Seeing your name on the cover of a book is a wish many people carry around with them their whole lives. It can be a conflicting kind of dream as it’s one that never feels entirely in your control. ‘Getting published,’ traditionally, has long been an odd mix of talent and luck. Writers must hope they have the talent, but also that publishers will recognize their potential and give their book a chance.
Throughout history, this has left a legacy of incredible published writers. But it has also left behind lots of disappointed, talented people who never got to see their dream come true. For every book on a bookshop shelf, there were dozens more rejected and resigned to desk drawers.
That was until publishing changed.
Now, a publisher giving you a book deal isn’t the only way for you to experience the excitement of seeing your book printed. Since around 2008 and the growth of the indie and self-publishing movement, authors have options. You can choose to step away from traditional publishing if you want to and try a different way.
According to Bowker, in the last year, 725,000 titles were self-published in the US alone. The numbers grow steadily every year, and alongside that growth, self-publishing is quickly outpacing its ‘second best’ image. Beat Barblan, Director of Identifier Services at Bowker, rightly points out that, “As the field of self-publishing matures, the quality of both content and format for many of these titles is becoming indistinguishable from those published by traditional houses.”
This new freedom to shape our own quality publishing routes without relying entirely on a lucky break is exciting. However, that doesn’t mean it’s risk-free or easy.
Before you decide which route you want to go for, it’s vital that you learn what each different publishing option means. Although each one has the same goal in mind – a published book – the work and input that you’ll need to put into each process is entirely different.
Let’s break down your choices, so you know the path you’re about to walk along.
Until self-publishing, this was the only way. You or your agent send your manuscript off to a publishing house in the hope that whoever reads it will love it and want to publish it. This might take many tries with different publishers – something that can be both exhilarating and demoralizing. However, the hope is that you’ll eventually hear those magic words: “We’d like to offer you a book deal.”
If you accept a traditional publisher’s offer, they’ll buy the rights to your manuscript. In exchange, they’ll pay you an upfront advance of future book royalties of typically a few thousand pounds. With that settled, they’ll then take the rest of the project off your hands and handle everything for you.
There is absolutely no doubt that it feels incredibly validating to get a book deal with a big name publisher. Someone who knows a lot about books thinks that your book is good, that people will want to read it, and that it will make money!
This confidence boost is a huge draw for authors. We’d all love the chance to say, “Hey, I signed a book deal today!” For many writers, it’s the thing that makes them finally feel like a ‘proper’ author, especially in the eyes of others.
If you think your book has a broad appeal, then a top, traditional publishing house holds the power to get that book on the shelves of bookshops up and down the country. The stores themselves will get to decide whether to stock it, but big publishing houses will have sales reps and an established team to create plenty of buzz and give your book the very best chance.
This feeling of a powerful, influential team behind you is unmatched by other types of publishing. If your goals are ambitious – perhaps you hope to win a literary prize or become a well-known, big-name bestseller – then a book deal is the foundation that could get you there. This is important, because while there are some big exceptions, including E. L. James, Hugh Howey, and Deepak Chopra, very few indie authors make it to these upper echelons by self-publishing alone.
Handing your book over to the traditional publishing route definitely come with drawbacks, however. The biggest of these is probably the loss of ownership and control.
Publishing agents will want to steer the edits of your work to make it more attractive to publishers. Once they’ve bought your rights, publishers are likely to revise your book again before they deem it ready for sale, maybe even changing the book title. You probably won’t have final approval of your cover designs or layout, and no control over how or where your publisher markets your book.
You can choose to trust that “they know best” but your publisher’s priorities will often not match your own. It can quickly feel like your book is no longer really yours. This is the reality of a book deal, and it’s a lot to let go of, so make sure you bear this in mind.
It’s also an incredibly slow process. Even once you’ve written and edited your book, it can take a year to get an agent and another year (or more) to get a deal. You’ll typically need to wait a further year before the launch – that’s at least two or three years in total. This can be a real problem if your book is very topical and you want to get in front of people quickly.
The quality of the deal will also vary and it’s important for you to check the terms of your publishing agreement. Some publishers will actively push your book, help with PR and reviews, but not all will. Increasingly, the responsibility for marketing seems to fall more and more on authors themselves. You may be expected to put in a surprising amount of work, even down to creating your own marketing plan.
Although you won’t have to pay any upfront costs, your publishers will take a big cut. For each book they sell, your publisher will deduct all of their costs for production, discounts, returns and marketing first. Only then will they calculate your author royalties and, typically, you’ll only receive 5-20%.
Hardest of all, nobody, however talented, is guaranteed a book deal. It will always be something of a gamble. You may need to face rejection after rejection which can be both exhausting and bruising.
Self-publishing has only been an option for the last ten years and, as such, it’s still evolving.
Titles will not typically be sold in nationwide in bricks and mortar stores. However, you’ll have total access to sell your book in any stores online, be included in all book databases and make sales through your website, blog, business, church or speaking engagements.
In the past, there has been some stigma around self-published books and indie authors. Self-publishing was seen to remove the input of experts and replace it with a “have a go” mentality. And to be honest, in the beginning, some authors did use self-publishing in this way. Many tried to do everything themselves, from editing to book design, usually without the proper experience, skill, or software to do things properly.
The good news is that self-publishing is moving swiftly past these rocky beginnings. Authors and service providers are (for the most part!) choosing to put professional excellence and quality first, rather than chase a cheap, quick result. Everyone recognizes that reputation and image matters. Even Amazon will now delist a badly produced Kindle ebook from sale and request that the author/publisher fix it.
By choosing the DIY self-publishing path, you’ll take on the role of full project manager for your book. You’ll need to guide your book through editing, design, publishing, marketing, and distribution. You’ll also need to source and hire the right help at each stage.
It’s an overwhelming amount of work, but for many can be an exciting prospect. This is your chance to make your book your own.
The hard work of self-publishing does come with a reward. Because you retain ownership of your book, you’ll be able to take a much higher percentage of the royalties. The exact amount depends on the sales platform, but some channels will let you keep up to 90% of net royalties. That’s a big difference to the average 10% a traditional publisher would give you. If you worry you won’t have access to the same potential volume of sales of a traditional publisher, consider that to make the same amount you also won’t need to sell as many copies.
Self-publishing is also much, much quicker than traditional publishing. Once your book is ready to publish, you can start selling in lightning quick time. To get your book on Amazon or Ingram Spark, we’re talking just a few weeks, and for ebooks, the process is even faster.
Of course, having this much control comes with a big catch. There is no safety net; you’ll be fully accountable for everything.
The amount of work and responsibility involved can feel scarily overwhelming, and justifiably so. Faced with reality, it is easy for authors to stick their head in the sand and hope for the best, but this is always to their book’s detriment. Don’t be tempted to skip, rush, or fudge any of the stages. A good quality self-published book always reflects the quality of the decisions that came before it.
Self-publishing requires a high level of commitment: think of it as a new, serious, all-consuming hobby. Just because the process can be super quick, doesn’t mean you should be doing everything as quickly as possible. The prep will take a lot of time, too. You’ll need to study up on blogs and books to fill in gaps in your knowledge before you make decisions, and source help for each stage. You may also need to learn new skills yourself, for example how to upload and handle files, use online retailers, and market your book through blogging and social media. This is isn’t something that can be squeezed into the odd hour here and there. If life is already very full, you may need to think again.
The phrase ‘supported self-publishing’ (SSP) is a relatively new one to the publishing scene and, as such, still open to some interpretation. We interpret it as buying a package of self-publishing services from a single company. They’ll then handle every aspect of book design, cover design, ebook creation, production, printing, logistics and distribution for you.
Purchasing an all-inclusive package like this is often a faster and more affordable route to market. You won’t have the worry of negotiating, hiring and coordinating different freelancers to help with each stage. You’ll also get a much more consistent level of service, advice, and guidance from established publishing professionals. Having a single point of contact will help too. Rather than juggling dozens of people, you’ll have one point of call to help manage your project and answer questions.
Choosing the right SSP company should mean you get to hold onto nearly all of the benefits of DIY self-publishing. You’ll still get to own your copyright, stay in total creative control, keep most of your royalties, and end the contract at any time. Just be sure you check your particular contract carefully!
As long as you’re well-informed and choose a good partner, the drawbacks of SSP are minimal. SSP comes with an extra fee, of course, but many authors find they save significantly overall, having avoided expensive pitfalls and mistakes along the way.
On thing for you to consider is that some SSP companies will only publish books under their own imprint. If you’ve previously set up your own publishing company name and want to use your own ISBN, your logo, and company details on the cover, you will need to check that this is possible.
And before you commit to anything, do check the SSP company you choose has good feedback and testimonials from other customers. Don’t be scared to ask them questions and see how they respond before signing up. You want to be sure you’re working with someone that knows what they’re doing. And that they’ll make the process easy and enjoyable!
Picking the right publishing route is a big decision. You’ll need to think carefully about your goals, your book, your skills, your lifestyle, and your personality. Be honest with yourself. Are you willing or able to take on a time-consuming new hobby and learn new skills? Or do you need a helping hand to get your book out there looking its best?
Gone are the days when writers are forced to wait for a big break. If you already have access to a keen audience, intend to focus on a niche market or have some of your own great book-marketing ideas then in many cases self-publishing can now offer even more than a traditional route can.
Whichever route you choose, best of luck!