Tuesday, December 15, 2015

2 How to Publish a Book . . . Five Options and Key Pros, Cons, and Factors to Consider

Getting a book published is a dream many people share, and "How can I get my book published?" is one of the most common questions I get when I'm speaking at an event. The answer is complicated.

I was fortunate to receive a six figure advance on my first book deal with a "Big Five" trade publisher, but believe me, I'm very aware of how rare that is. At the time, I didn't consider any other option than traditional publishing. I was aware that other options existed, but I wanted the pleasure of seeing my physical book in the bookstores and into the hands of readers. With two books out in the world now and  another on the way, I've had to dive into the world of promotion and the business side of publishing as well as the actual writing and editing, and I've had the chance to see how books really do reach readers. It's been an eye-opening experience, and because I so often get the "How do I get published?" question, I'd like to share a little insight into some of the common denominators that can serve as guideposts.

First and foremost, there are a few things you have to do before you look at how to publish a book:
  1. Read, and do it critically. Look for the good points first and the short-comings second in the books that you're reading, and read everything that's popular, both inside your genre and outside. These days, it doesn't hurt to read books that broke-out as indies as well as traditionally published work. Even if you're approaching your writing as art, you want to connect with readers. That means understanding what they are buying so that your decision about what to write will be an informed one. You also need to be aware of comparable titles, and be aware of who is publishing what--and how. Also, reading will help you understand what makes you connect. I'm always shocked at how many writers aren't reading.
  2. Write. Practice. Experiment. Read craft books. Exercise your writing muscles, and then get a wide-range of feedback, both from writers more experienced than you are and from people similar to those who would be buying your book. Don't look for compliments. Listen to the negative feedback and experiment with how to resolve the problems. Chefs, violinists, singers, doctors . . . everyone . . . receives feedback on how to improve. That's the learning process. And trust me, reviewers and readers will be honest. They're not going to be worried about hurting your feelings, so if your only feedback comes from friends and family, you're not doing yourself a service. Look for writers' organizations within your genre and take advantage of classes and workshops. Get a critique group. And don't just work on your own book. Work your butt off doing exercises and writing prompts so that you really stretch yourself.
  3. Be open to ideas. This means experiencing life. Whether you do this by living and traveling and working in an interesting capacity, or by watching television, reading nonfiction, social media, newspapers, etc., you will find that the more you think about things, the more deeply you observe, the more ideas will come to you. Suzanne Collins found the idea for The Hunger Games by flipping TV channels and thinking about reality television "meets" Roman gladiators. "Meets" is a great way to test whether your idea brings something new to the table. 
  4. Test your book idea. Has it been done before? What's new about it? How much do people get excited when you tell them about it? If you're writing the same book that's already been done, it doesn't matter how well you do it. It's not going to sell to a traditional publisher. So add a new "meets," a fresh twist. Make it big and give it universal appeal. Picture yourself standing in front of an audience of random people. What percentage of that audience is going to get excited about reading your book?

There are many reasons you need to take those first four steps before you think about publishing. But here's the most important one: once you publish, your chance for experimenting, learning, and correcting mistakes is diminished. Get that out of the way before you publish your first book.

Now, on to how to publish. There are basically five viable options, and which path you choose is going to depend on knowing yourself, knowing the market, and having done the above four steps thoroughly and well.

  • Big Five Trade Publishers. The big, traditional publishers in the states are still New York based: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster. Getting a book deal with one of them basically depends on the likelihood that your book will appeal to enough readers that it will merit a spot on the very limited shelf space in bookstores. That depends at least as much on the uniqueness of your idea as it does on the quality of the writing between the pages, but it also means that the work is accessible to a wide range of readers and connects with those readers in some way. If you can do a "meets" or a pitch that's unique and fascinating--and you can write at a professional level--there's a good chance this method is viable to you. But you're going to have to get through the gate-keepers first. Traditional publishers will require you to have an agent. Good news? A solid "meets" or pitch will get you read. Yes, you absolutely can get an agent, as long as your material is ready and applicable to the Big Five. This publishing model usually pays you in advance of book sales, which is charged against a percentage (royalties) of the proceeds for the actual copies of your book that sell to consumers and libraries. (Tip: Try online workshops like the 1st5PagesWritingWorkshop.com or #PitchMadness to get your work ready, and then use QueryTracker.net to find agents who are looking for books like yours.)
  • Small to Medium Print Publishers. Amazon currently has something in the vicinity of fourteen imprints that publish traditional print books available to go into bookstores and even Walmart, Costco, etc. In addition, a wide range of university presses and mid-size to smaller publishers can get your book into print. Many of these must be approached by an agent, but quite a few can be queried directly. Their reach is usually not as broad as the Big Five, but they often have "niches" carved out with a particular readership. If your book isn't geared toward a broad market, but instead has a high appeal to a certain segment of readers, this might be a good option for you. Pay structure for these publishers can vary from a small advance against traditional royalties, to a larger segment of the royalties with no advance, to a traditional percentage of the royalties and no advance. Your book isn't as likely to hit bookstores with this model, but it can still reach readers in other ways.  (Tip: Places like Poets & WritersPublishers Global, and QueryTracker all have databases of these kinds of publishers.) 
  • Digital Only and Digital First Publishers. There's a huge spectrum of publishers who fall into this category, ranging from imprints of the Big Five to tiny publishers that operate on a shoe string budget. A Big Five publisher might take a chance on a book that comes close to being ready for a traditional publishing model by putting it in a digital first format and letting it prove itself. The editing, cover development, and production process is virtually the same . . . all except for the printing. If the book sells and shows sufficient interest from the public, getting it into print form is relatively easy after that. They may include the book in their social media initiatives or hit other marketing options, and of course, it can still get picked up by bloggers. These books tend to be less "niche" oriented though, so marketing them can be a challenge. The key to success seems to be a good hook, solid writing, the ability to write fast, and a publisher who is willing to support you in writing more content than the traditional publishing can provide. When it comes to digital--even the digital version of traditionally published books, volume seems to be important, and that's why you'll see a lot of the action or fantasy books having novellas or shorts in between to keep readers engaged. Royalty payments can vary dramatically, but most of the time, digital first publishers will not offer any kind of an advance. (Tip: You can find digital and digital first publishers in the same databases as small to medium print publishers, but do your homework carefully! There are a lot of fly-by-night companies on these lists who amount to little more than someone who has self-published their own books and then, having gone through the process once, decided to branch out to help other authors. As with any small business, there's a high failure rate. Do your homework on track record, capitalization, and reputation.)
  • Indie or Digital Publishing. This is the wild-west of publishing, with huge opportunities and equally enormous pitfalls. For many "indies," there's a close relationship between this model and what used to be called "vanity" publishing. In other words, you are paying all the costs, so no one but you is taking a risk or supporting your work. There's also a vast range in the mechanics of how indie publishing works. You can hire a company who will handle everything for you, from the editing to the formatting to the cover. Or you can hire an editor, a copyeditor, proofreader, cover designer, and formatter. For the actual publishing portion, you can use a distribution mechanism like LuluIngram Spark, Amazon CreateSpace or KDP,  NookPress, iBooks, etc. Yes, you can also skip the editing process and do it all yourself--but not if you desire a professional result. Bottom line? If you expect to sell to anyone but your friends and family, dipping a toe into the indie waters is essentially starting a small business. You have to be prepared to treat it as such. Indie books work best when they are:
    1) Good enough to have been published by a Big Five publisher but have something about them that made them too risky for a traditional publisher to take on.
    2) Have an idea so amazing that it doesn't matter how good they are.
    3) Serve a niche market that provides a built-in audience.
    (Tip: Do your homework! You can spend a lot of time and money on indie-publishing, but the vast majority of people never make their money back.)
  • Hybrid Publishing.  Break-out indie publishing successes almost all fall into this model, either from the very beginning, or because once their books break out, publishers will pick up the book and publish it traditionally. Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howie, Jennifer L. Armentrout, E.L. James, and many other authors have achieved success starting as indies. Other authors who broke-out in print take advantage of this success to indie-pub additional titles. It makes sense. If you're out there hustling to get your name in front of the public, and you have a good product to sell, it's smart to sell it across multiple distribution channels. But . . . again, the indie-pub portion is a business venture. You need a good product and the marketing chops to sell it. Plus you're putting on the editorial, design, and production management hats as well--or at least hiring and overseeing the process of having someone do this for you. You have more control, more risk, and potentially more direct benefit. But did I mention risk? 
How do you choose between the models? Examine your work, your personality, your reason for writing, and your tolerance for risk and promotion. 

The truth is, these days, even if you're with a Big Five publisher unless you're a "lead title"--and there are leads and then there are leads!--you aren't likely to get a lot of marketing support. Even if the publisher does provide support, most books sell a shockingly small number of copies and have less than a 1% chance of being stocked on book store shelves. Which means that a lot of traditionally published authors are out there promoting just as hard as the indies do. The difference is that they have an advance they can reinvest into it, and if they're doing that, they're likely looking at publishing as a career in which an initial investment will result in an eventual return.

Book publishing is settling into new paradigms, and we're still in the midst of a disruption period. At the same time, people are reading less. But the good news is that there are still people reading, and there are more options available for writers to connect with those readers. Don't listen to anyone who tells you there's only one perfect solution. 

First step to getting your book published? Learn to read critically. Second step? Learn to write. Third? You guessed it. Repeat the first section of this post. Once you know yourself and your book, choose the method of getting your book published that seems to match what you and your writing bring to the table.


  1. The Pinterest button just refreshes the original page? Thank you for an informative article.

  2. Thank you for taking time to write this article that not only gives such practical, helpful advice for getting a book published (starting with wide READING), but also presents a clear overview of current publishing trends. Since I am of the older generation, involved in a quiet eddy of publishing work, it is difficult to keep track (or even want to spend the time to do so) of the steadily evolving world of publishing. I expect I will be referencing your comments more than once, as well as passing them on to others. Again, thanks!


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