The thing is, as simple as that question might seem, the answer is considerably more complicated—and lengthy. But given how many people ask, I figure I should try and answer it as best as I can, so here goes.
The first thing to decide is whether you want to go down the self-publishing or traditional-publishing path. People often ask me what the “best option” is, but honestly, it’s different for everyone. For me personally, when I decided to try and get published, I didn’t believe enough in my own storytelling ability, so I needed the confidence of a publisher backing me and believing in me enough to cover my own insecurities. This meant I decided on the traditional publishing path. But it must be said that I know a number of authors who have self-published to great success (and indeed, some authors who have self-published, then been offered traditional publishing contracts, and then later gone back to self-publishing because they preferred the control they had at their disposal—control that was no longer theirs when they were under contract with a traditional publisher).
… My point is, you have to figure out what is best for you before you continue onwards down your chosen path. But here’s a few thoughts to consider:
Self-publishing can be near-instant, since you can literally upload a manuscript through, say, Amazon, relatively easily. As far as I’m aware, some avenues have little to no screening process. Because of this, heaps of people choose to self-publish—because it’s convenient and we do live in a world with a focus on instant gratification. PLUS, if you self-publish, the majority of the money you earn will end up back in your own pocket.
BUT the thing is, since the market is saturated with self-published books, it can be difficult to sell your work, and if you really want success in self-publishing (and traditional publishing), then it’s not simply a matter of having a book available to purchase—you need to make sure people know about it.
Self-published authors have to do and/or organise almost all the work themselves. You have to pay for an editor (and you really should get a professional editor to look at your work before you self-publish it, but many people skip this step, to their detriment), and you have to organise/pay for your own cover art and proofreading and then do all your own marketing and publicity, etc., etc., etc. But, again, the pro is that you’re in control of it all, and it can be near-instant. Whereas, traditional publishing is most definitely NOT instant.
Since I’ve never travelled the self-publishing path, I don’t have much more advice other than to emphasise the importance of starting and building on a social media platform. Word of mouth is going to be one of your biggest publicity/marketing techniques to get new readers. (This is actually vitally important regardless of if you go self- or traditional).
When it comes to traditional publishing, something to consider from the get-go is whether or not to try and get a literary agent first. My next post will cover this more fully (“Do I Need A Literary Agent?”), so check back later for more thoughts on this. But until then…
For those of you who know my publishing story, you’ll be aware that I was offered a contract with my Australian publishers for my 5-book YA series without first having an agent. BUT I’ve also since signed on with an agent, and from that I’ve recently been offered a U.S. publishing deal, so I feel I can offer opinions for both agented and non-agented pathways.
So, here are the your two (initial) options:
1. Try to get an agent first: This is something that I would highly recommend, since literary agents act as go-betweens for authors and publishers. A vast majority of traditional publishers won’t accept unsolicited manuscript submissions (manuscripts sent to them directly from an author). Agents, however, are allowed to submit to publishers (or, really, editors of various publishing houses) on behalf of their authors. It’s almost like a hazing ritual (of sorts) since if an agent has decided to represent an author, it means they believe the book/series has market potential. That is a big tick for editors and publishers, especially if the agent is someone who they’ve worked with before and/or has a good reputation in the industry for spotting quality work and upcoming trends. When it comes down to it, if you can manage to get an agent, it should, theoretically, make things easier to get a publisher. (But please note that it won’t guarantee you a publisher—it’ll just help increase your chances and open more submission doors.)
2. Don’t get an agent and try your luck with publishers who accept unsolicited manuscripts: As I mentioned earlier, this is the path I travelled down that led to my initial offer of publishing. However, I did attempt to get a literary agent for a few years first, and only once I thought I needed to try something new did I attempt to pitch my manuscript to publishing houses who, at specific times of the year, were open to unsolicited submissions. This was a very small list (at the time), and I knew the odds were limited since while there were some success stories out there, most of what I’d heard was regarding the never-ending “slush pile”—something I knew my manuscript was likely buried beneath, never to surface again.
With this second option, obviously there are exceptions where it works out wonderfully (as I can attest to). It helps when there are publishers who have an “always open for pitches” policy. This was the case with my Australian publishers
when I first submitted Akarnae
to them, and I believe they’re one of the few houses who are still open for unsolicited manuscripts all year round. Indeed, they refer to the “slush pile” as a “diamond mine”—and that in itself says a lot about them.
Something to be careful of along the way is to not fall into the trap of what is commonly referred to as “vanity publishing”. If someone says they’ll publish your book if you pay for X, Y, or Z, then AVOID THEM LIKE THE PLAGUE because they’re not considered a legitimate traditional publisher, and while they may publish the book, it often won’t be to your benefit. No normal traditional publisher will ever make an author pay a cent—they’ll cover the editing, proofreading, marketing, publicity… everything. They’ll also (usually) pay you an advance against royalties for the actual book, which you then earn back through sales—and then later you can earn more money on top of that amount if you crack even with your advance and go beyond it with further royalties.
(For more information on vanity publishing, please click here
I know there’s lots here to consider, but as I said at the beginning, much of it comes back to personal preference, at least initially as you decide which path you want to travel down. If you decide on traditional publishing, then my recommendation is that all aspiring authors try to get a literary agent first, because if you can manage that, then whoever represents you will look after everything business-wise, which means you can focus on your writing. And if your agent can get you a publishing deal, they’ll also make sure all the contractual stuff is aboveboard, which is super important.
One thing to keep in mind, especially with traditional publishing, is that it takes time. I spent years trying to get an agent and/or a publisher for Akarnae, and even with my now-publishers it took 7 months of waiting between when I submitted the manuscript and them offering me a deal. And then it was another month before I signed the actual contract. That’s eight months. Three-quarters of a year. All waiting. And that’s not even counting the two and a half years beforehand filled with submissions and rejections. Point is, things move slowly in the publishing world—even when you have a deal in the works—so if you don’t think you have the patience to wait months, even years, to see your manuscript in book-form, then perhaps self-publishing is the way to go, since you’ll have complete control over your own timeline.
At the end of the day, both self- and traditional publishing have pros and cons, so the starting point is to figure out what’s best for you and go from there. One thing to do is remind yourself why you started writing—why you want to be a published author. And if your answer is anywhere in the realm of it being your dream, or you can’t imagine doing anything else, then you’ll likely have what it takes to continue, no matter how challenging the days ahead might be.
Good luck to you all—and happy writing!