The Publishing Dream
Most authors want their books to be read by more than friends and family. A few people write just for the value of the experience, but the majority want a wide audience, along with the closure—validation—success—of publication, ideally with wonderful reviews and steady income.
How To Publish a Book:
Traditional Publishing or Self-Publishing
All of that is possible whether you publish traditionally or on your own. Today there are many avenues to publication: traditional with agent, traditional without agent, author-assisted through a service, true self-publishing where you become the publisher, and even hybrid arrangements combining one or more approaches, some involving crowd-funding. There’s also the question of whether to publish in print, ebook, and/or audiobook, and whether you want global distribution in multiple languages.
The decision of which route to take is generally based on your disposable income, skill set, and personality. The pluses and minuses of each option are abundantly available through many channels. The one element I rarely see highlighted, however, is the investment of time involved in the different options.
The following disregards the time it took to write the book in the first place, and to get it edited, revised, and proofread. The moment your book is ready to go out the door, a whole new aspect of time comes into play.
Days vs. Weeks vs. Months
The closest thing to instant publishing gratification comes from self-publishing an ebook when you can pay for all facets. In that arrangement, during the weeks or months your manuscript is out for professional editing, you have professional artist design the cover, and a skilled marketing writer compose the blurb and pitch line used for listing the book on sell sites.
When everything is ready, you assemble the ingredients and upload them to a formatting and distribution service. Proofread the result, then release it. Presto! You’re published in under a week. Then you can hire someone for building your author website and a sales strategy that requires follow-up, blogging, and the myriad actions that comprise promotion.
The opposite extreme occurs in traditional publishing, especially if you want a literary agent (or need one, as you do to get into the top publishing houses). Before you can approach a literary agent or an acquisitions editor, you must write a compelling query letter and synopsis, both of which need to be tailored to each addressee, which usually leads to multiple versions, as well as customizing the query package to individual agents’ or editors’ requirements.
Many agents have precise instructions for how to submit a query letter, containing what type of information, to help them make fast decisions; also how the subject line must be phrased, so they can auto-sort the tsunami of incomings. If you deviate by even a syllable from those instructions, your query could be routed straight into the trash. And you’ll never know, because many agencies have the policy of nonresponse unless they’re interested. Some are kind enough to specify a time limit—usually ranging from 30 to 180 days—which might include an invitation to send a follow-up inquiry after that date.
Meanwhile you have no idea if they received your query in the first place. Unlike with postal mail, you can’t spend another 50 cents to get a confirmation of receipt. Some email programs include the ability to confirm delivery, but not all; and often the recipient needs to open the email to activate the confirmation, or confirm manually. No guarantee anyone will do that.
Even so, the turnaround for query letters is a lot faster now than it used to be through snail-mail. And most agents do respond in a reasonable amount of time.
But a fast response still consumes time.
Successful book submission commonly
follows this pattern:
* research and compile a list of candidate agents/publishers; query each and wait
* receive response(s) requesting sample chapters; submit material and wait
* receive response(s) requesting full manuscript; submit material and wait
Sometimes the submission pattern can be two steps instead of three, because an agent or editor may want the query and sample, plus/minus a synopsis, on first contact, then go straight to the full. Rarely do agents or editors want the full manuscript up front.
This submission/wait/rejection-or-acceptance cycle can go on for weeks, months, sometimes years, even if you submit to people simultaneously. When you finally get the right query for the right book onto the right person’s desk on the right day, the cycle begins anew if you started with an agent. They have to repeat what you just did, pitching editors until they get the right pitch on the right person’s desk on the right day.
Success Takes Time
Let’s assume the chemistry happens and you get a publishing deal. There follows another three to eighteen months before the book sees print. This is true even for ebook-only deals, albeit a shorter period. It takes time for any publisher to do their own editing and formatting and all the minutiae involved in turning a book into a product, while they’re juggling however many other books.
Finally your book comes out. Hooray! At release date, the publisher generally provides a strong promotional push. Thereafter, it’s up to the author. Most new books are ignored by the publisher after a year, to make way for the next new release(s), unless the first year’s sales were strong. This fate depends on the book’s genre, the timing of its release, the staff at the publishing house, the author’s active support, and good old-fashioned luck.
The important thing that’s changed in big traditional publishing over recent decades is the commercial emphasis. Publishing has always been a tough business, with blockbusters underwriting the midlist and backlist. Now there’s greater pressure on the financial bottom line owing to shifts in corporate ownership and structure, exacerbated by shifts in consumer reading practices.
This combination is a major component of what opened the door to small indie publishers and self-publishers, accelerated by changes in technology. These days, only a small percentage of traditionally published authors get what used to be a normal deal. Once they sold a book to a house, they could turn their attention to their next book and leave the sold one to the efforts of the publishing staff. The author would be paid a substantial advance on royalties to fund their next work, and eventually they would start earning a royalty income on the sold book. It still happens, but to fewer authors, and for lower monies.
Debut authors, or established authors who are not bestsellers, now have to participate in marketing and promoting even if they have a publisher and agent. That’s the big shocker to newbies who seek traditional publishing. You get more support than you do when solo publishing, but you don’t get a free ride. And your book might have a short shelf life if sales are weak. It might even get remaindered after whatever period the contract specifies—a situation that can turn ugly if your contract doesn’t have clear exit clauses. Some books get stuck in limbo because the publisher doesn’t do anything with it after that first push, and won’t revert the rights back to the author.
Best Case/Worst Case
So: Best case, you’ve scored an agent on first try, who sold the manuscript to a big-name house on first try. Depending on the house, you might be in print within a year (ebook probably sooner, but not by much; often they are co-released).
Worst case: If it takes twenty, fifty, a hundred submissions to agents before you land one, you might see print within two to five years, maybe more. The book might stay in print for a few years. By then you might have a second book ready, so if you’ve built an audience, they’ll buy #2, and new readers will want to read #1, too, which might keep it in print longer. This could transform a worst case into a best case if you’re prolific and write what lots of people want to read
For better or worse, the traditional publishing route takes a long time. The upside of the waiting is you get time to spend on your next project. And if/when all the time and effort come together, you can reap a fine reward. A print publisher, especially a big-name one, can get your book into stores, libraries, and book clubs, provide box ads in important publications, and send prerelease copies to the top reviewers (which are inaccessible to lesser entities, or else require a hefty out-of-pocket expense). Top publishers can get you into hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook, and international markets. While all of that is possible through indie publishing, the time and labor are significant and eat into writing time, job time, and personal-life time, sometimes to a damaging degree.
The Options Between Extremes
The fast and slow publishing paths just described both have somebody else doing the production and distribution of your book. Both, too, can cover marketing if you hire a publicist, or you land a book deal grand enough that the publishing house believes you’ll sell spectacularly and it will use its resources to promote you.
All options in between require that you put time into marketing. You can always opt out, but then you must be satisfied with little income and few, if any, reviews. Books don’t get discovered by themselves.
No matter what venue you choose, you have to spend time researching the service providers and their reputations, preparing collateral documents, making decisions about packaging, checking the preproduction layouts, and following up once the book is released. In some cases you must format your own files, design your own covers, acquire your own ISBNs, become a business and properly manage your taxes and paperwork, submit to reviewers (sometimes buying your own copies to do so), and build and manage a website and any social media platforms.
The complexity boils down to these two questions: How do you want to spend your time? And what is your time worth to you?
Here’s a simplified way to view the equation.
(1) If you want to concentrate on writing, and possess few or none of the other skills involved in producing and promoting a book, then choose traditional publishing with an agent. Accept the long timeframe, and keep on working.
(2) If you are enterprising, and skilled in one or more of the tasks involved in producing and promoting a book, then choose self-publishing. That leaves you in complete control of the process, and you can concentrate on what interests you, hire out the rest. Just be aware that it will consume a big chunk of the time you previously spent writing.
(3) If you’re in the fuzzy gray area between extremes, then either pursue small traditional publishers who offer both print and electronic books, or investigate the author-services companies that allow package or à la carte services. Lots of variables here, so extra research time may be required to find the best fit and least risk. Once you’re under way, it can be the least demanding option, and leave your writing time comparatively undisturbed.
No matter what option you choose, there are many pros and cons to weigh against each other. I recommend starting with the time element, because if your time is limited, then what you’re willing and able to do, and can afford, will always be defined and constrained by time.