There’s More To Modern Publishing Than The Mainstream Vs Self-Publication Debate

9 Nov

With the advent of publishing programmes such as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and Create Space, there has been a great deal of debate about the relative merits of mainstream publishing and self-publication. Yet, this debate has primarily focused on what could be considered two extremes of modern publishing frequently brushes over other publishing options that fall between them. In this posting, I’ll take a very quick tour through the full range of alternatives and put them in the context of the more familiar mainstream/self-publication extremes.

Firstly, it’s important to realise there’s more to mainstream publishing than the ‘big six’ (Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House, Macmillan, The Penguin Group and Hachette). There are also many mid-sized, and well-respected, publishers out there. Some of these are widely recognised publishing brands in their own right (such as Bloomsbury, the publisher of the Harry Potter books), while others will be less familiar. If they become successful, mid-sized publishers may get bought up by one of the big six, but a good number remain publishers in their own rights for many years. The important thing to remember here is that just because your book is published by one of these companies, doesn’t mean it can’t be successful (just ask J.K. Rowling!).

Next on the list are the independent publishers.  These are ones that are not associated in any way with the big six and are unlikely to ever be targeted for takeover by them.  Independent publishers come in a variety of guises. First, there are the small presses, some of which may specialise in quite specific areas. Small presses usually publish a more limited number of titles than mainstream publishers, and may lack many of the publicity resources available to larger companies, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be considered second-rate. This having been said, many can be precariously perched on thin divide between financial success and failure, meaning there is the possibility they could disappear suddenly and without trace.

After this, comes niche publishers. Niche publishers can be thought of as small presses which specialise in a very specific subject matter or market.  An example of this is Permuted Press which almost exclusively publishes books with an apocalyptic (and often zombie-fuelled) theme.

From niche publishing, we move onto micro-publishers. These are usually one or two person operations, and are often run by authors who use them to publish their own work and those of a small number of other authors who are already known to them. Some micro-publishers may, indeed solely publishers their own work.  They differ from self-publishing in that they are set up and run as small publishing operations (including having their own ISBN numbers for the imprints). This means they make use of free-lance editors, cover designers, proof-readers and copy editors to help maintain high standards for their work. To confuse things further, not all independent publishers fall neatly into one of these classifications, and some may straddle two or even three. For example, while Permuted Press started out as a micro-publisher, it was (and indeed remains) a niche publisher. However, it now has a sufficiently large catalogue of titles that it is probably best classified as a small, rather than a micro, press.

Self-publication can also come in a variety of guises.  This can include those who produce their own books and publish them through outlets such as Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon’s CreateSpace and Lulu.  Self-publishers differ from micro-publishers in that the authors are generally solely responsible for all aspects of their books ranging from editing to proof-reading, cover design and copy editing, rather than using external free-lance specialists for these specialist jobs.

At this point it is also worth mentioning vanity publishers, just to complete the picture. Vanity publishers as ones that, unlike all other types of publishers considered here, require payment upfront from an author to publisher their work.  As such, their business model is to make money from authors rather than from books sales.

While we might all aim to be signed up by one of the big six, with the associated possibility of large advances, this is extremely difficult to achieve, especially for an author seeking to get their first book published. This means you might wish to consider some of the other options mentioned above. If you do, you will quickly find yourself asking, ‘Which is best for me?’  Unfortunately, there is no right answer to this question and it will vary from author to author (and indeed from book to book).

If you just want to see your book in print and are not particularly interested in making a reputation for yourself as a writer, or indeed selling any books, then vanity publishing might be the one for you.  If, however, you are even remotely interested in becoming a recognised writer, you’d be better to stay clear of such publishers. Instead, you could consider one of the independent publishing options. If you are confident you can cover all the skills required to successfully bring a book to market on your own (such as editing, typesetting, cover design and so on), then self-publishing might be a good way for you to go. This is usually the cheapest option, as there may be little or no layout in advance (especially with ebook publishing).  If you do decide to go down this route, you have to be brutally honest with yourself about your abilities otherwise you risk getting a reputation for publishing sub-standard work (and this is something that has tainted the self-publication market as a whole).  If your editing skills aren’t up to scratch, or your design skills are not quite as good as they could be you need to admit this to yourself.  If you find yourself lacking certain essential skills, consider whether you should, instead, go down the micro-publishing route and make use of free-lancers to cover the gaps in your abilities. Yes, this will cost you money, but if it improves the quality of your published work, it should mean it’s more likely achieve sales, get good reviews and/or get a reputation for producing good work. Either way, if you decide to self-publish or micro-publish you will almost certainly be wholly responsible for publicising and marketing, and, assuming you have written a good story, its success or failure will very much depend on how well you handle this aspect of the publishing game. Since you can’t really on the skills and resources of a large publicity machine, you’ll have to box clever on this front, but you’ll also need to be careful not to over-do it.

If you’d rather steer clear of everything associated with getting your book from a manuscript to something that’s actually on sale, you might want to consider submitting it to a niche or small press. These presses are more likely to accept unsolicited manuscripts direct from writers, however, there are also some nightmare stories out there from authors. This means you need to do your research before you consider submitting a manuscript to one of these publishers. There is also the issue that, by their very nature, these publishers are more likely to fail, potentially trapping your book in the limbo of liquidation. This having been said, if you can find the right niche or small press for you, then it’s likely that you’ll be able to have a greater input into things like the cover design and the internal layout.

If none of these options seem like your cup of tea, then you will probably need to find yourself an agent who can submit your manuscript to a medium-sized publisher, or maybe even one of the big six. However, be warned, getting an agent can be a struggle in its own right. If you succeed in going down this route, you will benefit from all the expertise that these bigger companies can throw at your book. This won’t guarentee its success, but it is potentially more likely, and while you will still need to do some of the publicity and marketing, these companies will have many additional resources you can draw on.

So, this ends my whirlwind tour through the full gamut of options available in the modern publishing industry. For the new author, it can all seem very confusing, but hopefully this has provided a few hints that might help push you in the direction of the solution which is right for you.

If you have any thoughts or experiences with any of these different publishing options, please share them by commenting on this article, especially if you think you can help other decide what publishing approach might be right for them.


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

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