By Sarah Carless

Wiscon_Logo-Pro_Union_stackedThe recent and phenomenal success of a handful of self-published authors has made the no-brainer decision – what publishing option is best for an author — into a hot topic and hotter debate.

Back in the day, the only way to rocket to the top of the charts was to have the support of a big publishing house. Not so any more.

But what works, and who it works for, is a puzzling question and one that received an airing at the recent WisCon – Women in Science-Fiction Convention – an annual event held in Madison, Wisconsin.

I was honoured to be a part of a panel discussion: Big Houses, Small Press, Self-Publishing: the Good, the Bad, and the Surprising, along with a fantastic group of fellow authors/editors/publishers.

We discussed the different publishing models and the advantages and disadvantages of each – and the upshot is, each has its place, and is more or less suitable depending on the author, his or her circumstances, and the work in question.

The main differences between the three models are those of time, resources, control, and royalties.

Big Publishers

Small Press



















When you self-publish, it really is a full-time job. It’s up to you to find, interview, hire, and manage your publishing team: editor, graphic designer, perhaps a marketing or PR firm, and printing and distribution if you want to offer paper books in addition to eBooks. You will be doing the bulk of the work, especially at first.

With a publisher, large or small, that publishing team is already in place and ready to go. Doing the legwork of finding a publisher to take you on will be the majority of the actual publishing work you do. You can turn the majority of your attention to writing and revising.


No legitimate publisher, large or small, should ask you for a fee up-front.  That’s a big red flag for scams and people looking to take advantage of hopeful authors. The financial resources required of the author for traditional publishing are virtually non-existent, and a publishing company that asks you to fund any part of it from formatting to printing should be investigated carefully.  Although printing houses do often expect authors to source their own photos for non-fiction titles, no publisher should ask you for any money up-front.

Serious self-publishing, however, takes quite a bit of investment from the author. It’s up to you to hire an editor, a cover artist, a printer, a PR firm, and to arrange distribution, either electronically or physically. It’s a very good idea to come up with a business plan, because what you’re doing, in essence, is exactly what a publishing business does.


With a big publisher, you get the big publishing team, but they won’t be under your control. You might be able to request a different editor if you’re not getting along, but you didn’t choose them. The cover designer for your book will work more closely with the marketing and sales departments than they will with you. You won’t be the one in control.

The smaller in the publishing world you go, the more control you’ll have.  Smaller publishers have smaller teams, of course, but they also have smaller client lists, and you’ll get more personal attention and thus more opportunities for feedback and input on how your book is marketed and sold.

The most control you can have is going the self-publishing route.  In this case, it’s up to you to put together your own team. You can hire and fire editors, you can find the right graphic designer for your book cover and have them create exactly what you have in mind, and you’re responsible for your own marketing, merchandising, printing, and distribution.  You are also the sole arbiter of pricing, scheduling, promotional timing, release dates, and everything else.


The larger a publisher is, the more resources they have, the larger teams they have, and the higher their own costs are – this means a smaller royalty for you.  Those editors and cover designers and merchandisers don’t work for free.  The smaller the press, the lower their operational costs, and the better a royalty they can generally offer you.

You get the most return and the highest royalties from self-publishing, of course.

Overall, there is no One True Way when it comes to publishing your book.  Publishing is a full-time job, so if you go the self-publishing route, bear that in mind. Finding a publisher, large or small, will free up your time and resources, but take some of your creative control. Ultimately, it’s up to you to make the decision between your time and your control over your book. You can’t really have both.



About the Author

profileSarah Carless is a technical writer on Kobo’s Publisher and Author Communication team and an author of traditional and modern fantasy. Her traditionally-published short story “Daystar” appeared in On Spec’s 2008 winter issue, and her other short stories can be found on Kobo: Familial Bonds, Echoes of a Voice, and The Pelin Tree.

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