Whether you're considering writing a book to boost your brand and business or simply to get it off your bucket list, understanding and choosing the right publishing path to match your goals can be overwhelming. There are three basic models for publishing: self-publishing (including digital publishing), traditional publishing, and hybrid publishing.  

Each model may have iterations or partnerships that borrow from another model (for instance, my company's partnership to run the publishing arm of Inc Magazine, An Inc Original), but these three buckets will capture the great majority of your options. You'll need to think about your priorities in terms of speed to market, creative control, ownership of rights, access to a team of experts, and financial risk/reward to zero in on the right choice for you.

Traditional publishing

With this route, the author sells publication rights to a publishing house and receives an advance, and possibly royalty payments, in return. This negotiation is usually done by means of a literary agent, who has relationships with editors and takes a portion of the advance and royalty in exchange for their help.

Since the publisher is fronting the costs and is carrying most of the risk, the typical author has less control over the process. This is also usually the slowest route to publication, though it brings the upsides of strong distribution and a connection to an established publishing brand.


Self-publishing has enjoyed tremendous growth in the past decade, lauded by many as the democratization of publishing. Under this model, the bulk (if not all) of the work--writing, producing, marketing, and launching the book--falls to the author.

Most self-published authors use online platforms to publish and distribute their work. The author's ownership and sweat equity bring the benefit of full creative control and the highest possible cut of book sales profit, but distribution reach is limited (bookstores are reluctant to deal with one-off authors due to administrative issues), and the publishing process can be overwhelming.

Self-published books have less stigma than they've ever had in the past, but they still carry a reputation for amateur quality because, unfortunately, that's exactly what many of them are: amateur quality. Most self-published authors work in a vacuum and handle all aspects of the publishing process, from writing to editing, design, marketing, branding, and sales. It's a rare person who can handle all of these areas with the professional quality expected by booksellers and readers.

Hybrid publishing

Hybrid publishing models are relatively new, at least when compared to the age of the publishing industry.

While no two hybrids function exactly the same, they all blend elements of traditional publishing and self-publishing. For example, Greenleaf provides editorial and design work and actively pitches titles to national retailers (similar to traditional publishers) while allowing authors to keep their rights and collaborate in the creative process (similar to self-publishing).  Inc Magazine's An Inc Original imprint mirrors these terms.

Each option has benefits and drawbacks, meaning all authors should take some time to explore this choice from the perspective of their individual goals and priorities.

For example, consider the typical profile of An Inc Original authors, whose books serve an audience of entrepreneurs. These authors recognize the book as a way to bring visibility and credibility to them and their ideas, which they are also monetizing in other formats such as speaking, online learning, workshop training programs, and so on. Having control of rights means there are no hoops to jump through if they want to monetize their content in a new way. That makes the hybrid approach a popular choice for authors whose intellectual property is also their livelihood, due to the benefits of ownership, creative control, speed to market, and higher royalties.

It's not the right choice for everyone, especially those averse to taking risks (due to the upfront capital investment). Authors with lower risk tolerance should strongly consider the traditional publishing route. And while self-publishing can be done in a fairly low-risk manner, I don't recommend hastily "shotgun publishing" a book under any circumstance because an embarrassing product can leave lasting bad impressions online.

Once you've thought through where you stand on the importance of speed to market, ownership of rights, creative control, access to a team of experts, and financial risk/reward, you'll be in a better position to narrow down your publishing options to find the route that best serves your specific goals and needs.

Published on: Jun 8, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.