No matter which (flavor of) publisher you choose, or if you decide to self-publish, there are always going to be drawbacks

A friend made a comment this past weekend about a publisher he had recommended to someone. That someone was now complaining about the work flow at that house, response times, and what not. It made me think about my own experiences with various publishers that I’ve worked with through the years. I’ve worked with publishers since 2000 off and on, from some of the world’s largest to the tiniest. I’ve also self-published since 1991 and I’ve been an indie publisher for two years. Let’s just say, I have some experience in this field. But still, these are my personal experiences, and hardly a scientific approach to publishing. Keep that in mind.

I’ve written about the pros and cons of publishing versus self-publishing in the past. For me, that is no longer a relevant question. Rather, I think the modern way to tackle publishing in general is a healthy mix of various models. If you’re a fledgling author, looking at your publishing options, here are a few thoughts from someone who’s been around the block (and I hope that others will add their wisdom in the comments!)

Go with the “big” three/four/five

This book was once published by a niche publisher. The owners sold their house to Sweden's largest non-fiction publisher. I had the choice to tag along or get my rights back. I chose the latter.

This book was once published by a niche publisher. The owners sold their house to Sweden’s largest non-fiction publisher. I had the choice to tag along or get my rights back. I chose the latter.

Let’s be honest. This is everyone’s dream, to be published by XYZ! I would be lying if I didn’t say I’d hit my head on the ceiling if I ever got a letter from one of the big publishers with a contract. Would I go for it? It depends on the contract of course. I actually had a contract for one of my non-fiction books from the largest non-fiction publisher in Sweden on my desk once, and declined, long story why that happened. A book that was previously available globally would suddenly only be available in the Nordic countries. I didn’t want that and declined. Maybe that was a mistake, and while I have the rights to the book, I haven’t had the energy to re-publish it. It’s just not been worth it for me. I had a very interesting discussion with a representative from another big dragon and their question was very valid: “In what environment do you plan to re-release that book? How will you market it?” At that time, I had no plans to market that book. I still don’t. Yes, I like it and I still stand by what’s in it, but I’ve moved on and no longer really care about that industry.

The big publishers care about one thing and one thing only: their bottom line. They are, by large, publicly traded companies and have the eyes of financial puppies and sharks on them. They don’t really care (exceptions apply) about the arts, authors or great stories. They care about selling books, magazines and newspapers. Which is why the largest publishers have become very (and I mean that) good at understanding what the masses read, what kind of story that sells and where the winds blow. And that is the sort of book they will commission, and sell. If you’re willing to write that sort of book, if you’re writing the right story for the right point in time, go for it!

What’s it like to work with a professional publisher? Money (which basically means how many books are you going to sell) is going to be the question behind every discussion, whether it’s your cover design, the format of your book, and the marketing. Working with a big professional publisher is impressive. You’ll meet experts in each of their fields, people who have their “shit” together and who know their market, their trade, very well. To publish with a large publisher is also something that is going to put your patience to the test, because they generally have very long lead times. You might have to wait up to two years, but they can also push a story out in weeks, if the market demands it!

Niche publishers

There are a gazillion niche publishers, and I would say that most titles (not necessarily books) these days, are meeting their readers via their hands. These are publishers who focus on a particular market (e.g. romance, fantasy, historic novels) and who specialize in it. They are often owned by one single person or a group of people. They are nimble and fast footed and are quick to respond to new trends. They know their markets very well and are extremely well connected within their niche, often sponsoring events, conventions etc.

To work with them is usually as professional as working with the big dragons. The big difference is that niche publishers often outsource the work of e.g. editing or cover creation. Their overhead is small, and they are usually privately owned which means that the bottom line, while important as it’s the livelihood of the people working there, isn’t the only thing on their mind. Niche publishers have a “thing” for their market, the genre(s) they work with, and they are passionate about it. They are also very good at marketing to their respective genres, and are well known by the readers of the genre.

Indie publishers

Published with an indie publisher

My new novel, sizzling hot erotica. Down to earth, funny, sexy and romantic. Published with an indie publisher.

These are often one-man or -woman houses, and many of them began their journey self-publishing and eventually incorporated a company, using the knowledge they earned to help others. Money isn’t the primary motivator, rather a belief in the art, the market niche they serve, and the lines between work and hobby are blurred. Indie publishers will go outside their niche for friends or for a project that promises an income, and it is that willingness, that ability that is also often their “downfall”, as they tend to lose focus, and risk to defuse their brand. They (quite honestly) suck at marketing, not primarily because they are incompetent, but because they lack the resources (time and financial.)

There are people in this industry who haven’t had a vacation in years, and without a loving partner contributing to the household, they wouldn’t be able to do this. They are of course very nimble and very knowledgeable, but given that they are usually just the one person, their bandwidth is limited to the twenty-four hours a day we all have. There’s only so much you can do in that time, and that is a very finite resource…


That could be you, or me, or anybody… It’s hard to say how knowledgeable you and I are, or how flexible. But the lead times are determined, just as with indie publishers, by the time at your disposal, and the lead times from the people you work with, your suppliers (cover artist, editor, proof readers, printer etc.) If you’re having a day job, a family, those twenty-four hours will be greatly diminished by other circumstances. Besides, you’ll want to write, too.

What to choose?

My first book, ever. Self-published in 1991. I still have a box in my basement with a few left-over copies. I learned a lot about publishing since...

My first book, ever. Self-published in 1991. I still have a box in my basement with a few left-over copies. I learned a lot about publishing since…

What do you want to have for lunch today? The question of which sort of publisher to choose is similar to that of choosing your lunch restaurant. It really depends on what you want to do. Let me give you an example: I’m about to “publish” a small booklet to give away as swag. All I want to do is print a few copies and give them away for free. I self-publish that book. I could probably get away with NOT using an ISBN, but since I’m using CreateSpace for it, I get one, for free. This is a perfect self-publishing example. Another one would be e.g. a book that’s been out on the market for a long time, and you suddenly get the rights back. It sells, you don’t have to market it any more, and rather than just let it ‘die’ on the shelves, you put it out yourself. Easy. Convenient, and you get to keep most of the royalties. I know a great many colleagues who do that.

But what if you’re writing your first manuscript and don’t know what to do?

Here’s what I would recommend: forget the big ones, unless you know someone influential personally, and have inroads. But the likelihood that you’ll get a contract as a debutant with a big one are about as likely as winning the jackpot in the lottery. Go for a niche publisher instead. Find a company that specializes in the sort of story you write. You  probably already know who they are, as you’re most likely also a reader of the genre. Contact them, see if you get a good feel for each other. Call them, see them at a convention, a book fair, or a writer’s retreat. It’s all about the personal connection. The contracts these days are fairly standardized and while different publishers may have caveats for various things, e.g. first right of refusal for a sequel with the same character, audio books, international rights, or royalty percentages, but in general, they’re very similar and have been vetted by lawyers, so they are what they are. You’ll have little opportunity to change anything. Most new authors will be happy to get their book out.

If you can’t find a good fit with a niche publisher, try an indie publisher. They may be difficult to distinguish from the niche publishers if you simply look at the logo or website, but they are very different in that you will usually work with one person. Know that person and you know what to expect.

In the end, it’s about human relationships, it’s about finding (the best possible) home for your art or craft.

No matter what kind of publisher you choose, it’s not going to be perfect for you. You may have to compromise with the royalties you earn, the date your book is published, how much influence you have on the cover art or even how the actual story goes…

My impression of the big publishers is that it is less about the art than artisanship, craftsmanship. They know what they want to publish and look for an artisan to write it. For niche publishers it’s not quite as straightforward, even though they’ll obviously be stupid not to accept stories that will help them ride on a successful wave. The biggest chance to get the “odd one out” published is with an indie publisher. If you convince him or her to believe in you, you’re home free. The artsier your story, the more difficult to find a fit, because, well, art usually doesn’t sell as well. Besides, what is art and what is craftsmanship? During his life, Shakespeare was not considered an artist, he wrote plays in hours, days, on commission for his play company. Centuries later, he’s considered the greatest genius of English literature…

Will you be rich and famous? Again, there is always the one example that defies all probability. Fifty shades of Grey was self-published before being picked up by a big publisher. If you’ve written the “next” fifty shades / Harry Potter / Hunger Games etc. you might just make it with your debut. But in all likelihood you’re just like the rest of us, writing because we don’t really have a choice, putting out story after story, entertaining readers by the hundreds, or thousands, tens of thousands if we’re lucky. Just don’t quit your day job just yet…

Colleagues, your comments are most welcome… What are your experiences with different flavors of publishing houses?

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Have a great week.


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