It’s Complicated

The publishing world is a complicated place. More so now than ever, really. It used to be relatively straightforward: you wrote a book, you submitted it to agents, they said yes or no, and if they said yes, they submitted the book to publishers who would also say yes or no. For some publishers, it was possible to skip the agent stage and submit directly to an editor (like Stephen King did to William Thompson at Doubleday so many decades ago). But even in skipping the line a bit, the workflow was fairly direct.

Nowadays, that system still holds true to a point. For some. But now authors have other options. There are a lot more small publishers willing to look at manuscripts without agents attached. Or authors can self-publish their works. These additional options makes publishing more complicated, and for some, more confusing. And, given so many variables, outcomes can differ widely.

The Traditional Path

This is where you write your book, query agents, and hopefully get one to back your manuscript. Then the agent will submit your work to publishers. Most authors dream of being published by a “big name” (i.e., Penguin Random House), or at least a familiar one. Alas, landing an agent doesn’t guarantee this, nor does it ensure your book will actually get published at all. Even if the agent loves it, he or she may not be able to find an editor at a publisher willing to buy it. Factors include: current trends, what editors/publishers already have on their slates, what the marketing team feels they can sell, etc. You can write something brilliant and it still may not get picked up. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, just that you and your manuscript haven’t hit the market at the right time. If you’re lucky, the agent will sign you, not just the book, and he or she will encourage you through a new project that hopefully will fare better.

Pros of the traditional path, should you be successful, is that a good publisher will help with the bulk of the promotion and marketing of your book (though authors will always have to do some of the work), and that these publishers also can get said book into bookstores and libraries. They can submit your book to reviewers and for awards, too, and just generally get it more attention.

However, some authors choose not to seek agent representation because it takes too long or they feel their work doesn’t fit what agents and publishers are looking for. Alternatively, some authors believe their work has broad enough appeal that they don’t need an agent or publisher because readers will pick up the book regardless. (In short, some genres do very well when self-published because of avid readership.) For these authors, getting the book out quickly may be key, so they choose to self-publish instead. Finally, some authors just get too beat down and burned out by the querying grind and seek a different way to publish their work.

The Small Publisher Route

Many small publishing houses have sprung up in the past decade or so. These often specialize in certain genres and accept submissions directly from authors (whereas larger publishing houses take submissions only from agents). Therefore, some authors who want a publisher but would rather skip the step of landing an agent will begin by querying these publishers.

A good small publisher offers the sense of validation many authors crave. Some (but not, in my experience, many) will offer advances as well. A solid publisher will do some marketing for their books and authors, and will put the manuscript through a traditional publishing process, by which I mean the book will go through rounds of edits, it will be typeset and the author will see proof pages of that stage, a cover artist will design a cover for the book, marketing will send the book for reviews and promote the book online, and there will be manufacturing and distribution of the title. Unfortunately, most small publishers are working with little to no overhead and don’t offer as much of these as bigger houses. Most I’ve seen only do an editorial pass and make a cover. Many don’t even do print runs; their titles are print-on-demand (POD) if they’re available in print at all (many small publishers are ebook only). There are so many caveats regarding small publishers that they’d really need to be another post, but I will say:

  • Check out the publisher’s other titles and the sales data. Do they get many Amazon reviews? What are the Amazon rankings?
  • If it’s important to you to have your book in print (rather than simply as an ebook), be sure you what format(s) the publisher publishes.
  • NEVER, EVER PAY TO BE PUBLISHED. An honest publisher takes on the costs of editing, creating a cover, and marketing the book. If a publisher asks for money, RUN.
  • Know what marketing, if any, the publisher does. Many small publishers will ask their authors to promote one another, which is not an effective method for new authors who don’t have a readership yet.
  • Keep an eye on how many books and authors they publish. If they have dozens of titles come out each week, it’s likely they aren’t giving any of them much time or energy. The publisher may be an “author mill” that churns out books in the hopes that at least a few will sell well.

There is probably a lot more to say on the subject, but that’s a good start. Basically, if you’re looking at a small publisher, you have to ask, “What can they do for me that I can’t do for myself?” If the answer is, “Nothing,” then you may want to consider


This is when the author is also the publisher. Some authors even go so far as to make their own small publishing companies. An author may choose to self-publish for a variety of reasons. If no agent or small publisher accepts your manuscript, you may consider self-publishing. If you have a book that is too weird in theme or genre for anyone else, you may need to self-publish. If your goal is simply to get the book out into the world, or if time is of the essence, self-publishing is the fastest route.

If you choose to self-publish, you will need to pay to publish because you are acting as publisher and take on the costs of a publisher. That means paying for an editor, paying a cover designer, paying for someone to typeset the book (either for ebook, print, or both)… You will also have to figure out how to market your book, which can have additional costs.

So, in order to self-publish with any success, you need to be ready and willing to outlay the money, and you need to know where to find your readers so you can market to them. You also need to be prepared for some readers to turn their noses up at you because many have the idea that self-published work is, well, not very good. (To be fair, some of it isn’t, but that’s true of traditionally published books too. An argument for another time.) Some readers feel the lack of gatekeepers—a “verification” process of sorts—means all self-published books are “rejects,” and that those books must have been rejected for good reason and therefore are not worth looking at. The truth is, while that’s the story for some self-published books, just as many authors go directly to self-publishing because they can make more money and retain complete control of their work.

I self-published my books because, even though agents told me I was a really good writer, they also told me my books weren’t salable. My stuff is just too… eccentric for genre classification, I guess. And it turns out that I’m not very good at marketing my own work, which is already difficult to sell, so… Ah well. I love to talk about writing and publishing and books in general, but when it comes to finding the audience for my decidedly niche works, I’m not savvy. Which is why I’m hoping my most recent manuscript is commercial enough for an agent this time around. I’d like to just focus on the writing part.

This is, of course, merely an overview of the complicated tangle that is publishing. And things are changing constantly. Feel free to ask questions or tell me your publishing story in the comments!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.