Best book publication methods?
January 7, 2008 12:56 PM   Subscribe

I have a web site. I want to write a book based on the topic. I have publishers/agents asking to talk to me, but I don't know if I'm ready. For one thing, I'm not convinced traditional publication is best — I'm intrigued by self-publishing and e-books. I'm looking for general advice: What are the pros and cons of each method? It seems that unless I'm lucky, traditional publishing offers the lowest dollar return. But are there other, intangible benefits I'm missing? Exposure? Having somebody who knows what they're doing guide me along? And how do I approach a discussion with agents/publishers so as to get the best deal?

I'd love some hard numbers from real e-books. Have you published one? How many did you sell? How much did you make? Would you do it again? Same with self-publishing. John Reed has a great book with detailed information about the economics of self-publishing, but I'd like to know more.

What are the advantages of traditional publication? How much can a first-time author expect to earn, both in advance and in sales? Is my web site large enough to give me negotiating leverage? (42,000 subscribers, close to 750k monthly pageviews)

My current thought is that self-publishing in some fashion (probably an e-book) would grant me complete control over the design, layout, and content of the book. If that did well, I could still promote it to a traditional publisher. Is this an acceptable approach?

Basically, I'm looking for anecdotes and advice from people who have done this sort of thing before.

I'm sure I'll have more "how do I write a book?" questions in the next few months.
posted by jdroth to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
One positive thing about traditional publishing that you haven't mentioned is it gives you some level of credibility. Literally anyone can self-publish, but getting your work published by a respectable publisher gives at least some indication that your work is worth reading. Even if self-publishing will make you more money in the short run, getting something published traditionally might help your career more in the long run.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:06 PM on January 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

From what I gleaned from my writing prof, there's a reason why self-publishing is referred to as "vanity publishing." Without the distribution power of a publishing house, the 500 copies you print on your own will likely end up given to friends & family members, and the remnants stored in your attic. You'll have to take on the role as the book's exclusive marketing agent. Do you have the time for that?

I've heard good things about publishing and selling e-books. With a website as busy as yours, I'm certain you'd have a fair amount of takers.

If you already have interest from publishers and agents, I'd be inclined to take them seriously, and see what you can work out to make the book happen the way you want (regarding the layout & design aspects you mentioned). Through your publisher, you might still be able to secure the rights to continue to sell, on your own website, a slightly watered-down version of your book, as an e-book.
posted by Milkman Dan at 1:07 PM on January 7, 2008

What are the advantages of traditional publication?
Money isn't one of them. If you are at all interested in making money on something like this, I'd recommend you stay away from traditional publishing models. A few very well-known authors make decent money publishing trade books, most others do not. Clearly you have some interest in seeing the finished product produced to your specifications so I don't think money is your only motivation here.

My current thought is that self-publishing in some fashion (probably an e-book) would grant me complete control over the design, layout, and content of the book. If that did well, I could still promote it to a traditional publisher. Is this an acceptable approach?

Very few books ever make the jump from self-published to commercially published. I'd recommend just trying to get an agent if that's the route you're interested in.
The new model seems to be one like Radiohead's latest venture. If you think your pageviews and subscribers are that high, it might be worth it. I am a small publisher and I believe in the physical book format because it offers advantages that e-books never will. Neither my motivation nor the authors' motivation is related to money (although there are some small amounts involved), but more towards seeing the book on the shelf at the library and bookstore (distribution).
posted by mattbucher at 1:13 PM on January 7, 2008

Distribution and marketing budgets are huge reasons to go mainstream. If you self-publish, you're going to have to distribute and market your book yourself. A mainstream publisher takes over many of these functions for you in addition to giving you a legitimacy you'd never have on your own. Case in point: I don't hear or see many (any) authors on Fresh Air or CNN who have written an e-book or a self-published book. I DO see tons who have published through mainstream houses that lend their prestige and marketing muscle to the project.

I read many websites (including yours), but I am not a big e-book fan because, frankly, many e-books tend to be shoddily produced, badly edited, and very insular in content. A professional editor can make your book into something that you can be proud to put out under your own name.

Agents are a huge help with this. They will make sure you're not getting screwed by the publisher, maximize your profits on things like audiobooks and world rights, and go to bat for you contractually and with your editor.

For what it's worth, Many authors spend years refining and polishing a query or book proposal and NEVER find an agent. To be approached by agents and publishers is not something to take lightly.
posted by mynameisluka at 1:23 PM on January 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

The main advantages of traditional publishing have already been covered, but I want to expand on them a bit. Several others have mentioned the marketing aspect in terms of you having the time to do it, but there's a bigger issue, which is the simple, sad fact that most of the really big book sellers won't even look your way. The big publishing houses have the channels with the book sellers that an independent just can't. So you may be able to get your book on the shelf at your local independent book seller, but Barnes and Nobel and Borders and Amazon won't give you the time of day.
Also, in order to get on the bookshelves pretty much anywhere, you'll need an ISBN. It's not hard - a quick Google search will take you to the site where you can buy them - but it is an additional cost you need to account for.
You mention having complete control over layout. That is a valid point, but consider the other side: it also means you have to do all of the layout yourself. With my books, I don't get to control the layout or have a say on the cover design, but then again, I don't have to design a layout or cover, either. I send a bunch of Word documents off to the publisher and I'm done. (And the cover is fantastically important from a marketing POV - you need your book to stand out from the ones around it. There's some real science behind the design of book covers that is a skill set in itself.)
The credibility issue that has also been raised already is another very valid point. I self-published two books, but no one cared. Then Wiley Publishing came along and all the sudden I was "published".
As for the money - don't expect to make a lot. My books so far have been "work for hire" affairs where I can a flat fee for writing the book, rather than advances and royalties and whatnot. While the money from the books have been a nice addition, they accounted for only about 25% of my income last year - certainly not enough to quite the "real" job. As for whether the current readership of your site will give you negotiating power ... I couldn't imagine that it would hurt, but the publisher is going to be more interested in the general marketability of the book. It may raise your asking price a bit, but probably not by a huge amount.
posted by robhuddles at 2:01 PM on January 7, 2008

It seems that unless I'm lucky, traditional publishing offers the lowest dollar return.

Lowest gross return per book, absolutely. But keep in mind that in traditional publishing, your initial monetary investment is essentially zero (in fact, they pay you up front), as opposed to a huge initial investment in self-publishing before you make a dime.

Then there's the time investment. In traditional publishing, you write the book, an editor edits the book, a copyeditor copyedits the book, a designer designs the book, a production person researches and implements the printing of the book, a marketing department markets the book, a publicist publicizes the book, and a sales team sells the book. In short, it's a collaborative effort. This means two things. One, you don't have to do all that other stuff (though you are involved, of course): that's raw time saved. And two, each of those people has experience doing each of those specific things, and has supervisors with even more experience approving their work.

And again, while your earnings per book will be many times higher when you self-publish, a self-published book that is considered to have sold amazingly well still hasn't sold as many copies as a very modestly-performing traditionally published book.

I've seen some really cool self-published books, and many, many times as many really, really BAD self-published books, and here's what I think the big difference is: self-publishing is a good option for people who really do have the interest, talent and drive (and free time) to throw themselves into the whole process of creating and selling a book themselves. To do the job of each and every one of the people listed above, to do each one wholeheartedly and to do each one well. If that really is what you want to do, it might be a really cool, if totally life-encompassing, project. If you just want to write and publish a book, but you're skeptical of other people's ability to do your work justice in the traditional publishing industry, well, you're going to have to decide whether all that work is really worth the total control, and whether you have the ability and resources to do it the way you envision yourself. And if it's just about the money, it's hard to say. Traditional publishing will get you way less per book but way more per hour--unfortunately, it's pretty much impossible to say what your total net gain will be in the end.

Also if you're OK with traditional publishing, but you're interested in experimenting a bit with e-books, talk to your agent (once you get one) about retaining electronic rights.
posted by lampoil at 2:03 PM on January 7, 2008

My current thought is that self-publishing in some fashion (probably an e-book) would grant me complete control over the design, layout, and content of the book. If that did well, I could still promote it to a traditional publisher. Is this an acceptable approach?

Acceptable, sure; not likely to be incredibly successful, though. There would be issues of the copyright, for one; the issue of what copyright you could properly sell to a publishing house gets pretty sticky when the book has already been published and distributed. Two, publishers like to handle their own layout, design and content. There are thousands of people trying to get books published, and many of them are happy to let the professionals make the business decisions, so it becomes a diminishing-returns issue to consider dealing with an unknown writer who insists on "complete control" over the creative. "Why bother with that guy when there are so many others who just want to sell a manuscript, full stop?" is how it was explained to me.

(And totally without meaning to seem snarky -- why would you want to retain 100% of that control anyway? Are you a writer, or are you a book jacket designer? Conversely, would you want the typesetting guy to weigh in on your written manuscript? Division of labor based on skill set is sometimes a good thing.)

And, like it or not, self-publishing says "amateur" to an agent or publisher who might come along later. It's usually (not always, but usually) the last refuge of those who can't get into the industry through the front door. I'm not trying to be hateful, nor is this personal bias -- this is the industry perception, sadly.

Distribution and marketing budgets are huge reasons to go mainstream. If you self-publish, you're going to have to distribute and market your book yourself. A mainstream publisher takes over many of these functions for you

Yes and no. For a non-fiction author who's never been published, the old-media publisher is going to do precious little. Helping your excerpts get placement, making sure you get reviewed, making sure that bookstores are stocking you... that all gets done. But most of the marketing, you'll be expected to fund out of your own pocket.

It seems that unless I'm lucky, traditional publishing offers the lowest dollar return. But are there other, intangible benefits I'm missing? Exposure? Having somebody who knows what they're doing guide me along?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Having a literary agent represent you is like the difference between using a real estate agent to sell your house and doing a "For Sale By Owner" -- agents know the rules, they know the players, they know the industry, they have relationships with editors, they can help you negotiate your publishing contract, and they can represent your next book.

And how do I approach a discussion with agents/publishers so as to get the best deal?

Find an agent you like, and then let them help you get the best deal from the publisher. That's his or her job, anyway.

What are the advantages of traditional publication?

Credibility. Name recognition. Your foot is in the door of the publishing world, so to speak -- and you will have a vastly easier time selling your next book.

Is my web site large enough to give me negotiating leverage?

Absolutely. Plus it demonstrates to your agent and any prospective publishers that you are your own marketing machine, and that you come with a built-in audience. You already have that oh-so-precious quality that most unpublished non-fiction writers lack: platform.

Everyone touts new-media publishing as the path to untold riches, but I don't know of anyone who really makes a huge pile of cash selling e-books (and I know a lot of writers online). Besides, if you get published via old-media, you can always sell books via your own site.

What mynameisluka said is spot-on -- lots of people desire but never get representation by an agent, or attention from a publisher. Leverage that: research the top agents in the biz, and identify some you'd like to work with, and pitch them based on the interest you are currently receiving. Or, do your due diligence on those who've contacted you, and see if any of those agents would be a good fit for you.

I did the non-fiction proposal dance, with an agent who sent the proposal to 25 mainstream publishers, all of whom passed. Still, I learned a bit from the industry side, and I definitely would go the old-media/agent route again, if I were doing it over. Before I signed with an agent, I had a lot of preconceived ideas about how much control I wanted, and things I was just sure I knew better than the publishing industry -- and after learning more about how it all works, I realized I wanted to be The Writer who gets paid to write... which is the fun, easy part... rather than trying to run the whole show.
posted by pineapple at 2:04 PM on January 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Many "traditional" publishing houses are producing professional e-books that are distributed via online retailers and often as a copy on CD media in the back of the book. And books aren't dead yet and have many advantages over the electronic version in that they don't require a computer screen to use.

Publishers are seeking you out - I'd say go with the traditional publisher but be sure you protect your digital rights.
posted by Kioki-Silver at 2:16 PM on January 7, 2008

Response by poster: Your answers are fantastic. I appreciate them. This is exactly the sort of information I was looking for.
posted by jdroth at 4:40 PM on January 7, 2008

5 years ago I wrote a kids' book that I sold to a respected publisher. My experience with their process has not endeared me to traditional publishing. Frustrations I had:
* The editor wanted to impose her writing style on parts of the MS. Her style was definitely not mine. The result is an uneven read. This was ironic because the acquisitions editor said they liked the MS because of my writing style.
* The editor would not use email, and reaching her by phone was a chore. When we did talk on the phone, she did all the talking and very little listening.
* She would without warning send me a marked-up printout of the MS by overnight mail and expect an instant response, also by overnight mail.

Some of her ideas did clearly improve the book. Others seemed to be coming from a frustrated writer who should quit being an editor and just write her own books. She also seemed to be uncomfortable speaking with other people. She probably went into editing because she liked books, not people.

The result so far: 54,524 copies sold (paperback and hardcover). My income: $6,647. It's a short book, so it's kind of cheap, but still. That's a lot of copies and not much money.

To help promote the book, I put up a web site with lesson plans and activities for kids to encourage teachers to incorporate the book in their history lessons. It gets a good amount of traffic.

I usually write for business, and I have my own business selling information and services to other businesses. Compared to most of my clients, the publishing house was unprofessional. They also screwed up my royalty statement one year, shorting me $500, so I now check each statement closely, adding up all the figures.

I've seen a similar "I can't be bothered to treat you professionally" attitude from magazine editors (I used to write a bit for business magazines). So many people want to be "published" writers that they're willing to be treated shoddily by publishers just to get a book or article out. As a result, publishers don't have much motivation to treat writers well. In their defense, they are inundated with manuscripts of wildly varying quality, which must be a pain to deal with.

If I wrote a business book for my niche, I would seriously consider doing it as an ebook in part to avoid the hassles of dealing with publishers and to make more money. A major name in my field made something paltry like $3,000 from his conventionally published book. At the same time, however, I recognize that others in my field respect "officially" published books more than ebooks. So I would have to decide between making decent money (ebook) or gaining prestige (publisher). (Actually, what I've decided to do is put up a subscription-based web site. Have you considered that?)

I guess my point is that if you do go with a traditional publisher, which might be a good idea if you're going after the consumer market, make sure you get an editor who understands your readers and is comfortable using email and the phone. Don't judge a publisher by their enthusiastic acquisitions editor. Once you're acquired, you'll spend most of your time dealing with another person who could drive you nuts.
posted by PatoPata at 4:55 PM on January 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

The result so far: 54,524 copies sold (paperback and hardcover). My income: $6,647. It's a short book, so it's kind of cheap, but still.

Writing adult non-fiction, your (jdroth) per-book take would be much bigger than this. My guess is that PatoPata is getting 3% of the cover price on a $3.99 book, not unusual for some certain kinds of kids' books.

For adult non-fiction, the royalty would be higher and the cover price would be much higher.

The caveat is, of course, that 50K in five years is a reasonable expectation for that kind of kids' book (probably--I obviously don't actually know what kind of book it is, but if my guess is correct). I have no earthly idea what a reasonable expectation of sales would be for the type of book you'd be writing.
posted by lampoil at 6:15 PM on January 7, 2008

I'm thinking that this is probably tied up with the subject that you're going to be writing the book on. You have a number of different sites in your profile, so I can't really guess. For me, the deal with e-books is simple - the plus point with them is that you can immediately access them, the minus point is that it's 25% slower to read text on screen. So issues that people want immediately (generally technical stuff for me) are good ebook subjects, fiction isn't. That's just me and YMMV.

I used to work (editorially and commissioning) for a technical publishing company, and I would say two things about first time authors. Firstly, my experience was very much that the successful folk in our field were the ones who used the books to create a profile for themselves, and then used that profile to get the lucrative conference speaking, consultancy work and so on. I don't think any of them would have made much money from the books, but they were what gave them a platform.

Secondly, we never paid anyone very much on their first book. If that book did well, though, and they came to us with a second book proposal, then they were in a very strong position to negotiate because there's nothing a publisher likes better than a guaranteed success. Think ahead.

If you do go the print route, then whatever you do, make sure that you make friends with the publishers, with your editors, and with the publicity folk at your publishers. Travel and meet them face to face if at all possible.

As soon as you get anywhere near publishing, start contacting them and asking what you can do to promote the book, whether there are conferences that you can attend, and so on. It constantly amazed me how many first time authors really didn't understand the importance of being proactive and sat back and waited for someone else to do it for them - which, of course, meant that they went to the back of the queue.

Good luck.
posted by unless I'm very much mistaken at 2:58 AM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was in a similar situation with a website that sees approximately the same amount on of unique monthly visitors. I went ahead and went the traditional publishing route, and I'm glad I did. Through amazon I sold maybe two dozen copies (with their affiliate program). The publisher however was selling hundreds per week in traditional bookstores like Barnes & Nobles and Borders, without a lot of promotion. It's selling well enough that I have second book coming out next year. I doubt if you go the self-publish route it will be easy to get it into traditional stores, which is where a lot of books are still sold.

It comes down to a sure thing (an advance from the publisher) vs the unknown of whether your site visitors will go from reading content on the web to wanting some of it in book form.
posted by inthe80s at 9:04 AM on January 8, 2008

« Older Information for a First Time Egg Donor   |   Looking for a simple art-hanging solution Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.