Gearing up for the Writer’s Digest Conference West this weekend, Write on the Sound the weekend after that, and a new Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction class starting tonight, I’ve been thinking again about one of the questions I always seem to get at any of these events. It’s a question that takes a number of forms, but comes down to this:

Should I submit my novel manuscript to editors and/or agents or publish it myself?

That sounds like a simple question, but it isn’t really. I don’t want to belabor some of the points I’ve made here over and over again, but let’s look at that question again and try to break it down a little.

First of all, if you’re asking me if I think you, personally, should submit or self-publish that specific manuscript, which I have not read, obviously I simply can’t give you an answer. I just don’t know enough to advise you, but anyone and everyone should keep in mind that the second you self-publish a book you are now a publisher, and you need to act like one.

But that’s not nearly as easy to do as it is to say. Here are some things that a publisher does—and they do this for every book they publish, not just the books from established franchise authors:

They edit the book.

And they do this in three stages, each of which costs that publishing house considerable dollars. First there is a line edit, which is often but not always the same thing as a developmental edit. This is where you, as the author, work in collaboration with a professional editor who helps you make your book better. You’ll get into questions of character motivation, plot points, pacing, and so on, and hopefully you’re prepared to make some revisions.

Then the book goes to a copy editor, who will fix almost all of the technical issues the manuscript has. This is where all the rules you thought you knew are thrown back at you and you suddenly realize that you haven’t the slightest idea where a comma should go. It’s okay. It only feels painful, but in the end your book will be rendered in proper English, but (if the copy editor is a good copy editor—and professional publishing houses hire good copy editors) without altering your voice: the style and substance of the narrative.

Then it goes to a proofreader who makes sure the last of the typos are found and corrected. This is an essential quality control pass that is all but absent in the indie publishing world and readers are noticing it.

As the author, you will be involved in this process all along , and will be approving these edits, and working in collaboration with everyone who is there to help you, not humiliate you or put you in your place.

They spend thousands of dollars on the cover.

In the meantime, the publisher will have paid for cover art and design. And if you think this is easy, if you think anyone can do this, you’re just plain wrong. Professional graphic designers are akin to professional musicians. If you have no education, experience, and (not or) talent in that field, you’re no more qualified to design a book cover than you are to play cello for a major symphony orchestra (assuming you aren’t a professional cellist).

These people do not come cheap, and they shouldn’t.

And in the SF and fantasy genres, you need a cover painting, too, probably. Those run about $5000 or more.

They actually typeset the thing.

And when that copy edit and proofread are done, the text goes to a professional typesetter, who does not dump text into a CreateSpace Word template, but crafts the internal design of the book using InDesign and other tools. Like a professional graphic designer, a professional typesetter is a non-optional collaborator.

What this means is that before your book ever goes to the printer (or the e-book provider) you’re in for thousands of dollars in development costs.

But here’s where the publishers start to really break off from indies.

They sell it.

While all this production process is going on, a sales person is sitting down with buyers from the book store chains, mass market wholesalers, subsidiary distributors, and so on, and selling your book. If you’re a new author with no sales track record, yes, you will not be that salesperson’s first order of business. You might even be last on the list, but you’re on the list. Your book is in the catalog for that trimester.

If you’re self-publishing you will never be in the room with the buyer for Barnes & Noble, and that’s not because that buyer is a big jerk who’s collaborating with Corporate America to screw over the little guy, but think about it: Can this person really sit down with literally thousands of indie authors, hear their sales pitches, then devote precious shelf-space to a book that has to be purchased, returned, tracked, paid for, etc. to thousands of individual clients that store then has to track as vendors . . . Or will they choose to write the fewest number of checks for the most number of books that will ship back and forth between the fewest number of distribution hubs?

Please don’t take it personally. It’s the reality of the situation.

So where does that leave you, if you’ve asked that question? Does this mean that self-published authors have no hope?

No. It does not mean that at all.

There’s always reason to hope, but while you’re hoping, start working.

I’m honestly not convinced that the e-book revolution really is leading to a self-publishing revolution, unless by “revolution” you mean “thousands of people are failing at it.” E-books have taken a lot of the expense of publishing away, but not all of it, not if you want to sell a quality product.

What I firmly believe is that e-books and print on demand (POD) not only will, but already are, sparking a revolution in small press publishing—independent publishers that find a niche that’s either being under-served or not served at all by the New York publishers, and going after that readership.

For instance, here’s a new book from Tommy Hancock’s ProSe imprint, which goes after the new pulp audience. If you’re waiting for Simon & Schuster to do that, I think you’re going to have a long wait, but if, like me, you love pulp fiction, well, here it is . . .


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Peter Archer says:

    To Phil’s excellent comments, I would add something else that publishers do: They know the market. That is, they know what sells and what doesn’t. This extends to your genre, your themes, and above all to your cover and your title. It’s really not possible for you, with the limited sources of information at your disposal, to know these things. But publishers can tell you that a book with a certain kind of cover treatment and title will sell better than one without it. This isn’t a guarantee, of course, because there are no guarantees in publishing. But it’s another advantage you have when you sign a contract with a publisher instead of going the self-publishing route.

  2. Tharcion says:

    That is, all, absolutely great and entirely true… as far as it goes. What I find myself in the position of asking is: the publisher does all this, but is it worth it to me to have that done?

    First, I haven’t published physical volumes, just ebooks, so the typesetting isn’t relevant. Of course, one of the reasons for not doing so is that formatting the copy correctly, even for output via CreatSpace, would take me a lot of time and effort. You’re right, typesetting isn’t easy.

    Neither is proofreading, but I can pay to have a proofreader go over my final draft. Yes, it does cost money, but we aren’t talking vast amounts here. Cover design… Yeah, I admit my covers are not great, but I’m not selling through a bookstore here. I need something that catches the eyes, maybe. Frankly, for that much vaunted design you’re talking about, I’ve seen some pretty naff covers out there.

    One thing I’d say is actually inaccurate, though not in your article: They know the market? No, sorry, they think they know the market and they want people to think they do. Actually, they don’t and they are no more likely to know whether a book might be successful than anyone else who reads books. (Well, maybe a little more likely, but not much.)

    So the last book I put out there, I changed from fantasy to sci-fi. It’s no better than the 11 fantasy novels which came before it. It is a little longer; around 90,000 words instead of around 70,000. Suddenly I get sales. Quite a lot of sales. Plus the success of that book makes the fantasy books more visible and increases their sales. I believe that’s because I changed genre; sci-fi doesn’t see so many new releases compared to the saturated fantasy market. Suddenly my fantasies about becoming a full-time author are looking realistic…

    But if I had gone through a publisher I probably would not be making the money I am now. Their overheads would soak up my profits. My ego would really like to get a publishing deal. It would like the validation. I’d also like to be able to turn around and have someone else do all that dog-work you mention above. Cover design takes time, proofreading (before it goes to the pro for the finish) takes time, formatting takes time; all that time takes away from what I want to do – write. My pragmatic mind, however, is looking at the money and the probability of pay scales from a publisher, and it’s concluding that the publisher isn’t worth it. I’d be really interested to hear the publisher’s side of the argument, and I realise I’ve got a lucky break here, but I don’t believe publishers get bestsellers through great foresight and market knowledge, sorry.

    • Philip Athans says:

      This is definitely not a one-size-fits-all proposition by any means, and there may be any number of authors who, on balance, have a better go of it in the indie sphere, but the core advice still stands:

      If you’re self-publishing you are running a small publishing company.

      True, a proofread can be had for a few hundred dollars, and you can create your own covers, but the fact that there are occasionally or even often so-so (or worse) covers coming out of major publishing houses doesn’t make bad covers okay. Chances are somebody at that publishing house was taken to task for the bad cover. And covers DO matter still, and matter a great deal, even for e-book only releases.

      Be careful about looking at the money purely in terms of percentage of cover price. Indeed, taking Amazon’s 70% is a better cut than the 10% of cover price you’ll get from a publisher, but I’d much rather have 10% of 1000 $25 hardcovers plus another 10% of 10,000 $9 mass market paperbacks ($11,500) than 70% of a $2.99 e-book that might sell 1000 copies ($2093)–and in my experience it’s extraordinarily rare that you can sell 1000 copies of a self-published e-book. Very few actually make it into the triple digits.

      And again, if you’re doing better than that WELL DONE! It means you’re doing something right in the running of your small press, filling a niche that New York isn’t serving (and straight SF is having a tough go of it there now), but certainly doesn’t mean that publishers have lost their relevance, just that you’re one of them now.

      • jakeescholl says:

        Hi Phil! 🙂 I had a self-publishing question… I’ve been working on a Fantasy novel for 2 years now (Partly do to your guide on writing Sci-fi & Fantasy.) , and recently got my book back from my editor. Previously, I’ve self-published a short story on Amazon, and Smashwords, and I didn’t spend much on the cover, and it doesn’t quite look as professional as other books. But for my novel, I’m thinking of hiring an artist to draw the cover. How much did you pay for the cover art on your self-published books?

      • Philip Athans says:

        GOOD QUESTION! In fact, I just posted this in ASK PHIL to answer the same question for another author:

        Good covers are ESSENTIAL and this is where a lot of indies fall down. The artists for Arron of the Black Forest (Keith Birdsong) and The Fathomless Abyss (Mats Minnhagen) are being paid a royalty rather than the traditional flat fee. Not all artists are willing to work this way, but from where I sit the new indie/self-pub/micro-press “boom” can only continue if it successfully challenges the way money traditionally flows. The traditional publishing business puts ALL of the financial risk on the shoulders of the publisher, which is what made it virtually impossible for small press publishers to function under that model.

        There are legions of unrecognized artists out there who may be happy to sign on — start trolling the internet and sites like Deviant Art. It doesn’t hurt to ask. The worst that’ll happen is they’ll say no, and you ask someone else.

        On the other hand, I have advised indie authors — and will continue to do so — that the second you self-publish you are now, for better or for worse, and with all that entails — a publisher, and that means you have to pay for some of the stuff that publishers pay for, like editing, cover art and design, marketing, and so on. You may find that artists are reluctant to create a new piece exclusively for your book on a royalty basis, but they may be willing to sell you non-exclusive rights to an existing piece for a reasonable price. So if you see art out there that you think might work as a cover for your book, approach that artist and see what you can work out.

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