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Publishing Options: What's Best for You?

This blog provides the framework to consider which publishing option is for you and how to get started

Most writers just want to write. We started down the path because we have a passion for writing and a story to tell. Like me, many don't even think about the publishing aspect or assume that just happens automatically. Publishing is a mystery to most writers.

Unless you just want to get your stories bound up as a family legacy, in which case just print your Word document and go to Office Depot for binding, there are many options to consider. First, let's start with a simple definition of each option.

Publishing Options

  • Indie/Self: this is fairly simple. This is all you! You control the process, make the decisions, maintain all rights, hire all contractors for editing, cover, and you must do all marketing. Depending on how professional you want the end product, it can be quite economical or set you back several thousand.

  • Traditional: these are the big publishing houses you've probably heard of like Penguin, Simon & Shuster, or HarperCollins. Many writers think of this path first. It may seem magical and simple to go with a traditional publisher, but that is far from the truth.

  • Hybrid: these are becoming more popular. Basically, you are paying someone else to do nearly all the tasks to publish, including editing, cover, and interior formatting but you maintain full rights, typically. This can be a great option but beware of unscrupulous companies.

  • Specialty: this category is often overlooked, but depending on your genre, you may find great interest in this niche from universities or small presses that provide a more accessible option than most traditional publishers.

Which is the right option? It depends on what your objective(s) are.

What's Your Objective?

Most of us have one or more of the following as our publishing objective:

  • Show-and-Tell: Many want their book on the Barnes & Noble bookshelf for all to see. This may be rooted in a generation that used to shop for all their books at

brick & mortar bookstores like B&N. It is honestly nearly impossible to be on the B&N bookshelf as an Indie or Hybrid publisher. They don't have the time, space, or inclination to stock your book while Traditional publishers have the influence to get you there. Does this result in more sales? Perhaps. But over 70% of books in the US are sold via Amazon and if you want to quench your B&N dream, bring your book into B&N, place it on a shelf, and take a picture. But honestly, most authors can get into B&N online and you will find many independent bookstores that are happy to stock Indie/Hybrid-published books. Some of those indie bookstores are quite prominent and very supportive. But if you aspire to sell at B&N, Traditional is your best bet.

  • Hands-Free Marketing: there is a myth that Traditional publishers will do the marketing for you so you can avoid this foreign, anxiety-riddled task. But this is just not the case unless you are Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. For the vast majority of us, Traditionals will do little, if any, marketing and will, in fact, want to see your Marketing Plan and huge social following to help convince them their investment in you is well-founded. Just expect you will do the marketing regardless of publishing option. We'll tackle marketing in the fall.

  • Low Cost: Traditional is likely the lowest cost because they will take care of most items (editing, cover) while providing a royalty advance at times. However, don't expect the 5+ figure advances - those are reserved for proven top authors. You may get 4 figures but remember, this is an advance. As you actually do sell books, your Traditional is recouping the royalty from you. This low-cost option does come at a price (see the next 3 objectives). Indie publishing can be a low-cost option as well depending on how professional you want your book to appear. If you do your own editing, cover design, and internal formatting (or have a friend help), you can drive your costs to nearly $0 but you are sacrificing the professionalism most readers and book shoppers are looking for (you may think that cover you designed is great, but they will know). But if you are just publishing for your family legacy with no great sales aspiration and/or you are working on a tight budget, this is an option.

  • Maximum Control: With Indie and most Hybrid, you have full control. You may get advice from an editor, but you decide what stays and is cut from the book, what your title is, and which cover you choose. With Traditional, that control shifts to the publisher who is taking a risk and believes their expertise will sell best, regardless of whether it violates your vision.

  • High Return: You will definitely make more per book royalties when you Indie publish or Hybrid, typically around $4 after printing, distribution, and shipping costs on a $20 list price, whereas the Traditional will give you around $1/book. You may sell more via a Traditional but it will require 4x the sales to equalize the return.

  • Fast & Furious: Indie publishing can definitely be the fastest. You control the schedule. You line up the editors and graphic designers on your schedule. If your timeline slips, that is your choice. You have only self-imposed deadlines as opposed to contractual deadlines with a Traditional or perhaps Small Press or Hybrid. Once you finish your draft, Indie could realistically be published in a few months (or less if you do your own editing and cover). With Traditional, you may be pitching to find an Agent for months or even years. IF that is successful, then they may pitch the publishing houses for months or years to try to get a deal. And of course, just because you go down the Traditional route does not guarantee success so you may spend 1-2 years and find it fruitless, redirecting you back to Indie or Hybrid years later.

One More Consideration...

Okay, you may say that's a lot of good information, but how do I decide? Well, I'll give you one more consideration - Project Management.

If you have the time and interest in Project Management, then Indie publishing may be for you. It requires some good organizational skills and self-initiative. If that sounds like you, you may find a new interest or passion in self-publishing. If this type of task sounds horrendous and/or you simply don't have the time, I would suggest you steer away from Indie and consider the others. With Hybrid you can meet most of the 6 objectives above without having to do all the project management - you just have to pay others to do that for you.

How & When to Get Started

So regardless of which publishing option you pick, this is all likely a mystery. So where do you get started and when.

First, regarding the "when," I'd say early. First, get started writing your book. Build some momentum. But before you finish, start considering your publishing options. Read more on each. Talk to others in your writing group or local writing organization to understand what route they chose and why. Consider other resources like writing & publishing podcasts and books and national organizations like the Nonfiction Authors Association (NFAA) that offer a lot of information and connections.

OK, then what?

  • Indie/Self: lean on a book to help pull together a timeline. You can start from the end (target publish date perhaps driven by a holiday or event when you want your book out there) and work forward or start from today and give yourself ample time with each step until it's done. Your timeline may shift (a lot) but this gives you a framework to get started. Highlight items you need to contract like editing, cover, and interior formatting, and start early to develop a list of vendors to evaluate. Lean on writers/authors you know, local or national organizations, or Google, but do your homework.

  • Hybrid: this is a rather simple process. You just have to find a reputable Hybrid publisher that you feel comfortable with. You pay them to manage the project. Again, lean on others you know and organizations to recommend a few Hybrids to evaluate.

  • Specialty: this may be harder to find. Google for publishers or university presses in your genre. This tends to best serve the nonfiction community.

  • Traditional: first learn the process through a book. Talk to your contacts to find prospective agents that service your genre. Inquire about their process. Some are happy to get a one-pager to decide if they are interested and others want more. Most/all will eventually want a pretty extensive proposal including concise sections about the book, about you, your target audience, and your marketing plan. Your agent will find the publishers. You must find the agent. Some organizations like NFAA have agent pitch sessions at conferences. Your local writer's association may offer the same.

While it's true you probably just wanted to write, publishing is a phase you must tackle at some point. Don't put it off or you risk losing the momentum of your project. You certainly don't want to get a manuscript prepared and then it sits in your drawer, never to see the light of day. You may actually find you enjoy the more left-brained aspects of publishing so give yourself time and approach this phase with energy and an open mind.

Keys to Success:

  1. Start evaluating publishing options early.

  2. Become a member of your local writer's organization. They often have interesting speakers, valuable conferences, and fantastic writing and publishing resources.

  3. Understand what your primary publishing objective is and consider your project management inclinations.

  4. Keep the momentum going. Your manuscript needs to get out there!

In July I will cover the business of writing, distribution, and other topics for success.


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