In the spirit of Independence Day, I thought I'd write about independent publishing. Picture this: you've done it. You've spent months, or a year, or several years writing and editing and now your magnum opus is ready to share with the world! And other than making a few spiral bound versions at Kinkos to give to your immediate friends and family, you have no idea how to do that.
You really have two options for getting your work out there and each has their advantages and disadvantages. Back in the day, traditional publishers (major publishing houses like Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Tor, etc.) were the only game in town. If you have any hopes of increasing readership and getting your work in front of as many eyeballs as possible, then you needed to go through a traditional publisher. However, since the advent of Amazon and social media, the playing field has been fundamentally changed. Now independent publishing (otherwise known as "self-publishing") has become very commonplace and is no longer a death knell over your work.
Pros: The reason people opt to go the traditional publishing route is simple: money and publicity. Publishing houses have pre-established connections. They know the book stores. They know the market. In short, they know how to advertise. So when they sign with you, you are getting in on their media machine. They will play up your work and put it in front of as many eyeballs as they can reach. In addition, they pay you. When they accept your manuscript, they give you what's known as an "advance." This is cash up front based on what they expect your work to rake in. Depending on the work and depending on the publishing house, this can be thousands of dollars. You also receive "royalties," which is the percentage of your sales price that goes back to you. However, for many publishing agreements, you don't start to receive the royalties until that amount exceeds the advance that you were given (remember, it's an advance, not a bonus).
Cons: First, second, third and fourth is accessibility. It is hard to get a manuscript accepted by a major (or even minor) publishing house. There are frequently lengthy applications involved. They want to see synopses and character sheets and dozens of things that take weeks to prepare. And then you'll get rejected. No, trust me, you'll get rejected. And this isn't college. There isn't a "common application." Every publisher wants something different and then you'll get rejected by the next one. In fact, you'll get rejected over and over and may never actually get your manuscript accepted anywhere. Depressing? Yes.
It gets more complicated. The above is only for the publishers who accept direct, unsolicited work. Many don't. In fact, many won't look at work that hasn't come from an agent. Ah! An agent!? How do you get one of those? Networking at writing conferences. Cold calls. Etc. Agents review manuscripts, pick up the ones they think have promise, and they champion your work to the publishing houses. However, they get paid when you get your advance from the publisher--not before. So they are very choosy. A friend once told me that they sent out manuscripts to about fifty agents before getting one to pick them up. You read that right: 5-0. And then that agent spent the better part of two years trying to sell the manuscript to publishers and got nowhere.
Additionally, I've talked with people who have gone the traditional publishing route, and they still have to do some (or a lot) of their own advertising.
There are many ways to independently publish. But nowadays, this generally means publishing through Amazon and CreateSpace, so that's what I'll talk about.
Pros: It's easy. It is sooooo easy to independently publish. It literally takes a few minutes and then *poof* your book is available to the masses. You don't have to spend uncertain years of your life to get it published. It happens at the click of a mouse. Also, without needing to feed the publishing company that is hawking your wares, your royalty cut is much much higher (more on that in a minute). You don't have to adhere to a timetable of any kind. You don't have a publisher breathing down your neck waiting for the next book. Your work is completely, 100% yours.
Cons: "Available to the masses" is not the same thing "advertised to the masses." Visibility is the main issue for independent authors. There are literally >1,000,000 books on Amazon, so unless someone is looking for your book specifically, they ain't gonna find it. The author here is a one-person band. You have to do all of your advertising and publicity yourself, which is exhausting (and I hate it). Publishing and advertising is a game, and without knowing the rules like a publishing house does, you are bound to make mistakes that may jeopardize your ability to successfully sell your book to different venues. For instance: getting reviews, having a launch party and getting the word out about that, pumping up your book before it hits the shelves, etc.
Pick your poison. Not to sound all doom and gloom, but it's all hard. Either you spend lots and lots of time and effort up front trying to get it published, or you spend a lot on the back end advertising for yourself. Personally, I write for fun. So I chose to independently publish. That gives me the time and freedom to go whatever direction I choose. And when I sell books, I get a lot more than if I had traditionally published. Royalties for trad publishing are in the <10% range. For Amazon e-books, it's more like 70% (for paperbacks through CreateSpace, your take home is the difference between the sales price, which you set, and the unit cost). So unless you are Dean Koontz or Stephen King, I would recommend against quitting your day job for now.