Generally, choice is a good thing. Having plenty of choice feels exciting. It IS exciting. But it can also feel daunting, and confusing, particularly if you don’t consider yourself to be a great decision-maker. And once you start making choices you inevitably close doors. You may feel as though you’re missing out. Or question if you made the right choice in the first place.
So how do you go about making the all-important decision of which publishing option to choose? There are some choices that are critical to think carefully about, as they will decide how well your publishing strategy fits with your true ambitions. If you answer the below questions honestly you should find your optimal publishing route.
1. How do you feel about promotion?
All authors, whether traditionally published or not, have to do promotion. The key question is: how much are you willing to do? If you really don’t want to do much, then it is going to be hard to succeed without the support of a promotions team working for you to get your book noticed. However, if you love getting social and feel comfortable about promoting your book you have many more options, because you can be your own champion. In today’s world getting noticed is one of the biggest challenges facing an author. It’s worth reflecting on this. Many authors, by their nature, are rather introverted and shy and feel very uncomfortable about the prospect of “selling themselves” and being the centre of attention. But promotion is just like any other skill: it can be learned, and it gets easier with practice. Once they take the plunge and get involved in promotional events, even the most introverted authors can find that it’s a lot of fun to meet their readers and talk about their ideas.
2. How much creative control do you want?
There are many steps involved in turning a first draft in a Word document into a highly polished and published book; each step requires differing levels of creativity and a unique skill set. How important is it to you to have creative control over each step? If you’d like to control every aspect of the publishing process, from the choice of editor to the cover art to the marketing campaign to your time schedule, then you have to be realistic that other professionals would be unenthusiastic about working with you. If you want other people involved (either employees of a publisher, or freelancers paid for by you), then your book will turn out differently – but shaped and styled by professionals who pretty much know what they’re doing. That does mean accepting that your book may enter the world with a cover you don’t much like, or a change in plot that you’re still not sure about, but it’s also more likely to enter the world with support from other people who also care about its success.
3. How much do you crave kudos, fame, and visibility?
Be honest. How much would you like to walk into a Waterstones, or a supermarket, and see your book for sale there? Do you dream of winning awards for your writing? Would you like to see your novel turned into a movie, complete with red carpet premiere and accompanying big name stars? There can be a tendency to be a bit embarrassed about these dreams, as though they are frivolous or vulgar. For now, put those self-censoring thoughts to one side and allow yourself to enjoy the fantasy. If this sort of recognition is important to you, embrace it! You will be much happier if you acknowledge this need and develop a strategy that allows for fame and success, should the opportunity arise. As John Jarrold, a well-known SFF literary agent, wrote on Twitter a while back, there are no absolutes in publishing. Potentially, this could happen if you self-publish, but it is highly unlikely. Traditional publishing is a much better option for hitting the big time.
Alternatively, if such visible measures of success do not matter to you, your options are less limited. You can build a core of fans through all of the publishing routes. If you succeed in reaching the people who connect with your writing, you can leave the red carpets to the stars.
4. How much can you afford to invest?
What’s your current financial situation like? If money is tight, then you will have to find a route to publication that has little or no upfront costs. However, if you have money to invest in your writing career then many other options open up. Many famous and critically-acclaimed writers who had the means and belief to take control of their own publishing, were able to launch their own careers. As with all endeavours, having the money to take on professional help can increase both productivity and the chances of succeeding.
5. How much money do you want to make?
As much as possible, presumably! To help clarify what is realistic: depending on the genre and quality of the book you’ve written, you can earn anything from £0 to £100,000s per year. Bear in mind, though, that the median earnings of authors is about £4000 per year. These figures are taken from the Society of Authors’ latest poll. If you carefully study the data you will see that the outliers – i.e. authors who earn in the £100 000s – are extremely rare in all models of publishing. There are also the outliers on the negative end of the earnings scale, i.e. those authors who have spent money on self-publishing and not recouped their costs from book sales; losing money despite all their effort. If you’re looking to supplement your income with a few hundred or few thousand pounds per year from your writing (and other writing-related activities) then that is totally realistic with any of the options available. However, if you do want the best shot at getting those high earnings, then the data show that traditional publishing is the likeliest option.
6. How important is the validation of others?
Because there are far more writers wanting to be published than there are publishers, traditional publishing is highly selective, no doubt about it. Publishers can pick and choose the books they want to publish, and that can lend a certain level of “validation” to the authors and works that they do choose. If this sort of validation matters to you, then publication by a well-respected and well-established press will be an important goal (though it may end up being a long and involved and often disheartening process). If, in contrast, you fundamentally object to this rather elitist process, or feel that, for whatever reason, you want to sidestep the gatekeepers then you can choose your own route, as you please.
Consider, for a moment, what it’s like to receive positive feedback/praise for your writing from a publishing professional. Can you feel a warm glow in your chest, the beginnings of a smile? For many writers having someone experienced – someone who’s read a hell of a lot of manuscripts and submissions over the years – saying that your writing is good, is extremely meaningful. For some writers though, the only validation of their writing that matters is that of their readers.
7. What genre do you write in?
If you’re a poet, short fiction or experimental literary fiction writer then some of the options will immediately be closed to you. You’re highly unlikely to get a big publisher interested in those three forms of writing (unless you’re already famous/big in the writing world) so then getting published by an indie press, self-publishing (or some of the mixed publishing options) will be the only options available to you. Please note: big publishers do still publish these forms of writing, but because it doesn’t make them much money they’re not exactly going out of their way to find it and usually invest in it for “bragging rights” come awards season. So… it’s still an option, but a more remote one; and one which greatly depends on you, your status in the writing world and the quality of your writing.
If you’re a non-fiction writer or a genre writer (thriller, erotic, SFF etc.) or a children’s writer then all the options are open to you. If you’re an academic writer then the traditional publisher route is pretty much the only option available to you (though I’d like to see what would happen if an academic did self-publish…).
If you’re a fanfic writer you don’t have a lot of options. Because of copyright issues you’ve pretty much only got your fanfic sites on which to share your writing. Even that can, potentially, be legally problematic.
So, to conclude…
There a lot of options to consider. A lot of questions to ask yourself. The most important part of this is to Be Honest. Take your time, have a good think. Your time spent in considering the answers to the above questions is time well spent, and will absolutely save you from future regret, headaches and money woes. You owe it to yourself, and your writing, to make the best possible choices for your writing career.