As we continue our series on writing a book, a quick reminder. We are discussing physical, print books as opposed to ebooks. Take a look at It’s Time for You to Write a Book for a discussion of why we’re focusing on that format.
When the only realistic way to get a book published was to work with a traditional publishing house, a writer’s path forward was clear. However, with the proliferation of self-publishing options, the emergence of hybrid publishers and the availability of new printing technologies, things have gotten complicated. There’s so much information floating around, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and succumb to analysis paralysis.
There is no single right way to publish your book, but some options are clearly better than others. Let's take a look at the various possibilities and figure out which path is best for you. We’ll examine the following areas:
- Creative Control
- Editing, Cover Design and Layout
- Publication Timeframe
- Level of Effort and the Learning Curve
- Contracts and Rights
- Profit Potential
These are the companies you know such as Random House as well as many you may not have heard of. Whether large or small, global or hyper-local, traditional publishers operate in basically the same way. They cover all production costs. They produce professionally edited and designed books. They pay authors royalties based on copies sold.
Traditional publishers are very selective. The odds of being accepted by one of the big houses are miniscule. You are more likely to find a publisher within the ranks of smaller, regional and niche houses.
A good place to start researching potential publishers is Writers Market, a comprehensive guide published annually by Writer’s Digest Books. It indicates whether publishers are accepting submissions and describes the type of material they are seeking. A listing may also include information about manuscript length, where to find writers’ guidelines, recent titles published and preferred method of contact.
If you are less concerned about profiting from your work than about getting your book into as many hands as possible, a traditional publisher may be your best choice. Being published by a traditional house is also the best option if you want to enhance your credentials or establish yourself as an authority.
Creative Control – You don’t have much creative control when you work with a traditional publisher. Most houses will try to accommodate their authors’ wishes. However, your editor and publisher have the final say as to what ends up in your book. They will also choose the title and the cover. For some writers this is no big deal. They want to publish the best books they can and they trust the professional staff at the publishing house to make that happen. For others, relinquishing creative control is unacceptable.
Editing, Cover Design and Layout – With very few exceptions the quality of books published by traditional houses far exceeds the quality of self-published volumes. One of the main reasons is editing, cover design and layout are handled by experienced professionals.
Production – Production is not an issue for authors working with traditional publishing houses. Everything is handled behind the scenes by the publisher.
Distribution – Traditional houses arrange to get your title into libraries and bookstores including online sellers like Amazon. They maintain inventory and when your book sells out, they restock it. They also handle returns.
Marketing – Traditional publishers do very little marketing. As the author, it’s your responsibility, just as it is with a self-published book. There are lots of easy and effective ways to market locally regardless of how your book is published. There’s a post dedicated exclusively to marketing coming up later in this series.
Publication Timeframe – Traditional houses move at a glacial pace. It can be two years from the time your manuscript is completed until the book actually comes out. Smaller houses move a little faster, but not much.
Level of Effort and the Learning Curve – One of the best reasons to work with a traditional house is that you don’t have to do everything. You don’t have to hire an editor, find a cover designer, negotiate with a printer, figure out the book’s internal layout or decide on a font. You can focus on writing the best manuscript you possibly can.
Contracts and Rights – You will have to sign a contract with a traditional publisher. Publishing contracts are long, complicated and ALWAYS favor the publishing house. Be very careful and make sure you understand what rights you are signing away and for how long. Contact an attorney if you need to.
Cost – Authors are not required to contribute toward their book’s production costs or make any other kind of financial investment with traditional publishers.
Profit Potential – Profits from book royalties are minimal. I repeat, profits from book royalties are minimal.
Intangibles – If you’ve dreamed of being a writer since childhood, nothing compares to the feeling of holding your published book or seeing it on the shelf at your favorite bookstore. Being a published author can have a very positive impact on your career. And even though the stigma of self-publishing has faded, there is still a certain cachet associated with having your work selected by a publishing house, even a small one.
The other side of the coin is disappointment. Publishing houses accept only a small percentage of the writers who contact them. Be prepared to approach several houses. Almost no one gets a positive response to their first query. Rejection is tough but it’s part of the game.
Self-publishing is sometimes confused with vanity publishing. They are not the same thing. Vanity presses charge authors exorbitant amounts of money to publish their books. They provide little to no editing or design. They do not handle marketing or distribution. They print hundreds of copies of your book and ship them to you at your expense. After you manage to sell four or five and maybe give a couple more away, the rest sit stacked in your garage or basement basically forever.
Self-publishing is a do-it-yourself model. Many successful self-published authors prefer the term Indie Publishing and they liken themselves to independent musicians and filmmakers.
As a self-publisher you are responsible for all the functions performed by a traditional publishing house. It’s a lot like being the general contractor on a big remodeling project. But rather than hiring an electrician, a plumber and a carpenter, you contract with an editor, a cover designer and a printing company. You not only have to hire the team, you also have to coordinate all the moving parts.
The top reasons authors who can get traditional publishing deals choose to self-publish include creative control, profit potential, retention of rights and the speed of getting the book to market.
If you have a direct sales platform such as a big email list, social media following or an active speaking career, self-publishing may be your best bet. As soon as you recover your book’s production and marketing costs, every copy you sell will be pure profit.
Let’s see how the elements we considered under the traditional publishing section work in the self-publishing world.
Creative Control – This is not an issue with self-publishing. Authors have complete creative control.
Editing, Cover Design and Layout – We’ve all seen awful self-published books. Before you even open them their amateurish, ugly covers give them away. If you do bother to read a few pages you encounter typos, misspellings, weird grammar, factual errors, ridiculous fonts, etc. As a self-publisher you must overcome the assumption on the part of potential readers that your book will be of poor quality. The way you do that is by hiring competent help. If your brother-in-law is a middle school English teacher, sure, have him go through your manuscript. But that’s not enough. You need a professional editor. By the same token you cannot get an effective cover designed for five dollars nor should you have your layout done by a high school kid. You are going to have to make an investment in outside services if you want a quality book. There’s no way around it.
Production – As a self-publisher you have to manage the entire book printing and production process, something most of us know nothing about. Contact a few local print shops and find out what they can do for you. Then head over to Create Space, a subsidiary of Amazon, and take a look at their services and pricing. Create Space is a print on demand (POD) operation. Google “print on demand” and you’ll find many others. POD is a digital process that allows books to be printed based on orders received. If one book is ordered, one book is printed and shipped. If ten are ordered, ten are printed and shipped, etc. No more books piled in the spare bedroom. No more covering the costs of a big print run then waiting for months until sales revenue starts flowing.
Distribution – You are responsible for distribution. Many bookstores will not carry self-published books under any circumstances. However, there are many other outlets for local interest books including hotels, retail shops, museums and other attractions. There are also excellent direct sales opportunities for local books. We’ll discuss the possibilities in detail in the post on marketing.
Marketing – As I stated in the traditional publishing section, marketing is the author’s responsibility regardless of how the book is published.
Publication Timeframe – Your timeframe is largely under your control. If you need or want to get your book printed and available to readers as quickly as possible, you can. You have to pay for speed, but it is an option.
Level of Effort and the Learning Curve – Self-publishing a book is a complicated undertaking. The learning curve is both steep and long. Some people thrive on the experience; for others it is exhausting, frustrating and utterly overwhelming.
Contracts and Rights – This is not an issue with self-publishing. You retain all rights.
Cost – Self-publishing is not cheap. Cost is one of the main reasons authors seek traditional publishers where there is no upfront investment. The cost of self-publishing can run from $1000 to $20,000 or more. This may not be a bad thing, however. See the next item: Profit Potential.
Profit Potential – It is possible to make a significant amount of money with a self-published book if you have a good topic, a direct sales platform and are willing to hustle.
Intangibles – Self-published authors enjoy a well-earned sense of accomplishment when they hold the first copy of their book in their hands. By successfully completing the self-publishing process, you gain a new – and potentially quite valuable – skill set. Not only will publishing your next book be much easier and probably faster, you can offer your services as a consultant and help others down the same path.
Many self-published authors swear they will never work with a traditional house again. They love the creative control, the total ownership of their own works and the ability to chart the course of their careers. The fact that some of them are making boatloads of money doesn’t hurt either.
A third publishing option has emerged. Hybrid publishing houses claim to embody the best aspects of traditional and self-publishing while jettisoning the negatives. Writers contribute financially to their book’s production costs in exchange for much higher royalty rates than those offered by traditional houses. Hybrid publishers have professional editors, layout and cover designers on staff. They handle production and distribution. They get books into bookstores and listed with online sellers. It’s an option you ought to explore before you make a final decision how to proceed. Here’s a link to a good article about hybrid presses from Publishers Weekly.
One caveat: There are many versions of the hybrid publishing model. Some firms are great. Others are little more than rebranded vanity presses.
And Speaking of Scams . . .
Vanity presses are not the only villains in the publishing world. Some publishing houses exist simply to rip off unsuspecting writers. There are terrible freelance editors, shifty cover designers, fake literary agents and all sorts of other con artists ready and willing to exploit your desire to see your work in print. Luckily, there’s also a watchdog group. Visit Preditors and Editors, an enormous site that contains information on publishers, agents, book doctors, proofreaders, editors and much more. In the writing world, it definitely pays to look before you leap.
In our next post we’ll get into the nitty gritty of how to make money from your book whether you self-publish, work with a hybrid publisher or go the traditional route.