How to Get Successfully Published TODAY: Big 5, Indy, or Self-Publish?
David Henry Sterry Author, activist, performer, muckraker, book doctor
It’s the greatest time in history to be a writer. There are more ways to get published than ever before. While it’s great to have so many options, it’s also confusing. But when you break these many different ways down, they sort themselves out into just three primary paths: 1) The Big 5: HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette and Macmillan, 2) Independent presses that ranges in size from the hefty W.W. Norton to the many university presses to the numerous one-person shops. 3) Self-publishing. In our over 35 years experience in the publishing business as agents, writers and book doctors, we have walked down all three paths–and we have the corns, calluses and blisters to prove it. To help you avoid such injuries, we have mapped out the pluses and minuses of these three paths in order to help you get successfully published in today’s crazy Wild West world of books.
Writers who haven’t been published by The Big 5 assume that once they get a deal with one of these big fish, they’ll be able to sit in their living rooms and wait for their publishers to set up their interviews with Ellen and Colbert. They assume they’ll have a multiple city tour set up for them where thousands of adoring readers will buy their books, ask for their autographs, and shower them with the love and adoration they so richly deserve. We can tell them from hard-won experience that this is absolutely, positively, 100% not the case. Our first book together was with one of the Big 5. We won’t mention their name, and when we’re done with the story you will see why. When we went into our meeting with our publicity team, we were full of grand and fantastic ideas about how to promote and market our book, and were wildly enthusiastic about having a giant corporation that specializes in successfully publishing books behind us. Turns out our “marketing team” consisted of one guy who looked like he was 15 years old, and had 10 books coming out that week, and 10 books coming out the next week, and 10 books coming out the week after that. When we told him our grand and fabulous ideas he said in a cracking voice, “Well, good luck with that.” He did what he does with every book that comes out of this giant publishing corporation (unless of course your name is Stephen King, Bill Clinton or Snooki from Jersey Shore). He sent out a bunch of press releases along with a few copies of our book to all the usual suspects. Our book died on the line.
2) Independent Publishers. These publishers almost always specialize in a certain kind of book. They usually appeal to a niche audience. As opposed to the Big 5, who are generalists, and in theory at least, publish books for everyone. Again, these independent publishers are not owned by big celebrity-obsessed bottom line-driven corporations. That’s not to say they can’t be big companies. Workman, who published our book The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, is one of the most successful publishers in the world. They’ve published everything from What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Bad Cats to the awesome Sandra Boynton oeuvre. But many independent publishers tend to be small, and run and/or driven by individuals who are passionate about the subject which they are publishing. A good number of these publishers are very well respected, and their books can be reviewed in the largest and most prestigious publications in the world. There are many stories of small publishers having gigantic successes. Health Communications, Inc., which published Chicken Soup for the Soul. Naval Institute Press, which published Tom Clancy’s first novel. Bellevue Literary Press, a publisher affiliated with New York University’s school of medicine, which published Tinkers, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Greywolf, Tin House, and McSweeney’s are all small independent publishers who regularly produce beautiful high-end fiction that wins awards and garners great press.
Chances are, you’re going to be the big spring book from your independent publisher. We speak from experience that it is so much better to be the big spring book from a well-respected independent publisher than it is to be book number 2,478 from Penguin Random. Because they’ve got Stephen King, Bill Clinton and Snooki from Jersey Shore to promote.
And the great news is, you don’t have to have an agent when querying most independent publishers. Almost all indies expect writers to submit directly to them. If you go onto their websites, they almost always give you very explicit instructions on how to submit. Do yourself a favor, give it to them exactly how they want it. Even better, try to research the editor at the press who would be best for your book and send your query directly to him/her.
Yes, there are limitations to many independent presses. Most independent publishers have limited resources. Most of them won’t send you on a tour because they don’t have the money, so you will be called upon to do your own book tour and events. That being said, our publisher Workman, sent us on a 25 city tour, which they paid for in its entirety–hotels, airfare, escorts (don’t get the wrong idea, these are book escorts, not industrial pleasure technician escorts). But there’s a good chance you’ll get to work with at least a decent and maybe even a great editor, who will help you shape your book. They will proofread your book. They will copyedit your book. They will design and execute a cover for you. And often times they’re much more flexible about author input than the Big 5.
The other issue with fewer resources is that if, for some reason, you should happen to catch literary lightning in a bottle and your book blows up, an independent press may not be able to capitalize on your book’s success. They may not have the bookers for Ellen and Colbert on their speed-dial. And often they have to do very small print runs, so there’s a good chance your book will sell out of its printing very quickly and there will be no books available. Whereas if you’re with one of the Big 5, and your book blows up, they’ll do a giant print run, and they’ll be making calls to all the big guns.
3) Self-publishing. William Blake. James Joyce. Virginia Woolf. Rudyard Kipling. Edgar Allan Poe. Ezra Pound. Mark Twain. Gertrude Stein. Walt Whitman. Carl Sandburg. Beatrix Potter. What do these authors have in common? All self-published. What a cool group to belong to. The fact is, self-publishing can be a ball. It can launch you into superstardom and turn you into a millionaire (okay, rarely, but just ask EL James, author of the fastest selling book in the history of the universe, Fifty Shades of Grey).
Self-publishing has recently been dubbed independent publishing, not to be confused with independent presses. This is in part because self-publishing has for decades been the ugly duckling/redheaded stepchild of the book business. Janis Jaquith, an NPR commentator and self-published author of Birdseed Cookies: A Fractured Memoir, says, “When I announced to my writer friends that I was planning to self-publish, you’d have thought I’d just announced that I had syphilis or something. Such shame! Such scandal! I’m glad I didn’t listen to the naysayers, because I’ve had a ball.” The bottom line? This is not your daddy’s self-publishing. The onus of the ugly duckling redheaded stepchild is gone.
“Nowadays, because there is no barrier to publishing, we’re seeing people give up faster on the traditional route. These are people who are writing good books and turning to self-publishing. This means the quality of self-published books has gone up,” says Arsen Kashkashian, head buyer at Boulder Books. More writers are, indeed, seizing on the new technologies and low costs of publishing on their own because try as they may, they cannot break through the gate of the castle that holds agents, editors and publishers.
More than ever, we are talking to writers who are not even going after agents or publishers, because they don’t want to spend years being rejected. People are publishing books on their own because they choose to–because they see opportunities in the market and want a bigger share of the pie than publishers offer; because they want full control of their book; for some, because they just want a relic of their work to share with friends and family. And many writers choose self-publishing because they don’t want to have to wait for the sloooooow publishing machine. If you start looking for an agent or publisher right now, it can take years to find one. Maybe you’ll never find one. Then after you get a book deal, it’s typically going to take between 18 months and two years for your book to come out.
Here are some good reasons to self publish: 1) You have direct access to your audience 2) You want a bigger chunk of the retail dollar of your book 3) You have a time-sensitive book and want to publish fast 4) You want full control of your book inside and out, from your hands to your readers’ 5) No matter how much you rewrite and how hard you market yourself, you can’t find anyone to agent or publish your book 6) You’ve written a book that falls outside the bounds of typical publishing–either because of its niche audience, regionality, experimentation of language, category, theme, etc. 7) You really want to publish a book, but you just don’t have the personality to market it to an agent/publisher. 8) You’ve written up your family history or the lifetime of a loved one that will be of great interest to Aunt Coco, Cousin Momo and a handful of other blood relations but no one else
The good news about self-publishing is that you get to do everything you want with your book. The bad news is that you have to do everything. Which means that unless you are a professional proofreader, graphic designer, and layout expert for printed books and e-books, you’re going to have to get someone else to help you. And writers can only edit their books themselves so many times before they lose all objectivity. We highly advise, if you’re going to self-publish, get a trained professional to edit your book.
As with any entrepreneurial project, you can spend between $0.00 to $100,000.00. David bartered with a top-drawer cover designer, proofreader, editor, and specialist who formats printed and e-books. It cost him exactly $0.00 to produce his self-published book. So he started making a profit immediately. As someone who is an instant gratification junkie, it was absolutely fabulous how quickly it all came together. And when that box full of his books showed up at the door, he felt a special kind of life-affirming, rapturous ecstasy.
The good news is that anyone can get published. The bad news is that anyone can get published. So whatever you choose, you have to be the engine that drives the train of your book. And the same principles underlying a successfully published book are remarkably similar.
1) Research. Before you give up any rights or money or agree to work with anyone, make sure you research them thoroughly. 2) Network. Reach out to readers and writers, movers and shakers. 3) Write. Yes, it really helps if you write a great book. 4) Persevere. One of David’s most successful books was rejected over 100 times, by everyone from the top dogs of the Big 5, to some of the greatest literary agents in America, to countless University and independent presses. 100 top publishing professionals told him his book had no value. But tweaking and polishing and making it better, he finally landed a deal. That book ended up on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.