Even though writers are introverts to different degrees, most of us want to get published. The ultimate dream for many of us is to see our names on a book in a store one day. Every writer who has achieved that goal has a unique path for getting there, though, and every writer experiences varying degrees of success.
At one time, there was only one viable way to get published, which today is called traditional publishing. With the invention of the Kindle and the rise of the internet, technology made self-publishing, the second way to get published, another strong option. Some writers either don’t want or can’t handle all the responsibilities involved with self-publishing, and they take the hybrid publishing route.
Each of these methods definitely has its pros and cons. They each also have their own guidelines and ways that are best to approach them. Let’s look at traditional publishing first.
Traditional publishing is where a literary agent represents you, the writer, to publishing houses and sells your manuscript to one of them. Writers can’t approach large publishing houses without an agent’s representation.
This entire process starts with writing the best manuscript you possibly can, then searching for a literary agent and securing one, and waiting for that agent to shop your book around (called “going on submission,”) working with your agent to negotiate the contract offered, and signing your book deal.
Let’s look first at the pros in traditional publishing
1. Your agent is your biggest support. Guaranteed, your literary agent will work just as hard as you, if not harder, to make sure your book gets the best treatment possible.
2. A team of people work on your book. The traditional publisher has editors whose sole job is to look for grammar issues, and their art departments will take care of the cover. Also, marketing and publicity people help you sell your book.
3. For book awards and other recognition from within the industry, the traditional publishing houses still have an edge. A traditional publisher will have better connections for nominating your book for big awards.
4. A traditional publisher pays everyone involved in producing your book. You don’t have to worry about finding or vetting these professionals, because the publisher has already done it for you.
5. You’ll get a book advance. This is essentially the publisher saying, “Based on our experience and your genre, we think your book will earn X amount of dollars right out of the gate.” They give you this money, upfront, to keep.
There are, of course, drawbacks to traditional publishing, and you may have even guessed some of them.
1. Traditional publishers—especially the biggest ones—will not consider a manuscript without representation. Without an agent, you can’t even enter into a conversation with any of the big pub houses.
2. Agents and publishers will take a long time to get back to you. You might send your query today, but agents may still be working through queries from April or May.
After you get an agent, there’s the waiting game while your book is out on submission. Most writers might have to wait several months or even a year or two, and it’s often happened that an agent shops a book around and it never gets an offer.
Publishing, by its nature, is a slow-moving beast. If you’re not a patient person, you’ll either learn to be one by time your book comes out or you may move on to something non-publishing related.
3. While there’s a team of people working on your book, they’re not just working on yours. They’re also working on other books, probably dozens in fact. This is why from the time a writer signs the contract to the time their book actually releases in stores, it takes on average 18 months to 2 years.
Also, it’s important to remember that publishing is a business. If your book releases and doesn’t do that great, a publisher can refuse to publish your next book. Then your agent will try to secure another publisher and the waiting game for submissions starts again.
4. While the publishing industry places a lot of emphasis on the “bestseller” term and how it figures into book deals, readers really don’t have a strong allegiance to only award-winning books. Most readers don’t even know the difference between one publishing house and the next. For them, story rules everything.
5. With a traditional publisher you don’t shell out any money upfront, yet you also don’t get to keep everything your book earns. For every copy of your book that sells, the majority of that money is going back to the publishing company to distribute to the team that worked on your manuscript.
At the end of every sale, you’ll get to keep somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of what’s earned. Also, your agent makes a commission on everything you sell as well. Industry standard for agents can be up to 15 percent off what you make, and the agent gets paid before you do.
6. The advance may be all you ever get. When your book comes out, you don’t get a single penny of the sales until the publishing company earns back the advance it paid you. If it does, then after that you’ll earn a royalty on every single sale, which is that same 10 to 15 percent.
If your book never earns back its advance, then for the life of that contract you’ll never see any more money from that book.
At one time, traditional publishing was the only viable way for writers to have their books mass produced and mass distributed. Self-publishing and hybrid publishing did exist in various forms, but they were expensive, and book printing and distribution technology didn’t make either option realistic.
When the internet became a necessary component in our daily lives and Amazon created the Kindle, all of that changed. Amazon gave writers the freedom to do a lot of what the big publishing houses were doing at a fraction of the cost and, to a certain extent, even for free.
Let’s get into the topic of self-publishing, then, and examine what it offers writers.
In self-publishing, the author retains complete control and ownership of the book. In traditional publishing, the publisher owns the copyright of the book for the rest of the author’s life plus an additional 70 years. Self-published authors own the copyright of their own works from the first day.
The self-published author is responsible for everything: editing (how much to get done and whether they’ll do it themselves); cover design; interior formatting; distribution to online outlets and brick-and-mortar stores; requests for advanced reviewer copies or ARCs; all marketing and publicity; accounting of what was spent on the book, how sales are going, and what is your net profit.
Essentially, when a writer self-publishes their work, they become their own publisher. So they’re actually starting their own business.
Again, you’ve probably picked up on the pros and cons. Let me spell some of the pros out for you.
1. You don’t need an agent to self-publish your work. In traditional publishing, agents and acquiring editors are gatekeepers. They decide who gets inside and who doesn’t. In self-publishing, you’re the only gatekeeper. The only thing holding you back from publishing your work is your decision to do so.
2. There’s virtually no downtime. If you think your manuscript is ready for the world, you don’t have to wait for an agent to get back to you or to find a publisher willing to take on the task of producing your book.
Self-publishing can be as easy as uploading a Microsoft Word document to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Program, or KDP, or to Draft2Digital in about five minutes and telling your friends you have a book up.
You can also upload your book to other online retailers like Smashwords that make your book available to places Amazon won’t supply. No waiting for the book to come out 18 months from now.
3. You keep every penny you earn. Other than any costs associated with paying for the production of the book—like editing, cover design, formatting, and the physical printing of it—you don’t have to share your profits with anyone.
4. For tech-savvy writers or those who feel like they can take on becoming an “authorpreneur,” self-publishing cuts through the red tape. With so much information online these days, it’s easy find answers to almost any question you might have about self-publishing.
Traditional publishers aren’t thrilled about the fact that Amazon took the mystery out of publishing. Writers who are self-starters and can keep several balls in the air can manage all the aspects of the business without the need of all the layers that traditional publishing puts down.
5. You’re in total control of everything: what the cover looks like, what font gets used inside, the price of your book, and even your release date. In self-publishing, you as the author-publisher decide how much you’re going to charge readers and when your book comes out. And when it does come out and if you discover there are 50 typos that got past you, you have the freedom to pull the book off the market, fix it, and put it up for sale again. Traditional publishers don’t fix typos unless you’re a multi-million-dollar earner for them.
All of this sounds great on paper, but just like anything else self-publishing has its cons.
1. No agent or publisher means you’re on your own the whole way. In self-publishing, you’re an industry of one. Because writing is already a solitary craft, the pursuit of self-publishing might make some writers feel lonely.
2. Some writers think no downtime means they’ve sidestepped the long line to publishing success. Just because you didn’t go through the querying and submission process doesn’t mean you found a secret passage to a long career. It just means you entered the house from the back door instead of the front.
What does that mean in brass tacks? You can upload your manuscript to Amazon after reading this, but that doesn’t mean you’ll find readers. You have to write, revise, edit, and physically create—or have someone else physically create—a beautiful, compelling book. Then you have to come up with a marketing strategy for that book, one that takes into account everything from the time of year to your target market and whether your readers prefer ebooks, hard copies, or both.
You have to keep track of what kind of marketing you’re doing—are you focusing more on email newsletters or social media? Or are you going to do both? Or only one?
Spending time on social media means time you’re not writing or revising your next book. And the catch-22 is that if readers like your work, they’re going to want more.
3. While you keep every penny you earn, that doesn’t mean you’re spending less. If you want to compete with other books out there, you have to spend money on cover designers, editors, formatters for the interior, and a print run if you want hard copy books in addition to ebooks.
You could get around using an editor by asking writing friends to beta read for you, but beta reading is a volunteer task. Not everyone will have time for it. An editor, someone you pay to give your manuscript time and attention, will do so.
4. Publishing, like any business, has multiple challenges and roadblocks. If you go it alone as a self-publisher, you’ll have to find solutions to everything.
5. You’re in total control of everything. All of your successes are yours, but all of your failures are yours too. If you haven’t done your research into the area that needs work, or if you don’t even know that something is wrong, you might miss out on great opportunities, building a readership, book sales, and more.
Traditional publishing and self-publishing sound like they’re polar opposites of each other, and in some ways they are. This is where the third type of publishing, which is hybrid publishing, comes in. As the name implies, hybrid publishing mixes elements of traditional publishing and self-publishing.
An author will assume a big portion or all of the financial risk upfront—paying for the cover design and formatting as well as the editorial feedback and marketing—while the publisher makes all the contacts with that cover designer, the various editors, and the publicity and marketing team. In some cases, the hybrid publisher will keep a portion of what you earn on every copy of your book. In other cases, the publisher takes a cut from what the author pays upfront and allows the author to keep all royalties after that.
The pros and cons might seem obvious. For most hybrid presses, you have to submit your manuscript for consideration. On the plus side, usually you don’t need an agent. On the minus side, in hybrid publishing because the author foots the bill, the argument could be made that a hybrid publisher will accept any manuscript that comes through their door.
One thing to keep in mind: vet any hybrid publisher—or editor, cover designer, and even agent—before making a commitment. For the most part, the writing community is a wonderful place. It’s not immune to bad actors, however. There are con artists in this part of the world looking for people gullible enough to fork over thousands of dollars for nothing in return. Be careful who you trust until they’ve given you good reason to do so.
There are a lot of elements of traditional publishing in hybrid publishing: a cover designer makes the front of the book look beautiful. A developmental editor helps weed out trouble spots in the story. Marketing and publicity teams are available to work with authors on spreading the word about their book.
There are also many elements of self-publishing here: the author gets final say on the cover and the direction of the marketing push. In traditional publishing, the design team doesn’t ask the author their opinion on fonts or what graphic to use in places where the story takes a break.
When it comes to making your writing dreams come true, you have options. All of them require hard work and patience, but they’re there for you when you’re ready for them.
Also, you don’t have to be exclusive to one option over the other. Many bestselling authors who have had long relationships with traditional publishers have self-published works. Many authors started out self-publishing their work and then were discovered.
The authors who get published aren’t always the most talented, but they are, without a doubt, the most persistent. So, when it comes to your publishing dreams, all you have to decide is that you’re going to do everything you can to make them come true, and then go out there and prove it to yourself and everyone else by doing it.
While the #writingcommunity is, for the most part, a fantastic place, there are a few people who lurk in the corners trying to take advantage of vulnerable or naive writers. Many writers have been duped or conned out of thousands of dollars because they were too afraid to ask questions. They were so desperate to make their writing dreams come true that they didn’t stop to consider whether the person on the other end of the communication was genuine or not.
To that end, here are three “rules” to remember when talking to someone connected to the business of books.
Rule # 1 of any interaction with anyone from any sector within the publishing industry: don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask them as many times as you need to until you feel like you fully understand what is on the table.
Rule # 2: If an agent or a company either can’t or won’t answer your questions in straightforward terms, run. Don’t think that your dreams are at risk. What’s really at risk is your reputation, your bank account and, in some extreme cases, your identity.
Rule # 3: People in publishing work for you. Not the other way around. So be confident about what’s important to you. Be open to suggestions, but don’t hesitate to follow your gut if something seems wildly out of left field and you want to call it out.
The information I’ve offered here is just a small sampling of what’s out there. Many industry and publishing experts who have way more knowledge and experience than me on this subject offer their advice freely. Below are some of the sites I consulted to prepare this talk.
Reedsy is a fantastic place for writers to get free advice on the craft and the business of publishing. Here’s a quick guide to how much it’ll cost to self-publish a book.
Just Publishing Advice has done a roundup of self-publishing companies that are available to writers. Check out their list here, but be sure to do your own research into these companies to make sure their philosophy fits yours, that the costs align with your budget, and that they’re still around.
Out of all of the publishing industry experts I follow, Jane Friedman is definitely one of my most favorite people ever. Here are some links to her site.