The Many Paths to Publishing—Which One’s Right for You?

So many choices…so few guidelines or clear answers. How’s an author to choose?

With the proliferation of publishing options—traditional publishing, self-publishing, partner publishing, package publishing, e-books, p-books, and so on‑-many authors find themselves stymied by which route is best for them and their writing. Even more confusingly, there is increasing discussion of hybrid models, involving choosing one route for some work (for example, publishing a novel traditionally) and another path for other writing (publishing short stories via the Kindle Singles program.)  How do you decide the best path(s) to publication for you?

First, take the time to read up on the different choices available to you. There’s an abundance of information online, and setting aside an hour a day to cruise the webways for latest news on publishing is a great investment of time. I suggest to authors that you approach this as an interesting learning process first and foremost, without putting pressure on yourself to make a decision right away. 

It’s helpful to take notes as you read about new developments and publishing models. Once you’ve begun to hone in on the basic categories of choices, create a page for each, and keep a running list of the pros and cons of each option. You’ll undoubtedly have questions about certain models or aspects—note those, too.  

For example, here’s one way to categorize your publishing choices:

1)   Traditional publishing—you find an agent, and the agent finds you a publisher. (Sounds easy, and may be what many authors want, but it’s very hard to achieve in the increasingly competitive publishing world!)

2)   Partner publishing—you identify a partner publisher, i.e. a company that works with you to develop all aspects of your book in accordance with your goals and wishes, and then publishes it, for a fee.

3)   Package publishing—you choose a company with one or more preset packages, choose the package you wish, pay a fee, and receive printed books.

4)   You self-publish, doing most or all aspects of the work yourself, which entails learning the publishing business in the process, and paying for it.

5)   You hire a publishing consultant, who works with you on a fee basis to choose the best route for you, possibly combining some aspects you do yourself and others that you hire others to do.

In addition to defining the categories, your analysis will need to take into account other fine points such as overall quality of the final book, whether in print or electronic; distribution (where will it appear and how?); your ability to change or edit the book after initial publication; how to garner reviews for your work; and very important, overall costs to you. 

Beyond the nuts and bolts of the tangibles, there are the more personal factors—what’s most important to you? For some authors, the status of being published by a name-brand publisher is most important. (Again, it’s fine to aim for that—but it’s increasingly hard to accomplish these days, so I always suggest devising a Plan B.) For others, having a beautiful, well-designed, and packaged book in their hands to give as a gift to family and friends is key. For other authors, a book that speaks to their expertise, be it Higgs boson or honeybees, is critical as a part of their platform and speaking engagements. The reasons for and satisfactions in publishing are as varied and numerous as the number of authors.  

So once you’ve narrowed down the choices and begin to see the paths that might be right for you, how do you learn more about them? One way is to ask others who have gone before you.  Given the ease with which the web can connect you to other authors, I suggest reaching out to others who have pursued the routes that look most appealing to you, and ask questions. What worked well for them? What didn’t work so well? What surprises did they encounter along the route? How easy or hard was it to make midcourse corrections? What were their costs, estimated and actual? 

Author forums are another way to gather information as you’re in data collection mode. That said, many authors have told me it’s the one-on-one conversations that have been most helpful and revealing. Online forums often devolve into “pile-ons,” obscuring important information, nuances and details available through individual discussions.

So, bottom line, take the time, research, reflection, and discussion needed to make your own personal decision on the best path for you.  You’ll be glad you did!

Literary Change Agent and Author Advocate April Eberhardt and Marketing Guru Susan Bearman will be offering PATHWAYS TO PUBLICATION, a workshop designed to demystify the publication choices for authors, on Friday, June 7 in Chicago. Learn more here:

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  • Kelly Hand

    Thanks, April. I agree with you about the quality control factor, and yet it feels like a huge gamble to invest money in editing, cover design, etc.  I self-published a novel that I revised based on feedback from my writing group, and then I paid for a cover and formatting.  This had become my first choice mainly because I didn't feel I wanted to waste a year of my life querying agents in an impossible market (I had already tried that with a previous book and the process was quite time-consuming). As a copy-editor myself, I thought I'd done a pretty good job on the manuscript, but there were still a few minor errors I missed (although fewer than in many traditionally published books I've seen). However, I've begun to feel that my book may need to be a bit tighter (shorter, less interior monologue) to appeal to mainstream readers (it straddles that line between literary and mainstream women's fiction).  So, I'm actually planning to pay an editor now with the goal of doing a revised ebook and a paperback version.  However, the marketing is such a challenge that I often wonder if self-publishing was a good choice.  It seems to work well for genre fiction (such as romance), but less so for literary and mainstream fiction. It is just really hard to know how to reach readers without wasting one's time engaging excessively in social media--which takes me away from the reading and writing I truly love.  I look forward to reading more from you on this issue. 

  • April Eberhardt

    Thanks for your comment and question, Kelly. There are a couple of things I hope to change: first, I want to upend the lingering perception by some that indie publishing isn't as legitimate as traditional. To make that happen, we need to work together to ensure that the quality of indie work is every bit as good as, if not better than, legacy-published work. That typically involves working with partners in some capacity. Second, my dream is for authors to make indie publishing their first choice, rather than an option of last resort, so that you can enjoy the satisfaction and profit of controlling your own literary destiny.I'll be speaking to this issue more on Monday..stay tuned!

  • Kelly Hand

    April, Literary Change Agent and Author Advocate is a great title.  I guess my question would be what do you want to change and what do you think is best for authors?  Which approach empowers authors and brings them the readers they want?  To me, the two extremes of self-publishing and traditional publishing seem most appealing, but as you say the latter is difficult to achieve.

  • April Eberhardt

    Hi, Jo Anne and Marta--Thanks for your thoughtful comments and questions. I'll post a more detailed reply soon on the topics you raise, but I agree that there is much blurring of terms right now. The main factor differentiating reputable publishing partners from ones you want to avoid is that reputable ones reveal upfront what services they will provide, and what they will charge for doing so. (To your question, Marta--there will be a cost to you, since you are partnering with the publisher to provide services, but those costs it should be clearly revealed, and spelled out in a contract.)  Another differentiator is distribution--reputable partner publishers provide distribution for your book. They don't just deliver you boxes of books which you're then responsible for selling and distributing. More to come on this important topic...meanwhile, please keep the questions coming!    

  • Thanks, April. This lays out the options very clearly.

    I've heard some pretty nasty things about vanity presses recently; it's hard to know where the partner-publishing or package-publishing leaves off and vanity presses begin.

  • Very good article, never heard of Partner Publishing how does one find a publishing partner that does not charge up-front?