Publishing Options: An Overview

Years ago, when aspiring authors asked "What's the best way to get published?" they were really asking, "How can I get my manuscript accepted by a publisher?" And by "publisher" they meant a company that would pay for their manuscript and turn it into printed volumes for sale in bookstores.

The original meaning of the question is still relevant. But today, "What's the best way to get published?" can also mean "Should I self-publish?" and "How can I get my book on Amazon?" and "What about e-books?"  

The world of publishing has more options than ever. To begin to sort through them, let's start by focusing on general categories for printed books. In this post I'll distinguish between three basic approaches to publishing:
  • Traditional publishing
  • Independent self-publishing
  • Pay-to-publish companies
Once you understand the basic differences between these methods of publishing, you'll be better able to weigh your options and choose the path that's best for you.

Traditional Publishing

Also known as: royalty publishing

Description: A publishing company pays you for the right to publish your book. The publisher pays the expenses of producing the book, invests some money in marketing the book, and handles the distribution. Each time a copy of the book is sold, you earn a royalty (a percentage of the purchase price).

  • It costs you nothing to publish your book—the publisher pays you. In fact, you may even get up-front money in the form of an advance against future royalties. 
  • The quality of the finished product is usually high, because tasks such as editing, design, and layout are done by experienced professionals, with many quality checks along the way. 
  • If your goal is to get into bookstores, traditional publishing gives you a better chance than other publishing methods. 
  • Being published traditionally, especially by a major publisher, is usually considered more prestigious than self-publishing.
  • Unless you're already famous, the odds of being published traditionally are very low. Of the mountains of manuscripts submitted to publishers every day, only a tiny fraction are accepted. 
  • If you're lucky enough to get a contract, you'll have to accept that many decisions about your book—the title and cover design, for example—will be out of your control.
  • You'll probably have to invest some of your own time and money in marketing. (This is true of the other two options as well, but many people don't realize it applies to traditional publishing.)
  • The whole process, from acceptance letter to bound books, takes a year or two (or longer).
  • Some of the profits go to the publisher rather than you.
Comments: For many aspiring authors, traditional publishing is the ultimate goal, but it may not be a realistic option.

Independent Self-Publishing

Also known as: "true" or "real" self-publishing

Description: In essence, you form your own mini publishing company. You decide how to handle all the processes involved in creating and selling your book: writing, editing, and proofreading; illustrations, design, and layout; printing and binding; marketing and distribution. You do some of those tasks yourself and pay professional service providers of your choosing to do the rest.

  • You're free to make your own decisions about every aspect of publishing your book.
  • You can control costs better than when using a pay-to-publish outfit (many of which overprice their services).
  • You keep more of the money from the sale of your book than with traditional publishing.
  • Of the three options, this one requires the most effort on your part. 
  • The learning curve can be daunting.
Comments: The quality of the finished product is completely up to you. If you do your job well, your book may be nearly indistinguishable from one published traditionally. But if you cut corners, it can look amateurish. Your chances of selling a lot of copies go up or down accordingly.

Pay-to-Publish Companies

Also known as: supported self-publishing, assisted self-publishing, custom publishing, subsidy publishing, vanity publishing, on-demand publishing, indie publishing, alternative publishing, and many other terms

Description: You pay money to a company (usually web-based) to produce your book, and perhaps to market and distribute it as well. Typically these companies offer a choice of prepackaged services at different price levels, as well as optional add-on services.

  • This method requires the least amount of work on your part. 
  • Virtually anyone can become a published author this way—as long as you have a major credit card. 
  • You can get your book in print relatively quickly.
  • This approach is generally costlier than independent self-publishing. You may pay more for specific services than if you shopped around for them on your own; there may be hidden fees; you may be encouraged or forced to buy copies of your own book at inflated prices. 
  • Although many packages include marketing and distribution services, they are often lackluster. The company has no real incentive to sell your book; it makes its money from you.
  • For the same reason, the quality of book production services (ranging from editing to printing) is often mediocre. 
  • Poor quality has given the whole category something of a stigma. In particular, bookstore managers may not be willing to even consider stocking books from pay-to-publish companies.
Comments: There are many variations within this category—different business models and blends of services. If you're shopping around, it can be difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison.

Know the Difference
I'll have more to say about each type of publishing as this blog continues. For now, I hope I've at least clarified what the basic options are and what terms I use to identify them.

It's especially important to have a clear idea of the difference between independent self-publishing and the pay-to-publish approach. Many people say "self-publishing" when they're really talking about pay-to-publish. Now that you know the difference, you're one step ahead.

Questions? Opinions? Let me know in the comments.


wordtech72 said...

Hi Kathy,

Very good article: clear, well organized, and with a friendly, informal tone.

Good luck with the blog. I think it will prove very helpful to aspiring authors.

Debra Baxter said...

I'm referring this page to others and trying to figure this out myself. This helps. As you said about Independent Self Publishing, it's daunting!

Kathy Carter said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm glad you're finding this post useful.

Here's one more option to consider: Independent self-publishing with the help of a consultant who coaches you through it. That way you retain full control, but you have an experienced person available to guide you through the tricky parts. Perhaps someday I'll offer this service in addition to editing. Meanwhile, you can try searching for "book coach," "book consultant," or "book shepherd."