A traditional publisher will choose to invest in your work. They will help you to edit and polish your manuscript, organise a cover design and publish the book. They might or might not pay you an advance – a lump sum. Once the book’s royalties earn out that advance (if it ever does), you will receive royalties on sales, but the publisher will take their cut as well. They will almost certainly do some marketing, although they will still expect the author, especially if a first-time author, to do plenty of marketing of their own. They will be very fussy about who they take on – their goal is to run an efficient business. The biggest publishers will only accept work submitted by an agent, not work submitted directly from the author. The advantage of traditional publishing is the power of the publisher to promote the book and get it into bookstores.
If going with a traditional publisher, be aware of their reputation. How much marketing do they do? What quality editing do they provide? What is their quality control like? How fussy are they about who they pick up as an author? The main danger is signing your rights over to a publisher who does very little for you. Using an agent might help with this, but the agent will take a cut as well for the privilege.
Vanity publishing has a bad reputation, but it has its place. With vanity publishing, you pay the publisher to prepare and print copies of your book. Ideal for those with plenty of money, limited time and the wish to produce a one-off pet project, they are less than ideal for those actually seeking to earn through their writing, as they make their money from their writers and not for their writers. They might charge high prices for their services, and marketing may well be minimal or non-existent. They will probably take a large chunk of any royalties as well. The advantage of vanity publishing is the convenience.
The main danger is paying a large amount of money for services that at best you could have obtained cheaper elsewhere and at worst are poor quality as well.
With the ease of publishing these days, some people will finish a draft and immediately publish it, particularly as an ebook, with no quality control and with a cover design that marks the work out as amateur. Unfortunately, these tend to make little money and damage the reputation of ebooks generally, as well as producing a raft of scathing reviews that hurt the author. The advantage of self publishing is that it’s quick, easy and free.
It’s important not to rush a project out with no quality control, damaging your reputation as a writer. All the best-selling authors will have gone through a rigorous editing and proofreading, and professional cover design. That’s what your writing has to compete with if you’re trying to sell it.
Indie Publishing (Independent Publishing)*
An Indie publisher will also publish their own work, but will treat the whole thing as a business, investing in their writing via editing, proofreading, formatting and a professional cover. There are many writers who have chosen to publish independently after being traditionally published. There are some examples (but nowhere near as many) of writers going the other way – of being picked up by a trad publisher after publishing their own work. The advantage of Indie publishing is that the author maintains full control over the project and the end result.
You will need to act as a professional, investigating different editors, finding a cover designer who produces quality covers, and mastering marketing and other ancillary skills. An Indie publisher is a business person, handling all aspects of the publishing trade. It is hard work, but can also be very rewarding. An indie author does not do everything themselves, but engages other professionals to handle aspects of the publishing process, ensuring that each section is handled by someone who understands the job and can do their best for the project.
Not everyone makes the same distinction in terminology between self-publishers and indie publishers. The difference is in the attitude of the author, not in the term itself, but I find the distinction a useful one.