It's been really interesting to see so much discussion in the past few weeks about the different methods people are using to publish books right now, as well as benefits and drawbacks and the questions - should you or should you not self-publish? What's the difference between small press and traditional press? And so on.
Over the last few years, going to different conventions and meeting authors published by different methods as well as editors and agents, I've gathered a decent amount of information on the subject, and also heard a lot of misinformation. So, I thought it might be useful to break down the different publishing methods I've seen. Basically, a single post that summarizes them all up, information I wish I'd had a few years ago.
So here we go. If you notice anything inaccurate or have some different info, please let me know.Traditional Press
Though you will hear some disagreement, most authors, editors, and agents who know publishing will tell you that if you can break into it, traditional publishing is how you want to publish. You'll also hear talk about the "big Five"... basically, there are five large publishers who handle such a huge percentage of books that they are, for most intents and purposes, the market. In almost all cases, traditional publishing flows through them.
- Simon and Schuster
- Penguin Random House
- Macmillan Publishers
- Hachette Book Group
Many fantasy and sci-readers are probably more familiar with names like Tor, Orbit, etc. These are actually smaller components of the Big Five, like subdivisions. You can find an excellent breakdown of who controls what here:http://publishing.about.com/od/BookPublishingGeneralInfo/a/The-Big-Five-Trade-Book-Publishers.htmHow To Pitch Them?
With a few rare exceptions, none of the sub-divisions of the Big Five will look at unsolicited manuscripts (manuscripts sent directly by the author). Instead, they rely on agents to act as a first line of quality control, so if you want to go through traditional press, you'll almost (but not always) need an agent.
There are a large number of agents and most of them do take unsolicited manuscripts, but breaking in is difficult. You need to find an agent who is actually looking for new clients, who is actually looking for a book like yours, who actually likes your writing style, who might even actually read beyond the first page (some larger agents actually hire interns to read and winnow down their "slush pile"), and who didn't read a book like yours earlier today and get soured on the idea.
Essentially, there are a host of random factors beyond your control far beyond the quality of your book. Just because agents turn you down doesn't mean you're a horrible writer. They may just know (from following the industry) they can't easily sell your book at this time in this market, and so decline. This is why you shouldn't get discouraged if an agent turns you down. It's not personal or even necessarily a reflection on your writing.What Happens If You Get an Agent?
If you're lucky enough to snag an agent, however, the agent then takes your book and starts pitching it to the proper people in the Big Five web. This is why many of the most successful agents are in New York - the big publishers are also in New York, so they can meet and make deals face to face. If your agent knows their stuff (and they only get paid if they sell *your* book, so they're incentivized), they'll get a big press interested.
So, you've got an agent and that agent has actually sold your book to a big press! What happens now? Well, the agent negotiates your contract (handling things like your advance, pay rate, what rights you're selling including audiobook, e-book, International, etc). Once a contract is signed, your agent then takes a percentage of your deal - the percentage varies, but it could be around 8-10% (ballpark). This is how agents make money (when you make money) which incentivizes them to work hard on your behalf.So What Do I Pay for My Agent?
Nothing! Your agent works on commission and the traditional press, in fact, pays you both
- again, contracts and specifics vary, but you can expect to receive pro-level payment for your book (based on wordcount) and/or an "advance" against royalties which is a basically a signing bonus. This is so writers don't starve while waiting for books to sell. These advances, sadly, are much smaller nowadays than they used to be, but still a good chunk of change. Also, many advances often cover multiple books (a three book deal is not uncommon).
Now, let's say your agent sold your book to a big press. You've both made money! Even so, you won't start receiving royalties yet. Those come later. Still, you're going to be a successful author, right?
Not necessarily. What's the Catch?
The publisher that bought your book/books is only going to buy your next book if the books they've just purchased sell well. Typically, this means your book/books "earn out" - essentially, your books sell enough copies that the publisher has recouped your advance and is now making a profit on your work. You don't actually get any royalties until you "earn out" - that's why you're paid an advance.
Once you do earn out (and you may not) you start getting royalties a few times a year, typically a small percentage (8% is a ballpark) of total sales. This may not include everything (audio book rights, e-book rights, international rights... depending on your contract) or these may be at different rates. And whether you "earn out" or not is where things get dicey.
Let's say your book/books don't sell enough copies to earn back your advance. And yes, this does happen, for any number of reasons - saturated market, not enough promotion, and so on. In some cases, that may be it. And if this happens, you're done in traditional press.
Your publisher won't buy a new book from you, and neither will any other publishers because, essentially, they've decided (by sales figures) that you don't sell. Also, many authors make what's called the "mid-list" - they're just barely profitable, but not making a large amount of money for the publishers. The terms for these author's next books may not be nearly as generous, or they may not get a new deal at all!
This is why many authors do so much of their own marketing, even when supported by traditional press. You really have to earn your keep and ensure your books sell *well* to stay in traditional press. It's a business, and that business has to make money. This is also how new "slots" often open up in traditional press - the traditional press drops an author who didn't sell well, has a new slot available, and tries the next guy/gal in line.Small Press
Small Press is like traditional press, but tiny and nimble. Like, if traditional press is a Carnival Cruise Liner, small presses are little independent tour boats that go all sorts of places. When run well, they, too, only take on a limited number of authors (too many authors/books tank a small press) and build followings much like authors. A small subset of loyal readers buy the books as much for the press as for the authors they publish.Do I Need An Agent?
Sometimes.Unlike a traditional press, some small presses don't require you to have an agent. Some do, mind you (it varies) but it's not as lockstep as with the Big Five. The reason is because there's less money to go around overall, and the more people involved, the more that money dries up. Also, it makes them more accessible and lets them snap up authors the traditional presses and agents may overlook.What Do I Pay to Get Published?
Again, nothing. Whether you get an agent or actually get the small press interested in your book directly, you as the author pay nothing. And this is where you need be cautious.
There are a large number of "small presses" now out there that claim to be small press, but aren't. If you are required to pay anything to publish with them, anything at all, they are not a small press. There's nothing wrong with that, so long as you go into a contract with your eyes open, but it's still an important distinction. Be aware of who you are selling your book too, and see how their other authors are doing (sales figures on Amazon, etc). That aside, so many small press folk are just awesome people.A Small Press Bought My Book. How Much is My Advance?
Probably $0. Small press contracts vary drastically and far more widely than traditional press, but a common (and increasingly more common) contract they now offer is a 50/50 royalty split. This means that when they buy your book, they pay you nothing, and you don't get an advance.
Why? Because they simply don't have the money to pay advances. Those are expensive! However, unlike traditional press (where your sales royalties may be 8-10% or less, and some go to your agent) the much larger share of royalties is essentially how they compensate. In a 50/50 split, you get 50% of all books sold everywhere, so you're incentivized to sell, and you pay nothing to get your book out there! The small press also actively promotes you and your book alongside their established authors. It's a big advantage.
A royalty split actually makes a small press much more flexible in how they deal with their authors. The only cost the press must recoup is their own internal cost of editing, cover art, and layout. There also used to be a cost in printing books up-front (big) but all the Print-On-Demand services, the success of crowdfunding (like Kickstarter) and the popularity of e-books have, largely, eliminated that. This has made small press a *much* more viable business model, because they no longer have to tie up capital in physical books, or store them, and so on.
Essentially, it's much easier for the small press to make a profit (and their authors to make a profit) in today's market with today's tools (and Amazon is now a global bookseller available to anyone, not just the Big Five). This means small presses can also publish more varied authors, more risky books, and do it more often and more quickly than traditional press. So if your book doesn't sell amazingly well, it may still be in the press's interest to buy another book from you. The sales numbers needed to succeed are dramatically smaller.Author Co-Op
This is a newer model of publishing, but has actually grown more popular in recent years. Basically, it's self-publishing, but with a team of authors. Generally, a number of authors who have either had limited success in traditional publishing (mid-list) or small press team up to self-publish all of their books under a single press name. If that sounds like small press, it is *very* close... but there are some distinctions.
First, author co-ops don't typically publish authors outside the co-op. They don't take on new authors, they publish themselves only.
Second, rather than a single editor (or editors) choosing whom to publish from submissions, these authors only publish their own books, and each author is responsible for their own quality control. They pay for their own editing, pay for their own cover art, layout, and so on. Often, all authors involved will each pay a small contribution to a communal pool, which is used for marketing, a website, convention travel, and so on.
The advantage an author co-op has over self-publishing alone is that the authors can, in many cases, "pool" their readers. If there are six authors, each of whom has say, 200 readers, each of them is now aggressively promoting the other author's work. "If you like my book, try [other author's] book. It's great!" Now, they can each start to sell to each other's readers, increasing their own readership in the process.
And, like small press, the fact that Print-On-Demand, e-books, and Amazon (or other global sellers) are now available allows them to much more easily turn a profit. No cost of books up front!Self-Publishing
Finally, we get to self-publishing, which is, in fact, the title of this whole sub-forum!
There's been a lot of discussion about what self-publishing is, and how to do it "right". For the purposes of this post, I'm going to define self-publishing as I tell people to do it: a self-publisher is an author who becomes a publisher. Not someone who simply puts their book on Amazon.
This is important, because it means a few things. It means the author actually hired a professional editor, and listened to that editor. It means the author actually recruited advance readers to read their book, and changed it accordingly. It means, if the author isn't an artist, they paid for cover art. If they don't know how to do layout, they paid someone to do it for them. Essentially, they did everything a traditional and small press does to ensure quality - the money to do it just came out of their own pockets.
Those self-published authors who do well typically have no measure of success but that which they choose to give themselves, as they can, essentially, continue to publish as long as they have the finances to do so. Also, should they do well (which is much, much harder than other methods - but possible) they can benefit from the fact that they take home 100% of the profits (after the cut taken by Amazon, of course :p). The only real barrier to a self-published author's success is making quality books, and gaining an audience.
This is why you're starting to see more authors who were in traditional press look at self-publishing as a viable option, either self-publishing books (while staying with traditional press) as hybrids, or moving to that route entirely. In many cases, these authors have a big enough audience that, when they can concentrate the sales to that audience in their hands (instead of splitting it with all the other folks in the pie) they can actually do *better* than they would with traditional press. So long as they keep up the quality.
Just to ensure I'm being completely clear though, I do want to caution people. The *vast* majority of self-published authors will never turn a profit, or if they do, it won't be enough to live on. It is not the path to riches some claim it is. It is, like independent anything, just another route in that may lead to a successful career, when done properly and when the right factors align.Summing Up
This is a fairly lengthy post, but I hope I've covered these in enough detail that the distinctions are clear, and not in so much detail that your eyes glazed over. :0 And obviously, there are benefits and drawbacks to all these methods that can be endlessly debated, including everything I've laid out here! However, I hope this has given folks at least some idea of how varied and different publishing methods are nowadays.