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Four Book Publishing Options
One of the most frequent questions we get at kn literary arts is whether an author should traditionally publish or self-publish their book. The answer isn’t a simple one because it depends on a variety of factors. In fact, traditional publishing could be as “right” for one author as it is “wrong” for another. The question requires a case-by-case answer.
We find the best place to begin answering this question is by educating would-be authors about their publishing options.
#1. Traditional Book Publishing
The most well-known publishing option available today is what we think of as traditional publishing. To have your book traditionally published means you submit your book to and it is accepted by a large publishing company, like a Random House or Simon & Schuster.
A publisher does all the important preparation needed—everything from cover design to editing—to make your book shelf-worthy. Most readers don’t know about what goes into making a great book, but this portion of the publishing process often includes acquisition meetings, concept meetings, title meetings, cover design meetings, launch meetings, and sales meetings followed by developmental editing, line editing, copyediting, interior design, descriptive copy writing, endorsement requests and no fewer than three, but as many as six, proofreads. All of this before it ever hits the press!
After your book is published, you, as the author, receive a percentage of the sales, also known as royalties.
Pros: The Good News About Traditional Publishing
There are a few “pros” to traditionally publishing your book. First, know that it’s not impossible to be published by a big house publishing company. Even though it is competitive, traditional book publishers want to fall in love with your book. Bringing in great submissions and getting them published is their lifeblood. If you send a traditional publisher something they can fall in love with, they’re going to jump right on it.
Also, with traditional publishing your book will get a lot of professional attention by the best-of-the-best in the book industry. Those meetings I mentioned are packed with power—there are dozens of humans who have devoted decades to understanding what it takes to publish a successful book. Same goes for the editorial process. Those many, many editorial rounds are provided by professional, career book editors.
Finally, traditional publishing is a good option if you already have a platform. Your “platform” includes an email list, social media following, a podcast—any other ways you communicate with a large number of people on a regular basis. An active and well developed platform (an email list or followers in the 10’s of thousands, for example) is a sign that, in addition to a strong manuscript, the author can also bring potential readers to the table. This reduces the risk of publishing a book that won’t sell. This is especially true in non-fiction.
Cons: The Downsides of Traditional Publishing
There are quite a few “cons” to traditional publishing. First, the barrier to entry with the major publishers is high. It’s competitive. Many major book publishers don’t accept unsolicited submissions, so a book agent or a direct connection is needed to break in. This can be very discouraging to would-be authors who can’t even gain access to the big house publishers or receive numerous rejection letters from them. It’s a hard truth!
Second, you probably won’t make a living writing books. Making a living from writing books is exceedingly rare—this is even for authors who’ve gotten published numerous times by major publishing companies. If you want to live the dream and quit your job to write books, you’re still probably going to need another stream of income.
Finally, even with a traditional publisher, selling each and every copy of your book is your job. Just because your book is picked up by a major publisher does not mean you’re guaranteed sales. In fact, if your book doesn’t do well with a major publisher, it could impact your ability to work with a big house publishing company in the future. For example, if you publish with a traditional publisher before you have a well-developed platform and don’t succeed in selling your book, the record of your poor sales could hurt your chances of being published again by a major publisher for a while thereafter. As part of the decision-making process, editors may reference previous book sales to assess whether you will be able to sell books. It is unlikely poor book sales with another large publisher will result in a book deal.
#2. Independent or Small Publishers
Independent or small book publishers are niche publishing companies like those in wellness or self-help. These publishers often accept unsolicited submissions and are hungrier for books because they receive fewer of them. Independent book publishers usually have a “family feel” and don’t require you to have an agent. Google the publishers that accept unsolicited submissions. Download my list of small publishers who accept unsolicited submissions.
These publishers offer many of the benefits traditional publishers do, with fewer cons. However, you will still have to sell your book. To find these publishers, do a Google search for publishing companies in your niche.
While it’s getting harder and harder to find a traditional publisher to take you on, you’re actually lucky because in this day and age, you can self-publish.
It used to be that there was a stigma surrounding self-publication—as if a self-published author somehow had failed at writing a readable book. But times have changed. In fact, 76% of the books in the world today are self-published.
There are several ways to self-publish, and you’ll have many decision points along the way. First off, you get to choose how to print your book.
Some companies act as self-publishing/traditional publishing hybrids, meaning they do everything from production editing to cover design in-house, and publish it under their imprint. Our friends at Balboa Press do this, and there are numerous companies connected to different publishing houses that do the same.
Then there are straightforward printing companies. Though some of these guys offer those types of services as add-ons, what defines a straightforward printing company is the ability to print and distribute your book as a standalone service. These include KDP, IngramSpark and BookBaby.
Each option will appeal to different authors for different reasons.
In most cases, you pay for your book upfront. And depending on what company you go with, you will submit your manuscript, pay a fee, and the publisher handles the development of the book—from draft to print to delivery.
If you are envisioning boxes of your books in every corner of your home, don’t. Self-publishers often utilize print-on-demand technology. (More about this below.)
E-publishing is another option for self-publishing. This method of publishing means, of course, the book is published only in a digital form. No printing needed.
Pros: The Upsides of Self-Publishing
One of the major benefits of self-publishing is that there is zero barrier to entry. You can write a book just for you—or your family, and you don’t need a platform to publish. There is no one who needs to approve of it or determine if the story is worthy. You can self-publish for no other reason than it is important for you to do it. And that’s a great reason!
Also, self-publishing your first book could be a great way to help you launch your platform and create a following. If you don’t have the numbers the traditional publishers want their authors to bring to the table, you can generate them with your first self-published book. It will take some work but many authors have “worked” the publishing industry in this way—and succeeded.
Self-publishing does not mean you are giving up on getting published by a major publishing house. In fact, self-publishing could help you get picked up by a traditional publisher. If you can sell 5,000 copies of your self-published book on your own, there are many big house publishers who will happily take you on, purchase the rights to your book and publish your manuscript.
Cons: The Pitfalls of Self-Publishing
One of the cons of self-publishing your book is that the process can feel overwhelming. And oftentimes, you will have limited guidance during the process. One way to work around this downside of self-publishing is to find someone to help you walk through the process of self-publishing.
Another challenge is knowing what self-publishing company to choose. Because it is a business, there are numerous companies who are more than willing to help you self-publish your book, and not all of them do quality work or make sure you have the best book possible before going to print. It is important for you to carefully vet the self-publishing companies you are considering handing your manuscript over to before purchasing their services.
#4. Hybrid Self-Publishing
Hybrid publishing is typically done by a large company, or a branch of a larger company that may also be traditionally publishing books. These companies already have a built-in team that can offer this alternative publishing service to those authors who don’t have a paid publishing contract for the next NYT best seller, but are willing to pay for that extra support.
The perk of hybrid publishing is that they are going to create the book for you with a professional and experienced team. You will pay them to edit, design and distribute your book, plus they take royalties from your book sales.
Pros: The Upsides of Hybrid Self-Publishing
- You end up with a beautiful book
- The Hybrid company will distribute your book and provide some marketing services, especially during your book launch
- The Hybrid company puts their colophon on the spine of the book, which means they feel confident about the final product quality for it to go on their company’s book list
Cons: The Pitfalls of Hybrid Self-Publishing
- You lose creative say and control
- You have to pay for the book to be edited and designed, and sometimes marketed (starts at around $10K)
- Plus, the hybrid publisher takes royalties (a percentage of the book sale) –you end up with a smaller margin of profit
- It can take up to a year, sometimes even longer, to get your book on the list to go into production. A hybrid publisher usually follows a preset schedule:
Though it is easier to be picked up by a hybrid company (versus a big 5 publisher, like Random House), they can sometimes be choosey. They have their brand image to manage and want to make money off of ‘saleable’ books–especially since they are warehousing copies of your book.
Just because you’re not taking the traditional route to publication does not mean a lot of effort won’t be put into getting your book ready to hit the shelves. The traditional schedule is a good framework to base your self-publishing timeline on because most of the same steps take place. Here is some detailed information about the traditional publishing timeline.
It’s important to remember that much of the production that a traditional house would be executing will be your responsibility. Yes, this is more to juggle on your end, with the production and marketing efforts for your book launch. But with the right team, you can navigate through the different steps with confidence and ease—and, hold on to your intellectual property and book sale profits at the end of the day.
Giving yourself more time for extra rounds of proofreading, and navigating through print-on-demand companies is ideal. For a quick and easy overview, below is a condensed version of a general self-publishing timeline.
Below the timeline graphic, you will find expanded details for each time frame. Time may not always be an option for many new authors who have specific dream publication dates in mind. In this case, just make sure you’re not skimping on the important steps, such as nailing a professional design, and working with talented editors.
12-18 Months Out
This is when you should plan out your self-publishing editorial calendar and book launch. You may still be completing your manuscript at this time, and hopefully moving it though content editing. It’s helpful to consider the traditional publishing three-season cycle:
- Winter is January-April,
- Summer is May-August, and
- Fall is September-December.
9 Months Out
At this stage, your manuscript should be moving through a line edit with a professional editor. Give yourself and your editor up to 2 months for a full edit and review. This means your editor will be looking through the manuscript two times, and you will be reviewing it as well. During this phase, you can also work with a book cover designer.
6 Months Out
After line editing, your manuscript will then move through a round or two of copyediting. This is also a good time to begin to move through administrative items such as purchasing your ISBN, barcode, and learning about what print-on-demand (POD) and distribution company you want to work with.
If you have landed on a book cover design by this time, you can also kickstart the interior design phase. Some designers are able to do both cover and interior, but many focus on one or the other. Either way, it’s important to finalize the cover design before moving into the page layout, to make sure there is continuity to the look and feel of the exterior and interior.
5 Months Out
Once your manuscript has been copyedited, it’s time to “pour” your manuscript into the “typeset pages.” This means the interior designer will turn your manuscript into a designed book!
3-4 Months Out
When your manuscript was being transformed into designed pages, possible spacing issues and new typos could have popped up in the process. That’s where proofreading saves the day. A proofreader will go through the typeset pages with a fine-tooth comb, marking all errors. This process may require a couple of reviews and revisions for the designer to get the final file perfect for print.
2 Months Out
Ideally, your book is ready for distribution at least a month before the publication date. This will allow you to offer pre-sales as a part of your launch strategy. It’s important to give yourself the extra time needed to order a sample of your printed book to make sure there aren’t any final revisions needed. Some POD companies can take up to 3 weeks to send the first print sample, so it’s recommended to give yourself a buffer for print mistakes or last-minute edits.
1 Month Out
If your book is ready to go at least a month before publication, you can enjoy your book launch and focus on engaging with your audience.
What is POD?
Print on demand (POD) is a process that uses technology to print copies of books only when they are ordered instead of in bulk. This process reduces risk and costs for everyone in the publishing industry by lowering warehousing costs. The biggest advantage of printing single or small quantities and avoiding big prepaid book stacks in your garage is to the self-published authors.
Here are some POD publishers to consider:
- IngramSpark: IngramSpark is one of the most well-known POD companies in the industry today. One thing that sets them apart is their book distribution power. You can be connected with booksellers from Amazon to Barnes and Noble—even global book retailers.
- Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP): Owned by Amazon, KDP is a self-publishing tool that offers print-on-demand as well as makes an e-book available on Amazon to Kindle readers. KDP includes a variety of useful features, including free file conversion, sales tracking, formatting tools.
- Book Baby: In addition to print-on-demand and ebooks, BookBaby’s services include editing, design, and marketing services.
- Blurb: Mostly known for its bookbinding and photobook options, Blurb is a good option for children’s book authors and photographers.
What You Will Need to Self-Publish Your Book
What is an ISBN?
An International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is the identification code for your book. Each edition of your book will have its own ISBN, and if you choose to go with hardcover and paperback versions, they will also have separate ISBNs. Additionally, each format of your e-book will have its own ISBN.
ISBNs are then registered to a certain imprint. An imprint is a trade name, a division of a publishing house that focuses on a certain area, genre or theme. Some smaller publishing houses have only one imprint, while larger houses generally have numerous imprints.
Most straightforward printing companies will provide you the option of buying ISBNs through them and registering it to their imprint. But the self-publisher can also buy their own ISBN.
What is a Barcode?
You will need a barcode for both a paperback or hardcover book. Barcodes are associated with your ISBN. Amazon’s self-publishing platform can include a barcode for you, but you can also use software or an online service to produce your barcode.
What is an LCCN Number?
A Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN) is a tool used to reference a book title in any given database. It is basically an identification number associated with the book’s bibliographic record created by the Library of Congress. The LCCN is a mark of the traditional publishing world, and many self-publishers don’t need one. But having one means your book will look just as professional as the traditionally published book on the shelf next to it.
Other important things to know are that LCCNs are only used on print (not e-books) publications, and only a US publisher may obtain one. Also, they are not the same as a copyright.
Finally, a LCCN is free, but a publisher may charge you a fee. If this is the case, they may be charging you for the time it takes to acquire the number and not for the number itself.
The application is available online, and more information about the process in general can be found online as well.
How to Make Your Self-Published Book Look “Traditionally Published”
The average reader has high expectations for books because traditional publishers deliver quality books. Self-published books often fall short of these expectations because these authors do deeply believe their book is comparative in quality to a traditionally published manuscript.
Because of this, many self-published books are neither easy or interesting to read for anyone but the author.
To make your self-published book “feel” traditionally published, you’re going to have to both be honest with yourself about your book and also invest in editing and design.
Take a really honest look at your writing skill, your book idea, and your outline before you jump into the writing process. If you’re not clearing the bar of excellence on any of these three elements, consider seeking the advice of a professional book editor, ghostwriter or book doctor. It is still your book, your story, but with the right support, it can become the book you are dreaming about.
Professional Design – Inside and Out
Too often self-published authors cut corners to save money, which means they hire cover and interior designers with minimal book-specific design know-how. It is worth it to use professional book designers for both your cover and interior designs. A professional is someone who designs book covers and book interiors for a living. This will run you around $2500 versus $250 for a graphic designer to slap a design together. You will get what you pay for. A good cover design is essential if you want to stand out from the crowd and look like a professional, read-worthy book.
The traditional publishing path ensures your book will receive not just a cursory grammar check but six or more deep, professional rounds of editing before it hits the shelf. The biggest tragedy I see in self-publishing is when an author actually has unique, useful and interesting content to share but neglects getting it the editing it deserves. Lack of editing usually translates into a lack of readability and, consequently, lack of reading. If you want your book to stand tall on the shelf next to its traditionally published peers, you need the same amount of editing.
Here’s what you can expect if you obtain professional editing services.
- Developmental editing is a big picture edit. Developmental editors go through each page of your manuscript asking probing questions and moving pieces of your story around. These editors will share tips on revising but may also help you with craft.
- Line editors make sure that each sentence in your book is necessary, uses fresh language, appropriate words, and keeps the reader reading. You will see corrections of awkward sentence constructions, wordiness, overused words and phrases, inconsistent verb tenses and flowery language.
- A copyeditor makes sure that your manuscript tells the best story possible. They get the dual role of checking on small details and keeping the big picture in mind, so if you mention a ‘blue’ dress at the beginning of the book, it doesn’t suddenly become ‘red’ later on. Copyediting is a technical process. These editors are trained in styles like The Chicago Manual of Style, APA, or MLA and are at the front lines of elevating your book to a professional level.
- Proofreading is the last editing opportunity before the publishing process and acts as quality control before the book goes into mass production. Even though many eyes have looked at your book, errors still happen, so a proofreader is an absolute ‘must’ to polish your final files. The professional proofreader is not a copyeditor – if they find too many errors, they will return the proof for further copyediting.
Receiving feedback from your editor can be a challenging experience, but both writer and editor want the same thing—the best book possible. You will be glad you went through the process when your book is on the shelf next to its traditionally published counterpart.
Preparing for Your Book Launch
Launching your book can be one of the more overwhelming stages of the self-publishing journey. But it can be done! Surrounding yourself with people who know how to support you at every stage, taking one step at a time, will be important when launching your book successfully.
Key Players for Your Self-Publishing Book Launch
Just because you are self-publishing doesn’t mean you don’t need or can’t have a team of professionals supporting your launch. Hiring individuals to fill the following roles during your book launch will not only save your sanity but ensure that the details are well-covered by people who know what they’re doing.
- Marketing strategist – These are the people who can help build your launch plan.
- Marketing assistants – These are the people who know how to do online technical tasks quickly that can save you time.
- Copywriters – These are the people who write marketing emails and other promotional copy.
- Videographers – These are the people who can turn even the most camera-shy author into a soundbite.
- Designers – These are the people who create visuals for social media promotion and more.
You can hire many of these key players through any of the freelancing sites including Fivver and Upwork.
A Book Launch Plan that Works
It’s true there is a lot traditional publishers do to support their authors, but much of the same work can be done in self-publishing, too. Starting early and taking your launch one stage at a time is the key to launching your book successfully. Here is a high-view timeline of what you should be doing and when:
- 18 months: Build an author website, set a budget and get help.
- 12 months: Set your team, reach out to endorsements and partnerships.
- 10 months: Begin engaging with your ideal readers.
- 8 months: Create a sell sheet and develop public relations and promotion opportunities.
- 6 months: Develop publication day opportunities, follow up on promotion opportunities and stay engaged with your audience.
- 3 months: Optimize your author website for your book and set up your pre-order page on Amazon.
- 1 month: Run your pre-order campaign, spread the word to friends and family.
- 1 week: Finalize publication day party plans, remind everyone, make noise to your audience on social media and through your email list.
- Publication: It’s here! Celebrate!
Self-publishing may feel like a lonely road to book publication, but it doesn’t have to be. At kn literary, we’ve helped hundreds of authors on their way toward publishing the books they were born to write.
We’ve taken everything we know about this process and put it into a service customized for authors who are either just beginning or already navigating the path of their self-publishing journey and need a hand to hold. Learn more about our self-publishing services now.
Kelly Notaras is the founder of kn literary arts and the author of THE BOOK YOU WERE BORN TO WRITE: Everything You Need to (Finally) Get Your Wisdom Onto the Page and Into the World, published by Hay House. An editor for 20 years, she’s worked at HarperCollins, Penguin, Hyperion and Sounds True. She speaks regularly at the Hay House Writer’s Workshops and offers consultation by appointment. Find out more about how she can help you with your book.