As some of you know, To Give a Rose has been out of print (though still available on Kindle) for some months now because my publisher has had to suspend operation for reasons beyond my control–and beyond theirs. I have just now arranged to self-publish a second edition with the help of a local printer, and the book should be out again next month.
I figured this would be a good time to talk about how to choose a publisher. I’m not sure I’m an expert here, yet, but I do have some thoughts to share.
Wait, What’s a Publisher?
You might think you know this one, but the definition of a publisher is a little more complex than it seems. The problem is there are multiple kinds and they grade into each other without warning. And the difference matters quite a lot to writers.
To publish a book, you have to format it, print it, market it, and distribute it, all of which costs money that you may or may not get back, depending on whether the book sells. A publisher is, strictly speaking, a company that does all of that, including the paying money part. The publisher pays you money for the privilege of trying to sell your book. You do not pay the publisher.
You can also publish the book yourself. At its simplest and most arduous, self-publication would mean you, a printing machine, and a stapler, but of course there are a whole range of businesses willing to help you out.
On one end of the spectrum are services like the Copy Center at Staples. You can hand them a thumb-drive and they’ll print your file as many times as you want and bind it into a professional-looking booklet according to your instructions. At the other end are companies like Salt Water Media, which is handling Rose for me. These businesses offer all the services a publisher might, including formatting, cover design, listing on Amazon and Goodreads, ebook creation, and even some very minimal marketing help–but the difference is you pay for the service up front.
This difference is critical–with a publisher, they take the financial risk, with a self-publishing service you take the risk.
That key distinction leads to huge differences in how the two businesses function and what you can expect as an author from each. The potential problem lies in that self-publishing services don’t always advertise themselves as such–from their perspective, they are simply making books, same as a publisher. Meanwhile, publishers are offering fewer and fewer services, relying on authors to do most or all of their own marketing, so they’re getting to look more and more like self-publishing services. Neither group is trying to hoodwink you, but if you choose one when you want the other you’ll find yourself in financial trouble.
So, to be clear, a publisher:
- Takes financial risk
- Accepts only those books it considers worth financial risk
- Has a financial incentive for your book to succeed
- Does not charge fees
- Takes a cut of the profits from book sales (that is, they keep more than the cost of printing and shipping)
And a self-publishing service:
- Does not take financial risk
- Accepts any book if the author can afford the service
- Has no direct financial incentive for your book to succeed
- Charges fees for its services
- Does not take a cut of the profits from book sales (though there will be a per-book fee for printing and shipping)
The other two categories of book-makers are vanity presses and hybrids.
Hybrid presses charge up-front fees in order to avoid financial risk and they take a cut of the profits. Vanity presses not only charge for their services in producing the book, but also market the copies back to the authors, who are so excited to see their name in print that they buy up books to give to friends and family. A vanity press does not care whether your book is ever actually read by anyone else. Both hybrid and vanity presses prey on authors who don’t do due diligence and therefore don’t realize they’re getting a bad deal.
Caroline’s List of What to Look for in a Publisher (So Far)
- Do the publisher’s other books sell well?
A publisher may offer testimonials or other evidence of happy authors they’ve worked with. That’s all well and good, but different authors have different goals. Some want a professional-looking book they can sell to friends and neighbors. Me, I want to make a living. You and your publisher need to be on the same page as far as what success looks like, so if you want to get on the New York Times Best Seller list, look for a publisher that gets writers there.
- Does the publisher have a cohesive brand identity?
Selling books requires identifying and targeting specific markets–a good strategy for a publisher is to specialize in books that appeal to the limited number of markets they know well. Someone without any such preference either sells to everybody or to nobody. Do you like your odds on that one?
- Is the publisher a stable, organizationally sound business?
You do not want you publisher to go out of business.
- Is communication clear both within the company and with you?
Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer to work with people who can give me clear, timely answers to my questions. If I get conflicting information from different people or none at all, I get unhappy.
- Will the publisher pay for any misprints?
Who pays for mistakes when everyone starts pointing at everybody else, insisting “not me, THEY did it”? You will pay, that’s who, unless you establish at the beginning that you won’t.
- If the publisher asks you to do your own advertising, does the company care whether you can advertise effectively? Whether you and the publisher make money depends on whether the book sells, which in turn depends, in part, on how well the book is marketed. If your publisher doesn’t care how well the book is marketed, something odd is going on.
- If the publisher does offer marketing support, is the nature and type of services offered clear from the outset?
“Oh yes, we offer marketing support!” could sound like a fully funded book tour to you but turn out to be a single Facebook post. Beware of wishful thinking and assumptions.
- Is the deal the publisher offers you at least as good as the market standard?
The market standard could very a bit depending on what type of book you wrote, and definitely changes over time. The point is to find some basis of comparison so you know if you’re being offered a fair deal.
- Does the publisher take care of registering your copyright and getting you a Library of Congress number?
You don’t need to register copyright in order to have copyright protection–that’s automatic, these days. Registering copyright just makes it easier to prove you own your book if you have to sue someone for infringement. If a publisher leaves it up to you that’s not necessarily a problem, but you should know what services you’re getting and what you aren’t.
- Does the publisher offer you a contract when you start work?
You might assume all sorts of rosy things about what your publisher will do for you, but if it’s not in the contract they don’t have to do it. Do not invest weeks or months of work on your book with a company before seeing and signing the contract.
- Will the publisher get your book on bookshelves (or their electronic equivalent)? Which ones?
You can get your book on shelves yourself, too, but the more your publisher takes care of, the better off you’ll be–especially if you don’t know how to market a book yet.
- Will you get a timeline on when your book will be due out? A newly-released book is news, and older book is not. You want to get your marketing ducks in a row before your book comes out so you can spread the word as widely as possible while the book is still a new release.
I assume I’ll learn more about this as I go.
Never be afraid to ask questions, even if your contact at the publisher seems nice and trustworthy. First of all, a nice and trustworthy person can still be incompetent. Second, scam artists seem nice and trustworthy. That’s their job.
Your job is to get out there and get your book in front of readers.
(There is a third category, the vanity press, where nobody takes a risk because it is an absolute certainty that you, the author, will lose money. What you get in return is the ego boost of seeing your name in print. Avoid these.)