Five Pathways to Publishing Your Book

You want to be a published author, of course. You’ve got five choices about how to do that. Here’s a brief overview of the five major methods, outlining the advantages/disadvantages of each. Some can even be combined-for example, you can easily create an e-book and a self-published printed book from the same digital file.

1. Publish With a Traditional Publisher

The wonderful thing about this approach: someone pays YOU for the privilege of publishing your book! And the other great thing is that if it’s one of the larger or well-known publishers, you can gain a lot of prestige and credibility by dropping the publisher’s name. When I did a book with Simon & Schuster, the respect factor went waaay up.

But there are three major negatives: first of all, it’s extremely difficult for a first-time author to land a book with a major house. They receive hundreds of submissions, typically, for every one they accept. Second, the New York publishing world moves glacially. It’s not uncommon for 18 months or two years to go by between submitting the manuscript and seeing the finished book. And third, the author earns very little per book. Most books never even earn back their advance, which means the up-front money is all you’ll see. Still, if this option is open to you (you have a magnificent book AND a magnificent author platform/marketing plan), it’s often the best choice.

2. Self-Publish On Your Own
On the plus side, true self-publishing can be very inexpensive, and very quick-if you want to get a product out just to sell at your events and to your own networks. But if you want to compete in the retail marketplace, both the content and the production quality also have to be very good, even superb. You may have heard the old saw, “you can have any two of quality, speed, and price.” In publishing, you can either have quick and cheap or quality.

Doing a book that can compete in the retail environment is far more expensive and slow than most people realize, and involves either acquiring or outsourcing a vast array of skills. You have to buy your ISBN block, get your Library of Congress and Books In Print registrations, get the book written and edited and designed and proofread and (for nonfiction) indexed and printed, develop and carry out a marketing plan, create distribution channels… Whew! Overwhelmed yet? Just wait until you start grappling with foreign and subsidiary rights, the weirdness of the bookstore industry with its bizarre returns policies, and so on.

If this path appeals to you, the best advice is to read the best books on the subject: The Publishing Game: Publish Your Book in 30 Days, by Fern Reiss, and The Self-Publishing Manual (be sure it’s a recent edition), by Dan Poynter, at a minimum. Fern’s information is maybe the best out there, but her 30-day timeframe is totally unrealistic for us mere mortals. It’s a good idea to plan a full year, which gives you the chance to properly ramp up your marketing and to build in the necessary quality review at several stages along the way. Also, for continuous information from people in the trenches, consider signing on the Self-Publishing discussion list: mailto:self-publishing-subscribe@yahoogroups.com (a high-volume list; you may want the Digest version.)

3. Self-Publish With Help
For many authors, this offers all the advantages of self-publishing with a lot fewer headaches. You let an expert guide you over the places you’re not sure of. The expert helps you select quality, affordable vendors, navigate the various minefields, develop a custom marketing plan, and come out of the process with a book that you can be proud of, and that has a chance to succeed in the market. Some will help you with as little as an hour at a time, on up to turnkey operations that act as the publisher and handle all the details for a set fee, using your ISBN. In my own consulting practice, I’ve worked with people who just wanted an hour or two of advice, on up to taking a raw unedited manuscript all the way to finished book (and saving back approximately half my fees in lower vendor costs). My pricing structure is per hour, so you can have as much or as little assistance as you need.

For both self-publishing categories, you can decide, project by project, if you want to use traditional offset and/or print-quantity-needed (sometimes called print-on-demand); if you need an ISBN, barcode, and professional design with your particular marketing plan; and how you will reach your customers. You may also be in a good position to sell your book to a traditional publisher. I can name dozens of major-market books that were originally self published, including Eragon, Mutant Message Down Under, The Christmas Box, and many others that you probably haven’t heard of. (This option works best if you can demonstrate that you’ve sold 10,000 or more copies on your own.)

4. Use a Subsidy Publisher

This is the easiest and often fastest path, but in most cases, not the most effective. In subsidy publishing, you pay modest design and production fees upfront, use the publisher’s ISBN, and print books as you need them. Typically, the cover and interior design will be very generic (often set in a word processor rather than a page layout program), and the book will not be edited by the publisher’s staff.

To give the method its due, it’s a big improvement over the long-established and similar “vanity press” mode of the past, where the author paid a very large upfront fee, the publisher created a quantity of generally unsalable books (binding them as needed), and the world took absolutely no notice-but it still only makes sense in certain situations. Because the industry does not take these books seriously, and because most subsidy publishers have a price and return structure that is completely out of step with the industry norms, most of these tens of thousands of titles per year will die a quiet death; very few sell even 100 copies.

However, if your goal is to completely control your own distribution and not get involved with bookstores at all (for example, selling at your own presentations, through affiliates, and through your own website) and you can price the book high enough to cover the outrageous per-unit printing charges (typically more than double the cost of using your own print-quantity-needed printer), this is an easy and cost-effective way to become a published author. It’s also the best solution in many cases for an author who wants to share a particular story with a very small audience, such as a personal/family history, a book created by school children for a class, an arcane textbook on a very obscure subject.

Notes on this option:

  • You will often hear subsidy publishing referred to as “self-publishing.” It is not. The owner of the ISBN is the publisher of record, no matter what people say-and true self-publishing carries a lot more respect in the industry. It’s also sometimes called “print-on-demand publishing” (POD)-not to be confused with POD printing.
  • There have been a very few success stories using this model of publishing: at least a few dozen books that were resold to major publishers, made into movies (“Legally Blonde,” for instance), achieved bestseller status, etc. And if you investigate this option, you will definitely hear about those authors. But you won’t hear much about the other 30,000 or so per year who sold too few copies to even recoup their setup costs.
  • Many of these companies offer “marketing packages.” Having been hired to rewrite some of the press releases they create, my personal opinion is that you’d be better off seeking outside marketing assistance.
  • This industry has its share of scam artists. Get product samples, full pricing information, and references-and check those references! Also check some of the scam-complaint sites on the Internet.

5. Produce an E-Book
E-books offer a number of advantages: they can be created very quickly and with almost no expense; in some market sectors they can actually command a far higher prices than a printed book of comparable size and value; they’re a way to easily test and get feedback on new products before sinking a lot of time and money into them; they require no inventory investment in either printing or storage space; they can easily be ramped up to on-demand printing or a full offset run; they can be delivered at no cost anywhere in the world; they make nice freebies that you can use for various promotions; they require very little attention to design and-if you’re not selling them through book channels-don’t even require an expensive ISBN. And they create a passive income stream that collects money without any work on your part other than driving traffic to the website.

So why wouldn’t every author jump on the bandwagon? First of all, many readers, especially those of us who grew up in bookstores and libraries, want to put our hands on a physical book. Second, it’s fatiguing to read on screen, and expensive for the user to print out the whole thing. And third, it’s easy to fill up a hard drive with dozens of e-books, forget you downloaded them, and never get around to reading them. Finally, they do not create the same kind of “oh, wow, I just met a real author” status in reader’s eyes. But they’re not a bad alternative; I sell e-book versions of my last three books, including one that’s now out of print and not available any other way. And I sell other downloadable products, such as brief special reports, that use the same technology.

Discuss your next book project with publishing and marketing consultant/copywriter Shel Horowitz: shel@principledprofits.com, 413-586-2388. Shel’s seven books include Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, Grassroots Marketing for Authors and Publishers, and Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a Noisy World, and he is the creator of the Business Ethics Pledge. Visit him on the web at http://www.frugalmarketing.com (Grassroots) and http://www.principledprofit.com (Principled Profit). The Pledge is located at http://www.business-ethics-pledge.org.