One of the first steps on the road to publication is choosing your path. Writers today have more options than ever before. Our options generally fall into three categories: Corporate Publishing, Small Press, and Independent Publishing.
Corporate PublishingSome call this "traditional publishing" or "The Big Five". These are the major publishing houses.
- Corporate publishing is the avenue that is most likely to place paperback/hardcover books in bookstores, "big box" retailers (WalMart, Target), grocery stores, airports...
- On average, the best editing, proofreading, cover art, marketing, and widest distribution.
- Potential to reach the most readers, especially in print.
- Largest advances.
- Fewer barriers of entry for awards, professional memberships, public appearances, and reviews.
- Greatest potential to sell foreign language rights and media rights.
- Greatest prestige.
- Bucket list/external validation.
- Barriers to entry- In most instances, you must be represented by an agent in order for your manuscript to be given serious consideration. It is possible for your manuscript to make it through the "slush pile" at a given publisher, but the odds are slim.
- There are no guarantees. Bookstore shelf space is limited and stores devote significant space to established, bestselling authors. A new author's book is likely to be on the shelves for a very short time (if at all) and will disappear just as quickly if it doesn't sell right out of the gate.
- Publishers invest most of their marketing income into the bestselling authors who generate the revenue that supports everyone else. A new author isn't likely to receive much promo, though it will almost certainly be more than what a small press will offer.
- While editorial support is frequently top-notch, more and more corporate houses are turning to freelance editors of varying quality.
- Very low royalties per copy sold, especially compared to independently published authors.
- Higher retail prices on your books.
- Payments are few and far between for most authors. You'll typically receive a portion of your advance some time after you've signed your contract, another installment once the editor approves your manuscript, and the remainder upon publication. After that, you won't receive any money until your book has "earned out" (your royalties earned exceed your advance.) You also don't receive royalties on all books sold, at least not right away. Because bookstores may return books to the publisher, the publisher will hold back a portion of royalties against the possibility of future returns.
- Most corporately published authors do not make a living from their published works, and either have a day job, a working spouse/partner, or supplement their income through independent publishing or crowdfunding. (Some do all of the above.) Also, if you are represented by an agent (s)he also receives a cut of your royalties.
- Infrequent, inscrutable royalty reports.
- Contract terms: Many publishing contracts still contain onerous terms, such as lifetime ownership of an author's work, vague "in print" clauses that prevent reversion of rights, and non-compete clauses that restrict an author's ability to make a living by working harder and faster. Some houses will negotiate on these points; others will not.
- Compared to the other publishing options, corporate publishing moves at a glacial pace. Books must be worked into the existing schedule and publication dates are typically (though not always) spaced far apart.
Small PressPublishing houses come in all shapes and sizes. Some are only small in comparison to the corporate publishing houses and will give you almost as much prestige and distribution as the largest houses. At the other end of the range are tiny 'micropresses', with plenty in between.
- Fewer barriers to entry- Only the top echelon of small presses require agented submissions, and even those houses tend to offer open submission periods.
- Every stage of the publication process typically moves faster than in corporate publishing.
- Royalties are higher per copy sold with a small press than with corporate publishing.
- Like a corporate publisher, a legitimate small press will cover the cost of professional editing, formatting, cover design, and associated publishing costs. Ideally, the publisher will also offer some sort of marketing.
- Access to an established audience- Some small presses have cultivated an existing audience to whom they will market your book.
- Brand identity- Some publishing houses have developed a 'brand', usually relating to quality and subject matter. Being published by one of these houses can afford you a degree of that brand identity.
- Most small presses don't offer much, if anything, you can't do for yourself if you have the inclination, aptitude, and money to invest.
- Royalties per copy sold are lower than they would be if you independently publish your book.
- Small presses frequently fail. Look for one that's been around for a while.
- Many small presses are scams, fronts for high-priced vanity presses, or ebook mills that don't offer much in the way of added value. Check 'Writer Beware' and do lots of research before working with a small press.
- Outside of the top echelon, most small presses aren't held in high regard by most professional organizations, reviewers, or awards-related organizations.
Independent PublishingFor the purposes of this article, "independent" or "indie" publishing refers to self-publishing.
- You're in complete control.
- You receive the largest cut of royalties.
- You can set a much lower price for your book than would a publishing house, yet still receive a much larger royalty.
- Flexibility- You can change virtually anything about your book at any time: price, product description, cover... You can even rewrite and republish.
- You can move as fast as you like. No one is slowing you down. You can publish at a rapid clip, adapt to changes in the market, and seize opportunities in a way you can't when someone else is publishing your work.
- Daily sales reports and monthly royalty payments.
- Some professional organizations or reviewers will accept indie authors, and many venues are happy to have an indie author as a guest.
- You're in complete control. Some people have no business being in charge of their own publishing careers. You'd better know what you're doing, learn fast, or surround yourself with people who can help you.
- Meno's Paradox- "We don't know what we don't know." Many indie authors have no idea that their writing sucks, their manuscript is riddled with errors, their book cover is ugly, or that their overall practices won't help them sell books.
- The financial burden is all on you.
- Indie publishing is hard work, and it isn't limited to writing and publishing. In addition to trying to be the best writer (s)he can be, a successful indie must strive to be the best at every stage of publishing, marketing, audience engagement, and all the other facets of publishing. This path requires a solid work ethic, an independent spirit, a high degree of self-awareness, and a reasonable standard of emotional/psychological well-being in order to thrive.
Finally, I'd like to note that one path does not exclude the other. Many authors are "hybrids" who publish both independently and with a publishing house. Others aim for corporate publishing and keep small press or indie as fall-backs. Fortunately for us, all of these options are valid and offer great potential. Good luck choosing the path that's right for you!