The Key Book Publishing Paths: 2016

2016 Key Book Publishing Paths Since 2013, I have been annually updating this informational chart about the key publishing paths. It is available as a PDF download—ideal for photocopying and distributing—plus the full text is also below.
One of the biggest questions I hear from authors today: Should I traditionally publish or self-publish? This is an increasingly complicated question to answer because:
  1. There are now many varieties of traditional publishing and self-publishing—with evolving models and varying contracts.
  2. You won’t find a universal, agreed-upon definition of what it means to “traditionally publish” or “self-publish.”
  3. It’s not an either/or proposition. You can do both. (See this interview with CJ Lyons.)
There is no one path or service that’s right for everyone; you must understand and study the changing landscape and make a choice based on long-term career goals, as well as the unique qualities of your work. Your choice should also be guided by your own personality (are you an entrepreneurial sort?) and experience as an author (do you have the slightest idea what you’re doing?). My chart divides the field into three identifiable forms of traditional publishing and three identifiable forms of self-publishing.
  1. Traditional publishing: I define this primarily as not paying to publish. One of the growth areas you’ll find here are no-advance deals and digital-only deals that offer a low advance, if any at all. Such arrangements reduce the publisher’s risk, and this needs to be acknowledged if you’re choosing such deal—because you aren’t likely to get the same support and investment from the publisher on marketing and distribution. The digital-only category is best described with the Wild West cliche: You’ll find very new presses here who don’t know a thing about publishing, as well as established New York houses launching innovative imprints.
  2. Alternatives to traditional publishing: I define this as paying to publish or publishing on your own. I’ve broken this down into hybrid publishing models, where a publisher is positioning itself as a hybrid approach between traditional publishing and self-publishing, and self-publishing, where authors aren’t working with publishing companies, but service companies, book retailers, or distributors. With either approach, there’s a high risk of paying too much money for basic services, and also for purchasing services you don’t need. If you can afford to pay a publisher or service to help you, then use the very detailed reviews at Independent Publishing Magazine by Mick Rooney to make sure you choose the best option for you. I’ve also highlighted community and social publishing options, where you’re not selling your work, but publishing nonetheless for an audience.
Feel free to download, print, and share this chart wherever you like. (It’s formatted to print perfectly on 11″ x 17″ or tabloid-size paper.) I will keep developing it as the publishing landscape changes, so leave a comment if you have suggestions for how to make it more helpful. Tip for the best printing results: (1) use the “download” button to download this infographic to your hard drive as a PDF, (2) open the PDF on your computer, (3) print from the PDF, rather than directly from the infographic page. For more information on getting published, visit these posts:

Traditional Publishing: Advance & Royalties

Key characteristics

  • Highly selective process often requiring an agent; very few authors accepted.
  • You receive an advance against royalties; you pay nothing to publish. However, most advances do not earn out.
  • You will likely sign a “life of copyright” contract, which allows the publisher to hold onto rights until certain conditions are met.
  • Demands exclusivity; you can’t publish the work anywhere else while under contract.
  • It will likely take 1-2 years to reach market.

Value for author

  • Publisher shoulders risk.
  • Physical bookstore distribution nearly assured with most traditional publishers.
  • Best chance of mainstream media coverage and reviews.
  • With experienced publishers, years of expertise in book editing, production, marketing and publicity work for you.

Important to understand

  • Big Five (New York) publishing: These houses represent 70-80% of what you see stocked in a typical bookstore. Your work must have commercial potential. Examples: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins.
  • Small or independent presses: Authors who are writing more literary, experimental or risky works will likely have to pursue publication outside of the Big Five, at presses where artistic excellence is the No. 1 priority. Examples: Graywolf, Milkweed.
  • University or scholarly presses: you often give up far more rights to your work; it may also be subject to peer review and/or university board approval.

Alternate names or terms

  • New York publishing, Big Five publishing, legacy publishing, commercial publishing, trade publishing

Traditional Publishing: No Advance

Key characteristics

  • A selective process sometimes requiring an agent; very few authors accepted.
  • You don’t receive an advance. However, your royalty rate will likely be higher to make up for it.

Value for author

  • Publisher still shoulders risk, assuming the author doesn’t have to cover any kind of editorial, design, or marketing costs.
  • Physical bookstore distribution nearly assured with most traditional publishers, but with no advance, there might less of a sales and marketing commitment from the publisher.
  • Decent chance of mainstream media coverage and reviews, but again—when you’re not paid an advance—the publisher has no investment to recoup, and less of an incentive to market your work.
  • With experienced publishers, years of expertise in book editing, production, marketing and publicity work for you.

Important to understand

  • Big Five publishers may operate imprints that pay no advance, but take a lot of rights.
  • Literary agents may operate publishing businesses on the side that don’t pay an advance.
  • No-advance deals can be highly valuable when the publisher has a strong brand, reach to readers, and experience in the marketplace.
  • Try to negotiate a fixed-term contract (something that expires at a specific date).
  • Examples: Berrett-Koehler, Rogue Reader, Cool Gus

Alternate names or terms

  • Sometimes called “partner” publishing, but not to be confused with self-publishing

Traditional Publishing: Digital-Only or Digital-First

Key characteristics

  • A selective process sometimes requiring an agent; few authors accepted.
  • You may not receive an advance or you’ll receive a nominal one. However, your royalty rate may be higher to make up for it.
  • If created, print editions are produced via print-on-demand; there is no physical bookstore distribution unless demand is made apparent (high sales or success).

Value for author

  • Publisher still shoulders some risk, assuming the author doesn’t have to cover any kind of editorial, design, or marketing costs.
  • Potential for media coverage declines when no print edition is made available.
  • With experienced publishers, years of expertise in book editing, production, marketing and publicity work for you.

Important to understand

  • Extremely wide range of players here, from Big Five imprints that publish e-books, to digital presses run by agents, to savvy start-ups (Atavist), to Amazon Publishing.
  • Digital-only imprints tend to focus or specialize in commercial genres such as romance, where e-reading is prevalent.
  • Diversity of players and changing landscape means contracts vary widely. Ideal contract would be a fixed-term contract (rights revert after a specified number of years).
  • Most sales will happen through Amazon.
  • Be very protective of your rights if you’re shouldering most of the risk and effort.
  • Given how easy it is in the digital age for anyone to start a press, make sure the publisher is doing something meaningful to earn its share of revenue, especially a newly born one.

Alternate names or terms

  • Digital-only publishers, digital-first publishers

Alternatives: Hybrid Publishing

Key characteristics

  • You help fund the publication of your book in exchange for the expertise and assistance of the publisher; cost is often thousands of dollars.
  • You receive better royalties than a traditional publishing contract, but make less than if you self-published on your own.
  • Your book may be available for order through bookstores, but in most cases it won’t be stocked on the store shelves.
  • Each hybrid publisher has its own distinctive costs and financial arrangement; make sure you have a clear contract with all fees explained.

Value for author

  • You get a published book without having to figure out the service landscape or find professionals to help you. Ideal for an author who has more money than time.
  • Some companies are run by former traditional publishing professionals, and offer high-quality results and good potential for media coverage.

Important to understand

  • Not all hybrid publishers are created equal. Fees dramatically vary and quality dramatically varies. Do your research carefully.

Examples of companies

  • Curated. These companies are selective or may have editorial guidelines to follow. Examples: SheWrites Press, Greenleaf, Booktrope.
  • Crowdfunding. When you raise money for the publisher to work with you. Example: Inkshares, Unbound.

Alternate names or terms

  • Assisted publishing, subsidy publishing

Alternatives: Self-Publishing

Self-publishing is often anything but “self”; it typically requires some assistance. Here are the main types of self-publishing you’ll find.

DIY ebook self-publishing services

  • Each author has to decide which ebook retailers to deal with directly, and/or which ebook distributor to use.
  • Primary ebook retailers that offer direct access to authors: Amazon KDP, Nook Press, Apple iBookstore, Kobo Writing Life
  • Primary ebook distributors for authors: Smashwords, Draft2Digital. They take a 10% cut of your net sales.
  • Author is responsible for producing ebook files, marketing copy, etc. Most services are automated and offer little assistance.
  • Ebook retailers/distributors that serve the author market operate primarily on a nonexclusive basis and profit by taking a cut of sales; you can leave them at will.

DIY print self-publishing services

  • Print-on-demand (POD) technology makes it affordable to sell and distribute print books via online retailers. These services are often used in conjunction with ebook services.
  • Most often used: CreateSpace, IngramSpark. If you have printer-ready PDF files, it costs little or nothing to start. If not, you’ll have to hire assistance.
  • The services mentioned above can make your work available to order through online retailers and bookstore outlets. They take a cut of every book sale.

Other types of self-publishing

  • Full-service companies: pay upfront fee to have a company handle everything for you, while you keep close to 100% of net earnings. Examples: Mill City Press, Matador
  • Agent-assisted. When an agent helps and takes 15%+ of your net earnings, and may also charge for costs.
  • Old-school full services, such as AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Archway, etc. Avoid.

Traditional print runs

  • Some authors may hire a book printer and manage inventory, fulfillment, shipping, etc.

Alternate names or terms

  • Indie publishing, vanity publishing

Alternatives: Social/Community Publishing

Key characteristics

  • You write, publish, and distribute your work in a public or semi-public forum, directly for readers, for free.
  • Publication is self-directed and continues on an at-will and almost always nonexclusive basis.
  • Emphasis is on feedback and growth; sales are almost never involved.

Value for author

  • Allows you to develop an audience for your work early on, even while you’re learning how to write.
  • Popular writers at community sites may go on to traditional book deals.

Community categories

  • Serialization: Readers consume content in chunks or installments; writers receive feedback that may allow them to revise. Establishes a fan base, or a direct connection between the author and her readers. Serialization is often used as a marketing tool for completed works. Examples: Wattpad, LeanPub
  • Fan fiction: Similar to serialization, only the work is based on other authors’ books and characters. For this reason, it can be difficult to monetize fan fiction since it may constitute copyright infringement. Examples: Fanfiction.net, Archive Of Our Own
  • Reader-driven publishing: Readers vote on what books should be published by the host site. Example: Kindle Scout (may be the only example right now!)
  • Blogs and websites: Both new and established authors alike use their blog or website to post works in progress, offer excerpts for critique, or distribute free (and paid) versions of their books.Examples: LiveJournal, WordPress, etc.
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