originally posted 2015
Are you writing a book but aren't sure which publishing option is right for you?
There are many options: traditional, indie, hybrid (sometimes called partner), and self-publishing.
This article is designed to help you identify which one fits your needs and goals. I’ll provide a brief overview of each option’s business model, pros and cons, and a profile of the type of author who may consider it.
But before we begin I want to address two things:
Talk to a few authors, read a few blogs, scan a few tweets, and you’re bound to see a trend--that publishing can be ranked on a scale from best to worst. Traditional publishing being best, self being worst. I’ve had countless conversations with authors that go like this:
Me: “You’re writing a book? Fantastic! What is your publishing preference?”
Writer: “Well, I’m going to try to find an agent first and go the traditional route. If that doesn’t work I’ll submit to indie publishers. And if that doesn’t work, I don’t know, I might shelve it or maybe, maybe, self-publish. But I really don’t want to do that unless I have to.”
The conversation usually turns not to the business of writing but to the ego of writing.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dismissing ego. I’m a writer too don’t forget. There’s nothing wrong with making a decision to traditionally publish based solely on ego, on the cache that traditional publishing offers. On the other hand, I’m also a business person and there are plenty of self-published authors (or I should say non-traditionally published authors) who make a good living from their efforts. For them, putting food on the table is more important than the model or label under which they publish.
So, let’s dismiss the idea of hierarchy from the get-go because if your value or goal is to be on an author list that includes one of the big players, you should probably go the trad route, but if you put value in having more control over your artistic expression and making a living from that work at the same time, I’m going to tell you about some other options. Who is anyone to say that one way is better or worse than any other?
That's your business. And that business starts with fit.
As you may have gathered from my comments about hierarchy, we need to determine what’s most valuable to us as individual artists and business people. Once we do that, we’re in a better position to make an objective assessment. And when the haters make their snarky comments, whether they’re self-published authors mocking trads or trads looking down their noses at selfs, we can brush them off.
This reminds me of birth order. Oldest children vs. the babies while the middle kids get lost in the shuffle. Hopefully, no one will get lost here because let’s face it, in the end, we’re all in the same family. We’re all siblings in the publishing family.
And just like members of any family, each member has its own unique personality, strengths, and weaknesses.
It's important to understand each other and appreciate each member for who/what they are.
Business Model: Traditional publishers pay authors an up-front payment for their work plus royalties on sales, and they cover all of the expenses to publish the book.
Being traditionally published will appeal to authors who hope to be in contention for prestigious literary awards and recognition (although using a different model to publish your book does not disqualify you). It will also appeal to authors who do not want to invest any of their own money (up-front anyway) to have their book published.
Publishing is a business. If a manuscript would require several rewrites and heavy line and copy editing, an agent or publisher may reject it in favor of another, well-polished manuscript because less time in their editor's hands means more money in the publisher's pocket.
Did you know that editing is the single most expensive aspect of publishing and professional editors spend 85--110 hours editing a 100,000-word manuscript (The Chicago Manual of Style, 2010)?
Business Model: The business models of indie* publishers vary, but in general, unlike traditional publishers, they do not pay authors when a book is acquired.
Like traditional publishers, some indie publishers cover the up-front cost of publishing the book. The publisher and the author share royalties.
An indie publisher may be a good choice for writers who just want to write without the distraction of having to source publishing professionals and who do not want to assume any cost for publishing their work.
The same business considerations that apply to traditional publishers apply to indie, partner, and some hybrid publishers. Although, the risk to smaller publishers (and the authors with whom they contract) is greater because they have fewer books to bet on. If too many underperform, everyone loses. Like traditional publishers, indie, partner, and hybrids must be selective. Authors with excellent manuscripts and an established platform will be more attractive to them because a risk assessment is easier to perform.
*Indie is a broad term many people use to cover all models that fall outside traditional publishing.
Business Model: Partner publishers share the financial risk of publishing with the author. The author pays some of the cost of publishing a work. The publisher assumes the rest. Author and publisher share royalties, but the author receives a much higher percentage than with traditional and some other indie publishing options.
Partner publishing may be a good fit for an authorpreneur, a business person writing a book for the purpose of establishing themselves as an expert in their field and/or one who plans to use their book as a loss leader in the sale of higher priced products and services. This model often attracts consultants and coaches because they see the value in partnering with publishing experts, which allows them to spend time doing the work that makes them the most income while hedging their bets against financial losses that can arise when self-publishing. They may also be attractive to fiction and nonfiction authors who want a more intimate publishing experience.
Partner publishing is speculative in nature just as traditional and indie are, therefore, responsible publishers must consider carefully any manuscript submitted to them and whether or not the author's marketing and promotion strategy offer a reasonable expectation of producing profits. Authors with clearly articulated visions for their work, their careers, and those with established platforms will be more attractive to partner publishers.
Business Model: Hybrid* publishers are a cross between self-publishing and indie publishing. Like self-publishing, authors pay up-front fees for professional services such as editing, cover design, layout, and formatting. However, rather than publish under the author’s name and without wide distribution options, they publish under an imprint’s name. (The same applies to the partner publishing model.)
Depending on the business model of a particular hybrid publisher, authors may assume all of the cost for publishing their book or the author and publisher may share it (closer to a partner publishing model).
A hybrid publisher might be an excellent choice for an author who wants faster production and access to publishing professionals and distribution without having to cobble resources together on their own.
*While partner, hybrid, and self-publishing may technically be considered indie, I have delineated publishing options based on their business models. Self-publishing is distinct in several substantive ways, therefore, I consider it in its own category. The critical distinction in my mind is whether or not the publisher assumes any financial risk when publishing a book. If they do not--that is to say that if a book's success or failure has no impact on the financial position of a publisher--they are a self-publishing service provider.
Assuming the publisher would suffer a financial loss if a book were to underperform, the same considerations that apply to traditional, indie, and partner publishers apply to hybrid publishers.
Related Articles: How Hybrid Publishers Innovate to Succeed and The Independent Book Publishers Association Hybrid Publisher Criteria (These articles applies to partner and hybrid publishers.)
Highly Recommended Related Article: Truth and Lies About Self-Publishing
Business Model: Self-publishing authors choose if, and who, they pay for publishing services. They pay out-of-pocket and keep all the profits.
Self-publishing might be right for an author who already has relationships with publishing professions and who has a clear strategy for producing, marketing, and distributing their book(s).
Recommended Article: I Will Not Join in the Snooty Trashing of Self-Published Books; Here’s Why
There is a misconception that traditional publishers will assume the responsibility of promoting an author’s book. That is not the case. The burden of marketing and promotion is increasingly shifting to authors.
Authors who are business minded and willing to devote their own resources to insuring the quality of their product and who are willing to aggressively promote their work are beginning to ask themselves why they should relinquish control and profits to agents and traditional publishers when there are so many other publishing options from which to choose.
On the other hand, the flood of poorly executed books on the market serves to enhance the cache of being traditionally or otherwise professionally published.
Regardless of an author's reason for choosing one model over the others, establishing a platform and book promotion will largely be the author's responsibility.
Related Article: The Economics of Writing a Book
Related Article: Amazon's New Quality Control Measures
So, there is no hierarchy in publishing, or there needn’t be. Authors need to find the right fit.
So, which publishing option is best for you, your project, and this stage in your writing career?
That is a question only you, dear author, can answer.
*ALWAYS do your homework on every agent, editor, and publisher to whom you wish to submit. Knowledge, experience, professionalism, and connections vary widely. Just because someone claims to be an agent, editor, designer, or publisher, doesn't mean they understand the publishing industry and the standards to which publishing professionals adhere.
Only submit to those that are a good fit. If you aren’t sure, ask them. The good ones will be proud of what they do and happy to answer your questions.
CI Communication Strategies