Publishing Options: How to Wade Through the Swamp

By Pamela Nowak

I received a request for advice from a fellow writer. Poised on the edge of publication, she is looking at options. As I thought about how to answer her, it occurred to me how different things are now from how they were fifteen years ago, when I was moving into that stage of my career.

Back in the old days, we reached for the most recent addition of The Writers Market and our notes from conferences then made lists. All the information we needed was in one tidy book: names, contact information, query procedures, submission guidelines. Formats were standard, word counts were based on a word-per-page formula, and there were fewer options. If a publisher wasn’t listed among the names in that book, it wasn’t one you wanted to submit to. You simply prioritized them and queried. Except for advance amounts and reputation within the genre, there was little else one needed to consider until an offer was received.

Wow, have things changed!

Today, the options have exploded. Big publishers, small presses, self-publishing, and combinations of them abound. Guidelines vary and so does everything else.

With all the options out there, research is more critical than ever. There is no longer such a thing as an industry standard—in submission guidelines, in contracts, in press runs, in distribution, or in anything else. Writers today need to be constantly aware of the ever-changing business of publishing. They need to consider what they want, what their skills are, and what publishers are (and are not) offering.

If you want to pursue traditional publishing, you must look at what the publisher offers. Do they release in mass market paperback, trade paperback, hardcover, digital, or a combination? Are different formats released simultaneously? What is the distribution system? Do they offer marketing support? What type of product do they release? How supportive are they of their authors? What type of advances and royalty percentages are paid? Are your rights tied up for a limited amount of time or in perpetuity? Will the publisher get you reviews? The list goes on and on.

If you are considering independent publication, you need to look at your own skills. Are you experienced in social networking? Do you know how to access reviews? How much time are you willing to put into marketing? Do you like spending time online?

But I feel you also need to be aware of what you want in terms of your career. Do you want to reach your goals all at once or are you willing to get there via steps? What is most important to you? What are you willing to compromise on, if necessary? How devoted are you to your genre and style of writing?

Larger publishers offer you wider distribution and sell their books at a lower cost while small presses may have a narrow distribution, smaller print runs, and may only offer higher cost formats. Larger publishers are more rigid with the category standards while small presses tend to be more flexible. If you are willing to adjust your length, complexity, or sub-genre, larger publishers may be the route to go. If you are firmly tied to something that doesn’t quite fit, you may want to look at small presses. But don’t sign unless you are fully aware of those limitations in print runs, distribution, cost per book, and earning potential.

If you want your book published without lots of editing, there are a host of small presses who offer that option. But those publishers will not have the same reputation for quality as those who edit more deeply. That doesn’t mean your manuscript is not well-written. It simply means that if the publisher doesn’t edit much, they will inevitably achieve a reputation for producing books that lack editing. Does that matter to you?

You’ve received an offer but the publisher wants your rights in perpetuity. What is most important to you--getting your book in print or being able to get your rights back in the future?

You want your book in front of reviewers. Which publishers will get them there? And…what publishers have reputations for getting good reviews? Are you willing to do the editing that might be necessary to achieve a good review?

If you are thinking about self-publication, are you willing and able to market your book online? Do you understand the various distribution channels? Do you accept that you will have to work hard to make sales?

Here's a look at my experience. I signed my first contract in December 2006, just as small presses were beginning to emerge as a viable option. Signing with a small press had not been what I had originally envisioned but it was an option I began to look at when I discovered large publishers were no longer buying western historical romance that didn’t fit neatly into category lines or stereotypical characters.

In looking at my goals, I realized that I didn’t want to change genres and I didn’t want to write less complicated plots in order to comply with category guidelines. This was not an area in which I was willing to compromise. Therefore, I needed to look at options that would allow this. I researched carefully, looking for a small press know for quality products, good editing, and review connections. I accepted some limitations (small press runs, limited distribution, and higher product price) while holding to those things that were most important to me.

As a result, I’ve taken a slower route, Yet, it is one that allows me to write the type of books that I always envisioned and, when the market shifts, I will be in a position to pursue publication that reaches a larger readership at a lower price point. It’s a route that is working for me but might not work for others.

In the end, my advice for navigating your options is to research what publishers offer, to examine what is most important to you and to know where your skills lie. I would do this even before you query a publisher and certainly don’t accept an offer until you have fully researched and thought about these points. On the whole, it’s easier than it’s ever been to achieve publication but easiest is not always best. There is much more to consider before you select the route that’s best for you.

Happy hunting!

Pamela Nowak
at
Pamela Nowak writes historical romance set in the American West. In addition to widespread critical acclaim, her books have won multiple national awards. In love with history and rich characters for most of her life, Pam has a B.A. in history, has taught prison inmates, managed the Fort Yuma National Historic Site and run a homeless shelter. She was named the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers' Writer of the Year in 2010, chaired three conferences, and now serves as volunteer coordinator. Pam and her life partner Ken live in Denver. Their combined families include six daughters and several grand-children. Together, they parent a dog and a cat. More about Pam on her website.

6 thoughts on “Publishing Options: How to Wade Through the Swamp

  1. Terrific summary of the choices people face. It really was easier in some ways when there were fewer options. One thing I don’t quite agree with–your assertion that big publishers edit more deeply. I’ve been disappointed in a few novels put out by big publishers lately, seeing slipshod editing. It’s a shame, and I think it hurts everyone.

  2. That was A LOT to digest on a Monday morning! GREAT POST! While it all seems easier in some cases, you really show that having so many options in itself keeps the whole process just as challenging.

    Also find Terry’s comment interesting. I can definitely see how big publishers have so much more competition than the old days and would let quality slip (especially with new authors is my guess) in order to compete with the quantity published by small presses or self-published. More for the writer to beware.

  3. Wendy, this goes to the heart of the matter that so much more falls to the author now than it used to. If publishers are blowing off deep editing, it’s up to the author to edit very carefully.

  4. Terry…you are so right that larger publishers are becomming more lax on their editing (a definite shame!). There are a few smaller presses, though, that are known for almost no editing. That was what I was trying to highlight. On the other hand, I don’t want to imply all small presses are lax. There are some that demand quality. My developmental editor at Five Star Frontier Fiction holds me to a high standard and doesn’t let me get away with anything!

    My apologies for my lack of clarity and the generalizations.

    Terry is correct–one needs to research carefully and not make any assumptions based on size. Look for patterns among publishers of all sizes!

Leave a Reply