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Learn how to choose the best publishing option for your book.

Many people are confused by the publishing landscape (which is understandable), and want a lot more background information before starting on their book publishing journey. This chapter is long and comprehensive, and answers questions like these:

  • How does the book publishing business work?
  • What are the most important things to know?
  • What is “self-publishing”?
  • What is “traditional publishing”?
  • What is the difference and why does it matter?
  • Should I self-publish or traditionally publish my book?
  • How do I get a traditional publishing deal?
  • How do I evaluate traditional publishers?
  • What is professional vs. amateur in publishing, and why does that matter?

How To Understand The Book Publishing Landscape

The book publishing landscape can be very confusing. This is for many reasons; the most relevant to you is that the business of book publishing has changed dramatically over the past decade, and most of the advice people give is dated and wrong.

Furthermore, most of the guides to book publishing are geared toward professional writers, novelists, or hobbyists. Entrepreneurs, business owners, executives, and other professionals who are writing business and personal development books should look at book publishing through a completely different lens than professional writers.

This piece will examine the three book publishing options commonly available, explain the pros and cons of each, and help you understand exactly which one you should select.

Traditional, Self, and Hybrid Publishing

The first thing you have to understand is that there are two major publishing models: traditional and self.

I’ll dive deeper into each publishing option, what the basic facts are, and the questions you need to ask for each, so you can decide which one to use.

There is also a third option, called hybrid publishing. In my opinion, hybrid is by far the worst of the three options, and I will briefly cover it at the end.

Traditional Publishing

Summary

In traditional publishing, an author must find a book agent to represent them to publishing companies. Then along with the agent, pitch a book publishing company (which are almost all based in New York City, such as HarperCollins or Simon & Schuster) with their book idea. If the pitch is successful and the publishing company offers the author a publishing deal, the publishing company purchases the ownership of the print license from the author in return for an advance on royalties (that the author does not have to pay back). The author is on their own to write the book, sometimes with editorial help from the publisher, sometimes not. The publisher then manages and controls the whole publishing and distribution process (the second and third steps).

Ownership and Rights

A publishing company always owns the print license (which includes digital), while the author always owns the copyright. All other rights (movie, excerpt, etc.) are negotiable. This means the publishing company has final say over all aspects of that book.

Typical Royalty Rate

15 percent hardcover, 7.5 percent trade paperback, 5 percent mass market.

Advance Against Royalties

The amount varies greatly depending on the author. There is no “average” advance, but at this point, most traditional publishers don’t give advances less than six figures, because if they don’t think the book will sell enough to justify a six-figure advance, they don’t want to publish it.

Writing and Editing

This is typically the author’s job. Very little help, limited to some editing and copyediting. Note that a publishing company usually has the absolute right to change your content and writing as they wish, this is part of what they are buying with their money.

Publishing Services And Design

They do (usually) everything for publishing and design, though the quality varies greatly. You don’t get to choose the paperback or hardcover or price, or most other decisions.

Distribution

They do everything.

Marketing

Usually, the publisher offers very little marketing. More often than not, they can inhibit marketing (explained below). They generally expect the author to do the majority of the marketing.

Why is this?

The economics of the industry is that what used to sell books was mostly distribution. Pre-internet, being in Borders and Barnes & Noble was a big part of what sold books. People used to go to bookstores to decide what to buy. When distribution was king, traditional publishers were king.

Now of course that’s not true anymore. Because of the internet and all the platforms on the internet (Facebook, Instagram, email, etc.), we build relationships with authors and ideas outside of the bookstore. Then we go to the bookstore (or more likely Amazon or Audible) to buy the copy.

Long story short, big publishers never had a relationship with the end customer (the reader). They could have built this at any time, but they decided not to. And they continue to decide not to, because of legacy issues.

Prestige and Perception

Usually the highest of the three models, but fading in prestige, and not relevant to readers.

Time To Publish

12-36 months.

Advantages

1. Monetary advance before publishing
2. Highest potential for traditional media coverage
3. Social signaling
4. Highest chance of bookstore placement

Drawbacks

1. Very hard to get a deal (less than 1 percent of proposals are accepted)
2. Huge time investment
3. Loss of ownership
4. Loss of marketing control
5. Loss of creative and content control
6. Limited financial upside

Traditional Publishing Problem #1: Can you even get a traditional publishing deal?

When considering traditional publishing, the first and MOST important question you need to ask yourself is: can you even get a publishing deal from a traditional publisher?

Most authors cannot, so there’s no reason to waste time trying. To get a publishing deal from a traditional publisher, you must go through these steps:

  1. Find a book agent willing to represent you and your book idea to a publisher (this is very hard, most agents get thousands of inbound requests a week).
  2. Write a book proposal (this is such a big task, authors often pay freelance writers $10k-$15k or more to do this for them).
  3. Shop the book proposal around to publishers (through the agent).
  4. Have a publisher make you an offer based on your proposal and pitch.
  5. Negotiate and accept that offer.

That seems like a lot, but in some cases, it can be easy. A book publisher’s decision hinges on one simple fact: do you have an existing audience that is waiting to buy a lot of copies of your book?

If you do have a big audience—people who already follow you in some form, like an email list, or social media, or something like that—most of that will be doable, if not easy. Usually publishers will need to be able to see a clear path to 25k book sales in the first month to even consider a book deal for an author.

If you do not have an existing audience that is ready to buy your book, then it is nearly impossible to get a traditional book deal.

The reason for this is because traditional publishers are terrible at selling and marketing books, and they now rely almost exclusively on authors to do this for them. I’m not just saying this. Book agent Byrd Leavell says this (he’s repped several #1 New York Times bestselling authors who have sold more than 10 million non-fiction books):

“Publishers aren’t buying anything that doesn’t come with a built-in audience that will buy it. They don’t take risks anymore, they don’t gamble on authors, they only want sure things. I won’t even take an author out unless they have an audience they can guarantee 25k pre-sales to.”

If you don’t have a built-in audience—people who follow you and are used to buying things from you before—then you have almost no shot to get a deal.

Traditional Publishing Problem #2: If you can get a traditional publishing deal, should you take it?

As recently as 20 years ago, this was a no-brainer: of course you took the deal, because you didn’t really have any other options to get a book into the hands of readers.

The game has changed since then. In the modern world of book publishing, traditional publishers are no longer the gatekeepers, they provide very little prestige or access, and the other self-publishing options are better than a traditional publisher for most authors.

At this time, there are really only three reasons for an author to sign with a traditional publisher:

1. You need the advance they will pay you

If you already have a big audience, then a publishing company will probably give you an advance. The advance can range from $100,000 to $1 million (or much more in rare cases), but the advance is directly tied to the expected book sales.

This is not charity; they will do this because they expect to make more money than you when you sell your books to your audience. And if you do not have a big audience, your chance of getting an advance in this range is essentially zero (unless there is some other angle that makes the publisher confident you will sell many books).

The cool thing is that even if your book does not sell, you don’t have to pay this advance back. It’s yours.

But make no mistake—you are paying for this money in other ways. You no longer own the print license for the book, which means you cannot do anything with this content other than have it in the book. It’s not yours to use anymore, and if the book is a major hit, you only get a small fraction of the profits. You are selling the potential upside to the publisher.

2. You must have mainstream media attention for the book to be successful

If you absolutely NEED a lot of mainstream media attention for your book to be a success, then going with a traditional publisher really helps. When I say mainstream, I mean like New York Times, Wall Street Journal, media outlets like that.

The types of people who fall into this category tend to be celebrities, politicians, athletes, etc. They are the type of people whose time is extremely valuable, and generally tend to be rich. By the way, they have to pay for PR to get media as well. They do the whole song and dance, mainly because they are famous but do NOT have their own platform (meaning a direct channel to their audience).

Let me be very clear: doing a book with a traditional publisher does not mean it will be covered in those outlets. In fact, the odds are small, even if you do get a traditional publishing deal. Each publisher puts out tens of thousands of books a year, and bookstores and retailers do not have the shelf space for all of them.

The reason it helps is because, while no book reader cares who the publisher is, journalists who work for major media companies still look at the publisher as a signal of credibility.

3. You want the social signal and feeling of acceptance that comes from being “picked” by a traditional publishing house

Let’s be honest—this is the primary reason most people want a deal from a traditional publisher. They want to feel like they were “picked,” that this selection is an unassailable signal of their importance and relevance.

I have gotten publishing deals from several major publishing companies (Simon & Schuster and Little Brown), so I wish so much that this was true—that these deals meant I am now unquestionably important. It doesn’t.

Here’s a great example: a Ferrari is a cool car. But what do you think of the old guy who bought it? Compensating, right?

It works the same with traditional publishers. Having a “fancy” publisher’s name on the spine of your book doesn’t make you important. In the modern world, no reader notices or cares who publishes your book.

In fact, in many circles (especially entrepreneurs and forward thinkers), traditional publishing is starting to be seen as a negative signal. In the modern book world, controlling the rights and usage of your book is now seen as much more important by most authors. In fact, traditional publishing is now the new “vanity” publishing—because authors with traditional deals are looking for that ego boost and external validation rather than “picking” themselves, and owning their book.

Traditional Publishing Problem #3: Are the tradeoffs of traditional publishing worth it?

So even if you can get a traditional publishing deal, AND you fall into one of the three reasons to publish it, the trade-offs may still make it a bad choice for you. These are the major trade-offs with traditional publishing:

1. No ownership of rights and profits

You are literally selling the publisher not only the upside profits of the book, but more importantly, you are selling them control of your intellectual property. Once they own the book, they ONLY care about selling copies. You can no longer do anything with that book that doesn’t involve paying THEM for copies of it, because that is how publishing companies make money.

2. Loss of creative and content control

Make no mistake about this: once you take a deal from a publisher, they own the book and all the content in it, so they get to decide everything that goes in the book. They get final say over every word, the book cover, the author bio, everything.

I can tell you from my experience, as a group, publishers tend to make terrible aesthetic decisions. This is for many reasons, but the biggest is what I call “adverse selection.” Though some people who work in publishing are deeply skilled and thoughtful editors whose work makes books much better, those people are rare, and tend to only work with the biggest authors. Most of the people working at publishing companies are doing that because they were not good enough to make a living as a writer. I don’t say that as a put-down, I say it simply so you understand that someone who didn’t make good enough decisions on their own about their writing is now in a position to hold final decision-making power over your book.

3. Loss of marketing control (and no support)

Publishers do no marketing. I cannot emphasize this enough—publishers expect YOU to do all the work of selling the book for THEM. They don’t have a plan to sell 25k copies of your book. That’s YOUR job.

This might be OK for a novelist with a big existing audience, but if you are someone like the authors my company works with, and you want your book to promote you or your business, a traditional publisher greatly restricts your options.

For example, if you want to position yourself as an expert in something, what happens if they don’t think your book topic appeals to enough people? They don’t care about your business, they only care about selling copies of books, so they’ll make you go broader with your topic, which means the book won’t be as appealing to the specific audience you are trying to reach.

Even worse, because the ONLY way they make money is to sell copies of the book, you can’t give copies away for free, you can’t give the PDF away for free, you can’t use your content in other places as a lead generator for your company. They now are going to force you to put all your promotion efforts on selling copies, which does not always help you reach as many people as possible.

Also, they give you ZERO price control so your ability to make marketing deals with any number of people is none. This type of flexibility is critically important for so much marketing, and they won’t do it.

4. Huge time investment

Even if you get a traditional book deal, it’s a huge amount of effort to put it all together. You have to find an agent to represent you to a traditional publisher, you have to do a book proposal that will appeal to a publisher, and then you have to shop the book deal.

From the start of the process to publishing it’s usually 24 months—often 36. That’s two to three YEARS, which is an incredibly long time in the modern media world, especially for a non-fiction author.

5. Bookstore placement

A lot of people think traditional publishing is their preferred method because it’s the best way to get into bookstores. This is not an accurate calculus. Traditional book publishers do not get most of their books into bookstores on any large scale. Furthermore, the ones they do get in tend to get pulled out quickly—unless they sell a lot of copies. And your book will not be on display until it has already proven it will sell a lot of copies.

Self-Publishing

Summary

In the self-publishing model, the author retains ownership of their book and manages and controls the whole process. Self-publishing has many different forms, but at its core the author does the publishing work (or manages freelancers or publishing services companies who do the work for a fee). There is no acceptance needed, no advance, and the author retains all rights.

Ownership and Rights

Author retains all rights.

Royalty Rate

Variable, usually between 40 percent and 100 percent, depending on the sales channel.

Advance Against Royalties

No.

Writing and Editing

Author must manage. Many variations of help exist, but all are paid.

Publishing Services

Author must manage. Many variations of help exist, but all are paid.

Distribution

Author must manage. Many variations of help exist, but all are paid.

Marketing

Author must manage. Many variations of help exist, but all are paid.

Prestige and Perception

Variable, totally depends on the quality of the book.

Time To Publish

As fast as you can manage.

Advantages include:

1. Full ownership of rights and royalties
2. Completely customizable in all aspects
3. Fast to market
4. Total marketing control
5. Total creative control
6. Total freedom

Drawbacks include:

1. It is a lot of work to do it right
2. If it’s unprofessional, will result in poor appearance and low status
3. Time consuming to learn and manage the process yourself
4. If you hire excellent professionals to help you, it’s expensive

Self-Publishing Problem #1: Can you do a professional job?

This is the crucial question for self-publishing, one that trumps every other.

If you can do a professional job with your book, then self-publishing is almost always the best bet for most authors.

If you cannot do a professional job, then you may either not want to self-publish, or you may not want to publish a book at all.

The saying is right: everyone judges a book by its cover. But not just the cover. The title, the book description, the author photo, the blurbs, even the author bio, all tell a story about how credible and authoritative that book and author are. A professional book makes you look professional.

It used to be that traditional publishers were the only ones who had the expertise and access to the talented people necessary to make books that looked professional. That was true 30 years ago, but not anymore.

In fact, almost all of the best talent out there is freelance and can be hired for reasonable rates. Just in my company alone, we use writers, editors, proofreaders, copywriters, and book cover designers who all either used to work for traditional publishers and left to freelance, or we use the same freelancers that the traditional publishers use.

Some people think there is still a stigma to self-publishing. The data appears to say otherwise. Hugh Howey (self-published his novel Wool, which has sold millions of copies and is being made into a movie directed by Ridley Scott) did a study on 200,000 titles and showed that the self-published books on Amazon had, on average, a higher star ranking than traditionally published books.

This all boils down to the fact that if you’re willing to put in the work to make sure your self-published book is super professional, then you’re going to be well off.

Self-Publishing Problem #2: What is the major tradeoff of self-publishing?

There is really one major tradeoff with self-publishing:

Professionally self-publishing a book requires you to put in either time or money (or both).

It’s not hard to do all the steps necessary to make a professional book. This book clearly details every step. It just takes time. The way around that is to hire great people, or even better, hire a publishing services firm to manage the whole process for you. That takes money.

It’s a pretty simple calculation: if you have money, spend it to save time.

If you don’t have money, then your time isn’t your most expensive asset, so use it to learn how to professionally publish your book, and execute it (that’s what this book is about).

Hybrid Publishing

Summary

In the hybrid model, the ownership of rights varies depending on the publishing company the author works with, but the basic idea is that they try to look like a traditional publishing company, but pay little to no advance, yet still take most of the royalties, still control a lot of the process, and still do some part of the publishing work.

Ownership and Rights

Variable

Royalty Rate

Variable, usually 15-25 percent, but can be as high as 50 percent

Advance

Usually not, but sometimes very small

Writing

No help

Publishing Services

Yes, usually, but varies widely

Distribution

Yes, usually, but varies widely

Marketing

Yes, usually, but varies widely

Prestige and Perception

Varies widely

Time To Publish

6 to 24 months

Why pick hybrid over the other two?

In the hybrid model, the publisher will tell you that they combine the advantages of a traditional publisher, with the flexibility and upside of self-publishing. That’s the theory, but it never works that way in practice.

Hybrid doesn’t really exist. It’s a made-up word for publishing companies that are basically just fee-for-service publishing companies, but still take a percentage of the profit.

What these companies do is they pay little to no advance, still take a lot of the royalties, still control a lot of the process, and still do some part of the publishing work. They try to give authors the illusion of status from being “picked” by a publisher, but they make the author do all of the work, and they still own the rights, and they still get the upside—all while NOT paying an advance.

Hybrid publishing is generally a terrible deal for authors.

The other problem is that in hybrid publishing, oftentimes the publishing company will try to retain copyright or other rights. One of the main attributes of old traditional publishing companies is that they ALWAYS reserve copyright to the author, and almost always leave all other rights to author (movies, TV, etc.). They only care about the rights involved around profiting from the printed word and related rights.

Summary: Which Should You Pick?

Who Should Go With Traditional Publishing:

  • Celebrities
  • Athletes
  • Musicians
  • Actors
  • Politicians
  • Professional Writers (novelists, etc)
  • Anyone who can get an advance of $500k or more

Who Should Go With Self-Publishing:

  • Entrepreneurs
  • Businesspeople
  • Executives
  • Financial Planners
  • Lawyers
  • Doctors
  • Business Owners
  • Consultants
  • Coaches
  • Just about everyone else

Who Should Go With Hybrid Publishing:

Pretty much no one.