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Three Paths to Publication by Dina von Lowenkraft

Agented books, small press printed books, ebooks, self-published books… As the publishing model shifts and expands, the choice of the right path to publication has become more complex. Each path has its own set of issues, and no path is an inherent judgement of the book’s value. I have read excellent books that are agented, or published directly by a small press, or self-published. And I have read books from each category that I have not liked. No matter how you publish, some people will love your work, others will not.

The more important question is: What is the best path for you and your manuscript?

The three main paths to publication that I will discuss here are:

  • Via an agent who, one hopes, will sell the manuscript to a major publishing house.
  • Via a small, independent, publishing house.
  • Via self-publishing.

In this article, I will point out some of the different issues inherent to each of these three paths in the various stages of a book’s life, going from the manuscript’s final revision to what happens after a first book has been sold and marketed. Hereafter, the three paths will be called Agent, Small Press, and Self.

Once you’ve finished your manuscript, polished it, revised it and perhaps even had it edited professionally:

AGENT

Time: Finding your agent will probably take a certain amount of time. And there is no way to know just how long that will take before you get there. So be patient. Often people are so excited to get an agent that they sign as soon as they get a ‘Yes’. Don’t. Make sure the fit is the right one for you because breaking an agent agreement can potentially be as messy as a divorce. Be aware of what the expectations are (one book, all work, etc.) and review your contract carefully. Some writers hire a lawyer to review the contract. Whether you do or not is a question of how comfortable you are with the language in the agreement.

Cost: There should be no cost other than sending your queries and requested materials. If you hire a lawyer to analyse your contract, this cost is for you.

Control: Where you query is up to you – but you never know if they will be interested.

Other comments: Once you get an agent, expect at least one more round of edits before your manuscript moves on to the next step.

Next Step for Agented Manuscripts ONLY:

Time: Your agent will now pitch your manuscript to editors and/or publishers. Just like the query process, the time for a sale to happen will vary. Checking the contract and/or negotiating any of the clauses will be done by the agent. You may or may not know which editors, imprints, or publishers have been contacted nor what their reaction to your manuscript was. It is also possible that a manuscript does not sell. In which case, depending on your contract, your agent may pitch a different manuscript – or you may be looking for a new agent.

Cost: There should be none for the agent’s work (he/she will usually get 15-20% of the sale and royalties), unless your contract makes provisions for the agent to pass on certain costs, such as overnight shipping, printing of your manuscript, etc. If this is the case, those costs should be taken out of the advance you receive at the time of sale, and not billed to you before.

Control: Generally speaking, this is out of your hands.

Other comments: Once the book is sold, there will be at least one more round of edits, if not several.

Earnings: This is the step where you will get an advance. The higher the advance, the more books they expect to sell. This is a double-edged sword – you want them to believe in your book and the potential for sales (hence, a higher advance). At the same time, if your book does not sell as many copies as expected, the publisher will not want to publish Book 2 (a lower advance is easier to live up to since there are less copies to sell to cover it).

SMALL PRESS

Time: Varies, but can take as long as finding an agent. Research each press and determine if you think the kinds of books they offer are good ‘shelf mates’ for yours before sending in your query. You are looking for a home for your manuscript, and you want to make sure it is the right one.

Cost: There should be no cost other than sending your queries and requested materials.

Control: Where you query is up to you, but you never know if they will be interested.

Other comments: Once you have signed the contract for the book, there will be at least one round of edits, if not several. Checking the contract and/or negotiating any of the clauses is your responsibility and some may choose to hire a lawyer.

Earnings: Some small presses offer a modest advance, some don’t. Many will just pay royalties after sales start to come in (the timing and percentage is in your contract).

SELF

Time: If you have polished and revised, sent your manuscript out to beta readers (fellow writers or other readers who can give you constructive feedback and editorial comments) and/or shared it with your critique group, you should consider sending it to a professional editor if you haven’t already. Although nothing obliges you to take this step, which can be expensive, it is probably one of the best investments you can make in your manuscript. A good editor can help point out issues with your plot, your character development, pacing, grammar issues, etc. Whatever you do, make sure your manuscript is polished and professional before hitting ‘publish’.

Cost: Varies. From none to several dollars/page if you hire an editor.

Control: You are the one who decides when your manuscript is ready.

Publication Date

AGENT

Time: Set by the publisher. Can be anywhere from a year to several years after the manuscript has been sold. Timing will depend on how much work (i.e., revisions) they think needs to be done and what else they already have in their pipeline. The date will be set sufficiently far in advance to ensure no glitches in their production, which includes a pre-run of ARCs (Advanced Reader’s Copy) that will be sent out to potential reviewers.

Cost: None to you.

Control: Publisher.

SMALL PRESS

Time: Set by the publisher. Usually time-to-press is shorter than with the larger houses since they have a smaller production line. Timing varies from a few months to a year, sometimes more, depending on how much work the manuscript needs and what else is already in their pipeline. Generally, the amount of editing is less than with the larger houses, but this will depend on each publisher. Several of the small presses are now releasing the e-book first (as soon as the final copy edits are in) to generate interest a few months ahead of the print release. Some small presses will only produce digital versions of the work, or will wait to see if enough digital copies are sold before making a print version. Whatever the agreement, it will be stated in your contract. Generally speaking, there are no ARCs sent to the major reviewers, but this will depend on how established the small press is. This is a question you can ask before signing your contract, more to know than to be able to insist they do so.

Cost: None to you.

Control: Publisher, but you may be able to have some input.

SELF

Time: You set the date you want to publish.

Cost: None.

Control: Completely up to you.

Cover Art and Formatting

AGENT

Time: Varies, but it is always within the time-to-publication deadline.

Cost: None to you, the publisher covers this.

Control: Generally speaking, none. This is in the hands of the publishing house.

SMALL PRESS

Time: Varies, but it is always within the time-to-publication deadline.

Cost: None to you, the publisher covers this.

Control: Generally speaking, not much, but you may be able to have a small part in the process. Sometimes, your involvement can be negotiated into the contract, but not always.

SELF

Time: Varies. It will depend on if you already know a cover designer you want to hire or if you want and can do it on your own. Whatever you decide, a good cover will be one of your bestselling tools when it comes time to market your book. So, be sure to allocate the time and the resources necessary.

Cost: Varies. If you do it on your own, there may be little or none. If you hire someone, it will depend on a few criteria: how established they are, if you need a rush job, what kind of cover you are looking for, etc. Whatever the cost, you will be covering it.

Control: Completely up to you.

Book Launch Activities and Marketing

AGENT

Time: Your agent can help you develop your marketing plan and/or work with the publishing house’s staff. However, depending on the deal at the time of sale, there may not be a lot of resources available for your book launch. You will, however, benefit from the publisher’s on-line activities and site as well as those of your agent. As mentioned before, ARCs will be sent to reviewers. Come pub date, if your book sold to one of the Big 5, it will be available in major booksellers and online. Otherwise, it will depend on the publisher and their vision (ie potential sales) for your book.

Cost: Varies. Depending on the agreement with the publisher, your book may or may not receive a marketing budget. Generally speaking, even if you are supported by the publisher, you will need to invest time and often money in a website, getting interviews, doing physical and/or virtual book tours, etc.

Control: Mixed. Some of the launch activities set up by the publisher will be out of your control, others will be up to you.

Earnings: Once your book is in print, you will start earning royalties (the percentage of each sale after publisher, book seller, and agent take their predefined cut). If you received an advance, you will not earn any royalties until the advance has been ‘paid back’. Timing for payment and percentage is in the contract.

SMALL PRESS

Time: Generally very little or no help with a marketing plan nor setting up launch activities. Many small presses will have lists of potential reviewers or tips on marketing that they will give you. You will be featured on their site, and your book will be made available online. Few small presses send your book to bookstores. Many will treat it more as a ‘print-on-demand’ situation. This will depend on the publisher, and you should know how they will publish and distribute your book before signing with them. Expect to spend a fair amount of time marketing your book, getting interviews (on your own or via a blog tour company that you pay to help you), getting reviews, planning promotional activities, hiring a publicist, etc. The more effort you put into it, the better your book will do.

Cost: From none to significant amounts depending on how many services you choose to hire on your own (publicist, virtual book tour, promotional activities, etc.).

Control: Generally, up to you.

Earnings: Once your book is in print, you will start earning royalties (the percentage of each sale after publisher, book, seller and agent have taken their predefined cut). If you received an advance, you will not earn any royalties until the advance has been paid back. Timing for payment and percentage is in the contract.

SELF

Time: Expect to spend a fair amount of time marketing your book, getting interviews (on your own or via a blog tour company that you pay to help you), getting reviews, planning promotional activities, hiring a publicist, getting a professional-looking site up, etc. The more effort you put into it, the better your book will do – after all, if your book isn’t visible, how can potential readers buy it?

Cost: From none to significant amounts, depending on how many services you choose to hire (publicist, virtual book tour, promotional activities, etc.).

Control: Completely up to you.

Earnings: As soon as your book is available, you will start to earn the price of book minus fee taken by seller.

Pressure to Sell and Getting the Next Book Out There

AGENT

Depending on how large of an advance you received, which is an indication of how big the initial print run will be, there may be a fair amount of pressure to sell. No matter what the amount of the advance, how many books were printed, how much money was put into making and marketing your book, your book is a business deal and, as such, will need to have a reasonable ROI (return on investment) for the publisher. If it does not perform to expectations, they are unlikely to continue with the next book. If your book does not sell, it will eventually be taken out of circulation. If it sells beyond expectations, it will have a second, and even third printing, etc.

SMALL PRESS

Since there is usually little or no advance, pressure to sell is much less. You will have less exposure and lower sales than with a big publisher, but you are more likely to live up to expectations. Therefore, the chances of selling a second book to the publisher are higher. And since many small presses print on demand, the book is likely to stay in print longer than if it is published with a larger press, even if it is not on a bestseller list.

SELF

How long you keep your book available is up to you, as is the timing of when you publish the next one. Generally speaking, it takes time and perseverance to build a fan base and many self-published authors do not get good sales until they are several years into the journey and have five or six books available.

Conclusion

Each path to publication has its own set of issues. With a big name publisher, it will take longer to get into print but you will get more exposure and are likely to sell more books. With a smaller publisher, you will not get as much support in the editing process, or have as much exposure, but you will meet expectations more readily and are likely to have your book in circulation longer and be able to publish the next book more easily. If you self-publish, you are in control of everything and can publish your book as soon as you feel you are ready. You will be responsible for all marketing and can decide when and if to publish your next book. You will have less exposure than with a publisher, but you will also have more freedom.

The decision you make about where to publish your book will come down to many criteria,including:

  • Your own personality (Do you want to publish immediately? Do you like to keep control of everything? Do you want to work with other people on developing your career? Do you want your book to be widely available? etc.)
  • The kind of manuscript you have written (Is it commercial? Is it niche? etc.)
  • Why you want to publish (To build a career? To share your story? etc.)

There is no one way to publish, and you may end up following several of these paths, as I have. What is important is to be aware of your options and to understand what works best for you and your manuscript.

Good luck!

Dina von LowenkraftBorn in the US, Dina von Lowenkraft has lived on 4 continents, worked as a graphic artist for television and as a consultant in the fashion industry. Somewhere between New York and Paris she picked up an MBA and a black belt – and still thinks the two are connected. Dina is currently the Regional Advisor for SCBWI Belgium, where she lives with her husband, two children, three horses and a cat.

Dina loves to create intricate worlds filled with conflict and passion. She builds her own myths while exploring issues of belonging, racism and the search for truth… after all, how can you find true love if you don’t know who you are and what you believe in? Dina’s key to developing characters is to figure out what they would be willing to die for. And then pushing them to that limit.

Dina is now repped by the fabulous Kaylee Davis of Dee Mura Literary.

For more information about Dina visit her website, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Pinterest.

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