The Book Publishing Landscape Is A Mess. This Is The Map.
If you’re reading this, you’ve already written a book, or you are seriously considering it. Now the question you want answered is, “What’s the best book publishing option for me?”.
The book publishing landscape is very confusing. This is for many reasons; the most relevant to you is that the business of book publishing has changed dramatically over the past decade, and most of the advice people give is dated and wrong.
Furthermore, most of the guides to book publishing are geared towards writers, novelists, or hobbyists. Entrepreneurs, business owners, executives and other professionals should look at book publishing through a completely different lens than writers.
This piece will examine the three book publishing options commonly available, explain the pros and cons of each, and help you understand exactly which one you should select.
Just some background on me, so you know why I’m qualified to write this: I’ve been in the book and publishing industry for almost two decades, have authored three #1 New York Times Bestsellers, have started and exited multiple publishing companies, and am the co-founder and chairman of an innovative new company that is completely changing the way books are written and published.
NOTE: In this piece, I am talking pretty much exclusively about non-fiction books. Fiction books have a different calculus, and I would recommend you read this and this if you are looking for publishing advice for novels.
Understanding Modern Publishing
There are three major activities required to publish a book, and one that is optional:
- Market (optional)
There are three modern publishing models to accomplish these tasks: traditional, self and hybrid.
I’ll dive deeper into each publishing option, what the basic facts are, and the questions you need to ask for each, so you can decide which one to use.
Traditional Publishing Model:
Summary: In the traditional publishing model, an author must find and retain a book agent, and then pitch a large book publishing company (which are almost all based in New York City, such as HarperCollins or Simon & Schuster) with their book idea. If the pitch is successful and they offer the author a deal, the publishing company purchases the ownership of the print license from the author in return for an advance on royalties (that the author does not have to pay back). The author is on their own to write the book, sometimes with editorial help from the publisher, sometimes not. The publisher then manages and controls the whole publishing and distribution process (the second and third steps). Traditional publishing is what most people think of when they say “book publishing.”
Ownership & Rights: The publishing company always owns the print license, the author always owns the copyright. All other rights (movie, excerpt, etc) are negotiable.
Royalty Rate: 15% hardcover, 7.5% trade paperback, 5% mass market
Advance: Yes, but the amount varies greatly depending on the author.
Writing: Very little help, limited to some editing and copyediting.
Publishing Services: Yes, they do everything, though quality varies greatly.
Distribution: Yes, they do everything.
Marketing: Very little marketing help, depends on the publisher, and can often inhibit marketing (explained below).
Prestige & Perception: Usually the highest of the three models, but fading and irrelevent to readers.
Time To Publish: 18–36 months.
- Monetary advance before publishing
- Potential for traditional media coverage
- Social signaling/Feeling of acceptance
- Very hard to get a deal
- Huge time investment
- Loss of ownership
- Loss of marketing control
- Loss of creative and content control
- Limited financial upside
Can you even get a traditional publishing deal?
When considering traditional publishing, the first and MOST important question you need to ask yourself is: can you even get a publishing deal from a traditional publisher?
Most authors cannot, so there’s no reason to waste time trying. To get a publishing deal from a traditional publisher, you must go through these steps:
- Find a book agent willing to represent you and your book idea to a publisher (this is very hard, most agents get 1000’s of inbound requests a week).
- Write a book proposal (this is such a big task, authors often pay freelance writers 10k or more to do this for them).
- Shop the book proposal around to publishers (through the agent).
- Have a publisher make you an offer based on your proposal and pitch.
- Negotiate and accept that offer.
That seems like a lot, but in some cases, it can be easy. A book publisher’s decision hinges on one simple fact:
Do you have an existing audience that you can guarantee will buy a lot of your book?
If you do have a big audience–people who already follow you in some form, like an email list, or social media, or something like that–most of that will be doable, if not easy.
If you do not have an existing audience, then it is nearly impossible to get a traditional book deal.
The reason for this is because traditional publishers are terrible at selling and marketing books, and they now rely almost exclusively on authors to do this for them. I’m not just saying this. Book agent Byrd Leavell says this (he’s repped several #1 New York Times bestselling authors who have sold more than 10 million non-fiction books):
“Publishers aren’t buying anything that doesn’t come with a built in audience that will buy it. They don’t take risks anymore, they don’t gamble on authors, they only want sure things. I won’t even take an author out unless they have an audience they can guarantee 10k pre-sales to.”
If you do have a built in audience, then you absolutely have a shot to get a deal, and should go on to the next question.
If you can get a traditional publishing deal, should you take it?
As recently as 20 years ago, this was a no-brainer: of course you took the deal, because you didn’t really have any other options to get a book into the hands of readers.
However, the game has changed since then. In the modern world of book publishing, traditional publishers are no longer the gatekeepers, as they provide very little prestige or access relative to other options, and the other options are, in most cases, better than traditional publishers for most authors.
In 2016, there are really only three reasons for an author to sign with a traditional publisher:
1. You need the advance that they will pay you:
If you already have a big audience, then a publishing company will probably give you a big advance. A “big” advance can range from $100,000 to $1 million (or much more in rare cases), but the advance is directly tied to the expected book sales.
This is not charity; they will do this because they expect to make a lot of money when you sell your books to your audience. And if you do not have a big audience, your chance of getting an advance in this range is essentially zero (unless there is some other angle that makes the publisher confident you will sell many books).
The cool thing is that even if your book does not sell, you don’t have to pay this advance back. It’s yours. But make no mistake–you are paying for this money in other ways. You no longer own the print license for the book, which means you cannot do anything with this content other than have it in the book. It’s not yours to use anymore, and if the book is a major hit, you only get a small fraction of the profits. You are selling the potential upside to the publisher.
2. You must have mainstream media attention for the book:
If you absolutely NEED a lot of mainstream media attention for your book to be a success, then going with a traditional publisher really helps. When I say mainstream, I mean like New York Times,Wall Street Journal, media outlets like that.
The types of people who fall into this category tend to be celebrities, politicians, etc. They are the type of people whose time is extremely valuable, and they generally tend to be very, very rich. By the way, they have to pay for PR to get media as well. They do the whole song and dance, mainly because they are famous and do NOT have their own platform.
To be very clear: doing a book with a traditional publisher does not mean it will be covered in those outlets. In fact, the odds are small, even if you do get a traditional publishing deal. Each publisher puts out tens of thousands of books a year, and bookstores and retailers do not have the shelf space for all of them,
But the reason it helps is because even though no book reader cares who the publisher is, the only group of people who still look at the publisher as a signal of credibility are journalists who work for major media companies.
3. You want the social signal and feeling of acceptance that comes from being “picked” by a traditional publishing house:
Let’s be honest–this is the primary reason most people want a deal from a traditional publisher. They want to feel like they were “picked,” that this selection is an unassailable signal of their importance and relevance.
I have gotten publishing deals from several major publishing companies (Simon & Schuster and Little, Brown), so I wish so much that this was true–that these deals meant I am now unquestionably important. It doesn’t.
Here’s a great example: a Ferrari is a cool car. But what do you think of the old guy who bought one? Compensating, right? It can work the same with traditional publishers. Having a “fancy” publisher’s name on the spine doesn’t make you important. In the modern world, no reader notices or cares who publishes the book.
In fact, in many circles (especially entrepreneurs and forward thinkers), traditional publishing is starting to be seen as a negative signal. Self-publishing used to be seen as “vanity publishing” because the assumption was that you could not get “picked” by a traditional publisher. But in the modern book world, controlling the rights and usage of your book is now seen as much more important by most authors, and in fact, traditional publishing is now the new “vanity” publishing–because authors with traditional deals are looking for that ego boost and external validation rather than “picking” themselves, and owning their book.
Are the tradeoffs of traditional publishing worth it?
So even if you can get a traditional publishing deal, AND you fall into one of the three reasons to publish it, the tradeoffs of doing so may still make it a bad choice for you. These are the major trade-offs with traditional publishing:
1. No ownership of rights and profits
You are literally selling them not only the upside profits of the book, but more importantly, you are selling them control of your intellectual property. Once they own the book, they ONLY care about selling copies. You can no longer do anything with that book that doesn’t involve paying THEM for copies of it, because that is how publishing companies make money.
2. Loss of creative and content control
Make no mistake about this: once you take a deal from a publisher, they OWN the book and all the content in it, so they get to decide EVERYTHING that goes in the book. They get final say over every word, the book cover, the author bio, everything.
I can tell you from my experience, as a group, publishers tend to make terrible aesthetic decisions. This is for many reasons, but the biggest is what I call “adverse selection.” Though some people who work in publishing are deeply skilled and thoughtful editors whose work makes books much better, those people are rare, and tend to only work with the biggest authors. Most of the people working at publishing companies are doing that because they were not good enough to make a living as a writer. I don’t say that as a put-down, but simply so you understand that someone who didn’t make good enough decisions on their own about their writing is now in a position to hold final decision-making power over your book.
Furthermore, their incentives do not always align with yours. Publishers ONLY care about selling books; they don’t care about any of your other goals, and they will force creative decisions on you that you don’t want. This most often plays out in marketing (below).
3. Loss of marketing control (and no support)
Publishers do no marketing. I cannot emphasize this enough–publishers expect YOU to do all the work of selling the book for THEM. They don’t have a plan to sell 10k copies your book. That’s YOUR job.
[The only exceptions are, again, for the biggest authors, like Malcolm Gladwell or JK Rowling.]
This might be OK for a novelist, but if you are someone like the authors my company works with, and you want your book to promote you or your business, a traditional publisher greatly restricts your options.
Creatively, if you want to position yourself as an expert in something, what happens if they don’t think your book topic appeals to enough people? They don’t care about your business, they only care about selling copies of books, so they’ll make you go broader with your topic, which means the book won’t be as appealing to the specific audience you are trying to reach.
But even worse, because the ONLY way they make money is to sell copies of the book, you can’t give copies away for free, you can’t give the PDF away for free, you can’t use your content in other places as a lead gen for your company. They now are going to force you to put all your promotion efforts on selling copies, which does not always help you reach as many people as possible.
Also, they give you ZERO price control, so your ability to make marketing deals with any number of people is none. This type of flexibility is critically important for so much marketing, and they won’t do it.
4. Huge time investment
Even if you get a traditional book deal, it’s a huge amount of effort to put it all together. You have to find an agent to represent you to a traditional publisher, you have to do a book proposal that will appeal to a publisher, and then you have to shop the book deal.
From the start of the process all the way to publishing, it’s usually 24 months, often 36 months. That’s two to three YEARS, which is an incredibly long time in the modern media world, especially for a non-fiction author.
Summary: In the self-publishing model, the author retains ownership of their book and manages and controls the whole process. Self publishing has many different forms, but at its core, the author does the publishing work (or manages freelancers or a publishing services company who do the work for a fee). There is no acceptance needed, no advance, and the author retains all rights.
Ownership & Rights: Author retains all rights.
Royalty Rate: Variable, usually between 70% and 100%, depending on sales channel.
Writing: Author must manage. Many variations of help exist, but all paid.
Publishing Services: Author must manage. Many variations of help exist, but all paid.
Distribution: Author must manage. Many variations of help exist, but all paid.
Marketing: Author must manage. Many variations of help exist, but all paid.
Prestige & Perception: Variable; almost totally depends on quality of the book.
Time To Publish: As fast as you can manage.
- Full ownership of rights and royalties
- Completely customizable in all aspects
- Fast to market
- Total marketing control
- Total creative control
- Total freedom
- You answer to no one for anything
- It is a lot of work to get it right
- If it’s unprofessional, will result in poor quality and low status
- Time consuming to learn and manage the process yourself
- If you hire excellent professionals to help you, it’s expensive
Can you do a professional job with your self-published book?
This is the absolutely crucial question for self-publishing, one that trumps every other. If you can get a professional job done, then self-publishing is almost always the best bet for most authors. If you cannot get a professional job done, then you may either not want to self-publish, or you may not want to publish a book at all.
The reason this is so crucial is because readers judge a book, and judge the author, not by who published it, but by how professional and credible it is.
The saying is right: everyone judges a book by it’s cover. But not just the cover: The title, the book description, the author photo, the blurbs, even the author bio. All of these tell a story about how credible and authoritative that book and author are.
Whereas, a book that has a cover that looks like a child designed it, or a book that has a description with spelling and grammar errors, a poorly lit photo, or a bragging or incomplete bio, all look bad.
It used to be that traditional publishers were the only ones who had the expertise and access to the talented people necessary to make books that looked professional. That was true 30 years ago, but not anymore. In fact, almost all of the best talent out there is freelance and can be hired for reasonable rates. Just in my company alone, we use writers, editors, proofreaders, copywriters and book cover designers who all either used to work for traditional publishers and left to freelance, or we use the same freelancers that the traditional publishers use.
Some people think there is still a stigma to self-publishing. Well, the data appears to say otherwise. Hugh Howey (self-published his novel “Wool”, which has sold millions of copies and is being made into a movie directed by Ridley Scott) did a study on 200,000 titles and showed that the self-published books on Amazon had, on average, a higher star ranking than traditionally published books.
This all boils down to the fact that if you’re willing to put in the work to make sure your self-published book is super professional, then you’re going to be well off. But if not, then your book, and you, will suffer.
What is the major tradeoff of self-publishing?
There is really one major tradeoff with self-publishing:
Professionally self-publishing a book requires you to put in either time or money (or both).
It’s not hard to do all the steps necessary to make a professional book. We wrote a book that lays out every single thing you have to do. It just takes time. The way around that is to hire great people, or even better, hire a publishing services firm to manage the whole process for you. That takes money.
It’s a pretty simple calculation: if you have money, spend it to save time.
If you don’t have money, then your time isn’t your most expensive asset, so use it to learn how to professionally publish your book, and execute it (hint: best bet is to start here).
Summary: In the hybrid model, the ownership of rights varies depending on the publishing company the author works with, but the basic idea is that they try to look like a traditional publishing company, but pay little to no advance, yet still take most of the royalties, still control a lot of the process, and still do some part of the publishing work.
Ownership & Rights: Variable
Royalty Rate: Variable, usually 15–25%, but can be as high as 50%
Advance: Usually not, but sometimes very small
Writing: No help
Publishing Services: Yes, usually
Distribution: Yes, almost always
Marketing: Variable, but usually not much if any help
Prestige & Perception: Varies widely
Time To Publish: 6 to 18 months
Why pick hybrid over the other two?
Quite honestly, there is almost no reason to go with a hybrid model publisher. It’s very much a case of either lane of a road working, but standing in the middle gets you killed.
Here’s what you have to understand about the hybrid model: it kind of doesn’t exist. It’s a made-up word for publishing companies that use a variation of the traditional model, but don’t want to say they do. They’re trying to capture the best of both worlds–give authors the illusion of status from being “picked” by a publisher, and getting the author to do most of the work, and owning the rights, and still getting the upside–all while NOT paying an advance!
Most authors should use self-publishing. There is definitely a set of authors for whom traditional publishers make sense. There are very few authors for whom hybrid publishers are the best bet.
This is because you are getting the restrictions of traditional publishers, without the advance or the status, while you are doing most of the work of self-publishing, without the ownership, control, or upside.
The other problem is that in hybrid publishing, oftentimes the publishing company will try to retain copyright or other rights. One of the main attributes of old traditional publishing companies is that they ALWAYS reserve copyright to the author, and almost always leave all other rights to the author (movie, TV, etc). They only care about the rights involved around profiting from the printed word and related rights.
Hybrid publishers recognize the potential value of the rights in other fields, and often try to capture those. Wiley is notorious for this, and some book agencies are looking to get into this as well. Be very, very careful dealing with any publishing company that does not reserve all rights aside from the print license to the author.
Common Questions To Help You Pick Your Publishing Method
“I want my book to establish my authority and credibility in my field. Which option do I pick?”
Most people would tell you traditional publishing. That is true if you are a celebrity, an athlete, a musician, or someone else who is already big, and you want to maintain that.
If you are NOT already big, I would actually recommend you self-publish (again, assuming you can do it professionally). This is because the best way to establish credibility and authority is to write a niche book that establishes you as THE authority to a small group, instead of trying to compete with other people in broad categories.
“I want my book to be in bookstores. Which option do I pick?”
Most people will tell you that traditional is the only way to do this. That’s not true. First off, traditional publishers will NOT place you in bookstores (other than major cities) unless they have already given you a solid six figure-plus advance. Second, many hybrid publishers can get you into bookstores, though it is much harder for them. Third, it is very easy to have a self-published book available for order from a bookstore, though to get it stocked is not easy.
That being said, being in a bookstore is, at this point in history, almost purely an ego play.
“I want my book to promote my business. Which option do I pick?”
There really is only one pick here: self-publishing gives you the flexibility to position your book exactly how you want to, and use the content in any way you want to achieve your end. Publishers only care about selling copies of your books, not promoting your business. Explained here in depth.
“I want a bestseller. Which option do I pick?”
If this is your goal, read this piece, as it explains everything about best sellers.