Every unpublished author wants to be published. Smart people can be persuaded by schemes designed to exploit that desire when they don’t know what to look out for in order to protect themselves,
The first and most important step in avoiding such missteps is to join a professional organization for writers, preferably one for your genre. I joined Sisters in Crime, an organization for mystery writers, before I finished my first book. I spent five years working on it while getting acquainted (online) with established authors, both traditionally published and self-published, as well as other newbies. Through SinC’s Guppies group (The Great Unpublished), I joined critique groups and did manuscript swaps. Many successful authors stay in the Guppies to mentor newcomers and give guidance. I found my editor and my cover designer through the group. And I learned much that enabled me to avoid trouble on the path to bringing the first book out.
This article examines areas where trouble may lurk and also where it can be avoided: Publishers, Agents, Self-Publishing, and Contests and Anthologies
Characteristics of legitimate, traditional publishers
This type of publisher doesn’t charge you anything. They make money selling your book. Most pay advances, and most require submission from agents. A few small presses take direct submissions, and some don’t pay advances. But they don’t charge the author any fees. A traditional publisher is selective and invests in you. They take care of editing, cover design, and marketing—though you’ll probably have to supplement the marketing.
Read the fine print in a contract with a traditional publisher. When do the rights to a book revert to you? If it goes out of print or is never published, do you get it back? You can sign with a great small press, do well with them, and then they close their doors. Find out what would happen in that case. A number of currently self-published authors were formerly trad pub and got their rights back after their publisher dropped their series or went out of business.
Characteristics of questionable publishers
Any of the following can be a red flag: They require you to buy or to presell a contracted number of copies of your book before you can earn royalties, or you only earn royalties after X number of books have sold—despite being paid no advance. They charge for editing, formatting, cover design, or other work that would be provided by a traditional publisher. You are pressured to buy add-ons such as marketing services. They run ads or send emails inviting you to submit your work and become a published author.
These publishers make money off author fees, not book sales. They often do no marketing. In some cases, you never even get the copies of your book they required you to purchase.
If you do get them, it can be hard to sell fifty—or two hundred—copies of a paperback by an unknown author. Chain stores get their stock from distributors which carry books that are predicted to sell. Small, independent stores have more flexibility, but if they choose to carry your books, most will take them on consignment, not buy them from you. Best case scenario: a store buys a few from you and then sells them.
These publishers will produce books such as a memoir to share with family or a poetry collection for your local poetry club to sell for charity. There’s no pretense of creating something for stores or for national sales. This is a reasonable business model, as long as you know you’re dealing with a vanity press. If all you want is small number of books for family and friends, and the prices are moderate, a vanity press may be suitable. Problems occur when businesses operate like vanity presses and try to pass for traditional publishers.
They are go-betweens who work to get a traditional publishing house to consider your book. The agent only earns a commission if they sell your book. They don’t charge upfront fees. Like traditional publishers, literary agents are highly selective. It takes time and effort to get one to represent you. Some flimflammers have been impersonating well-known literary agents and soliciting authors’ business. Make sure you’re working with a reputable agent who has a record of selling books, and that they are who they say they are.
Self-Published Authors: what you do and don’t need
What you need: an editor—possibly a structural or developmental editor— and definitely a line editor, a proofreader, a cover artist, and several critique partners or beta readers.
Get recommendations for all of the above from the author group you joined. Don’t pick someone from Goodreads or from an ad. I’ve read books by indie authors who’d paid $2,000 to an “editor” who did nothing more than fix the typos. Proofreading is not editing. It’s done after editing.
Wide distribution is in your long-term best interest: Most of your sales will be eBooks. You set the prices, decide when to offer discounts, or when to give away an eBook for free, etc. It’s best to distribute and publish to all eBook platforms, not just Amazon. Don’t put all your eggs in that one basket. While Amazon generally sells more books, their customer service for authors is limited, and if you accidentally trigger some rule that gets your book unpublished or your reviews removed, you don’t want to vanish entirely. Also, I’ve had months when my sales on Apple exceeded my sales on Amazon. Some authors will put a book in KDP Select and Kindle Unlimited for three months in order to get reviews and then distribute widely. You can upload a book directly to Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and Apple or go through an aggregator like Draft2Digital. (They merged with Smashwords, which used to be the other option for distribution and still has its own eBook store.) Draft2Digital/Smashwords will distribute to library services like Overdrive, Hoopla and others, as well Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Scribd, and a number of international eBook stores.
What you don’t need and why:
A stock of hundreds of paperbacks. Paperback sales in stores are minimal for authors who aren’t traditionally published, as noted above. KDP Print, Ingram Spark, and Draft2Digital Print are POD (print on demand). You only need to keep a few copies of each book on hand for local sales and books signings.
A marketing service. You don’t need a professional helper to purchase ads. Paid advertising is one of the simpler things you’ll do. Your social media accounts and your newsletter should be in your own voice. Marketing services may claim to offer search engine optimization or make other dubious promises like a Bookbub Featured Deal. Learn to do the marketing yourself. Read a book on how to do it. Subscribe to newsletters from David Gaughran, https://davidgaughran.com Dave Chesson https://kindlepreneur.com , and others who give free advice (as well as sell books or products). Read the Bookbub blog and the Kobo Writing Life blog. Learn from fellow authors in that group you joined.
A formatter. If you self-publish the way most authors do, you only have to do some basic things related to font size and white space to set up a Word document that Draft2Digital /Smashwords can format. There’s no charge for formatting. If you use them to distribute your eBooks (and/or publish paperbacks), they take a small commission from your royalties for all the services they provide. Even if you upload directly to Amazon or some other stores, you’ll probably want D2D /Smashwords for library distribution, so you might as well format there as well. Then upload your formatted book elsewhere as needed.
A fee-based full-scale self-publishing service. There are services that package the needs of self-publishing, such as editing, cover design, formatting, printing, and distribution. They’re likely to cost more than DIY indie publishing, and you may have less control over your choice of an editor or cover designer than if you hire your own. Everything the self-pub service company does for you can be done for the same or lower costs with more control when you hire free-lance. Shop around. Get recommendations from that group you joined. If you do everything yourself instead of through a self-pub service, you’ll be ready and able when you want to update anything from the backmatter to the cover to correcting two typos an alert reader told you about.
Contests, Awards, and Anthologies
Many contests are money-makers for those who run them, but of little to no benefit to those who enter. If you have to pay more than twenty dollars to enter a contest or be considered for an award, if you lose the rights to your short story or essay even if it’s never published or goes into an obscure volume that’s never marketed, or if you have to buy copies of the anthology in which it’s published, don’t enter.
The Ultimate Resource: Writer Beware
This web site will give you far more detail than I can. Click on every link and read in depth.
A good article from an author’s blog, one of the best blogs for writers to follow: