Publishing Options: Which One is Best?

Traditional, Independent,
Vanity, and Self-Publishing:

Which One is Best?

The publishing landscape has changed dramatically over the years. Not too long ago, there were two options: traditional publishing and vanity publishing. One was looked at as the gold standard for “serious” writers, while the other was dismissed by industry professionals almost completely as an expensive farce that preyed on unsuspecting new writers.

But things have changed.

Legitimate avenues to publication have emerged and established themselves so securely in the market that there are now four options available. These include:

Traditional Publishers

Usually accessed through a literary agent or editor, this is the kind of publishing that most think of when dreaming of a writing career. It involves a large publishing house (Think: Zondervan, HarperCollins Christian, Bethany House, Thomas Nelson, etc.) and the historical way of publishing: project gets pitched (usually by your literary agent), project is accepted, a contract is drawn up noting deadlines, etc., an advance against royalties is paid to the writer, the writing/editing/proofing/cover design is completed, and the book is published. Benefits with going this route are manifold. Traditional publishers have a wealth of tried and tested industry experience, and their advice is priceless. They have the resources to help you refine your book into something that is effective, marketable, and, hopefully, profitable. The per-book royalty is lower than self-publishing, but the volume is usually much higher. Add the “street cred” of being traditionally published as well as the general industry exposure you’re likely to get, and this option remains one of the best.

Independent Publishers

This is really just a smaller version of a Traditional Publisher. The cycle is largely the same, though these houses tend to specialize in a genre or type of book (like romance, historical nonfiction, etc.). What the smaller presses lack in bigger names and budgets, they often make up for in expertise in your particular area of interest and in a more personal feel to the process. There is often a slightly more collaborative feel between the author and the editor/publisher and their creative team, too. It’s a wonderful option for specialty books or for those authors who want to be more involved in the entire process. Independent Publishers also have industry “street cred” as they are often staffed with professionals who have worked in larger houses and are either starting their own or just firmly believe in the mission of the small press.

Vanity Presses

Personally, I hate this name. It has a pretty negative connotation from the start and is the reason a lot of people avoid using the term at all. There was a time when Vanity Presses really were mostly about someone being willing to pay to have their book published just to say they were an “author.” And I’m not going to lie … there are a LOT of these kinds of “publishers” out there who are far more interested in taking your money than helping you successfully self-publish. Read here for a sample horror story and wise cautions. Most people in the industry still look upon Vanity Presses as hooligans who lure you in with big promises on which they never deliver, even in the “Christian” publishing industry. But there are a few who are legitimate. While you can usually source all the services they provide, often much cheaper and with better results, for some people, having a one-stop shop to help you self-publish your book is appealing. It’s like having those meals-at-home services. You can certainly find recipes and shop for yourself, but it’s nice to have someone do that for you.

However … the benefits of using this option will only appear if you are super diligent in researching the company you’re interested in working with. Say it again: As long as you are SUPER DILIGENT in researching the company you’re interested in working with. At the end of the day, this is just self-publishing with someone to help you. Make sure you trust them, have numerous recommendations you can trust, and are realistic about the costs … not just the up front “package,” but the many costs that seem to pop up along the way, too. Most people who choose this method never see their investment recouped through sales.


Once entirely dismissed by “real” writers and publishers, this is the area of the biggest change over the last ten or so years. With the advent of powerhouse self-publishers like Createspace (Amazon’s self-publishing arm), BookBaby, and IngramSpark, etc., it’s never been easier to produce and publish a quality, legitimate book … and many formerly traditionally published authors are doing just that. But don’t get too excited. While self-publishing is now viewed as a professionally acceptable way to publish, it still warrants consideration as to whether this is the avenue for you.

If you self-publish, you are responsible for every single aspect of your book, from content to editing to cover design to formatting right through to marketing. While there are a lot of very economical ways to get help with all of those tasks (,, and, etc. can help with just about all related tasks), you’ll still be responsible for organizing it all. And unless you have a large, established platform, you’re going to have to put in some serious legwork to market your book. Getting a quality product published online is one thing. Drawing readers to that book to make a purchase is entirely another. Still, if the marketing aspect doesn’t daunt you, the other tasks shouldn’t either. The benefits? Self-publishing offers much greater creative control and significantly better royalties.

Are you confused about the difference between a Vanity Press and a Self-Publishing platform? Especially since most Self-Publishers offer (for a fee) just about all the same things a Vanity Press does? The difference is simple. There is no upfront fee to self-publish (save the costs of getting an ISBN and making sure your book is well-edited and beautifully presented), but there is a mandatory up-front fee with Vanity Presses. If you are being asked for money, you are not working with a traditional, independent, or self-publisher. Beware.

Which option is for you? That entirely depends on your current platform, your ability to manage editors and creatives, your budget, and your goals. Weigh it all up carefully and seek out the advice of writers you know who have chosen different avenues to publishing. Look here, too, for a good directory of Christian publishing options. Doing your research, and being honest about your own goals and abilities, will go a long way to making your publishing journey a success.

UPDATE: Createspace has now been incorporated into Kindle Direct Publishing.

About Robynne Elizabeth Miller 9 Articles
Prior to becoming President, Robynne has served on the board as Communications Director and Director of Leadership and is a critique group leader in Auburn. She has written eight books, is a freelance editor and writing coach, and speaks and teaches at workshops, conferences, and events throughout the country. Robynne was awarded her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Fiction in August 2018 and lives in the beautiful Sierras with her wonderful British husband and the youngest of their four children.