This is a guest post by Rose Atkinson Carter
You’re finally done writing your first book. Hooray! It was difficult to carve thousands of words out of your imagination, but you did it. Now that most of the heavy lifting is done, you can finally start looking for a publisher.
As a new author, you begin navigating the world of agents and publishers, trying to understand who is responsible for what. Then you start sending dozens of query letters, evaluating representation offers, and revising your novel, waiting and hoping that your agent will strike a book deal.
Before you know it, months have gone by, your enthusiasm is at an all-time low, and you’re not even sure the book will be published.
Before you embark on such a long and challenging journey, it’s wise to set the right expectations about what it means to publish your book “the traditional way”. There is a lot to gain from working with publishing houses, as long as you know what you’re signing up for.
In particular, there are five key things to bear in mind before you decide what route to take. These concern marketing, earnings, creative control, publishing timelines, and literary prestige. Without further ado, let’s go over them one by one.
1) You still need to market your book
The great thing about working with a publisher is that you have access to their team of marketing professionals and, more importantly, their distribution network.
Publishers will promote your book by creating publicity buzz around it in traditional media like magazines, as well as social media. On top of that, they create opportunities to sell more copies by suggesting it for “book of the month” contests, organizing book signings, and of course a book launch party.
However, each publisher spends most of the marketing budget on their top-selling books. Unless you’re Kazuo Ishiguro, whose most recent book received a huge billboard in London, or an equally reliable seller, they’re likely to keep promotion to the bare minimum (which, to be fair, sometimes is more than you can achieve on your own).
That means you will still need to do lots of the marketing yourself, such as actively promoting the book on your social profiles, running Amazon ads, reaching out to niche-related blogs and personalities, or organizing your own readings.
If you don’t want to be baffled by how much work you still need to do, asking to see the marketing plan for your book is one of the main questions to direct to your publisher.
2) You spend less but earn less
If you don’t want to pay money upfront to self-publish your book, you probably look at book publishers with starry eyes since they take care of all costs, from editing to marketing, printing, and distributing the book. On top of that, they usually offer an advance as an investment in your work’s future success. What a great deal, right?
Well, what you save in upfront investment, you forgo in potential earnings once the book is published. According to Reedsy, publishing houses offer royalties of around 7.5% for printed copies and less than 17.5% for ebooks, whereas if you self-publish your book, those numbers spike to an average 50-70% royalty rate.
Let’s say you get a deal with a sci-fi publisher, and your novel sells 3,000 printed copies at $15 and 5,000 ebooks at $9 — your royalties will likely amount to about $11,250. However, if you were to sell even half of the copies independently at a 60% royalty rate, you would make 27,000$, more than doubling your income.
Sure, working with a publisher exposes you to a broader audience, but if you believe that you can reach many readers through independent means (your newsletter or social media platforms, for example), consider cutting the middleman and reaping the full economic benefits of your hard work.
3) You surrender a lot of creative control
How would you feel about scratching a character out of your novel? What about changing the book title? If the thought of it makes you panic, maybe the traditional path is not for you.
Once you hand over your novel to a publisher, you relinquish much creative control. You will likely be asked to delete or rewrite some chapters, improve and remove characters, and tailor the story based on what readers expect in that genre.
This is not necessarily bad news: people working in publishing houses are professionals who know the market and have good reasons to revise your work. But their priority is to fit your book into tested formulas to sell more copies, not to honor your quirkiest creative decisions.
Before you commit to working with a publisher, you should understand that they have the last word on your book’s final version, even if you disagree with it.
4) It takes years to publish your book
The fact that you finished writing your book doesn’t automatically mean it will be out in the blink of an eye. For first-time authors working with publishing companies, it takes on average one to three years to see the book published.
There are many reasons for such a long time horizon, most of which are out of authors’ control. To start with, it takes a while to integrate the publisher’s editorial changes and recommendations. Secondly, each publisher manages the publication of hundreds of books at a time, prioritizing them based on complex market forces. Finally, publishers work with a seasonal calendar to effectively sell and distribute books. If a book’s publication gets postponed for some reason (hello, pandemic-induced global paper shortages), it quickly adds extra months of waiting.
If you’re going down this road, arm yourself with patience to endure such a nerve-wracking process or consider self-publishing your book.
5) It’s the only entry to literary prestige
Let’s get it out of the way: if you care about literary prestige and awards, you don’t have much choice but to work with a publisher.
Only publishers are allowed to submit entries for most book awards, such as the Booker Prize or the Michael L. Printz Award. The guidelines clearly exclude self-published titles from participating unless they’re also printed and distributed by a publishing house.
In other words, they’re the only entry door to literary prestige — of the kind that’s lauded by awards and traditional media. Whether that’s important to you or not, it’s something to weigh in your decision on how to publish your book. If you decide to go solo, the good news is that the world of self-publishing is quickly growing in authority, and many prizes are awarded to indie authors every year. Moreover, self-published books make it to bestselling lists left and right, awards or no awards, so you might still get some of that blush-inducing literary recognition!
Whether you go independent or choose to work with a publishing company, the journey to get your book out is not for the faint-hearted. No matter which path you follow, I hope that this article helps you feel more prepared to face any obstacle between you and your literary success!
Rose Atkinson-Carter is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world’s best self-publishing resources and professionals like editors, designers, and ghostwriters. She lives in London.