Publishing used to be simple. A writer wrote a proposal or manuscript and then found an agent who was willing to represent the book. The agent shopped it around and sold it to a publisher. The writer received an advance and then the agent, publisher, and writer worked together until the book appeared in book stores about a year later.
That model hasn’t gone away. You can still find an agent to help you get published and you can still aim for selling your book to a publishing house, but technology has opened more doors for writers.
Terms get thrown around, like traditional publishing, legacy publishing, self-publishing, vanity publishing, and indie publishing. But what does it all mean? What’s the difference between self-publishing and indie publishing? Is there a difference? Why should we care?
Types of Publishing Companies
Most writers hope to eventually publish a book. While many writers already have their heart set on traditional publishing or have their minds made up to self-publish, it’s helpful to take a close look at all available options before making a final decision.
As a writer, the sooner you start studying the publishing process, the better, because the type of publishing you choose can affect how you write and what you do while writing. For example, if you decide to self-publish, you might want to start building your marketing platform months before your book is finished.
To get started, it’s helpful to familiarize yourself with the types of publishing companies that you can choose from. This isn’t an definitive guide; it’s meant as an overview to introduce various types of publishing companies and the options that are available to you as a writer.
Traditional publishing is exactly what it sounds like: the traditional way to publish books. Nonfiction writers submit a proposal (which often includes a few sample chapters) and fiction writers submit a manuscript to agents until they find one who is willing to represent them. The agent then sells the proposal or book to a publisher. Once the book is sold, the author receives an advance (sum of money). At this point, nonfiction writers write the rest of the book. Writers work through revisions with editors at the publishing house. The publisher handles the book cover, printing and formatting, and distribution. The publisher may also handle some marketing. Traditional publishers are also called commercial publishers.
Traditional publishing is sometimes called legacy publishing, a term that is slightly controversial because it has conflicting connotations. I’ve heard people describe legacy publishing as literary or highbrow, outdated and inefficient or dignified and respectable. I’d say the jury is still out on what legacy publishing implies, so my recommendation is to stick with the term traditional publishing for this model.
Further reading: Nine Reasons Authors Still Choose Traditional Publishing
Vanity publishing has a fairly bad reputation in the literary world. In this model, the writer pays to have a book published. Whereas traditional publishers pick and choose which books they send to market, vanity publishers don’t require an approval or editorial process. Whereas traditional publishers are in the business of selling books, vanity presses are in the business of printing books.
Some vanity presses may offer services in the areas of editing, formatting, and cover design. Vanity presses can be used for self-publishing; in this sense, the vanity press provides printing and binding. The author is responsible for all editing, design, distribution, and marketing. The bad rap comes from vanity presses presenting themselves in a somewhat misleading way, often making authors feel like their books are being published traditionally. Writers who are not knowledgeable about publishing have felt scammed by vanity presses. However, these publishers do have a role in our society. For example, many people use vanity presses to publish books of a personal nature, such as family trees and family bibles, works that would not be publicly distributed and would only have a small print run.
Futher reading: Where Publishing Gets Practical
Subsidy publishing falls somewhere between traditional and vanity publishers. Subsidy publishers enter a partnership with authors. Under this model, authors keep most (or all) rights and ownership of the work. Whereas traditional publishers pay authors an advance, in subsidy publishing, authors must make a financial investment in the cost of publishing. The publisher handles production and distribution and provides funding for sales and marketing. Authors start earning royalties immediately since the books don’t have to earn out an advance. It’s easier to get a subsidy publishing deal since these types of publishing companies aren’t as selective as traditional publishers. Whereas vanity presses earn profits from printing books, subsidy publishers (like traditional publishers) earn profits from book sales.
Further reading: Subsidy Publishing vs. Self-Publishing
With self-publishing, the publishing company is the writer. Self-published authors are solely responsible for writing, editing, proofreading, cover design, layout, distribution, and marketing. That’s not to say self-published writers do it alone. Self-published authors with business savvy know their own limitations and hire out different aspects of the production process. They may work with freelance editors and cover designers and will usually publish their books on platforms that include distribution. For example, Amazon provides print-on-demand publishing through Create Space and distributes e-books online. Authors are solely responsible for all publishing costs but also retain full creative control and all ownership and rights to the work.
Further reading: A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing (Joe Konrath is an advocate for ebooks and self-publishing; this site is packed with articles and information on self-publishing)
A Few More Terms You Should Know
There are a few other types of publishing companies and publishing-related terms that all writers should know:
Print-on-Demand Publishing: Once a book is completed, copies are printed as they are ordered.
Indie Publishing: Indie publishing has taken on two meanings. It can refer to a small press publisher or it can refer to self-publishing. I imagine that in the coming years, it will settle into one definition or the other, depending on how we all use it.
Small Presses: Most commercial publishers are big businesses or are owned by larger, corporate conglomerates. Small presses are small businesses that usually specialize in certain genres or topics and produce and distribute in smaller quantities than big publishing houses. Many small presses work directly with authors and don’t include agents in the process.
University Presses: These presses are nonprofit, usually print academic works, and are run by universities and colleges. They often publish literary magazines and journals as well as textbooks and creative works.
Publishing is an Evolving Business
The world of publishing is currently undergoing dramatic changes. The companies are changing and new models are emerging. There’s no telling what publishing will look like when the dust settles. In the meantime, we writers must do our best to stay informed about standards and trends so we can make the best decisions when the time comes to publish our own work.
We all come to writing for love of the craft. Some of us are storytellers, others are wordsmiths. Some of us have ideas we want to share. But for all of us, it starts with writing.
Once it’s time to think about publishing, everything changes. We have to think about legal issues, like contracts and copyright. We have to consider artwork for book covers. How do we get our books printed and produced? How do we get them into stores? How do we get our writing into the hands of readers?
For centuries, all these considerations have belonged to the publishing industry. Authors wrote the books, did interviews and book tours, but much of the work that didn’t involve writing was handled by the publisher. At the very least, the publisher provided guidelines and navigated writers through the process.
Today, self-publishing has put a tremendous amount of power and control back into the hands of writers. It’s your story. Your poetry. Your idea. If you want, you can retain total control of it. But for many authors, traditional publishing still gives writers the support and guidance they need to get through the publishing process.
Why Authors Want Traditional Publishing
Historically, self-publishing was a last resort, an act of desperation by a writer whose work had been rejected countless times. Now, with the advent of the Internet and ebooks, writers are skipping the submission process entirely and actively choosing to self-publish their books. But for many (probably most), traditional publishing is still the most desired route to publication.
- Validation: when an agent agrees to represent your book and when an editor buys it, you will undoubtedly feel validated. After all, squeaking through the gates of traditional publishing is like getting membership to an exclusive club because your book has been chosen among thousands of rejections.
- Advance: we publish either to reach readers or to make a living with our writing (most of us want both). When you sell your book to a publisher, you get an advance, a sum of money averaging somewhere between $5000 and $15,000 for an unknown, first-time author.
- Editing: it’s inadvisable for writers to polish (edit, proof) their own work and it’s also not the best idea to hand this task over to friends or family. Hiring a professional editor for a full-length manuscript can be costly (expect to pay well over $1000 at the low end). Publishers have in-house editors and proofreaders who will help you iron out the kinks and polish the prose.
- Cover: most authors are not artists or designers, which explains the barrage of hideous covers on self-published books. A traditional publisher will most certainly assume full control of the cover but they’ll also make sure it’s rendered by a professional designer. In other words, your book will look professional, not cobbled together.
- Print and production: before going to print or ebook production, the manuscript has to be formatted and while it may look easy, laying out a book is no small task. Publishers provide book designers to compile an aesthetically pleasing design and optimum reader experience. Plus, they handle the print run. Most self-published authors don’t even bother with print and book reviews often complain about poorly formatted manuscripts.
- Distribution: have you ever wondered about the process that takes books from the printer to the book stores? If you self-publish, your book will probably be limited to online book stores. But a publisher will get your book distributed online and in brick-and-mortar stores, so you get greater exposure to readers.
- Marketing: marketing only gets one spot on this list but it’s really a key factor in a book’s success whether that book is self-published or traditionally published. If your book is published traditionally, you’ll be heavily involved in marketing but at least you’ll get guidance and support. Some authors say that even with traditional publishers, most of the marketing fell on their shoulders, but some help is better than none if you know little to nothing about marketing.
- Cost: If you choose self-publishing, you will bear the cost of publishing your book from editing and cover design to print production and marketing. You’ll foot the entire bill. Most successful authors who traditionally publish also incur expenses (many hire PR firms and do a lot of their own marketing) but at least the publisher foots some of the bills.
- Prestige: The stigma of self-publishing is fading but it still exists. Some people just don’t respect self-publishing and will judge you and your book negatively if you haven’t gone through the gatekeepers. Some book reviewers will not review self-published work. Some book clubs won’t read self-published books. Some readers won’t buy them. Also, some publishing houses carry more prestige than others. If you need a stamp of literary approval to feel good about your book and if you want a shot at every available reader, traditional publishing is a better route for you.
Having said all that, there are just as many reasons to choose self-publishing as traditional publishing. We’ll explore reasons for choosing self-publishing in an upcoming post. Ideally, you’ll research both publishing methods and decide which is best for you and your book.
Have you ever tried to get your writing published through traditional channels? Have you self-published? Share your thoughts and experiences with publishing by leaving a comment and keep writing!
In recent years, self-publishing has become an acceptable way for authors to share their work with a readership. But just a few years ago, self-publishing was the last stop on the rejection train. Authors usually resorted to self-publishing only after dozens of failed attempts to land an agent or sell their work to a publisher. For this reason, self-published books carried a negative stigma, which is only now being shed.
Since most self-published books failed to pass the litmus test of the publishing industry’s gatekeepers, they were seen as universally unworthy. And in many cases, they were. Agents and editors won’t get on board with substandard books, so those books are less likely to get published.
But that doesn’t mean every rejected book is substandard or all writers who self-published did so because they couldn’t secure a publishing contract.
In fact, some of the most notable writers in the literary canon self-published: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, William Blake, Benjamin Franklin, Edgar Allan Poe, Gertrude Stein, Mark Twain, and L. Frank Baum. And if that’s not enough, Wikipedia lists even more self-published authors and self-published bestsellers.
The Truth About Rejection
The truth is that plenty of books that went on to great success were initially rejected. Lolita was “overwhelmingly nauseating.” Jonathan Livingston Seagull was “ridiculous.” George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which critiqued communism, was rejected by none other than T.S. Elliott, who said “We have no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticize the political situation at the current time.”
Anne Frank’s diary was rejected sixteen times. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected eight times. Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected by over 100 publishers before its authors went ahead and published it themselves. (Source: Flavorwire)
Let all these instances of rejection and self-publication be a reminder: agents and editors are only human. They read ridiculous amounts of prose and are tasked with picking only the ones that, in their estimation, have the best chances of becoming bestsellers. And they make mistakes. I’m sure the eight publishers who rejected Harry Potter will carry the weight of that mistake for the rest of their lives.
When you stop to think about the jobs that agents and editors perform, it’s easy to understand why so many great books slip through their hands. Maybe an agent read a book when he was tired, hungry, or stressed out. Maybe he just read three other books with similar storylines. Maybe the story touched a bad nerve. Maybe the editor who read a book loved it but didn’t feel like his publishing house could find an audience for it. Maybe he disagrees with the narrative’s philosophy. Maybe he’s looking for a zombie story.
The fact is that just because a book is rejected five, ten, a hundred times does not mean it’s bad or that it can never be successful.
The Other Truth About Rejection
We can’t escape the other truth about rejection, which is that some books really are rejected because they’re not very good. While authors must remember that a rejection doesn’t mean their book can’t go on to find success, they also have to figure out whether their book has the potential to succeed.
The best way to gauge the merit of your own work is to be well read. If you haven’t absorbed a hearty portion of the literary canon, you have nothing to gauge your own work against. You need to read good books, bad books, mediocre books, and great books and learn to identify that je ne sais quoi that differentiates them.
The New Era of Self-Publishing
If you ask me, the new era of self-publishing was inevitable. Its fate was sealed when Internet access became widespread. Of course authors are going to self-publish their work now, and in droves. Before we had all this fancy technology, self-publishing required a hefty investment. You’d have to find a printer and pay for a run. There was no print-on-demand and there were no ebooks. You placed an order — 500 books, 1,000 books, 15,000 books. You paid for all those books and then you went out and sold them, trying to recoup your investment and turn a profit. Nowadays, most self-published authors hire an editor or proofreader, cover designers, and maybe a PR consultant. Back then, you had to do all that, plus pay thousands of dollars for copies of your book. Technology changed all that, making it easy and affordable to self-publish.
Some people have decried the wave of self-publishing that’s sweeping across the Internet. Some terrible works are getting published! We need the gatekeepers of the publishing industry to weed out the bad books! I think that’s nonsense. Let the market — let the readers — decide which books they want to buy and read. Let authors take the risk, put their work out there, and see what happens. It’s an ideal business model that creates a broader and fairer playing ground.
And the best part is that it puts the power of publishing into the hands of the authors and readers, removing middle men who controlled what got published and what didn’t (which is kind of a scary thought).
A Living Example
In 2011, Hugh Howey self-published Wool, a short story, through Amazon’s Kindle Direct program. As it grew in popularity, he developed the story into a series (check out the complete Wool (Omnibus), and in 2012, he sold the film rights to 20th Century Fox. Film legends Ridley Scott and Steven Zaillian have both expressed interest in working on the project. Most recently, Howey entered a contract with Simon and Schuster, who will distribute Wool to retailers in the the US and Canada. And for the record, the contract allows Howey to continue distributing Wool online himself.
And Wool was never even rejected. Howey made a conscious decision to self-publish. Here’s what he said about self-publishing just a few days ago:
“I never shopped Wool to agents. After my first book release with a small press, I decided that self-publishing was for me. I never looked back. It wasn’t until agents and publishers began approaching me that I engaged in a dialogue. I actually predicted this before it happened. Over a year ago, I told anyone who would listen that every book should *begin* as a self-published work. Let it prove itself in the market and then allow agents and publishers to approach you. I was mocked for espousing this view, but it has now become more and more common. DBW recently posted a story about the 300 6-figure advances in 2012, and how 45 of them were for books previously self-published. That’s a healthy percentage.” (Source: Goodreads)
Of course, self-publishing isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly an option all writers should explore. In upcoming posts, we’ll explore the benefits and drawbacks of both traditional and self-publishing.
Have you considered self-publishing or given any thought as to whether you want to choose traditional or self-publishing? Have you read any self-published works recently? Share your thoughts on self-publishing by leaving a comment, and keep writing!
One of the best ways to get published early in your writing career is to submit your work to literary magazines and journals.
There are publications for every form, genre, and style of writing, and most of these publications have fairly simple submission processes that you can complete online. Some are explicitly looking for young or new writers.
If you’re fiction writer, poet, or essayist, then these publications could be a great way for you start your career as a published author.
The Benefits of Getting Published in Literary Magazines and Journals
If you hope to build a career as a published author, starting with literary magazines and journals is a good way to prepare yourself for publishing books in the future. Even if you intend to eventually self-publish your work, something I suspect more and more writers are considering these days, starting with literary journals has some benefits.
- When you submit your work, you need to follow the publications’ guidelines, many of which force to polish your work and properly format your documents.
- Many publications require that you write a brief letter of introduction, similar to a cover letter, which builds your professionalism as a writer.
- You’ll probably have to include a personal bio, something all published authors need if they expect to establish a viable career.
- Your publication credits (also called clips) can boost your reputation and credibility among other writers, the publishing industry, and readers.
- All of these magazines and journals have readers, something you’ll need as a writer. By getting published in their pages, you are exposing your work to a broader readership. Some of these readers may become the first fans of your work.
- Through the process of submitting, you’ll (hopefully) read these magazines and journals. You’ll discover other writers. You may even develop relationships with your fellow writers or with the publications’ editors. In other words, it can be a networking opportunity.
- When your work gets rejected and you keep trying, it can strengthen your resolve and thicken your skin. The submission and rejection process is a test of your fortitude!
- When your work gets accepted and published, you’ll enjoy a sense of validation and acceptance.
- If you intend on building a career through traditional publishing, these publishing credits can help you land an agent or get your work read by editors at publishing houses.
How to Get Started
The first step is to find literary magazines and journals and familiarize yourself with them. You won’t find these publications in the checkout line at your local grocery store. You can find them in bookstores and of course, online. Here’s a comprehensive list with short descriptions and links to tons of publications.
Look for publications that accept work in your preferred form (poetry, fiction, nonfiction). Make sure that any publications you decide to target are a match to your genre. You wouldn’t want to send a science fiction story to a romance zine. Furthermore, you’ll want to read the publications for style and submit to the ones that are a good match to your style of writing. For example, some poetry journals prefer abstract while others prefer concrete. Do not randomly pick publications off a list and submit your work. You need to read through the publication, thoroughly. Chances are, if you are personally compelled by the work in the publication, it’s a good match for you.
If you do nothing else, read the submission guidelines carefully. This can’t be emphasized enough: make sure you review the guidelines carefully and follow the requirements to the letter. Failing to do so could mean a rejection that isn’t even based on the quality or substance of your writing!
Are You Ready to Get Published?
Getting your work published is not easy, but it’s well worth the effort. We’re writers, so we’d rather be writing. But the reality is that if we want our writing to be more than a hobby — if we want it to be a career, we have to learn to wear many hats, like marketing ourselves. Going through the submission process might feel like it’s taking us away from our writing, but it’s actually an integral step toward success.
If you’re ready to get serious about your writing, then check out these tips for submitting your writing, and then start looking for publications that are a good match for your poems, stories, and essays.
Have you ever submitted your work to a literary magazine or journal? Have you received a lot of rejections? Did you get published? Share your experiences by leaving a comment.
Your short story is finished. Your poem is polished. Your personal essay has been proofread. Now, you’re ready to submit your creative writing project for publication.
How do you do it? Where do you find the right publication? What materials should you send? Should you use email or snail mail? How long do you wait before following up? And what if your piece is rejected?
For many writers, the submission process is a big drag because it doesn’t involve writing, and let’s face it, most of us are in it for the creative writing.
But there’s more to being a writer than just writing, especially if you want your work to be read or if you want to make a living as a writer.
Tips for Submitting Your Creative Writing and Getting Published
If you approach the submission process strategically and professionally, you’ll increase the chances that your work will be accepted and published. Whether you’re submitting to agents or editors, here are some tips for submitting your work and getting published:
- Take some time to familiarize yourself with various agents, publishing houses, and publications in your genre. Send your creative writing to the ones that are a good fit for your work in terms of form, genre, and style.
- Use the library or visit a local, independent bookstore to get copies of print publications like literary journals. You can also try college bookstores. Peruse them in the aisles if you wish, but keep in mind that buying copies of these publications helps support them — and other writers.
- You’ll find submission guidelines on most agents’ and publications’ websites. Otherwise, they’ll be in the publication itself. Review the guidelines carefully as they contain instructions on how to submit your work. This is crucial because agents and publications have their own submission guidelines.
- Follow the submission guidelines to the letter. Agents and publications that are overwhelmed with submissions will toss out any that stray from the guidelines they’ve established.
- In some cases, the guidelines may refer to a style guide. If this is the case, you might need to buy a style guide and revise your work so it will be in accordance with the guidelines.
- Keep your query and cover letter succinct and professional. Same goes for a synopsis (if applicable). Don’t try any fancy antics to get agents’ or editors’ attention. They see gimmicks all the time.
- Once you’ve sent your submission, sit back and wait. Do not harass or annoy agents or editors by bombarding them with follow-ups.
- Many submission guidelines include information about how long it should take to receive a response. Once that allotment of time has passed, go ahead and send a single follow-up. Ask if they received your submission. Be professional.
- If there is no indication of how long it should take for you to receive a response, wait six weeks to three months before following up.
- If you receive an acceptance, great! If you receive a rejection, accept it graciously and get back to work. Don’t give up! If your rejection includes a critique or any helpful feedback, be grateful (most agents and editors don’t take time to provide feedback) and apply it to your future creative writing projects.
Ready, Set, Submit
Submitting your work is fun and a little bit scary. Hopefully you’ll get lucky, but remember that luck comes most frequently to those who have prepared for it with hard work. If your writing gets rejected, try again. Send the same piece to another agent or publication and keep producing fresh work.
Remember, creative writing is hard work. We writers have to wear many different hats. We must be artists, grammarians, and communicators. We require empathy and an understanding of the human psyche. We have to be publicists and marketing experts. And we have to become pros at submitting our work.
Otherwise it may never end up in readers’ hands.
Do you have any tips to add? Have you submitted your creative writing to agents or publications? Do you have any strategies for getting published? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
Today, I’m excited to announce a new category at Writing Forward: “Getting Published” will explore the many options available to writers who want to make their work available to the public.
We’ll look at different types of publishing, including self-publishing, traditional publishing, and publishing in literary journals and magazines. We’ll also explore digital and electronic publishing.
From its inception, Writing Forward‘s core focus has been on the craft of writing. I’ve avoided delving into the business side of writing, including submissions, marketing, and publishing, because craft must come first. All the business stuff comes later. However, it’s beneficial for young and new writers to start building an understanding of the business side of things, especially if they hope to become full-time, professional authors.
There are many exciting changes happening in the world of publishing, so the old rules and procedures don’t necessarily apply anymore, which means we all need to stay on top of what’s going on in publishing in terms of how new industry standards affect writers.
We’ll start our foray into the world of publishing with a simple look at the different publishing options available to writers.
Five Publishing Methods
1. Traditional (or Legacy) Publishing is when your book is published through an established publishing house or company, such as Knopf or Random House. Writers submit their work to literary agents first. An agent will then work to sell your book to a publisher (note: small press publishers may ask authors to submit directly instead of using an agent). Authors typically face a lot of rejection before landing an agent and again before the agent sells the book to a publishing house. Once the book is sold, it can be a year before it’s actually published. The author usually receives an advance (a chunk of money) when the book is sold then gets royalties once the book pays out (earns back the advance amount). The publisher may assist with or perform any of the following: editing, proofreading, book cover, distribution, book tours and other forms of marketing.
2. Self-Publishing is when you publish your own work. There are many available methods for self-publishing both electronically and in print. When you self-publish, you are not constrained by rejections, time limitations, or creative decisions imposed by second- and third-parties. You are in completely in control. You are also solely responsible for every element of publishing, including editing, proofreading, book cover, distribution, and all marketing. Whereas traditionally published authors share their profits with agents and publishing houses, self-published authors retain all revenues from their book sales.
3. Publishing in Literary Magazines and Journals is one of the most popular and best ways for young and new writers to get published. Literary magazines and journals exist electronically and in print and tend to publish short stories, poems, and essays. Some of them pay writers; others offer an issue of their publication or no compensation other than a writing credit. This method of publishing is ideal for writers who are starting out and trying to build a repertoire.
4. Print-on-Demand Publishing is a publishing method where copies of a book are printed as they are ordered. One of the drawbacks is that copies of the book do not sit on shelves, which is one way to attract new readers. On the other hand, there is no cost for printing thousands of books before they’re sold. Print-on-demand is mostly used by self-published authors.
5. Electronic and Digital Publishing is a publishing method where the work is published to an electronic platform. This includes ebooks (for Kindles and Nooks, for example) as well as anything published online (like the blog you’re reading right now). Electronic publishing has tremendous cost-saving benefits, which is why Kindle books are often a fraction of the cost of their print counterparts. Ebook publishing is undergoing tremendous growth and looks to be the future of publishing. Both traditional publishing houses and self-published authors typically publish work electronically.
Writing Comes First
If publishing is in your future, it’s important to remember that writing comes first. Before you can get published, you have to write something worth publishing. However, once you’re ready to think about getting published, there are a lot of options to consider. Will you go the traditional route or will you self-publish? Will you focus on electronic publishing or are you more concerned with getting copies of your book in bookstores? What’s in your publishing future?