Publishing: Square One

Posted By on Jul 26, 2014 | 2 comments

I get a lot of emails from friends and family and people-I-once-met-at-the-grocery-store that ask: How do I get published?

I get the impression most people want me to hand them a website, or give a quick and simple answer, but there’s really no instant-response to that question. Publishing is a big giant industry, and getting published isn’t a quick and simple thing, no matter how you go about it.

BUT, everyone needs to start somewhere, and so I’ve written this post as just that: a place to start. This is your square one, people.

Now, before you read this, let me spoiler you: I’m going to talk a lot about self-publishing and traditional publishing. Many people get very defensive (and some flatly offensive) when these topics come up. I understand; anytime we’re talking about the business side of writing, which we all feel passionately about, tempers can flare. So as you read, please keep in mind that I am making generalizations about both methods in this post in order to help those who are brand-spanking-new to the publishing industry decide how they want to move forward. This post is NOT a debate about which method of publishing is superior or inferior, but rather just a place for some general, just-getting-started info.

Okay? Okay.

On to square one.

There are two main “ways” to get published:
1) Traditional publishing:
This is where a publisher—be it a big one, like Random House or Scholastic or Little Brown, or a smaller one, like a university press— pays you an advance on sales, and then publishes the book, handles the design, marketing, and release, and you split the profits with them. Once you’ve earned back the advance, you start earning royalties on each book sold– but if you never earn back the advance, all that advance money is still yours to keep. You still own the copyright on your work, and publishing this way costs you nothing out of pocket—the publisher pays you if they want to publish your book. That said, traditional publishers are choosy about what they select to publish, so there’s a risk (and high likelihood, no matter who you are) of rejection.

2) Self publishing:
This is where you basically do everything yourself. You edit the book, design a cover, design the interior, upload it to Amazon or B&N or get copies printed, market it, etc. It’s a lot more work on your end, but nearly all the profit is yours (if you’re doing an ebook, Amazon/B&N/whatever platform you use will take a cut of your sales). Obviously, you still own the copyright on your work here too. Since you’re not submitting the work to anyone who must approve it, there’s no risk of rejection.

Which one is better?
There’s no answer to this question. There are pros and cons to each. For example:
-Traditional publishing means you get an advance right out of the gate, which is nice—it means you have some money to live on while you wait for the book to comes out.
-Self publishing is fast—with traditional publishing you usually have a year or more between turning in the book and seeing it on shelves.
-Traditional publishing means a professional designer will create your cover.
-Self-publishing means you get to make the final decision on your cover.
-Traditional publishing means a marketing team with connections, data, and a budget can send you on a book tour, get you in newspapers, and get you professionally reviewed.
-Self-publishing means that you can release the book on Sunday and immediately start writing a new one on Monday if you’re not the promo-ing kind.
-Traditional publishing means you must submit your work to publishers and be accepted—or rejected.
-Self-publishing means you’re the decision maker on if the book will be published or not.

(There are a billion others– those are just a handful off the top of my head).

There’s admittedly a certain prestige that comes with traditional publishing. This is not to say all traditionally published books are inherently better than all self-published books. But, when I see a traditionally published book, I instantly must assume that at a publishing house, this book was chosen from the thousands by a team of acquisitions editors. I must assume that it has been professionally edited, copyedited, and designed. I must assume this book was so good that the bookstore I found it in chose to carry it on their very limited shelves.
With self-published books, the only thing I must assume is that the author knows how to use a computer.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit that I grow very tired of traditional publishers talking about how their way is better because they’re “gatekeepers” for great books—all while releasing some celebutante’s ghostwritten autobiography. But, like it or not, self-publishing is easy. It takes less than ten minutes to load a book to Amazon’s website (yes, it takes more time to write, format and design it, and those things might not be easy, but none of that is required to get it loaded and stick a price on it). When it’s easy, everyone can do it—which means you, who are reading this and take writing and publishing very seriously, might be published alongside a frat guy who wrote an exposé about the girl who wouldn’t make out with him and loaded it just before beer pong started.

My point is: For me, and I think a lot of others, self-published books have to prove themselves to me in a bigger way than traditionally published ones do. I think it’s important to consider that when choosing what route to go for publishing your book.

How do I decide which route to go?
It very much depends on you, your goals, and your book. Take a look at what you want for yourself one, five, ten, and twenty years in the future. Think about what is very, very important to you, and what you don’t care about.

I encourage traditional publishing if:
-You want to be a full time writer
-You want to go on book tours and have your book professionally promoted
-You want to see your book in brick and mortar stores (bookstores, but also Target, Costco, etc)
-You want to have your book professionally reviewed
-You want to see your book on the NYT list
-You want your book to be in schools and libraries
-You want to be paid in advance of the book releasing

I encourage self-publishing if:
-You are writing a very niche book (for example, one self-published author I know wrote a series about kids who went to conventions, and he sold the book at conventions)
-Writing is a hobby for you, rather than a serious career path*
-You want to have total control over all aspects of the book
-You write very quickly, and want to get the book out and move on to the next faster than traditional publishing allows
-You are writing in a genre that super-embraces self-publishing (for example, romance and erotica)
-You don’t want to do any real promo (or, conversely, are on board with doing all promo yourself, which is very very time consuming)
-You want to pocket all the proceeds
-You have a built-in audience from your previous books/wacky TV show/massive Crossfit following

(These lists are obviously not conclusive– this is just a top-of-my-head-rattle-off sort of thing.)

*Because I sense people freaking out on me: Some self-published authors do treat writing as a serious career path. But if you don’t, but have written a book or memoir or whatnot just for kicks, self-publishing is definitely the route for you.

What’s important is that you look at both these options and decide what is best for you (keeping in mind that there are no guarantees in either route– plenty of traditionally published authors are not full time writers!). I strongly, strongly discourage you from self-publishing (especially your first book) as a last resort. If you think traditional publishing is your best route, but you keep getting rejections on your book, then shelve that book, lick your wounds, and write another one.

Because it’s important, I do want to mention some personal negative experiences in both camps:

I self-published a few adult novellas under a pen name. I know how to write a book, edit it, design a cover, and market it. I did all of these things, and even did a little paid promotion. When all is said and done, I’ve sold about 100 copies (about $30 worth). That’s not to discourage you, but rather, to give you a very realistic idea of what self-publishing can be. Yes, there are the people who make six figures a month on their self-pub books, but that’s not everyone.

Likewise, I have plenty of friends who traditionally published, only to have their books ignored, moved by their publishers, go under-edited or over-edited, or not make it into bookstores. I have seen traditional publishers come up with some truly heinous covers despite their professional designers (and as an author, you can beg for a cover change, but the publisher doesn’t have to do it). And often there’s a let down when you traditionally publish and the book doesn’t live up to expectations—and sometimes it can be harder for you to sell and publish additional books if a traditional publisher has sales records to show your first one didn’t go so well.

What should I be wary of?
In some places, the lines between traditional publishing and self-publishing are becoming a little blurred.

For example, there are some small “indie” e-publishers. They release the book online-only, edit it, and promote it, but the author receives no (or a very, very small) advance. This seems a little suspect to me—if you’re going to give someone a cut of your sales, I think they need to really earn it. If they’re not doing anything you couldn’t do for a few hundred bucks (hire an editor, do some light promo, and load the book to Amazon), why give them that cut?

Additionally, keep in mind that it is very, very easy to make a professional-looking website. If the small “indie” publisher you’re talking to won’t share sales, or hasn’t had any big sellers, or has no industry experience, do some more research to make sure they’re what you want.

Be wary of self-publishing help sites where for a fee, they’ll edit your book and design your cover. Who is the editor? Does that person actually have experience? How do you know? And how good is their graphic designer? Will they do it again if you hate the cover? If it were me, I’d probably hire a freelance editor and graphic designer whose credentials I could verify.

This post isn’t really about agents (who are essentially only used if you’re traditionally publishing), but if you do find yourself looking at agents, run away if one requests any form of payment from you before selling your book.

Great! Where do I go to start traditionally publishing/self publishing?
Ah, dear reader, this one is all you. The good news is that by reading this, you already have started. The bad news is that if I were to list all the various resources for both self-publishing and traditional publishing, I would spend my entire life making that list. Plus, the first steps are different if you’re writing, say, a non-fiction book than they are if you’re writing a young adult novel, so there are simply too many variables for me to walk you through.

That said, now that you have some information, you and your buddy Google are probably better prepared to sort through the internet and find a great traditional publisher to submit to (or an agent who will submit to a traditional publisher for you) or to start researching how you’ll go about self-publishing (what editors you’ll hire, where you’ll get your cover from, promo opportunities, etc).

I want to add: I am a traditionally published author. All of my books– the seven that are out and the five under contract– are through traditional publishers. Because I’ve had success there and am very happy with my career at present, I suspect this post leans toward preferring traditional publishing despite my best attempts to keep it neutral. With that in mind, I encourage you to seek out self-published authors if you feel like that route is something you want to explore– and, of course, please keep in mind that they probably lean toward preferring self-publishing.


  1. Great post! I wish I’d come across something like this when I started writing a few years ago!

    I discovered recently that some digital-first imprints of established publishers are experimenting with no advance. Like Carina (Harlequin), Harper Impulse (HarperCollins), and eKensington (Kensington Books). I know Carina, at least, offsets the lack of advance with higher royalties (40 and 50%). So publishers get to take risks on more authors, which is nice in that more of us get published. And I think there’s less pressure when there’s no advance to earn out. Of course, it sucks in obvious ways, like ‘I need to do edits and write book two but can’t afford a babysitter.’ Also, ‘Holy crap what if my books don’t sell and I’ve wasted a year or more of my life for nothing but some cover art?’ But I think it’s fair, because if the books don’t sell, no one gets money.

    Loved “Sweetly” and can’t wait to read more of your stories!

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    • l need a publishing lawyer because this is my first fiction story

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