Do you aspire to write a book and be a published author one day? If so, you are not alone.
According to Joseph Epstein, author, essayist, short-story writer, and editor, “81 percent of Americans feel that they have a book in them.” However, not every single person with the desire to write a book can do so.
Going off those statistics, approximately 265 million Americans aspire to be authors (with 327.2 million Americans as of 2018). But according to William Dietrich, Novelist, Naturalist, and Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalist, there are a mere “145,900 American ‘writers and authors’ counted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a quarter of them part-time, two-thirds of them self-employed, and with median earnings of $55,420.”
In short, becoming an author isn’t for the faint of heart. And it shouldn’t be for those seeking fame and fortune. Becoming an author in today’s day and age can be a difficult path, and the options seem to change from year to year.
Which paths are available to the modern writer?
As of early 2019, the big five publishers—whose names you have likely heard of many times before—are Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster.
If you want to be published through the big five or through another traditional publisher, you need to have a literary agent. Many people call literary agents the “gatekeepers” to the traditional publishing industry. Whether or not that’s true, writers have to pitch their unpublished manuscripts to agents via a query letter, which is essentially a professional cover letter all about your book.
Traditional publishing can take years before your book hits the bookshelves, including the months or years it takes to secure literary representation, go on submission with your agent to editors at publishing houses, and then the average two-year publishing timeline once a book is acquired (if the book is acquired at all).
In addition, authors are often expected to have a platform (even for fiction) and assist in marketing efforts. On the plus side, many traditional publishers offer authors advances as well as royalties (once the advance is met), and authors are not expected to pay anything upfront to publish their book. Traditional publishers also have fantastic distribution and connections within the industry that can help to spread the word about a book.
An indie press (or independent press) is a publisher that is independently owned. The majority of small presses are independent publishers and separate from the big five publishers.
Indie presses are not the same as self-publishing (which we will get to). The phrase “indie author” usually refers to a self-published author, while the phrases “indie press” and “indie publisher” typically refer to a small, independently-owned publisher.
Indie presses often only publish a few titles per year and (usually) do not offer their authors advances. Otherwise, they often operate similar to a traditional publisher, utilizing in-house staff to edit, format, and publish a book on behalf of the author. In return, the author signs a contract to give the indie press certain rights to their book.
For authors who elect to publish their books with an indie press, one upside is often the press’ ability to take chances on authors and titles that a larger publisher might not (such as genre-bending manuscripts). Since indie presses aren’t driven by shareholders like the big five, they have the freedom to take more creative risks.
Authors can choose to publish their own books through platforms such as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), iBooks, IngramSpark, Lulu, Barnes and Noble Press, Kobo, Smashwords, and more. In doing so, authors retain the rights to their books (rather than giving them to a publisher) and have complete creative control of a given manuscript. However, authors are also expected to do all of the tasks a publisher would typically do, such as book formatting, creating a cover, hiring an editorial team (developmental, copyediting, proofreading, etc.), marketing the book, and so on.
It’s important to note that authors can choose to publish a book without having worked with an editor, which is where the (unfortunate) stigma around self-publishing books being lower quality comes in. Self-publishing has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years, and the stigma surrounding self-publishing has lessened over time due to many professional indie authors publishing high-quality work.
According to an article in Publisher’s Weekly, “[t]he Big Five traditional publishers now account for only 16% of the e-books on Amazon’s bestseller lists.” In addition, “[s]elf-published books now represent 31% of e-book sales on Amazon’s Kindle Store.”
DON’T PUBLISH YOUR BOOK WITH A VANITY PRESS. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about why.
If you aren’t aware of this, writers who want to traditionally publish are not expected to pay anything. One of the benefits of this option is that the publisher invests in you, thereby paying for things like developmental editing, copyediting, proofreading, book layout, book cover design, etc. The same goes for indie presses. They, too, will pay for all expenses. In return, you (as the writer) will give them various rights to your book and story.
For self-publishing, the author has to foot the bill. All of the above to-dos the author is expected to pay for themselves. However, the royalty rate is usually significantly higher for indie authors as a result (meaning, you make more money per book you sell—and hopefully earn back the money you invested into the book at the front).
Vanity publishers, on the other hand, will publish your book for you and they expect you to pay them. Essentially, they often claim to be a publisher and that they are able to do a bunch of wonderful things for your book (which they often cannot fulfill). In short, the vanity publisher expects the author to pay them to publish their book… and they may try to take some of the author’s book’s rights as well in a contract. STEP CAUTIOUSLY, FRIENDS.
Anytime a publisher asks you to pay to publish, consider that a MASSIVE red flag.
*Note: There are companies, such as Book Launchers, that you can pay to assist you in the self-publication process. Other sites, like Draft2Digital and PublishDrive, upload your book files to different distributors in exchange for compensation. However, with these services, you still retain your rights and have access to the behind the scenes of all of the platforms your book is available on.
This is what many consider to be “the best of both worlds.”
Typically, when someone says they are a “hybrid author,” they have self-published their own work and also either published traditionally or with an indie press.
No matter which path you choose, carefully consider what success looks like for you. What are your ultimate dreams for this book as well as for your author career? If having complete creative freedom is most important, then self-publishing might be the route for you. Or if you are unable to financially invest in publishing a book, traditional publishing might be best.
There is no one right way to publish a book. So, go forth, write your stories, and do your due diligence in determining which publishing path might be best for you.
Karen Klink says
Is “She Writes” considered a vanity press as they require $2,000 to publish with them? They do say they will do a lot for this fee.
Melissa Henderson says
Thank you for the information. I have noticed that people have strong opinions for publishing. There are good things with each type of publishing. We must remember to pause and truly consider each option.
Diane Buie says
Love your article and all the helpful hints you have written! Thanks.
JOHN T. SHEA says
Thanks for an interesting article!
“There are 145,900 American ‘writers and authors’ counted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a quarter of them part-time, two-thirds of them self-employed, and with median earnings of $55,420.”
More writers earning more money than most of us think. Particularly considering very few people even begin actually writing the book they think they have in them.
A far cry from 1967, when the Author’s Guild estimated there were only 250 full-time writers in the USA.
Michael Dunne says
Great article, Meg!
I recently worked with a client to publish a full-color, hardback, illustrated children’s book. The client is a non-profit and will not be marketing/selling their book (and subsequent titles in the series) in the traditional sense.
We used Thomson-Shore (recently acquired by CJK Group) for design services and (offset) printing. Due to the book materials and format, this project approached vanity-publishing cost levels. Between my fees for ghost writing, editing, project managing, coordinating illustrations and book layout, etc., the TS design fees, and printing costs – this was expensive project!
One can obviously print a self-published indie paperback MUCH more cheaply, but still, once you step out of self-e-publishing or traditional, there are significant cost factors to consider in order to produce a professional, physical book.
I’ve self-published ebooks for next to nothing that look great on a Kindle, but if authors want to put out a top-quality book without chasing representation and waiting on the traditional houses to work through the cycle, it can definitely be costly!
Meg LaTorre says
Illustrating children’s books (or any books, really) can be incredibly expensive–far more so than most novels. However, as long as the writer (or whoever hired you to do the work) retains the rights to the book, that’s what really matters (in my opinion). It’s great if your client had the funds to create a book with this level of work required.
Michael Dunne says
So we discovered 🙂
And yes, all the rights belong to the non-profit foundation (my name is not on the work) and Thomson-Shore acted only as the printer.
It was (and continues to be) an incredible learning experience for me with regard to the publishing industry… like getting paid to go to school!
Paula Cappa says
Hi Meg: This is a great overview of the publishing options. I am wondering though, when you cite the Publisher’s Weekly 16% vs. 32 % statistics on ebooks (from 2014 Book Works article) if you have any updated stats. 2014 is quite old in the fast-moving book industry. I wonder if those percentages are accurate for today’s market. Any thoughts on this? Thanks!
Meg LaTorre says
Good question! I did a bunch of digging and couldn’t find any newer statistics than the ones I found when I was writing the blog. I’m going to scour the interwebs a bit further to see if anything comes up. Unfortunately, to view a lot of industry statistics, you usually have to pay to access that information (like a subscription to a publication, for example).