We all know how drastically book publishing has changed in the last two decades. A host of different avenues exist now to get your book into print (or e-book), and these prove so confusing to writers coming into this business. What are the distinctions? Which way is right for you? Book publishing can be demystified, so let’s just do it!
First off, “changed” may be something of a misnomer. Because while the venues for getting a book out have exploded exponentially, Traditional publishing hasn’t changed all that much—except to have grown ever tighter and harder to break into.
Since I’m a book editor, writers contact me daily, confused about the options. So, let’s just break it down into simple forms.
Traditional Publishing by a Major House
This is still the gold standard in our business. It’s what writers have been shooting for all along—to have a major publisher buy the rights to publish their works.
Prestige. Again, this is the top of the food chain in books. These are the ones that get reviewed by Publishers Weekly, and are distributed by the major distribution chains, which is how books get into brick-and-mortar book stores. The house pays the author for the rights to publish, contracts for the cover art, helps secure jacket blurbs (from famous authors or experts), positions it on its upcoming list, and promotes it (at least somewhat).
This is very difficult to break into. New writers are being published every day, but in order to do so, you have to commit to the long (and arduous) road.
Because this is also a slow process. In order to submit to a major publisher, you must first be represented by a Literary Agent, which in itself can take months or years, just to get through the querying process. Once you are successfully agented, it may take your agent months to years to sell the rights to a major house. And then the lag time before the book is published is long.
In today’s world of instant gratification, more and more writers are not willing to wait.
Most of the promotion is still left up to the authors. Unless you’re a famous one to begin with.
You get 4-6 weeks for your book to take off, or it’s pulled.
And, with all of the mergers, we’re basically left with 5 major houses. Although as I write this, one of those is on the chopping block.
But the long process in and of itself pays huge dividends for writers. It allows you the time to learn and perfect your craft. Writers get better by writing. Taking classes, studying the craft, working with a great editor, joining a workshop are all great investments. But everything circles back to writing, writing, writing.
Now, I’m not talking about vanity presses (more on that in a minute), but on Independent publishers who still follow the Traditional model. They sometimes (rarely) pay advances, but do pay standard royalties. The main thing is they do NOT charge the author to publish. They do the printing, cover art, etc.
They may be small, and often publish as a labor of love, but that’s not a bad thing.
That “labor of love” means they truly believe in your book, or wouldn’t be investing precious dollars to do so.
They do promote as best they can, again, with those precious dollars. Most of the promotion is still left to the authors, but then again, unless you’re a bestselling author to begin with, the major houses leave most of it to you anyway.
And some of these houses come with literary prestige as well.
Shelf-life. The thing about major publishers is that you have about 6 weeks (although now it’s closer to 4) for your book to sell. If it doesn’t take off, the copies are pulled from the shelves, covers ripped off, and remaindered (dead).
With smaller houses, books stay in print and on their lists for months and even years. So you have a lot more time to promote it.
Dollars. You probably won’t get an advance. And the marketing dollars here are often few and far between.
For the more-prestigious houses, it can be every bit as difficult to garner a contract as it is from major houses. They publish a small number of books each year, and competition is fierce.
But there are some great ones out there.
Now, after this, the whole question gets murkier. It’s difficult for writers coming into this endeavor to know the differences in “Indie” and “Vanity.” So let’s demystify that part of book publishing as well.
Bet’cha haven’t heard that term in a while!
Before the days of POD and kindle, writers had two options: get published by a Traditional house, or pay boatloads of money to some outfit to “publish” your book for a fee. A hefty fee.
Ergo, the term “vanity” publishing.
It’s not used much these days, but the definition hasn’t changed.
A vanity press is any press that requires you to pay them to publish your book.
And yes, while it used to be upwards of 20K back in the day of print-only runs, and now is far less, any time you pay someone to publish your book, that’s a vanity press.
In other words, it’s not real publishing—even though now many of the major houses have vanity arms. The thing is, most new writers can’t tell the difference!
They’ll publish anything (no matter what they say). So your book will be in print.
They do the conversion work and cover art, so you don’t have to.
This is still vanity publishing. And Traditional publishing will not see your book as actually published.
These presses make their money off the writers, not off of book sales.
Be very wary here. These presses try to fly under the radar, promoting themselves as real publishers, saying they don’t charge their writers.
But when you look closer, they do charge their writers. They get around this by charging a “one-time set-up fee,” or, they publish for free but the writer is required to by x amount of books from them at retail. If you have to buy a case at retail, you’re looking at $500-800 to do so. Or any variation on the theme.
If the “publisher” charges one red cent to “publish” your book, it’s a vanity press.
Has this industry exploded or what! In 2018, the total number of self-published print and e-books jumped to 1.69 million
Dear lord! That’s a whole lotta books!
With the advent of technology that cheaply produces books, this industry took off like crazy. And so many writers, either weary of trying to break into Traditional publishing, or not wanting to face that monolith in the first place, have gone this route.
Anyone can publish a book.
And, publish it quickly.
The writer maintains complete control.
From what I understand, the conversion process, etc., with any of the platforms, can be frustrating to downright maddening.
All the promotion is left to you. But then, most of it is anyway.
It allows writers to “publish” without spending years in the effort to learn the craft. I.e., so many truly terrible books are out there. And it’s difficult indeed for readers, growing wary after tossing away money for these awful books, to buy yours.
Your book will be one of nearly 2 million self-published each year. And yours is going to stand out how?
Now, with my authors, we strive for our gold standard—Traditional publishing—I also work with writers who intend to self-publish all along. There are justifiable reasons to do so:
Not wanting to wait the years this all takes. Many new writers, especially with memoirs, are older and feel they don’t have the time to wait.
Often, especially with non-fiction, writers are wanting to promote a brand or service.
Sometimes, a writer has this one book they’ve written, rather than seeking a career as an author.
Or many others.
Now, this is an idea whose time has come! I’ve seen several of these pop up, where writers band together for support in writing and publishing and marketing their books.
But by far the best version of this I’ve seen is NK’s Tribe Called Success. The group helps writers organize and plan in order to achieve their literary goals, through workshops and meetings and mentoring.
Tribe members receive support to publish their own books through houses they create themselves. Tribe group projects are published through Macro Publishing Group, founded by Naleighna Kai. They promote at major literary events and local events as well.
Its members include NY Times, USA TODAY, and National bestselling authors alongside debut and aspiring authors.
I suspect more such groups will emerge as well, and this concept works just wonderfully. As Kai says, “We ALL rise by lifting others.”
The Pros: Help and support in writing the book, and then an entire group’s support in marketing it.
Cons: You still have to write the book yourself. Lol. And, you still have to do the conversion, the cover, etc., and promote the book.
But ah, the help you have in doing so!
And I get it—real publishing can just take forever. Years and years. And truly will humble you to your knees.
There is just no shame in whichever avenue you pursue—provided you know what you’re getting into, and what each method means. Knowledge is power.
Book publishing demystified can happen J. Once you have the information, you can make the best decision for you, your book, and especially, if you’re wanting a career as an author, how to best go about that.
Now, go back to writing!