By Charles S. Weinblatt, Copyright © 2010
To Publish, or to Self-Publish?
The publishing industry is changing rapidly, morphing from clear, delineated lines into a morass of options. Self-publishing was once considered somewhat nefarious and referred to as “vanity” publishing. Vanity publishers will appect anyone’s manuscripts, print it and place it inside of a jacket. They will mail it to you. You pay them, typically several hundred to several thousand dollars. Sometimes they offer a menu of other services, including editing and graphic design. You will pay for each of them. The ligitimate vanity publishers stop there. They will not arrange for distribution contracts. They will not market your book. They will obtain no reviews. They wil not represent your book at key international book fairs, conventions and conferences.
The vanity publisher scam artists move surreptitiously from state to state, moments ahead of state prosecution. These organizations may call themselves “self-publishing,” but in reality, vanity publishers are only interested in taking your money. They could care less if no one purchases the book. The “editing and graphic design” services are typically poorly performed. Many of them will tell a novice author to “bone up on their writing skills” and they send the author to another fraud who will steal some more of your money on “courses or services to improve writing skills.” Beware of these services. Use Predators & Editors and Writer Beware to identify scam artists in publishing and literary agents.
Today, there are wide varieties of excellent self-publishing services and distribution organizations delivered by very ethical companies, including names like Lightning Source and CreateSpace. But, understand that this form of self-publishing is a misnomer. They will not be the publisher. You are the publisher. You purchase the ISBN, the editing service, the graphic designer; and you are responsible for distribution and marketing. Self-publishing has transformed from questionable to outstanding. For many authors, for several reasons, self-publishing is a better choice than waiting for a traditional (trade) publlisher.
The traditional publisher is at risk of obsolescence, unless they find a way to successfully market their authors in various print and electronic formats. Your book must not just be in print, it must also be sold as an e-book. It must not just be an e-book; it must be electronically formatted for tomorrow’s e-readers, tablets and smart phones. Plus, the publisher must continue to stock and restock brick and mortar retailers (where almost half of all books are stil sold) and contract with global distributors. As the public changes the way they read, with electronic devices and telephones, publishers must swiftly react, or risk failure.
Underneath all of this change, the author still must decide whether it is best to self-publish, or to wait for a traditional publisher. Non-fiction tends to adapt well to self-publishing, especially if the author can sell large numbers of books on his or her own (as a seminar leader, public speaker, teacher, consultant, trainer, curriculum designer, professor, etc.). Fiction is often better sold via a traditional publisher, where the best editors, graphic designers and marketers reside. Trade publishers also have important global distribution contacts, necessary for large numbers of books to be sold in retail (brick and mortar) stores, where, for the time being, more books are still sold. And trade publishers have deep connections with the best review sources in specific genres. They can also connect the author for translation and movie rights. There are many reasons why an author would want to share profits with a publisher. When the publisher can open large doorways for reviews, at key book fairs and conferences, with translation and movie rights, then the profit spit is a good deal.
Before you begin too seek a publisher, develop an author platform. An author platform is the collection of published books, career accomplishments, events, venues, reviews, interviews, speaking engagements, signings, web sites, pictures, video trailers, media appearances, tours, newspaper and magazine interviews and articles that pertain to you and your book. Intelligent marketers develop brand strategy before the product or service is ready for sale. One you have a book cover, plaster the picture and link all over the Internet. Work with a designer to develop a video book trailer. All of this, and more, constitutes an author platform. Having a significant author platform is more important than you might think. When someone like an agent or publisher decides to Google your name, you want seveal pages of positive data to emerge.
Locating and Contacting Publishers:
There is some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that you may need to send your manuscript to hundreds of publishers before the best offer arrives. The good news is that there are literally thousands of small, specialty publishers willing to take on novice authors. Many of them specialize in one or two genres. You can submit your proposal electronically, saving time and money. Use the Internet to search for publishers in your genre. On-line services such as Writer Beware and Predators & Editors are worthwhile for leads and for warnings. Writers Net, Publishers Marketplace and Writers Market are also useful sites.
Most publishers prefer that you send a proposal by electronic mail. This makes it much easier and less costly to contact them. However, your proposal must be perfect and that takes time and effort. Also be advised that each publisher prefers their own specific information. That means you must research each publisher carefully on the Internet. Look for “Submission Guidelines.” This will tell you precisely what to send, and how to send it. If they are seeking a genre that is very different from yours, forget them and move along. If your book seems to be a good fit with the publisher’s interests, then create a proposal that will fit their guidelines.
Is My Book Good Enough to be Published?
There are two keys to being published. First is the quality of your writing. Few reputable publishing companies will be interested in a book that is poorly written. If you are concerned about the quality of your writing, it might be useful to pay a professional editor to look it over. Good editors will tell you the truth about your writing without being condescending or insensitive.
The second key requirement for being published is having a book that is marketable. No trade publisher will be interested in a book about how to drink a glass of water, even if it were it written by James Michener. You must be able to convince a publisher that thousands of people will covet your book. And, it’s not enough to say that they will love it. You must provide a demographic analysis of your readers, along with a competitive analysis and marketing strategies that will work (and explain why they will work). In other words, you must show the publisher exactly who will purchase your book, where and why. More on this later.
Trade publishers are often the best choice, particularly for fiction. Check the Internet for organizations that uncover scam-artists in the self-publishing world. You can also Google the name of any publishing company. If you see several complaints from ripped-off writers, flee from that publisher. Caveat Emptor!
If you write non-fiction and you can sell many of your own books, then self-publishing might be a better choice. For example, a public speaker or instructor can often include the cost of his or her book in the price of an event. Seminar leaders, teachers, professors, consultants and others who can include their book as required reading might do better financially with a reputable self-publishing company. If you are capable of selling hundreds or thousands of books on your own, why share the profit? Of course, you’ll need to obtain your own compelling reviews, pay for editorial and graphic art services, printing and distribution. You will need to stock and restock retailers. And, you’ll need to perform the marketing services that a publisher would handle. But, with a steady clientele, self-publishing is perfect.
Traditional (“Trade”) publishers will place your book on the web sites of all of the major retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, Target, etc.) and they will contract to have your book distributed globally, which is the only way for it to be sold on store shelves. Trade publishers will create a web site for your book, arrange for book tours, signings and catalog distribution. Your publisher will attend key international book fairs on your behalf and market your book electronically to a global audience. They will stock and restock your book as necessary and on time. And, most trade publishers perform these tasks without charging a fee. They ask no money from the author and the author receives a royalty for each book sold, although some small publishers are now asking the novice author to share in the cost. Some better-known authors still can expect an advance to “complete” the work. This might not happen to you unless your name is well-recognized.
The author should establish specific goals for the book. For example, some memoirs are meant only for grandchildren. Some novels are meant to become best-sellers. If you only want a nice book with your name on it for your coffee table, then a small self-publisher or POD might be appropriate. For a fee, your progeny will consider you famous. You won’t worry about marketing because you don’t desire sales. It won’t be on the shelf of your local bookstore. But, that’s OK for a family heirloom or a coffee table shrine.
If you want people to read your book and you don’t know how to sell them on your own, you might wish to wait for a trade publisher. If your book is well written and marketable, you will have a good chance to be published by a traditional publisher. Yes, it takes longer. Yes, you’ll need to develop a platform and yes you’ll need to market. You will have to develop a winning book publishing proposal and most likely, you will need to search for small publishers in your genre. It takes effort, dedication and perseverance. But, it most definitely can happen for you. It worked for me.
Where are the Best Chances for a Novice Author?
If you are an unknown author, forget the major publishing houses. Harper-Collins is not likely to glance sideways at your proposal. Instead, focus on smaller publishers that specialize in your genre. I began with historical fiction and then narrowed my search to trade publishers who specialize in Jewish or Holocaust-related books. If it’s a children’s book, search for those publishers. If it’s science fiction, search using that term. You can use the Internet to plan and execute effective publisher searches. Plan to contact hundreds of trade publishers, if necessary. Being published is much like getting a job. The more employers you contact, the sooner you will be successful. You might need to contact twenty publishers to get one good response. And, you might require five good responses before you receive a desired contract offer. Even my deplorable math skills place the total number of publisher contacts at 100. Wait for the BEST offer; don’t lock yourself into a poor contract just because it is your first offer. Be persistent. Try to send at least 20 proposals per week.
The most critical piece of the publishing puzzle is the proposal. We’ll talk about that next. But, more than any other time, obtaining critical reviews is essential. Ask friends and family to read the book and review it. You only need a few honest paragraphs. Having others speak positively about your book is the way to begin marketing. Get as many reviews as you can from the best and most appropriate sources as possible.
Use Your Author Platform
An author platform is a nebulous virtual avatar, representing you as an author and your books (and sometimes the individual characters). Create web sites and blogs at places such as WordPress and BlogSpot about your book. Write articles related to your book and publish them at places such as TRCB and Ezine. Arrange bookstore signings and tours. Submit your book for awards. Seek book reviews from the most influential sources. Obtain television and radio interviews about your book. Save them as digital files and send them as embedded hyperlinks to publishers and agents. Get interviewed by magazines, newspapers and e-magazines. Mention your book and its awards and reviews. Add a link to your Wikipedia page (ex. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Weinblatt).
Your platform is the combined newspaper articles, author interviews, critical reviews, virtual book tours, video trailers, web sites, blogs, book signings, author interviews, speaking engagements and the digital recording of every piece of information related to you as an author. When a prospective publisher or agent decides to Google your name, it would help immensely to have several pages of positive references. This is also the most important time to find opportunities to be interviewed. Contact local newspapers, TV stations, educational institutions, churches, etc. Radio is a good opportunity. Become a local “media expert.” If you’ve mastered something, tell the world as an expert. It will enhance your platform. There is also no substitute for compelling reviews from the most persuasive sources.
The Book Publishing Proposal:
Proposals must include very specific information in a very precise format. Fail to do this and you will likely be rejected immediately. At a minimum, your proposal must include: a table of contents, sales attributes, author biography, synopsis, chapter titles, market analysis, competitive analysis, and marketing strategies. Some publishers require additional information. Read their submission guidelines very carefully. Each portion of this proposal is critical. Take your time and try to use at least one page for each content topic. Use the multitude of referenced articles available on an Internet search.
Each time you edit your proposal, it will become more concise and persuasive. The synopsis might require several pages. Sometimes the publisher will request several chapters, or the first three chapters. Read their submission requirements very carefully. Publishers receive hundreds of proposals daily and they will gladly delete yours if you fail to follow directions carefully, or fail to provide all of the information required in their guidelines.
Acquire lists of prospective publishers with Internet searches; then contact them via e-mail submission. You can also purchase mailing lists for publishers. I discovered them easily on my own. Your book must be a good fit with the publisher’s genre and you must be assured that your publisher is viable and appropriate. Use Internet searches (Writer Beware and Predators & Editors, etc.) to check them for fraudulent activities. Try to connect with existing authors of that publisher. Sometimes you can reach them by e-mail or telephone and conduct an interview. Ask them about the quality of their publisher. Research book publishing contracts, so that you’ll know what to expect in a contract.
Have an attorney experienced in publishing review your contract. Be willing to negotiate with the publisher. It’s a give and take experience. My publisher wanted some graphic portions of my novel removed. I wanted to add some specific marketing requirements for my novel inserted in the contract. We easily reached an agreement that deleted graphic content, which actually made the book easier to sell; and they added my desired publisher marketing responsibilities into the contract. Many publishers will be willing to negotiate with you. Be clear about what you are willing to accept (in editing and cover design) and request any necessary additions. Then make the best decision based upon your guess for sales and royalties. You and your publisher must be a good match, with common goals and values.
The Cover Page:
Once you have created a terrific book-publishing proposal, it’s time to create a cover page for your e-mail submissions. The “Subject” line of your e-mail page should typically say, “Submission,” followed by the title of your book. Begin with a generic salutation. Instead of, “Dear Sir or Madam,” you can use something like “Greetings.” If research produces the name of the publishing agent, even better.
The balance of your e-mail cover page must get the reader (publisher) hooked on your book. This cannot be a lengthy narrative. Publishers receive dozens or even hundreds of submissions constantly. If your cover letter will take five minutes to read, it will be discarded. Focus on three to four paragraphs at most. Explain why the publisher is a good fit with your book (yes, you will have to research the publisher in order to do this). This is a great place to include embedded links your most positive reviews.
The e-mail cover letter is also a good place to list (via hyperlink) interviews about your book and all relevant media files. For example, I embedded a hyperlink to an interview that I gave with Jewish Literary Review. Embed your video book trailer, pictures, your Wikipedia page, recorded speaking, radio or television exposure. Simply create a hyperlink to whatever platform content you have placed on the Internet. Just highlight any particular word, such as “review,” and then follow instructions for “hyperlink.” Whatever positive information you can push into a few paragraphs the better. Don’t forget to include your contact information. If requested, attach your proposal. If the publisher will not accept attachments, then you’ll need to use the e-mail cover page for all of it.
Many publishers accept e-mail proposals, but not always with attachments. Let’s face it, all of us will open a hyperlink or e-mail address sent to us by a stranger. But, no one wants to risk a virus or worse by open a stranger’s attachment. You can create web pages and blogs for your book for free (G-Mail, Yahoo, Hotmail, Blogspot, WordPress, etc.). Create a one-page synopsis of your book, packed with features and reasons why people will purchase it. Then, embed the link for that web site into your e-mail cover letter. Here are some examples:
Recent Articles & Interviews: Jewish Literary Review Interview: http://tiny.cc/mnxga, Toledo Blade: http://toledoblade.com/article/20101113/NEWS10/11120358/-1/NEWS, Toledo Free Press: http://www.toledofreepress.com/2010/10/22/local-author-to-discuss-holocaust/, Mike Angley: http://childfinder.us/?p=2567, Joey Pinkney: http://h1t.it/boB8Bk,
Remember, you only need to customize the e-mail cover letter. The publishing proposal can remain the essentially same, boilerplated with typical publisher submission requirements.
Do not be discouraged. Being published is a numbers game. You might need to send out 100 proposals to get one terrific contract offer. I had four publishing offers for Jacob’s Courage before I was satisfied that I had the best offer. You will want a publishing company well suited to your book and with the right financial arrangements.
Within a month, Jacob’s Courage was up on Amazon. It also rapidly appeared at other global retailers, as distant as Africa, France and Japan. My publisher also swiftly arranged for global distribution with Ingram in the US and Gardners and Bertrams to distribute Jacob’s Courage in the United Kingdom. If you have no distributor, your book will not appear on the shelves of bookstores (where about 50% of books are still sold) and it will not appear on the Internet web sites of popular stores unless you can arrange for it.
Do I Need an Agent?
Some authors prefer to use a literary agent to find their publisher. A good literary agent may connect you with publishers that were out of your reach. Agents can vastly increase sales, via enhanced marketing opportunities; and they can offer connections for foreign and translation rights, improved distribution, screenplay, film and documentary leads and much more. However, literary agents don’t often take a chance on an unknown author, even if your book is already in print. Beware of spending too much time trying to find an agent, instead of a publisher. You could end up waiting years in an unsuccessful search for an agent. During that time you might have become successful with your own publishing contract, or with self-publishing. Many of us search for publishers and agents simultaneously. Once published, you can always search for an agent.
What are the Author’s Marketing Responsibilities?
After you have obtained a publishing contract, be prepared to help market the book. That means contacting local bookstores and other retail outlets where your book can be sold. Request book signings at local retailers. Organize a book tour. Obtain local and regional newspaper and magazine articles about your book. Conduct public speaking events. Blog and write on others’ blogs. Write articles and publish them on the Internet. Publish your interviews, video trailers and book reviews everywhere on the Internet. Write opinion or editorial letters to newspapers and magazines. Each time, sign off with your name, the book’s title and your desired Internet landing page. This can be any specific retailer, such as Amazon. However, my landing page is a blog page on WordPress. That is because I can offer my own specific review samples, the trailer, dozens of useful links, comments and a variety of retailers for the book that are just one click away from purchase. My landing page is here.
Develop and distribute a video book trailer. Market it through appropriate groups in places such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. You can reach tens of thousands of people with this effort. Put up a Wikipedia page. Create web pages for your book at sites such as Goodreads, MySpace, Zing, Author’s Den, Bookbuzzr, WeRead, Scribid, Ning and many others. Tweet about your book daily on Twitter. Post about it at Facebook. Create your book’s own page at Facebook.
Marketing is time consuming and often frustrating. But do not count on your publisher to do everything, particularly if you are a new author. Expect your publisher to contract with distributors, obtain reviews and place your book on Internet retailers, such as Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Powells and Buy.com. But, unless your name is Stephen King, you’ll be expected to do a lot of your own marketing and sales work. Be willing to conduct viral, electronic and web page marketing on your own. Use social networking groups. The harder your effort, the larger your author platform will be (and higher royalty checks will likely follow).
If you self-publish, consider selling your book via Internet retailers and distributors, such as Smashwords and Lebrary. These entrepreneurs will take your formatted manuscript, cover and your marketing words out to the e-reading public. Smashwords recently revealed an agreement allowing their Premium members to have their books sold on the new iPad, iPhone, Nook, Kobo, Diesel, Sony Reader and much more (via ePub, mobi, LRF, PDB, PDF, RTF and plain text) for leading edge reading devices. Thousands of downloads of your book can result in unexpected royalties.
Trade publishers also today are beginning to sell many of their print books as e-books. My Holocaust novel, Jacob’s Courage, was one of the first e-books offered by my publisher and it was one of the first Holocaust Kindle books. As the reading public swiftly changes their mode of reading, you will want your publisher to have electronic sales opportunities available, in addition to the print version. If you self-publish, you will need to create these new formats on your own. Remember that each new version of your book (such as an e-book, an e-Pub, mobi, LRF, PDF, plain text, etc.) requires its own unique ISBN number. Your publisher will likely purchase it. If you self-publish, you’ll need to buy your own ISBN numbers for the new formats.
No matter which publishing format you select, I wish you the very best of luck. Being published is not simple or easy. But, if you have talent and your book is marketable, you can be published and sell many books. Developing the best proposal and then contacting dozens or hundreds of publishers is not enjoyable. But, it is necessary. I hope that this blog helps you with the intricacies of being published. Feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns.
All my best,
Charles S. Weinblatt
Author, Jacob’s Courage