Pub-quest: The choice between traditional and self-publishing
Scott’s note: Back in September, I wrote a blog entry entitled Publishing Pitfalls, Perils, & Perks. In it, I discussed some of the options available to us, as writers, for publishing our work. I described the techniques involved, and listed a few things to watch out for. I would like to take this time to discuss this matter in more detail. I also have some new information for you to consider before making a decision. Hopefully, this entry will help those of you who are trying to decide what to do with your completed novel.
So you have finally written that novel. You’ve run it through an exhaustive editing process, then edited it some more. Your writers group has read it over, made suggestions, and you have followed through with countless changes. Your book is finally ready for publishing. How will you go about it? Will you seek out an agent and allow him or her to push the book with the publishing houses? Will you go directly to the publishers themselves, and save the agent’s fee? Or will you take the book straight to the self-publishing realm of the ebook readers?
The answer is not as simple as some think. I’ll review these options one at a time, and you will need to decide for yourself which route is better. All have their ups and downs, so there is no one right answer for everyone.
Before you go down any of these roads, please be absolutely certain your book is as polished as you can get it. After you have written the book, edited it, and allowed others to edit it, let it sit for a month or two. When you go back and read it again, the lack of familiarity will point out a whole new wave of mistakes that need correcting. The best way to assure utter failure on any publishing journey is to try to publish a book that is not quite ready. I know you’re anxious to get started. But while you’re letting that book simmer on your hard drive for several weeks, start your next project. Don’t let the grass grow under your feet. Keep writing!
I’ll first deal with literary agents. An agent is a person who will take your book to the various publishing houses and tell the editors, “This is a great story, and it can make some money for you.” Since the editors and agents are a tight group, they usually have at least a passing familiarity with each other. This means an agent will have a good idea of the publishers that would be a good fit for your book. It also means that an editor will, to some extent, trust the agent’s judgment and give the book a good look.
The first problem here is that landing an agent is the most difficult part of the publication process. When you find an agent who represents your genre, you send your submission packet to their office. A junior agent, either an intern or someone brand new to the business, spends all day reading submission after submission. If that person says “no,” your chance with that agent is gone. If the first reader likes it, you may receive a request for the full manuscript. Still no guarantee that you will sign with this agent, but nonetheless a significant step.
The other drawback is that the agent will receive 15% of everything your book earns, from your advance to royalties. That can add up to a lot of money. Yes, this person facilitated the publication process for you. The question then becomes: Are you willing to give up 15% of your pay, in order to have someone else find you a publisher? It’s your call…
Another route you can take is to go straight to the publishing houses yourself. This eliminates the agent from the process, and that 15% pay cut goes straight to your pocket. Again, there are issues with this route. First, many of the big publishing houses have changed their submission practices and will no longer accept any submissions that don’t come from an agent. So, before you even begin, most of the major houses are off-limits to you. And whatever you do, DO NOT go through a vanity press. I’m talking about publishers who charge you to publish your book. No reputable publishing house will charge you to publish—they should be paying you! If you ever use a vanity press, your chances of landing a traditional publishing contract drop to somewhere between nil and none.
Second, just like agents, the editors at publishing houses have interns and junior editors who spend long days reading through the slush pile. You must get through these gatekeepers before an editor will even look at your first page. What if that intern got a speeding ticket on the way to work that morning? With this reader in a foul mood, your submission might be arbitrarily thrown out, resulting in a form letter rejection. Or maybe your writing style doesn’t sit right with that person. It might be something the editor would have loved, but if the gatekeeper rejects you, you’ll never know. The reason for this system is simple. A publishing house receives hundreds of submissions every week, so it would be physically impossible for the editors to review them all. Therefore, a system must be in place to whittle the prospects down to a manageable number. Not a great arrangement, I’ll admit. In fact, I think the methodology is terrible. But I have no idea how they could improve it.
One cautionary note on publishers: if you receive an offer from a publisher, whether you went directly there yourself or used an agent, be certain this is what you want to do. Yes, your publishing history is much like a résumé on future submissions. When an agent or editor sees that you are publishable, you get a better look. But there’s another facet to this, one Rick and I have suspected for a long time, and which I just confirmed was true through a reliable but confidential source. If you publish two or three different books, and you don’t become a mid-lister at the very least, your chances of getting another traditional publishing contract become much lower than if you had never published.
There is an online resource for both agents and publishers that lets them see exactly how many copies of each of your books have been sold. If those numbers aren’t high, forget it. So use caution, especially if the publisher you choose is not one of the “Big 6” from New York. If their advertising fails to get you into enough bookstores, your sales will be lackluster at best, and your future contracts will suffer. Yes, you can self-promote, advertise, and go on book tours. But as an unknown author, when you hold a book-signing event, you will be lucky to sell four or five books per hour. When you consider that your book needs to be selling tens of thousands of copies, you see that book-signing events are not going to have the impact you need. Choose your publisher wisely!
The other route is the self-published, or “indie,” method. With the advent of ebooks, anyone can get published for virtually no cost. Once the manuscript is properly formatted, it can be uploaded onto Amazon’s website for the Kindle, Smashwords for most of the ebook formats, and CreateSpace if you desire a “print on demand” paperback version. The most important facet of this method is that you retain all of the rights to your work. But in addition, the royalty rates are much higher, usually around 70% (depending upon cover price), as opposed to 10% -15% with traditional publishing. You have total creative freedom, so the title is yours to choose, as is the cover art, and the final editing. The drawback is that you are now responsible for ensuring that all of these things are done and done well.
A cheap book cover, or an irrelevant or misleading title, can kill your book sales. If your book is poorly edited, that reader will likely never buy one of your books again. And you are responsible for choosing the right price. Charge too much, and no one will but it. Charge too little, and readers may question the quality because of the low price.
Finally, you are responsible for advertising. There are millions of ebooks available, so the odds of someone randomly stumbling onto your book and buying it are very slim. You will need to be a loud voice through friends, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, and even through the media. Some of these involve expenses, so it is definitely a gamble. You wouldn’t want to spend $1000 on advertising to make $20 in royalties. You need to use your own judgment here. Perhaps this will make a good blog topic on another day.
You’ve written your book, edited your book, and have it ready for market. Now comes the hard part. Which of these routes will you choose? Agent? Publisher? Or self-publish? The choice is yours. Choose wisely!
RICK ADDS: We should clarify that the choice to self-publish or to go through a publisher is not a one-excludes-the-other proposition. A number of traditionally publisher authors have self-published new titles (ones the publisher wasn’t interested in) and backlist titles (ones the publisher never had the e-rights to or out-of-print books whose rights reverted to the author). A number of authors whose self-published books did well have had agents or publishers seek them out. The choice to accept such an offer needs to be carefully considered. What rights will you be relinquishing? Will the benefits be sufficient to counter any loss of rights and control? It’s not a simple decision, and it’s no longer a matter of having to accept the contract terms presented or else.
When a publisher approaches you with an offer to take over your self-published book, the ultimate question you must answer is this: Will this in the best interest of both your short-term and long-terms goals as an author? If your primary consideration is how much money you can make, can a publisher–who, as a middle-man, is taking a large piece of the profits–put more money in your pockets than you could make on your own? When you self-publish, you have to do all the promotion yourself. And time is money. Can going with a publisher give you back enough time (to write more) that you can use it to generate more money in the long term than you lost by giving some of the profits to the publisher? These questions do not have a straightforward answer, and it may not be worth your time to try to answer them definitively, but you must be aware of them when making your decision.