What Sort of Publishing Is Right For You?

In my last post, I wrote about the results of a large though unscientific survey of authors, which revealed a high level of dissatisfaction around the areas of marketing, sales and income. This struck me as profoundly unsurprising, almost a tautology.  Dissatisfaction goes with the territory. During the 15 years I spent as an agent and editor, I never met a writer who was completely satisfied with his or her publisher’s efforts, whether they were great or small. It’s like inspecting a house after a cleaning crew has come and gone. No matter how good a job they’ve done, you always notice what they missed.

So that aspect of the survey was not at all surprising. What struck me as I read is the fact that writers today have so many more choices than they had in the past. More writers are making a living than ever before, particularly “hybrid writers” whose books are both published and self-published. Mid-list writers dropped by their publishers are no longer silenced forever. Backlist books don’t recede into memory; they can live forever in e-book form. Short stories and novellas are no longer unsellable. Writers with an entrepreneurial bent can now publish their own work, undertaking the risks but also standing to reap much greater reward if the books do well.

overcoming barriersBut having choices can be confusing, and aspiring writers need to think carefully about which choice is most likely to get them where they want to go. If you read that last post and wondered what to do with that information, I’m going to suggest some guidelines here. They will vary according to writers’ goals and the genre in which they write.

The simplest case is the writer who aspires to write literary fiction, to be reviewed and discussed in mainstream media, and to be considered for the major literary awards. That writer needs the validation and support of a mainstream publisher who can get his book reviewed and sold into bookstores and libraries, because serious review attention is necessary to make those books discoverable. Literary fiction published independently has not been shown to sell well at all, and those writers may end up losing money after paying for editing, cover design and other necessary services.

The question becomes more complicated when it comes to genre fiction writers. Most writers, I believe, are still best served by trying first for mainstream commercial publishing house via a literary agent. It’s not an easy road. The search for an agent can take many, many submissions and often a number of rewrites; and finding an agent is only the start of an even longer process. Some writers are drawn to self-publishing out of fear of rejection, but that’s a fear that really should be overcome. Most published writers have gone through multiple rejections and lived to tell the tale; sometimes those rejections have worked to their benefit, as I discuss in this post. But the advantages of being commercially published are many. Most books will be published in multiple formats, not just e-books, and sold into brick and mortar stores. The more outlets one’s book has, the more chance it will be discovered and read. Being published by a major house is a learning experience and an opportunity to create a loyal readership that will carry over to self-published work should you decide to go the hybrid route. There are other advantages to mainstream publishing as well, too many to reprise here; if you’d like to see them, check out this post and this one.

Things are changing rapidly in publishing, and I don’t claim to be ahead of the game. But here is my current best advice for aspiring writers of romance, science fiction, cozy mysteries, Westerns and the many subgenres within those categories.

  1. Write the absolute best book you can, and then follow the steps outlined here to improve it.
  2. While writing the book, begin researching literary agents and put together a list of at least 50 to 60 agents who would be suitable for your book.
  3. Write a killer query letter and start submitting. (See also Agent Query and Janet Reid’s blog.)  Don’t submit to all the agents on your list at once. Submit to 5 to 10 agents at a time, to allow for tweaks to the query letter if your first try isn’t getting a good response.
  4. While your book is on submission, work on the next book.The_philosopher
  5. If self-publishing is a path you would consider, start educating yourself. There is a tremendous amount to learn if you end up going that route, and many writers have been generous in sharing their process and results. The Absolute Write forum is a good place to start. What you learn may help you decide whether self-publishing is right for you.
  6. Put together a list of smaller commercial publishers who accept submissions directly from writers.  By commercial publishers I mean those who publish your work at their own expense, whether or not they pay advances. In some cases, those books will come out in e-book form only, some with a POD option as well. But be careful! There are now many so-called publishers who require that writers cover the expense of publishing. They like to claim that they have come up with a new model of cooperative publishing, but in fact they are all variations on vanity publishers who have been around forever. Seek out publishers who consistently have books on Kindle’s bestseller list.
  7. If you have submitted to 50 or 60 agents and found no takers, it’s time to make a choice. There are three basic ways to go.fork in roadA.  If you’re determined to be published by a major house or to build a career as a hybrid writer, you should withdraw the book, hire a good editor, do some rewriting and resume submitting to agents. Or chalk that first book up to experience and go on to write the next, which will be better.

    B. You can submit directly to that list of smaller commercial publishers, aka indies. This is a good option for writers who feel their forte is writing, not publishing. Small publishers can usually do more effective promotion and marketing for your book then you can on your own, and they usually pay a larger royalty on e-books than the big five houses: 50% versus 25% currently. But self-publishers keep about 70% (the distributor, Amazon or other, takes the rest), so you should be clear on what exactly those small publishers will be doing for your book to earn their share. A similar possibility is to enter a contest that offers the winner a publishing contract with a reputable publisher. If you win, the contract you are offered may be less than optimal; but it is a foot in the door. In addition, some major paperback imprints like Tor have “open submission“ windows during which unagented writers can submit directly.man reading contract

    Writers who choose option B need to be wary of sharks in the water. A lot of vanity publishers present themselves as “publishing partners” or the like, and many contests exist only for the sake of the entry fee. Writers Beware and Absolute Write have good websites to do that research.

    C.  You can dive straight into the pool of self-publishers. By the time you make this decision, you should have spent months researching the field, so that you know how to proceed, what to watch out for, and how to give your work the best possible chance.  Generally speaking, self-publishing is a good option for entrepreneurial souls who are willing to learn or contract for all the services that a publisher would normally provide, including editing, proofreading, design, promotion and marketing. It works best for writers of genre fiction series who can write very quickly and put out multiple books per year. If you choose option C, and you are writing a series, I would strongly recommend that you don’t start publishing until you have three books finished and ready to go. A singleton, tossed into the vast sea of self-published titles, doesn’t have much of a chance; but you can build readership by publishing books in series released just a month or two apart. You can also discount one title to promote all the others.

    When  I first started out, the only option open to writers was the traditional route of literary agents and commercial publishers. I still think that for most writers, it is the best way to go if they have that opportunity. But it’s no longer the only good option; and the existence of other possibilities and paths open to writers will ultimately tilt the balance of power between publishers and writers just a little bit toward the writers’ side; and that’s a good thing.


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11 thoughts on “What Sort of Publishing Is Right For You?

  1. I’m pretty confident that trade publishing is my pony to bet on. I’m pretty sure I don’t have the werewithal to self publish. Oh, I could wrangle together cover artists, and an editor, etc. etc. but being my own PR? Ensuring my distribution? No thank you.

    I’m almost to the querying step with one novel, and sent another to a publisher’s open door. Regardless of what happens with those two, this is a fantastic list with great advice (And good links!)

    • I agree, marketing is the really tough part for self-publishers. Read a post from someone recently who said he wrote a book and put it on Kindle without any promotion, and no one’s bought any copies. Well, why would they? How would anyone even know the book exists, let alone have a reason to buy it? The writers who do well with it treat promotion and sales as a big part of the job. It’s not something you could reasonably do for one title, but if you have a bunch of them out there it’s a different story.

  2. Barbara: That’s the best summary of the situation I’ve read. The key for anyone considering self-publishing is to accept as a price of that decision to pay in time spent on marketing activity–from social media to book fairs to contacting independent bookstores one by one. Even then, you’re unlikey to recover the cost you’ll pay for professional editing and creation of a decent book cover. If you’re unwilling to spend time marketing or don’t have the personality or aptitude, do not even consider self-publishing, and if you’re unwilling to hire a professional editor, you could be the reincarnation of Ernest ‘Papa’ Hemingway, and you will still die a totally unknown, unsold, unpublished wanna-be writer.

    • All true. But I shouldn’t have forgotten one other category of writer for whom self-publishing is a great solution: those who have no literary ambitions, just a story they want to tell and share with friends and loved ones. Great for those folks.

  3. I agree with Peter, Barbara. I’ve read a lot of blog posts about publishing choices and this outshines them all. I was planning to self-publish a cozy mystery this year, dreading the many tasks involved and wishing I could spend that time writing the next book in my series. Instead I’m going to take the money I’ve saved for cover design and spend it on an editor. I’m also going to take advantage of your special offer. I do have two questions. If you get traditionally published and your book doesn’t sell well enough to stay in print, do you have the option of self-publishing a separate edition? I live in a “tourist destination” town that has two strong independent booksellers. I think that my mystery series (set in this town) will continue to sell to tourists as well as residents as long as copies are available. Second, I’ve read that even writers who are traditionally published are expected to maintain a strong “social media presence” (blogging, tweeting, Facebook fan page, and more). In your experience, is that true?

    • Thanks, Rhiannon, so glad you found it useful. It is a confusing time for writers; but it sounds like you’re making a smart choice. Even hiring a good editor–and I know you’ll seek out a good one–doesn’t ensure you’ll succeed in selling the book, but it is an education it itself and will teach you skills that help with future books as well. I think my online course, Revising Fiction, is also a great way to gain skills while improving a draft novel; but I’m immersed in writing at the moment and won’t be offering another one of those till 2015.

      To answer your questions:

      #1. It depends on your contract and your agent. Reversion rights are a part of every contract, but how they’re formulated makes all the difference between being able to regain your rights and signing them away forever. That’s one of the areas in which a good agent is worth her weight in gold.

      #2. Yes, it’s true. Major publishers now have media marketing people, part of whose work involves helping writers establish and enhance an online presence. But it helps to get a headstart in whatever social media and/or forums you choose. When editors choose books, quality and saleability are what matter most. If the author has a significant social media following, that’s another argument the editor can make in favor of the book. But you don’t have to do everything, and shouldn’t try to. Find venues you enjoy and focus on them.

  4. This is a great overview, Barbara! I’ll have to send people to this post from time to time, especially the ones who make comments like “just add a few sex scenes and get it published by Harlequin or something. It’s easy!”

    • It is so NOT easy. But good things are happening in publishing. I’ve had 2 former students place YA books with major houses in the past month. Lots of new imprints out there, hungry for material.

  5. Thanks for the details on various ways to get published, Barbara. I was fortunate to find a small publisher for my first novel, Pen-L Publishing, and am now having my third novel FESTIVAL OF FEAR come out on Sept 25th. I researched self-publishing prior to signing my 6-book contract with Pen-L, but am very happy with my relationship with them.

Your thoughts?