Determining Your Path
Helpful tips for beginners.
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So you’ve written a book, now what?
Before starting any journey as an indie author, you must ask yourself a few questions. The most important one is determining what publishing avenue you will take. I’ve compiled a quick list for your convenience, with some publishing terminology at the bottom. Please note: this is only a brief overview; there are pros and cons to each path. I encourage everyone who wants to take publishing seriously to research more on their own.
Different Publishing Paths
1. Traditional Publishing
The traditional publishing method involves a writer querying their completed manuscripts to literary agents. Querying is often a tedious, painful experience for some, but many argue it is an inevitable, often rewarding process. Opinions aside, this is how the industry has worked for a long time. After a literary agent accepts your work, they will pitch it to the editors of publishing houses (big or small). The editors then meet with the publisher. If the book passes through all these gates, an offer is made. After you (and your agent) agree to the offer, you are typically given an advance against royalties and a contract. After some contract negotiations between the agent and the publisher, the contract is signed, and the advance checks are distributed (often in increments). The book is also slated for publication, typically within a few years. Once the book is published, the publisher will keep the profits until the book earns its advance. After it does, the publisher will share a percentage of the book sales (royalties). This is paid directly to the agent, who will take their cut before they pass it along to you. Many royalty percentages increase according to the number of books sold, and some stay the same.
The nice part of this arrangement is that you do not have to pay for book production services or PR. You will still be expected to do a bit of marketing, however. If your book ends up being a success, the greater your chances of getting your next book being picked up. Conversely, if your book is deemed unsuccessful, you may not earn your advance and it can hurt your chances of getting another book picked up again.
Jane Friedman is an excellent resource for more information on traditional publishing. In fact, she created this helpful little chart below.
You can access her aricles here:
2. Independent (Indie) Publishing
Independent, or indie, publishing houses follow the same model as traditional publishing, with a few exceptions. Many prefer to work with literary agents, but some smaller presses will accept unsolicited (non-agent) queries directly from the author. Many independent presses are on the smaller side and can offer a more intimate book-producing experience. They generally offer better royalties under the assumption that you will be an active participant in marketing and sales. But, like traditional publishing, there are pitfalls to working with small presses, and research is imperative. Anyone can fashion themselves an editor, apply for an LLC, and upload books to Amazon. Please practice diligence when determining if a small press will work for you. I don’t want to deter anyone from publishing with a small press (I mean, I own one), but I’ve watched enough problematic behavior unfold that I’d be amiss not to warn you. There are a lot of articles written about how to vet small presses; I’m a fan of Writers Beware, which offers helpful insight and keeps tabs on problematic presses. You can access these articles here:
3. Hybrid Publishing
Hybrid or ‘vanity’ publishing is open to anyone. You don’t have to worry about querying or getting your book picked up, but you must pay for all costs upfront. Standard publishers do not require any money from the author; publishers are the ones who invest their capital in the author’s manuscript. Hybrid companies usually take care of all aspects of book production and will upload your book to retailers for you. They don’t contribute to marketing, sales, or book distribution1. That is typically left for you to do. It’s important to also research these companies before you commit to anything; like some small presses, these companies are often exploitative rather than helpful. Again, research and ask others before you sign.
Often called indie publishers, the number of authors who publish themselves has quickly risen, cementing self-publishing amongst the other avenues. While some perpetuate the stigma that self-publishers are just writers who ‘couldn’t hack it,’ nothing could be further from the truth. Most indie authors want to take control of their destinies, without relying on others. On this path, you publish your book(s) entirely on your own, acting as your marketing team, PR, sales, etc. You receive all profits and have complete control over every aspect of the book’s production—from writing to creative design, to book launches and events. When executed correctly, this can often be a quite reasonable and lucrative avenue.
This article and the articles to follow are geared toward helping indie/self-publishers. It is my hope that educating/empowering indie authors will help to flush out the current influx of AI material and push back against the ‘small presses’ and vanity publishers who aim to exploit. I also want to offer more insight to those pursuing the traditional path; if you understand more about what it’s like to produce, publish, and market a book, it can help you make good career decisions and avoid exploitation in the future.
Again, this is simply an indie relaying info as an indie. There is plenty of good info out there, and I would encourage everyone to do their research and networking.
Okay, okay, Cassandra. We get it. We want to self-publish. Now what?
If you have decided you’d like to try publishing yourself (or found a good small press), it’s time to make a plan. I suggest whipping out the old notebook (or starting a fresh Word Doc) and answering these questions:
Why are you publishing your book?
I know. So people can read it. But why? Why do you want to push your words into the minds of others? Do you want to inspire? Entertain? Change the world? Determining exactly why you want people to read your book will help you get people to read your book. Simple, right?
Why should people read your book with all the other books out there? In other words, what’s in it for them?
I’m going to dive into a personal example here. I used to love Anne Rice books as a kid. My debut novel, The Ancient Ones, is slightly Interview with a Vampire-esque (sans the problematic material), so I knew I wanted to appeal to readers who enjoyed her prose. My book is about the very first vampires that ever existed (they’re ancient–get it?) so I wanted to make that point while differentiating it from other popular (sparkly) vampire stories. I used all these ideas to spin a catchy headline: “Before Twilight, Before Lestat, Before Dracula… there were The Ancient Ones.”
When thinking about your book, try to look at it this way. In the traditional world, agents often ask for “comps” or books just like yours to determine if they can sell them. Since you are the one selling your book, seeing how your book compares to others will help you make a plan. If it’s unlike any other book on the market, there’s your selling point.
How much time and energy are you willing to put in? Are you committed to the long haul? Will you go to author conferences and conventions?
Most indie authors have day jobs and families; it’s very rare to find someone who can do this full-time. Therefore, it’s essential at the start to understand how much work a successful marketing campaign takes, how much it will take to continue to garner book sales, and if you can do it. I’m still surprised when I meet writers who genuinely believe they can just upload their book to Amazon, pay for some ads, and Amazon will work for them. Unfortunately, unless you have a distributor selling your book to markets/bookstores, no one will be pushing your book but you. And the more work you put in, the better your book sales will be.
How much money will you spend on book production and advertising?
My head is always rocking with numbers, so I don’t want to spend too much time here. The bottom line is that quality books cost money to produce, and advertising is expensive. I plan to dive into these topics in my following articles, including ways to save money and build a platform as a broke indie author. But for now, writing down some numbers and creating a budget will help prevent surprise expenses.
Hopefully, these questions will give you something to consider as you begin your author journey. And please don’t let this stuff dissuade you. Remember that your words are important; someone out there needs to read your story. All aspects of publishing can be very stressful, so please remember self-care.
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I will dedicate an article to distribution, but for quickness’s sake, a distributor pitches/sells books to online and brick-and-mortar stores for a publisher.