You’ve finished your book. Congratulations! In the old days, the next step would have been obvious: cross your fingers and begin querying agents. If you had an agent, you’d mail the book and your agent would commence with selling, a process that could be quick or could take several years, depending upon the circumstances.
Many authors still follow this traditional route and maybe you will too. But before you jump, you may want to consider your options. Today, there are many methods for bringing a book to market. The best method for other authors or books may not be the best for you or your book. Forward-thinking authors clarify their objectives, evaluate all options and choose the method that makes the most sense for them.
Here are the three main paths to publication-large and small traditional house and self-publishing-along with major advantages and disadvantages. (Please note: each method has hybrid options and I have not included subsidy presses.)
Large Traditional Publishing House
For many writers, publishing with the Big 6 is a dream come true. The Big 6 have clout and publishing with a traditional house, whether large or small, is prestigious.
1) Prestige-no question, publishing with the Big 6 carries more prestige than any other method of publication. Your friends and family will be awed.
2) Advance-large traditional houses offer an advance against future royalties. An advance can ease financial pressures and provide a sense of security.
3) Money-an advance is only one of the ways you benefit financially from publishing with a traditional house. Greater exposure means increased potential for the sale of subsidiary deals, such as foreign and film rights.
4) Quality-a team of professionals work together to edit, proof, and produce quality books, maximizing their potential (and making the author look good).
5) Marketing clout-with a powerful marketing team, a big traditional press can garner reviews by recognized critics and get your book widespread notice; this broadens your audience, giving you greater credibility and recognition.
6) Retail placement-while this is changing, paper formats still claim about 70% of the market; self-publishers largely miss this segment by selling primarily online. When you publish with a big house, a sales team sells your book to bookstores and retail outlets such as Target and Walmart, and big houses have the resources to pay for prime placement (e.g. a front shelf).
7) Time-with a team of professionals handling the nuts and bolts of the publishing process, authors have more time to focus on writing.
1) You need an agent. Except in extremely rare cases, large houses do not accept unagented work. In today’s climate, unless you’re a proven entity with a huge platform, finding an agent can be nearly impossible. Even with a quality book and great platform, if your book doesn’t fall into an obvious category or have an obvious audience, agents may be reluctant to sign you.
2) Competitive-breaking in is like winning the lottery; contrary to popular belief, the cream does not always rise to the top. Some great books are turned down for reasons having nothing to do with quality: the book is hard to categorize or does not have an obvious audience; the author’s platform is small; or the author may have had a poor sales track with previous books.
3) Big advances go to the stars-while bestselling authors get huge advances, new or lesser known authors often receive meager advances, some as low as a few thousand dollars, and advances are often paid over time (few authors can survive only on book royalties, which is why so many have other jobs).
4) Low royalties-traditional publishing royalties are notoriously low.
5) Lack of control-the house may accept input on certain things, such as cover and interior design; ultimately, most decisions will be made by the house.
6) Lack of security-in the old days, an author might publish with one house throughout her career; those days are over. Editors and publicists often switch houses, sometimes mid-project, leaving the author feeling orphaned.
7) Long time to market-while it’s possible to publish a book in a few months, the time from acceptance to publication is usually one to two years or more.
8) Limited marketing dollars-despite promises and high hopes, if a ‘bigger’ book is published in the same timeframe as yours, the publisher may decide to put its resources behind that book, essentially leaving yours in the cold.
9) Failure can be devastating-if a book fails to meet expectations, even if the ‘failure’ is the result of the publisher’s lackluster marketing effort, the book may be abandoned, leaving few options but to negotiate a return of royalties.
10) If the book doesn’t ‘earn out’-sales don’t cover the advance, the chances of selling another book to the same publisher are usually slim; if the publisher does accept a second book, the advance will likely be significantly smaller.
Small or Independent Press
As with big houses, publishing with an independent press carries prestige. Because literary works rarely sell well enough to earn scads of money, large houses are often reluctant to publish them, leaving the job to small presses, typically not subject to the demands of corporate bean counters. Books published by a small press are often in illustrious company, thus raising the bar for all books published by the house.
Advantages (these advantages are in addition to those offered by large houses)
1) You may not need an agent-while most books accepted by the well-known independent presses do come from agents, many consider unagented work.
2) Flexibility-on things important to you-e.g.,collaborating on your book’s cover or design-a smaller press may have the flexibility to negotiate.
3) Personal attention and development-small presses publish a limited number of books each year. Many independent presses, particularly quality presses like Graywolf and Milkweed Editions, work closely with authors on detailed editing and development, a tremendous boon for the author’s career.
4) Loyalty to authors-if a book fails to meet the sales projections set by a large house, the publisher may pull it from store shelves; small presses are more likely to stand behind their authors, and many keep books in print forever.
5) Creativity and hard work can overcome limitations-with limited resources, small presses must be creative with marketing and sales and the best small presses are. Algonquin, for example had tremendous success with Water for Elephants, a level far more often achieved by one of the Big 6 houses.
1) Competitive-because they publish so few books per year, they tend to be choosy; some small presses are even more selective than the bigger houses.
2) Limited resources-small presses simply don’t have the resources to offer large advances and most have neither the marketing nor sales clout of a big publisher, which may prevent your book from receiving wide distribution.
3) Risk-because many small presses are underfunded,they run a greater risk of insolvency; a press that’s in business today may close its doors tomorrow.
4) Longest time to market-while a book with topical interest may be published quickly, small presses are often shorthanded, so everything takes more time.
5) All small presses are not created equally-top-notch independent presses put out high quality books. Unfortunately, small does not always equal good. Some small presses publish books that were poorly edited, with mechanical errors such as spelling or grammar mistakes, or that were badly produced, with improper formatting and poor cover designs. It’s exciting to receive an acceptance letter, but before signing on the dotted line, it’s important to do your homework. Talk with authors who’ve published with the press and ask specific questions about the publishing experience.
6) Low royalties-as with large house, the publisher retains the bulk of the royalties.
Just a few years ago, self-publishing was considered the last resort for authors who couldn’t make it with a traditional house. Today, successful authors like Barry Eisler, Michael Prescott and Jackie Collins are choosing to self-publish and new and lesser-known authors are finding tremendous success in the self-publishing arena.
1) No bar to entry-anyone who has written a book, or even a story, can self-publish; there is no need for an agent and, other than basic quality control (checking for formatting errors, for instance), there is no vetting process.
2) Easy-the hardest part of self-publishing is writing the book; the rest is easy. Most platforms offer detailed instruction for formatting and uploading books. For a fee, some companies will design, produce, and upload your book.
3) Inexpensive-for authors who go the DIY route, publishing a book costs under $100; with POD printing, even paper formats are inexpensive today.
4) Optional services-authors can choose from host of a la carte publishing services-editing, proofreading, design, production and marketing-and they also get galleys. With a full-service company like CreateSpace, the experience feels much like publishing with a traditional house.
5) Highest royalties-self-publishers retain a whopping 33% – 70% of their earnings on ebooks. Paperback earnings vary, depending upon how the author chooses to print, price and distribute her book, but authors determine their own retail pricing, so they have the ability to control their earnings.
6) Quick time to market-once the book has been written, edited, and properly formatted, it can be uploaded electronically; once the author approves a proof, the book is distributed to online stores, in come cases within hours.
7) Artistic control-self-publishers retain full control of the process, from content through design and production, so the author can write and publish the book she wants to write, not the book her publisher wants her to write.
8) Fluidity-the ability to upload electronically makes it fast and easy to update, change or correct a book file. While some consider this a negative aspect of self-publishing, many authors appreciate having the ability to make changes.
9) Connection with readers-there is no wall between author and reader and marketing is done primarily online, via social networking or blogs; this direct connection fosters dialogue and connection between author and reader.
10) Platform building-for interested authors, self-publishing can be a step on the path toward publishing with a traditional house. Indeed, many successful self-publishers, once a proven entity, sign lucrative publishing contracts.
1) No bar to entry-the traditional publishing world, and some readers, still stigmatizes indie-published books. To escape the stigma, self-published books must be not only as good, but better than traditionally pubbed books.
2) Self-publishing can be lonely-self-publishers are small business owners. Often there are no employees to collaborate or commiserate with; to alleviate loneliness, it’s important for self-publishers to form a supportive community.
3) Limited time to write-the author-entrepreneur is responsible for every aspect of the process. The business of publishing and marketing a book can be tremendously time-consuming, leaving the author with little time to write.
4) There is potential to make money, but no guarantee-in reality, most self-publishers, particularly those with only one book, earn very little; according to one recent study, the average self-publisher earns only $500 per year.
5) Marketing can be time-consuming and/or expensive-to find an audience even the best book requires exposure. Social networking and blog tours, components of most online marketing campaigns take a lot of time; authors can pay for help and, while some tours cost under $100, others cost upwards of $1000, and, in most cases, blog tours do not directly result in sales.
6) Marketing is still evolving-there is no proven road to success, leaving authors scrambling to find new and better ways to market and sell books.
7) Bookstores are reluctant to stock self-published books-by forming relationships with bookstore owners, an ambitious author can get placement in (particularly local) stores. Still, there are hundreds of independent bookstores and only so much any author can do. Without a sales force, self-publishers can forget about selling to major retailers like Target or Walmart.
8) Media refuse to review and rarely cover indie-published books. As a result, even mega-selling authors like John Locke, who has a distribution deal with Simon and Schuster, have trouble getting decent placement in bookstores.
9) Process is exhausting-while it’s exciting to write and market a book, because most marketing is done via social networking, authors often feel a need to work 24/7. The constant pressure can quickly result in exhaustion.
Which publishing option/s are you considering? Why? If you’ve already published, has the experience been positive? Why or why not? What do you consider the advantages and disadvantages?
A very comprehensive overview. No prizes for guessing which option I favour. And no wonder the big end of town are worried.
Thank you so much, Grant! I'm so glad you thought so!
I chose self-publishing. After getting several rejections stating that my novel, Love's Forbidden Flower, looked fantastic but the subject matter was too hard to sell, it was either change the book or self-publish. The fall from an edgy, thought-provoking romance to Contemporary Romance meant pushing my message off of a cliff. There was no way I would settle for that. I had something to say, and that was far more important. Maybe I won't make the NYT Best Seller List, but I'm happy that I stuck to my guns and very proud of my work.
Thank you so much for commenting, Diane! I think it's wonderful that self-publishing allows us to publish books that are deemed to be good but not conventionally marketable. As a result some fantastic books have been published – and also proved that they are very marketable indeed!
I’d like to comment on this point:
“Some small presses publish books that were poorly edited, with mechanical errors such as spelling or grammar mistakes, or that were badly produced, with improper formatting and poor cover designs. It\’s exciting to receive an acceptance letter, but before signing on the dotted line, it\’s important to do your homework. Talk with authors who\’ve published with the press and ask specific questions about the publishing experience.
I am a freelance editor whose background is in traditional publishing. I recently had a referral from a literary agent whose author was concerned that her small-press publisher didn’t properly edit her book. The “final” pdf of the manuscript she was supposed to approve was riddled with errors–spelling, grammar, punctuation, even basic facts like the spelling of corporate names. The poor author ended up spending her own money to have me go through her manuscript and clean it up before it went to press. Your point about getting feedback from authors who have published with the specific press you are considering is excellent advice!