Publishing. Being published. The words hold an almost magical power, the kind that drives human beings to give up sleep, money, sometimes health, and certainly social interaction in order to find the gold at the end of that rainbow.
It’s not really such a mystery, at least according to the experts; and yet even after reading a thousand blog posts and a dozen books on the subject, an aspiring writer can still find herself confused.
My goal is to break down the barriers of confusion. This post – though super-long – summarizes most paths to publication.
At the very end, there’s even a very brief set of instructions on how to pursue various paths.
I’ll go into the rest in more detail later. For now, this post is long enough. Onward!
This is a REALLY LONG POST. I apologize. To try to make it easier, I’ve broken it into sections:
Definitions: Traditional Publishing
Definitions: Small press
Definitions: Vanity Publishing
Definitions: Self Publishing
Definitions: Indie Publishing
How to do Traditional Publishing
How to do Indie Publishing
Was going indie worth it?
Let’s start with one of my favorite things: definitions. I use this term a couple of times, so here you go: a Mid-list author doesn’t sell enough books to be A-list, but DOES sell enough to recoup all costs and make the publisher some money. You’d think that would be a good thing.
You’d be wrong.
Definition from Nathan Bransford: “Midlist – Midlist titles are those that are literally in the middle of the range of advances and sales on a publisher’s list. Typically midlist authors have a solid fan base but are not bestsellers. Some say the midlist is disappearing as publishers increasingly focus on their bestselling authors.”
Clear? Okay, on we go.
Everyone knows what this is. The traditional route involves agents and editors, cover designers and marketing experts, and a whole host of people all coming together to make your story available to the world. This way is very cool – if you can get into it.
The reason I ended up not going that way is simple: publishers want to make money, and they are scared. Because publishers are scared, they are unwilling to take a risk on anything they don’t know for certain will sell.
My personalized rejections have had this phrasing for the past four years: I love this story, but it’s a weird story. I can’t sell it, because nobody’s taking a risk on weird. Sorry.
One agent even asked to see the manuscript so he could read the whole thing – after telling me he could not take me on as an author. I think that’s a compliment?
- The BEST distribution. Guaranteed chance (note: a CHANCE) to be in every major bookstore chain, both in the US and overseas.
- Editing and guidance. To hire a really good editor is usually around a thousand dollars, whereas a professional editor – with whom you will hopefully have a writing relationship for the rest of your career – comes with this as a perk.
- Some marketing… sometimes. More on that in a minute.
- Translation comes with the package. You don’t have to worry about it.
- The advance. This is the part authors really like: publishers will give you a chunk of money that they think the book is guaranteed to pay out. Mind you, this can be a very small chunk, and it carries problems of its own. Read on.
Cons (These may seem brutal. They’re also true):
- You don’t get any more money until the publisher makes back the amount they paid you in the advance. Sometimes, if the book doesn’t sell, they even want the advance BACK.
- The bigger problem, however, is if you don’t make the amount of money the publisher wants to (even if you earn far more than the advance and are NOT a loss), they may just drop you. Just like that. An excellent example is Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist series. It was dropped. Then – and this is unusual – because the fans put up a HUGE fuss, it was picked back up again. This is the only time I’ve seen that happen. Usually dropped is just… dropped, contracts be damned. (Read “How to Kill a Career in Three Easy Books” for some perspective.)
- The author-editor relationship isn’t as permanent as it used to be. An author I know ended up stuck with no editor at all because her current one transferred, and the one who took her place had no interest in taking on the leftovers. Yikes.
UPDATE: I got permission from Holly Lisle to show you the real, full story on this, and it is horrifying. In her own words:
My story was WAY worse than that. The SECRET TEXTS novels were slated to go hardcover with the next book, which would have been my first hardcover book.
But Betsy Mitchell, my then-editor, left to go to another house, and informed my agent that she wouldn’t be taking any midlisters with her. (This is the same editor, incidently, who laughingly told another editor as they were leaving a panel at a con I attended that she had to go tell some writers they were dead.)
The new editor coming in was uninterested in picking up the previous editor’s list.
So I went from looking at an upcoming multi-book contract in hardcover to being without an editor, without a publishing house, and still with all the same bills.
– Holly Lisle
- Ownership: the publishing company owns the rights to your book. Yes, your name is in the copyright. It doesn’t mean much. If your book goes out of print, you don’t have the right to do anything with that book unless the publisher gives it back to you. That means you can’t take it and publish it yourself, or pitch it to someone else. It just sits there. In the archives. Doing nothing. You can’t even write in that UNIVERSE again. Holly Lisle talks about this honestly and openly, and I’m glad she does. People don’t like to mention it.
- The amount of money you make per sale is minuscule. Seriously. It’s like 15% of the printed cover price – and 15% of THAT, you’ll owe to your agent. 20%+ if you’re dealing with international deals. (Agents definitely earn it, don’t get me wrong – but still, ouch.)
- Usually, the marketing is on you. That’s right. The publisher gets 85% of the cover price on average, and you still have to put in for the marketing. If you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.The exceptions to this rule are when they know the book will sell – Twilight, for example, had the whole force of publisher’s cache behind it. Unfortunately, mid-list authors (remember the definition from earlier) get no such perks. In fact, because bookstores are being careful about what gets on the shelves, a mid-list author probably won’t be put in bookstores at all. V. J. Chambers has a post on this that really says it well.
- You have little control over the cover, nine times out of ten. We’ve all seen the horror that can happen there, from whitewashing to just plain ugly.
- You also have little control over the final edits. Since the goal is “write what sells,” sometimes that means MAJOR changes. I’ve known authors who had to suffer through character-gender changes, name changes, entire plots and subplots being rerouted for the sake of saleability. You’re told to write what’s in your heart to write – and then you’re told to write what’s in somebody else’s.
- Sometimes, if the publisher feels you didn’t sell enough, you have to change your name or no one will give you another contract. (Joshua Palmatier/Benjamin Tate is a good example of that.) Why? Because bookstores order not via people, but via numbers – based on what sold. If your name has no numbers, you have a better chance of being picked up than if your name is attached to low numbers.
In sum: Proceed with caution.
If you have a book that will sell, then ABSOLUTELY go this way. But know that you may still be screwed. The key will be making sure you are protected. Don’t sign away your rights without an end-date. Make sure that if the publisher drops you, you get your books back.
Note: I should mention small publishers here. This unique creature manages to combine the best and worst of several options. You have a “real” publisher, so you’re legitimized and can get into libraries. You have an editor, and since the staff is small, you have a good chance of rapport with them. You’re also eligible for contests you won’t be as a self-pubbed author.
However, as already mentioned, the staff is small, and the budget is limited. Also, many of the other cons still fit: little cover control, rights ownership, etc. Experiences with a small publisher vary so much depending on the staff that it’s almost impossible to quantify. Sometimes it’s not so great, and sometimes it’s an amazing experience – so submit with caution, and check with their current authors to learn their experienes.
This is bad. Bad, bad, bad.
Named so because it appeals to the vanity of the author, a vanity pub will make lots of promises without actually delivering anything a publisher is supposed to deliver. Also, they charge you for it.
- You’ll see your work in print. Sometimes there might be more than one copy.
That’s about it.
- You have to pay for every single stage of the process, always at inflated prices.
- Distribution? You wish.
- Editing? Nope. All on you.
- Covers? Sometimes the vanity pub has craptastic little covers with public-domain images. Most of the time, however, that’s still on you.
- Marketing? Nada.
- So you’re doing everything – but you’re paying the vanity publisher money. It’s a con-game, plain and simple.
The most obvious example of this is Publish America. Here’s a very reasonable explanation why it’s a bad, bad thing. Vanity publishers make really broad claims which cannot possibly be backed up, like sales (nobody can guarantee who will buy your book), and they’ll charge you a lot of money up front. Stay away from vanity publishers.
(Unsure how to tell a vanity press from a valid but small press? Check here: Predators and Editors. This site is THE BEST I know of to let you know if an agent, editor, publisher, etc. is trustworthy. If you can’t find them on this list, don’t risk it.)
In sum: BAD.
The cousin of indie publishing – I’ll explain the difference in a moment.
- You keep control over most of your book, which means editing, cover, etc. This is AWESOME if you’re brave enough to do it.
- You can do it from your sofa. It’s that easy – though you should really consider taking a walk in between drafts.
- A far higher profit margin per book sold. You won’t get all of it, but you get considerably more than 15% of the cover price.
- It’s free. Places like CreateSpace.com and Lulu.com offer you the chance to print books that cost you nothing – if you give them the right to be the publisher, which means they own the ISBN. You can do ebooks through KDP.amazon.com or Nook Press or Kobo Writing Life also for free. If you must get into harder stores, I suggest Daft2Digital. They are WORLDS ahead of Smashwords in polish, procedure, and production. Also, they pay more quickly. (More on my experience with Smashwords here.)
- Again: you own your own copyright, as well.
- You can get your book into libraries, if you let your print-on-demand publisher own the ISBN.
- You aren’t the publisher, so the ISBN belongs to someone else.
- Nobody knows you exist. Marketing is (as always) on you, but you lack the resources of a major publisher’s name and connections, which makes it harder.
- If you don’t do a good job with editing/cover design, you’ll have a really crappy-looking product. Sorry to say, that will reflect badly on you.
Self-publishing is rewarding. It’s a deeply excellent alternative to traditional publishing, though it usually means selling far fewer copies. Most of the work will still be on you, just like with traditional publishing – but you won’t be penalized if you screw it up. You just have to keep working.
I opted for the slightly harder road: the indie publisher.
Indie author means truly independent. At its most basic, indie means there is no separate publisher involved. Many indies may have setup their own micro-press, so their books still have a publisher name that is not the author’s name but the publisher is not one of the author services companies. The indie author most likely owns their own ISBNs. The indie pays the bills and is paid by the distributors e.g. Amazon/Draft2Digital directly. The only middleman is the distributor.
- Complete control. Everything is in your hands to make or break.
- Complete ownership – this was one of the major draws for me. Nobody else will ever hold the copyright, ISBN, etc.
- You (or the sole proprietorship company you create) will be the listed publisher.
- You’ll make the highest profit margin of all these publishing options.
- It’s all on you. I can’t stress this enough. Every inch of the creation of this book rests on your shoulders, and it can be extremely overwhelming.
- Nobody knows you exist. Attention is hard to get without being annoying.
- This option will cost you money. Things like copyrighting, cover design, and editing will lighten your wallet – but they’re worth it.
- Distribution is both easy and hard. Easy because you don’t do it – your print-on-demand company and the ebook companies you’re working with (i.e. Direct2Digital) do it for you. However, because the indie author really isn’t recognized by most places as a “real” author yet, you’ll have trouble getting into libraries, and will have trouble getting into brick and mortar bookstores.
Indie publishing gives you the best chances, the most control, and the most return per book. It’s also the most labor-intensive. If you’re not a hard worker and willing to run a marathon, don’t do this.
I chose to do it because I wanted to keep complete control of my book. I didn’t want to go through what so many of my author friends had, desperately trying to keep the integrity of their books in spite of the wishes of those who held their contracts. Also, I know the quality of my work. I know my standards of excellence, and I knew if I wanted a book that pleased me from start to finish, I’d need to do it myself.
For example, I am damn pleased with my cover design:
Let me tell you – this was intense. It had to work in 2D and 3D form, for both Kindle and Paperback. It had to be eye-catching but still readable. It had to feel like ME, but utterly professional. (I type this in a bathrobe, just FYI.
How to go Traditional Publishing
- Write the best book you can. Beth Revis is quite right: there is no magic formula.
- Write the best book you can. In case you missed it the first time.
- Be prepared to accept rejection from agents, editors, and readers. It’s not personal. It doesn’t mean you or your writing sucks.
- Learn how to query agents. This subject has been so well-covered that I’ll let you read up on your own.
- Rinse, repeat. Seriously. Keep doing it; keep writing; keep prepping proposals for your agent and editor. Lick your wounds and keep on going. If you can make it, it’s worth it. If.
- Promote, promote, promote. Somehow, don’t be annoying when you do it.
How to go Indie Pub or Self-Pub
- Write the best book you can. (This should go without saying).
- Legally protect yourself as a sole proprietorship, and make SURE you don’t use anything copyrighted. That means you can’t just quote music lyrics. That means you can’t just use images and fonts. Be CAREFUL.
- Get your ISBNs. I suggest the 10-pack.
- Copyright your book. Easy to do, fortunately. Just make sure you’ve done all the edits (or paid someone to) before you submit.
- Be prepared for rejection. WEIRD rejection. Seriously. You’ll get random stuff like this:
- Do you want to do print as well as ebook? Then research your options. I decided to go with CreateSpace (though that may change in the future), and I’ll tell you why.
– They offer the best royalties on the market at this moment (again, that may change).
– They offer most options for control (if you don’t want to design a cover, for example, they will do it for you. If you cannot afford an ISBN, they will give you one for free.)
– You own your own copyright.
– They have the best distribution in markets here AND overseas (this is a new change: they now distribute in Europe for NO extra charge).
– They print a decent-quality product. It’s usually good paper, though I’ve had trouble sometimes getting the fonts dark enough to be readable. Creating the PDF the way they want it can be a complicated exercise.- When it comes time to proof the book, you will have a digital/PDF option (free) or you can order a proof copy for 5 dollars.
- Cover design: you can either choose someone online (there are TONS of options), or do it yourself. I designed my own cover (and here’s how). It took a long time to choose the right fonts (and make sure I have the rights to them – yes, fonts are legal entities), to find the proper image/Photoshop brushes and put it all together in a way that made sense.
- Promote, promote, promote. Somehow, don’t be annoying when you do it.
Was going Indie worth it?
YES. A THOUSAND TIMES YES. I have a cover I can be PROUD of. It symbolizes things in the book. It’s eye-catching. And I did it myself, so I own it completely.
I edited, and editing was a bitch. I won’t mince words here. I could not afford to hire an editor, so I have suffered from many, many typos. Happily, readers have helped me to find them, and since I am self-published, I could just make updates whenever I wanted. I don’t have to wait for the behemoth of a publisher to move. I can change anything right now.
The first time around, I had to learn typesetting, including crazy Microsoft Word things like “alternating headings,” page numbers, the works. The entire layout of the book was in my hands, including font choices. All the little fleurons and all? Mine to do.
It was good but this is better: Book Design Templates.
I’m not an affiliate. These guys are just fantastic. Look how beautiful this template is:
Even better, Book Design Templates includes clear instructions on how to prepare your PDF for uploading, AND they have great support.
This is totally worth it.
Yes, I wish I’d been able to get an agent – but I’m glad I never had to suffer the issues so many of my friends have with the publishing industry.
I have three books I’m damned proud of, and covers I can show anywhere without embarrassment.
I have complete ownership, so no one can ever inform me it’s going out of print.
Because I have ownership, I can post snippets and allow fanfiction and do all the things I want with it. (Legally, normally, you have to have PERMISSION from your editor/publisher to post snippets of the thing you’re writing. Screw that.)
Yeah, I’d love to see myself in Barnes and Noble – but it’s a small thing to trade for this. Real pride. Real victory. Real craft.
I am earning every step of this journey, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.