Each time I’ve released a new book, I have been quickly contacted by friends and aspiring writers who are curious about the publication process. Their questions are almost always some form of – How you do that?
Although I do not consider myself a successful author by any means, nor do I pretend to be a bottomless font of information regarding the publishing industry, I do have some limited knowledge that I am happy to share. None of the following information can really be considered a special secret or insider tip, you’ll have to speak with someone who is actually a good writer for those. This is just a very basic and general overview of the publishing process, which I gathered from my own limited experience and admittedly lazy and incomplete research into the subject.
Step one – You’ve written something, or you have something you want to write about. Awesome! It might seem silly, but that really is the most important part. If you don’t have a product, or the idea behind a product, you can’t move to step two.
Step two –Now you need to decide what you want to do with your story. Do you just want to get it out there so you can hold a physical copy in your hands, and other interested people can buy copies too? Or do you want to see your work in bookstores everywhere, while you make millions of dollars and become a famous celebrity? Or maybe you’re aiming for a more modest mix of the two?
The way the publishing world is set up currently, you have multiple options. The first option is Self-Publishing. Self-Publishing is nice because it is the quickest way to see your words in print, and you have complete control of your work. You can choose the format, you can choose the cover art, you can choose the paper size and type, you can choose literally every facet of the book, and you are guaranteed to see your vision in print at the end of the process. You simply write something, edit it, design a cover, (or have someone else design one for you), and send the files to a Print on Demand company. They’ll check to make sure the files you submitted meet their technical needs (correct margins, right page count, boring formatting stuff like that), and then they’ll print it for you, and make it available for purchase by others, no questions asked, no matter what the actual story is.
You CAN spend money to do this with a vanity publisher, but you DO NOT NEED TO. While some companies like Xlibris and others provide publishing packages where you pay an upfront fee and they help with editing and formatting your work, designing a cover, and also do some limited marketing and distribution work on your behalf, I personally don’t think the service they provide is worth the money you pay into it. Especially because there are other self-publishing companies like Kindle Direct Publishing (THIS IS WHAT I HAVE USED) which have ZERO up-front costs, and you can still end up with a completely professional, successful product that is then available for purchase online in paperback or as an ebook, and can also be ordered and stocked by independent and even large scale bookstores, if they decide they want to stock it. I don’t have enough experience to recommend any particular printing company, you’ll have to do your own research to see which company works best for you and your needs.
Most of these modern self-publishing companies work because they are Print on Demand. That means they print one copy of your book every single time it is ordered. They then take their cut of the book purchase price to cover their printing cost, and you receive the remainder as a royalty for each book sold. The royalty amount is modest, from a few cents to maybe a few dollars every book, depending on the price point you set for the book, but these amounts are comparable to or sometimes even higher than the type of royalties you might see from a traditionally published book. The reason they can be so competitive with their rates is because there is no risk involved for them. They only print a book when it is purchased, so they never run into a situation where they have thousands of your book sitting in a warehouse somewhere unsold because nobody liked it. (This can and does happen with traditionally published books, which is why traditional publishing companies are so picky about what manuscripts they accept. Every new book and every new author they choose to do business with is a risk that they might never profit from).
One problem with Self-Publishing is that you have to do a lot more by yourself, both to create the book, and to successfully sell it. First, you need to make sure the book is edited and readable, without the resources of a traditional publishing house working on your behalf. You can rely on friends and fellow writers to help with this a bit (maybe, people are lazy), or you can pay independent editors and copywriters who will edit it for a fee. Or you can just be really careful and do it yourself, if you are a dumb idiot and you think you have a good grasp of the fundamentals of writing (This is what I do because I’m impatient and foolish). I’ve seen a lot of authors fail because even though they have a really interesting and compelling story to tell, they’re simply bad writers, and their story is unreadable.
Another problem with Self-Publishing is that you’re responsible for getting exposure for your book. You won’t have the luxury of it just showing up in global brick and mortar bookstore chains where anybody might pick it off the shelf. Since literally the only barrier to entry in Self-Publishing is moderate literacy, there are a LOT of crappy self-published books out there. So consumers are cautious about buying self-published books from unknown authors. That means you need to have a plan to garner interest in your book. Basically, you need to find your fans. You can always pay for marketing and advertisements yourself, on platforms like amazon and Facebook, and that will get people who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to see your book to see it BUT these campaigns cost money, and don’t always pay off. How many ads have you seen on Facebook? A million? How many have you actually clicked on? Probably none.
If you have a website that people already follow, that’s a perfect platform to increase sales, because your followers will already know about you and will be interested in your book. You can also work on building a mailing list of people who you think are interested in what you have to say, or interested in the topic you’ve written about, and will appreciate getting an email whenever you have something new out for sale. If you want to sell a lot of books, you will also need to market yourself aggressively. You can rent a table at book fairs, or set up author signings at bookstores who agree to carry your book. Additionally, if there is a pre-existing group of people who would be interested in your book’s topic, you can reach out to them directly. Like say, if you write a non-fiction book about a specific type of car, you can find out of there is an owners club or fan club for that type of car, and contact them about your book. You can also reach out to local radio stations or podcasters, especially if your book relates to a topic they’re interested in, and they might be happy to do an on air interview with you. You’ll never know if you don’t ask, and as a new author, especially a self-published author, you’ll never sell many copies of your book if you don’t sell yourself first.
The road to publication via self-publishing is short. As quickly as you finish writing your story, you can get it released. If you just want to publish as an ebook, all you need is a relatively well formatted Word document that you can upload to any number of ebook publishers who will make it available for sale pretty much immediately. If you want to publish in paperback or hardcover format, you have a few extra steps to complete like designing the cover, obtaining an ISBN (International Standard Book Number), and converting your manuscript to PDF, but once you have those it’s basically the same exact upload process to have your book be available in print.
If that’s all you wanted, then congratulations, you’ve achieved your goal! You wrote a book, and now that book exists! That’s pretty cool. If you’re just interested in writing as a fun hobby and think it would be neat to have your books available for sale, Self-Publishing probably works for you.
If your goal is to actually make a lot of money self-publishing, while it is not impossible by any means, the road to SUCCESS in self-publishing is long and arduous. It is VERY rare that a self-published author releases their first book and it gets read by the right people and generates enough buzz that it sells well. There’s just too much competition out there. You CAN build a solidly successful career self-publishing however, if you continue producing good work and releasing books year after year. Your fan base will grow geometrically, and with every new book released you will make that many more sales, which will draw that much more interest to your work, which will snowball until eventually you realize hey, I’m paying my bills by writing, I’m a real writer. That’s pretty cool. To succeed at that takes a LOT of grinding however. You need to write consistently, and what you write needs to consistently be good. It’s a full time job and then some.
So what about traditional publishing? What does the life cycle of a traditionally published book look like? Here is the spark notes version of the process:
Step One – You have written a story, or at least a significant portion of a story that you are confident other people will be interested in reading
Step Two – You find an agent. Most traditional publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. That means that even if you have the greatest story ever written, if you, as a random new author, send it directly to the publishing company, it will never be read. By anybody. Ever. It will be thrown out, no question. There are some smaller indie publishers that are open to direct submissions, but they will only be accepting certain types of stories, in certain months, in certain limited numbers, so your odds of finding a home for your manuscript that way are definitely limited. (But not impossible, so definitely do your research!)
This is where an agency comes in. An agent is your hype man. They will represent you to the editors of publishing companies, and will give you the greatest chance of your manuscript being successfully picked up by somebody. Different publishers are interested in different things. Some like genre fiction. Some like literary fiction. Some like non-fiction. Some like all of those things at different times throughout the year. A good agent will do their research and know what publishers are looking for at a given time, and will send your manuscript only to the ones who will likely be willing to check it out. So how do you get an agent? Ironically, it’s pretty similar to what an agent will do when they are shopping out your manuscript to the publishing company. You will have to do your research, see what agencies out there are interested in the type of story you have written or are writing, and which of them are currently accepting manuscript submissions. Then, you will follow whatever rules they have for submissions (full manuscript sent in the mail? First ten pages and a synopsis? Emailed query letter?), you will send out your submission, and then you will wait. 9 times out of 10, you will get no response ever, or if you’re lucky, you’ll get a form letter basically saying thanks but no thanks. If you are VERY lucky however, you might get an individualized denial response back with specific criticisms or advice about your story. Even though that’s a no as well, it’s exciting because it means they actually read your submission. That means you’re getting closer. Basically this process can continue indefinitely as long as you have the energy and will. You keep sending out submissions, and improving your story, and sending out submissions, and improving your story and on and on and on many times over until an agent finally responds and says YES, I would like to work with you. This can take a LONG time. Agents are the first gatekeepers on the road to traditional publication. They receive a LOT of manuscripts from hopeful authors. Some submissions they receive are great. Some are just good. And some are undoubtedly really, really bad. You need to make sure your manuscript is as good as it can possibly be, before you even think about sending it out, because you are up against a huge amount of competition.
If an agent is intrigued by what you have written, and they think it is worth their valuable time and energy to try to get published, then the hard stuff begins. You negotiate with the agency about what their representation will cost (usually commission on the published book, something in the 15% range, NOT an upfront cost from you, that would be ridiculous) and they start the manuscript submission process all over with the publishing companies, all while you’re still working to edit and improve and polish your story. Editors are obscenely busy. They’re not interested in working with a diamond in the rough. If you’re an unknown author that they can’t guarantee will sell, they want you to already have as close to a finished product as possible before they will spend any of their time bringing it to market. You can find what agencies exist and what types of manuscripts they are soliciting with publications like the Writer’s Digest or Writer’s Marketplace, or even with simple online searches. You can also look up your favorite authors or authors of books similar to what you’ve written, and see who represented them.
Step Three – If your agent finally succeeds in selling your manuscript to a publishing company, they will have their editors review it, and even if you think it’s perfect, your revision and improvement process starts all over again. Since the publishing company has purchased the rights to your book, this is the point where they can demand drastic rewrites, if they so choose. The manuscript is now their baby, not yours. You’re just the hired labor.
Your agent will be essential to help negotiate the best deal for your book with the publisher. Since the agent will be paid from their contracted portion of your profits, it behooves them to negotiate the best possible contract on your behalf, which generally involves some sort of advance payment, and then if sales are successful enough to cover the publisher’s initial advance cost that they paid you, you will start collecting royalties on subsequent sales. A lot of sales need to occur for this to happen however, because the publishing company will be out both the money they spent on your advance, as well as all the cost tied up in printing and distributing your book to countless bookstores. If the books don’t sell well, you may never see another dime beyond that advance payment, and there is nothing you can really do because the publisher now owns the rights to the book, not you. You can probably buy it back from them, and they would likely be willing to do it to cover the rest of their costs on an unsuccessful book, but then you’re right back where you started if you were to self-publish from the get go.
Traditional publishing is risky to you as an author because you might never get to see your book in print. You just might never find an agent or publishing company that is interested in it, and that’s as much due to luck as anything else. The rewards if you succeed however are so high! If your book is published, and it is a hit, and the right people start buying it and talking about it, you can become rich and famous! Talk shows, movie options, book signings, the whole enchilada. Obviously that result is pretty rare. Especially for new authors.
My biggest advice to you is to keep writing! The more you write, the better you get at writing, AND the more opportunity you will have to sell something successfully. If you’re thinking about writing as a business, your stories are your products. The more products you have, and the better they are, AND the better you get at making your stories visible to potential buyers, the more successful you will become.
If there is any particular part of this whole process you’re most curious about or want some help with, let me know! Conversely, if you know of a better way, or think that some of the information I’ve provided is just plain wrong, by all means, educate me.