This is a reprint of an article that I wrote for Huffingtonpost.com on March 4, 2014
Years ago, the only way to get published was to type the manuscript, send it to a publisher, and hope for the best. But book publishing has changed significantly. There are more opportunities — and many more pitfalls. Here are seven basic questions that authors should ask themselves.
1. Is The Manuscript Ready?
Every book needs to go through at least one other set of eyes before it is sent to a publisher or an agent. A publisher may edit a book later on, but the most important editing is done before the publisher gets it. If the manuscript doesn’t reflect your best writing, the book may never see the light of day.
Think of editing as a three-step process. The first step is you — the writer. Put the manuscript down for a few weeks and then read it again as if you’d never seen it before. Read it out loud, if necessary. Do the sentences flow? Is the research tucked away safely in a corner where it won’t slow down the reader? Pay attention to the narrative voice. With a full-length book, you’re asking the reader to spend several days with you. Does the voice behind the text sound like a comfortable companion?
The second step involves a trusted friend or writing group — trusted, as well as sensitive. There’s nothing more fragile than an author’s ego, so you want someone who can give you good advice without destroying your self-confidence.
The third step is the services of a professional editor. This editor should critique the structure of the book, offer alternatives, and suggest revisions. If you skip this step, thinking the publisher will pay for editing later on, you may never get to that later stage.
2. What’s The Book Going to Look Like?
Do you visualize your book as hardcover or paperback? If you have a publisher, you’ll have to negotiate that issue. A hardcover book has more permanence, is more appropriate with photos, and is far more valuable to collectors. A paperback book is usually priced lower and, thus, might reach a wider audience.
Publishers ordinarily provide the book design. But if you publish the book on your own, be sure that you hire a professional designer. One of the worst sins committed by on-line publishers is to direct authors into cookie-cutter formats for their books. The resulting books never look professional and detract from the quality of the writing.
Should you publish it as an e-book only? Probably not. An e-book is an important supplement to a printed book, but it is rarely a good substitute. For one thing, you are cutting off a large number of readers. According to a recent Pew Research study, a big majority of Americans prefer print books, and only 4 percent of readers are “e-book only.” There’s no good economic reason to limit yourself to an e-book format. Once you have expended the money to edit and design the book, it does not cost much more to make it available in print. And there are the personal reasons as well. If you’ve written a book, you almost certainly want to be able to hand it to a reader, see it on a bookshelf, and think of it being discovered one day by your grandchildren. Only a printed book can give you that satisfaction.
3. Who Are the Readers For The Book?
If you’ve written a novel, a history, or another book of general interest, you probably hope to reach as many readers as possible. A traditional publisher with its broad distribution network has the best chance of reaching a large general audience. But the best way to gain that publisher’s interest might be to stress that there is a smaller, more focused group that will be attracted to the subject of the book or to you as a writer. If you have cultivated a list of likely readers, this gives a publisher the assurance that there is a market for the crucial early sales.
If you decide that your book is aimed almost entirely at a small group of readers, you may choose to skip a traditional publisher altogether and self-publish your book. If, for example, you’ve written a book of local history that is of interest only to people in your area, you might be better off having the book professionally edited and designed and then given to a local firm for printing. You may end up distributing the book yourself and asking local booksellers to carry it on consignment, but the process will be simpler, faster, and cheaper.
4. Do You Want to Try for a Traditional Publisher?
Having your book published by a traditional publisher is the gold standard for most authors — and rightly so. In a traditional publishing contract the publisher picks up the cost of editing, design, distribution, and promotion — all that, and they often pay an advance against royalties!
What’s the downside? Mainly, it’s rejection and delay. Publishers turn down most books, and most won’t even consider a book unless it is presented to them by an agent. Literary agents, for their part, will only accept a book if they feel a publisher will accept it, so they turn down many books as well.
Rejection — how well do you handle it? It probably helps to know that many books are rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. The publisher may decide that it is only taking books on certain themes or that it already has too many books on your subject. And in any case there will be delay. The submission process can take many months, if not years, and the production and distribution process can add many months after that.
5. How Can You Control the Costs of Publication?
If your book is not published by a traditional publisher, then you are faced with the necessity of paying much, if not all, of the publication and promotion costs yourself.
One alternative is to seek out a co-publishing arrangement with a smaller, non-traditional publisher. In a co-publishing arrangement, the author and the publisher split the cost in some manner. For example, the author might pay for editing and promotion, while the publisher pays for design and distribution. The revenue sharing becomes an item of negotiation. These types of arrangements are becoming more common, but authors going this route need to find someone in the business that can help them find potential co-publishers and evaluate the merits of the deal.
Although on-line publishers claim they can control the costs of publication, authors should beware: those costs have a way of creeping up substantially. The standard editing, design, and other packages from on-line publishers are rarely adequate. The alternative, custom rates can add up quickly.
6. How and where will the Book be sold?
This is issue is crucial for two reasons:
1. Most authors don’t how book distribution works, and
2. Book-distribution is a very difficult thing for authors to do on their own.
The goal should be to have the book available in both print and e-book formats and to have it sold through every book channel — i.e. independent bookstores, chains, wholesalers, and on-line booksellers.
If the book is published by a traditional publisher, distribution is part of the package. Major publishers either use their own sales-force or an established distribution company to sell their books through all retail and wholesale channels.
If you are considering a co-publishing arrangement, you’ll want to make sure that the publishing partner has a strong, distribution network for selling books to stores. A deal without a distribution component is probably not a good idea.
It’s possible, in some cases, for self-published authors to use the services of a book distributor and take advantage of that distributor’s sale efforts. Authors who become, in effect, small publishers with more than just one book may be able to talk a book distributor into handling their books.
Book distribution is the point at which most on-line publishers flounder. If you look carefully at most on-line publishing terms, you’ll probably find that these publishers really only offer their books for sale through on-line sellers. Some of them claim that the book will be available in bookstores, but the terms they offer to bookstores do not make their books commercially viable. Worse yet, authors may have to pay so much for copies of their own books that they will not be able to resell them through stores on consignment. As a practical matter, publishing your book though an on-line publisher means that you are shutting off access to stores — still the largest share of the market.
If you’re planning to self-publish your first book, what is your best strategy for distribution? You might try a two-pronged approach. Take the file from the book designer and give it to a good local printer to print enough copies (e.g. 300) that you can distribute locally on your own. At the same time, give the file to a company like Ingram Spark, which, for a small fee, will make it available as both an e-book and as a print-on-demand book to the general book trade. The key to this program is that Ingram Spark makes self-published books available to bookstores and on-line sellers on the same terms as other books.
Book publishing and distribution is a fast-changing business. There are new, hybrid arrangements that are starting to appear. One literary agency, for example, now takes clients and tries to place their books with a traditional publisher. If that doesn’t work, they offer to publish the books using their own editor, book designer, publicist, and distribution through Ingram Spark.
7. How Will the Book Reach the Attention of Readers?
This question should, perhaps, come first, because authors need to be thinking about book promotion constantly. Every author — whether published by a major publisher or not — needs to take charge of the promotion of his or her own book. At the very least this means the creation of a website, active participation in social media, developing a good mailing list, and working with bloggers. It can be an expensive process, but it is crucial. If you’ve gone to the trouble of writing and designing a good book, you owe it to yourself to make a maximum promotional effort on its behalf.