Although there are many types of book publishing, you should generally focus on just two of them.
Major book publishing categories:
Trade publishing (also called commercial publishing or traditional publishing) is the process of publishing books through a book publisher. This is either done by an agent pitching the idea to the publisher or by the authors themselves sending their sample or manuscript. Once accepted, the publisher assumes the risk of publication and production, edits the author’s text, and provides marketing and distribution. Such a publisher normally pays the author an advance fee and then further payments in form of royalties.
Trade published books are the ones you are likely to see in a brick-and-mortar bookstore.
Self-publishing is publishing your work without the involvement of an intermediary publisher. The author takes on all responsibilities including editing, design, marketing and distribution. In the past, the term self-publishing was sometimes used interchangeably with “vanity press”. (read further).
But new legitimate digital platforms have been designed to allow authors more control over their content and how it is distributed.
Self-publishing a book can come at a hefty price, though. When doing it by yourself, you have to pay for editing and if you want your book in physical form also for publishing services. Each of these services usually cost from $1,500 to $5,000. We will talk about the prices in a future article.
There is also a third type of publishing called Hybrid publishing or subsidy-publishing. It is similar to Self-publishing in that you usually retain all rights to your content and creative control; however, instead of paying several contractors to produce and publish your book you pay one organization to manage all aspects of the publishing process. Hybrid publishers often offers some form of marketing and distribution as well.
But be very careful, or you may easily fall into:
While legitimate publisher will want you as an author to succeed, the vanity publisher cares only about how much money they can get from you. In the past vanity press used to be analogous with self-publishing, giving self-publishing a bad name.
Perhaps you’ve heard about companies that promise parents to turn their children into models. They will take a couple of glamorous pictures, promise to promote them to some fictitious agencies while collecting the “processing fee” from the hopeful parents.
And that’s apparently the end of it, the child is a model – at least on the very expensive picture, they will glue on the fridge.
Vanity publishing is basically the same thing; they promise you to become a published author, and the only requirement is to pay them. That is of course not how publishing works, you can’t really pay your way into it. Yes, you will end up with a book in your hand with your name after paying a couple of thousand dollars for it, but that will be the extend of your writing career. You could as well use any print-on-demand service to print your novel. It will be much cheaper and have the same impact on you becoming a published author. (Spoiler: none)
The best way to recognize vanity press is by their promises and flatter. A legitimate company offers its service in exact terms, without any abstract promises (for example offering editing, proofreading, or printing services for a specific cost but never telling you that they will make you a published author).
Vanity press use predatory tactics to grab your money. At first, the cost may seem reasonable (a first editing fee), but once that is done it will follow with a next “very important” and costly step (more editing, proof reading, graphic design, formatting) and then another (promoting and marketing) one and another (who knows what?), which will amount to thousands of dollars. As with the child-modeling agencies, a vanity press is never truly interested in distributing your book (no real store wants to carry vanity published books!). The most they can do is to put your book on their web site with some bogus reviews.
You can easily call it a scam (although they do provide a service, only that it is worthless)
If you want to know more, the best place would be to look at Writer Beware site and their blog from Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. They do a fantastic job explaining various traps and scams waiting for the authors.
So which way to go?
It depends on your goals. Although you may know many self-published authors or think that only traditional publishing authors can succeed, the truth is that different publishing methods are best for different authors, books, genres, budgets, and goals.
I would immediately steer you away from any hybrid or subsidy publishing, because the likelihood of you finding a legitimate one that will have your success at heart is astronomically low.
That leaves us with the 2 types, as outlined in the title: trade publishing and self-publishing.
Trade publishing route (What the big boys do)
As we said earlier, the publisher will take care of editing, cover design, all distribution costs, and will pay an advance fee. Your book will also be available in brick-and-mortar stores, which is much more difficult to accomplish if you self-publish.
Sadly choosing this method is often a recipe for a series of disappointments and many sleepless nights.
(One writer I know described it as the worst year of
her life trying to publish traditionally)
The reason is simple:
Publishers are swarmed with thousands of submissions and even books that later became international best-sellers often received numerous rejections. The truth is, most of the publishers can very easily spot a badly written book (probably within a first minute of receiving the manuscript), but at the same time they seem to have a hard time to recognize a future hit.
Think of Harry Potter’s first book, it was rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury agreed to publish it (and the story goes that it was only thanks to the publisher’s 8 years old daughter who read it). I am sure those 12 publishers were then banging their heads by passing on a deal of century.
And then many years later in 2013 when J.K. Rowling’s tried to publish her novel “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, she received many rejection letters, some of them even respectfully suggesting Robert Galbraith (J.K Rowling) to use writer’s group or writing course before submitting the novel to other publishers, unknowingly talking to a writer who sold between 50 to 100 million books.
In a similar fate Andy Weir, the author of The Martian could not find a publisher for his books and so he decided to published The Martian for free on his web blog, and later by fans suggestion sold it for 0.99 cents on Amazon Kindle. Only then, when it suddenly sold 35 thousand copies within 3 months (an unheard number) publishers realized there may be something there!
This is what you will have to go through as an unknown author if you choose this route. Rejection letter. Many of them. It requires you to be very persistent and the process of finding a publisher can take a year or sometimes much more (at some point most authors simply give up). On the flip side, once you get your foot into the door, your life will be much easier.
You may also try to get an literary agent who will definitely help you to send the book to the right publishers, but often finding a good agent for first-time author is even more difficult than finding a publisher.
Many aspiring writers who want to publish a book believe that the traditional publishing method through well-known publishers is the only way to become a successful writer.
While that may have been true in the past, it all changed when big companies, such as Amazon or Barnes&Noble fully embraced digital self-publishing.
We could easily argue that in 2021, first-time authors should probably look into these digital services (such as Kindle Direct Publishing) before they try their luck on the long winding road of trade publishing. Publishing on these platform will be much easier, much faster and much less stressful and it can give you an idea about the writing and publishing process.
…but the downside of self-publishing is also very simple – it is all on you.
Not particularly mind-blowing success
There are million other authors publishing through the same digital services, so the chances a new book from first-time author will sell in any significant numbers is sadly not that great. In fact, if you pay for editing services and graphic design, you may find that you will have trouble to break even.
Some authors try to overcome this by a shotgun approach, which means that they write a whopping 20+ low quality novels a year. (I heard of an author who writes 40+ novels a year under a few different pseudonyms)
By flooding the market with high volumes of mediocrity it further sinks everyone else’s work and alienates the reader.
Commonly asked question
Will self-publishing hinder my chances of getting trade publishing deal in the future?
A few years ago, doing so would have seemed like a way to shut the doors and put your name on the no-publish naughty list. The vast majority of trade publishers would flatly refuse to deal with authors who self-published. That time is fortunately behind us (and we can thank authors like Andy Weir). Many successful self-published authors will later publish through a publishing company, while some regular authors will try their luck in self-publishing for a change. So the answer is hopefully NO.
Can I self publish the book while I am looking for a publisher for it?
That is an approach that would likely result in a flat-out rejection. Publishers want to protect their money and time. They are looking for something new. If your self-published book have a relatively good online sales, the publisher would assume that most people who wanted to read it already did so and if your online sales are low, then why would the publisher even touch such non-performing novel?
The obvious exception is if your online response is huge (ex. Fifty Shades of Grey, The Martian), but then you wouldn’t have problem finding the publisher, they will find you and shower you with flowers, chocolates and fine wines. Regardless, those few cases are more of a fluke. So the short answer is: choose one or the other, but not both for the same book (or series). In any case, if you fail to find a publisher, you can always self-publish, but it is a very hard if you do it the other way around.
How much self-publishing cost?
How much painting of your house cost? It depends. There are various levels of editing you may need to pay for: developmental, line or copy editing, proofreading or beta reading (we will talk about this in future articles). Then there is the cover graphics and book formatting. Some of these could be done by you (book formatting can be done with tools supplied by the digital publisher like Amazon and many first-time authors do their own cover design – to varying degrees of success, we must add) or it could be done as a mutual exchange service (beta-reading with other author for example).
But in general we are usually talking about $1500 at the lower end and it could get more expensive from there. There is also a line of thought that you should learn how to edit your own books (which may be fine, but it will take the whole process 3 times longer and instead of writing your next story, you are tied down with editing your old one. Many authors realize that while editing their own books is a good skill to have, it isn’t cost effective)