When Your Client Wants Their Book Published: A Quick Guide to Today’s Publishing Landscape

Presenter: Beth Jusino

Slides from Beth’s talk are available on her website under the Resources tab, and are also available as a PDF here.

Meeting Notes

Notes from the presentation taken by Julie Fanselow

Beth is an experienced author, editor, publishing consultant, and former literary agent. She began by recounting how she has seen messages on the Guild listserv from editors seeking help for their clients (or would-be clients, or neighbors at potlucks, or friends-of-friends) who want to get published but aren’t sure where to begin. 

As more new writers hire professionals to do work once done by in-house publishers, more of them have questions about their options. Beth offered pointers on how editors can help their clients navigate their choices, prefacing it all with this wisdom worth sharing: There is no one right way to publish. 

One good question to discuss with a client—before you talk about budget, timing, audience, or platforms—is why they want to publish a book. The answers might include for money; out of a desire to create (often followed by “but making money would be nice”); to change the world; just for fun or to fulfill a bucket list item; or because it’s “the one thing their brother can’t do.” Publishing today is like one of those “choose your own adventure” novels from the 1980s, and if you can get a sense of what the author wants to achieve, it may help you identify the publishing adventure that will best suit the answers to the “why” question. 

Beth reviewed the four main paths to publishing, which are …

Independent Self-Publishing

With our computers equipped to write and design our own books, and with sales and distribution channels available to everyone, authors are taking the process into their own hands. Some are succeeding spectacularly–think The Martian, Still Alice, Fifty Shades of Grey. Amazon claims that more than a thousand writers who used their Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) print-on-demand service each made more than $100K last year. 

Yet with more than a million new ISBNs registered in 2018 (and more than 700,000 new titles registered on KDP alone that year), the reality is most self-published books sell fewer than 100 copies. That’s why most authors who self-publish will manage the process themselves. Rather than pay big bucks to a vanity publisher and have hundreds of printed books in our garage, we can publish online and print books on demand when people want a physical copy. 

Independent self-publishing is a good route for people who are writing as a hobby/bucket-list endeavor, or who seek more control than traditional publishers offer and are happy to learn self-publishing skills. Yet editors can encourage self-publishing authors to get help with editing (of course–that’s probably why a writer approaches you in the first place). We can assist with developmental editing, copy editing, and proofreading. 

Also encourage self-pub authors to get help with design (cover and interior). A book needs to look like a book. Keep a list of good designers you know who can help as a writer’s budget allows. Authors on a tight budget can get free/nearly free templates from KDP, Canva, Cover Design Studio, and BookDesignTemplates.com. 

Self-publishing authors are managing their own accounts with book printers/distributors. POD publishers include IngramSpark, Lulu, and Blurb (good for color and graphics); all titles are automatically added to Ingram’s wholesale catalog for distribution to traditional bookstores and online sellers. 

Ebooks require different interior design and formatting. They sell very well in certain genres, especially romance, mystery, thrillers, and sci-fi–the sort of pulp fiction books that used to sell well off spinning racks in the drug store. But most books sold are in print, and ebook share has actually been dropping. Still, with authors making 70 percent of the list price of ebooks, that route to publishing can work well for genre authors.  

Two big benefits to self-publishing are total control–there’s no agent, no laborious submission process, no long wait for publication–and higher per-copy returns. No one will reject your proposal, and you’ll earn 30-70% of the retail price (after the cost of materials, shipping, and the retailer’s cut).  

The challenges include a steep learning curve and many balls to juggle; quality issues; and some lingering stigma (among bookstores and reviewers) toward self-published books.

How to help your client:

Guide them with front and back matter creation, not just the manuscript. All they really need is the ISBN (simple–go to ISBN.org; give them a credit card; they give you an ISBN) and a copyright notice (no need to register it nor get a certificate to have it be protected). For the rest (about the author, index, etc.) look at comparable works to see what other authors include; no need to reinvent the wheel.

Remind them of the importance of citations and permissions. Make them aware of restrictions on the use of song lyrics, for example.  

Encourage professionalism in design as well as content. 

Let go. Remember that in the end, the author owns the project, not you. It’s their name on the cover.

Recognize the business opportunity. Beth says there’s a big untapped market for editors who can also serve as project managers/coaches. If you can figure out the steep curve, writers will hire you. Many people want to hand over a manuscript and have someone do the rest: find designers, upload files, etc.

Subsidy Press Publishing 

Independent self-publishing can be a lot of work. It’s not for everyone. (Go back to the “why.”)

“I don’t want to learn how to snake a drain; I just want to hire a plumber.” People who “just want to see the book out there” may like this option.

Subsidy press publishers will, for a fee, take a manuscript and make a book, listing themselves as the publisher. They’ll give it a light edit, assign the ISBN, design the cover and interior, and set it up for print-on-demand so it’s listed in wholesale catalogs and in online outlets. 

Author Solutions is the big player, with subsidiaries including Author House, iUniverse, XLibris. Others include DogEar, MillCity, Outskirts, Matador, and more. Lots of upstarts. 

It’s important for writers to know that subsidy publishers don’t sell books. They don’t exist to attract readers or distribute books. They don’t act like traditional publishers. They simply sell publishing services to writers–and they will charge for everything.

How to help your client: 

Tell them to “Google everything and everyone.” What are other authors saying about the subsidy press publisher they’re considering? Look for reviews–and know that even these may not tell the full story. (The Tate Publishing scandal is a good cautionary tale–https://journalrecord.com/2018/11/20/tate-publishing-victims-might-get-their-works-back/)

Shop around and compare prices among subsidy publishers. 

Help them (if you’re comfortable) read and understand contracts. If they don’t understand a contact, help them find resources to do so.

Traditional publishing / Large publishing houses

This is what writers still dream about: a New York editor, film rights, international translations, a book tour.  

Large presses include “the Big 5” (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Hachette), and their many subsidiaries, which include formerly independent smaller presses including Sasquatch (now part of PRH, which has almost 100 subsidiaries). The Big 5 are owned by even bigger conglomerates.

Beyond the Big 5, there are other large publishers; that means at least 100 titles a year. Think Scholastic, Workman, Houghton Mifflin—and Amazon, which now publishes about 1,000 traditional books a year.

What they have in common is scale and reach. The bottom line at these places is … the bottom line. No matter how much their editors love books, the Big 5 and other large publishers exist to turn a profit.

So writers who want to attract a big publisher need to be able to talk about their book as a product. The big publishers are flooded with pitches, and they prefer to work with authors who have ready-to-go audiences who are clamoring for their book. It’s important to have a platform—and more and more, it’s a platform that an author has spent a decade building, with social media followings in the tens of thousands, at least.

Writers also need to be great; the large houses aren’t interested in potential. But some writers have succeeded by taking feedback from would-be agents and publishers and making their work better; Beth says Kathryn Stockett was rejected by more than 60 agents over three years, but she kept rewriting her book and making it better—and it eventually sold as The Help.

Some things to help your client know about large publishing houses:

Traditional publishers aren’t authors’ patrons; they’re business partners. The publisher invests the money to make it all happen. So help your client think and talk about book as a product that will be sold. 

Big publishers require submissions to be made via a literary agent. The agent is to a book what a realtor is to a house. Agents are as good as the connections they have. They work on a 15 percent commission; authors don’t hire them. Authors usually find agents via referrals. Go to conferences where agents are taking pitches—or at least know which agents are at conferences, because that likely means they’re taking new clients.

Big-house publishing moves slowly. Once a contract is signed, it’ll take 12-18 months from manuscript to published book. And although the big companies are stable, things happen. Staff/internal changes are common. Imprints shut down.

Big publishers make all the decisions. Title, cover, release date, etc.

Big publishers are risk-averse and they reject many good manuscripts. The classic case is how J.K. Rowling was turned down after her Harry Potter success when she wrote under a pseudonym.

Bottom line: Big houses sell big books and make some authors famous—but they also tend to work with authors who are already famous. They’re great for authors with existing platforms, commercial audiences, hot trends, and authors willing to do the hard work to build a writing career.

Traditional publishing / Small presses

Small press publishers are another traditional publishing option. They include independent, university, regional, and topical publishers with fewer than 100 titles a year (and many small presses have far fewer than that.) They’re small but mighty; together, the 1,200 small presses account for more than half the market share.

Some notable small presses include Graywolf, Mountaineers, Tin House, City Lights, Copper Canyon. Small houses do publish bestsellers and prize-winning books. Examples include Tinkers (Bellevue Literary Press from NYU; $1,000 advance, 3,500-copy first printing; won a Pulitzer); Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk); and White Fragility from Beacon Press, which has been on the NYT bestseller list for more than a year.

Let your client know: The best way to find a prospective small-press publisher is to read in the genre they’re writing—and see what publishers are publishing the type of book they are writing.

Financially, small presses work like big publishers, albeit on a much smaller scale: They pay advances (usually) and royalties and invest in creating the book. They can be more flexible about agents and will generally publish in 6-12 months. Marketing can be minimal, but no traditional publisher of any size asks a writer for money to publish their book.

Help your client know that some small houses work mostly with brick-and-mortar bookstores while others now focus on online. Where does the target reader for the author’s book shop for books? This is a good place to think beyond traditional booksellers: Beth wanted to see her book Walking to the End of the World  (Mountaineers, 2018) in REI stores, so she looked at REI to see what publishers have books in stock there.

Understand that small presses vary widely—sort of like road-trip food. You may find the best diner ever, or you might get food poisoning. Small-press publishers can be especially good for unusual idea, targeted audiences, regional titles, special interests.

More ways to help your client work with traditional publishers:

Help them define their audience and take realistic look at their author platform.

Understand comparable titles—and find out who publishes their kind of book.

Don’t let them get so flattered that they say yes to a publisher that’s not a good fit.

Tell them not to sign a contact they don’t understand.

Hybrid publishers

(a.k.a. partner publishers and curated publishers)

Lots of companies are calling themselves hybrid publishers. The International Book Publishers Association recently put out standards; view them at http://bit.ly/2GxVZxz.

Hybrid publishers use what’s called “an author-subsidized business model.” The author invests in the book upfront (usually a few thousand dollars) and in turn gets much higher royalties than what a traditionally published author would get. The hybrid publisher otherwise acts like a traditional publisher, assigning the ISBN and handling production and distribution and some marketing. Hybrid house books look professional. Authors retain the rights to their work.

Hybrid publishers are selective. They don’t publish just anything. Many have a certain focus—SheWrites Press specializes in women’s voices, Wipf and Stock has titles on spirituality, Greenleaf Books looks for practical nonfiction. This model can work well for authors who have a platform and can sell their own books through channels like seminars, workshops, etc. Unlike old-style vanity publishers, you won’t be required to buy a certain number of books upfront.

How to help your client:

Make sure it’s a true hybrid press with a mission and a vision for its publishing program.  

Review IBPA guidelines to ensure credible publisher.

Read and understand contracts