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Which publishing path is right for you?

Heroic Public Speaking's Head Writing Coach AJ Harper demystifies the options.

5
minute read
Published on
December 19, 2023

“Should I try to get a deal with a traditional publisher, or should I self-publish?” In my nearly 20 years in publishing, I’ve likely been asked that question thousands of times. The question beneath that question is, “Do I have any chance of getting a book deal?”

Could you get a traditional book contract? It’s a complicated question. Authors who don’t have a big platform assume getting an offer is off the table for them, but that’s not so. Your sphere of influence—your ability to sell books—is a major factor in a publisher’s decision process, but there are other considerations. Even if your platform is small, if you have a fresh idea that fills a gap in a popular market, you definitely have a chance.

Different Paths to Published

Rather than first consider if your book is worthy of a traditional book deal, I’d like you to consider what you need first: which path will help you meet your goals and works with your resources? Start with that option and if that doesn’t work out for you, go with Plan B.

Here’s an excerpt from my book, Write a Must-Read: Craft a Book That Changes Lives—Including Your Own, that will help you determine which path is right for you.

To get your book to market, you have three primary paths: traditional, self-publishing, and hybrid. I use the word “primary” because you have options on each of these paths. For example, traditional publishing is not just the Big Five; there are thousands of publishers from small boutique presses, mid-tier presses, and yes, the biggies. If you want to self-publish, you could take the DIY approach, or hire a company that offers a package to do it for you (yes, that’s still self-publishing), or some combo of both. Hybrid publishers can be as different as apples and oranges when it comes to what they offer authors.

Here’s a breakdown of the three primary publishing paths.

The Traditional Path

A traditional publisher acquires publication rights to your book, which means they have the exclusive right to publish your book in most or all formats (print, ebook, audiobook) for a specified period, which could be anywhere from five years to forever. They also get a whole bunch of other rights, but not the copyright to your work. That’s yours. Contracts can differ widely, so you need an agent and/or an intellectual property attorney to review yours with you so you understand it.

In exchange for publication rights, traditional publishers agree to pay you a royalty, which is a percentage of monies earned on your book. Royalties differ based on the format (again: print, ebook, audiobook). Sometimes you will also get an “advance” when you sign your contract, which is an advance on royalties paid in three or four installments over a period of one to two years. You will have to earn out this advance before you see another dime from your publisher.

Traditional publishers do not charge you for anything. Nothing. Zip. If any publisher asks you for a dime, they are not a traditional publisher and may be misrepresenting their company.

Most but not all traditional publishers follow a rigorous process designed to ensure they publish the best book possible.

Many traditional publishers have trade distribution. What does this mean and why does this matter? Trade distributors work to get your book on the library, bookstore, and big box store shelves, featured in book clubs and subscription boxes, and to public schools, colleges, and universities. You’ll often hear so-called publishers say they have “global distribution,” which only means they are fulfilling demand. If you want a sales team trying to create demand with retailers and bulk book buyers, you need trade distribution. The Big Five have their own distribution machine. Smaller publishers may have trade distribution contracts with distributors like IPG (Independent Publishers Group).

The Self-Publishing Path

The self-publishing path simply means you cover 100 percent of the cost of getting your book to market, from book development to printing. You may opt to manage the entire process and build your own team. Or you may want to hire a company that will help you—in which case you may not earn 100 percent of the net revenue.

Important note: If you don’t have a deal with a traditional or a selective hybrid publisher, you are self-publishing your book. I want to make that clear because so many authors think they have a publisher when they really hired a company to help them self-publish their book. If you want to go this route, no problem; I simply want you to go into it fully aware. For example, most self-publishing packages do not include developmental editing, and I’ve yet to come across a company that offers these packages and trade distribution. Also, because you may think you have a publisher, you may not think twice about letting them take a cut of your royalties or exclusive rights to this or that. Please read the fine print on any terms, and hire an attorney to review contracts.

The Hybrid Path

Think of hybrid publishers as a mix of traditional and self-publishing. Here you have the standards and distribution options of traditional, for which you are making a monetary investment. Legit hybrid publishers are selective about the books they acquire. They also pay more in royalties than a traditional publisher.

Your challenge will be vetting hybrid publishers, because any- one can use that term to describe their business. In my experience, most are offering self-publishing packages and not giving authors what they need to create and distribute a must-read book—or royalties commensurate with their investment. Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) has a list of hybrid publishing standards I recommend you download and keep handy during your vetting process.

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AJ’s book Write a Must-Read: Craft a Book That Changes Lives—Including Your Own is the winner of three IBPA Benjamin Franklin awards.

A Few Things to Consider

Here are the factors to consider when choosing a publishing path:

  • Timing. Most authors are surprised how long it takes traditional publishers to release a book. And, not understanding why that’s the case, they may end up believing “experts” who tell them the extended timeline is “ridiculous” and “unnecessary.” Top-tier hybrid publishers follow the same timeline as traditional publishers. This is because they both offer trade distribution. If you just started writing your book and you need it out in the next year, self-publishing is your only option. I really hope you won’t rush to publish, but still, if you think you have no other option, you’re going to have to go the solo route.
  • Expense. If you have limited financial resources, your best bet is to try to get a traditional deal. This is the only option that will cost you zero dollars, aside from whatever you decide to spend on your own marketing efforts. Of the other two paths, self-publishing is generally less expensive than hybrid publishing.
  • Revenue. This is a tricky one, because while with self-publishing you’ll earn 100 percent of the net revenue, you may sell more books with a publisher that has trade distribution. If you sell the same number of books, you’ll make the least amount in royalties from a traditional publisher, significantly more with a top-tier hybrid publisher, and the most from self-publishing.
  • Control. Contrary to popular belief, you do not give up total control when you sign with a traditional publisher. In most cases, you have input on and can veto your title and subtitle. Your publisher has final say on cover, but they will ask your opinion. If you really hate the cover, you may have to hire a designer to show them what you want. You will have zero control over your release date, pricing, and how your book is positioned to sales teams. You should have final say over editorial disputes, but your publisher can opt not to release your book if they feel it will do them harm. Ask your attorney to review your contract to ensure your publisher does not control any future writing about your idea, frameworks, and so on. If having control is a top priority for you, then go with hybrid or self-publishing.
  • Credibility. When I first started in publishing in 2005, traditional publishing was the only “credible” path. My ghostwriting clients who chose to self-publish did everything they could to hide that fact. Not so today. Likewise, some stores, big book clubs, and subscription models prefer not to order self-published books. Further, if you are an academic or a high-profile corporate leader, self-publishing is still a no-no, but some hybrid publishers may be a viable option.
  • Distribution. As noted above, there’s a big difference between “global distribution” and trade distribution. If you want the power of a sales team behind you and no barriers to getting your book on shelves, then you need trade distribution, which means traditional or top-tier hybrid are your two options. (And make sure you confirm that your book will have trade distribution; not all books get the same treatment.)

Now that you have the basics about each publishing path, which one will serve your needs best?

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HEROIC

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A Few Things to Consider

Here are the factors to consider when choosing a publishing path:

  • Timing. Most authors are surprised how long it takes traditional publishers to release a book. And, not understanding why that’s the case, they may end up believing “experts” who tell them the extended timeline is “ridiculous” and “unnecessary.” Top-tier hybrid publishers follow the same timeline as traditional publishers. This is because they both offer trade distribution. If you just started writing your book and you need it out in the next year, self-publishing is your only option. I really hope you won’t rush to publish, but still, if you think you have no other option, you’re going to have to go the solo route.
  • Expense. If you have limited financial resources, your best bet is to try to get a traditional deal. This is the only option that will cost you zero dollars, aside from whatever you decide to spend on your own marketing efforts. Of the other two paths, self-publishing is generally less expensive than hybrid publishing.
  • Revenue. This is a tricky one, because while with self-publishing you’ll earn 100 percent of the net revenue, you may sell more books with a publisher that has trade distribution. If you sell the same number of books, you’ll make the least amount in royalties from a traditional publisher, significantly more with a top-tier hybrid publisher, and the most from self-publishing.
  • Control. Contrary to popular belief, you do not give up total control when you sign with a traditional publisher. In most cases, you have input on and can veto your title and subtitle. Your publisher has final say on cover, but they will ask your opinion. If you really hate the cover, you may have to hire a designer to show them what you want. You will have zero control over your release date, pricing, and how your book is positioned to sales teams. You should have final say over editorial disputes, but your publisher can opt not to release your book if they feel it will do them harm. Ask your attorney to review your contract to ensure your publisher does not control any future writing about your idea, frameworks, and so on. If having control is a top priority for you, then go with hybrid or self-publishing.
  • Credibility. When I first started in publishing in 2005, traditional publishing was the only “credible” path. My ghostwriting clients who chose to self-publish did everything they could to hide that fact. Not so today. Likewise, some stores, big book clubs, and subscription models prefer not to order self-published books. Further, if you are an academic or a high-profile corporate leader, self-publishing is still a no-no, but some hybrid publishers may be a viable option.
  • Distribution. As noted above, there’s a big difference between “global distribution” and trade distribution. If you want the power of a sales team behind you and no barriers to getting your book on shelves, then you need trade distribution, which means traditional or top-tier hybrid are your two options. (And make sure you confirm that your book will have trade distribution; not all books get the same treatment.)

Now that you have the basics about each publishing path, which one will serve your needs best?

Dont
Do
AJ’s book Write a Must-Read: Craft a Book That Changes Lives—Including Your Own is the winner of three IBPA Benjamin Franklin awards.
Don't
Do
,
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