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I’d really like someone to tell me to my face that publishing is dying, because I haven’t laughed in someone’s face in a really long time, and I miss that feeling. To think publishing is dying is to be walking around with your eyes closed, to have failed to stop the Q-tip when it met resistance. Publishing is evolving, changing, and in many ways, even growing. And as a result, we have some lovely and scary things called choices.

It used to be that there were really big houses, and then less big houses, and that was kind of it. Sure, you could go with a vanity press if you had serious money to burn and either true belief no one would know the difference or apathy whether anyone would, but none of those books ever ended up on my shelf. (Or on my ereader, because they didn’t exist! That’s how old I am!! I know you’re that old too, probably, but I’m hoping this will freak out my kids someday.)

And now… now there is so much more, it kinda boggles the mind. Between traditional publishing in the sense we think of it (get an agent, have the agent sub to editors, get published by a big-6/Hyperion/Scholastic/Bloomsbury, etc.) getting published by a small/indie press, getting published in digital only, self-publishing… there are a whole lot of ways to go.

So how do you know which is the right way for you? Well, it’s hard to say, and one of the most interesting aspects of publishing right now is that you don’t have to choose only one – you can be a hybrid author, and combine as many aspects of publishing as you can and want to handle.

First and foremost, the number one thing I have to say about choosing a pub path is that you should feel secure in your choice, and assume that it is your book’s final destination. Yes, some self-pubbed books get purchased by big houses. Yes, some books pubbed by a largely digital press hit big enough digital sales that they come out in paperback as well. But these are exceptions, not the rule. Don’t set yourself up to be disappointed in the publishing industry or, even worse, yourself. Remember that every path has its haters, and if you can’t be proud of what you’re doing, it’s only going to hurt worse when they try to tear you down.

Second, make sure you truly understand every clause of your contract, especially the rights you’re signing away.

Now, with that bit of sunshine out of the way, let’s talk specifics, shall we? (Please bear in mind that some of the bullet points that apply to one will also apply to another. I’ve listed them under the categories in which I think they are the strongest, but I think it’ll be obvious where they overlap.)

Traditional Publishing

Who it’s great for:

  • Writers who have a lot of patience and/or draft slowly. With traditional publishing, it’s usually about 12-18 months from signing to publication, and publishing more than one book a year in the same genre is very rare.
  • Writers who want the maximum number of “partners” in the publishing industry possible. In order to get published in print by a house, you will need an agent (who is likely going to consider this the preferred method as it is far and beyond the highest-earning for an agent)… and you’ll have an editor, who will have a superior, and departments like marketing will also have to consider your project viable… and the list goes on and on. It’s a lot of people to cooperate with, a lot of gatekeepers, and a lot of people making decisions for you. Now, if you’d rather give control to the professionals, this is fantastic. If you expect to have a lot of say in your cover, marketing plan, etc., it may not be.
  • Writers who prefer a high advance/low royalty model. Traditional publishing houses unquestionably offer the highest advances (do not ask the average – there is no average), which is money paid out no matter what the book ultimately earns; they also offer the lowest royalty rates, which is the money your book brings in from sales. (For a sample scenario of how this works, say you get a $5,000 advance. You get this money – minus 15% to your agent – no matter what. Then, once your book sells, you earn a percentage of each sale – say 10% for a hardcover – but you do not see any of that money until you fully earn out your advance, i.e. until your earned royalties total $5,000. Once that happens, you’ll start seeing 10% of every book, and that will be your royalty earnings.) This scenario provides the most guaranteed income for the writer, as you will neither pay for any part of publication nor will you earn less than your advance (barring any manuscript disasters).
  • Writers who want prestige. Requires the most gatekeepers + has the most money + offers the below items… realistically, the higher tier the house, the more prestigious the deal. It looks best for agents, it looks best for authors, and it will almost definitely guarantee the widest distribution and best placement for your book. (Which by no means suggests that every book at a major house will get similar treatment, or even great treatment at all. But if it does, it’s likely to be the kind of publicity no other sort of publication can match.)
  • Writers who want brick-and-mortar placement. Care about seeing your book in Barnes & Noble? This is by far your best bet.
  • Writers who want the bonus income of selling foreign rights.
  • Writers who want to be published in hardcover.

Indie Publishing/Small Presses

I must open by saying that for the most comprehensive information on small/indie presses, the most comprehensive source I know of is #SmallPress411, which was compiled by the wonderful Danielle Ellison and Jennifer Iacopelli. You can pretty much just ignore me and head on over there for boatloads of excellent information. But, in case you’re sticking around, here are some thoughts of my own.

Who they’re great for:

  • Writers who want a more hands-on (but still guided) publishing experience. When I did Perpetual WIPs: Pre-Pub Edition, this was absolutely the biggest difference I noticed between responders from small pubs and from big ones – the amount of control over and say in things like cover design and publicity plans. Small presses tend to incorporate far more author input, which can be great or not so great, depending on whether you’d like to give it or have it in other people’s hands.
  • Writers who are comfortable doing some of their own publicity and marketing. The fact of going with a method other than the big guys is that you’re very likely going to have less – less in-store placement (and even if you do have in-store placement, a small press isn’t likely to spend the money necessary for co-op, which is the marketing cost that goes to having your book placed in an additional ideal location, like front of store), less advertising money behind your book, less money to spend on personalized notepads or bookmarks or whatever. Which means it’s up to you, as the writer, to make up the difference, whether that’s buying your own personalized postcards or setting up your own blog tour.
  • Writers who prefer a higher royalty/lower advance model. While traditional publishing advances generally start in the mid-four-figures, advances for a smaller publisher are usually set at about $1,000 or less. However, that means if your book sells well, you’ll be earning out your advance sooner and seeing your royalties earlier. Since some smaller publishers also have considerably higher royalty rates (at least for ebooks, where they can go up to 40%, vs. the much more common 25%) this is especially great if you have confidence in strong sales. It’s not quite as guaranteed, cash-wise, as the big guys, but it all depends on where you see your book going….
  • Writers who write genres that aren’t considered marketable by the big guys at present. It’s an unavoidable fact that traditional publishing is a very small world, and when a genre is considered “out,” it’s pretty universally “out,” at least for a couple of years. What does that mean for the writer? It means that selling a Paranormal Romance or a Dystopian or a quiet Contemp to a big-6 is an extremely rare thing these days. It doesn’t mean there’s no audience or that no one’s buying them, but it’s a small enough audience that it’s perceived as unlikely to earn the amount of money that would go into its production. Fortunately, it costs a whole lot less to create ebooks than it does print books, which means there are plenty of digital publishers still gladly accepting genres others won’t touch. They specialize in these genres, and they’re pretty damn good at editing them.
  • Writers who want to get published and do not have an agent. This is not universal – not all indie pubs will accept unagented submissions (although those that don’t often have at least one window per year during which they accept unagented submissions) – but there are a number of small publishers that do not require an agent at all. Of course, it is then doubly on you to ensure the quality and contract terms of that publisher, so make sure you do your homework!

Self-Publishing

Who it’s great for:

  • Writers who write and revise manuscripts at a far greater speed than most. Any type of publisher that employs a staff and is juggling a number of titles is going to have a significant time span between when you sign and when you publish in order to maintain a realistic pub schedule. If you’re the kind of writer who churns out a new manuscript every three months, you may find a traditional publishing schedule utterly interminable. With self-publishing, you get to create your own, which also means you must pressure yourself to meet your deadlines.
  • Writers who like to control every aspect of the process. When you self-publish, every decision is on you. You may (*cough* should *cough*) hire freelancers for things like developmental editing, copy editing, formatting, cover design, and publicity, but ultimately, all of those things come back to you – you’re the one choosing your vendors. You’re the one responsible for finding the people to make your book great. Of course, that also means that your book may end up more closely matching your vision than it would have in any other venue.
  • Writers who have cash to spend up front, in exchange for the highest-royalty-earning model. The biggest downside of self-publishing is that it’s the only method that actually costs the writer money. However, the flipside is that it has the highest royalty rates, at around 70%. This means that you’re extremely reliant on sales just to get back into the positive, and some books never do. Here’s where it’s really key to realistically gauge your own sales expectations. Great sales can earn you far more for a self-pub title than they would have if you’d gone traditional.
  • Writers of a genre/category that no one’s really specializing in. Let’s be honest – if, right now, you want to make money by self-publishing, your safest bet is to write a steamy New Adult novel. Why? Because it’s the number one area where traditional publishers missed the boat. Sure, they’re interested in them now, but A) they still seem to be going for proven self-pubs over new submissions and B) if they were to take something new, it’d be on a traditional pub schedule. If steamy NA is big now, who’s to say it will still be in the winter of 2014? Why should an author who can easily make money by self-pubbing her own now and raking in 70% of the royalties wait to see how it works out with a traditional publisher, especially if trad pubs are buying the self-pubbed titles anyway? (This, by the way, does not mean I don’t think there’s a future for NA in traditional publishing – I just think it’s going to have a little more variety of genre, and I for one can’t wait.)
  • Writers who’ve exhausted all the other options. The thing about all the paths besides self-pub is that they’ve all got gatekeepers. Some have more and some have fewer, but all require that at least one person say, “Yes, we will publish that.” (And really, if it’s literally only one person, that should raise a lot of flags for you.) And sometimes, for whatever reason, that just doesn’t happen. It sucks, but it’s real life, and it’s up to you whether you want to say, “If it’s not right for anyone who’s seen it, it’s probably not ready,” or “Just because it’s not right for anyone who’s seen it doesn’t mean it’s not right for an audience of readers.”

Now, though I talk about this in terms of “people” each method is right for, the truth is that it’s really about how you feel about specific works. For example, if I wanted to write steamy NA right now, I would absolutely self-pub it, even though with all my other works, I’m aiming for either traditional publication or a small press. And why am I aiming for a mix of those two rather than having a strong preference for one over the other? Because the number one thing I want out of the publishing process is partnership in the form of professional editorial guidance, and both large houses and smaller presses provide that. (It’s admittedly not as vague as it sounds – there are books of mine I’d rather go to a big pub and books I’d rather go to small pub – but there’s a limit to how specific I’m going to get at present ;)) I am only one writer, and yet I could conceive a way in which my ideal career comprised every one of these methods.

So, those are my feelings, and how I make my decisions as to my end goals for each and every one of my manuscripts. How did you make your choices regarding which path to pursue?

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