Wednesday, January 1, 2014

What You Need to Know about Book Publishers BEFORE Publishing Your Book
Happy New Year! As 2014 begins, we look into the future with hopes and dreams. Perhaps your hope or dream is that this is the year you will publish your book. Whether this is the first time for that dream or you have dreamed that dream many years and continue to hope that this is the year, you need to know about Book Publishers, what types there are, and how they work BEFORE you publish your book. So let's talk about what you need to know about book publishers and book publishing before publishing your book.

I've wanted to write on this topic for a long time, but it is such a big, big, big topic that it's a lot to tackle...especially in a blog post. It's hard to know where to begin. So I'm going to give some basics here, and then I'm planning to write more on this topic elsewhere. When I have that more in-depth information prepared, I'll let you know.

There are two essential things you need to know before publishing your book:
  • how publishing works, and
  • the different kinds of publishers.

Here I'm giving some basic information which I hope will give you a good foundation of understanding about publishing. That foundation can then steer you in the right direction to accomplish your goals. My aim is to provide information that will:
  • help you make good decisions about what kind of publishing you want to get involved in so you don't come out the other end hugely disappointed (which happens to authors all the time),
  • help you avoid the worst (getting ripped off),
  • help you find the success you're capable of.

I get asked about publishing books all the time.

"My husband just finished writing his book and he wants to get it published. How does he get a publisher?"
"I'm working on my life-dream of writing my book. How do I get it published?"
"I want to write a book. How do I find a publisher?"

Whenever someone asks me how to publish their book or how to get their book published, the answer they need is huge. That's because publishing is not the same as it used to be.

Publishing has changed

Publishing has changed vastly in the digital age of computers and the world wide web. The thing is, unless you've been in publishing for years and know how it used to operate, there's no way you can understand how things are different.

My expertise in publishing comes from being involved in publishing for twenty-five years and from watching it evolve during that time.

Most people seem to have an idea in their head of what "publishing" means to them, and they expect everyone else who uses that word to be thinking the exact same thing. This just isn't the case. So to get our bearings, let's first take a look at what publishing used to be, and then we can understand better what it has morphed into.

The way Publishing used to be

Years ago there were basically two types of publishing:
  • Traditional Publishing, also known as Commercial Publishing or Mainstream Publishing
  • and Self Publishing, also known as Vanity Publishing

Traditional Publishing

I believe "traditional publishing" is what most people think of when they want their book published. This is where a publisher wants to, and offers to, publish your book for you.

Traditional Publishers pay you an advance and, after your book sells enough copies to earn back what you have been paid in advance, the publishing company begins to pay you royalties.

A traditional publishing company takes all the financial burden of publishing your book. This includes hiring an awesome editor to take your very-good book and make it even greater, commissioning a professional to create a cover for your book, paying someone to design the interior and typeset your words, paying to copyright the work in your name, arranging for an ISBN and bar code, getting it into their catalog, and send out their sales staff to large bookstores to talk up your book and insure the stores carry it on their shelves. The traditional publisher also does a bunch of other things that need to be done that you're probably not aware of, but that's okay because they are the professionals and they know what needs to be done. And they're paying for it all.

You, as the writer, do not "hire" a traditional publisher. They "hire" (or better said: contract with) the writers they choose to publish.

Self (or Vanity) Publishing

Self Publishing is where you decide you want your book published and you set about to get that done.

You either do all the work of publishing your book yourself, or you hire people to do what you cannot or do not want to do (true "self publishing"), or you hire a company to do it for you (what I call a self-publishing company).

The big difference from traditional publishing is that you hire the people or company you need to help you publish your book. You pay all the costs. You'll also keep all the proceeds, should there be any.

Furthermore, when you self publish you can publish virtually anything.

In the old days this was called Vanity Publishing because it was believed to be done by people who couldn't get published by a traditional publisher because their work wasn't good enough. Therefore, being vain enough to only want to see their name on the cover of a book, they would hire someone to put their book together, or would do it themselves, and pay for a print run of hundreds or thousands of books. These self-published books had a reputation for being poorly written and lacking good editing, which created a lousy stigma for self- or vanity-published book. That stigma stuck for a long time. The quality of many self-published books has improved today. The stigma has lessened some, but it still lingers.

The way Publishing is Today

Traditional Publishing

Traditional Publishing remains the same as above. In order to obtain a traditional publishing contract for your book, you will need to find a publisher that publishes the type of book you are writing. Then you will need to approach them in the appropriate way, which is usually with a query letter. You can also meet publisher's representatives at writers conferences and often can "pitch" your book to them there. This "pitch" takes the place of a query letter and you may gain the opportunity to go to the next step, which is submitting a book proposal.

If the publisher is interested in your book (a very competitive long shot), they will ask to see your "book proposal." A book proposal is a very involved sales proposal with a lot of information about your book, including what it's about, an overview, an analysis of competitive titles, a brief description of each chapter (for nonfiction) or synopsis of your story (for fiction), and some sample chapters.

It's an involved document and the sale of your book to a traditional publisher depends on it. There are plenty of resources to teach you how to write a book proposal if that's what you need to do.

I always recommend an author attempt to land a traditional publisher for their book before they self publish.

Self Publishing

Self Publishing, sometimes called Independent Publishing, has morphed into many varieties of self-publishing companies and subsidy publishing.

True "self publishing" (verses self-publishing companies) means you do everything needed to put together your own book and publish it. It's as if you are remodeling your house and you act as the Genera Contractor. You line up all the people you need from the foundation to the shingles. You hire someone to do everything you either cannot do yourself or do not want to do yourself.

You will have complete control over every decision. You will take all the risks. You will pay for everything involved in publishing your book. And you will keep 100% of the proceeds. (I did not say profits because you've a long way to go to sell enough books to recoup your money before you start earning a profit, and many self-published authors never get to the profit stage.)

Thanks to today's technology, authors no longer need to pay for large print runs. Instead there is Print On Demand (POD) technology, so you can order a much small quantity of books. While they will cost more per each, you won't have the huge outlay of money for a large print run and you won't be stuck with a basement, closet, or garage full of books if they don't sell. (Be sure to see the information about required purchases under Subsidy Publishers.)

Self Publishing Companies

In recent years what I call "self publishing companies" have sprung up until there is an incredible number of these companies...all competing for your business. (And what does that tell you? That tells us there is big money to be made by these companies, and all of them want to publish your book so you they can get your money. I'm not saying they are not reputable. But there are a lot of people wanting to publish a book right now, and willing to pay for it. And many don't know this is not the traditional way to publish a book!)

These companies either help you self-publish your book or say they are publishing your book for you. But this is still self publishing because you are paying them to do so. In this case, the company you hire is acting as your General Contractor, providing or hiring the whole team you need to get your book published. And you are still paying for all the work.

Sometimes you do not pay outright for the work. Instead, the company gets paid by keeping a large portion of the proceeds to earn back the costs and hopefully make a profit too. (This looks a lot like a traditional publisher, and it can be really hard to tell the difference. I'll tell you some ways to tell the difference below.)

Sometimes these companies have you contracted with them for several years so that they are the exclusive publisher of your book, which makes business sense and also looks like a traditional publisher.

Here are just a few of the self publishing companies. Please know I'm not endorsing or recommending any of these companies. I'm just giving some examples:
  • Outskirts Press
  • Author House
  • Xulon (Christian books)

If you see ads for companies in writers magazines or online saying you can publish your book through them, this is not a traditional publisher. Traditional publishers acquire books through submissions and, most often these days, through literary agents. They have more than enough books to publish. They don't need to advertise for more.

Before you decide to use any publishing company, it is vitally important that you check them out to see how others have liked working with the company. Search for information (and complaints) about them online. Absolutely check with the Better Business Bureau.

Subsidy Publishing

Subsidy Publishing usually means you are paying part of the costs and the company is paying part of the costs. These companies may also be called "cooperative publishers," "book packagers," "custom publishers," or "boutique publishers."

Sometimes you have to pay money out of your pocket. Sometimes you pay nothing out of pocket, but the company keeps a larger portion of the proceeds to recoup their costs and, hopefully, make a profit. (Sometimes the fact that you are paying the cost of publishing your book is "hidden" because there little or no cash outlay.)

Some Subsidy Publishers require authors to purchase a certain number of books. I've seen the required purchase to be as many as 5,000 copies.

Most authors don't have a clear idea of how many copies of their book will actually sell. It's hard to tell until we've done it at least once. We all want to sell thousands of books. But the reality is it's more likely you'll sell hundreds at most. Reality check: Unless you speak multiple times in a year to hundreds or thousands of people per engagement, you're not going to sell 5,000 copies of your book.

If you purchase a large quantity of books, the subsidy publisher is going to make money off of you and you will most likely be stuck with thousands of books you will never sell (or recoup your investment from, let alone make a profit).

Plus, do the math: How much money is that number of books going to cost you? Even if they are only costing you $4 or $5 each, look at what a large investment that is, money that is out of your pocket until you sell to the break-even point. And look at how much money the Subsidy Publisher is making off of you!

Small Publishers Publishing on the Traditional Model

Many publishers today state they publish using the "traditional model." This usually means that they will pay the expenses of publishing your book. You won't pay any part. (Remember, if you're paying anything at all, you are not with a traditional publisher. And sometimes when you're not paying any part of the publishing costs, you're still not with a tradition publisher.)

These publishers will pay you royalties on the sales of your book. There is usually not an advance, because the publisher is too small to have funds to offer authors advances.

Small publishers often pay a larger percentage of each sale in royalties, but there will be fewer sales because of the limitations of a small company.

One of those limitations is that the books produced by small companies will most likely not be on the shelves in brick and mortar chain bookstores because small traditional publishing companies don't have a sales staff to meet with chain store buyers and convince them to elbow over some of the big boys' books to make shelf space for this smaller company's books.

Brick and mortar stores most often can and will order your book published by a small publisher in if a customer walks in and requests it (and if the publisher has its books available through a major distributor, such an Ingram), but your book won't be on the shelf where browsers might see it, pick it up, flip through it, read a few pages and decide to buy it.

Some small publishing companies use companies like CreateSpace to publish their books. CreateSpace is part of Amazon's group of companies. Many stores won't carry CreateSpace books because Amazon is their biggest competitor and they obviously don't want to be helping their competition, plus CreateSpace doesn't allow a big enough discount for the profit margin required by larger stores.

Small publishing companies usually offer virtually no traditional marketing (ads in magazines, on radio, etc.), but many do have a variety of ways of capitalizing on internet marketing and social media.

In the end, a small traditional publisher offers authors the advantages of an increased likelihood that they will publish their books. Authors often enjoy a more personal working relationship with the publisher and won't "get lost" as they might with a large traditional publisher who might give more attention to their big name authors. Drawbacks are the limited marketing help (much of which the author is expected to do anyway, even when published by a large traditional publisher), not being on the shelves in brick and mortar stores, and no advances.

Muddying the Waters

Book publishing can get very confusing because self publishing companies and subsidy publishers now use terms that have long been used in traditional publishing. They often call themselves "traditional publishers," sending you an "acceptance letter," say they will "publish your book" for you, and pay you "royalties."

Many of these companies will also tell you that they offer "distribution." They promise they will get your book on, Barnes &, and other outlets. Many new authors think this means their book will be in bookstores like Barnes & Noble.
There is a huge difference between:
  • having your book in a Barnes & Noble store
  • and being on

The language is so close that many authors don't notice the difference...until it's too late.

You can get your own book on for a minimal fee (it was a one-time fee of $25 a dozen years ago when I put my first book, Dear America, on Amazon).

My self-published book, Deliver Me, is also on because it is distributed by Ingram (because I printed it through, which is owned by Ingram). So there are ways to do this yourself. You do not need to pay anyone to do this for you. (Getting your  book published as a Kindle, Nook, or other e-book is a whole different animal. But you can also do this yourself, or hire it done. Google it to learn how.)

These companies have muddied the water by using the same terminology as true traditional publishers. We're using the same words but we're not speaking the same language. This is why you have to get savvy before publishing your book!

As if all this hasn't muddied the waters enough, you also need to be aware of a newer entry to publishing in recent years. That is, self-publishing companies that are owned by either larger traditional companies or big name authors or other organizations. Two examples are:

  • Thomas Nelson (a traditional Christian publishing company) owns the self- or subsidy-publishing company WestBow Press.
  • Author Jerry Jenkins, owner of the Christian Writers Guild, opened a company formerly called Christian Writers Guild Publishing. That company has now merged with Bethany Press (not the same as the large traditional Christian publisher, Bethany House), Believers Press and more to form what is now called 1Source.

Being published by WestBow Press is not the same as being published by the traditional publisher Thomas Nelson, which owns WestBow. (For more on this you may want to read literary agent Chip MacGregor's blog post "Thomas Nelson and Self-Publishing" and "Responding to Self-Publishing." )

See how confusing this can get? This is why you need to know what you're doing and who you're working with before you publish your book.

An Analogy

In order to communicate to you the difference between Traditional Publishing and all other types of publishing, let's say instead of publishing a book, your big dream has always been to play baseball.

You've learned to play and you're fairly good at it. But there are only so many spots available on all the Major League teams combined, and there's a ton of really stiff competition because lots of other people want to win one of the relatively few spots available on a major league team, too. So you try out.

What happens if you do win a place on a Major League Baseball team's roster? Congratulations! You get to play with the big boys! More than that, you get to play in front of a huge audience. Your name will be announced by the game announcers and people will hear your name and get to know your name and will get to see you play. You'll get to play in the big baseball stadiums all around America. You've made it to the big times!

But what if you don't win one of those relatively few spots on a Major League team?

Well, you have some choices. You can continue to try, and thank goodness in publishing, unlike baseball, age and gender don't matter. The playing field is pretty level and you can keep trying to win a spot with the big boys as long as you breathe. But you also can make some other moves.

You can play baseball on other teams, in other leagues, and on other fields. You can join a team in a city league. There's still some competition but there are enough teams that you can probably find one that will let you play. Or you can form your own team, or even your own league if you have the resources to do that. And then you play all you want.

You might be playing because you love the game and you're out to have fun. Or you might be taking it all more seriously than just having fun. But the point is, if you want to play baseball badly enough, and if you can't win a spot on a Major League team, then there are still some things you can do to make your dream of playing baseball come true.

Even so, there are obviously some really big differences between playing in your local league and playing for the Major Leagues:
  • You won't be paid as much as a major league player
  • Chances are you won't get paid much at all, if anything. And chances are even better that you're going to have to fork out some money because you're going to be paying your own way and paying for all your equipment, your travel expenses, etc.
  • You won't be playing in the big stadiums, unless you can make some kind of special arrangement for a special event. (Think stadium = brick and mortar stores here.)
  • While you may be playing for fun or for fulfillment or even to make a bit of money or for another reason, there are people who will never see you as a "real" baseball player because you're not in the Major Leagues.
I think you can see the similarities between the baseball analogy and publishing.

How can you tell which League a Publisher is in?

You probably know names of some of the large, long-existing truly-traditional publishers, such as Simon and Schuster, Random House, Bantam, Dell, Double Day, and Putnam.

In the arena of Christian book publishing, names of big traditional publishers include Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, and Bethany House.

But if you can't tell by the name, how do you tell whether a publisher is a traditional publisher or not? Here are some hints:

Walk into any brick and mortar chain bookstore such as Barnes & Noble, and the books on their shelves will most likely be from traditional publishers. Looking to see if a particular book or publisher is carried by does you no good at all because Amazon, God bless them, will carry just about anybody's book.

In the Christian book publishing arena, pretty much carries only books from the large traditional publishers. They do not carry self-published books nor even many smaller publishers.


I hope this information has been, and will be, helpful to you as you seek publication for your book. I know it can be complicated and confusing, which is why I want to write more on this topic via another venue. I'm working on that now and will let you know when it's ready.

Before you publish your book, be sure to ask good questions, including:

  • How is this company making their money? Off of you? Or off of selling copies of your book?
  • Are this company's books sold in brick and mortar chain bookstores? (Independent stores have the decision making and bookkeeping to carry anything, including self-published books.)
  • Are you required to purchase books?
  • Are you required to pay any part of the publishing costs?
  • What will the company really do for you? Can you do it yourself for much less?

These questions will help you determine what type of publishing company you're looking into, and what your publishing experience will look like when it's done.

Educate yourself about publishing. Know what your getting into. Discover all your options, and chose the best one for you. Learn what you need to know about book publishers and book publishing before publishing your book. Then when it's done, you won't be disappointed and you'll be able to create your own success.


How do I publish my book? @DianneEButts   Tweet this

How do I get my book published? @DianneEButts   Tweet this

NEXT MONTH: I feel we've been neglecting beginning writers and have been talking about book publishing a lot. So next month we'll talk about the basics of how to get started in publishing, whether you want to write for magazines or books.