You’ve written a book and you are not sure if self-publishing or traditional publishing is the best option.
In this article, you’ll discover the pros and cons of both self-publishing, traditional publishing, and even hybrid publishing.
You’ll find out that the correct answer for your publishing journey is very personal and it all about you, your book and your goals.
Forgot what other writers have done with their books and focus on what is right for you.
The Publishing Landscape
The current publishing landscape is both complex and dynamic; consisting of traditional publishing, self-publishing and hybrid publishing. However, this complexity is providing a golden age for authors, who have more publishing options than ever before. In this examination of the book publishing landscape, you will discover the main options that are open to authors, how these interrelate and where self-publishing fits into the equation.
You can split the publishing landscape into six key elements:
1. Big Publishers
These are book publishers that represent about 60% of the English language [source] books published in the US. They typically publish hundreds of books per year and have a large number of employees with a range of expertise. They will only accept submissions from agents.
Big publishers will often also have smaller ‘imprints’, that though they appear as separate publishing companies, still operate under the umbrella of the parent company.
These publishers are often referred to as the ‘big five’ and include Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan.
Here’s a list of English language book publishers.
An agent is a person, or company, who will represent an author’s interest. Since big publishers will not accept submissions directly from authors, the agent’s main role is to match authors with publishers. Agents also act in a screening process, in which they will find authors with ‘commercial’ potential for publishers.
Once a writer has secured a deal with a publisher, the agent will act as a link between the agent and publisher. Typically, agents receive about 15% of the money paid to an author by the publisher.
Here’s a list of notable agents.
3. Independent Publishers
These types of publishers are simply defined as publishers separate from the ‘big five’. They are sometimes called ‘independent publishers’. They are smaller in nature than big publishers but can still publish in excess of 100 titles per year. Typically to be classed as a small press, the publisher will be publishing more than fifty titles per year.
They will have smaller, less specialized teams than big publishers. On average, they will sell fewer books than their bigger rivals. They will also have smaller profits and tighter operating budgets. A small press will often work with both agents and writers directly.
Here’s a list of some small presses.
These are the smallest of the traditional publishers. They tend to be run by either a single person or a very small team. They will typically publish between ten and fifty titles per year. These tend to be ‘hobby’ publishers and often focus on niche topics. They run on a very small budget but can have a loyal readership.
Micro-presses tend to work directly with writers.
Authors opting to self-publish have two main choices: either take a DIY approach and do everything themselves (or via service providers) or use a self-publishing company, who will typically charge an up-front fee and, perhaps, a fee per book sold.
The vast majority of books are sold via the Kindle Digital Publishing platform (KDP), with Apple as the second major source of sales. It is difficult to find accurate figures for self-published titles. However, it is widely understood that about 40% of eBooks sold are self-published [source].
6. Hybrid Publishing
It is becoming increasingly common for writers to take a ‘hybrid’ approach to book publishing. This will see writers opting to pick the publishing option that best fits their current project, be that traditional or self-publishing. Author Chuck Wendig wrote an article about this topic.
What is a Big Publisher?
Though you will find thousands of book publishers, of a large variety of shapes and sizes, only a small proportion of these can be considered ‘big publishers’.
In the US, about 60% of English-language books are published by one of five publishers. These are often called the ‘big five’ and include Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan.
Though these big publishers have a number of characteristics in common, there are a few important elements that you must consider when assessing if a big publisher is right for you and your book.
- They publish a large number of books.
- You will require an agent.
Let’s consider these in turn.
Large Numbers of Books
A big publisher will publish in excess of 100 books per year, often much more. These books will come from many genres and cover a vast variety of topics. On the surface, the fact that publishers are looking for so many books appears to be a good thing. It means they are constantly on the lookout for new talent to fill their publishing schedule. The problem this presents is that not every book they publish is created equally.
It turns out that publishers are very bad at predicting which books will sell well and which will flop. Therefore, they take an approach of publishing many books, aware that only a small percentage of these will go on to be bestsellers. The small proportion that sells very well, will cover the costs (and more) of the other books.
Though publishers are bad at spotting a bestseller, they are very good at predicting a potential bestseller from early sales data. This means that once a book starts to sell well in the opening weeks, they will push all their resources behind this book and leave the other books to wither. If you are the author of a potential bestseller, you’ll see the full power of the publishing machine. If your book is deemed to not be a potential bestseller, then you’ll be left to fend for yourself.
Big publishers work hard to find and train the best publishing professionals. They have large teams that focus on every aspect of the publishing process from editorial, to cover design to marketing. This means that books published by one of the big publishers will be the best they can possibly be.
All big publishers operate the same model when it comes to structuring their companies. They will have a main ‘mother’ company and a number of smaller companies, called imprints. It is common to see the mother company publishing books of a more general nature and the imprints focussing on just one or two genres.
It is important that authors don’t assume that being published by an imprint is a lesser form of publishing, this is simply not the case. It is true that many big publishers will ‘move’ their biggest selling authors into the mother company, but this should not be a consideration for new authors.
Authors tend to find themselves at imprints for one of two reasons. The first is that the book they are publishing is a less mainstream genre. Imprints often have an excellent genre-specific knowledge and are, therefore, the natural home for books on the genre in which they specialize. The second is that imprints are sometimes seen as ‘breeding grounds’ for new talent. It is not unusual for a new and unproven writer to start their career at a smaller imprint and be moved ‘up the ladder’ as they grow and develop.
Here’s a great infographic created by Ali Almossawi, where he shows the relationship of imprints to their mother companies.
One common element that binds all big publishers, and their imprints, is that they only work with authors that are represented by agents. The main reason for this is that agents act as gatekeepers, screening potential authors and working to find the types of books publishers need to fulfill their publishing catalog.
One common mistake new authors make is to assume that an agent’s main job is to say no to rubbish books. It is true that most books, that an agent sees, are simply not up to a standard they require. However, if you have been rejected by an agent, it is not automatically because your book is badly written. Agents are looking for books that publishers will find attractive (often called ‘commercial’). In short, these are books that agents and publishers feel have the potential to sell many thousands of copies. Many a well-written book has been rejected simply because an agent feels that it is not ‘commercial’ enough.
The final piece of the jigsaw for writers considering a big publisher is to follow the money. No big publisher will ever ask an author to pay anything towards the publication of their book. That’s just not the deal.
When you sign a deal with a publisher you are giving them the right to publish your book. In return, they are agreeing to give you a cut of each sale. The publisher will provide all the cash needed for editorial support, printing, marketing and anything else that is required. In return, they’ll give you a cut of about 15% of the price that they sell each book (of which you’ll give about 15% to your agent). This is known as a royalty.
There’s two other things to consider in the money equation: advances and other rights.
An advance is the upfront payment the publisher will make for your book. This is not a free gift, but is, instead, an advance on the royalties that they feel they will be paying you in the coming years. Therefore, if you received an advance of $10,000, you’d need to earn $10,000 worth of royalties before you started getting any more cash. Advances are seen as a gamble by the publisher and the bigger the advance the more ‘skin’ they have in the game and the bigger their desire will be to make your book a success. If a book fails to sell enough copies to ‘earn back’ your royalty you don’t have to pay anything back. However, the chances of getting another book deal are reduced.
The final thing to consider is ‘other rights’. When you sign a deal with your publisher, you’ll give them the rights to sell your book in your country (called territory). You’ll also give them the right to reproduce your story in book form (paper and digital). However, there are other rights associated with your book. These include the rights to publish in other countries, audio rights and film rights. If your book is a success, these rights can be ‘sold’ to interested parties. This will earn you additional income. Some rights, especially foreign rights, can be very lucrative for an author.
The Advantages of Going with a Big Publisher
There are many advantages of being published by a big publisher, many of which are personal. However, below are three key benefits:
1. Potential Rewards Huge
IF your book becomes a bestseller, and that’s a massive IF, then a big publisher is the best place to be. A big book publisher will ensure that your book gets everything that is needed to make it a success. They will work with you and your agent to really fulfill the potential for your book.
2. You Don’t Have to do Anything, Other Than Write
A big publisher will work hard to ensure that you have time to focus on the most important task, which is writing. During the editorial process, you will be required to carry out work on your book, but once the book is published this stops. You will also be required to carry out some marketing activities, but these are often limited.
This is not an advantage to be underestimated. Many authors want to be published by a big publisher. They want the legitimacy this brings; they want to be a ‘published author’. This is fine, just be aware that if this is a driving motivation, then seeking a big publisher is probably the only way you’ll scratch that itch.
The Disadvantages of Going with a Big Publisher
A big publisher is not right for every author. Here are a few of the key reasons you need to consider when making a choice.
Screwed If You Are Not a Bestseller
Big publishers work on a model of publishing many books and then focussing on the few that appear to be bestsellers. This is great if you are one of the 20% that are successful, however, if you are not then things are not so rosy. A big publisher will not push cash into marketing a book they don’t feel has potential. This means that many authors with big publishers, find their book being ignored after the first month of publication.
Mid-list Is Death
There was a time when mid-list authors could make a decent living at a big publisher. This is simply no longer the case. A mid-list author is one who sells enough books to keep getting new deals, but not enough to be a bestseller. A big publisher sees the potential but will not invest the time and money that may be needed to push this author into the bestseller category. The result is that the author is left with mediocre sales and a poor income from writing.
It Takes Years
If you have written your book and want it to be in print within the next six months, then a big publisher is not the correct option for you. It can take months to secure an agent and then, even with an agent, you can be looking at up to a year for that agent to secure a publishing deal. Then, even with a publisher, they make be looking at a twelve month lead time until the book is published. It is not at all unusual for a book to take up to two years from the time the author completes to the book being on the shelf. The publishing industry is slow!
Is a Big Publisher Right for Me?
There are so many factors to consider when deciding on a publishing route, and the choice is so personal, that only you can make that choice.
This said I think there are three things to consider.
The first to is how you see your publishing career. If you are prepared to take your publishing journey one book at a time, then a big publisher might be a logical choice. It is common for authors to write a book that fits a big publisher perfectly, but for their next book to struggle to find a home. The key is to go into the process with just one book in mind.
The second is to consider just how ‘commercial’ you feel your book would be for publishers. They are looking for books that will sell at least a couple of thousand copies in the first year. It might be that your book is just too ‘niche’ for their ambitions. A good way to test the commercial potential for your book is to submit it to a few agents and see what they say. If they feel it has commercial potential, they will ask for the full manuscript.
The final aspect to consider whether you intend to leverage a potential book deal. Being published with a big publisher will open certain doors. If you plan to go into teaching creative writing or a similar field, then being published will help you achieve these goals. Most writers, even those with big publishers, struggle to make a full-time living. You might find that securing a big publisher book deal opens a few career doors that would have otherwise been closed.
It is becoming increasingly common to hear of authors deciding to pick independent publishers as the best option for their books. This might not be the perfect option for some authors, but is it right for you and your book?
What is an Independent Publisher?
The term ‘independent publisher’ applies to any publisher that is not one of the big five (or one of their imprints). They tend to range in size from publishing tens to hundreds of books per year, they also range in size in regards to their publishing team and overall profitability.
However, there are a number of key factors that link all independent publishers:
- Small team.
- Genre specific.
- Limited budget.
- No agent.
Let’s look at each of these:
Independent publishers lack the resources of big publishers and will, therefore, have small and less specialized teams. Whilst a big publisher might have whole departments dedicated to such tasks as cover design and editing, an independent publisher might see these tasks falling to a single person or even an external freelancer.
This means that books may not receive the same thorough treatment you’d expect from a big publisher. You may also find that an author is expected to ‘pitch in’ to a much larger degree. This may be in the editorial process, but it will almost certainly be the case in the marketing strategy.
Independent publishers are often genre-specific, publishing books for one small niche within the wider marketplace. This might be military history, picture books or just about any of the other genres.
The advantage of this approach is that the publisher will have an intimate knowledge of the genre and the readership. They will have genre-specific knowledge that is missing in a bigger publisher. In fact, it is not unusual for a big publisher to ‘buy up’ a smaller publisher just to secure the genre expertise.
If you are writing in a defined genre, especially one away from the mainstream, you may find the expertise locked within an independent publisher will allow your book to flourish.
As you may expect, independent publishers will operate on a limited budget. This is not true for all independent publishers since some of the larger companies make a healthy profit. However, at the smaller end of the scale, independent publishers are often working on a very tight profit margin.
The impact of this will be seen throughout the process. Independent publishers will tend to publish fewer books and (on the whole) take fewer risks. You never see outrageous advances paid to authors and expensive marketing campaigns are out of the question.
There is a flip side to the limited budget and that is that independent publishers tend to be very good at selling the books they do publish. They often don’t focus on securing bestsellers (a process you see in big publishers) and, instead, tend to focus on making each book profitable in its own right. From an author’s viewpoint, this means the chances of a runaway success are rare (it happens but not often and tends to be linked in with a book winning a major literary prize), but it also means that you are unlikely to be ignored by your publisher if your book is not a hit in the opening weeks.
Many smaller publishers will accept submissions directly from an author. This means that authors without agents can submit. However, this may leave the author in a difficult position, since they will be left to negotiate the contract by themselves, but an agent is not essential. If you have struggled to find an agent, approaching smaller independent publishers may be a good way to get your foot on the traditional publishing ladder.
When assessing the suitability of an independent publisher for your book, the deal they are offering is critical.
Independent publishers often mirror big publishers in their approach to contracts, but there is some variation.
When you sign a deal with a publisher you are giving them the right to publish your book. In return, they are agreeing to give you a cut of each sale. The publisher will provide all the cash needed for editorial support, printing, marketing and anything else that is required. In return, they’ll give you a cut of about 15% of the price that they sell each book. This is known as a royalty.
There’s two other things to consider in the money equation: advances and other rights.
An advance is the upfront payment the publisher will make for your book. This is not a free gift, but is, instead, an advance on the royalties that they feel they will be paying you in the coming years. Therefore, if you received an advance of $10,000, you’d need to earn $10,000 worth of royalties before you started getting any more cash. Advances are seen as a gamble by the publisher and the bigger the advance the more ‘skin’ they have in the game and the bigger their desire will be to make your book a success. If a book fails to sell enough copies to ‘earn back’ your royalty, you don’t have to pay anything back. However, the chances of getting another book deal are reduced.
There are a few things to consider with independent publishers and book deals:
The first is the size of the advance. A big publisher may be offering advances ranging from thousands to tens of thousands, this will not be the case with a smaller publisher. Advances tend to be in the thousands. It is also not uncommon for a smaller publisher to offer no advance at all. If this is the case, the author should be offered a bigger cut of the book sales, in excess of the 15% offered by big publishers. It is also not uncommon for publishers to offer ‘profit share’ contracts. This is where the profit for each book sale is split 50/50 between the author and publisher.
The second important element is that it is much more common for small publishers to allow authors to retain ‘rights’ for their book. Most publishers will want the digital right but beyond that, they can be flexible. If you are being represented by an agent, the agent may wish you to retain these rights so they can attempt to sell them to a third party.
The Advantages of Going with an Independent Publisher
Deciding to take the plunge with an independent publisher is a difficult choice but here are a few things that might help:
They Know Your Genre
Independent publishers operate on tighter profit margins and, therefore, tend to stick to one genre. This means that they have unique genre expertise, which might help you sell more books. If you write for a genre that is under-represented by big publishers, an independent publisher might just be the answer.
You Don’t Need an Agent
Finding an agent is a time-consuming process with no guarantee of success. Many writers just don’t have the patience to wait for agents to ‘discover’ them in their slush pile. If you don’t want to play the agent game, but still fancy a traditional publisher, then an independent publisher might be the best choice.
You Retain Some Control
Creative control can be a deal breaker for some writers. If this is an important element of the publishing process for you, then a big publisher might not be the ideal choice. Since independent publishers have smaller teams, they tend to work more closely with authors and are keen for their creative input. If control is your thing, then an independent publisher might be worth a punt.
The Disadvantages of Going with an Independent Publisher
The main disadvantages to independent publishers come when they are compared to a big publisher. These may or may not be important to your thinking process.
You’ll Probably Make Less Cash
Independent publishers tend to produce books with predictable sales over time. Though bestsellers do, at times, emerge from independent publishers they are not part of the publisher’s business model. Instead, they focus on publishing books that will make smaller profits over time. This means that, as an author, you’ll probably sell fewer books than you would have at a big publisher. Well, in the short term anyway.
It’s Not a Big Boy
This might be stating the obvious but independent publishers are not big publishers. If legitimacy is a key driving force, then you may be uncomfortable being published by a smaller publisher.
You’ll Have to Do More
This is listed as an advantage as well as a disadvantage. An independent publisher’s smaller team mean that some of the publishing burden will fall on your shoulders. You will be expected to play a part in the editorial process, you might be asked to help pick covers and you will certainly be asked to play a significant part in the marketing strategy. If you don’t have the time or inclination to get involved, then an independent publisher might not be ideal for you and your book.
Is an Independent Publisher Right for Me?
There are so many factors to consider when deciding on a publishing route, and the choice is so personal, that only you can make that choice.
This said I think there are three things to consider.
The first comes down to your goals. If you seek the legitimacy of being traditionally published but have been unable to secure an agent and/or big publisher, then an independent publisher may be a good fit. You will discover that they are easier to access and may be more willing to publish your book. You will also find that you come away from the process with both digital and print copies of your book. There is even the chance your book will be stocked in bookshops.
The second reason why an independent publisher might be a good fit for you and your book comes down to your time commitment. If you are in a position when you don’t have the time or inclination to self-publish, then an independent publisher may well be a good option. They will provide all the resources you require, with you only having to invest a minimal amount of time into editorial and marketing duties.
The third reason for seeking an independent publisher is a little less obvious. If you have written a book that has a clearly defined niche market (e.g. military history, coding or fly fishing), and you feel that you lack the marketing expertise to sell the book via self-publishing, then an independent publisher may be the ideal option. An independent publisher will have a deep and proven understanding of your readership, they will know the books your potential readers buy (and read) and they will know how to access this market.
Though the choice to self-publish has become increasingly common, it still poses a huge leap for many authors.
What Does Self-Publishing Involve?
Before you can make an informed choice as to whether self-publishing is the best option for your book, you first need to understand what is involved in the process. Unlike traditional publishing, be it via a big or independent publisher, you will be required to spend money, invest time and undergo a steep learning curve. Self-publishing is also not a one off investment, once you have your book out in the world, you will need to continually invest time (and perhaps money) into marketing your book.
In its most simple form self-publishing is the process of publishing your book, without the help of a traditional publisher. It consists of the following elements:
- Cover design.
- eBook design.
The writing element is self-explanatory. The editing will cover both structural editing, line editing, copy editing and proofreading. Cover design will involve a cover for the digital version of your book, as well as the paper version. Conversion to an eBook will involve converting the Word document into one or more digital formats. Publication will involve uploading to Kindle Digital Publishing (KDP), but might also involve other services such as Apple Books. The marketing element is on-going but will include short term promotions and a long term marketing strategy.
Each of these elements is worthy of far deeper examination, but for the purpose of this article, all that is required is that you are aware of the investment of time and resources that will be required.
Broadly speaking, self-publishing can be split into two types:
This is the process of self-publishing in which you, the author, completes each of the elements. This may involve you physically doing what is required or paying a third party service company or freelancer to carry out a particular task.
DIY publishing will see you keeping full control of the process. You will be responsible for the completion of each step. Though this brings with it an insane level of control, it does mean that you will probably have to learn a number of new skills (or pay someone with those skills). For example, converting a Word document to a digital format CAN be a pretty simple process. However, if your manuscript has any level of complexity you will need to understand the finer elements of the ePub format, as well as CSS coding, to do a good job.
This is still the process of self-publishing, but one in which you pay one company to take on all elements of the process (note this is not the same as paying a freelancer to complete one element of the process).
There are a number of companies that will provide a full service, but they all tend to operate around the same model. This will involve them providing you with an upfront cost to turn your Word document into a digital and paper book. This price will likely be in access of $1500. In addition, they will probably also ask you to pay an ongoing fee to cover storage of your paper books. It is also common for them to charge you a price per book after the initial print run has been sold.
The main advantage of this approach is that you, the author, will not need to do anything beyond editorial input and saying yes or no to such elements as cover design. The main down side is the cost. It is more expensive to self-publish in this way.
Please note; it is my experience that these types of full service companies make money on creating paper books. They will, therefore, be looking to encourage you to print about 300+ copies of your book. Be aware that the chances of you getting your book into bookshops is very slim. Also be aware that advancement in Print On Demand technology means that companies such as CreateSpace can fulfill paper book orders with no up-front cost to the author. Think carefully before you print hundreds of your book.
What Are the Advantages of Self-Publishing?
Self-publishing is a choice that many authors come to after much contemplation. It may be that an author is excited about publishing their own book, or it might be that they don’t have the time or inclination to seek out a publisher/agent, or it might simply be that they have been unable to secure a traditional publishing deal.
Whatever the reason, I feel there are a number of clear advantages to self-publishing:
For many authors, retaining creative control is a critical element of the publishing process. If you wish to remain in full control of every element of your book, then self-publishing is your only option. It is not uncommon for authors following the traditional publishing path to have little or no creative control. If you decide to self-publish you will be making every decision about your book.
As with all industries, it is all too easy to find the stories of multi-million selling self-published authors. Yes, they do exist but they are the rarity. The reality is that you should be looking to sell between 500 and 1000 books in your first year. This is very doable for a more mainstream title with good marketing. This means that you will probably recoup your upfront investment in the first year of sales and break into profit thereafter.
This might seem a little disheartening but this is the model that most independent publishers operate under. They look for a book to break even as quickly as possible and then go on to make profit over time.
If you have a good book, a good marketing strategy and are prepared to play the long game, you will make a profit.
Taking Advantage of a Small Market
Many books get rejected by agents and publishers simply because that they feel they are not ‘commercial’ enough. This is an industry term to describe a book they feel lacks the potential to sell a few thousand copies. Publishers tend to have an initial print run of between 1000 and 3000 books. They want these books to sell, if they fail to sell out the print run, they lose money. This means that books with smaller, niche, readerships never stand a chance.
If you’ve written a book with niche appeal (I’d class that as selling less than about 500 books per year), then self-publishing is just about your only option. This is not to say the process will not be profitable and exciting. It just means the book will never be attractive to a mainstream publisher. Their loss!
The traditional publishing industry is slooooow, really slow. It is not uncommon for a book to take two years from completion to being in a bookshop. You will find that publishers often talk in years, rather than months and weeks.
If you simply want your book published or you have a time sensitive topic, then self-publishing will be the best option. There is no real need for the process to be as slow as some publishers would lead you to believe. There are some elements that take time. It will probably take you two or three months to go through the editorial process. You can also add in a number of weeks for the cover design and eBook conversion. However, with a bit of crafty project management, you can probably cut down the time for publication to about six months, if not less.
The final advantage of self-publishing is the sheer joy of the process. Publishing your own book should be an exciting experience. You’ll get to work with publishing professionals, learn new skills and get the joy of selling your own work. On top of this, you get to interact with readers and really feel like a writer.
What Are the Disadvantages of Self-Publishing?
Though self-publishing possesses many clear advantages, it would be unwise to not point out some of the clear disadvantages.
Before you decide to take the plunge and self-publish your book, here are a few points to consider:
If you opt for a DIY Self-publishing approach you will find that it is a time consuming process, which will test your resources. From a money viewpoint you will need a budget of around $1000 to successfully publish a book. The main outlays will come in the form of editing and proofreading, though eBook conversion and cover design may also be costly. It is possible to reduce some of these costs by ‘doing it yourself’ but this becomes a pay off against your time. You might decide to save $200 by doing your own eBook conversion. However, to do a good job you will need to be on a pretty steep learning curve. In the end, it will come down to a choice between money or time.
Please note; the figures above assume you are starting with a ‘digital first’ approach. This involves the initial creation and sale of an eBook. Once the book is selling you can then consider adding a Print on Demand option, which requires no upfront cost. If you intend to print real paper books, then costs will start to spiral.
The assisted self-publishing approach is a slightly simpler choice. Here, the company you engaging will have all the knowledge and this will save on your time. However, you will be paying more than you would have if you took the DIY approach.
Whether you opt to take the DIY or assisted approach, you will, at some point, need to take an active role in promoting and marketing your book. This is a time consuming process, which has a set of skills you will need to master.
A good marketing strategy will be a mixture of short term promotion and long term marketing. You will need an effective strategy that will get your book in front of potential readers. The reality is that this will take time and knowledge. If you wish your book to be a success your marketing strategy will become a fundamental part of your daily life.
Outside the Publishing Model
The final point to consider when self-publishing is that your book will fall outside the traditional publishing model. This may sound obvious but it brings with it unseen considerations.
There is a system set up to sell, promote and market books published via the traditional publishing path. You will not have access to this system. In reality, that means that you will not be getting additional income for the sale of rights (film, foreign language, audio etc.), you will not get your book submitted for prestigious prizes, you will not be able to get your book reviewed in national newspapers and you will not be getting your book stocked in nationwide bookshops.
Is Self-Publishing Right for Me?
Self-publishing can be an exciting and profitable option for many authors. However, before you opt to take the plunge, here’s a few things to consider.
The legitimacy of being published by a ‘traditional’ publisher still holds sway with both authors and readers. If you opt to be self-published, you will receive some negative feedback. I recently received the following email from a successfully self-published author:
I self-published my last book. It was a success, (4000+ sold) but it’s still seen as ‘something less’ by everyone I know in publishing. Infuriating.
The second point to consider is that self-publishing is far from an easy option. It will require an investment of time, money and emotional energy. In my experience, many self-published books underperform simply because the author lacks either the resources or knowledge to make the book a success.
The final thing to consider is that self-publishing is an exciting thing to do. It sees you in full control of your book and the publishing process. You get to be involved in every step of the process, which brings with it all of the highs and lows. You get to see your book in ‘print’ but also experience the excitement of ‘making sales’ and ‘connecting with readers’. I would urge that of all the factors that you need to take into consideration, you never lose sight of this important point.
If you plan to publish your book via a big publisher, or even some independent publishers, you will, at some point, need an agent.
The Role of an Agent
Most authors understand that agents are essential in the traditional publishing process, but not everyone understands what it is they will do for your career. Agents play a number of critical roles.
The first role that agents fulfil is to act as gatekeepers. It is their job to filter potential authors and present only the most suitable to publishers. It is worth mentioning that ‘quality’ of books presented to an agent is not the deciding factor on whether they feel they are worthy of representation. It is true that if your book is of poor quality; it will almost certainly be rejected but this is not always the case. Agents and publishers will not shy away from very heavy editing or even using a ghostwriter to turn a badly written book into something they can publish.
The key factor that decides if an agent is interested in a book is what they call ‘commerciality’. This is the book’s potential to sell thousands of copies. When an agent says a book is ‘commercial’ they mean it has a wide appeal to readers. This means that if you have a commercial idea, quality is less important. This is why you get ghostwriters writing celebrity biographies. The latest sport star might have a great story but no ability to write. No problem, the agent will find a ghostwriter.
However, for most authors a book must possess two qualities. It must be commercial and of a high enough standard that it will not require too much work to prepare it for publication.
Publishers don’t have the resources to screen out commercial novels from the slush pile and, therefore, rely on agents.
The second role of an agent is to understand what publishers want from new books. Publishers are constantly assessing the books they publish and making predictions on where the market will go. They are looking for trends and to build on the success of previous books. This means that publishers will often have a checklist of books they are seeking.
For example, let’s say that a publisher feels that supernatural romance is a developing genre. They’ve seen lots of books that focus on romance and vampires and even romance and werewolves. One publisher now feels that romance and mermaids will be the next trend. They will, therefore, be looking for a mermaid romance novel.
This is where agents come into play. Publishers and agents talk all the time. An agent is constantly listening to publishers and storing away the kinds of books they are seeking. In fact, this is one of an agent’s biggest strengths, they know what publishers want.
Let’s go back to our example.
Our publisher has decided they want a mermaid romance book. They go to lunch with an agent and they tell the agent about this trend. The agent comes away knowing what the publisher wants. This means that if the following week they see a submission from a writer who is pitching a mermaid romance, then a deal might just be waiting to happen.
The third key role of an agent is in negotiating deals. Assuming that you have written a book that is of interest to a publisher, the time will come to do a deal. This is where agents earn their money. They know what is a typical deal, they know what clauses you want in the contract and they will be able to push the publisher for the best deal. They will also be able to do this without harming your relationship with the publisher. Once the deal has been signed the agent will step to one side and you will work with the publisher directly. The last thing you want is this relationship to be soured by the previous negotiation.
The forth role of an agent is to act as a barrier between you and the publisher. Once the deal has been completed and the publishing process starts, there will be lots of little issues that will come up. One thing an agent will be able to do is to handle these problems on your behalf. They will be able to talk openly and honestly with the publisher and resolve any problems. They will also be able to tell you when things that are happening are normal and when things are going wrong. The result is that you will be able to focus on maintaining a healthy and positive relationship with your publisher.
The final key role of an agent is to make sure you get paid. An agent will ensure that a publisher is living up to their side of the contract. They will chase royalties and make sure they are correct (it is not unusual for publishers to make mistakes). They will also ensure that the less common clauses of the contract are being fulfilled. For example, it is not unusual for an advance to be split into at least two stages (if not more). This is normally half on signing and the rest of delivery. The agent will make sure you get the cash they have promised, when they have promised.
What Agents Want to See in an Author
Having the ‘right’ book is only part of the process and is not the complete picture. In order for a writer to be an attractive proposition for an agent they must tick a number of boxes.
In a recent article in The Bookseller (11 November 2016, page 7), UK agent Ed Victor outlined what it was he was looking for in a writer.
‘Victor has three criteria for taking on an author, he says: personality, the quality of the book and its money making potential. Any one of those three will swing it.
“If there is a person I really like and want to be close to, whose work is OK but doesn’t make very much money, I’ll do it. If there is another, one who has written an extraordinary book, [even if] it won’t make a lot of money I’ll do it, because I love books. And if there is a book by someone who is not wonderful, and the book is not particularly good, but it is going to make a lot of money, I owe it to my company to do it.”’
Why Agents Are Essential
If you are looking to make a living from publishing with traditional publishers, then an agent is an essential part of the process. However, if you are still undecided, here’s three points to consider:
An agent will know things about publishers you never will. Not only do they know what books they are looking to publish but they also know the staff and internal politics. Agents ‘get’ publishers and know how they tick, they know the up and coming editors and the editors that should be avoided. Agents are the only people that will be able to give you honest advice about how to navigate the publishing process.
The second point to ponder is that you can’t get near a big publisher without an agent. You will be able to build a reputation without an agent, by focusing on approaching smaller independent publishers, but if you want to speak to the big boys then you will require an agent.
The final point is that agents will stop you making mistakes and this is not just from a financial viewpoint. An agent will hold your hand during the publishing process. They will provide advice and give you guidance on how to progress your career. They are one of the few people in the publishing world that will have your best interests at heart. After all, the better you do the more cash they make.
I want to end this article with one word of warning and that is that not all agents are created equal. If you are looking for an agent the focus should be on long established agencies located in the ‘publishing’ city of your country (e.g. New York and London). There are many great ‘solo’ agents but if you are offered a deal from a solo agent then approach with caution. There is one great question you can ask that will help separate the wheat from the chaff and that is, ‘can you give me a list of your clients?’ A successful agent will be doing book deals for writers that are selling books. Do your research, check up on the agent and do some googling of their clients. You are looking for an active agent (one doing deals) that represents writers from your genre, who are selling books.
There’s a good chance that if you have spent any time looking at publishing options for your book, that’ll you have come across the term ‘hybrid publishing’. This is a relatively new term and worthy of some clarification.
What is Hybrid Publishing?
The term hybrid publishing has started to be used more commonly in recent years. It is a term authors give to a publishing career that encompasses books that are both self-published and published by traditional publishing companies.
For example, let’s say you write your first novel. It’s a thriller about a maverick cop trying to catch a serial killer. You pitch your book to a handful of agents, but get no positive replies. After six months, you decide that self-publishing is the best option.
Your book sells well and it spurs you on to write a sequel. Your first thought is to self-publish the second book, but you decide to give agents one more try. This time you have some success and an agent agrees to represent your book. They find a small independent publisher that wants to publish your book and you secure a book deal. The book is published and sells OK. You enjoy the process.
You now have the writing bug and decide to write a collection of short stories. You talk to your agent and they feel that though they like your book, it is not ‘commercial’ enough for them. You both agree that self-publishing will be the best option.
This example is a great illustration of hybrid publishing. The author is picking the option that is best for their book at each step of the process. They end up with a career that sees books both self-published and published by traditional publishers.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Hybrid Publishing?
The nature of hybrid publishing means that for many authors it is more of an evolution than a revolution. Writers tend to ease themselves into the process as they try to find the best options for their books. This said, there are a few elements that need to be considered.
One advantage of hybrid publishing is the flexibility it brings to an author. It means that, at no point, is an author tied into any one option. It gives authors a freedom from the demands of publishers. It also means that an author is never left in a situation where a book they have written has no publishing ‘home’.
The flip side of flexibility is instability. The fact that an author has no one clear path to publication means that each book is faced with a certain level of instability – Will the agent like it? Will they find a publisher? Should they self-publish? It also means that an author may struggle to build a long term relationship with both their agent and publisher, who may feel a little aggrieved that they choose to opt for self-publishing.
Is Hybrid Publishing Right for You?
The reality of hybrid publishing is that an author often drifts into it out of necessity, rather than choice. It tends to come about when an author is unable to secure a deal with an agent/publisher and turns to self-publishing. The other path is the opposite, where an author has been self-publishing and then finds an agent/publisher interested in their work. It is not uncommon for agents to ‘follow’ the Amazon charts and approach the bestselling self-publishing authors with potential traditional book deals.
Hybrid publishing is becoming increasingly common and this trend looks set to continue. The traditional publishing industry are looking to the self-publishing world for the ‘next big thing’, whilst authors are comfortable with switching between both traditional and self-publishing.