How to publish a book: the three main options and what you need to do next
Publishing a book – that sounds like it should be pretty do-able, right?
And so it is, but the publishing industry is (inevitably) pretty complex, and can generate massively different outcomes depending on the choices you are about to make. In the same way, you might want to be a professional musician . . . but does that mean you do a paid gig in a local bar? Or get signed by a massive record label?
Just as with anything, there’s no one single right solution for everyone. It depends who you are and what you want. So buckle up, and we’ll tell you everything you need to know . . .
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Traditional publishing | Self-publishing | Vanity publishing
There are three main varieties of publishing. They will all theoretically do the thing you want – get your book published and available to buy – but there are huge differences.
Two of the options are great and can deliver wonderful things for writers and their books. The third – vanity publishing – is awful. It’s basically a way to burn your money and ruin your book.
Our first job?
Explain what each of these three alternatives involves.
The three main types of publishing
The first type of publishing – ‘traditional publishing’ – is what most people think of when they think about getting a book published.
Traditional publishing involves the following:
You have a literary agent (whose primary job is to sell your raw work – your manuscript – to a publisher)
You have a publisher who pays you money for your work. That normally takes the form of an upfront payment, complemented (if you do well) by further royalty payments as the book sells.
The publisher’s job is to handle the physical production of the book (creating the cover design, handling the typesetting, paying the printer, sorting out warehousing, and all of that)
But also, crucially, the publisher is there to market your book. To sell the heck out of it.
If all this goes well, then the lucky writer can expect their book:
To appear in bookstores nationwide. That doesn’t mean every bookstore in the country, but the big publishers can sell direct to the big chains and will still hand-sell to the smaller independent stores so, if the book does great, distribution may be very good.
To achieve some level of book reviews. That could mean in newspapers, or it could just mean via book bloggers and the like. But the big publishers will always make some effort to achieve reviews.
To sell online via Amazon and other e-retailers. The book will appear (probably) in both e-book form and hardback/paperback. It may also sell as an audio book.
That all sounds good, right? But there are pros and cons of every route, and traditional publishing certainly isn’t the only answer for writers these days.
A new option has grown explosively in recent years, and it’s one you certainly need to consider seriously.
Self-publishing via Amazon and other e-tailers
In order to get access to bricks-and-mortar bookstores, you have to have a publisher. The chain stores just won’t buy books direct from authors. (Well, OK, your local store manager might stock your self-published title as a kind of favour, but I’m talking about national distribution here.)
And in the old days, that was that. If bookstores only operated via publishers, then you had to have a publisher. That’s just the way it was.
But now? Anyone can upload anything to Amazon. The actual upload process takes only a few minutes. It costs nothing All you need is an Amazon account and you’re pretty much good to go.
And, OK, Amazon doesn’t yet have a meaningful physical presence. But get this:
70% of all adult fiction sold in the US today is digital. It’s ebook or audio. People do still read print, of course, but that’s just 30% of the total. That’s amazing, right?
77% of all adult fiction sold in the US today is sold online. That’s because the digital stuff has to be sold online, and plenty of the print books are sold via Amazon.
In other words, more than three-quarters of all adult fiction in the US today is sold via a bookstore that you have easy, unlimited access to. If you want to crack Barnes and Noble then, sure, you need a Penguin Random House, or a HarperCollins, or a Simon & Schuster to go work for you. But if you want to access the more than three-quarters of the market that lives in cyberspace, you could do it now. Your book could be selling on Amazon by this time tomorrow.
That’s an awesome thought, no?
And sure, I’ve quoted data for adult fiction, but non-fiction isn’t so far behind. (Print is more of a big deal for non-fiction, but more of the print sells online, so it works out about the same.)
Children’s fiction is lagging, but even there, Amazon and the other e-tailers give you access to about 50% of the market.
OK, so now you’re probably hooked on the idea of self-publishing, but there are pros and cons there too.
But before we get into the details there, let’s just get a handle on the last of the publishing options and the only one that is almost unambiguously awful.
Vanity publishing (or how to waste money & destroy your book)
If you just searched “how to get published” or something like that, you probably saw a few ads up there at the top of your screen.
Ads fom publishers claiming that they’re desperately seeking titles just like yours.
Ads from publishers claiming that they can get you out there and selling in no time at all.
And you know what?
It’s a scam.
It’s legal, sure, but it’s a scam all the same. A loathsome, disgraceful way to cheat a person out of a buck.
Here’s how it works.
Those publishers say they want your book, so you think, ‘Huh? Really. OK. Gotta be worth a try.’
You send your book in. They say thanks. Say it looks interesting. Say yes, they want to send this one to their editorial board. (Or something like that: all these sharks work a little differently.)
You’re excited, right? Editorial board!! Wow. You can barely contain your excitement.
And then, shucks, you get this lovely letter back which says how much they loved your book, but, you know, yadda yadda, difficult market, rising costs . . . with this book, they’d love to publish it, but they want to do so on a partnership basis.
Huh? What does that mean?
It means they charge you some insane amount of money for doing something that you can do on Amazon for free. We’ve seen these sharks and charlatans charge as much as $7500. There are probably worse deals out there too.
And just say no.
Please. Just say no – or, if you’re happy to detonate an f-bommb or two, you might want to suggest to these vanity publishers just exactly where they can shove their partnership proposal.
It’s not even like these people will really help you sell anything. The hard thing about publishing, no matter which option you go for, is the marketing. And I have never in my life seen a vanity publisher do an even remotely competent job at marketing your book.
Why would they? A real publisher only gets paid if they sell some books. A vanity publisher has got their money already. You just gave it to them.
So don’t go that way, right?
If any publisher asks you for money, just say no. (The only exception: you are basically paying someone to design and print your work. That’s fine, so long as you realise that YOU will be the one in charge of selling it.)
With that icky business out of the way, let’s turn to the big decision:
Traditional publishing versus modern Amazon-led self-publishing.
Which publishing option is right for me?
How to choose the publishing option that suits you and your book
OK, so we’ve ruled out vanity publishing as an option, but we still need to figure out whether trad or self-pub will work out better for you.
Here’s what you need to know
Who should opt for traditional publishing?
You are more likely to want traditional publishing if:
You are writing the kind of book that does well in bookstores – novels for adults and children , and popular, mass-market non-fiction
You don’t want to be bothered with all the hassle of book production and marketing
You want to be in bookstores (though your actual presence here is not guaranteed)
You want to get newspaper reviews of your work (though this is definitely not guaranteed)
You want to know that you’ve achieved a certain quality standard, because getting traditionally published is, still, a major mark of quality
You want a guaranteed upfront payment (though these days, those advance payments are sometimes small or even non-existent.)
Also – kind of obvious this – but we better add a bullet point:
Your book needs to be excellent. It needs to meet the traditional standards of traditional industry gatekeepers (literary agents and publishers). if you don’t meet those standards, your book will never get taken on.
That’s a bit of a big thought, huh? We all know that competition for publishers’ attention is tough. We’ll tell you exactly how tough shortly, but let’s also look at self-publishing (or indie publishing as it’s now often called) and who that’s likely to suit.
Who should opt for self-publishing (or ‘indie publishing’)?
You are more likely to want to self-publish your work, if:
You don’t mind – and preferably get excited by – the idea of producing and marketing your own work. There are resources to help with absolutely everything you need (and we have an amazing self-publishing course here), but you still need to be the one who co-ordinates everything.
You write in a more popular / mass-market genre. Just to be clear, we’re not saying “your work has to be rubbish” – there’s a ton of really excellent indie-published work out there – it’s just that literary fiction struggles to sell via the self-publishing route, whereas romance / crime / sci-fi and other mass market genres are increasingly being owned by the self-publishing brigade.
You are (or think you could be) relatively prolific. Why does this matter? Because it’s hard to make money or achieve good sales on your first or second book with self-publishing. Success is something that builds over time, and to really capitalise on it, you need to raft of titles. 5 is great. 10 is better. 15 and upwards is what you want to aim at.
You are writing series fiction, or fiction that centres on the same world or setting or group of characters. Again, this just comes down to sales: series fiction sells way better than one-offs
You don’t mind not being Barnes and Noble or Waterstones (UK). That’s basically not an option available to self-publishers.
You don’t mind not having book reviews in newspapers: you are most unlikely to get any.
You don’t mind not getting paid upfront: no one will pay you.
You don’t mind laying out a bit of money in terms of upfront investment. We’renot talking huge money here, but certainly a bit. $1500 would be an ample budget for absolutely everything. If you really wanted to lowball it you could do it for $1000, or $500, or even less.
Now, if you weigh up what we’ve read so far, it might seem obvious to you that traditional publishing is way better than self-publishing.
Traditional authors get the acclaim, they get paid upfront, they get their work sold online and in bookstores, they get someone else to do all the hard work. What’s not to like?
Well, there’s one more question we need to ask, and it’s this:
Which publishing option generates most money for the author, traditional or self-publishing?
OK, the answer to this depends a lot on who you are, what you’ve written and sheer damn chance.
So if you are (say) a Gillian Flynn or Paula Hawkins in the making, then traditional publishing is likely to blow your socks off. It’ll make you rich, and give you a movie deal, and make you internationally famous.
But you can’t really navigate by the one-in-ten-thousand type success story. You have to look at the stats. And what the stats say is, now, beyond doubt:
There are way more self-published authors making a living from writing than there are traditionally published authors doing the same.
If that sentence doesn’t blow your brain, then read it again.
That’s right. All those massive, venerable publishers with huge profile, incredible backlists and giant resources don’t create as many authors-who-make-a-living as simple self-publishing does.
Yeah, sure, a lot of the authors you’ve heard of are brand-name authors from the time before self-publishing was even a thing.
But you need to strip those guys away – the Stephen Kings, the Nora Roberts. You need to look at recent debut authors, trad and indie, and see how they’re doing in the world as it is today.
And the data says that, overwhelmingly, and at every level of author earnings, there are more indie authors making money than there are traditionally published authors doing the same. (The best stats on the subject can be found via AuthorEarnings here. We recommend you read that piece, long as it is, because it’s awesome.)
Now yes, self-publishers fly under the radar a lot – primarily because newspapers tend to ignore them – but they’re the ones making the most money these days.
That’s one more factor to deal with as you consider what’s best for you.
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OK, so by now you’ve probably figured out that this whole area is a bit more complex than you wanted.
(Things always are, right?)
But we can help. We’ve got two absolutely incredible video courses on offer and they tell you everything.
How to Get Published. All the course details are here, but you’re looking at 7+ hours of super-helpful, utterly expert video tuition on every single aspect of traditional publication. (read more)
Self-publishing. A detailed, step-by-step guide on how to self-publish successfully. 10+ hours of tuition here, and everything with a ton of PDF downloads to hold your hand every step of the way. (read more)
Those courses are super-premium deluxe courses, and we’ve created them to be the best available on the market. Because of that they’re expensive to buy . . . but we’ve made them available free to members of Jericho Writers.
Joining us is fast and easy. Membership is cheap and will stay cheap, and you can cancel easily at any time. Basically: our mission is to help writers and we want to do that as affordably and generously as we possibly can.
That’s the commercial over and done with. Back to the meat!
What do I do next if I want to get published
Actionable next steps for writers like YOU
Step 1, the absolute first thing, is to know which publishing route you’re going for, because the next steps required are very different.
If you need more help, then do use one (or both) of our video courses – which, remember, are free to Jericho Writers members.
And once you’ve settled which route you want to take, then:
I want to get traditionally published: next steps
OK, the first thing with traditional publishing is always, always, always to get your book up to scratch first.
Writers never want to hear that. You’re on this page and reading this text because you want to get published now or, OK, you’d be happy enough if it was next week.
And things don’t work like that.
The grim stats are these:
The average literary agent gets about 2,000 manuscript submissions a year
They’ll probably take about 2 of those on as clients
For every 3 clients the agent signs, he (or more likely she) will succeed in selling about 2 of them.
Most books sold by traditional publishers lose money – often for very random reasons – and those authors are unlikely to see their work re-commissioned.
That’s scary, right? But it’s not mostly about odds. It’s about quality.
If your book is dazzlingly good, it will find an agent. It will find a publisher. Period.
And sure, after that, you’re out of control, but you can absolutely give yourself the best possible chance at success by writing a dazzling book in the first place.
(Our top recommendation for improving your work? Almost certainly by getting editorial advice, of the sort that we offer here. That is and has long been the gold-standard way of helping writers improve their work. Learn more here.)
But let’s say your work is dazzling. Here’s what you do next:
Create a longlist of literary agents. You are looking for agents who are open to your genre and are taking on new writers. You can perform that search easily via Jericho AgentMatch (but you do need to be a Jericho member to do this. Sign up is cheap and fast. Learn more.)
Cut that longlist down to a shortlist of maybe 10-15 agents. You’re looking for any point of connection that makes you think, yes, that agent and I might see eye to eye. Again, AgentMatch is probably the fastest, easiest way of doing this.
Then just send your stuff off to agents, making sure that you fulfil the exact submission criteria set out on the relevant agents’ websites.
If an agent takes you on – then yay for you. If you are lazy/confident, you can just sit back and do whatever your agent and eventual publisher advise or ask you to do. That’s a rule that will work out for you more often than not.
If you’re a little more active, or just want to maximise your chances of success, then I really would urge you to check out our Getting Published course. That doesn’t just tell you in detail how to manage steps 1-6 above, it also gives you some great advice on how to get your manuscript ready for submission . . . and how to work your way through the actual process of publication with as much success as humanly possible.
If you take that route, good luck and have fun. I’ve travelled that road plenty in my time and (nearly) always enjoyed it.
I want to self-publish: next steps
And, finally, if you want to self-publish – well, heck, do you really think this post is long enough?
For all that I personally love self-publishing (and do very well at it commercially), it’s not simple.
It is, no question, more complicated than trad publishing, simply because you have to handle (or effectively outsource) all the different elements yourself.
But don’t make this up as you go along.
Self-publishing is a proper industry now, and it’s developed a template for success that just basically works. Yes, you have to write a great book. And then a few more great books to support it. But assuming that your content is great, you can just follow the template.
Once you’re doing well, various more complex questions arise, but those are for down the road.
It’s totally doable. I did it. You can too. It’s not hard.
It’s something you just work through step-by-step. Put all together it looks daunting, but you’re not going to do it all together. Do step 1 (easy), then move on to step 2 (also easy), then . . .
That’s all from me. I appreciate you sticking with me on this post. If you want to take out a Jericho membership, I’d probably love you for ever. (If my wife approves and that kind of thing. She can be funny around the whole loving-random-strangers thing.)
And absolutely whatever you decide, happy writing – and go get that book published.
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