Decoding Publishing

It's an exciting time to be working in the publishing industry; there are more options for authors than ever before. So how do you know what publishing route (and company) is best for you?

Know this: there is not a one-size-fits-all model. Individual publishing houses and imprint companies operate very differently. There are pros and cons to each of the two main publishing models. To determine which route is best for you, spend a little time defining your goals, creating your budget and sales projections, as well as your break-even analysis and marketing plans. Laying out a clear action plan, and business plan for your book will help you discern which model is best for you.

Consider your book's audience, message, and the scope of your marketing plan. Do you have a niche book that only a certain audience will purchase? My regional cookbooks are a great example of this because they focus on the food of a particular city or county. These are the types of books that do well under a small, local publisher or as a self-published work with a localized marketing effort. As you can imagine, a larger publisher will want to carry books that reach a broader audience. If you're writing fiction or non-fiction that has a broad fanbase, you may prefer to go the traditional publishing route.

Let's break it down into two main options:

(1) Traditional Publishing: Query an agent and get picked up by a traditional publishing house.

(2) Self-Publishing: Pay for author services through independent publishing professionals who can help you self-publish and market your book.

This is how the traditional publishing process typically works:

  • Write your query (proposal) and sample pages.

  • Submit those to a literary agent who takes 15% (industry standard but negotiable). It can take years of querying agents before you find the best agent for your project. You don't want to enter this contract hastily, as it's a lifelong relationship.

  • Once under contract with you, the agent will submit to various publishers whom they have existing relationships. You can hope to end up with an advance plus 1-2% of sales in royalties. This is the current industry standard but negotiable. The agent's 15% comes from your 1-2%. Keep in mind it can take years for the agent to find the best publisher for your deal.

  • In lieu of submitting to a literary agent, certain middle range publishers accept submissions directly from authors. Proper research will help you identify if there is a mid-range publisher in your genre that accepts author submissions.

  • Complete your manuscript before shopping the title to agents/publishers. Be flexible in that certain publishers will want more creative control and may wish to reframe your table of contents and edit your work.

  • Once a publisher says yes, and your contract is complete, here are the next steps for your writing:

    • Complete the manuscript to their specifications

    • Editing commences

    • Photography is added

    • Design/layout is finalized

    • Sales/distribution/press channels are notified

    • Depending on your contract, their marketing team/publicist or your own publicist will work on special events and promotions to promote the title

    • You conduct book signings as often as you like and receive royalties once a year

If you’re self-publishing instead, you can follow the same pattern as above. The main difference is that you will source all of your editing, photography, and design work, as well as laying the book out yourself or hiring a designer for that process. You’ll also be getting pricing for printing and paying for your books to be printed up front, as well as getting them into stores and setting up signing events.

For some perspective, I ordered 5,000 books for my first run of Trailer Food Diaries. It was overwhelming to try to warehouse, market, and sell that many books on my own. But I did it and eventually sold over 30,000. You can do it too.

If you’re handy with current technologies and feel that you have a strong sales plan, you can publish your books yourself online through options such as IngramSpark. However, if it’s your first book, I strongly recommend going through a publishing coach to help you get your bearings in the field and make sure your documents are edited properly, sized correctly, and loaded in the proper format.

Regardless of which route you choose, make sure your publisher will list your book in the Ingram system. With Ingram, all of the bookstores in the world will have access to be able to order and carry your books. Additionally, they work with a print-on-demand model, which means your books won’t be printed until your customers (or bookstores) order them. This model works great for certain projects because there are no up-front printing costs to the publisher or the author. One limitation of using Ingram is that they do not produce glossy pages. If glossy pages are important to your project, you may wish to price printing your book with a local, offset printer and purchasing a bulk order.

Protip: If you're doing this on your own, be sure to play with Ingram's royalty calculator to make sure the size and style of your book puts you in the black instead of the red.

If that sounds like too much work, don't worry: I can help! I offer author services such as editing, cover design, book layout, ISBNs, uploading to Amazon, distribution, sales, and marketing. You’ll be able to choose which services you want, and won't be responsible to pay for services you don't need.

What is best for you?

I suggest mapping out your project in a writing calendar and setting practical goals to be able to complete your book. Once you are clear on your goals, your message, and your audience, the path will become more obvious to you as to whether you want your book to be traditionally published, or self-published.