There are many ways to get your book into the world and into the hands of readers. The key question is which method works for you and your book at this time, as well as what might fit into your broader long-term author career — if it’s your goal to continue publishing books. It all relates to your definition of success, so keep that in mind as you read on.
If you haven’t finished the first draft of your book yet, don’t get side-tracked by questions about publishing. The industry changes all the time, so focus on your book first, and come back to what happens next later. If you’re ready to publish, here’s an overview of the main options.
In this article, I will cover:
- Personal self-publishing
- Traditional publishing
- Partnership publishing
- Professional self-publishing, or being an indie author
- Which publishing choice is right for you?
(A) Personal self-publishing
Many people want to write a book for personal reasons and print copies to give to friends and family, or maybe sell at local events, or in a local bookstore.
I helped my nine-year-old niece self-publish a few years back, and we published copies for the family and also the school.
My dad wrote a mystery novel, Nada, which we published in ebook and print, but he didn’t want to spend his precious time in retirement marketing it or running an author business.
These books are still available to buy online, but the achievement of a personal goal was more important than any other outcome.
(B) Traditional publishing
This is the established route of querying agents and submitting to publishers.
The benefits of traditional publishing include the prestige, kudos, and validation you get from making it through the process, as well as an established, professional team to manage editorial, publication, and (hopefully) the book marketing processes.
An agent and traditional publisher will not ask for money to publish with them. They will pay you royalties, perhaps even an advance against those royalties based on contractual terms, although amounts and contracts vary.
Some publishers will distribute your book to physical bookstores, and you may have a greater chance of acceptance into literary awards, as well as subsidiary rights licensing, like film and TV.
The downsides of traditional publishing include how slow the process is.
Authors who go this route usually pitch multiple agents over time and often receive multiple rejections. If you do find an agent, it can take more time to get a publishing deal, and then more time before the book is out.
Royalty rates are lower because the agent, publisher, and distributors do the work of publishing and take their percentage, and there is sometimes a lack of transparency around earnings.
Some authors are disappointed by the lack of marketing for their books, and publishers inevitably move onto the next project in their pipeline. They are businesses and they need to make money, after all.
There are different traditional publishers, from imprints of huge multinational houses, to digital-first publishers, to small, independent presses specialising in specific genres. There are also varying kinds of contracts with advances and royalty rates differing between them, and agents with varying levels of experience.
If you want to go this route, do your research.
There are many different agents, and many different publishers. Learn how the industry works and how publishing contract clauses impact your career, pitch the right project to the right people, and you are far more likely to be successful.
If you are asked for money to publish, the company fits into the partnership model as below.
For more details on traditional publishing, check out Jane Friedman’s site and her downloadable chart with the spectrum of publishing possibilities.
(C) Partnership publishing
In this model, the author pays upfront for services and the publisher handles all design and production tasks, as well as potentially offering marketing services.
The benefit is that you have a team to work with who know what they’re doing, but the downsides include the difficulty of finding a good company to work with, as well as a potentially expensive process.
There are some fantastic companies who operate under this model, and it’s especially common with non-fiction for speakers and professionals who want to turn their knowledge into words, as well as fiction authors who have more financial resources than time.
You can find vetted and recommended services in the Alliance of Independent Authors Self-publishing Services list, which ranks publishers and adds a warning if they are not acceptable. It’s compiled for authors, by authors, so please check that first.
White Fox is an example of a quality partnership publisher who I am happy to recommend and am an affiliate for.
But as much as there are some great companies who do the best they can for authors, there are also sharks in the water — companies who operate with shady terms and conditions and rip off authors along the way. Do your research and due diligence and check all contracts carefully.
You can also check Writer Beware for publishing scams, of which there are many.
(D) Professional self-publishing — or being an indie author
In this model, the author treats the production of their book as a business, investing in professional services upfront, like editing and book cover design, as well as in marketing elements like a website, email list, and other forms of book promotion.
Distributing the book is mostly free, and the services take a varying percentage of the sale.
There are also different business models within the broader scope of being an indie author which can be mixed and matched per book, series, and/or format.
Here are the main approaches.
- Exclusive to Amazon through KDP Select, Audible, and KDP Print
- Wide and retailer-centric, using Apple, Kobo, Google, Draft2Digital, FindawayVoices, IngramSpark, and other retailers and distributors to reach readers in all online stores globally in all formats, as well as libraries and bookstores
- Crowdfunding through Kickstarter or other sites
- Subscription models like Patreon, Ream, or Substack
- Selling direct through an online store from simple services that deal with taxes like Payhip and Gumroad, through to full e-commerce stores with Shopify and WooCommerce. Social commerce is also emerging through TikTok Shop and other platforms. More resources on selling direct here.
These often represent a progression of the indie author business with authors starting out with a simple ebook on Amazon, and progressing over time to more sophisticated ways of selling books and reaching readers.
While I am not exclusive to Amazon, I use all the other methods as part of my indie author business.
The benefits of being an indie author include creative control over what you write and how often, as well as how you publish and market.
You can publish quickly and receive income much faster — within hours or days if you sell direct, or within a couple of months with the retailers.
You own and control your intellectual property rights, so you don’t have to ask permission to sell your books in whatever formats you like, wherever you want in the world, using new opportunities as they arise.
You can also selectively license your rights — for example, license your books in all formats to a traditional publisher in North America and self-publish everywhere else in the world. Or license paperback only, while keeping ebook and audiobook rights.
The royalties are higher as you do the work upfront and, apart from a small cut to the distributors, you don’t have to keep paying a significant amount to an agent and publisher.
You can set your own prices and profit margin, plus you can bundle deals and add different, higher-value products as you expand your business.
It’s also tremendously empowering because you are in control and you can take advantages of new opportunities as they emerge.
Of course, there is a lot to learn, but if you are curious and enjoy experimenting and trying new things, you can learn how to run a successful author business. It just takes time and practice.
I have a degree in theology and used to implement accounts payable systems in a corporate job. I do not have a degree in writing, publishing, marketing, or business. I’ve learned everything on the job through books, podcasts, courses, consistent practice, hiring skilled freelancers, attending conferences, and by building my author network.
The downsides of going indie include the lack of prestige, kudos, and validation by the publishing industry, even if some indie authors sell more books than traditionally published peers.
Indie authors can be excluded from literary awards and competitions, as well as from certain conferences and physical bookstores.
You need to upskill, as well as find and manage freelancers to help. You also need a budget for editing, cover design, and marketing, and you need to learn how to promote your book/s in an increasingly crowded market.
If you publish direct with your own store or crowdfunding, you will need to manage taxes, customer data, and customer service as any e-commerce business must do.
But you also have the benefits of a closer relationship with your readers, faster payment, and even more control.
Professional self-publishing is not for everyone, but I love (almost) all aspects of being an indie author.
It suits my personality and the way I like to work. But don’t worry, there are gradations of going indie. You can start simple and expand your author business as you learn and grow.
The best place to start if you want to follow this route is SelfPublishingAdvice.org, a free site written by indie authors, for indie authors.
It’s run by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), which you can join to learn more and access help through the community forums. You can find guidebooks, a weekly podcast and blog, as well as a free online conference and other resources.
As Orna A. Ross, founder of ALLi, says in Creative Self-Publishing: ALLi’s Guide to Independent Publishing for Authors and Poets:
Being an indie author is a wonderful job, with a high level of creative and commercial freedom, but that’s not to say that self-publishing is easy. To be an author, to be a publisher, to run a creative business: these are three challenging ambitions, all rolled into one indie author. You.
Which publishing choice is right for you?
You can write a book for love, but publishing is about reaching readers and in order to be a sustainable business, it has to make money.
Your creative work is valuable.
Publishers are not charities, and neither are the online book platforms. They are businesses who make money from your books.
Learn about intellectual property (IP) and copyright, as well as rights licensing, before you jump into a decision.
If you’re offered a contract for “all rights, in all languages, in all formats existing now and to be invented, in all territories, for the life of copyright” (fifty to seventy years after the death of the author) for a few thousand dollars, you need to understand what you’re signing away.
Instead, consider selective licensing.
This might be across different books — for example, pitching a traditional publisher with one series while self-publishing another.
While you need to pick a direction for your book at some point, you don’t have to make one choice for your entire career. Many authors choose a hybrid approach, especially as they become more successful, and this can take different forms.
It might be across different formats — for example, licensing print editions while retaining ebook and audio rights. Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson kept his special edition rights while licensing the main formats to a traditional publisher, and these became the basis of his multimillion dollar anniversary edition Kickstarter.
It can also be across different territories — for example, licensing North American rights to a traditional publisher and self-publishing into the rest of the world. Or even by territory and language, like a Spanish-language edition for Spain, but not North and South America.
It can also span different time frames — for example, licensing a book for a seven-year deal and getting the rights back later in order to self-publish.
There are so many options once you understand how intellectual property and rights licensing works, which makes being an author a much more lucrative and exciting prospect!
But how do you know which way to go with your book?
Consider these questions to help you decide on your path forward.
- Do you want to write only one book, or do you want a long-term career as an author? If you want a long-term career, are you willing and able to write many more books as well as market them along the way?
- Do you want the validation and kudos that come with traditional publishing? Are you willing to play the game of submission to agents and publishers to get it?
- Do you want to make a full-time living with your books and run a business as an author? Are you willing to do the work involved, or do you want someone else (an agent and a publisher) to do everything for you?
- How much control do you want over your books and your intellectual property assets? How much do you want your independence?
- Do you love to learn new skills? Are you willing to experiment and try new things? Do you like to run projects?
- How much responsibility do you want over fulfilment and customer experience?
- Are you interested in all aspects of the author business? How much of your income will you give up in order to have other people do the work for you?
As you consider these questions, refer back to your definition of success and consider how each route might help you get there.