very informative! It’s a tough road, no matter which form of publishing you choose. I couldn’t make it to the talk, so thanks for publishing your thoughts here, 🙂 Libby


  2. You’ve covered everything except maybe that traditional published authors sometimes have to do as much marketing of their book as self-published authors, and they have to take on that expense.

    I know a few authors published by small and large companies who were left to their own devices with regard to book launches, setting up websites, business cards, etc. They work as hard as I do to sell their book, but they don’t get anything extra for doing it…except for maybe a few more sales which doesn’t translate into the same payback as when I do it.


  3. Really enjoyed the read. you have me leaning towards Indie now! what have you done?! LOL
    Thanks so much for taking the time to put this information together. I found it very enlightening.


  4. Steve,
    I’m considering self-publishing a 30,000-word biography I’ve written of a unique Alberta country doctor. I’m looking at using Friesens. Any thoughts — pro or con — about that? Are there better or cheaper options available for someone who already has a demanding full-time job?


    • Hi Bretton,

      Let me get back to you on that in a couple of days. I am just getting over a cold and I have to get up to go to work tomorrow – but I believe I could give you some good information on that matter in a day or two.


    • Hi Bretton,

      Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner but a bout with pneumonia has REALLY taken the wind out of my sails.

      First off – I would by far recommend Ingram Spark or Createspace rather than Friesens – just because Friesens is more concerned with charging you an upfront fee. I publish and order books in paperback from Createspace for nothing more than a portion of the cover price – WHICH I GET TO SET.

      Let me give you a few links to figure on.

      I have worked with Lulu in the past and was not impressed. I have HEARD that they have improved their services but I do not that for a fact. I have heard more bad about them than good.

      These days I work with Createspace and I can tell you that I have had a great deal of satisfaction dealing with them.

      As I mentioned, I am not particularly a tech-oriented person – BUT, I did manage to figure out how to take a Microsoft Word document and format it for Createspace.

      I found this Youtube how-to video VERY handy for learning how to do this.

      When you are using photographs or images of any sort you have to make sure that you have the proper dpi – that is 300 dpi. The video will help explain all that.

      I took a look at that Friesen’s company, just because they are Canadian but they only way that I could seem to get any information was if I actually went through the steps of trying to set up a book there. Still, if you are interested in checking them out you could have a look at their website.

      I took a look over at the Absolute Write Water Cooler – which is a great message board forum where folks share their experiences with various publishers and I did not see anything too negative about Freisen’s – and I know that they are one of Canada’s oldest publishing houses, but again, I have no personal experience with them.

      Lightning Source is a little pricy, or so I have heard – but they do offer hardcovers, if that turns your crank.

      I have heard very good things about Ingram Spark as well. You might want to look into them to compare.

      My sister-in-law used Blurb for a family photo album and was very pleased with how it turned out. Where you are dealing with photographs it might be just the thing you ought to try out.

      I hope that helps a bit. I cannot say whether or not any one of those platforms are BEST for what you are looking for – but I hope that I have helped some. As I say, that Youtube how-to video helped me a lot – SPECIFICALLY for formatting Word to Createspace – but there are an awful lot of Youtube how-to videos, some of them better than others – so when you make your decision on which platform to go with you might want to search around a bit in Youtube and see if you find a how-to video for formatting Word to whatever you decide upon.

      Here are a couple of other articles you might want to check out.

      Some new development from the folks at Ingram.

      And a device that has been around for a few years – the Espresso Printer – works like a giant photocopier that makes bound books.

      Feel free to e-mail me if you have any further questions. I do not know everything there is to know but I am happy to help out as best as I can.


  5. Belated, belated thanks for this, Steve.


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