Written by Emily Harstone October 17th, 2016

How Publishing Really Works

When I first approached publishing every part of it seemed overwhelming. Like most people I didn’t understand how publishing really worked. This is partially because it is portrayed inaccurately in most novels, for example The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair and I Regret Everything: A Love Story, and movies including The Proposal and Girl in The Book.

Adding further confusion, the publishing industry is in a period of flux. Things are changing much more rapidly than they used to. This article won’t be able to cover all of the nuances of publishing, but it will help you avoid many of the pitfalls new writers face. It will also introduce you to three most basic ways to publish.

Often the second and the third ways to publish are conflated, but that conflation is dangerous and leads to a lot of misunderstandings.

Traditional Publishing

Traditional publishers pay their writers. They pay via royalties. Royalties, at their most basic, refer to the amount of money an author earns off each copy of their book that is sold. I include independent publishers in my definition of traditional publishers.

Sometimes traditional publishers pay advances. An advance is a signing bonus that is paid to the author before the book is published. It is paid against future royalty earnings.

Traditional publishers do not charge publishers for any of the marketing they do. They offer in-house services like professional editing and professional cover design. If any publisher tries to charge you piecemeal for services like that, they are not a legitimate traditional publisher. Some traditional publishers require a literary agents, but many do not.

Pitfalls: Traditional publishing is very competitive. Authors can face a great deal of rejection. An agent is required to submit work to a number of the major publishers, which can make the search even more time consuming. Every step takes time and patience. Most publishers and agents take a minimum of 3 months to get back to you. Having an agent will not guarantee that you will be able to find a traditional publisher. Many independent publishers do not require an agent, but even the biggest publishing houses now have an imprint or three that accept un-agented submissions.

Once you have a traditional publisher there will still be a lot of work to do. You will be expected to help market the book. In the end the financial reward is generally not that great. Most traditionally published authors still have to keep their day jobs.

Benefits: Being published traditionally may not pay all of your bills, but it should pay some. It can help give you the legitimacy to get a job teaching others about writing or publishing. It can lead to other paid opportunities. It can make publishing future books much easier. You are much more likely to get good distribution with a traditional publisher. Good distribution means that your book will be more likely to be available in libraries and brick and mortar book stores. You are much more likely to get a great cover, good editing, and help with marketing.

Additional Reading: If you decide to go the traditional route this article might be of great help to you. There are also great watchdog sites that can help you avoid the wrong publisher.

Self Publishing

People often group self publishing and vanity publishing together. This can cause a lot of confusion, and a lot of misinformation. For the sake of this article, self publishing is solely defined as publishing your book yourself. If you are hiring an editor, you go out and find an editor and pay them, you do not sign up for a package that includes an editor.

Pitfalls: It can be hard to publish a book traditionally after it has been self published. The average self published book sells less than 10 copies. Self publishing successfully requires the author to really learn how to market their own book, which is a whole separate skill set.

Anything that has to be done, from editing to cover design you either have to do yourself or find an independent contractor to do it for you. Also, if you are looking for work at a teacher or professor of writing, it is harder to get hired as a self published writer, unless you are very successful.

Benefits: If you are just publishing a digital book and you don’t have any money, you can self publish through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) for free. Or use various other similar services. This does not guarantee that you will make any money, that requires actually selling books, but it does guarantee that you will not spend any money. The same goes for using certain print on demand (POD) services, such as CreateSpace, as long as you are fine with not hold a print copy of your book in your hand. In general print on demand services tend to be very cheap if you are willing to invest in a larger number of print books. For example I once printed 100 anthologies for 2.75 per copy. With self publishing you have complete control over the finished product.

Additional reading: 7 articles you should read before self publishing.

Vanity/Assisted Publishing

Vanity/Assisted Publishing is when a ‘publisher’ charges you in order to publish your novel. Often you buy into a package and that package covers all the things that the publisher will provide from you. You often still split royalties with the publisher, but you pay up front as well. There are a number of publishers who go out of the way to cover up the fact that they are actually vanity/assisted publishers, so carefully read any contract that you are given and always check watchdog websites before proceeding. Some traditional publishers have started referring rejected authors to specific vanity publishers.

Pitfalls: The author has to pay the ‘publisher’ up front. The price they pay the vanity publisher can be anything from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The contracts can tie up the rights to your work so it can be difficult to get your rights back. Vanity presses can be much slower to publish your work than they promise to be. Delays from six months to a year or two are rather common. They can encourage authors to charge more per book, which can make it harder to sell any copies. Also, all the services you pay for as part of a package, such as editing and cover design tend to have a large mark up. Besides, you cannot vet the editor or cover designer first.

Benefits: It is really hard to think of any. They give you the illusion of a traditional publisher. You can convince friends that know little about traditional publishing that you have a publisher. If publishing seems really overwhelming to you, they can help you with the basics, like finding an editor.

This article is an attempt to answer all of the questions and concerns we regularly hear about via email regarding publishing at its most basic. If there is something about the basics of publishing that we did not include with this article, please email us at support@authorspublish.com.

Publishing might seem overwhelming, but the more you know, the easier it becomes to navigate.


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