How to publish a book

What do the different publishing routes involve?

The difference between the various alternative routes of 'getting your book out there' can be as huge as the difference between doing a gig at your local pub and getting picked up by a massive record label. There can be good reasons to do both things, in fact, but you do need to know which is which.

The traditional publishing route

If you want to get your book published by a traditional route (like Ian McEwan's Atonement, right), then:

  • you need to get your work accepted by a literary agent, because the big publishers only take submissions from literary agents. Info on how to get an agent can be found here. Once you have an agent, he or she will take care of selling your manuscript to  big publisher. And that means ...
  • you will get paid an upfront advance for your work. That advance might be as small as £1,000 but can run to well over £100,000 for work with superb commercial potential
  • the publisher will invest in editorial, copyediting, and design work. They'll also invest in sales and marketing. A very small publisher might have a budget of £15,000 (excluding your advance), but a bigger publisher is likely to spend upwards of £50,000 on getting your book sold, and sold hard. You will not pay a penny towards these costs.
  • you should expect real national distribution for your book - that is: physical books in physical stores. The exact extent of that distribution will depend on what kind of book you're writing (eg: a big crime bestseller or a niche non-fiction work) and much else, but it is a publisher's job to get the fullest possible distribution for your physical product.
  • you may get some newspaper review coverage. But don't count on much. The extent of that coverage has declined over the years and the simple fact is that most books never get reviewed.
  • And of course, any big publisher will also distribute your book through every digital platform (Amazon, iTunes, and so on). They will do what they can to promote it digitally as well as physically.
  • It's not very likely that you'll get a TV or movie deal, no matter what, but these things are more frequent for authors who travel the traditional route.


The digital publishing route (aka, indie publishing, self-publishing)

The biggest disadvantage of the traditional route is simply that it's damn hard to get an agent to take your work on - and even then, you have no assurance of selling your manuscript to a publisher. The huge advantage of the e-reading revolution from an author's point of view is that anyone can do it. Amazon charges nothing for you to upload your work and it can sell it worldwide - an astonishing change for would-be authors. (And no one was more astonished than EL James who started out as a purely digital author, before Random House helped turn her into the global phenomenon that she became.)

If you want to publish your work digitally, you need to be aware that:

  • Amazon will not pay an advance
  • Your work will not appear in bookshops. It will almost certainly not receive review coverage from national newspapers.
  • You will still face some costs (for editorial and copyediting work; see more on this below.)
  • Amazon's US store lists upwards of 5,000,000 e-books. Simply being one of that number does not mean that you will achieve meaningful sales. It's perfectly possible to be 'published' but still largely without readers.
  • Nevertheless, you get access to a worldwide audience and, essentially, for free, or close to it. That's an extraordinary liberation for countless authors and we at the Writers' Workshop hugely welcome those new freedoms.

To make this new market work for you, you will need to (a) have written a fantastic book (or, ideally, several) and (b) be committed to marketing and selling them. But if you tick those boxes, there is no reason why you should not do exceptionally well. The careers of authors such as Hugh Howey are notable examples of how well indie publishers can do.

It's also worth emphasising that although indie-published e-books account for about 1/3 of the total market, they account for a much larger share in some areas (eg: crime and romance) and a negligible share in others (eg: literary fiction.)

If you do want to self-publish (and we are firm believers in the value of this route for many authors), then we urge you to read and follow the tips given in our massive guide on the subject. That guide basically details the steps you need to take to make a success of modern Amazon-driven self-pub.


The old-fashioned self-publishing route

These days, old-fashioned self-publishing has a lower profile than it used to (although Virginia Woolf did OK with it, once upon a time). If you want to publish independently in the hope of convincing regular publishers to take you on, then you want to publish digitally - it doesn't really matter if you have hard copies or not.

Self-publishing in this old-fashioned sense involves:

  • Paying someone to design and print your book.
  • A 'large' print run for this kind of title might be 500 copies
  • Most such books do not break even
  • You will be responsible for sales and marketing. You can list the books on Amazon, of course, but you still have to find a way to bring them to the attention of your potential readers.

We also urge you to be careful of who you employ to work with you on a project of this kind. We think the whole group of brands listed under the Author Solutions umbrella are sleazy and immoral. We urge you to avoid them for these excellent reasons. If you do want to self-publish, we recommend Matador, because they're good at what they do and they won't lie to you.


How to get a book published: the pros and cons of the different routes

Traditional publishing should attract writers who:

  • have written novels or mainstream non-fiction (but see provisos below!)
  • do want an advance
  • do want the kudos of a traditional publishing contract
  • do want distribution through bookshops
  • do not want the hassle of looking after the sales & business side of things
  • don't mind that things are slow (often 18 months from book deal to print)
  • don't mind that publishers, not the writer, will control all key decisions

If you have written general fiction, literary fiction, bookclub fiction - or any other slightly posher genre of novel - then really you have very little realistic alternative to the traditional route.


Digital publishing should attract writers who:

  • haven't succeeded in obtaining an agent, or who don't want the hassle and uncertainty of that route
  • are writing in one of the digital-friendly genres, such as crime, romance, erotica, paranormal or YA fiction, or SF / fantasy / horror.
  • want the control
  • are entrepreneurial and confident marketers
  • are confident enough with computers that they can handle the various (easy) digital interfaces which they'll have to navigate to be successful
  • don't care about the various little perks of traditional publishing (bookstore distribution, newspaper reviews, the kudos, etc)


Traditional print self-publishing should appeal to writers who:

  • want to distribute their book to family, friends and other networks they have direct access to (eg: regimental veterans, members of a national association etc.)
  • want to preserve their writing in an attractive, permanent physical form
  • don't care about making money - and indeed, can afford to lose their upfront costs.

If you have written a memoir, then we urge you to get it printed up. It will be a family jewel for years and decades to come. A pile of papers or a digital file doesn't have even remotely the same permanence.


Self-publishing Non-fiction

If you have written a niche non-fiction book with a clear search-friendly appeal (eg: "All About Crochet", or "How to Build, Repair and Maintain a Dry Stone Wall"), then it's highly likely that even a capable ordinary publisher would achieve very few sales in bookshops, simply because there aren't many stores which now stock the more esoteric titles.

That means you are now better off self-publishing your book and gathering 100% of the net receipts from Amazon as opposed to the 25% or so that a regular publisher would offer. You will have some upfront costs (in terms of printing, design and editorial), but you won't need to sell many copies to recoup those costs. Talk to a good self-publishing firm (like Matador) about the best way to approach the issue of design, print run, etc. Use your own contact and networks to get the book sold.