So you've written your first book. What now?
If you're like me, I had no idea what to do when I finally finished my first manuscript. I knew self publishing existed, but I really thought it involved owning a physical book press and printer to make the actual books myself. The only other option I knew was traditional publication through a major house.
So what's the third option most people never hear of? Small press. A small press like mine, Hydra Publications, tries to combine the best aspects of traditional publishing with the best aspects of self publishing. Of course, not all small presses are the same, but I can speak from experience about a dozen or more small presses I know and how the business is generally run. Here's what I know from a few short years in the industry and heavy involvement with my own press:
Self Publishing pros and cons: When you do it all yourself, you need to spend a lot of money. Editing can cost anywhere from $250 - $3000, a cover can run from $20 to $1000, formatting will set you back a hundred or more, and that is just to get your work ready for publication. First and foremost, the downside to self publishing for most people is the cost. It can also be time consuming, but pretty much everything in the writing business is. Once you've got everything paid for and your book is ready for sale, you need to do all of your marketing yourself. While that isn't difficult, it could be expensive. Buying tables at conventions, buying all your own marketing material (i.e. bookmarks, posters, banners, cards, artwork, audiobook production, etc.), travel expenses, online advertising, the list goes on and on. For most self published authors, I tell them to have at least a few thousand dollars saved to drop on their expenses in the first year. That should cover all the basics of pre-sale preparedness and cover initial marketing costs. (These costs include the obvious like covers, editing, formatting, etc. and also cover the often-overlooked costs of marketing, first couple hundred paperbacks, a dozen or so tables at conventions, bookmarks, a banner, and other promo items.) The benefits of self publishing? Control, control, control. You make every single decision. For many people, that is the deciding factor hands down. You pick your cover art. You pick your fonts and formatting. You pick your marketing and event schedule. Period. 100% control is given to the author. Again, that takes a lot of time away from writing, but if you want your books to make money like a full time job, they need to be your full time job.
Traditional Publishing pros and cons: With a big publishing house, you don't have the primary benefit of self publishing: control. The house gets your editors, covers, promo material, etc. Furthermore, big houses are notoriously difficult to get into without a nepotistic connection. Even finding an agent can be brutally difficult for many. The pros? Obviously, it comes down to money. You are nearly guaranteed to make more money with this option than any other, especially if you are just starting out and don't have a following. Huge distribution means your books go to all the major retail outlets.
Small Press Publication: With a small press, you get the benefits of control with the benefits of marketing and support like a traditional press. Have your own cover artist or don't want to use the artist employed by your press? No problem. You might have to then pay for it, or at least part of the art, but typically small presses have no problems paying your own artist if they do quality work. The same is true for editing and proofing. If you don't want to use the people already hired by the press, that's fine. You get the control to decide. Again, that might mean out-of-pocket expenses, but many small presses will at least offer to pay your editor the same they normally pay their own. The best advantage of small presses comes in the form of networking and marketing. If you've read my Marketing Series, you know that selling live at conventions is crucial to the indie author's success. Small presses typically buy several tables at conventions and invite their authors to come sell / sign at no expense to the author. Typically, even my food is covered by the press. Plus, you get the community offered by the small press. I've met some of my best friends through my press and we all help each other out every chance we get. Someone finds a promo strategy that works? They tell everyone in the press. Want to bundle your books together to offer a sale? Just ask and the press will facilitate it.
Can a small press get you the distribution of a traditional press? In short, no. But a small press offers one thing that self publishing does not: legitimacy. The average reader (sadly) doesn't respect self published works very much. It can be a detriment at conventions and when trying to get into real stores. Here is a story I've heard pretty often: A self published author gets accepted by B&N. They have to supply 10,000 copies of their book to be sold in stores nationwide. Yay! They spend $15,000 (probably getting a business loan) on book production and mail the books out on their own dime. Guess what? B&N doesn't market for you. If you don't have a BIG following already, your book will rot on their shelves. And since B&N has your books on consignment, they don't pay you until the books sell. So when they don't sell in a year, you have to cover the shipping cost to get all of your books back into your garage. And you are now literally bankrupt. I've met people who have told their similar stories at conventions and literary events, often ending in tears because they lost everything due to B&N's consignment scheme.
So how do you get into bookstores without being traditionally published? Here is where the small press comes in. Small press owners typically go to the store manager personally, pitch the book, and offer to do a book signing / selling event in their store with a few authors, giving the store a cut of each sale. Pretty much every manager is going to take that deal, especially if the books are available through B&N online. Once you set up and sell in the store, offer to sell the remaining stock to B&N at the industry standard 55%, not consignment. Many accept. Obviously, it then comes down to marketing (leaving bookmarks, displays at the cash register, etc.) to actually sell the books from the shelves, but you've already sold them. You transfer the risk to B&N, not yourself. Sadly, approaching stores like B&N with a self published book will usually get you turned down simply due to the stigma. The small press legitimacy gets you in the door. As your book sells and your brand expands, you can approach more and more stores, employ the same method, and before you know it, your books are being ordered by stores in states you've never been to. It grows slowly, but your distribution does grow.
Royalty Breakdown: self publishing offers the best. Period. You don't pay a middle man so no one has their hand in your wallet. Small presses offer the middle ground. You have to pay the press a portion of your royalties, but if you negotiate your contract well / find a press with a good royalty rate, it turns out very well. Traditional publishing pays very little (I've seen as little as 6 cents per copy sold) but does it on a HUGE scale, often outweighing the small percentage of royalties.
Conclusion: this is nowhere near a comprehensive list of pros and cons. Media rights, translation projects, and all sorts of other things come into play as well. Personally, if you can get accepted by a traditional press, DO IT. But if not, go for a small press. Small presses give you the best combination of both options.
No matter which route you choose, make sure you do your homework first. Know exactly why you are going with your choice. Is the unlimited control offered by self publishing enough to outweigh the initial costs? Is the host of free benefits offered by a small press the deciding factor, even if it means perhaps getting slightly different formatting than you had in mind? Make an educated decision based on your personal goals. My advice should not be taken as definitive. Everything here is simply my opinion after a few years of success in the industry.