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Publishing Options for Aspiring Authors

It’s been said that “everyone has at least one good book in them.” Sure enough, since I started my small nonfiction publishing business in 2007, I get frequent inquiries from individuals who have been nurturing a great idea developed from their unique life experiences. Although I make no pretense of having a booming business so far, people still want to know if I would consider being their publisher. The answer I give them is complicated. In an effort to simplify it (and stop repeating myself), I would like to relay publishing options in this article and point interested parties here.

For unpublished nonfiction authors, a general explanation of options follow. Feel free to post a comment if you’d like to add to it or clarify anything.

To self-publish a book is to start a new business. You will have to do everything from obtaining an ISBN, to designing and printing, to acquiring reviews, to Web site design and marketing. There are tools to help you with this, John Kremer’s books being some of the most comprehensive, and if they don’t scare you off, you probably have what it takes. That would be time, money, and oogles of inspiration to keep you going. Also, an ability to live with your mistakes; mistakes being an inevitable part of starting any new business.

Lightning Source is a popular printer for self-publishers because, as part of their service, they will get your book on Amazon, Ingram, and Baker and Taylor. If you don’t use Lightning Source, you will still be able to get on Amazon, but you will need to find another distribution service so you can reach bookstores; reason being that bookstores buy from Ingram and Ingram does not work with little authors. Small Press United is one distributor to research.

Self-publishing makes the most sense if you have a significant platform. For example, if you speak regularly at conferences, you may be able to sell a lot of books after your presentations. Then again, if you have a platform, a big publisher might be interested in you as well.

Custom Publishing
When using a custom publishers, such as iUniverse, the author may still say he or she is “self-published,” but the distinction is that many of the tasks needed to produce the book are done for them. Custom publishers offer editing, design, and printing—all for a fee. There are different packages from which to choose. Presently, there’s an excellent description of what is sometimes called “Vanity Publishing” on Wikipedia. 

Traditional Publishing
To appeal to a major publisher, the first thing to do is to write a compelling book proposal. Michael Larsen’s How To Write a Book Proposal will tell you everything you need to know. Then you submit your proposal to literary agents who may be interested in representing you to publishers, or you submit your proposal directly to editors you find in the Literary Marketplace (called the LMP and found in any library.) You will note in the LMP that many publishers say they do not accept unsolicited materials, which means you would have to find a literary agent who believes in your work before you can reach those publishers.

The whole process can take years and may result in many rejection letters. Sometimes a publisher will accept your manuscript but then give it a dreadful cover, or move the last chapter to the first, and you will feel hopelessly out of control. Worse, large publishers usually give a book less than a year to be successful; if sales aren’t strong, it will be phased out. That said, the glory of an established publisher is that you will be paid an advance (say $10,000 for unknown authors) and royalties on sales; countless details are handled for you so you can move on to your next project; and you will be guaranteed a fighting chance through their extensive distribution channels. If they like you enough, you may even get a book tour.

Partnering with a Publisher
This is a relatively new option, and the one that Cupola Press is aspiring to offer. Here, neither publisher nor author foot the whole bill, but expenses—and profits—are shared. Any number of arrangements can be negotiated. Often, the publisher does not pay an advance, but does handle editing, design, and production costs. The printing costs might be split, 50/50, and then the net revenue split as well. Marketing is also a joint effort, as it is to each party’s advantage to have the book succeed. The most positive thing about this approach is that the author has the verification of a real publisher, but still maintains some of the benefits of self-publishing: namely more control and the assurance that the book will stay in print for a decent amount of time.

No matter what approach an aspiring author takes, birthing a book is not for the faint-of-heart. There are risks and compromises with any scenario, but I have never been one to squelch an inspiration. You never know how it could take off or how it might help others. As Warren Buffet says, “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”  

Originally published on Gail Perry Johnston