Once upon a time, “I want to be a published author” meant just one possible goal: getting a book deal with a large publishing house. These days, the options for getting published are so wide and varied it can be confusing if not intimidating.
With that in mind, we compiled a list of the different ways you can get your work out in the world, along with their pros, cons, and some best practices for getting started with each strategy.
Before we go on, we want to stress that none of these publication forms are better or worse than others. The days of self-publishing as an unprofitable ego trip are long gone. That said, it’s likely that one or more of the items we list below are better or worse for you. So read on, and figure out which is the best goal for the next leg of your publishing journey.
The 8 Major Ways to Publish Your Book
1. Traditional Publishing
When people think about being a “published author”, this is what most of them imagine. One of the “Big Four” publishing houses (that’s Penguin/Random House, Simon & Schuster, MacMillan, and Hachette). You submit your work, usually through an agent, to an editor at the publishing house. They accept it and put a team together to edit, format, layout, produce, ship, and market the book.
Pros of Traditional Publishing
This is the big time, meaning it has the highest potential income or at least retail distribution of any option on this list. It also carries the most social cache. You will have professionals make your book look beautiful, and some degree of marketing support.
Cons of Traditional Publishing
Competition is extremely fierce, and sometimes deeply unfair. There is no guarantee of high sales numbers, and your commission will be 10% or lower. It takes a year or more to move from acceptance to publication, and it can take even longer to even find an agent and for that agent to successfully pitch your book to a publisher.
Begin by finding the five or six most successful books in your genre. Find out who agented those books, and who published them. As you write your book, pay attention to what’s going on there so you can direct your own efforts accordingly. It can also get out to conferences and meet other authors to build a network that will get you connections with an agent.
2. Small Press Publishing
Besides the big four, there are innumerable small presses which publish books each day. These run from a small shop with a few dozen employees, down to part-timers working out of their garage. In many ways, you can consider this the minor leagues to the big four's Major League Baseball.
Less competition than for the big five. Agenting isn’t necessary for all small presses (although some still prefer working with agents), meaning you keep all your royalties. Timeframe is usually faster than with traditional houses. Most will have some kind of promotions budget, or at least do aggressive networking.
Less reach and distribution than with traditional publishing. Timeframe is usually slower than self-publishing options. Small presses close all the time, so a long-term publishing deal isn’t guaranteed. Small press quality varies widely, from excellent to very shoddy.
Identify a small press you think might be perfect for your book, based on what they publish and seem passionate about. Find a writing conference, trade show, or other event where they will be. Attend that event and strike up a conversation.
3. University Presses
This is a subset of small presses, but different enough to warrant its own category. Back when on-demand publishing wasn’t ubiquitous, many universities had a publishing center. They mostly serviced the publication needs of faculty and some alumni, but a few grew to take pitches from outside writers as well.
Most of the same pros as a small press apply here. The competition is less ferocious, the timeline quicker, and access (for some) easier. They have a bit more cache in some circles than other small presses, and their editors are usually more wired into the awards circuit.
Access can be tricky, as many university presses still only work with people tied to the university. Otherwise, the cons remain the same as those for other small presses.
If you are an alumnus or student of a university with a publishing house, reach out and learn the process for getting published with them. If not, research houses that publish what you write, then make an appointment with an editor there.
If you are an Apex Author, you already have some degree of knowledge about this option. For a long time, this wasn’t an option for average folks. Print runs had to be so large that the cost was prohibitive. In this age of e-publishing and on-demand presses, it’s a viable option for anybody willing to do the mammoth and varied work associated with the job.
You have total control over the publishing process. The timeline can be very rapid, with books available for sale the day after you finish them. You can the majority of the retail price while maintaining control over your intellectual property.
You (or somebody you hire) is responsible for every aspect of the work’s quality. You have to learn and master many skills other than writing. It can be very difficult to make real money off this kind of writing, as audiences are often quite small.
Identify four top-selling self-published books in your genre. Learn how well they are selling, and what differentiates them from other books in your market.
5. KDP Publishing
Kindle Direct Publishing streamlines ebook self-publishing, making it cheap and easy to put books in the world while also automating the distribution and payment process. You build an ebook. You upload it to their site. Your book goes up for sale. If people buy it, you get paid once a month.
Very easy to publish once you get over the (somewhat steep) initial learning curve of the user interface. Worldwide distribution. Automated distribution and payment. Very low production costs. Very quick publication turnaround times.
There are a lot of books going up on KDP every day, making it hard to distinguish yourself in the market. You still have to do your own layout, editing, and cover design. Very few people make a full-time living from KDP alone. Print publication is a different process.
Go to the Kindle store and identify the top three books in the genre you write in. Get a sense for what they have in common, and how they’re different from lower-performing books.
Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo let you raise pre-order funds to pay for the creation of a product. Books can be one of those products. With a successful crowdfunding campaign, you can pay for somebody else to do editing, layout, design, and cover art, and to purchase a large enough initial print run to reduce publication costs.
This has all of the pros of self-publishing, plus potential access to start-up funds. With luck, the crowdfunding campaign will also build overall marketing buzz for the book so you can launch strong. Front-loads sales revenue.
All of the cons associated with self publishing, plus the fact that running a successful crowdfunding campaign is yet another non-writing skill you will need to learn and master. Crowdfunding is difficult if you don't already have an audience.
Participate in at least one crowdfunding campaign as a backer, so you can understand how the process works and what will be expected of you.
7. Hybrid Publishing
You might have heard this term from a variety of sources, and it can mean a variety of different things. For our purpose here, we’ll focus on the most common usage.
In this case, a hybrid publisher is basically a cross between a small press and self-publishing. You pay a service to manage some aspects of self-publishing and you both profit from whatever sales you make. Some charge an up-front fee. Some take a percentage of the sales. Some do both.
Very flexible: you can choose exactly how much work you do, and how much the hybrid press does. Rapid timeline for publication. Houses that take a percentage are motivated to help with sales and distribution.
Can be expensive. Not all hybrid publishers are legitimate — there are lots of scams. You surrender control of your work, and sometimes copyright.
Find somebody who has worked with a hybrid publisher in the past and learn about their experience. List what aspects of the publishing process you would want to have somebody else do.
In the blog-to-book process, you write the first draft of your book as a blog with regular updates. Over the course of a year (or whatever time period works for you), you complete the work. You then take the text, plus any feedback you got, and produce a final version to self-publish.
Creates a structure and schedule for your writing. Incorporates both feedback and publicity into your writing process.
Less flexibility during the writing process. You have to learn about blogging, in addition to all the other tasks. You'll also need to do a lot of editing as articles in a blog aren't usually ready to be compiled into a book.
Outline your book to see how (or if) you can divide it into several different blog posts. If you haven’t already, research blogging platforms to see which would be a good fit for your book.
Bonus Method: Vanity Press
A vanity press is a business model where the author pays the publisher (rather than the normal method where it is the other way around.) There will usually be a clause requiring the author also purchase a number of copies of the book, though it may be hidden in the services fee, and they will sometimes take your copyright and be the publisher of record.
There aren't really any, though if you have the cash to burn then it can be good for an ego boost from one of their trained sales persons.
Most vanity presses are thinly veiled scams designed to part an author from their money.
Avoid This Method
Our initial premise was that none of these publication methods are necessarily better or worse than any of the others and that your own personal goals and resources are going to determine which is most appropriate for you. If you have to pay the publisher to get your book published, then you should probably move on to a different solution.
Now, there are some author service companies where you pay for a specific service, and that is perfectly all right. But if somebody is trying to make you pay them in order for them to get control of your copyright, then you probably don't want to be doing business with them.
PS: Begin With the Goal in Mind
One thing to consider when choosing your method is what you want to get out of your publishing journey. Consider the following writers:
- A novelist who hopes to become the next MK Jemisin
- A janitor who hopes to replace her income with self-publishing and travel the world
- A consultant who wants to increase their reputation in their field
- A grandparent who would like to publish a memoir for their family
Each of these writers has a different reason for wanting to be published, which means different modes of publication would be better or (sometimes much) worse.
- The novelist
- The janitor
- The consultant
- The grandparent
Like Mr. Covey told us in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, if you begin with your goal in mind, you’re more likely to get where you want to go. That applies with publishing just as much as it does with anything else.
PS: And That’s Not All!
The above are the major ways to take a book and put it in physical or electronic print. But print isn’t the only way to share our words and writing anymore. Audiobooks, enhanced ebooks, apps, and other models are all viable, legitimate, and profitable.
In the coming months we’ll do some deep dives on those options, as well as most of the models we just discussed. For now, think about which one will best serve your goals, dreams, and work style.
Image by Mohamed Hassan.