Traditional Publishing, Independent Publishing, and Self-Publishing: What’s the Difference?

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If you’ve written a book of any sort, you’ve got three big options when it comes to putting your pages into the hands of readers–traditional, independent, and self-publishing. These three options are very different animals and will suit different authors in different ways.

Traditional publishing

Traditional publishing usually involves the so-called Big Four publishers (Penguin Random House/Simon and Schuster, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Macmillan) or any of their imprints. You typically need an agent to editors seriously consider your work, and you query the agent in much the same way you would any publisher/editor. Work is extremely competitive, with houses publishing just 1-2 percent of submissions.

Working with a traditional publisher can be ideal in that large houses generally are expert marketers. They know how to get your book into all the major retailers and can help you set up all kinds of publicity events. You can sell a larger number of books as a result. A big downside, however, is that the publisher often takes quite a bit of control over the production of the book, which can take years. You might be asked to do significant rewrites and typically don’t have too much say over elements like cover art.

Pay from a traditional publisher typically includes a small advance ($2,000-$20,000). Royalties can be on either gross or net sales and generally are between 5 to 15 percent and max out around 25 percent. But remember, you need an agent! They’ll take another 10 to 15 percent of your earnings. However, going with traditional publishing requires zero upfront investment.

Independent publishing

Independent publishing tends to combine elements of traditional and self-publishing. You still submit to houses, but the houses are much smaller and typically are more willing to take some risks in terms of what they publish. They tend to offer their authors more flexibility and a more collaborative relationship through the publication process. They can handle the printing and warehousing of physical books, which often would be too expensive for authors to do alone. They also can set their own royalty structures and usually provide larger advances than traditional publishers do. Many independent publishers are open to writers who do not have an agent.

Self-publishing

With self-publishing, you have to cover all upfront costs, including marketing and distribution. You use a service like CreateSpace to format your manuscript and get a formal ISBN. Then you use a service like Amazon to take the prepared manuscript and distribute it. Distribution can be purely digital or include print-on-demand (POD). You can get your book into bookstores with the POD option, but because the distribution is so expensive, you likely won’t make any money. If you opt not to distribute into bookstores, however, you can earn royalties of 40 to 60 percent, and you don’t need to worry about finding an agent or paying them additional fees. Payments also usually happen faster.

Most writers who self-publish do so because they want to maintain control over the creative aspects of their work. But successful self-publishing requires considerable marketing work and business savvy.

The bottom line

If you don’t mind losing some of your artistic control to have an experienced publisher do the heavy lifting for you, and if you don’t have a lot of money to put up upfront, traditional publishers likely would be a good fit for you. Independent publishers might be the best option if you need some guidance but want more of a say in publication. Self-publishing can be the easiest path to producing your book and usually offers the biggest royalties, but you’ll need to invest upfront. It’s a good choice if you want maximum artistic control.

All this said, as an author, you don’t have to stay in one camp or another. Some writers self-publish some projects and use independent or traditional publishers for others. Simply consider your preferences and the goals for specific work when deciding which path is best for you.

 

Why Classifying Books According to Genre Needs to Die

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If you go to agent or publisher websites, a common call is for writers to create something entirely fresh, something that doesn’t fit the usual molds. But even with those statements, I’m not entirely convinced that the publishing world or general public has abandoned genre classifications as much as agencies and houses would have people believe.

For starters, bookstores, websites and libraries still label books based on traditional genres to make it easier for people to find what they are looking for. And if you query as an author through tools like QueryTracker or other online forms, the tool almost always require you to smoosh your book into a category. Agents and publishers also want to know what genre you’re working with and show that you understand how your book fits that target niche or compares to previously published works. They expect a summary for that in query letters and proposals, and most of them are very clear on the site which genres they do or do not work with.

I absolutely understand the need for a system of organization. But what if, for example, I have a mystery set in an earlier period, something a la Enola Holmes? Is that a mystery or a historical? What if I have a love story set in outer space? Is that science fiction or romance? Or what about books that challenge social conceptions or time? The recently released “Bridgerton” on Netflix, for example, is based on Julia Quinn’s novels, but since it is an intentionally contemporary spin on the 1800s era, is it too inaccurate to be a regency anymore?

Some books do fit very neatly into categories. But many do not. They are like sporks in a utensil drawer, simultaneously belonging and not belonging for their “oddity”. And as a writer, I see the current mode of labeling as being truly problematic. If my book does bend genres, it can be very difficult to present it according to the tools and expectations agents, publishers and book stores all have. It even can be hard to determine whether certain agents or houses would want to accept a query, which then can create additional work for authors who submit a preliminary inquiry before formally introducing the manuscript.

But perhaps even more concerning than presentation or organization is the conflicting message of creativity and adherence to group. Writers who are continually forced to slap labels on their work for the sake of the label might mentally limit themselves regarding what their books can be. They might start to think of themselves as this type of writer or that, when in fact a good writer isn’t a “type” of anything–they can write whatever they da-n well please.

We perhaps could solve the issue simply by creating tools that allow writers and others to select an “Uncategorized” or “Genre-Bending” classification. Explaining the mashup with references rather than a label, such as X Book + Y Book, could work in queries, store placement and promotional materials. But such a shift requires people to let go of the knee-jerk desire to mentally classify to a high degree. The freedom we could gain, however, could be truly transformative in terms of what ends up on the page.

How to Deal with Other People Finding Writing Success Instead of You


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You know those social media posts.

The exuberant ones.

The ones where people announce they’ve just found an agent, met some ridiculous word count goal or had a publisher snap up their book in a six or even seven figure deal.

On the one hand, I am genuinely over the moon for the writers who are putting up those messages on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms. And that’s because I empathize. I know first hand all the hours that goes into creating the manuscript, editing it and sending it out into the world feeling crazily protective and hopeful. And so I make it a point to congratulate them. They deserve every kudos, and I mean what I say in my responses.

Yet, there’s also the side of those posts that’s kind of like a punch in the gut.

With brass knuckles.

Maybe some razor blades.

And you know what? Just throw in a random bomb embedded with rusty nails and screws in there, because you know, what the heck.

There’s something about those posts, which I admittedly and ironically dream of putting up myself one day, that holds a crappy message. Something that says, “See? If you were just ‘good enough’, too, then you’d have that agent/deal/paycheck/fame. Comparatively, your writing is stinkier than the rear end of a hippo.”

Talk about a motivation killer.

But the thing is, none of those writers is saying that. They’re not trying to rub it in. They’re just genuinely so elated that they can’t contain it. And deep down, I know better. I understand that the industry is highly subjective and very much about making the right editorial connections. And I understand that even “bad” writing that’s a grammatical mess still can have a great story at its heart. So the real question is just how to bounce back from the temporary blech that seeing others’ success inspires. Because if I (or you) can just bounce back from that, you can keep writing, submitting and pursuing the writing goals you have.

So here’s what I’ve found personally works:

  • Read other types of posts. I’m not going to tell you to go on a social media fast, because that might not be realistic given your need to promote your work. But what you can do is focus on particular types of posts. Look at how many people are still drafting, querying, or just looking for advice on which writing tool is best. You might not have the deal or agent yet, but there are tons of people right where you are who can offer support and remind you that you’re not alone. Pay close attention to the posts where people share little bits of drafts–favorite lines, for example–or talk about a beautiful moment they had with writing. Those kinds of posts reveal what matters to other people and can remind you that writing is about a lot more than money or other perks.
  • Stick to a plan. If you are going about your writing inconsistently or without a plan, it’s easy to feel like you aren’t making real headway. But a plan lets you measure progress based on a specific strategy. Every time you post something, every time you send a query or take the half an hour you slotted for outlining, you can say you really did something. You are trying. You are not idle. You’re moving forward. And that’s a heck of a lot better than feeling like you have zero direction.
  • Trash your own writing. This might seem a little counterintuitive, but ripping your drafts to shreds teaches you not to get too attached, and to be open to trying new options that ultimately could make the content work significantly better. Even if you end up going with your original version, the exercise in exploration can give you a sense of progress and development that’s a huge confidence booster. You also might end up with snippets or new concepts that could lead to entirely new works later on.
  • Do something other than writing. Writers are just like other professionals in that they can attach a huge part of their identity to their work. That’s why it’s so painful to see the other “I made it” posts from others–it’s not just about having your project validated, it’s about having you validated. So if the sting is getting too sharp, go spend time in other activities or hobbies. This doesn’t mean stop writing. It just means that the writing should be balanced with other aspects of who you are. Do whatever you enjoy to remind yourself that, although writing is part of you, it doesn’t define your worth.

People who find writing success deserve to celebrate it and brag a little. This applies to you just as much as to anyone else. But since it might be a while until it’s your time to celebrate, don’t just wallow. Be proactive about staying in a positive mindset. You’ll produce better when you aren’t depressed and stressed, guaranteed.

Why Good Writing Fails to Get Published

Rejection from publishers is something that virtually every writer will experience in his career at some point. In fact, some professional writers acquire so many rejection letters that they probably could paper their walls with them. As a beginning writer, it’s difficult not to get discouraged by these personally hurtful little pieces of mail, but rest assured: Rejection letters often have no bearing on the quality of your writing.

The reality of publishing is that a book (or any other text) gets published when it is a good fit for the publisher. At the most basic level, this means you have to submit to publishers that produce your manuscript’s genre. Don’t submit a science fiction novel to a romance publisher, for example, no matter how confident you are you’ve written the greatest thing since Star Wars.

Beyond submitting within the right genre, you have to explore what the publisher is producing at the current time. The manuscripts a publisher receives vary over given periods. A publisher who publishes biographies, for instance, might get 100 biographies one year and 1,000 the next. If the publisher has an overflow of a certain type of work, it can be much more picky about what manuscripts it selects to meet the publishing goals within that genre. Your odds of having your manuscript selected go down as a result. Publishers may even announce that they are no longer accepting submissions within the genre that has the overflow.

The simple solution to this issue is to do a bit of research prior to submitting your proposal package to the publisher. Look on their website or use resources such as Writer’s Market to determine the types of titles and plots the publisher has put out recently. Then analyze whether your manuscript fits one or more of the publisher’s immediate production needs. You need to be able to show that your manuscript fits what the publisher is doing and thus prove marketability, but you also need to be able to show how your manuscript has fresh ideas compared to previous publications.

Some publishers reject great writing not because of improper publisher/genre/manuscript matching, but because they quit working when they write the last chapter of the text. They construct a so-so query letter that doesn’t catch the editor’s eye, has basic grammar or spelling errors and that doesn’t truly summarize the plot or the author’s experience. No query letter can be completely cookie cutter because ideally you should customize each query letter to the publisher to which it is sent, but every query letter needs to have an excellent hook, flawless presentation and prove your competence. As you try to promote your work, don’t make the mistake of judging the manuscript on the editor’s behalf within the query–let the editor decide for himself whether you’ve got a text that could propel you to fame.

Great writing sometimes doesn’t get published because, quite simply, writers don’t take a chance on themselves. For whatever reason, they don’t think what they’ve written will make the cut, or they are afraid of the possible rejection editors can give. Subsequently, they submit nothing and have their worst fear realized–they never get to see what they write in print. Meanwhile, less worthy texts find places on bookstore shelves.

Publication also can evade amazing writers because the writing isn’t right for the time. For example, stories with vampire themes have been wildly successful over the past decade or so (notably, the Twilight saga). Had these books been written in the 1600s, the period where witches, vampires, werewolves and the like were highly ostracized in the United States, they might have had no hope of publication. In the same way, people who write in the style of Charles Dickens might be labeled as too archaic and complex for modern readers, even though Dickens’ work is considered classic.

Finding solutions to these issues isn’t always easy, but you can do your best to send your manuscript to the publisher most likely to need it. You can customize and perfect your queries. You can get feedback on the manuscript to build your confidence before you submit it. And you can be mindful of the market, researching what sells and what doesn’t. All you have to do is start.