Bill's Blog

The Rush to Publish

Sep 20, 2010

Today’s topic: The rush to publish.

Today’s lesson: Don’t do it.

I’m talking about self-publishing vs. traditional commercial publishing. It’s a question I get frequently, and it generally goes something like this: “Why should I go through the long, painful process of convincing a traditional publisher like Random House or HarperCollins to publish my book — a process that can take a year or more — when I can pay Dorrance or iUniverse a modest sum and they’ll publish my book within a few weeks?”

Here’s the answer in a nutshell: Book sales.

Self-publishing firms like Dorrance and iUniverse do a good job of printing books, but they aren’t so hot at selling them. That’s because most people in this business — book reviewers, bookstore chains, and large independent book distributors — don’t pay much attention to self-published books. Thousands of self-published books come out each month. Book reviewers and booksellers know that these publishers will print anything as long as the author’s check clears the bank, so there’s little reward for anyone brave enough to trudge through those thousands of books looking for one that has real merit.

If your book is published by a respected traditional publisher like Random House or HarperCollins, people in the business will sit up and take notice. They know that these firms won’t publish a book unless they believe it will appeal to a large audience of readers. And gaining the notice of people like serious reviewers and booksellers is what generates book sales. Sales for titles published through POD (print-on-demand) publishers, the largest and fastest growing form of self-publishing, average fewer than 200 copies. If you go this route, most of your book sales will be to friends and relatives. In comparison, if your book is published by a large traditional publisher, you can expect sales of tens of thousands of copies, or possibly in the hundreds of thousands.

Taking the traditional route can, indeed, be a long, painful process. Many of the large commercial publishers won’t even accept manuscripts directly from authors, which means that first you’ll have to convince a literary agent to handle your book. (Finding a good literary agent can be like walking through a minefield — but we’ll save that for later.) Most of today’s bestselling authors, including Stephen King and John Grisham, faced rejection after rejection before breaking into print the old-fashioned way. Holding steady to this course takes a thick skin, a good supply of perseverance, and a great deal of faith in yourself and your book.

It’s tempting to take the easy way out, especially after you’ve received twenty or thirty rejections. Dorrance or AuthorHouse or iUniverse will be delighted to publish your book. For some authors, that may be their only option. Let’s face it — not everyone has the skill to write a book that will meet the threshold of publishers like Random House or HarperCollins.

But is self-publishing the right option for you? Not if your book has real commercial potential. Not if your goal is to launch a writing career. Don’t make the mistake of rushing to publish, of tossing your book into the mass of self-published books where it will be ignored. Instead, make sure your book is as good as it can be, spend some time learning about literary agents and traditional publishers, and jump into the fray with confidence that you, too, might become the next King or Grisham. After all, somebody has to!

Questions about this topic? Call me at (505) 401-1021 or send me an email at william@wgreenleaf.com. I’m in my office most weekdays from 9 to 5.

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