Now, you may remember that at the end of 2016, I created a list of 10 books you should read for 2017. This was so that we could keep sharpen our skills and improve our fortunes with a good talent stack. The list was specifically designed to be general, so that the things you’d learn from those books would likely apply to you.
Publishing 101, by Jane Friedman, was the most specialized of those 10 books. With The Red War slated for publication starting in 2017, it would behoove me to learn more about how the industry works, in contrast to the feeler I got when publishing Stumped last year. Publishing 101 actually turned out to be more informative and helpful than I initially thought it would be. Friedman has a lot of experience in the industry, and whether you’re trying to wrap your head around your first publication, or figure out how to build a platform and increase your sales, Publishing 101 is a fleet of valuable information sailing your way as you flip through its pages. If you’re looking to publish anything, it’s well worth your time.
Fiction or Non-Fiction?
The difference between fiction and non-fiction isn’t just in how you write them. Publishers see them differently too. As debate rages over the role of traditional publishers in writing careers, one thing that you should know is this: if you’re writing a non-fiction project (or a memoir), don’t even bother with a traditional publisher.
At least, that’s the conclusion I drew from reading Publishing 101.
The chapter on getting traditionally published makes very clear that non-fiction writers are expected to bring their platforms to the publisher. In other words, a publisher won’t take a chance on you unless you have an audience already.
This begs the question – why then sacrifice creative control, rights, or a good chunk of money to go with a traditional publisher, if you have an audience anyway?
Yes, your distribution will be more limited, and it is feasible that a traditional publisher will build up your platform, but given that publishers often don’t push books on their roster (see below), it seems completely unnecessary to go through a traditional publisher with a non-fiction book, at least at first, because the key reason to go to a traditional publisher – a bigger platform – won’t be there if you don’t have an audience already. You can always keep your options open after you self-publish, especially if your book is selling well.
With fiction, the story is different.
Author platform isn’t as important in fiction (though it still helps a lot). For fiction, you need to first have a commercially viable work. From there, you go on your path to publication through agents and query letters. Publishing 101 goes into great detail about how to do the right query letter and how to get a good agent.
Traditional vs. Self-Publishing
Chapters four and five go into great detail on these things. The pitfalls of traditional publishing are…
- You won’t get to choose your title.
- You won’t get to choose your cover.
- You won’t get to choose your price.
The point is that if you have an emotional attachment to the work, as all authors do, you’ll have to live with giving some of it up in exchange for a traditional deal.
On the other hand, self-publishing has its own, very real pitfalls:
Goal: I want the satisfaction of seeing my work in traditional print book form.
This goal assumes that, even if you don’t sell any copies of your book, or see it distributed in chain outlets, you will be satisfied with just having your work in print.
If this is truly your goal, then the key question becomes: how much help or service do you need or want in making this happen?
Do you prefer to hire one firm to take care of every aspect of this project – a very hands-off approach?
It is possible to write a check, hand over a Word document, and get a printed book in your hands very quickly.
Imagine your finished book in your hands. Imagine giving it to friends and family and colleagues. You never sell more than a handful of copies, and you never see it on store shelves. No agent or editor ever hears about it. Do you feel satisfied and happy?
Goal: I want a book to convey my expertise and credibility in a specific field or profession, and to build my platform.
Self-publishing has always been a popular option for professional career and platform building – especially those who speak often, have a ready audience, and are experts in their field.
Often such authors (who are businesspeople, not writers) know more about their market and audience than a mainstream publisher, and the topic is too specialized to ever be seriously considered for trade publication. In this case, the next important question becomes: how much profit do you want out of this?
Imagine your book being available in your place of business, or through your website. Imagine it available at speaking engagements, and referenced by colleagues as a good resource. It is not visible outside of your own professional circle, and it is not marketed to a general audience or seen in stores. Do you feel satisfed and happy?
Goal: I’m going to prove all those gatekeepers wrong and publish a book that catches the attention of the world – then I’ll get a traditional deal!
This is probably the secret desire that a lot of self-published authors won’t admit to having. In this scenario, while there is no “right” way to go about conquering the world, make sure you’re brutally honest with yourself:
Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?
Do you have marketing experience and savvy?
Are you active online or with your community of readers?
Are you ready to be business-minded about every aspect of your writing career?
Are you ready to spend money on people who can help you (e.b., freelance publishing professionals who know how to make success happen)?
You should be answering “yes” to all or most of these questions. Despite the success stories, few authors make a living from their self-published work or go on to traditional book deals. If you envision yourself as a thriving indie author, you need to comfortably see yourself as a long-term entrepreneur. Not all authors are up for that.
And that’s the way it works.
The virtue of a traditional publisher is that you’ll get a bigger platform in terms of distribution, access to resources and credits that self-publishing won’t allow you to have. It also immediately sets you apart from the flood of self-published works that are…not of the highest quality, to say the least. Your book being in Barnes and Noble is more credible as a sign of authority, a great credit for your resume and reputation. It’s a part of your overall system. Your odds of success will go higher, even if your particular book isn’t successful.
All the same, you’ll get this valuable piece of information from Publishing 101:
Here are a few reasons why publishers don’t market and promote all of the books on their list.
- They don’t have enough money, time, or staff.
- They have no means of directly reaching the target readership to let people know a book of interest is available.
- They can’t measure the impact of their efforts, thus resources get pulled away from marketing.
- They hope the book finds its audience by simply being available and in stores. (Publishers are excellent at physical and retail distribution.)
- Did I mention they don’t have enough money, time, or staff.
Publishers are known for putting most of their efforts behind A-list authors, or behind authors who receive a very large advance, or behind the book that receives the best response/commitment from the chain booksellers.
Every other title gets the “standard” treatment, which basically means a listing in the publisher’s catalogue, advance copies to reviewers, some press releases – and done.
As you can see, even if you do go the traditional route, you’ll still need to do a lot of marketing yourself. It’s a tough call.
It’s likely going to depend on your goals, resources, and your ego. If you’re looking to gain kleos from an Iliad, traditional publishing may be the best option for you. And if you do self-publish a successful work with a large platform, you could negotiate a good deal with a traditional publisher.
Both options are on the table for The Red War.
I wish I could go into detail about Publishing 101’s great parts on marketing and building platforms. Half of its pages deal with these subjects, and they are very useful, particularly the portions on building up a successful blog and ways to market your book itself.
I would say that if you plan on publishing anything, and you want to make some money off of it, or even if you’re looking to build a business through content marketing, Publishing 101 is an essential choice for any content-based entrepreneur.
If you’re serious, you’ll put it in your library.