Making the decision to publish your manuscript is one of the most important you will make as a writer. It’s a choice that takes a very personal process — writing a book — and makes it very public.
As you move forward, remember the simple statement that writing is art, but publishing is a business. As an artist, your talents lie in creating engaging and entertaining prose, but you are about to enter a whole new world. This publishing world is about making money.
Sure, as a writer, you may look at it differently. Publishing is a way to get your art in front of readers. Take them on a journey. Let them explore the world you created. Captivate them with your storytelling. And you would be right to have that mindset. But the simple truth is that the world of publishing is here to make money. If publishing didn’t make money, it would no longer exist as an industry. Ready yourself for this new reality.
There are several pros and cons to publishing your book, which I will detail in the paragraphs below. I like to think that the pros far outweigh the cons, but in the end, this decision needs to be yours. You have spent months or years perfecting your manuscript. This is your work.
Are you ready to present it to the world?
1. Am I ready to introduce my writing to the world?
Think of this question not about the act of publishing, but about what it means to publish. It means that anyone in the world can now read your words. This is really a question about mental and emotional preparation. It is the decision to take an intimate project and disseminate it far and wide.
Thick skin is a requirement. While you will hope for praise, which will likely come from family and friends (at the very least for admiring your work ethic to actually write a book), you must be prepared to hear criticisms as well — that’s the nature of the industry.
Some of that criticism will be constructive — it will help improve your writing in the future. Some will be unproductive and, well, just plain mean. You can find more detailed advice about dealing with criticism of your book in another article I wrote.
If you feel you are mentally ready, here are some additional questions you’ll need to ask yourself before publishing.
2. Have I put enough time into editing?
Good editing is vital. A good editor is invaluable. I cannot emphasize this enough. As Stephen King said in his memoir On Writing, “To write it human, to edit is divine.”
The difference between a good book and a great book is the editorial quality. Even the best writers recognize the importance of good editing — just go read the acknowledgements in pretty much any book. It’s why movies have been made about editors, like Genius, the film made about Maxwell Perkins, the famed editor behind so many F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway novels. Too often are good editors left in the shadows.
The reality of publishing a book is that the editing process is the complete opposite from what we are used to publishing articles online. On a blog, you can edit as you go. Produce the MVP — minimum viable product. From there, you can edit as new information is discovered or changes need to be made to structure or grammar. But with books, republishing is a long, tedious and often expensive process. That’s not to mention the original copies are out in circulation forever.
Some writers self-edit their own work. That may make the most sense from a logistical and financial standpoint, but the quality will suffer. This is a mistake I made with my first book (before I wised up and republished). Learn from my mistake and take my best piece of advice: If you are going to invest anywhere in your book, hire a good editor.
3. Do I have or need an agent?
The debate about the want or a need for an agent is pretty straightforward: If your goal is to traditionally publish your book it is a necessity, and if you want to self-publish your book it is an option. Most of the major publishers will not review unsolicited manuscript submissions — unsolicited, of course, meaning those not represented by a literary agent.
For those writers who are seeking an agent, that process warrants an entire article of its own. But follow the publishing process as I have presented it in this article: Decide you want to publish and polish your manuscript, and then you can seek an agent to represent your work.
Once you have answered whether you need or want an agent, you can move on to the next step of the process, which goes hand-in-hand with the agent question.
4. What publishing route will I take?
OK, now let’s get to the meat of the publishing issue.
This is probably the biggest decision you have to make in the publishing process, and one that is not always entirely in your hands. If you want to go the traditional publishing route, you will need an agent. They will do the negotiating for you and try to land your book with an established publishing company. This process, which can sometimes take a while and isn’t always guaranteed to end with a contract, was the only option for publishing for most of history. You shopped your book around, and until a publishing company agreed to publish your book, it sat on the shelf collecting dust.
That is, until self-publishing came along. If you decide to self-publish your book, there are two things to know. The first is that, yes, your book will be published. You don’t have to wait on an agent or a publishing company to deem your manuscript worthy. This brings me to the second point: When self-publishing, you will be in control of the entire process, for better or worse.
Many writers like the autonomy that self-publishing offers. You find your editor. You control your cover artwork. You decide on the formatting. You set the sale price. You schedule the launch date. No one else will dictate any of these things. But, you must remember, that you are also the one footing the bill. Be prepared to act as your own independent publishing company — you cover all of the expenses of publishing, but if you can drum up enough interest in your book, you also see a much higher royalty rate.
Pros and Cons
There are pros and cons to each publishing route.
For traditional publishing, you forfeit much of the autonomy that self-publishing offers and you take a smaller percentage of the sale, but you are connected with a larger network of booksellers, have the clout of an established company behind your book and benefit from marketing support.
For self-publishing, you cannot beat the full creative control over every aspect of the book, and if the book sells you get a much bigger cut. But setting out on your own is challenging. Some bookstores won’t carry self-published books. Some literary awards won’t consider self-published books. You will have to pay all of the upfront costs, acting as a publisher, salesman and marketer.
You need to weigh these pros and cons and make the smartest, most feasible publishing decision for your book.
5. What do I need to do to promote my book?
You are a writer. You are likely not also a marketer. And even if you are a marketer, often it is more difficult to promote your own work than someone else’s. But part of the decision to publish your book requires the agreement with yourself to promote that book.
Promoting your book will vary based on the publishing route you choose. If you have chosen a traditional publisher, they should be providing you with plenty of marketing support. This would be disclosed and/or negotiated at the time you sign your contract. Even small publishing houses will offer a certain degree of marketing services for your book.
Book Promotion Advice
If you are self-publishing your book, just like with every other step of the process, you need to take off your writer hat and put on your marketing hat. One of the biggest mistakes I see with writers trying to self-promote their books is starting way too late. As someone who worked in the entertainment industry selling DVDs and Blu-rays into major retailers, I can tell you that the process of selling physical media goods starts many months before consumers are holding it in their hands.
Once you have a release date, back out at least a couple months. I would recommend beginning your marketing about three or four months ahead of time, if not longer. This is when you announce the publication date and seek advanced reader copy (ARC) reviews. Sometimes it can take a couple months just to get those reviews back.
A second mistake I often see is authors constantly pushing their books to their social media followers. Even to friends and family, no one wants to constantly be told “buy my book.” Instead, engage readers with quality blog posts and social media messages. Get creative. Setup a giveaway contest on your Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Offer email subscribers a “first look” at the book. If it’s in the budget, you can even look into some digital ads, like with Amazon or Google.
Work with local bookstores to schedule book signings. New authors may feel uncomfortable doing this, but the truth is that signings bring traffic to these bookstores and they often are happy to arrange them. They usually help you make sales as well.
When the release date approaches, and even in the days and weeks following, keep your name out there. Look for opportunities to guest post for a website that has your same target readership. Set up interviews with local media.
The truth is that no two book launches are the same — even if some publishing companies treat them as such. You should assess your budget, your genre, your target audience and your sales goals to craft a unique marketing plan for your book.
Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” You should heed this advice when promoting your book. If it sounds like you are just begging people to buy your book, find a new approach.