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Tricks and Treats: Navigating the Publishing Space

Updated: Jan 1, 2022

As spooky season comes and goes, one of the scariest things authors and creatives often find themselves grappling with in regards to their work—something that can literally define their experience of getting their creations out into the world—is the essential question of:

"Should I look into traditional publishing for my manuscript, or should I self-publish my work?"

Whether someone is writing a novel or comic, or has created a short story or poem collection, the answer to this question is something I ask all creators before accepting any new job request. Each method of putting work out into the world in front of an audience has its pros and cons: be it the freedom to focus on creating and leaving the business nitty-gritty to an outside company, or the total control that comes with absolute self-publishing.

Picking the outlet that best suits a creator and their creation, as well as clearing up any misunderstandings or misconceptions regarding the publishing industry is something that should be at the forefront of the mind rather than an afterthought. Thinking of not just what to write, but also on a plan of how to get the writing to readers has the potential to save a creator a lot of time and minimize frustration with the experience.

During the month of October, I worked on numerous projects preparing for traditional and self-publication, including one that had its share of woes due to the fact that, in the end, the distributor a creator paired with didn't quite match their needs and vision of what they wanted for their creation.

So, for this month's Monthly Reader, I wanted to give a small breakdown of some of the expectations that a creator can have in mind when dealing with a few different types of publishing, focusing on 3 major assisted publishing types: Traditional Publishers, Vanity Publishers, and working with a Distributor.

One of the first things many think of when imagining a publisher, is Traditional Publishing. While a very small number of creators will find themselves approached by a traditional publisher scouting for works, many who are looking to get their work published—from first-time writers to even seasoned pros—will pitch their work to a publisher either through an agent or by directly submitting to a publisher.

The age of the internet has brought this process leaps and bounds forward compared to when authors had to physically print and send their manuscripts in manila envelopes, taking an hours-long process and reducing it to a couple clicks of a mouse to submit work either via email or other online dropbox.

Doing this oneself as a creator/writer makes this an "unsolicited" manuscript, which puts the manuscript in a different category from "solicited" manuscripts submitted by agents who are working with a creator and can vouch for a manuscript's fitness for publishing. While I won't go into depth on this this month, just know that the "unsolicited" stack is invariably far larger than the "solicited" stack at every publisher, and some publishers do not even accept unsolicited manuscripts, whereas other may attach a fee to submissions.

Skipping over the many—sometimes hundreds, even thousands—rejections a creator may receive on the way to publication, something to expect when a manuscript is accepted by a publisher and negotiations begin are some details of contract and even payment.

A traditional publisher will often pay a lump-sum royalty upfront to the author, in addition to any ongoing royalties due to a creator once they've agreed to a book contract. This is considered the professional norm, since it gives the creator incentive to stay with the publisher or risk having to pay back the royalty, while the publisher then has their own incentive to market and sell a book to at least make back their upfront costs. This is why many traditional publishers only take on a small number of truly exceptional and quality books from the tens of thousands of submissions they receive; If they took every book and didn't have a sufficient plan to market and sell that book, these large publishers would go bankrupt in a heartbeat.

Taking one step away from traditional publishing, there are what are known as "vanity" publishers, otherwise known as Vanity Presses.

Unlike traditional publishers that have to be picky about the books they publish, a vanity press has the opposite incentive: they want to publish as many books as possible, often regardless of content or quality. How can they afford to do this when even a large and multinational traditional publisher can't? It's because authors and creators pay the vanity press for their services, often ranging from everything from developmental and proofreading work to book layout, marketing, printing, and shipping a book to retail stores and buyers. A bit like self-publishing in some aspects, rather than hiring individuals to assist with aspects of the book creation process (such as a marketer or looking for a printer to create print books) vanity presses allow individuals to hire entire teams to work on their book for a flat price.

However, not all vanity publishers are made equal. Many issues with vanity publishers come from unrealistic expectations of what they guarantee creators in terms of sales. While traditional publishers are in a similar position and can't know 100 percent whether a book will float or flop, vanity publishers often oversell their capabilities when they don't have as loyal of followings as traditional publishers.

For an example, a traditional publisher and vanity publisher might both make the same profit by selling 100 books—however, a traditional publisher will count on selling 100 books of a single title, whereas a vanity publisher might sell 10 books each of 10 different titles.

That's a huge difference to authors when the one working with a traditional publisher receives a royalty payment upfront from their publisher, versus the vanity published author who paid thousands upfront to the publisher to do the work of packaging and marketing their book.

While a vanity press costs the creator/writer, the publisher doesn't lose a penny even if the writer/creator doesn't sell a single book, which is part of why vanity presses tend to have a bad rap: they may take on any book of even lackluster quality and publish them on behalf of an author so long as the author writes a check. Not all bad if a creator goes with a good vanity press and wants creative control, but still risky should an author pick a bad or ill-fitted press to serve them and their manuscript.

Another type of publishing contract that someone might encounter that's another step closer to pure self-publishing is contracting with an entity known as a distributor. While great for those with works that are ready to go straight to the presses (known as an "NPR" or "Near-Press-Ready" book), distributors often offer no guarantees or royalties upfront, though they often won't require payment like a vanity press might. One such large distributor is Amazon and its Createspace and similar platforms. In exchange for an exclusivity contract (often ranging from a couple of months all the way to several years), these entities will add the extra backing of a brand to an author's creation, often offering perks such as ongoing royalties and access to national distribution programs and deals that would make even some traditional and vanity publishers drool with envy.

While distributors allow nearly total creative control to stay with the author, the distribution of the creation—such as where and how e-books and physical books are created, sometimes even merchandising and posting rights—are often handed over to the distributor for the length of a distribution contract's terms. This can become a muddled affair if a creator is later approached by another entity seeking to represent their creation during the contracted period. While it may not seem like a big problem, this can even cause hiccups for those who like to post their work online or who might offer custom merchandise in exchange for crowdfunded dollars.

Every creator has their own goals for their story. While none of these types of assisted publishing is right for everyone, they all certainly have their own pros and cons, things they excel at, and things they don't do as well with. Even within the various types of assisted publishing there are companies that excel at what they do, or have the capacity to drop the ball or mislead. Be sure to do your research and find which is right for you.

While this is by no means an exhaustive exploration of publishing in this month's Monthly Reader, I hope that the extra bit of insight provides additional food for thought as winter's chill begins to tickle the nose, and writers begin preparing for the season of solitude with hot cocoa and writing by the fireside. Putting just a bit of thought into not just the solo writing, but also the route taken to bring that writing to its reader, is a key step in the process of taking a thought and sharing it with the world.

Until next month!

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