An author’s guide to publishing part 3: What’s the right path for YOU?

An author’s guide to publishing in 2012
by Amy Rogers

California Writers Club, Sacramento Branch Writers’ Network meeting, June 1, 2012.
Author Amy Rogers spoke on “Getting Published in 2012: What’s the Right Path for YOU?”

You’re a writer and you want your work to be published. Never before in history have you had so many choices about what to do after finishing your book. What does it mean to be “published” in 2012? And which of the innumerable ways to earn or buy publication best suits your individual needs and aspirations?

Dr. Amy Rogers, author, critic, and educator, writes science-themed thriller novels and reviews the genre at Her debut novel Petroplague was recognized by International Thriller Writers as part of its Debut Class 2011-2012.

Part 3 of 3:  So you want to publish your book

Today, anyone can be a published author.

The democratizing effects of technology have penetrated the book business, and now anybody with an Internet connection can publish a “book.”  This truth is both liberating and threatening.  In this post, I’ll examine the social implications, the choices to be made, and make predictions for the future.

Traditionally, the title “author” was understood to mean writers whose books were published by traditional publishing companies.  That elite club is now expanding.

To be an indie author

The tremendous diversity in modern paths to publishing raises the question of what the “indie” label means.  The term indie, or independent, came into common usage with the music and movie businesses; now it’s widely used in the book world as well.  The word is used imprecisely.  Some consider it synonymous with self-publishing (itself an imprecise term, as described above); some define any book released only in digital formats (e-book) as indie; others use indie to mean any publishing activity outside the Big Six.  Whatever the context, indie publishing is revolutionizing the book business and it will only grow in the years to come.

Which path to publication is right for you?

Perhaps you’re thinking, all these lists and terms are very nice, thank you, but I’ve written a manuscript that I want to turn into a book and what should I do?

To answer this question, you must take some time for reflection.  It’s a given that it’s possible for you to put your words on bound, printed paper in the form of a book, or into a pdf file as an e-book.  But what kind of writer are you?  What kind of person are you?  How do you envision your writing future?  What goals do you have?  What is your book like?  These kinds of questions will determine what is the best next step for you.

Question #1:  Is traditional publishing an option for you?

I’d guess that 99% of people who have written a manuscript will say “yes” to this question, and 98% of them will be wrong.  The common wisdom among literary agents who accept query letters is that the overwhelming majority of people seeking a publisher have not produced a saleable work.  The reasons are many: the work is unpolished or low-quality; the work appeals to a niche audience too small to justify a contract; the work is good but is not distinguishable from the oceans of titles already in print; the author is unknown and has no platform (built-in followers, fans, or audience).

Unfortunately for the writer trying to make his debut, you don’t know whether you’ve got a chance until you try.  So many new writers do try to get a traditional contract.  To do this, you’ll need to first get a reputable literary agent to represent your work.  (This is especially true for fiction.)  As a rule, the Big 6 publishing houses only consider agented manuscripts because the agents do the work of pre-screening for them.  I could write a book on this step alone, but suffice it to say that with a good Internet connection and lots of time, you can learn much of what you need to know about finding a good agent and how to write a strong query letter.  Personally I also highly recommend attending a writers’ conference to learn more about pitching your story and possibly meeting agents in person.

Be aware that signing a contract with an agent to represent your book is a necessary but not sufficient step toward getting a traditional publishing contract.  Many books are agented but never sold.

Question #2:  How much time do you have?

I mean two things by “time”: time during your average day or week to spend on writing AND promotion, and time to wait until the first reader buys your book.

If you are short on time in your daily life, and barely have the time to write, you may not be able to self-publish and promote your work.  Self-publishing takes time to learn, time to do, and an infinite amount of time for promotion if you want to sell.  No time?  Then consider traditional publishing, or come up with the money to use a top-notch subsidy press and hire a publicist.

On the other hand, if you’re short on the amount of time you’re willing to wait to see your work in print, then you’d better take the bull by the horns and publish on your own.  The trad pub route takes forever.

Question #3:  What about money?

Successful indie publishing will almost certainly involve some upfront expenses, though the dollar amount will vary widely depending on how many tasks you can do yourself and how many you have to hire out.  However, over the long term it may be more profitable than traditional publishing because you retain rights to your work and earn higher royalties.  For e-books in particular, the royalty split with traditional publishers is currently not favorable for authors.

Question #4:  Other special goals?

Every author writes for a reason.  If your reason or goal is to see your book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, then go trad.  If yours is to build a virtual community around your book, try indie and spend a lot of time online.  You may have reasons or goals unique to you that will determine which path to publication is best.  For example, a major goal for me was to gain full membership in International Thriller Writers, which could only happen if I had a book published by one of their approved publishers.  Self-publishing generally doesn’t qualify, so I definitely sought a path to publication that would go through a gatekeeper and earn me that full membership.

General rules:

You should consider traditional publishing if:

  • The prestige of getting published by a “real” publisher is important to you.  Traditional publishers are big-time gatekeepers, and while indie does not equal poor quality, traditional pub generally guarantees a certain minimum quality standard for writing, editing, design, and printing.
  • You are patient, because finding an agent, getting a publisher, and seeing your book in print will take a very long time, possibly years.
  • You are NOT a control freak.  You’re willing to let the experts design your book cover, decide when the release date should be, etc.
  • You appreciate the financial and legal expertise of a literary agent
  • You want top-quality editing but you don’t want to pay for it out of pocket
  • You have a manuscript that has been extensively rewritten/revised/edited/sweated over so it really is the best you can make it BEFORE you contact an agent
  • You want the widest possible distribution and exposure for your book
  • You want to spend your time writing books–not blogging, not tweeting, not checking AdWords clicks or collecting email addresses.

You should consider indie publishing if:

  • You have access to—and have used—excellent manuscript editors, possibly at some expense
  • You are interested in social networking and marketing; Facebook is your virtual home
  • You don’t want to wait
  • The audience for your book is Bulgarian tourists visiting Yosemite (in other words, it’s a small market).
  • You have an excellent platform to sell your books yourself, such as regular speaking engagements in front of large audiences
  • You’re a control freak.  You want to choose your book’s cover, you want to set the price.
  • You have an entrepreneurial streak

One size does not fit all in publishing these days.  Indie authors can choose to learn a variety of non-writing skills and publish their books themselves, or they can hire others to do it for them.  If the book is marketable and the author is willing to split royalties, a small press or a digital-only publisher may be an alternative to the Big 6.  For the first time in the history of the book, barriers to entry are low and every writer has the power to bypass the gatekeepers and put his or her words in the hands of readers.

When it comes to publishing, we live in interesting times.

Related articles:

Sacramento Local Resources:

Paid help for self pubbing:

Find book reviewers:


Amy Rogers is a Harvard-educated scientist, educator, and critic who writes science-themed thrillers. Her debut novel Petroplague is about oil-eating bacteria contaminating the fuel supply of Los Angeles and paralyzing the city.  She is a member of International Thrillers Writers Debut Class (2011-2012).  At her website, Amy reviews books that combine real science with entertainment.  You can follow Amy on Twitter @ScienceThriller or on her Facebook fan page


An Author’s Guide to Publishing in 2012 by Amy Rogers series:

Part 1: What’s going on with publishing in 2012: Disruptive technology
Part 2: Getting “published”: The many kinds of publishing
Part 3: So you want to publish your book: what’s the best path for YOU?

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