Let’s say you wrote a book. First: CONGRATULATIONS, THAT’S AWESOME!
Let’s say you polished that puppy up, you’ve revised it, you maybe had a couple of people read it, even, and you revised it some more.
Let’s say you want to publish it, but you don’t even know where to begin. Guess what? I’ve been there. I can help you out.
Think of Publishing As A DND Campaign. Let’s Do Character Creation.
What kind of author are you? Truly, every author is a unique fingerprint, but authors tend to vary along a few attributes. Think about yourself now.
Are you a control freak? Can you imagine relinquishing any degree of control over your book’s content or presentation to anyone else? I...struggle with this a bit, myself. Other authors I know WOULD NEVER. Other authors are fine so long as the book gets out there without major typos.
Are you detail-oriented? Organized? I am. I have spreadsheets for my spreadsheets. I have a google calendar to track blog posts and open call deadlines and twitter chats. Other people apparently don’t. I’m not sure how they function. Life is a rich tapestry.
Let’s talk about patience. Can you wait for other people to get back to you? Can you wait for your writing to get out there? If you go the press route, querying takes forever, and when you finally get an acceptance, it takes longer than you think it will for your book to actually come out. I finished my novel Ariah in December, 2012. It didn’t come out until May, 2015.
What DIY skills do you have? Obviously you can string some words together; that’s not nothing! Can you use that to make a press release? You might have to do that. What about cover design? Ever tried your hand at that? Do you have some super secret book layout skills? Have you ever run a giveaway? I use Google Forms for those and for signup to my mailing list. Ever made swag before? You might need some if you do an author signing.
For the purposes of this article I’m going to focus on the last of these two attributes. Think about where you are in terms of patience and DIY Skill. Are you high or low or medium on these? Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being highest) on both.
Got your ratings? Ok, let’s look at which path you might go down.
Traditional Publishing: Requires +6 Patience
You’re a patient sort. And you’re focused on the craft of writing, not the sort to be distracted by all that other stuff. You can’t mockup a cover. You’re not interested in making your own book trailer...whatever those are. You write stories, not press releases.
Go forth, and traditionally publish. What this means is you should attempt to get a deal with one of the Big Five publishing houses. There are two ways to do this, one of which is more reliable than the other:
- Reliable way, for the most patient: Get an agent first. This adds a step to your querying process. The agent will then query the publishing houses on your behalf.
- Get slushy: Sometimes the houses have open call seasons. During these open calls the house will read manuscripts submitted by unagented writers (this is called the slush pile). Manuscripts that catch their interest may get picked up. For example, Angry Robot, an imprint of Peguin Random House, has one opening soon.
Traditional publishing takes patience, and loads of it, because there are few spots and many people want them. It takes relatively fewer DIY skills because if you snag one of those spots you’ll have a full complement of editors, copy editors, book designers to make your book look great. PLUS you get PR and marketing people to help out with publicity.
You will have less control over the finished product. And you often get a small share of the royalties (though you DO usually get and advance). You likely will not get any say over your cover. You may get told what conventions to go to. You may be told to take out or add elements to your book.
I realized pretty quickly that while I was potentially patient enough for traditional publishing I was not willing to relinquish enough control for it. My breaking point came when a potential agent asked me to take out some queer content in Ariah.
Self Publishing: Requires +6 DIY Skill
Notice I didn’t focus on control in this article. A lot of articles contrasting traditional and self publishing mark the difference in author opting for one over the other on the basis of control freak-ness. I don’t think that’s the real marker. I think the real defining trait is whether or not an author has a wide variety of skills or the inclination to learn them as needed.
Self-publishing requires a lot of flexibility to do well, both in terms of skills already possessed and in terms of resources. For example, we all know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do it anyway. A sub-par cover can be the kiss of death for a self published book. What do you do as a self published author? Do you learn photoshop and make the best damn cover you can (minimizing cost, but maximizing time)? Do you scour Deviant Art and commission an artist to craft something beautiful for you (maximizing cost, but minimizing time)? If you go with the costly option, how will you fund it?
As a self published author, you can forge ahead, making all the decisions as you go. You make contracts, figure out what you can do and what you can’t. You’re a mogul.
I am in true awe of the self-published authors I know. I can’t do it. Between a day job and a kid, I’m stretched too thin to make all the pieces work (but how do they do it? They have day jobs and children, too!). I took a third option.
Small Press Publishing: +3 Patience/+3 DIY Skill
Maybe you’re like me: kind of controlling, a jack-of-all trades, and patient enough to query. Consider the road of small press publishing (bonus--most of them accept unagented manuscripts!).
Small presses are usually niche presses, which means it behooves you to do your homework. Small presses can also be like mayflies--they can live and die in a heartbeat, so do your due diligence and submit to those that look established. Look to see how long they’ve been around. Check out their books online. If you get an offer, reach out to a couple of their authors on social media and ask about their experiences with the press. Check out if they have an entry on Writer Beware (that’s a bad sign). Small presses just getting started can be eager to sign authors, but they also have a lot of growing pains, and they are also the ones most likely to go belly-up. A solid small press that’s been around a few years is more discerning but a safer bet.
Working with a small press gives you some of the supports you’d get if you went traditional, but lets you reap some of the benefits of going self published. With a small press, your publisher will take on the technical aspects of things like copyediting, book design, book layout, acquiring your ISBN, and uploading your book to various distributors. Your publisher will assign you an editor who will polish up your manuscript to a high polish, and they will contract out a cover artist for you at no cost to you--but most small presses will ask for your input on the cover design, which is not as frequently done with traditional publishers. You may not get an advance (I didn’t), or if you do it will be a small one. But, your royalty cut will be comparatively larger than what you would have gotten with a traditional publisher. Going niche means small presses are usually working with a specific audience in mind, and they are more likely to be open to more diverse or controversial content so long as it fits that niche.
But you’ll need to have some self publisher grit working with a small press. You have to have a self publisher’s willingness to get out there and market yourself. I’ve had to write press releases. I’ve organized my own blog tours. I’ve run my own giveaways. I’ve begged and pitched for my own reviews. I didn’t have to learn how to do everything, but I did have to learn the ins and outs of book marketing and publicity. I had zero marketing skills before I published a book. I’m now fluent in the lingo.
Your “Good Ending”
My best advice to anyone embarking on the exciting and terrifying journey that is publishing a book is to think really hard about what it means to you to be a successful author. Does it mean winding up on the New York Times bestseller list? Does it mean winning an award? Does it mean simply being published?
For me, it means putting something out there that at least a few people can find and connect with--deeply and meaningfully connect with. I’m not writing for everyone. I’m writing for other queer and genderqueer people who, like me, rarely see themselves represented authentically in fiction. That’s why I balked when literary agents told me they would pick up my work but that they wouldn’t be able to sell it unless I “toned it down.” That was a deal breaker for me because, ultimately, I was uninterested in having mass appeal. Niche markets were perfect for me. So, I went small press. The upside is I didn’t have to change anything! The downside is it’s harder to find and grow your audience that way. It takes work. It’s mostly word of mouth. It’s a long, slow road compared to being traditionally published where you have market saturation on your side.
Think about what you want, why you’re writing, what makes you happy about writing. Think about your authorial attributes. Between your vision of happiness and your personality you’ll be able to pinpoint how and where to pitch your book.
May the odds be ever in your favor!
About the Author
Pronouns: they/them/their. B R Sanders is a white, genderqueer writer who lives and works in Denver, CO, with their family and two cats. B’s latest novel, Ariah, is about queer elves carving out lives of their own in a hostile culture. B’s previous novel, Resistance, is about lesbian elves overthrowing a city. They write about queer elves a lot. Stay in touch with B with their newsletter, their blog, or on twitter.
Check out the authors website brsanderswrites.com
Check out the authors website brsanderswrites.com