This is the second post in my Publishing series. The first post, last week, was on Copyright. I highly recommend reading that one if you missed it.

So you wrote a book. Or maybe you are thinking about writing a book. The good news is that it is easier than ever today for new authors to publish books. The Digital Age has opened doors that mean, for better or for worse, anyone with just a little bit of technical expertise can publish a book. This is why there are over 3 Million e-books available on Amazon and more are being released at a current rate of a little over 100,000 new e-books per month. I’m not going to talk about Self-Publishing in-depth in this article as I’ll be covering that in future articles. Instead, I’m going to talk about some of the pros and cons of each of the different types of publishing venues that are available. As much as possible, I’ll try to set some expectations.

First, let’s start with the big, famous, Traditional Publishers, often called “Trad” or “Trad Pub” by various authors. This is what many people dream about when they decide they want to write a book. They’ll slap some words on the paper, and then, somehow magically, a publisher will offer them a lucrative contract and their books will be a best seller and a movie deal will shortly follow. It may be a fun dream to think about, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s not how it works. There is certainly a level of prestige that comes with the being published by a large publisher, but in all honesty this is probably one of the hardest things to do. The first thing that you should be aware is that the vast majority of large publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. That means, if you try to just mail them your wonderful, super-amazing book, it will go straight to the trash pile without ever being read.

In order to even get your book read by a traditional publisher, you will need an agent. Which, of course, is the next hurdle: finding a qualified, professional literary agent to represent you. It’s not as easy as just mailing your manuscript and getting an agent the next day. You have to research the agents. Many agents only specialize in certain genres. If you wrote a romance novel and sent it to an agent who does primarily science fiction, it’s probably not going to be a good match. Unless, it’s like “Passengers” and could be a sci-fi romance story, in which case you’d better make that very clear in your query letter. Finding an agent is a long and arduous process in and of itself. Remember that for every one of you reading this and thinking about publishing, there are hundreds more just like you sending the same letters to the same agents, every month. The biggest mistake people make here is they get desperate for an agent and just take the first person who comes along and says yes. Make sure it’s a good fit. Remember, the agent works for you, not the other way around. (Really, it’s a partnership and you should be working together, but I digress.) The point is, make sure that your agent’s interests and ideas align with yours, make sure that the contract they present is acceptable, make sure that they have some experience. Check them out and shop around before signing an agent.

Even if you do get an agent that you like, it’s still not an easy task to get traditionally published. Your agent has to take your work and peddle it to the big publishers. They are not alone and are competing with other competent agents, each of whom thinks the book they represent is amazing. A publisher may only be looking for 2 or 3 books that month for that genre, but they may have 100 different options. That’s not to say that going this route isn’t worth it. It does come with a lot of benefits. In addition to the general prestige and recognition, you get the benefit of professional editors, professional artwork, in many cases a publishing advance (anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars), distribution, marketing, and more. That allows you to focus on doing what you do best; writing. (Sometimes they want you to sign over certain rights or they want to buy your rights outright, but that’s a topic for another post.) The point is, even with an agent, getting signed by a large publisher isn’t a guarantee, and it won’t happen right away unless you are very, very lucky. For a lot of people, they don’t like the long waits involved in this route. Or, they don’t like the idea of giving up control of their work. Fortunately, there are other options.

The last decade has seen a booming increase of small and medium publishers, that have popped up around all the world. There are a lot of potentially good things that come out of this, and a lot of potentially bad things as well. Small and medium publishers can be a mixed bag. That’s not intended to scare you away from this route, but it’s an important thing to remember. Basically, a good rule of thumb is to approach small and medium publishers as though they might be trying to rip you off. Constantly ask yourself “what’s the catch?” and make sure that their contracts match what they’ve told you (a lot more on contracts in next week’s article, so stay tuned).

Here are some immediate red flags for small and medium publishers. First, they want you to pay them to publish your book. I won’t name any specific names here, but there are a lot of publishers that fall under this block. These are scams and not real publishers. Your book is an investment. They should be investing in it, assuming that it’s good. When you pay someone else a couple hundred dollars to publish your book, then that’s not publishing. That company is a “Vanity Press” or a “Subsidy Press” and their entire business model is not set up to sell your books, but rather to get authors to pay them for publishing. Remember what I said about there being hundreds of people just like you every month? Even if they get 10 authors a month to provide them with $300 each, that’s $3,000 per month. A flashy website and some fake testimonials with stock photos and next month another 10 people will do the same thing. The same thing should be said for publishers that want to charge you a “reading fee” to read your book. Run. Run far away and never look back. In those business models, you are the revenue source, not the sales of your book. If they charge $5 per reading and they get 1,000 people to pay that to read their book… they could easily reject everyone and just pay to get people to read it. Most of them will “accept” enough books to keep the dream alive and get people to say how awesome they are. But when push comes to shove, the books often linger in publishing purgatory. Publishers who do either of these practices are set up to make their money from you, not to make money for you.

Some yellow-flag warning signs are helpful to know as well. The publisher’s website might be very minimal; perhaps a single-page or a contact field. Or maybe they don’t have a website at all, only a Facebook page. That would be a yellow flag for me. Publishers should have a well-built site with pages on their authors and the books they have for sale, in my opinion. Another warning flag would be that the publisher does not have their submission guidelines published anywhere publicly. If you have to submit information to contact them in order to get instructions on how to submit, I would approach that publisher with caution (unless they specifically state that they do not accept unsolicited manuscripts). Emailing people instructions every time they ask takes a lot more extra work than just putting clear instructions on a website and directing people there. So why make you jump through the extra hoops? Other warning signs could be contracts that are too long or too short (yes, that’s bad!) or contracts that require you to surrender your rights or pay ridiculous fees for breaking or terminating the contract (a lot more on contracts to come next week).

There are some really good small and medium publishers out there, and there are a lot of “ok” publishers too. There should be some level of trust. Like an agent, they should be working with you. They should be investing in you. If they’re asking you to pay for any sort of cost at all, it should be something logical (like perhaps you want to buy a limited run of your own book to take to book signings and conventions – it’s not reasonable for the publisher to pay that). Ask lots of questions and see how they respond. A good publisher won’t be afraid to answer questions, explain things clearly, or even make some small concessions for you. While small and medium publishers can be a mixed bag, and most of them do not offer advances at all, the benefits they provide are typically similar to larger publishers. They help with editing, with cover design, and with promotion of your book, thus allowing you more time to write.

which brings us to the last option, self-publishing. For a myriad of reasons, many people may have elected to go this route. Maybe they don’t want to share their revenue from the book, or maybe they don’t want to give up any control or rights to the book. Maybe they’ve been turned down a lot and are impatient. I really can’t say. But, regardless for your reasons in considering this option, there are some things that you have to understand. First, and probably most importantly, you aren’t going to just throw your book on Amazon and get sales. That’s not how it works. Remember, there are more than 3 Million titles already there with roughly 100,000 new titles being added every single month. That’s some stiff competition. Why would they just magically pick your book out of the crowd? Sure, self-publishing does offer some benefits, like 100% of your profit margin and total control over every part of the process. But it also comes with downsides. Namely, you have to pay for your own editor (and I’ll talk more about of the pitfalls I’ve learned there). You will have to either create or pay for your own cover art (more on that to come, too). You have to format, prepare and ready the files for printing and distribution. And then, finally, you are on the hook for all of your own marketing. If your marketing strategy consists of “I’m going put a post on Facebook telling people to buy my book and they’ll all rush out and buy lots of copies”, you might want to re-think this. In general terms a lot of “creative types” aren’t well-suited for marketing. The idea of approaching people and asking them to buy something (also known as “sales”) is foreign and scary. It’s a skill and it takes time to learn if you aren’t just naturally good at it.

To summarize, there are a couple of main points you want to ask yourself when determining which way to go.
1. How much time are you willing to invest in your book in order to make it successful?
2. How much control are you willing to give up in order to focus on writing new books?
3. How much money are you willing to give up (in % of royalty sales) in order to get others to help you make your book successful?

Depending on how you answer those questions, you should have a better idea of which publishing path is right for you. If you want to try self-publishing there’s something else to keep in mind; you generally get what you pay for. If you hire cheap editors or your cover looks cheap, it will put people off. And, more importantly than that, you might know very well what you like, personally, but it might be very different than what actually sells. I did a contract cover for an author and they had me make some changes to the cover design. The final product was worse than what I suggested, but I wasn’t going to argue with them over it because it’s their book and they’re in control – I was just the means to make their vision come true. If you hire freelance agents to do specific tasks, like editing or cover design, trust their input.

Tune in next week when I got over the ins and outs of publishing contracts.

Publishing Avenues