I heard this from a friend in Seattle this week: “I write with a question. After much dithering, hemming and hawing, I have found the key to my book… I would greatly appreciate your counsel on how to navigate the process of getting it published. Finding an agent, self-publishing, Amazon? This is a world about which I know nothing.” Here was my answer to her:
What an amazing place to be: right at the beginning of something new and exciting, feeling clueless, and wide open to learning! Lovely, lucky you. Take some deep breaths, find someone to celebrate, or commiserate, your current state with, and enjoy this moment. I’ll be self-publishing my eighth book this spring, and I’m still far from feeling like an expert. I think I know a few helpful things to share…
The question that you’re asking is a big one. My own short answer is this: center on who and what you love. If you love the process and the people, then you’ll be satisfied (and some days, thrilled) regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen. So part of your goal should be asking yourself these questions as you go: Do I love the process? Am I learning to say goodbye to and let go of what I don’t love? Am I making choices based at least in part on what I most love to do and who I most love to be with? How you choose to publish should reflect who you are: what you enjoy doing, what you’re good at, who you like to work with, who your community naturally is, how you and your community members/natural work mates like to work, and also, yes, at least here in the U.S. in 2018, how much money you can spend up front. I’m a present-moment person, so those are my questions. If you’re a future-leaning person, then maybe ask: Where do you see yourself and your book in 2 to 5 years? Who do you imagine will be your coworkers along the way to get there? Who will you read the book to? Where will you be? How much of a hand do you want to have in major decisions and in book promotion, distribution, and sales along the way? If you’re a learn-from-the-past person, then maybe questions like these are better questions: Who has created books or left a legacy that I respect and admire? What did they do and not do? I suggest that you talk to 4 or 5 people who have published books in the past 2 to 10 years (or longer, depending on you and your subject) related to your subject and genre so you can get a broader picture of why people choose to publish the way they do and get a clearer picture of what it takes to publish (the easier part) and to live an authoring life (the impossibly hard part if you’re not an author at heart).
If you want a really long answer, then here are some thoughts from my experience. There are hybrid approaches now, but these are your three basic choices:
- Big publishing houses. In 2009-2010, I spent about a year and a half thinking about publishing via traditional routes. That is, find an agent, shop a manuscript around, find a big publisher, work with that publisher to produce and promote the book, become J.K. Rowling, and then say whatever you want to say on Twitter without fear because the whole world has your back. In big publisher world, as a first-time author you need an agent to even be heard, unless you’re exceptionally famous or infamous. You also need a significant author platform already in place (this is all the ways you’re already listened to by the masses—such as your own blog, speaking gigs you already do, podcasts, classes you teach, programs you host, media coverage you’ve received, etc.) for your manuscript to even be considered, no matter how good it is. As the most forward-thinking and cutting edge big publishing house editor told me “In this space, we don’t start revolutions. We document revolutions that already happened, because we need to make that kind of money [big money] to survive.” So kind, he was, to say that to me, saving me years of wasted time and trouble! There are thick books of agents and publishing houses published every year to be up to date—you can ask at any bookstore for them, and start there. However, attending a few writer’s conferences is perhaps the simplest way to find an agent. You could try Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association’s (PNWA’s) next writers conference. Most big writer’s conferences set up pitch sessions that you can sign up for and then you get to pitch your book idea or manuscript to a few agents. After about 18 months of exploring this world, I decided that route wasn’t for me. I somehow knew back then that I wanted to be a full-time author: writing book after book after book regardless of what else I was doing. From my perspective back then, the big publisher world felt like choosing to spend my working life on the biggest, slowest (not to mention kind of elitist and wasteful) cruise ship on earth (where authors were deck scrubbers while others drove the ship, made the big decisions, and doled out the wages). I learned that what I enjoy is more like kayaking or sailing with a few friends—a place where everyone gets to be in charge sometimes and people adore and trust each other from the get go for their complementary skill sets. Other authors love the big publisher world. And I get it–I hate doing all the leg work for book promotions. Still, it just wasn’t for me. For one reason, even after you get an agent (which could take years, depending on how much time you have to devote to that), and then get your manuscript accepted by a big publisher (which could also take years), it can then still take an additional 1 to 3 years for the book itself to be published and reach store shelves—and this last part is on the publisher’s schedule, not yours.
- Small publishing houses. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of small publishers in the US. You can find them by asking your book nerdiest writer and reader friends (and their friends), by searching Google, and also at writer’s conferences. I suggest doing all three if you have the time. I recommend trying to find someone at a local (or emotionally local to you) small publishing house willing to talk to you about their process. Often editors from small publishing houses attend writer’s conferences where you can sign up to pitch a book idea or manuscript directly to them. You don’t necessarily need an agent with a small publisher, although you’ll most likely want an attorney to help review contracts and think about legal ramifications of some choices if you aren’t inclined to research legal questions yourself and don’t have a background in negotiations and/or mistrusting others. Artists, who tend to love and trust for a living, can be wise to partner with one kind person who mistrusts for a living. Not everyone who publishes a book is an artist, of course–you might also do fine on your own. I haven’t yet worked with a small publishing house yet, but I can now imagine doing so in the future. Likely because I’m old enough now that I have a few friends who run small publishing houses. People who run small publishing houses tend to be well, cool, from my perspective. People I enjoy spending time with. People whose passions and skills complement and stretch my own. Working with a small publisher is a far more intimate arrangement. Some small publishing houses publish just 3 to 12 books a year, so if you’re among the chosen, you are all in it to win it for your book–rising or sinking together.
- Self-publishing. This is the wild west of book publishing, and it’s where my own expertise lives. It’s still not simple, but it’s considerably simpler to self-publish in 2018 than it was 7 years ago when I started. Systems that tend toward getting simpler (not easier) with time are where I like to live, I’ve learned–likely because most of the human world is getting more complex right now. There are still emerging and new ways to work in the self-publishing space, and you can try different things with every book you publish (if that sounds like fun, this might be for you). In this space, you are the publisher/big decision maker and often the project manager while others—such as distributors, printers, editors, cover artists, indexers, etc.—essentially work for you. Getting a book to a published state can be much faster here. I self-published my first book in 2012, and I will be publishing my eighth book in March 2018. I chose to self-publish the first seven for many reasons: because a) I wanted to learn the process from end to end, b) I had the mindset (coming out of Microsoft and my doctoral program back then) of experimenting and learning at every stage as a fun thing and also confidence in my own skill set (as a dev editor I’d helped others get their books published via Microsoft Press), c) I wanted to publish some of the books quickly—for particular purposes or for particular people, in the same year I’d written them, d) I had community members with skill sets that complemented my own, e) an ability to ask for help and hire/barter skills and services with friends and friends of friends, and f) I was willing to manage the book as a project and try my hand at promotions/marketing/sales. I was lucky (and naturally inclined) to have people around me willing to learn along with me. For example, people who were editors, illustrators, publications, and manuscript to book and eBook conversion experimentors who were willing to learn along with me and work with me. I also got legal advice, as needed, from a group of attorneys that worked at the same coworking space where I worked–another place we traded services instead of paying for them. We used Amazon’s CreateSpace (book) and Kindle Direst Publishing (KDP) (eBook) for the first seven books because they were the easiest for us (back then) and we had so many other things to learn that we needed easy. They were essentially the printer and online distributor and I myself (with my spouse and closest friends) made the big decisions. We were the publisher.
Another upside to this approach is that it is a relatively inexpensive up front route. I needed that. I’d quit my day job to finish the last year of my doc program and I decided to try to write full time before pursuing another day job. Self-publishing is relatively inexpensive in that, for example, for some books I leaned on my closest friends or my spouse to do publications, formatting, and manuscript to PDF and MOBI file conversions to hand off files to Amazon (bartering their expertise on my projects for my expertise on their projects = free labor for everyone!). I’ve always paid for quality editing, but I’ve bartered my own skills and services for everything else at some point: for example, some of my cover art and promotional materials like postcards and bookmarks. The way CreateSpace and KDP (and many others) work, you pay nothing to them up front. Instead, they take a percentage of every book that’s sold, and the physical books are print-on-demand, which is invisible to anyone who purchases books online (well, except for big publishing company and other traditional purists and book makers who will notice the subtle-to-invisible quality differences). I’ve published several books for under $1,000 this way—paying only for editing and sometimes cover art up front. So this is a great way to start if you don’t have much money and want to experiment. The down side is that you are on the hook for ALL your own marketing and book promotion. Don’t quit your day job to try self publishing, unless you’re already famous somehow. We lost money on my first 3 books as we figured things out. We broke even on books 4 and 5. We made a little money on book 6 the first year. A little more on book 7. We have big plans for book 8! Another upside is that we can promote and sell these books forever (if that sounds like an upside to you, you might be a self publisher). All our books are residual income for us now. Tiny amounts trickle in each month, and more money shows up whenever we do book readings, teach workshops, give interviews, do online training, and so on (basically, whenever we show up in person we see bumps in book sales). With a traditional big publisher, to the best of my limited knowledge, your book might be promoted in a big way for just the first year (or a few years if you’re lucky). If it’s not selling well, they’ll pull it at some point.
Things have evolved quite a bit in the self-publishing world since 2012. Personally, I find working with small organizations more fun and interesting, so I’ve been looking at For my eighth book, here in 2018, I’m using BookBaby. They can handle cover art, publications/formatting, editing, conversion to ebooks, and getting it out onto all the major online booksellers and into the hands of the publishing house that makes it possible for bookstores to order and stock your book (Ingram). (Basically, all the things I’ve learned I don’t love doing or managing myself.) You can pick and choose services too: for example, I used my own editor, not theirs, since as a former editor I have dozens of editor friends–from proof readers to copy editors to dev editors. And BookBaby can connect you with book marketing/promotions consultants that charge by the hour to give you advice about how to focus your efforts and best market and promote your book. (I would have killed for that back in 2011 and 2012 and 2013–back when I was trying dozens of things and failing at almost all of them.) I’ll let you know how it goes with them. See, even after eight books, there’s still much to learn and experiment with here in self-publishing land! There are other end-to-end self-publishing services companies like BookBaby out there now, too. There’s a more local one in Portland that someone suggested to me recently: Luminare, I believe their name was. I may check them out for the next book. BookBaby is based in New Jersey.
I love self-publishing because as the publisher I automatically own all the content and can do whatever I want with it, when ever I want. There are no complicated negotiations that require an agent and few (typically) that require an attorney. BookBaby’s staff work with me: I don’t work for them. For my latest book, which is twice as long (120,000 words) as any other book I’ve written, I paid ~$1,300 for editing (which is low, thanks to my connections and friendships) and I expect to pay ~$1,500 to BookBaby for covers, publication/formatting/proofing, and getting the book to the dozen or so distributors. I now work with my husband from our own work/home studio space, Silly Dog Studios. We promote our books via an email mailing list, social media, friends, prereaders (who get a free book for providing reviews online, even bad reviews–I’m not Trump), local booksellers, in-person book readings at places that make the most sense for each particular book, as part of workshops and classes we teach here at Silly Dog Studios, and at the two big Whidbey Island farmer’s markets April-October. I’m looking into Indiebound right now to move future marketing to a space I more naturally fit than giant Amazon (who is too big to care, for example, that another Lori Kane writing 5-page terrible erotica “books” shows up in searches for me–the people may empathize, but the organization can’t, it’s just too big to make changes for one author). We also have many artist, writer, neighbor, and other small business owner friends who naturally promote books for us, too. Here in very small business land, we all promote each other’s work. That’s how we survive. More importantly, that’s how we like it and how we thrive. (I’m far better at promoting group work/community-level work and other’s work than my own individual work, which actually works just fine here in self-publishing land–I don’t have to change who I am in ways that feel unnatural to me. Daniel and I also plan to make the individual chapters of book 8 available on my website, so I can also sell individual chapters to people who don’t want the whole big book, too. My latest book is creative non-fiction and the chapters stand alone well. It’s a busy world. My audience may want just two of the 9 chapters–that’s perfectly fine with me. We’re planning to host workshops here that use the book’s content as the base. We make all our books available for sale to those who come to workshops and events here. FYI, [person-specific suggestion for my friend who asked the question] are terrific places for book readings and book sales about [your subject]! Just remember to bring cash/change, since many people there don’t want to swipe their credit card into a device on somebody else’s smart phone to buy a book!
In my professional opinion, the process to have a great-selling book, become a well-known author, or to make a full-time living as an author takes between 8 and 20 years of dedicated hard work and learning to ask for and accept community help at every turn, regardless of which publishing route you take. If you’re not an author at heart, you will fail regardless of which approach you try because your heart won’t be in it. If you are an author at heart, you will succeed regardless of which approach you try because you won’t give up no matter how many failures and rejections you encounter and you will draw people to you who will support you in your efforts and you’ll support them in theirs. You have to grow through the process of publishing and becoming an author and that growth takes time—it can’t be rushed by mere humans. I know a few exceptions who got there faster than 8 years, but those exceptions work their BUTTS off night and day, almost round the clock, 365-days per year to make that “exception” happen. As a secondary caregiver for one parent with Alzheimer’s disease and a primary care partner for the other parent (who is exhausted from 15 years of caregiving), not to mention as someone who needs a well-rounded life outside of constant book promotion to create great books in the first place, I haven’t had that kind of time to become exceptional quickly. 😉 Today, that’s fine with me. Exceptional isn’t a thing I aspire to anymore. Here in Lori Land, exceptional is a thing we all naturally are when we slow down long enough to notice.
An up side to self-publishing is that you can get a published book in your hands much faster than the big and small publisher routes. The down side is that if you’re not interested in doing ongoing community building, personal growth, marketing/promotions, and even sales some days, then you can end up with a finished book that almost nobody knows about or cares about outside of your own family (I have several of those). The biggest up side to self-publishing is that you are clearly the primary decision maker. As such, you naturally focus on what you love about the process, you learn to readily ask for help (or you get nowhere fast), in regularly asking for help in your community, you fluidly pull people to you who you need to work with next (and they need you), and you end up naturally spending quite a lot of time with people you love and respect. So if you keep at it through all the failures and second-guessing yourself and kicking yourself for trying things that you knew in your gut wouldn’t work for you, then you will one day find yourself surprised–as you type the words to your friend–that you now have a custom-made-by-you, for you, totally unique to you and kick ass author platform (aka, author’s life, aka, the life you truly want).
Loving the process and loving all (ok, almost all) of the people you work with doesn’t just makes all of your books (even the money losers) meaningful and worthwhile endeavors. It also lands you where you truly want to be, doing what you really want to be doing, wearing what you really want to be wearing, and creating the work that you are on this earth to create. Surrounded by people doing the same. Most days. Huh, wow–I think that’s where I already am.
Thank you for the big question. I hope something in there helps!