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Tuesday
Jun182013

Hannah's Quick and Dirty Guide to Book Publishing

There are lots of ways to publish a book, and with the e-book and digital printing revolutions in full swing those methods are bound to multiply even further. Right now, though, I would boil them down into three categories: the traditional route (get an agent, submit to the big guys), the indie route (submit yourself, to really tiny outfits), and self-publishing.

I've tried all three. My first book was published by an small, independent press; I'm on the cusp of self-publishing my second; and my agent is currently submitting my third to the big houses. There are strong arguments to be made for all three methods, but at the end of the day it all boils down to what you want to get from your publishing experience, and what you're willing to put into it.

It wasn't always so. There used to be the traditional route, with self-publishing as a somewhat embarrassing and ultimately futile second option. Two things changed.

First of all, e-books made it easier to self-publish and look professional without having to hire a squadron of designers or spend a ton of money on materials; it also solved part of the distribution challenge that comes with self-publishing because you don't have to warehouse, ship, or sell-in* anything, but your book is available worldwide to anyone with an e-reader.

Secondly, digital printing, improved and cheaper shipping, and a multitude of other improvements to the technology of creating and moving physical books meant that indie publishers could start cranking out high quality books well enough to compete with the big houses and even make a decent profit for themselves and their authors. This printing and distribution advancement also opened up avenues like Amazon's print-on-demand self-publishing services that allow e-book self-pubbers to cross over into print without taking on the massive capital outlay of hiring a printer, warehousing inventory, etc.

Since I hear from a lot of friends, acquaintances, and friends-of-acquaintances asking about how to get their book(s) published, I thought I'd boil down the three methods here. This post is meant as a starting point, both for making your own decision about which method to pursue, and for starting your own, more in depth research. Also note these suggestions are most useful when seeking to publish a work of fiction, though they're still mostly true when publishing nonfiction as well.

One note applies to all three methods though: If you want to publish a book, your first step is to finish writing it. It sounds obvious, but it's actually very difficult, because writing a book is extremely time-consuming and draining, and it can be hard to finish something like that without any reward along the way. So the temptation is to write a little bit, and then either use that little bit to query agents or publishers "on proposal," or to self-pub it as the first installment of something. The first way leads to a situation where (joy! happiness!) an agent or publisher expresses interest...and asks for the rest of the manuscript, which does not exist yet and you cannot possibly complete, in good quality, in the next week or month. The second way leads to readers who (joy! happiness!) got hooked on your story...but then lost all interest or got angry or swore it off when it took too long for you to post the next bit.

 

Method 1: The Traditional Route

I go into more detail here, but here's a quick rundown: Big, traditional publishers typically don't even consider "unsolicited" manuscripts, which are manuscripts sent directly by an author with no representation. Instead, prospective authors hire agents to represent their work to publishers. A respectable (read: non-scammer) agent does not receive a fee from the author for these services, but instead takes a percentage from whatever eventual sale is made.

Exception: I know publishing vets who submit their own work to the big houses without an agent, but they're an exception because throughout their careers they've cultivated the personal connections with editors -- and the reputation for publishing success -- that would convince an editor to take a look at their manuscript directly.

Step One: Research agents on Publishers Marketplace to find a solid list of ones who represent the kind of work you want to write.

Step Two: Query your list. Then make a second list and query them. I queried about 50 people before I found my agent. My mom has an author friend who went through over 100.

Step Three: An agent wants to represent you! Wonderful, now look over your contract carefully and review it with a lawyer friend.

Step Four: Your agent submits your manuscript to publishers. Great, you can sit back and relax, right? Nope. You might have to do revisions if an editor is interested but on the fence. You might have to whip up a scene-by-scene synopsis or an author bio if an editor asks for it. Just be prompt and work with your agent whenever requests like these come in. I like to think that my agent works with me, not for me (or me for her). I wrote the book, but now we're collaborating on the process of selling it. My mom and I often compare bad agent/author relationships to bad romantic relationships -- the messiest breakups happen when two people didn't communicate clearly, respect each other, or work hard on the relationship.

What you get out of it: The chance to be published by one of the Big Five, or another big publisher with clout, massive national distribution, the respectability to get reviewed in big outlets, and top-notch marketing and design support. The big houses also tend to pay more upfront, which is nice since that's often the only money you'll ever see on a book.

What you have to put into it: Patience. The patience to wait, and the patience to do TONS and OODLES and soul-grinding HOURS AND DAYS AND MONTHS AND YEARS of little tasks (revision here, bio there, synopsis here) without any promise that it will all work out and you'll land the contract with the big venerable house. On top of that, while the big houses have the firepower to build a massive, splashy, totally cool marketing campaign around a book, the reality is that they carefully pick and choose the books they'll throw that firepower behind, and they let the rest just sort of float into the ether, so don't count on the publisher doing all the marketing work for you. In any of these methods, you have to be willing to work just as hard marketing the book as you worked when you wrote it.

 

Method #2: The Indie Route

A lot of smaller, indie houses are more flexible about having an agent and can be persuaded to take a look at an unsolicited manuscript. This is a great option if you want to retain total, 100% control over your submission process, but it limits you to the houses that will look at un-agented stuff.

Step One: Research Publishers Marketplace, Amazon, local bookstores, and online to identify small, boutique publishers who handle the kind of book you want to write.

Step Two: Query them.

Step Three: You sold your book! Yay! Now have a lawyer friend look over your contract before you sign anything. Seriously.

What you get out of it: You can control your submission process and do it precisely the way you want to. Of course, that doesn't mean you'll get precisely the results you wanted. It does sometimes mean less waiting and less futile work. Also, small houses tend to put more effort into each individual book because their lists are smaller, so you might get more individual attention for your marketing efforts than you would at a big house.

What you put into it: A lot more time, research, and work on the submission part of the process. Small houses tend to pay smaller advances, too, so basically you're taking a gamble that: 1) this advance is better than your chances of selling to a big house with more money, and 2) the more individualized attention will pay off in better sales that will earn you royalties down the road.

 

Method #3: Self-Publishing

Any of these methods could fill a whole series of blog posts, but self-publishing could fill entire tomes. As options have expanded, so has the risk of being scammed, so my best advice is: do your research carefully, and stick to companies that you trust. Personally I love Amazon's self-publishing platform, because it offers e-book distribution in the world's most popular e-reading format, and it comes coupled with print-on-demand capabilities, but ultimately you have to make the choice that's right for you and your particular wants and needs. My second piece of advice is: do not view this as the easy option. Anyone can self-publish. Very few can do it successfully, and only after immense amounts of work.

What you get out of it: Total control. Instant gratification.

What you put into it: Everything.

 

I was lucky, because my mom, Libby Malin/Sternberg, is a multi-published author with over a decade of experience that also spans all three methods. Everything that she taught me, she learned the hard way: by doing thorough research, stepping out there, and making mistakes. She also taught me that writing is hard work, long after you've finished your book, and it's not for the faint of heart or easily discouraged. Like any creative pursuit, it's easy to daydream about and difficult to do, so just remember: if you want to be a published author, you have to work hard not just writing it, but selling it, and if you're not willing to do both, then publishing is not for you, because there are no shortcuts. But your options right now are limitless, so if you do put the hard work in, you can see rewards barely imaginable just a few decades ago, or even as recently as when my mom started her writing career.

 

 

*In the mixed-up world of book selling, publishers don't outright sell their goods to retailers; they "sell in" a certain number requested by the bookstore, which the bookstore can then return without having to pay the publisher if the goods are unsold, an extremely financially risky process for the publisher.

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